With so many things to see and do, vast metropolises to negotiate and some complex cultural customs to get to grips with, Japan is often viewed as a difficult destination for families. But it shouldn’t be. Here, we address the main questions parents have when planning a trip to this captivating country. Read on. And then go!
How long should we spend in Tokyo and Kyoto?
Japan’s Big Two will take up a good chunk of your itinerary. With so much on offer in both cities, you should try to spend at least three nights in each (four is better). In Tokyo, you’ll need to allow enough time to enjoy the kawaii culture of Harajuku and the old-town atmosphere of Asakusa, to visit the Miraikan museum and to take in a cat café or the robot restaurant.
In Kyoto, don’t miss the Kiyomizu-dera temple and the Fushimi Inari shrine, but make sure you mix things up by also shopping at Nishiki Market and taking the train out to Arashiyama, home to an impressive bamboo grove and a monkey park. Basing yourself somewhere central will maximise the amount you can see whilst minimising travelling times. The terrific Prince Park Tower Tokyo has stylish and spacious rooms, several excellent restaurants and – a big plus point for kids – a ten-pin bowling alley. Iori Machiya Stay can provide you with your very own townhouse, complete with traditional rooms and a Japanese garden, so you can live like feudal lords while exploring Kyoto.
What about day trips?
Hakone, half an hour or so from Tokyo, is a day trip of enormous variety, where your children can go from riding a gondola over volcanic craters to sailing across a lake in a pirate galleon – all under the shadow of Mount Fuji. Nara, around three quarters of an hour south of Kyoto, is home to the humongous Todai-ji Temple and a park full of deer that bow when you feed them biscuits. But you should try to venture further afield than that.
Visiting somewhere like the remote Iya Valley, on the island of Shikoku, will show you a very different side of Japan. You can spend your days here hiking around mountain villages or rafting the Oboke River and your nights in a traditional thatched house or at a home stay where you’ll sit down for a family dinner with the owners.
For children old enough to comprehend what happened in Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, visiting the city will be a powerful part of your trip. The Peace Memorial Museum is a harrowing but important experience (it’s wise to vet each exhibition ahead of your kids seeing it), but Hiroshima itself is uplifting in the way that the city has recovered and since dedicated itself to promoting world peace. Staying outside of the centre will give you a break from all the memorials. The Grand Prince Hotel Hiroshima enjoys a lovely setting on the Seto Inland Sea, and you can catch a direct ferry from here to Miyajima, whose famous “floating” red torii gate is one of the most iconic images of Japan.
Is it OK to stay in a ryokan with kids?
The thought of spending the night at an inn where the walls are made of paper and the guests need to follow a strict set of rules will probably strike fear into the hearts of most parents. But in reality, staying at a ryokan will be one of the highlights of your trip. The whole family piles together on futons laid out on the floor each night, dinners consist of elaborate multi-course meals, and the kids will love the novelty of padding around their tatami-mat rooms in a yukata (a kind of comfortable kimono) and slippers.
Kyoto is the traditional home of ryokans, with pockets clustered around central Nishiki Market and in the geisha district of Gion, though first-time families will appreciate the relaxed atmosphere and understanding staff at Tokyo’s Takanawa Hanakohro; this ryokan-within-a-hotel is surrounded by beautiful gardens and provides a variety of additional experiences for kids, including a Japanese tea ceremony and origami lessons.
And what about the onsen?
Onsen – communal baths – pose a similar hurdle to ryokans, but you shouldn’t let the fear of a social faux pas put you off. Embrace the etiquette and dive right in. Well, don’t dive (or swim, or get in before showering first), but do gently slip into the steaming baths and you’ll quickly discover why taking an onsen has become an end-of-day ritual throughout Japan. There are onsen resorts dotted around the country, but a great place to test the waters is at the hot-spring towns in Hakone. The fantastic open-air onsen at Prince Hakone Lake Ashinoko is set on the lakeshore and features several different baths – and the hotel provides a reassuring “How To” guide in your room.