Asia. It sounds exotic and enticing. It can also seem daunting and utterly foreign. Where does one start with trip planning, let alone making it a terrific family adventure?
On this three-week trip, we decided to focus on Japan and China. We shaped the itinerary around our desire for authentic experiences and “must-see” sights while staying true to our primary goal of having fun. There’s no point in dragging your kids to every temple in Kyoto (which could take years and wouldn’t be fun for anyone!)
Tips for Taking a Tour to China and Japan in Asia with Kids
Tokyo is sprawling and travel between areas should be a consideration. We made Shinjuku our home base due to its central location and ease of public transport.
- Asakusa shrine – also check out Nakamise Dori – a shopping street leading up to the temple for souvenirs and gifts
- Meiji Jingu – after the shrine, make time for a walk around nearby Harajuku, known for its young, funky vibe
- Tsukiji fish market – go very early in the morning to see the live fish auction, but if 5 a.m. is too early for your family (like it is for ours!) there is still plenty of action (and perhaps a sushi breakfast) until around 9 a.m.
- Ginza (go after Tsukiji which is nearby) – the neighborhood for high-end shopping – famous for its huge department stores. Check out the basement food halls, which will make children’s heads spin with the variety of savory and sweet foods
If you have more time:
- Imperial Palace Gardens
- Shibuya crossing
- Tokyo Disney
- Tokyo SkyTree Mall
- Day trip to Kamakura to see the Giant Buddha
Kyoto turned out to be the highlight of the trip for our family. We loved it for being welcoming to tourists while still maintaining its traditional feel, as well as the fact that it is easy to navigate thanks to its smaller size, abundance of taxis and clearly-signed public transportation.
- Kinkakuji – kids will enjoy seeing this temple made of gold
- Nijo-jo castle – check out where a shogun lived and test the hummingbird floor that alerts occupants to intruders
- Kiyomizu – definitely the most interesting temple in Kyoto, you’ll see many visitors wearing kimono and the scenery is beautiful – pair with a walk along the adorable sannen and ninen zaka lanes lined with souvenir shops
If you have more time:
- Ginkakuji – Temple of the Silver Pavilion (and perhaps a walk with older children along the mile-long Philosopher’s Path that begins there)
- Sanjusangendo – this temple is famous for its 1,001 statues of Kannon, the goddess of mercy
- Nishiki market – Kyoto’s covered 400-year old food market – a good choice for wandering on a rainy day
A note on lodging: Kyoto is famous for its ryokans (traditional Japanese inns). To sample sleeping on tatami mats, taking a communal bath and having kaiseki cuisine, we suggest giving it a try. We made some great family memories at Ryokan Gion Hatanaka. (perhaps another post/review?)
TIP: It’s worth considering a JR Rail Pass if you are planning to visit multiple cities, but you must purchase the pass before you arrive in Japan.
China is vast and it is best to make use of flights between cities to make the most of your time.
Beijing is very crowded and can be overwhelming. For the more adventurous, the subway is fairly easy to navigate, but taxis are plentiful and cheap (although traffic is dense). Make sure to carry your hotel’s business card, which will have their address in Chinese to show the driver.
- Tiananmen Square
- Forbidden City
- The Great Wall – there are a few sites where you can visit the Wall. Try Mutianyu, which is slightly farther out than Badaling, but much less crowded
- Summer Palace
If you have more time:
- Visit a hutong – traditional narrow lanes filled with souvenir shops and stalls
Shanghai has a more Western feel than Beijing and you can find just about any type of cuisine. Shanghai is also known for shopping and luxury stores abound.
- A walk along the Bund
- Yu Garden – children will love feeding the carp from the zig-zag bridge
- The French Concession
We chose Suzhou (a 30 minute train from Shanghai) for something a bit off the Western tourist’s beaten path. We also hired a driver to shuttle us around from place to place, which was extremely affordable and made our time much more enjoyable.
- Tiger Hill Pagoda (who knew China had a “leaning tower” long before Pisa?)
- Blue Wave Pavilion
- Humble Administrators Garden
Also known as West Lake, this area is a very popular resort destination.
- A walk along the shores of West Lake and a boat ride
- Lingyin Temple – the kids loved all of the Buddhas carved into the stone and climbing around….almost like being on the set of Indiana Jones
Hong Kong is known as a shopper’s paradise (I have never seen so many high-end designer stores) but there are also plenty of fun activities for kids.
- A trip to Victoria Peak
- Hong Kong park
- A Star Ferry ride between Hong Kong Island and Kowloon
- the escalators in the mid-levels
If you have time:
- Riding the narrow, double-decker trams through the center of the city
- Ocean Park
- Dim Sum (we like City Hall) or traditional British Tea at one of the hotels
- A food and cultural walking tour (we enjoyed Hong Kong Foodie tours)
- Ngong Ping cable car to see the Buddha
TIP: Make sure that you apply for Chinese visas before your trip, which are required for tourists.
We had an unforgettable trip and enjoyed all of the sightseeing (although we were “pictured out” by the end), but our best moments were had simply absorbing local culture and trying the dizzying array of foods. Next time we plan a trip to this part of the world, we would explore some other countries – perhaps, Southeast Asia.
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Best family hotels and things to do in China with kids on Ciao Bambino
Best family hotels and things to do in Japan with kids on Ciao Bambino
About Amy Andrews: Amy lives in both Charlotte, North Carolina and New York City with her husband and two children, ages nine and seven. Their love of family travel was cemented during a two-year stint in London and they travel as much as possible.