Japan With Kids: Finding Calm in Chaotic Tokyo

Inokashira Park Tokyo Japan

The lake and trees at Inokashira Park are a green oasis in bustling Tokyo

Big cities are not what a lot of parents think of when planning a “kid-friendly” vacation. And Tokyo, the biggest city in the world by some counts, might not fall high on your list of places to explore with small children.

There are good reasons for this. Tokyo is HUGE. It dwarfs New York City.  Its subway system is efficient but not always simple for foreigners to navigate. Tourist destinations are far apart and if you don’t think ahead you can find yourself spending hours on public transportation, changing trains multiple times, no fun with little ones. When we discovered Tokyo Disneyland was actually several hours by train from the part of the city where we’d be staying, we opted not to the Japanese version of the Magical Kingdom.

Yes, the city is vast, saying it’s crowded is an understatement, and it’s expensive. But it’s also historic, cutting edge, and incredibly exciting. So last summer during our Japanese adventures we decided to devote a few days of our two weeks in this mad metropolis.  Our favorite Japan guidebook, Frommer’s Japan , gives great overall Tokyo information including coverage of the top historical and tourist sites. There are two spots with kids we especially enjoyed which we want to highlight for families with kids taking on Tokyo.

Swan boats for rent at Inokashira Park in Tokyo

Renting a swan boat is a great family activity at Inokashira

Inokashira Park

Green, open play areas for kids are few and far between in Japan. In fact many playgrounds we saw were akin to those we’ve seen in developing nations: rusty, unmaintained, and completely unappealing. Therefore we were thrilled to find a green oasis at Inokashira Park just south of Kichijoji station.  Its lush forest canopy made the park several degrees cooler than the rest of the hot city on a sweltering summer afternoon plus the local ice cream vendor helped cool us off even more. There’s a lovely quiet lake with swan boats for hire and a small but decent playground for little ones. The park is full of walking paths, several small zoos and of course the ubiquitous vending machines, always good for a cold drink. Before heading to the park we picked up an amazing bento lunch in the food hall at Kichijoji Station. (Side note: There’s an incredible shopping center and food hall in the station, where you could easily pass several happy hours with or without kids. Bonus on a hot day is the air-conditioning). We enjoyed our bento on park benches, then Grace and Beth took a turn around the lake in a swan boat while Steve and Anna looked on. All in all we give the park two thumbs up.

Inokashira Park playground

Inokashira boasts a small but satisfying playground

National Children’s Castle (Kodomo-no-Shiro)

Swimming at the National Children's Castle

Ready for underwater adventures at Tokyo's National Children's Castle

Contrary to our expectations the National Children’s Castle is not housed in a large, ancient Japanese castle nor a recent reconstruction but rather in a typical Tokyo high-rise building. Nevertheless this destination is a delight with small kids and we easily passed the better part of a day here. We visited with some good Japanese friends and their two small boys, but like most places in Tokyo there is enough English (or plenty of people to try to speak it) that you could get by and enjoy it without Japanese friends accompanying you.

The top level of the “castle” has a large outdoor wading pool full of splashing kids and their parents. There is an indoor swimming pool option too but we were told it was for “swimming” only, i.e. lap swimming. It seemed older kids would be welcome there but only if they were interested in swimming laps.  Our kids had a blast in the outside pool, easily passing several fun hours. There were even a handful of baby pools set up complete with water toys where Anna (12 months at the time) was able to happily splash away from the thrashing bodies of the older kids.

If it’s not a swimming sort of day or if that’s just not your kids’ thing, also on the outdoor top level there is a big track set up with lots of tricycles and small bikes. We saw lots of kids having a great time on those as well, although with the 90 degree weather our kids chose to spend as much time as possible in the water.

After lunch at a fabulous self-service udon restaurant, Marugame Seimen, we returned to the Children’s Castle to explore their indoor offerings.   A live band was playing and instruments were provided for kids to play along. There was a craft room where kids could make their own creations. The indoor air-conditioning was a welcome reprieve from the outdoor heat and the kids had a blast with so many hands’ on activities.

The National Children’s Castle is a short walk from the Shibuya train station.

Hachiko statue Shibuya station

Shibuya station's famous Hachiko statue

While you’re at the Shibuya train station make sure you find the Hachiko dog statue. There’s a great children’s book of the same name telling the story about a loyal dog, Hachiko, who waited at the station faithfully for years night after night for his master. We read the book to Grace before our trip so it was fun for her to discover a landmark in Japan she already knew something about.

Note: Besides Frommer’s Japan we also found Kids’ Trips in Tokyo: A Family Guide to One-Day Outings to be full of helpful information. Although a bit outdated (published in 1998), it still had a lot of helpful tips and would be especially useful for anyone staying for a longer period in Tokyo with kids.

For more on Tokyo watch for our upcoming posts on finding kid-friendly accommodation in Japan and navigating Narita with kids.

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