Thinking of heading to Tokyo with kids? Sally Stanton shares her top tips for visiting Tokyo with kids in tow.
My favourite city to travel to has always flipped between Tokyo, New York and Paris. But for now Tokyo comes up trumps. Mainly because it just suits a toddler to a capital T! It’s not too far from Sydney, so the flight is bearable, the time zone change is minimal and like I previously mentioned Japan is just designed for kids!
Tokyo and its outskirts are chock full of kid-friendly fun. From the world-renowned Disney theme parks, to Sanrio Puroland (home to Hello Kitty and Pompompurin) and the Ghibili museum. And last I heard there’s even a Sylvanian Families theme park (yes they are Japanese too!) Excellent, world-class play centres are easy to find, Tokyo Dome is a great tiny tots’ one-stop-shop, but that’s just the start! As you can imagine my urge to return is very strong!
We were very lucky and scored a spacious Airbnb on Cat Street in Harajuku. Airbnb Japan has gone through somewhat of a purge, all unlicensed dwellings have been removed from the site (at the time we booked) so there’s no stress when it comes to booking a legit apartment but that does mean there are fewer places available, so get in early. As for locations, staying on the JR Yamanote train line is convenient especially if you buy a JR pass. But pretty much everywhere in Tokyo is close to a train station and restaurants, convenience stores like 7/11 or Lawsons (which are more like a supermarket than servo stop). But depending on the age of your kids I would still recommend searching for accommodation close to playgrounds. My favourite areas to stay include Shibuya, Harajuku, Omotesando (all very close together), Ginza, Shinagawa and Nakameguro.
We travelled almost everywhere on trains, a couple of trips in a taxi, which were very quick and cheap, compared to Sydney. And on departure, we caught an Uber to Haneda Airport. Currently Uber is only in Tokyo and they only have Black Uber, which means children are allowed to travel in the car but there are no child seats.
You could live in Tokyo with kids for a year and still not see all the child-friendly sights, so we jam-packed what we could see and these are some of the highlights.
Team Lab Borderless Exhibition
If you’re on Instagram and haven’t seen the pics, hashtag search it now….#teamlab is scintillatingly awesome. You’ll be booking tickets ASAP. Spread out over two levels, Teamlab Borderless, located on the man-made island of Odaiba, is an interactive digital art display, which means loads of lights, art, and music. I was concerned it might be too much for my three-year-old but she couldn’t get enough of it, especially the Athletics Forest, which is upstairs and can easily be missed if you don’t keep exploring. So do enter every door and venture down every hallway, chances are it will lead you to a new exhibit. From glow in the dark balls, a giant lit-up trampoline and light mazes to more serene flower and ocean displays, it’s a show stopper! There are a few TeamLab exhibits happening around Japan and the world but this is currently the only permanent one and the largest. If you don’t want to spend all day there you can team it up with a whole lot of fun in Odaiba where the shopping is abundant, the theme parks and game centres are plentiful and there’s even an Onsen on the island that’s absolutely worth a visit.
Tokyo Toy Museum
Tokyo Toy Museum in Shinjuku is a very affordable day out if you’re doing Tokyo with kids. It’s around $10 for one adult and child, which also gives you a discount at the gift store. Signage is minimal so it’s a little tricky to find (pocket wifi came in handy), but if you come to what looks like a school with a playground and pram parking out the front, you’re in the right spot. There are two levels filled with toys from all around the world, spanning different generations. It’s a nice trip down memory lane for big kids too. From what I could tell it’s more suited to 0-5-year-olds than school-aged kids but there was still an older group in there having a blast.
There are toys designed to educate kids, encourage hand-eye coordination and help develop motor skills. Staff were also roaming about engaging kids in play and reminding them, and their grown-ups, to take their shoes off!
My daughter’s favourite activity was a tie between serving customers at the play cafe and a good old fashioned game of checkers!
Play is a universal language at that age and it was so nice to see kids from various countries communicating even with the language barrier. My little one picked up so much more Japanese during our trip, of course, the challenge is maintaining it now we’re home.
In order to leave the Toy Museum, I promised (bribed) a trip to Dominique Ansel Bakery back near our Airbnb, to try his famous Frozen S’mores!! Gourmet ice cream hidden inside gooey marshmallow on an applewood chip smoked stick (to resemble a campfire, yum!). Word of warning though, they are super sweet and quite large so it’s definitely a share dessert!
If you want to see extreme cuteness then take a ticket at the Harry Hedgehog Cafe in Harajuku (harinezumi is hedgehog in Japanese, hence the name Harry). We heard there could be lines out the door to cuddle a cutie pie but at 4pm we walked straight in with no queues. The entrance is a bit sneaky, it’s four levels up, so keep that in mind with small kids but there is a small lift on street level.
For about $18 you get 30mins with a hedgehog, a drink for you and mealworms for them. You are given gloves and a care manual on how to hold them. It’s all very calm and quiet in there and looks like a lovely place for the animals with the staff supervising as you hold them. The creatures were very very cute, tiny and gentle. Many were sleeping and some were running on their treadmills. If you really are a fan, for about $300 you can buy your own pet hedgehog! This place is one of the smaller pet cafes in Tokyo, there are many more where you can cuddle cats, dogs, chinchillas, and even owls. What a hoot! This is a great place to visit in Tokyo with kids.
Being half Japanese it was important for me to have my daughter and partner take part in a traditional cultural experience and while we were visiting it happened to be ‘Shichi Go San’ which translates to 7, 5, 3. It’s basically a day to wish health and happiness to children of these ages.
Some kids dress in a kimono and head to a shrine or temple to pray. My Miss 3 was given a gorgeous kimono by a family friend and surprisingly wanted to wear it all day! So all dolled up we visited Meiji Jingu Shinto Shrine, also in Harajuku. It sits next to the sprawling grounds of Yoyogi Park, and has the most impressive and largest wooden Torii (gates) in Japan.
Here we witnessed the morning ritual of the Shinto Priests starting out their day, which was a serene experience. I always find early morning is the best time to visit shrines or temples in Japan as some become crammed with tourists. They’re also one of the only places open before 10am so it’s a nice quiet option to do with your kids. I also always purchase an amulet when I visit, as the money goes towards preserving the shrine and let’s face it, it’s the perfect souvenir!
If you visit Meiji Jingu, Yoyogi Park is a great place to let your kids be kids (after being on their best behaviour around a sacred site). But be aware if you’ve got a hardcore swing lover, there is no playground in the park.
Another temple worth visiting is Sensoji Buddhist Temple in Asakusa, it’s the oldest and most popular in Tokyo, with a historical shopping strip surrounding the site, selling everything from handcrafted knives to make up brushes. But again it gets busy!
Peter Rabbit Cafe
My daughter is obsessed with Peter Rabbit so we went out of our way to Jiyugaoka for a mummy daughter date at the Peter Rabbit Garden Cafe. With Peter and co stuffed teddies at every table, a giant Peter on arrival and rabbit-shaped food, my daughter was more than satisfied.
Opposite the restaurant is a very cute children’s store with loads of toys and knick-knacks. The type of store you could easily spend an hour in. And the area is really sweet, lots of boutiques and greenery, plus a mini Venice! As in, a canal and gondola of all things!
In my twenties, Shibuya was my hood! I loved the place, I didn’t want to venture out of it. There are bars, karaoke, restaurants, and shopping! The most iconic spot is the Shibuya scramble, full of people rushing back and forth every second of every day. It’s a must-see and in my opinion, the best place to view it is not from the Starbucks window but from the viewing platform high above Magnet by Shibuya 109 Department store, where there is also a very good food court, it’s free and when we visited, empty!
Just around the corner from the Shibuya scramble is Uobei Shibuya Dogenzaka, a fun sushi train, where your personal order comes flying out in front of you on a conveyer belt and sometimes on an actual mini train. It’s very entertaining and a great place to eat in Tokyo with kids and adults, plus it’s not just sushi, you can even order fries and other deep-fried delights.
Harajuku conjures up images of beautiful Japanese young things, dressed in Anime costumes, over the top makeup, platform shoes, and dogs in strollers! But the truth is you won’t see this every day. Weekends is when the cosplay really shines but the area and in particular Takeshita Dori is a sight to be seen. It’s a sensory overload too, some kids might get a little overwhelmed if you’re there at peak hour which is from 12pm onwards (not much is open before). So just try and take it all in. My daughter heard me talk about giant fairy floss and before you know it she was holding a rabbit-shaped fairy floss bigger than her head! But even she knew one bite was enough!
The street is full of colour, sweets, and clothes. One store only stocks size 8, a disservice to all the delicious food shops perhaps? A walk from here down towards Omotesando and onto Aoyama station is a shop-a-holics dream, all your regular high street brands mixed in with Japanese labels and then your luxury Diors and Louis too! My partner and I had a night off each, he went sake bar hopping in Shinjuku while I went shopping!
If you loved our story on Tokyo with kids, read Sally’s story on Kyoto with kids.