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Top 6 Experiences for a Family Holiday in Japan

Keith's family at the Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto

Samurai warriors and talking robots. Bullet trains and rickshaw rides. There are so many contrasting sights in Japan that a family holiday here is always packed full of experiences that will stay with you long after your trip has ended. Keith Drew, travel writer and co-founder of family-travel website Lijoma, selects his family’s favourite memories from their time in Japan.

Touring Kōya-san with a Buddhist monk

A monk at the Eko-in monastery performing the goma-taki fire ceremony

When we started planning our Japan itinerary, the holy mountain town of Kōya-san was one of the first places to make it onto our must-see list. The Buddhist monk Kōbō Daishi founded a temple here in the early ninth century, and Kōya-san is now home to over a hundred monasteries, as well as the atmospheric Okunoin Cemetery, full of moss-covered stone lanterns and memorials. Our whole experience was remarkable. We stayed in shukubō (temple lodgings) at Eko-in monastery, tucking into Buddhist vegetarian meals (shōjin-ryōri) for dinner and rising early with the monks for the dramatic goma-taki fire ceremony, in which a hundred or so pieces of wood are symbolically set on fire. You can visit Kōya-san’s main temples on your own, but you’ll get a much better insight on a tour with Nobu Tamura. Nobu, a monk from Eko-in, taught us everything from Buddhist sutras to temple etiquette, and it was wonderful watching our children bowing and clapping as they tried to remember the Buddhist way to pray.

Practicing kendo in Kyoto

Kitted out for kendo

There are times on a trip through Japan when everything just seems to come together. The few hours we spent practicing kendo with Tomoyoshi Yamanaka in Kyoto was without doubt one of those amazing moments. Tomoyoshi, the owner of Experience Kendo, is a direct descendent of one of the last Samurai. His kendo workshops are held in Kyoto’s historic Butokuden, the 100-year-old dojo where the sport began. And his lessons are packed as much with cultural and historical insight as they are with fighting techniques – we learnt about the philosophy of bushido (the way of the warrior), which underpins the sport, as well as how to strike and block. As an unusual, insightful and authentic experience, it is one of the best things we’ve ever done as a family.

Staying in a ryokan


You’ll have heard this before, no doubt, but of all the places to stay in Japan, you should really try and spend a night in a ryokan if you can. They’re the ultimate combination of traditional Japanese living and old-school Japanese hospitality and well worth the (sometimes hefty) price tag. We chose historic Toshiharu, one of Japan’s tangible cultural properties, which is set in the backstreets of Kyoto and oozes character. Our children loved everything about our stay here, from sleeping on the tatami-mat floor to taking a dip in the cedar bath to dressing up in yukata gown, tabi socks and zori sandals. It’s the perfect retreat after a day of touring the temples of the Higashiyama district.

Visiting Odaiba island in Tokyo

Getting up-close with an android in the Miraikan

We have so many great memories of our time in Tokyo, although our day touring the futuristic museums on Odaiba is hard to beat. We recommend starting in the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation, better known as the Miraikan, which has exhibitions dedicated to androids (our kids found them pretty eerie!) as well as regular demonstrations from ASIMO, the humanoid robot who can run, hop and even kick a football. Then head to the brilliant teamLab*Borderless, a digital-art museum that’s full of “Wow!” moments. Our kids loved seeing “butterflies” swarming around their heads and “rice fields” growing up to their thighs and standing in the middle of a jungle of lamps*. You can catch the Metro to Odaiba, but it’s more fun – and more in-keeping with the theme of the day – to ride the space-age Water Bus from Asakusa.

*teamLab*Borderless is planning to close the current Odaiba location in August 2022 but it will reopen in Tokyo city centre sometime in 2023.

Exploring rural Japan

Crossing the Oku-Iya Nijū Kazura-bashi double-vine bridge

If you can get out of the cities for a few days, you’ll see a very different side of Japan. We spent three nights in the Iya Valley, a remote area of gorges, forest-draped mountains and thatched-roof hamlets on the island of Shikoku. We took a boat trip through the Obōke Gorge, crossed the ancient Oku-Iya Nijū Kazura-bashi bridge (made of vines so it could easily be chopped down to cut off any pursuing enemies) and visited Nagoro, a village inhabited by scarecrows – a local resident started making them to bolster the village’s dwindling population, and you can now see her straw-stuffed creations waiting at the bus stop, studying at the old pre-school and even exercising in the village gym.

Eating okonomiyaki in Hiroshima

Okonomimura Building

Our children love ramen. And they’re big fans of sushi. But their favourite food in Japan by far was okonomiyaki, a delicious savoury pancake that’s covered in all sorts of goodies. It was such a hit that they even made up a song about it, to the tune of “Hakuna Matata”! Osaka and Hiroshima are famous for their okonomiyaki, and it’s worth trying it in both cities – the ingredients are mixed together in Osaka but layered in Hiroshima. Our best spot was the Okonomimura Building in Hiroshima, which is dedicated entirely to okonomiyaki restaurants. There are 25 to choose from; pick one, pull up a counter seat by the hotplate bar, and watch the chefs rustle up this tasty treat right in front of you.

We hope you found some inspiration for your next family holiday to Japan with Keith's top experiences for family travel selected from places across Japan.

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