Let’s face it: Mapping out a trip to Japan can seem formidable. The distance and the altogether different culture are hurdles, but Japan is a boon for families — it is an extremely safe country, with excellent public transportation and new sights, sounds and tastes to behold around every corner.
For a one-week trip, we suggest an itinerary that pairs Tokyo and Kyoto. Seven days on the ground is enough to cover both places, and these locales provide a fantastic contrast: the buzzing metropolis of Tokyo and the slower pace and ancient beauty of Kyoto.
Five nights in Tokyo and two in Kyoto will leave ample time to explore Tokyo itself or add a day trip to Hakone, Kamakura or Tokyo Disneyland. This guide will help you chart your course and, as a bonus, we’ve included plenty of practical advice about traveling in Japan.
Tokyo’s sheer size can be baffling — in greater Tokyo, there are more than 1,000 neighborhoods. Do not be discouraged! The majority of tourist sites are centrally located and fairly easy to navigate.
Here is a list of top neighborhoods and relevant attractions that will be of interest to families. For ease of travel, the neighborhoods are listed in specific order to indicate their proximity to one another. Most museums and cultural sites in Tokyo are closed on Mondays, so keep that in mind when mapping out your itinerary. Notable exceptions are Tokyo Disney, Tokyo Skytree (and its Sumida Aquarium), Tokyo Tower, the Tokyo Toy Museum and the Lego Discovery Center.
Home to many key sites as well as shopping and dining, Asakusa is the top spot for many visitors. Kids of all ages will enjoy the unique architecture of Senso-ji, the most popular and famous temple in Tokyo. Don’t miss Nakamise Dori, a shopping street leading up to the temple that is an ideal place to shop for souvenirs and gifts.
Next, consider a visit to Tokyo Sky Tree, the tallest tower in Japan, located across the Sumida River from Asakusa. The tower is used to broadcast radio and TV, but has two observation decks that offer sweeping views of Tokyo and a vast shopping complex complete with an aquarium.
If you’d like to see Tokyo from the water, try the Tokyo Water Bus, which travels from Asakusa to the Port of Tokyo in Odaiba.
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Home to Ueno Station, one of the largest access points for travel around Japan, Ueno is also home to parks and several cultural sites. There are several family highlights in Ueno — most notably, Ueno Park, which features Shinobazu Pond with its lotus pond and rental boats, as well as the popular Ueno Zoo (giant pandas are the star). Ueno also inclues the National Museum of Science, which offers animal, space and dinosaur exhibits as well as a 3D theater.
Families will enjoy strolling around Ame-ya Yoko-Cho market, which originally cropped up as a place for selling sweets (ame) after WWII. Today, it is a huge bazaar that sells everything from chocolate to luggage.
Akihabara is the spot in Tokyo for all things electronic. Older kids will delight in the dizzying array of stores with every conceivable gadget and gizmo. For model train enthusiasts, Popondetta is a shop with a huge array of model trains. On the second floor, there is a Tokyo-themed model track that customers can rent by the hour.
Although not technically in Akihabara, the nearby Tokyo-Edo Museum (Ryogoku station) is a great place for families to learn about the Edo period in Japan (from 1603-1867) and what life was like during that time. Families flock here for the many well-signed models and exhibits that bring this time period to life.
This neighborhood is the seat of government in Tokyo. Its center is, of course, the Imperial Palace, but it is only open to visitors twice a year. The Imperial Palace East Garden does welcome visitors and is a popular spot for families. This area is easily accessed from most all of the neighborhoods mentioned, so it is a perfect place to tack on if you have the time.
Famed for its funky vibe and street style for Tokyo youth, Harajuku is home to many, many popular fashion shops and cafes. Harajuku will be a hit with teenagers looking to shop and explore. Kiddyland is a local favorite for its shops teeming with dolls, action figures, superheroes and other toys. Consider checking out one of the many conveyor-belt sushi shops for lunch or dinner.
Shinjuku is the epitome of central Tokyo: skyscrapers, neon lights, lots of people and plenty of amenities. Shinjuku has several luxury hotels that are well-suited for families and this neighborhood makes for an ideal home base. The Park Hyatt, the Hyatt Regency and Keio Plaza Hotel — which, in addition to standard rooms, offers Hello Kitty-themed rooms — are all good choices.
Shinjuku Goen National Garden might be the prettiest park in Tokyo. There are a variety of garden styles, including English, French and traditional Japanese gardens, and this spot is excellent for picture taking. Shinjuku Goen is a particularly popular spot in late March and April during cherry blossom season.
Takashimaya Times Square is a huge shopping complex. Families will appreciate the English-language (and translated manga) section at the popular bookstore Kinokuniya, as well as the food halls and souvenirs to be found at Takashimaya and Tokyu Hands.
Known for its central location and vibrant nightlife, Roppongi is another convenient neighborhood for family accommodations. The Ritz-Carlton Tokyo is actually attached to the Roppongi station.
Roppongi Hills is an entertainment complex with a vast array of shopping and dining options. At the base is a massive spider sculpture called Maman, and inside you can visit the observation deck on the 52nd floor of the Mori Tower or the Mori Art Museum. There is also the Robot Playground, which is a perfect place to blow off steam.
Shibuya is a bustling neighborhood known for its mix of department stores, shops, clubs and restaurants. This area makes for a great place to call home in Tokyo, and families can consider the Cerulean Tower Tokyo Hotel.
Dedicated to the spirit of Emperor Meiji, who died in 1912, and his wife, Empress Shoken, Meiji Shrine is one of the biggest tourist spots in the city. You will often find brides and grooms here taking their wedding photos. At Shibuya Crossing, among the busiest pedestrian crossings in the world, kids will delight in watching the craziness as people navigate this huge labyrinth. Take the time to find a good vantage point and watch the action start and stop as the lights change.
Another beloved stop in Shibuya is the Hachiko statue. Hachiko was a dog known for being extremely loyal to his master, whom he walked to the station each day. Even after his master died, Hachiko continued to visit the station each day to await his return. To find Hachiko, look for exit #8 from Shibuya station.
Yoyogi Park is a source of entertainment unto itself. Besides the green space that beckons kids of all ages and a cycling center for renting bikes, you will also be treated to plenty of interesting people-watching. Yoyogi is known as a gathering place for clubs and play rehearsals, and you will often find groups of people dressed up in poodle skirts and Elvis-inspired costumes playing American 1950s-era music, especially on Sundays.
Tsukiji is best known as the home of the world-famous Tsukiji fish market. Families willing to get up super early can line up for the daily live auction (except for Sundays), starting at 4:30a at the Kachidoki entrance. For those who prefer a later start, there is still plenty of action to see throughout the morning and lots of places to grab a sushi breakfast — Sushi Dai and Sushizanmai are popular.
Originally the home of Tokyo’s banking district, Ginza (Japanese for silver mint) is known for luxury shopping, restaurants and entertainment. If you are in the market for pearls, the Mikimoto flagship store is located here.
Closed to cars on the weekends, Chuo-dori is a great street to wander along and do some window-shopping. Kids will delight in the Hakuhinkan toy store, which has been a local staple for 30-plus years. If high-end stationery and paper goods (all nine floors of it!) are up your alley, duck into Itoya. At Ginza Crossing, there are several hugely popular department stores that you could lose yourself in for hours, including Mitsukoshi and Ginza Wako.
Ginza is also home to the national Kabukiza Theater. If your family is interested in partaking of this unique Japanese dramatic experience, consider getting tickets for a single act, a popular choice for tourists.
In between Ginza and Roppongi lies Tokyo Tower. Although technically in Shiba, this communications and observation tower, which looks remarkably like a red Eiffel Tower, is the main attraction here. The base of the tower contains many shops and restaurants and families can visit two different observation decks.
Located near the Port of Tokyo, Odaiba is known as a family entertainment and amusement district. A popular attraction for families is the Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation, which captivates with cutting-edge exhibits like Asimo the walking robot — all with excellent English explanations.
Kidzania is a sprawling indoor complex that lets younger kids try their hand at various real-world jobs, such as doctor or fireman, in a role-play setting. They can earn money and even deposit it in their own bank account. Note, Wednesdays are set aside as English-speaking days.
If the kids want a break from sightseeing and a chance to just play a zillion video games, perhaps a trip to indoor amusement park Joypolis is in order. And car enthusiasts may enjoy the mini-car racetrack, car simulators and showroom at Toyota Mega Web.
TIP: Families who happen to be in Tokyo during one of the two-week grand sumo tournaments held each year (in January, May and September) might enjoy visiting Ryogoku Kokugikan, the National Sumo Hall, for a peek at this ancient and intense physical art form. At other times, those interested can try to visit one of the many sumo stables for a view of training. Your hotel should be able to help you arrange either.
Tried and tested advice from parents who have been there.
Once you’ve had your fill of central Tokyo and would like to explore a bit farther afield, here are a few popular day trips:
Located in the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park, this mountain area about 100 miles west of Tokyo is known for its hot springs resorts, views of iconic Mount Fuji and Hakone Shrine, with its beautiful red torii gates.
The seaside town of Kamakura, south of Tokyo, is filled with Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. It is best known for the Great Buddha, a bronze statue that stands more than 40 feet high and has survived here since the 1400s. Kamakura is an easy day trip via train and kids can marvel at being able to dip their toes in the Pacific Ocean, presumably for the first time from the “other” side.
A very easy, quick (only 15 minutes from Tokyo Station) and well-signed trip east of Tokyo will take you to Tokyo Disney. The complex includes Tokyo Disneyland, Tokyo DisneySea and several hotels.
The train trip from Tokyo to Kyoto alone will be a highlight for young and old alike. The famous shinkansen (bullet train) whisks passengers more than 318 miles in under three hours. Getting around Kyoto is much simpler than in Tokyo, as taxis are plentiful and the historic district is fairly compact.
To get an authentic feel for Kyoto in two days, we suggest visiting the following sights:
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.
Ginkakuji. Visit the Temple of the Silver Pavilion, and perhaps take 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 is a good choice for wandering on a rainy day.
Fushimi Inari Shrine, famous for its thousands of red torii gates that continue along a 4-kilometer path.
TIP: Kyoto is known for its ryokans (traditional Japanese inns). To sample sleeping on tatami mats, taking a communal bath and eating kaiseki (traditional Japanese multi-course cuisine), give one of them a try. Ryokan Gion Hatanaka is a lovely choice.
Don’t stress about Japanese etiquette. The Japanese are quite forgiving to gaijin (foreigners) and attempts to adhere to local customs are met with appreciation. That being said, there are a few key things for families to keep in mind:
With a bit of planning and preparation, we’re willing to bet that Japan will earn a top spot on your list of memorable family vacations. Don’t expect to max out the days with endless tourist stops; instead, slow your pace and enjoy taking in all that Japan has to offer. Some of the most interesting moments may be those found in between the big sights. Take the time to help your family appreciate aspects of daily life in Japan, like children who regularly travel by themselves on trains or buses for over an hour to get to school each day. It will give everyone a very different perspective about life at home.
Editor’s Note: Photos by Amy Andrews except where noted.
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