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Japan with kids- 10 travel mistakes we made

Have you ever experienced that sinking feeling when you look back on your vacation and realize you could have spent your precious vacation days in a more fulfilling manner? All the anticipation and excitement I had before the Japan trip turned into questioning and regrets during the trip.

10 regrets from Japan travel
My regret face during Japan travel

Hi, I am Dimple, mom of two small girls (2 yr and 5 yr at the time), who writes all things related to travel with kids- guides, itineraries, tips, and hacks so you don’t have to. This post is dedicated to all the mistakes I made during our 12-day Japan trip with family.

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We've just returned from an incredible trip to Japan with our two kids (2 years and 5 years old at the time). To make this journey even more special, our friends from Canada joined us with their two kids (6 years and 9 years at the time). I can't help but feel immense gratitude for their support; this trip wouldn't have been the same without them.

With four kids in tow, we decided to split our 12 days between Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka with a few day trips in between (Nara, Arashaiyama, and Mount Fuji). As I reflect on our travels, I can't help but acknowledge the myriad of mistakes I made along the way. These are the moments when you WISH time machines were real (or are they already?), just so, you could go back and fix them instead of recounting them in a blog and silently hoping for another chance to explore the country.

Mistakes we made during our travel to Japan with kids

There were moments during the trip when I instantly realized my mistakes, while others became apparent later on. You'll soon understand why. I wish these regrets didn't mar our travel memories. But then, What is travel without an experience, and what is an experience without some regrets, right?

So, let's talk about the 10 big regrets I have from our Japan travel (there are more honestly)

1. Not booking a hotel "right next" to the train station

Imagine this: you arrive in a new city, with two exhausted and jet-lagged kids, and then realize the hotel is a trek away from the train station. We made this mistake during our stay at Kyotos Mimaru Hotel. Our Mimaru Kyoto hotel was close to the station (Kawamarchi Gojo Station), but it still felt like a bit of a walk, especially at night.

Tip: Make sure the hotel is not just close by but "right next" to the station. I mean very very close!

Thankfully, our hotel in Tokyo Mimaru Ueno North was very close to the station like 2 minutes!

2. Booking return trip from/to Tokyo

Our return and arrival ports were Tokyo. I should have done a little bit of research before booking our flights from Dallas, US to Tokyo. Because of this, we had to backtrack our route from Kyoto to Tokyo and wasted 2 days to accommodate this (including an additional night in Tokyo). Instead, we could have spent that time somewhere else like south of Kyoto, or taken the route to the Japanese Alps.

Tip: I would highly suggest choosing different departing and arriving airports (Mostly it will be Osaka's Kansai International Airport or Tokyos Narita/Haneda Airport depending on where you coming from)

3. Staying too long in Tokyo

While Tokyo is a fascinating city, I wasn't as enamored with it as other tourists claim to be. It’s just another major city like New York and once you have seen most major cities, they all look and feel the same (or it's just me?). We spent 5 days in Tokyo (with a day trip to Mount Fuji), and in retrospect, 2 days would have been just fine.

Tip: 2 days in Tokyo is enough to explore the major areas, however, if you plan to visit Disney World. make that 3.

Tokyo Mteropolitan Japan with kids
Last minute Tokyo metropolitan visit with kids

4. Not using Suica to its full potential

Suica cards will be your best friend during Japan travel especially the digital Suica to access any public transportation. We downloaded our digital Suica onto our iPhones allowing us to top it up whenever needed.  It was incredibly handy, especially considering that children under 5 years old (like ouds) ride for free on Japan's public transport. For older kids (under 12 years old), you can purchase a physical Suica card (welcome Suica) that costs half the price.

Two mistakes I made, on separate occasions, were booking Narita Express, Keisei, and Skyliner tickets online, simply due to a lack of knowledge. I could have easily tapped off my Suica card and boarded instead of queuing at the ticket counter.

Tip #1: You can use a Suica card everywhere including to Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka. Within Tokyo, they work on all subways (Tokyo Metro and Toei lines) and local trains (Japan Rail and the private railroads).

Tip #2: If you have remaining funds on your Suica card before departing Japan, you can use them at most convenience stores and restaurants. My last day of souvenir shopping was all thanks to my Suica card :)

5. Paying for airport locker when not needed

Because of our mistake #2 (Booking a return trip from/to Tokyo), we found ourselves staying overnight at Narita for our departure the next day. Determined to make the most of our stay, we decided to drop off our bags early at the airport and explore the Narita San Shinsoji area. Little did we know, the bag drop doesn’t open 4 hrs before departure. This left us with no choice but to pay an extra 600 yen per bag to store them in a locker. I realized I could have avoided this extra expense by forwarding the luggage directly from Kyoto to Narita airport, instead of forwarding it to Narita and then to the airport. Silly us!

Tip: Forward your luggage directly to the airport if you are staying overnight close to the airport. Store an extra pair in your backpack to avoid any unnecessary issues

6. Booking Animal café

Due to the high recommendations on many travel forums, we booked visits to Harajuku Kawaii Zooland and a Cat Cafe in Akihabara. However, it turned out to be one of the saddest experiences I've had in Japan.

As soon as you enter Harajuku Kawaii Zooland, the atmosphere feels unsettling immediately. The tiny room was crammed with animals, leaving little space for them to move freely. The ferrets were pacing up and down in their enclosure and hated being held. They even scratched my older daughter to free themselves from being held. The fennec fox was sleepy (my guess is sedated) and was chained in the corner. The lack of care or freedom to movement felt inhumane.

If you're looking for an ethical and compassionate animal encounter, I urge you to steer clear of Harajuku Kawaii Zooland.

Similarly, our visit to a Cat Cafe in Akihabara was disappointing. While the cats had a larger room to roam here, they showed little interest in being pets. They would run at the slightest attempt to pet them. They would wait right in front of the door looking for any chance to run out. My daughters tried sitting calmly without bothering them, the cats would make a hissing sound at them. The 20 minutes we spent there felt long and drawn-out, and my kids were ready to leave well before our time was up.

Tip: If you're considering visiting an animal cafe in Japan, I urge you to research thoroughly and choose establishments that prioritize the well-being and happiness of their animal residents. After visiting, i honestly doubt there would be any.

Animal cafe in Japan with kids
One of the saddest experience in Japan- Animal cafe

7. Visiting Nara Deer Park in the afternoon

We were eager to experience the Limited Express Anoniyoshi train towards Nara, given the proximity of Kintetsu Nara station to Nara Park and its luxurious feel without breaking the bank. We opted for a later time in the afternoon at 1 pm as the earliest train time was 11 am.

However, upon our afternoon arrival in Nara, the deers seemed rather rowdy. Most didn't want to be fed and were sleepy. Despite our best efforts to engage with them, they seemed uninterested and unresponsive, maybe due to the morning influx of visitors.

My disappointment turned into concern quickly when on two separate occasions, the deers attacked both my daughters (nothing major but they did scratch their arms and push them down). My little one was definitely scarred by that experience. The extended time in the park caused us to miss the famous Nakatanidou's Mochi pounding show on Sanjo Dori by a mere 5 minutes.

Tip #1: If you plan to visit Nara Park, consider going in the morning when the deer are more active and responsive to visitors.

Tip #2: We learned the hard way that the show only occurs twice a day, around 2 pm and 4 pm, contrary to the website's claim of it happening every 30 minutes. So, make your plan accordingly.

Nara deer with kids Japan
The Nara deers were unresponsive in afternoon

8. Wasting souvenir shopping in Daiso

If you have Daiso in your country (Most of North America has it), you will find similar items in a similar price range in Japan. We wasted hours in Daiso in hopes to of purchasing a different Japanese gift for family and friends. However, we found the selection to be underwhelming.

Tip #1: I would instead shop at Daimaru, Don Quixote, AEON Supermarket, Takeshita Street, and Kyoto Gion area. All prices are competitive with such a great selection of unique items

Tip #2: If you find something you love, buy it then and there. During my trip, I came across several items in random stores that caught my eye, but I hesitated, thinking I might find them elsewhere later. Unfortunately, I never came across those items again. So, if you come across something you really like, don't wait—purchase it on the spot to avoid missing out

souvenir collection at Kyoto Gion area
Amazing souvenir collection at Kyoto Gion area

9. Snack and Breakfast options from 7 eleven

When traveling with kids, early morning breakfast and on-the-go snacks are a must. Many online recommendations pointed to 7-Eleven as the go-to spot for a quick breakfast. While it's true that 7-Eleven is budget-friendly,

I discovered Fresco in Kyoto, which quickly became my preferred choice over 7-Eleven. It offered a wide range of options, from sushi to drinks, donuts, baked breads, and even cheese. The variety and quality of food at Fresco surpassed my expectations, making it a great option for a quick and satisfying meal on the go.

Tip: Go beyond 7-Eleven to have some variety of snacks. After a few days, they all feel the same. Next time you're in need of a quick breakfast or snack in Japan, consider Fresco for a more diverse and satisfying experience.

Late night snacks shopping at Fresco, Japan
Late night snacks shopping at Fresco

10. Visiting Yasaka shrine on a day trip to Osaka

If you're planning a day trip to Osaka, especially with kids, you might want to consider skipping it altogether. After a long journey from Namba station, we found that there was very little to do beyond the iconic photo spots that are often showcased online.

Disappointed, we backtracked our way to Kuromon Street, which was a few steps away from Namba station! The real highlight was Dotonbori Street, hands down. There is so much to do at Dotonbori Street that it can easily take hours to experience it.

Unfortunately, we visited on a cold and rainy day so, needless to say, the kids didn't have fun, and neither did we.

Tip #1: Skip it if you are visiting Osaka on a day trip

Tip #2: The shopping in Osaka felt way better than Tokyo with fewer tourists.

Skip Yasaka shrine on a day trip
Skip Yasaka shrine on a day trip

Bonus Regret:

My biggest regret, topping all the others (yes, apparently that's a thing), has to be not planning to explore Japan's hidden gems in off-the-beaten-path destinations like Matsumoto, Takayama, Kanazawa, Nagano, Kyushu, Kyoto, Hokkaido, and Miyajima. These places are brimming with beauty and history, and it almost feels like a sin to have not explored them.

But, as they say, hindsight is 20/20. I am sending travel dust to future-me, hoping that someday I'll have the chance to revisit Japan and explore these off-the-beaten-path destinations. Until then, I'll hold onto the memories of my trip and the travel mistakes I made in Japan.

I hope my experiences help you plan your Japan travels better, especially if you're traveling with kids. Let me know in the comments your biggest regrets from your travels so far, so I can feel a little better about mine!

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