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Japan: The Perfect Travel Destination for Your Family With Sensory Needs

Japan's culture, history and quiet spaces are ideal for sensory-sensitive kids and families

Published on: January 24, 2020

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Photo:
Japan's Mount Fuji can be seen from the train between Tokyo and Kyoto

While only one member of our family of three has been diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum, I think it’s safe to describe all of us as having sensory needs. My husband prefers the peace of natural places like forests, mountains and beaches. I like the culture of a big city but only when there are plenty of quiet escapes. Our son, who loves the conveyances of travel — planes, trains and subways — is also highly sensitive to smell, sound and taste.

Finding an international vacation destination to suit our family required a very careful choice. In deciding on Japan, we found an adventure we could all enjoy: Rich culture and history, futuristic high-speed trains and ubiquitous sushi. All this, combined with abundant peaceful escapes, suited our family perfectly.

Sensory-friendly Japan

Logistically, plenty of direct flights from Seattle to Japan make the journey relatively easy, and no special vaccinations are needed. Culturally, the importance of cleanliness and good manners in Japan translates to spotless public restrooms, quiet public places and a respect for personal space (or pasonaru supesu), even in the most crowded situations.

Further, the Japanese embrace the benefits of “forest bathing” or shinrin-yoku — spending time in the trees. Serene parks and gardens everywhere helped us pause and recalibrate throughout our days, from Kyoto to bustling Tokyo.

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Shinkansen, Japanese high-speed rail

Our itinerary

We structured our two-week trip around Tokyo, the world’s largest metropolitan city, and Kyoto, thought to be Japan’s most beautiful city. We purchased a rail pass before departure and opted for Airbnb and hotel stays to allow maximum flexibility with our meals. (Someday, when we’re more inclined to eat everything that’s put in front of us, we’ll try the more traditional ryokans, a type of lodging where multi-course meals are typically included.)

In Kyoto, an Airbnb rental within walking distance of Nijo Castle proved to be a great home base. We made our own breakfasts and dinners, provisioning at a nearby supermarket and French-style bakery around the corner. We ate in our tatami-mat dining room that overlooked a postage-stamp-sized Japanese garden.

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The author and her son, age 8, in a calligraphy class. Credit: Scott Case

Structuring our days

To organize our days, we generally picked one sight-seeing destination plus one outdoor or hands-on activity. One morning we took a calligraphy class through Airbnb Experiences, had lunch at a casual sushi restaurant and then wandered through the Imperial Palace. Despite the language barrier, our son quickly made a friend on the playground there and we sat on a bench watching them see-saw, swing and pantomime together.

In Arashiyama, we visited the exquisite Tenryu-ji Temple and Bamboo Forest. Across the Togetsu-kyo Bridge and down a quiet a back street, we found a café with plate-glass windows looking into the forest. This offered us a place to relax and read before visiting the nearby Iwatayama Park’s macaque monkeys (a site I could have skipped, but made our son’s list of top-10 highlights).

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Togetsu-kyo Bridge in Japan. Credit: Margot Kahn

On another day, we visited the Golden Temple in the morning and took a cooking class in the afternoon.

On our last day in Kyoto, we visited the Railway Museum, a Smithsonian-level experience devoted to trains. Bridges, tracks, signals, pantographs — there were hands-on exhibits every step of the way, and a restaurant overlooking numerous rail lines going in and out of the city. When we traveled the next day by Shinkansen (bullet train) to Tokyo, we had a new appreciation for both the machines and the country’s industrial history.

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Meiji Temple in Japan. Credit: Margot Kahn

Our time in Tokyo

I was warned that there was no way we’d be able to see everything we wanted to in Tokyo, and we tried to adjust our expectations accordingly. At the National Museum, for example, we limited our time to the sword room.

We spent half a day at Origami Kaikan where we saw the special paper being made, wandered through a gallery of origami flowers and watched a demonstration that kicked-off our own paper-folding obsession. Another day we walked to the commanding Meiji Shrine and rocketed to the top of the Tokyo Skytree for a bird’s eye view of the city.

Being flexible

Toward the end of our trip, exhaustion and overwhelm set in. We opted for the nearby Tokyo Water Science Museum instead of trekking to the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation, but hardly anything was in English and we didn't find the exhibits very impressive. On a hot afternoon, we ran out of steam for temple visits and gave up en route to the crowded Senso-ji Temple. And a torrential downpour kept us from visiting the Imperial Palace at all.

On our last day, we stayed in the Roppongi neighborhood near our hotel and discovered a gem-like park. We sampled bright purple sweet potato doughnuts, gourmet rice crackers and elegant green tea chocolates. We sat cross-legged at low tables for the most delicious bowls of udon and plates of yakitori.

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A park in the Roppongi area of Tokyo. Credit: Margot Kahn

It was an unexpectedly perfect end to our trip, this unplanned day. We reveled in all the new sights and sounds we had experienced, all the customs and history we had learned and the way we had pushed the boundaries of our known world just enough — in a way that made us eager to do it again.

Some of our favorite places

Around Kyoto:

Around Tokyo:

Tips for families:

  • A Japan Rail Pass covers all JR lines throughout the country but must be purchased before you travel to Japan.
  • Read up on the Tokyo subway system if you plan to use it, and download an app or ask for explicit directions with a hotel concierge or guest house manager before you head out for the day; you won't find many signs in English once underground.
  • My husband speaks rudimentary Japanese, which gave us some confidence getting around, but whenever we had a question or got confused, we encountered someone who spoke impeccable English (or someone with an app) who was gracious enough to help us.
  • As with most major sightseeing attractions anywhere in the world, go first thing in the morning to avoid biggest crowds.
  • Wear (or bring) socks everywhere! You’ll have to take shoes off inside all temples.
  • Kid-favorite avocado rolls are not actually a Japanese thing, but most sushi chefs will be happy to make you one. “Avocado” is pronounced “abocado” in Japanese.    

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