Only in Tokyo
Tokyo is a city like no other. Home to 35 million people, it is listed as the world’s largest metropolitan area, but it also boasts other records such as the city with the most Michelin star restaurants, the highest skywalk and busiest train station. There are many things Tokyo can brag about, but what made perhaps the biggest impression on us was its sharp contrast between the ultra-modern and very traditional. Somehow it all blends together seamlessly and perfectly in this energetic and leading-edge, yet spiritual and reflective, one-of-a-kind colorful city.
Our family just returned from a one-week visit to Japan’s capital where we had many memorable experiences. Our home base during our stay in Tokyo was Hilton Tokyo in Shinjuku, a full-service, family-friendly hotel close to public transportation, shopping and restaurants. Their friendly and helpful staff made our stay very enjoyable. To help you plan your own trip, here are 15 special things you can do while in Tokyo.
What to do in Tokyo, Japan with Kids
1. Visit an animal café
Would you like to drink a macha latte while petting a cat? You can, in Tokyo. If cats are not your thing, there are many other animal themed cafés to choose from like dogs, rabbits, owls and the latest craze: hedgehogs. More than likely originating because of the city’s strict pet rules, Tokyo’s animal cafés have become wildly popular with its residents and are now also a big tourist attraction, so much so that several places require a reservation weeks ahead of your visit. Make sure to plan!
2. Explore the world’s largest fish market
Japan consumes about one-third of the global tuna catch, mostly for sashimi use. If you want to witness the famous tuna auction at Tsukiji fish market, be prepared to get up in the middle of the night and know you are still not guaranteed a ticket for this coveted 5 am event since only 120 people are let in every morning.
Although we woke early suffering from jet lag, the mere idea was too daunting for us, so we opted to simply visit the outer market when it opened to public at 10 am. Even though most of the commercial action had died down by that time, it was incredible. A whopping 5 million pounds of seafood are sold here every day. We now understand the meaning of “if it lives in the sea… you will find it at Tsukiji!”
Tip: If you are considering lining up for the tuna auction, know that Tokyo’s subway system shuts down at 1 am and trains don’t start running again until 5 am, so a taxi is your best bet.
3. Make a wish at a temple or a shrine
Tokyo is dotted with temples and shrines. Meiji Shrine in Yoyogi Park and Sensoi Temple in Asakusa are two of the most famous and most visited, but there are thousands of others. We particularly liked Imado Jinja, the Shinto shrine in Asakusa, which is much less known and a bit tricky to find, but worth the effort. Known as the “love shrine,” it is dedicated to the worship of the two gods considered to be the creators of Japan and deities of marriage and prosperity. Many come to the Imado Jinja shrine seeking good luck in love and marriage, and having your photo taken with the statues is considered lucky. The shrine is also known as the birthplace of Maneki Neko, the famous “welcoming cat” which you can find in many Japanese stores and restaurants.
Regardless of which temple or shrine you end up visiting, purchasing a small wooden plaque, called ema, to write down your family’s hopes or prayers and then leaving it among thousands of others, is a very special experience.
4. Cross the busiest intersection in the world
You simply cannot come to Tokyo and not visit the famous Shibuya Crossing, considered the busiest intersection in the world. When the lights turn red, traffic stops from all directions at once and an awe-inspiring river of pedestrians spills into the crosswalks. Crowds can be as large as 2,500 people at one time and are comprised mostly of trendy Japanese teens and tourists from all over the world. A great place to watch all the action is from the giant windows at Starbucks on the north side. One could sit there and observe, completely mesmerized, for hours.
Tip: For a special experience, time your visit for late afternoon so that you can see Shibuya by day and then watch the lights come up in all the neighboring streets.
5. Take a sushi class
If you are visiting Tokyo, chances are you love sushi. What better way to deepen your love than to take a sushi class? Our family loved the experience we had at Chagohan Tokyo in Asakusa! We learned how to make sushi rice and dashi broth, staples of Japanese cuisine, and had a Japanese omelet making competition. We prepared rolled sushi and sashimi, which were incredibly delicious. The best part was that along the way, we learned a lot of Japanese culture and history. The staff was super-fun, making us feel like a part of their family. We will never eat sushi the same way again.
Tip: As a bonus, Chagohan Tokyo is only steps away from Kappabashi, the city’s famous kitchenware street. Perhaps you’ll be inspired to buy some of your own supplies or the famous, incredibly realistic-looking Japanese plastic food so often used in store and restaurant windows.
6. Admire cherry blossoms
Cherry blossom season is simply huge in Japan. In Tokyo, it typically lasts 1-2 weeks in late March and early April. During this time, there are many festivals dedicated to its celebration and every store seems to carry special sakura (cherry blossom) merchandise. The hanami, cherry blossom viewing with a picnic under the cherry trees, is the most popular past time.
There are many parks and other places around Tokyo to view gorgeous cherry trees during your visit. We also loved the night cherry blossom experience at the Happo-en, famous for traditional Japanese tea ceremonies and gardens boasting over 500 year-old bonsai trees. A walk around their grounds with beautifully lit up cherry trees, followed by the establishment’s annual cherry blossom party, was a truly special Japanese cultural experience. I highly recommend if you find yourself in Tokyo during the cherry blossom time!
Read more >> 9 Tips for Viewing Cherry Blossoms in Tokyo
7. Play traditional Japanese games with a geisha
While Kyoto is the Japanese city most associated with geishas, the well-known female entertainers and hostesses, Tokyo has several of its own geisha districts. For a fun geisha experience, head to Omotenashi Nihonbashi Information Center, which offers a great range of day tours and activities to help you get immersed in Japanese culture. Kids in particular, will enjoy the Time to Geisha. During the “serious” part with dance and singing performances, we enjoyed a lovely Japanese tea served with a sweet. Then we played several traditional games which included heavy audience participation.
Tip: We also loved Nihonbashi’s origami class and Best of Japan Food Tour, which were both fun experiences for the whole family.
8. Ride in a driverless train
The Japanese train system is mind-blowingly complex, sophisticated, on-time and clean. At first you might be totally intimidated by Tokyo’s extensive web of different train lines. (We certainly were.) But I promise, it quickly gets easier and starts to make sense. After a few days, we were total pros and only got on the wrong train once, mostly because we were too jet lagged to pay attention.
One of the most memorable experiences was a ride on Yurikamome, a fully automated train line that takes you from the city over the Rainbow Bridge to Odaiba, Tokyo’s man-made island. Everybody, not just kids, will love the experience.
Tip: Start your trip at the Shimbashi station and arrive to the platform extra early or wait for the next train to be able to sit in the very front car to get the best views. Trains run fairly frequently.
9. Relax in an onsen
Japan is known for their public bath houses, and a visit to one is a cherished Japanese tradition. The ones with hot mineral water are called onsen. A first time visit to an onsen can be a bit intimidating for visitors from other cultures since there is a set of rules one should follow, at least loosely.
A great, casual introduction to Japanese bath culture is Ooedo Onsen Monogatari, Tokyo’s onsen theme park on Odaiba, where many locals come to relax and have fun with their families. There are 13 different varieties of baths, a lively food court with the feel of old Tokyo (Edo Town), candy stores and game rooms, a fortune teller, massage and beauty parlors, giant resting areas filled with massage chairs equipped with individual TV screens and more.
If you are not sure what to do, just observe and try to copy; it worked for us! A family photo, barefoot and dressed up in yukata robes (like everybody else) is a must!
Tip: Most public baths in Japan have a strict no tattoo policy.
10. Enjoy modern art and the best views of the city
Tokyo’s Mori modern art museum is housed on the 53rd floor of the Mori Tower, located in the Roppongi area. The museum is known for its interesting and eclectic exhibitions. Many also believe that it offers the best views of the city and also Mount Fuji on a very clear day, much better in fact, than Tokyo’s famous Sky Tree tower.
Tip: A visit to the indoor viewing platform on the 52nd floor of the building is included in the museum ticket, the open-air roof deck requires an extra fee.
Read more >> 9 Tips for Visiting Tokyo With Kids
11. Watch a sumo wrestling practice
Observing a morning sumo wrestling practice may be an even more interesting experience than attending an actual sumo match. There are many sumo stables in Tokyo, most located in the Ryogoku district. Sumo practices are a serious business and not a tourist attraction, so not all stables accept visitors. Those that do have rules you need to follow such as: only observe the action through large glass windows, no flash photography, and keep talking to minimum.
Tip: The wrestlers leave town for large tournaments around the country such as Osaka, Nagoya or Fukuoka. If you miss out on them, another sumo-related experience you can have is a visit to one of the many restaurants in Ryogoku which serve chanko nabe, the famous stew which is a key part of a sumo wrestler’s diet. It is delicious and made with lots of vegetables and protein, very healthy. Don’t worry about the calories, you will only be eating one bowl!
12. Slurp some ramen at the Ramen Museum
Obviously, there is great Ramen everywhere in Tokyo, but visiting the Ramen Museum, a small food amusement park in Shin-Yokohama, about a 45-minute train ride from the city center, is a fun experience. Set up as a replica of Tokyo’s streets in late 1958 when instant noodles were introduced to the Japanese market, the lower level of the museum houses shops of famous Ramen restaurants from all over Japan. They represent regional tastes, so you can sample around.
In the evening, there is live music entertaining visitors. The first floor has a section on the history of Ramen around the world and a gift shop with all kinds of cool Ramen related memorabilia including customizable instant Ramen packages.
13. Buy something from a vending machine
Vending machines are everywhere in Tokyo. They sell cold drinks or hot soups, dog food, hamburgers, umbrellas, toilet paper and even clothes. Many more casual restaurants also have vending machines for you to order your food, which is then delivered to your table. You might need some luck with those Japanese signs, but fortunately there are pictures next to most buttons. Worst case, you get corn soup instead of the purple Fanta that your teenager was eager to sample. True story.
14. Sing in a karaoke box
Karaoke is a very popular activity in Japan, and Tokyo has many karaoke venues where you can sing to your heart’s content. Don’t worry if you think you lack talent; you won’t be standing on a big stage in front of a large audience. Instead, you can rent out a karaoke box, a small room reserved just for you. You can order food and drinks; some places even provide lighting and special effects. Go ahead, sing like nobody is listening…because, well, nobody is. Daaaaaancing Queen, anybody?
15. Buy the most peculiar flavor of Kit Kats you can find
Kit Kats are a bit of an obsession in Japan. It may be because their name closely resembles a popular Japanese phrase Kitto Katsu, translated loosely as “win surely” and essentially meaning “good luck.” As such, Kit Kats are often used for gifts, especially among the younger population.
Since the brand was first introduced to the Japanese market, it has created more than 200 different flavors including ginger ale, soy sauce, purple potato, cherry blossom and roasted soy bean, sake, fruit parfait and green tea. You can usually find a great selection in every 24-hour convenience store, but there are also upscale, boutique-like Kit Kat dedicated counters in large department stores.
You may also enjoy:
- Top 10 Things To Do In Tokyo With Kids
- 5 Memorable Things to do in Kyoto with Kids
- 10 Ways to Experience the Local Vibe While Traveling
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