Tokyo with Kids
A local Buddhist Shrine in Shiba Park called Zojo-ji
Japan has a huge allure. It is like no other Asian country. Its strongly guarded cultural identity makes its capitol Tokyo a fascinating place rich in custom and tradition.
Perhaps not an obvious choice for a family city break – maybe due to the immaculately behaved Japanese children who made our little crew seem a touch savage or maybe due to the pocket sized restaurants and sense of order. However, despite these challenges there is a lot on offer for families in this efficiently streamlined city. There is ample opportunity to taste authentic Japanese cuisine, discover the latest gadgets on the market, delve into the mysterious Geisha culture or amble through local markets trying street food and buying curiosities.
The vast parks dotted around Tokyo make perfect places to pause and reflect in-between navigating the metro system. They also create stunning welcome breaks for the children who will tire easily from sightseeing. We peppered our days with strolls through the parks, time designated to visiting the sights and a couple of hours set aside for child orientated attractions such as the Drum Museum and Legoland.
Where to Stay
As you can imagine, there is a multitude of accommodation options on offer. We stayed at the Shiba Park Hotel which is a 4* hotel in a quite enclave a stone’s throw from the action. The hotel was welcoming, comfortable, with a great restaurant and brilliant park nearby. The cultural centre due to open at the hotel in 2016 will offer a unique glimpse into Japanese lifestyle and culture. The rooms here were very spacious and the staff incredibly helpful. We felt like true locals in this homely environ. For families looking for a reasonably priced hotel in the centre of town this is a fabulous option.
If you are seeking ultimate luxury there are many 5* hotels dotted near the Imperial Palace such as the Shangri La, Peninsula and Mandarin Oriental.
For a quintessentially authentic experience try staying at an AirBnB property. A very practical option for families, since most of the accommodation on offer will have a kitchen and perhaps a second bedroom. Occasionally these are furnished with traditional Japanese beds – a futon or Tatami (a matt on the floor).
For families I would advise staying somewhere within a 10 minute walk from a metro line and walking distance to a local park.
Sightseeing with Kids
There is a lot to see and do in Tokyo and since English is not widely spoken it is best to plan your day in advance; you can do this easily using Google Maps and Directions and selecting the train option. Google will even tell you where the train currently is and when it will be approaching – amazing! However, I would not try to navigate this city solo with a stroller and kids in tow, since there are not elevators at every station.
On our first day we headed to the delightful pedestrianised Asakusa District. There is a local street market here which sells chopsticks, dipping bowls, Kimono fabric, trinkets and street food. The Senso Ji Shrine is just next door to the market which made for a convenient cultural fix before lunch. A short walk from here is the pocket sized Drum Museum which is a brilliant place for children. Maya and Gillan had a wonderful time playing many different types of drums and marvelling at the diversity of sounds. The museum houses a collection of drums from across the world and welcomes guests to try out the majority on display.
The following day we headed to Legoland in the Odabai District. This is a great area to visit as it is right on the bay. Legoland fills up a morning and the kids loved the mini recreations of Tokyo City, train lines and airports made entirely of Lego. There is even a little Japanese 4D Lego film, which was simple enough for Maya (age 5 years) to follow despite the unfamiliar language. There is a man-made beach a short walk from Legoland where you can drink in the view of the Tokyo skyline while treating the kids to ice cream. Our two ran around the beach while we took a rest on the grassy park area which fringes the boulevard.
We stayed here until the early evening when we headed to the Venus Mall in Palette Town (next to Legoland and facing the “beach”). Here we ate Korean BBQ, which is hugely popular in Japan. I can honestly say this was the most succulent, melt-in-your-mouth meat I have ever tasted and brilliant fun to share.
Over the subsequent days we hit the Harajuku “edgy” shopping district where Japanese teens, punks and hipsters kit themselves out with weird and wonderful fashion unique to comic book pop culture. This area is charming for its side alleys, boutique café’s, and indie fashion galore. A fun area for the kids to people watch too, owing to the many interesting characters which amused their imaginations. Girls dressed like a cross between Harry Potter’s Hermione and Lady Gaga totter through the street stalls, adorned in tutus, Princess Leia plaits and school girl socks nestled inside gigantic platform wedges in candy colours. Unsurprisingly, our daughter Maya was transfixed by this fusion of DIY Westwood meets My Little Pony.
Thankfully there are plenty of cafés to rest little legs and two huge parks nearby where the kids can enjoy exploring the gardens and feeding the Koi. Our troop headed to the Yoyogi Park and Meiji Shrine that is home to a huge display of sake barrels wrapped in straw and decorated with beautiful calligraphy (these are given as offerings to the Gods). The walk to the Meiji Shrine leads visitors under huge Japanese gates along a tree-lined path. The shrine is beautiful and has a wall dedicated to visitor’s prayers where anyone can leave a message of hope for the year.
Tokyo: A wedding in Meiji Shrine
Where to Eat
Before arriving in Tokyo I had researched list of fun, child-friendly and delicious restaurants. I later discovered that these popular choices either have huge queues or a reservation policy. Once again foiled by organisation! We did find some great places to eat but they were happily stumbled upon.
We also found that some of the recommendations we were given were hard to find when you can’t read or speak Japanese, such as this one in the photo below!
If you are staying in the Shiba Park area (around the corner from the Shiba Park Hotel), there is a simple yet tasty restaurant named Baku with friendly staff and ample space. We had big bowls of noodle soup, gyoza (pork dumplings) and fried rice here. Equally the Japanese restaurant at the Shiba Park Hotel serves delicious sashimi, miso soup, rice and steamed veggies.
Ironically the Korean BBQ is also loved by the Japanese and hugely popular in Tokyo. This is where a charcoal (or gas) fire is placed in the middle of the table and you cook your own raw meat in the centre. It’s a really fun way to eat out with children.
The Best (and Worst) Part
The best part of Tokyo for us was simply strolling around the parks, markets temples and shrines. Whether this be in the grounds of the Imperial Palace or amongst the locals at Shiba Park and Zojoji Temple. We loved having the opportunity of eating a Japanese picnic alfresco while watching the kids run wild in the fresh air. The shrines and parks are steeped in local history, custom and folklore, which make them fascinating places for both parents and kids. Ever proud of their heritage there were many explanations illustrating the history of these attractions.
I also loved the Asakusa Market which we visited on a weekend. It was busy, but the street stalls were fascinating and there were welcome distractions for the children in the form of shaved rainbow coloured ice cones.
The toughest part about our family city break in Tokyo was the incredible organisation within the city which sometimes manifested itself in long queues. However, we soon made a decision to avoid waiting in line by ditching the list of recommended eateries and finding quiet restaurants in the Shiba Park district.
Another challenge was frequently carrying the pushchair up a few flights of stairs in order to exit the metro. There is not much that could be done about this except for maybe weight training! In retrospect I wish I had brought my baby carrier for our two-year-old even though he is pretty heavy for it now.
Three Things You Should Definitely Do
1. Visit a Shrine and local park – Yoyogi Park and Meiji Shrine are two good options
2. Buy a Pasmo Pass railcard for ease of travel on the metro
3. Take a stroll along the manmade beach in the Odabai District for a great view of the city
When to Go
The best time to visit Tokyo is either Spring or Autumn. We visited in Spring and the weather was perfect – fresh and mild whilst sunny. Late March to early May is cherry blossom season
Summer is peak tourist season, which you’ll quickly see from long queues everywhere. If you can, avoid this time of year; you’ll face oppressive heat, humidity and high room rates.
On the opposite extreme, winter weather is chilly but still manageable. However, you will not enjoy the beauty of the parks at this time of year. In Spring the city springs to life with the gorgeous cherry blossoms that pervade Tokyo’s green space. In Autumn the weather is equally pleasant with autumnal colours filling the parks.
Things to pack
I would recommend bringing the following items if travelling to Tokyo with kids:
- Baby carrier
- Lightweight pushchair
- Sun cream
- Light layered clothing
- Water bottle
- Shopping bags
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