Intriguing, enchanting, beguiling and inspiring, travelling in Japan with kids will guarantee a family holiday like no other, one in which your expectations will be surpassed and where you can’t fail to be wowed by so much culture and contrast.
Comprising over 6,850 islands in a string-like archipelago, it’s not surprising that The Land of the Rising Sun is so diverse, in terms of culture, landscape and history. It’s a place where ancient meets modern, a land where virgin forests and mist shrouded shrines offer the perfect counterpoint to towering, neon-lit skycrapers, up-to-the-second modernity and innovation.
How, then, to choose just ten of our favourite ‘Japan with kids’ experiences? Believe us, it was tough. Here’s just a snap-shot selection of what you can see and do there – and we didn’t even get to Sumo wrestling…
For a country overview jump straight to our Japan family holiday section where you’ll also find reviews, sample itineraries and prices. Or read on for our favourite activities to do in Japan with kids:
Japan with kids – Our Top 10
1. Be mindblown in a digital museum in Tokyo
We can’t even begin to adequately describe just how mind-blowing this digital art museum is, but we’ll try. A ‘museum without a map’, this group of artworks moves out of rooms, communicate with each other, influence and intermingle (we got this from the website), in a vast, three-dimensional space, 10,000 square metres of it. Music! Colours! Movement! Interaction! OK, we give up. Take a look at the video for yourself, teamLab Planets. Why aren’t more museums and galleries like this?
2. Be blissed out in a traditional ryokan
An absolute must-do when visiting Japan with kids, staying overnight in a traditional inn, or ‘Ryokan’ as they’re known, is also a deeply atmospheric and relaxing experience. Leave your shoes at the door and surrender yourself to a world of tatami mats, green tea, yukata (a cotton robe), Japanese dining (pickled vegetables, sashimi, miso, tofu and steamed rice) and a soak in a hot spring bath. Utter bliss!
3. Take one of the world’s fastest train rides
There’s a reason people refer to Japan’s inter-city trains, the Shinkansen, as ‘bullet’ trains. Travelling at 200 miles per hour (although they are capable of 275 miles per hour), any family travelling in Japan with kids will be wowed by the power of modern technology as you hurtle through the countryside. They’re not just super speedy, but on-the-second punctual and immaculately clean, too. Just like British Rail (not).
4. Drink your own face in Ginza
Say what??!! Before travelling to Japan, we had no idea this was ‘a thing’, but swanky cafes, particularly in the upmarket district of Ginza in Tokyo, serve coffees where, instead of the chocolate-sprinkle images of a coffee bean and the like, the foam topping is decorated with a 2D print of your own face, thanks to a digital printer. Just smile at the barista holding an i-pad and you’ll be sipping your eyebrows and nose before you know it. Latte art, apparently! As surreal as it is entertaining and a sure fire winner on any trip to Japan with kids.
5. Get the inside story on Geisha culture in Kyoto
Gion is Kyoto’s most famous Geisha district (and the setting of the one-time bestselling novel, Memoirs of a Geisha). It lies at the heart of the city and it’s here, in the entertainment district, where you’ll catch glimpses of brightly coloured kimono-wearing Geishas in restaurants, bars, teahouses or as they cross the wooden Tatsumi Bridge between appointments. To find out more about their mysterious, hidden world, take a guided evening tour which is as fascinating as they are intruiging.
6. Visit one of the Three Great Gardens of Japan in Kenroku-en
Not everyone who travels to Japan with kids visits the town of Kanazawa but, after a recent trip there, it’s one of our new surprise favourites. Small enough to walk around but with more than enough to entertain all the family for a couple of nights, the main attraction is Kenroku-en. This is Japan’s most celebrated landscaped garden, housed in grounds that used to belong to Kanazawa castle. It’s well known for its flowering trees and no matter what time of year you visit, there’ll always be something at its best, from the cherry and plum blossom in spring, to maples in the autumn. A quintessential Japan experience.
7. Step back in time hiking the Nakasendo Highway
If you want to enjoy an experience that’s about as far from the neon-lit craziness of Tokyo as it’s possible to be, the Nakasendo Highway is it. Nakasendo means ‘Middle Mountain Way’ and is an old feudal route in the Kiso valley passing through several historic (and immaculately preserved) post towns. The whole trail is some 534km and, while it is possible to do much longer sections, we suggest families do a two-day hike starting in Magome, overnighting in Tsumago and finishing in Nagiso (a very manageable 7.7km in total). You’ll spend the night in a ryokan and will stroll through pristine, unspoilt scenery and traditional towns where cars are prohibited during certain hours so you really get a feel for how things used to be.
8. Take a pirate ship cruise in Hakone
When is a sightseeing cruise more than a sightseeing cruise? When it’s aboard a Pirate Ship, me hearties! Younger children and the young at heart will adore hopping aboard this replica vessel as it sails across Lake Ashi in Hakone. Take a look! On a clear day, you’ll get picture postcard views of the snow-capped Mount Fuji, too.
9. Cycle through the Japanese Alps
Exploring Japan with kids is even more fun when done under your own steam. Discovering the countryside by bike (or e-bike) is a wonderful way to get around, stopping wherever and whenever the mood suits. One of our favourite excursions is in the Japanese Alps. Starting from the small and extremely beautiful town of Hida Furukawa, with its network of canals filled with koi carp, you can explore the countryside around Takayama before checking out the wooden buildings, teahouses, restaurants and shops of the town itself.
10. Visit the Island of the Gods in the World Heritage Site of Miyajima
You may not know its name, but if you’re travelling to Japan with kids you’ll probably be familiar with the bright red floating ‘Torii’ shrine on Miyajima island, one of Japan’s most scenic spots. Located on the beautiful Seto inland sea, an easy day trip from Hiroshima, Miyajima has long been regarded as an Island of the Gods. Here you can visit the famous Itsukushima Shrine, a World Heritage Site, and enjoy walks through the virgin forest of Mount Misen (or take the cable car), exploring numerous shines, temples and historical monuments. Forest bathing, anyone?
More about holidaying in Japan with kids
If you’d like to know more about holidays to Japan, please take a look at our Japan family holidays section and see example Japan itineraries: Highlights of Japan (14 days) and Japan in Nine Days. Alternatively, Kelly is our Japan expert, having visited several times. Call her on 01728 752751 or get in touch via our website form.
We always love to hear from families who have travelled with us, so please do send us your photos and reviews of holidaying in Japan with kids.
Liddy Pleasants, MD Stubborn Mule Travel