Imagine, if you will, a child so completely fanatical about Japan that he was well versed in the history of feudal Japan before he understood basic addition, attempts to create DIY samurai armour from paper plates and egg cartons, has his heart set on a career as a ninja and swears he has ramen broth running through his veins.
Imagine a second child. One who habitually dresses in a kimono then kneels on the floor to eat her cheese and crackers with chopsticks, thinks Hello Kitty should be beatified and is even partial to the occasional haiku.
Now imagine the reaction when I told the aforementioned fanatics that I am heading to Osaka … without them. 10 points if you are visualising Oscar-worthy protests, melodramatic meltdowns, a couple of Olympic standard tantrums and even the odd early morning ninja attacks.
To ease their pain, we’ve been turning a little Japanese in the lead up to my trip, so their high performance sulking has been interspersed with me cooking up their favourite Japanese dishes like Okonomayaki, Takoyaki and Gyoza, bingeing on Studio Ghibli movies and recalling happy memories of our previous family travel in Japan.
It’s put them in such a Japanese frame of mind that they spent a week of their school holidays in their “dojo” compiling lists of why they fell so hard for Japan, and have created this absolutely epic post on the best things to do in Japan with kids, by kids!
1. The Japanese people
Politeness is Japan’s national pastime. Whether you are buying a train ticket or an a la carte meal, the service is incredible. Maybe its because we were visiting Japan with kids and they took pity, but people are helpful to the point of stalking. Seriously all you have to do is hold a map and look confused and you’ll be immediately rescued by the nearest available random Japanese stranger who will not only point you in the right direction but virtually piggy-back you to your destination, even if it’s three blocks out of their way.
He said: “The people in Japan didn’t speak much English but were so helpful and really kind which is lucky because between them my mum and dad can’t read a map to save themselves and we would have spent the whole trip lost. The Japanese are the most polite and nice people on earth. I really liked them”.
She said: “I loved all the girls with coloured hair and pretty costumes. They let me be in pictures with them. I want to dress like them when I’m bigger. But the nicest person in the whole country was my friend Mayo”.
2. Dining in Japan with kids
From cheap eats on the street to Michelin starred magic, Japan gets food right every time, especially for kids. Almost. There is a fairly strong case to be made against shirako soup, made from cod semen. And Fugu, the sashimied flesh of a puffer fish that boasts a neurotoxin 1,200 times stronger than cyanide and occasional side effects like death. But with those few exceptions, Japanese food rocks their, and my, world.
The big cities, including Tokyo, makes food easy to find too, with compartmentalised specialty food streets making it even easier to find what you’re looking for. While it would take me a day to write up a definitive list of the kids’ faves, I’d wager a guess that plump porky gyoza, bath tub size bowls of ramen, delicate sashimi and sushi, crispy ka’arage chicken, golden tempura, chubby strands of udon noodles, steaming shabu shabu, jiggly agadashi tofu, and all the yaki’s – Teri, Teppan, Okonomo Tako, would be top of their pops. But I’ll leave it to them to tell you more.
He said: “I hope you have a while because they have a lot of food and it is awesome! I had so many favourites like gyoza, sushi, sashimi, udon and shabu shabu (a dish of raw beef slices that you cook yourself in hot broth). In Osaka I could have eaten takoyaki and okonomayaki all day long and gave it a good try. And don’t even get me started on the ramen, that’s a whole other topic. But the number one food experience I’ve ever had was going to Tsukiji Fish Markets with a super duper master sushi chef, Chef Oba. He took me shopping (and tasting) for the fresh ingredients for his restaurant. It was the coolest place I’ve ever been. Actually, the second coolest, Chef Oba’s restaurant just edged it out for first place because the food he made was so good it blew my head off.”
Eds note: The wholesale market of Tsukiji Market closed in October, 2018 and moved to a new site in Toyosu.
She said: “I loved the udon noodles in Ise because they were so fat and yummy. And the gyoza. But I loved all the sushi most, because it is my favourite food”.
3. Eating Ramen in Japan
OK, so technically this should probably fall under food, but eating ramen in Japan isn’t about scoffing a bowl of soupy noodles, it’s a national sport. And it’s complicated. There are around 26 regional varieties of the super soup, though most are categorised by broth types, shoyu (soy sauce), miso (fermented bean paste), shio (salt), and tonkotsu (pork bone) types. Whichever you opt for, they’re all amazing, super filling and meant to be eaten fast. And best of all you can buy it everywhere, from 7-Eleven to Tokyo Ramen Street in Tokyo Station, where we favoured a wee place called Rokurinsha and its tsukemen, a non-traditional ramen where the noodles are served separately to the steaming broth. And kids love it!
He said: “Ramen broth runs in my veins. I love the stuff that much I really couldn’t live without it and in Japan it is everywhere. There are all different kinds and I had to try all of them. I even learned to make ramen. But my favourite spot for Ramen was Ramen Street. It’s cool because you buy the ramen from a vending machine and then collect the soup. My favourite was the no.1 tsukemen dipping ramen at Rokurinsha, its broth was so good I wanted to swim it.”
She said: “I like the noodles from the ramen my daddy had because it didn’t have any soup on top, and I tried to eat them all. And I liked taking turns at putting money in the machines”.
4. Japan’s kids friendly quirky Cafes
With all due respect, Japan is a batshit crazy mix of the conservative, cute and completely frigging bizarre and nowhere is this more obvious than in it’s many themed restaurants, most of which seem to be have been conceived during some kind of acid flashback. But not all of these kawaai cafes are suitable for kids, with many rocking very adult themes or are otherwise problematic, like the restaurant where there are trained monkey waiters and the inexplicable hedgehog and owl cafes, which are needlessly cruel to wild animals.
But there are plenty you can visit in Japan with kids including domestic cat cafés where you pay a surcharge for cat hair in your coffee, restaurants where you are served by ninjas, and others (for older kids only) where patrons are handcuffed in a cell while they dine. The candy hued ocular onslaught that is Harajuku’s Monster Restaurant, and then there’s the most famously wacky of them all, the mind-bending Robot Restaurant … the only place I know of where you can watch as a giant shark ridden by a mermaid devours an armoured alien warrior while you eat your bento box.
He said: “There were so many insane cafes and restaurants like Ninja Restaurant that had real ninjas and edible shuriken, but my favourite was Robot Restaurant which is the weirdest place I’ve ever been. There were crazy robot sharks and mermaids and battling pandas and more weirdness than I’ve ever seen in one place in my entire life. I wish we could have gone twice.
She said: I liked the cat cafes. I made mummy and daddy stop every time we saw one. You don’t really eat food and you don’t eat the cats either you play with them. And they are real and soft and fluffy and I liked cuddling them and patting them”.
5. Japanese confectionary with kids
Japan has a serious sweet tooth. There are bakeries, dessert and cake shops literally everywhere. Shops selling delicate mochi and daifuku (sweet rice cakes) or freaky flavoured soft serve ice creams are located on every other corner and combinis (convenience stores) are packed full of sweet treats, including around ten thousand flavours of Kit-Kat. Not that we’re complaining!
He said: “OMG! There are so many different flavoured chocolates and ice creams. They even have octopus flavoured soft serve. But my absolute favourite thing was the turbo charged Kit Kats that come in loads of different flavours like toasted cheesecake, raspberry and green tea. They even have mad flavours like wasabi and baked potato. The green tea ones are so epic we bought back about ten million packets of them”.
She said: “I loved their Kit Kats and the pocky sticks. Raspberry and green tea were my favourite because they were so yummy”.
6. Japan’s elaborate toilets
Japanese toilets take taking the piss to a whole other level. Unlike the rest of Asia and their basic squat toilets, Japan’s elaborate and intuitive commodes come with a dizzying variety of features, like bum warming seats, auto flushing, turbo-arse spas and hoo-ha dryers. Something, it must be said, which is more than a little disturbing to the uninitiated. For the modest, some even produce music or white noise to drown out the sounds of any toilet action. When first navigating Japan with kids, its worth introducing them to the many buttons before they get shocked by the instant flush or the mysterious massage function. We cam across toilets with a myriad of other functions that do God only knows what else… I wasn’t brave enough to find out.
He said: “The first time I sat on a toilet in Japan I freaked out a bit. The seat was so warm I thought I’d wet myself. Then it squirted me with water, blew air up my butt and started singing at me in Japanese. Freaky! But once I got the hang of them I thought they were epic.”
She said: “I loved the toilets because they were warm and they flushed themselves and they sang songs. And the one in the Hello kItty place had Hello Kitty toilet things”.
7. Public transport in Japan with kids
Japan’s efficient public transport is a feat of epic proportions with train stations that see upwards of 3,500,000 people pass through with ease in a single day. They are also clean, fast and punctual to the second. Then there are the Shinkansen bullet trains that run at speeds of close to 300km an hour and serve snacks and enough booze to turn peak hour into happy hour. And the whole system interconnects with local funicular railways, cable cars, buses and even ferries. Genius. Find out more about navigating Japan’s railway system here.
He said: “The bullet trains are totally awesome. They look like snakes and go around 300 kilometres per hour, which is super fast. You can travel from one side of the country to the other really quickly and they serve food on them. Score!”
She said: “The train stations in Japan were so big and there were so many people that I always held mama’s hand in case I got lost”.
8. Japan’s Temples & Shrines
There are at least eleventy million Buddhist temples and torii-gated Shinto shrines dotted around Japan and every one of them is special in its own way. If I could have I would have visited them all but I’d been made acutely aware of how quickly temple fatigue can set in when touring Japan with kids, so I tried to keep templing to a dull roar. Turns out I needn’t have worried because Raff and Sugarpuff loved the stunning temples and their beautiful rituals as much as I did.
He said: “Mum and dad were worried we’d get bored but the temples in Tokyo and Kyoto are way too cool for that. I loved Gotukji, the lucky cat temple in Tokyo, and the thousands of orange Torii gates at Fushimi Inari. And there was an epic one dedicated to a cranky fire God called Fudyomo in Narita. But my favourite was actually a small temple next door to our hotel (Sanjusangendo Temple) that had one thousand life-size statues of a Thousand Armed Buddha. While I was there I got to choose a lucky charm from a basket. By chance I picked Benzaiten who symbolises wit, words and music, so she was kind of like a rock star. I was totally down with that.”
She said: “The pretty Golden temple (Kinkakuji) was nice because it was so shiny but my favourite was the red one (Fushimi Inari) because there were lots of foxes and I got a fox mask to bring home.”
9. Japan’s distinct Islands
The four main islands of Japan are: Hokkaido, Shikoku, Kyushu and Honshu, the largest island, on which the capital, Tokyo, is located. But the island has over 6,000 smaller islands, of which only approximately 430 are inhabited. Some of the best for visitors are tiny Mikimoto Pearl Island in Ise, which exhibits pearls and pearl crafts, and fascinating shows featuring the famous ama divers, and gorgeous Okinawa, with its glorious beaches, incredible snorkelling and distinctly subtropical climate. But it is the cool and quirky animal islands we love best. There’s Cat Island, a few hours by train from Matsuyama, where cats outnumber the residents 6 to 1 and the super kawaii Okunoshima, the Rabbit Island, a curious enclave here over 1,000 bunnies run free, off the coast of Hiroshima, which can best be reached from Shin-Osaka or Hiroshima by Shinkansen.
He said: “Japan is actually made up of a bunch of different big and little islands. I really love Hokkaido because there’s epic powder snow resorts like Hoshino Tomamu but the little island with cats and stuff are super cool too”
She said: “I love the Bunny island because it has bunnies.”
10. On the warrior trail in Japan with kids
The samurai were the warriors of pre-modern Japan. While you aren’t likely to bump into many on the streets today, given they no longer exist, the influence of the noble warriors still manifests itself deeply in Japanese culture. Samurai heritage is still prevalent, meaning sociopathic boys like Raffles can easily get up close to as many bows, arrows, spears and swords as humanly possible. They can even join in with Samurai batto training in Tokyo. Then there are the ninjas, the stealthy assassins that acted as covert agents and mercenaries in feudal Japan, though their history is more shrouded in secrecy because, well… they’re ninjas. And though, like the samurai, they allegedly no longer exist I suspect the wily wee buggers are still everywhere, hiding in the shadows wondering how the hell they became mutant reptiles and why they are portrayed in the western world as noshing on pizza instead of sushi.
He said: “I’m a bit obsessed with samurais and ninjas. In fact, I want to be a ninja when I grow up, even though I don’t think it’s an actual job. The best thing about Japan was that the pace is full of warriors. There were samurai theme parks (Edo Wonderland) and movie studios (Toei Studio Park) and a samurai training place (Samurai Kembu Theatre) where I got to learn the art of the samurai. And there are ninjas everywhere… but you probably won’t see them because they are that stealthy.”
She said: “I like ninjas. I even saw girl ninjas at a show and they were really clever and had fire and did magic”.
11. Hello Kitty in Japan
The birthplace of Hello Kitty, the kawaii cat is inescapable in Japan. From themed snacks and plush, kimono-clad kitties in every other store, to Hello Kitty theme parks and hotel rooms, Sugarpuff was in Hello Kitty heaven. Raffles on the other hand was left heaving at the avalanche of Sanrio sweetness.
He said: “OMG. You can’t say Hello Kitty without saying “hell”. Everywhere we looked was Hello Kitty. It made my sister really happy, which is good, but I kind of hated it. Except the Hello Kitty dumplings because I could eat them in the face.”
She said: “I got to meet Hello Kitty and cuddle her (at Universal Studios) and we got to sleep in a Hello Kitty room in Tokyo (Keio Plaza) and it was the happiest day of my life”
12. Theme Parks in Japan with kids
Japan loves a theme park and, along with the world-renowned brand names like Disneyland and Universal Studios and Legoland, all of which are utterly fantastic in their Japanese incarnations, like Tokyo DisneySea, which is unique to Japan. There are a few that are quite understandably themed around the samurai era and ninjas, like Edo Wonderland, Nikko Edomura and Toei Studio Park in Kyoto, each of which is fab fun. But then there’s Sanrio Puroland, a theme park entirely devoted to Hello Kitty and Shinyokohama Ramen Museum which doubles as a noodle-themed amusement park. But the most baffling of them all are the hula influenced Spa Resort Hawaiians, the Spanish stylings of Spain Mura, and recreation Dutch town, Huis Ten Bosch.
He said: “There are loads of super cool ninja and samurai theme parks with cool obstacle courses and battling warriors. I really loved those but my favourite places was the epic Tokyo Disney Sea, and the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios. It was like being at Hogwarts and I got to drink butter beer and go to Ollivanders to buy a wand.”
She said: “I loved meeting Hello Kitty at Universal Studios but I liked Disneyland Tokyo too because it had loads of fun rides and my favourite was the Buzz Light year ride because I got to ride in a cart and shoot Zorg’s machines with laser blasters”.
13. Family accommodation in Japan
There is plenty of Japanese accommodation that caters to families, but it is wise to keep in mind that Japan’s hotels are famous for their somewhat ambivalent view of anything resembling actual space. While location and price are what most families look for in a hotel, in Japan it’s wacky pop culture references! With quirky themed hotel suites dedicated to everything from robots and Godzilla to Snoopy, Hello Kitty and The Minions, they certainly can’t be accused of being beige or boring. A more conservative option is a Ryokan, a type of traditional Japanese inn that originated in the Edo period. These were a particular favourite with the kids who loved camping out on the floor mats. But not all Japanese hotels are so unusual. At the top end of town we experienced the rather ravishing Pullman Tokyo Tamachi and the jaw dropping Aman Tokyo, which provided the ultimate in urban luxe with fine cuisine and service that borders on the reverential. And we liked it.
He said: “We stayed at some awesome hotels. I loved staying at a Ryokan, because we got to sleep n the floor like we were camping and play Ryokan shadow puppet theatre, which is a game we totally made up with a torch and the washi paper screens. But my favourite place we stayed was the Aman Hotel. Our room had views of the whole city and a toilet that had so many buttons and did so many tricks it was like being in Darth Vader’s bathroom. There were so many that I was scared I’d hit the wrong button and I’d launch the whole toilet into space. But I also loved it because being in the hotel felt like being inside a giant lantern and the swimming pool had glass walls that made it feel like we were swimming in the sky. Oh, and they had the best breakfast in the world and the staff were super nice.”
She said: “My favourite hotel was the Hello Kitty one (Keio Plaza Hotel) because I was so happy because it was a big surprise from mama and when we opened the door everything was Hello Kitty even the walls and the carpet and they left me Hello Kitty cuddlies and there was a giant cuddly Hello Kitty that was bigger than me. I cried and cried when I had to leave.”
Click here for even more tips on the best accommodation in Japan
14. Japans mega toyshops
The ultimate shopping destination for kids, Japan is renowned for creating some of the most cute, fun and utterly eccentric toys in the world. The Japanese love a dedicated store and you’ll find dozens that obsessively stock toys specific to single characters or series, including the ubiquitous aforementioned puss and snoopy (who the Japanese seem to have a slavish devotion to) to the more techy Gundam, ethereal Ghibli characters and Poké everything. If you’re a pop culture fan, Akihabara Radio Kaikan has 10 floors of plastic models as well as rare and vintage collectibles. But the ultimate destination for toy loving kids is the Omotesando branch of Kiddy Land, a multi-level mecca of all the crap kids love best.
He said “There were lots of gadgety toy shops selling cool roboty things and there are loads of shops selling things like Gundam models, which is totally epic because I love Gundam. But there was a toyshop in Harajuku (Kiddy Land) that was a zillion stories high and filled with the coolest gadgets and toys I’ve ever seen. We’d saved our pocket money for ages and ages just to go here and mum and dad let us buy whatever we liked with it. Booyah!”
She said: “There were lots of Hello Kitty shops but my favourite place was the giant toy store that sold every toy ever (Kiddy Land). I got to buy a Hello Kitty and a funny singing ninja hamburger that really annoys my mama”.