Japan at its Cutest
Throw on your unicorn onesie – Japan embraces all that is kawaii (cute), making the country a top destination for families with little princes and princesses in tow. From bubblegum-bright cafes to fairytale-esque castles, giant robot unicorn statues and restaurants where diners get the royal treatment, Japan has a whole to offer those with a taste for all things sweet and whimsical. And let’s not forget that this is a nation with its own real-life monarchy, so visitors can take a peek at royal residences, even if they’re unlikely to be invited to dance with Prince (or Princess) Charming at a royal ball. Read on for our guide to harnessing your inner unicorn and enjoying Japan at its whimsical best.
Dine in Wonderland With Alice
Fans of Lewis Carroll’s rabbit-chasing heroine will be in for a treat in Japan. Alice is so popular in the country that there are not one but five Alice in Wonderland-themed restaurants, four of which are in Tokyo, while Alice in Fantasyland, in Osaka, offers a chance to enjoy the Alice dining experience outside the capital. Each restaurant in the Alice chain has its own take on the classic tale, but running themes are giant book-cover doorways, teacup-shaped seats and tables, waitresses in Alice costumes, and a menu designed to resemble a giant pop up book. The menu has dishes themed around familiar characters such as the Cheshire Cat and the Mad Hatter, and given their sweet design, it’s perhaps no surprise that desserts are a strong suit. Set meals start at around US$20, or roughly 20,000 yen.
Go Unicorn Spotting
Few parents can have failed to notice that unicorns are a big deal with kids right now, and indeed, what’s not to love about these mythical horned beauties? Unicorn-loving families in Japan can check into a Unicorn Hotel in Nagano City. The capital of Nagano Prefecture, known for its snow and skiiing as well as its beautiful palaces and temples and its near-mythical monkeys, Nagano is slightly off the beaten tourist track but a good option for families, who can opt to stay at the pleasingly affordable (rooms from around $70, or roughly 7.600 yen) Hotel Unicorn. Although the unicorn theme doesn’t extend much beyond the name and the hotel’s logo, this friendly lodge does have cute, traditional Japanese design with some nice colorful touches and comfy family rooms. At Kawaii Monster Cafe in Harajuku (the Tokyo neighborhood famed for its crazily colorful street fashions), the staff flitting between the rainbows and carousels of the uber-kitsch interior are actually dressed as unicorns.
But these mythical beasts don’t have be sweet and girly – fans of classic Japanese anime series Gundam can revel in the sight of a full-scale replica Unicorn Gundam statue – a 19.7 meter unicorn robot in front of DiverCity Tokyo Plaza on the man-made island of Odaiba, which is far from cutesy (and transforms dramatically from ‘Unicorn Mode’ to ‘Destroyer Mode’ several times daily, drawing quite the crowd each time).
Check into a Fairytale Hotel
Even the grownups will feel like teeny tiny fairies or pixies when they check into Aso Farm Land in Kumamoto, (rooms from $200, or roughly 2,600 yen), where the super-cute individual domes are shaped like strawberries, gingerbread houses, dinosaur eggs and other cute-as-a-button designs. There are play areas galore, and hot volcanic springs to soothe away any stresses and strains of family travel in Japan.
Meanwhile, at Yufuin Floral Village Hotel in Oita (rooms from around $38), guests can stroll around streets that look straight out of a fairy tale set in a quaint English village. With a lovely mountain backdrop, stores themed around the Very Hungry Caterpillar, Peter Rabbit and the Moomins,this is a sweet and very kawaii place to stay, but – bad news guys – it’s women (and children) only.
Box out: Deserted theme park
Until recently, explorers in Japan could make like Scooby Doo and snoop around an abandoned theme park, complete with fairy castles. Nara Dreamland which opened in the 1960s in a bid to emulate the success of Disneyland California, and was almost a carbon copy of the Disney original, transplanted to Nara, the former Japanese capital. Visitor numbers began to drop with the opening of a bone-fide Disneyland Tokyo in the 1980s, however, and the subsequent DisneySea and Universal Studios Japan (in nearby Osaka) were the last nails in the park’s coffin. It closed for business in 2006 but became a favorite haunt of photographers looking for artsy shots. Check out these from French snapper Romain Veillon, taken just before the park was demolished in 2017.
Japan’s modern metropolis is packed with Kawaii attractions and activities. Of course, the truly big ticket attractions are Disneyland Tokyo and Tokyo DisneySea and the magic kingdom has all the dreamy palaces and fairy adventures families could wish for. Leaving Disney (and huge crowds) aside, Tokyo has cuteness in spades. There not one but four Alice in Wonderland cafés (the simply-named Alice, in Kabukichu, scores extra parent-pleasing points for its excellent cocktails); as well as a very Instagrammable Beauty and the Beast Cafe in Yokahoma, designed to resemble the beast’s castle, complete with chandeliers and suits of armour. Upping the cuteness factor, and sure to appeal to young children as well as grown up Beatrix Potter fans is the delightful Peter Rabbit Garden Cafe in Jiyugaoka; whose impressive attention to detail includes abundant stuffed toys, English garden party themed decor, and a menu designed like one of Potter’s classic books. If there’s ever a way to convince young children to eat their greens, surely it’s by telling them that they’re straight from Farmer McGregor’s garden? The dishes even come complete with edible bunny ears.
Leaving the world of fiction behind, families in Tokyo can try to catch a glimpse of real-life royalty at the Imperial Palace, which sits amid large, moated gardens in the center of the city close to Tokyo Station. While the inner gardens are closed to the public most of the year, they are opened on January 2 and December 23, when huge crowds draw to see the Imperial Famil appear on their grand balcony. The rest of the year, visitors to Tokyo can take a guided tour of the outer gardens, or just stroll around admiring the grand architecture and letting the kids burn off some energy racing over the bridges.
Families with cash to splash in Tokyo will find the Cinderella-themed rooms at TokyoDisney every bit as fabulously flamboyant as young princesses could dream of, but if you don’t have tens of thousands of yen to spend on a room, a decent affordable family hotel near ToykoDisney is the unusually-named Family Resort Fifty’s for Maihama (rooms from $37). Although the decor is dated, they’re spacious enough, there’s free WiFi and buffet breakfast, and it’s walking distance from the Magic Kingdom.
Box out: Butler and Maid Cafes
They’re not to everybody’s taste, for sure, but one curiosity about Tokyo’s dining scene is the potential to be waited on like real life princes and princesses at opinion-dividing Maid Cafes and Butler Cafes. At the former, young girls dolled up in cutesy maid costumes pander to client’s dining whims as though they were landed gentry, while at the latter it’s a similar affair, but with smart young men dressed up as butlers. Should you be curious, the pick of the bunch is probably Butler’s Cafe, in Shibuyu, where female diners are addressed as ‘My Princess’ by the uber-attentive ‘butlers’ and even get to wear a tiara as they enjoy being waited on hand and foot.