Too often, travelers return home with memories of crowded tourist spots devoid of authentic character, toting mass-produced souvenirs in their suitcases. These overrated destinations (Times Square, anyone?!) and corny knick-knacks (do you really need another overpriced T-shirt?) offer little glimpse into one’s cultural experience. It is vital to engage in the traditions of your destination to make the most of your journey. Read on to find ideas perfect for families to bring home meaningful totems that you can make yourself, all while immersing your loved ones in Japanese culture.
As soon as you begin your journey in Japan, you will notice that elaborate plastic models of Japanese cuisine flank every restaurant window. Phantom limbs hold chopsticks dangling with soba noodles, mini sushi rolls sit lifelessly on plastic trays, and bowls of synthetic soup gleam from inside display cases. Why? Sampuru, which means “sample,” is the Japanese tradition of creating lifelike plastic models of gastronomic fare. Originally made from wax, sampuru were invented in the early 1900s to craft menus before photography was widely used. Although these phenomena may be curious to travelers, they can actually be of great help. Don’t know Japanese? You can simply point to the plastic version of whatever dish you desire and skip the confusion of attempting to order what you like in Japanese.
Where to go:
North of Nagoya: Gujo Hachiman is the undisputed capital of plastic chow in Japan. Here you can shop for models of your favorite Japanese meals and watch plastic professionals craft shrimp tempura and teriyaki bowls. If you’re feeling creative, you can even make your own sampuru at Shokohin Sample Kobo!
Tokyo: Visit Kappabashi, AKA “Kitchen Town,” to find sampuru ranging from unagi keychains to fried egg phone cases to tuna roe magnets. These (often handcrafted) souvenirs can fetch a hefty price, so shop smartly!
For more food related experiences, look into our route for food loving families traveling to Japan.
Origami, literally translated to “folding paper,” is one Japanese tradition familiar to Westerners. Artisans intricately fold colored paper, called washi, to create 3D objects like animals, tiny boxes, and flowers without scissors or glue. The Japanese have practiced the art has since 1680, but origami became especially popular in the West after the paper crane became the symbol of peace. In fact, many believe that if one crafts 1,000 paper cranes, his or her dream will come true—so get to folding!
Where to go:
Tokyo: Many of use have seen paper cranes dangling delicately, but have you learned how to create your own origami menagerie? Seek out a lesson for your kids to craft their favorite creatures. Try the origami class at Origami Kaikan for a mere $4 USD, or just visit the enormous gallery of art featured there. You can also see artists crafting washi here.
We’ve all knocked over heirloom vases and cracked favorite coffee mugs. Luckily, the Japanese developed a brilliant way to fix our beloved broken keepsakes over 500 years ago. Kinstugi is the art of fixing damaged items, especially ceramics, by pasting the pieces together with different kinds of colored glazes. The philosophy behind kintsugi is that by repairing items that are broken, we transform the incurred damage rather than mask it. As a result, the flaws become a part of the story and beauty of the object. Kintsugi often come out so exquisitely that Japanese sometimes intentionally break items just so they can practice the art.
Where to go:
Tokyo: Take a kinstugi lesson in Tokyo! Look for deals online for hour-long lessons that provide both materials and instruction. Try booking a lesson through KUGE Crafts, near Shin Koenji in Tokyo. You’ll learn a new skill and take home a unique souvenir—no more kitschy magnets (unless you’re talking sampuru)!
One of Japan’s lesser-known traditional crafts is called shibori, or indigo dyeing. Shibori comes from the Japanese verb shiboru, which means to twist or squeeze. Artisans utilize dark blue dye and unique folding techniques to create patterns on different kinds of textiles. Kanoko shibori is what many Westerners call tie-dye, while nu shibori involves embroidery to create different designs. The earliest evidence of the practice dates to about 700 AD. Both wealthy and poor Japanese have used shibori methods throughout the centuries, albeit on different textiles (silk for the wealthy and hemp for the poor). Before new kinds of dyes were introduced in the 1900s, Japanese craftspeople used indigo dyes almost exclusively.
Where to go:
Kyoto: If you are interested in learning traditional shibori techniques, there are classes offered all around Japan. Visit the Kyoto Shibori Museum, where you can marvel at countless textiles and take a class to dye your own fabric for $30 USD.
Arimatsu: Eight Japanese families that specialized in shibori founded Arimatsu in the early 1600s, and the town has been known for the craft ever since. There is even a shibori festival there in June!
? Make Your Own Ramen
You won’t be in Japan long until you notice the ubiquity of steamy noodle dishes. Originating in China, ramen has become one of the most popular eats in Japan during the recent decades. Cheap, delicious, and made to order, ramen is a stupendous choice for families traveling with children. Although sampuru might help you figure out what you are actually ordering from the menu, chances are you might end up with a mystery dish or two. From pork belly to fermented bamboo shoots to fried eggs, there are countless concoctions for every palate, even the fussiest eaters!
Where to go:
Outside of Kyoto: Visit the Momofuku Ando Instant Ramen Museum (the same company that makes the famous Cup o’ Noodles), where you can design your own flavor of ramen and take it home with you! For around $3 USD, you can invent your own ramen recipe by combining different noodles, spices, and toppings.
? Shabu Shabu
After you wrap up your signature ramen dish at the Momofuku Museum, beeline straight to the closest shabu shabu joint you can find. There, you and yours will cook different kinds of vegetables and meats in a pot of boiling water heated on your table. The sound of the boiling eats is the origin of the name shabu shabu. The most traditional shabu shabu meal includes beef, seaweed, and mushrooms garnished with soy sauce and pickled carrots. Like ramen, shabu shabu has Chinese origins but has become increasingly popular in Japan over the last century. Dining in the shabu shabu style offers an interactive culinary experience perfect for families desiring an immersive experience in Japanese culture.
Where to go:
Tokyo: there are endless options for shabu shabu in Tokyo (and all around the country!). Try Nabe-zo, an all-you-can-eat shabu shabu smorgasbord, complete with dumplings and ice cream, for about $25 USD. They even give discount for children! There is a catch: Nabe-zo is all you can eat… in 100 minutes! Another similar all-you-can-eat option is called Mo-mo Paradise. For those with a higher budget, try the upscale Imafuku restaurant.
? Chakai and Chaji
Tea is a focal point in many Asian countries, and Japan is no exception. Your Japanese excursion will be incomplete until you experience an authentic tea ceremony. Based on Zen Buddhist tenets, the custom of tea ceremonies began during the 16th century. Since then, many different kinds of rituals have evolved, although every ceremony involves drinking green matcha (powdered) tea and nibbling on sweets. Chakai are informal, which chaji are elaborate rituals that can take hours. The ceremonies will also differ depending on the season. Those officiating the ceremonies will teach you how to stir, smell, and ultimately drink the tea.
Where to go:
Tokyo: Tea ceremonies can last anywhere from 20 minutes to a few hours, so be sure to pick the ritual based on your family’s preferences. Try Kyoto-kan, which offers quick and cheap ($4 USD) ceremonies between Friday-Sunday from 12:30-16:30. Make sure you secure reservations for groups larger than five. For a more elaborate ceremony, try Nadeshiko, where they’ll deck you out in an authentic kimono for $38 USD.
One of the most popular traditional pastimes in Japan is relaxing in one of the 3,000 of the country’s onsen, or natural hot springs. Located on the border of two shifting tectonic plates, Japan contains a collection of over 110 active volcanoes (including the famous Mount Fuji), creating the plethora of geothermal activity which heat onsen. Visiting onsen is a traditional Japanese activity (akin to human ramen soup?), prescribing certain practices Westerners should follow: always bathe before entering the pools, keep the onsen quiet and relaxed (no belly flops!) and never take photographs. Tattoos were traditionally banned in most onsen, but with the onset of increased Western tourism, many onsen operators will allow visitors with ink—so do not fear if you have some residual adolescent tats.
Where to go:
Okuhida: Okuhida is well-known for its high concentration of geothermal activity, which allows travelers to visit many different kinds of onsen in a small area. Okuhida also offers access to the Japanese Alps, so many like to hike and then relax afterwards in onsen.
Tokyo: For a traditional onsen experience, try Myojin no Yu in eastern Tokyo. Need a midnight soak? Try Kodai no Yu, which is open 24 hours a day—you can even rent an entire room for your brood.