Moving to Japan in my early 20s as the first stop on a world tour, I fell in love with the country so much I ended up staying for a decade, and now with two half Japanese kids it is still one of my favorite places to travel with the family.
Dubbed as one of the safest cities in the world, Tokyo’s reputation has skyrocketed as one of the world’s best family destinations, with the city’s sprawling metropolis jam packed with something for everyone. If you only have a few days, or a whole week, you will never be bored in Tokyo. Here are my insider tips for Tokyo for an unforgettable Japanese vacation with your family!
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Shibuya and Harajuku
Vibrant, diverse, and full of energy, Tokyo is as exhilarating as it is exhausting so make sure you book your luxurious accommodation ahead of time and plan your activities around easy access to transportation. Shibuya and Harajuku are great first stops for visits to Meiji Jingu Shrine, Yoyogi Park, the famous shopping streets Takeshita Dori and nearby Omotesando Hills, and the world-famed Shibuya Crossing intersection featured in Hollywood blockbuster Lost in Translation, just outside the Hachiko exit of Shibuya Station.
A full day can be spent just wandering around these two districts; avoid the crowds by going mid-week, but if you are buzzing to see the girls dressed up in Cos Play outside Yoyogi Station, then Sunday is the day. My kids got a real kick out of the boot-scootin rockabilly dancers at the entrance of Yoyogi Park, and a trip to the Kiddy Land toy store in Omotesando can’t be missed – its multi floors are packed with toys and all the famous Japanese characters.
Tokyo Disneyland and Disney Sea
Fringing Tokyo Bay, both theme parks offer a world of fun for kids and the child in every adult. You can expect to see regular favourites like Mickey and Minnie Mouse, Buzz Lightyear, and all the gang from Monsters Inc, plus seasonal special events, daily parades and evening fireworks.
Disney’s Fastpass is your best friend around the parks. The kids and I are not as patient as the Japanese, and rather than standing in line for hours, we took full advantage of the Fastpass system that gave us access to hold our place on rides and then come back between a certain time period. Note: only one Fastpass can be issued at a time, and during busy park periods like school holidays, Japanese Obon, or Golden Week, you may be waiting until the evening to return to a ride you registered your Fastpass on shortly after the park opened.
Plan for a full day at each and book your tickets ahead to save on queue at the gate. The Japanese are Disney fanatics; expect crows of polite teenage girls and long wait queues without aggression.
Disney experience tips for visitors with kids:
- Bring adequate water, sunscreen, and appropriate clothing as often wait times for rides can have you standing in line for over an hour;
- Young kids can get restless when waiting in queues so be sure to allow them time to burn off energy when entering the park before you jump in line – locking in your first Fastpass when you arrive is a great way to start;
- Disneysea sells alcohol, Disneyland does not;
- Bring your own stroller or expect to pay upwards of $15 to hire a Disney stroller for the day.
Translating to ‘hall of the future’, Tokyo’s Miraikan offers hands-on experiences presenting the future of science and technology. It is one of my favorite places to take the kids, with standout activities include the humanoid robot ASIMO (11am, 1pm, 2pm and 4pm) and the lifelike android Otonaroid (11.30am Monday and Wednesday to Friday, 11.30am and 2.30pm Saturday and Sunday). The Gaia dome theatre/planetarium has an English audio option and is popular; book online one week in advance. A multilingual smartphone app makes a game out of visiting.
Enshrining the golden image Kannon (the Buddhist goddess of mercy), which legend says was plucked out of the Sumida-gawa by two fishermen in AD 628, Senso-ji is an icon of the city and its most popular temple. Interestingly enough the image is not on public display, however the temple structure dates back to 1958 and is visually impressive, beginning with the remarkably red Kaminari-mon (Thunder Gate) entrance. This is your spot for buying a range of souvenirs from toe socks to Samurai swords, tea sets and summer kimono on the adjacent street Nakamise-dōri. We always pop over to nearby Asakusa; it’s our go-to for food in the area, from Japanese ‘pub’ style Izakaya restaurants, to ramen noodle houses and quick eats like onigiri rice balls. If you have fussy kids like mine you can still win on the food stakes in Tokyo. French-inspired bakeries offer everything from anpan bread rolls (filled with red bean paste – so delicious!), chocolate croissants, and plain rolls, while those a little more daring can fill up on bowls of noodles, rice bowls, miso soup, and of course, sushi.
TOP 5 Restaurant options for the vegetarian/vegans
Tokyo has caught wind of the global vegan movement and turning out some great plant-based cafes and restaurants all over the city. My top five picks are:
1. Nagi Shokudo, for Japanese-style vegan dishes. Shibuya, 81 3-3461-3280
2. Ripple, hands down the best vegan burgers in Tokyo. Shibuya, http://ain-soph.jp/ripple/
3. Veganic, for a truly holistic eating experience. Roppongi, http://25.veganic.jp
4. T’s Tan Tan, for vegan ramen and a whole lot more, situated in Tokyo Station. http://ts-restaurant.jp/about/tantan/
5. Bon Restaurant, for traditional Japanese food with elegant flair. Taito, http://www.fuchabon.co.jp/english/english.html
Japanese Onsen (hot springs)
Japan’s bathing culture is perhaps what I miss most. Volcanic hot springs can be found everywhere, and traditional bath houses are not to be missed on any visit to Japan. Tokyo is peppered with what the locals call sentou, which are bath houses for as little as a few dollars entry, with some being open all night. You can also find some big hot spring centres in the city although I personally prefer the quaint, often run-down sentou, tucked away in side alleys throughout the city. Don’t be shy to ask the train station ticket booth attendant where you can find the nearest bathhouse, and there are many blogs online boasting the best places to get butt naked and communally bathe plus all the important etiquette tips.
Five Japanese phrases worth remembering:
- Sumimasen – excuse me/sorry
- Arigatou gozaimasu – thank you very much
- Kudasai/onegaishimasu – please
- Konnichiwa – Hello/good day
- Tanoshii – fun!
Most international flights arrive to Narita Airport, located outside of the city centre in the neighbouring prefecture of Chiba. Access to Tokyo is easy via the Narita Express train departing from the airport’s basement, or for around $10 you can take the Keisei Airport Shuttle from the airport direct to Tokyo Station http://www.keiseibus.co.jp/inbound/tokyoshuttle/en/.
Japan has one of the best Internet networks in the world. Pocket WiFi and mobile phone rentals are best booked in advance and much better alternative to the sparsely available and costly pre-paid SIM cards; find the best rental deals online and arrange to pick up your device from the airport pre-charged and ready to go.
JR Railways offers a Tokyo-Wide train pass for great savings on the most efficient railway network in the world. If you plan to travel outside Tokyo, purchase a Japan Rail Pass for unlimited travel on JR trains and select Shinkansen (bullet trains) before you leave home. http://www.japanrailpass.net/en/