Boarding our plane to Tokyo, we had high hopes for our holiday. The children wanted ninjas and robots, my husband wanted gadgets galore and I just wanted to not lose anyone whilst negotiating Japan’s vast capital city, home to over 13 million people.
Like every major city it has an overwhelming amount of attractions to amuse and delight overseas visitors, the question is which ones to choose. Especially in a city where even the toilets are far from bog standard, with its heated seats and musical melodies. Our list was long and our time there was limited, below are my top Tokyo attractions for families visiting Tokyo:
In the battle to be crowned Tokyo’s top tourist attraction for families, the Ninja restaurant would be very hard to beat. It had robots, fancy food served in a frivolous fashion, a personal show from a master ninja magician and buckets of dry ice.
It’s no mystery that you need to book a table there a few weeks in advance and they also require you to pay a rather large refundable deposit. There are two ninja restaurants in Tokyo, one in the central Shinjuku area and one in Akasaka.
Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building
They say the best things in life are free. Remarkably for a city that will have you haemorrhaging cash, a trip up the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building is indeed free! Once you arrive at the tower follow the signs to the lifts that will take you to an observation deck, 202 meters above the ground.
Generally the North Tower is open between 9.30am and 11pm, but you will not be allowed up after 10.30pm. Before you go check the website to make sure that it’s not closed for the holiday season. The Tocho-mae Station, on the Oedo Subway Line, is located in the basement of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building. Alternatively, the building can be reached in a 10 minute walk from the west exit of JR Shinjuku Station.
It has been said that Shibuya’s iconic crossing is the busiest crossing in the world and it’s not hard to see why, with up to 1000 people scrabbling across the intersection every time the lights change. You might want to take a trip here as an opportunity to grab a coffee in one of the many cafés overlooking the crossing. You can rest your fatigued feet whilst watching everyone else do the hard walk below.
A short metro ride away from the crazy crossing is Harajuku Street, home to quirky Cosplay play characters, crazy fashion, creamy crepes and deep fried cheese. However you may want your hotel to be nearby as there is every chance you may fall in to a deep fried carbohydrate coma after indulging in either of these.
A word of warning: Harajuka Street was packed with people when we visited on a Sunday, so afterwards you may want to escape to the nearby serenity of Yoyogi Park. If you visit this peaceful place and home to a significant shrine at the weekend you may be rewarded with witnessing some weddings. However my kids were mortified that we had taken them to a park without an actual play area in it.
Mirakan – The National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation
If like us you have an encounter with robots to tick off from your holiday programme, you may want to head over to Odaiba Island. A short train ride from the main island using the Yurikamome train will take you to this high tech entertainment hub which is home to the Mirakan – The National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation.
Although I felt that most of the exhibits were aimed at older children and adults, we enjoyed a couple of hours here sheltering from the rain. The highlights were our conversation with a very lifelike robotic woman and a robot show that included some pretty impressive soccer skills.
The museum is closed on Tuesdays, unless it’s a public holiday and opens from 10am – 5pm. They even have a café if you are mega hungry and fancy a byte to eat. You can find more information here.
The ones that got away ….
We ran out of time to tick off everything on our extensive list. But if you have the luxury of longer than a few days, you might want to head over to the Senso-Ji temple to experience a quintessentially Japanese temple and maybe even ride on a traditional rickshaw whilst you are there. The temple is a few steps from Asakusa Station, but it is slightly away from the usual tourist stops.
Based on the same island as the famous Daikanransha ferris wheel and the Miraikan Museum is a brilliant interactive lightshow instalment. If you have teenagers in tow or your Instagram account is desperately in need of some images that spark joy then head to Teamlab borderless. This came highly recommended to us, but it does sell out some days in advance and I was just too late to get tickets. If you like the sound of this innovative place visit their website for more information and to buy tickets.
The one I wished had gotten away!
First on our itinerary was Robot Park or Sakuraka Park in Roppongi. I thought this would be a quirky fun start to our holiday, allowing the kids to burn off some energy whilst seeing robots and cherry blossom at the same time. It was no more that a small park with a few robot statues and we did not need to make a special trip to see cherry blossom as we saw bursts of it all over the city. The family were not impressed and it led them to question every other activity I suggested after that.
Before you get there
I highly recommend downloading the free Tokyo Subway Navigation app to help you get from A to B in the quickest way possible, it will also tell you how much you need to pay for a ticket to get there.
There is so much to do in Tokyo and if like us you have only a little time you really need to plan ahead and also agree as a family what you most want to do and see. We received the great gift of the City Trails – Tokyo guide book which is produced by Lonely Planet and aimed at children and really helped ignite the kids interest in the trip.
The cost of train travel in Japan will make your eyes water more than a spoonful of wasabi. So, if you are planning to travel on from Tokyo you may want to invest in a Japan Rail pass or JR Pass. This is a very cost effective rail pass for long distance train travel in Japan. The pass can only be used by foreign tourists and offers unlimited use of JR trains for one, two or three weeks for a fraction of the normal price.
You will need to pay for it in advance and collect it when you arrive. I received recommendations for the following two Malaysian travel agents that can help organise a pass for you: JTB Malaysia and H.I.S. Malaysia. Using one of the many online JR pass calculators will soon tell you whether investing in a pass will pay off.
Finally pack your most comfortable walking shoes, as we were ranging between 10 and 15km a day. I would also advise packing lots of layers especially if you’re not used to colder climes. We experienced frozen fingers and sunburn within the space of 24 hours.
Where to stay in Tokyo
Tokyo is vast, so it is wise to stay somewhere central, otherwise you will spend half your stay travelling to where you need to be. We stayed at the Toshi Center Hotel which was conveniently located next to a bunch of cafés that served breakfast and three metro stations – Nagatacho, Kojimachi and Akasaka – Mitsuke.
The downside of staying near the centre of the city and the main attractions is that you don’t get much bed for your buck. The rooms had everything we needed, but it was probably the smallest and for its size the most expensive hotel we have ever stayed in, especially as we had to have two rooms for our family of four. My daughter said the hotel corridors reminded her of a hospital and the room reminded her of a tree house because it was so tiny, I have to say that I think it also smelt like a tree house too and not in a lovely alpine fresh way.
How to get to Tokyo
We flew into Tokyo Haneda airport from KLIA with Air Asia X and flew back from Osaka also with them. If you also choose this airline you will need to provide your own on board entertainment to make the approximately seven hour journey fly by. There are a number of other airlines that also fly directly to Tokyo including ANA and Malaysian Airlines.
Our flight landed at 10pm so we thought instead of lugging four suitcases and two tired children across Tokyo on an unfamiliar public transport system that we would treat ourselves to a taxi. Half way through the cab ride we started to question this decision. The 30 minute journey cost an eye watering RM350, thankfully we were able to pay the driver by bank card!
They say you can’t put a price on happiness, however I can confirm you can put a price on unhappiness and for my husband it was forking out that amount of cash for something that would have cost a fraction of the price in KL.
When is the best time to visit Tokyo?
It’s best to avoid a hot and humid summer sightseeing in the city, so try and not travel during late June to August. If you visit during spring and autumn months of March to May and September to November you’ll enjoy a much more pleasant temperature for exploring. We visited in early April and were lucky enough to see the cherry blossom in full bloom during Sakura season.
Like most vibrant cities Tokyo is most spellbinding at night. When we were there in the spring time we were lucky enough to see snow, which just added to the magic. If you are looking for a ski trip, check our post on Furano here.
By the end of our time in Tokyo our feet were sore and our bank account was considerably depleted but our souls and minds were enriched with lots of memorable, entertaining and eye opening moments. The trip was well worth every yen.
Ninja restaurant is very pricey even for Japan and the food is mediocre by Tokyo standards. It’s all about the gimick and the kids do love it but personally I would rather spend the money on other areas. If you have teenagers and want to spend your money on better food consider going to the Molecular Tapas Restaurant at the Mandarin Oriental where the children will be wowed by science and can watch the chefs creating wonders in front of them. Your place setting is a tool box so you know nothing is going to be quite what it seems. There are limited places so you must reserve well in advance. I prefer the early sitting as you get the view of sunset over Tokyo while you dine. For younger kids Zaou Fishing Restaurant is a good option. As suggested by the name, you can fish for your own supper in tanks around the room and once you’ve caught one the staff prepare it in whatever style you request (be warned, if you catch it, you eat it so you shouldn’t carry on fishing after you have caught what you need). If the novelty of the fishing wears off before you’ve been successful you can also just order off the menu. There are a number of branches in Tokyo but I think the one in Shinjuku (where the tables are in a large wooden “boat” surrounded by the fish tanks) is best (and whilst in the area you can spot Godzilla on the top of the Hotel Gracery Shinjuku and take in the streets full of neon lights). For sushi on the go look for somewhere like Genki Sushi (branches all over, including one by Shibuya Crossing described above) where you order on tablets at your seat and the food automatically whizzes around on your own dedicated conveyor belt to arrive in front of you. There’s an English menu option so you won’t have a problem working out what you are ordering and there are plenty of non fish options for fussy eaters. There are also loads of novelty character themed cafes where the food and drink offerings are all part of the theme (Beatrix Potter, Moomin, Sylvanian Families, Gundam Robot are just some of the options) which may delight any superfans in your brood. There are also lots of pop up themed cafes for particular events like Marvel cinema openings so it’s worth googling the options to see if there is anything relevant to your family while you are there (but be warned that the pop ups are likely to be very crowded at weekends and school holidays).
As far as when to visit, be aware that late April/early May is Golden Week with loads of public holidays in a clump and transport options can be packed then. June is rainy season which can put a dampener on things, July and August are hot and steamy (often hotter than KL) and September is peak typhoon season which can cause transport disruption and be almost as wet as rainy season. October and November have great sightseeing weather and the autumn colours are arguably better than the more famous cherry blossoms. Dont discount a winter visit: Tokyo gets loads of sun all winter even if the temperatures can be a little chilly but avoid the end of December/beginning of Jan when everything shuts down for the New Year holiday. Since Japan celebrates the calendar new year rather than the lunar new year, CNY can be a great time to visit.
Great tips. Are youalso producing an article on Osaka?
I hope you find them helpful. I am currently writing about our time in Kyoto and after that I will cover Osaka. if there is something specific you would like to hear about please let me know.