Tokyo is surprisingly a very family-friendly place to kick start your Japan trip. Here’s our guide of top things to do in Tokyo with kids if you’ve only got a short amount of time to visit.
Things to do in three days in Tokyo with kids
Shibuya and the world’s busiest pedestrian crossing
The Shibuya area of Tokyo is one you’ve probably seen from films like Lost in Translation – or in your kids’ case Cars 2 where Maida zooms around the streets of Tokyo! It’s a buzzing area full of bright neon billboards and is also home to the world’s busiest pedestrian crossing.
Our kids loved people watching and waiting for the crossing light to turn green where we held on to their hands TIGHT and crossed along with hundreds of other people. Amazingly despite the volume of people it just works and we didn’t see any collisions!
The area around the crossing is a fun place to explore, with lots of shops, restaurants, karaoke bars and arcade parlours.
Tsjuki fish market
Visiting the Tsjuki fish markets is a fun free thing to do in Tokyo with kids. It’s one of the largest fish markets in the world with over 2,000 tonnes of fish and seafood sold daily.
If you’re an early riser or suffering jet lag you can get there super early for the tuna auctions that take place at 5am (you’ll have to queue to get tickets however as it’s limited to 120 people per day). However with the kids in tow we opted just to visit the outer market, which was still fascinating.
One of the highlights of visiting Tsjuki is to eat at one of the small sushi restaurants in the outer market. I think you’d struggle to get fresher sushi anywhere else in the world!
Sushi Dai is supposedly the best sushi restaurant in Japan, but saw the queue and knew immediately that wasn’t going to work for us with two kids in tow. We heard people saying they had been waiting 3 hours and still weren’t at the front…
Instead we wandered 3 restaurants down and found a gorgeous little place that we could get into straight away.
We ordered two delicious dishes and sat at the counter to watch the sushi master expertly put it together for us. It was absolutely brilliant. The identifiable bits were tuna, tuna mince, salmon, salmon caviar, tofu, prawn, eel and a variety of fresh white fish. The kids were really game and tried a little bit each.
Tips for visiting Tsjuki with kids:
- Hold on tight to your kids as this is a working fish market with a lot of forklifts, trucks, machinery moving around
- Observe all of the etiquette required – there’s a big sign of do’s and don’ts as you enter
- Access to the wholesale area is not permitted to the public before 10am (apart from the tuna auction as mentioned above)
- The market is closed on Sunday. True Tokyo sushi officionados apparently never eat sushi on a Sunday as they know the fish won’t be fresh that day from the market!
- The market is due to move shortly (as at May 2017) as authorities want to find a bigger location for it. So keep an eye so you don’t end up at the wrong place
Miraikan – The National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation
The National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation or Miraikan as it is known was a brilliant place to spend the afternoon.
The kids loved learning about the environment and impacts of climate change, as well as seeing rapidly developing robot technology in action.
It also gave us adults a lot to thing about as well in terms of the place of robots in society – and fundamental ethical questions such as what should robots look like and how far should the technology go? Should they resemble humans or machines. What role in society do we let them play? Deep and meaningful stuff!
The Miraikan also has a great cafe where we had lunch for a reasonable price, and a gift shop packed with cool science related items.
Roppongi Hills, MORI Art Museum and Tokyo City View
Roppongi used to be a bit of a dodgy area, but now smack bang in the middle of it is a new ‘lifestyle’ complex showcasing how to work/live/play in the same area.
There’s a giant big shopping centre at Roppongi Hills, and it’s also home to the MORI Art Museum and Tokyo City View which offers breathtaking views out over Tokyo.
We headed to Tokyo City View in the late afternoon to watch the sunset. And the bonus surprise of the year – the space also doubles as a gallery space. On show was a Marvel Heroes exhibition complete with costumes and items from the films, original comics, behind the scenes interviews and an interesting feature on the crossover between Marvel and Japanese manga comics. A little boy was in absolute heaven to see all his heroes in one place and we spent a good couple of hours there.
Tokyo City View is the perfect place to get your bearings of the Tokyo sprawl, and a gives a good appreciation of how massive this city truly is.
Shopping and people watching in Shinjuku
Shinjuku is a great place in Tokyo for people watching. Amongst the bright neon lights are shoppers, tourists and young people dressed in all manner of things!
One of our favourite finds for knick knacks and cheap souvenirs was the 100 yen store. A bit like our $2 shop in NZ or a pound store in the UK, it had all kinds of cute bits and pieces. We bought some gorgeous Furoshiki – fabric that is traditionally used to wrap presents in – that we are going to frame up at home.
It also pays to get off the beaten track a bit in Shinjuku. There are some gorgeous little alleyways and restaurants in the area between the station and Shinjuku Gora (park).
Shinjuku top tip:
Shinjuku train station is absolutely huge and very busy, in fact it is the largest in the world with over 3.6 million passengers per day! It pays to know which exit you want to take before leaving, so study your map. Don’t walk nearly 1km in the wrong direction like we did…
Visit Isetan department store and marvel at the beautiful food on offer
The basement of the Isetan department store in Shinjuku is an absolute foodie paradise.
There’s an amazing selection of beautiful patisserie, chocolate artisans, beautifully packaged (and pricey!!) fruits and vegetables from around the world, fabulous bento boxes and sushi on offer.
It’s a great place to purchase some items for a picnic (not the pricey fruit!) and head on over to Shinjuku Goya (park) to enjoy.
Shinjuku Goya (park)
Just along from the hustle and bustle of Shinjuku is Shinjuku Goya or park. It’s an absolutely stunning place to wander through and admire the gorgeous gardens. As we were lucky enough to be there in spring, we got to see people having hanami (picnics) under the sakura (cherry blossom trees).
While sakura are undoubtably the star of the show in spring, there are also stunning azalea bushes that are perfect for a game of hide and seek.
There is a small charge to visit Shinjuku Goya, but absolutely worth it in our opinion.
Take funny family selfies at the Purikura photo booths
Purikura are photo booths that you can find dotted around the place, that are extremely popular with teenage girls taking group selfies!
But they’re a highly entertaining thing do do with your family as well. You go into the photobooth and take a series of funny snaps, then get an electronic pen where you can draw on the photos and add stickers.
You then get to print the picture out and email yourself an electronic copy. Our kids LOVED doing this, especially putting make-up on Dad 😉
Vending machines are ubiquitous everywhere you go in Japan, there must be literally thousands of them in Tokyo. You can do everything from get hot and cold drinks, order a meal and pay for it via a vending machine (then go inside and wait while they cook it), get all manner of cute little toys that your kids don’t need from them…..
But it is a fun thing to do and actually very convenient!
What to eat in Tokyo
I’m not going to pretend to be anything like an expert here, because there are SO many places to eat and most of them I’m sure are amazing. The one thing I would recommend however is the sushi at Tsjuki as I mentioned above.
While in Tokyo here are some other things you might like to try.
Ramen – a delicious broth with noodles, meat, vegetables and sometimes a hard boiled egg.
Gyoza dumplings – a fabulous one for kids! We had to order double helpings for them 🙂
Yakitori – meat and vegetables on skewers at an izakaya (pub or bar) with a large beer. Great fun!
Katsu kare – breaded pork cutlet with curry sauce
Another interesting thing when choosing where to eat in Japan is the displays of plastic food that adorn restaurant windows. Some of it is so realistic! It’s apparently there to entice diners inside.
Where to stay in Tokyo
Again there are a plethora of places to stay in Tokyo, and it can be very expensive. However we found great value via Air BnB in a lovely 1 bedroom apartment in the Azubu-Juban area, close to Roppongi.
It was extremely reasonably priced, in a great area and a washing machine – bliss for a travelling family. The kitchen was also well equipped.
You can view the apartment here.
Want a $20 USD Air BNB credit? Click on this link when you’re booking and we both get a $20USD credit courtesy of AirBNB ?
Getting around Tokyo
The Tokyo train system is amazing but also like spaghetti junction and confusing all at the same time. It’s a really efficient way of getting around.
Luckily, all of the stations and places are sign-posted in English and both the station staff and local people are so extremely friendly and helpful you can’t go wrong.
The confusing part is that different train lines are owned by different companies, so it’s not just a matter of buying a ticket and getting on with it. If you have a Japan Rail Pass to get around the country, you can use that on some of the lines.
I have probably made it sound more confusing than it is, but once you’ve been there a day or so, it’s quite easy to figure out!
Getting there and away
From the airport to Tokyo
Tokyo is a sprawling city, and the airports are located a long way from the city centre. If you don’t want to pay for an expensive taxi, then other travelling families have recommended the Airport Limousine bus to me. This will bring you to various parts of the city where you can then get a cheaper local taxi or jump on the subway.
We flew to Osaka so came up to Tokyo on the shinkansen.
The shinkansen or bullet trains are an absolute must-do if you are in Japan with kids. Yes they are expensive but it’s an experience all in itself to ride in a train going over 300km/hr. And it’s such a fast way to get around – 2.5 hours from Osaka to Tokyo versus almost 12 hours on a bus? No brainer!
A very economical way to ride the shinkansen network is to purchase a Japan Rail pass. To get the tourist pricing however – which is much cheaper than what locals pay – you need to purchase the pass before you leave your home country. It gets mailed to you, so make sure you purchase it well in advance.
We took lots of snacks with us on the shinkansen, but you can also purchase food and drink on the train via the trolley that comes around.
In true Japanese fashion, the trains run absolutely on time to the minute (don’t be late!) and the toilets are immaculately clean compared to most we’ve experienced around the world!
We just turned up on the day and booked our seats right before we wanted to travel, but this was off-peak during the day. You may want to book in advance if you are travelling during peak times.
Coming soon: Kyoto, Osaka and Universal Studios Japan!