Ordinarily you wouldn’t assume that an article about travelling with babies has much of a Japan specific angle. Maybe it doesn’t. But the impression that I’ve received from friends and the on looking eyes of broader society as well is that it’s not that normal to travel with a young baby. Actually it’s not even that normal to take a young baby outside of your home for the first month (or more) in Japan. I have no idea what is “best for baby” but I’m more than happy to relay our experiences of baby travel and how much fun we were able to have without all of the stress that is apparently assumed when you’ve got a baby.
I figured that this is particularly relevant to other gaijin daddies out there who either want to take their child “home” to see their half of the family, or, if the child was born and lives outside of Japan, probably have a wife hoping to do the same. When is “too soon” to take your baby on a plane? It seems as though the current consensus is about six weeks but it’s not obvious that there is a lot of medical proof behind this. The six week period also happens to be a defining period in the recuperation of the maternal body and so it seems to me (as a total ignoramus when it comes to medicine) that perhaps the six week start-line is just as much for the mother as it is for the baby. At any rate we jumped on a plane (and a boat!) about two days after my son reached six weeks. No problemo.
The main thing that parents of little children (and other passengers) complain about on planes is crying due to ear pain. While you probably shouldn’t fly when your child has a middle ear infection, if your child is healthy then all you need to do is think of a practical way to encourage him to swallow continuously at the time of decent (contrary to popular belief the change in pressure in your middle ear at take-off isn’t a cause of discomfort, it’s the increase in pressure on descent that can hurt). Feeding is the easiest method. You probably want to start about half an hour before landing as the descent often begins before the fasten-your-seatbelt sign lights up. If you’re breast feeding this is pretty simple. If it’s a short-haul flight you might want to get a window seat for your wife so her oppai (breasts) aren’t seen by too many ero-oyajis. If you’re on the bottle then just make sure you don’t run out at the wrong time. Other things we’ve tried (and succeeded with) include thumbs (both his and mine), stuffed toys with mouth size feet, or some gauze. When they are over six months (not four or five like most Japanese books tell you) and are onto solids we’ve tried rusks and dried apple as well. Not having to think at all about food is the biggest advantage of travelling with a baby under six months, especially a breastfed one. If you’re child is asleep, for some reason unknown to me, there is no need to wake him up on decent. What other things do you need to consider when taking your baby on a plane?
- Sleep: babies under three months or so sleep so much of the day there is a good chance they’ll sleep most of the plane trip. This is even more likely if your child goes to sleep easily in your car because he’ll also find the vibration of the plane’s engines very soothing.
- Movement: once your child starts to walk, catching a plane will take on a whole new meaning and you’ll spend your entire flight either entertaining your child or trying to restrain him. Conversely, in their first year of life, babies won’t be moving an inch so that makes them very obedient travellers. In fact, contrary to popular wives tale, a very young baby on a plane is much easier than a baby between one and three years old for exactly this reason.
- Cost: babies under two years of age are free on most airlines although sometimes you might be forced into paying a fuel surcharge for your child regardless of how young they are (with ANA you can avoid paying the fuel surcharge as well – at least for your baby – by using mileage to book your ticket). In order to get your child’s ticket for free, they have to travel on your lap. On long-haul flights you’ll be able to put them in a bassinet if they weigh less than 12kg (i.e. Up until about twelve months) or so and you’re lucky enough to get one (so book it early with the airline). Otherwise they’ll be sitting on your lap.
- Safety: If you’re very safety conscious, you won’t be over the moon to hear that the Japanese carriers don’t provide infant seatbelts (that attach to the one on your lap) on domestic routes. When you consider that the vast majority of in-flight injuries are due to sudden turbulence, I think this is pretty poor and am very close to writing an official complaint to both JAL and ANA. If this worries you too, or you don’t like the idea of your 12kg+ baby sitting on your lap for the whole flight, then it might just be easier to get a separate seat. Unfortunately the discount for children on a seat is minimal so assume you’re paying close to full fare. The other advantage to getting a seat is that it does guarantee your child a pop-down air mask in the case of an accident. Maybe the extra money is worth it for the peace of mind.
Travelling on a plane is nowhere near as bad as people will lead you to think and neither is travelling by boat, bus, or most other forms of transport. Just remember – don’t be discouraged to travel just because you have a small baby – especially in Japan. Travelling in this country revolves around eating tasty (and healthy) food, being treated like a King and relaxing in a hot tub. Especially if you’re wife is having trouble breast feeding, you might be pleasantly surprised: The warm, therapeutic waters of an onsen (温泉、hot springs) , and even your own bath at home to be honest, are known to stimulate milk production. My wife claims that her best milk producing days ever (in terms of quantity) were in the few days we stayed at Beppu Onsen (別府温泉) six weeks after our son was born. Although I’ve searched quite a bit on the web, I’m not quite sure of the minimum age for putting a child in an onsen itself but unless it is a tanjunsen (単純泉, spring containing less than 1000 ppm of dissolved minerals), I wouldn’t try it for at least 12 months (especially if your child has bladder/bowel control problems). It’s worth asking about the yushitsu (湯質, qualities of the spring water) directly with the ryokan as often the shower/bath uses the same gensen (源泉, source) as the onsen itself which could mean you’re inadvertently bathing your child in sulphuric water even if you use the bath in your private room.
Japanese ryokan and hotels are also pretty well set up for a family with a little baby, although it’s often worth checking with the manager first to make sure they don’t mind you bringing a little child. It’s also worth confirming that they have a kettle in each room as you can use that to sterilise things or boil water for formula etc. A typical mahobin (魔法瓶, flask) is fine as you don’t want to use very hot boiling water in your baby’s bottles anyway (for fear of BPA poisoning) I personally recommend finding a ryokan that offers heyashoku (部屋食, the option of eating your dinner in your room). Even if you have to go to the restaurant for breakfast, you’ll find your dinner much less stressful if your crying baby is rolling around the tatami next to you in the privacy of your own room.
What about when Nature calls? If you need to change nappies while you’re touring go to a shopping centre. While there aren’t that many in central Tokyo/Osaka, American style malls are all over the countryside. Most of them have a babies’ corner with plenty of space to breast feed, change nappies, and some even have a baby food “snack” （スナック, a colloquial term for a tiny bar where a mama-san usually serves sake to lonely salary-men but in this case sell food and drink that are suitable for a baby – together with it’s biological “mama” of course). If you’re wife is breastfeeding but still wants a coffee, go to Starbucks as they are the only coffee store that I’ve found in Japan to offer decaf coffee. Once again, you’re likely to find them in any major shopping centre.
If you’re breast feeding but want to take a small amount of formula with you while you’re travelling “just in case” then I recommend “Hohoemi rakuraku cubes”. They sell boxes of their milk subdivided into handy travel packs so you don’t have to worry about using more than you need at any one time. Within each travel packs there are five hard blocks of formula (each the equivalent of 50ml of formula if my memory serves me correctly) to save you having to measure out messy formula as well.
Finally a word on train travel. If you don’t have a car then you and your partner are going to be battling the railway system on a pretty regular basis with your baby. Good news is that you don’t have to pay for your child until they reach primary school age and as long as they are sitting in a buggy then you will probably never be questioned. That said, my best advice for short trips is “to do as the locals do” and hang your baby in a sling across your chest. While many stations in the large cities have elevators and escalators, you’ll be surprised how many don’t (and never will due to architectural restrictions!). My local station infamously has two flights of escalators, followed by one flight of stairs to get out of the station! When I do take my son on the train in our buggy, I always use “rakuraku odekake net” which tells you what norikae train route to take you to your location while avoiding stations that don’t have elevators and escalators. It’s great. Unfortunately there isn’t an English page at the moment so I’ve been pestering the owner of trains.jp to create one. He is a gaijin in Tokyo, and is using trains.jp make the best norikae annai experience for foreigners. Fingers crossed.
If you’ve got any other Japan specific tips on travelling with babies, please share them with us in the comments section below. Better yet, I’d love to hear some of the horror stories of taking infants travelling to prepare me for what is yet to come!