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Best places to visit in Japan with kids

SALLY MILES has been travelling to Japan to visit her family since she was a child and, more recently, in her role at Japan National Tourism Organization. Her mum was born and raised in Osaka, and Sally loves exploring the country with her “big sister” Tomoko, who did a homestay with her family when she was a child, and her “niece”, Tomoko’s 11-year-old daughter, Lyann

a geisha at edo wonderland nikko edomura - visit in Japan with kids
A geisha at Edo Wonderland Nikko Edomura

Where does your love of Japan come from?

To say that I’m passionate about Japan would be an understatement! I was born in the US, where my dad is from, but my mum is from Japan and all her family still lives there, so we would go back to visit every couple of years. Usually we visited Osaka, as that’s where most of her immediate family lives, and I have very fond memories of visiting Osaka Castle, Kaiyukan (the Osaka aquarium) and Nara Park over and over with my mum, my little sister, and my cousins. We also went “camping” a few times – they called it camping but we stayed at these self-serviced cabins in the woods. They were equipped with bunk beds (a joy for kids!), and although they had kitchens, we enjoyed cooking on the barbecues outside and roasting marshmallows over the fire pits. I don’t know exactly where that was, since I was little when we went, but somewhere within a couple of hours’ drive from Osaka.

tea plantations in front of mt fuji - best places to visit in Japan with kids
Tea plantations in front of Mt Fuji. Image: Shizuoka Prefectural Tourist Association

I majored in Asian studies with an area focus on Japan at university and, after I graduated, I lived in Japan for four years as a JET Programme participant, teaching English at a high school in Shizuoka Prefecture. Shizuoka is off the standard ‘Golden Route’ for Japan, and not many international travellers visit, even though they go right through it on the bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto! But it’s an absolutely breathtaking part of Japan, with mountains layered with bright green tea fields, valleys filled with rice paddies, surfing on the coast and hot springs in the mountains. There are quirky museums and festivals, like Shimada City’s ‘Obi Matsuri’ (the obi is the sash worn with kimonos) and the Hamamatsu Festival, where you can watch in awe as kite battles take place throughout the day! There are lots more amazing regional places to visit, and many of them are really easy to access, as well. As fantastic as the big cities are, I’d love to see more people visiting off the beaten track parts of Japan, especially as a nice contrast to the hustle and bustle.

What do you love about travelling there?

the moat at hikone castle - best places to visit in Japan with kids
The moat at Hikone Castle

It’s safe and clean, and every time I visit, I find something new — a new sightseeing spot, a new restaurant, a new dish. My “big sister” Tomoko, who did a homestay with us in America for more than a year when I was a kid, lives in Nagoya. Her daughter, my “niece”, Lyann, was born in 2010, when I was living in Shizuoka, so I’ve been fortunate to get to visit with them a few times a year while I was living there and about once a year since I started working at JNTO, so I’ve seen her grow up and been able to travel with her, too.

Where have you travelled together?

legoland japan resort - best places to visit in Japan with kids
LEGOLAND Japan Resort. Image: ©2021 The LEGO Group

Every time I visit them, Tomoko takes us somewhere. We’ve visited Ise Jingu Grand Shrine in Mie Prefecture, and Takayama and Magome in Gifu Prefecture. They’ve seen me play taiko (Japanese drums) at Inuyama Castle and heaps of other places in Aichi Prefecture.

A couple of years ago we went to LEGOLAND Japan Resort and had the most amazing day there. Visiting with a little kid made it even more exciting because her enthusiasm for LEGO was so infectious! There are rides for all ages, but I think the highlight for her was the “race course” where she got her own “driving licence”. For me, the highlight was the mini-land, which had lots of Japanese (and world) landmarks all made out of LEGO!

cherry blossoms at hikone castle - best places to visit in Japan with kids
Cherry blossoms at Hikone Castle

Another of my favourite memories is visiting Hikone Castle in Shiga Prefecture. I really love Japanese castles, and Hikone is one of Japan’s five castles listed as national treasures. Plus, it has the cutest mascot, Hikonyan (a portmanteau of the location name and the word “nyan”, which is the Japanese version of “meow”) – and you can even meet him if you visit at the right time! Unfortunately, we missed meeting Hikonyan on the day we went, which disappointed Lyann, but as a bit of a consolation Tomoko bought both of us little plushies, and now whenever I travel, I take my Hikonyan with me and take photos of him travelling around the world to send to Lyann and brighten her day a little. He’s been all over!

Most recently, when my husband and I visited in November 2019, we went to Korankei Valley to enjoy a walk amongst the autumn leaves. There was a row of street food stalls set up and the adults enjoyed some amazake (sweet sake) while Lyann had hot chocolate. We stumbled across a live taiko drumming performance, which was captivating, as well as a little model village (Sanshu Asuke Yashiki). For just a few hundred yen, you could go in and see what life was like in the olden days, with thatched-roof houses and activities like straw-weaving, handloom-weaving and indigo dyeing.

sally with lyann tomoko and lyanns dad tadayoshi at satsuki meis house aichi expo memorial park - best places to visit in Japan with kids
Sally with Lyann, Tomoko and Lyann's dad Tadayoshi at Satsuki & Mei's House Aichi Expo Memorial Park

I think my most favourite place so far is Satsuki and Mei’s House, located in the Aichi Expo Memorial Park. It’s a reconstruction of the house from the Studio Ghibli film My Neighbour Totoro, which is one of my childhood favourites. The reconstruction is so authentic. They’ve sourced items from the 1950s (when the movie was set) to fill all of the cupboards and drawers, even down to the brand of mirin (cooking wine) that was available then! Even for people who aren’t fans of the movie, it’s a really interesting look at a bit of Japan’s more recent history; there is no end of attractions highlighting and educating about Japan’s Edo Period, but not so many from the Showa Period (1926-89). If you are a fan of the film, it’s an incredibly moving place to visit. Bonus for Studio Ghibli fans: a full Ghibli theme park is scheduled to open in the Aichi Expo Memorial Park in 2022! I personally can’t wait!

Why is Japan a great destination to visit with kids?

edo wonderland nikko edomura - best places to visit in Japan with kids
Edo Wonderland Nikko Edomura

It’s such a fascinating, captivating place, especially coming from a western perspective. There are some things that are familiar to kids, that they like – they know Pokémon and lots of other fun pop culture icons that I’m too old to be familiar with – but there are also things that are unfamiliar and exciting. Japan, like kids (and me!), loves things that are cute (kawaii) so there’s lots of enthralling things to look at.

Since it’s safe and clean, families can feel totally at ease travelling around the country – and it’s so easy to get around using public transport. There are also lots of great parts of the country to explore by car, and since people in Japan drive on the left, like in Australia, it’s easy to do (just make sure you get your international driving permit before you go).

sally and lyann at legoland japan - - best places to visit in Japan with kids
Sally and Lyann at LEGOLAND Japan

I think it’s incredible to expose children to other cultures and languages from a young age, so Japan certainly ticks that box, and if you want to show your older kids how polite a society can be, Japan’s a great country to showcase that, too!

Older kids will enjoy the cultural activities like ninja training, or anime museums where they can even take quick lessons on how to draw anime characters.

When is a good time to go?

Broadly speaking, spring (March to May) and autumn (September to November) have mild weather so they’re great times to visit if you want to do lots of outdoor activities. Summer (June to August) gets quite hot, so plan accordingly, but there are plenty of indoor attractions to keep you cool; plus, the summer festivals have street food and games for kids and fireworks displays that can last up to an hour and a half! In winter (December to February), you can head to the slopes for a family-friendly ski or snowboarding holiday (lots of the resorts have English-speaking ski schools, too!).

What is the food like there?

sally with her husband and lyann at hinotetsu yakitori restaurant in nagoya - best places to visit in Japan with kids
Sally with her husband and Lyann at Hinotetsu Yakitori Restaurant in Nagoya

One great thing about Australia & New Zealand is that Japanese food is ubiquitous and lots of kids already love things like sushi, katsu and ramen. But you can also get familiar food like spaghetti, chicken nuggets and hamburgers, so even picky eaters can still be easily pleased! Restaurants known as “family restaurants”, which are sort of like the Japanese take on American diners, are easily found in big cities and even many regional areas, and will offer kids’ menus. Look for chains like Denny’s, Gusto, Joyfull, Coco’s and the amusingly named Bikkuri Donkey (bikkuri means surprise).

What are the best attractions for families?

edo tokyo museum sukeroku on stage kabuki play - best places to visit in Japan with kids
Edo-Tokyo Museum - Sukeroku on Stage (kabuki play)

While the theme parks like Tokyo Disney Resort and Universal Studios Japan are the obvious go-to recommendations (and they’re fantastic), I do think that while you’re in Japan it’s well worth seeking out the traditional Japanese attractions. Just to name a few: Edo Wonderland in Nikko (a ninja and samurai theme park); the Edo-Tokyo Museum in Ryogoku, Tokyo (offers a great look at Tokyo’s history, including hands-on exhibits; as a plus, it’s right next to the Sumo Museum); or the SCMAGLEV and Railway Park in Nagoya (an incredible railway museum).

Where would you like to go once international COVID-19 travel restrictions ease?

I’d actually love to explore a bit more of Nagoya with my sister and my niece. My niece has been getting into art, so I’d really like to visit the Tokugawa Art Museum to hopefully inspire her a bit (plus I really want to see the art myself). I also want to visit Satsuki and Mei’s House again, but maybe for that one I’ll wait until the full Studio Ghibli theme park opens.

Sally Miles is business development and marketing senior assistant manager for Japan National Tourism Organization’s Sydney office.

MORE INFORMATION:

www.japan.travel/en/au/

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