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The best bits of Japan for kids

Aleney de Winter goes beyond the dazzling sights and sounds of Tokyo, and the perfect powdery slopes of its ski towns, to explore four of Japan’s holiday hotspots.

Safe, clean and more than a little quirky, Japan is a country where ancient shrines nestle humbly under the shadow of neon-lit skyscrapers, tranquil gardens share the same address as chaotic shopping strips, and steamy onsens (mineral baths) huddle amid some of the best powder snow in the world. Add samurais, ninjas and sumo wrestlers, a profusion of Hello Kitty and Pokémon, a network of speedy trains that will rocket you from one side of the country to the other in hours and some of the politest people on Earth, and you have a destination that leaves families breathless and begging for more.

Image credit © Aleney de Winter

Step back in time in Kyoto

Follow in the footsteps of samurai and geisha past along the old streets of Gion and through Kyoto’s thousands of Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. If the kids want to get face to face with 'real' samurai at Toei Movie Park, a working TV and movie set that doubles as a unique theme park, they'll find live ninja battles, swordfights and samurai skirmishes waiting around every corner. If your kids would rather do than see, they can even learn the art and etiquette of the Samurai with a kembu master at Samurai Kembu Theater. Of all the shrines, Fushimi Inari is the one not to be missed. Here you can keep the kids busy counting their way along the trail of 10,000 bright-orange tori gates or playing a game of spot the foxes – the symbol of Fushimi Inari. But Kyoto has more than temples and warriors to offer little travellers. You’ll find museums packed with antiquities dating back thousands of years, along with modern collections like those at the Kyoto International Manga Museum. No visit to would be complete without a stay in a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn that originated in the Edo period, where kids will love 'camping out' on the tatami-matted floors.

Image credit © Aleney de Winter

Osaka casts a spell

Osaka’s most iconic structure is a 16thcentury shogunate castle, but these days the riverside city is better known for its high-tech architecture, culinary culture, and wizards. Just minutes from Osaka by rail, the sprawling Universal Studios Japan offers visitors awesome shows, parades, cuddly characters and a huge choice of rides from kid-friendly carousels to thrill-rides and state-of-the-art simulators based on popular movies like 'Spider-Man', 'Jurassic Park', 'The Mummy' and 'Despicable Me'. But its biggest drawcard is The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, where you can stock up on wands at Ollivanders and make magic of your own, casting spells along its cobbled pathways. Or simply sip on a Butterbeer under the spires of Hogwarts before braving a ride on the kid-friendly Flight of the Hippogriff or the thrilling simulated ride, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. While it’s no Diagon Alley, there's wizardry of a different kind to be found in Dotonburi Street. The buzzing neon-lit downtown area is packed with an unbelievable number of restaurants, and along with magical food, you’ll find puppet shows, huge game arcades, storytellers' halls and more.

Image credit © Universal Studios Japan

Outdoor adventure in Central Honshu

Central Honshu, or the Chubu, comprises nine prefectures occupying the centre of the main island of Honshu, extending from the outskirts of Tokyo across the Kanto plain and the mountains of Chubu, to Kyoto. Yamanishi, just outside the capital, is one of the most popular prefectures for local families to explore. Famous for its hot springs, five lakes and the incredible view of nearby Mount Fuji, it's also home to Fuji-Q Highland, a theme park famous for its record-holding roller coasters. In the pretty hills to the north is Nikko, a town at the entrance to Nikko National Park that is home to Nikko Tosho-gu, Japan's most lavishly decorated shrine. The 3000-metre peaks of the Alps attract adventurous families all year round for hiking and skiing, soak in its hot springs and explore its alpine towns. Matsumoto, in Nagano prefecture, is a pretty mountain city with a fantastic 16th-century castle and streets of old merchant houses. The historical city of Kanazawa, in Ishikawa prefecture, is another popular tourist destination, renowned for its preserved Edo-era districts, art museums and the spectacular Kenroku-en garden.

Tropical treats in Okinawa

Comprising more than 160 islands, 49 of them inhabited, and stretching 1000 kilometres southwest from Kyushu to Taiwan, Okinawa is known for its subtropical climate, idyllic beaches, lush forests and rich culture. The snorkelling and diving is among the best in the world, with warm water, incredible visibility and a huge variety of marine life, ranging from hammerhead sharks to turtles and manta rays. Ishigaki Island in the Yaeyama Islands is an especially popular spot for snorkelling, diving and surfing. If you'd rather stay dry, head to Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium to see thousands of fish, including three whale sharks, behind a 22.5-metre-high glass wall. If it's culture you seek, Shuri Castle, one of nine UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Okinawa, is the only castle on the islands fully restored to its former glory. Murasaki Mura Historical Village, an Okinawan culture theme park, is the spot to get your 'Karate Kid' on, the martial art having originated in Okinawa. For a cultural twist, Okinawa City's Gate 2 Street, located alongside a US military base, is 'Little America', with a drive-through Starbucks and diners offering homemade apple pies. BEYOND

This article appeared in volume 53 of Holidays with Kids magazine. To subscribe to the latest issue, click here.

Image credit © Aleney de Winter

Information

Visit Japan Tourism here

Do

Visit Kyoto International Manga Museum here


Toei Kyoto Movie Village here


Samarai Kembu Theater here

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