Enigmatic and complex Japan is one of the most intriguing countries on earth. It’s the land of snow monkeys and Samurai legends, Ninja, Geisha, and the world’s oldest monarchy. But it’s also Tokyo and technology, Manga and Cosplay, teen-centric Takeshita-dōri, and awe inspiring family festivals.
Japan’s an island nation connected by high-speed bullet trains and much easier for a family holiday than you might imagine. Honshu is the main island, from here you can travel just about anywhere by air or rail. Tokyo or Kyoto are good city bases and, if you’re going to do both: visit hectic Tokyo first, then catch your breath in serene Kyoto.
Why go on holiday in Japan
Direct flight from UK
Direct flights from the UK to Tokyo year round take just under 12 hours.
Four distinctly different seasons
Japan’s seasons are clearly defined. Winter’s are cold and snowy; summer is hot and humid; and spring and autumn are the best times to visit for spectacular landscapes.
Tokyo’s restaurant capital of the world
In 2017, Tokyo had 304 Michelin Starred restaurants, more than anywhere else in the world.
World Heritage Japan
Japan has 20 UNESCO World Heritage sites including Mount Fuji and the tropical Ogasawara Islands.
You can ‘do’ Japan in a day
Slightly larger than Germany, Japan is covered in its entirety in just 12 hours by the Shinkansen Bullet Train. If you aren’t up for that challenge, it also speedily connects all provinces and major cities, and is definitely the way to get around.
End-to-End National Parks
Japan’s beautiful landscape is protected in 33 national parks. There are several in each province, and one of the most famous, Mount Fuji, is within two hours of Tokyo.
Extraordinary places to stay
From Capsule Hotels in Tokyo to 18th century townhouses in Kyoto, designer resorts, cool guesthouses and pretty villas by the sea or in the countryside, Japan has plenty of interesting place to stay.
Where to go
Japan’s capital is one of the most populated cities on earth. It’s so packed with people, practising musical instruments indoors is forbidden by law (look out for schoolkids playing violins in Yoyogi Park). The architecture’s astonishing: tall, glittering, splattered with media and crammed into every available space. Teenagers love it here: it’s the original ‘influencer’; international trends are named after districts; and shopping’s as relentless as weird and wonderful snacking. But Shinto temples tuck in between skyscrapers. You’ll find traces of Edo and the Shogun era everywhere. And, city kids are as passionate about Cherry Blossom as Cosplay.
Odaiba and Akasaka are two of the best city centre districts for hotels.
Harajuku is the main shopping district, home to Takeshita-dōri and Omotesando Avenue.
If you’re in Tokyo during Cherry Blossom Season, join the city’s pilgrimage to The Imperial Palace Gardens.
Climb up to the 235m high observation deck at Tokyo Tower and get your bearings before hitting the streets.
Visit Asakusa district for traditional shopping streets, historic festivals and iconic red lanterns everywhere you look.
Time it well at Meiji-jingu Shrine and you can often see breathtakingly lovely Shinto weddings at the temple.
Tokyo is a good base for visiting Mt. Fuji and Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park.
Don’t miss: Nihon Minkaen; Suntory Museum of Art; Tokyo Sky Tree; Yoyogi Park; Tōgō Shrine; Omotesandō-dōri; The Oriental Bazaar; Meiji Temple Shrine; Imperial Palace; Edo Wonderland; Tokyo Disneyland.
Relatively untouched by war or natural disasters, Kyoto is Japan’s most historic city. It was here that the Imperial Court was exiled during the reign of the Shogun, and nowhere else has so many ancient temples, shrines, gardens and districts. This is the city for tea ceremonies, the Gion Geisha quarter and charming traditional festivals. Alternatively, head downtown and immerse in 21st century Kyoto’s glossy designer shopping, major museums and galleries, award-winning restaurants, and non-stop noise.
Visit Nishiki Market in downtown Kyoto for kid-perfect tabearuki, ‘eat while you walk’, snacks.
The Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto are UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Osaka is only 30 minutes by train from Kyoto and Hiroshima is just over two hours.
Teenagers will love Sannen-zaka and Ninen-zaka Streets in southern Kyoto. The wooden buildings, geisha, teahouses and tiny shops are all 18th century Japan, but it’s also one of the city’s coolest quarters.
Don’t miss: the Golden Pavilion; Ninna-Ji temple complex; Gosho Imperial Palace; Pontochō Geisha District; Shijō Kawaramachi.
What to do
The Imperial Palace, Tokyo The Chrysanthemum Throne is the world’s oldest living monarchy. A guided tour of Tokyo’s Imperial Palace is interesting, but the gardens are spectacular.
Kaiyukan Aquarium, Osaka The world’s largest aquarium is just exactly as astounding as you’d expect.
Meiji-jingu Shrine, Tokyo For such a relentlessly busy city, Tokyo has a surprising number of Shinto shrines, this is the largest and by far the loveliest.
Suntory Museum of Art, Tokyo Art in Life is the theme at Suntory and the collection of Japanese art and design ranges from 10th to 21st century.
Mount Fuji, Central Japan There are dozens of different ways to experience Japan’s sacred mountain. You can stay in the national park, but it’s also less than two hours from Tokyo.
Shinkansen Bullet Train
The Shinkansen Bullet Train reaches top speeds of 320kmph, covers Japan and is the easiest way to travel. But it’s also a visitor attraction in its own right.
Snow Monkey Park
Every travel guide to Japan has images of the Jigokudani Snow Monkeys. The hot spring loving macaques can be seen in Jigokudani Park, north of Tokyo.
Yokohama Minatomirai, Tokyo
Tokyo Harbour is a must for everything from funfairs and zoos to fantastic restaurants and waterparks. It also looks stunning.
National Museum of Emerging Science, Tokyo
You can’t visit Tokyo without discussing technology, this is where to start the conversation with kids.
Fushimi Inari Taisha, Kyoto
One of the oldest and most important shrines in Japan, Fushimi Inari is famous for its 10,000 red Torii gates.
Educational value for kids
Finding the past in Tokyo isn’t as easy as you’d imagine. The city was almost entirely rebuilt after WWII and much of the history lost. But if you’re keen to explore era when Shogun ruled and Japan’s ancient rituals and traditions were born, visit Edo Wonderland. Just outside Tokyo, life in the Edo period’s reproduced flawlessly here, and it’s incredible.
Koka Ninja Village is the place where kids can learn to be Ninja for the day. The lethal assassin aspect is left a bit vague, but the dress-up and skill building are great fun. An hour by train from Osaka with a park shuttle from Koka Station.
Japanese children (and adults) are unfailingly polite, so it’s always a good idea to learn a few basic phrases, greetings and customs before you go on holiday.
You have to visit at least one Shinto shrine in Japan, it’s a fascinating experience. But nowhere else has so many rituals to observe: even walking through a Torii Gate has to be done in a specific manner. Older kids and teenagers will enjoy learning the customs.
Take teens to Takeshita-dōri in Tokyo. This legendary shopping district is where the Harajuku Girls were born and wannabes hang-out to drink Bubble Tea and buy ‘cos’. Incomprehensible to anyone over the age of 21, but teenagers love it. If you don’t do crowds, avoid Saturday afternoon.
From cherry blossom to first snowfalls, there’s very little Japan doesn’t celebrate with charming festivals. Every city has several throughout the year, so get a guide and plan to see at least one – especially if there’s fire or fireworks involved.
Find out what’s on at the National Art Centre in Tokyo. It’s the largest cultural space in Japan. There’s no permanent collection, but the year round programme of events, exhibition and performance is considered to be one of the best worldwide.
Getting around with kids in Japan
Air and rail is the way to go between provinces and cities in Japan. If you book international flights with a Japanese carrier, book domestic flights at the same time, it works out considerably cheaper. The national rail company, JR Network Transportation, has a wide range of inexpensive family rail passes for travel all over the country, they also operate the Shinkansen ‘Bullet Train’. City transport is universally excellent, so always avoid taxis, and use local buses, trains and underground services instead.