“What does Mayuko mean ‘When you get here…’?” Chloe asked. “Are we really going to Japan?!?!” Our surprise was foiled but our 8-year-old daughter was literally weeping with joy.
Chloe had begged to visit her longtime BFF for the year since Mayuko had moved back to her native Tokyo after five years in the U.S. She was certain Japan and the Japanese would be as nice and wonderful as Mayuko’s family. My partner and I were skeptical about a family vacation to one of the world’s most crowded and expensive countries. But in the end, Chloe was right: Japan charmed us like the most kawaii tiny furry creature imaginable.
Save for our friendship with Mayuko’s family, Japan would not have appeared on my family trip “bucket list.” Maybe it was the long flight, the unaffordability, or the stress of clomping around a mega city, but Japan didn’t seem like a family-friendly destination. Although admittedly, we are outgrowing our shoestring-budget travel roots, we still tend towards rougher, cheaper trips that involve the outdoors, like our prior vacations to India, Turkey and Costa Rica. But when Mayuko’s parents generously extended an invitation, we jumped at the chance to reunite the girls and booked a trip for Thanksgiving.
We returned loving every bit of Japan: Tokyo’s towers, Kyoto’s temples and everything in between. The people are both kind and cool. The culture is both ancient and ultra modern. The attractions are both classic and quirky. And best of all, the friendship between our daughters and our families is stronger than ever.
The ROAM Report : Japan
Travelers : Julie, Chris and Chloe (8) Rappaport Crowther
Date : November 2015
Itinerary : 10 nights total (Tokyo – 2 nights, countryside onsens (hot springs “resorts”) – 2 nights, Kyoto – 4 nights, Tokyo – 2 nights)
Budget : Approximately $6,760 (flights -$2,600, trains – $500, accommodation/meals – $3,600, museums/temples – $60)
The Good Stuff – Tokyo
Konbanwa Tokyo! Look past the gleaming towers and you’ll find a vivid metropolitan culture full of great art, food, parks and neighborhoods enjoyed by both kids and adults. On the surface, Tokyo might look like New York on steroids but in fact, it is a much cleaner, safer, easier place to navigate than the Big Apple, and is really fun for kids.
Kid-Sanctioned Sushi Mayuko’s favorite Kura-Sushi is a bit off-the-beaten-path (near Shinagawa Station, 2-17-1 Kounan | 2F Keio Shinagawa, Minato-ku) but worth the effort. Order your dishes directly from a vending machine/jukebox type of gizmo and they are delivered via conveyer belt right to your table! Clear your own plates by sliding them through a slot at your table. Majorly fun and delicious. Best of all? Each item is only $1! Make a reservation. This place gets packed!
Takeshita-dori/Harajuku This bohemian street and neighborhood are famous for kooky youth fashion which makes the area a perfect family destination for people watching and shopping. My daughter said it reminded her of Santa Cruz. Nearby is the Japanese toy mecca, Kiddy Land on Omotesando which promises floor after floor of fun (and begging). We strolled over to Meiji Shrine and lovely Yoyogi Park and then treated ourselves to a bowl of noodles and ice cream. We stumbled into the best ramen place of our trip – a hip noodle place called Afuri (3 Chome-63-1 Sendagaya, Shibuya). Bright, citrusy broth with whole wheat noodles and vegetables. My big surprise was how open Chloe was to trying new things to eat.
Ghibli Museum Absolutely LOVED by the both girls were two museums we visited at the end of our trip. Enchanting in location and scale is the not-to-be-missed Ghibli Museum. Ride the famous Cat Bus, watch a short film clip and examine the inner workings of the creative mind of famed animator Hayao Miyazaki. (creator of “My Friend Totoro,” “Ponyo” and many more.) Be sure to ask the guard for a museum guide in English and be sure to book in advance!) The museum is as mesmerizing as the films and will plant you into a lovely outer region of Tokyo with local boutiques and a beautiful green park that the kids will enjoy.
Cafe for the Bird Lovers Across the street from Ghibli is the bird-themed Kotori Cafe. Japan is wild for animal-themed cafes with live animals. First it was cats, then bunnies, and now birds! Yes, a place to sip hot chocolate with the kids while enjoying live bird songs tweeted by an array of glassed-in birds. (It made me realize that animal cafes could be a fun way to organize your entire trip to Japan if your kids are into such things.) But beware! The birds are safe but the coffee and bird-shaped cakes presented in bird cages are expensive! Two kids can easily share one hot chocolate – the cups are huge. Both the museum and cafe are located in trendy Kichijoji, on the far western side of Tokyo (a 15-minute walk through the park from Kichijoji and Mitaka Stations will take you to the museum.)
Kidzania Mayuko had originally pitched this to Chloe in her surprise-spoiling letter: “Which do you prefer when you get here, Tokyo Disneyland or Kidzania?” The choice was Kidzania, a Mexico-based global chain of amusement parks which offers kids role-playing opportunities and preparation for real-life jobs. My daughter can’t stop talking about this place (but because it is a chain, I would recommend the Ghibli if you have to choose between the two.) Kidzania is a city built to scale for kids, with a functioning economy (and perhaps the covert message involves teaching kids to earn, shop and thereby become dutiful consumers?!) The kids get to perform jobs and wear the uniforms that go along with them. My daughter and her friend role-played baker, makeup artist, veterinarian, designer and pharmacist.
Mori Tower For a fabulous and vertiginous view of Tokyo, visit the Mori Tower in Roppongi Hills and its Mori Art Museum. Inside we found a Stokke stroller brigade of moms viewing The 500 Arhats, the kinetic art of Takashi Murakami.
Central & Affordable Hotel We loved the Grand Fresa Akasaka Hotel as our Tokyo base.
Get Thee to an Onsen. No trip to Japan is complete without a trip to a “ryokan” – a traditional Japanese B&B – and a deep soak in a “onsen” – hot spring. Here you sleep on the tatami mats in a large room perfect for families, partake of the healing ritual dip in the mineral baths and eat dinner and breakfast all in one place. This was a major highlight of our trip. We were lucky to have our Japanese friends arrange not one, but two onsen visits for us. The first, Ashiyasu Onsen, was in the hills south of Tokyo (Minami-arupus City, Yamanashi Prefecture). The other, Kawazu Onsen, is near the beach on the Izu Peninsula, a bit farther south (Ryoshi no Yakata in Izu City, Shizuoka Prefecture) . We were the only non-Japanese guests at both spots. Both onsens delivered plentiful dinner banquets presented in the traditional multi-course Japanese style. Even our Japanese friends were impressed with the talented chef at the seaside onsen in Izu. I received a “shiatsu” massage by a former massage therapist for Sumo wrestlers. Let’s just say it felt like my life was in those hands, the strongest hands that have ever touched me. Goodbye jetlag! Kawazu was located near Mishima Station where we boarded a three-hour bullet train which whisked us from the seaside to Kyoto.
The Good Stuff – Kyoto
Konbanwa Kyoto! Kyoto is a blend of bright-lights/modern-city with old world charm. The more you wander, the more you will fall in love with its original architecture and the multitude of temples and back alleyways. It’s the kind of spot that is worth a longer stay if you can manage it. We stayed in the boutique hotel Nokuroxy and found it worth every penny. Its large, stylish rooms can easily fit 3 or 4 people and it’s stocked with Shiseido bath products. The fabulous English-speaking staff map out everything for you with individualized maps. Situated across from the Imperial Palace, this upscale neighborhood offers a look at today’s upscale Kyoto, but you might find it a little too far from Higashiyama and Gion, the old geisha district. We also stayed at the Hana Hotel, which was better located near Gion but not noteworthy in any other way.
Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion) Narrowing down the highlights in Kyoto is nearly impossible, so I asked Chloe to help. Her number 1? Kinkaku-ji, Kyoto’s most famous temple with the top two floors covered in gold leaf – truly a fairytale-like sight – on a Zen temple no less! There are more than 2,000 temples in Kyoto. It’s imperative to do some advance research and aim for only the ones that speak to you. And pace yourself: Temples are heavy walking days.
Todai-ji in Nara Though not technically in Kyoto, Nara is worth the easy trip by local train to visit this UNESCO World Heritage Site and charming town that was once the imperial capital of Japan. The Shinto shrine, one of the oldest in Japan was founded in 768 CE with the world’s tallest wooden structure and a 15-meter bronze Buddha.
The main delight for Chloe was the many free roaming deer. Purchase special crackers to feed the animals right out of your hand while you wend your way to the temple. Magic. Another surprise in Japan was how much walking we did with fewer groans than is typical of our eight year old. We clocked up multiple miles every day and she was in general, game.
The Hello Kitty Café Traditional Japanese teahouse meets pop icon. Drink hot chocolate, eat lunch with your own over-sized Hello Kitty. Need I say more? It can get crowded but interestingly, Chloe was the only child when we visited… Start at Yasaka Shrine walk a short distance to the Hello Kitty Cafe (363-22-2 Masuyacho, Higashiyama-ku), and continue up the winding road filled with shops to the gorgeous Buddhist temple pagoda. I could wander here for hours. If you do, you may spot an authentic geisha or maiko. Japanese hot chocolate is rich and an equivalent of French hot chocolate – a great reward for a small traveler and it keeps them moving too!
Pontocho This neighborhood is pure old-world Kyoto: Narrow streets filled with restaurants, red lanterns blazing at night and a few buskers playing. Wander around the canal, into the cobbled back streets and all over this district for distinctive Kyoto charm. On your way, stop at the famed Nishiki Market filled with delicacies, food and gifts.
Imperial Palace Garden and Grounds (3 Kyotogyoen, Kamigyo Ward) Rent bikes and pedal the long distance through the park for a unique Kyoto experience.
The Not So Good
Expensive! We found very few downsides to traveling in Japan aside from the high costs. However, with good planning and budgeting it is possible to keep costs within reason. We booked our hotels quite late and could have reduced our costs by booking sooner or staying in AirBnBs (but even these bookings are quite steep.) Family rooms in hostels are another option but these were also fully booked. It’s imperative to plan ahead to get the best prices. Also, be sure to compare prices on the booking websites. You can reserve and cancel without a fee if you do it within the allotted time frame.
Few Vegetarian Options It can be very hard to be a vegetarian in Japan because of all the raw sources of protein, and I am not just talking fish! Ramen bowls and rice seem like good options, however ramen broth is not typically vegetarian. Temples often serve vegetarian fare but it is necessary to plan ahead or shop supermarkets to find truly vegetarian fare.
Subway Challenges The subways in Tokyo can be confusing as some stations serve competing lines that don’t honor each other’s tickets. Avoid frustration and ask for help at your hotel before setting out. However, you may discover that your hotel concierge speaks very little English. The good thing is that if you linger long enough in front of the subway map looking confused, some kind businessperson, housewife or English student will often approach you and offer help in broken or perfect English. To be safe, click here to read up on the subway system before you go.
Small Rooms Japanese hotel rooms are smaller than in the West. Also, the charge is per person not per room. Make sure extra bed options exist and that the room can fit your family.
Limited ATM Access We found many ATMs wouldn’t take our card. Luckily, 7-Eleven is everywhere and it will give you cold hard cash. BTW, the Japanese love kombini (convenience stores.) Whether you are on a neighborhood lane or a major road trip, make sure to stop in and check out all the fresh snack food, drinks and other sundries available for purchase at Lawson’s Station or 7-11.
Good to Know
Get a Rail Pass Japanese trains are fabulous – but not free. To save cash, purchase a JR Rail Pass before you leave home. The passes are only available for purchase outside of Japan! This is crucial if you are doing more than one major train trip. We took one ride that was $500 for three people so getting a pass would have saved us a ton. That said, trains are efficient and fast. Our shinkansen (bullet train) from Kyoto to Tokyo took only 2 hours!
Plan Kyoto Ahead Kyoto is often booked to 97% capacity. Plan ahead and secure accommodation. Also, avoid major Japanese holidays (New Year’s week, school spring break in late March-early April, the first week of May, school summer break, typically late July-August, and obon in mid-August.)
Watch for Flight Deals You can often fly to Tokyo from the West Coast of the U.S. for less than it costs to get to Hawaii or the Caribbean – especially during spring and fall. We got tickets on United for $867 round trip: A great price but zero legroom.
Save on Coffee The Japanese are crazy for vending machines. Buy coffee – and other drinks – from these ubiquitous blinking sentinels for 100 yen ( only about $0.80!). You can get both cold (blue) and hot (red) cans!
Good for Next Time
- More Kyoto! An apartment in Higashiyama in Kyoto for all 4 nights would have made our life a lot easier and cheaper. This is the neighborhood to stay in! Try Homeaway for places.
- Kodo Village and Sado Island A Japan Rail Pass and ferry ride to Sado Island is next on my list!
- A visit to Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial to honor the lives lost during the US atomic bombing of Japan would have deepened our experience and created a richer historical context for us.
Good Family Trip?
Japan is an incredibly invigorating place that bridges the ancient and modern world seamlessly. The Japanese are welcoming and hospitable. Our travel centered around temples, walking city streets and parks, hot springs, children’s museums and food. We barely scraped the surface and we can’t wait to return and see our old and new friends again.
by Julie Rappaport, January 2016
© ROAM Family Travel 2016 – All rights reserved
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