Our Guide to a Family Vacation in Japan
Japan is an incredibly diverse place, with everything from a delectable food scene to a worldly heritage.
It’s also a great place for families, as there’s plenty to keep both young travellers and old entertained.
From climbing Mount Fuji to making sushi in Tokyo, this is our guide to a family vacation in Japan.
For active family adventure
Cruise along lakes
In the heart of the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park, the town of Hakone is filled with beautiful bodies of water. At its centre, the Ashino-ko lake is a don’t miss location. Formed in the caldera of Mount Hakone, Lake Ashi enjoys excellent views of Mount Fuji, complemented by stunning reflections of nearby mountains in the lake surface. A family cruise through the waters is a great way to relax before adventuring through Mount Fuji.
There are few places in the world more serene than the surroundings of Mount Fuji, and it’s a great place to spend some uninterrupted quality time as a family. The volcanic activity of 10,000 years ago created an impressive landscape of craters and ice caves, and the area today is ripe for exploring. Families can spend time here canoeing on the lake, horse riding through the verdant forest or stargazing at the incredible night sky.
For those seeking a sense of adventure, the mysterious Aokigahara Forest doesn’t disappoint. Folk tales and legends tell of ghosts and goblins haunting the forest, so visiting the forest is an exciting excursion for imaginative young travellers. Round off your exploration with a foray into one of the area’s many lava caves, exploring the underground wonders that await.
While climbing Mount Fuji is an ambitious undertaking for a family, Hiroshima’s Mount Misen is a lighter alternative. At 530 metres above sea level, Mount Misen is the highest peak on Miyajima Island. Affording spectacular views over the Seto Inland Sea and Hiroshima City, the summit of Mount Misen feels truly ethereal. It offers a wonderful medium for both active and laidback types, as you take a ropeway up the mountain before enjoying a short hike to reach the summit. Seasoned walkers can don their hiking boots to enjoy a variety of light treks around the summit.
For cultural exploration
One of the most unique Japanese art forms is calligraphy, and there’s no better place to learn about the history of it than at Tokyo’s Imperial Palace. Calligraphy, or “shodo” in Japanese, is thought to cultivate your inner self. Particular emphasis is placed on the combination of strokes, brush movement and shades of the ink as you write your chosen “Kanji.” Kanji are the Chinese characters on which the Japanese writing system is based, and each kanji is a symbol for a concept and reflects a historical connection to the word’s meaning. A calligraphy workshop in the grounds of Tokyo’s Imperial Palace makes for an unforgettable introduction to this ancient art form.
One of Japan’s most celebrated ancient art forms is ukiyo-e. The best place in Japan to see ukiyo-e woodblock prints and paintings is at Tokyo’s Ukiyo-e Ota Memorial Museum of Art. The ukiyo-e movement flourished from the 17th to the 19th century and was aimed at the wealthy merchant class during the urbanising Edo period. Popular themes were depictions of beautiful women, kabuki (Japanese drama) actors, and sumo wrestlers. The two-dimensional style has since been adopted by many European painters, especially impressionists such as Van Gogh. The collection at the Ota Memorial Museum of Art is particularly special, as it features a range of works dating from the beginning of the ukoy-e period to the height of its success.
If there’s one thing Japan is not lacking in, it’s temples. From ancient shrines in Kyoto to structures surrounded by bamboo groves in Arashiyama, there are plenty of intriguing temples to explore here. Kyoto is the city most populated with temples, and a good way to start is by exploring Sanjusangendo and Kodaiji. Sanjusangendo was founded in 1164 and is famous for its 1001 statues of Kannon, the goddess of mercy. The main hall is a particularly impressive sight, with a large centrally located Kannon flanked on each side by 500 smaller statues standing in neat rows.
Kodaiji Temple is a temple of the Rinzai (Pure Land) and school of Zen Buddhism, founded during the Moyomama period at the end of the 16th century. Kodaiji is known for its formal gardens including “artificial mountains” and a dry rock garden, as well as its bamboo grove that leads to two splendid teahouses.
Tofuku-ji temple, one of Kyoto’s most attractive temples, is absolutely stunning when surrounded by fall foliage. Tofuku-ji was founded in 1236 under the command of the powerful Fujiwara clan. The temple is a delight to visit when bathed in autumn colours, with the most popular view from Tsutenkyo Bridge spanning a valley of lush maple trees. The Sanmon Gate here is one of the oldest of its kind, dating back to 1425, and the numerous intricate temples here are all rare examples of surviving Zen architecture.
The Silver Pavilion and Golden Pavilion are also both don’t miss destinations. The Silver Pavilion, or Ginkakuji, dates from 1482 and covers an area of 25,000 square metres. Standout features include its luxuriant growth of moss and garden composed of two terraces. The upper terrace is particularly zen, arranged using stones, sand and plants to mimic a scenic view. The Golden Pavilion temple, or Kinkakuji, was built in 1397 to serve as a retirement villa for Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu. With the top two floors completely covered in gold leaf, these temple surroundings offer both opulence and relaxation.
The beautiful district of Arashiyama, located just outside Kyoto, is a welcome relief from the city’s hustle and bustle. The Tenryu-ji Temple is a beautiful place to wander through, and is a World Cultural Heritage monument. Visitors can spend their time here taking a relaxing stroll through the bamboo forests, or simply marvel at the traditional architecture.
From samurais to geishas, Japan’s culture is wonderfully varied and nothing if not exciting. In Kanazawa, the Samurai and Geisha districts both offer an incredible insight into Japan’s cultural heritage. The city’s ancient Higashiyama Geisha District was built in 1820, and it still preserves Kanazawa’s feudal heritage today. Wooden lattice fronts of old geisha houses line the streets and many old buildings have been converted into shops, showcasing Kanazawa’s sophisticated craft heritage.
In Kanazawa’s Samurai district of Nagamachi, you’ll see tangible evidence of Kanazawa’s prosperous past. The narrow, pebble stoned streets bordered by earthen walls and decorative gates exude an ambience of feudal times. The ancient Samurai House of Nomura-ke gives a great insight into the traditional architecture and life inside a samurai home. Inside this beautifully restored home, visitors can find heirloom antiques, beautifully painted doors and samurai armour and artwork. Strolling the nearby Kenrokuen Garden – one of the three most beautiful landscape gardens in Japan – is a great way to round off any visit.
For an insight into Japan’s history
Japan has a fascinating history, and one of the most well known cities in Western Japan is Hiroshima. Once destroyed by an atomic bomb during World War II, Hiroshima today is a thriving and internationally-minded community. This city is filled with poignant reminders of the town’s history, so it’s a must visit for history buffs. Designated a World Heritage Site in 1996, the Atomic Bomb Dome is the skeletal remains of the building located underneath the explosion of 1945.
Today, the remains serve as a humbling reminder of the far-reaching impacts of war. Similarly to the A Bomb Dome, Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Park serves as a poignant reminder of Hiroshima’s past. Here, a museum surveying the history of Hiroshima and the advent of the nuclear bomb reminds all visitors of the fragility of peace and showcases the city’s commitment to a future without conflict.
On nearby Miyajima Island, families can uncover Japan’s ancient history with a visit to the centuries old Itsukushima Shrine. The shrine and its gate are unique for being built over water, giving the impression that they’re floating during high tide. There’s plenty to explore here, with the shrine complex consisting of multiple buildings including a prayer hall, main hall and an open air theatre stage.
For foodie families
Japan’s food scene is unrivalled, and there are opportunities to indulge in every major city. Kanazawa’s vibrant Omichi fish market is affectionately known as the “Kitchen of Kanazawa” and is great for seafood lovers. Here, a variety of fresh fish and shellfish caught in the Sea of Japan line the market streets. The market consists of a colourful network of vendors, with around 200 stalls selling an impressive array of seafood. Lunching at one of the many restaurants located inside the market is one of the best ways to get acquainted with Japan’s food scene.
Much of Japanese food culture centres around dinners consisting of multiple plates. To get a taste of between 12 and 15 dishes, travellers can attend a traditional kaiseki dinner. The kaiseki dining experience consists of these plates all beautifully presented and made with fresh seasonal ingredients. With so many dishes to choose from, diners are bound to taste something they’ll never forget.
Of course, no discussion of Japan’s food scene would be complete without a nod to sushi. While it may be thought of as raw fish, the term sushi actually refers to any delicacy involving rice seasoned with vinegar. There are many different types of sushi, and it may be hard at first to tell the difference. Nigiri are hand pressed mounds of vinegar flavoured rice topped with a slice of raw fish, while maki or temaki refer to the now worldwide export of sushi rolls of rice with raw fish encased in nori seaweed. Uramaki are a more unique type of sushi, in that they’re rolled ‘inside out,’ with the rice rolled on the outside of the seaweed.
A private sushi making class in Tokyo is a wonderful way of learning about the different types of sushi. Led by a private chef in one of Japan’s finest restaurants, you’ll learn how to make nigiri, temaki and maki, as well as miso soup. Once you’ve worked up an appetite, you can enjoy the fruits of your labour for lunch in the delightful surroundings.
Although not technically food, tea has been around in Japan for centuries so it’s definitely something worth experiencing. Traditional tea ceremonies have been around since the 12th century, and they’re founded on the principles of harmony, respect, purity and tranquility. During the ceremony itself, traditional matcha tea is prepared ritually and in a choreographed manner. The master of the tea ceremony always ensures they are respecting the guests by paying close attention to their movements and gestures. For an exclusive and intimate glimpse into this fascinating slice of Japanese culture, travellers can attend a tea ceremony at a Japanese Fine Arts School in Tokyo’s Nihonbashi district.