About a boy, in Japan
August 30, 2009 12:55 PM   Subscribe

Travel filter: if you were going to spend 4-6 weeks travelling in Japan with a five year old boy, where would you go and what would you do?

I spent six weeks in Japan 97-98 as a single woman. I am hopefully returning to travel with my son - might be doing it as a single parent, my partner may be able to join us for some/all of it.
My son is a bit 'quirky' - rather mature for his age, his reading and logic is supposedly that of a 10 year old. He loves history, but also really digs Studio Ghibli movies, weird pop-culture references, traditional stuff, visiting art galleries and museums (just not too many) and things to do with Buddhism. Oh, and he doesn't mind Japanese food.
I speak a little bit of Japanese and read hiragana (at least phonetically), so going slightly 'off the beaten track' away from tourist areas is not a drama either.
posted by Megami to Travel & Transportation around Japan (18 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Go to Mitaka, to the Studio Ghibli museum!
posted by aeighty at 1:08 PM on August 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

Does he dig giant monsters (kaiju)? Maybe he'd enjoy Ultramanland. : http://www.ultraman-land.jp/
posted by ursus_comiter at 2:32 PM on August 30, 2009

And if he likes history, let me suggest Meiji-Mura, an outdoor history/architecture museum near Nagoya. It's like a Japanese version of the Henry Ford Museum's Greenfield Village.

I'd also suggest looking up what festivals are scheduled during your visit.
posted by ursus_comiter at 2:41 PM on August 30, 2009

For things on the beaten path, take him to Tsukiji and Disney Sea. They can be touristy as hell, but there's a lot for a 5 year old and a grown woman to enjoy there. I was actually quite shocked at how gorgeous I found Disney Sea, utterly jaded by marketing as I am.
posted by Diagonalize at 2:58 PM on August 30, 2009

Tsukiji may not be so great for us (we are vegans) but thanks for the thought :)
Ursus, he has never outright professed a love of kaiju, but what's not for a kid to love? And I am a huge fan of the outdoor architecture museum (Scandinavia has some great ones) so that looks like a definite winner.
This is the kind of thing I am after. Thanks! Anything else is much welcomed.
posted by Megami at 3:04 PM on August 30, 2009

Near Nikko, there's Tobu World Square. The park is a collection of scale models of famous buildings from around the world. If you and your son like buildings, well, there you go.

Definitely try Disney. It's fun, and it's directly targeted at kids. The Ghibli Museum is perfect as well (it's literally a touch of heaven). As ursus said, try festivals. As long as your son is okay with loud noises and crowds, it's an experience unlike, well, anything. You don't say when you'd be coming, but you might try to get to Hokkaido for the Sapporo Snow Festival. Or, if you're around at a different time, the Taiko Festival on Sadogashima is supposed to be great.

Since you were here previously, I imagine you have some idea of the difficulty vegetarians and vegans have in Japan. I'd make sure to look into ways to keeping to your diet while you're here. There are some decent restaurants in the larger cities that cater to vegans, but outside of Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka, it might be tough going.
posted by Ghidorah at 3:28 PM on August 30, 2009

Hakone Open Air Museum has tons of amazing outdoor sculptures, including some really neat ones that kids can play on/in--my nephews (ages 5 and 9) love it. Also if he's into volcanoes or geology, Hakone Owakudani is pretty cool.
There's a neighborhood in Tokyo called Kappabashi that sells the really realistic fake food that they display in restaurant windows--you might both get a kick out of it. They also sell souvenirs for tourists--I bought a fried chicken wing keychain there (ironically, since I was also vegan at the time!), and it used to really freak people out.
If you visit the temples at Kamakura, there is a restaurant called Hachinoki Honten that serves traditional Buddhist vegan cuisine--lunch only, according to the internet. Pricey but really amazing.
posted by janerica at 4:43 PM on August 30, 2009

Going off on ursus_comiter's comment, a similar historical park closer to Tokyo is the Nihon Minkaen in Kawasaki. It's 500 yen to enter, they usually have a lot of activities going on, and if you're there in October/November the autumn colors are quite beautiful.
posted by armage at 5:54 PM on August 30, 2009

And if you both like traditional, Meiji-era Japanese architecture, I highly recommend Kawagoe. It's about 45 minutes nonstop from Shinjuku, and if you go on September 13 or 27 (both Sundays) the main street will be closed to vehicle traffic, making it a bit easier to enjoy the scenery. Weekdays are less crowded though, of course.
posted by armage at 5:58 PM on August 30, 2009

Hiroshima has a contemporary art museum that is pretty neat. Also if you're in Hiroshima then he can see the monkeys and deer on Miyajima (and what kid doesn't like monkeys and deer?)
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 8:59 PM on August 30, 2009

I am not sure what time of year we are going to be there, which I know is a limiting factor.
I would love to go to a festival, but the boy can freak out a bit with the loud noises thing. But I will definitely do some research.
Going vegan in Japan is going to be a bi-atch, I know. I must admit then when we travel sometimes we 'scale it back' and eat vegetarian, which is still a problem in Japan (dashi in everything) but thanks to the internet there is a lot more information out there this time around.
posted by Megami at 11:38 PM on August 30, 2009

How about: the Osaka Kaiyukan (Aquarium) with the whale shark tank, going to Nara and feeding deer, and in Tokyo's Ikebukuro district, Namjatown - a bizarre indoor amusement park.
posted by Gortuk at 7:06 AM on August 31, 2009

And a great veggie-friendly lunch in Kyoto - Yaoya no Nikai, in the Nishiki market. They will even prepare the meals without dashi if requested beforehand.
posted by Gortuk at 7:08 AM on August 31, 2009

Things you might be interested in down in Kansai: Kaiyukan, Instant Ramen Museum, Arashiyama (specifically the Monkey Park), Nara Park (deer running around everywhere!), Himeji-jo...
posted by emmling at 8:05 PM on August 31, 2009

Shigaraki is a small town in Shiga which is where all Tanuki statues are made. Aside from the fun of seeing the rows on rows of tanuki statues at the shops you can also make your own! (Or if you prefer more practical uses of clay you can make dishes and tea cups too).

If you go in the summer time make sure to check out one of the bigger fireworks displays (the granddaddy of them all being the PL show in Osaka). Much much better than anything you'll see in the West. In the summer time you could also check out the Awa Odori festival in Tokushima (a festival of dancers, people from across Japan practice all year and then go to the festival to do their thing), or the festival in Kyoto where they light up the big letters on different mountains, or any other of the many many festivals in the summer.

Uwajima in Ehime has a shrine with many statues of penises. I enjoyed it when I went, and could only imagine that a 5 year old would enjoy it even more.

If your kid is OCD about collecting things than you could do the hachijuhachi (88 temple) tour of Shikoku. At each of the temples you collect a stamp that goes in your book.

Either Shiga or Mie (possibly both?) have a ninja village. I never went but always wanted to.

Kyoto has a samurai movie village (ie a big set which is used to make low budget samurai movies and tv shows).

In Kyoto there's (or at least used to be) a vegetarian (vegan?) buffet place called Obanzai near Karasuma-Oike. Went there a couple of times - the food is good, even for a non-veg.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 2:59 PM on September 1, 2009

If I could go to one place in Japan with kids, it would be the Fukui Prefectural Dinosaur Museum (Flickr has the best photos).

The Fukui Prefectural Dinosaur Museum is also down the street from Eiheiji, the head temple complex for Soto Zen in Japan. You'll be able to eat shojin ryori, or traditional Buddhist vegetarian (it's actually vegan) fare.

Using a JR rail pass, you can combine a trip to the Fukui dinosaur museum and Eiheiji with a trip to Kanazawa (full disclosure: I lived in Ishikawa and Fukui for ten years, and love the region and the people there dearly).

I think the thing you have to remember with a five year old no matter where in the world you are is that they don't like to sit still for much more than 30 minutes, and they also need some unstructured time.

Our son was born in Japan, and we return at least once every 18 months. We made a trip when he was three or so, and taking the train became a major ordeal after 30 minutes. At five years old, 60 minutes was the max amount we could spend on the train or in the car.

We also could only spend about 20 minutes at any one location, such as a museum or temple complex.

Really the best activity to do with a kid in Japan is walking (as long as it is NOT in July, August or September).

Nara is a great town for kids. There are lots of parks, lots of deer, and lots of small streets to walk in, with a slower pace.

Kanazawa is also a superb walking town.

Kyoto can be, if you stick to Higashi-yama and the area around Kiyomizu Temple. Otherwise, Kyoto is too, too crowded, with people holding lit cigarettes at eye level, people riding bikes on crowded sidewalks, crowded, crowded buses, long walks to the Keihan or Hankyu subways.

But Nara is just perfect.

We usually planned our walking trips with a department store as a base. Department stores usually have cool toy sections, and they also have clean bathrooms and food courts with awesome meals.

In regards to trying to eat vegan or vegetarian, it's always important to remember one of stories about how the Buddha died: he developed food poisoning after eating food while staying at someone's house. It would have been rude to have refused it.

Japanese people are taught from an early age not to have likes and dislikes, and not to be picky about their food (a concept hammered into them in elementary and junior high school).

Shinran, the founder and "patriarch" of Jodo-Shin Buddhism, also learned that only the nobility of his time could afford to follow the Buddhist precepts (which prevented the taking of life or using animal products). The 99% of the people who were common folk needed to take life to survive.

So it may be okay to take a holiday from veganism during your stay in Japan.

But I do recommend Fukui, Kanazawa, and Nara.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:31 PM on September 1, 2009

Thanks folks. And don't worry - I try not to be a vegan-freak while travelling, I just try to get by best we can. If that means just going vegetarian (or as close as possible) so be it. But thanks for the heads up on places to try and find.

I also loved Nara - was a bit disturbed watching parents put food in toddlers hoodies and then laugh as the deer chased them around, freaking out the kids - and I have my name on a roof tile on a temple there. So I will definitely return.

All of the suggestions have been amazing, thanks to all of you. We have just returned from a three day trip to Brussels (just me and boy) and I am still having to reign in my 'must get value and see everything' impulse and adapting to 'I am five and I am sick of walking around and looking at things'. I mean, the kid turned down a trip to a dinosaur museum, so I knew it must be serious.
posted by Megami at 12:16 PM on September 3, 2009

There are plenty of vegetarian options here in Kyoto. I recommend O-banzai (obanzai is kyoto-style home cooking) noted above, as well as Cafe Proverbs, which used to be called Cafe Peace, and Biotei among others. I have a five-year-old boy too if you want to get together when you come.
posted by planetkyoto at 5:27 AM on September 6, 2009 [2 favorites]

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