In my role as a public relations officer for the Japan National Tourist Office in North America, I have traveled with my children to this far-off country on two occasions. Specifically, I took my daughter, Brianna (at age 6 and 8) to Japan twice, and my son (age 4) once. The first time, my daughter and I traveled together for 2 1/2 weeks over the New Year’s holiday, from Tokyo all the way to Miyazaki in Kyushu.
The second time, we traveled as a family, also during Japan’s New Year’s holiday. We stayed in Tokyo and then traveled North to Akita and Aomori prefectures, so that we could “take a bath outside in the snow”.
Here are some tips I hope other families find useful:
1. Combine traditional, cultural activities with activities that kids like to do:
For example, my daughter and I went to lots of temples and shrines, but we also went to lots of theme parks. We did not go to many museums. At the temples and shrines, we made sure she could do things. That is, she washed her hands and face with smoke (purification) as in the attached photo. She rang the bell and clapped her hands to wake up the gods, and she threw the money in. She was learning, but it was interactive. She really wanted to go to theme parks, so one day we’d do something traditional, and the next day we’d go to Ocean Dome (a water park), Universal Studios Osaka, TokyoDisneySea, Hello Kitty World, etc.
When we were there with my daughter and son on New Year’s Day, everything was closed, except the parks and shrines. We spent many hours enjoying Ueno Park. We were the only family riding the paddle boats on the lake that day and the kids loved it. We also walked around the park and went to the shrine there. We had our picture taken with a priestess — yes a female priest, which really impressed my daughter. We also passed a baseball field, and my son liked seeing it, even though no one was on it that day. One museum we did go to was on the island of Matsushima off the coast of Sendai, and it offered a history of Matsumoto Date, a warlord from Akita Prefecture. Because the World Cup had played in Sendai in 2002, all the displays had a button that played in English. The kids loved pressing the buttons! And, each exhibition diorama was three dimensional, so that was kind of cool for them.
2. Always have the kids bring a pad of paper and a pencil:
Brianna drew the monkey characters carved onto the shrine walls, the festival floats, and the taxi cabs with their lace seat covers.
3. Bring them to festivals, but make sure they can see:
They get anstsy when they are stuck behind all the crowds. On January 2, we brought the kids to the Imperial Palace Grounds in Tokyo, when the Emperor, Crown Prince, Crown Princess, et. al. come out to the balcony (behind the bullet proof glass). Seeing the royals wasn’t so exciting for them, but sitting on mom and dad’s shoulders to see all the crowds waving Japanese flags (that were given out for free) and being able to wave their own Japanese flags — – WAS exciting.
Also at the Imperial Palace grounds: After we got off the premises we ended up at a fountain. The kids loved running around the fountain with the Japanese kids. So, the chance to interact with local children — even if they can’t speak a common language other than fun — is a wonderful intercultural experience.
4. Japan is quite safe:
The Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP) ranked Japan as the sixth safest country in the world in 2013, following Switzerland and Austria. Even though we had long lines at theme parks and Brianna was only six, we separated, as long as I knew she was nearby. So, at Hello Kittyland, I waited the hour on line to get into Hello Kitty’s House, but I gave Brianna yen coins, so that she could play on the arcade machines. I gave her my watch and showed her that when the big hand was on the 6, she had to come back to the line. This way, she didn’t lose track of time while playing, and I didn’t have a whining kid standing on a line for an hour. By the way, when we finally got into Hello Kitty’s house, Brianna had a good time, with one major exception. She picked up the house phone to hear Hello Kitty’s voice, but to her shock and disappointment, Hello Kitty only in spoke Japanese!
5. You can find food the kids will eat:
Kids love to eat interesting food, as long as it’s not spicy. My kids fell in love with onigiri – Japanese rice balls wrapped in seaweed (sometimes stuffed with salmon or plums). We could buy them for a dollar a piece at the convenience store (7/11 or Lawsons) and this was always something they would eat. They also loved the Udon noodle soup, served with a huge bowl which we often shared. We didn’t have too much trouble communicating with sign language. People pay extra attention to you when you have two small kawai (cute) kids with you, and they really want to help.
6. Take the train:
Kids love to ride trains, which is not a problem in Japan, since there are so many of them. Even traveling around was not as much of a hassle as shoving the kids in a car or bus for two hours.
7. A great place to stay:
Accommodations in Japan, especially in Tokyo, can be expensive for families because stays are typically charged “per person” (with child discount) and not “per room.” However, if you are planning to stay at least a week in Tokyo and make day trips from town, Oakwood has long term apartments that can be reasonably-priced for a two-bedroom apartment with a kitchen! My kids had one bedroom and my husband and I had another. There was also a living room (with pull out couch if we needed it) and a laundry room! The kitchen had a full size refrigerator/freezer and oven/stove, and all manner of appliances from blender to toaster. It was an incredible deal. And, there are always vacancies and room for price negotiation during the holidays, because most corporations, who block out the apartments for their expat employees, release them at Christmas/New Years, as the employees go home. Visit Oakwood Tokyo’s website for more information.
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