Tokyo is a larger-than-life destination with a dizzying number of tourist attractions. Happily, many of the top kid-friendly spots are in fairly close proximity, and Tokyo’s excellent public transport makes covering a lot of ground in a fairly short amount of time a snap. Here’s a game plan to make the most of your days in Tokyo.
First and foremost, enjoy the experience and pace — there is little point in dragging your family from spot to spot simply to check things off your list. For this short amount of time, we’d suggest covering three to four clustered Tokyo neighborhoods each day. This approach will allow families to hit the highlights and truly absorb the dramatic culture differences without losing time zigzagging back and forth around the city.
Asakusa, Ueno, Ginza and Roppongi Districts
Start your day in Asakusa, one of the most traditional Tokyo neighborhoods, at Senso-ji Temple. This must-see spot is emblematic of Tokyo, so have your cameras ready. Older kids can enjoy some independence as they wander along Nakamise Dori, a quaint shopping street leading up to the temple that is a treasure trove for souvenirs.
Afterward, if you plan ahead, you can spend an hour near Senso-ji at Mokuhankan Party to try your hand at making a traditional wood block print. This is a great immersive option for creative-minded families. From there, consider the area of Ueno. Home to many shrines and gardens, it also includes the Ueno Zoo and the Tokyo National Museum, which houses thousands of artifacts and art pieces that tell the story of Japan’s lengthy history — from samurai armor to Buddhist sculptures and wood block prints.
Next, make a quick stop in Marinouchi, the area around Tokyo Station, for a glimpse of the Imperial Palace. With kids, it’s best to skip the interior tour and simply walk by or explore the gardens. (If you do want to visit, you must book tickets and a guided tour at least four days in advance.) For lunch, head back to Tokyo Station with its vast array of choices. An easy and crowd-friendly option is “Ramen Street,” a lane within the station lined with ramen shops. After slurping up noodles, kids will go bonkers for “Character Street” with its souvenir heaven of 20-plus shops devoted to different anime and characters.
Ginza, a high-end neighborhood famed for shopping, is on tap for the afternoon. Two of the most popular streets are Chuo-dori and Harumi-dori. Make sure to carve out time to visit one of Tokyo’s famous department stores, such as Mitsukoshi, while you are here. Department stores in Japan are huge, multistory affairs and a cultural phenomenon unto themselves. Don’t miss a stop at the food hall, which showcases the very best in everything edible: traditional sweets, savory foods, Insta-worthy pastries and more.
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Leave time and energy after shopping to visit Tokyo Tower. Technically in between Ginza and Roppongi, this Tokyo landmark resembles a red version of the Eiffel Tower and offers two observation decks for families as well as a host of souvenir shopping and eateries in its base. On a clear day, you can see the peak of Mount Fuji, or Fuji-san, as he is affectionately known, from the observation deck.
TIP: Another place to glimpse Mount Fuji (with plenty more options for eating and shopping) is from Japan’s tallest structure, Tokyo SkyTree, which is located in Sumida. The views are terrific, but it does get crowded. Make sure to book in advance and bring your passport for special limited international visitor passes.
Ritzy Roppongi is Tokyo’s nightlife capital, and families will find plenty to do here for dinner and as the sun goes down, perhaps trying a family-friendly meal of shabu shabu or sukiyaki featuring premium Japanese beef. There’s the high-rise glamour of Roppongi Hills with its vast array of restaurants and bars as well as Mori Tower with its 52nd-story rooftop SkyDeck for stunning views over Tokyo.
Shinjuku, Harajuku and Shibuya districts
If Day 1 was about exploring nature and history, Day 2 in Tokyo is all about Japan’s vibrant modern culture. The neighborhoods of Shibuya, Harajuku and Shinjuku are bustling and chock-full of a variety of amusements.
Start the day in Shibuya, home to many corporations and the business hub of the city. Make your way to Shibuya Crossing, the busiest intersection in Tokyo, to witness the sheer volume of people coming and going. Next up is the Hachiko statue. Animal lovers will appreciate the story of Hachiko, a faithful Akita dog who waited at the Shibuya train station for its owner each day. Even after the owner passed away, Hachiko came to the station daily for years and the Japanese adore this statue that celebrates his loyalty. Then check out Tokyu Hands, a famous Japanese department store that is known for its handcrafted wares.
The stylish neighborhood of Harajuku is next on the agenda. Older kids and teens will enjoy the funky fashion shopping streets of Omotesando-dori (don’t miss Kiddy Land toy store) and Takeshita-dori, which offer window-shopping galore as well as popular street foods such as Japanese crepes. Harajuku is also a great place for people watching, especially on the weekends. Keep your eyes peeled for the fun and quirky “Harajuku Girls.”
For lunch or a snack, consider the unique Tokyo phenomenon of animal cafes. What began with the viral popularity of cat cafes has spread and morphed to include other animals you can visit and pet while eating at these elaborately themed eateries. Popular spots include hedgehog (yes, hedgehog) café ChikuChiku, dog venues Dog Heart from Aquamarine and Harajuku Mame Shinu (on Takeshita Dori), and cat cafes Temari no Oshiro, MoCHA Shibuya and Temari no Ouichi.
In the afternoon, Meiji Shrine in Harajuku pays homage to the Meiji emperor and empress and their legacy of modernizing Japan. It is a good place to explore — keep an eye out for the ceremonial hand-washing station and wishing tablets — and then burn off steam in the massive surrounding Yoyogi park, which has become an urban haven for Tokyo residents.
Following that, head to entertainment district Shinjuku. For samurai fans, consider at stop at the Samurai Museum, which offers interactive exhibits, sword fighting demonstrations and even a chance to dress up in samurai armor. There’s also the lush green space of Shinjuku Gyoen park, which is especially pretty during cherry blossom season.
For dinner, the options in Shinjuku are endless. The kitschy, eye-popping and over the top Robot Restaurant is sure to keep everyone entertained (Note: Robot Restaurant is currently closed due to COVID-19. Make sure to check all opening times before going.) The alleys of Omoide Yokocho are lined with traditional izakaya pubs serving drinks and snacks; they make for terrific photos thanks to the traditional red lantern vibe. Ninja Alaska, an immersive dinner and show experience, is modeled on an Edo-era ninja village.
Consider Tsukiji, Akihabara, Odaiba, Mitaka or Disney
Tailor today’s Tokyo exploration to your family’s particular tastes.
For sushi enthusiasts or those curious to take a look, we suggest waking up super early to experience the drama and scene at the Tsukiji fish market. The true auction action starts about 5 am, but there is still plenty to see and taste throughout the morning. Sushi for breakfast, anyone?
Odaiba is a “newer” (translation: 19th-century) neighborhood bordering Tokyo Bay that is known as an entertainment district. This showy area has a mini Statue of Liberty, a life-size Gandam robot and a huge Ferris wheel. Favorite family attractions include the Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation and TeamLab Borderless, a trippy immersive digital art installation (book tickets well in advance). For younger children there is also the Legoland Discovery Center and for school-age kids the Panasonic Center, including the latest Nintendo games.
Older kids and teens who are into gaming may be most interested in exploring the Akihabara neighborhood, famous for its devotion to all things electronic. In addition to store after store brimming with wares, there are also plenty of gaming centers and arcades.
Fans of Japanese anime flock to the Ghibli museum, which features interactive exhibits, fantastical art and larger-than-life sculptures reflecting the works of this animation studio. The museum is located in Mitaka, about a 20-minute train ride from Shinjuku station. Make sure to buy tickets well in advance for this popular destination. And for Disney fans, today may just be all about a trip to Tokyo Disneyland or DisneySea, which are a quick 15-minute train ride from Tokyo Station.
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