Family Trip to Japan

User: amirs, Last Modified: September 28, 2020

In August 2017 we had a family trip of three and a half weeks in Japan with our three children aged 16, 13 and 5 years. This visit to Japan was the second part of our trip, in the first part we traveled for 3 weeks in Vietnam.

We have been to many wonderful places around the world, but Japan is without a doubt one of the most beautiful, fascinating and unique destinations we ever visited. Japan is a true magical place – almost everyone visiting it is thrilled. All the superlatives we’ve heard about Japan are true: well-organized, polite, accurate, super clean, safe – and mostly different and unlike anywhere else we’ve seen. Japan sometimes seems almost like a different planet, and this is the essence of its uniqueness and charm.

The following news piece was published some time after our trip: “The train left 20 seconds ahead of time, the Japanese railway company apologized“. I think this is the most accurate description of everything that is different and special about Japanese culture and society…

Where else in the world would you find such a note?

Japan is an easy and simple destination to travel, despite the language barrier. It used to be a very expensive country, and although it is still not cheap today, certainly compared to other destinations in the Far East, it can certainly be traveled with a reasonable budget – the cost of a trip to Japan can be roughly compare to a trip in Western Europe (disregarding flight costs).

All in all – visiting Japan is a unique experience, and I think it is a great destination for a family trip.

Planning the Trip

As mentioned, our trip lasted three and a half weeks overall. At the beginning we travelled alone and were later joined by additional family members (the “official excuse” for the trip was our son’s Bar Mitzvah celebration) and travelled in a larger group – which of course impacted the pace and character of the trip.

While planning the trip, I consulted various travel sites, forums and blogs. Some recommended sites are:

– The Japan Guide that contains a lot of detailed information and is absolutely a must for anyone planning a trip to Japan:

– Japan’s official tourism site:

I also purchased the latest Lonely Planet book (from 2015), however must admit in retrospect that I found it missing information, a bit out-of-date and not detailed enough.

The recommended seasons to travel in Japan are the spring – March-April during the cherry blossom season, and the autumn- October-November during the fall season. These periods are considered peak season and therefore are also the busiest, which of course affects costs and availability of hotels, transportation, etc. The summer season is not the ideal time to visit Japan – the weather is hot and humid, and it is also relatively busy (especially in mid-August) due to the Japanese summer vacation. Our trip was set according to our kids’ summer vacation, so we didn’t have any flexibility with the dates. However, it is certainly possible to travel in Japan during the summertime too, and there are even some advantages.

Japan consists of thousands of islands (close to 7000), but most of its land territory is covers by the four main ones: Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu and Shikoku. When people say “Japan” they usually refer to Honshu, which is the largest island with most of the well-known sites and major cities.

If this is your first visit to Japan and your time is limited to two-three weeks, you will likely focus on Honshu and travel between Tokyo in the east and Hiroshima in the west. The main sites in Honshu, grouped according to their geographical location, are:

– Tokyo, Nikko, Kamakura

– Hakone, Fuji Mountain, the Five Lakes

– The Japanese Alps: Matsumoto, the Kurobe Alpine route, Kanazawa, Takayama, Shirakawa-Go Alpine village, Kiso Valley, Kamikochi Nature Reserve

– Osaka, Kyoto, Nara, Kobe

– Himeji, Naoshima Island, Hiroshima, Miyajima Island

There are obviously countless other destinations throughout Japan, but the “standard” first-time visit route usually focuses on these sites. However, it is unlikely you will be able to visit them all on your first trip, unless you have a longer period, so you will need to choose and narrow down the list.

While I was planning the trip, I wanted to do something more unique – off the beaten track. Initially, I thought of extending our stay at each destination, or alternatively visiting the northern island of Hokkaido (which can only be toured during the summer) or the southern island of Kyushu. One of the best advices I got from friends who traveled in Japan, was to try and visit as many local festivals as possible. Japan has dozens, and even hundreds, of celebrations and festivals, usually related to nature and the seasons of the year. Some of them are well-known and famous and attract crowds of visitors, while others are more local and smaller. These festivals provide a unique perspective on Japan and its culture and are a unique experience worth visiting. I found out that during early August, several exceptional summer festivals are being held in the north part of Honshu.

I had difficulties finding more information and understanding what exactly is happening and when, but after “digging” a bit I realized these were big and authentic festivals attracting masses of Japanese from all over the country. Eventually we indeed met only a few dozen foreign tourists, as opposed to dozens, or even hundreds, of thousands of Japanese. All in all, visiting the spectacular summer festivals in north Honshu was certainly one of the highlights of our trip.

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Travel Plan

Our detailed travel plan, listed by days and destinations:

Day Description Accommodation
1 Landing in Tokyo at 1 p.m. Tokyo
2 Tokyo Tokyo
3 Flight to Akita, Kanto Matsuri Festival Akita
4 Samurai town of Kakunodate, traveling to Hirosaki, Nebuta Matsuri festival in Aomori Hirosaki
5 A rest day at Hirosaki Hotel, another visit to the Nebuta Matsuri Festival in Aomori Hirosaki
6 Traveling to Sendai, Tanabata Matsuri Festival Sendai
7 Sailing in Matsushima Bay, drive to Nikko Nikko
8 Nikko, traveling to Matsumoto Matsumoto
9 Matsumoto Matsumoto
10 The Kurobe Alpine route, traveling to Kanazawa Kanazawa
11 Kanazawa Kanazawa
12 Shirakawa-Go, Takayama Takayama
13 Morning markets in Takayama, traveling to Kyoto Kyoto
14 Kyoto Kyoto
15 Nara, Kyoto Kyoto
16 Kyoto Kyoto
17 Traveling to Hiroshima, Hiroshima Hiroshima
18 Miyajima Hiroshima
19 Driving to Himeji, Himeji Castle, driving to Nagoya Nagoya
20 The Toyota car factory, driving to Hakone Hakone
21 Hakone Hakone
22 Tokyo Tokyo
23 Disneyland Tokyo Tokyo
24 Tokyo Tokyo
25 Leaving Tokyo

Day 1

We landed at Narita Airport in Tokyo during the evening hours and immediately experienced Japan’s “culture shock” as we encountered the Japanese order, efficiency and courtesy. In our case, the experience was even more intense since we came straight from Vietnam, which in many ways is the exact opposite of Japan…

We took the Airport Limousine Bus from the airport to the huge Shinjuku station and enthusiastically walked with our luggage through the lively and colorful nightlife Kabukicho district to our hotel.

Tokyo at night

After receiving our rooms, we still had time to wander a bit in the nearby area and have a late dinner. We also encountered for the first time the famous and luxurious Japanese toilets – with warm water streams, blowing air and heating facilities. Our kids could not stop pressing all the buttons and their joy was endless…

A typical toilet sign in Japan…

There are numerous accommodation options in Tokyo, we chose to stay in the Shinjuku area and spent the first two nights at the Shinjuku Granbell Hotel.

Day 2

Tokyo is a huge mega city, the world’s largest metropolis, home to nearly 40 million people. It consists of multiple regions and districts, each with its own unique character.

Tokyo combines old and new – you can find tranquil parks, small narrow streets and ancient temples alongside futuristic skyscrapers, the world’s most advanced public transportation system, huge shopping centers, vibrant street life, amazing food, some of the world’s most bizarre subcultures and countless sites and places to visit. We fell in love with Tokyo right away, even though it can appear too large and even intimidating at times – some of our other family members, who later joined our trip, did not like it as much as we did.

You should try to plan your visit to Tokyo geographically and focus on a different area each day to avoid long journeys between its various parts. We dedicated the first day in the city to Shibuya, Harajuku and Shinjuku on its western side.

We started with the Hachiko dog statue, which is a symbol of loyalty and dedication in Japan. It is located right next to the Shibuya train station and serves as a popular photography location. We continued to the famous Shibuya crossroads known as the busiest in the world, which we viewed from the second floor of the Starbucks cafe overlooking it from above. We then traveled to the Harajuku area and walked around the prestigious Omotesando Boulevard. We visited the Kiddy Land Toy Store – a true paradise for children as well as those young at heart. We had lunch at the Heiroku rotating Sushi restaurant – Sushi dishes are placed on a moving belt and payment is done based on the number of plates you took. We then visited Takeshita Street – a busy and lively pedestrian street which serves as the beating heart of the eccentric youth scene in Tokyo.

The entrance to Takeshita street

A key element of Japanese youth culture, especially that of teenagers, is the concept of Kawaii – which refers to anything that is “cute”. The Japanese have a strange, almost addictive, passion for cute things – bright colors, fur dolls, girls that dress and comb they hair in childish fashion, Manga and Anima – the Japanese comics world, and more.

Kawaii !

You can immediately see it in the dozens of shops and boutiques spread along Takeshita Street, and even more so in the young crowd that fills it to the brim.

Takeshita pedestrian street

Since we were traveling with a little 5-years old girl, she was automatically classified as Kawaii (I am not objective of course, but she is indeed very cute…). This caused many funny and entertaining encounters and interactions during our trip – in many cases while we were photographing the surroundings, Japanese around us took photos of our little daughter.

Takeshita Street also has lots of Kawaii food stands – Crepes with different stuffing, pastries, ice cream, and more. It was also the first time we encountered a strange and amusing phenomenon that can be found across Japan – display windows of many restaurants show exact models made out of plastic of the dishes being served – kind of a 3D menu…

Crepes showcase (with plastic models)

At this point we split, the female part of the family went shopping while I visited the nearby Shinto Meiji Jingu Temple and the large park that surrounds it.

Barrels of Sake wine donated to the temple

We returned to the Shinjuku area and wandered a bit in the giant Takashimaya department store, especially on its amazing food floor that looks like a huge sterile pharmacy.

On a previous work trip to Tokyo several years ago, I visited an unusual night food market but could not remember its name or location. After researching a bit, I found out this was Omoide Yokocho, which is located just north of the Shinjuku train station, also known as Memory Lane or the more colorful Piss Alley… This is a small block that contains several narrow, crowded alleys where tiny restaurants are stacked on each other.

An alley in the Omoide Yokocho food market

The place is loved by locals who come for a quick bite or drink after a long day at work. Not many tourists visit this food market and it maintains an authentic and unique atmosphere. We went into a small restaurant in one of the alleys and had an excellent dinner made up of various Japanese dishes.

Locals having dinner at one of the small restaurants

To conclude a full and busy day we went up to the Metropolitan Government Office building for a night view of Tokyo’s impressive urban landscape, and returned, exhausted but thrilled, to our hotel.

Night view of Tokyo from above

Day 3

During the next few days of our trip we visited the summer festivals in northern Honshu. After conducting an extensive online research, I learned that at the beginning of August there are three major festivals in northern Japan: Kanto Matsuri in Akita, Nebuta Matsuri in Aomori and Tanabata Matsuri in Sendai (Matsuri means festival in Japanese). These festivals are being celebrated for centuries and each has its own context, religious background and traditions. The festivals take place in adjacent days, so I was able to create a combined plan to visit all three.

During this part of the trip we had a rental car. It turned out that a domestic flight from Tokyo to Akita costs about half (!) the fare of a high-speed Shinkansen train, so I booked a flight at Japan Airlines – it costed around 80$ per ticket. We took off in the morning from Haneda Airport in Tokyo and landed after about an hour at Akita’s small airport. We picked up the rental car I had booked in advance and started driving towards the city. We stopped on the way for lunch at a Japanese restaurant on the road. We had a good “hunch” for this restaurant although there was no sign or menu in English. When the food arrived, we found out the bet had paid off. It was a Yakiniku restaurant – a traditional Japanese cooking style where diners roast thin slices of meat and vegetables themselves on a special grill in the center of the table. The waiters did not speak English but were very friendly and assisted us with ordering the food. All and all, this was one of the best meals we had in Japan – proving it is sometimes worthwhile just trying. Unfortunately, I do not remember the name of the restaurant, so cannot recommend it.

Although I planned the trip months in advance, it was very difficult to find available accommodation in the cities where the festivals are being held due to the huge numbers of local Japanese visitors. I ended up booking two rooms at the Youth Pal Akita Youth Hostel which is part of a network spread across Japan. A nice Japanese breakfast served in Bento trays was included in the price. The rooms were simple and basic, but spacious and comfortable. We had an amusing experience – we discovered a water leakage in one of them, after calling the maintenance team we were moved to another room – not before we received countless apologies and bows. The next morning, we also got a partial refund – even though we did not ask for it…

The three festivals we visited are different and each has its own unique characteristics.

During the Kanto Matsuri, a huge parade takes place during the evening on Akita’s Main Street, which is blocked for traffic and becomes a large pedestrian street. Thousands of people participate in the parade, divided into groups according to workplaces, schools, organizations, etc. Each such group has been training for the festival for months. The members of the group build large frames made of long bamboo canes and hang dozens of colorful lamps made of fine rice paper with candles on top of them.


Getting ready to the festival

As the evening descends and the parade begins, the participants light the candles, swing the bamboo frames high above and try to balance the central bamboo poles on their hands, waist belts, shoulders and even heads. As the celebration progresses, the participants attach additional sections to the center poles of their bamboo frames and extend them further and further, higher and higher.

Kanto Matsuri

Each group is accompanied by bands of flutists, musicians and drummers who play huge Japanese Kodo drums carried on special carts. It’s hard to describe how impressive and mesmerizing is the look of hundreds of giant bamboo frames and thousands of lighted paper lamps spread across the streets. Tens of thousands of enthusiastic spectators stand all-around. There are plenty of food and drink stalls of course, and everything is accompanied by drumming, singing and rhythmic music – an unusual and unique experience overall.

Drummers and musicians

The procession starts at around 7pm, but you should arrive at least an hour earlier to get a good viewing spot. If you arrive by car, like we did, you should note the center of town is blocked for traffic and parking spaces are full – we could hardly find one a bit remotely and had to walk back to the city center.

Day 4

We left Akita in the morning and drove to the samurai town of Kakunodate. The town is especially known for its cherry trees and is a popular tourist destination during the blossom season. It is also famous for several centuries-old samurai houses that survived and are well preserved. We first visited the Aoyagi house known for its well-maintained and impressive Japanese garden. The house also hosts a small museum that shows armor suits, samurai swords and other traditional artifacts owned by the family over the years.

Swords and an armor suit of a samurai warrior

I also visited the nearby Ishiguro house. Although it is smaller and slightly less elaborate, this visit was particularly interesting since my guide was the 12th generation of the family still living at the house – he explained about the samurai culture in general, as well as his family’s history and their ancestral home.

We continued north on the beautiful road to the town of Hirosaki, where we stayed for the next two nights at the Hoshino Yado Hakuchoza. This Japanese-style resort hotel is located at the heart of a forest area outside the city, and has a traditional Japanese bathhouse – Onsen, a pool, a spa and several additional facilities. We received a large spacious family room with Tatami mattresses, breakfast was included in the price.

Right after we got our room we set off to Aomori, which is an hour’s drive to the north, to watch the Nebuta Matsuri. This is one of Japan’s largest and most famous festivals, and it attracts huge crowds of visitors from all over the country.

The festival is similar to Kanto Matsuri – a large parade in the center of the city, but this time the groups of participants carry huge platforms of scenes from Japanese mythology and folklore. The attendees are dressed in colorful clothes, each group with their own distinct color, and some even wear traditional costumes and Japanese flip flops.

Festival participants

The mythological scenes are made of rice paper spread on thin metal frames, painted in vivid colors. It’s hard to explain the dazzling visual effect of the colorful stages passing by, accompanied by thousands of participants marching in the procession.

Nebuta Matsuri

Each platform is carried by a group of several dozen people working in perfect harmony. Each group has a leader who gives instructions and guides its members precisely what to do. The platforms are carried in the colorful parade, accompanied by dozens of dancers, musicians and drummers.

The meticulous planning, platform creation and rehearsals towards the festival last a whole year. During the festival a competition is held to choose the winning group. There are obviously plenty of food, drinks and souvenirs to accompany the celebration.

We thought it would be difficult to transcend the festival in Akita, however the Aomori festival was equally impressive and perhaps even more exciting.

Day 5

We spent the day mostly resting at the Resort Hotel in Hirosaki.

Visiting an Onsen is a must-do when travelling to Japan. Japan is located at a volcanic area rich with hot springs. Bathing in these springs have become an important and central part of traditional Japanese culture, much like Sauna in Scandinavia. There is a whole world of rituals and customs related to visiting Onsens. Attending most Onsens is done in full nudity, separately for men and women. Some Onsens are intended for tourists, so you can attend wearing a bathing suit. However, there are still traditional Onsens in the more rural areas of Japan, where bathing is done jointly, women and men together, in nude. At the entrance to Onsen visitors undress and keep a small white towel only. The most important rule is to wash yourself thoroughly prior to entering the hot water pools. Entering a shared pool without bathing is considered to be extremely rude and forbidden.

We also spent some time in the hotel pool and had lunch at the local restaurant. During the evening we drove again to the Aomori festival. This was the last evening of the festival and a convoy of the winning platforms sailed through the city’s port. Unfortunately, we could not find any available tickets, so instead wandered through the huge food market, which consisted of dozens of stalls offering a wide variety of local foods. We also watched the fireworks show that sealed the festival. The Japanese take everything to the extreme – this fireworks show was one the longest and most impressive we have ever seen, I never thought that such complex shapes could be created using fireworks.

The fireworks show at the Nebuta Matsuri

Day 6

We left Hirosaki driving south and reached Sendai after around 4 hours. We found a large, modern and beautiful city. We had lunch at a nice Indian restaurant called Namaskar in the city center (we love Indian food). The weather was a bit rainy, so we visited the Tourists Information Center to ask for recommendations on activities that were taking place as part of the Tenabata Festival.

Unlike the festivals in Akita and Aomori, the Sendai festival does not consist of a central procession. Instead, during the preparations for the festival, the residents decorate the streets, shopping centers, indoor passages and shops with huge and luxurious traditional paper decorations.

Typical paper decorations of the Tenabata Matsuri

During the festival days various events and activities take place in various locations throughout the city center. The friendly staff at the Tourisms Information Center recommended a short workshop for children and families to build small models of the traditional paper decorations typical to the festival. The workshop operators were thrilled to have a family of foreign tourists and went out of their way to assist us. After the workshop we walked around the beautiful downtown area, decorated with spectacular colorful traditional paper decorations. We had dinner at the large dining area in the Sendai Central Station. As like other major train stations across Japan, it has a large selection of good and affordable restaurants and food stands.

We spent the night at the Daiwa Roynet Hotel Sendai, right next to the main train station.

Day 7

We began the day with a pre-booked cruise in the Matsushima Bay. The Japanese are “rating enthusiasts” and you can find lists of the “best-of” for almost anything. One of these famous ratings is the “Best Three Landscapes of Japan” – listing the three most beautiful places in the country allegedly. Matsushima Bay contains several dozen tiny islands with pine tree forests and is considered to be one of the three “official” most beautiful places in Japan.

Views in Matushima Bay

There are several sailing and walking routes in the area, the most common is a 50-minutes cruise on tourist ships passing between the different islands. The bay landscapes are indeed beautiful, and the poetic Japanese gave each island and each rock a picturesque name. However, honestly, I am not sure that Matushima bay would indeed reach one of the top places in our personal list – we liked other sites in Japan more, and also saw similar landscapes in other locations such as China, Vietnam and Thailand.

After the cruise, we visited the Godaido Temple located on a one of the tiny islands just off Matsushima Port, and took a short hike in the beautiful Fukuura forested island which can be reached by a bright red pedestrian bridge.

It is worth mentioning that the northern part of Honshu was severely damaged by the devastating 2011 earthquake and tsunami, where nearly 20,000 people lost their lives, but the hardworking Japanese rebuilt the area completely.

Photo of the tsunami outcomes

We stopped for lunch at an Italian restaurant located in a shopping mall at the outskirts of Sendai, and also did some shopping. We then set on a 4-hours’ drive to Nikko. We reached it late at night and discovered a sleepy little town. It was a bit difficult to find an open restaurant for dinner, eventually we ended up eating at a friendly and unpretentious Ramen place called Ramen Bonten.

We stayed at the Nikko Teddy Bear House which is at the heart of a wooded area above a small stream just outside town. When we arrived at the hotel, we found out that we were the only guests that night. It turned out that the owners are an exceptional couple – the husband was born in Biafra, Africa and as a little boy escaped with his family and spent several years in Eilat during the late 1960’s – the State of Israel gave asylum to some of the refugees escaping the brutal civil war raging the country. He later moved to Europe, served in the British Army and lived for several years in the United States. There he met his Japanese wife and eventually they moved to Japan and acquired the hotel in Nikko. The couple has 4 small children and because the husband loves Israel very much and even speaks a little Hebrew he gave them Hebrew names. This was a surreal scene – four children with brown skin, slanted eyes, curly black hair and Israeli names… The couple told us they intended to take a few days off and transferred all the other guests they had to hotels nearby, however seeing we are from Israel they decided to stay and host us. The husband told us his fascinating and unusual life story, and in the morning prepared an Israeli breakfast especially for us – including a huge omelet and a rich sliced Israeli vegetable salad, which we had while listening to Israeli music from the 1970’s (this is the music he remembers and likes) – a real unusual experience to have in Japan 🙂

Day 8

One of Japan’s largest and most important temple complexes is located in Nikko. After breakfast, we went to visit the Toshogu Temple, which houses the Mausoleum of Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu – the founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate that ruled Japan for about 250 years during the Edo period. The temple also houses the famous statue of the three wise monkeys – “See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil”.

Nikko temples

We also visited the picturesque Shinkyo Bridge built in the 17th century at the entrance to the temples complex.

The Shinkyo bridge

Nikko is located at the heart of a beautiful mountainous and wooded area, with many hot springs and waterfalls. There are several other important temples in Nikko, however due to the shortness of time we set off to the Irohazaka Road that winds up towards Lake Chuzenji. There are many beautiful hiking trails and sites to visit in the area, such as the Kegon Falls which are ranked among the three most beautiful waterfalls in Japan (again, the Japanese rating lists…). Unfortunately, the weather was bad, and it started raining. We drove through a thick cloud of fog and could see almost nothing from the surroundings, so descended back towards Nikko. Following the recommendation of the hotel owners we went for a short and beautiful hike in Kanmangafuchi Abyss – a charming and lesser known trail. We walked in a wooded trail next to a winding stream, along several dozen Jizo statues – symbolizing the dead. The statues are made of dark stone and decorated with hats and aprons made of bright red fabric – the overall visual effect and color contrast is stunning.

Kanmangafuchi Abyss

We walked under light rain in the green forest besides the stream, the trail was almost completely empty of other hikers and the atmosphere was magical – we felt like we were inside a real enchanted forest.

After the hike, we sadly left beautiful Nikko and embarked on a 4-hour’s drive towards Matsumoto. During the next two nights we stayed at the Premier Hotel Cabin Matsumoto, which has a prime location – right next to the city’s main train station.

Day 9

We spent the entire day visiting Matsumoto and resting. After returning the rental car, we walked to visit the Matsumoto Castle. During the feudal period, every Japanese lord built a castle in his estates, which served as both his residence and headquarters. Several dozen castles across Japan have survived the centuries, two of the most famous ones are the “Black Castle” or “The Crow Castle” in Matsumoto and the “White Castle” or “The Heron Castle” in Himeji (which we visited as well later in our trip).

Matsumoto Castle – day and night

The castle is indeed very impressive, however due to its popularity the entrance queues might be long during rush hours – so it is best to arrive as close as possible to opening times and avoid midday. After visiting the castle, we continued walking around the beautiful streets of downtown Matsumoto for a few hours, returning to the hotel to rest and then heading out to dinner at a Korean barbecue restaurant called Norito we saw earlier.

Day 10

The day was dedicated to one of the most special attractions of our whole trip – the Korube Alpine route. As early as the 1970’s, the Japanese decided to create a unique tourist’ route in the Japanese Alps, long before eco-tourism and environmental protection became popular. The route, called the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine route, consists of several sections, each with a different way of transportation – cable car, electric bus or train (it is not possible to drive along the route). The route makes it possible to reach distant and high mountain areas relatively easily during a day tour, which would otherwise be very difficult to get to. there are many sites and hiking trails along the route, such as the impressive Kurobe Dam, Lake Mikurigaike, the Murodo volcanic area and others. You can also bathe in Japan’s highest hot springs and visit the high-rated Shomyo Falls.

The Kurobe Dam

The Alpine route can only be visited between April and November, during the winter it is closed due to snow and extreme weather conditions. The route extends between the Shinano Omachi railway station on the east side and the Tateyama railway station on the west side and can be made in both directions. You usually travel through the entire route from end-to-end on the same day, stopping at different destinations along the way. You can also extend the duration of the visit for two (or even three) days and spend the night in several hotels along the way.

When planning a visit to the Alpine route, there are various administrative considerations – when and where exactly to start and finish, opening and closing times, booking tickets in advance, sending luggage between the starting and finishing points, what to do and where to stop along the way, etc. You can find all the relevant information in the route’s friendly and detailed website:

We started the day by taking an early morning train from the Matsumoto station to Shinano Omachi station, where we also checked-in our luggage – we got it back at the Tateyama station when our tour was over. Unfortunately, the weather was wintry and rainy that day. Nevertheless, we managed to visit some of the main sites along the route, hike some of the trails and absorb the beauty and mighty of the high mountains. We finished the route at the Toyama station, picked up our luggage and took another train to Kanazawa.

Alpine route views (through the fog …)

When we arrived at Kanazawa, we found out there was a dance festival that evening we were not aware of. Despite the long and tiring day, we headed out to the city center, which was blocked to traffic and became a large pedestrian area, and watched dance performances by various bands, parades and acrobatic shows. There were obviously many food and drink stalls as well…

A local festival in Kanazawa

We spend the next two nights at the Daiwa Roynet Hotel Kanazawa, located near the city’s main train station.

Day 11

We dedicated this day to Kanazawa, one of the more “classical” cities of the Japanese Alps district. We started by visiting the beautiful and picturesque Higashi Chaya Geisha quarter. Geishas are an exquisite and mysterious part of Japanese culture. Contrary to popular belief they are not prostitutes, but rather gentle, educated and sophisticated hostesses whose job is to entertain important guests. Geishas host their guests for dinner at a traditional tea house, the Chaya, while playing, singing, and having a scholarly conversation on current affairs, culture and arts. In previous centuries there were special Geishas quarters with tea houses and hotels in every major city in Japan. It is still possible to be hosted by Geishas today, however it is an exclusive and expensive event reserved for wealthy, connected businessmen. In the well-preserved Geisha district of Kanazawa there are several tea houses that opened their doors to the general public. We visited the Kaikaro Tea House and were lucky to be greeted by the Geisha lady who owns and operates the establishment. We received an instructive and fascinating private tour in which she told us in detail about the Geisha culture in general and the history of her tea house specifically, and also answered many questions we had on the role of Geishas in modern Japanese society.

The Tea House in the Higashi Chaya District

We then proceeded to the indoor Omicho food market, but since it was noon time the small restaurants were full, and queues were very long.

Omicho Food Market – A display of frozen sushi in an ice block

Instead, we had a quick lunch at a good Italian buffet restaurant we found in one of the downtown department stores. After lunch I took a short walk in the Nagamachi Samurai district and visited the Nomura Samurai family home. From there we went on to visit the beautiful and impressive Kenroku-en Japanese Garden.

The Kenroku-en Japanese garden

We had dinner at an excellent Shabu-Shabu and Sukiyaki restaurant on the food floor of one of the department stores near our hotel.

Day 12

We departed from Kanazawa on a pre-booked bus to the Shirakawa-Go Alpine village. The buses from Kanazawa or Takayama to Shirakawa-Go depart only at specific hours. Not that you should book two separate tickets in advance – one from your arrival point to the village and the other from the village to your final destination (two-to-three hours should be sufficient for visiting the village). The traditional form of straw houses characterizing the Japanese Alpine region has been well-preserved in Shirakawa-Go. Although the village became a very busy and popular tourist destination, it still maintains its beauty. It is recommended to enter one of the straw house museums in the village, such as the Wada House, and climb to the impressive view over the visitor center.

Shirakawa-Go Alpine village

We arrived to Takayama in the afternoon and had late lunch at a lovely Indian restaurant called Royal Nan House, located near the main train station. We then checked-in to the apartment we booked for the night. We went out to visit some of the sites in the old quarter of the city, such as Sannomachi Street, the impressive Shogunate government house Takayama Jinya that survived intact from the Edo era and the Nakabashi Bridge.

Shogunate Government House Takayama Jinya

Takayama is well known for its fine beef called Hida, and there are plenty of local restaurants serving it. We had dinner at a restaurant called Butchers that serves Western-style steaks rather than Japanese, the meat quality was indeed excellent. After dinner we took a short night walk in the city center and got back to our rented apartment to watch “The Last Samurai” movie using our laptop we connected to the large TV screen.

We spent the night in an apartment called Thanyaporn 2, located in the city center within walking distance of the main station. The apartment was great – comfortable, spacious and well-equipped.

Day 13

We started the day visiting the morning markets of Miyagawa and Jinya-Mae in Takayama, which turned out to be nice but not a must-have. Then we took the train to Nagoya, had a light lunch and continued with another train to Kyoto.

In the evening we went to a Japanese folklore show that took place at the Gion Corner center. The show lasts for an hour and consists of several short scenes demonstrating various traditional Japanese arts, such as a Geisha dance, a flower arrangement, a tea ceremony, and others. The show was a bit short and high-level, however was still interesting and able to illustrate some aspects of the fascinating Japanese culture.

Folklore show at the Gion Corner center

After the show we continued to the food floor in one of the large department stores nearby and had a great meal at a running Sushi restaurant – where you have a conveyor belt with various plates and dishes rotating.

The hotel we stayed in Kyoto was Gran Ms Kyoto.

Day 14

If Tokyo is Japan’s Tel Aviv, then Kyoto is its equivalent of Jerusalem. As the religious and historical center of Japan for centuries, Kyoto served as the emperor’s seat, and is packed with temples, important buildings and many historical sites, some of Japan’s most well-known and significant. My recommendation is to avoid visiting too many temples at once, otherwise it becomes burdensome and repetitive. Instead, it is best to try and limit the number of temples to one or two a day, and combine those with other sites around the city.

The religious concepts of Japanese are interesting and different from those of Westerners. The average Japanese can easily define themselves as “multi-religious”. Many Japanese get married in a Christian church, celebrate joyful events such as childbirth in a Shinto shrine and conduct funerals in a Buddhist temple.

During the morning hours we met with some additional family members who arrived at Japan and joined us, and had a happy breakfast in an excellent bakery near the hotel. We then traveled to the Golden Temple Kinkakuji, one of the best-known temples in Kyoto and Japan. The large number of visitors who crowded the site did not spoil the amazing and breathtaking beauty of the temple, and it indeed proved worthy of its reputation.

The Golden Temple

We then proceeded to visit the Ryoanji Zen Temple and its famous stone garden and continued to the Nishiki food market, where we had a light lunch composed of various dishes we bought from the many food shops and stalls.

Japanese pickle stall in the Nishiki food market

We then traveled to Arashiyama and hiked through the spectacular Bamboo forest paths – we all agreed this was one of the most beautiful places we visited in Japan.

The Bamboo forest in Arashiyama

On that day, the Daimonji Fire Festival was held in Kyoto. It marks the end of the Buddhist Obon holiday – the time when the spirits of the dead return to visit their families. Toward the evening, the Japanese set five huge fires in the mountains surrounding Kyoto and light paper lamps with candles, which they release from the Togetsu-kyo Bridge on the Hirosawa River. Towards the evening we reached the river and settled among the thousands of spectators, but eventually the event was less impressive compared to the other festivals we visited previously. We returned to Kyoto and set out to celebrate our eldest daughter’s birthday which was held the next day. We found a private room in the Asahi Brewery restaurant downtown and had a great Western-style meal, which we accompanied with excellent Japanese beer.

Day 15

Today was dedicated to the city of Nara which is a 45-minutes’ train ride from Kyoto.

Nara was the capital of Japan over a thousand years ago, and to this day it is the location of several important and central Buddhist temples. We started our tour with a visit to the biggest and most famous, the Todaiji Temple. The temple’s central building is the world’s largest wooden structure, and it also hosts the world’s largest bronze Buddha statue.

Todaiji Temple and Buddha statue

Nara is also known for the many deer that roam freely in the spacious gardens around the temples. Any tourist visit to Japan cannot be complete without the must-have photo with one of these deer…

Nara’s deer

We had a good lunch at a local Ramen restaurant and proceeded to the Kasuga Taisha Temple. The way to the temple passes through a beautiful forest surrounding it. Thousands of stone lanterns of different sizes are scattered along the path and the views are spectacular. The red painted temple was one of the most beautiful and impressive ones we visited in Japan. It has hundreds of bronze lanterns, beautiful buildings, coveted corners, and the highlight – a dark hall covered with mirrors, reflecting the light of dozens of lit lamps hanging from the ceiling – the overall impact is breathtaking.

The Kasuga Taisha Temple

We returned to Kyoto and ended the evening with a great Italian meal at a restaurant called Pizza Salvatore Cuomo and Grill, located next to a small and tranquil water canal near our hotel.

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Day 16

We started our last day in Kyoto visiting the Fushimi Inari Temple – the famous temple that has thousands of bright red Torii gates. Inari is the god of rice – an important and central Shinto deity. Foxes are considered to be his apostles, so many fox statues can be found throughout his temple. Thousands of Torii gates, each donated by a company or a private person (the donor names are engraved on the gates), form a branched network of trails. You can hike for several hours in the surrounding areas, and also climb Mount Inari which oversees the temple.

The Fushimi Inari Temple

After visiting the temple, we split up – some family members went to a Japanese-style jewelry box workshop pre-booked with the local Tourist Information Office, while others went to visit the Kiyomizu-dera Temple and the picturesque Sannen-zaka and Ninen-zaka alleyways. The climb to the temple is a little steep, so we took a taxi up and went back down by foot.

The Kiyomizu-dera Temple

In the afternoon we went for a visit we had pre-arranged in Beit Shalom Kyoto. The story of “The Church of Saint Jesus”, also called “Peace House of Japan”, is fascinating. This is a cult of Israel-loving Protestant Christians founded in the mid-20th century by Japanese priest Otsuki Takeji. Members of the community support the State of Israel and Judaism and pray for the peace of Jerusalem and the Coming of Christ. They conduct various activities, such as a Hebrew singing choir, a friendship association with the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, a Holocaust museum built in the city of Fukuyama, and more. In addition, they operate “peace houses” in several cities throughout Japan such as Tokyo, Kyoto and Hiroshima – guesthouses that allow Israeli tourists to stay for several nights. We did not stay with Beth Shalom during our trip, but requested a visit to their office in Kyoto and were gladly answered. We were greeted by the director of Beit Shalom Kyoto who speaks fluent Hebrew – he spent several years in Israel and studied in Jerusalem. He told us about the community, its beliefs, the various activities they have in Japan and Israel and showed us a short film – even offered waffles from Israel. There is also a small museum that tells the story of the founder Otsuki Takeji.

In the evening we returned to the huge Kyoto station, which is actually a mini-city by itself. We ascended to its upper floors – the structure of the station is amazing and the views from above are spectacular, so in my opinion it is a tourist site by itself. The station has a huge food floor with a wide variety of different restaurants, we ended up having a great dinner at a Japanese one.

Kyoto Station

Day 17

We left Kyoto in the morning and took the train to Kobe, and then to Hiroshima. After checking-in to the hotel and having lunch at a nearby Udon and Ramen restaurant, we went out to visit the Peace Park.

Hiroshima was an ordinary industrial city, until the Americans dropped the first atomic bomb in history during the morning hours of August 6th 1945. Tens of thousands of people were instantly killed, and additional tens of thousands died during the following days, weeks and years. The center of the city within a radius of several miles was almost completely vaporized.

A photo of the Hiroshima Center after the bomb

When the Japanese rebuilt Hiroshima, they decided to turn the ruined area, that was previously the city’s vibrant commercial heart, to a world peace park which would serve a memorial for the dead and survivors and a warning sign from dangers of nuclear weapons. A local museum provides context to dropping the bomb, as well as the gruesome effect it had on the city and its residents. It has a lot of fascinating explanations and exhibits – including artifacts that survived the bomb.

A watch that survived the bomb and stopped just at the moment of explosion

Besides the museum, various monuments are scattered throughout the park, such as the children’s peace memorial, a memorial for those who perished (similar to the “Yad Vashem” holocaust memorial in Jerusalem) and others. The most famous building in the park is the “Atomic Dome” – a dome-covered building constructed at the beginning of the 20th century and used as an exhibition and conference center before the war. The bomb exploded about 600 feet right above it, which significantly damaged it but did not completely destroy it. After the war it was decided to leave the building as-is and not renovate it so it can serve as a monument, and it became Hiroshima’s well-known icon. You can also visit the exact spot above which the bomb exploded – it is in one of the small streets north of the Peace Park and is marked with an explanatory sign.

The atomic dome building

Before arriving to Hiroshima, I thought the visit would be sort of superficial – since we already read and know so much about the bomb, atomic weapons, and so on. In fact, my impression was completely the opposite – due to the respectful, modest and restrained way in which the Japanese chose to commemorate the destruction of the city, they were able to immortalize what happened in a most powerful way. As we strolled through the park during the late afternoon hours it was almost empty from visitors, peaceful and quiet – a sharp contrast to the horror that occurred at the exact same spot some 70 years ago. The atomic dome building was illuminated at dusk and the combination of everything together created a special impact we all felt.

The Hiroshima Peace Park

After visiting the Peace Park, we walked to the Hondori pedestrian street, Hiroshima’s lively center.

Hondori pedestrian street

We had dinner in the Okonomimura restaurants area and had an Okonomiyaki. This is Hiroshima’s typical dish – a big pancake filled with a variety of toppings.


The hotel we stayed in was Daiwa Roynet Hotel Hiroshima.

Day 18

The day was dedicated to visiting the Miyajima Island, which is about an hour away by train and ferry from Hiroshima.

When arriving to the island we took the Mount Misen cable car and continued by foot to the summit – the climb was a bit steep but the panoramic view from the top were amazing and definitely worth the effort.

The view from the summit of Mount Misen

We went back down and had lunch at one of the local Japanese restaurants, and then visited the beautiful Itsukushima-jinja Shinto Temple best known for its huge Red Torii Gate – one of Japan’s well-known images. The gate is considered one of Japan’s three most beautiful landscapes, so together with the Matsushima Bay we visited two out of three 🙂

Torii Gate of Itsukushima-jinja Temple

The gate is built right on the seashore so at high tide its lower part is covered with water and “hovers” over them, while at low tide you can walk to the gate on the wet sand. Miyajima too has many deer, like Nara.

After visiting the island, we returned to Hiroshima and had dinner at a great Italian restaurant called San Mario located near the hotel.

Day 19

We left Hiroshima in the morning and took the train to Himeji, home to one of the most beautiful and well-preserved feudal castles in Japan.

Himeji Castle

We visited the impressive castle and then continued to the beautiful Japanese garden Koko-en next door. The garden is not large, however it has many different types of typical vegetation – water landscape, flower garden, pine tree grove, bamboo trees, and more, so it conveys well the overall artistic experience of a Japanese garden.

The Koko-en Japanese Garden

Afterwards we proceeded by train to Nagoya – the city itself is not a major tourist destination, however we spent the night there towards our visit to Toyota’s car factory the next day. We had dinner at a great Sukiyaki restaurant on the food floor of the Takashimaya department store.

We spent the night at the Daiwa Roynet Hotel Nagoya Shinkansenguchi.

Day 20

We spent most of the day on a pre-booked tour at the Toyota car factory.

There are two car factories you can visit in Japan, the first is Toyota in Toyota City near Nagoya and the other is Mazda near Hiroshima. In both cases it is mandatory to book well in advance (note there are separate tours in Japanese and English), preferably several weeks or even months ahead, as the number of seats is limited.

The tour begins at the Toyota Kaikan Museum, displaying various models of Toyota cars as well as the production process, factories, innovation and future vehicles. The tour itself is done in guided groups only and consists of a visit to two factories within the huge Toyota complex that spans a whole city. The first is the assembly plant, where skilled workers efficiently assemble various systems at the final stages of vehicle production – air conditioning, electronics, etc. During the tour, the visitors walk on special bridges built above the production floor and watch the assembly process underneath. Watching the expert workers working in complete coordination and harmony is impressive, at times it seems like a huge ants’ nest where everyone knows its exact place inside the big machine. The tour then proceeds to the welding plant, where production is done by robots – about 80% of the welding process is automatic without any human intervention. The car skeletons hang from a long conveyor belt and move slowly, stopping at various stations. Each station has some 10 huge robotic arms. The metal skeletons stop, and then, suddenly, all arms move simultaneously with perfect synchronization in a gruesome dance. Each arm navigates precisely to the exact point where it is programmed to reach, never colliding with the other swirling arms. Once the arms stop, each at its designated spot, the welding phase is carried out for several seconds. When the arms finish welding, they return to their starting position and patiently wait the next car skeletons to arrive. The wonderfully orchestrated ballet of the giant metal machines accompanied by the bright welding sparks create a futuristic sensation, as if you are watching a scene from the movie Terminator and within minutes the robots will break free and take control over the world…

Toyota Museum

Getting to the Toyota plant is a bit complicated, detailed instruction can be found in the following website:

The visit to the museum and the tour at the factory were very impressive, however getting there and back with our extended family was a bit challenging – so worth taking this into account.

After visiting the factory, we returned to Nagoya and made our long way to Hakone, via the Odawara train station. The most effective way to travel in the Hakone area, if using public transport rather than a rental car, is with a Hakone Pass ticket. It allows using all transportation means in the area for two or three consecutive days (the JR Pass does not apply in this region).

We arrived to the hotel in Hakone very late, but still managed to have a quick visit to its local Onsen.

We stayed at the wonderful Ryokan Hotel Laforet Club Hakone Gora Yunosumika, one of the best in our entire trip. We got a large Japanese-style family room with Tatami mattresses, breakfast was included.

Day 21

After the excellent breakfast at the hotel, we split up – some members of the family went to visit the Hakone Open Museum, while others went on the “classic” and popular tour of the area. The itinerary is circular and consists of a train ride, a stop in the Owakudani volcanic area – where you can eat black eggs cooked in the volcanic ash, cruise on the Ashi Lake in a ship designed as a pirates’ ship and return to Hakone by bus.


The ride along the entire route is included in Hakone Pass. If the weather is nice you can see Mount Fuji from certain points along the way, but unfortunately the sky were cloudy so we could see only part of the famous mountain for a few minutes.

The Hakone area is simply beautiful. It has many additional sites and hiking trails, so it is definitely possible to spend several days here.

We returned to the wonderful hotel, took another bath in the Onsen and had a great dinner at the hotel’s restaurant.

Day 22

We left Hakone and boarded the train to Tokyo.

We visited the Senso-ji Buddhist Temple in Asakusa, one of Tokyo’s most active, vibrant and picturesque temples, and toured the nearby Nakamise Market.

Senso-ji Temple

I then traveled alone to Kappabashi Street, an area of professional kitchens and cooking equipment. The street is a tourist destination mainly due to the stores that sell the plastic models of dishes used by restaurants throughout Japan as a visual menu. I went into some stores that sell these models, but overall, I’m not sure this justifies getting to the area especially for this.

Kappabashi Street

Then we took the Monorail train to Odaiba. Odaiba is an artificial island that was dried up from the sea and used to be a port. Over the past decades, it was gradually turned into a lively shopping and entertainment area. Several major sites and malls are located in Odaiba, such as the Miraican Museum of Science, VenusFort Mall, Toyota Mega Web, DiverCity Mall, a large boardwalk, a beautiful promenade that overlooks the Tokyo coastline and even a replica of the Statue of Liberty From New York. You can spend several days in Odaiba alone, particularly if you are traveling with children. The best way to arrive to the island, as mentioned, is with a monorail train that runs on an elevated route built especially to serve it. The ride on this train is a tourist attraction by itself – at first it swirls through the skyscrapers of the Tokyo business districts and then takes a wide turn on a large bridge leading to the island itself, while providing spectacular panoramic views of the Tokyo Bay and the different parts of the vast city stretching across the horizon. At some point I felt like I was inside a scene from a sci-fi movie, flying in a hovercraft between the skyscrapers of a huge futuristic city surrounded by glowing advertisement signs.


We managed to visit only a few of the attractions that Odaiba can offer, and ended the day with a Sushi meal at one of the restaurants at DiverCity Mall –diners order via tablets and the Sushi arrives to the tables with a small Shinkansen train that travels on a track spread all across the restaurant…

Sushi on Shinkansen

During the last days of our visit to Tokyo we stayed at JR Kyushu Hotel Blossom Shinjuku, located at the Shinjuku area right next to the main train station.

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Day 23

The day was dedicated to visiting Disneyland Tokyo. We are Disney enthusiasts and have visited other Disney parks several times in the United States and Europe. Tokyo’s park has proven to be one of the best – well-organized and tidy, as expected. It has the familiar and beloved variety of rides and attractions, but each had a “twist” or little addition to what we knew. The park was full of visitors but to the right degree – lively and joyful atmosphere and reasonable queues. We took advantage of the Fast Pass tickets to selected attractions during the morning, since they started to run out towards noon. If you have small children, it is very useful to bring a stroller because the park is huge, and you will find yourself running from one side to the other. If needed, you can also rent a stroller at the main entrance.

Disneyland Tokyo

The park is about an hour away by train from central Tokyo. We stayed there till the very last minute – it closed at 10 PM, so we arrived at the hotel completely exhausted – but still had late dinner at McDonald’s (American atmosphere to the end…).

Day 24

Our last day in Tokyo and Japan…

We spent the morning in the prestigious Ginza district. We started with the Tsukiji fish market. We skipped getting up in the middle of the night to watch the Tuna fish auction, however it is still possible to absorb the unique atmosphere by walking around the fish shops and Sushi restaurants and experience the freshness, endless selection and spotlessness.

The Tokyo Fish Market

We had some Sushi, which was one of the best we ever had, and proceeded to Chuo Dori – the main street of Ginza packed with department stores and luxury boutiques, Tokyo’s equivalent of the 5th Avenue in New York or the Champs Elysees in Paris. It worthwhile visiting Ginz during the weekend, since the main street is blocked to traffic and becomes a lively and busy pedestrian street. We visited what some of the family members depicted as the “most important temple in Tokyo” – the Uniqlo flagship store that spans an entire building. We also visited the Sony Showroom and some of the department stores, and had a light lunch in one of the cafes.

The main street in Ginza becomes a pedestrian street on weekends

We then proceeded to Tokyo’s Akihabara district – the “electronics city” of Tokyo and the ultimate paradise for geeks, gadget enthusiasts, manga lovers and maid cafes fans – these are themed coffeeshops where waitresses dress in maid costumes. Except for the main streets and the large department stores, Akihabara has many narrow alleys and is infinitely filled with small and bizarre shops. We went into some of them and got lost in the huge Yodobashi department store, where we bought headphones, smart watches and other gadgets.


We returned to the hotel for a rest and then went out for one last dinner to say goodbye to Japan – we had steaks in an American restaurant on the dining floor of Odayko’s department store.

Day 25

We woke up early and got to the airport. Due to our large family group we decided to book a private minibus, the cost was not significant higher compared to regular public transport.

When we landed in Hong Kong, it turned out that it was just hit by the strongest Typhoon storm in years, causing the airport to shut down almost completely. Dozens of flights were canceled, and thousands of passengers got stuck in the field… We missed our next flight back to Israel and it took some time to find an alternative, so eventually we stayed for one additional  night in Hong Kong and returned home the next day.


One of the first and most common questions when planning a trip to Japan is whether to use public transportation and get a JR Pass train ticket, or rent a car.

In my view, the most significant parameter that impacts the nature of a family trip, is whether it is done with a rented vehicle or not. The most convenient way to travel with children is usually with a car, which allows maximum flexibility, makes it easier to carry luggage and most importantly – allows the kids to rest and recharge while traveling. Japan, on the other hand, has one of the most advanced public transportation systems in the world. There is no definitive answer to this question, and it depends on various parameters and personal preferences. There are several factors you should consider when planning your trip:

– In large cities, such as Tokyo, you should obviously not use a car. It is far better to use the subway, buses and occasionally taxis, both in terms of convenience and cost.

– The most convenient and affordable way to travel between distant destinations in Japan is with the fast train network, the Shinkansen, which is a tourist attraction by itself.

– The cost of renting a large car for a family in Japan is relatively high. Highway tolls are expensive too, and if you choose to avoid them and travel on side roads, it can be long and slow (although on the other hand can provide a different travel experience).

– Having said that, there are several areas in Japan with no high-speed trains and limited public transport only, based on sparse and slow local trains (mostly not covered by the JR Pass).

We eventually decided to use public transportation for most of our trip, however rent a car for one specific section of the trip – the visit to northern Honshu. It turned out to be very difficult to find accommodation in this area because of the summer festivals, so we had no choice but to stay in the more distant Hirosaki and rent a car to travel between the festivals’ locations. Other areas that might make sense for a rental car are the Japanese Alps and the Hakone region.

Several additional tips on public transportation in Japan:

– All the information on JR Pass is available on the website:

– JR Pass can only be purchased outside of Japan prior to the visit (as of our August 2017 travel date).

– JR Pass will probably pay off if you plan at least 2-3 long train rides in the Shinkansen, as well as several additional shorter ones on local trains. The ticket is mainly effective when travelling between destinations and not inside cities (although in some cases, local buses are trained are covered by JR Pass).

– To ensure you use the JR Pass in an optimal way, it might make sense to adjust your travel plan accordingly to ensure best utilization of the card. If you are unsure if it is worthwhile to purchase a JR Pass, you can do a more accurate calculation at the following site:

– You can buy a JR Pass for a week, two weeks or three weeks. You can buy it for first class or regular class, however in my opinion there is no reason to buy the more expensive ticket. JR Pass for children aged 6-11 costs half the price of an adult (adult is anyone over the age of 12 years), there is no need to purchase a ticket for children under the age of 6 and they can travel for free.

– When you buy a JR Pass, you get a voucher which you must replace to the pass itself once arriving to Japan. You can replace the voucher at certain train stations only, pay attention to the opening hours of each office. When replacing the voucher, you can indicate the specific date in which the pass becomes valid.

– All Shinkansen trains have reserved and unmarked cars. You can reserve a seat prior to your trip, however if you are traveling with small children without a pass then you cannot reserve a seat for them, and they should be seated on your lap. However, everyone (including children) can sit in the unmarked cars. Therefore, we did not reserve seats in advance and took the unmarked cars instead. Except for one trip where the train was busy and we had to stand for part of the way, we never had any issue and could always find available seats.

– Luggage, including large suitcases, can be placed in the storage areas at the end of each train car, located behind the last seats. Smaller luggage items can be taken with you to the seats.

– It’s worth remembering that Tokyo has two different subway operators: Tokyo Metro and Toei Subway. In addition, there are several JR East rail lines, including the main Yamanote line, which are covered by the JR Pass.

Some tips related to renting a car:

– You should note, of course, that driving in Japan is done on the left side of the road. We are used to driving on the right side, however already had experience with left side driving in several other countries. In general, this should not cause a problem and there is no reason to be concerned – it does however require a short adjustment period. Obviously, it is important to drive safely and slowly until you get adjusted.

– A special international driver’s license is required in Japan – the regular international license does not apply, so make sure you get the right one.

– It is better to rent a vehicle from one of the local car rental companies, although most of the international companies are present too. We rented a large family-size car for seven passengers from Toyota-Rent-a-Car (we were five people but preferred a spacious car for the kids to sit comfortably and with enough luggage space). Other recommended companies are Nissan-Rent-a-Car and Times-Rent-a-Car.

– Some rental cars have a built-in GPS, but these are usually inconvenient. We used Google Maps on our cell phones, both while driving and in the cities – it’s hard to remember how we used to travel before the Internet and mobile… It’s best to prepare Google Maps in advance containing all the sites you plan to visit, and then use it throughout the trip (if you download maps to the phone, you can also use them offline if no connection is available).

Display window in Tokyo


There are many options to fly to Japan, depending of course where are you coming from. Prices vary and depend on many factors – season, discounts through frequent flyer programs, promotions, etc. Our itinerary was a bit complex since we combined Vietnam and Japan at the same trip.

The two most frequent destinations in Honshu where most travelers fly to and begin their trip are Tokyo and Osaka. We chose to start and finish our trip in Tokyo, however you can start in one destination and finish in the other – sometimes it works even better in terms of planning the trip.

Futuristic Concept Car of Nissan


There are endless accommodation options in Japan. We personally prefer hotels, although when traveling with kids it might be problematic because many hotels in Japan do not have large family rooms. Therefore, in most cases we booked two rooms, in which case it is advisable to ask the hotel in advance to allocate adjacent rooms, or at least rooms located on the same floor. You should note that rooms in most Japanese hotels are indeed small, however they are spotless clean and well-equipped with toiletries, pajamas, flip flops, robes, etc.

During most of the trip we stayed in 3- and 4-star hotels, the average cost per night was around $ 250-300 overall. You can obviously find lower cost alternatives – it was important for us to stay in central locations close to train and subway stations, however there are cheaper hotels a bit further from the city centers. In most cases, I booked accommodation only with no breakfast – it is more convenient, quicker and usually also cheaper to eat in a nearby cafe or bakery.

I made all bookings through, which I use for several years. You should pay attention closely to the cancellation policy when making a reservation, I usually make bookings that can be canceled right up to the travel date, to allow last-minute flexibility and changes.

It’s worth staying, at least several nights out of the trip, at traditional Japanese hotels – Ryokans. These hotels usually have hot baths – Onsens, and provide traditional Japanese rooms with Tatami floor mattresses. In some cases, you can also have a traditional Japanese meal, to enjoy a full authentic hospitality experience.

We suddenly encountered a Japanese man filming his wife wearing moose horns…


Japanese cuisine is a whole fascinating universe by itself. Outside Japan we can usually be exposed to the tip of the iceberg, however in Japan itself there is a huge variety of unique ingredients, foods, flavors and traditions that we are completely unfamiliar with. An essential and inseparable part of the Japanese dining experience is the aesthetics form of serving, as well as the harmony among different components of the meal.

Coffee served in a cup made of cookie dough

I highly recommend trying out restaurants and foods of various kinds, and occasionally “gambling” – this way you get a chance to try the new and unfamiliar. Some Japanese dishes can be different and even strange to Western palates, especially some of the Japanese desserts – many of which are made of ingredients such as beans or tofu and have quite different flavors than you might expect.

I am not a culinary expert, however it is worth getting to know some basic terms and common dishes of the Japanese cuisine (apart from Sushi that everyone knows …):

– Ramen: Noodle soup with various toppings, one of the Japanese cuisine “flagships”.


– Udon: Thick noodles broth.

– Yakitori: Small, delicate skewers of meat, seafood or vegetables.

– Yakiniku: A meal in which the diners roast thin pieces of fine meat on a grill located in the center of the table.

– Sukiyaki: Like Yakiniku, but the meat is dipped in raw egg before being eaten – extraordinarily tasty…

– Shabu-Shabu: A meal where diners cook their own pieces of meat and vegetables in boiling soup, also known as Hotpot.

Apart from that, there are numerous other types of dishes, many typical to a specific region, season or holiday. It is also highly recommended to visit food markets and try fast food stalls – the food in Japan is super clean and safe, even street food.

Japanese Bento tray

Many restaurants in the large cities are not located on the street level but rather above or below it, sometimes the staircase might be a bit hidden to spot. We also found out that almost every major department store or shopping mall has a dining floor with a variety of different restaurants. In many cases these are excellent and worth visiting.

Additional Recommendations and Tips

Several general tips:

– Public laundries are not common and we did not encounter any. Some hotels have a laundry room with coin-operated washing machines and dryers available for guests, in some cases for free. You should bring laundry detergent – small packages can be bought at any convenience store such as Seven-Eleven or Watson. When renting an apartment, in many cases you can find a washing machine and dryer as part of the facilities.

– Convenience stores and vending machines for food and drinks are very common and can be found almost everywhere.

– Before our trip we heard that most stores and restaurants throughout Japan accept only cash, and it is almost impossible to use credit cards. In fact, we found out that many places do accept international credit cards, including restaurants, gas stations, shops, highway pay stands, etc. It is still advisable to get some local cash, you can find International ATM’s at major train stations, some bank branches and Seven-Eleven stores.

– We had a roaming plan for our cell phones from Israel. 5Gb should be enough for relatively intense use, including internet browsing, navigation, emails, etc. Alternatively, you can purchase a local SIM card for data use only. If you are traveling with a family and have several cell phones you can also rent a Pocket Wi-Fi device.

– It is a good idea to visit the Tourist Information Center offices at any new destination, to get recommendations and brochures, and find out if there are any special activities or local festivals – sometimes you need the local tips.

– If you rent a car and move between places frequently, you can use one suitcase to pack clothes for the whole family for a day or two and refresh it occasionally. This way, you can carry only one suitcase to the room each night instead of the whole luggage.

– An awesome service that exists in Japan (I did not encounter it anywhere else in the world) is sending luggage between different destinations within the country. If you travel by train and move from city to city, you can send the luggage from your origin hotel to the destination hotel rather than carry it with you. The luggage will usually arrive the next day, so you should take one suitcase or small bag with everything you need for that day.

Lockers can be found at any major train station, you can use them to store luggage for several hours if needed.

– Before the trip, it is highly recommended to get medical advice on vaccinations and medicine. You should also have a good and comprehensive medical insurance. Japan has a modern health care system and very good hospitals and doctors, medical assistance and pharmacies can be found easily if needed. It is still recommended to have a first aid kit with basic medicine you might need, especially for the kids.

– If you are interested to learn more on Japan’s culture and history, there are many recommended books to read before or during your trip. Two excellent overview books (in Hebrew) for general background are “Traditional Japan: Culture and History” and “Modern Japan: Culture and History” by Prof. Ben-Ami Shiloni. Other good books are “A Japanese Experience” by Shifra Horn and “Yakuza My Brother” by Prof. Jacob Raz.

It is also worthwhile to watch movies on Japan with the kids in preparation for the trip, such as “The Last Samurai” with Tom Cruise or “47 Ronin” with Keanu Reeves. We took a laptop with us, bought an HDMI cable which we used to connect to TV screens in some of the hotels and watched several movies during the trip itself, which definitely enhanced the experience.

Tips on traveling with a family in general:

– Youi should prepare ahead for the long rides during the trip. We brought reading books and card games, as well as coloring books and stickers for our little girl. We also brought a Disk-on-Key with music, plugged it into the USB jack in the rental car and used it a lot along the way. We had a laptop and a tablet with several movies (mostly for the little girl) as well as the children’s cell phones, but allowed them to connect only to Wi-Fi networks in the hotels at the end of the day. You will be surprised to find out it is possible (and even better) to get along without a TV and a computer, and that the kids suddenly get back to reading, drawing and playing…

– If you have a toddler, I highly recommend bringing a folding stroller. We took a cheap and basic one with us to the trip – it proved to be very useful, especially on the long days in the big cities once our little daughter got tired.

– It is important to remember that while traveling with a family, especially with small children, the pace is much slower. You should plan a relaxed itinerary, not too difficult or intense, and keep a flexible and open mind for changes and adjustments along the way.

In summary – the trip to Japan was one of the most special and enjoyable we had, and it left a huge impact on us all. Japan has an image of a difficult place to travel, perhaps due of the language barrier or the gaps in mentality and culture, however in fact it is one of the easiest and most comfortable places we have visited. I think it is a perfect destination for families traveling with children, we will surely return to visit it again…

If you are planning a similar trip and have any questions, you are more than welcomed to contact me at

Have a great trip !





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