I have received numerous requests to share a list of places to visit with kids in Japan. And since the list is too large to share on Instagram, I thought of writing my first blog post ever. My son and I have been to Japan twice so far. If it were up to me, I'd live there! The places and activities listed are things approved by my 6 year old. Please do further research on places that may suit you and your family. We did not do everything we wanted to, but we did get a good chunk of it crossed off the list. Before I get on with that, there a few things worth knowing before your trip to Japan.
- Safety first! Make sure you have health and travel insurance for you and every person tagging along. Bring all necessary medication along with a pain reliever. If your kids are old enough, consider giving them a kids mobile phone with GPS (remember to purchase a SIM card for it). If your kids are still young for that, invest in a GPS watch. There are many in the market now, which can make choosing one a headache, but do your research months before you travel. Otherwise, get a toddler leash if your kid is in that toddling phase. Japan is relatively safe, but it is densely populated! I know as parents you have nightmares about this, so I will not indulge you with mine.
- JR PASS. If you are traveling between cities, it's well worth investing in a JR pass before you travel to Japan. Check the website for details and prices. You can also purchase SIM cards which can be delivered to your hotel upon your arrival.
- Yamato Transport. If you will be traveling from city to city within Japan, you do not want to be haul around your luggage, especially if you've got kids. Well, here's the good news. Amongst the myriad of wonderful and convenient things in Japan, this is probably going to be your favourite. A day before you check out of your hotel, ask the reception to send off your luggage to the hotel you're heading to next (for a small fee). If your hotel doesn't offer that service, simply search for a Yamato Transport office near you (their logo is a cute black cat carrying her kitten). Make sure you pack a light overnight bag and enjoy a hassle-free train ride to your next destination! you're welcome ;)
- Politeness goes a long way no matter which country you are visiting. If you have to learn two Japanese words, learn how to say thank you: AH-RI-GAH-TOH (or OKINI in Osaka), and excuse me: SU-ME-MAH-SEN.
- Now that you are well versed in Japanese, do not be afraid to ask for help! Start with "Sumimasen" and ask in English. Most people will understand you, and if they do not, they will refer you to someone who may.
- Google maps is your best friend and your savior. Although it may be fun and adventurous to get lost, that may not be the case when you're with hungry, tired kids or toddlers (or me).
- Having said that, you will most likely get lost in Tokyo at least once. Accept that. But keep in mind that it's better to miss your train than to get on the wrong one!
- Do not eat and walk. That is a big no no in Japan, which is why you won't find many garbage bins. Therefore, keep a plastic bag with you to throw away your trash! Or simply eat your food on the spot and give the trash back to the vendor to throw away.
- Take some napkins or hankies with you to dry your hands after using the public washrooms. Most of them do not have paper towels. Also, a note for Muslims, bring an empty water bottle with you to the bathroom because not all of them are equipped with the toilet washlets or bidets!
- Prepare to queue everywhere! for bathrooms, for restaurants, for attractions. So make sure you have snacks and some entertainment for kids while you wait in line.
- Keep cash with you at all times! As advanced as Japan is, it still is very much a cash-only nation.
- Get Stamp happy! Carry a blank notebook with you for each child (or yourself) and look for the stamping stations dotted around the cities. You will mostly find them in train stations, and each one is different. See who collects the most number of stamps during your travels!
- Even though there are more and more halal restaurants opening up in Japan, finding food that does not contain any alcohol or pork is quite difficult (even in supermarkets). So feel free to download the picture at the end of this post, print it out and show it to every food vendor during your trip. Most of them are very happy to help and assist you in getting the food you are looking for.
We started our trip in Osaka. Osaka has a lighter feel compared to Tokyo. People are more relaxed and easy going here, which makes it a great destination for families.
- Universal Studios. You can easily spend the whole day here, but we didn't. We just wanted to visit The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, because we have been here on our previous trip to Japan. You may need to grab a timed entry ticket to Harry Potter if the park is crowded, which we did on our first trip to USJP which was in New year's, but that wasn't necessary the second time round. Also, check your child's height to insure you can all go on the rides together. If your child is too small, you can take turns between going on the rides and staying with your child. Some of the popular rides have 'single entry' which means less waiting time! Luckily, this time my kid was allowed on all the rides in the Wizarding World!
"When they say every flavour, they mean every flavour!"
Get a treat or two from Honeydukes!
Not the Knight bus or Hogwarts Express, but I'm not complaining!
- Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan. We thoroughly enjoyed this aquarium. Grab a kids aquarium passport and let your child (or you) use the stamps around the aquarium. The aquarium is built around one big tank which you circle from the top all the way down, while passing other enclosures and sea creatures as well. The whale shark was definitely our favourite.
- Tempozan Marketplace. Situated right next to Osaka Aquarium, this small shopping center is filled with restaurants and small shops. We had lunch in the "old alley" food court, which did not disappoint! Also, there's a place at the back of this alley that sells the best ice-cream you'll ever have, called Cremia ice-cream. Tempozan also has a Muslim prayer room on the third floor. But you'll need to go to the information center to grab a passcode to enter the prayer room. What's more is that there is a Pet Garden on the same floor. A mini petting zoo with rabbits, cats, dogs, a llama, capybaras, kangaroos, and other smaller mammals. It's a great way for kids to interact with animals and feed them too! Also, there is a wide selection of Gachapon machines on the lower ground, so go crazy! Bonus: There's a Legoland here as well, which we didn't go to, but may be worth checking out.
- Dotonbori. The famous street, lined with excellent restaurants and is not surprisingly PACKED. Hold on tight to your child, or invest in a child leash (funny, but well worth it if your child tends to run off). Try the famous crab from the crab restaurants lined along the street, take a stroll along the river, do some souvenir shopping, try the fantastic cheese tarts from Pablo's, and the famous cheesecake from Rikuro's (current location in Nanba station). Even if crowds aren't your thing, I highly recommend you go to Dotonbori at least once. Also walk through Shinsaibashisuji Shopping Street and head to Pique Cafe for the best crepes!
Kyoto is my absolute favourite city. Possibly in the entire world! It brims with culture, nature and good food. The best thing to do here is to just go for walks.
- Arashiyama Bamboo Forest. Try to go very early in the morning to avoid the crowds. Walk all the way to the end, take a right turn, and you'll come across a little playground where your kids can run free for a while. Walk back through the local neighborhoods and enjoy the serenity of this magical city. Some questions to learn the answers to with your family; Are bamboos native to Japan only? How long do they grow? What do bamboo trees need? What do we use bamboo for?
- Arashiyama Monkey Park. It's a long way to the top, so be mentally ready for the climb. Once there, you'll find a small playground with some swings, a slide and monkeys roaming around. Further up, you'll be greeted with a fantastic view of Kyoto, where you can also feed the monkeys from an indoor closure. Bonus, get your notebook or ticket stamped inside!
How about reading about the Japanese Macaques before you see any? Teach your child a thing or two about them, which will make the experience extra special and rewarding.
- Katsura River. Rent a family bike or walk along the river for a breathtaking view. Enjoy skimming pebbles along the river bed, and in take the fresh air. This place is like a gigantic wild playground for kids (and adults). Walk all the way to the end and head up to Daihikaku Senkoji Temple for another exquisite view and a chance to ring a huge bell! (kids always enjoy that, and I know you do too!).
- Soak your feet in a hot spring bath in Arashiyama Station. This is especially perfect during the colder seasons. The kid loved it so much, he wanted to do it the next day, but alas, we had no time.
- Ichizawa Shinzaburo Hanpu. A lovely two storey shop/factory that hand makes bags of all shapes and sizes. Get your kids their perfect backpack, and treat yourself to one too! The shop is about 35mins from Arashiyama Station. After your shopping trip, walk along Gion where you may be lucky enough to spot a real-life Geisha!
Kyoto has many temples worth visiting, which we sadly did not have the chance to go to. One of the famous temples is Kinkaku-ji.
Nara is well known for its wild deers roaming around. This charming city is about 35mins from Kyoto station, which makes it a perfect place for a day trip. Walk around for some food and coffee (I recommend Rococo Coffee), then make your way to Nara Deer Park. Feed the deer if you like, snap some shots, and explore what the city has to offer on foot.
Getting to Fuji from Kyoto was long and exhausting (I think it was a 3 hour commute in total). But boy was it worth the trip! We treated ourselves and stayed in Hoshinoya, which is a cabin in the woods, making it the perfect "glamping" experience. Hoshinoya offers lots of fun activities organized for good and for rainy weather. You are greeted at the reception at the bottom of the hill where you get to choose a backpack filled with some camping equipment you may need during your stay (you will have to return those upon checkout, but you can visit the hotel's shop if you want to purchase their handy backpacks).
We went canoeing early in the morning, and it was my son's first ever canoeing experience, which he enjoyed immensely. The view was beautiful, to say the least.
You can also go horseback riding, wood chopping, hiking, attend campfire music sessions, make smores, or just relax on a hammock in the wood with a coffee or a hotchocolate.
I could go on and on about how wonderful our stay in Hoshinoya was, but you'll just have to experience it for yourself. I assure you, it will be one of your most unforgettable experiences during your trip to Japan.
Tokyo is big, fun, bustling and also surprisingly quiet, depending on which neighbourhood you visit. Whether you stay in Tokyo for 5 days or 5 weeks, you will not get bored. There's so much to see and do, and a lot of events and activities are seasonal, so be sure to check an online Japan Guide for what's happening. However, I will just list the things we did and enjoyed during our stay in Tokyo.
- National Museum of Nature and History. The museum itself is okay. But we came here specifically for Compass, the indoors play area. Before you come, grab some breakfast from a lovely bakery/foodcourt in front of Ueno Station called L'Ueno, and head straight to the museum. Be sure to get there early to get a timed ticked into the play area. We got there at 9am, booked our tickets (no extra fee, but you do need to purchase a museum entry ticket), then waited for our timed entry at 10am. We sat in the outdoors foyer and had our breakfast of baked goods and cold milk. Do not miss your time otherwise you'll have to book for another entry ticket which could be very late in the afternoon or you might have to come back another day because they do get booked up pretty fast. Once inside, you are allowed 45mins only. The play area consists of a library, an art and crafts corner, slides and maze, a discovery table with magnifying glasses, and lots of "taxidermied" animals to play around and look at closely.
- Asobono. Depending on the season and the time, you may need a timed entry to this huge play area as well. But it is worth the wait. It consists of a big ball pit and a "physical" play area, as well as other sections such as a toy market, Sylvanian Family room, log cabin room, ball maze room, doll room, lego room and a toddler area, to name a few. This place is perfect for a rainy day. Head to the food court next door for a wide array of delicious foods.
- Disney Sea. There are two Disneys in Tokyo, Disney Sea and Disneyland. Disney Sea is the only one in the world, which is well worth visiting. It's aimed for older kids, but is still a lot of fun for younger ones. We absolutely love the character Gelatoni, and headed there specifically to get Gelatoni merchandise, which can't be found in any of the Disney Stores or Disney theme parks in Japan. We visited both parks in one day. We didn't do much in Disneyland, but we did enjoy the electric parade.
- Ghibli Museum. Book your tickets in advance! You can not purchase tickets there. We bought our very over-priced tickets at a website called Voyagin a month before we travelled. Was it worth it? Most definitely. Even if you or your kids are not familiar with Studio Ghibli films (what are you waiting for?) you will enjoy this museum. You can have a meal at the Straw Hat cafe, but do that when you first get there because the queue can be very long (we were asked to wait an hour and a half, which we didn't). There's another cafe outside where you can order food for take away, but Muslims be warned, everything on the menu contains pork, except for the ice-cream!
- Asakusa. Go souvenir shopping, visit Senso-ji temple and enjoy historical Tokyo. You can find lots of great street food and traditional sweets. I love this neighborhood. Walk along and get lost along the backstreets. We found a playground there where we relaxed while the kid played.
- Tokyo Skytree. Shopping center. Pokemon Center. Food court AND Moomin Cafe. Oh, and a big Studio Ghibli Shop outside for those who could not go to the Ghibli Museum or for those who are hardcore Totoro fans like me.
- Mori Art Museum. I know what you're thinking; "Take my kid to a museum?! no way!" But hear me out! It is absolutely possible to actually enjoy your time in a museum with your kids. A lot museums have children's programs nowadays, but if you're not up for that, here's what you can do. 1) Research! Look for museums or art galleries you and the children will enjoy. 2) Go there during the week and get there early before the crowds start coming in. You know, in case your child throws a tantrum for no apparent reason (is there ever a reason?). 3) Bring a small sketchbook and pencil. Trust me on this one! My kid is not big on museums, but giving him something to do really helped pipe down the whining. They'll start to sketch things you yourself may not have noticed. Encourage them. Ask them to draw something which you then have to find in the room. Be creative! This way your child will experience museums and galleries in a very fun and exciting way. We were lucky to go to Leandro Erlich's exhibition, in Mori Art Museum, which was such a fun, interactive experience for kids and adults alike. It was not your conventional museum or art gallery. Sadly, the exhibition ended on 1st of April 2018. Also, head on up to the observatory deck and take in the view. It's one thing to know that Tokyo is huge, but another thing to witness it!
- Daikanyama T-Site bookshop. You can spend a whole day in this neighborhood. Visit the bookshop for a wonderful selection of children's books (mostly in Japanese but they also have English books). There's a lovely toyshop outside as well called Bornelund. Walk down to Nakameguro river after your visit and if you're a stationery fan, you must visit the Traveler's Factory (closed on Tuesdays). Your kids can go stamp happy while you shop! Of course, if you don't get to this stationer's haven, you can always buy some of the Traveler's Company products and Notebooks from my shop ;)
- Parks! Any park! visit them and let your kids run wild. Despite the list I have compiled for you, no play area beats a wide open space with sky high trees. We loved Yoyogi Park, and took our time getting to Meiji-Jingu Shrine.
Meiji-jinu Shrine. The walk to Meiji-Jingu shrine is quite lovely itself. But do go to the temple to soak some culture and tradition. It makes for a great learning opportunity and is a fun way to understand the Japanese culture more. We were lucky to witness several traditional Japanese weddings in one day!
- Isamiya for children's clothing and kimonos.
- Kiddyland multi-level toy store.
- Hakuhinkan Toy Park. I liked this place better than Kiddyland. It's more spacious and there's a wider variety of toys.
- Tokyu Hands. Stationery, travel, home accessories. Almost everything you could possibly need! There are several branches around Japan.
- Daiso. Cheap toys and stationery! Grab some of their sticker books for long train rides.
- Gacha anywhere and everywhere! If your child is old enough, he/she can save up several 100 Yens and can choose which Gacha to play according to their savings!
You may have realised that I did not mention Ueno Zoo nor any Owl/cat cafes. We have visited all three during our first trip to Japan, and I personally found it quite sad. The state are the animals are in is questionable, which is why I do not support it. But if it's something you still want to experience, then by all means do so.
I hope this blogpost gave you some ideas and new activities to do with your kids during your travels in Japan. But the best thing you can do is to just walk, explore, eat as much as you can, and stay safe and just take it easy!
Feel free to share your experiences in the comments below or on my instagram page. Safe travels!