How to build the perfect trip for your family
What makes a great family holiday? Well, first off, there’s no one-size-fits-all. Your families' tastes, interests, needs and budget will be unique to you.
Luckily, Japan is bursting at the seams with possibilities for families of all shapes and sizes. Whether your kids would rather be riding the rollercoasters at Universal Studios or getting messy with some roketsu dyeing — and whether or not you choose to travel with us — Japan has something for you.
But you probably know that already, so where to start? Here are some great questions to consider... Exactly what that looks like will depend on you, and your answers to a few key questions:
What kind of travellers are you?
Unless this is your first holiday as a family (in which case, congratulations!) you’ve probably got a fairly good idea of what style of family travel you prefer.
What’s the longest your kids are prepared to sit on a train? Do you like an itinerary chock-a-block with planned activities, or would you prefer to have lots of free time to relax and be spontaneous? Do you prefer to base yourself in one place and make day trips, or are you happy to pack up and move every two to three days?
The balance of your family trip is all-important. City vs country, traditional vs modern culture, action and exploration vs rest and relaxation. The information on this page should give you a good idea of how to get it right if you’re going it alone — but talk to one of our expert travel consultants if you want to take your trip planning to the next level.
How will you balance city and countryside?
Rural and urban Japan are totally different experiences, and we highly recommend having a bit of both in any family itinerary. For first-time visits to Japan, we’ve found that most families enjoy spending about 70%-80% of their time in cities and about 20-30% of their time in the countryside.
The reason for this is that rural destinations offer mostly Japanese-style accommodation and food options, which means futons, tatami mats and traditional, seafood-heavy meals, which can get a bit much after a couple of days. Breakfast can be particularly challenging, as many of us aren’t used to being served fish and rice in the morning!
Since there are many more Western-style options in big cities (both in the food and bed departments), this naturally leads to a more city-based itinerary. For more on this subject, see our family accommodation page.
Having said all of that — and this is a caveat to absolutely all of our family advice — you know your family best. If your children are adventurous and up for trying new things, there’s absolutely no reason why you shouldn’t spend 50% or even more of your time in the countryside.
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).
Will you be OK with futons?
As we mentioned In our guide to family accommodation, staying in traditional Japanese accommodation is a fantastic, only-in-Japan experience — but it comes with limitations.
One of these limitations is that you’ll be expected to sleep on futon mattresses laid out on tatami-mat floors. Futons in Japan are super-comfy and most families have no trouble with them, but if one of you has back or mobility problems it might not be feasible.
If that’s you, you can still experience a Japanese-style stay — it’ll just be a matter of finding a ryokan with Western-style beds. They’re not the norm, but they do exist!
How long should we go for?
We have designed family trips from just a few nights to a couple of months long, but we’ve found that two weeks is the sweet spot for family travel, allowing you to see a good range of destinations without feeling rushed. In general, US families tend to take slightly shorter holidays to Japan — 11 days or so — than our UK and Aussie families, who tend to opt for around 14 days.
However long you have to play with, we can pretty much guarantee that you’ll fall in love with Japan – and with any luck, we’ll get to be the ones to show it to you.
Do you have any allergies or dietary requirements?
This is a big worry for some families, but dealing with dietary requirements in Japan is a lot more manageable than you might expect. As a general rule, cities are full of options, while rural locations are a bit more tricky (but not impossible).
Families with dietary requirements often like the reassurance of travelling with us, since we notify accommodation and experiences of their needs, provide them with translation cards detailing their dietary requirements, and generally make sure they have a plan for what to eat in every destination.
Of course, it’s totally possible to do it yourself – though there will be challenges along the way! We have lots of tips and tricks for those with dietary restrictions in Japan — just check out our food and families page for some ideas.
What’s your budget?
The all-important question! Traditional accommodation typically costs more than Western hotels in Japan, especially if you’re booking triple or quad rooms. If you’re on a tight budget, it might be a good tactic to base yourself in a city (where there are more good, low-cost hotel options) and make day trips to more rural destinations — or perhaps just include a one-night traditional stay in there as a treat.
OK, so how do I put all of this together?
That’s easy — speak to us!
Joking aside, we’ve been doing this an awful long time (over two decades, in fact), and we’re confident that nobody does it better. We make the planning process fun, we’re there for you any time you need us, we make sure you squeeze every last drop of excitement out of your time. If you’re going all the way to Japan, you might as well have the best family holiday ever. Right?
Are you ready to start planning your family adventure? Get in touch with one of our expert travel consultants and get started today.