See the country’s fantastic children’s attractions: in Tokyo alone, there’s the Tokyo Disney Resort (Tokyo Disneyland and DisneySea), an awesome blend of Americana and Japan that leaves kids lit up like lightbulbs; the surreal, great fun, indoor Namja Town, based on the adventures of a cat called Navajo; and the hugely popular Kidzania, an ‘edutainment town’ where children can take on ‘real’ jobs, including operating on one another, presenting the news, flying a real (decommissioned) aircraft with a simulator, or catching robbers.
Just south of Tokyo, Yokohama Anpanman Children’s Museum is an interactive experience devoted to the eponymous cartoon character, who has a head made of bread that is eaten by characters in peril before being re-baked every night.
As the focal point of the world’s biggest urban conglomeration (Greater Tokyo), Tokyo itself is overwhelming and difficult to find your way around, and as such best tackled with older kids. The various sightseeing tours run by Hatobus (by bus, foot, train and/or boat) can make it more manageable; some even include pick-up and drop-off at various hotels. The city’s ‘Big Three’ sights are the Tokyo Tower with its panoramic views as far as Mount Fuji, the atmospheric Imperial Palace with its moats, 17th-century walls and gates, gardens and lovely Nijubashi Bridge (note that you must apply in advance, via the website, to join an English-language guide tour of the inner palace grounds), and Asakusa and its Buddhist temple Senso-ji (and neighbouring carnival complex), reached by boat ride along the Sumida river.
Then there’s Meiji-jingu, a major Shinto shrine set within a city forest, and beautiful Tokyo Bay (best seen from the Seaside Top observatory deck 150m up the World Trade Center Building). Take a waterbus across the Bay to the new leisure island of Odaiba with its replica of the Statue of Liberty, its park (with a huge ferris wheel, an aquarium, a bird sanctuary and lots of cherry blossoms in spring), its shopping malls (one of them Venice-themed) and its urban (non-swimming) beaches. Odaiba is also home to Miraikan, the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation, with attractions including data from seismometers across the country (showing it constantly vibrating) and the Honda robot. Museum staff can explain exhibits and their scientific background in English. There’s also the Museum of Maritime Science, full of hands-on experiences including the chance to canoe and ride in engine-powered rubber boats.
Other big hits in Tokyo with teens include the dazzling neon jungles of the shopping and entertainment districts of Shibuya and east Shinjuku by night, and the hip shopping area of Harajuku, where, on Sundays, youth culture groups stake out their territories around Yoyogi Park. Older kids might also enjoy experiencing more traditional Japanese culture by attending a tea-ceremony at the gorgeous Happo-en Gardens, where you can also admire the oldest known bonsai trees in existence (some about 500 years old).
Head south-west of Tokyo, to Osaka, for one of the world’s largest aquariums, Kaiyukan, which prides itself on its respect for the natural environment. The aquarium is in Tempozan Harbour Village, where you’ll also find one of the world’s biggest ferris wheels (the colour of which changes according to the weather forecast for the following day), a ‘festival market’ combining restaurants, food booths and shops (including toy stores) with street performance and entertainment spaces, a reproduction of Columbus’ ship the Santa Maria, offering day, night and dinner cruises, and the Suntory Museum, with an art gallery and an IMAX cinema.
Your kids won’t let you overlook that fact that Osaka is also home to Universal Studios Japan, offering many of the same rides as its namesake in Orlando, including The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man and Shrek’s 4D Adventure.
Head south-west of Tokyo, to the old capital Kyoto, ringed by lovely temples, gardens and palaces. An incredible 17 of them are World Heritage sites, including the famous, glimmer-gold Buddhist pavilion of Kinkaku-ji.
Get a total change of scene on family holidays by discovering Okinawa, Japan’s unspoilt and spectacular semi-tropical south-west islands, where you might take your kids hiking in the mountains or snorkelling among coral reefs. You can fly there from major cities or take a 25hr ferry from Tokyo harbour, with accompanying dolphins almost guaranteed. If you do fly (including between the different islands), you should buy a flight pass before you get to Japan. Otherwise, ferries also run between the islands.
Head up into the mountains for some first-class skiing. Westerners are usually surprised to learn that there are more than 600 ski resorts in Japan, with some of the most reliable snow anywhere, fantastic facilities and a long season. From Tokyo, you could take the train to the stunning Japan Alps National Park, where, after treating your little ones to a day on the slopes, you can soothe your aches away in style in an onsen (hot spring). Or west of Tokyo and north of Osaka, Shiga Kogen consists of 21 interlinked resorts, and is also famous for the snow monkeys (Japanese macaques) in Jigokudani Yaenkoen Park, where you can watch the creatures sit or swim in the hot springs.
For more on skiing in Japan, especially Hokkaido, see also our feature Skiing in the Far East.