Travelling to Japan with the kids in tow? Amy Henderson rounds up what you need to know before you go.
From its irresistible cuisine to brilliant costumes and ancient architecture, Japan has captivated visitors for centuries. The Land of the Rising Sun has more jaw-dropping, memory card-filling, natural beauty than your itinerary could ever hold; ancient temples for children to explore, burn up a little energy and learn at the same time; and, of course, a surplus of crazy kawaii (cute) characters, robots, ninjas and samurais that are sure to kick the kids' imaginations into overdrive. Add a mesmerising culture full of festivals and traditions, a wide-ranging climate, safe streets, mouth-watering cuisine, and more activities than you can karaoke about, and it’s no wonder Japan is one of the world’s most sought-after destinations for families.
But what do you need to know before you go?
When to travel
Depending on what you want to see and where you want to see it, it’s a good idea to plan according to the seasons. If you’ve got a hankering to see the magical cherry blossoms in full bloom – and enjoy a hanami flowerwatching party under the falling petals – you’ve got a short window, as the blossoms generally only last around two weeks. It’s important to book inside the time range for the region you’re visiting. The trees in Tokyo and Kyoto usually start to bloom in the last week of March and peak a week after. But as Japan has such a varied climate from north to south, you can catch the season a little earlier and later at different points in the country.
Autumn is incredibly beautiful, too, when the trees transform with blazing hues. From mid-September to the beginning of November, the temples of Kyoto and Nikko (to name just two) are surrounded by hectares of yellow, orange and red tones. The area of Fuji’s five lakes and Kanazawa are also particularly breathtaking.
A sight the kids are sure to love is the snow monkeys bathing in hot springs. To do this, head over in the snowy months from December to March. A plus for travelling in the winter is that prices are usually lower and the crowds are fewer, so getting around is easier. And, of course, it’s ski season and Japan offers some of the best ski resorts and powder snow in the world.
Another thing to take into consideration are national holidays. During Golden Week (29 April to around 3-6 May) the whole country goes on holidays, so travelling at this time can affect your plans. And while visiting over the New Year holiday can be a lot of fun, many attractions, restaurants and shops are closed, and getting around can be a tad difficult.
Japan is a cash-based society and it is a good idea to have cash on hand wherever you go, especially outside of the major cities, as the likelihood of credit cards being accepted decreases in smaller towns where it can also be difficult to find ATMs. Cash is also usually the only way to pay for entrance fees at tourist sights and small shops, plus the many vending machines that Japan is famous for.
Japan has an impeccable network of buses, subways and trains. Major cities like Kyoto, Osaka and Tokyo have fast and punctual-tothe- second subway systems with stops announced in English as well as in Japanese. If you are travelling between cities, a Japan Rail Pass, which is available only to foreign tourists, is the most cost-effective way of traversing the country, offering unlimited use of Japan Rail trains – including the awesome Shinkansen bullet trains – for one, two or three weeks, at a cost that local residents can only dream of. If you’re planning to flit aroundthe city, an unlimited travel day ticket (called Ichinichi Jōsha-ken) is good value for money. If you’re spending more time in one place, a prepaid IC card is recommended. Both these can be purchased at station windows. We advise you write your destinations in both English and Japanese script before you travel as this vastly helps when asking for directions and clarification.
Japanese food is universally enjoyed by children, with plump gyoza dumplings, delicate sashimi, crispy ka’arage chicken, golden tempura and nori-wrapped sushi sure to be a hit with the kids. A steaming bowl of ramen or udon noodles is another must, with the size of the line outside an establishment the best sign of local approval. A popular street-style food is yakitori, which translates to burnt chicken, which is grilled on thin bamboo skewers, though you’ll also find various incarnations using other meats, tofu and vegetables. These are usually pretty popular with kids, though it is important to remember to eat them sitting down as it is considered impolite in Japan to eat while you are walking. Japanese culture is also famous for its social and dynamic approach to dining. Yakiniku is a great example of this, with diners sitting around a coal grill built into the table. You are able to select a variety of bite-sized ingredients to cook with your party. Between the camaraderie and smoke, yakiniku dining experiences are not easily forgotten. If the kids have been crying for something fun to do, go get some dango. These are a Japanese dumplings, usually served on a stick; they’re mighty chewy and served with a sweet anko or kinako topping.
Japan experiences hundreds of festivals each year, so it’s a good idea to do some research to see which ones most tickle your fancy.
Children's Day is a Japanese national holiday which takes place annually on 5 May, the fifth day of the fifth month, and is the final celebration of Golden Week. Families fly koinobori banners in the shape of a carp (a symbol of determination and prosperity) for each child in their house. There are many events held right across the country and kids indulge in kashiwa-mochi (sticky rice cakes wrapped in leaves) and other sweet treats.
More left-field is Awa Odori, a city-wide party thrown in Tokushima City. With colourful costumes, dances, games, gongs, taiko drums and flutes, it’s an experience like no other. Or if defying gravity is your thing, the Akita Kanto festival sees participants balance 12-metre lantern poles on their palms and foreheads.
While Christmas is not a holiday in Japan, celebrations still take place each Christmas Eve and the decorations are spectacular. In Tokyo, huge trees and amazing illuminations fill the streets. Shogatsu (New Year) is a national festival with festivities held at shrines and temples, with Tokyo's Meiji Shrine and Kyoto's Fushimi Inari-taisha attracting more than a million visitors over a few short days.
Some of the biggest celebrations happen in winter including the Sapporo Snow Festival, the biggest winter festival of them all. This seven-day celebration, held in February, sees epic snow sculptures and ice carvings line the streets of Sapporo. Children will love the festival’s awesome amusement zone with giant ice slides and snow tubing. The Otaru Snow Light Path Festival, a 10-day festival, about 30 minutes by train from Sapporo, coincides with the Sapporo Snow Festival, and the pretty city of Otaru is transformed into a magical world of glowing lanterns and snow sculpture that will enthral the kids.
This article appeared in volume 53 of Holidays with Kids magazine. To subscribe to the latest issue, click here.