25 Things You Should Know BEFORE Visiting China For The First Time (Especially with Kids)

25 Things You Should Know BEFORE Visiting China For The First Time (Especially with Kids)

We thought travelling to China with kids for two weeks would be a great family experience because it was one country that none of us had ever visited. In fact, we loved our China family tours so much last year, we were supposed to do it again this year. Our plans went slightly astray because Abercrombie & Kent told us that there were no foreign visas issued for Tibet in April because that is a Tibetan holy month. In fact, April is so holy that Tibetan monks ritually self-immolate in religious protest of the Chinese government. Of course, the Chinese government doesn’t want foreigners seeing any suicidal monks so it’s a no-go area.

A Two Week Highlights of China Itinerary for a Luxury China Tour

The view from the terrace of our room at the Yangshuo Mountain Retreat.

In lieu of Tibet, we toured around China for a week and then went to Japan at the pleading of the children. It’s actually a very short flight from Shanghai to Osaka airport.

My kids absolutely love Japan but they think China is merely OK. I think if we had prepared our children better for what to expect when travelling to China with kids, they would have appreciated the country more. Live and learn (from our mistakes).

Lessons From The Night Train to Shanghai

When we asked them why they wanted to skip out on seeing more of China to go to Japan, they opened up and told us how China was just so very different no matter how great the family friendly trip to China was.

This conversation did not happen easily.  We were stuck on a night train from Beijing to Shanghai which was a fairly hellish experience. First of all, they didn’t put us together.

Note – You can only buy the overnight train tickets 2 at a time. They are allocated by computer so you can’t guarantee you will sit next to each other if you are more than two people.  

Our Abercrombie & Kent guide had to beg some other passengers to move so that we could share one cabin together. Secondly, our suitcases were way too large for the space allocated (a problem we also found on Japanese trains).

So there we are in this tiny compartment with 4 suitcases, 4 carry ons and 4 people all jammed in uncomfortably for 8 or so hours. We had plenty of time for conversation. My son even came up with a song:

On the night train to Shanghai

I hit my head and cried

My sister said, shut up and die

Why Daddy why?

Could we not have gone to Dubai?

In the morning we had just nodded off into an exhausted sleep when we woke up to find a stranger in our cabin. Some man (one of the kind passengers who had moved to accommodate us the night before) was rooting through our suitcases. He had forgotten his shoes on the floor but it hadn’t occurred to him to knock on the door first.

25 Things You Should Know BEFORE Visiting China with kids #China #travel #traveltips #travelChina #Chinaguide #Chinatraveladvice #familytravel #bucketlist #travelgoals #familyvacation #visitChina #asiatravel #Chinatravel #Beijing #Shanghai

25 Things You Should Know BEFORE Visiting China For The First Time (Especially with Kids)

My husband and I have travelled extensively through developing countries whereas our children have less experience with non-Westernised countries. Some of these tips they told us for people visiting China for the first time were surprising. For example, I have no idea why squatty potties are a big deal.

25 tips for first time and family visitors to China

25 tips for first time and family visitors to China

What To Know About Travelling to China

We have learned so much from our family holidays to China that we asked our kids what people should know about travelling to china with kids. This list of 25 things to be aware of for a family friendly trip to China was compiled by our children for those people visiting China for the first time.

An Island in a Throng of People

Unless you speak Chinese, it’s a strange feeling to be surrounded by hordes of people with whom you are unable to communicate.

  • Everything is in Chinese so unlike other countries, you can’t even read basic information. There’s no sounding out words and/or guesswork in what the Chinese characters could mean. It’s completely and utterly different.
Lost in translation? But beer and coffee are always a good idea but not necessarily together.

Lost in translation? But beer and coffee are always winners but not necessarily together.

  • In the vast majority of the country, most people don’t speak English, or French, or Spanish or anything remotely related to a language you may have learned at school. The younger Chinese have learned English at school but they do not have enough practice speaking it.

Prepare for Paparazzi style attention

When you are travelling to China with kids, prepare for some major curiosity from the Chinese about you and your family. The Chinese love children and they are naturally curious. Needless to say they are curious about foreign children.

  • You get lots of attention from the Chinese such as them wanting to talk to you and/or wanting photos of you.
We have no idea who these people are but they wanted a photo with our kids.

We have no idea who these people are but they wanted a photo with our kids.

Not only were we travelling to China with kids, we caused much excitement because we had boy/girl twins. Any number of people told us how lucky we were to have one of each gender. The one child policy has been relaxed but many people feel they can’t afford to have more than one child.

  • China is a crowded country and personal space doesn’t seem to exist as a cultural concept either.

For example, on an internal flight, my daughter was doing a puzzle on her iPad. The Chinese lady next to her decided to help her. She didn’t speak any English but she reached over the tray table and started doing the puzzle with my daughter. The stranger was smart and seemed perfectly nice but my daughter was a bit bewildered.

  • The Chinese vendors seem to consider the word No as an opening gambit regardless of whether you really mean it. Maybe that is the way haggling works, but the pushy attitude confused our kids who just didn’t know what to make of it.

Different Manners

Visiting China for the first time is eye opening in terms of cultural differences of people’s behaviour.

  • My eco-friendly children were a bit shocked when they saw people casually littering. The river in Shanghai was full of litter. My kids were also aghast that older Chinese people (especially men) would cough and spit everywhere. As far as they are concerned, random spitting is littering.
  • Of course you have heard of the famous Beijing pollution, but it’s also everywhere else, just in slightly less ghastly quantities.  It’s not just air pollution, there’s also noise pollution. Except for the countryside in Guilin, Chinese cities are noisy!
Just another hazy morning in Beijing.

Just another hazy morning in Beijing. You really have to see the smog to appreciate it.

Beijing really was an eye-opener in terms of pollution. Locals wear masks to filter the air but even then, we experienced teary eyes and a burning throat.

  • People don’t really seem to think that fakes and copies of big names are a big deal. We see it as an infringement of intellectual property rights but the Chinese just shrug their shoulders.

You can find fakes everywhere – even wide out in the open in malls. Most of the women you see are carrying fake designer handbags. It’s a bit disconcerting to realise that fakes are the norm and not the exception!

If you think these are real Hermes Kelly bags, I’ve got a bridge I want to sell you.

If you think these are real Hermes Kelly bags, I’ve got a bridge I want to sell you.

Your guide or hotel will know where the good quality merchandise is sold. For example, we were taken to a high end pearl shop because we wanted to get little pearl stud earrings for our daughter. We didn’t even dare venture into buying anything like antiques. The fakes are really just that good in China.

Tip – If you want to buy fake stuff, your guide probably knows where to go for the better quality stuff. They can even bring designer items to your hotel.

Food and Drink

  • You need to be able to use chopsticks to eat easily.
Tip – If your children aren’t handy with chopsticks, get kiddy chopsticks which are attached at the top and easier to use. Alternatively carry a spoon and fork set with you like the ones you see in school lunchboxes.
  • Don’t look at some of the food photos if you are squeamish. My wannabe vegetarian daughter had conniptions when she saw some of the meat being advertised.
Fried scorpions on a stick are a street snack

Fried scorpions on a stick puts that Southern American axiom that anything fried is good to the test.

  • You can’t read most menus. Get used to pointing at something and hope you get what you want
  • My kids greeted Family Mart and Lawson (convenience store chains from Japan that are also in China) like a long lost friend. Although some of the items were the same in both countries, many were not. Convenience stores are not as good as Japan generally but pretty good. You can get dumplings, sushi etc.
  • You should always get bottled water with the seal on the cap. We paid extra for well-known brands because the last thing you want on a China family tour is one or more people having tummy issues. No… not the squatty potties again.
  • The Chinese drink tea like there’s no tomorrow. You don’t get offered water at a restaurant, you get tea.
A beautiful teapot and cup of Chinese tea

A beautiful teapot and cup of Chinese tea

Where the Sun Don’t Shine

  • You should bring your own tissue pack for public toilets.
  • Squatty potties are everywhere. We found our kids had difficult adjusting to squatty to become accustomed to using squatty potties .My daughter seemed to have an irrational fear of falling in them. And, yes, for the squeamish they do smell a fair bit.
Tip – Check out the disabled toilets which are more likely to have Western style toilets.
  • Don’t expect there to be toilets in restaurants, even in a Starbucks. They will just refer you to the nearest public toilet.

Connecting to the World

  • For free WiFi in a restaurant you need to put in a Chinese mobile numbers so it’s not actually that helpful.
  • The WiFi is painfully slow even in a major city in a five star hotel.

As luck would have it, my son was reading the book Radio Boy by Christian O’Connell  in the back seat of our car while we were stuck in Beijing traffic. He started giggling over the following passage. Our Chinese guide wanted to see what was so funny but then she got defensive over China having Wifi.

An excerpt from the book Radio Boy which our Chinese guide did not think was amusing.

Our guide was insulted when she heard my son laughing and wanted to see what he was reading.

  • It’s really beneficial to have a VPN to access the outside world. You can get one before you visit China.
  • There’s no Instagram, YouTube, FaceBook etc. It takes forever to access the internet anyway, so just get used to a social media detox.


  • There are lots of regional airplanes in China. You should expect delays because the airports are super busy.
  • The food on regional airplanes and trains may be too different for kids.
Tip – It’s a good idea to stock up on familiar snacks at a convenience store before boarding the plane or train.
  • Trains have hot water for the making of tea, not a water fountain. And the water isn’t marked as hot so be careful. Our son almost scalded himself sticking his mouth under one of those taps.
  • Crossing the road is an adventure as a pedestrian because you have cars, motorbikes and bicycles to contend with.
A Shanghai street with pedestrians, bikes, motorbikes and cars all sharing the same space. #China #travel #traveltips #travelChina #Chinaguide #Chinatraveladvice #familytravel #bucketlist #travelgoals #familyvacation #visitChina #asiatravel #Chinatravel #Beijing #Shanghai

A Shanghai street with pedestrians, bikes, motorbikes and cars all sharing the same space.

When you travel the world, you will come across so many different ways of living. That’s the whole point of travelling right? If you wanted to experience the same thing again and again, you should just stay at home. On the other hand, as a seasoned traveller you may easily overlook things. We are grateful to our kids for providing us with a fresh pair of eyes and perspective.

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Where To Stay in Osaka Japan: A Room With A View at the Marriott Miyako Hotel For Modern Luxury

Where To Stay in Osaka Japan: A Room With A View at the Marriott Miyako Hotel For Modern Luxury

When I was in Japan on tour in 2010, I felt like I was 30 years into the future. I love technology and they are so advanced with their phones, computers, everything.

– Soulja Boy

When we were searching for where to stay in Osaka Japan, we were not short on options. We were searching for cool and modern Japan  as well as Osaka accommodation for families with a bit of style and luxury. There would be plenty of traditional places to stay elsewhere on our 2 week trip in Japan. Thanks to being the second biggest city in Japan, you will have your pick of places to stay in Osaka, including many  5 star hotels from the major hotel brands. We specifically wanted an Osaka hotel near a JR station because we were using our stay in Osaka as a base to explore other places in Japan. Our choice of the Osaka Marriott Miyako Hotel also made my architecture-obsessed son happy because it is located in the tallest building in Japan. So would we say the Marrott Miyako is a recommended hotels in Osaka including for families? Read on and find out.

First Impressions of the Osaka Marriott Miyako Hotel

My first impression of the Marriott Miyako Hotel was that it reminded me of the skyscraper hotel in the 2003 Lost in Translation movie with Bill Murray and Scarlett Johanssen. It’s striking, glossy and glamourous. The impeccably groomed receptionists are lined behind glossy long white lacquered tables. The lights of Osaka glimmer in the double-height windows. You definitely feel the sense of being small in a big city.

The reception area of the Osaka Marriott Miyako

The reception area of the Osaka Marriott Miyako

The service though added warmth to this glossy white space. Everything was organised and our room keys given to us in a jiffy. A smiling receptionist took us to our room on the 51st floor. My son was delighted – he adores skyscrapers and we had never stayed on a floor this high before. At check-in you get some freebies for staying in the tallest building in Japan, such as a discount coupon to use at the department store in the building and free passes to the observatory in the tower.

The view from the Marriott Miyako Hotel at sunset

The view from our room at the Marriott Miyako Hotel at sunset.

Family Accommodation in an Osaka 5 Star Hotel

We had a double bedded room (with queen beds) which was a good size in terms of Osaka accommodation for families.  The fancy toilet was a separate room from the  bathroom sink, bathtub and shower area.  Good thing because my kids were completely fascinated with the toilet controls and spent inordinate amounts of time in there.

Our fabulous bathroom at the Osaka Marriott Miyako hotel.

Our fabulous bathroom at the Osaka Marriott Miyako hotel.

I loved the bathroom because it is in a style usually found in high-end Japanese design. The bathtub is in a separate glass enclosure with the walk-in shower. You have all the benefits of a large walk-in shower without the water splashing everywhere.

There is a seating area, a workspace area and the usual amenities of bathrobes, a safe and mini fridge. What was extra and really nice were the Japanese pyjamas. Not only were they super comfortable but it meant that we could save our own pyjamas for later in the trip.

Style at this Osaka 5 Star Hotel

The Osaka Marriott Miyako Hotel is glossy and modern. The lobby on the 38th floor is a cavernous open-plan space with double height ceilings and windows. The area is slightly subdivided with a separate gift shop and restaurant area. The middle of the floor though are bar areas. A musician plays in the evenings which is nice if you want to chill out with a drink.

One of the bar areas in the lobby

One of the bar areas in the lobby

The rooms are comfortable and cozy in feel though. It’s got a minimal of clutter which I appreciate. We bring our own clutter to hotel rooms!

There were definitely elements of Japanese traditional style at this hotel. For example, I loved this piece of pottery which incorporates the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi (the idea that imperfect is perfect). My daughter wasn’t buying it though. She thought maybe the potter had broken it and was trying to cover it up. Such cynicism.

Wabi Sabi (Imperfectly perfect) pottery at the Osaka Marriott Miyako

Wabi Sabi (Imperfectly perfect) pottery at the Osaka Marriott Miyako

Ambience of the Tallest Building in Japan

The ambience of the tallest building in Japan is definitely straight out of Lost in Translation. Giant windows overlook Osaka as it sprawls into the horizon. Fifty floors up, the people and trains below don’t seem quite real. Little toys scampering around.

Tub chairs in the lounge which overlook the Osaka city skyline

Tub chairs in the lounge which overlook the Osaka city skyline

By the way, how can this hotel be located in the tallest building in Japan? With a skyscraper geek in our family, he was only happy to educate us.

Well, technically the Tokyo SkyTree is taller but it is deemed the tallest structure in Japan. Most of the Tokyo SkyTree is unoccupied and serves as a broadcasting tower for the Tokyo metropolitan area. It’s as famous a Japanese sightseeing destination as the much smaller Eiffel Tower knock-off, the Tokyo Tower.

That leaves the Abeno Harukas building in which the Marriott Miyako Osaka is housed as the tallest building in Japan. It has 6o floors which are separated by function:

  •  the 2nd to the 14th floor is the main branch of the Kintetsu Department Store and the largest department store in Japan;
  • the 15th to the 37t floor is office space
  • the Osaka Marriott Miyako Hotel occupies the 38th to the 55th floor
  • the top floors have an observation deck and restaurants
No matter how slick, of course the Abeno Harukas building had a kawaii mascot

No matter how slick, of course the Abeno Harukas building had a kawaii mascot because … Japan.

By the way, we used our free tickets to the observatory in the Abeno Harukas building but can truthfully say the view from our room was just as good!

The view from our Osaka Marriott Miyako Osaka at night

The view from our Osaka Marriott Miyako Osaka at night

The Good Bits of the Marriott Hotel in Tennoji

What were we looking for when we were choosing where to stay in Osaka? A Convenient Osaka accommodation for families in a 5 star hotel with a bit of style.

There are plenty of cozy seating spaces in the open plan lounge area

There are plenty of cozy seating spaces in the open plan lounge area

Convenient Location

In terms of convenience, we really wanted an Osaka hotel near a JR station. I love Osaka for its food and fun but we knew we would be using Osaka as a base for a few days to explore other places in the region. This Osaka 5 star hotel is wonderfully located above a major transportation hub. At the end of a long day, we could drag our weary bodies straight upstairs to bed from the train station downstairs.

Amenities on Your Doorstep

Having the Kintetsu department store downstairs meant that we had quite a few options for breakfast and snacks. They have a GREAT food hall which we loved. Did I mention that my children are completely addicted to Japanese candy and sweets?

The giant train station complex meant there was lots of good shopping options, for both food and other supplies we needed..

There  is a separate convenience store which is pretty upscale for the people who work in the offices  from which we got dinner once. Of course you will need to take multiple elevators to get to it from the Marriott Miyako hotel.

The Marriott Branding

The Osaka Marriott Miyako is part of the Marriott brand and so part of the Starwood Group. You know how much I love the Starwood Group for both great hotels, excellent service and a fabulous rewards program.

We didn’t partake but this hotel does do afternoon tea.

We didn’t partake but this hotel does do afternoon tea. I did wonder what New York Breakfast tasted like – caffeine, bagels and lox?

The Great Bits of the Marriott Miyako Hotel in Osaka

What would I consider some of the extra add-ons that go above and beyond in terms of staying in an Osaka 5 star hotel?

Exceptional Service in a Medical Crises

We were very grateful to the Marriott Osaka Miyako Hotel manager for finding us an English-speaking doctor in the middle of the night. One night our son felt ill  because his ear hurt. Although he has had ear infections before, they have never occurred while we were away from home.

The concierge desk of the Osaka Marriott Miyako hotel.

The concierge desk of the Osaka Marriott Miyako hotel. I really had the impulse to peel that ‘paper’ off the wall every time I saw it.

My husband and I were in a bit of a panic about finding an A&E in country where we didn’t speak the language. My husband’s first reaction was to suggest that my son was just being dramatic and he could just power through the pain. I was not happy with that decision as the whimpering got progressively worse..

The manager at the hotel sorted everything out for us in an hour after our phone call to him.  He put  my husband and son in a hotel taxi to a hospital together with a note to the hospital explaining the circumstances in Japanese. My son was seen by an English-speaking doctor who prescribed antibiotics for a definite ear infection. My son felt better the next day  and I felt immense superiority in being right.

Excellent Location

I was looking for a good Osaka hotel near a JR station. The Osaka Marriott Miyako Hotel is actually located above the massive JR Tennoji station as well as Osaka Obenabashi station for the private Kintetsu railroad.

This simplified map shows where Tennoji is in relation to the Osaka loop line (photo credit: JR Rail)

This simplified map shows where Tennoji is in relation to the Osaka loop line
(photo credit: JR Rail)

Tennoji JR station is one of the main stations in Osaka and is served by several JR and Osaka subway lines.

  • With your JR pass you can go directly from Kansai  International Airport to Tennoji JR station in half hour  on the Haruka Express or 45 minutes by the Kansai Airport Rapid Service.
  • We used the Kintetsu train from Obenabashi directly to Mount Yoshino.
  • You can go directly from Obenabashi to Mount Koya, a UNESCO world heritage site and one of Japan’s holiest places.
  • You can take the JR Yamatoji  line from Tennoji Station directly to Nara in less than an hour depending on what type of train you take.

On the JR Osaka loop line, you can use your JR pass to get around large parts of Osaka without paying extra for the Osaka subway. For example, on the loop line you can get to Osaka station and then change for a train to Himeji.

You really are spoiled for choices for transport links around and out of Osaka.

What Left Us Underwhelmed

In such a tall building, the elevator banks are a bit confusing to negotiate. It took us a while to figure them out, such as the floor we needed to get off to go directly to the JR station. The elevators themselves are speedy but different sets of elevators serve different floors.

We ordered room service once. For a simple meal of Onigiri (Japanese rice rolls) and Miso Soup, it took close to 45 minutes to deliver.Maybe they had issues navigating all those elevators too!  It’s the sort of thing you can get in a Japanese convenience store much cheaper and much faster.

On that issue of laundry, the costs are sky high. We thought very briefly about sending some items for cleaning but balked when the cost of laundry for a pair of socks came out to about $10. Instead, we just went out and bought 3 pairs of new socks for $10.

Plenty of champagne to pop as you would expect of an Osaka 5 star hotel.

Plenty of champagne to pop as you would expect of an Osaka 5 star hotel.

Our Opinion of the Osaka Marriott Miyako Hotel

I can definitely say the Osaka Marriott Miyako Hotel is our recommended hotel in Osaka, and not just because the manager got us out of a tight spot. We loved the location, the convenience and the uber-cool feel of it. Our other hotels in Japan were more traditional in feel which is what you would want in the historic areas of Kyoto and Kanazawa. In the brash neon glam of Osaka, the Osaka Marriott Miyako Hotel perfectly captures the modern city glamour of Japan.

Check out the great TripAdvisor reviews that the Osaka Marriott Miyako hotel received from other guests.

Compare hotel rates for this hotel on your booking engine of choice:

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Sparkling chandeliers inside and sparkling city lights outside

Sparkling chandeliers inside and sparkling city lights outside

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Why You Should Make Time To Take A Tokyo To Nikko Day Trip

Why You Should Make Time To Take A Tokyo To Nikko Day Trip

Tokyo is an exhausting city which is why it’s always good to leave it for short breaks. In addition to our day trip to Hakone, we went to Nikko, a UNESCO World Heritage town set in the mountains north of Japan which is home to one of Japan’s most famous shrines. Although going from Tokyo to Nikko by train takes a mere 2 hours, it feels a world away. It was great to get some fresh mountain air and walk around without dodging people and cars. We highly recommend that you take a Nikko day trip to recharge your batteries and to explore an area that is very important to Japanese people.

Tokyo To Nikko By Train

Getting from Tokyo to Nikko by train is very easy. There are 20+ shinkansen (bullet trains) that go from Tokyo station to Utsunomiya station. Then you take a local Nikko line from Utsonomiya to Nikko station which takes about 40 minutes. The waiting time between the Shinkansen and the local Nikko line can be anywhere between 10 minutes to half an hour. Overall, the trip can take up to 2 hours.

Another one of the kawaii cardboard cut-outs that are all over Japan.

We went from Tokyo to Nikko using our JR Pass. It was all straight-forward and the entire trip was covered by the JR Pass. When you exit from the Shinkansen, follow the signs (in English) marked for Nikko. In addition, there are little monkeys on the floor showing you the way to the local Nikko train.

Nikko train signs lead you to the local train

The Nikko station itself is tiny. It does have a good tourist office but the lines can be long. Just go to the train ticket office and get a Heritage bus ticket. You can either get round-trip or one-way. Alternatively, you can walk 40 minutes up to the shrine. We split the difference and took the bus uphill and meandered downhill at our own pace..

Why You Should Make Time To Take A Tokyo To Nikko Day Trip

Why make time to visit Nikko from Tokyo and how to get there

One Day in Nikko Sightseeing

Nikko Sightseeing must include the Nikko Heritage sites. No two ways about it, they are the stars of the show. In addition to Nikko’s heritage sites though, there is nature to explore in the form of Lake Chuzenji and waterfalls. We are city people at heart though and we opted to explore the charming town of Nikko.

What to Do in Nikko: Heritage Sites and Nature

If you don’t achieve temple/shrine fatigue by the end of visiting Nikko’s heritage sites, you are a superstar.


Rinnoji-temple is undergoing renovation which has been ongoing for a couple of years. It is dedicated to the Buddhist monk who introduced Buddhism to Nikko in the 8th century.

It was believed that a dragon on the ceiling of a Nikko temple protects the building from fire.

Why the monkeys everywhere? Because Nikko is where that famous saying “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” comes from. It’s a word play on the Japanese word for monkey and is supposed to help children learn Buddhist principles.

The 3 monkeys plaque at the Nikko Shrine

Toshugu Shrine

The Toshugu shrine is in honour of Ieyasu Tokugawa, who unified the country under shogun leadership ending years of battling warlords. His grandson built this shrine and clearly he wanted everyone to know his grandpa was THE MAN.

The purification area before you enter the Nikko Toshugu Shrine

The Nikko Toshugu shrines are unlike anything we had ever seen in Japan. Because it is. Usually shinto shrines have plain aesthetics but the Toshugu shrine is more like Chinese temples. More is simply not enough.

The warehouses that store the costumes for the annual Nikko festival

The rooftops at the Nikko Toshugu Shrine complex nestled in the trees.

The 5 tier pagoda at the Nikko Toshugu shrine

Nikko National Park

Nikko National Park is considered one of Japan’s most scenic areas – mountains, waterfalls and lakes. It’s free to enter the park and the temples and shrines are technically within Nikko National Park.

The Shinkyo Bridge in Nikko National Park

Things to Do in Nikko Town

We had great food in Nikko at a Japanese restaurant that looked a bit tattered. The walls were covered with post-it notes from all around the world so we knew we had stumbled onto a winner. Hippari-Daku is casual, great for kids and serves yakitori and beer.

A nikko street lantern with dragons

The town is charming with lots of little souvenir shops, eateries and vintage shops. We found some great unusual souvenirs which were cheaper than anything we could find in Tokyo or Kyoto.

An antique samurai helmet in a store in Nikko – yours for 800,000 Yen (about $8,000).

It’s great for browsing with friendly locals. My daughter pronounced the crepe she had from Marion’s creperie one of the best crepe she’s ever had and she is a bit of a crepe connoisseur.

Giant tori gate at Nikko National Park

Why You Should Make Time To Take A Tokyo To Nikko Day Trip

Why You Should Make Time To Take A Tokyo To Nikko Day Trip

Why make time to visit Nikko from Tokyo and how to get there

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Why We Loved Our Hakone Onsen Day Trip to Kowakien Yunessun (And You Will Too!)

Why We Loved Our Hakone Onsen Day Trip to Kowakien Yunessun (And You Will Too!)

During our two week trip to Japan, I was thwarted from visiting a Japanese onsen (hot springs) spa town favored by people in Kyoto by a child with an ill-timed ear infection. In Tokyo, however, I knew that the nearby Hakone hot springs were famous, too. Our last full day in Japan, I arranged a Hakone onsen day trip for my family to the Kowakien Yunessun hotel and spa complex. This Hakone onsen theme park is famous for its specialty baths (such as the green tea spa bath and the red wine spa bath). Moreover, unlike traditional Japanese onsens, the Hakone Kowakien lets you wear swimsuits and has has a family-friendly area with water slides and play areas. There are plenty of things that you can do with children in Hakone and this hot springs theme park is definitely something they will enjoy.

The outdoor pool at Kowakien Yunessun onsen

Why We Loved Our Hakone Onsen Day Trip to Kowakien Yunessun (And You Will Too!)

The Kowakien Yunessun Complex

The Yunessun onsen is a huge Hakone onsen hotel complex nestled in the mountains. I was worried sitting in the bus en route to Yunessun that I’d miss it. I needn’t have worried!

The Kowakien Yunessun complex is ginormous.

The Kowakien Yunessun complex is ginormous.

You should note that this Hakone hotel in Kowakien has hotel rooms and restaurants separate from the Yunessen onsen restaurants. If you are staying at this Hakone onsen hotel you don’t have to worry about Hakone onsen day-trippers taking over all of the hotel space.

Available to both the Hakone Hotel Kowakien guests and hot springs theme park guests, there is a giant gift area in the hotel where you could buy all types of Japanese souvenirs.

Of course, Yunessun has kawaii mascots  that greet you throughout the complex and also provide plenty of photo opportunities.

The cutesy Yunessun mascots

The cutesy Yunessun mascots

Once you pass into the Hakone onsen theme park area itself, you can buy/rent swimsuits, caps, towels etc. We chose to rent towels but did not rent the brown robes. We did see people wearing the robes over their swimsuits but it is definitely not customary or required.

NB – You will not be allowed into the Yunessun Onsen if you have tattoos.  The Japanese frown upon tattoos because they have been traditionally associated with Japanese organised crime (Yakuza).

The Swimsuit Area at Yunessun Onsen

The Hakone Kowakien Yunessun bills itself as a onsen theme park primarily because it has several hot springs facilities catering for children (such as water slides and a water play area)

Who Goes to the Hakone Onsen Theme Park?

We saw lots of families as you would expect. The majority were well-behaved Japanese children with some foreign families in the mix.

The children are allowed to use floaties and pool toys at this Hakone hot springs theme park. We did not find the Kowakien Yunessun spa particularly busy when we went. It is a huge space and can cater to large crowds.

What Is Available At Kowakien Yunessun?

The facilities are extensive and spread out over inside and outside.

Indoors there is a main pool and a small toddler water play area besides this pool.

The main indoor pool at Kowakien Yunessun

The main indoor pool at Kowakien Yunessun

Yunessun Hakone has 3 restaurants in the hot springs theme park. The food is a lot like other theme parks you can go to – nothing special and geared towards child-friendly dishes. After all you are not at Yunessun for the food.

  • There is a poolside Japanese fast food restaurant.
  • Upstairs there is a snacks and crepes restaurant. It serves kid-friendly stuff like Japanese curry rice, corn dogs and crepes. To drink, you have a choice of sodas as well as  bubble tea and Asahi beer!
  • Upstairs there is a fancier all you can eat restaurant. It’s got beautiful views and you need to wear house slippers.

As you would expect from a Japanese place, there are vending machines galore. You can pay for the items with your wristband.

Changing Rooms at Hakone Kowakien Yunessun

The changing rooms are segregated by gender.  Children over the age of 7 are not expected to be in the opposite gender’s changing rooms.

The very brown Kowakien Yunessun locker room

The very brown Kowakien Yunessun locker room

The lockers and general furniture are a sludge brown color. The lockers are closed with a wristband that also serve as your ticket to buy items at the Yunessun Hakone. At the end, you return your wristband and settle up your account.

The lockers and changing rooms are kept immaculate by cleaning staff. We did not find puddles of water on the floor which is always a problem with locker rooms in a thermal spa.

The Decor at Hakone Kowakien Yunessun

Kowakien Yunessun is decorated with a sunny Meditteranean theme with blue skies and white puffy clouds on the ceiling.  The walls are painted to remind you of a white village a la one of the Greek islands.

The Kowakien Yunessun Mediterranean decor

The Kowakien Yunessun Mediterranean decor

Confusingly, you are greeted upon arrival by Japanese staff with leis and other props for a photo opportunity to pretend you are in Hawaii.  The photos were quite steep to buy (1200 yen) and so we didn’t bother with the photos.

Ironically, the Yunessun setting in the mountains of Hakone is pretty beautiful in itself. Not sure why the Japanese need to pretend they are in Hawaii or in the Mediterranean.  The large glass windows overlook dense forest-filled mountains of greenery. In Autumn, when the foliage turning colours of intense yellow, red and green, the view must be stunning.

The Different Pools at the Hakone Hot Springs

In addition to the main pool, inside the Yunessun Hakone complex there were quite a few specialty pools – a sake spa pool, a red wine spa pool, a coffee spa pool and a  green tea spa pool. Sake is a Japanese rice wine but processed more like the brewing of wine. There is real sake, red wine etc poured into these pools but I wouldn’t recommend drinking from these spas.

The sake pool at Kowakien Yunessun

The sake pool at Kowakien Yunessun is drip fed sake regularly.

The coffee pool really smelled like coffee but the other specialty pools smelled mostly like chlorine.

The Kowakien Yunessun coffee spa pool

The Kowakien Yunessun coffee spa pool

Dr Fish is a fish pedicure pool where fish eat the dead skin of your feet, We tried this for the first time because it only cost 100 yen per person and lasted 5 minutes. I didn’t like it  because I am really ticklish. Children from the age of 3 are allowed to use the fish pedicure pool.

Outside there is a small hot tub area and a large pool with a waterfall leading to an internal grotto. Having only heard about Hugh Hefner’s famous pool grotto at the Playboy Mansion, I can only imagine this grotto is what it looked like.

There are 3 water slides as well as a water play area for younger children. The play areas are all set up so that parents can sit in the hot tubs and still watch their children.

The Kowakien Yunessun outdoor slides

The Kowakien Yunessun outdoor slides

Other Kowakien Yunessun Amenities

In the relaxation area, there is a large tatami mat area with low tables with picture windows overlooking the mountains. With sockets on the walls, its a nice area to hang out in. We saw families playing cards, napping and generally chilling in the relaxation area.

Next door to the relaxation area there is a massage area. The booking system seems pretty informal and I had no problem getting an appointment.

The little old Japanese lady who did my massage spoke limited English. Yet, she was WAY stronger than I expected. I opted for a shiatsu massage (without oils) and I felt pummelled like a piece of meat. Especially after the hot water easing my muscles, the massage was exactly the icing on the cake I needed but it did remind me of a quote from one of my favourite movies set in Japan.

I was feeling tight in the shoulders and neck,  and so I had a shiatsu massage in my room… And the tightness has completely disappeared and been replaced by an unbelievable pain.

– Bob Harris from Lost in Translation (2003)

Mori No Yu – The No Swimsuit Area

For me the highlight of the Hakone Hotel Kowakien experience was the traditional Japanese onsen, i.e., the no swimsuit area called Mori No Yu. It was quiet, peaceful and beautiful!

Unlike other thermal spas like Therme Wien in Austria, Yunessun seemed pretty relaxed about taking photos in the swimsuit area. I did not, however, feel it appropriate to take photos in Mori No Yu. So here’s a photo from the Yunessun website:

The Mori No Yu Traditional Onsen

The Mori No Yu Traditional Onsen (Image Credit: Yunessun)

The Showers

Like all traditional onsets, you need to scrub yourself down before getting in the pools. There are lots of showering cubicles both inside and out the secluded Mori no Yu area.

The Pools at Mori No Yu

I did not find Mori No Yu crowded (about 20 women) and usually I had a pool to myself. It was mostly Japanese women – maybe they cleared out when the foreigner came in?!

In the women’s area, there were 2 large indoor pools (one stone, and one wood) and 4 outdoor pools landscaped into the rock and 3 small tubs. The rock landscaped pools even had stone beds that let you lie down and relax.

I thought the small tubs were perfect for one person stretching out.  It was like having a hot tub in a beautiful Japanese garden with mountain views.

Separately there is a large rock pool with milky blue water which reminded me of the Blue Lagoon in Iceland.

I had to rely on my husband and son for their opinion of the men’s side of Mori No Yu. They said there were about the same number of men on their side too. They had 3 large pools both indoor and outdoor but had many more smaller tubs.

The Ambience at Mori No Yu

The atmosphere was peaceful and quiet (except for the slightly overloud tinkly music played over the loudspeaker). Some mothers were there with their little daughters but it was still peaceful and quiet.

Unlike western hot tubs, there are no age restrictions for children to use the hot tubs.  Onsens are part of the Japanese culture and children are introduced to onsens early.

Locker Rooms at Mori No Yu

The locker rooms are similar to the Kowakien Yunessun locker rooms in that they are sludge brown color and work on a wristband system. You can just use any available locker and take the wristband.

Other Amenities at Mori No Yu

There is a little cafe, a tatami relaxation area and a massage area in Mori No Yu, too. So you don’t need to buy passes to both Kowakien Yunessun and Mori No Yu to have access to these amenities.

Buying Passes To Hakone Hotel Kowakien

You can buy passes to use just the swimsuit area (Kowakien Yunessun) or the no-swimsuit area  (Mori No Yu) or both. We chose combination tickets in the hope that we could convince our kids to try out the traditional onsen. My son went with his father into Mori No Yu but my daughter flat out refused to strip in front of strangers.  Sort of like the holy water baths at Lourdes, she was not to be persuaded from her opinion.

Transportation to Hakone Kowakien

From Tokyo, our Hakone onsen day trip was easy to organise.

Since we had our JR Passes, we took a Shinkansen from Tokyo station to Odawara station. From Odawara you can take the Romance Car or the bus. We opted to take the 45 minute bus ride (Bus H, Lane 3) through the mountains. The bus stops right outside the Hakone Hotel Kowakien spa stop (helpfully also called Kowakien).

Returning, we took the same bus from outside the Hakone Kowakien Yunessun. There is a doorman who will help you get on the right bus.

Our Opinion of Hakone Kowakien

We loved our Hakone onsen day trip to Kowakien Yunessun. I’m not convinced by benefits of the specialty baths such as the green tea spa or the red wine spa. I’m a big fan of traditional thermal baths so am a bit boring in that respect. But it is always fun to say you bathed in a green tea spa!

outdoor onsen with tub for washing

Why We Loved Our Hakone Onsen Day Trip to Kowakien Yunessun (And You Will Too!)

It was the perfect relaxing end to a busy two week trip to Japan. In fact, the kids had wanted to return to the Hakone Open Air Museum which is only a few minutes away from the Kowakien Yunessun.  The lure of relaxing in the hot springs of the Hakone onsen theme park proved too strong and we were pretty happy to just hang out as a family.

Why You Need To Visit The Monster Cafe Harajuku (+ 20 More Ways To Encounter Tokyo Kawaii Life)

Why You Need To Visit The Monster Cafe Harajuku (+ 20 More Ways To Encounter Tokyo Kawaii Life)

The Kawaii Monster Cafe Harajuku can only be a Japanese creation. The word “kawaii” is Japanese for cute, and the Japanese love their cutesy things. You could armchair psychoanalyse it as an obsession with childhood.  Like so many people the world over, the best times in your life was probably when you were a kid. Unlike the rest of the world, the Japanese fetishise that childhood as a society. Along with the cutesy things that are family-appropriate, you have an undercurrent of Lolita fantasies in Japan which I won’t be discussing. In our two weeks in Japan, we saw lots of cutesy things but Tokyo took kawaii places to a whole other level.

floating red lips at the Monster Cafe Harajuku

Why You Need To Visit The Monster Cafe Harajuku (+ 20 More Ways To Encounter Tokyo Kawaii Life)

Monster Cafe Harajuku – a Kawaii Restaurant

This monster cafe in Japan is all about cute monsters.  You can decide for yourself if giant unicorns drinking from a baby bottles qualify as cute monsters or the stuff of nightmares after a strong MDMA pill. This sort of kawaii is sub-genre known as guru-kawaii – so ugly it’s cute.

Location in Cute Harajuku

The Monster Cafe Harajuku is located right near the rest of cute Harujuku. The better to reel in those kawaii seeking customers no doubt.

This kawaii restaurant is on the fourth floor of the YM square building on the main drag that Takeshita Street has an entrance/exit. It is across the street from the Guzman y Gomez Mexican diner which has much more prominent signage on the street. (Address:  4-31-10 Jingumae | 4F, YM Square Bldg, Shibuya 150-0001, Tokyo and telephone: +81 3-5413-6142),

Mr Chopsticks the kawaii monster cafe mascot

Why You Need To Visit The Monster Cafe Harajuku (+ 20 More Ways To Encounter Tokyo Kawaii Life)

Cute Monsters Decor

The interior of the cafe is psychedelic – no two ways about it.  The conceit is that you are entering through red double doors into the inside of a chopsticks monster which is a swirl of color and garishness. It’s supposed to represent Tokyo which swallows up trends and creates its own variations on them.

As you are escorted by a pretty and impossibly blasé Monster Girl, you will pass the Sweets Merry Go Round into one of four sections – Mushroom Disco, Milk Stand, Bar Experiment and Mel-Tea Room.

Mushroom Disco

We were seated in this section. It’s got giant colorful mushrooms (which also operate as booth seating) with space plants flying overhead.

There are tables lining the back of the restaurant behind the colorful mushrooms with giant flying lips overhead. Just suspend your disbelief. It’s easier I tell you.

Milk Stand

This is the nursery section of the cute monsters. The baby unicorns, sheep and rabbits are fed by giant baby bottles suspended from the ceiling. There is booth seating here also.

A bottle fed baby unicorn with glowing eyes at the Kawaii Monster cafe in Harajuku

A bottle fed baby unicorn with glowing eyes at the Kawaii Monster cafe in Harajuku

Bar Experiment

Sorry, this area seemed the most boring. It’s a bar area meant to be under the sea with giant jellyfish. Or a ripoff of one of those intergalactic bars that Han Solo would find himself in trouble.

The Melt-Tea Room

The Melt-Tea room is decorated with melting sweets and ice cream. It’s also got a stage for the  night-time cabaret. It reminded me the most of Alice in Wonderland which is not surprising because the same company owns the Alice in Wonderland Cafes in Tokyo.

Melted ice cream cone on the ceiling of the Kawaii Monster Cafe Harajuku

Melted ice cream cone on the ceiling of the Kawaii Monster Cafe Harajuku

The Japanese love Alice in Wonderland which is rife for more armchair psychoanalysis thanks to its author’s unhealthy interest in little girls. Things that make you go hmm.

Monster Girls

You are seated at your table or booth by a cute monster girl. Your server will also be a cute monster girl. Technically though I think the monster girls are only the servers who have crazier outfits than the waitresses. They are 5 monster girls – Baby, Dolly, Candy, Nasty, and Crazy (sort of like the Japanese alter ego of the Spice Girls).

One of the Monster Girls from the Kawaii Monster Cafe Harajuku

One of the Monster Girls from the Kawaii Monster Cafe Harajuku

I actually didn’t see any men working at this monster cafe in Japan. Judging from my husband and son’s reactions possibly the cute monster overload is too much for the male mind.

The Monster Girls put on a show on the Sweets Merry Go Round for visitors which is family-friendly. This show is not to be confused with the less family-friendly cabaret shows at the Monster Cafe Harajuku at night.

Kawaii Monster Cafe Menu

The best thing about the Kawaii Monster Cafe menu? It serves beer.

The lunchtime menu when we were there had kiddy crowd pleasers like rainbow pasta, popcorn shrimp, french fries and ice cream sundaes. My children thought the food was good and were pretty happy with the choices.

Rainbow pasta at the Kawaii Monster Cafe Harajuku

Rainbow pasta at the Kawaii Monster Cafe Harajuku

My husband the foodie was decidedly unimpressed. I had to remind him that you don’t go to a theme cafe anywhere in the world for the food.

The french fries and neon color dips at the Kawaii Monster Cafe Harajuku

The french fries and neon color dips at the Kawaii Monster Cafe Harajuku range from ketchup to wasabi mayonnaise

Despite the technicolors, this kawaii restaurant claims to have no artificial ingredients in its food.

Monster dip flavours at the Kawaii Monster cafe Harajuku

Monster dip flavours at the Kawaii Monster cafe Harajuku

The dinnertime menu shown online is decidedly different with more adult choices for both food and drink. But you might also have to deal with rubber-clad playboy bunnies.

Kawaii Monster Cafe Reservations

We did not make reservations when we went for a late lunch on a Friday.  The wait was only a few minutes. We got lucky because it is recommended you make reservations.

You can also get reservations for a guided tour of cute Harajuku food with includes this monster cafe Harajuku.

Opening Times

There is a cover charge of 500 Yen. You are seated in 90 minute slots for lunch and for dinner. Lunch is from 11:30 to 4:30 pm. Dinner is from 6:30 to 10:30 pm.

An Honest Opinion of the Monster Cafe Harajuku

The Monster Cafe Harajuku is an intense experience. This theme cafe goes all in (heads, tails and unicorn horns) for the full neon kawaii experience. My 12 year old daughter LOVED it.  If she had been there with her friends, I would never have gotten them out of the bathroom with all the selfies they would be taking.

The boys in my family would classify this sort of kawaii restaurant as another sub-genre of kawaii: Gero kawaii – so stinking cute you want to puke.

I thought it was really well done. Totally psychedelic, totally cute Harajuku and a fascinating glimpse into what passes for Tokyo kawaii cool.

20 More Things For A Tokyo Kawaii Life

Kawaii Restaurants

So many kawaii restaurants, so little time. You may hear about the Robot Restaurant but the cabaret show is definitely geared for adults. Here are some kid -friendly options:

Max Brenner Chocolate Pizza Bar

What can be cuter than sweet toppings on a pizza-wedge shaped base? It’s a sugar-high that is incredibly popular with kids. After all it combines both pizza and sugar, two things dear to a kid’s heart.

Alice in Wonderland Cafes

There are several Alice in Wonderland cafes run by the same people who run the Kawaii Monster Cafe. Each is slightly different. For example, there is Alice in A Labyrinth in Ginza, Alice in A Magical Land in Shinjuku and Alice in a Castle in Ikebukuro. It’s the Alice gift that gives on giving. You are sure to find one somewhere near you in Tokyo.


Animal Cafes

During our two week trip, we went to 8 different animal cafes. By far, my favourite animal cafe was a cat cafe at the JR Harajuku train stop side of Takeshita Street in Harajuku. I was expecting it to be a total tourist trap because my daughter was begging us to go. She saw the poster of a cat in a top hat and had to see it for herself.

Cat Cafe Mocha had 20+ cats who were absolutely adorable. The cafe covered an entire floor of a building (which was bigger than hotel rooms in Tokyo). It was immaculately presented and not smelly at all. The theme was that you were stepping into an Alice in Wonderland fantasy of cats. They had two separate rooms (the White Queen’s Room and the Red Queen’s Room) separated by a long hallway filled with books which was supposed to be a library.

As for my daughter? She was miffed that not one of the cats was wearing a top hat and felt it was false advertising.

A kitty in a bowl at the Cat Cafe on Takeshita Street

A kitty in a bowl at the Mocha Cat Cafe on Takeshita Street

Fake Food

The Japanese take fake food to whole new artistic levels. And, it does keep Japanese artisans in work. After all, back in the day, the Japanese did not consider Hokusai’s The Wave (one of the most famous prints in the world) “real” art.

There is a fake food class you can take near Asakusa but you need to either be fluent in Japanese or have a translator with you. We comforted ourself with checking out the adorable creations.

replica food of carrots being cute

replica plastic food of carrots being cute

Sweet Treats

There are so many different cutesy Japanese sweets that I can run through only a few here.

Candy and Candy Floss

Japanese candies are adorable and come in beautiful packaging. Check out this pretty candy floss! Of course, my kids were begging to eat this candy floss which was about the size of their head.

Tricolor candy floss available on Takeshita Street in Harajuku

Tricolor candy floss available on Takeshita Street in Harajuku

Wagashi (Japanese Sweets)

Japanese wagashi are made from rice flour and bean paste. They are made in charming shapes and found at fancy department stores.

Tokyo Banana

Tokyo Banana sweets are like the Twinkies of yore.  They are a sponge yellow cake with a yogurt-flavored banana cream filling on the inside. How can a banana-shaped panda cake not be cute?? We found Tokyo Banana stands in the JR stations.

Tokyo banana teams up with pandas

Tokyo banana teams up with pandas because you really can’t have enough cute.


First twinkies, and then donuts. The Japanese have made even donuts cute. Here’s a list of 5 cutesy donut stores in Tokyo.


What can be cuter than animals? Animals personified with human traits, of course.

Dogs in bags/strollers

You will not believe the number of dogs we saw in handbags and in baby carriages. Of course, these dogs were young and healthy. They looked spiffy with bandannas and/or full-on outfits which made me think it wasn’t just for the Harajuku Halloween Parade like we had previously witnessed. Amusingly, if it were a couple out for a stroll with their fur baby, it was the man pushing the stroller like it was perfectly normal.

Racoon Dogs

The racoon dog (otanuki) is a type of Japanese goblin who likes to eat and drink so he’s usually found outside of restaurants. He is usually pictured carrying a bottle of sake in one hand and a promissory note in the other. What he’s sitting on? No, not a stool. They are his giant ballsack. There is even a nursery rhyme for young Japanese kids about the racoon dog’s magical balls.

Racoon dogs

Racoon dogs are scary cute – they like to eat and drink and are often found outside restaurants.


You can definitely find your share of cutesy kawaii things when you are souvenir shopping. In fact, you may wind up souvenir shopping just because you have to buy whatever it is you have seen and need a reason to buy it.

Small Japanese “Stuff”

Japanese-themed keychains, erasers etc are all too adorable. The latest trend among kids seems to be Japanese soft plushies – they are like stress relievers but softer.

Tip – Pay a visit to the Daiso 100 yen store for cute souvenirs – keychains, erasers, pens, magnets, etc. There is a Daiso store on Takeshita Street in Harajuku.

What did my kawaii-crazy kids buy?

a selection of Tokyo kawaii souvenirs

A selection of Tokyo kawaii souvenirs

Clockwise from Top: A bullet train pen that also lights up; a latte-shaped squishy plushy; a pug-shaped squishy plushy; cat amulets to bring good luck in school; candy shaped like kimono-clad girls; a sushi magnet; candy shaped like pandas; a flower hair tie; erasers shaped like traditional Japanese dolls; a Tokyo Banana; a bullet train charm; more erasers shaped like traditional Japanese candy.

Cats Anything

The Japanese seem to love anything kitty related. We saw cat shaped hats, purses, hair accessories etc. There is also the Maneki-Neko statutes everywhere – they are cats with their paws raised beckoning you inside an establishment.

kitty hair clips

Kitty hair clips for sale at a boutique store

Japanese amulets

You can get Japanese amulets (omamori) from shrines that you visit. My kids got two omamori in the shape of cats that was supposed to help them with school.  They have dutifully attached the amulets to their book bags – the jury is still out on if they work!

Photo Opportunities

Look around and you will find so many photo opportunities worthy of the ‘Gram.


The Japanese love their mascots. It seems everywhere (and even governmental departments) have mascots. Walking around Tokyo, we randomly met two mascots – furry creatures with people inside them. I have no idea what or who they represent other than they were plush, and cute.

This is the Kappa mascot for Kappabashi, the restaurant trade district in Tokyo. It’s some sort of water sprite who has a shell on its back. Kappas are reputed to be the inspiration for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

The Kappa is the mascot of Kappaboshi neighbourhood.

The Kappa is the mascot of Kappaboshi neighbourhood.

Purikura Photo Booths

You can find Purikura Photo Booths on Takeshita Street and elsewhere in Tokyo. They are basically photo booths with filters similar to Snapchat. I don’t understand the obsession with filters for kids but I’m not the target demographic! They tend to give you the big eyes and red lips that are favoured by Japanese anime characters. Is it me or do the big blank-eyed expression make girls look Stepford Wife-ish?

Cardboard Cut Outs

You will find cardboard cutouts at pretty much every sightseeing place in Tokyo (as well as elsewhere). This cardboard cut out was on the street and you can pretend you are an old-school Japanese storyteller.

One of the cardboard cutouts in Tokyo that you can pose with.

One of the cardboard cutouts in Tokyo that you can pose with.


Tokyo has great shopping! It’s one of the reasons my kids and I love it.


Kiddyland is a toy store on Ometesando which is the high-end shopping district in Tokyo. It is 5 floors of kiddy heaven. Every Japanese character you could possibly want (or remember) can be found at Kiddyland. I even saw Monchichi a Japanese plushy character from my childhood.

A mural in the kiddyland store

A mural in the kiddyland store just is too adorable.

Hello Kitty Stores

Hello Kitty is one of the most popular Japanese characters in the world. Can you believe she’s been around since 1974?? She’s British and lives with her family in London.

There are several Hello Kitty stores including a stand-alone store in Tokyo SkyTree and a concession at Kiddyland. In Harajuku, you can find Hello Kitty stuff at the Cute Cube store (address:  CUTE CUBE HARAJUKU 1F, 1-7-1 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku).

Rilakkuma Stores

Rilakkuma is a brown bear cub character that is incredibly popular with kids. There are Rilakkuma character stores all over Japan and 5 in Tokyo, including a concession at Kiddyland an a stand-alone store in Tokyo Station and Tokyo SkyTree.

rilakkuma head pillow

My son tries on the rilakkuma head pillow.

Theme Park

The absolute epitome of a kawaii place has to be an indoor theme park devoted to Hello Kitty. Sanrio Puroland is one of Japan’s favourite destinations and attracts over 1.5 million visitors a year. There are the usual opportunities for a theme park – gift shops, meet and greet characters and rides.  Even though kawaii is not limited to girls in Japan, my son was having none of it. He absolutely refused his sister’s begging to go to Sanrio Puroland.

Hello Kitty mural

Hello Kitty is as popular as ever worldwide.

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A Complete 2 Week Japan Itinerary for Travellers Seeking Affordable Luxury (Including With Kids)

A Complete 2 Week Japan Itinerary for Travellers Seeking Affordable Luxury (Including With Kids)

As far as I am concerned, 2 weeks in Japan is not nearly enough because this small country packs so much into its borders. Needs must though –  adults need to work and children need to go to school. I prepared a 2 week Japan itinerary for my family encapsulating the best of what they needed to see as first-time visitors to Japan.  Technically, my children had been to Japan before but we spent a week in Tokyo and only went as far as Hakone on a day trip. This trip though was my husband’s first time in Japan and I wanted to make sure he got as full a picture as he could in 14 days in Japan.

The garden of a samurai house in Kanazawa Japan

The garden of a samurai house in Kanazawa, Japan

Japan is not a cheap country to travel (as my husband pointed out it can give Iceland healthy competition on expenses). The challenge was to balance our love of luxury travel with affordability over the course of a 2 week trip to Japan.

Did I mention that we also only pack light on short-haul flights? We travel with a suitcase each and , there’s usually an extra stuffed toy, jacket, book etc that gets smuggled in after my final checks. Two weeks in Japan in April as far as my kids are concerned needs both summer and winter clothes because layering is a foreign concept.

A torii gate to a Shinto shrine in Nikko Tokyo

A torii gate to a Shinto shrine in Nikko Tokyo

Transportation for Our 2 Week Trip To Japan

Our Japan itinerary started in Osaka because we flew into Osaka International Airport,. We spent the first week of our 2 weeks in Japan in the Kansai region.  We then went north to Kanazawa and Tokyo for the rest of our Japan itinerary. We flew out of Tokyo Haneda Airport at the end of our 2 week trip to Japan.

Technically, our Japan trip was a 15 day itinerary because we got into Osaka late the first night. I have only counted the Japan itinerary for 14 days though because that first day was a bit wasted getting over jet lag (and what we found out later was my son getting an ear infection).


Rail Passes

We used our Japan Rail passes to travel on day trips during our 2 week trip to Japan. We opted to use the Green Car which is a higher class of railway carriage than the standard.

We had both a 7 day Japan Rail Pass and a  7 day Kansai Wide Rail Pass. This latter Kansai Pass was what I was going to use for day trips from Osaka. I will explain in a later article why that was not such a good idea because of both our circumstances and what the Kansai rail pass covered.

flatly of Japan Rail Pass and Green car reserved seat tickets

Our Japan rail passes and a collection of reserved seat tickets for the Green Cars.

We minimised the hauling around of suitcases on trains by staying in just 4 hotels. Well, that plan worked well except for Kyoto which was so busy we could  not find just one hotel that could accommodate us for our 4 nights in that city.

I was right to be concerned about our luggage. Our suitcases were way bigger than the little suitcases the Japanese use. Thank goodness for the Green Car carriages. They were less busy than the standard carriages and we tended to use up the luggage compartment in our Green Car carriage with our four suitcases alone. The Green Cars are also reserved seats which made our life easier. We knew where to stand on the train platform and that we had definite seats together.


Taxis within cities are plentiful in Japan. Drivers who speak English are less plentiful. Kyoto has a Foreign-Friendly taxi service where the driver knows more English and has a bigger car to accommodate travellers. We found one such Foreign-Friendly taxi service stand at Shin-Kyoto station.

A taxi marks that it is foreign friendly in Kyoto

A foreign friendly taxi marked as such in Kyoto.

Taxi drivers are, however, incredibly polite and will work with you to get you where we are going. In big cities, even with an exact address, they may have difficulties finding your location.  In China, we had problems with taxi drivers who wouldn’t stop for us because they didn’t want to deal with non-Chinese speakers.

Tip –  Have a screenshot of where you are going on your photos so the taxi driver knows both the address and a better idea of the destination location.

Note also that the taxis are not that big. About half the time we had to split into two taxis because our luggage wouldn’t fit into one taxi.


To drive in Japan, we found out that it’s not a simple matter of rocking up to a car rental agency and renting a car. You need either a Japanese driving license or an International Driving License. I had completely forgotten that when I lived in Japan I had an International Driving License. I considered it a fairly pointless document but the Japanese did not!

Tip – If you want to drive in Japan, you must have either a Japanese driving license or an International Driving License.

International Driving Licenses/Permits are easy to get. It’s simply a matter of applying for them and getting them before you arrive in Japan. You can get the IDL in the US for a year for $25 or through the UK post office for £5.50.

What’s Considered Affordable Luxury in Japan?

As I mentioned, Japan is an expensive country and what does affordable luxury mean anyway?  One person’s affordable luxury could be another person’s barely affordable.

Here are approximate costs for our 14 days in Japan.

We decided that lodging and transport were fixed costs.

  • Our hotels averaged $300-400/night.
  • The 5 day JR Kansai Wide Pass was about £240 for 4 people (kids 12+ are considered adults)
  • The 7 day JR Pass was about £1040 for 4 people (kids 12+ are considered adults)
Tip – If you have a JR Pass, do consider staying in Osaka and commuting into Kyoto on the Shinkansen (bullet train) in 15 minutes. Our 5 star hotel in Osaka cost LESS than our 3 star hotel in Kyoto thanks to the simple rules of supply and demand.

We had lots of discretionary costs which added to our experience in Japan and our final bill. Some examples:

      • We spent approximately  $2500 on local tours for 4 people – 3 Context Tours, 2 Arigato Japan Food Tours and 1Kanazawa Walking Tours.
      • For meals, we did a mixture of Japanese convenience stores (which are fabulous), little neighbourhood restaurants and some fancy dining. For example, our dinner at a Kobe teppanyaki restaurant came out to about $300. We spent over a $150 at the Kawaii Monster Cafe in Harajuku for food which was nothing special.
      • My daughter went crazy for the animal cafes. There is usually an entry fee (which includes a drink) and the final bill depends on how long you stay. Trust me, it adds up especially 8 animal cafes later.

Japan Travel Itinerary – 14 Days

Knowing my family well, I decided we would use 4 major centres as bases for our 2 weeks in Japan- Osaka, Kyoto, Kanazawa and Tokyo. From these cities, we would be well-positioned to do day trips to other places of interest.

We would find moving around every day or two just too stressful. We were packing in a lot of cultural and historic sightseeing and I knew my family would need some rest time in between activities. Rest time for my kids meant endless animal cafes – we went to 8 animal cafes during our two weeks in Japan!

couch with family at the Living Room Pug Cafe in Kyoto

We were pug-in-love at the Living Room Pug Cafe in Kyoto.

On the plus side, the kids’ luggage would have gotten a lot lighter if we had been constantly on the move as they would invariably lose stuff every time they packed and unpacked. As it is, we had several close calls with my daughter’s iPhone getting lost in the shuffle.

Four Cities in 14 days in Japan

For our 14 days in Japan, Osaka, Kyoto and Tokyo are obvious choices. I chose to add Kanazawa (known as “little Kyoto”) into the mix because its historic district has the charm of Kyoto with a whole lot less tourists. Moreover, Kanazawa’s samurai and geisha districts retain their original period charm  because the city was not bombed during World War II.


Osaka is Japan’s second biggest city and known for being a fun-loving, food-loving city. Like a lot of other travellers, we used it as a base for exploring the region around Osaka.

What to Do in (and From) Osaka

Osaka itself is a large sprawling metropolis of brash neon and good times. Just give up on Osaka Castle, nearby Himeji is so much better. Enjoy Osaka for what it is – great food, shopping and nightlife.

Check out some available tours of Osaka: food tour of Japanese snacks | hop on-and-hop off sightseeing bus | a food tour of Osaka’s markets |a food tour of Osaka’s markets

We were in Osaka for cherry blossom time and so we took the train out to Mount Yoshino in Nara Prefecture on a day trip. Mount Yoshino is covered with 30,000 cherry trees and has been a cherry blossom viewing site for the last 1300 years.

Cherry trees in blossom at Mount Yoshino

Mount Yoshino is planted with thousands of cherry trees planted 1300 years ago.

If you are not in Japan during cherry blossom season, consider a day trip to Mount Koya instead. Mount Koya is one of Japan’s holiest places and the birthplace of the Shingon sect of Buddhism.

On the bullet train, you can also make a nice day trip out of Himeji and Kobe. Himeji is known for its gorgeous white castle rising above the city, a proud survivor from Japan’s feudal era.

Himeji Castle with cherry blossoms

Himeji Castle surrounded by cherry blossoms in spring

Kobe is a fun port city world famous for its export of Kobe beef. Being foodies, we had to take a pilgrimage to its old entertainment district, Sannomiya, to have a kobe beef dinner prepared on a traditional teppanyaki  in front of us.

Kobe beef in a restaurant in Kobe Japan

You really do need to try the famous kobe beef in the city of Kobe, Japan.

Another good day trip on the train from Osaka is Hiroshima and Miyajima Island. Visiting Hiroshima is a must if only to remember the tragedies of war. Miyajima is a charming island in the harbor of Hiroshima and is a cleansing break from the sombre and somewhat depressing Hiroshima Peace Park.

Take a guided tour:  either Hiroshima and Miyajima as a full day tour or a customised tour of Hiroshima.

We wanted to go Kinosaki Onsen but were derailed by the illness of a child.  Kinosaki Onsen has been a hot springs town since the 8th century. There are hot springs hotels all around town for which you can get day passes. These hot springs are the traditional Japanese kind where men and women are segregated and no swimsuits are allowed in the thermal springs.

Where to Stay in Osaka

We stayed for 4 nights in the Osaka Marriott Miyako which is Japan’s tallest building complex. It’s also conveniently located right over Tennoji station.

There is a direct train from Osaka International Airport directly to Tennoji station that takes 20  minutes. The train is SO much cheaper than a taxi.  Tennoji is also a useful hub for both the JR line and has direct connections for visiting places outside of Osaka (like Mount Yoshino).

We were very happy with our stay at the Osaka Marriott Miyako. The hotel occupies the 38th to the 57th floor in the tower of the building complex. My kids LOVED the view from our room on the 51st floor. The lights of Osaka sparkled into the horizon at night. People come to the tower’s observation deck (for which you get a free pass as hotel guest). We agreed though that the view from our room was pretty much the same, if not slightly better.

The hotel manager at the Osaka Marriott Miyako was a life-saver when our son came down with an ear infection and he was able to get us into an English-speaking clinic in the middle of the night. With antibiotics, my son was fine (eventually) but he we were really grateful for the prompt and efficient intervention on our behalf.


Kyoto was the capitol of Japan from 794 until 1868 so you can imagine how important this city is to the cultural life of Japan.

What to Do in Kyoto and its Environs

Kyoto has more than 1000 temples and shrines. With a quite a few of these temples being both important and beautiful, it’s pretty easy to be templed-out by the end of your stay.

Take a tour if you can’t decide on what to see or are short of time:  a full day tour of Kyoto’s UNESCO and historical  sites | combine Kyoto and Nara in a full day tour | Kyoto half day tour 

There is so much to do in Kyoto that it is hard to compress into a short visit. We visited several major temples and shrines, Nijo-Jo Castle and the famous Nishiki Food Market. There is Gion Corner which does nightly shows giving an overview of Japanese cultural traditions and Ninja/Samurai shows. Our all-time favourite experience though would have to be Ninja classes at a Kyoto dojo.

Ninja class in Kyoto with a blowgun

My daughter as a ninja-in-training getting blowgun practice in Kyoto.

The city of Nara is close to Kyoto and was the first capitol of Japan, There are temples, shrines and gardens galore in Nara , including the must-see Great Buddha at Todai-ji temple.

Where to Stay in Kyoto

We found getting accommodation in Kyoto for our Japan itinerary incredibly difficult. In fact, we met people on of our tours who decided to stay in Osaka because they couldn’t find anywhere in Kyoto.

Tip – If you are having difficulty finding suitable accommodation in Kyoto, consider staying in Osaka. If you have JR Pass, the bullet train connects Osaka and Kyoto in only 15 minutes. And, you can stay in a higher class of hotel for less (see the expenses section above).

In retrospect, we should have stayed longer in Osaka – changing hotels in Kyoto every two days and the accompanying chaos that entailed was simply not enjoyable. We also discovered that Kyoto hotels are relatively small which means they fill up on guests very quickly. We were sightseeing all day and exhausted by evening. So hanging out late into the night and then facing a train ride home would not have been an issue for us.

Our first stay was at the four-star Mitsui Garden Hotel Sanjo, one of three boutique hotels this  Japanese hotel chain, owns in Kyoto. The location was very convenient and our room  charming (if small). My daughter loved this hotel for its pretty Japanese charm.

Then we stayed at the 3 star Gion Hanna Stay hotel. The service was friendly and the room which was set up as a little apartment was adequate. Our favourite part of this  hotel was that it came with a washing machine. Yes, despite my kids packing half their wardrobe, they still ran out of clothes.

Our last hotel, another 3-star Hotel Kiyomizu Gion was my favourite. It was spacious, pretty and had a great location. Wandering the side streets of Gion (the old Geisha district) showed us both the old and the new Kyoto – trainee geishas going to/from work passing vegan cafes.

Check out the excellent reviews for the Hotel Giyomizu Gion in Kyoto on TripAdvisor!

Kanazawa and its Environs

Kanazawa is an absolutely charming city on the Sea of Japan side (the opposite side fo the island to Osaka/Kyoto). We loved Kyoto but we may have fallen harder for Kanazawa.

Kanazawa was controlled during feudal times by the powerful Maeda family, the wealthiest of the clans under the shogunate. The Maedas channeled their money into making Kanazawa a center for Japanese arts and crafts such as gold-leaf work and lacquer work. It was a tactical move to deflect the suspicions of the wary shogun who would have been afraid they were amassing funds for war.

What To Do in Kanazawa

Kanazawa has several well-preserved districts, the Higasi Chaya district (the old entertainment district), the Kazue-Machi district (the old geisha district) and Nag-Machi district (the samurai district where the retainers of the Maeda family lived).

Take a guided tour of Kanazawa: an evening tour with a meal |  a half day private tour | a full day private tour

Kanazawa is also famous for being the location of one of the 3 best gardens in Japan, the beautiful Kenrokuen Garden which used to be the gardens for the now-ruined Kanazawa Castle, domain of the Maeda family.

Cherry blossoms in bloom at Kenrokuen Garden in Kanazawa

Cherry blossoms in bloom at Kenrokuen Garden in Kanazawa

With its fair share of museums, Kanazawa has a Museum of Contemporary Art and the sublime D.T. Suzuki Museum (a museum dedicated to the Kanazawa native who introduced Zen Buddhism to the West).

We were supposed to visit the UNESCO heritage sites of the gassho houses in the villages of Shirakawa-go and Gokayama. We were thwarted in our plans to hire a rental car and all the bus tours were full! These villages are not easily accessible by train. Missing out on visiting these villages was probably our biggest disappointment in our 2 weeks Japan itinerary.

Take a bus tour of the UNESCO world heritage sites of Shirakawa-go, Gokayama and Takayama.

Where to Stay in Kanazawa

We stayed 2 nights at the 3 star Kaname Inn Tatemachi which is bright, modern and spacious . We had a one bedroom apartment at the hotel with views over the city. Downstairs in the lobby, there was a restaurant and bar that we could hang out in the evenings.

Check out the excellent reviews for the Kaname Inn Tatemachi in Kanazawa on TripAdvisor!


I used to hate Tokyo – the city was just too much of everything that makes a Japanese city. Now, I love it for its complex train system, thousands of restaurants, and endless shopping choices.

After Kyoto and Kanazawa, my husband was surprised at the paucity of culture choices in Tokyo. I had to remind him that culture is more than castles, temples and shrines! Thanks to my children , we did our fair share of looking for kawaii (cute) culture including visiting the Kawaii Monster Cafe in Harajuku. It’s a totally different world out there!

What to Do In and Near Tokyo

In Tokyo, my kids insisted that we revisit their favourite places of Harajuku (the epicentre of youth culture in the city) and Ometesando (a high-end shopping district which also has the toy store, Kiddyland). We also revisited Senso-ji, a Buddhist temple which is the most visited pilgrimage site in the world.

The 5 tier pagoda seen from the gardens of Sensoji in Tokyo

The rear of Senso-ji temple with its beautiful gardens is less crowded than its front section.

Tokyo has so much to do that our 2 days in the city did not do it justice. For  example you have a plethora of cultural sightseeing and neighbourhoods to visit:

      • The Meiji Shrine dedicated to the Emperor responsible for wrestling power away from the shoguns back to the emperors.
      • Ueno Park – a public park with temples and street performers which comes to life on the weekends
      • Tsukiji market – the biggest fish and seafood market in the world
      • Tokyo Tower – Japan’s answer to the Eifffel Tower
      • Tokyo Skytree – the world’s tallest tower (note the world’s tallest structure is the Burj Khalifa in Dubai).

Here are some of the tours you can take in Tokyo: a skip the line admission ticket to Tokyo Skytree | Tsukiji Market Tour | Tsukiji Market Tour

To give my husband his obligatory temple and culture fix in one shot, we took the bullet train to Nikko, deep in the mountains north of Tokyo. It’s a UNESCO site famous for the OTT Shinto shrine to the first Shogun.

You can take a tour of Nikko that departs from Tokyo.

Imitating the famous three monkeys in Nikko (see, hear and say no evil)

Imitating the famous three monkeys in Nikko (see, hear and say no evil)

Having mixed my onsen (hot springs) fix at the town of Kinosaki Onsen, we took the bullet train to Hakone, in the mountains west of Tokyo. It was too cloud a day for us to Mt. Fuji from Hakone.

There are guided tours that depart for Hakone from Tokyo on the bullet train.

We did, however, have a fabulous time in the hot springs of Yunessun. My kids were thrilled that Yunessun had a swimsuit area at the hot springs  which gave us the option of not being in the buff.  The more traditional Japanese non-swimsuit area is beautiful by the way. Set in a traditional Japanese garden with views of the mountains, there is not a slide in site. In fact, we were having so much fun that we skipped out on the nearby Hakone Open Air Art Museum.

Where To Stay in Tokyo

We stayed at the Akihabara Luxury Cityhouse in Tokyo for 4 nights. It wasn’t in Akihabara technically and not particularly luxurious either.

The location on the JR stop of Kanda (the stop between Tokyo and Akihabara) though was terrific. Kanda had very little of the otaku-culture craziness that I experienced in Akihabara.  We had plenty of space in our 1 bedroom apartment ( presumably space is what the luxury in the name refers to).

Variations on the Japan Two Week Itinerary

You could fly into and out of Tokyo with this 2 week Japan itinerary. In that case I would make sure you had an extra day to get to/from Tokyo so technically it would be a Japan 15 day itinerary. Alternatively, you could cut out Kanazawa which would be a shame but would allow more travel time.

You could also make this a 12 day Japan itinerary by cutting out two days. I would choose to keep Kanazawa and spend less time in Osaka. Places near Osaka that you could choose to cut down are Mount Yoshino/Mount Koya, Kobe and Kinosaki Onsen. I would definitely still visit Himeji and Hirsohsiima/Miyajima.

Alternatively you could spend less time in Kyoto to create a 12 day Japan itinerary. Two days in Kyoto would give you enough time to see the main temples, shrines and neighbourhoods of the city.

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