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Traveling With Kids In Japan: The World Karate Championship And Beyond

When my son was chosen to go be one of our karate club’s members to go to the World Championships in Osaka, Japan, when he was 11, I couldn’t say no.

You see, I lived in Japan for 5 years before I was married, and I have always dreamed of going back to travel with my kids there.

When my son, Keenan, was chosen to go to Japan to compete, it was a kick in the butt to finally do it.

Training and fundraising took up the year leading up to the trip, but it was worth every bit of work to get there. What a great experience for Keenan …and for all of us. And what a proud mom I was watching him compete at an international event! From the karate tournament itself with 18 participating countries, to the Japanese culture and the Japanese food and lovely people, every single moment was incredible.

Team Canada has 40 members, and although the Japanese won everything, everyone was proud of how they did. And the 5 days we all spent together were inspiring to say the least.

During the tournament week, we stayed with a homestay family in Osaka, who happened to have 2 kids the same age as mine. They showed us around the area and hosted for 5 nights, including taking us to Universal Studios in Osaka.

Osaka in July is stinking hot. The humidity is unbearable. And Universal
studios was packed. But there is something tropically magical about it and it was an experience I would not change at all. Except the part about me being carsick on the way home. That was embarrassing. The photo on the right is us standing in line for the “Jaws” ride with our homestay hosts. It was a 90 minute wait and my daughter has been terrified to swim ever since.

After the tourament ended, we headed to a small mountain village called Hakuba, which is in the Japanese Alps, for our second week. Hakuba is which where my (now ex) husband and I lived for 5 years before we were married. So after 15 years, we felt a tinge of ‘heading home’ to see our friends Dave and Mariko who were still there and now have two kids and a ski school and cafe there. The feeling as our train pulled into the mountains was one of nostalgia and love. My kids felt it too. But it’s different now. When we lived there years ago, we were two of about 10 foreigners in the area. Now there are thousands of foreigners, mostly Australian, who have discovered the incredible skiing and hiking in Hakuba. At the risk, of letting more people in on the secret, it truly is one of the best places to ski the the world. Hands down.

In Hakuba, our friend Dave took us canyoning and biking, and we climbed the 3200 metre mountains, had BBQs in his cabin, and relived a bit of the the good old days. I recommend hiking in the Japanese Alps as a priority if you happen to be in the area. It’ll take you 5-6 hours to get to the top, but once you are there, you can stay in a fully functional hut for about $100/pp including dinner and breakfast. Or, you can carry your tent and supplies like we did. In another article, I’ll tell you about the time three of us got stuck up there in a blizzard for 3 days in May, completely unprepared, in a two man summer tent, and our cooking stove broke.

Hiking in Japan in the summer is my favourite thing to do, but during the third week of our trip, we packed in a bunch of other activities that were a ton of fun. Here are four that may be of interest to you if you are traveling in summer with kids (or not) in Tokyo or in the mountains of Japan.

The first is a place called Ninja Village, which is in Togakushi, just outside Nagano City. It’s a small theme park with all ninja themed activities for kids. Some of the activities are definitely not up to the safety standards we have in Canada but getting hurt is how you learn, right? My kids, who were 8 and 11 at the time loved the jungle gyms and climbing walls and obstacle courses that mimicked ninja training.

Another worthwhile thing to do in Tokyo if it’s a clear day, is the Hakone Loop day trip, also known as the Fuji Loop. You start by taking a train from wherever you are in Tokyo to Odawara station. Then transfer to the Hakone-Yumoto line. At Yumoto, purchase the ‘Hakone free pass’ for 3900 yen (about $40). In Japan, free doesn’t always mean free. It sometimes just means flexible or open-ended.

The Hakone loop consists of a scenic trip around Mt. Fuji that includes a single track train, followed by a cable car, ropeway, boat, and bus. We didn’t get to see Mt. Fuji on our trip around it because it was a cloudy day in July, but if the season it right, it’s a spectacular view. And even without seeing the famous volcano, it’s still a great day.

Kamikura is also a must see if you are near Tokyo. Kamikura shrine is one of the oldest and most sacred places in Japan. The town itself is full of shrines and shops as well the biggest statue of Buddha in the world. It’s a popular destination though so I would book accommodations before you go. Otherwise, you may end up in a “Love Hotel” like we did. But that’s another story.

The fourth place I recommend is the Jigokudani Monkey Park, otherwise known as the Monkey Hot Springs. It’s better in the winter but still worth a visit in the summer. And although it’s quite touristy, it’s not overwhelming, and it’s a great day trip from Nagano City. You can drive or take a bus to Shigakogen and then hike in from there. The park isn’t enclosed and the monkeys are all wild so although they are cute, they aren’t meant to be touched. They can be quite nasty if they feel threatened so keep a little distance. My daughter was especially enthralled with the babies, and we spent hours watching them interact.

I have so many stories from Japan but I will stop here, and leave some for other articles. I have spent a lot of time in Japan but the 3 week trip we did because of son competing in Osaka, was a really special trip. And as usual one good things usually leads to another… after we got back to Canada, our friend Dave contacted us to ask us to come back and work for him that following winter. So we did. That December, we took the kids out of school for four months and went back to Japan for a ski season and homeschooling adventure.

Thanks for stopping by. Happy travels.

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