Even sea bream is not delicious when eaten in loneliness.Japanese proverb
Many of the Selective Asia team will tell you that Japan is their ultimate family destination. It’s safe and fun, with a high-tech culture that feels familiar from afar and yet astonishingly different in reality. There’s a plethora of delicious food, reassuringly fastidious hygiene, and a feeling of genuine reciprocity wherever you go.
A typical Japan family itinerary is full of culture and history to delve straight into. You might assume it’d be tricky to get teenagers excited about a tea ceremony or calligraphy class, but there’s something in the air that makes it all slightly mesmerising and aspirational, even to very young minds. We pepper each family itinerary with a few lighter experiences too, such as a day at Disney, a samurai swordplay class, or creating a kawaii character bento lunch. Many families return to Japan for a second helping, as you’re unlikely to see everything on your wish list in just a couple of weeks, but it’s enough time to get a thrilling taste of what’s on offer and dive into some truly memorable experiences.
Family is so important in Japanese culture, and visiting families often report back to us on their delightful experiences of feeling truly welcomed.
We know there’s no such thing as ‘fun for the whole family’, and there are always compromises to be made in a country with such a wealth of choice (more time in Tokyo Disney or extra days on an Osaka foodie frenzy?) but Japan genuinely delivers on that overused travel cliche ‘something for everyone’. If you want a gentle couple of weeks on a beach, this might not be the place (though Japan does have a few excellent beaches...) On the other hand, if you’re eager to take your family on a multi-stop cultural and historical adventure, Japan hits all the right notes.
Boom! You’ve arrived in Japan’s iconic capital and, although it feels like a weird whirlwind, you instantly love it. You're tired, and your room beckons, but can you believe it... there’s a great big Gojira (Godzilla) scaling your hotel?! Time to head out for dinner at one of the hundreds of eateries right in front of you... and above and below too! Never dismiss what looks like just an office block - there are amazing restaurants and experiences hidden behind unassuming exteriors all across the city. The reputation of the ‘robot restaurant’ makes it popular for that first night wow factor, but its sensory-overload music, laser and neon dance show isn’t for everyone.
Take a peek at the world’s largest fish market, marvel at the austere beauty of Meiji Shrine, and delve into the eccentric subculture of the Akihabara and Harajuku neighbourhoods; the gaming centres are a must, even if you don’t play. Bag some Hello Kitty merchandise on the UFO catchers, or step into a virtual reality zombie apocalypse at Sega’s Joypolis indoor theme park. Do you do Disneyland at this stage, at the end, or not at all? Whatever you choose, we’d recommend at least three nights in Tokyo to sample its delights without complete exhaustion! Whoever you are, Tokyo will blow your mind.
The train journey from Nagoya to Takayama is really lovely. Wide-view windows frame the beautiful countryside as the rails meander through it. Takayama is one of the best places to experience Japanese omotenashi at its pinnacle by staying in a ryokan. Think tatami floors, sliding paper doors, blissful onsen, traditional lacquerware, and one of the best meals you are ever likely to have anywhere.
Whether you stay in Takayama or the smaller nearby Hida Furukawa, you’ll get to experience both. After telling your ryokan what time you would like to eat dinner (which will include the famous local wagyu), head out to the old town, Sanmachi Suji, where evocative dark wood latticed buildings line your route. Jump on a bike or wander through the town on foot, with your guide on hand to show you the sights from a local perspective. Taste some of the Edo period street food on offer and visit a number of sake breweries dotted around town for a free tasting (although they very much hope you will buy). You needn’t stay out too long, as you’ll be eager to get back to the ryokan and don your yukata for an early-evening stroll before enjoying a heavenly dinner and a deep soak in the onsen.
Arriving into Kyoto’s modern station you might find yourself thinking, ‘This isn’t what I expected!’ Contrary to much imagery of the city, large parts of Kyoto are strikingly modern, but you’ll soon discover those timeless pockets that everyone talks about. They start to open up until you are tracking a seam and can see it all around you. The soul stirring beats of traditional Taiko drumming feel more appropriate here than anywhere else, and your instructor will make sure you get the basic rhythms of this highly-skilled art just right. Gion - always busy with like-minded travellers looking to catch a glimpse of an exquisite geisha or maiko san - is a unique place for an evening stroll through ‘the floating world’.
The UNESCO-listed castle is fantastic, with its working nightingale floor (designed to detect intruders) adding a level of intrigue to the atmosphere. The gleaming golden Kinkakuji temple, even if seen only from a distance, is utterly perfect. Wander through Arashiyama’s iconic bamboo grove, taste some of the area’s famous unagi (grilled eel), and have your favourite ‘go to’ cartoon characters in mind to make from edible treats in a Kyaraben character bento class. There are so many family-friendly things to do in the cultural capital and your guide will help you choose the best times to visit each area to avoid the crowds.
Hiroshima is, naturally, a main sight on the trail and is an effervescent, friendly and beautiful town. Many families are hesitant about visiting, which is understandable, but we do recommend a stay. The shinkansen journey from Kyoto is short and easy, there are a number of really nice hotels, including the Sheraton which is actually part of the station. When you head out for dinner, make sure you try Hiroshima’s version of Osaka’s famous okonomiyaki, the savoury ‘full-of-everything’ pancake which is delicious and very kid-friendly.
It’s utterly sobering to try and comprehend the horror and destruction visited on this city, but visiting the Peace Park and museum at the site where the bomb arrived is an important and extremely moving thing to do in remembrance. School children from across Japan make pilgrimages to Hiroshima to remember, as the number of survivors to tell the story has dwindled. These devastating events are still perhaps the single biggest influence on the Japan we see now and, though very emotional, a visit with your guide to understand through the eyes of the city’s citizens is crucially educational.
Round off your visit with a gentler activity, by taking a kayak out to the island of Miyajima and its UNESCO-listed shrine, and float through one of Japan’s most photographed scenes: the red tori gate which marks the entrance to the sacred space.
Another burst of shinkansen hyperspeed and, before you know it, you’re rolling into Osaka for a bit of indulgence to finish your Japan family adventure. Brash, flamboyant, amusing and a challenge to many preconceived ideas about Japan, Osaka is home to everything you could possibly want to buy and, more importantly, eat. It might not have the diverse sights of Tokyo, but it is very, very cool and unquestionably the country’s foodie capital. It’s a really relaxed, fun place to spend your last nights in Japan.
Dotonbori is insanely retro, colourful, noisy and boisterous; a real crowd pleaser, and the perfect place for an inexpensive street dinner. Takoyaki, or octopus balls, are the city’s speciality: small, fluffy, doughy balls filled with octopus meat, which are usually served very hot, garnished with delicious sauce and mayonnaise, and (if you’re old enough!) accompanied by a super cold Asahi Super Dry. If you’ve got the flexibility to stay for an extra night, then perhaps squeeze in a visit to the nearby Universal Studios Japan, or a session of supervised shuriken star throwing at the nearby ninja museum.
We don’t want to over-prescribe your trip for you, and almost anything is possible, so any or all of the above can be changed. If you’re a super-outdoorsy family, you might want to do some hiking in the central alps, or perhaps add in a little gentle beach bliss by heading to subtropical Ishigaki...the list goes on, so let’s talk.
The guide price of £3,090US$3,590 is a per person price (not including international flights) staying a total of 4 nights in Tokyo, 2 nights in Takayama, 3 nights in Kyoto, 2 nights in Hiroshima and 1 night in Osaka; all in our favourite mid-range hotels.
How yours looks is up to you, our tailor-made specialists work with you to create your perfect journey.
Hop on a bike and journey through Japan’s south-eastern regions on the Shimanami Kaido trail, 60km cycle path over the Seto Inland Sea, travelling across an extremely scenic route across six islands, including the outstanding Naoshima, also known as the art island, where you can find Yayoi Kusama’s famous pumpkin.