I HAVE ALWAYS been a traveler. I backpacked across Europe solo when I was still in university, got into a bit of trouble and was mugged in Madrid on my last stop. That is another story.
My toddler girl, Little Chow, is 4 years old, and her understanding of the world has been improving in leaps and bounds. She can identify more animals and flowers than I care, and I can have a fluid conversation with her without having to dumb down my logic.
I happened to have a couple of assignments cancelled on me, and I could either have stayed in my studio and sulked but I took this break as a chance to solo travel with my little girl. There aren’t many years left before she gets into the regular school system, so I really cherish opportunities like this one.
I decided to bring her for a solo mini adventure for a week to Japan last month (we live in China), and I kept the rules simple:
- We had a start and end point (we got cheap flights to Nagoya, Japan), and our first night was set. Everything else happened on a day-by-day basis, and I would only book accommodation for the following day. If we wanted to stay in a town, we could. If we wanted to move on, this was possible too. This kept the traveling plans fluid and full of surprises.
- All our logistics had to fit within a big backpack which I carried. This means we only packed what we needed, took out whatever seemed a little fancy, and we refrained from adding anything as we went along.
- We used public transport and slept at the most affordable accommodations. High-speed trains, local trains, buses, trams, bicycles, and our legs. No taxis, no private charters. We stayed mostly at family-run ryokans. More than half of our accommodations only had communal bathrooms.
The trip turned out to be fantastic. We stayed in temples, cycled 120 km across bridges and islands, saw dolphins, walked through Hiroshima city, checked out an island full of contemporary art, ran for trains and had a pretty wild time.
She hardly gave me any drama, as she understood this was an adventure as well. We bathed in communal baths near closing time so it was quieter, walked as much as her legs could take her, and she did not miss home one bit. She was quite a trooper during our whole 7 days.
We did our first solo mini adventure when she was 2.5 years old. There were some new lessons that I learnt this time round.Check the article here. There were some new lessons that I learnt this time round.
I never imagined that traveling with my toddler would be an economical choice, but it really is. Almost all the museums, parks, trains, buses, trams let children under the age of 6 enter or travel for free as long as they were accompanied by an adult. Even ryokans and guesthouses in Japan regarded us as a single adult. I was not charged for my toddler as long as she used existing bedding. Just based on this, the on-the-ground expenses were almost halved, and it was an unexpected wonderful feeling. Moreover, I didn’t feel like I was just carrying a baby who simply coos and ahhs and falls asleep. This is a well-formed toddler, all of 4 years old, who could discern good art from bad (albeit from her point of view), enjoy the train views more than me, and really got into the groove of interacting with the locals in Japan.
Another benefit of taking the backpacking lifestyle with your toddler is that your travel choices become a lot simpler. No shopping, as you can’t afford to carry more stuff in your pack, which saves a huge chunk of money and time — trust me. Little Chow attracted her fair share of gifts from super friendly locals, and she had them in the form of sweets, flowers, erasers, toys, etc. I told her each time that any gift she accepted would go into my bag, and that would increase my burden. Each time, she either politely refused or she held the gift in her hands till she passed it to another child she saw. I explained to her that doing so made 3 people happy at the same time. The child, her, and me.
Japan is the land of Michelin-star restaurants. There are more out-of-this-world restaurants in this country than anywhere else, and that also means rather steep prices. From my experience, good food in Japan is undoubtedly worth every yen, but this trip isn’t about savouring kaiseki-s or chugging high balls. Every time I asked Little Chow what she wanted, her reply was simple — ramen. Fantastic ramen isn’t hard to find, and I also needed eating spots where they are cool with just a father and a toddler ordering portions for slightly more than a person. Our average meal prices turned out to around 800–1200 yen ($7 - $10) each time, which is quite reasonable in Japan.
All in all, it was a lot cheaper for me to take this trip with my daughter than with an adult partner. I have found a traveling buddy in a mini package.
This article was orginally published on Medium and is reposted here with permission.