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

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.

Cars

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

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

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!

Tokyo

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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Multi-tasking Tourists at Senso-ji in Tokyo

Multi-tasking Tourists at Senso-ji in Tokyo

I should not have been surprised by the crowds at Senso-ji in Tokyo.  A popular tourist attraction for many reasons, we were swept along with the crowd when we visited.  With both a Buddhist temple and a Japanese pagoda, Senso-ji is culturally significant. It’s also got a huge shopping area in front the religious buildings located between the outer gate and the inner gate.  You may find Senso-Ji overwhelming like we did but the Melon Pan at the Asakusa Agetsudo store makes the whole experience worthwhile.

Senso-Ji in Tokyo is a Buddhist Temple, a Shinto Shrine and a shopping complex

Religion at Senso-Ji in Tokyo

Here are five fun facts about the religious side of Senso-ji.

  • Built in 645, Senso-ji is Tokyo’s oldest temple.  The main hall is devoted to Kannon (the goddess of Mercy).
  • The temple was built when a couple of fisherman found a statue of Kannon.  Recognising the importance of the statue, a temple was built to enshrine the statue.
  • The temple was burned down during World War II.  The reconstruction of the temple was funded by public donations.
  • Thanks to its history, Senso-Ji is a symbol of regeneration and peace for the Japanese.
  • Next door to the Buddhist Sensoji Temple is the five-story Shinto Sensoji Pagoda.  It’s pretty common in Japan to have Buddhist temples and Shinto pagodas near each other.

Fun Facts about Sensoji Temple

Fun Facts about Sensoji Temple

Sensoji is popular with both Japanese and international visitors.  When we went on a random weekday, the place was heaving with people. The visit to Senso-ji was the polar opposite of the quiet, tranquil experience we enjoyed at the Meiji Shrine. Be prepared for crowds — apparently it is always crowded.

Fun Facts about Sensoji Temple

Shopping at Senso-Ji

The long shopping boulevard from the outer temple gate all the way to the second gate has been around for several hundred years too. The shopping boulevard is full of tourist souvenirs and snack foods.

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It’s all a bit chaotic and difficult to negotiate with kids.  There were many things that caught our eye but we decided we couldn’t cope with the crowds.  If you are limited for time in Tokyo, this shopping area would be a great place to pick up souvenirs of your trip.

Fun Facts about Sensoji Temple

location of Melon Pan

Melon Pan at Senso-Ji

What’s the best thing about shopping at Senso-ji?

Without a doubt, the Jumbo Melon Pan (bread) sold at Asakusa Kagetsudo.   It was beyond delicious!! The outside is crusty and the inside is soft and fragrant.  There is a layer of cookie dough sprinkled with sugar covering the bread dough on the inside.

Fun Facts about Sensoji Temple

Melon Pan Sign

You get the super sized Melon Pan by baking the dough for a long time (about 3 hours) at extremely low temperatures.  The bread is about the size of an adult male hand so it is quite filling.

As you know, the kids and I have a sweet tooth.  We consider it our travel obligation to try different sweets in different countries such as the pastries in Vienna, the eclairs in Paris and danishes in California.  We all agreed the Melon Pan was pretty amazing.

Melon Bread is a Japanese specialty which became popular in the last couple of decades.  The name refers to the shape and the pattern on the top of the bread. Although you can get Melon Pan at supermarkets and convenience stores, you should definitely try the version at Kagetsudo for a transcendental experience.

Fun Facts about Sensoji Temple

Melon Bread

Every day Kagetsudo makes a couple of thousand melon pan and when the bread is done, the store closes.  And, they get sold out, trust me.  The prices are reasonable with a bulk discount if you buy three (500 yen (£2.75) for three).  Of course, the only thing to do was to buy three! We like our sweets and our carbs in bulk.

You can eat inside the store or you can sit somewhere nearby and eat.  It is considered rude to eat and to walk in Japan.  We took our Melon Pan on a night cruise of Tokyo and ate our bread as a dessert on the boat.

Feel like trying out Melon Pan on your own?  Check out this video for guidance.

Visiting Senso-ji and Kagetsudo

Sensojii Temple is a couple of blocks away from Asakusa station.  The main hall is open daily during the day.  The temple grounds are always open.

When you leave the main hall of Asakusa, go down the left side of the shopping alley. Kagetsudo is on the corner and usually has a line of people in front of it.

guru1

Despite the crowds, I would still say that you should still visit Senso-ji in Tokyo – a one stop destination for culture, shopping and foodies.

This post is linked up with Weekend Wanderlust and The Weekly Postcard.

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Travel Notes & Beyond
Visiting Akihabara – An Epic Parenting Fail

Visiting Akihabara – An Epic Parenting Fail

Chances are if you are buying electronics in Tokyo you will go to Akihabara which has street upon street of stores devoted to the sale of electrical goods and  cameras.  Akihabara is also a centre for Otaku (geek) culture for those people really into their anime and manga.

some tips for visiting Akihabara with kids

Things to Do in Akhibara

Electronics Stores

I was pretty overwhelmed with the choice of stores of electrical goods.  Many of them cater specifically to the Japanese market and sales staff don’t speak much English.  You really need to know what you want to buy if you don’t speak Japanese.

 electronics district in Tokyo

Check out the store Super Potato! which is into retro gaming.  Although my kids know about Super Mario and Donkey Kong, I introduced them to other favourites from my childhood. Remember Pac Man?

 electronics district in Tokyo

I was drawn in by the Pac Man on Super Potato!

Maid Cafes and Other Dubious Places

Unlike Yodobashi which is located on the east side of Akihabara, many of the electronics stores are on the west side.  Following the crowds towards the west side of the station, the children and I had an eye-opening experience.

Visiting Akihabara the electronics district in Tokyo

No idea who this anime /manga character is

Well, technically, the kids were somewhat oblivious and I went to great efforts to keep them that way.  That was only after we walked into a sex store though.

My daughter was looking at cute fluffy bunny outfits which were right inside the entrance to a store when a horrified sales woman came running up to me.  She was waving her hands no and saying something in Japanese.  Over her head I could just make out a porn film playing on a television screen.  I grabbed my daughter’s hand and told her they only had big girl sizes and walked out.  Big parenting fail.

When you have any number of geeky people in one place, you are going to have places that meet their social needs.  There were quite a few pachinko parlours around.  Pachinko is a Japanese slot machine which people use for gambling because gambling itself is illegal in Japan.

 electronics district in Tokyo

Pachinko, something else for men to do with no social lives

Maid Cafes are where young women dress up as maids and cater to men (and women I hear) who visit.  The men are made to feel like kings in their own home.  Presumably they don’t have wives, girlfriends or significant others  (or at least ones who don’t feel like catering to their egos).

 electronics district in Tokyo

Maids from the Maid Cafes handing out leaflets.

I had to walk all the way around Akihabara station to find Yodobashi Camera.  Quite a few of the store windows had signs for sex toys, blow up dolls and other stuff.  Luckily most of it was in Japanese.  Of course, when things are in a different language, your eye is automatically drawn to the English words.

I was just waiting for a little voice to ask ‘mummy, what’s a dildo?’ Aaack.  I could not walk those streets fast enough.

otaku

Yodobashi Camera in Akihabara

I was told by my friend in Tokyo to go to Yodobashi Camera because I wanted to get a mirrorless camera.  I figured Tokyo would be a great place to buy a new camera because the Japanese love their photography and photographic equipment.

 electronics district in Tokyo

The entrance to Yodabashi Camera

Yodobashi is an enormous electronics store with 8 branches in Tokyo alone.  With nine floors, I felt that anything you could possibly want is there.  We stuck to the floor with the cameras which in itself was enormous.

You should note that all the prices are in yen but the helpful sale staff can calculate the price in US dollars.  Make sure you bring your passport so that you can get a tax refund.  You also need to research your prices because not everything is cheaper in Japan just because it is made there.

I was so frazzled by my inadvertent sex store experience that I opted to have lunch with the children on the 8th floor of Yodobashi.  As you would expect, there is a plethora of choice.  Not only do you have a Japanese cafeteria style place but there are also separate restaurants.  We chose to visit a noodle restaurant where we had an excellent meal.

My Olympus Mirrorless Camera

I was looking for a mirrorless camera for the times I didn’t want to haul the big DSLR around with me.  As much as I love the camera on my iPhone 6, sometimes I needed a more powerful lens. In addition, my iPhone’s memory was filling up quickly with all the photos and videos I took.  So I did my research online and settled on an Olympus OM-D model with a zoom lens.

What do I think of my Olympus OM-D?  My mirrorless camera is better for photos and video than my iPhone 6.  I still love my Canon EOS 6D DSLR with its choice of lenses.  I love the way it feels in my hand and the photos I take with it.

People say that the mirrorless cameras are just as good as the DSLRs. It depends on your model I would think and I did opt for a budget version.  Although my DSLR is still my favourite camera, I’m taking less photos with my smartphone in favour of my mirrorless Olympus.

Visiting Akihabara

Akihabara is massive train station which is served by both JR lines and Tokyo’s subway system. On Sunday afternoons, the main street, Chuo Dori, is pedestrian-only.  Most of the electronic stores seem to be open 7 days a week.

Yodobashi is right across the street from Akihabara station if you use the central exit.  If you have little kids with you, wander the streets at your own peril.  In retrospect, I would have been better off at the Yodobashi in Shinjuku which is a more mainstream part of Tokyo.

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This post is linked up with Weekend Wanderlust, Weekend Travel Inspiration and Photo Friday.

 

 

Visiting Trendy Tokyo in Harajuku With Kids

Visiting Trendy Tokyo in Harajuku With Kids

Thanks to Gwen Stefani, Harajuku became popularised in mainstream Western culture with her Harajuku Girls backup dancers.  Harajuku is a very trendy area in Tokyo which is located in the Shibuya ward.  It runs from Harajuku station right in front of the Meiji Shrine on the edge of Yoyogi Park through Omotesando and their little side streets, including the can’t miss Takeshita Street and Cat Street.  The area is known for both youth culture as well as seriously high-end international shopping.   Only in Japan can counter-culture and luxury culture mix so seamlessly.

We loved the area so much we spent several days roaming through the back streets and even attending the Harajuku Halloween Parade.   I’ve distilled our experience though into something that you can do in one day because you may only have one day for trendy Tokyo and Harajuku with kids in tow.

visiting the trendy Tokyo neighbourhood of Harajuku with kids

Here are some fun options that you and your kids will both enjoy:

Around Ometesando

The Japanese like to think of Ometesando as the Tokyo version of the Champs Elysses. There are a lot of international stores on this street as well as great architecture.  For example, check out the Prada flagship store which was built by a Swiss architectural firm to look like stacked glass blocks.

a day in trendy Tokyo Harajuku

The largest Prada store in Japan

The Gyre Mall is another cool building built by a Danish architectural firm where each floor is twisted so that it forms a spiral.  The stores inside also range from luxury such as the Chanel store to trendy concept fashion stores.  It’s also got one of the only two Museum of Modern Art Store outside of New York in the world.  In case, you’re wondering the other MoMA outpost is in Korea.  As I’ve mentioned before, my kids love the MoMA design stores for finding cool gifts.

With children though, the highlight of Gyre Mall has to be located in the basement.  There is a branch of that other New York favourite, Magnolia Bakery, with its scrumptious cakes.

a day in trendy Tokyo Harajuku

The children’s store, Kiddy Land, is several floors of children’s delight. It’s got lots of stuff from the popular children’s Japanese characters such as Doraemon and Little Twin Stars.  We found some unique gifts for friends and cousins to take home.

a day in trendy Tokyo Harajuku

5 floors of cuteness

The Ometesando Hills shopping mall was designed by Japanese starchitect, Tadao Ando. It’s worth visiting even if you don’t shop in the luxury stores.  The design is built half-underground on a triangular spiral.  I know that makes no sense until you see it for yourself.  Sort of like the Guggenheim Museum, the building is a work of art in itself.

a day in trendy Tokyo Harajuku

Amazing architecture at Ometesando Hills

Around Cat Street

There are lots of cafes and stores on and off Cat Street which is a pedestrianised street.  For example, there is an entire store devoted to children’s North Face clothes.  I also loved the vintage clothes stores.  Its quite easy to find because Cat Street dead ends onto Omotesando street by the Gyre Mall.

a day in trendy Tokyo Harajuku

Vintage clothes with an added contemporary touch

The first side street that goes off Cat Street at the Omotesando end will take you to a fantastic gyoza restaurant, Gyoza Lou.  It only serves up fried or boiled dumplings but they are delicious!

The Roastery is a great coffee shop with plentiful outside seating where you can hang out and watch the street life.  Of course, while you are watching people, be prepared to have people watch you.  I saw a whole bunch of Japanese people giggling at my son and his friend making faces at each other and mucking around like kids do.

a day in trendy Tokyo Harajuku

trendy coffee store and people watching at The Roastery

Beauty & Youth United Arrows is a great Japanese store that stocks lesser-known international fashion. I also liked their range of homewares.

My kids absolutely loved Rainbow Spectrum. This store has got cheapish cool things sort of like the Danish stores, Tiger, but with a Japanese sensibility.

a day in trendy Tokyo Harajuku

On a side street right behind Cat Street, you will find the Harajuku branch of R.a.a.g.f (the rabbit animal cafe we tried to visit).  The rabbits were absolutely adorable and the staff very apologetic when we tried to visit on a busy Sunday without an appointment.

a day in trendy Tokyo Harajuku

really fat and cute rabbits

The Choosy Cat Cafe right next door to R.a.a.g.f. was less friendly than we expected especially for the uber-polite Japanese culture.  With this sort of sign, I’d be afraid to knock on the door even if I didn’t have the children with me.  By the way, they don’t allow children aged under 13 in this cat cafe.

a day in trendy Tokyo Harajuku

You do not want to mess with these cat people.

Around Takeshita Street

Takeshita Street is pedestrianised as well.  The street is easy to find because it is pretty much across the street from the JR Harajuku station.  Be prepared for sensory overload as there is a lot happening.

a day in trendy Tokyo Harajuku

Another place you can let your children buy random things without breaking the bank is Daiso which is a (mostly) 100 yen store.  My kids were delighted with the cutesy Japanese erasers and stickers they found.  No way can you get that sort of stuff in England or the USA for the equivalent of 50p.

We had lunch at Wolfgang Puck Express. Not very Japanese I know but the kids were angling for a burger.  Harajuku is also famous for its crepe stores of which there are plenty on the street.  They have plastic displays of each type of crepe variety that are startlingly realistic.

plastic crepes on display in Harajuku

How realistic do these look??

My daughter loved the Wego store. I mean woollen gloves with penguins on them – how could she be expected to live without them?  Of course, it meant we didn’t have to buy anything at the Hello Kitty store which is as pink and girly as you would expect.

a day in trendy Tokyo Harajuku

Why Hello Kitty!

At the other end of Takeshita Street, you will come across a major thoroughfare (Meijii Dorii). When you cross Meijii Dorri, you can continue exploring on Harajuku Street.

My Verdict on Harajuku with Kids

There are so many interesting places to nip in and out of that you will have no problem spending a day exploring Harajuku.  I really enjoyed the back streets and the pedestrianised streets because then the children could explore without my fear they would get run over.  Especially on Takeshita Street, you may want to go on a weekday because the weekends can be quite crowded.

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This post is linked up with Weekend Wanderlust and The Weekly Postcard.

 

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Finding Tranquility in Tokyo at The Meiji Shrine

Finding Tranquility in Tokyo at The Meiji Shrine

Turning the corner onto a lane bordered by trees, we escaped the noise and heat of urban Tokyo into a tranquil oasis of green.  The shade provide by the tall trees was also welcome relief from an unexpectedly warm day.  It was hard to believe that the wide lane and the ginormous trees in Yoyogi park were only minutes away from some very posh and trendy neighbourhoods in Tokyo.

The Meiji Shrine in Tokyo is for the deified souls of Emperor Meiji and his consort

We were in Yoyogi park to visit the Meiji Shrine, one of the must-visit destinations in the city.  Although very popular with both Japanese and international tourists, we did not feel overwhelmed by crowds at the Meiji Shrine.  Perhaps both the tree-lined paths and the 40 foot high tori gates made from 1500 year old cedar tree trunks emphasise how very insignificant people really are.

The Meiji Shrine

The 40 feet tall cedar Tori gates

The Meiji Shrine

The Meiji Shrine is dedicated to Emperor Meiji and his wife, Empress Shoken.  Reigning from 1852-1912, Emperor Meiji took Japan out of the feudal ages and put it firmly on the international map as a world power.  To this day, Japan’s emperors are the oldest continuous hereditary monarchs in the world.  When Emperor Meiji took the throne, he was the 122nd Emperor of Japan.

Meiji means ‘enlightened rule’ which is how Emperor Meiji saw his period in history.  Although it’s not entirely clear if Emperor Meiji did anything other than preside over the changes, he did allow an oligarchy to form which transitioned Japan into an industrial powerhouse and a modern power.  Tokyo became the new capital under his rule and power shifted away from Kyoto.

Emperor Meiji lead the way in showing the Japanese how Japanese culture could work with Western imports.  For example, he was a big fan of French wine but also wrote a lot of traditional Japanese poetry.

The Meiji Shrine

Sake from all around Japan

The Meiji Shrine

Casks of wine from all over France

After Emperor Meiji’s death in 1912, the Japanese government decided to build a Shinto shrine to the deified souls of the Emperor and Empress.  The Emperor’s body is buried in Kyoto though.  The forest is made up of approximately 100,000 trees donated from all over Japan and planted by volunteers when the Shrine was built.

After World War II, in 1946 the Americans forced Emperor Meiji’s grandson, Emperor Hirohito, to proclaim that he was not a god as traditional Japanese belief had always held. Thanks, however, to the use of archaic language used, its not exactly clear what sort of divinity Hirohito was renouncing.  The Japanese Imperial family have always held that they are descendants of the sun goddess (and top god), Ameterasu.  The shrine to the deified souls of Emperor Meiji and his Empress, therefore, isn’t inconsistent with post-War history.

A Photo Gallery of the Meiji Shrine

The Meiji Shrine

traditional prayers hung at the shrine

The Meiji Shrine

A giant traditional drum

The Meiji Shrine

More prayers

The Meiji Shrine

Detail of a lock on a shrine door

lantern with the chrysanthemum motif (the Japanese throne is known as the Chrysanthemum Throne)

lantern with the chrysanthemum motif (the Japanese throne is known as the Chrysanthemum Throne)

The Imperial Gardens

Near the Shrine, the Imperial Gardens are a tranquil spot celebrating nature.  My children enjoyed running along the small paths and watching very big koi swimming around a pond filled with lily pads.  We found a Japanese woman who had managed to get the birds to eat peanuts from her hand.  She tried to teach my kids to stand still so they could do the same but standing still and waiting for birds proved too hard for them.

The Meiji Shrine

The Imperial Gardens were in place before the Meiji Shrine was built. In fact, Emperor Meiji had the gardens built for the pleasure of his Empress. The Empress had a beautiful tea house on the grounds but it closed to the public.  The Gardens are very famous for their iris displays in June with about 150 different varieties of irises blooming.

The Meiji Shrine and Gardens

The Imperial Gardens has lots of little paths and places to sit and enjoy the gardens.  We found it a nice area for some ‘downtime’ from the hustle and bustle that is the rest of Tokyo.

Visiting the Meiji Shrine

The Meiji Shrine is located conveniently next to the Harajuku JR station.  There are no fees to enter. The shrine is open from sunrise to sunset every day of the year.

The Meiji Garden is likewise open daily.  There is a small entrance fee and set hours.

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This post is linked up with Pierced Wonderings and Weekend Wanderlust.

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