8 things we learned about riding trains with a toddler

Posted by in Mike's blog

We’re pretty good at travelling with the Bunny.

Now that we’ve been back from our vacation for a few days, we’ve had a bit of time to reflect on a pretty big accomplishment:  We survived 2 non-consecutive days, enduring 10+ hours (on each day) of train travel with a toddler – and nobody died.  This wasn’t her first long trip, either.  She’s been on plane rides just as long a few times, and when she was still a baby she went on a couple of road trips, too.

Of the three (airplane, train & car), trains are by far the most kid-friendly method of travel.  No turbulence, no threat of impending doom from careless drivers, no car seats, oxygen mask tutorials, or seat belts!  There’s freedom to move around, which is good, but there’s also freedom to move around, which is bad.  Some of the lessons we learned on how to manage the bunny on trains all day long can be applied to other vehicles, here’s how we survived the train:

1.  Efficient packing:  On the way to our destination we each had a backpack/shoulder bag to carry (even the Bunny), a carry-on sized rolling suitcase and the stroller.  It was a lot, but we were able to move from train to train during transfers because we didn’t bring more than we can carry.  On the way back we travelled even lighter because we paid ¥1200 to ship our suitcase, and it was worth every ¥1 coin (that expression doesn’t translate so well) for the extra mobility.

2.  Stopovers = time to RUN:  We decided to take a couple of breaks on our journey, and we scheduled them for times when we knew we would be getting “all trained out”.  Sometimes we had no choice because of the schedule, sometimes we did.  When we weren’t on the train, we made sure the Bunny had every opportunity to run all over the place, keeping away from the edge of station platforms of course.  We even went to a rather sizeable park and let her run around the Himeji castle grounds at one point.  The more she had a chance to be free, the more she was willing to accept that she had to stay in/around her seat on the train when it was time.

3.  Snacktime:  Sometimes running out of snacks means running out of quiet.  We made sure to not let that happen.  Before we left, Mary took some tiny resealable bags, tiny as in 1/10 of the sandwich sized ones, and she filled them with things like crackers, raisins and peanuts.  When the Bunny got antsy, we were always able to say “do you want FOOD?” and follow up on it with a small enough package for her to sit quietly and eat for 5-10 minutes.

4.  Getting the best seats:  Most countries have “priority seats” on trains for people who need them.  In Japan, this includes people with little kids.  The “Japanese” way to claim these seats when they are occupied by undeserving commuters is to stand around them and hope someone will notice.  Not really our style.  We found no shame in asking people to move for us.  Though the Bunny would be happy to not sit at all, keeping her contained meant that we could conserve our energy and sanity.  Groups of 4 seats were best because we we able to lay the Bunny across two of them when it was naptime.  The best place to get seats was usually in the 1st car, because it had less people most of the time and it has…

5.  Windows:  There’s something about trains that fascinate kids like nothing else can.  Watching other trains pass by, hearing train noises, seeing the countryside and the lights in cites while riding the train is like Christmas.  The 1st car on most trains has lots of windows at the front, and watching the train move forward along the rails from the windshield is a neat experience.  Even when we were going through long tunnels, when we let the Bunny watch from the front, she instantly calmed down and just said “woooooow…” over and over again.  This is not at ALL possible on airplanes.

6.  Activities:  More organized/crafty parents would have remembered to bring games/toys/activities for such a long trip.  We didn’t.  We even forgot the crayons.  Fortunately we had Mary’s tablet computer with us and I was able to distract the Bunny with a cartoon for a while when she was going nuts and a couple of other times I brought up a drawing app for her to play with.

7.  Free things:  Japan Rail (JR) employees know that kids think that they are the coolest people in the world and that trains are awesome.  A friend once told me that they are required to wave back if a kid waves at them, not that it would take much convincing.  We found that most conductors and ticket checking people kept free things on them to hand out to cute kids.  The Bunny finished our trip with stickers, postcards, pictures and trading cards.  Accessing these free things was easier because she had her face pressed up against their window (when she was looking out the front) and saying “woooooow…”.

8.  Making friends:  Sitting near women is always a good idea.  Teenage girls, salary women and grandmothers are very likely to make faces and laugh with the Bunny.  5 minutes engaging with a new friend is 5 minutes for parents to rest.

All day on the train with our Bunny was very doable, in large part because we anticipated her needs in advance.  She had regular potty breaks (on the train!), lots of food, naps, and we took turns playing with her all day long.  She 2 now, and she has not reached the age when we decide that “travelling with kids is too hard”.  I hope we never get there.