Australian photographer and limitless traveller Sean Scott recently returned from a family holiday in Japan where he encountered a range of bucket-list experiences with his wife and three children.
Sean was happy to share his travel tales, which included some pretty envy-inducing moments and helpful tips on how to navigate Japan with a family.
This wasn't your first visit to Japan. What was the best part about travelling with your family instead of solo?
I am away from my family quite a bit so getting them to come along means a lot to me. It has its challenges, but my kids are well travelled and the more you expose them to travel the easier it becomes.
From a young age my kids have had to endure long drives in the car to get to destinations. Having the ability to go with the flow and not have huge expectations are a must when travelling with children.
When I am on my own I decide where and when I will go and my days are huge; I make the most out of every hour. When my children are with me it becomes more about what they would enjoy seeing and catering to their needs, like having three meals a day.
You managed to visit some pretty incredible places. What were your three highlights?
There are so many beautiful places in Japan to see. Tokyo is a must-do experience – the kids loved the bustle and hustle of the big city. It’s a city that doesn’t sleep and our four nights in Tokyo felt like that – we saw so much.
Nozawa Onsen then became a breath of fresh air. Coming from the city to a small village was timed so well for us. It is such a pretty village that really caters well for Westerners and the locals really welcome you into their life.
We loved the whole onsen experience, which is a must when you visit. The ski slopes where also amazing and great for beginners.
Thirdly, the Heritage-listed historic village of Shirakawa-go was amazing. It was snowing very heavily on the day we visited, but it was a winter wonderland and we could have easily spent more time there.
What did you enjoy most about skiing at Nozawa Onsen?
Nozawa Onsen is very well equipped for beginners. Our kids had very limited experience at skiing, so it was perfect.
There was so much snow, so falling over didn’t hurt and the runs were gentle and beautiful. The kids and I had the best time at the snow park tobogganing for hours and building snowmen while my wife disappeared for a couple of hours everyday to ski on her own.
The highlight was being able to come back to our accommodation, grab our onsen kit and head off to have a relaxing soak.
Japan isn't the easiest place to get around. How did you manage it with a family of five?
I knew it was going to be hectic and my wife was most worried about this. But we each had our own suitcase with wheels and when we first landed I got the kids to practice with me going up and down the escalators with their own case until I was confident they could manage.
It was the best thing I could have done; we became masters of getting on and off trains. By the end of the trip we were complete pros, but you need to go to Japan organised and aware of how to get around on trains.
Downloading the apps on how to get around is a must. After your first couple of attempts you will get it and then it’s quite easy. Just be prepared and leave yourself enough time, especially with kids.
If you miss a train, it’s not a big deal, just catch the next one (they run frequently). But when using the bullet trains make sure you book seats in advance.
Did you encounter any unexpected moments that required some quick thinking?
Just in the train stations, as they are so crowded. I took the lead and my family followed me with my wife always at the back. You can easily lose each other if not careful, so it's best to have a plan in place to make sure you all stay together.
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With varying genders and ages how did you keep everyone happy?
Keeping everyone well fed was priority number one. Hungry kids equal cranky kids, so making sure we ate three meals a day was a must.
Also having the right gear. It was very cold in Japan, so I made sure we had at least two sets of thermals, warm waterproof gloves and spares in case any got lost.
We each had our own smaller backpack where we would put water, snacks, waterproof jacket, gloves, neck warmer, spare socks and extra thermals if needed.
I also spent time talking to the kids at the start of each day about what we were doing and asking if there was something they wanted to do. Our boys are Pokemon mad, so we did do a few detours to Pokemon Centers, which they loved.
Japan offers some pretty adventurous cuisine. Was it hard satisfying everyone's tastes?
I was lucky in that my family have had a fascination with Japanese cuisine for quite some time. Ramen is up on our list of favourite dishes, so we had quite a few ramen meals. But our favourite meals were the personal barbecues where you cook your own food.
We stayed in some quieter places and walking the streets we found all sorts of wonderful little places selling wagyu beef on sticks – a family favourite – and steamed hot buns – we could live on these alone.
How did you find the accommodation in Japan compared to Australia?
It is very diﬀerent to Australia. Western-style hotels are probably on par money wise, but it's worth paying the little extra for experiencing the more traditional styles of accommodation.
I booked all of our accommodation with my 12-year-old daughter’s help who choose mostly traditional styles. The futons were fine. After a week or so your back hurts, but it's a must-do experience for any traveller.
You attended the Dosojin Matsuri Festival. What did you enjoy most about this cultural festival?
I really loved its authenticity. It wasn't a show for the tourists, but part of a ritual the locals take very seriously. It was built up all week with numerous ceremonies and then the final night was an explosion of colour and fire.
It was an amazing view watching the fire parade through the ancient streets of the town all finishing with the lighting of the huge fixture.
You were also filming and photographing for work. Was it tough balancing work and family while travelling?
I'm lucky my kids understand this is what I do and to some extent they enjoy it too, getting to see so many amazing places. I push to get the shots I want and they have learned it takes time, but once we have the shot we move on to the next thing.
For me the best part is getting to actually stop and not take the camera, and making it about enjoying the moment. Balance is something we have to keep working on, but with each trip we learn more about ourselves and each other. The quality time we get to spend together means more than anything else.
From a photographer's perspective what was the most stunning place or scene you encountered?
We got to experience an outdoor onsen up in the mountains. Snow was falling onto my skin while sitting in the hot water overlooking white-capped mountains.
It was such a feeling of utter bliss and peace – I totally understand why this ritual is so engraved in their culture.
What three tips would you give someone planning a similar family holiday?
- Stay in the smaller cities like Takayama; it’s here you experience the real Japan.
- Research before you go about how to get around by trains and organise your rail pass before you leave.
- Embrace the culture. Stay in traditional accommodation and give the onsens a go. You will love it.