Last winter, we took our four children (aged 7, 6, 3 and 1) to Tokyo. My husband and I went to Japan on our honeymoon eight years ago and we were itching to return. We decided to spend New Year’s and a further ten days there. We have traveled a fair amount with the children, but this trip was one that we were all impatient to go on. As the time rolled near, and the madness of Christmas took over, I started to panic and wondered whether we had made a huge mistake!
Gently educating the children about Tokyo
Since this trip was a big production in terms of distance, organisation and expense, I wanted the children to be somewhat educated about where we were going and what we would see. I felt that they would get more out of their stay if they had some knowledge of Tokyo, so, during the weeks before the trip, they borrowed books about Japan from the school library. I also printed out some information from the web and circled Japan on the giant map hanging on the kitchen wall. Each child had a big sheet of paper to draw on or to write down what interested them most. They learnt about Mount Fuji, the Tsukiji Fish Market, the Meiji shrine, the size of the Japanese population, and much more. The purpose of this small project was to pique their curiosity, and I must admit that it worked!
the highlights of our trip
Places we visited
Our first stop was the must-see Tokyo Wholesale Fish Market – Tsukiji, which is the largest in the world. The best time to visit is early in the morning so you don’t miss out on all the action. It is hectic, with the buyers and sellers rushing back and forth on their electric carts, so you must stay on your toes and keep out of the way. The inner fish market is where it is most lively. We loved seeing the wide variety of sea creatures. In the outer market, we discovered an amazing diversity of fruits and vegetables.
Epson Aqua Park Shinagawa is such a lovely aquarium that the children insisted on going twice. The variety of species and the display are impressive. We saw a great dolphin show (where we got soaked!), and the kids were captivated when we stumbled upon a seal getting some exercise. The highlight of the visit for my eldest son, though, was seeing the longhorn cowfish (see photo below)… )…
Meiji Jingu Shrine, dedicated to Emperor Meiji, is located close to the Harajuku station and surrounded by a peaceful forest. To get to the shrine, we strolled through the lovely Yoyogi Park, populated with cypress trees, where the Tokyoites come to get away from the rapid pace of the city.
Sensoji Temple is Tokyo’s oldest temple, which is in the neighborhood of Asakusa. At the entrance of the temple grounds, there are many stalls where we bought great souvenirs and postcards. Then, we walked through the gates, under the famous giant lantern that hangs in the center. Inside, we saw the second largest pagoda in Japan, which is next to the temple. We also made sure to visit to the huge bronze incense burner where the smoke is said to have curative powers. Afterward, we made a wish and got some good luck charms for our journey ahead.
Fukagawa Edo Museum is a history museum that displays a reconstruction of the city streets and homes of the Sagacho area in Fukagawa, at the end of the Edo period. This actual-sized exhibit replicates houses and narrow alleys. We walked into the small homes and caught glimpses of how the residents used to live. Great for adults and children!
The Samurai Museum is a small but fun museum located in the neighborhood of Shinjuku. It seemed a little out of place and discordant with its surroundings. In fact, when we arrived we thought we were in the wrong place. This is part of the beauty of Tokyo, where the old meets the new in the most unexpected way. The museum exhibits ancient samurai art, swords and costumes in a narrow space. At the end of the visit, a man demonstrated the manner in which the samurais used their swords, which was all the more captivating in such a solemn and quiet atmosphere. We passed by the gift shop as well, which sold the cutest, smallest toy samurais.
The Honda Center looks like a proper Honda car showroom, with a little stage in the back. A few times a day, a presenter brings out the main attraction: Asimo, an incredible humanoid robot that can walk, run and even jump. The show is short but fascinating to watch. At the end, you can take a picture with Asimo, which the kids really loved.
Parks, Gardens and Fun TIMES
We went to a number of parks with the children, notably Hibiya Park, which is an oasis in the middle of skyscrapers, in the district of Shinbashi. This is the first “western-style” park. As we entered we saw the famous fountain. The children then ran off to the beautiful pond and small play area, surrounded by lush vegetation.
Yoyogi Park (which I mentioned earlier) is a much bigger park, adjacent to Meiji Jingu Shrine. You find a lot of joggers and people exercising or training in martial arts.
The Imperial Gardens are beautiful, although we did not visit them this time around.
Ueno Zoo is the home of a giant panda, which was a gift from China to the people of Japan. Crowds line its pen to watch him.
We stopped by Philippe Starck’s Asahi Beer Hall, in Asakusa, the fantastic headquarters of the Asahi Breweries. This structure is considered one of the most recognisable modern buildings in Tokyo.
Another favorite was an afternoon trip to Odaiba, an artificial island in Tokyo Bay. We took a 20-minute boat ride to get to Odaiba, which has become a commercial, leisure and residential center. From the little beach, we had a beautiful view of the Rainbow Bridge and the children had a great time running barefoot in January! We did not head to the shops. Instead, we took photos under the Statue of Liberty—yes there is a Statue of Liberty in Tokyo, which is a replica of the one France loaned them in 1998.
Akihabara is an area known for its electronics shops—it is considered the largest electronics area in Japan, if not the world. My husband took the boys to Club Sega, a gaming arcade.
In the meantime, my daughter and I strolled through Takeshita Street in Harajuku (where the teenagers hang out) and enjoyed a variety of snacks, including multicolored cotton candy and crepe cones, and stopped at the PomPomPurin Café. The café is based on the PomPomPurin character—for those who do not know PomPomPurin, he happens to be Hello Kitty’s best friend.
Kiddy Land is a toy shop filled with cool gadgets and accessories and has a whole floor dedicated to Hello Kitty and another to Star Wars, amongst others. You will find the cutest souvenirs, anything from small action figures, to erasers to pencil cases, pens, t-shirts, hair accessories and so much more.
PomPomPurin Café, (which we all know by now refers to Hello Kitty’s BFF!) – this café is dedicated to the cartoon character, and is a fun tea spot for fans. My daughter loved the kitschy-cute café.
Sushi Zen — near the Tsukiji Fish Market
Kawaii Monster Café — a wild café in the Harjuku district, with a psychedelic merry-go-round in the middle. A popular hang-out spot for teenagers.
Zauo – a restaurant where you literally eat the fish you catch
Seryna – the most delicious Kobe beef and crab Shabu Shabu.
Kyube – considered one of Tokyo’s best sushi restaurants.
Gonpachi – the restaurant where they filmed the movie Kill Bill. It’s a great space that looks like an old, authentic Japanese restaurant and is split over two levels.
The trip was a huge success and we all want to go back! We truly enjoyed discovering the incredible mixture of ancient and modern, in one of the cleanest cities we have ever visited. Our next trip will have to include the Imperial Gardens, the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum, the Tokyo National Museum, the Shitamachi Museum, Tokyo Disneyland and DisneySea, and so many other spots. We learnt by chance that January is actually a great time to go, since the weather is beautiful and the city has practically no traffic.