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  • Writer's pictureDr Kalanit Ben-Ari

Our Japan Family Holiday Experience & Highlights

Our family holiday in Japan was an unforgettable adventure filled with unique experiences and breathtaking sights. Here are some of our top tips, highlights, and recommendations to help you make the most of your trip in this magnificent country.

We traveled to Japan in mid-April 2024 with the family—my husband, myself, and our two teenagers, aged 17 1/2 and 13 1/2.


Tokyo:


We landed at 7 AM, and by 9 AM, we had already dropped off our bags at our hotel in the Ueno area. Tokyo, with its 37 million people and unique vibe, is a fascinating city. We started with a walk in Ueno Park, a beautiful green space. We visited the Tokyo National Museum, where we enjoyed our first matcha tea experience at its lovely tea house. We also explored the peony garden, with peonies larger than the size of my head, and the picturesque ponds.


Needing a long walk after our 13.5-hour flight, we continued to Ameyoko Yokocho food market. This outdoor market is filled with colorful local food shops, grocery stores, seafood vendors, strawberry stands, and restaurants. We then walked to Senso-Ji Temple, the city’s oldest and most sacred temple, and its surrounding narrow roads. We hopped into two rickshaws for a fun experience plus a guided tour and a little rest from our day of walking.


After visiting the temple, we walked to the Sumida River and took a boat to Odaiba Island, a man-made island in Tokyo Bay, for the TeamLab Planets exhibition. This experiential exhibition includes walking through water and a garden where you become one with the flowers. It features four large-scale artwork spaces to explore and two gardens. We moved from one space to another, experiencing digital art blending beauty and nature—from walking in a river to jumping through a cushion room, encountering giant white balls, and exploring a magical garden room.


Akihabara: Known as the computer and electronic spare parts market, Akihabara is now better known for its multitude of shops devoted to selling Japanese manga and anime goods. The sights here—brightly coloured buildings, large posters of anime and game characters, and loud manga and anime advertisements—are far from traditional Japan. Anime and manga fans will find plenty of goods and merchandise of their favourite works. We visited a cat café (surprisingly relaxing experience) and had lunch at a restaurant with a young vibe, where individuals had their own self-service grills at their tables. We later discovered there are also dog cafés and hedgehog cafés! Some things you can find only in Japan.


Kendo Workshop Experience:


Our Kendo workshop was nothing like we imagined. Kendo is the most popular martial art in Japan, surpassing all others. The experience was more than just the clothing and the feel of it; the fighting itself and the sounds you need to make for each hit were surprising. I was chosen by the instructor to demonstrate, and holding the bamboo stick a specific way without moving made me understand the trouble I was in! The workshop was amusing (we couldn’t stop laughing!), educational, and a good workout. Experiencing the 'beginner's mind' as a family was a valuable lesson in learning something new together, regardless of age.


Ginza: We explored the architecture of the Ginza area, known for designer shops and shopping centers. Although the buildings are beautiful, as a family, we are less interested in modern shopping experiences. For those keen, the Ginza Six luxury complex is worth a visit.


Passover Seder:


We spent Passover Seder night at the Chabad Center at the American Center. Along with 260 people from Tokyo and around the world, we sang the same songs, read the same Hagada, and ate traditional foods as Jews are doing all over the world for thousands of years. The beautifully designed table included special cards for each diner with pictures and stories of the kidnapped Israelis, along with prayers for their safe return home.


Hamarikyu Gardens and Roppongi Hills Mori Tower:


We visited Hamarikyu Gardens, an amazing, historic garden with a tea house and small lakes, completely surrounded by modern Tokyo skyscrapers.

We enjoyed the view from Roppongi Hills Mori Tower. Arriving early on a rainy day, we had time to check out the contemporary art exhibition at the Mori Tower, Muca Icons, which included outstanding works such as some street art by Banksy, KAWS, JR and more.


Fencing Training:


We took our 13-year-old to join a Japanese fencer friend for fencing training. She experienced her passion like a local while we ended up in a local noodles restaurant, navigating the menu and enjoying the experience.



Bullet Train: Tokyo to Takayama:


Takayama is a small traditional village perfect for exploring on foot and by bicycle. We enjoyed walking its traditional roads and visited the historical Jinya/Samurai office. We had a memorable meal at a local restaurant run by an elderly Japanese couple who didn't speak English, relying on Google Translate to communicate.



Monte Feliz:

In the evening, while wandering around looking for a good place to eat, we stumbled upon what looked like a restaurant. Curiosity we peeked, then entered and discovered a small chef’s table restaurant (Monte Feliz, @montefeliz_sushi). This unique setup featured a master chef who cooked for a small group of diners—just 8-9 people seated around a bar table. We inquired about availability, and he handed us the menu. It was a fixed-price, 10-course tasting experience. We thought, "Why not?" and decided to stay, occupying half of the restaurant alongside an elegant older Japanese lady and a cheerful Japanese woman in her 30s named Ayaka. About half an hour into our meal, a Spanish couple joined us.


The chef, clearly passionate and skilled, presented luxurious, meticulously prepared dishes, accompanied by explanations and pictures of the specific fish used, along with their English names from his books. This, in itself, was an experience. However, once conversations began between the diners and the chef, the evening transformed into something unforgettable.


Ayaka, a Japanese tour guide married to an American, was on a trip with a group around Japan. She remarked, "You don't know how lucky you are. I've been trying to get a table here for seven years, and this is the first time I've succeeded!" She also shared a fascinating story about the elegant older lady seated nearby, whom she had met for the first time that evening.


We then asked the Spanish couple where they were from, and when they said Madrid, the chef mentioned that he had lived in Madrid for several years as a child. Born and raised in Tokyo to Japanese parents, he moved to Madrid because his parents, both professors, were conducting research there. When I asked about their research, I was surprised to learn they focused on the history of Sephardic Jews. The chef began sharing detailed facts and stories about Ashkenazi Jews (from Europe) and Sephardic Jews (from Arab countries and Spain), showcasing knowledge typically known only to Jewish people. 


Impressed, I mentioned that I was Sephardic Jew, and he continued to impress me with his insights. My curiosity led me to ask, "Why did your parents devote their careers to researching Jews who escaped Arab countries, ended up in Spain, and were later expelled?" His answer was unexpected: "Because we are Jews." He then retrieved from his books photos of his ancestors with tephilin and talit (two holy objects used for Jewish prayer), an old Jewish prayer in Japanese with a Star of David, and images of Japanese Jewish festivals. The stories he shared were heartwarming and touching, complementing the stunning food that kept arriving, making the evening divine.


I could write a book about that night. We even convinced him to sing to us in an old and rare Japanese style (Noh), among other joyful moments. When we left, I told him, "We will never forget this evening!" It was undoubtedly one of the highlights of our trip to Japan. As we walked back to the hotel, my daughter said, "That was a very special and fun night!" Indeed, it was.



In Takayama we also visited the last Samurai office (a recommendation from the tourist guide at the sushi restaurant the night before). Warmly recommended. 


The next morning, we planned to rent a car for a day to drive to Kanazawa and make stops along the way. However, we discovered that our regular international driving license wasn't valid for the rental (apparently, this happens often, so the company refunded us on the spot). For future travelers, check out my blog 11 Pro Tips To Travel Japan to be better prepared. Realizing that Golden Week, Japan's biggest holiday of the year, was approaching, we headed to the train station to buy tickets for all our upcoming destinations.


In the morning, we explored the local morning markets and then rented bicycles to ride to the Hida Folk Village. This village contains over 30 examples of rural gassho-zukuri houses, showcasing beautiful architectural details on a hillside with stunning views of the Japanese Alps. Cycling up the hill to the village was challenging, but we made it! Alternatively, you can take a short taxi ride to conserve your energy.


Kanazawa:


We checked into the beautiful, small, and elegant boutique hotel Korinkyo. The room (number 2, on the reception level on the first floor) was stunningly designed with attention to detail. We explored Kenroku-en Garden, known as one of the best Japanese gardens. Indeed the most beautiful we saw in Japan. Outside the garden, a lovely road with shops and stalls led us to Kanazawa Castle.


To escape the sun, we visited the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art. We also explored the Nagamachi Samurai district, visiting a Samurai house to learn about their way of life and enjoy the simplicity and balanced way of living. Beauty and history all around. 


Later on the day we also visited the “Ninja” temple, Ninjadera, offered guided tours revealing secret doors, rooms, stairs, and endless hidden levels.


At Omicho Food Market, we enjoyed a colourful and delicious experience with giant sushi. 


Higashi Chaya Gai - Geisha District:


We were recommended to visit Higashi Chaya Gai in the evening for its dining options and atmosphere. We arrived early in the evening, only to find the beautiful streets closed and dark, with no one around and no open restaurants in sight. At one point, I gently opened a door that looked like a restaurant. To my surprise, I found myself looking at a table of Geishas, who all turned their faces towards me as the door creaked open. Quickly, I closed the door, feeling a mix of awe and embarrassment.


Continuing our walk, we eventually encountered a young, impressive local man with a cool and trendy appearance. I asked him where we could find a local, non-touristy place to eat. After a moment of thought, he recommended a fantastic chicken skewer restaurant, popular among locals. Despite the dark and narrow paths, he invited us to follow him. As we walked, he called the restaurant to ensure they were open and to reserve seats for us. This kindness from strangers was not new to us in Japan at this point. They often go out of their way to help, sometimes walking with you for 10 minutes to show you around.


The place was perfect! From the outside, we would never have guessed it was a restaurant. Inside, it was spacious, with a wonderful vibe and chefs who clearly knew their craft. We were seated at the bar since all the lower tables (which had under-table pits for legs) were occupied. With Google Translate as our ally, we told the chef our dietary restrictions and invited him to keep serving food until we were full. It was another outstanding dinner!

(Higashiyama Chokichi, Kanazawa: 1-chome-2-2 Kannonmachi, Kanazawa, Ishikawa 920-0838, Japan)



Shirakawa-Go Village:


Our original plan was to drive from Takayama to Kanazawa, making stops along the way, including a visit to the UNESCO World Heritage site, Shirakawa-Go village. We faced a dilemma about whether to insist on visiting Shirakawa-Go. Although there are daily buses from Takayama and Kanazawa to Shirakawa-Go, booking online was complicated. Each direction had to be purchased separately, meaning you could have a ticket to go but not to return. Additionally, there were issues with seat guarantees and seating arrangements.


We visited a tourist office near our hotel for clarity. It turned out that no company could guarantee us a return bus, and the bus back would be too late for our already booked bullet train to Kyoto. So, we decided to take an early taxi from the hotel, allowing us enough time to visit the village and return in time for our train.


We left the hotel at 6 a.m. and by 7:30 a.m., we were already walking in the village. It was a brilliant decision. By the time the many buses arrived (10:30-11:00), we had finished our visit. Although the small coffee shops were closed when we arrived, this allowed us to see the village in its full beauty, free from the busyness of tourist hours and bathed in the morning light. The beauty of the Gassho-Zukuri houses, the Japanese Alps in the distance, the stunning nature, ponds, and rivers all made for an unforgettable experience.


We climbed to the hilltop for a breathtaking viewpoint and walked down through the forest, exploring the village on foot and admiring its secrets. We saw local Japanese gardening in the early morning, golden fish in small ponds, and a temple that showcased the historical beauty of the village.


As we walked towards the main bridge, I noticed a smaller bridge in the distance, just over the deep blue river surrounded by greenery. Trying to find access to this bridge, we discovered new areas of the village. Eventually, we found the bridge, but it was locked and covered in green, indicating it had been closed for a long time. We did find a way to walk along the water's edge back to the main bridge. Underneath the main bridge, we discovered hidden stairs covered in greenery. Climbing out, we saw a sign that, from the other side, warned against crossing. Well… it’s too late for that. 


Crossing the main bridge, we saw tens of buses arriving, pouring tourists into the parking space. Walking in the opposite direction of the crowds, we went for a short walk in the outdoor museum. We ended our visit with a coffee and ice cream picnic in a quiet spot by the deep blue water.



Kyoto:


The Gion district is stunning, and our walking tour of the Nishiki Market and surrounding area provided a window into the local culture. We tasted foods we wouldn't have tried otherwise and learned about the nuances of shop signs, the history of food, and local culture. There is so much to do, see, and experience!


On our first evening, we booked a cultural show in the Gion district. This short performance showcased seven Japanese art forms, including a matcha tea demonstration, dance, singing, comedy, music, and flower arrangements.


The next morning, we attended a tea ceremony workshop in Kitimizon, which was outstanding. The guide accompanying the tea ceremony master gave us a good introduction to the ceremony, answered our questions, and we also try making tea ourselves. The historical traditional tea house added to the experience, making it a truly special workshop. Watching the movie Every Day a Good Day beforehand enhanced our appreciation. Warmly recommended experience.


Walking through the Gion area is just beautiful, with its hilly, narrow roads filled with shops selling ceramics, kimonos, teahouses, matcha ice cream, and restaurants. At the top of the hill, we visited the beautiful bright orange Kiyomizu-dera Temple



In one of the narrow roads, we spotted a pottery shop offering 30-minute wheel pottery workshops. We booked it for the next day. The family enjoyed the experience, but for me, having some minimum experience with wheel pottery, it felt a bit basic as much of it was done for you in the name of "helping."


Our evening dinner at a traditional local restaurant that has been serving boiled soy and vegetables for 100 years was another highlight. This recommendation came from locals walking next to us who were impressed by my youngest teaching us Japanese. It was a great conversation starter! In this historical and authentic place (Takocho), it was clear we were the only tourists there.


One afternoon, we walked the Philosopher's Walk, a 2-kilometer relaxed path along the Shishigatani Canal.


And of course, we didn't miss the opportunity to visit one of Kyoto's many karaoke rooms to practice our singing. Well... luckily, they have good soundproofing!



A London-based Japanese friend recommended the Romantic Train in Arashiyama, a 25-minute ride with beautiful views of the Nara rivers. Instead of a round trip, we returned to Arashiyama via a small river boat, which was beautiful and entertaining thanks to the boat guide. I recommend booking earlier or later trips for a less crowded experience. Note: You book your seats in advance. We checked which side of the train is facing the view for a better experience.

In Arashiyama, we walked to the Bamboo Grove and then climbed the hill to the monkey forest.



We also visited the Kyoto International Manga Museum, as my 13-year-old is a fan. The museum included many library spaces for manga, but most were in Japanese. It was okay, but I’m sure you can find a more fascinating one in Tokyo.


The Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine, with its thousands of bright red gates, is not to be missed. The 4-kilometer-long trail through these beautiful gates is best experienced early for fewer crowds.



The Sanjusangen-do Temple, also known as the Hall of the Lotus King, is another must-see. You might think that seeing one temple means seeing them all, but not in Japan. This temple from 1164 boasts the longest wooden structure in the world. The dark room with 1,001 Kannon (goddess of mercy) statues is spectacular.


We stumbled upon a hidden gem not found in tourist books: a modern indoor space with an outdoor center, luxurious shops, and a few restaurants (https://shinpuhkan.jp/). We ate at Yakitori Kyoto Suehirogari and ended with a dessert of huge shaved ice at Tea and Sake Tasuki Shinpukan. What a treat!


Finally, we debated whether to visit yet another temple but decided to see the Kinkaku-ji Temple, also known as the Golden Pavilion. The visit was worth the time. This stunning pavilion, with its beautiful reflection on the lake even on a grayish day, is set in a bright, beautiful garden. Again, visiting early or late can help avoid the crowds.


Nara


We visited Nara Park, a 1,300-acre park filled with temples and a museum. However, the highlight of the park is definitely the 1,200 tame deer that roam freely on the lawns and among the visitors. These polite deer nod their heads and eagerly await their special treats, which you can purchase on the spot. We strolled through the park and returned via the beautiful Isu-en Garden.



A Night at a Buddhist Temple in Nara


I booked a night at a Buddhist temple in the Nara area. Before leaving Kyoto, we discovered a local onsen just a 30-minute walk from the monastery. After a short train ride and a taxi trip, we arrived at the onsen (https://shiginoyu.com/). Although we had experienced onsens in every hotel we visited, this one was extra special. It was a traditional local onsen used by villagers, featuring hot and cold pools, a sauna, and an outdoor mineral hot pool. The simplicity of the place, the people around, and the experience itself were incredibly relaxing. I can totally understand how it can be considered a spiritual practice. One of my teens joined me, while the other preferred to wait in the reception area. I believe that seeing women's bodies in all ages and shapes is important and necessary for a healthy body image, especially for children and teens.


From there, feeling relaxed and recharged, we walked 30 minutes to the Buddhist monastery, Gyokuzoin. We climbed a hill and then descended through small villages, green fields, and beautiful bridges. One of these bridges was a bungee jumping point where we watched in horror as young adults jumped off, tied to a cable. Over the bridge, the path toward the temple became visible, marked by a huge yellow tiger statue at the entrance. Following beautiful walking paths lined with old concrete lamp statues and flags, we could easily have gotten lost among the paths leading to several temple buildings up the hill. We eventually found our way to the reception, where we were welcomed by monks with tea and sweets.


After a short introduction to the place and the experiences to come, we were shown to our rooms. We relaxed in our rooms in the beautiful sunny early evening, then went to explore other walking paths in the temple. We ended up at a top viewpoint overlooking Nara. After a few more ups and downs the hills, we found a beautiful temple with a giant silver Buddha statue. The whole place was magical, peaceful, and harmonious.


After changing into our Yukatas, we went for dinner. This was another memorable meal—sitting on the floor with trays on different heights of boxes, beautifully organised with small dishes of mostly unrecognisable but very tasty food. We then took advantage of the night at the monastery to walk in the dark, alongside rows of magical lights showing the paths in the monastery. The place is so large that every walk led to a different discovery. At night, it felt like a fairy tale walk through small gardens, up and down the stairs of the monastery. We slept in a traditional room with basic mattresses on the floor and bean-filled pillows under our heads.



Early Morning Rituals


Our alarm clock was set for 3:45 am, as the Goma Prayer Ritual, or fire ceremony, for those who want to observe starts at 4:10 am. We were silently guided to sit in a semi-circle around the chief priest of Gyokuzoin as he prepared for the daily fire ceremony. Cameras are not welcome during this holy ritual. He began singing while starting a small fire in the middle of the designed center, raising his voice with each prayer and song as he raised the fire higher, accompanied by gong sounds from the monk followers sitting behind him and on his sides. The roughly half-hour ceremony felt like visiting a different universe.


At 5 am, we joined the Daihannya Prayer, also called the chanting ritual, at the main hall. This fascinating ceremony involved the chief priest and all the monks singing prayers. The monks also played bells and gongs at specific harmonious timings. What was especially surprising was the way they all opened their prayer books like a long fan, moving them up and then loudly smacking them back down in unison. The synchronised movements and sounds accompanying the singing prayers were fascinating.


Breakfast and Meditation


At 7 am, we went for breakfast in the same hall where we had dinner the night before. The same attention to detail was evident, with warm tea and kind service. There are only a few guest rooms, and for those who want, we continued to a meditation session at 8 am. The wonderful monk guide didn’t really speak English, but thanks to Google Translate, or whatever app he was using, he conveyed his messages in Japanese, and the app translated them into English. We were joined by another two couples, making it a wonderful experience to share with the family.



Practical Tips and Link:


Here is the link for the place: (https://example.com). Please note that we communicated with them well in advance, but due to the language barrier, we were not sure until we arrived if a room was reserved for us. Also, be clear if you want a room with a WC and a shower, as it is not a given detail there. 


From the temple, we took a train back to Kyoto and then a bullet train to Hakone.


Hakone:


Hakone was a spontaneous addition to our itinerary, prompted by a friend's insistence that it was a must-visit destination. Opting for a one-night stay rather than the hassle of a day trip from Tokyo, given that we traveled light as a family, making it easy to move around. And what a delightful surprise it turned out to be! Hakone greeted us with gorgeous weather, a rarity according to the locals we encountered. The sight of Mount Fuji was simply mesmerising.


For accommodation, we chose a flat listed on both Booking.com and Airbnb. Note that there are limited dining options for dinner in the area. Arriving at 18:45, we found only one restaurant open, serving Italian cuisine. While we do love Italian food, it wasn't exactly what we had in mind for our Hakone culinary experience.


Situated amidst hills and renowned for its hot springs, Hakone boasts a plethora of attractions. We opted for the convenient circuit to explore its main highlights, including a pirate boat ride (with the worthwhile splurge for VIP space upfront), a ropeway journey over the volcanic zone, and a serene sidetrack train ride leading us to one of the trip's highlights: The Open-Air Museum of Art. Every museum should take a cue from this one, we thought. The weather was ideal, sunny with a gentle breeze, perfect for strolling through beautiful open spaces and gardens, stumbling upon captivating installations and stunning artworks. Indoor galleries and an ice cream shop provided refreshing respites when needed. Highly recommended!



If time permits, extending your stay to two nights in Hakone is advisable. However, be prepared for narrow and congested roads. Upon arrival, we encountered a couple who had opted for the bus, expecting a 20-minute journey but ended up spending an hour on the road, causing them to miss their flight. A cautionary tale indeed.


Tokyo


Returning to Tokyo for our final night, we opted to stay in a different area of the city, aiming for proximity to its famed attractions. Our itinerary included a visit to the iconic and bustling Shibuya Crossing, where a staggering 2.4 million pedestrians traverse daily. We also explored the vibrant Harajuku district, known for its youthful, fashionable, and innovative crowd. On the way back to the hotel we notice several roof top gardens. We explored one of them and found that with many rooftop gardens and restaurants, you can walk from one block to another via their open-air rooftop spaces. You'll find all sorts of food, bars, and coffee places, making it a delightful and unique experience.


The following day, we ventured to Shinjuku and took a leisurely stroll through Yoyogi Park, savouring the tranquility before embarking on our marathon 15-hour flight back to London. And of course, we couldn't resist one last visit to the captivating Harajuku area before bidding farewell to Tokyo.



Leaving Japan left us with an insatiable hunger for more. We, as a family, eagerly anticipate our next visit to this enchanting country in the future. The best moments are the ones in between: the discoveries, the laughter, taking the wrong train and finding your way, the coffee shop you just stumbled upon, the stranger who was so kind, and, most importantly, the company of your travel companions.


If you are wondering how we manage to do so much with teens, you can check my blog -Reclaiming Family Holidays: A Psychologist's Journey Through Digital Detox.


I hope this account of our family trip to Japan inspires and helps you plan your own adventure in this incredible country.


** Please note that this is a report of our experiences and is by no means a recommendation or guarantee of what you will experience. We recommend checking each place for age restrictions, especially if you are traveling with young children. Additionally, your experience may vary depending on the time of year, season, and specific conditions during your visit.

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