Tokyo with Kids - A Surprisingly Family-Friendly Vacation
Depending on the destination, vacationing with your kids can be a wonderful memory-making experience or a complete disaster. Any parent who says otherwise bends the truth like magician David Blaine bends the mind.
While certain experiences guarantee kid fun —Disney parks, Hawaii beaches, mountain snow-skiing---the cultural enrichment payoff is minimal. If your 11-year old son believes that Epcot is a Chinese city, it might be a sign to get him a passport and go someplace far…very far.
My family and I did just this during a recent Spring Break—a 6-day trip to Tokyo. Of course, Mom and Dad enjoyed Japan more than riding Space Mountain, but I’m thrilled to report that the kids did too! Honest.
12-Hour Flight from San Diego to Japan
Japan Airlines’ nonstop service from San Diego to Tokyo Narita made the flight…well…fly by. The modern and spacious Boeing 787 offered comfortable coach seating, sufficient legroom and individually-programmed seatback televisions. Food tasted good and the kids’ meals were served with that extra Japanese “character”.
Narita Airport is a 2-3 hour bus or taxi ride into Tokyo's heart, so those able to fly directly into the newer and closer Haneda Airport should include the much shorter drive-time when calculating/comparing total travel duration.
The time change and travel duration delivered us to our hotel lobby—the Hyatt Regency Tokyo (Shinjuku)—around 8pm, perfect for a snack then sleep. Travel tip: Try to remain awake during the westbound flight to Tokyo, then you’ll be ready to sleep upon hotel arrival in the early night and adjusted to Tokyo time the next morning. (Don’t schedule an early wakeup that first morning.)
The Hyatt Regency Shinjuku is a great home-base for families in Tokyo. Our kids loved the lobby-level restaurant, their first experience with a bidet toilet, comfortable bedding, the indoor swimming pool, and the club-level extras. And, across the street is fantastic Chuo Park and playground that we visited several times. (Vending machines and bathrooms are adjacent to the playground.)
Tsukiji Fish Market – no way were we going to wake up at 4am and head to the fish market for breakfast with kids. We happily arrived near 9am and still got a full flavor of the experience (Note, the fish market is now in a different location). Don’t stand in line for 3-4 hours to eat sushi at “the best” fresh fish place. Instead, pick out one of the several other adjacent sushi places, wait for a much shorter 30-45 minutes, and enjoy sushi that’s more delicious than anything you’ve eaten in the USA.
After a stroll through the rest of Tsukiji, we walked/scootered six blocks to Hakuhinkan Toy Park and explored several floors of games, electronics, stuffed animals, and more. Note in the photos that we brought our 5-year old’s scooter. In addition to fun rides through the park, the Micro Mini-Deluxe 3-wheel scooter helped him keep pace with our adult walking strides throughout the trip. (And this particular scooter disassembles with one button and we carried it in a backpack when not in use.)
Next we easily hailed a taxi and rode five minutes to Tokyo Tower. After an elevator to the top and a stroll around the observation deck, we grabbed lunch in the food court (ten plus mediocre food outlets to choose from), then headed to Ginza for a personalized Samurai training session.
Escorted by a friendly guide to Hisui Tokyo, our family donned traditional garb, then followed the meticulous sword handling instruction from a knowledgeable Samurai. The experience ended with Mom, Dad, and our oldest daughter, swinging a sharp Samurai sword and slicing a rolled, rubber-like mat into pieces—truly exhilarating and an instant highlight of the trip.
After working up an appetite, we ended the busy day with dinner in the Yakitori Alley District. No idea which restaurant we chose, but the walk past all of the establishments was unique.
Day two started with Sumo wrestler viewing outside a studio near Ryogoku—Arashio Beya. This activity has been popularized and well covered in many guidebooks, so the secret is out. Don’t plan to spend more than 10-15 minutes here peering in from the window. If you go toward the end of the training session, you’re more likely to get a great photo-op with one of the wrestlers coming outside to cool off.
From Arashio-Beya, we walked to and along the Sumida River (our son scootered), then crossed one of the bridges and bought shuttle boat tickets across the street from the Ryogoku Kokugikan Stadium. Our tickets were one-way to Asakusa—about a 15-minute enjoyable boat ride.
In Asakusa, we toured the popular Senso-ji Buddhist Temple, Tokyo’s oldest. It was our first experience with the tourist-bus crowd, something we try to avoid. Asakusa is a vibrant area with hundreds of trinket stores, clothing outlets, and restaurants.
The shops become redundant quite quickly, but we liked the district’s energy and especially enjoyed the 30-minute rickshaw tour from Jidaiya (www.jidaiya.biz). We ate our favorite ramen lunch meal of the trip in Asakusa at Rihei (full name: Tsukemen-ya Rihei on Kaminarimon-dori)—paid at the machine, gave our ticket to one of the servers, and sat at the bar in the small, family-owned ramen shop.
After a lot of slurping and “yum”-ing, we taxied back to the Hyatt Regency, ventured over to the playground and soccer field, then called it an early night after a light dinner in the hotel restaurant, Caffe (another good meal).
DisneySea – Tokyo has both Disneyland and DisneySea located adjacent to one another. Disneyland seems very similar to the Disney parks in the USA, so we skipped it in favor of the unique DisneySea. Good choice.
We heard horror stories about crowded Asia theme parks, so we counted blessings when our planning allowed for a weekday visit to Tokyo’s DisneySea. Then, a little April drizzle helped keep away a few more locals. Throughout the day, we queued in line for at most ten minutes. And, the taxi-drive from the hotel was only 45 minutes because it’s a reverse-commute.
Our kids, of course, loved the park. Our adult takeaways: rides are not as “extreme” as in the USA yet still fun (e.g., Tower of Terror drop is not as high); the best ride in the park is Journey to the Center of the Earth with Raging Spirits second; eating is equally as fun as the rides (be sure to sample all flavors of popcorn, taste the three little-green-man dumplings at Mama Biscotti’s, and hunt down the shrimp-sticky buns near Aquatopia); staff operators wave and smile at passengers throughout the rides; the park is clean and orderly (no kids sitting/hanging on the metal line bars, no trash on the ground, store/café staff helpful and friendly, etc.); and, candy seems to be a more popular purchase item here than toys/animals (be sure to purchase a few confection/candy items on the way out).
Park closed at 5pm—by then we had covered it completely and taxied back to the hotel.
Prior to our trip the Hyatt Regency concierge helpfully arranged an appointment for us with Rinkak, a 3D printing outfit in the Shibuya LOFT building. At 9am, the pleasant staff worked with our kids for 15 minutes and snapped simultaneous photo images which subsequently created an impressively accurate full-body 3-D print figurine of our son and daughter. We paid with AmEx and the 3D print statue delivered about 3 weeks later to our home in the USA. Not cheap, but a unique way to remember our kids at a moment in time and the Tokyo trip in general.
After the 3D printing studio, we walked through the shopping district of Harajuku—more specifically, in/out of the shops and food stands on and near Cat Street. Highlights included delicious Luke’s Lobster, a convenient takoyaki (octopus balls) stand, kid-friendly Kiddy Land, and clothing store Ragtag.
Then, a few blocks away to Takeshita Street where the kids enjoyed holding a snake, eating a cotton candy castle from Totty Candy Factory, and shopping at Tokyo’s dollar store Daiso.
The beautifully serene and huge Yoyogi Park sits in great contrast adjacent to the bustling Harajuku shopping district. Taxi as deeply as you can into the heart of the park. While the Shinto Meiji Shrine is the primary draw, plan to spend 5-10 minutes there (kids will get bored as there’s not much to see/do) then find the access trail to Kiyomasa’s Well, pay the entry fee, and hike the 10-minute dirt trail to the well.
Recent folklore claims that taking a selfie next to the well and making it your phone’s screensaver will bring good fortune and luck. (Generally, Shrine’s are for blessings of the living and earth (e.g., success in business, weddings, etc.), whereas temples are for prayers for the dead and healing powers with incense.)
For the day’s final excursion, we walked back to Harajuku, hailed a taxi then rode back to Shinjuku’s Robot Restaurant. Pre-purchase tickets in advance and don’t come with an empty stomach. The Robot Show is an “only in Tokyo” experience that the kids will love and parents will enjoy. It’s loud, it’s gaudy, and it’s entertaining. The food, however, is not very tasty so plan to snack there, not eat a meal.
With an afternoon flight home, we had the morning to explore Shinjuku a bit more. After another stop at the Chuo Park playground across the street, we walked to the Shinjuku train station and window shopped the different levels of retailers. Nothing that interesting at first, but then we stumbled upon an incredible lower-level foodtopia beneath one of the neighboring office towers. Unfortunately, we don’t know the name of the office tower, but this is one of the amazing things about Tokyo…just head out to explore and you never know what you’ll come across. And, all the while, it is a safe and clean city to enjoy, even with young children.
Author’s footnote: Please understand that this writer is fully aware that travel, especially international travel, is extremely expensive and a complete luxury that many families are unable to experience. But as international travel increases, economic laws of supply/demand will continue to drive pricing down. And, if the US dollar holds its strength (and Disney park passes continue to skyrocket), many international destinations become relatively more affordable--especially if you can be flexible with your destination. Keep Tokyo at the top of your family-travel list. We will be back soon.