By Ritika Jain
My first trip to Japan left me breathless. Apart from the picturesque landscape and fascinating culture, what’s impressive is that everything is spic and span and it all works like clockwork. I immediately understood why they’re a first world country. The people do their jobs religiously and are extremely helpful and polite. They might not speak English in the interiors but they sure do in the cities and have all the useful signage required. It was even more fun for my daughter, who couldn’t get over the automation even in a public toilet! I would like to recommend a few places worth visiting, especially if you’re planning a family trip.
1. Ghibli Museum, Mitaka, Tokyo
Whether you’re a Miyazaki fan or not, this is a must-visit place. You’ll get a glimpse into the world of animation and get familiar with all the wonderful characters in landmark films like Spirited Away, My Neighbour Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service, etc. Unfortunately, photography is prohibited inside the museum but that’s probably because they want you to be in the moment and enjoy yourself. They have the cutest souvenir shop selling everything from t-shirts to planters so be warned that you may well get carried away. Tip: Be sure to book your visit well in advance as they admit only a certain number of tourists at a time.
If you’re a manga fan, schedule a visit to Animate, the world’s largest anime store. But do not be disheartened if you don’t find books in English here.
2. Sunshine City, Ikebukuro
I need not even rave about the phenomenon that’s Pokemon and why there are collectors of all things Pokemon. There are many Pokemon centres spread out all over Japan but if you go to Sunshine City, you can also check out the observation deck on top of the adjacent Sunshine 60, a 60-floor-building with a panoramic view of the city. Bonus: Sunshine Aquarium located on the top 3 floors of Sunshine City features around 750 species of aquatic animals, from Sting Rays to Otters. Also, the best toy stores like Ani Cute and Kiddyland are on level 2F.
3. Sumo Wrestling
One of the most unique experiences in Japan is witnessing an amateur Sumo tournament, where they make a big pomp and show of their might and skill. The trick is to book good ringside seats in advance and arrive early. Also carry some light snacks. Check this link for upcoming events. One can also visit a Heya or Sumo stable, where they train and live. You can book this through a local Airbnb experience guide or through Expedia, Viator or GoVoyagin.
4. Legoland Theme Park, Odaiba
Not only do you get to see Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto and Nagoya all in one day at Mini Land and go on exhilarating rides and splash around at the water park, you get to experience a Lego factory tour and enroll for beginner/advanced robotics workshops for kids from grade 1 to 6. Tip: Use the ‘Assisted Access Pass’ if you have any physical disability or injury that may not allow you to queue up for attractions. Also, wear your most comfortable shoes.
If you haven’t had your fill of playtime, you can also check out Universal Studios, Disneyland or KidZania.
5. Animal cafes vs natural attractions
There are a number of cat cafes, owl cafes and hedgehog cafes that dot Tokyo. One can pet or feed them and take pictures with them. I had mixed feelings about these places as I do not like the idea of animals in captivity so I’d rather advocate the Deer Park at Nara, where you can feed the deer roaming free and also visit an ancient Shinto shrine. If you love cats and a nice trek up a mountain, visit the Fushimi Inari Taisha in Kyoto-the shrine dedicated to God of rice and prosperity. You might have seen pictures of it’s grounds with 10,000 bright orange coloured Torii gates. There is also the squirrel village and insect museum in Gifu or Miyagi Zao fox village, a short train ride away from Tokyo.
6. Ninja Trick House, Shinjuku
Learn sword tricks or how to throw shuriken to distract your opponent, watch a movie that teaches you the difference between Ninjas and Samurais and learn hand signs in a fun interactive experience. Prior reservation is recommended.
7. Hot Springs at Hakone
A short ride on a pirate ship takes you across the lake. Climb up to the deck and enjoy a breezy ride to a lovely surprise-a snow-covered island! After a snowball fight, checking into one of the onsens and enjoying the hot tub is your best bet. One night here is totally worth it.
8. Picnic at a park
One can pack a picnic for a day at any of the well manicured parks like Yoyogi park, a favourite destination for viewing Cherry blossoms or attend a night-time festival with various hawkers selling street food. This way, you get to mingle with the locals and put your camera to good use. Do not miss out on Mochi, Japan’s favourite mildly sweet snack and the truly delicious ramen bowls. Note: food in Japan isn’t spicy at all.
9. Water Sports and boat trips
If you are going with slightly older kids, you may want to try one of the many water sports on offer-Kayaking, paddle boarding, fly fishing, rafting or snorkelling. If you’re not keen on adventure sports, there are quite a few boat trips you can take to explore Hozu river in Kyoto Prefecture or Sumida river in Tokyo, where you can also glimpse a small-scale copy of the Statue of Liberty and the Tokyo skyline.
10. National Museum of Nature and Science
If you dig history, visit the permanent exhibitions of this museum to learn all about the invention of pottery, the cultivation of plants, literature handed down in time and other fascinating facts about the history of humankind, geological evolution and ecosystems.
1. Make sure to use the local trains and buy a handy Suica card that’s accepted in most modes of transport and shops as well.
2. While travelling from Tokyo to Kyoto, take the Shinkansen (bullet train) for a wonderful experience and views of Mount Fuji and the countryside.
3. Choose a central place to stay in Tokyo. Airbnb apartments around Shinjuku or Shibuya are a good bet for a family but if you’re on a budget, hostels are safe too.
4. Don’t make a strained itinerary. Roughly two weeks are comfortable enough for Tokyo and Kyoto. The best time to go is in late spring (March to May) with cherry blossoms in full bloom or late autumn (Sep to Nov). If you plan to visit Hokkaido, make a separate trip in June when the weather is more agreeable.
5. Get familiar with traditional greetings and customs before you go. Tipping is frowned upon but it’s okay to take a small gift for your host. Also, it is one of the cleanest places you’ll ever visit so make sure you leave it that way.
6. If for some reason, you’re on your own, lounge at a jazz bar or check out woodcut prints at a gallery, take part in a tea ceremony at the Geisha district of Gion or go shed inhibitions and soak at a Sento (public bath house). Japan is a sensory delight!