Tokyo can be an overwhelming place to explore with young kids, but Kat Mateo has done it. Here are her — and her five-year-old son’s — recommendations
For me, traveling to Tokyo means visiting the temples and shrines, taking a photo with Hachiko’s statue, crossing the Shibuya scramble, trying the freshest sashimi in Tsukiji, going shopping in Omotesando, and seeing the natural wonders. But no matter how amazing and cool I think all of these are, my five-year-old son Ziv, who’s the most curious person I know, would probably say, “meh”.
So when I started planning my family’s trip to Tokyo, I knew I had to include attractions and activities that would not only interest him, but engage him as well. Luckily, there’s no shortage of kid-friendly spots and things to do in Tokyo; all moms and dads need to do is find them. Here’s a list of activities we did on our recent trip — all with my little co-traveler’s sticky stamp of approval.
Also read: 5 survival tips for traveling with kids
Ride a space-age boat
When I saw a photo of the futuristic Himiko — a boat that looks like a space cruiser — while researching for our trip, I instantly knew we had to ride it. Designed by one of Japan’s renowned manga artists, Leiji Matsumoto, the boat’s panoramic windows offer views of Sumida River and its 12 bridges. The boat takes passengers directly from Asakusa Pier to Odaiba Seaside Park, where many more kid-friendly attractions await. Ziv’s little strategy for waiting out the 50-minute cruise: hit up the onboard snack bar for a cup of ice cream.
Essential info: The Himiko Line (aka Asakusa-Odaiba Direct Line) is operated by Tokyo Cruise Ship company. There are three departures from Asakusa Pier daily, except for the second Tuesday and Wednesday of each month. You can check the schedule, and book your tickets in advance, at suijobus.co.jp. A one-way trip costs ¥1,560 for adults, ¥930 for kids aged seven to 12, and ¥300 for kids aged one to six.
Asakusa Pier is a short walk from Asakusa station on the Ginza and Tobu Lines, and five minutes from Asakusa station on the Asakusa Line.
Play with bricks in Odaiba
When in Odaiba, make a beeline for the Legoland Discovery Center (3/F Island Mall, Decks Tokyo Beach; +81 3 3599 5168; legolanddiscoverycenter.jp). Anyone with a five-year-old will know this is like winning the lottery. We did this on our first day in Tokyo, and Ziv kept asking to go back until the end of our vacation. One of the highlights of our visit was The Lego Movie 4D: A New Adventure. Even if the movie was in Japanese, we loved seeing some of our favorite characters from The Lego Movie — Emmet, Wyldstyle, Benny, MetalBeard and Unikitty. Other attractions Ziv enjoyed at the indoor playground are Miniland, where Lego models of familiar Tokyo attractions can be found, and half an hour of free play at The Lego Fire Academy and Construction Site.
Essential info: Legoland Discovery Center is open from 10am to 8pm on weekdays, and until 9pm on weekends. Entry is free for kids of two and below. A standard ticket costs ¥2,200, but if you book at legolanddiscoverycenter.jp you can save up to ¥700.
Aside from the Tokyo Cruise, Odaiba can be accessed via the Yurikamome Line. It crosses the Rainbow Bridge and offers scenic views.
Meet Mickey and friends
There are two theme parks at the Tokyo Disney Resort — Tokyo Disneyland (1-1 Maihama, Urayasu, Chiba-ku; +81 45 683 3777; www.tokyodisneyresort.jp) and Tokyo DisneySea (1-13 Maihama, Urayasu, Chiba-ku; +81 570 008 632; www.tokyodisneyresort.jp). Each one requires its own day pass, but both are well worth their fee. More than 30 of Disneyland’s 40-plus attractions don’t have height restrictions, so smaller kids are free to go wild with the riding options here, including It’s a Small World, Dumbo the Flying Elephant, Buzz Lightyear’s Astro Blasters, and Monsters, Inc. Ride & Go Seek! The colorful parades — Happiness Is Here, the high-energy daytime show, and Tokyo Disneyland Electrical Parade Dreamlights, a slow-moving night-time spectacle featuring our favorite Disney characters all wrapped up in LED bulbs — will surely capture the little ones’ attention as well.
Mickey Mouse’s House is located in the park as well, so if your kid is an avid fan, be sure to queue for a photo opp. Adults won’t feel out of place though, thanks to rides such as Star Wars: The Adventure Continues and the Space Mountain roller coaster.
Tokyo DisneySea, now on a year-long celebration of its 15th-year anniversary (until March 2017), is the only nautical-themed Disney park in the world. It has more than 20 rides suited to small kids, among them Toy Story Mania!, Caravan Carousel and Jasmine’s Flying Carpets. Meanwhile, moms and dads who love thrill rides can give the Tower of Terror and the Raging Spirits high-speed roller coaster a try. New shows were launched as part of the park’s birthday blowout — Crystal Wishes Journey and Out of Shadowland, as well as a new version of the hugely popular Big Band Beat. Also worth looking out for: Mickey and friends will be wearing their 15th-anniversary costumes when they go out for their meet-and-greets.
Tips: Crowds swell during peak seasons, such as during our springtime visit, when waiting times hit up to two and a half hours for one ride, so draw up a time-saving plan. Prior to your trip, make a shortlist of five rides you must go on and which shows to catch, and arrive early to get a FASTPASS (for attractions included in the scheme) as soon as you enter the park. This will help cut the time you spend waiting in line. Arrange to stay overnight at one of the hotels located in or near the park — you’ll be dead tired at the end of the day, and the last thing you’ll want to do is ride the train or bus back to Tokyo.
Essential info: A one-day passport for one park costs ¥7,400 per adult, ¥6,400 for 12- to 17-year-olds, and ¥4,800 for kids aged four to 11. You can buy this at the park or through the tokyodisneyresort.jp website. Tokyo Disney Resort (1-1 Maihama, Urayasu, Chiba Prefecture) is accessible via the Maihama station on the JR Musashino and JR Keiyo lines. Alternatively, you may take direct buses from various points in Tokyo. Visit the website for details.
Get off the beaten path
If you have time, take your tiny tot to the non-touristy neighborhood of Yotsuya in the south-eastern part of Shinjuku, where two of the main attractions are the Fire Museum (3-10 Yotsuya, Shinjuku; + 81 3 3353 9119; tfd.metro.tokyo.jp/ts/ museum.html) and the Tokyo Toy Museum (4-20 Yotsuya, Shinjuku; +81 3 5367 9601; goodtoy.org/ttm).
The Fire Museum tracks the history of fire service in Japan, a country that’s had its fair share of raging infernos, such as the deadly fire tornado triggered by the Great Kanto earthquake in 1923 that razed a large part of downtown Tokyo. There are plenty of fire engines and helicopters exhibited here, and if that doesn’t catch your little one’s fancy, then the films showing and models on display surely will. Peeling Ziv away from the museum involved some form of bribery, and if you manage to convince your kid to do the same, take a 10-minute walk to the Tokyo Toy Museum. Housed in the former Shinjuku Kuritsu Yotsuya Elementary School are traditional, mainly wooden toys from Japan and other parts of the world. More than 10,000 toys are divided by category and displayed in 10 playrooms across three floors. Staff members, also known as curators or toy consultants, are on standby in all the rooms to teach kids how to play with certain items.
The museum isn’t just a nice environment for your kids to play in or alongside local kids; it’s also a good spot for parents to rest. While Ziv was busy being a kid, my husband and I got a chance to take a peek into the lives of locals.
Essential info: The Fire Museum and Tokyo Toy Museum can be accessed via the Yotsuya-Sanchome station on the Marunouchi Line. The main entrance to the Fire Museum is at level B1 of the station. It is open from 9.30am to 7pm Tuesday through Sunday, and on national holidays. Entry is free.
The Tokyo Toy Museum is open from 10am to 4pm from Friday to Wednesday. A child-and-adult pair ticket costs ¥1,200.
This article originally appeared in the May 2016 issue of Smile magazine.