Japan is a great place for a family adventure. Besides being one of the safest and politest countries in the world, the kawaii culture is something to experience. From Hello Kitty trains to rows of gachopon toy capsule vending machines, kawaii is everywhere…and bound to make you and your kids smile. Another prevalent aspect of Japanese culture is the Shintoism and Buddhist influence. Besides the grand shrines and temples, there may be a little shrine in your AirBnB or a ceramic representation of an animal spirit (often kawaii such as the Tanuki) in front of a restaurant. Once your eyes are open to it, you can find them everywhere! Experiencing different customs and cultures with your children is the best education you can give them. Traveling to Japan with kids (or if you’re a kid at heart) is an experience of a lifetime!
Amidst the hustle and bustle of Tokyo can be found some of the best uniquely Japanese family fun, including DisneySea, Ghibli Museum, and the Robot Restaurant. You must also try a spooky Old Tokyo ghost walk, where your kids and you will get a bit scared, but also get a unique insight into Japanese religious beliefs that will make your visits to shrines and temples much more rewarding. The Nara Deer Park (easy day trip from Kyoto or Osaka) is an experience of a lifetime not to be missed.
1. Tokyo DisneySea
You may share my initial thought…go all the way to Japan and go to Disney?! Successfully traveling with kids means compromise and including their bucketlist into the plan is part of the package. As I grudgingly went along with this plan, I must say that DisneySea is truly unique and I now share the belief of many that it is the best Disney property. As the name suggests, it’s a water based park (built on Tokyo Bay), so there are rides such as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and the magical Mermaid Lagoon. You also have some of the classic greats such as the Tower of Terror and Indiana Jones, but with Japanese theming and a Japanese-speaking Indy!
My favorite part was actually the people watching (it was our first day). The Japanese visitors often dressed the same as their companions, or at least accessorized the same. Even the teen boys did this, matching their friends or girlfriend. It stood out to me as very sweet and refreshing to see such innocence.
You can buy tickets at the Park or skip the line and buy a flexible date tickets online. This is a good way to keep your schedule flexible, and account for the tempermental weather.
It was very easy to get to the Disney property from central Tokyo, but there are several hotels inside the Disney Resort (includes Tokyo Disneyland which we skipped) and a very nice one right on the DisneySea property, called the Hotel MiraCosta, in the event you’d like to stay at the Resort.
No surprise, Tokyo Disney gets very crowded, but we went on a Thursday during shoulder season so wasn’t bad. They do have FastPass, which we utilized for the busy rides.
2. Ghibli Museum
My kids grew up with Miyazaki movies, watching Totoro at least monthly, so the Ghibli Museum was very high on our list. Fortunately, we did our research, as the less than intuitive ticketing process (outlined below) begins ~4 months out from your desired date. If you’ve never seen My Neighbor Totoro (original version’s best) or Spirited Away, stop reading this post and get them! These will also provide a great look into Japanese culture before your trip that you and your kids will love.
The Museum isn’t large, but still a magical experience. Budget a half-day including travel time. You can’t take pictures inside, and I don’t want to spoil the mystery, but one of the highlights was being able to flip through the actual sketchbooks of the film storyboards. There is also a short film that is only viewable at the Museum.
The tickets are very limited, and you must get early, but please do this if you have time!
You cannot buy tickets at the Museum or from Ghibli directly.
You must complete the order form on the JTB USA Travel Agency site > 3 months from the desired month of your Museum visit. For example, if you want to visit in August, tickets must ordered by the JTB travel agent on May 1st. For that to occur, you must complete the order form with your desired date choices in April.
JTB will call you at the end of April to get your credit card information so they may place the order on your behalf. They will confirm via email a day or two after if they were able to reserve your tickets.
A couple weeks later, they will send confirmation that they have mailed your ticket vouchers via FedEx. You then must remember to bring your vouchers and exchange for tickets at the entrance gate.
What if you missed out on getting tickets?
Aviator offers last minute tickets (no guarantees- but worth a try).
Someone told us they were able to get on a tour that took them to the museum. I don’t have the details but another option to research.
3. Tokyo Ghost Walk
One of our favorite (and most educational) activities was the Old Tokyo Ghost Walk. Ghosts & Goblins of Old Tokyo is a family-friendly walking tour of old Tokyo’s backstreets revealing hidden temples and shrines you would never have known were there. Spirits, gods (or kami), ghosts, and goblins are a big part of Japanese culture. Doing this tour prior to visiting the many temples and shrines of Japan will provide a much richer experience. For instance, you will learn how to pass through torii gates and how to do the cleansing ritual prior to visiting a shrine.
Haunted Tokyo Tours also offers some scarier night tours, you can check out here.
Most tours are 2 – 3 hours. You will stop at various temples and shrines, but be prepared to walk, i.e. bottled water, good shoes, etc.
The guide is very engaging, and there are interesting things to see, but it may be challenging to keep young children focused for this length of time.
4. Robot Restaurant
While not exactly a traditional Japanese experience, it is one that you would only find in Japan! Despite the name, this is a show, not a restaurant. They technically have dinner, but they don’t even recommend it. They do have popcorn and drinks, which they’ll bring to you before the show and during the brief intermissions.
This show is definitely not for everyone, so hopefully the pictures give you some idea. With that caveat, I’ll say it was a blast! It’s a non-stop blur of lights, robots, music, epic battles, and more. The late, great, Anthony Bourdain did say it was the greatest show he’s ever seen in his life…so there’s that.
It is recommended to attend the first show when bringing children, which is at 4pm. Apparently later shows can get rowdy, and it is in Japan’s red light district (did not seem seedy at all, but did see a strip club).
The show is 90 minutes.
It’s quite loud and has flashing lights. They do give kids headsets for ear protection, but I don’t think I’d bring a child under age 10, an epileptic, or someone who easily gets migraines.
You should buy tickets as early as possible to make sure you get the early show and the date you want. You can buy discount tickets online from Voyagin. They are 34% off, include a free gift and drink, and offer the best seats.
5. Nara Deer Park
I hadn’t researched Nara much, and expected it to be a little cheesy like the animal cafes. I also am always concerned with how animals are treated. My misgivings were unfounded, and Nara proved an unforgettable experience. This is a must-do if traveling to Japan with kids or if you love animal encounters.
The deer are considered messengers to the gods in Shintoism, so are treated with love and kindness. They have free reign and have access to nice woods and stream, but they seem to really like people (or at least our crackers). I even saw one walk into a shop (pictured above), and we saw others waiting with people at a cross walk.
You can buy a pack of thin wafers for the deer for ¥250 ($2.50). It’s a blast, but you may get mobbed by deer which is intimidating for some at first. They will eat very gently from your hands but it’s not uncommon for them to nip at your clothes or bag if you’re slow. It seemed people who panicked and started backing up were harassed the most, so act confident, like with most animals. This isn’t a controlled petting zoo and they are wild animals, so use common sense, especially where children are concerned.
Pro Tip: There’s no free lunch! The deer should bow to you before giving them food. Have a piece of wafer ready, bow to them and give the treat when they bow back. Seriously!!
Nara is easily accessible by train, ~ 1 hour from Kyoto or Osaka. Once you arrive at the Nara Station, it is a 30 minute straight walk up the main street lined with shops and restaurants towards the green hills. It’s pretty obvious when you reach the park.
As you continue your walk through the deer park, you will reach Todaiji Temple, home to the largest bronze Buddha in the world. Definitely worth checking out.
While Japan has more than it’s share of spectacular sites and scenery, the contrast of the serious salarymen and the child-like kawaii, is something to experience. As amazing as the temples and shrines are, you (and especially your children) will get burnt out, so mix in some lighter bits of Japanese culture.
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