Are you planning a trip to Japan with children? Well, there’s no better time than the cherry blossom season. Cities look particularly festive and a large number of Japanese people flock into parks for pleasant picnics. Note the amazing Japanese organization: in the parks one can find special and delimited pitches, where people can sit and eat. As for organization, we Swiss, in comparison, we are real newbies.
Some information about the cherry blossom season
Cherry blossom takes place in early spring, although the exact period depends on several climatic factors. Generally, the last week of March and the first week of April are those when you have the most chances to admire this explosion of flowers and colors, which the Japanese call hanami.
But why is this blossom season so important for the Japanese? Because the cherry blossom, called sakura, is the Japanese national flower and is a symbol of happiness and well-being. If you are in Japan with children at this time of the year, you simply have to have lunch under one of these trees.
What to see in Japan with children
Our trip lasted two weeks and we visited 5 places, stopping in three cities and trveling by train. Since it was our first trip to the country of the Rising Sun, we decided to stay on the beaten path, making sure that each location we visited would be suitable for everyone – including our son, who was 6 years old back then.
Our trip was self-organized and we tried to find the right balance between temples and monuments (for us adults) and aquariums, theme parks and deer (for the kid). We visited Tokyo, Kyoto, Hiroshima, Nara and Nikko.
Tokyo is the humongous and very modern capital of Japan, an eclectic city made up of districts all different one from the other. We visited the district of Asakusa, the most traditional of the city, a very suggestive place where time seems to have stood still. We entered Asakusa by walking under the Kaminarimon (the Thunder Gate), strolled along the market street Nakamise Dori, and finally reached the Senso-ji, the most sacred temple of the city.
At Ueno Park we immersed ourselves in the hanami and then we headed to the Ueno Zoo, the oldest zoo in Japan, to see my son’s favorite animals: the pandas. From the top of Tokyo Skytree we admired the city from above and realized how huge it is. After that we took the elevator down to the 4th floor to the Sumida aquarium. In the Marunouchi district, near central station, we walked along the beautiful Nakadori Avenue and visited the gardens of the Imperial Palace. If you are in Japan with children for the cherry blossom, this is a place is definitely privileged to admire them.
Finally, out of curiosity we decided to take a look at the most luxurious shopping street, in the Ginza district, and we were disappointed. We then walked on to Odaiba, an artificial island in Tokyo Bay, because we wanted to see the gigantic RX-78-2 Gundam. My son loved it, especially when it “came alive”: he wa so happy that he decided he could not care about going to Disneyland!
The second stop on our trip to Japan with children was Kyoto, the city of the thousand temples and Geishas. In the Gion district, where the Geishas live, we didn’t see any real ones. There were, however, many “fake” ones, which means Japanese tourists in Maiko costumes (Geisha apprentices). Despite all this, the neighborhood is truly suggestive and the side alleys allowed us to discover unexpected gems.
In the center we visited Nijo Castle, which used to be the residence of the Shogun (and therefore my son chose it) where we found the amazing Ninomaru Palace. There the wooden floor crunches producing, deliberately, a sound similar to the song of the nightingale. Then we moved on to see some temples: the Kinkaku-ji with its Golden Pavilion and the Kiyomizu. I am sure you have seen it before, in the movie Wasabi with Jean Reno.
From the viewing platform of Kyoto Tower we admired the city from above and then we headed to a street named Kiya-machi dori. This is where we found the most amazing cherry blossoms, as the receptionist of our hotel had told us. It is a picturesque alley along a narrow canal, with many quaint small houses, and trees covered in flowers. Outside the city we took a long walk up the hill, under the red Toris the Fushimi Inari. It is the place with the thousands of red portals that you see in every photos from Japan.
Nikko is located 140 km north of Tokyo, in the Tochigi prefecture. This region boasts many natural and man-made sights, including mountains, waterfalls lush forests and some of Japan’s most sacred temples. It would take several days to visit the entire area but we didn’t have that kind of time, so we chose to stick with the city’s main attractions (and be happy with them!).
In Nikko there are four main attractions: the Rinnoji temple, the Futarasan sanctuary, the Taiyuinbyo and the Toshogu sanctuary. We only visited two of them, though. The Rinnoji temple was being restored and the visit wasn’t as spectacular as it should have been, in fact we walked away almost immediately and took to the forest, in search of the Toshogu sanctuary, which contains a dozen colorful and elaborate Shinto and Buddhist buildings. Their beauty is stunning but what interested my son more was the tomb of Tokugawa Yeiasu, a famous samurai and shogun that only he had heard of (and told us all about it).
A trip to Japan with children is not complete without a visit to the Edo Wonderland Nikko Edomura, a theme park set in the Edo period located 30 minutes from Nikko. Expect no roller coasters and rides, only ninjas, samurais and shoguns. My son took part in several games and fights organized by the medieval characters cosplay actors, learned to throw the ninja stars (the real ones) and saw a really captivating ninja show. If you are in the area, we certainly recommend it.
Nara, about 1 hour southeast of Kyoto, in the past – and for a short period – was the first permanent capital of Japan. We chose it because thousands of deer that roam freely and undisturbed in the city park, thinking it was a place worth seeing when visiting Japan with children.
We fed carrots to the deer and biscuits that we had bought especially for them, and in return we received lots of cuddles in return as well as pushes, a couple of butts, a well-settled kick and the loss of the map of the city (stolen andeaten by a spiteful deer).
Speaking of temples, we visited the Kofuku-ji and admired its ancient pagodas, one three-storeys and one five-storeys high. We lingered for a long time around the five-storey one, which is incredibly graceful. Then we decided to see the most sacred temple of all, the Toda-ji, where we found amazing cherry trees in bloom.
Inside the Kokufu-ji one can see the Daibutsu, a 14-meter-high buddha and a massive wooden column with a large polished hole near the floor. Legend has it that anyone who manages to get through the hole, will be lucky and enlightened. Our son went through a few times, because he wanted to be on the safe side.
Hiroshima is about 2 hours away from Kyoto by train, so if you leave early in the morning you can do it as a day trip quite comfortably. Before going there we wondered if the visit would be appropriate and suitable for children. We left with plenty of doubts and returned to Kyoto with the assurance that it can be done, indeed it must be done – even if explaining the atomic bomb to a 6-year-old child is not easy.
From the station you can reach the Atomic Bomb Dome by trolley-bus nr 2, riding past wide and modern avenues, all reconstructed and – one might say – serene, in contrast with what we were about to see. The A-Bomb Dome is the only tangible “construction” left after August 6, 1945, the day the atomic bomb was dropped onto the city. Take my word: the remains of the structure and the bronze dome really give you the creeps.
Following that, we walked through the Hiroshima Peace Park, we then dwelled to the memorial dedicated to the many children who had died because of the bomb, and then we went to the cenotaph, where the names of the about 200,000 victims are written. Finally, it was time for the Peace Museum, which explains precisely the devastating effects that the bomb had on the city and in particular on its inhabitants.
It took 3 incredibly long hours to visit the museum and answer all my son’s questions (in the meantime, dad went outside and waited for us). Would you like me to tell you the truth: of all our “Japanese” visits, the one my son remembers most vividly is Hiroshima. His only regret? Not having been able to go to Nagasaki too…
👉Read our article Hiroshima with children, yes you can (and you have to!)
How to travel around Japan
The best way to get around Japan with children is by taking advantage of the famous superfast Shinkanses trains. They are very expensive, but fortunately there are passes for non-residents. However you should keep in mind that these passes can only be purchased online and before your departure – so allow at least two weeks to roder them. They are called JR pass and can be purchased for 7, 14 or 21 consecutive days. You need to activate your pass at selected a train station in Japan and you need to fill out a form.
As we were planning to spend several days in Tokyo there was no need for us to use our JR passes immediately. We therefore ordered 7 day ones and for the last trip (Nikko-Tokyo) we used one of the trains of the Tobu Railway, which are quite cheap. In Tokyo, right after we had landed, we bought the Suica Card, which is a prepaid rechargeable card for local transport and traveled by metro.
Where you can order your JR Pass
To order your JR pass, use the JR Pass international website and select the area where you live, to find the authorized agents selling them.
The adult rate starts from 12 years old, while children 6-11 years pay half fare. Kids 5 years old and under travel for free. Please note: you cannot use the pass for the Nozomi and Mizuho Shinkanses trains, which are practically the Maserati of the Japanese fast trains.
One last piece of advice: sit on the right side of the car if you are travelling from Tokyo to Kyoto, to enjoy the best views of Mount Fuji.
Written by Augusta