Travelling to a country with such unfamiliar customs, surroundings and even language, may seem like a tough call, especially with children. But luckily, Japan has made leaps and bounds in their endeavours to make it easier to get around, easing the worries of parents’ all over the world. The country has an eclectic mix of nature and urbanisation, providing a wonderful balance between exciting stimuli and relaxing downtime for the whole family. And it’s our belief that travelling away from the cities is where children will learn and experience the most, and create memories that will stay with them well into adulthood.
Japan is well-known for its abundance of shrines and temples; the mere utterance of either of these words may already have your childrens’ eyes rolling back into their heads in boredom. And while Buddhist temples are certainly not playgrounds, by framing the location properly there is a lot to make it interesting for younger minds. Many temples have beautifully vivid wall and ceiling murals to capture imaginations, an almost innumerable number of Buddha effigies to discover, and the opportunity to select your own talisman for good luck, good grades, or just because it looks cuter than the other ones (we’re all a bit guilty of that last one).
Some temples in Japan also have a more hands-on approach to Buddhism with most temples having votive images and statues that you are encouraged to interact with for good luck or health. Todaiji, for example, has a square hole carved into one of the building’s pillars named ‘Buddha’s Nostril’, said to grant a degree of enlightenment in the next life of whoever can fit through it. And you will often see a queue of people waiting to give it a try, eager for that chance at enlightenment.
Shrines, on the other hand, are tied to Japan’s Shinto religion and usually consist of a large area with many separate sub-shrines. Visitors are expected to behave in a decent manner and playing or running around is generally frowned upon. However, shrines host a multitude of festivals throughout the year with a great informal atmosphere, fair games and food stalls. These places of worship are usually located in greener, less urban areas, making them a great spot for a lunchtime playbreak.
One of the worries travellers often have before departing on one of our trails is with food options as it’s easy to get the impression that Japanese cuisine is only made up of sushi, sashimi and rice (and for some of us it is, but can you blame us?). However, meats such as pork and beef are actually more popular than seafood today, and many restaurants have special menus for children with smaller portions, tastes and colours that suit a younger appetite. The ever-present ‘family restaurant’ are informal establishments, usually part of a chain, that serve a mixture of Japanese and Western cuisine. Meanwhile, more traditional establishments such as ryokan may not have a children’s menu, but all meals are served in a variety of smaller dishes making it easy for parents to share with children, letting them decide what to eat. Should you or your children have any allergies, you can ask your hotel front desk or host to write a message in Japanese that you can take with you to restaurants. And then for the very young, some Japanese restaurants are happy to provide an extra plate so you can share some of your meal with the tiny stomach next to you.
If you’re looking to hit the trails with your children, then we definitely recommend the shorter versions of most of our hikes. Our shorter tours are designed to focus on the highlights of the trail without being overly tiring, meaning parents and children can have a relaxing holiday with a good amount of exercise. When it’s time to turn in for the night, most traditional Japanese ryokan and minshuku provide fluffy futon mattresses on tatami floors. The advantage of these accommodations is that you do not need a cot for younger children, however many western hotels are able to provide a cot upon request as well.
Some children have limitless stamina and can traverse the trails in no time, while others dread the thought of walking more than thirty minutes and of course pushchairs aren’t recommended for hiking routes. However getting around the city is becoming increasingly more convenient, with more and more train stations building elevators or ramps for ease of movement. Buses and trains can be crowded at times however, so you may have to fold these down to board and make room for others. Alternatively, you may spot a good number of parents utilising baby carriers or papooses, and doing away with the idea of wielding pushchair altogether. Still, should you wish to bring a buggy then Japan has a very trustworthy delivery service with nationwide coverage called ‘takuhaibin’. You can use this service to send ahead luggage to your next destination and travel hands-free for the interim.
Japan has an abundance of entertainment options for all ages. Children will instantly be attracted to the busy and colourful cities of Tokyo or Osaka, but it’s in the countryside where the true nature of the land is to be discovered. While a pilgrimage might not be on everyone’s bucket list, why not transform it into an adventure in a foreign country where the heroes must visit every shrine and temple to complete their quest? Or a village-to-village trek where the objective is to try discover something new every day? Children love games, and in fact...so do adults. Travel is about expanding your horizons and learning something new. Oku Japan has a dedicated family tour where children can try their hands at Taiko drums and a variety of traditional crafts. There really is no better way to experience a culture than to get hands-on with it, and our well-thought out itinerary was made with this in mind. Your destination is what you make of it.