There is no end to family entertainment in Japan. To keep your children's interest and preserve your sanity, this itinerary includes temples, shrines, museums, and castles for culture and a little education, along with a healthy dose of Japanese pop culture, from theme parks to sophisticated game arcades. Of course, you'll want to tailor your itinerary to fit your children's ages and interests; just be sure to schedule a lot of downtime so you don't burn out on sensory overload. This tour has you arrive in Tokyo and depart from Osaka.
Days 1, 2 & 3: Exploring Tokyo
Don't plan anything strenuous the first day, but do walk around to absorb your new environment and to help adjust your body clocks. To help get your bearings and introduce your kids to Tokyo's magnitude, head for Shinjuku's 45th-floor observatory in the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Office for eye-popping views. Then take the Yamanote Line directly to popular Ueno Park, where you'll want to visit the National Museum of Nature and Science with its dinosaurs, Japanese mummy, and hands-on discovery room, followed, perhaps, with a stroll through Ueno Zoo.
The next day it's a tossup between the Edo-Tokyo Museum, where older kids can learn about Tokyo's tumultuous history, and the smaller Fukagawa Edo Museum, a charming re-creation of a 19th-century neighborhood that appeals especially to young children. Harajuku, with its teen fashions, Sunday street scene, and hordes of teeny-boppers is a must for young adults, while little ones may be happier at the National Children's Castle, a huge complex with everything from music and art rooms to a rooftop playground.
Day 4: Nakasendo Highway
Take the bullet train 2 hours to Nagoya and change there for a train to Nakatsugawa, where you'll board a bus for the short ride to Magome. This is the start of the old Nakasendo Highway, once traversed by feudal lords and samurai. After a 3-hour hike through woods along a rushing river, you'll find yourself in the quaint village of Tsumago, where you'll sleep in a traditional inn. My 14-year-old son declared this hike the highlight of his Japan trip.
Days 5, 6 & 7: Exploring Kyoto
In Kyoto you'll want to limit yourselves to only the highlights: Kiyomizu Temple is one of Kyoto's most famous temples, with plenty of food stalls and activities to keep little ones interested (be sure to have them walk the distance between the two stones at Jishu Shrine). Nijo Castle is a painless introduction to the world of the shogun. And be sure the darlings walk down Nishiki-Koji Dori for an up-close look at the octopus, fish, and everything else Japanese eat. But probably the biggest hit with young children is Toei Kyoto Studio Park/Movie Land, an actual working studio for Edo-Era film productions, along with a ninja show, haunted house, and other attractions. Teenagers may also want to take in the Kyoto International Manga Museum, the largest manga museum in the world.
Day 8: Nara
Although your children may not care that Nara is even older than Kyoto and served as the nation's capital for 74 years, they'll be intrigued by Nara Park, where deer (considered divine messengers) roam free. They might also be impressed by the Great Buddha, Japan's largest bronze Buddha. See if they can crawl through a tiny passageway behind the Buddha -- and supposedly attain enlightenment. Back in Kyoto, good evening diversions for older kids include a stroll through Gion, where they might catch a glimpse of a geisha, and Gion Corner, where they'll be exposed to traditional cultural pursuits, including Bunraku (Japanese puppetry).
Days 9 & 10: Hiroshima
Take a bullet train bound for Hiroshima. En route, make a stopover in Himeji to see Himeji Castle, easily the most impressive castle in Japan. In Hiroshima, if you have teenagers, they're old enough for Peace Memorial Park, where they'll learn about the horrors of war, particularly the devastation caused by an atomic bomb (pictures are too graphic for younger children). If time permits, Miyajima is also a good destination, not only for the ferry ride and the free-roaming deer but also for the trails through the woods, its swimming beaches, and cable car.
Days 11 & 12: Beppu
If you can stand another theme park, Space World, a few minutes' walk from Kokura Station, offers diversions for kids of all ages with the usual roller coasters and amusement rides based on space travel.
From Kokura Station, it's another 1 1/2-hour train ride to Beppu, the king of hot-spring resorts in Kyushu. There's probably no child who wouldn't be fascinated by the Hells, a series of thermal wonders ranging from red, bubbling waters to hot springs that house crocodiles (you might not be impressed, but your kids will be). They'll also like the wild monkey refuge on Mount Takasaki and the nearby Umitamago aquarium. But the highlight for everyone will undoubtedly be Aqua-Beat, an indoor water park. Your kids will like the splash rides and wave pool; you'll like unwinding in its outdoor hot spring.
Days 13 & 14: Osaka
It's a 4-hour train trip from Beppu to Osaka (not including a transfer in Kokura). Or, depart Beppu on the night of Day 12 by ferry for an overnight trip to Osaka. There's more than enough in Osaka to keep families entertained, including the Floating Garden Observatory with its surreal views, Osaka Castle (a remake, but impressive nonetheless), the Osaka Museum of History, and Osaka Aquarium (bigger and better than Beppu's). It's also a trip at Sega Amusement Theme Park, the reigning king of amusement arcades. Teenagers will also want to take in Den Den Town, Osaka's electronics shopping street, and America-Mura, where young Osakans shop for American and other hip fashions. But if you want to end your trip with a bang, take your kids to Universal Studios Japan. It's almost a carbon copy of its U.S. counterpart, and most attractions are dubbed in Japanese, but do your kids really care?