Alexia Santamaria shares why Japan is a safe, fascinating destination with options for the whole family
Japan is certainly in the spotlight for Rugby World Cup right now but it's an incredible destination to visit at any time of the year, especially for families. Here are some thoughts, from my own recent trip, on what you might like to know if you're taking your kids to this fascinating part of Asia.
Getting around Japan is easy, and incredibly efficient. Trains run on time and the Shinkansen (bullet trains) will get you from city to city quicker than you could imagine.
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Most ticket machines in major cities have English instructions so it's not too complicated to get onboard either.
The Japan Rail Pass is a must, but you have to purchase it before leaving New Zealand. You can buy a 7, 14 or 21-day pass which activates the first day you use it and gives you unlimited travel on JR trains (including long-distance and inner-city trains) for that period.
There are different passes which encompass different areas, depending on where you're going but it's always much cheaper than purchasing ticket by ticket if you're doing any major inter-city travel.
Japan's crime stats are low, and decreasing if anything. And you certainly do feel safe, even out late at night. The crowds in Tokyo can feel full-on but there's no aggression in these large groups of humans — and you never feel like people are out to con you out of your money either.
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Of course you should always be aware of your belongings anywhere in the world but Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department statistics from 2016 show that 73.7 per cent of the total cash lost was returned to its owner. Not sure that would be the case in many countries.
Japan is also incredibly clean, and not having to worry about crime, being swindled or potentially getting sick from food and dirt takes some of the hassle that can come with travelling with kids in other parts of Asia.
There are free Wi-Fi options in certain places, but I used pocket Wi-Fi and found it a fantastic experience.
It's a small unit you carry around in your bag and your whole family can get online using the same gadget. You pay a fixed price for the time you are there and I found the connectivity strong and reliable everywhere I went.
Look for companies like Ninja WiFi. Softbank Global Rental online to pre-book — or at the airport when you arrive.
With the huge popularity of Japanese cuisine in New Zealand, you shouldn't have a problem finding a wide range of things the kids love to eat.
Good food is absolutely everywhere and don't write off places like convenience stores and highway stops like you might in New Zealand. Rather than a dry sandwich or a soggy pie like you might get at home, these pit stops are full of affordable great options for when you're on the move.
Many Kiwi kids will be familiar with sushi, tempura, ramen and katsu dishes but there are plenty of other culinary delights they will love trying when in Japan. Taiyaki are gorgeous little fish shaped pancakes filled with custard cream, gyudon is a soul-soothing combination of soft beef and onions on rice, yakitori is delicious chicken — and often other things — grilled on sticks, gyoza are fried dumplings and okonomiyaki is a super-fun meal for families and groups (a savoury pancake which you cook yourself at your table).
Bakeries are also great places for feeding families. From familiar items like (really good) tuna mayo sandwiches to more unusual — but equally delicious — curry or melon bread there will be something that works for everyone.
If you want to show your kids the breadth and variety of food in Japan, many of the lower levels of big department stores have incredible food halls with stalls and stalls of perfectly displayed Japanese food, often with samples. I just loved the one under Tokyo station in Daimaru. Warning, you will all want to taste and buy everything.
Things to do
There are endless options for kids in Japan. From Tokyo Disneyland, Sanrio Puroland (Hello Kitty Land), The Ghibli Museum (for Anime fans) to Harajuku, Universal Studios (including The Wizarding World of Harry Potter) to the Cup Noodle Museum, Mario Kart Tours and the mind-blowing digital art at teamLab there's so much to amuse all types of young minds.
Personally I think it's also really important for them to have cultural experiences like seeing the giant statue of Buddha at Kamakura, the beautiful temples of Kyoto, staying in a Ryokan (traditional accommodation) and even bathing in an onsen — if they're not shy about getting their kit off in public.
The cultural experiences in Japan are so gentle and easy and kids can learn so much without feeling overwhelmed. If crowds don't bother them, definitely take them to Harajuku on a Sunday for the modern pop culture Japanese experience, every bit as important as the shrines, temples and cherry blossoms!
Air New Zealand flies from Auckland to Tokyo.