Ready to try out Tokyo with your kids? Katja Gaskell has done some of the heavy lifting for you, tested out the top places on her own children and here’s what she does not think you should miss.
Tokyo may be one of the most densely populated cities on the planet but it’s also one of the most dynamic. Famous for its neon-lit skyscrapers and sakura tree-lined streets; its centuries-old traditional arts and avant-garde youth culture; and its ancient Shinto shrines and giant video game arcades, Japan’s capital is a spellbinding mix of old and new, promising non-stop fun for families.
The trick with a city this big is in planning. There’s not one central neighbourhood in Tokyo. Rather the city is made up of a collection of different districts, each with its own distinct character and identity. Pick one or two to explore each day, using the highly efficient metro system to get around.
Studio Ghibli: the heartland of anime in western Tokyo
Step into the fantasy-filled world of Hayao Miyazaki with a visit to the whimsical Ghibli Museum. Located in Inokashira, western Tokyo, the museum was designed by Miyazaki himself and showcases the many Studio Ghibli films produced including Laputa Castle in the Sky (1986), My Neighbour Totoro (1988), and Academy Award winning Spirited Away (2001).
There is no set route within the museum, instead visitors wander freely through what looks and feels like a large house. On the ground floor is a room showcasing snippets of anime history as well as an assortment of stroboscopes and zoetropes (cool gadgets used when making animation). On the second floor is a replica of Miyazaki’s studio, including his journals and drawings and on the third floor is the cat bus, complete soot sprites!
You must book tickets in advance; no tickets are available at the museum itself. And, given that this is one of Tokyo’s most popular attractions, make sure to book well in advance.
Where: 1-1-83 Shimorenjaku, Mitaka-shi, Tokyo 181-0013
When: Wednesday to Monday, 10am to 6pm
Sumo Stables: a rare chance to see rikishi in action
Get up close to the big guys of Tokyo’s sumo scene with an early morning trip to one of the sumo “stables”. It’s here that rikishi (wrestlers) and masters live and train in the sport which dates back 2,000 years. Steeped in rituals and tradition, it’s more than just brute strength, even if sumo bouts are only a few seconds long and last rikishi in the ring wins.
A handful of Tokyo stables allow visitors inside to watch daily training sessions. Given that there are only six sumo tournaments annually, this is your best bet to it in action. Make sure you confirm in advance that spectators are welcome, or find a tour. And remember, there are strict rules: no talking, no fidgeting, and no filming.
Where: Arashio stable – Arashio-beya – in Hama-cho, Nihombashi, Chuo-ku. You can watch the action through a window, no booking necessary.
Tsukiji Fish Market: browse the 24-hour Tokyo legend
Tokyo’s legendary Tsukiji fish market has been drawing crowds for the past 100 years thanks to its colourful mix of delicious street food, seafood vendors, kitchenware shopping and the buzzy atmosphere. Although the inner wholesale fish market – where the famous tuna auction is held – is now located in the Toyosu neighbourhood, the outer market is still very much alive and a must-see during your time in Tokyo.
Over 300 shops and restaurants line the dense grid of open-air lanes and alleyways selling everything from oversized mussels and prehistoric-looking giant King crab to freshly sliced sashimi and plump sea urchins displayed on half shells. The most popular stalls always have a queue, so it pays to arrive early. This is especially true if you want to try tako senbei: giant rice crackers made using shrimp or octopus, flattened using heat and high pressure.
Where: 4 Chome-13 Tsukiji, Chuo City, Tokyo 104-0045
When: Monday to Saturday, 24-hours. Closed Sunday.
teamLab Planets: immerse yourself in a digital wonderland
It’s not often that you’re asked to remove your shoes before entering a museum but then teamLab Planets is not your average museum. Located near the Odaiba neighbourhood in Tokyo Bay, this digital wonderland invites visitors to fully immerse in the art through lighting, sounds, textures and even smells.
The experience was created by digital art group teamLab who blend art, science, technology, and the natural world. It’s highly tactile experience and encompasses four exhibition spaces with seven different, large-scale body immersive artworks. Once inside you’ll wade through knee-deep waters surrounded by hundreds of swimming digital koi carp, manoeuvre around giant colourful light spheres, walk through a maze of crystals and lights, and lie back as a world of digital flowers surround you.
Not surprisingly, this is one of Tokyo’s most popular museums so make sure to book tickets well in advance.
Where: 6 Chome-1-16 Toyosu, Koto City, Tokyo 135-0061
When: Monday to Friday, 9am to 9pm. Saturday and Sunday, 9am to 10pm.
Harajuku: meet teen Tokyo on Takeshita Dori
No trip to Tokyo is complete without a visit to Harajuku. The heart of the city’s kawaii culture its main action is centred on Takeshita Dori. This narrow street is packed with themed cafes, shops selling cute plushies by Sanrio (most famous for Hello Kitty) and endless crêperies making sweet pancakes Harajuku style: wrapped into a cone and laden with ice cream, fresh fruit, and whipped cream.
Make sure to step into a purikura photo booth while here. These sticker photo booths are a popular Harajuku pastime and come with props for maximum kawaii points. However, Harajuku is also famous for its animal cafés, so prepare to meet hedgehogs, owls or even otters. And for your best chances of spotting colourful Harajuku teens? Time your visit for the weekend but be ready for crowds.
Where: Takeshita Dori, 1-chōme Jingūmae, Shibuya City, Tokyo 150-0001
When: Daily from 11am to 8pm, very busy at weekends.
Miraikan: Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation
If it’s robots that you’re after, head straight to Miraikan in Tokyo’s amusement district on an artificial island in Tokyo Bay. Although Asimo, the humanoid from Honda and one of Japan’s earliest robots, has retired, the museum is now home to two androids and an adorable robotic pet harp seal, Paro: originally developed as a therapeutic pet alternative.
Elsewhere in the museum you can step inside the International Space Station living quarters. If you want to get hands-on with a mechanical model that explains how the Internet works, this is the place. You’ll also find ways to explore how we can make the future world better and how science intersects with our daily lives.
Don’t miss the 18-metre high Gundam robot transformer with its unicorn horn. It comes from a hugely popular Japanese animation series and stands outside the Diver City Mall.
Where: 2-chōme-3-6 Aomi, Koto City, Tokyo 135-0064
When: Monday to Sunday 10am to 5pm. Closed Tuesday.
Akihabara: Electric Town just north of Tokyo Station
Anime and Manga fans should head to Akihabara, also known as Electric Town. This lively district, just north of Tokyo Station, is know for electronic shops and otaku: diehard fans of anime, manga, and video games. Be prepared to see tribes of otaku on the streets, usually cosplaying their favourite anime characters.
One of the best known stores is Akihabara Radio Kaikan. Here you’ll find 10 floors packed with trading cards, games, and rare anime figures. Tokyo Anime Centre is another must-do. And if you want to relive your youth, try Super Potato where classic video games like Street Fighter, occupy the top floor.
But the one kids don’t want to miss is Taito Station which covers five floors in Akihabara. It’s filled with everything from popular crane machines for plushie prizes to dance games. There’s even Taiko no Tatsujin (Master of Taiko), which lets you “play” a traditional Japanese taiko drum.
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