Japan ticks all the boxes for a dream family vacation— it’s impeccably clean, safe, and orderly, with a slew of kid-friendly attractions and activities of all kinds. From Tokyo to Niseko, here’s a guide on where to bring out the inner child in you.
At first glance, the hurried Japanese capital might not seem like an ideal destination for travelers with children in tow. But look beyond its crowded streets and you’ll find large open spaces such as Shinjuku Park and Ueno Park for your kids to run around and get some exercise; these two also transform into major cherry blossom viewing spots in spring. The Imperial Palace ( sankan.kunaicho.go.jp) is the place to be if you’re in town on December 23 or January 2, when you can enjoy rare access to the palace’s inner gardens by joining the throngs celebrating the Emperor’s birthday and wishing him a happy new year.
Less than an hour’s ride westward from Tokyo Station is the city of Mitaka, where the Ghibli Museum ( ghibli-museum
.jp) showcases the works of Studio Ghibli, maker of Japan’s top anime films including Spirited Away. Meanwhile, fans of the One Piece manga series should head to One
Piece Tower ( onepiecetower.tokyo), an indoor theme park inside Tokyo Tower.
Odaiba is a must-visit for those with school kids and teens. This artificial island in Tokyo Bay has plenty to keep them entertained—make sure you see the lifesized Gundam robot at DiverCity Tokyo
Plaza ( mitsui-shopping-park.com) and the walking robot named Asimo at the Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation ( miraikan.jst.go.jp). Don’t leave without stopping by Tokyo
DisneySea ( tokyodisneyresort.jp) in Urayasu, Chiba. The world’s only Disney theme park with a nautical theme, it’s a 71-hectare wonderland where you can see Ariel come to life in a theatrical performance or let your older kids conquer the stomach-churning Journey to the Center of the Earth. Those with little kids will love Sinbad, Aquatopia, and Jasmine’s Flying Carpets; make sure you also catch the impeccable water parade.
YOKOHAMA AND KAMAKURA
Only 45 minutes from Tokyo by train, the more relaxed port city of Yokohama is a welcome respite from the capital’s downtown crowds. Alight at Sakurachigo Station to reach Yokohama’s waterfront Minato Mirai district, which is packed with familyfriendly attractions. Your first stop should be the Kenzo Tange–designed Landmark Tower, whose 69th-floor Sky Garden is the city’s highest observation deck with views of Mount Fuji and Tokyo’s skyline on a clear day. The fourth floor of Landmark Tower houses Pokémon Center ( pokemon.co.jp), a boon for Pokémon fans of all ages. Pikachu parades take place every summer, typically in August, in the mall below before spilling out into the neighboring streets.
Beside Landmark Tower are three educational venues situated mere meters from each other: Mitsubishi Minato-Mirai Industrial Museum ( mhi.co.jp), Yokohama Museum of Art ( yokohama.art.museum), and the newly renovated Orbi Yokohama ( orbiearth.jp)— a high-tech collaboration between Sega and BBC Earth. At the other side is the interactive Cup Noodles Mu
seum ( cupnoodles-museum.jp) where kids learn about the life of Momofuku Ando, the inventor of instant ramen, and get to create their own version of the popular treat. Not far away are waterfront public spaces like
Aka-renga Park and the wide promenade of Yamashita Park.
Kamakura, a former capital, is barely half an hour’s train ride from Yokohama Station and home to centuries-old temples, shrines, and traditional Japanese houses. As such, it’s a good option for those in Tokyo who don’t have the time to visit Kyoto. Kids will be amazed by the Daibutsu, an 11-meter-high outdoor statue of the Buddha at Kotoku
in ( kotoku-in.jp) temple, while the viewing deck of hillside Hase-dera ( hasedera.jp), another Buddhist sanctuary, offers vistas over Kamakura’s low-rise rooftops and Sagami Bay. The city also has a small owl “forest” where kids can pet different kinds of owls; it’s situated inside a building along the main shopping street, Komachi Dori.
Japan’s third-largest city after Tokyo and Yokohama is the primary gateway to the Kansai region in south-central Honshu. The main draw for families visiting Osaka is Universal Studios ( usj.co.jp), which was Asia’s first Universal Studios theme park when it opened in 2001. Famous for attractions such as The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Minions, and Shrek, it also has draws centered on Hello Kitty and Snoopy. Osaka
Castle is a must-see for older children interested in Japan’s feudal history, while the surrounding parkland periodically hosts outdoor events where you can try traditional street food. Across the Kyu-Yodo River, Kids Plaza Osaka ( kidsplaza.or.jp) is an enormous play zone and science museum with direct access to Ogimachi subway station. Other standouts include the bayfront
Osaka Aquarium ( kaiyukan.com), one of the world’s largest, and Legoland Discov
ery Center ( osaka.legolanddiscoverycenter.jp) in Tempozan Market Place next door. And with Kyoto, Nara, and Kobe just a short hop away, the potential for side trips is endless.
Heading to Japan for your winter vacation? One recommended option is Hakuba in the Japanese Alps. Just outside Nagano City, which is 80 minutes from Tokyo by bullet train, Hakuba played host to several events at the 1998 Winter Olympics. Evergreen In
ternational Ski School ( evergreen-skischool .com) provides lessons for all ages, with children aged three to six enrolled in its Yeti Club. Lodgings at Sierra Resort Hotel
Hakuba ( sierrahakuba.com) start from a spacious 36 square meters, with thoughtful details like kid-sized yukata and a large communal garden that tranforms into a snowy playground. Closer to the nearest ski area and restaurants, Hakuba Springs
Hotel ( hakuba-springs.com) has large family rooms and native English-speaking staff. Both hotels offer equipment rentals. Beyond the pistes, side trips include
Matsumoto Castle ( matsumoto-castle.jp)— known for its original keep from the late 16th century—and the famous Japanese macaques at Jigokudani Monkey Park ( en.
jigokudani-yaenkoen.co.jp). End each excursion with a soak at your hotel’s onsen.
The premier ski resort in northerly Hokkaido is the perfect choice for a late season ski trip with your family. While Japan’s other main islands are enjoying spring, the slopes of Niseko are still covered in dry powder, and kids can ski here for free from March to April. When the snow has melted, go for a scenic drive, try out white-water rafting with your teens, or see Hokkaido’s famous shiba
zakura (moss phlox), which bloom from the end of May to the middle of June. A popular place to see these dainty blossoms is at the 4,000-square-meter Kazuo Mishima
Garden in the nearby town of Kutchan ( niseko.co.jp), where a delicately groomed carpet of pink, red, and white flowers is backdropped by conical Mount Yotei, a smaller-scale version of Mount Fuji.
left: Yokohama’s Cup Noodles Museum; the Imperial Palace in Tokyo; Mermaid Lagoon at Tokyo DisneySea.
Starting out early at Hakuba’s Evergreen International Ski School. Above: Osaka Aquarium.