We leave for Japan in 5 days and I thought I would walk you through our trip planning process, our itinerary and what we are excited about. We have wanted to visit Japan for a long time, but were always turned off by the high costs. However, since we will be flying from Canada back to Australia, we decided to add a little holiday in Japan to our return journey. This might be our only trip to Japan so we want to make sure it is a good one! Although in the many blogs I have read as research, every one seems to fall in love with Japan and its people, so perhaps this will just be one of many trips.
We booked our flights in March, 5 months ago as part of our flights back to Canada. I booked with Expedia and this was a perfect example of why I like Expedia so much. I accidentally booked an Air Canada Rouge (budget airline) flight from Toronto to Tokyo. We have flown Rouge before and it is fine for short flights, but I really didn’t want a 13 hours flight on Rouge with no food or entertainment. Especially since I could book a full Air Canada flight for the same price. I called up Expedia and explained the situation and they said they would issue a refund right away and I could book the flight I wanted. THAT is service and that is why I try to book directly with the airline or with Expedia.
I somehow forgot to book our seats for our flight from Toronto to Japan, and now the seat map is super full. I don’t fancy us all sitting separately so calling Air Canada will be first on my to do list for tomorrow. Hopefully they can sort it out – fingers crossed!
Like most first time visitors to Japan we had decided to stick to just two cities: Tokyo and Kyoto and explore them deeper. Since we travel with kids, slower travel is always better travel. There are so many other fantastic places I would have liked to have visited, but with only 10 days we stuck to the classic Tokyo-Kyoto itinerary. Tokyo does feature two Disney parks and since we are huge Disney fans I knew we needed to include at least one Disney day in our schedule.
We loved these recommendations from other travel bloggers about their favorite places in Japan.
Accommodation in Japan
Once the flights were booked, I got right on with researching accommodation options.
Japan is notorious for small spaces and we quickly realized that it would be impossible to book a hotel room for our family of 5 at a mid-range price point. Like we do so frequently, we moved on to looking at Airbnbs – apartments for rent. We love having a bit more space (2 bedrooms sometimes) and a kitchen to prepare breakfasts and some meals. When choosing an Airbnb, I consider location, reviews (I like to see lots of positive and recent reviews), the photos and of course price. Since Airbnbs are often priced per person, the price can go up significantly once I change the 1 person to 5 people. I have had some luck contacting the hosts directly and asking for a discounted rate since 3 of the people are children. If you haven’t used Airbnb, use this link to get $50 off.
Tokyo especially is a large city with so many different areas and I was immediately overwhelmed about what area we should stay in. Most people recommending staying near the Yamanote railway loop line for ease of getting around. Some of the neighborhoods that we considered were Shinjuku (typical Tokyo with neon lights), Shibuyu (famous for the Shibuyu crossing), Asakusa (more traditional), Ginza (way too posh for us). In the end we booked an apartment in Roppongi, on the recommendation of a travel blogger friend that has lived there.
Kyoto is more compact and since we travel with kids, we want somewhere that is central and close to transit. Our Airbnb in Kyoto is in Gion, which is quintessentially Japan with streets lined with hanging lanterns and the chance to see a geisha.
One thing I wanted to make sure we did while we were in Japan was stay in a traditional Japanese inn, or ryokan. They have tatami-matted rooms, communal baths and traditional Japanese cuisine. Unfortunately they can also be really, really expensive. Since Kyoto is the cultural capital of Japan, we decided to spend one night in a ryokan there. At our price point and as a family of 5, there weren’t a lot of options but we booked Gion Shinmonso.
Transportation in Japan
Since we are visiting two cities, we planned our flights to fly into one city and out of another. We fly in to Osaka (a short train ride from Kyoto) and out of Tokyo. We are going to take the bullet train between Kyoto and Tokyo and since it is quite expensive, it makes sense to only do that journey once. The bullet train makes the journey in 2.5 hours, but costs a whopping $150 CAD! The bullet train is definitely going to be part of our Japan experience even at that price. Friends have told us we don’t need to book in advance, so we haven’t pre-booked tickets and since we are only taking the train once, we didn’t purchase Japan Rail passes.
Japan has an extensive and efficient rail network that we will use within the cities we visit. I have read that even with the language barrier, it isn’t too hard to get the hang of the trains. I am hoping that is the case! I have now delegated transportation planning to Paul, so he has the lovely task of figuring out the crazy train maps.
In addition to combing a lot of travel blogs for information and recommendations, I am really loving Facebook travel groups for trip planning. If you aren’t familiar with Facebook groups, they are really easy to join. Just request to join and then once you are in you will have access to tons of expertise from other family travelers. Here are some that we really like:
Japan Travel Planning – a whole group dedicated to all things Japan
In March and April, I spent a lot of time planning our itinerary, booking our Airbnbs and getting a feel for what the main attractions and things we wanted to do were. After that, the trip got put on the back burner as we traveled to Sydney and far north Queensland and then got ready for our 6 weeks at “home” in Canada.
The last week I have been back at it, refreshing my memory of exactly where I had booked and sketching out what we want to do in each city. I still love my paper guidebooks and have ordered my trusty Lonely Planets for the trip. Since we are only visiting two cities, I opted to get two city specific Lonely Planet Pocket Guides instead of the full Japan Lonely Planet. While I know blogs and forums offer the most up to date information for travel planning and I know I can order an e-book, I still prefer to have a paper guidebook in hand.
I haven’t done a day-by-day itinerary and we will just make it up as we go along depending on weather, jetleg and what we are feeling like. We have a bunch of things we want to do and will figure it out on the fly.
Japan Itinerary with Kids
We will have 4 days in Kyoto and 5 days in Japan and here are some of the places and things we want to do.
- Temples – Kiyomizu Dera, Myoshin-ji, Fushimi Inari Shrine – not sure how many the kids will be able to handle!
- Philosophers Path – wander and see the shrines and shops
- Arashiyama bamboo groves – see some nature!
- Gion – we are staying in Gion, so will soak up the traditional architecture and maybe see a geisha
- Would love to do the hike outside town between Kibune and Kurama and visit an onsen (traditional baths) there
- Shin Kyogula Shotenga shopping street
- Pontocho Alley – this alley is what you see in the photographs of Kyoto and is the best place to spot geisha
- Toei Edo Studio Park for a samurai demonstration
- Tsukiji fish market – we will not be getting there for the 3am tuna market, but will hopefully have a breakfast there and wander
- Temples and shrines – Senso-ji, Meiji
- Sumo – there isn’t a tournament when we are there, but hopefully we will make it out to a morning practice session
- Fukagawa Edo Museum and Edo Tokyo Museum – to learn about old Japan
- Ueno Park – for a break from sight seeing
- Shibuyu scramble – world’s busiest pedestrian crossing
- Harajuku – I think the kids will love seeing the kawaii (cutness) culture of Japan
- Karaoke rooms – our kids love to sing and put on a show, so this is a must!
- Night view over the city from Tokyo Sky Tree
- Disney Sea theme park for one action packed day. We have tried for a few hours to book our tickets online, but can’t seem to get the transaction to work. We will just have to buy tickets at the 7-11 once we arrive in Japan.
Food – we are pretty excited to eat lots of yummy Japanese food. I flew through Japan once and had the best sushi of my life in an airport restaurant. It seriously was the freshest, tastiest fish I had ever eaten. Our kids love their sushi, so the conveyor sushi restaurants will be a hit with them. We also want to try out some ramen, vending machine food and bento boxes.
Normally before a trip, I would be talking to the kids a lot more about our destination. We might read some books from that area, watch some movies or youtube videos and do some research together. Japan is such a unqiue cultural destination and I know the kids are going to love all of its little nuances and quirks from kawaii culture (cuteness) to vending machine everything to high-tech overload. However, we have been so busy in Canada that we haven’t prepared them as much as normal. We have started to talk about the trip more and I have ordered them this really cool book about Japan for kids. The kids are quite excited about the food because they absolutely love Japanese food, sushi in particular.
In planning our days, I know we will need to build in some down time especially for them to deal with jet leg, the heat and temple overload. For me, I want to see and do so much in our 10 days, but I know we will have to find that right balance between sight seeing and overdoing it.
Speaking of jet leg, I should know better then this, but I am hoping it is really minimal. We just don’t have time to waste on jet leg! I probably should come up with a plan to prevent, combat and manage jet leg, but we will just deal with it as it comes.
Visiting in August
We are visiting in August, which a few of my Japanese friends have warned me is a really hot and uncomfortable time of year in Japan. Unfortunately since we are flying back to Australia at that time, we couldn’t be flexible about that. However, it sounds like August would be a month to avoid in Japan because of the heat and humidity and the busyness of school holidays. In fact, our last few days overlap with the busy Obon holidays.
Visa for Japan
Fortunately for most Western countries, a visa is not needed for Japan. YAY!
Money in Japan
We have read repetitively that even though Japan is super high-tech, many small shops and businesses do not accept credit cards, so we will be prepared with Yen on arrival. We will also use the Japanese ATMs to restock our Yen as needed.
In our research, we have come to expect that English will not be widely spoken throughout Japan. All the more reason to have my trusty paper guidebook, Google translate loaded and a SIM card purchased for our mobile. Although, English speakers may be hard to come by, we have heard how friendly and helpful people are in Japan.
Unfortunately we will be traveling with a lot more stuff then we usually would for a 10 day trip. We have been away for 6 weeks and I have used the opportunity to stock up on some clothes and things we needed at cheaper prices here in Canada. So we will have at least three large bags, plus day packs. This isn’t ideal, but we will manage. Our flight out is a night flight so we will also have to figure out where to store our bags for our last full day after we have checked out of our Airbnb (they have nowhere to store our bags and we have to leave in the morning).
Have you been to Japan? We would love to hear your tips and advice. Leave us a message in the comments!
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