How long are you willing to spend on a train?
Japanese public transport is wonderful (want to know all the reasons why? Check out our page dedicated to transport for families in Japan). There’s plenty of leg room, free internet and snacks — but even the swiftest and most comfortable bullet train will start to wear on kids after a certain time.
We’ve found over years of experience that three to four hours is the upper limit for most kids. Around the five-hour mark they’re most likely going to be getting restless; sooner if your journey includes a lot of connections.
Some destinations really are worth the effort of a longer trip, and it’s OK to have one or two transfers like this in your itinerary. On the other hand, if you’re baulking at the idea of even three hours on a train with children, it’s absolutely possible to plan an incredible itinerary with far less train travel involved. Again, it’s all about what works for you.
What’s the best pace of travel?
This will depend on what kind of travellers you are. Some people love to keep on the move, while others prefer to settle in and really get to know one or two destinations. Both have their pros and cons.
For most families, we recommend spending around three to four nights in big cities, and two nights in more rural destinations. Any less and you’ll feel like you’re constantly packing and unpacking; any more and you might feel you've exhausted the top sights your family wanted to see/ experiences your family wanted to have. Of course, this is just a rule of thumb. As we keep saying, nobody knows your family better than you, and there will always be exceptions.
Some examples include if your family would like to do a multi-day cycle trip such as the Shimanami Kaido, or a trek like the Kumano Kodo or the Nakasendo Way. These kinds of experiences naturally include one-night stays and involve a bit more logistical co-ordination, but they’re well worth it.
What are your interests and hobbies?
This is a bit of an obvious one, but think about whether you want to get hands-on with some of your hobbies and interests in Japan. There’s so much more to do than just top sights!
If your children are into Studio Ghibli, you might want to include destinations like the port town of Tomonoura, the jungle island of Yakushima, and the bathhouse at Matsuyama — inspirations for Ponyo, Princess Mononoke, and Spirited Away respectively — (plus the Studio Ghibli Museum in Tokyo, naturally).
If you’re more into the traditional side of things, you could plan a trip full of stunning forested shrines and mountaintop temples, peppered with enough samurai castles, sword-makers and ninja temples to keep kids and teens engaged.
Whatever your hobby, whether it’s pottery, woodwork, fabric design, history, sports, photography, martial arts — anything, truly — you could incorporate it as a single experience, or build an entire trip around it. Just be aware that some activities are best booked in advance, so it’s a good idea to do your research before you travel (or have us do it for you).