Japan is home to manifold amazing amusement parks, many built during the boom years and now showing some age. Many of them have gone out of business over the years as well, so you know the ones that have survived are doing things right. On a recent trip back to Japan to visit family, my clever Japanese wife organized for us to take our 2-year-old and 7-year-old boys to Suzuka Circuit, which you will have heard of only if you are a motor head.
Suzuka Circuit is home to one of the most technically difficult Formula 1 racing tracks on the F1 Grand Prix world tour, but beside the track also sits an amusement park called Motopia, targeted at kids from 2-10 years old. Forget that you cannot speak Japanese, if you can get there you're set for a couple of days of endless entertainment for young kids, and even older kids will find enough to keep them amused. And, unlike Universal Studios Japan in Osaka or the two Disney theme parks in Tokyo, you can really maximise the "riding" over the "waiting". Staying at the on-site hotel is affordable, gives access to discounted park tickets, and is highly recommended with young children, so you can be at the amusement park minutes after you leave the hotel.
We did admittedly avoid the Japanese school holidays, but after arriving around 10:00am after a three-hour drive from Kobe, we headed straight for the rides, and were greeted with no lines on most rides. Our 7-year-old gained his "licence" on the mini-motor bikes which qualified him for the "licensed" course, and our 2-year-old loved going on the mini car and train rides with Mum and/or Dad.
We then hit the laser crystal shooting game which basically allowed us to score points by shooting targets while being transported around the course, and the lack of a line allowed us to perfect our technique by going back multiple times.
The really cool thing about Motopia is that every ride has some kind of goal or challenge to achieve, which kept our 7-year-old in particular on his toes. For example, on the self-driven boat ride you need to push a button half-way through near the energy source to recharge, and if you don't time it right you gradually run out of fuel (don't worry, you still make it back regardless); and there's a driving obstacle course which automatically scores your accuracy as you go through (more points if you don't hit the sides etc.), so you finish with a score out of 100. Needless to say our 7-year-old wanted to keep going until he cracked the magic 100 points. If you don't speak Japanese it might take you a couple of times to work out what is going on, however if you just roll with it you will surely get the gist.
The highlight for Dad was taking our 7-year-old onto the actual Suzuka racetrack for a spin in mini F1 cars (that only get to about 15-20 kms per hour), although there was an extra ¥1500 charge for this. There is also an aqua park if you visit in summer, a great place to cool off, as the heat and humidity in Japan in summer can be stifling.
The on-site hotel has great family-friendly rooms with king-size beds, a well-appointed separate hot spring onsen bath and rotenburo (open air hot spring bath), buffet breakfast and dinner, and higher-end restaurant options for those not trying to stuff some food down a 2-year-old's throat at the end of a long day. We took the option one night of enjoying the restaurant, and were spoilt in our own private room, while the kids had a playroom to retire to when bored of dad sampling another dry sake (nihonshu).
If travelling in Japan with little kids, you could do much worse than trying Motopia, it certainly amused our young boys for a good two days, was modern, affordable and convenient, and the lack of lines was especially welcome. And there was enough requisite cuteness to still know you were in Japan!