Japan itinerary with 8 and 6 year olds

Hi BPN community! My husband, two daughters (ages 8 and 6) and I will be going to Japan in November for 8 days. None of us have been there before and we are really excited! I'm looking for any and all input on our itinerary: Where should we go specifically, and for how long? (Thinking Tokyo, Kyoto, and maybe a smaller city/village?) Any recommendations on where to stay or eat? (My kids are great eaters and we all love Japanese food.) Any must-do activities? Advice in general? Thanks in advance!

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Tokyo Disneyland and DisneySea! Yes. CA has Disneyland but Tokyo Disneyland is wonderful and it's a wonderfully similar yet different expereince. 

Harajuku: the main street isTakeshita Dori. It has fun eats - eleborate crepes. Cool animal cafes. The shinto shrine is also right next to the train station. 

Tokyo Skytree: It's TALL. 

If your kids like Miyazaki films, studio ghibli museum is cool. 

A quick train ride to Hakone / Mt. Fuji is a neat trip. Not sure how much you guys are into hot springs. But, there are hot springs that have English signs for everything and kid friendly ones, too. 

Miraikan -- it's a tech museum that is actually futuristic and cool (unlike the one in San Jose.)

Shinjuko park and robot restaurant. Toy museum is in Shinjuko as well.

San Rio Puroland (hello kitty land) is so fun with girls. 

Take a bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto. 

You must check out food options inside department stores (both basements and upstairs). It's nothing like food court in American malls. 

Have fun!

I'm so jealous! I wanted to chime in with a recommendation for visiting Kyoto! It is a very culturally rich city, partly because it was not heavily bombed during the war. Unfortunately, it has been many years (too many!) since I've been there, so can't really recommend hotels, although on my last visit I stayed at the Palace Side Hotel, which was conveniently located. I actually prefer Kyoto over Tokyo, but given your time line you may not have time for both...If you do go to Kyoto, you may have more of an experience of the Fall colors as there are many temples that are located in the surrounding hills...Particular highlights for me are the Golden Pavillion, Tenryu-ji Temple and the Bamboo grove in Arashiyama and Sanju Sangendo, but the list is very long...I also recommend watching some of the Japanology Plus videos on Youtube with your sons, they are in English and are very informative about many aspects of Japanese culture.

Have a great trip!

I went to Japan 10 years ago, with my wife who speaks Japanese.  We went to Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka, as well as to a small city, Toyama.  And we just went with our kids, 5 and 3.  We went to Tokyo, and a small city in Niigata prefecture.  Generally speaking, the more you stay in touristy parts -- Tokyo and Kyoto -- the easier it is to get around without Japanese language skills.  But the more you get out in the country, the harder it is to communicate, read signs, etc.  

Comparing my 2 trips, things are definitely changing in Japan.  I saw a lot more immigrants -- people who are not native Japanese, but have come to work.  And a lot more Chinese tourists than 10 years ago.  So if you go out in the country, it probably won't be the first time people there have met foreigners.  But you will probably still stick out.  I had little kids staring at me.  When we went to France, I tried to use my high-school knowledge of French, but then it turned out everybody we met spoke great English.  That doesn't happen as much in Japan.  Even though technically everybody in Japan has had years of mandatory English classes, most of them still struggle with pronunciation.  Of course, people in Japan are generally very nice and welcoming and helpful.  Unlike the French.

Tokyo is big and bustling.  Lots of tourists, although there are less touristy parts.  Kyoto is beautiful, definitely a must-see.  I loved Osaka, which is also big but has a more fun vibe.  A little more laid back.  More friendly, maybe.  We went to a professional baseball game in Osaka, and it was awesome, to see the fans chanting and doing stuff they don't do in the USA.  That could be fun for kids, though you might have to buy tickets ahead of time.  

If you're only there for 8 days, I would recommend sticking to Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka.   With 2 weeks you would have more time to check out a smaller village. But there's plenty to do in the big cities.

Tokyo Skytree was worth it, just to say you've been to the top of the 2nd tallest building in the world.  I have friends who loved Studio Ghibli Museum, but my kids are too small for that.  I'm looking forward to going there in 5 years!

My kids loved the hot springs bath, at the onsen.  They loved riding trains.  They loved getting cold drinks from the vending machines on every corner.  They loved the conveyer-belt sushi restaurant.

You should get a JR rail pass.  You can buy it in advance, but you still have to go to the JR station at the Narita airport to get the actual passcard.  And you have to go to that station to reserve a spot on the Narita Express that goes from the airport to Tokyo.

The time change is really challenging.  My advice, if you're flying into Narita airport, which is pretty far outside Tokyo, is to stay the first night at a Narita hotel airport.  There's a shuttle that takes you to the local hotels.  It's too exhausting to try to get all the way to Tokyo, after the long flight to Narita.  And we had an amazing all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet at the hotel.  Then you take the shuttle back to the airport, and catch the Narita Express to Tokyo at the airport.

Have fun and good luck!  And feel free to contact me if there's anything more I can share with you.

I recommend looking at https://www.japan-guide.com/

There is a very active Q&A forum (that we found very helpful when we were planning our own Japan trips.

Even with the fast trains, eight days isn't so much (does that include travel days, or actual available time there?), so select two, or at most three places, and enjoy them.

Also check out http://www.hyperdia.com/ for good train time and pricing information.

My husband and I went to Japan in December 2017 and we loved it. In November you will still get the foliage, which is just so beautiful. We absolutely loved Kyoto. There are so many beautiful shrines, you could stay for days. You should definitely take your kids to Fushimi Inari. After Kyoto we went to Koya San/Mount Koya for a night, a big temple settlement. You take a local train from Kyoto and then a short gondola up to the mountain. Up there we stayed in one of the temples/Ryokan (just booked via booking.com). That included a 5 course meal, a meditation session, access to the onsen (hot springs) and you sleep in a traditional room on tatami mats. It was a wonderful experience and I think would also be interesting for kids. On the way back we stopped in Nara which I would also recommend for kids. Again, huge temples, but most importantly a large park where deer walk around and you can feed and pet them. :-) Fun for kids. We also really liked Osaka. Again, easy to access from Kyoto and Tokyo alike. It is modern city, like Tokyo, but smaller than Tokyo, and younger and more lively, less business like. We liked it a lot. We ended our trip with 5 days in Tokyo, which I would not do again. Its rough to be in the relaxed parts of the country and then finish in hectic Tokyo. I also found Tokyo not exactly a vacation place, its enormous, so many people, and all about business. But that might also just be my personal preference. No food recommendations - you can't really get bad food in Japan I feel, every meal was wonderful. :-) We stayed in Airbnbs, Ryokan (the traditional guest houses), and a couple of nights at Hiltons with points - the hotel experience is incomparable to Hiltons here, amazing service. HAVE FUN! I want to go back! :-)

Japan is so much fun and you'll be going just as the leaves turn color and get really pretty. I'm so excited for all of you.

First, if you haven't already, consider joining a Facebook group such as Japan Travel Planning. A lot of people post itineraries for critiques and you can get some good ideas. 

Second, are you flying in and out of one city or into one city (i.e., Tokyo) and out of another (i.e., Osaka)? Travel between the cities can be a half-day adventure and if you're trying to get from Kyoto back to Tokyo to get to Narita Airport, that will play into your planning too.

Personally, for those who haven't been to Japan before, I would do just Tokyo and Kyoto. The jetlag from the Bay Area can be a little intense (and even worse coming back truthfully) and there's a lot more walking in Japan than your girls are probably used to in their daily life. Most adult tourists walk about 20k steps per day so take it slow and don't rush. Also, take a day *each* for Disneyland and DisneySea, if you're Disney fans. Both parks are great but do not go on Culture Day (a national holiday on Nov. 4) or the weekend immediately prior.

Other than Disney, some of the sights to start google-ing and considering buying tickets ASAP for include: Ghibli Museum [though you may be too late], Team Labs and Team Borderless, Yayoi Kusama Museum, etc.

Day 1: Arrive into Tokyo
Day 2: Harajuku/Takeshita-Doori, Meiji Shrine, Shibuya Crossing
Day 3: Museum (optional), Asakusa, Roppongi
Day 4: Disneyland
Day 5: DisneySea
Day 6: Tokyo to Kyoto; Fushimi-Inari, Kinkaku-ji; Nijo Castle and dinner near Nishiki Market
Day 7: Kyoto: Arashiyama (bamboo but skip monkeys); Sanjyusangendo Hall (*most underrated sight in Kyoto IMO)
*Note: Kiyomizu-dera is under construction w/scaffolding but the street leading up the hill has tons of tasty food and the view from the top of the hill is great. You can research and decide if it's worth it to you.
Day 8: Kyoto to Tokyo; trek to the airport

In Tokyo, I personally like staying near Shinagawa Station which is a shinkansen terminal but much less chaotic than Tokyo Station. They also have a Blue Bottle and Dean and Deluca for delicious coffee runs and pastries in the morning. You may run into hotel problems with 4 people to a room - and do not lie - as Japan is super strict about occupancy.

If you eat pork, don't forget to try Butagumi for life-changing tonkatsu, Ichiran Ramen (go for breakfast before the lines start!) and, for what it's worth, my girls LOVE Hakuhinkan Toy Park in Ginza (much better alternative to Kiddyland) for trinkets, Japanese take on familiar crafts like fuzebeads, stickers, pens and toys like Totoro, etc. 

Rent a mi-fi if you won't have a roaming plan through your US provider as it's a complete game changer for directions and google maps. You won't need a JR Pass if you only do Tokyo and Kyoto (just buy the shinkansen tickets you need). There's a new Suica card for foreigners with no deposit, and only your older daughter will need a child card (buy from a window with passport/proof of age) for 50% off. The younger one should be free. Have a great time!!

I highly recommend Context Tours. They are an international tour company that does docent led small group walking tours. They have tours that are tailored for families with kids. We have taken a few of their tours around the world (including one that was for kids) and found them amazing. Way above your average city tour. We did one in Tokyo that toured the temples in Asakusa and although that one in particular might be too long for a six year old, you might be able to ask them to shorten one for you. 

I also recommend “justonecookbook.com”. It’s a Bay Area mom who has a successful Japanese food cooking blog but she also goes to Japan every year and posts incredibly useful posts about traveling to Japan, especially with kids. You would do well just to go to her website and read everything she has on travel to Japan—it covers itinerary, transportation, food, etiquette, etc. 

My advice is to not try to do too much, and give yourself space to accumulate all the "micro experiences" that make visiting a new place so special. We've been to Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, and Sendai, and all are great places to visit. I've the my kids to 14 countries, and our trips are the most successful when we don't overplan. They love to visit the convenience stores and the grocery stores and try all the different snacks. They love going into the 100 yen stores (Daiso, Can Do, and the slightly more expensive Seria) to buy presents for themselves and family members. My kids loved the science museum in Ueno Park in Tokyo and the Ido-Tokyo Museum. We've also been to Disney, and highly recommend Tokyo DisneySea over Disneyland, because it is completely unique. 

Another bit of advice is to consider getting a T-Mobile cell phone, if you don't already have one. We step off the plane anywhere in the world and our phone works without having to switch SIM cards or buy different plans. T-Mobile says that they guarantee you 2G data, but I've always had LTE service. If you use Google Maps to plan your travel around the city, it will tell you exactly which platform to get on at the train station and exactly how much the ticket should cost---it makes it really, really easy to navigate the complicated Tokyo train system.

OP here: Thanks so much for all the helpful advice!