Japan Family Vacation with Teenagers

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Curated By

Ruth Walker

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  • Japan

  • City Travel

  • Food & Wine

  • Arts & Culture

  • Outdoors

  • Local Culture

  • Local Food

sunrise walk at tawaromoto
Curator’s statement

Japan is a country with a truly unique culture that sparks inspiration across a variety of interests in food (Ramen! Sushi! Wagyu Beef! Mochi!), entertainment (Themed cafés! Karoke! Arcades!), and activities (Skiing! Traditional crafts! Spas!) Successful destination travel with teenagers and young adults means integrating their specific interests and allowing space in the itinerary for more independent exploration. Luckily, the main tourist cities of Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto are incredibly safe, and the well-run public transportation systems have ample English-language signs and helpful travel service support staff. A dense urban population + high tourist volumes do mean that advance planning and early reservations are essential–especially navigating with a large group like our two families traveling together, including five older kids. We had the additional challenge of being in Tokyo during the New Year holiday, which meant several attractions and restaurants were closed. But taking into account such parameters can garner unexpected benefits, including finding creative itinerary substitutions that ended up being our family's favorite memories!

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Where to stay in Japan

Tokyu Stay Shibuya

Tokyu Stay Shibuya is a modern and stylish accommodation located in the heart of Tokyo's bustling Shibuya district. The hotel offers comfortable and spacious rooms equipped with all necessary amenities, including a kitchenette, washing machine, and air conditioning. The hotel's location is convenient, with easy access to popular attractions such as the Shibuya Crossing, Meiji Shrine, and Harajuku. The staff is friendly and helpful, providing guests with helpful information about the city and its surroundings. The hotel also features a lounge area and a fitness center, making it an ideal choice for both business and leisure travelers. Overall, Tokyu Stay Shibuya offers a high-quality accommodation experience at an affordable price point.

22 Pieces

Exuding modern elegance and unparalleled luxury, this urban oasis seamlessly blends chic design with top-notch amenities, offering a sophisticated retreat for discerning travelers.

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Things to do in Japan

Japanese Knife making at Wada Shoten

Per person estimated costs are in US dollars using current exchange rates, which may fluctuate.

INTERACTIVE CULTURAL ACTIVITIES

Ramen Making

$4 for instant ramen - $27 for ramen class, in addition to museum admission

Ramen is at a whole other level in the country of its birth. Learn about the food’s history and create your own custom instant ramen mix at the Cup Noodles Museum or the Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum. As a fun family activity, sign up for a ramen-making class where together you’ll learn how to mix, knead and cut noodles using traditional methods–ending in a delicious feast of your efforts.

Japanese Knife Workshop

$135 includes choice of knife and English-speaking translator; extra for left-handed knives, upgraded hilts

At the 150-year-old Wada Shoten store in Sakai, Osaka, you can attend a private workshop to learn whetstone knife-sharpening and attach a handle to your own custom Japanese kitchen knife. Your name can be hand-engraved on the blade.

PHOTO-WORTHY FUN

TeamLab Planets

$26 for adult admission, student/child discounts

This series of installations, blending art and technology, works as both Instagram eye-candy AND a thoughtful art museum. And it’s fun and interactive for everyone in your family! Be aware that in one room you will be knee-deep in water (dress in pants that stay rolled up), and there are mirrors on the ground in another (wearing a skirt could mean underwear reveals). It is only a 15-minute walk to Toyosu Fish Market, which was closed for our trip during the New Year holiday but would otherwise be a great itinerary pairing.

Dressing in a Kimono while visiting historical Gion

$20-$30

In Kyoto’s Geisha district, you can stroll through evocative streets amongst charming wooden buildings, temples and tea shops. Why not complete the experience by being dressed in a rented traditional kimono (or the lighter cotton yukata in the hot summer months)? You will be amazed at all the steps and bindings involved, and afterward, you’ll feel beautiful, secure and comfortable. All accessories (belt, purse, hair jewelry, shoes, shawl) are included, and you can get your hair done into a pretty up-do for a very reasonable additional $4. They have men's kimonos too for a great family photo opportunity. For added convenience, arrange to have your clothes delivered back to your Kyoto-area hotel, and the kimono set will be picked up the next day.

THEMED EXPERIENCES

Tokyo DisneySea

$53-$73 for one-day adult admission, student/child discounts

Theme parks are a great itinerary choice if you are traveling during a holiday (like New Year’s) when other attractions and restaurants are closed. Well-known options include Universal Studios in Osaka, Ghibli Park in Nagakuta, and the Disney theme parks near Tokyo. I have long wanted to visit Tokyo DisneySea, which is a uniquely Japanese park within the Disney portfolio. It is stunningly beautiful, and the admission fee and concessions are less than half of what you would pay in the US! Note that operating hours are also shorter, with the park typically closing at 9pm.

Animal Cafés

$10-$20

My daughter really loves cats and wanted to visit one of Japan’s cat islands. However, the wintry weather and the islands being too far off our planned itinerary route meant instead visiting a Tokyo animal café. Cats are only the beginning! You can visit with capybaras, hedgehogs, owls, otters and even snakes depending on the establishment. Generally speaking, your admission fee includes a couple of beverages and one hour to interact with the animals. Our family’s favorite was the Capy Neko Café: the reservation-only space was tranquil, and we got to interact with adorable, playful cats and a very chill capybara.

FOR HISTORY BUFFS

Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Museum and Park

$1.50 for adults; kids free

A sobering and important exploration of the devastation from the World War II atomic bombings, with deeply personal stories of the physical and societal toll, and Hiroshima’s hopes and commitment to disarmament and peace. When going through the exhibits, it reminded me of how I felt when visiting the 9/11 Memorial and Museum in New York. Be warned that there is very graphic imagery of post-bombing victims within the museum.

Yasukuni Musum

$7 for adults; discounts for students/kids

My college-aged son is very interested in military history, and so asked to visit this war memorial museum as part of our Tokyo itinerary. It is set within the grounds of the Yasukuni Jinja shrine that honors those who have fought and died for their country. To some, it is a controversial representation of Japan’s warrior past, and there are no photos permitted within the museum past the main exhibit hall.

SHOPPING

Don’t forget to carry your passport with you as tourists’ purchases (so long as the transaction is at least ¥5,000) are tax-exempt at many stores, saving you up to 10%! Unlike most other countries, you can get the tax-exempt price at the point-of-sale instead of needing to apply for a refund at the airport (although this may change in the future).

Don Quijote

This hugely popular chain of discount stores can be found pretty much anywhere you go throughout Tokyo and Japan at large. Open very late or sometimes 24 hours a day, the multi-level meccas are great places to find Japanese (and some Korean) makeup, toiletries, souvenirs, snacks, electronics...you name it, they likely have it, and the whole family loved shopping here. The stores in high-tourist areas like Shinjuku can get crazy busy, and the very long lines to purchase items tax-free may not be worth it at these locations.

Harajuku

The young fashionistas in your crew will enjoy visiting the many clothing and accessory shops in this bustling shopping and eating district.

Prescription Eyeglasses

Did you know that high-quality, fashionable prescription glasses are available for a fraction of the cost and time compared to the US? The optometrist in our group was impressed! In about 30 minutes, you can have glasses fitted and made for around $50, including lenses! If you don’t have your prescription with you, they can do eye exams onsite for free. Look for a JINS eyeglass location near you when in Tokyo.

UNIQUE OVERNIGHT STAYS TO ADD TO YOUR ITINERARY

Tawaramoto - Stay at a Historical Soy Sauce Brewery Converted into a Luxury Inn

An hour from Kyoto by train, the small town of Tawaramoto has a quiet, rural beauty. Maruto soy sauce brewery began production in 1689, but operations ceased after WWII. After his grandfather passed away, Hiroyuki Kimura, the 18th generation of the founding family, uncovered information on the brewery and discovered the yeast still alive in the disused facilities. The warehouse has now been thoughtfully converted into a luxury inn that has restarted production of small-batch, premium soy sauce. Our stay was the highlight of our trip! The well-appointed “Kifuji” room was able to accommodate my family of five with two plush beds + futons on the heated floor at night for the kids. Provided in our rooms were soft drinks and water, pajamas and thick kimono-style jackets to help with the outdoor chill. A stay includes a walk-through and hands-on demonstration of the soy sauce making process, snacks and wine in the tea house, an incredible Michelin-recommended tasting menu of seasonal dishes inspired by local ingredients (pairing well with regional sakes on offer) and a lovely morning where you can borrow bicycles or join a local temple walking tour before tucking into an elevated Japanese breakfast. Allergies and food preferences were graciously accommodated. The owner drove us from and to the train station himself. This was an incredible, authentic addition to our itinerary that few have experienced.

Ito - Hot Spring (Onsen) Ryoken Hotel

In less than two hours, the Saphir Odoriko luxury excursion train from Tokyo takes you to Ito, a seaside resort town known for its hot springs. Seizan Yamato offers its guests access to its 2 onsens (with men and women swapping locations mid-day). While I thought the onsen facilities were wonderful, I knew my family wouldn’t be comfortable with the nudity and so booked a room with our own hot soaking tub on the balcony. You are given the option of selecting a yukata (thin cotton robe) from many colors and patterns that you can wear throughout the resort. Included in your stay is dinner and breakfast—served either in your traditional Japanese room or in a private dining room (which we chose so both families could eat together). Allergies and food preferences can be accommodated to a degree, but the food (while plentiful and delicious) was a little advanced for some of the pickier eaters. At night, wonderfully comfortable futons are laid out for sleeping and my family of five could all stay in one room.

Places to eat & drink in Japan

breakfast at seizan yamato

JAPANESE CONVENIENCE STORES - YOUR BREAKFAST SAVING GRACE

Unlike convenience stores in the US, Japanese “konbini” like 7/11 and Family Mart offer high-quality food at great prices. Fresh options like sandwiches on milk bread, fried chicken thigh cutlets, onigiri (Japanese rice balls with various fillings) and noodle bowls are replenished multiple times a day. Breakfast with beverages for my voracious family of five usually totaled around $30. And they are open during the early morning hours, while most restaurants don’t open until 10 or 11am.

VENDING MACHINES

And speaking of beverages, it is amazing how many drink vending machines dot every road throughout Japan. Often there are both cold and hot drink options, and they typically cost only ¥150 each (about $1). Just remember not to drink or eat while walking, which is a big cultural no-no!

BENTO BOXES ON THE SHINKANSEN

One place where you CAN dine is while riding a long-distance bullet train between cities. At train stations, you can choose from a wide variety of bento boxes (including some self-heating ones!) that are perfectly packaged for eating on the small pull-down train tables.

STREET FOOD

While Tokyo’s Tsukiji Outer Market (old fish market) and Toyosu Market (new fish market) were closed during New Year, later in our itinerary, my family was able to indulge at Kyoto’s Nishiki market and the Dotonbori district in Osaka. Some vendors only take cash. There are typically very long queues for the most popular food stands. In Dontonbori, we discovered that if a vendor has a seating area in the back or upstairs, you can often get your food more quickly for the same price by taking a table (and you get to sit down to eat and have use of a restroom).

RAMEN - AN INTROVERT’S EATING PARADISE

There are innumerable places to eat ramen throughout Japan. They are meant to be the working man’s lunch and characterized by being cheap and quick, with minimal human interaction required. You typically order through a vending machine, often cash only, at the restaurant's front where you select your basic ramen bowl (around $7) and any additional toppings or sides. This spits out tickets, which you hand to the server who fulfills your order. There will be self-service water at counter seats.

SPLURGE MEALS: JAPANESE BEEF

Most of the teens were not seafood eaters, and thus our splurge meals were centered around Japanese beef.

  • Rokkasen Shinjuku (Tokyo): All-you-can-eat Yakiniku (grilled meat) & Shabu-Shabu (hot pot). This restaurant was able to accommodate our expanded group of 19 (three families!) on New Year’s Day! There are three price points with the more expensive tiers including higher grades of beef and crab/lobster. While we chose the lowest tier, we were delighted by the high quality. The service was fantastic, with our attentive servers promptly fulfilling any additional meat and drink requests throughout the two-hour allotted time (some other AYCE places had reviewers complaining about poor service after initial orders). They even presented us with printed photo mementos of our dinner. There are two locations, and we chose the 2nd “annex” because it seemed to have larger private rooms.

  • Steak House Satou (Tokyo): They serve only premium beef, including their own brand of Wagyu, in teppanyaki set meals that are reasonably priced for the incredible quality. This was the best steak of our trip, and that is saying a lot! The modest restaurant is very small and only takes reservations for weekday dinners. Downstairs is a takeout counter where they serve ginormous “menchi-katsu” or beef croquettes that looked amazing!

  • Wagyu Ryotei Bungo Gion (Kyoto): 10-course beef omakase meal, which was a sumptuous and worthy final group dinner in Japan. We were able to fit our two families in their largest private room. We also arranged through the restaurant to have a geisha entertainment experience added, which was expensive but made for a memorable and authentic grand finale.

Need to Know

Things that make Japan travel easier:

  • Google Translate and Google Maps: Load these free apps on your phone. I used them throughout the day, every day. Google Maps has excellent step-by-step directions for the trains and subways, including what platforms and exits to use.

  • eSim cards - With older kids each having their own phones, I opted for eSim cards instead of renting a pocket WiFi as we might not always be together. It is far cheaper to use eSims than pay for extensions of your home cellular plans.

  • Suica IC card loaded on iPhones - A shortage of IC chips has meant a suspension of selling physical Suica cards. However, we found it very easy to load Suica cards on our iPhones (go to Wallet -> Transit Card -> search for Suica). You can add ¥ on the fly as needed; it tracks the balance and transactions in real time, and the teens loved how you can use it at convenience stores and vending machines.

  • Japan Rail Pass - We made excellent use of our seven-day rail passes and I highly recommend choosing a Green Pass for access to first-class, reserved seating, especially during high travel seasons. My teens loved traveling on the shinkansen—great downtime where they could use the WiFi and munch on snacks. Unfortunately with the recent price hike, the Japan Rail Pass is no longer the deal it once was.

For more travel tips, check out Fora Advisor David Rosenberg's guide, Off-the-Beaten-Path Guide to Kyoto, Japan.

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Travel Advisor

Ruth Walker

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This guide is part of our ongoing series on travel to Japan.