Erica Knecht, creator of Expatria, Baby lived in Japan for over three years where she also gave birth to her now three-year-old daughter, Stella. She tells suitcases&strollers why southern Japan is a must-visit for parents traveling with kids and why Kyushu makes the idea family holiday destination.
Kyushu is the southern most of Japan's four main islands. The island is a great destination for families. The pace of life in the south of Japan is far more relaxed than it is up north. There's a bit of a laidback beach vibe. Locals say that the people in Kyushu are friendlier and more welcoming of foreigners than elsewhere in Japan.
What I loved best about Kyushu was the diversity of the landscape. Within a few hundred kilometres you can experience the bright lights of urban Fukuoka or a history lesson in Nagasaki. You can visit active volcanoes, climb up a mountain take, dip in hot springs, surf the semi-tropical waters of the south of the island, lounge on pristine beaches or get lost in tiny fishing villages.
You don't have to travel very far to get a taste of all that Japan with kids has to offer.
Fukuoka, the island’s principal city, is a gateway to Kyushu and an excellent jumping off point for visiting the island. I'd recommend starting here. Fukuoka has all the neon lights and attractions of a typical Japanese big city, but on a much smaller, and more easily accessible, scale. From here countless day trips are possible and you don't have to go far to reach the wild interior, hidden fishing villages, beautiful beaches or relaxing hot spring baths.
Fukuoka has an international airport and is nearly equidistant from Tokyo, Shanghai and Seoul, making Kyushu easily accessible via short flights which is key when travelling with kiddos. International air connections and a link to the high-speed rail network makes the city easily accessible.
Fukuoka is the largest city in Kyushu and probably the most visited part of the island. A modern subway system with elevators in every station make the city decidedly stroller friendly. And there's tonnes of things to do with kids.
The Fukuoka Aquarium at Uminonakamichi Seaside Park is a great kid-friendly destination. The seaside park also houses an amusement park, a petting zoo and a ferris wheel and will keep kids busy for an entire day.
Nagasaki is another big-ticket destination. There's a fascinating (if sobering) museum and monument dedicated to the victims of the atomic bomb in the Second World War. This is a good destination for older kids interested in history. [But consider carefully whether the subject matter is suitable for your children as some kids might find this disturbing.]
Kyushu is one of the most active geothermal regions in the world, making it an ideal destination for budding seismologists. The eight "Hells" of Beppu in Oita prefecture is a great day-trip. Eight hot springs are dotted around the region of Beppu. They're presented in a rather touristic fashion, but still, they're fascinating for kids (OK, and adults too!). My daughter was mesmerised by all the steam, pools of vibrantly coloured water and bubbling mud pits. And it's kind of cool to watch as eggs are cooked in the geothermal waters and foods being “barbecued” over steam vents. Oh, and because Japan is all about the food, don't miss the famous Beppu “hell-steamed custard pudding” which is basically steamed crème caramel. Delish!
Nokonoshima (Noko Island) is truly a hidden gem. This tiny island is located in the middle of Hakata Bay and is just a short ferry ride from Fukuoka city. Lush and green, Nokonoshima is famous for wild flowers, undulating hills and orange orchards. You can take a ferry to the island, then rent a bike at the port. (Unless you have legs of steel, I suggest getting an electric bike, because those hills are no joke!) You can easily spend a day biking around the island with a visit to Nokonoshima Park being a priority. Cap it all off with a great burger (In Japan? I know! But trust me.) and a Noko Island orange soda at the port before returning to Fukuoka.
Futamigaura near Itoshima is another local favourite. Two giant rocks sit out at sea and they have been joined by a sacred shinto rope. A torii [traditional Japanese gate] faces west out into the Sea of Genkai and creates a breathtaking frame from which to view the sunset. An hour's drive west of Fukuoka, the wide sand beach features tidal pools, soft sand, big waves and excellent beach cafes.
[For more travel tips on visiting Japan with kids, see the suitcases&strollers story Tokyo Disney Versus Historic Japan For Kids.]
A trip to Mount Aso is equally thrilling for parents and kids alike. Asosan is the largest active volcano in Japan and boasts five separate volcanic peaks. The adventurous can hike up the mountain on well-marked trails, while those in search of a more relaxing experience can take a cable car to the top. Explore some easy hiking trails and gorgeous views before heading down the mountain.
[For a simpler activity that doesn’t require travel it is possible to spend] hours hanging out in Ohori park in Fukuoka with kids. The park stretches several kilometres from end to end and is anchored by a man-made lake in the centre. Two lovely playgrounds will keep the kids busy while you people watch. You'll find a wide cross-section of Japanese society all hanging out here together and a visit on a Sunday morning is sure to offer something delightfully unusual. I particularly loved spotting students sitting on park benches playing the tuba, ladies dressed in lavish kimonos and people out walking their pet iguanas. Seriously.
Ohori Park was a favourite spot of ours. Lots of open green space to stretch little legs made it a favourite stop for our family. Right next door is Maizuru Park which houses ancient castle ruins along with wooded walking trails. If you're visiting Japan in the spring, don't miss the opportunity to enjoy a hanami (flower viewing picnic) while the sakura cherry blossoms are in bloom. This is truly an amazing experience.
It does rain a lot in Japan so when rain strikes in Fukuoka, a visit to one of the many department stores is in order. Many large cities in Kyushu have aquariums which make excellent rainy day activities. And if all else fails, no matter where you are in Kyushu you're sure to be close to an onsen. I can't think of a better way to spend a rainy day than soaking in a natural hot spring.
[For a trip outside of the city, head to] Aoshima, an island located just off the coast of Miyazaki in Southern Kyushu. Here the warm currents of the pacific make the ocean several degrees warmer than elsewhere in Japan, making it a perfect beach destination. Stay at the Palm Beach Hotel just meters from a long stretch of unspoiled beach. This is an ideal place to chill out, build sand castles, eat fresh seafood and learn to surf.
Japan is extremely welcoming of children. You never have to worry about children crying or throwing a fit as no one seems to mind much. Especially outside Japan's big cities, expect your child to get a lot of attention!
In keeping with Japan's child-friendly ethos, even the littlest kids are welcomed in most restaurants. Servers will often provide a high chair and kid-friendly tableware and a stack of napkins. Frequently staff will offer to “babysit” kids while you finish your dinner, a major perk!
You'll find lots of kid-friendly dishes in Kyushu. The region is famous for tonkotsu ramen (noodles with a rich pork broth) and gyoza (fried dumplings). Fresh fish (if your kid is into that sort of thing) is lovely and readily available. Other Kyushu delicacies like fugu (blow fish) and mentaiko (marinated fish roe) may be more challenging to young palates. But, you'll always find child-approved dishes like tempura (who doesn't love something deep fired?) omurice (an omelette stuffed with fried rice and topped with ketchup), soba noodles and yakitori. And in a worse case scenario, you'll be able to fill little tummies with lots of white rice.
In late autumn and winter, watch out for Amao strawberries, some of the sweetest and juiciest I've ever tasted!
If you're in Fukuoka and the kids can stay up past dark, it's worth checking out the yatai or traditional street food stalls that are located in the city centre. These street food carts appear every evincing at round 6pm. They typically serve comfort foods like ramen or yakitori (grilled skewers, usually chicken). Yatai are cultural and culinary institutions and are some of the last remaining examples of great street food in Japan. Totally worth a visit.
One thing to note is that not all hotels have cribs or cots for babies. Co-sleeping is the norm in Japan. If having a separate sleeping space for your baby is important to you, travel with a portable cot.
The Grand Hyatt Fukuoka is located in Canal City which is one of the biggest shopping complexes in Fukuoka. It’s close to the heart of downtown and about 5 min away from some of the best yatai in the city.
Palm Beach Hotel in Aoshima is just meters from a long, pristine beach with gentle waves and they even have a mini amusement park for little kids.
Seahawk hotel is also located really close to the beach in Fukuoka. While it is more of a playing beach than a swimming beach, it’s still a good option if you want to be close to Nokonoshima Island.
It can be difficult to buy things like medicines, formula and baby food [if you do not speak Japanese]. Most medicines that you'd need to administer are available, but not necessarily easily accessible over the counter. [It’s worth bringing the essentials with you] such as Benadryl, infant acetaminophen, infant ibuprofen, allergy medicine, a thermometer and first aid ointment. [For more travel tips on what to pack in your emergency travel medical kit for kids, see the suitcases&strollers story here.]
You can buy formula in most pharmacies. You won't find international brands, but we hear good things about Morinaga and Icero. If your baby is really attached to a specific brand of formula, you'll have to bring it from home.
A limited selection of baby food is available in Japan in most grocery stores, but unless you can read kanji, you'll have a hard time deciphering the ingredients. If you baby is a good eater with no allergies, Japanese baby food is fine. If, however, your child has strong preferences about food or has food intolerances, you're better off bringing food from home. If you don't want to travel with a massive stockpile of food, you can order international foods and formula from iHerb.com and have it shipped to your hotel in Japan.
For more travel tips on travel-friendly foods you can pack and bring with you, see the suitcases&strollers story here.
For ideas on introducing kids to foreign foods, see the suitcases&strollers interview with celebrity chef Emmanuel Stroobant.
By Erica Knecht of Expatria, Baby