Why should one go to Tokyo with children? Because it is a whole new experience, but at the same time everything is perfectly organized and family-friendly. This applies to everywhere in Japan, I guess. For us the reason was my son who is a Japan-obsessed 6-year-old boy who loves sashimi, ninjas and samurais… not exactly in that order. The day he asked us take him to Japan we decided to fulfill his dream and booked a flight during the Easter period, for two weeks. The dates, moreover, corresponded to the cherry tree blossoms, which had been on our bucket list for a long time.
We landed in Tokyo, the immense and very modern capital, and we realized (but we had already sensed it) that it was impossible to visit in a few days. Tokyo is a massive city divided in 23 districts – thus impossible to visit it (albeit superficially) in 4 days. Only Superman would perhaps be able to cover 5 or more neighborhoods a day so, therefore, we did not even try to understand the city. During our four days we mainly focused on kid-friendly attractions, taking in a district or two at most per day.
What are the best districts to visit with children in Tokyo
Back home, while we were planning our short stay in Tokyo, we tried to choose attractions in different districts, so as to have a somewhat comprehensive impression of the city. We were hoping to capture at least a part of its many facets. As a result we now have the feeling that it is an elusive metropolis, often incomprehensible to a foreigner. Despite its 13 million inhabitants, however, we found it pleasant and not alienating.
Trying to please our son, we chose to visit the following districts:
1. Asakusa district
Scegliamo di pernottare ad Asakusa, un quartiere di Tokyo non proprio centrale ma tranquillo e ricco di fascino, che conserva ancora tracce del Giappone tradizionale e che piacerà sicuramente ai bambini ma anche ai genitori. Insomma, è un’oasi di pace all’interno della metropoli più frenetica della nazione. Per arrivarci prendete la metro: le linee sono la Asakusa–Toei e la Ginza. Se dovete chiedere indicazioni Asakusa si pronuncia Asaksa. Il quartiere è semplicemente suggestivo, specialmente se questa è la vostra prima tappa in Giappone.
We chose to stay overnight in Asakusa, a district not really central but quiet and charming, which still retains traces of traditional Japan. In short, an oasis of peace within the most hectic metropolis of the country. Take the metro to get there: it is served by the Asakusa-Toei and Ginza lines. If you need to ask for directions Asakusa is pronounced Asaksa.The neighborhood is simply impressive, especially if it is your first stop in Japan.
We leave the subway and after a few steps we are in front of the Kaminarimon, the Thunder Gate, which with its huge red lantern immediately captures the imagination of all children: my son’s jaw dropped when he saw it. Then there is a delightful old-fashioned shopping street called Nakamise Dori, where everything is sold: Japanese sweets, hand-painted fans, traditional yukata and even fake ninja weapons. At the end of Nakamise Dori you will find a beautiful and gaudy Buddhist temple, the Senso-ji, with an adjoining 5-storey pagoda. Inside it gives you a great sense of peace, and we spent a lot of time there, imitating the rituals of the local people.
2. Ueno: park and zoo
We spent almost a whole day in Ueno district, enjoying the huge park and the zoo. On both sides of the main pedestrian avenue pitches are drawn on the floor, and people are gathering neatly for picnics under the cherry trees in bloom: one pitch per group, of course. In the area there are several old temples and museums, which we have not had time to visit. We had hoped to spend a few hours at the National Museum of Tokyo, to feast our eyes on Japanese art, but this museum will have to wait until our next visit.
Ueno Zoo is the oldest in Japan and it is huge, from one side to the other you travel by suspended monorail. We had planned a quick visit to see the pandas (and nothing else) and ended up staying for 4 hours. In addition to the pandas, we were fascinated by the huge and massive bears from the island of Hokkaido, the playful otters, the orange-pink flamingos and the mischievous monkeys. Near the zoo there is a little lake where you can rent small swan-shaped boats, even swan-shaped. They are simply tacky, but how can I say no to a kid? Always in the park, to end the day, we found a suggestive little temple, called Benten Shrine.
3. Sumida and the Tokyo Skytree
There are many reasons to head to the Tokyo disctrict called Sumida, and the Tokyo Skytree, is certainly the best of them. Take the elevator up to the top of the Skytree, admire the view from its 450 meters platform, and awe at how at the size of the city. If you are in Tokyo with children, another good reason to visit it, is the Sumida Aquarium on the 4th floor. it’s not your usual aquarium as it was designed by an architect who is famous in the field of aquariums. Moreover it is large but not dispersive, and with a beautiful pool with penguins and seals.
After visiting the aquarium, head down to the Skytree shopping centre for the most spectacular food court you can imagine. Choose the food you want to enjoy, go to the cash desk to pay, and then go back inside and sit at the central tables to eat. Only for adults (and in turns, just in case): you can taste the “potentially lethal” pufferfish at affordable prices. In Japanese it is called fugu, pronounced with the accent on the second u. It is tasteless, though. If interested one may take part in a shot river cruise.
4. The Marunouchi district
Tokyo Central Station is located in Marunouchi. Since you will probably have to go there to activate your Japan Rail Pass ( or otherwise you won’t be able to reserve trains), consider spending at least half a day there. Connected to the station there is a new shopping centre (the KITTE) where you will also find the main post office. This is a must for stamp lovers and collectors (we all know one): we left with a nice series of stamps depicting Mount Fuji. If it is lunch-time, remember that the restaurants inside KITTE are excellent and inviting; we had a most glorious lunch there.
A place not to miss with children in this part of Tokyo is Nakadori Avenue, a long tree-lined avenue full of chic shops and cafes/restaurants. Ginza is nothing compared to it. A little further on is the emperor’s palace, but visitors can only see gardens, and even that has to be on a guided tour. In contrast, the adjacent Imperial Palace East Gardens are open to the public. Unfortunately, there is little to see: a few beautiful moats, the foundations of an ancient castle tower and a huge garden. If, however, like us you are in Japan for the cherry blossom, then it is worth going there.
5. Ginza and beyond
Out of curiosity we went to see the luxury shopping street, Ginza. As none of us is interested in the stores of prestigious brands and labels, we were bored within minutes. What we liked best, more than admiring some Armani, Hermès and Prada shop windows for 5 minutes, were the (diagonal) pedestrian crossings full of people. We expected this district of Tokyo to be just like that: luxurious, sophisticated, and above all crowded.
Ginza is more than luxury and nearby we found the Tsukiji, the historic fish market – thought getting there took us some time as on our way there we stopped to admire the architecture of a beautiful kabuki theater. We try to figure out how and where to buy tickets for the show but failed miserably. As a result, by the time that had we got to the fish market, it was already a little late and some stalls wereclosing… too bad! Please note that the Tsukiji Fish Markethas been closed by the authorities (October 2018). So no fish, no kabuki…
6. Tokyo’s Disney parks and the Odaiba Gundam
Although we don’t like amusement parks in general, we had thought of making an exception and visiting one of the two Disney parks: either Tokyo Disneyland or Tokyo DisneySea. Given the little interest shown by our son (who prefers robots and samurai) and the cost of admission tickets, we decided to give the visit a miss. But if you are interested, there are discounted tickets on weekends and during Japanese holidays. They are called Starlight Passport and are valid from 3pm. Check the website for validity days and availability.
As an alternative, we decided to treat our son to Odaiba, a district on an artificial island in Tokyo Bay. The reason was simple, to see the giant RX-78-2 Gundam RX-78-2. Needless to say, it was very much appreciated, especially when the Gundam came to life (which he does it several times a day). Since our visit, the RX-78-2 has been replaced with another 20-meter-high Gundam: the RX-0 Unicorn Gundam. This gundam too comes alive several times a day, offering a suggestive spectacle of sounds and lights. In case you don’t know, a gundam is a mobile armoured warrior similar to a robot. Definitely a place to visit with your “nerdy” children.
For further information
Are you looking for more information about visiting Tokyo with children or would you like to know which cities we visited on our trip?
- In our interview with Keiko thanks to a “local mom” you’ll discover all the secrets to visiting Tokyo with children.
- In the post Japan with children during the cherry blossom season instead you will find all the places we have visited and our advice on what is best to do and see