By Audley Japan specialist Jake
A safe, clean and exciting country, Japan has all the credentials for a great family vacation. There’s plenty to keep children of all ages entertained from futuristic museums, hypnotic game centres and walking robots, to ninja restaurants, snow monkeys and calligraphy courses.
The fast and efficient bullet train is an attraction in itself, but it also provides an easy way to travel around the country with your family, while there’s a wealth of restaurants and accommodation that cater for all tastes.
Explore futuristic Tokyo
Tokyo at night
For all its neon and skyscrapers, Tokyo effortlessly combines modern and innovative attractions with age-old traditions and cultural experiences. You could spend the morning in a tranquil temple, and in the afternoon visit the most advanced humanoid robot in the world, ASIMO, in the Honda Welcome Plaza.
The city is also home to Studio Ghibli, an animation film studio responsible for the likes of the anime film Spirited Away, and Tokyo Disneyland. Visit the museum to find out where the films were originally created and even watch a short animated feature, before venturing up to the rooftop garden, where a five metre (16 foot) high robot stands guard.
See the snow monkeys in Yudanaka
Snow monkeys relax in the hot springs of Yudanaka
These sociable creatures spend most of their time in and around their own hot spring, where you can watch them in their hundreds popping in and out of the water and quarrelling over stones. Though they remain in the region throughout the summer, the monkeys are particularly amusing to observe in winter, when the snow piles up on their heads as they keep warm in their thermal bath.
I’d recommend spending one night in Yudanaka to give you and your family time to relax in the healing waters after visiting the snow monkeys.
Travel on the bullet train
The Shinkansen, nicknamed the bullet train, passing Mount Fuji
This magnificent feat of engineering reaches speeds that are unheard of anywhere else in the world. The bullet train, or the Shinkansen to the Japanese, is a thrilling and futuristic way to travel around Japan.
More than 99 percent of bullet trains run within one minute of expected arrival time. Few other places in the world would consider a 30 minute delay on the trains a TV news-worthy event. The Shinkansen comprise only a small fraction of the total Japan Rail network.
Private cars and drivers can be prohibitively expensive in Japan, and the coverage and reliability of the network allows you to criss-cross the country in comfort and at the minimum of expense.
I’d recommend copying the Japanese and picking up a bento box at the train station to eat on board. These meal boxes consist of four or five compartments which include rice, a side salad and grilled or breaded meat. Children’s varieties also include a picture of Hello Kitty or equivalent.
Take a cycle tour around Kyoto
Kyoto at dusk
Kyoto contains the nation’s greatest cultural treasures and a glorious concentration of historic buildings. One of the best ways to explore is on a bicycle as a number of temple complexes are found on the outskirts of the city.
My favorite, the Golden Pavilion, is set in a landscaped stroll garden, which places high importance on a path, usually around a pond, that allows you to saunter around. The gold leaf that adorns the building is what gives the temple its name.
Elsewhere, Ryoanji (the Temple of the Dragon at Peace) is recognised for its gravel zen gardens, which are raked into various patterns. Kiyomizu Dera in the south sits in an elevated position and provides fantastic views over the city.
As part of your visit to the temples, it’s fun to take part in traditional formalities such burning incense and giving a donation before bowing and clapping twice.
Try a traditional pastime
Geisha women crossing a bridge in Arashiyama
Japan’s long-held leisure pursuits offer an intriguing insight into local culture, and there are a number of family-friendly activities you can include in your Japan vacation. Geisha culture – the art of entertaining with conversation, dance, music and drink pouring - is still prevalent in Kyoto and you can spend some time in the Gion district of the city, even trying on the traditional kimono similar to those worn by these elusive Geisha ladies.
Other activities include kembu sword classes, where you’ll learn how to use a samurai sword. Children in Japan start training from the age of six and, as such, this is an activity that appeals to young and old alike. Alternatively, if you’d like to try something a little more sedate with your family, you can try Japanese calligraphy or origami with the WAK (Women’s Association of Kyoto) in a traditional family home.
Where to stay with your family in Japan
Hot spring bath (onsen) in a ryokan
A stay in traditional ryokan accommodation (Japanese inn) is a much bigger experience than somewhere to rest for the night. The customs and etiquette that come with staying in a ryokan are unlike anything you’ll experience in Western culture.
You’ll find yourself sleeping on a large, comfy futon on tatami (rice straw and soft rush) or bamboo matting, being served your evening meal in your room or a dining room by a kimono-clad maid, and eating around a short table as you sit cross-legged on the floor.
Some ryokans also have private hot spring baths, known as onsens. The popular Japanese pastime of bathing in thermal waters would normally take place in a communal spa, with men and women bathing separately.
The Hakone Ginyu in Hakone National Park is one such ryokan. The area is known for its healing waters and is also the home of Mount Fuji, glimpses of which you may be lucky enough to catch from the comfort of the private onsen in your room.
There are plenty of ways to explore the park that will appeal to family members of all ages. Take a train to the top of Mount Kami, or cross Lake Ashi, a crater lake affording views of Mount Fiji, aboard a fully decorated pirate ship.
For something even more unusual, spend a few nights in temple lodgings at Mount Koya, where you’ll be given the opportunity to take part in sunrise chanting with the monks. The town itself is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and in the evening you can stroll along the winding, lantern-lit paths of Okuno-in Cemetery, which locals believe is haunted.
Try a range of Japanese dishes
An okonomiyaki pancake
Contrary to popular belief, Japanese cuisine is more than just raw fish. Meat dishes are popular and are some of the best I’ve tried anywhere, a particular favorite being wagyu beef.
There’s also tempura (vegetables or fish cooked in a light batter), okonomiyaki, a pancake dish that’s often cooked in front of you and can include cabbage, pork, egg and sometimes noodles, topped with sweet okonomiyaki sauce and aonori (seaweed flakes), and various rice or noodle dishes to name but a few.
Dining options are varied and include typically Japanese dishes as well as international alternatives. In Kyoto and Tokyo there are restaurants where you can fish for your own meal, ‘all you can eat’ restaurants which provide a cost-effective choice.
Get off the beaten track in Japan with your family
A deserted beach on Okinawa
If this isn’t your first trip to Japan, or you’re keen to explore a less visited area, you could include the blinding white sands and turquoise seas of Okinawa. A collection of over 160 islands, this archipelago is temperate year-round, but is best visited between May and September.
Things to do include snorkeling with manatees and visiting Star Sand Beach, which is so called because of the star shape of the grains of sand.
Okinawa is a relaxing place to spend three or four nights at the end of your trip, but can prove quite expensive. If you’re working to a specific budget, I’d recommend Hakone National Park as a more cost-effective option.
Alternatively, my favorite island in Japan is Kyushu. The southernmost of Japan’s four main islands, the dramatic scenery here lends itself to outdoor activities.
During my time on Kyushu I took part in sand bathing, where you’re buried up to your neck in volcanic sand, then covered with a parasol to protect you from the sun. Once you emerge from the sand, which is supposed to have healing properties, your skin will feel very soft, as if you’ve had a scrub.
The island is also home to clay hot springs, many waterfalls and Kirishima National Park, where you’ll find flying foxes.
The best time to visit Japan with your family
A pagoda overlooks a distant view of Mount Fuji
The peak times to visit Japan are during cherry blossom season between late March and mid April, and red leaf season between late October and November. I would recommend avoiding a trip to Japan with your family at these times of the year, instead visit in May or at Christmas. To watch the snow monkeys as snowflakes settle on their heads is a real delight in winter between December and January and you can also ski in Japan at this time.