If you follow me on Instagram or over on The Boston Day Book, you probably noticed that Matt, Milo and I headed to Japan and France last month for three weeks. It was such a wonderful trip, and Japan was even more amazing than I expected it to be. I’m going to be sharing our experiences in Tokyo, Hakone, Kyoto, and Koyasan. First up, Tokyo!
Matt and I had been dreaming of going to Japan for a long time. Although we had always wanted to travel there, I had never done extensive research. It’s kind of nice to jump on a plane and visit a place with not a ton of knowledge — you really experience it firsthand vs. what you expect to experience / what you’ve heard from others / read about etc.
Of course, I researched plenty — from hotels, to where to eat, and of course how to manage it all with a baby, but in general, Japan is not a place that I had been reading about for years.
The one thing I did research plenty before making a decision was the best flight to take to Tokyo. In the end, we went with a direct flight from Boston (the only one) on Japan Airlines. It was 14 hours, but so worth going direct — especially when you are traveling with a baby. Tokyo Narita airport is quite far from the city center, so once arriving, we had to take an 80 minute train ride to the city center and then take a cab to our hotel. It was quite the trek, but so worth it.
I did have the notion that I wasn’t going to love Tokyo. It is such a massive city with so many people, and although I live in a city, large cities can overwhelm me. For instance, I love New York City, but in small doses. I’m not sure that I would enjoy living there. I expected to enjoy Tokyo but not enjoy it as much as I did.
First of all, the people are so lovely. They love children. Everywhere we went, it felt easy and the fact that we had a baby was accepted. Often we would seem a little lost, and we were always quickly helped by someone walking by. There were several instances where we were actually walked to our destination! We found that in general people were so eager to help out and very friendly.
Everyone is going somewhere but no one seems in a rush. In fact, there are signs everywhere that say “do not rush”.
Although the city is massive, it is spread out. It never felt like there were mobs (even in the famous Shibuya crosswalk) and we had to race to cross the street or get out of the way. There is a process to everything, and I really enjoyed that.
We took the train everywhere and it was very easy to use (and plenty of English signage!), there were plenty of elevators (we brought our umbrella stroller everywhere — it was light enough to carry up the stairs if we needed to, but more often than not, there was an elevator available), and even restrooms with changing tables in the metro. In fact, there were restrooms everywhere — and they were all spotless, with self-flushing toilets, of course, and changing tables. I was amazed at how easy it was to find a place to change the baby. It was so nice! (I never thought something like that would excite me… but it can be surprisingly hard to find changing tables in Boston.)
The food was amazing! One of our favorite experiences was visiting the BBQ restaurants where you grill your own beef. A big thank you to my friend Hannah who shared so many amazing recommendations with us, including the tip to visit Ebisu for steak.
Eat and drink.
We ate so well in Japan. After being pregnant, I was so excited to eat sushi (and really good sushi) plus good beef, tempura, and all the other amazing things we’d stumble upon.
Yakiniku Champion in Ebisu – Go here for amazing steak that you cook yourself. The quality and tenderness of the beef is unparalleled. This place is not fancy, but the quality is great. One of our favorite meals!
Midori – Sushi in a mall? Yes. And we waited over two hours to eat there. It was worth it. There are so many sushi restaurants to choose from while in Tokyo, but this one came highly recommended and it lived up to its expectations.
Ramen Ouka – While staying at the Andaz, Matt and I craved ramen one evening. We did a simple search to find a good place, and ended up coming across Ramen Ouka. It turns out that it was Halal ramen, which was fine with me since I prefer the vegetarian ramen anyways. The ramen was delicious, but it was also such an interesting dinner. We enjoyed conversation with the owner who converted to Islam only recently.
Gyoza Ro – My friend Hannah proclaimed these to be the best dumplings in Tokyo — and I agree with her! There was a line when we arrived for a late lunch, but it moved quickly. The restaurant was totally unassuming and the menu was small — simply dumplings and a few appetizers. The dumplings were delicious, and we also loved the miso cucumbers.
New York Bar at Park Hyatt – From the movie Lost in Translation, this bar is worth visiting for the views alone. It’s expensive, but worth popping in for one drink at least.
Tokyo (and Japan in general) is expensive. I found the food to be similarly priced to the US, but hotels and shopping are definitely on the higher side. I had hopes of buying lots of cute outfits for Milo, but in the end we just ended up with a sleep sack out of necessity (we left ours behind in a hotel). But, if you do have the extra money to spend, there are so many beautiful shops featuring well-made items. There are also many wonderful places to buy gifts in Tokyo, especially interesting foods and sweets.
Matsuya Department Store – The department stores in Tokyo are amazing. You could spend all day there! They have strollers for in-store use (in fact, we found that although there were babies everywhere, most people used a baby carrier vs. a stroller), plenty of clean restrooms, and often cafes. Many of the stores have a basement level with dozens of food vendors — ranging from matcha chocolate to tempura to anything and everything in between. This was one of my favorite department stores, and if you find yourself in Ginza, I’d definitely recommend popping in. In general, if you’re looking to shop, Ginza is the neighborhood to visit for high-end and department stores.
Tokyo Hands – You’ll see people carrying bags from this store all over town. It’s a neat store filled with stationery, local products like handmade jewelry and small gifts, plus a whole section devoted to arts and crafts. It’s a great place to pick up gifts!
Ginza – If you’re looking to do some shopping while in Tokyo, this is the best neighborhood to visit. You have all the big department stores, fancy shops, and smaller independent boutiques.
There’s so much to see, and we certainly didn’t even scratch the surface, but here are a few of the things we did and I’d recommend.
Meiji Shrine – An oasis in the middle of the city. This beautiful shrine and surrounding garden is a great place to explore while you’re in the city.
Sensoji Temple – The temple was super busy when we were there, but honestly it was still so beautiful. I also loved watching all of the other people who were visiting. It’s so fascinating to watch other travelers! The area surrounding the temple was filled with street food vendors — we weren’t expecting that, and it was kind of amazing!
Golden Gai – This is an area of pedestrian alleys with tiny bars — and I mean tiny! Some of them only seat five people, and you feel like you are in someone’s living room. The area in general we found to be a bit touristy, but it’s really fun to go for a (expensive) beer.
Harajuku – How do I even explain Harajuku? This is what I expected Japan to be like: colorful, lots of cats, and LOTS of people! We walked through the area on a Saturday, and if you’re going to be in Tokyo over the weekend, I’d recommend visiting then since there are so many more people. Teenagers especially get all dressed up and it’s so fun to see what kind of crazy outfits people choose to wear. There are a few cat cafes, and of course cotton candy. It’s such a fun area and a must-do.
Tsukiji Fish Market – Although we didn’t arrive at 5am to watch the tuna auction, I’m glad that we visited the famous fish market. If you have the motivation to wake up super early, the auction is supposed to be really neat. There’s just no guarantee that you’ll make it in (they only allow so many people). The whole area is fun to walk through — lots of food vendors and sushi restaurants (with lines early in the morning). It reminded me a little bit of our time in Hoi An.
Sumo Tournament – There are specific times of the year where sumo tournaments take place. If you happen to be in Japan during those times, definitely check it out! We were not, and Matt was bummed, so instead he went to a practice. During practice you can’t actually go inside, but you can watch from a little window.
There are obviously lots of options, whether you decide on a hotel or Airbnb. We chose to stay at hotels while in Tokyo because we wanted the amenities after the long flight and since quite honestly I didn’t do that much research prior to the trip, we wanted to have a concierge to help us out. Also, since we don’t speak Japanese and were traveling with an infant, it made me feel relaxed knowing that we’d be able to ask questions and understand if certain things were appropriate / baby-friendly etc.
Park Hyatt – This hotel was made famous by Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation. Many of the reviews depicted an older hotel that was stunning but not very updated. The furniture isn’t as modern as some other hotels, but the Park Hyatt was one of our most hotel experiences in Japan. Of course, we were able to rest after the long flight in a comfy bed, but the incredible customer service is what really sold us. Everyone was so accommodating and wonderful (in general, we’ve had great experience staying at Hyatts with Milo) and provided us with a welcome toy and amenity kit for Milo. The restaurants at the Park Hyatt are great, too. Although the brunch at Andaz was slightly better, we loved our breakfast at the Park Hyatt. And the views! Overall, I’d definitely recommend staying here if you have the budget (it was definitely one of our splurge hotels).
Andaz Tokyo – After spending a few nights at the PH, we hopped in a cab to Toranomon Hills to stay at the Andaz Tokyo. True to the Andaz brand, this hotel is super modern. The room we stayed in had floor-to-ceiling windows and an unobstructed view of the Tokyo Tower. The breakfast was so good! The views from the dining room are also fantastic (high up on the 52nd floor) and although the neighborhood is a bit quieter, we enjoyed the pace. It is just a quick metro ride away from the busy parts of Tokyo.
What to bring. (if you’re traveling with a baby)
– Umbrella stroller (we have this one)
– A baby carrier (for the times a stroller doesn’t make sense or if the baby is fussy!)
– Two muslin blankets. These come in handy for everything! When we were out and about and wanted Milo to nap, we’d drape one over the front of the stroller so he wouldn’t be distracted and could fall asleep. The muslin blankets are light and breathable so plenty of air can still get through.
What to bring. (with or without kids!)
– A USB charger since you know you’ll want to take plenty of photos and need to use Google Maps, etc.
– Download Google Translate (so helpful!), and we also love using Currency (which you can use offline), and you can download local maps on Google Maps if you’re traveling without data.
– Cash! Many restaurants and cabs don’t accept credit cards.
Thanks for a wonderful time, Tokyo! We hope to see you again soon!