How to explore Japan with the family

By James Cooley

Japan isn't usually the first place people think of for a family holiday - perhaps considered more suited to singles and couples – but that's probably because a few myths are getting in the way. The truth is, while the country is often thought of as having a few drawbacks for families, such as being tricky to navigate and expensive compared to other destinations, Japan is anything but daunting for the family traveller. 

From Japan’s safety and cleanliness to being budget-friendly and full of entertainment for all ages, here are all the reasons to put any misconceptions aside and start planning a family trip to Japan that your children will enjoy and remember forever.

Bright lights, video games, robots, ninjas, and samurai – it’s a child’s real-life wonderland 

Japan is the home of so many things children love, but fast trains, comic books, Nintendo and Hello Kitty are just the start. Japan is certain to pique any child’s curiosity with its unique mix of contemporary and traditional culture and fascinating recent and ancient history.

Why not try: Akihabara is must-see for children (and adults) who are interested in games, anime, manga, and other Japanese pop culture icons. The amusement arcades, known as Game Center, are lots of fun for families while they discover this incredibly eclectic part of Tokyo. At Samurai Kembu Theater near Sanjo Station in northern Kyoto, children of all ages can get hands-on and learn Kembu, the traditional sword art of the samurai. Kembu practitioners demonstrate proper stances and movements of the sword.  

Sebastian Kurpiel Unsplash Final

Sebastian Kurpiel/Unsplash

And don’t forget the fun, wacky, and wild theme parks 

Some of the best theme parks in the world are in Japan. From classic rides and rollercoaster parks to a hot spring theme park and an entire Hello Kitty world, it’s fair to say Japan is a nation obsessed with the thrill of theme parks. 

You might not want to plan a whole trip around theme parks but including one or two in your itinerary is a sure-fire way to delight your children and could be an excellent tactic for breaking up the sightseeing.

Why not try: Tokyo Disneyland and DisneySea in Chiba Prefecture, not far from Tokyo, and Osaka’s Universal Studios Japan (including the gleaming new Super Nintendo World), should be at the top of the list. Sanrio Puroland in Tama, Tokyo is a theme park featuring the company’s classic characters such as Pom Pom Purin and Hello Kitty. If your children are older and looking for more of a thrill, then check out the more traditional amusement parks like Cosmo World in Yokohama or Fuji-Q Highland at the foot of Mt Fuji.

Universal Pictures Shot Low Res

Universal Studios Japan © Adobe Stock

Children will love the food (it’s not all about raw seafood)

Contrary to popular belief, Japanese cuisine is more than just raw seafood. Even for the fussiest of eaters, Japan’s food is so varied that children will be spoilt for choice when it comes to mealtimes. Both parents and children alike can easily enjoy sushi, sashimi, tempura, miso soup, udon, and so much more, with flavours to suit everyone.

And if your little ones are craving home comforts, western food (yoshoku) is plentiful. As with all things in Japan however, yoshoku doesn’t look exactly the same as home – but that’s all part of the fun. Think hambagu (a hamburger patty with rice and salad), Napolitan (a spaghetti with green capsicum, sausage, and bacon), and there’s even a twist on a French croquette.

Why not try: In Tokyo, Taimeiken has been serving up yoshoku classics since 1931. Its signature ‘tampopo om-rice’ (an omelette made with fried rice and thin, fried scrambled eggs, topped with ketchup) is well-known among Tokyoites. Even Denny’s, the icon of American diner fare, serves up a large selection of yoshuku staples throughout Japan.

Japan’s now famous sushi trains add fun to eating by combining the novelty of a revolving sushi conveyor and small colourful plates of food. Hamazushi has quickly risen to popularity, boasting over 400 locations across Japan and some of the most reasonable sushi prices. 

Kid eating FINAL

While getting around is easy and reliable, transport options are exciting for children

One of the surprise highlights for so many travellers to Japan is how efficiently things tend to work. It’s easy to get around, even if you don’t speak Japanese. Your children (and you) will love riding the shinkansen (bullet train) and watching the countryside rush past, and if you’re looking to get off-the-beaten-path, driving in Japan is very straightforward compared to many destinations. Most road signs are in Japanese and English and driving is even on the left-hand side. 

Why not try: A special line-up of sightseeing trains make the journey part of the adventure. Decked out from top to bottom with Pikachu cuteness, the POKÉMON with YOU Train is a must for Pokémon lovers of all ages. Travelling from Ichinoseki in Iwate Prefecture and Kesennuma in Miyagi Prefecture, station stops along the way also feature Pokémon decorations and there is even a playroom car with Pokémon toys. 

Hello Kitty obsessives are also well-served. Adorned with the cartoon icon inside and out, the Hello Kitty Shinkansen is a dream ride for fans of the internationally popular character. Sporting a design inspired by Hello Kitty’s trademark ribbon, the pink and white train runs between Shin-Osaka and Hakata stations.

 Hello Kitty Shinkansen. Photo credit JR West

Forget what you’ve been told about the cost 

Many family travellers are shocked to discover that Japan isn’t the prohibitively expensive country many people think it is. In fact, Japan can be very affordable and on par with (and sometimes cheaper than) countries in Western Europe.

Keep an eye out for 100-yen shops (the Japanese equivalent to dollar stores) where set meals, groceries, water, toiletries, household items, and more, are just 100 JPY + tax (about NZ$1.15). One of the biggest myths is the cost of food but there’s an array of cheap food options, so you don’t really need to spend much money (unless you want to splash out). 7 Eleven, Family Mart, and other convenience stores have pre-set meals for under 500 JPY (around $NZ5.75) that make for cheap, on-the-go lunches for the whole family.

The Hakone Freepass by Odakyu Railways is a discount pass for exploring Hakone. Simple, stress-free, and excellent value, the Freepass offers a round-trip ticket to and from Tokyo, plus unlimited travel for two or three days across the following eight major transportation systems that cover the Hakone and Odawara areas in the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park. There are also plenty of chances to use the Freepass in the various affiliated attractions, stores, and restaurants.

Ashigarashimo District Kanagawa Japan FINAL

Skiing, onsen, deer-filled forests, and plenty of outdoor adventure

80% of Japan is mountainous and most of it is covered with forest, so it goes without saying that there are a lot of outdoor activities for children in Japan.

Whether it’s jumping into pristine ocean waters or venturing deep into dense forests, your children will love the sense of adventure and sometimes mystery around what they’re about to experience. And don’t be put off visiting an onsen if you are in Japan with your family – experiencing onsen together as a family is common and considered a healthy bonding activity. 

Even big cities have a range of outdoor adventures waiting to be discovered from family-friendly theme parks to adventure playgrounds and even urban farms. Nara Park, perched at the foot of Mount Wakakusa in the city of Nara, has 1,500 wild sika deer roaming free amidst native sakura trees. 

Why not try: Not all outdoor activities in Japan are for wintertime. Hakuba, a well-known ski resort in Nagano, is popular with outdoor sports enthusiasts in the warmer seasons. Imagine trekking through the surrounding mountains, canyoning, kayaking, mountain biking, and more. 

Sports-loving children are well catered for

Japan offers plenty of options for children who are fanatical about sports - from baseball, Japan's most popular sport, to traditional sports they won’t find as easily at home such as sumo wrestling and karate. With the buzz of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics still fresh, families can catch plenty of events and cheer for (a newly embraced!) athlete or team.

Why not try: Few activities are more quintessentially Japanese than going to watch sumo in Tokyo. The city’s Ryogoku Kokugikan in Tokyo is one of the most thrilling venues. Matches happen in quick succession, which helps keep children’ attention. If they need a break from the action, wander over to the display cases, where beautiful and bizarre trophies bestowed on the wrestlers reside. For those who miss out on the Tokyo grand tournaments, there are also tournaments held in Osaka, Nagoya and Fukuoka through the year. 

Ryan Miglinczy Unsplash Final

Ryan Miglinczy/Unsplash

Explore history, technology, and science at museums

Touring museums with children in tow can sometimes be a stressful part of a family holiday. But not in Japan. A huge variety of family-friendly museums, where the little ones will have as much fun as their parents, are spread all over Japan. Whether your brood are into food, sport, culture, history, or science there is a museum for everything in Japan.

Why not try: Technology centres such as the Miraikan in Tokyo have interactive exhibits for children to get some hands-on learning. For fun for the whole family, explore Japan’s amazing museums dedicated to food, such as the Sushi Museum in Shizuoka Prefecture or the Cup Noodles Museum in Yokohama and Osaka.  For another ‘only in Japan’ museum, check out the Studio Ghibli Museum in Mitaka, Tokyo, which celebrates the incredible work of the animators behind Studio Ghibli movies such as Spirited Away.

 Cup Noodles Museum, Yokohama, Japan. Photo by Matt & Chris Pua on Unsplash

Mobile Wi-Fi, Google Translate, and packing light - a quick guide to family travel essentials

Pocket Wi-Fi is a must: free Wi-Fi spots in Japan are hard to come by. Rent a pocket Wi-Fi to search online maps, book a restaurant, keep children entertained with their favourite apps, and use Google Translate to get you out of sticky ‘lost in translation’ moments. Pocket Wi-Fi devices can be found for rent at major airports, electronic stores and some train stations.

Keep an eye out for children’s discounts (and freebies): for children less than 12 years old, it usually only costs half of an adult ticket (perhaps even free) to get on trains and into the many tourist sites and facilities.

Public toilets aren’t widespread, but convenience stores fill the gap: there are countless convenience stores all around the city such as 7 Eleven, Lawson and Family Mart. Many (if not all) convenience stores have a restroom. What’s more, if children feel hungry or thirsty, you can get delicious snacks and drinks on the go.

Plan your itinerary: whilst travelling with a touch of spontaneity is easy to do in Japan, there is a lot to see, so planning your itinerary beforehand will ensure you and the family make the most of your time. 

Safety and sanitation first – a must in a post-COVID family holiday

Japan has always had a high standard of hygiene and cleanliness which is deeply instilled in its culture. Even before the pandemic, Japan was one of the safest, most child and family-friendly countries in the world. When it comes to choosing where your family will go on their next adventure as the world reopens, Japan is a perfect choice.