Tokyo Travel with Kids

Tokyo was a serendipitous vacation for A Boston Family on our way to Colombo, Sri Lanka in 2015. Our best option to use our frequent flier miles, was to fly JAL from Boston to Narita to Colombo. We took this opportunity to visit Tokyo, a one hour train-ride from Narita Airport. Tokyo proved to be a wonderful place to visit with children and an experience Akka was talking about for months after. So again we took the same route in 2016. Below we highlight our experiences in Tokyo and how we helped our children to explore and engage with a new place and culture.

Before We Left Boston

Lucky for us, Akka and Malli are great travelers. Part of that stems from their enthusiasm about the destination. We encourage the enthusiasm through plenty of pre-travel discussion and engagement. Before going to Tokyo, we helped generate excitement in the following ways:
  • We have had many occasions to visit the Japanese House at Boston Children's Museum. Revisiting and discussing the home and how people in Japan live differently from us proved a great way to pique their interest in a trip to Tokyo.
  • Sushi happens to be a favorite food of both children. Talking about sushi as one type of Japanese cuisine they would enjoy while in Tokyo had them jumping up and down with excitement. A pre-trip girls' night dinner at Thelonious Monkfish in Cambridge, which offers "Fairy Tale Sushi" rolls with names like"the Snow Queen" and "the Red Riding Hood" was very fun for Akka. We took the disposable chopsticks helpers she was given at the restaurant to bring with us to Japan. You can also buy chopsticks helpers online.
  • While researching travel in Tokyo with kids, we found Best Living Japan, a useful English-language blog and resource for families with weekly events listings and recommendations in Tokyo. We subscribed to the newsletter to learn more about family friendly activities in Tokyo so we could tell the children what to expect, e.g., The Coming of Age holiday that would occur during our visit.
  • We also bought relevant children's books to enjoy before, during and after our travel. Wabi Sabireviewed here by the NYTimes is beautiful, artistic and wonderfully written with haiku. It is not about Tokyo or Japan but rather about a Japanese concept and was our children's favorite of the Japan books we bought.  I Live in Tokyo is about Tokyo specifically and through the eyes of seven-year-old child. While it was a little old for our children, we like that it is something they will be able to grow into and that we can use to continue to teach them about Japan. Tokyo Friends was more age appropriate and our children could relate to the story as it centers around an American child engaging with Japanese children.
Another important preparation for Malli was how we would manage his dairy and peanut allergies. Our Japanese language skills are limited, so we printed the "fill-in-the-blank" card from We asked our hotel concierge to write down his allergens and the cards worked like a charm everywhere we ate. We also requested allergen-free meals from JAL for the flights. They normally need 96 hours notice, but when we had to reschedule our flight last minute due to illness, they went to extra lengths to ensure that Malli's allergen free meals and snacks would arrive from Tokyo in time.

Where We Stayed in Tokyo

We knew nothing about Tokyo the first time we traveled there. A Japanese friend assured us we would be happy in any neighborhood. We consulted our favorite hotel website Tablet and ended up at The Park Hotel in Tokyo's Shiodome district, a moderately priced but artistic hotel with good views. It is conveniently located 10 minutes from Tokyo Station where the Narita Express train from the airport arrives. On our second visit to Tokyo, the room size we needed was not available at the The Park Hotel so we booked a room at the neighboring Royal Park Shiodome that we read about on Travel for Kids. Royal Park Shiodome was as convenient and friendly, though not quite as stylish as The Park Hotel. Both hotels are situated high in towers such that the rooms have city views, and both offer a "bed and breakfast" option with a Western/Japanese buffet that is perfect when you wake up with hungry, young children. The buffet was a bit nicer at The Park Hotel.

Although Shiodome is a business district, it is actually an ideal location for a family visiting the city. It is walking distance to the famous Tsukiji Fish Market, at least until the market is moved from its current historic location.  The area is proximate to Tokyo Station, and both hotels where we stayed are walking distance to Shimbashi Station. Additionally, ferries along the Sumida River are accessible via the historic Hama-rikyu Gardens.

Note: With a young and jet-lagged child who we expected to wake at night and possibly cry we were hesitant to stay in a traditional Japanese guesthouse, known as a Ryokan, where we might disturb other guests. In the future with slightly older children we plan to do so, and wanted to mention that here for anyone interested in exploring that more traditionally Japanese option.

What We Did in Tokyo

Tokyo provides many opportunities to engage in culturally and locally unique activities that are enjoyable for children. The city is the cleanest and most child friendly place we have traveled. Department stores in Tokyo have entire sections with play areas, rooms for nursing moms, and microwaves to warm bottles or food for infants and toddlers. Public transportation is easily navigable. Google Maps works the same as in Boston. And people in Tokyo are friendly and helpful. In one example of Japanese hospitality, as we were trying to find an elevator entrance to enter the subway with our stroller, a woman proactively stopped to direct us. We located the entrance per her directions. When we arrived on the platform, she was waiting for us there to be sure we found our way.

Trains and Boats

Paying for a tour bus around Tokyo was not only unnecessary, but likely would not have been as fun for our children, as traveling by train and boat. The Tokyo subway system is in itself a site worth seeing. With multiple levels below, on, and above ground, it is entirely futuristic from an American public transportation perspective. Ferry boats traveling on the Sumida River and in Tokyo Bay are also somewhat unique. The juxtaposition of Tokyo's modern skyscrapers against the river on one end and the sky on the other is striking. Tokyo's covered and temperature controlled ferry boats also provide a way to be outside without actually being outdoors in poor weather. Announcements on the boats and trains are in both Japanese and English

Sumo Wrestling

Outside Ryogoku Stadium Sumo WrestlingJapan hosts six, fifteen-day sumo wrestling tournaments each year and three (in January, May and September) are in Tokyo. When we discovered that a tournament was happening during our visit, as avid Boston sports fan we knew we had to partake of Japan's national sport. Our hotel concierge directed us to buy our tickets at a Tower Records, which apparently still exists in Japan, though it is long gone from Boston. We had hoped to get mat seats - that is seats closer to the ring - where you sit on the floor. They were not only outside of our budget but sold out. However the stadium is small enough that even the balcony seats are fine. Children under 2 years are free so we only purchased three tickets. At 132 USD this was still the big splurge of our trip but well worth it. The tournaments start at 10AM and go on until 6PM with the best wrestlers competing later in the day. We arrived in the area around 2PM for a late lunch nearby and saw some of the wrestlers arriving among much fanfare and crowds. We headed into the stadium at 3PM and the crowds started pouring in around the same time as us. Matches are surprisingly short but numerous and the ceremonial components are just as fun to watch as the matches themselves. Lots of other children were present and this sumo wrestler cut-out for a photo op outside of Ryogoku Stadium shows just how child-friendly this is.

To get the kids geared up in the morning we watched a few videos online about sumo wrestling. This one from a BBC documentary and this other from National Geographic were not only informative but actually kept our 4.5 year old and 2 year old engaged.

Cat Cafe

Petting Cats at Nekorobi Cat Cafe Tokyo
A Boston Family formerly included two felines and Akka remembers and misses them wholeheartedly. Our first time in Tokyo we intended to visit an animal cafe in Ueno but never made it due to limited time. On our second visit a cat cafe was a priority. The first cat cafe we went to disappointingly was exclusively for patrons 12 years and older. Luckily they gave Akka a nice postcard of a cat and directed us to the kid-friendly Cat Cafe Nekorobi in Ikebukuro, about 35 minutes away by train. Fun facts for the kids - neko means 'cat' in Japanese and nyan means 'meow'. While it was a bit difficult to shell out the 10 USD per person to sit in a room and pet cats for an hour, cat cafes are certainly a Tokyo cultural experience and one that enchanted our children. Initially Akka was disappointed she could not capture the attention of any of the cats, but about halfway into our visit, the cafe workers distributed bags of cat food treats that had the cats swarming all over the patrons, including our two kids. The cafe was surprisingly fur free and my sensitive nose did not detect the smell of litter box. Unlimited hot beverages were complimentary with admission. Playing with the cats was admittedly fun, and it was truly a sight to see all the locals crowd into the cafe to spend their time and money petting, feeding and playing with cats. An extra fun oddity is the cafe's bathroom. It is a veritable shrine to the cafe's cats with photos posted above the urinal and on the inside of of the bathroom stall door.

Tsukiji Fish Market

Tsukiji Fish Market TokyoTokyo has famous attractions like DisneySea and the Sumida Aquarium, but the most exciting fish-related experience can be enjoyed for FREE at the Tsukiji fish market. We  can't believe this historic market is moving and are glad we had the opportunity two years in a row see it at its original location. Unfortunately children are prohibited from attending the tuna auctions which occur in the wee hours of the morning. However, after the majority of business in the inner market is completed, at 9:00AM the market opens to tourists. Prior to that you can enter as a consumer if you are actually buying. The market prohibits strollers (we used a baby/toddler carrier) and proper footwear such as sneakers are needed. Additionally the outer market with its multitude of shops and restaurants opens at 6:00AM if you want the freshest sushi breakfast you are likely to ever eat. It is open through lunch and dinner as well. It is also a fun place to sample street food and just like walking through Boston's Faneuil Hall, numerous vendors offer samples to taste of everything from dehydrated seaweed to green tea to soy nuts and tons of other snacks not easily identifiable. It is also a good place to pick up inexpensive souvenirs including packaged foods and decorated sake sets and other dishware.

City View from the Metropolitan Building

View of Tokyo and Mount Fuji from the Metropolitan Building
Tokyo Tower and the Tokyo Skytree offer views of the city from their observatory decks with paid admission. However when traveling with small children who have limited attention spans and jetlag, it is never safe to pay a lot of money for an attraction you might not end up enjoying for long. Staying in our chosen hotels in the Shiodome certainly provided us a beautiful views of parts of Tokyo. However to see all of Tokyo and Mount Fuji the Metropolitan Building's two observatory decks are a great FREE alternative to the paid observatories. We happened to arrive in the evening to see the sun setting behind Mount Fuji. An added bonus is that the Metropolitan Building is accessible via the Shinjuku Station. The station itself is worth seeing, given its status as the world's busiest transport hub serving millions of people daily. The station is also home to department stores and seemingly infinite dining options. Another nearby attraction is the Park Hyatt Hotel Tokyo where Lost in Translation was filmed. The movie is near to our hearts after we almost lived the fire alarm scene when an fire alarm actually did go off in our hotel one night at 3:00AM. Luckily we had only descended two of 31 floors before the alarm was retracted.

The Imperial Palace

A Boston Family in the outer garden of the Imperial Palace TokyoWhat kid, or even adult, is not going to be fascinated by a palace? The imperial palace in Tokyo is not only conveniently located within walking distance of Tokyo Station (and others) but also presents a huge outdoor space where children can run around and play. Just entering the outer garden is an adventure. Walking through enormous gates and viewing the moat that surrounds the palace grounds provides a glimpse of life during Tokyo's Edo Period. Forget Disney princesses and Power Rangers, this is real fodder for dreams and pretend play about royalty and Samurai warriors. Like the monarchy in Great Britain, the emperor in Japan today plays what is largely a symbolic role in the country. However for young children the very idea that there is an Emperor and Empress and princesses and princes in Japan living in the palace is truly exciting. It is also an opportunity to begin teaching government and civics in a very fun way at a young age. A great fact for kids is that Emperor Akihito is a direct descendant of the original emperor of Japan. Historically the Japanese people believed only the Emperor could communicate with the gods on behalf of the people and this insured that the same family remained on the throne. On a more somber note for older children, the palace serves as a reminder of US attacks on Japan. Many of the palaces original structures were destroyed by an allied bombing in 1945.

Senso-ji Temple and other Shrines

Akka at a shrine outside the Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo

There are several important and historical Buddhist and Shinto shrines throughout Tokyo but the children even enjoyed the smaller shrines we stumbled upon as we explored the city. At the Namiyoke Inari Jinja in the Tsukiji Fish Market, they enjoyed the tradition of walking through the loop in figure eights, four times. At the Ueno Toshogu Temple in Ueno Park, they loved ringing the bell. Senso-ji Temple in Asakusa aside from its size and touring pagoda, is also a good, touristy destination with mock Edo Period architecture, shopping and street-food just outside the temple walls. Akka had been mesmerized by the women in kimonos visiting the temple for Japan's Coming of Age holiday and eager to have "Japanese clothes" for her and Malli. Outside of Senso-ji Shrine we found 100% cotton yukata robes, an affordable and simpler alternative for the children at around 25/30 USD. Around Senso-ji is the perfect place to pick up souvenirs, at tourist prices of course. It is also the perfect spot for kids to see and ask for everything from Hello Kitty gear to yukatas for pets to Samurai and Geisha figurines.

Japanese Cuisine

Malla eating unagi on a stick outside Tsukiji Fish Market Tokyo
Family-style dining - that is mealtime where we all sit down together at the same time and eat the same food - has been the norm in our family since infancy. Simply put, our kids eat what we eat. Still, it is a surprise how willing and even eager these children are to try new foods. At left, Malli is chowing down on grilled marinated octopus on a stick in the Tsukiji Fish Market. Both Malli and Akka made us laugh another day on the ferry with their excitement over a snack of dried whole fish, the only dairy-free snack available. They giggled endlessly about eating whole fish and fish heads while scarfing down the snack that would not appeal to most Western palates. We ended up with an extra packet that made it to one of our road trips in Sri Lanka and the novelty of eating the dried fish was relived. They also ate street-food like pork buns, and enjoyed sushi, sashimi and chirashi bowls. To our delight children's menus at Japanese restaurants offered similar food to the adult items, i.e., rice, marinated vegetables, and fish, served with kid-size utensils, juice and sometimes play toys. For treats we were excited to find red-bean paste stuffed treats and matcha mochi that Malli could eat. The rest of us enjoyed stuffed, flavored mochi sweets that contained dairy. We also delighted in green tea and red bean flavored KitKat bars and bought some as small gifts to give in Sri Lanka.

Continuing our Exploration of Japanese Culture 

To make the most of our travels, it is important to us that the experiences live beyond their immediate occurrence. Back home in Boston, we have our photographs, our souvenirs, and our books. We also have aspirations to return to Japan and visit Kyoto, Osaka and other parts of the country. We have the Japanese House at the Children's Museum. And importantly we have opportunities throughout the year to attend Japanese cultural events to help keep the kids learning and engaged:
  • Boston's annual Japan Festival, returns this year on April 24th, 2016 in Boston Common.
  • The Japan Society of Boston, sponsors events and posts on opportunities for cultural engagement throughout the year.

We look forward to sharing our continued experiences with Japanese culture here in Boston in the Boston section of our site.

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