I knew my kids might like Tokyo. I had no idea they’d love it. My husband and I took our 11-year-old son and 17-year-old daughter on a weeklong trip, and since we’ve returned, my son has switched his middle-school language to Japanese, and my daughter is researching homestay exchange programs. Here are some tips and some activities you shouldn’t miss.
Where to Stay and How to Get Around
We stayed in an Airbnb in Shibuya, an area popular with teens and tweens due to a proliferation of game arcades, shopping malls such as the iconic Shibuya 109, and proximity to the famed Harajuku area. And we designed our itinerary so that we’d visit a culturally rich site—a traditional temple or museum—in the morning, then a kid-focused hit in the afternoon.
We tried to build on the Japanese culture our kids were already familiar with—sushi, Pokemon, Miyazaki films such as Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke. And we walked. A lot. Most days, we took 15,000-17,000 steps. (Thanks, Fitbit.) Pack comfortable shoes, and make sure you’ve installed the surprisingly helpful Google Maps app on your phone, which effortlessly navigates from the subway stop to your destination and then can figure out the fastest route back to your lodgings.
Food Was Not a Problem
Sushi, ramen, and udon are now found across the United States, so most Japanese foods won’t be too challenging for children, although the chopsticks might be. Conveyor-belt sushi may or may not be a novelty (we have several in the Pacific Northwest, so my kids were snatching sushi like thieves), but it is certainly the fastest way to feed picky, ravenous kids.
For affordable choices, check out the food courts located in the basement level of department stores (depachika). Diverse displays of thousands of items include sandwiches, pasta, chocolates, sushi, croissants, salads, ramen, soups, smoothies, and custard tarts. Meals become an eat-your-own-adventure experience. Collect a picnic, take food back to the apartment or hotel, or share bites at one of the casual seating areas. And visit the supermarket and let kids pick out random treats: avocado crackers, quail eggs, wasabi Pringles, eel cookies.
What I Wish I Knew Before I Arrived
Obtaining tickets for the Studio Ghibli Museum, devoted to Miyazaki’s animation studio, apparently requires Hunger Games–like dedication as well as advance planning. We didn’t manage to score admittance. Sad, sad children.
Certain anime/manga stores in Akihabara may offer more sex education than you’d bargained for.
You can purchase 72-hour subway passes before you leave the United States. It’s one way to make Tokyo’s complex subway system slightly easier. Stations and trains can be crowded during rush hours—to the point that there are gloved attendants to stuff commuters inside. Ensure that your child has a way to get in touch if separated.
The rules and taboos around dining and even shopping—such as removing your shoes before you enter a dressing room—would have been useful.
Google Translate doesn’t help much. (It explained one of the buttons on our Japanese toilet as “Ass Boil.”) Although most signs are in Japanese and English, speaking Japanese is different matter altogether and communicating often requires enthusiastic gesticulation.
Can’t-Miss Activities for Kids Under 12
KidZania is a hit with kids ages 2-15, where they help run a kid-size “real world.” My son worked a shift as a magician and an engineer and got a kid driver license. Look for English Programs or English Wednesday, when KidZania offers English-language assistance to both native speakers and children learning English.
Kiddy Land Harajuku, a six-floor toy store with only-in-Japan toys such as tiny wooden miniatures, Pokemon socks, and Hello Kitty everything else.
The enchanting Yoyogi Park offers a fresh breath of greenery and space within the crowded, electric Tokyo experience. Over 50 acres of cathedral-like evergreen forest, soaring torii gates, and meandering pathways lead to the stunning Meiji Shinto shrine. The park also hosts festivals, concerts, and traditional weddings—each visit will likely be different from the last.
Remember those dispensers from childhood—you put in a quarter and out pops a plastic capsule with a toy inside? Japan’s gashopon stores offer hundreds of plastic-capsule-spitting dispensers in tidy lineups, under flickering fluorescent lights. Kids love collecting the anime-themed keychains and toys. Parents might use this as an opportunity to check email. You’ll find the shops primarily in the Akihabara neighborhood, with one or two in other neighborhoods such as Shinjuku.
Can’t-Miss Activities for Kids Over 12
Akihabara: Tokyo’s nerdy neighborhood has six-floor arcades packed with Sega games and claw machines, stores selling computer parts and anime and manga, gashopon shops galore, and dozens of themed cafés, such as a train café or maid café (where the food is rarely as good as the cosplay).
Go to Sunshine City to visit the Mega-Pokemon Center (a store stuffed with Pikachus and Chicoritras) and J-World for anime and manga lovers. They’re also a hit with younger kids who are familiar with the characters.
Shopping in cacophonous multistory malls and department stores can be a experience for teens and parents alike. Japanese styles were markedly different from what’s on the racks back home, focused on flowing, comfortable pieces. (Skinny jeans have seemingly been banned by national edict.) Packable, wearable souvenirs include earrings, socks, hair items, hats, pajamas, and sunglasses.
Purikura booths, found in game arcades, are fun, roomy photo booths with plentiful decorations and frames, and they offer the ability to write on photos. Sort of a pre-Snapchat Snapchat, and everyone (even parents) looks about 15, skinny, and with doe eyes. Instant facelift.
There are no actual robots at Robot Restaurant, just talented performers in flashy, shiny costumes in a spectacle of self-aware campy fun. Think: a 1950s-inspired number with giant puppets, go-go dancers, and robot costumes to the beat of “YMCA.” It’s in the Shinjuku neighborhood, which is filled with tourists and touts.
Can’t Miss Activities for All Ages
Throughout the city, automatic drink dispensers provide surprises (because not all drinks are in English) for a few hundred yen. A favorite: Beard Papa, a soda that tastes disturbingly, amazingly like the vanilla cream filling inside the popular Japanese bakery’s puffs.
Animal-themed cafés: Spend quality time with cats, owls, or even snakes. We opted for MoCHA Café, where kids can feed, brush, and play with kitties in a tree-and-woodland themed room while sipping all-you-can-drink beverages—and wearing kitty ears.
At the Edo-Tokyo Museum, kids can time-travel through Tokyo’s history, walk through a life-size Edo-era village, sit in conveyances from rickshaws to bikes, visit a modern Tokyo home, and watch Japanese/English shows. Lots of hands-on activities engage all ages, and the English signage is straightforward and informative.
Head to the Starbucks overlooking the Shibuya Pedestrian Crossing to snack on green tea treats and watch the show: a multi-diagonal-crosswalk that hosts hundreds of pedestrians at any given moment.
When shopping, bring along your passport—visitors can save on taxes on items such as clothing and cosmetics at select stores.
Kid-friendly pedestrian paths flanked by tiny shops surround Senso-ji Temple; it’s a great place to pick up souvenirs such as handkerchiefs and ninja supplies.
Great Day Trip
Take a quick train ride to the leafy village of Kamakura to visit temples and gaze upon the serene bronze face of the 43-foot-tall Great Buddha of Kamakura. At Hase-dera Temple, don’t miss the cool (literally) cave full of Buddhas.
According to the children: Mochi (rice) candy, unusually flavored Kit-Kat candy (such as wasabi), Pokemon plushies, stuffed shiba inu dogs (the most popular dog in Japan), a Catbus keychain were some of their favorite Tokyo souveniers. Although both kids lobbied hard for a Japanese toilet, it did not fit into the carry-on luggage.