Whether you are partial to fine dining, luxury shopping, cultural experiences, or scenic landscapes you’ll find the best of it in Japan. From remote glamping destinations to neon city lights, there will be no shortage of experiences to entertain you and your family.
There are few countries equally fascinating for both parents and children as Japan. This family-friendly destination will have you hopping from flashing neon lights to majestic mountain ranges within hours and introduce your family to an abundance of culture and flavour. Whether you are partial to fine dining, luxury shopping, cultural experiences, or scenic landscapes, you’ll find the best of it in Japan. Discover awkwardly inflating pufferfish and the famous tuna auction at Tsukiji Fish market, sip hot cocoa while indulging in dreamy views of Mt. Fuji, delve into the delicate art of sushi at a traditional sushi bar, meet the fun robots and rainbow-haired patrons of Harajuku, relax and unwind in the serenity of a natural onsen, and ski on the most powdery slopes you can imagine. Let’s be honest even the high-tech toilets are exciting in Japan, but the question is – where do you start?
Stepping into Gion is akin to being transported onto the dreamiest movie set, with refined, delicate details decorating every corner. Ancient shrines and classic bridges convene with picturesque blossoming trees creating a nostalgic calm which drifts through the streets of Kyoto. Your children will love greeting the elegant geisha traversing the city and will be fully enthralled in the intricate alleys and historic architecture. Dining is one of the highlights of the beautiful town encompassing both Michelin Starred kaiseki meals and quaint home cooking style restaurants. Take the family to explore the popular Nishiki Market and indulge in strawberry infused mochi, freshly torched toro, or creamy buns sure to satisfy any sweet tooth. Nara Deer Park, only a short train ride away from Kyoto Station and is a must see when in the Kyoto area. The park is home to hundreds of roaming deer eager to make friends or devour any treats you offer. Purchase deer crackers from the local vendors and watch them bow for the honour of a bite.
When searching for accommodation Four Seasons Kyoto offers the ultimate in contemporary luxury, while being set in a 800-year-old Shakusuien. The grand rooms overlook the historic pond, and boast luxurious yet minimal Japanese decor. You will find everything you need from a Michelin Star sushi restaurant to a variety of cultural activities and luxury amenities. Partake in a traditional tea ceremony at their quaint Shusui-tei, learn the art of the ninja, or dress in a traditional kimono during your stay. Their Experience Creators are there to help with immersing you and your family into the rich culture of the region and you won’t be short of space in the large suites which offer dedicated areas to dine, lounge, and sleep in luxury.
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For a more local experience book a traditional townhouse with Iori Machiya Stay. These wooden homes are over 90 years old, but have been refurbished for modern living. Stay along the Kumo River and wake to the peaceful ambience before enjoying breakfast in the traditional tatami dining room. Sleep upon plush mattresses, indulge in wooden bathtubs, and savour the historic design. Inclusive of underfloor heating, high-speed wifi, and on-call staff, you won’t miss the luxuries of an expensive hotel during the cultural and enlightening stay.
If you are craving something more remote, embark on a journey north towards Mt Fuji and discover the ultimate in family glamping at HOSHINOYA Fuji. Located at Lake Kawaguchi, the grounds are within easy access of the mountain, but hidden from the crowds of tourists and hotels. Their dedicated jeeps escort you up 700 meters into the surrounding woods for a fully immersive experience. They may have hinted at the word camping, but the luxury cabins are far from sleeping outdoors and questionable bathing situations. Each concrete cabin is minimal yet modern with two double beds, a luxurious bathroom, and small dining space facing the spectacular views. The highlight is the cosy outdoor terrace complete with a dining table, open fire, and full view of Mt Fuji. During the winter months the table incorporates a cosy heated cover, so you can enjoy your nightcap or tea while gazing at uninterrupted views of the fully visible stars and moon. Although the cabins are comfortable the point is the immerse in the great outdoors, so ascend the winding stairs to their Cloud Terrace and you’ll find elevated camping activities in the stylish outdoor space. Enjoy coffee or afternoon tea around an open campfire, learn to smoke food with wood chips in a state of the art outdoor kitchen, or simply take a hike through the enchanting woods. Children will love the daily wood chopping activity, roasting marshmallows on the bunsen burner, or simply relaxing as a family on the rustic yet luxe outdoor furniture.
Dining experiences are also inspired by the surrounding forest at HOSHINOYA Fuji and feature mouth-watering game, fragrant wild herbs, and a fusion of French and Japanese flavours. A camp style breakfast is served at your cabin each morning and dinners can be had outdoors or in the Alpine-style restaurant. Although you’ll feel miles from civilization, the resort is actually only a short taxi ride to the train station and surrounding town, so you can conveniently explore Mt Fuji during your stay. Families looking for a bonding camping experience with the added benefits of five-star luxury will have found their match.
You can’t visit Japan without having a traditional onsen experience and there’s no better place than Hakone, renowned for its therapeutic natural onsens. Easily accessible from Tokyo, the region is popular for day trips and weekend getaways with locals and tourists alike. Historically the mountainous area was a resting place for travel between Kyoto and Tokyo, and is now home to a cluster of traditional hot springs resorts. KAI by Hoshino Resorts offers a variety of cultural ryokans all featuring natural hot springs, classic yukata robes for the whole family, and kaiseki dining experiences utilizing local produce. Set along the Sukomo River, KAI Hakone is a tranquil choice for families looking to relax and unwind. Indulge in the semi-open onsens surrounded by natural woodland and delightful sounds from the trickling river. The ryokan rooms are an elevated take on traditional inns. Each tatami-matted room features serene seasonal views, plush mattresses, and natural wooden bathtubs. Dining experiences include premium Japanese beef hotpots served family style and a variety of local specialities.
For those who prefer a more modern approach, KAI Sengokuhara will suit your tastes. Located at Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park, you’ll be treated to sweeping mountain views and a more contemporary and minimalist design. The resort has a focus on art and is also a gallery featuring prominent work from local artists. Each room is enhanced with original art pieces and features light, stylish decor. The highlight at this ryokan is the private outdoor onsens on open terraces allowing space and privacy for your family. You can also take art lessons for all ages, with activities inspired by the regional culture and landscape. The dining is slightly more refined, with a concentration on locally sourced seafood and a delicate kaiseki selection. Children are treated to their own menu, also incorporating regional flavours, but prepared in a child-friendly manner. Make sure to head to the main town, adjacent to the train station before you depart. Shop for local delicacies and sample the famous soba restaurants before embarking to your next destination.
After a few days of relaxation, you’ll be buzzing for city lights and there’s no better place than Tokyo for energy and excitement. Check-in at The Ritz-Carlton, Tokyo’s sky lobby on the 45th Floor and enjoy staggering views of the enthralling city. The five-star hotel boasts 360-degree panoramic views, including Tokyo Tower and Mt. Fuji from their decadent suites and elegant Executive Club Lounge. Ritz Kidz packages include a Night Safari program complete with tent, flashlights, a ‘Home Planetarium’, and an explorer certificate encouraging them to discover and play within the hotel. Each child is provided with plentiful amenities, souvenirs to take home, and dedicated kids menus that suit even the pickiest eaters.
Jump on the Tokyo Metro and immerse with the locals while exploring the vibrant city. Harajuku is always a popular stop with rainbow coloured treats, eccentric crowds, and playful boutiques full of unique accessories and toys. For a more traditional approach, check out the Tokyo Toy Museum housed in a former elementary school. The wooden toy exhibits are set over two floors and are both historic and educational, with staff ready to entertain and teach the little visitors. You’ll be spoilt for choice once the hunger pains hit and piping hot bowls of ramen or a crisp tonkatsu over rice are always popular family dining options. Shibuya is bustling from morning to night with cafes and local eateries set alongside shopping malls and tax-free shops. Take a few photos on the infamously busy crossing and your children may even spot the real life Mario Kart characters whizzing by. For true foodies, Tsukiji Fish Market is a must, bursting with lively ambience and weird and wonderful delicacies. Show your children the cartoon like pufferfish and sample the freshest sushi imaginable. There is no shortage of fun and wonderful sights in Tokyo, or characters to keep you and your family endlessly entertained.
During the Winter Season you’re unlikely to find better fresh powder than Hokkaido, so head north and finish off your journey with an epic ski holiday. Hoshino Resorts Tomamu is a family-friendly option, suitable for all levels of skiers and those who are only in it for the apres-ski activities. Tomamu’s ski runs range from child-friendly beginner slopes to those that suit advanced ski enthusiasts, as well as backcountry tours, ski mobiling, and safe sledding areas for toddlers. Children will love the large indoor wave pool or ice skating and sliding at the nightly Ice Village. Food choices are abundant from the ski-in ski-out Hotalu Street to fine dining restaurants serving Hokkaido’s freshest seafood. Take the gondola up to their Unkai Terrace for once in a lifetime views above the clouds, and your children may believe they’ve stepped onto the set of Frozen when they come across the beautifully glistening “Terrace of Frost Tree.” Luxurious spacious suites are located in the Risonare building, where the rooms are complete with separate bedrooms, sweeping mountain views, and a gigantic whirlpool bath.
If you are more a city person and crave variety outside of a resort, stay in Hokkaido’s biggest city, Sapporo. During the month of February, the city lights up for Sapporo Snow Festival, where displays and interactive activities are spread throughout the snowy town. You can easily access sights in nearby areas by train or head to Asarigawa Ski Resort, just outside of the city, and sign the kids up for a day of ski school while you relax in a natural onsen. Don’t miss Hokkaido’s irresistible creamy ice cream and check back during their summer season for blooming flowers, majestic hikes, and a variety of wildlife adventures.
Whether you are travelling with babies or teenagers, the polite and welcoming people of Japan will be there to help. The cities are clean, well-organised, and always friendly to children. Healthy and delicious food options are endless and you are never short of activities or sights to see. If you plan on visiting more than one destination, purchase a JR Rail Pass before arrival for easy and fast transport throughout the country. The high-speed bullet trains are fun and comfortable for the whole family, so grab a Hello Kitty themed bento box for the ride and start your journey. ◼
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© This article was first published in June-July 2019 edition of World Travel Magazine.