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The first time my husband and I visited Japan, we did it all wrong. We landed in Tokyo, fresh out of school with a student budget and hoping to get the inexpensive five-star experiences we’d heard Asia had to offer. The problem? Japan isn’t Thailand. We ended up blowing a four-week budget on a one-week vacation.
But what we lost monetarily, we gained in appreciation. Incredible food and generous people made it one of our favorite experiences, and — despite the pains in our wallets — we vowed to return with our kids one day. That day was last summer.
This time, we put a better budget together and took steps to make sure we could make the most of our time in the country. Our kids are teenagers, so it was key that we kept them interested and entertained while my husband and I also got as much out of the experience for ourselves as we could. With three weeks to play, we opted to visit four main areas. When the trip was over, we felt like we had made a dent in the country’s history and culture and had managed not to bore the kids while doing it.
And, much like my husband and I felt on our initial visit, my family is committed to returning again. Japan is too wonderful a spot to leave any part unexplored.
Here’s how we made it work.
HokkaidoCome for: History and culture The northern island destination is one of Japan’s hidden gems. While tourists know to head to the mainland, Hokkaido remains a predominantly local getaway.
We spent 10 days exploring the island. We started in Hakodate, where the kids got a kick out of the Lucky Pierrot restaurants — each has a different theme and fantastic local twists on typical fast-food options (squid burger, anyone?) — and Fort Goryokaku, where the Samurai made their last stand against the Imperial Japanese Army. Pro tip: Go up the Goryokaku tower for a view of the site’s star-shaped design.
But it was the opportunities to dive even deeper into Japanese culture that won us all over. From Hakodate Jomon Culture Center and the ruins in Hakodate to the Ainu relics and cultural demonstrations in Shiraoi, we were able to learn about Japan’s first peoples through interactive exhibits and passionate locals. Add to that the chance to go through the rigorous (and authentic) process of dressing up in traditional Japanese clothing, and you have a vacation destination winner.
Why it worked: We were learning, but we were having fun, too. There were no lectures — just hands-on, interactive fun with locals who had stories to share. Plus, the pleasant climate and pace in the north, as opposed to the much warmer mainland, makes for a great break.
MinakamiCome for: Outdoor adventures
The boys were ready for some active adventure by the time we headed for Minakami. Luckily, this town in Gunma Prefecture is known as the outdoor adventure capital of Japan. Gorgeous cliffs, roaring waters and pastoral landscapes are perfect for gazing at from porch fronts, but the boys immediately saw the potential for jumping off cliffs. We booked with operator Canyons for a full, adrenaline-filled day of rafting and canyoneering. Had we preferred to round out our stay with some sightseeing, the town’s onsen (hot-spring baths), old-fashioned trains and local food offerings would have filled that time nicely.
Why it worked: There are only so many history lessons that your kids will let you get away with, no matter how intriguing. Building in time for active fun was the perfect way to offset any pending groans.
TokyoCome for: Big-city adrenaline rush A trip to Japan without a stop in Tokyo would be a huge mistake. It’s the Japan that most North Americans think of: skyscrapers, incredible restaurants, fast-moving pedestrians and plenty of people-watching.
Why it worked: We opted to visit only a few neighborhoods and gave each as much time as we could. It would be easy to spend weeks in just Tokyo, so narrowing down your itinerary is key.
The teens loved Shibuya. Just outside Harajuku Station, Takeshita Street is where kitsch is king, and local teens who dress up to resemble their favorite anime figures provide ample people-watching opportunities. For a change of pace, walk along Omotesando, a tree-lined avenue nearby that’s considered Tokyo’s version of Paris’ Champs-Elysees or New York’s Fifth Avenue. It has a wide variety of shopping and action on every corner.HiroshimaCome for: History in perspective Our boys are studying World War II in school, and Hiroshima offered them a real-world education on what it would have been like when the bombs hit the area. Our visit also provided a look at how lives have changed since. Stops at the Atomic-Bomb Dome and Hiroshima Peace Memorial are a must for insight into the tragic events, but guests should also spend some time wandering the gardens, shops and temples in the area. (Note: The museum itself is under renovation until spring 2019.)
Why it worked: Hiroshima can be a day trip if you’re short on time and set out early, but I’d recommend at least an overnight. Transportation is simple to use to explore the city, and museum passes make it easy to go where the day carries you. If you’ve got time, hop on a ferry over to Miyajima island to see the famous “floating” torii (the gateway of a shrine). The island is populated by wild deer, which can make for some great photo opportunities.
Japan National Tourism Organization www.jnto.go.jp