Japan is full of unique experiences. Some are well known, deservedly so; others are a bit more niche. Here’s a collection of the best things to do in Japan for your Japan bucket list! Some are big, some are small, but hopefully this list will give you and your family inspiration for your trip to Japan; and all of these things are suitable for kids (of all ages!)
Read on for a Japan bucket list that kids will love!
The best things to do in Japan
Japan does not have the same iconic sights as many countries. There’s not really an equivalent of the Great Wall, Petra, Big Ben, Grand Canyon or similar. (Except, perhaps, Mt Fuji). So what is it that makes Japan one of the best countries in the world to visit? Why should you take your kids to Japan?
The answer is simply that being in Japan is fantastic. The people are great; friendly, helpful, chatty (even if your Japanese isn’t great and nor is their English). Japan is clean and modern (the trains and toilets particularly!), but Japan has also kept its traditions and historic sights. Tokyo is often thought of as frenetic and unsleeping but pockets of calm and quiet meditation can be found here too.
The culture is different to any other place in the world, and I suppose Japan’s icons are its people and traditions; samurai, geisha, and ninja. You can learn about all of these and more during your visit, and they are the things that are bound to capture the imaginations of kids.
And Japan is safe. Crime is very low. You don’t have to worry about wandering into a dangerous area (even the red light area of Shinjuku was fine in the day) and you can leave your phone or wallet on the table while you pop to the bathroom in a restaurant (obviously, I don’t advise doing this!).
Our young children had the time of their lives in Japan – this is one place that they really, honestly want to return to. And so do we! So read on to find out the best things to do in Japan to add to your Japan bucket list!
Japan bucket list: Experience Japanese life, culture and history
Japanese life and customs are very different to ours in the west. There’s no better way of learning about Japanese life than getting stuck right in, and doing what the Japanese themselves do! Here are a few unmissable things to do in Japan to help you get a better idea of life in Japan, its culture and incredible history.
Visit a castle
Japan has plenty of castles (even though a lot of the originals have been destroyed) and many of them can be found in or near to major cities, so you should be able to visit a castle no matter where you’re staying. Some of the best castles include Himeji, which is in between Kyoto and Hiroshima; Osaka castle, in the city centre; and Matsumoto castle, pictured above.
What you can do at each castle varies quite a lot, and really depends on the castle’s history. For example, Matsumoto Castle has been heavily restored but its interior is pretty much the same as it would have been in its heyday. Osaka Castle however, is a brand new building as the castle has been destroyed at least twice in its history. Inside Osaka Castle, you’ll find a modern museum instead of a traditional layout so visiting is a completely different experience to Matsumoto.
Visit Fushimi Inari Taisha shrine, Kyoto
Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine in Kyoto is probably one of Japan’s best known sights. It’s set at the foot of a mountain and the shine is dedicated to Inari, the god of rice. The main icon that you’ll see here is that of foxes, who are associated with Inari, and there are several fox statues guarding the shrine buildings. The shrine buildings are very beautiful but the main thing to do at Fushimi Inari is to climb the paths up the mountain.
Thousands of vermilion torii gates line paths up to the top of Mt Inari. They’re paid for by individuals and companies and the money goes towards the shrine; the writing on the side of the gates says who donated the gate and when. It’s impossible to know how many there are, but the paths are lined all the way to the top, although near the mountain’s summit there aren’t quite as many gates.
You should plan to arrive as early as you possibly can to avoid huge crowds. Trains leave from Kyoto station to Inari or Fushimi Inari stations frequently; just make sure that they definitely stop as the fast ones will go straight through. The shrine is an easy walk from either station, and it’s free to walk the paths up the mountain.
Meet some samurai
What kid (or adult) wouldn’t want to learn about samurai when in Japan? There are a lot of misconceptions out there about samurai so visiting Japan is the best way to learn about the reality.
While the Tokyo Edo Museum has a lot of information on samurai, it might be a bit difficult to get small kids interested. Try the Samurai Museum in Shinjuku, Tokyo, for a more family friendly experience. The museum is quite small but you get a guided tour and there are objects that you can touch, including helmets and weapons. The size of the museum also means that the kids are less likely to get bored. You also get to dress up at the end of your tour!
Alternatively, just around the corner is the Ninja Trick House so if the kids aren’t bothered about samurai then perhaps getting the chance to throw shuriken (ninja throwing stars) will appeal to them!
Learn about the ravages of war at Hiroshima
Visiting Hiroshima was something that we wrestled with and didn’t make our decision until the last minute. My husband was really keen to go to Hiroshima to look at the Peace Memorial Museum but we couldn’t decide whether or not it would be appropriate to take the children. In the end we did not take our kids as we felt that they were just too small. We wouldn’t take them to Auschwitz at this young age and having been to Hiroshima myself, I felt that some parts of the museum are too upsetting for small children (if they can even comprehend what happened). We also didn’t want to risk a toddler meltdown or any bad behaviour here.
But if your children are older, say 8+, then I would recommend visiting Hiroshima’s war memorials. The Peace Memorial Museum is a fascinating, if harrowing place to look around. The Children’s Peace Park is equally moving, with its thousands of paper cranes made by children all over the world (reading about Sadako Sasaki, one of the most famous victims of the atomic blast is good preparation for your visit). The skeleton of the A-Bomb Dome is haunting.
However, that’s not all Hiroshima has to offer. It’s a large, busy modern city with plenty of shopping, gardens and a castle. And if you want to extend your stay in Hiroshima then do go to Miyajima island where you’ll find the famous floating torii, tame deer, and a cable car up the mountain for amazing views across the bay.
Learn about Buddhism at a temple
Japan has two main religions; Shinto and Buddhism. The two are often practiced alongside each other but they’re completely different belief systems. Shrines are where Shinto is practised; you’ll enter through a torii gate, and you’ll often see icons of the god or spirits like foxes at Fushimi Inari, rats, or other animals.
Buddhist temples are often bigger and usually have a pagoda nearby as part of the temple complex. Of course, you’ll see statues of Buddha and often, other entities of Indian origin. It is definitely worth visiting both shrines and temples to see the differences, and how they’re integrated into Japanese life.
Kyoto is one of the best opportunities to see fantastic temples, like the Golden Pavilion (pictured); Kiyomizu-dera and Tenryu-ji are also recommended. In Tokyo Senso-ji in Asakusa is probably the most interesting temple. And of course, the temple grounds are often as interesting (or better) than the temples themselves.
Watch a Sumo match
If you visit Japan at the time of a sumo tournament then you absolutely have to get tickets! Tournaments are held about six times a year; three times in Tokyo and once each in Osaka, Nagoya and Fukuoka (pictured). Click this link to get information about each venue and when tickets go on sale. Alternatively you can click this link to buy tickets for the Tokyo tournaments.
Sumo is suitable for kids aged about 7+ but just make sure that they can sit for a while as the tournament can take several hours. It’s best to arrive early as the arena won’t fill up until the afternoon. If you go in the morning you might be able to see a sumo wrestler walking around, and you can probably sit closer to the sumo ring.
Alternatively you can visit sumo stables in Tokyo to watch the wrestlers train. This is not a tourist attraction and the rules are strict – no photos, eating, talking or anything that could distract the wrestlers. Families with kids aged 13+ can book their tickets to the sumo stables here.
See a maiko performance in Kyoto
You’ll be lucky to get a glimpse of a real geisha (or geiko as they’re known locally) in Kyoto. They’re very secretive and you will only see them at night as they’re going from one appointment to another, and of course there aren’t as many as there used to be. If you see women dressed in kimono with full makeup on during the day then they’re probably not geisha – they’ll be tourists!
Becoming a geisha is a long and difficult process so apprentice geisha, or maiko, often practise by putting on a performance to tourists. You can watch a maiko performance in Kyoto, and sometimes you’ll also see other Japanese arts, like theatre performances or flower arranging (ikebana). This is the best way to see real maiko and to understand a little more about their secretive lives.
Explore traditional homes in Takayama
Takayama is a lovely town high up in the mountains of Honshu. It’s a great stop on your Japanese itinerary and there’s plenty to see and do here. Takayama is most famous for its preserved Old Town; there are several streets of pristine historic buildings made of ebony wood to stroll down. They’re full of shops, restaurants and cafes and you can easily lose a whole day here wandering around.
Take a morning trip up to the Hida Folk Village to see gassho-zukuri buildings which have thatched, steeply pitched roofs to shake off the snow. This is an open air museum with preserved homes from around the region. You’re able to go inside most of them. Alternatively take a day trip to Shirakawa-go and walk through a village where people still live in these homes. You might even be able to stay in one!
Sleep in a ryokan
There’s nothing to make you feel as though you’ve landed in Japan more than staying in a ryokan, or Japanese inn.
These traditional inns usually feature just about everything that you can think of when you imagine a Japanese building. Tatami mats cover the floors, so remove your shoes in the entrance hall and slip into a pair of slippers to wear in communal areas (just remember that it’s socks only on the mats). Doors will be sliding doors often fitted with paper screens. You’re usually provided with traditional clothes and many ryokans have an onsen and serve a typical Japanese meal set. I highly recommend trying everything for a true Japanese experience!
Our kids loved the novelty of sleeping on the floor on a roll-out futon. We tried Japanese meals when we were staying in a ryokan in Takayama and the kids were delighted at being able to sit on the floor to eat, with their own personal tray.
Find a new favourite Japanese food
Which leads us on to Japanese food. While you can get pretty much any kind of cuisine in Japan, do make sure you try some local food too – it’s much more than just sushi. Vegetarians (like me and the kids) won’t find it overly difficult to order suitable food as lots of restaurants now have a vegetarian selection on their menu.
We live in a small town in the countryside and don’t have any Japanese restaurants near us, so our kids had never tried Japanese food before we visited (I don’t think Wagamama really counts, does it?). So a great idea is to take a food tour to introduce the kids to Japanese food especially if they’re not overly familiar with it. We recommend the Asakusa Food Tour from Arigato Japan – check out our review and grab your discount code here.
Street snacks are especially popular with small kids, and there’s a huge range that you’ll find almost everywhere you visit. Try grilled mochi balls covered in a sweet soy sauce; my boy’s favourite snack!
Ride the shinkansen
Japan’s public transport is, for the most part, clean, reliable and efficient. The shinkansen, or bullet trains, are the best way to cover long distances quickly. To anyone who grew up at the mercy of British rail, the shinkansen is a revelation.
Not only do the trains look super cool and futuristic, they’re comfortable too. The seats are wide with plenty of leg room – at least as much room as you’d get in Premium Economy if not more. All seats recline and you get a trolley service with drinks and snacks. And they go really fast, whisking you from Tokyo to Kyoto at speeds of nearly 200mph.
If you’re planning on travelling to two or more cities (say, Tokyo to Kyoto, a side trip, and back to Tokyo again) then the Japan Rail Pass is going to save you money. On the face of it the JR Pass might seem expensive but if you’re planning on seeing more of Japan than just Tokyo then you’re probably going to need one. I’ll have more info about the JR Pass in an upcoming post, but you can buy your JR Pass online here.
Bathe in an onsen
If you leave the cities behind and head up into the mountains, then you’re likely to run into an onsen or two. Onsen are public baths filled with naturally hot water, heated from the volcanic activity deep beneath Japan. There’s nothing better than soaking your weary limbs in the piping hot water after a long day walking about the sights.
Visiting an onsen is easy. If you stay in a ryokan, then often they will have a built in onsen for you to go to. There are usually separate baths for men and women, although even if the baths are mixed there will be separate entrances. Some towns are built around visiting onsen, like Shibu Onsen, and you’ll find twenty or so of them in a small area. There’s a lot of onsen etiquette to be aware of so make sure you read up on what to do before you go!
Now if you have small kids then you might not find that onsen are for you. The first one we tried wasn’t a success – it was an outdoor one in Shibu Onsen. The weather was too cold outside and the water was too hot so both of the kids refused to go in. But the second onsen we tried was an indoor, private family onsen so it was much easier to coax the kids into the water! So a top tip is to go for a private onsen with small kids if you can.
Wear a kimono or yukata
There are plenty of opportunities for trying on traditional dress in Japan. If you stay in a ryokan then you’ll be given a yukata (a light kimono-type robe), coats and tabi (socks that you wear with traditional Japanese shoes called geta; the big toe is separated). You can wear the yukata around the ryokan and it’s expected that you wear them for dining. We were given child-sized ones in our ryokans and the kids loved wearing them.
Elsewhere you can find kimono experiences, especially in Kyoto. You’ll see lots of people wearing kimono in Kyoto; many of them will be tourists trying them out for the day. In some places you can get a makeover with full maiko makeup and a photoshoot. With this experience you’ll be able to wear the most beautiful and elaborate kimono and also get an idea of just how long it takes a maiko to get ready! This is best suited to older kids and teens. But my girl got to try on a kimono in our homestay in Kyoto. The very kind owner, Chiyomi-san, insisted on dressing her up – you can see from her picture how delighted she was!
Pre-booking these experiences is recommended. Click here to book a kimono experience in Kyoto.
Japan bucket list: Explore the best of Japanese nature
Japan is a beautiful country. Whereas nature in Japanese cities is manicured and controlled, you should get out into the countryside to see another side to Japan. There are lots of animal encounters to be had; in addition to the ones that we had you can also visit islands where there are cats or foxes roaming everywhere.
You’ll get a very different experience in Japan depending on when you visit. Spring and autumn are the most popular times for cherry blossom viewing and autumn colour; in summer everything will be green and lush but you run the risk of heavy rains and almost unbearable heat. In the winter the days will be cold but dry, and this season has charms of its own, and is ideal if you want to spend some time on the ski slopes.
Meet the snow monkeys
We visited Japan in December and seeing the snow monkeys at Shibu Onsen was on our bucket list for sure! The visit didn’t disappoint.
The best place to see snow monkeys bathing in onsen is at Jigokudani Monkey Park, just outside the hot springs resort of Shibu Onsen. The monkeys are Japanese macaques and they live freely inside the monkey park, although the onsen pools that they rest in are man made, and food is scattered to encourage them to come to the area. So it’s not entirely a natural experience but the monkeys do genuinely bathe in the hot pools!
When you arrive at the park entrance there’s a trail through the woods to reach the pools. We didn’t see any monkeys in this part of the forest but as soon as we got to the hot spring area, we saw them everywhere. The monkeys completely ignored the crowds of people watching them and just got on with their monkey business!
You can get to Shibu Onsen as a day trip from Tokyo although I wouldn’t recommend doing this if you have small kids. We stayed for two nights in the area. You can take the train from Tokyo to Nagano and then change for the snow monkey express to Yamanouchi – the last part of the trip is not covered by the Japan Rail Pass. Alternatively there is a bus from Nagano to Shibu Onsen.
Feed deer in Nara (or Miyajima)
An opportunity to get even closer to Japanese wildlife than at the monkey park is by visiting Nara deer park. The park is in the centre of Nara city, which is only a short hop from Kyoto or Osaka.
Nara is a former imperial capital of Japan and so it’s got a lot of temples, shrines and historic things to look at. But the thing that you’ll come away from Nara remembering most is the adorable, tame deer who live in the deer park. They’re free to wander all around the area, and you’ll see the occasional deer crossing roads and bringing traffic to a standstill.
The deer won’t bother you unless they know that you’ve got something they’re after – the specially formulated deer biscuits sold by the entrances to the park. If they spot you with the biscuits you can bet that they’ll do their best to get them! But show them your empty hands and they’ll be off to try their luck elsewhere. You can even get the deer to do tricks; bow to the deer and they’ll bow back (but they will expect a biscuit as a reward!).
If you don’t make it to Nara to see tame deer then you can find them at Miyajima near Hiroshima. If you’re in that area then you could also head to Okunoshima, or Rabbit Island!
See Mt Fuji
Mt Fuji is one of Japan’s most iconic sights, but it’s not always easy to see. Fuji-san is shy and hides away in thick cloud for much of the time. You might be able to catch a glimpse of the mountain from Tokyo on a clear day (try the Skytree or the Metropolitan Government Buildings for good views), or you might see it from the shinkansen between Tokyo and Kyoto – as in the above photo.
December is the best month to see Mt Fuji as the winter in Japan is often crisp and clear, although you’re only able to climb it in the summer months. During our December visit we saw Fuji from the Skytree, on the train to Matsumoto and the shinkansen.
One of the best ways to get up close to Mt Fuji is by visiting the Hakone Five Lakes area. It’s ideal to spend a couple of days in Hakone as there’s so much to do, and it maximises your chances of seeing the mountain. But even if you don’t manage to see Fuji itself from Hakone, it’s worth visiting anyway. Take a cable car over the hot, hostile area of Owakudani (paths through the area are currently closed to visitors because of the gases) and then jump on board a pirate ship across Lake Ashi. This is where you’ll get the best views of Mt Fuji, if it’s playing ball. Click here for a day tour from Tokyo to Hakone.
Visit a Japanese garden
Japanese gardens are heavily manicured and have a very distinct style. There are several different types of Japanese gardens and the best ones are often found around temples and shrines. You can see gardens filled with flowers or autumn leaves; zen gardens made of carefully swept and arranged gravel; and even gardens made of moss.
Kids are bound to find lots of interesting things in Japanese gardens! There are lots opportunities to play I-Spy with little ones – get them to spot statues and shrines hidden amongst the foliage. There are often water features in Japanese gardens and our kids enjoyed throwing coins into ponds and looking for koi carp. They also really enjoyed just getting some free time to run about on the paths.
After lots of organised activities some free time will be needed – these gardens are the best places for everybody to chill out and relax for a bit!
Visit Arashiyama bamboo forest, Kyoto
A bamboo forest is quite an ethereal place. The green stems tower above you and cover every inch of the sky, so you walk through a green tunnel. No matter how crowded they are, they’re peaceful places. Bamboo forests are usually best visited on a day when there’s a little bit of wind. The stems will wave around and clatter together in the breeze which really adds to the experience! The kids thought it was brilliant – they’d never been anywhere like it.
One of the most famous bamboo groves is in Arashiyama, a fantastic district in western Kyoto. It’s worth making the journey out to Arashiyama as there are temples, shrines, shops, a lake and even a monkey park to visit.
Getting to Arashiyama is super easy from Kyoto station. A train to Arashiyama station takes around 20 minutes and the bamboo forest is about a 15 minute walk away. The earlier you arrive the quieter the grove will be.
Japan bucket list: Crazy, kawaii and fun things to do in Japan
It feels like a lazy stereotype to say this, but there are indeed many crazy things to do in Japan. And lovers of all things cute, or kawaii, will also find lots of things to interest them – my girl was in her element! Other suggestions in this section are just plain fun and have to be experienced! Among the best crazy and cute things to do in Japan are:
Robot Restaurant, Shinjuku, Tokyo
Well, what can you say? The Robot Restaurant in Shinjuku is, erm, eclectic! Expect the loudest, most bizarre show you’re likely to see. There are lights, robots, and the most enthusiastic singing, dancing and drumming I’ve ever seen (hats off to the cast, they really go for it). There was a definite flavour of Power Rangers and Pokemon to the show, as well. Despite that, there’s more of a story than I thought there’d be, and it was a brilliant evening.
But is it suitable for kids? My sister in law didn’t think so, but she went to a late showing and there were plenty of drunken businessmen and tourists alike. We went for the first performance at 4pm, and there were lots of small kids there including a baby. So yes, you can definitely take kids here – just go to the early show. The show is loud but they provide ear defenders (although we took our own).
I also would take the Restaurant part with a pinch of salt. Don’t eat here (there’s really not much to choose from) so have your meal either before or after the show, elsewhere!
Keep an eye out on Klook for cheap tickets – don’t buy the full price ones. Book your tickets here.
Kawaii Monster Cafe, Harajuku, Tokyo
This was my daughter’s favourite place in Tokyo, and possibly the whole of Japan. The Kawaii Monster Cafe is in Harajuku, and I couldn’t think of a more suitable setting for it! The whole place looks like Alice in Wonderland on acid. There are several themed areas to sit in, and a giant stage in the middle of the restaurant where the resident monster, Chompy, puts on a show every so often.
The waitresses will also do a dance show with a couple of kids chosen from the audience (my daughter was delighted to be picked). I don’t have much to say about the food – my pancakes were unbelievably sugary and I couldn’t eat them, although my son enjoyed his rainbow pasta (we picked the ham chunks out) and my husband said his blue burger was alright. Be aware that you do have to order food and drink for each person – you can’t go in for just a quick drink. It’s more about the experience and we did all enjoy it!
As with the Robot Restaurant, I’m pretty sure the Kawaii Monster Cafe is slightly more, erm, adult oriented in the evenings but in the daytime there were lots of small kids there and the performances and suchlike were all suitable for little ones. But I wouldn’t go in the evenings with kids.
TeamLab Borderless: Mori digital arts museum, Odaiba, Tokyo
This is one museum absolutely guaranteed to appeal to children. The museum is a darkened maze filled with rooms in which you’ll find all sorts of digital art. It’s not art just to be looked at either; this is a fully interactive experience. The art reacts to you and you can change it by moving or by touching it. Perfect for small children!
In the main hall, digital water will flow around you on the floor if you stand still. If you touch animals walking along the walls then they will look at you, or bow. Walk through a room filled with mythical creatures projected on glass screens and they will make music or noises as you pass; so you direct some of the art yourself.
There’s even a huge room on the top floor especially for small kids; we had fun bouncing on a trampoline to make stars grow and explode in supernovas. Animals scurried around our feet and we tried not to splat them (well, some of us did; others jumped on and splatted as many creatures as they could!).
You’ll need to book tickets in advance and arrive early as only a certain amount of people are allowed in the museum at any one time. Click here to book your tickets.
Climb on the Cat Bus at Ghibli Museum, Mitaka, Tokyo
Is there anything more Japanese than anime? Specifically, Studio Ghibli? Instead of taking our kids to Tokyo Disney, we went to the Studio Ghibli Museum in Mitaka. At this gorgeous and quirky museum you can learn about the process of animation (including seeing some fantastic animation tricks); see a Ghibli short in the on-site cinema; walk through reconstructions of the Ghibli animator’s studios (complete with concept sketches and designs for many characters); and perhaps most importantly of all, play on a giant plush Cat Bus straight out of My Neighbour Totoro.
Unfortunately for adults, the Cat Bus is only for kids under 12. But our kids had the time of their lives playing on this memorable Ghibli character. My son spent the whole time collecting toy soot-balls and sitting on top of the bus, and it was his highlight of our trip to Japan.
The museum itself is a delight. Whimsical decoration and attention to detail means that you’ll spend almost as much time admiring the building itself as enjoying the displays. And don’t forget to go up on top of the roof to meet a robot guardian from Castle in the Sky.
Shop till you drop at Daiso
Japan has some fantastic shopping opportunities. You can buy pretty much anything that you want in Tokyo – make sure you check out some of the incredible department stores, or visit one of Tokyo’s specialist areas. You can buy almost any electrical goods you can think of in Akihabara; go shopping for kitchenwares (and plastic food for displays) in Asakusa; or get high end designer wares in Ginza.
But for shopping with kids I’m going to suggest somewhere else. Daiso is a brand of 100¥ shop and it sells pretty much anything you could want for your home; toys, souvenirs and snacks all at 100¥ (plus tax) unless otherwise marked. This means that the kids can fill their pockets with as much crap as they like and it won’t cost you much! It’s actually a great place to get souvenirs at bargain prices – sure, the more quality stuff is beautiful, but if you want something Japanese without breaking the bank then Daiso is the place to come to.
You’ll find Daiso everywhere in Japan, but one of the biggest is on Takeshita-dori in Harajuku.
Eat all sorts of incredible food in Harajuku, Tokyo
Harajuku absolutely must be on your Tokyo itinerary. This is one of the busiest areas of Tokyo and where you can see some of its otaku, or youth culture. Takeshita-dori is the most famous street in Harajuku and you’ll find it right opposite the station. The street will probably be absolutely chock-full of (mostly teenage) people shopping in the cut-price shops. These are fun to look around; you’ll find all sorts of weird and wonderful fashion and you might also see cosplayers dressed up as their favourite characters.
Takeshita-dori is also fantastic for street food. Its main offerings are crepes, animal cafes and most famously, giant pastel rainbow candy floss (cotton candy). You’ll find the candy floss shop about halfway down Takeshita-dori, on the right hand side. It’s up a flight of stairs but all you really need to do to find it is follow the trail of candy floss and the sickly sweet aroma.
Watching the giant candy floss take shape is mesmerising – it’s a work of art. But I bet you can’t finish it! If you still have room then do try a crepe from Marion Crepes!
Climb to the top of the tallest tower: Tokyo Skytree
There are many great places to get views over Tokyo but the highest by far is the Tokyo Skytree. This is the tallest tower in the world and it stands at 634m high. It’s the second tallest free standing structure in the world. The views from its observation deck are far reaching, to say the least. You can spot Mt Fuji from here; can you see it on the horizon in the above photo?
When you’re up on the Skytree’s main deck you’re at a height of 350m and you’ll be treated to a 360° view of Tokyo’s immensity. There’s no end to the city in sight. It’s quite a view. If you want to go even higher then you can go up to 450m by buying an extension ticket on the first observation deck.
Entry to the Tokyo Skytree costs between ¥2000 (if you buy on the day) and ¥4000 for a skip the line ticket to both decks. Kids aged 3 and under go free, and there are substantial discounts for kids’ tickets, depending on how old the kids are. You can buy tickets in advance or when you arrive, although you might have to queue for a while if you’re going at a busy time. There’s a shopping mall underneath the Skytree, and plenty of places to eat here too.
See the bright lights of Dotonbori, Osaka
Dotonbori is a fantastic district in Osaka. Best visited in the early evening to see the lights of the many many food restaurants and street food stalls, and to experience the packed street, it’s a place that you’ll never forget!
Osaka is famous for its seafood and so many of the restaurants along Dotonbori serve takoyaki (small balls of fried octopus) or crab. You’ll also find plenty of okonomiyaki (Japanese pancakes) and all sorts of other treats.
Kids especially will love the enormous signs outside the restaurants, as the sign is often a gigantic animal – we counted three huge crabs, wriggling their legs; a dragon; a cow; an octopus and several pufferfish! It can be difficult to know which restaurant to try so I’d recommend arriving with an empty stomach and trying different snacks from several street food stalls.
Say hi to Gundam and Godzilla in Tokyo
My boy was so excited about meeting giant robots and monsters in Japan. So we made sure that we found the giant Gundam statue in Odaiba on our day in the area. Every hour Gundam puts on a brief display; his helmet opens and out pops a unicorn horn, and parts of his armour move about. You can find Gundam down at Diver City Plaza in Odaiba. If you’re in Odaiba for the day then remember to go find him!
Over in Kabukicho, Shinjuku you can see a life-size Godzilla poking his head over the top of a skyscraper. The skyscraper houses Hotel Gracery and it’s possible to go up to the top of the building to get a closer look at him. On the hour he roars and the head moves – perfect for monster-loving boys and girls!
Meet a whale shark at Osaka Aquarium
Osaka Aquarium is impressive – it’s the largest aquarium in the world. You can easily spend half a day or more exploring. The aquarium covers many different aquatic habitats, from tropical reefs to the poles, and everything in between. Gawp at beautiful corals and clown fish, and come face to face with giant spider crabs (not my daughter’s favourite animals!). My boy was fascinated by piranhas while the girl loved the walk-through tank.
The main tank is absolutely enormous and is home to two whale sharks, hammerheads, rays and more. It’s hypnotic, watching these incredible creatures from up close. It’s one of the top things to do in Osaka!
Be aware that the aquarium gets really busy and you have to do a lot of walking inside. You can buy tickets when you arrive or in advance online – click here to book tickets.
Play in an arcade
For a bit of light relief take the kids to an arcade. You’ll see arcades everywhere in cities and while you can’t take kids into the famous pachinko arcades (these are adult only, which is a shame as they’re fascinating) you can get some gaming done in some of the others.
In family friendly arcades there will be a selection of games, like claw grabber machines with soft toys as prizes, racing games like MarioKart, arcade shooters and so on. The usual stuff, really, but with a Japanese twist – think flashing lights, cute animations and blaring music. We couldn’t get our kids out of them!
Be aware that smoking is allowed in these arcades and some of the games at the back of them might not be that family friendly, especially if you’re in an area like Kabukicho (a red-light district in Tokyo).
Get a toy from a gachapon machine
Gachapon machines can be found all over Japan, especially in the cities. A gachapon machine is like a little vending machine but they have a random selection of toys or other items inside. There are famous character toys, or a series of items to collect. The cost depends on the item but they’re often about ¥300 a go – pop the coins in, turn the handle and out comes a plastic ball with your prize inside. The name comes from the sound the machine makes when you turn the handle and the ball pops out.
Gachapon machines are everywhere in Tokyo. Sometimes they’re attached to a shop and have themed toys in them like at the Gundam shop in Odaiba; others are found a bit more randomly in the street. They make a good incentive for best behaviour! But be warned – once your kids know what they are, they won’t be able to pass them without begging for a go on the gachpaon machines!
What would you add to this Japan Bucket List? Let me know in the comments!