Japan Itinerary: Our Two Week, Kid Friendly Japan Guide

This Japan itinerary contains affiliate links which means if you click on one of the affiliate links and make a purchase, I will receive a small commission at no cost to you. All opinions in this Japan itinerary are my own.

Japan itinerary

Our Route from Osaka to Tokyo

When we travel with our son we take a slightly slower pace than we did before we had kids. If we try to fit in too many activities in the day, it is a surefire way to overwhelm him. So, we usually head out fairly early in the morning (he’s an early riser) right after breakfast and come back to our hotel around lunch time. He’s 4 now so he doesn’t usually need a nap anymore but quiet play time still helps him to recharge his batteries. The in the late afternoon or evening we head out for a while closer to our home base.

For this Japan itinerary we visited Osaka, Koyasan, Nara, Kyoto, Tokyo and Narita. So we didn’t have to double back we flew into Osaka and out of Narita. Our visits to Koyasan, Nara and Narita were just day trips but longer overnight stays would be fantastic for longer itineraries.  Our son enjoys visiting temples and traditional sites, especially if he can have ice cream! He’s also HUGE fan of technology, vehicles and robotics so this Japan itinerary was a balance between the old and the new.

Do You Need a JR PASS for Your Japan Itinerary?

Whenever there is talk about traveling to Japan people of course recommend the JR Pass. The 7, 14 or 21 day JR Pass allows visitor to ride many JR group trains, and buses but there are limitations. It is a good idea to enter your Japan itinerary route into a Japan Rail Pass Calculator like this one (there are others available online as well). We found that for our Japan itinerary we would not save any money getting the JR Pass. We also chose to take the Nozomi Shinkansen between Kyoto and Tokyo and at this time it isn’t covered under the JR Pass.

Days 1 to 3: Osaka Plus a Daytrip to Koyasan

Osaka Castle

The 5 tiered Osaka Castle is the symbol of Osaka and a must visit for anyone coming to the city.

Not only is the castle beautiful but it is surrounded by large grounds and Osaka Castle Park. It is a great place to stretch your legs after a long flight. There are also a fair number of food trucks set up inside the gates as well. You can also find people feeding the pigeons which our son thought was great.

Dotonbori

Best seen at night, Dotonbori is Osaka’s well known downtown area. It is full of great places to shop but most people come to see the brightly colored neon billboards and quirky signs of giant sea creatures which line the canal.

It is also home to quite a few well known restaurants. The lines to get into these restaurants can be incredibly long so it is best to get there early or try your luck at one of the less known places. We ducked into a small ramen restaurant and it was great as well! There are also sometimes free concerts along the canal in the evening. The day we visited we happened to catch Kamen Joshi.

Koyasan – Day Trip from Osaka

The UNESCO world heritage site, Mount Koya is home to more than 100 temples as well as Japan’s largest cemetery Okunoin. More than 200,000 monks have found their final resting place in Okunoin. This incredibly sacred place is also hauntingly beautiful. Green moss covers the grave marker and thousand year old cedar trees tower overhead.

Koyasan is approximately 2 hours from Osaka so it is an easy day trip. In bad weather though, it is best to check that the cable car is still running. We ended up traveling during one of the heaviest snowfalls they had seen in ages and ended up with more excitement than we bargained for!

Other Fantastic Sites in Osaka to Add to a Japan Itinerary

Osaka Aquarium
Universal Studios Japan
Shitennoji Buddhist Temple
Osaka Science Museum

Day 4: Nara Daytrip between Osaka and Kyoto

Nara is close enough to both Osaka and Kyoto to make it a daytrip from either location. We decided to stop over in Nara as we traveled from Osaka to Kyoto. There are places to store your bags in the train stations and at the Nara City Tourist Information Center.

The ancient city is home to some amazing sites such as Todaiji and Yakushiji temples. Nara is best known for the more than 1,200 deer that roam freely in Nara Park. I was a little worried about bringing a very excited 4 year old to see the deer but they were perfectly gentle. Vendors sell crackers that you can feed the deer but expect to get swarmed by a group of deer if you bring out a snack for one.

Days 5 to 8: Kyoto

Kinkaku-ji Golden Temple

As pretty as the Golden Temple is we felt a bit underwhelmed because there were massive crowds. We just happened to arrive exactly when several tour busses pulled up. You enter the gates and everyone must follow the same route shuffling along with the group and leaning over to take photos the best they can. It was just our luck that the sky completely clouded over when we went through. We stopped to grab some ice cream and suddenly the sky was bright blue and the crowds had cleared.


I don’t know if going back in a second time is allowed but I was able to duck back in and get a few more photos.  There isn’t much else to do at the Golden Castle but it is an iconic site so worth the trip. It is best to arrive early or later in the day to avoid the crowds. Or you can try your luck waiting for a break in the tours because as quickly as they come, they are gone just as fast.

Fushimi Inari Taisha

Along with tourists to this popular site, worshipers have been visiting Fushimi Inari-Taisha since around 711.  Inari is the patron of businesses and the god of rice. The shrine is well known for it’s bright orange torii (arches) and fox statues (messengers).

Fushimi Inari-Taisha shrine was so much bigger than I ever expected! We arrived early and made our way to the first set of torii (the red orange arches). Everyone around us was getting frustrated trying to get a great photo. Little did we know that there are pathways all the way up to the top of the mountain with torii galore! We tried to make the two hour hike to the top of the mountain but turned back about 30 minutes from the top. We realized that we were going to have to make it back down with a 4 year old in tow and we were all getting tired. The assent is gradual though and it is easy to explore.

Gion and Geisha (Geiko)

The reason I wanted to go to Kyoto was to try to see a REAL Geisha (or Geiko as they are called in Kyoto). We were successful our second night! You can read more about how we were able to find Geisha in Kyoto here.

geisha
It takes a lot of patience though so we made sure to allot several nights to exploring the Gion which is Kyoto’s famous entertainment district. Even without Geisha, the Gion has many beautiful old buildings and is very atmospheric at night especially in the Shimbashi area.

Kyoto Train Museum

The Kyoto Train Museum is the largest railway museum in Japan with a stock of 53 trains and train cars. It is a 3 story museum with lots of interactive displays and hands on exhibits.


It also has Japan’s largest collection of steam locomotives and for an additional fee you can take a 10 minute ride on one! It is by far the most memorable museum we have visited in Japan.

Other Fantastic Sites in Kyoto to Add to a Japan Itinerary

Arashiyama Bamboo Forest
Kiyomizu-dera Buddhist Temple
Nijo Castle
Monkey Park Iwatayama

Mount Fuji

On past trips to Japan we had seen Mount Fuji from a distance on clear days in Tokyo but we wanted to see it more closely. We also had no desire to climb it and how long can you spend looking at Mount Fuji with a 4 year old really? We found the perfect solution! The Nozomi Shinkansen which we had also been wanting to experience goes right past Mount Fuji on the way from Kyoto to Tokyo. You can see Mount Fuji for about half of the trip and the train passes by closely enough that you can get a pretty decent photo.

Days 9 to 13: Tokyo

Odiaba

We love Odaiba! During our visit to Tokyo we visited nearly every day. The Odiaiba area of Tokyo is a man made island which has been developed as a shopping and leisure destination. The Yurikamone elevated train ride across to the island is quite fun itself as there is great views of the harbor and Rainbow Bridge as the train track loops over the water. If you are really lucky, try to get the first seat in the first car for a drivers view!

Once in Odaiba there is plenty to keep you busy for days. Odiaba is perhaps most well known for being the home of the life sized Gundam statue which was taken down on March 5th 2017. A new one will be erected in the fall of 2017 but until then there is still plenty to do and see on the island. At Decks Tokyo Beach you can find a Legoland Discovery Center and Madam Tussauds wax museum. Toyota Mega Web is a Toyota showroom, and museum with attractions including test drives.


Right next door is one of the world’s biggest Ferris Wheels. The National Museum of Emerging Science (Miraikan) where the robot Asimo puts on daily displays is also in Odaiba. The list goes on and on so click here to read more!

Tsukiji Fish Market

The Tsukiji Fish Market really isn’t kid friendly. It’s a busy and active wholesale market and it really isn’t set up for tourists. The famous tuna auctions happen very early in the morning and are limited to 120 people per day who have applied in advance. Danny is a chef though and wanted to at least check it out. After 10 am when the majority of the sales have been finished the public is allowed to enter into the wholesale seafood area. By noon though most vendors have packed up and gone home leaving a very short window of time to visit.


I’m glad we went just to be able to say we have been. The vendors were very nice to us and we were given some free samples as they were cleaning up for the day. The area is wet, messy and there are forklifts and such rushing about so we opted to carry our son on our shoulders. The outdoor market is open to the public any time and is easier to navigate with little ones.

Asakusa District

Nakamise shopping street lines the way through the Asakusa district of Tokyo to Sensoji Temple (Asakusa Kannon Temple). The shopping street is primarily made up of souvenir shops and little snack places. This is where we ended up trying black sesame ice cream! The dark grey color was awesome and the taste OK but it’s not going to end up being on my top 5 list.


At the end of Nakamise shopping street you’ll find Asakusa temple which was built in the 7th century. Kaminarimon (Kaminari Gate) is probably the best known image of this temple with its giant lantern. This is a very popular site so during holidays and weekends it gets incredibly busy. Kannonura Street in Asakusa is also one of the few areas where you may be lucky to spot a Geisha in Tokyo. If luck is not on your side when you visit, Konnonura Street is still a beautiful and historic area.

Tokyo Tower or Tokyo Skytree

There are two towers in Tokyo which you can visit to get a great view of the city. The original bright orange Tokyo Tower is 333 meters high and is the tallest self-supported steel tower in the world with observation decks at 150 meters and 250 meters. The newer (2012) Tokyo Skytree is 634 meters tall and has observation decks at 350 meters and 450 meters.


We chose to visit Tokyo Tower. Though the views at the Skytree are of course more impressive it was the cost that made us decide to visit the original Tokyo Tower instead. To visit the first observation deck at Tokyo Tower it only cost us about $8 USD each, whereas the Skytree was going to cost us about $18 USD each.

JAXA Tsukuba Space Center – Half Day Trip From Tokyo

About a 45 minuet train ride from Tokyo is JAXA Tsukuba Space Center in Tsukuba city. You can join a tour of the KIBO (the Japanese science module for the International Space Station) Flight Control Room and the astronaut training facility. Advanced reservations for English speaking tours are recommended.


There is also a nice Space Dome museum on site. It is small but it has some nice mock-ups of real space equipment.

Other Fantastic Sites in Tokyo to Add to a Japan Itinerary

Tokyo Disneyland
Ghibli Museum
Tokyo Imperial Palace
Sanrio Puroland

Day 14: Narita

Narita Omotesando and Naritasan Temple

A lot of people go to Narita only for the airport. Just by chance we stayed at a hotel one night a bit away from the airport because we had an early flight. Bored and wanting to just get out and walk a bit we were suddenly walking along Narita Omotesando (path leading to a temple).


The narrow one kilometer street is lined with old buildings now housing souvenir shops including traditional foods and handicrafts, and restaurants. It twists and turns until it reaches Naritasan Temple (Narita-san Shinsho-ji ). Built around 940 the temple is and grounds are quite large and very popular. It’s a great place to spend a few hours before your flight!

Check out our other Japan Guide on the best places to find cars, trains, robots and rockets here!

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Japan Guide: Where to Find Cars, Trains, Robots & Rockets!

This Japan guide contains affiliate links which means if you click on one of the affiliate links and make a purchase, I will receive a small commission. All opinions in this Japan guide are my own.japan guide
There’s no denying that Japan is the place to go for technology lovers. Our son is a fan of absolutely everything mechanical so on the latest of our family vacations to Japan we decided to plan our trip as a balance between traditional Japanese culture and machines. In this Japan guide find out where to go on your family vacations in Japan to see cars, trains, rockets and robots!


Cars

Toyota Mega Web

In the Odaiba area of Tokyo just across the Rainbow Bridge you can find Toyota Mega Web in the Pallet Town shopping area. The car “theme park” is divided into the Toyota City Showcase, Ride Studio, History Garage, and Ride One.

Toyota City Showcase and History Garage

Toyota City Showcase is free to visit and has on display around 60 of Toyota’s current model cars. A really nice thing about this area is you can actually get inside many of the cars to check them out, even if you are 4 years old and not planning on buying a car for a couple of years! We could have left our son there all day as he dreamed of being a race car driver.

family vacations

On the second floor is the Toyota Gazoo Racing Garage with serval cars from the Toyota Gazoo racing team on display and a motor sports simulator. The simulator allows visitors to play the Playstation 3 game Gran Turismo 6 for free for about 5 minutes. There is a line but we didn’t have to wait more than a few minutes for our turn when we visited. Even though there is a height requirement of 135cm in order to reach the pedals, we were allowed to play the game with our son on our lap.

If you love classic cars you are going to want to check out the History Garage. The first time we visited Mega Web we completely missed it since it is not in the same area as the City Showcase. There are some really nice cars including a DeLorean which made mommy and daddy happy but this area is less interactive so our son was ready to go back to the showcase area quickly.

Ride Studio and Ride One

Ride Studio allows kids to give driving a try in their own kid sized cars. There are several different tracks and cars that kids can try out depending on their age and height. The price ranges from 200 – 300 yen. We visited a bit after 6pm one evening and they let our son try out one of the cars for free since they were getting ready to close up for the day.

Kids under 12 require a guardian’s signature to drive the cars and the rules were quite strict. Our 4 year old struggled to understand the traffic rules and daddy had to stay right with him the entire time on the course to make sure he followed the traffic lights. But he still enjoyed the chance to drive!

Ride One is the adult version of Ride Studio. Adults with a valid Japanese driver’s license or an international driving permit can test drive a vehicle of their choice around a 1.3 km driving course for 300 yen. There are a large variety of cars to choose from but advanced reservation is encouraged.

Other Japan guide places to check out cars:


Trains

Kyoto Railway Museum

The Kyoto Railway Museum was by far our favorite museum! It is a quite new museum that opened in April 2016 with lots of trains on display and to explore as well as interactive exhibits. It is a bit expensive. Adults pay 1,200 yen, teens 1,000 and kids 500 but it was worth every yen. It is the largest railway museum in Japan and you can easily spend the day there.

The 3 story museum has trains on display both inside and outdoors. There is a rolling stock of 53 trains and train cars including steam, diesel, and electric locomotives, Shinkansen, EMUs, DMUs, coaches and wagons. The outdoor roundhouse displays Japan’s largest collection of steam locomotives and for an additional 300 yen visitors can take a 10 minute ride on a steam train.

Ride the Nozomi Shinkansen

Riding the Nozomi train between Kyoto and Osaka was the perfect accompaniment to our train museum visit. The Nozomi is the fastest train service in Japan on the Takaido/Sanyo Shinkansen lines and reaches up to 300km/hour. For a portion of the trip the tracks pass right by Mount Fuji giving a fantastic view for quite some time!

Other Japan guide places to check out trains:


Rockets

JAXA Tsukuba Space Center

To be honest, I think my impression of this museum was influenced by the fact that it took us so very long to get there. It is only about a 45 minute train ride from Tokyo if you take the express train. Make sure you take the express train! If you don’t you’re looking at a very slow train that stops at every station and takes hours. Want to make a guess as to which train we accidentally took?

So, when we got to the museum we were tried and grumpy. We walked into the Space Dome and wondered “Is this it?” The Space Dome is only one large room but it is free and has some interesting items on display.


Our son enjoyed the full sized mockup of “KIBO” the Japanese science module for the International Space Station and insisted that daddy help him to “float” like the astronauts. Kibo alone kept him occupied for about 30 minutes. There is also a full sized rocket in the museum grounds that you can walk around and a nice little gift shop with some astronaut ice cream which we all love.

If you’re in the area it is a nice little museum but I wouldn’t make the trip there a second time with a younger child. Older children and adults though can take part in a guided tour of the KIBO Flight Control Room and the Astronaut Training Facility.  The 70 minute tour includes seeing real-time operations of KIBO which sounds pretty cool! Advanced reservations for English tours are recommended since it is not always available.

Other Japan guide places to check out space technology:


Robots

ASIMO at Miraikan

We visited the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation(Miraikan) to meet one of the world’s most famous robots, ASIMO.  Four times a day ASIMO puts on an approximately 10 minute presentation. He walks around, waves, runs and kicks a soccer ball among other things. We were quite surprised by how smoothly ASIMO moves and expected much more jerky movements. We really wished that the presentation had been a bit longer or that we had been able to see ASIMO up close. After the presentation ASIMO disappears back behind a door. There are a few other robots and/or androids on display at Miraikan as well which you can get more up close with.  They also have a really good gift shop with ASIMO merchandise and all sorts of robots for every ability it seemed.

Gundam at DiverCity Tokyo

Gundam is not technically a “robot”. Gundam are mobile suits which are vehicles controlled in a cockpit by humans. But since this article does not have a “mobile suit” category and Gundam have “robotic” characteristics, here it is!


In Odaiba at Diver City Tokyo Plaza stands an 18 meter, life sized RX-78-2 Gundam…or at least it did until March 5th 2017. The Gundam statue has now been removed and by the first week of April the Grand Nikko Tokyo Daiba Hotel Gundam theme rooms as well as Gundam Front Tokyo will also be closing. Our family has a lot of great memories visiting the Gundam statue. On our last trip to Tokyo we visited maybe 5 times. I remember the very first time in 2014 that we suddenly saw Gundam come “alive”. We hadn’t known about the performances and were thrilled that Gundam moved and had a light show! We are quite sad to see the RX-78-2 Gundam go.


But fear not! In the fall of 2017 the original Gundam is being replaced with a 24 meter RX-o Unicorn Gundam and The Gundam Base Tokyo will be opening as well. We may need to make another trip to Japan to meet this new Gundam!

Other Japan guide places to check out robots:


Are there any other great places we should add to our Japan guide where you can see cars, trains, robots and rockets? How about some other sites to check out awesome technology in Japan? Tell us what you think about this Japan guide in the comments below!

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Geisha in Kyoto, Japan: How to See a Real Geisha

Our First Night Looking for Geisha

On our most recent trip to Japan our main goal was to finally make it to Kyoto because (if we were very lucky) I wanted to see a geisha. The exact number of geisha currently working in Japan is not known but it is estimated that there are about 1,000 with the highest concentration in Kyoto. There are about 100 geisha and 100 maiko (geisha apprentice) working in Kyoto.

We booked a hotel near the Gion, Kyoto’s most famous entertainment district where most geisha in Koyoto work. My plan was to go out to the Gion each of the 4 nights we were in Kyoto to just sit and wait and hope to catch a glimpse. Unfortunately our hotel was not as close to the Gion as we had thought.

The first evening we were just too tired and we had an early morning so we didn’t end up making the trip to the Gion. The next night we were too late. Every article we had read had mentioned that we should be in the Gion area around 5:45pm if we wanted to catch a glimpse of a geisha heading to work. Our son had had a late afternoon nap though and we had been given strange walking directions to the Gion.

We found ourselves in the Shimbashi area well after 6pm. It was eerily quiet with only a handful of people walking around. As we walked through the small alleys and side streets you could hear a low murmur coming through some of the glowing doorways as patrons behind the curtained doors enjoyed their meals. On the far side of the Shirakawa river canal large windows allowed us to get a peek into some of the expensive restaurants and clubs.

geisha

Shimbashi side street

We then made it over to Hanamikoji Dori. The famous street is less pretty than the Shimbashi area but we had been told that we would have a better chance spotting a geisha there. It was very clear when we arrived though that all the geisha were already at work. If we wanted to try to see one, we would have to wait until their parties ended later that night or try another day.  We made our way over to Yasaka Shrine and then called it a day.

Yasaka Shrine

Our Last Chance

We didn’t make it back to the Gion until our last night in Kyoto.  We took a taxi right to the intersection of Hanamikoji and Shijo Dori and started our search by around 5:20 pm. We slowly made our way down towards Gion Kobu Kaburenjo theater (Gion Corner) where visitors can take in traditional performances by maiko for a fee. Looking this way and that, we carefully checked each alleyway. There were kimonos everywhere! We knew before we arrived though that most women we saw in kimono would be tourists. Daily kimono rental is a very popular tourist activity and some places will even make you up to look just like a geisha. There was a lot of “Is she? Is she?” as we walked along. A real giesha or miako is on her way to work though when you spot them in the Gion and so they will not be on the street chatting or stopping for photos.

geisha

NOT real geisha

When we made it down to Gion Corner we weren’t exactly sure what to do next except head back the way we came. There was a large group of tourists waiting at infront of Gion Corner and we thought maybe they were waiting there to see some geisha arrive. When their tour guide joined them though they moved along. Further down the street I saw 3 or 4 men with cameras looking down an alley. These men were not tourists. They were middle aged Japanese men wearing business casual and though they were discrete, they didn’t fit in to the fast and noisy crowds around us.

We decided to check it out. There was a middle aged woman with them. I regret that I never got her name. She spoke a little English and we started to chat about where we were from. They were also waiting for Geisha and the photographers asked through her what kind of camera I was using. I replied “Nikon D90”. They all whispered between themselves “Ah! Nikon. Nikon. Nikon.” while nodding. I felt a bit like Indiana Jones in The Last Crusade. Apparently I had “chosen wisely” and was now part of their group! The woman told us to wait there for about 5 more minutes and then we should move on to the street near the famous Ichiriki Chaya teahouse.

Seeing Geiko and Maiko

I don’t know where she came from but suddenly she appeared! I wasn’t exactly sure what to do. There are signs throughout the Gion reminding visitors to respect and to give the geisha working there space. Some locals in the community even volunteer to patrol the Gion to watch that overly enthusiastic visitors do not act like paparazzi.

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Sign in the Gion

I stayed well back until our guide said “Get in there!” and nudged me to the front of our group. The beautiful geisha in front of us stopped only for a second, looked directly at us, gave a small smile and then as quickly as she appeared, she was gone. “Is she a real one?” I asked. “Yes” our guide replied, “a geiko”.  While “geisha” is the more commonly used term internationally and in Tokyo, geiko is the term used in Kyoto and other parts of western Japan.  I didn’t cry when we saw her but I was embarrassingly close to it and in awe. She was dignified and beautiful!


We quickly headed down the street to wait near the historic 300 year old Ichiriki Chaya tea house.  A menacing looking doorman stood in front. Entry is by invitation only and if the doorman doesn’t know you, you’re not getting in. Our guide instructed us to watch for people who were delivering food to the tea house.  If you see food being delivered you know that there is going to be a party there that night. More food likely means bigger party. The guests arrived in advance and would be listening to musicians playing before the geiko and maiko would arrive about 10 minutes before 6 o’clock.  We looked every which way and peeked in every taxi going by but we were informed that if they did come by taxi, it would only be in the black ones.

Ichiriki Chaya tea house

Unexpectedly in the alleyway across the street down the side of Ichiriki Chaya a maiko appeared. Taking tiny quick steps she made her way down the walkway…and then disappeared! I was looking right at her. I don’t think I even blinked a moment but right in front of my eyes she completely disappeared. Our guide explained that the maiko I had just spotted had arrived early and so she was hiding until she could make a more appropriately timed entrance to the party.

geisha

It was now very clear to us who were geiko and maiko and who were just tourists in costume. The kimono of a geiko costs thousands of dollars. Some are even worth an entire year’s salary! Even from a distance you can see the difference in quality. The kimono of a maiko is colorful, elaborately patterned and has long sleeves. A geiko’s kimono is simpler. Maiko style their natural hair and wear beautiful hairpins whereas geiko wear wigs. Maiko usually have some skin on the back of their necks that remains without makeup but geikos usually wear makeup right to their hairline. The collar of a maiko’s kimono is red but a geiko’s is white. And so on.

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Maiko with her assistant


Around 5:45pm there were suddenly maiko appearing regularly. While we waited we saw two taxis with several maiko in them go by but resisted the urge to chase them down. We saw about 5 maiko in total go into Ichiriki Chaya. The maiko who had disappeared in the alleyway also suddenly reappeared out of nowhere and made her way to the tea house. They all moved so quickly. In the changing light conditions of the dark street with lamps I would just get my camera set when she would move to another area. They were all exceptionally hard to photograph! Some would give a small glance towards the camera but most didn’t.


Since we visited in February there weren’t as many tourists on the streets as there are during more busy seasons. We luckily didn’t see anyone swarming or harassing the maiko as they made their way down the streets. There were two tourists in Kimono who stood in the alleyway taking photos with their cell phones as a maiko made her way towards us. The photographers who we were with chastised them for getting in the way of the “real” photographers and for bothering the maiko with their cellphones. I also have a series of photos where you can see two men trying to take a selfie of themselves with a maiko and her assistant in the background. When they pass the men you can then see the men in the next few photos following and giggling like school girls. The look foolish but nothing paparazzi like.

Then suddenly at 6pm on the dot the action stopped. Our guide though told us to wait around a bit longer. If more food was seen being brought into the teahouse around 6:30pm it would mean that there would be more guests and more geiko and maiko arriving around 7pm. This was not the case that night. Shortly after 6:30 we all said our goodbyes and each person seemed to go in a separate direction. I’m not sure exactly who that woman was but she was a wealth of knowledge. The photographers with her took me under their wing. I should have asked but I was just so excited about the moment. With their help though and a whole lot of luck, our Kyoto dreams of seeing a geiko came true.

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Death Defying Winter Wonderland Trip to Koyasan, Japan

koyasan japan
While we were staying in Osaka, Japan we wanted to make the approximately 2 hour daytrip to Mount Koya (Koyasan). In 816 Mount Koya was settled by the monk Kukai in a 800 meter high valley among the 8 peaks of the mountain. The area is home to more than 100 temples and it is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

We were mainly interested in seeing Okunoin Cemetery. We had seen atmospheric images of bright green, moss covered monuments in a large cedar forest. Stretching on for more than 2 kilometers, Okunoin is Japan’s largest cemetery and is home to the graves of more than 200,000 monks. In Okunoin there are no dead, only waiting spirits.

Snowy Weather

We had a two day window to visit Koyasan during our trip but the first day it snowed and we heard it was quite heavy in some regions. Some people said it was more than they had seen in 80 years so we stayed in Osaka for the day. The second day it was also snowing a little bit but in Osaka it was clear. We checked with our hotel before we headed out to see if we would be able to get to Koyasan. When we got to the train station we asked again. We were assured that everything would be fine.

The train trip was uneventful. We could see a few centimeters of snow in some towns we passed. In order to get to Koyasan you need to take a train from Namba Station in Osaka to Gokurakubashi Station at the bottom of the mountain. From there you take a large cable car up to the top. The cable car whisks you up the steep mountain in about 5 minutes. We were really excited about taking it!

Our train suddenly stopped a station before our final stop and a conductor hurriedly came in. He asked us how many of us were going to Koyasan. Considering that there really isn’t much of anything else at that train stop, it wasn’t surprising that all of us were. He looked concerned and got off the train. Then he came back. He told us that because of the heavy snow the cable car wasn’t working. Looking outside the window there was just a light covering of snow but on the other side of the mountain it was another story. Nearly 2 feet of snow had fallen in a short time. We didn’t know this at the time but nearly 40 passengers had been left stranded in the cable car for 90 minutes.

The conductor ran off and onto the train several times while my husband who speaks Japanese and one Japanese woman who spoke English tried to find out what was going on. They then did their best to translate what little information we got to the other passengers. The conductor told us that if we still wanted to go up the mountain they would provide taxis or buses for us. Would the cable care be running later that day? They didn’t know. Would we get a refund for the tickets we had already bought? They didn’t know. If we went up the mountain, how would we get back? They didn’t know. They did assure us though that at the top of the mountain everything was open and running. If the taxi driver ran into difficulty, he would turn back and take us back to the train station.

Taxi Ride from Hell

It seemed like it would be ok so we went and got into the taxi. There had been about 30-40 people on the train with us and half turned back. We didn’t know this though since we were in the first taxi. That was something we also didn’t realize! Right away the taxi was all over the road. Branches were on the road and trees were bent over. Every once and awhile the snow would loosen from the trees and suddenly drop onto the road in front of us. On one side of us was mountain. On the other side was a steep drop off with only a small barrier.

Immediately I asked to turn back. We were told it was just a little way further. The car slid across the road. I searched for my seatbelt and realized that while my husband and son had one, I didn't. The taxi driver insisted that I did. I didn't. He told us the road was too slippery for us to turn around. We saw other cars coming down the road and I insisted that he stop and let us go back down with them but he said that if he stopped he wouldn't be able to get going again. It ended up coming out that on a good day this drive takes about 20-30 minutes. We were not close at all. The taxi was sliding all over the place and I was screaming that he needed to stop. I am pretty sure he had never driven in snow or ice before and the drop off the mountain would surely kill us all. He insisted that the cable car was now running and if we just waited until we got to the top we would be able to come back down in the cable car instead of taking another taxi down. I held my son tight and continued to tell him to let us get out of the car.

The spirits of those 200,000 resting monks must have been looking out for us because when we got to a particularly steep and slippery section of road the taxi couldn’t keep going. The wheels spun on the ice and the back end of the car started to slide to the edge of the drop off. When he paused between revving the engine we grabbed our son and our bags and jumped out of the car. Behind us 3 other taxis carrying passengers from the train had caught up and were now also stuck behind him. He and his friend put newspapers under the tires and told us to get back into the taxi so there would be more weight for traction. They also asked us to help push but each time they tried to push the taxi was sliding backwards. Holding on to my son for dear life I refused to get anywhere near that taxi.

After a while a small private bus came along with 7 seats available. With chains on their tires the driver was able to take us and the passengers from 2 more taxis to the top of the mountain. The driver was listening to my husband’s favorite song by his favorite Japanese band. This was surely a sign that we had been saved! The driver of the bus told us that the cable car was not running. The taxi driver had lied about that as well. We wanted to turn back but the driver suggested we go to the top (which was truthfully close now) and relax a bit first. We made it to the top with no further problems. The final taxi was able to make it up the mountain somehow but the other 3, including ours ended up getting towed.

Okunoin Cemetery


Everything in Koyasan was covered in snow but most of the streets had been cleaned and the buses had chains around their tires so they were running smoothly. The workers at the train station were confident that the cable car would be running again soon. So much time had passed that we really didn’t have time for much sightseeing so we headed over to Okunoin Cemetery right away.


Nine of us from our train ended up at the cemetery: our family of 3, a Japanese couple, a couple from China, 1 student from Australia and a man from Taiwan. The man from Taiwan summed up our feelings very well when he shared that he was really excited about the snow (he had never seen any before) but at the same time he didn't want to die. We didn’t run into anyone else while we were there. We think we are the last group (maybe only group) that was sent up the mountain that day.


Instead of moss covered monuments we were greeted with a winter wonderland. Luckily we had brought our baby carrier with us “just in case”. Our son is 4 and really doesn’t need a carrier but the snow was past his knees in some places.


We didn’t see all the major sites of interest because not all of the pathways were cleared. One of the people we were with also pointed out that we needed to head back to the train station quickly. Once the sun started to go down everything would be getting even icier. We did a quick loop around the main path and headed back. Less than an hour after we had arrived we were leaving Koyasan.

Once we arrived at the cable car station we were informed that it would not be running for the rest of the day. They actually thought it might be out of service for several days and the only way back down was by taxi. Our second taxi driver was less of a macho ass and knowing just how long the trip was actually going to take this time helped our fear a lot. There was some sliding but nothing like before and we were driving into better conditions rather than into worse conditions. Our son though decided that this would be a perfect time to sing for the entire trip. Wanting the taxi driver to be able to pay full attention so we wouldn’t die, we tried everything we could to keep him quiet but he wouldn’t stop singing. Now it’s funny. Then it wasn’t.


Each of us who had made the trip up the mountain made it back down (except for a group of 3 tourists who were staying overnight). While we had chatted away nonstop earlier everyone sat in silence on the train ride back towards Osaka. No contact information was shared. As we pulled up to each of our stops we said our goodbyes and went on our way. Was it worth it? I’d have to say “no”. Koyasan is beautiful and spiritual but I truly feared for our lives. I’d love to go back there some day. Just not in the snow.

Visiting Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park in Nagano, Japan

Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park nagano onsen japan
I don’t like zoos. I went to several really bad ones when I was young and have really disliked them since. Before our son was even born I had decided I did not want to take him to a zoo (my husband was more flexible on the topic). Instead we would try to introduce him to animals in the most natural settings we could manage. It is a noble idea but in reality we’ve found it a lot more difficult and expensive then we considered. We still make an effort though and Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park in Nagano, Japan was the first trip we made with our son to see animals in their more natural setting.

Jigokudani Yaen-Koen is a wild snow monkey park and the only place in the world where you can find Japanese Macaque (snow monkeys) bathing in the hot springs. In the winter the monkeys make their way down the mountain to the hot springs to relax and bathe. The park is open year round but in the warmer months the monkeys are fed to keep them in the area.

Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park nagano
We took the train from Nagano to Yudanaka Station and then the bus to Kanbayashi Onsen bus stop. From the bus stop is it about a 30 minute walk to the snow monkey park. Before our trip we had decided to invest in some good hiking boots…just in case. Were we ever glad we did! The park is in the mountain, it’s quite cold and there is snow. At the same time there are natural hot springs everywhere.

Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park nagano onsen
This combination means that absolutely everything is covered in ice! Buildings are covered in icicles and the mountain path, though not a very difficult climb, is covered in ice. The pathway is narrow in places. On one side you have mountain and on the other side of the icy path is a steep drop down to the bottom of the mountain.

Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park nagano
We took our time and went slowly and carefully. My heart was pounding the entire walk with our son but we weren’t the only ones with small kids on the path. A lot of people seemed to not be too concerned about the conditions. We even saw a few women in high heels and miniskirts making the trek! We also saw some people fall and get hurt. It’s not the easiest place to get to with a small child but if you wear a good pair of boots and take your time you’ll be fine!

Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park nagano photographers
Once we finally got to the pool we were greeted with monkeys both in the pool and climbing the snowy mountains around us. We had been around monkeys in India, Thailand and the Philippines before this and these monkeys were much more chilled out and relaxed. They just kind of sat there in their bath ignoring all of us.  There are so many great photo opportunities in the park but the day we went the hot steam kept blowing towards us and it was nearly impossible to get a really clear shot. Even so, some photos turned out pretty well!

Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park nagano tourists

Unfortunately for one photographer, this wasn’t enough. He was trying to antagonize one of the monkeys so that she would show her teeth and perhaps lunge at him! His partner told him right off when she saw how concerned everyone around was getting but until she did, he had been completely clueless. These are wild monkeys and I didn’t notice any park staff around. Respectable caution needs to be taken. Most visitors though were great.

Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park nagano onsen japan
Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park nagano onsen japan
Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park nagano onsen japan
Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park nagano onsen japan

There isn’t much else around the park to do but the monkeys alone are worth the trip! After we visited the monkeys we made the hike back to the bus stop. Along the way there is a small rest stop with snacks and restroom facilities. There are some onsen in the area that can be visited and a few accommodations but most people just go to the area as a day trip. Before you head up to the park it is a good idea to check the bus schedule for the return trip. We forgot to and ended up waiting in the cold for about 30 minutes for a bus to arrive. Luckily the scenery at the bus stop is quite beautiful!

Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park nagano

How to get there

  • From Nagano Station take the train to Yudanaka Station (about 1 hour)
  • From Yudanaka Station take the bus to Kanbayashi Onsen bus stop (about 10 minutes)
  • Walk to the snow monkey park from Kanbayashi Onsen (about 30 min)

Hours and Cost

  • 8:30-5:00 April to October
  • 9:00 – 4:00 November to March
  • 800 yen