Top 25 Things To Do in Japan With Kids
Ever thought of a family holiday in Japan? Yes, it’s a long haul. No, it’s not your normal beach holiday destination. And yes, it is full of intriguing possibilities. If you make the effort to explore and understand it, Japan can and will engage every age and interest. It’s a curious blend of ancient and modern, fast and slow, cute and concrete. And from palace to petrol station it’s a world where culture and computer collide; often to bewildering effect. We spent a month road tripping in Central Japan to bring you these top 25 tips for things to do in Japan with kids.
1 Meet a Robot
Robots aren’t hard to come by in Japan. If you are considering what to do in Japan with children of any age then droids should figure on your list. And in rather unusual ways. You can watch them making your coffee via video screens in service station vending machines or you can meet them in person at Tokyo’s National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation, otherwise known as Miraikan. When I say in person though I am using the term loosely. The creepy Telenoid is pretty much a torso. The disconcerting Otonaroid is more human-like and will chat with you, but you don’t want to have a staring competition with her. They are both available to interact with or cuddle at various points in the day, depending on your tolerance for weird. Sign up at the museum’s front desk, ideally earlier on in the day to ensure a slot. Or join the crowds and watch the Honda ASIMO mini astronaut come out for a stroll. One small step for man definitely is a giant leap for him as his legs are so stubby. But then, at least he has legs.
2 Meet a Dancing Robot
Mechanicals are the stars of Tokyo’s Robot Restaurant in the Shinjuku District. They are incredibly entertaining as they box, dance, twirl, spin and play out their luminous, light studded dramas on the small stage in front of you. They are also massive and numerous; part of the fun is counting how many the attraction manages to roll out in just over an hour. More like a cabaret show than food joint, this attraction has totally nailed bling. Even the warm up lounge is a jewelled paradise complete with winged band. What the restaurant hasn’t quite sorted is the food; don’t bother with the inadequate, expensive bento boxes. Just order a beer and some snacks from one of the wandering robo creatures during the breaks. You’ll need your hands free in any case to wave your complimentary day-glo wand. To get a taste of the show, check out this Robot Restaurant video.
3 Walk the line for love
If you are worried you might not meet ‘the one’, then try walking the line between two love stones at Kyomizu-Dera temple in Kyoto for reassurance, or confirmation of your lonely fate! (At least you can find out whether you will need to invest in some cats in later life?) The Jishu Shrine at this impressive UNESCO World Heritage site is dedicated to Okuninushi, God of love and good matches. It consists of a pair of love stones 20 feet apart, which you try to walk between with your eyes closed. Success implies that you will find true love. You can be assisted, but this means a go between will be needed and our boys were particularly keen not to let their sister intervene. It’s funny to watch the gaggles of kimono clad Japanese girls close their eyes, veer wildly off track and then squeal their horror at failing to meet up with the stone.
4 Tour a silver or gold standard Japanese garden
You HAVE to do a Japanese garden whilst in Japan. But which one? There are so many to choose from. We were tempted by Kanazawa’s famous Kenroku-en gardens but the hour was late and the attraction was closing. So in Kyoto we made for the Ginkakuji Silver Pavilion, a zen temple in Higashiyama. The temple is nice but it’s the surroundings that star; including a moss garden and the spectacular dry sand garden. This one will make you want to go home and turn your own garden into a giant sandpit. The garden is a circular route and walkable in an hour, (assuming crowds aren’t too large) and filled with interesting features.
5 Have a cuppa with kitty
A cat café sounds delightful but I can’t imagine it would be everyone’s cup of tea. We couldn’t even get a decent cup of tea as the café we chose (admittedly in the suburbs of nowhere) delivered all drinks cold in polystyrene cups with lids and straws in case the cats knocked them over. Who wants to drink tea with a straw unless you are hospitalized? Our 45 minute slot was late in the afternoon and the cats appeared a little grumpy and fed up of being petted. But the kids loved running around with them, tickling them and petting them. And the owner confessed how delighted she was by the success of her venture. “I didn’t imagine it would be so popular” says Yoko Oguchi, who opened Cats and Cafe in Azumino City in the summer. “My husband and my sister love cats and after retirement we want to live with many cats. This is our dream.” You can see what our kids made of it in this Cat Cafe video.
6 Play Geisha Bingo
They say a Geisha is hard to spot but we saw loads in Kyoto. What’s hard is telling the real thing from a dressed up tourist. There are clues though. If you want to go Geisha spotting, the Gion district of Kyoto is your best bet. Our kids were fascinated by them. Or hang out in downtown Kyoto at about 11pm when they are transferring locations or making their way home. There are three types. (And here’s where your home made bingo card kicks in.)
- The genuine article. Most likely spotted disappearing into a taxi.
- The trainee, or Maiko. More likely to give you a smile or a wave. You can tell they are a trainee by their lipstick.
- The tourists dressed as geishas. Many places do a roaring trade in dressing people up as Geishas, doing their hair and make up and sending them off round town to be stared at and photographed. You can usually spot these lookie likies because they are showing off, in a carriage or generally tottering about like they have no idea how to wear shoes.
If you spot all of these as well as dressing yourself as a Geisha then you officially have a full house. Well done. Your prize is a giant Hello Kitty cuddly toy.
7 Attend a tea ceremony
A Japanese tea ceremony is a peaceful, lovely, cultural experience. It’s not cheap, so don’t just down your tea and run, instead lap up all the detail. Like the perfectly formed sweets, the subtle taste of the tea, the sensation of sitting on the floor in a café, and the atmosphere created by your host. We took our tea in the tiny geisha tea house of Shima in the Higashi district of Kanazawa. On the way back to the car an old man made us a grasshopper out of a leaf; a lesson beyond Origami. Quite unrelated to the tea ceremony but linked forever in our memories.
8 Dance all night at a festival
In summer time there are lots of festivals scattered throughout Japan. We took in two, both were in small towns and neither were like anything we had seen before. The Gujo-Odori dance festival was a real eye opener. People dance for 32 nights in a festival that ends with a four day dance off where they literally go all night. We joined in for a couple of hours, until the heat and tiredness wore us out. It’s kind of like line dancing with a whole town and we soon picked up the moves, even if we didn’t execute them very gracefully. Meanwhile the Issake Hoh-toh Matsuri festival involved up to 100 people dragging massive kiriko lanterns through the streets to a mesmerising chant and drum beat.
9 Make fake food
Most restaurants in Japan have fake food on display outside. As well as a neat way of catering to tourists there are historic reasons for this going back to American occupation. Anyway, all of this food needs to be made somewhere. Much of it is created in one small place in the mountains called Gujo Hachiman where there are almost a dozen fake food factories. Almost every shop in this busy tourist hub sells the fake iceberg or tempura so you won’t go hungry for a waxy treat. You can sign up to make it yourself in one of the shops. It’s a couple of hours of fun and creativity, although Stuart and I got a little over competitive with our prawns. A warning; don’t make too much as you will be left with rather a lot of fake takeaways at the end.You can also make wax food in Tokyo.
10 Design your own katsu curry
Japan is a foodie paradise but as a family on a budget we weren’t able to dine out in posh joints. However we were able to regularly enjoy a family sized dinner at a cheerful chain of restaurants called Co Co Curry. It’s basically cheap fast food curry. First you choose the meat for your curry and its strength. (they will only let you choose the hot ones if you can prove you have tried the weaker strengths.) You choose the weight in rice you’d like and your drink. And in just a few minutes, your ideal perfect katsu curry arrives. Kids get a gacha ball to take away and a badge on arrival. But the best thing about it is the affordable bill. I liked it so much that I’ve even tracked down a website where I can make my own version at home.