Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Japan Series 2: Accommodation in Japan for Families and Groups

View from our balcony in Kyoto
Travelling in Japan with a family, or a group of 4 or more that wants to stay together, can be a real challenge. Family rooms in hotels (ie rooms that sleep more than 3 people) are rarer than hen's teeth, especially in premium locations, and where they do exist, they are very expensive. If you add in a need or preference to be able to cook and do laundry, accommodation gets harder again.

We travelled as a family of 5, and ended up having a great experience staying in Japan - but not through wholly conventional means!

For families and groups, some kinds of accommodation options are off the table from the start. Hostels and capsule hotels (the ones where they slide you into a bed that looks like a pod - *shudder*) are not available for children at all. You really have three kinds of options:

1. Ryokans (Traditional Japanese hotels)
2. Apartment stays (there are several sites that do this, but for Westerners, by far the easiest to use is Air BnB)
3. Western-style hotels

We used each of these options in our time in Japan, with a preponderence of our stay being in Air BnB apartments. Each have their pros and cons, as I will discuss below.
Ryokan in Yudanaka

Option 1: Ryokan (Traditional Japanese hotels)

Ryokans are, it must be said, lovely. They involve sleeping on floor mats in tatami-floored rooms, but bathrooms and toilets are usually Western-style (although it is worth checking, especially if you have physical restrictions that would make it difficult to use a squat toilet). Many ryokans also have an onsite onsen (Japanese hot bathhouse), which adds a touch of luxury to the experience; and while you are there, you will eat traditional Japanese food (dinner and breakfast are often part of the price, and we found that they are so rich and bountiful that we only needed fruit and crackers for lunch).

View from the ryokan
The ryokan experience is not a cheap one. Prices vary, of course, but for a nice ryokan, especially one in a popular area with an experience attached to it (ie we stayed at one in Yudanaka, which is the town where tourists come to see the snow monkeys), you'd be looking at about $180AUD per person per night - not something most families could afford to do for long (we had 2 nights at ours). Of course, dinner and breakfast inclusions, and access to the onsen, does help offset that cost, but it is still not something most could do for an entire trip.

If it is something you can find the budget to do though, even if for a single night, I would highly recommend it. It gives you a slower, more measured and culturally embedded experience than Western-style hotels do.

Option 2: Air BnB

Corridor of our Air BnB building in Shibuya, Tokyo
Air BnB is regulated and regularised in Japan, by Act of Parliament. The Housing Accommodation Business Act comes into full effect this July (2018), and provides for Air BnB operators to legally and openly conduct their businesses provided certain conditions are met. Air BnB is proactively moving to ensure that its hosts will be in compliance with the law, and you can book via the site with confidence that the necessary permits and licenses have been obtained.

This does provide protections for Air BnB clients (as well as hosts, and very importantly, neighbours) that are not always present in less regulated Air BnB environments. I had a degree of nervousness about using Air BnB for family travel, but it proved unwarranted, thankfully.

One-room apartment in Shibuya. Bathroom was a tiny attached cell.
Air BnB was the option we used by far the most for our Japan holiday, with 17 of our 21 nights being spent in Air BnB apartments. We used five different AirBnBs - for 5 nights in Shibuya, Tokyo; 2 nights in Nagoya; 6 nights in Kyoto; 2 nights in Osaka; and 2 nights in Hiroshima.

Overall, our Air BnB experience was top-notch. We had no problems accessing any of the five properties - the instructions provided were detailed and accurate. All properties matched their description well, and all five hosts were excellent quick communicators.

Living room in Nagoya
We stayed at five very different kinds of places. The room in Shibuya was extremely basic - just a place to crash and no cooking facilities - but was excellently located. The apartment in Nagoya was very plain but serviceable. The Kyoto apartment, where we stayed the longest, was, in my opinion, the nicest - we had three bedrooms, a dining room with a table that seated 6 people, and a fully equipped kitchen, plus it was very well positioned. The Osaka apartment was little but funky, while in Hiroshima, the 5th-floor apartment was comfortable and well-equipped and had a nice view.

Nagoya kitchen
There were minor niggles in each location - hot water dodgy in one, unuseably slow wi fi in another, neighbour noise at 4am when a bakery was getting deliveries, that sort of thing - but nothing that really impeded us in any meaningful way.

One thing that was blessedly easy in Air BnB was our non-smoking needs. Air BnB hosts in Japan are SUPER stern about not smoking in the properties - so much so that they promise to bill you a hefty extra cleaning fee if there is any evidence of smoking. Perhaps we were just lucky in this, but prior tenants appear to have kept to the rules as none of our apartments had even the faintest hint of smoke. This is not always something that can be said for hotel rooms - not too long ago I had to get a room changed at a hotel in Adelaide due to smokiness - so I was very happy and grateful that it worked out so well with Air BnB in Japan.

Kyoto kitchen and living area
On balance, I think Air BnB is the best option for travel in Japan as a family or a group. Here are the pros and cons as I see them:


- Cost: Air BnB in the locations we stayed at cost around 40 - 50% what two hotel rooms (which we would need for 5 people) would have cost. This may come out closer to even though for two people travelling together who only need one room. The average cost per night we paid for our apartments was $275AUD (a little less in Nagoya, Osaka and Tokyo; a little more in Kyoto and Hiroshima). In each case, that was for a place that could sleep 5, had laundry facilities, and except in Tokyo, also had kitchen or kitchenette facilities.

- Ability to cook meals: For cost, kid-eating and gluten safety reasons, this was a huge plus for us. I estimate we saved at least $500AUD overall by me cooking our evening meals each night, and breakfasting at home, in Kyoto alone - and probably more than a few glutenings too.

Bedroom in Kyoto
- Feeling of being in a neighbourhood: Far more than being tucked up in a hotel, staying in houses or apartments and interacting with the neighbourhood shops, environment and transportation gives you a real sense of what a place is like. I enjoy feeling difference when I travel and finding points of commonality and discovery. I think you do this less when behind the "wall" of a hotel.

- Comfort: I don't really like hotels. I find them a bit impersonal and often noisy. I feel much more comfortable in a homier environment.

- No separation: Because we are a family of five and would have needed 2 rooms everywhere, this would have meant splitting up every night and the two parents never being able to sleep in the same room. That felt like a dreary option for 3 weeks in a row!

Apartment in Osaka

- Porting luggage: Travel to and from accommodations can be a nuisance as much as an adventure when porting heavy luggage. There are moments when a hotel's pick up service is very welcome (we embraced it at our ryokan in Yudanaka!)

- Gaps in check-in / check-out: The lack of ability (mostly) to store luggage after checkout can be annoying, although our Tokyo host was very kindly willing to let us leave our bags there after checkout while we went to Studio Ghibli. Most places are 10am checkout, 3pm check in, which can mean a gap of standing around train stations awkwardly sipping Starbucks while waiting for time to pass.

However, we also found that you can often check in a bit earlier than specified. It is all self check from a key in a coded keybox, and we have twice found the key there and the place ready a good hour before designated check in.

Bunk beds in Osaka

We had a really good experience Air BnBing in Japan. It saved us thousands of dollars and probably multiple health problems for me, and really enriched our experience by embedding us in areas where people actually live, as well as enabling us to relax together as a family in ways we just couldn't have in hotels. I would, and will, do it this way again and I would definitely recommend it as an option.

"Toilet of the future": With warmed seat, multiple buttons and functions!

Option 3: Western-style hotels

We stayed at Western-style hotels on our last two nights in Japan - one in central Tokyo, and one at Narita Airport (the night before our flight). The airport hotel was exactly like every other airport hotel I have ever stayed in - clean, adequate, not fancy, full of late-night noises of rumbling suitcases and travellers coming and going. It was reasonably priced and included the shuttle to the terminal, so I have no complaints.

The central Tokyo hotel was nice enough too. They did find us a family room, which was a bonus, but the cost for one night was more than I'd paid for the two previous nights at Air BnB in Hiroshima, and there was no laundry or kitchen facilities. 

You can sometimes get great deals on hotels via travel agents to reduce the cost of this option, but those deals rarely to never include family rooms. For a couple travelling together, a smart agent could probably get you great hotel options that cost less than Air BnB, but for families and groups, I am sceptical!


I started booking our Air BnB accommodation last September, for a trip in April. I did it slowly, with my final booking made just before Christmas. Booking that far in advance, I had a huge range of options, and was able to be really picky about getting places that ticked all my boxes. Out of curiosity, I checked Air BnB about 4 weeks before our departure, and found that options for our travel dates had narrowed massively. I would not have been able to get anything suitable in our price range in Tokyo or Kyoto by then, and would've had to look hard in the other three locations. So my advice is: book as early as you realistically can, and certainly, not less than 6 weeks before you travel, if you want good Air BnB options.

Some times of the year are much, much harder than others for booking anything (including accommodation) in Japan. We were there for sakura (cherry blossoms), which was peak season, but we avoided the busiest week of the year - Golden Week, from 24 April onwards. Accommodation (and travel, and attractions) during Golden Week is well-nigh impossible by all reports. The other peak is in Japanese autumn (October / November), which is apparently as busy as spring in terms of accommodation and attractions. Summer (July / August) is apparently easier for accommodation, but possibly even more crowded at attractions because it is Japanese, European and North American summer school holidays. 

The lowest season, and easiest for accommodation and other things, is winter (from early December to very early March). Dedicated skiers come in for winter sports, but other than that, general tourist numbers are much lower. (We are planning a winter trip as our next Japanese holiday - hopefully in three or four years' time!)


It's easy to be scared off by the intimidating pricing of Japanese hotels as family travellers, but really, Japanese travel does not have to be exorbitant if you are willing to use the full range of accommodation options available. I would encourage anyone to use Air BnB for Japan travel and to start looking as early as you have confirmed flight dates, to give yourself the best range of options.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Japan Series 1: Eating in Japan - Kids, Food Issues and Tips and Tricks

Classic ramen in Gion, Kyoto
The first thing to say about eating in Japan is this: for people who are neither fussy eaters (aka: kids) or food intolerant / allergic, Japan is a food paradise.

Prepared food is tasty, filling and ranges in price from the very economical (you can feasibly spend as little as $3 - $4 AUD on a hot cooked meal) to the very high end (there are some banquets that'll set you back $500 a pop, but I can't tell you what they are like as I didn't do one!)

Taiyaki - Soft pastries filled with red bean paste or cream custard
in Kyoto
We travelled with:
- 1 adult with expansive tastes and no food issues
- 1 adult with Coeliac Disease
- 1 teenager with expansive tastes and no food issues
- 1 teenager with more limited tastes and gluten intolerance
- 1 child with limited tastes but no allergy or intolerance issues

Because Japanese food (outside of the curries) tends not to be very spicy, we found that it was mostly palatable to the two kids with more restricted tastes, so that was helpful.

However, eating in Japan as a Coeliac is a huge challenge. Coeliac Disease is virtually unknown in Japan - unlike those of us descended from the Highlands of Scotland, Japanese people do not have the genetic mutation for it to a large extent - and gluten free food is frustratingly difficult to reliably source.
Leaf pastries on Miyajima Island

Almost everything has wheat or barley in it. Even things that look safe (like sashimi) are often marinaded in soy sauce, which is wheat-based, and cooking stocks also often have wheat in them. Eating from restaurants is a crapshoot and one that you will almost certainly lose at least once (I did!)


In the bigger cities, you may be able to say "gluten free" and have some understanding, but you are more likely to get a good result if you are specific about the ingredients you need to avoid. You need to specify not just wheat, but also no:

- flour
- barley
- soy sauce
- teriyaki sauce

The Japanese word for wheat is "komugi", while the Japanese word for barley is "omugi". Here are the characters you want to look out for if buying packaged food:

  •  むぎ wheat; barley (n)
  • 小麦 こむぎ wheat (n)
  • 小麦粉 こむぎこ wheat flour (n)
  • 麦芽 ばくが malt (n)
  • 大麦 おおむぎ barley (n)
However, this is not a dead cert either, as Japanese food labelling laws are not as strict as Australia's, and some additives may not be listed.


There are many types of restaurant and street food commonly available in Japanese cities and towns, but the main general ones we encountered were:

Gluten free ramen - a rare jewel
1. Ramen and Udon: Noodle soup dishes and dry noodle dishes were absolutely ubiquitous and these tend to be the kinds of meals you see a lot at smaller neighbourhood places as well as bigger restaurants. Typically, the meal comes in a broth with an egg, vegetables and one or more kinds of meat as well as the noodles. The most common meats are pork and chicken and sometimes some kind of white fish ... but that is because they are the most common meats *everywhere* in Japan, and by far the cheapest.

2. Bento Boxes: These are available everywhere, not just in restaurants. You can get them in konbini (see below), at train stations, in department stores - everywhere. They come with the usual assortment of things you might expect to find in a decent bento here - sashimi (usually only a tiny amount), seaweed, pickled veg, some kind of sushi roll, sometimes tofu, sometimes a bit of fried chicken.

Japanese BBQ style in Nagoya
3. Cook Your Own BBQ style restaurants: These are everywhere and they are very similar to the style that in Australia we most often call Korean BBQ. You get your own raw ingredients - either presented to you on a platter in higher end places, or you select them from a buffet in more local restaurants - and cook them yourself on a grill at the centre of the table.

If you are careful to avoid sauces of all kinds and any meat with a marinade, this can be a very good option for Coeliacs, as you can control the input to a large degree. The kids also enjoy it and the food is very tasty.

However, price-wise, this is not really a daily option, as a meal for 5 people at one of these places will set you back at least $80 and more typically $100 - $120. (Which is still not bad value, but more than most family travellers can spend on every single dinner!)

4. Sushi restaurants: There are many, many, many varieties of these, from really high-end places to hole-in-the-wall outlets.

Salmon and baked tater at Sizzlers
5. Western and other cuisine style restaurants and cafes: There are lots of chains that you will recognise in Japan. Maccers is everywhere, and it is exactly like every other Maccers you have ever been to. KFC is less ubiquitous, but it's there. Starbucks is like a kind of coffee virus, it has insinuated itself into every corner (even an artisan street in Kyoto, and a traditional handicraft market on Miyajima Island, much to our astonishment). Sizzlers is around. Wolfgang Puck is there. Bronco Billys (American steakhouse chain) is there. They even have Guzman Y Gomez in Tokyo.

We saw Indian restaurants, Chinese restaurants,
Mixed salad plate from Sizzlers
several Korean restaurants, and several American-themed outfits. There is a burger chain called Mos, which apparently does awesome burgers and has gluten free options BUT not suitable for Coeliacs as they use shared utensils and cooking surfaces (good for gluten intolerants like my daughter though, where contamination isn't really an issue).

Most of these places do the same kind of food they do in Australia, but the prep methods may not be the same. My first and worst glutening in Japan happened at the Wolfgang Puck in Harajuku, ordering something that should've been safe, and would've been in Melbourne.

Gluten free fried chicken at the Little Bird Cafe in Shibuya, Tokyo
My advice is that Western-style places are great for kids to give them a touch of the familiar every now and then, but should be treated with caution by Coeliacs. If you are going to eat at any, the safest bets are self-BBQ, steakhouses and Sizzlers, where you can get a plain steak or grilled salmon and then self select safe items from the salad bar. We had a lovely meal at a Sizzlers in Suidobashi in Tokyo with an old schoolfriend of mine, and it did not make me sick!


Basically, we found that food purchasing options came down to four main types. Types 1 and 2 are suitable for Coeliacs; Type 3 can be with adjustment; but Type 4 is absolutely no go for anyone with a gluten intolerance or Coeliac disease.

Savoury mince with egg (home cooked) (Kyoto)
Type 1: Buy raw ingredients and cook your own or eat raw 
If you have access to a kitchen or even a partial kitchen (ie if you are staying in an apartment rather than a hotel room), buying ingredients and cooking some of your own meals can be a great option when travelling with a family or working around food issues.

We were able to do this in every location except Tokyo, where our room in Shibuya was too small and basic to allow for cooking and there was very limited access to fresh food anyway.

Japanese supermarkets are not dissimilar on the whole to Australian supermarkets - fresh and cold food on the perimeter, packaged goods on the inside or a different floor in some cases, a separate section or floor for toiletries, cleaning and personal products.

Fruit plate in Tokyo
The kinds of foods available overlap considerably, but there are noticeable differences. The fish section is usually bigger than the meat section, and the kinds of veg available are not always the same as we see. Pork, chicken and beef are all obtainable, but beef is really expensive and you can only get thinly sliced varieties for quick frying.

One part of the seafood and fish section at a supermarket in Kyoto

Pork, chicken and white fish are all cheaper than they are in Australia; veggies are mostly around the same price. Some fruit is horrifically expensive (eg strawbs) but other fruit is well-priced - I mostly ate apples, bananas, mandarins and tinned peaches.

Rice is cheaper; most packaged goods are cheaper; eggs and dairy are about the same. Forget about lamb - you won't see it in a Japanese supermarket. I'm told you can get it from super-specialty shops for about a squillionty dollars if you really must.

Bento box
You can also find butchers, fruit & veg shops, and many, many bakeries in any of the marketing areas in the cities outside of Tokyo.

Cost-wise, to give an idea, we spent about 12,000Y ($145AUD or so) on the fixings for 5 family dinners and 6 family breakfasts while in
Eating from the salad bar in Kyoto Station!
Kyoto, which included 2 chicken-based meals, 2 pork-based meals and 1 beef meal. Breakfast was cereal, toast and eggs for the "normals", and fruit / eggs / white rice for me. That comes out as about $4 a head for the dinners, and while you can certainly find meals that cheap at some little restaurants, you can't find Coeliac-friendly ones in that price range!

Type 2: Konbini (convenience store) meals or snacks / Vending machine food and drinks
Konbini in Japan are ubiquitous in a way that it's hard to fully appreciate until you see it. There is literally one on every street corner, everywhere you go. (Well, granted, I did not go north). The main three chains are 7/11, Lawson's and FamilyMart. The 7/11s are particularly useful, as they also house international ATMs where you can extract cash from your Australian bank accounts or via Travelex cards if you have one.

The konbinis have a full array of meals to go and they are high quality foods on the whole - bento boxes, rice ball snacks of various kinds, heatable meals that they will heat for you if you ask. Konbini food is cheap-ish and quick and easy, and they also sell preheated fast food type stuff that can make an easy quick hunger-stopper for kids (eg chicken nuggets).

Konbini food
For Coeliacs, 90% of konbini food is risky, BUT Lawsons and FamilyMart both sell a line of rice balls that have no gluten. You can eat the plain salted rice balls, the rice balls with flaked salmon, and the rice balls with seaweed and sesame.

Type 3: Restaurant meals
Restaurants vary greatly in type, cost, accessibility and allergy-friendliness. Ironically (or perhaps not?) we had the best success with little neighbourhood places, and the least success with fancier places.

Our best experience of all was in Shibuya, Tokyo, where we went (twice!) to Tokyo's one and only fully gluten free restaurant - the Little Bird Cafe. The Little Bird does a mixture of Western and Japanese food and everything it serves is delicious and totally Coeliac-safe. I completely recommend it for both family eating and gluten free eating.

Our only really successful Japanese banquet style eating was at the ryokan (traditional Japanese hotel) in Yudanaka, where my food issues were well catered for and I got to have the full experience. If you can afford it, I would recommend at least one night in a good-quality ryokan, both for the cultural and the food experience - the kids adored it and it was such a treat for me to be able to safely try the full range of Japanese cuisine.

Gluten free gyoza at the Little Bird Cafe in Shibuya, Tokyo
In terms of sweets, Coeliacs are, on the whole, SOL. There is one shining, glorious exception in Kyoto - a gelato shop in the covered market near where we stayed, which sells delicious gluten free gelato. Because we were there in spring, I got to try sakura-flavoured gelato, and it literally made my entire day.

Banquet breakfast at the ryokan


Type 4: Street food
Many to most places, especially near markets and tourist attractions, have street vendors selling food, both hot and cold, sweet and savoury.

Sweet rice balls

Everything from octopus balls to sweet rice balls to pastry fish, and much more, is on offer. The kids really enjoyed having the chance to sample things as we walked around. Needless to say ... Coeliacs should not!

Spiced chicken on a stick at a food market in Hiroshima


Our experience was that, with certain notable exceptions (ie beef), fresh food was either similarly priced to Australia or else a bit cheaper. Cooked food in restaurants tended cheaper unless you ordered beef, at which time it became markedly more expensive. Konbini food was very reasonably priced for light meals, a bit pricier for packaged snacks. 

Gohan (rice) and tuna
Here are a few tips we picked up:

1. If you want to buy chocolate, go to the supermarket - konbini chocolate is about double the price.

2. If you want to buy packaged candy to take home as souvenirs, including weird flavours of Kit Kat, go to a Don Quijote. This is Japan's equivalent to our $2 Shops but much, much, MUCH bigger and more extensive. They have ALL the things. Including packaged candy!

Butterbeer and me!
3. If you want to go to noodle shops or smaller restaurants with other people and you are the only Coeliac, try this:

Step 1: Go with your travelling companions to most local cheap or mid priced restaurants. Self order ones are best.

Step 2: Order a large bowl of plain gohan (white rice). This is an option everywhere except fancy places.

Step 3: When your rice arrives, quietly open a tin of sea chicken (tuna) in oil and combine with rice. The brand I ate safely is Hagoromo.

Soy Sauce Shop
4. Do not assume that there will be many (or any) gluten free options at the big theme parks. We went to Universal Studios Japan in Osaka and all I was able to consume from the park was fruit I had brought in my bag, popcorn, and Butterbeer from the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. (It was nice though :-)

5. Take your own sauces from home! You will be able to buy things like salt, pepper, honey, oil etc easily in the supermarkets, but gluten free soy, chilli sauce, or even salad dressing is a huge challenge. There was an ENTIRE SHOP dedicated to soy sauce of hundreds of varieties on Miyajima Island, and not one of them was gluten free!


It is possible to eat well, relatively cheaply and have fun with food in Japan, even with food challenges, but you do need to work a bit for it. I was sometimes hungry in the days when I couldn't find lunchables easily, but I did not starve, and I enjoyed what I was able to eat all the more. 

Sunday, April 22, 2018


 What a long hiatus ... 2 months with no blog post! Life has been extremely busy, between work, a death in the family, and a big overseas trip, and I have been finding it easier to do briefer Facebook updates than to try to bend my mind to compose coherent blog posts.

Now, however, I am going to try to make up for lost time (somewhat) with a 5-part series of posts on our holiday in Japan, from which we returned yesterday. It was an amazing 21 days, and I think I have a few specific things to share for both family and food-allergy travellers that might be useful to others.

We stayed in central and southern Japan on our trip, so I have no insights to offer about the northern part of the country (which I understand to be gorgeous - on the list for a future trip!) Our itinerary was:

- 6 days in Tokyo (Air BnB)
- 2 days in Yudanaka (near Nagano) at a ryokan (traditional Japanese hotel)
- 2 days in Nagoya visiting friends (Air BnB)
- 6 days in Kyoto (Air BnB)
- 2 days in Osaka (for Universal Studios Japan) (Air BnB)
- 2 days in Hiroshima (Air BnB)
- 1 final day in Tokyo (Hotel)

We were lucky enough to be in Japan in time for sakura - cherry blossoms - which was an experience not to be missed. I am told Japan is gorgeous in autumn, and majestic in winter (summer is apparently best avoided!) but I am very glad our first visit was in beautiful, mild, fragrant spring.

I am going to organise my posts thusly:

- Monday 23rd: Eating in Japan - How Do You Do It with Kids and Coeliac Disease?

- Wednesday 25th: Accommodation in Japan for Family Travel: Options and Reflections

- Friday 27th: Experiences and Attractions in Central and Southern Japan - Family Themed

- Sunday 29th: Travelling Around: Planes, Trains, Buses, Streetcars and Taxis

- Tuesday 1st: Language, Communication, Health and Behavioural Tips for Family Travellers

We were only there three weeks, which by no means makes me an expert on Japan, Japanese culture or Japanese life, but we did do enough eating, staying, touristing, and travelling in a family group to give me some insight into what worked well and what didn't for a family with teenage and younger children and a person with food issues.

We were also fortunate enough to spend time with our exchange student from last year and her family in Nagoya, which deepened our experience of Japanese life considerably. My two elder daughters are learning Japanese at school and were very useful in reading signage and basic communications, which helped and also gave us more points of contact to the country we were in.

With the exception of a one-day organised bus tour to Mt Fuji and surrounds, we did not do any package tours - we planned, decided and travelled to and from our own self-guided experiences. This does, I think, mean you get to understand some things (such as local transportation options) much more intimately than if someone else is doing all the organising for you!

So I hope the posts will be of interest to some, and if not, they will at least be a good record for me and my family of the things we learned in our magnificent Japan adventure.