Tokyo and its suburbs have a population of 38 million people. Let that sink in for a minute. That’s more than all of Australia in one city, and when you’re there it feels so big, you might never find the edges.
But that’s no reason to think it’s not a place to bring kids. For all its crowdedness, Tokyo is orderly, clean and safe. There’s delicious food, people are kind and helpful, and kid-friendly activities abound.
Here’s are some tips for a week-long family holiday in Tokyo …
Where to stay
Stay too far from suburbs like Shinjuku or Ginza and you’ll spend your holiday on the subway. Too close and you’ll be at the busy heart, which is devoid of the wide spaces wild kids are used to. Research your accommodation using Google maps to see if there are parks within walking distance.
Airbnbs aren’t as common in Tokyo, but they exist, otherwise a hotel a hotel with breakfast included will work a treat.
Pro tip: you can eat very well and healthily from the food sold at a 7/11 and you can convert a minibar into a useful fridge by clearing out all the wee bottles.
What to eat
It could sound like hyperbole, but there is no bad food in Tokyo. The train station soba noodle soup places are good, the random pork katsu places you wander into are good, the fresh sashimi places at the fish markets are good, and even takeaway packs of inari (sweet tofu skins wrapped around rice) and gyoza (pork potstickers) at 7-11 are good.
In fact, you can feed your family breakfast, lunch and dinner cheaply from the 7-11 or supermarket. In Japan they have fridges full of ready-made meals like salads, sashimi, katsu don, fried chicken, tuna, rice and soup.
The only thing you won’t find in cheap abundance is fruit. At the fanciest of department stores, a trio of mangoes, wrapped beautifully costs around $100. Punnets of strawberries are $10. Fruit is not cheap but like all food in Tokyo, it’s consistently tasty. So you might pay $3 for a single apple, but it’ll be a really delicious apple.
Things to do
Like any big city, there’s endless wandering and sightseeing to do, but to keep everyone happy, aim for one kid activity plus one adult activity per day.
Ueno Park is a bit like our capital cities’ botanical gardens, but with more stuff to do. March/April is cherry blossom time, and a few weeks after, the peony gardens are in bloom. There’s a retro amusement park with rides that are perfect for kids under 10. There are also two museums, a pond where you can hire paddle boats and a famous shrine built in the 17th century.
You’ll also find Ueno Zoo in the park where you’ll see two incredible animals whose dwindling wild populations number in the hundreds: the Sumatran tiger and Asiatic lion. There are also giant pandas, gorillas, bears and amusingly, kangaroos.
The zoo is cheap: around $6 per adult and free for kids under 12. Whether you bring a picnic or eat at one of the food stalls, make sure to try the soft serve ice cream. It’s rich and delicious. Notice a theme?!
Read more about family travel:
- 11 surprising essentials for winning holidays with kids
- 7 reasons to holiday while your kids are young
- How to pack a foolproof carry-on bag
Around the city there are animal cafés which are home to creatures like cats, dogs, owls, rabbits and hedgehogs. The café is an attraction in itself, but it’s also a sales floor; all the animals are up for adoption. Cafés are more expensive than the zoo (we paid around $50 for four) and your visit is timed.
If your kids prefer monsters to real animals, Tokyo is home to the Pokémon Mega Centre. Queue up to get a photo with Pikachu and make sure your wallet is full of cash to purchase limited edition packs of Pokémon cards, soft toys and wee plastic “mascots”.
Roppongi Hills has a great park to run off energy. The Robot Park uses the hills to its advantage with a giant slide that runs from the top of one hill to the bottom. For smaller kids, there are rows of tunnel slides and lots of play equipment.
Bonus: on the walk from the Roppongi train station to the park, you’ll see Maman, a beautiful two-storey tall bronze spider by artist Louise Bourgeois. She carries 26 marble eggs in a bronze mesh sac in her abdomen and she wears eight knitted warmers that run the length of each of her legs.
How to speak Japanese
We didn’t set many rules for our kids when going overseas except one: no bush wees in Tokyo. In Australia, a kid might declare they’re busting and do a quick wee under a tree.
That doesn’t happen in Tokyo so it’s important to learn this handy phrase: toire-wa, doko desu ka? which means, where is the toilet?
The answer? Toilets are everywhere. In the train stations, on the platforms, in parks, even at Family Mart Chemist shops.
How to get around
The subway system is huge and the stations can be an intimidating maze of tunnels, but it’s the best way to get around Tokyo. Don’t bother with a taxi from the airport. It was surprisingly easy to ferry seven people plus luggage and a pram to our accommodation using the train.
The key is to get a subway map (they all have an English side) and ask for help. You might be tempted to try to figure out your route on your own, but don’t do it. The people at the station always seem to know a better, faster way and every single person we talked to, whether they spoke English well or not, was very happy to help.
Ok you’re all set for your Tokyo mini-break. Good luck, or ganbatteru!