Explore my city guest blogger Wisterian Watertree from Tokyo
Our first feature Dad in the Explore My City series! Father of triplets Wisterian takes us through his adopted home city of Tokyo explaining the ins and outs of tackling the city with kids from how to get around to the best time to visit.
Tokyo is an amazing city to visit, and for us who live here, it is no less amazing. Every day brings a new discovery. There is always something happening; if it is not the opening of a new restaurant it is the opening of an Olympic stadium.
Tokyo is a surprisingly welcoming place for families. The city is working really hard at becoming barrier-free, but even in residential areas the narrow streets hardly have any traffic, and you do not even have to go very far from the main street for the neighbourhood to be completely quiet.
Push Yourself On The Train
Many places are very easy to navigate with a stroller, like the futuristic entertainment and shopping district of Odaiba or the shopping areas of Akihabara or Shinjuku. The wide decks and seaside parks in Odaiba easy to get around, different to central Tokyo with its narrow streets. In the residential districts the back streets often lack sidewalks, but in the central skyscraper districts of Maronouchi, Ginza, Shiodome and Shinjuku there are wide sidewalks that are easy to navigate, and in the newer districts there are trees along the roads.
The easiest way to get around this huge city is by train or subway. Sometimes the trains run underground, sometimes the subway runs above ground, and sometimes the trains run on the subway tracks. Keeping track of which is which has become more and more difficult. And it does not matter as long as you have a Suica card, the contactless cash card that you also can use in many stores.
Most of the attractions are near or inside the Yamanote line, the umbilical railway that keeps Tokyo together. Like all trains, it is extremely crowded in the morning during working days. You may have seen pictures of the attendants pushing people onto the train. They are only trying to push in any umbrellas, body parts, or briefcases that stick out so they can close the doors. People press themselves onto the trains. Needless to say, you do not try to bring your kids onto the trains before 10 AM, when the rush suddenly disappears.
Related Reading: Every thought of schooling your English speakers in a foriegn language? One family’s experience with the Japanese system
The Cherry Trees
If you plan to visit Tokyo, the best time of year, hands down, is in spring. The cherry blossom turns Japan magical, and it is a sight that can not be described. For cherry blossom viewing, it is hard to beat Ueno Park. It has almost 800 cherry trees, and the first were planted in the 17th century when this area was a temple. You can still see the face of the great Buddha statue which was erected here in 1632. It stood until destroyed by the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923, and melted down for use as ammunition after that.
Unfortunately, you will not be the only one who wants to watch the cherry blossoms. Most people in Tokyo will have the same idea, at least on weekends.
Museums and Rainy Day
For a visiting family on a rainy day, Ueno Park is a great choice too, because you can duck into one of the many museums. Tokyo has hundreds of museums – some better for art lovers than for families with children, but many really interesting for travelling families.
The best museum in Ueno Park for families with kids is the Museum of Natural History and Technology. This is the huge building with the concrete blue whale on one side and a locomotive on the other. That basically sums up what the museum is about – the encounter of people with nature, which in Japanese culture is a continuum rather than a disruption. The museum tells the story of how people came to Japan (via Okinawa), and how the islands looked before they came. That part of the museum is pretty conventional, although the English explanations are somewhat scarce. But you can get an audioguide if you want to explain to your children what you are seeing.
If you want to get an idea about the history of Tokyo, another great museum, with amazingly child-friendly dioramas (you can go into some of them) is the Edo-Tokyo Museum, but it is located in Ryogoku, next to the sumo arena. This neighbourhood, the other side of the Sumida River, has been a backwater but with the construction of the Tokyo Sky Tree, the tallest building in east Asia, it has gained more attention from visitors.
Related reading: Learn how to teach English in Tokyo
Fall Color Gardens
If you can not make it in spring, autumn is a close favourite to visit Japan. The fall colour makes even the most understated garden a riot of colour for some weeks, as the leaves turn colour and the green swathes become red, yellow, and brown.
Tokyo has plenty of gardens, created when the regional lords had to maintain palaces in Tokyo as well as Kyoto and their home provinces. Different from Kyoto, where the gardens are often built around the temples and created for a meditative experience, in Tokyo the gardens were created to have nooks where you could plot without being seen or overheard.
One of the best gardens is Korakuen, on the back side of the Tokyo Dome entertainment complex. The garden is not particularly large, but it is laid out so cleverly that there are places where you can not see the surrounding highrises. Make sure your kids do not fall into the koi ponds or jump all over the little rice field. This is not a park and the gravelled path can be quite hard to navigate with a stroller.
Fall Festival Season
Early autumn is also when festivals happen in Tokyo. During late August through the middle of October, just before the fall colours start, temperatures are still balmy and you can be outdoors in the evenings (maybe wearing a light jacket, or a blanket if you are in a stroller).
Festivals in Japan are serious business since that is when the gods get out of the temples and inhabit the portable shrines that are carried through the streets of the local area to bring their blessings to the people. The festivals are intended for the locals, and they are the ones who are enjoying it the most. Visitors are welcome to participate, but it may be more fun to visit the shrine itself, with the market and the entertainment, than trying to carry the portable shrine through the streets.
Summer in Tokyo
If there is a season to avoid when visiting Tokyo, it is summer.
The Japanese themselves retreat to their air-conditioned offices, and everyone sweats when going outdoors. The temperatures can go above 40 degrees centigrade, which makes all the natives escape the city, either to the seaside or to the mountains.
For visiting families, it is a good time to cool off with a bowl of shaved ice, a dessert which the Japanese can lay claim to have invented. The kind with fruit syrup that you can get in places like Hawaii does not make the variations that Tokyo restaurants serve up justice. Shaved ice with mochi balls and bean paste may sound surprising, but it is both refreshing and filling – and not nearly as sweet as many other desserts.
If you plan to visit Tokyo, those are only a few of the things that you can do that your kids will love. Every season has something cool to offer visiting families. Even summer.
Where to stay in Tokyo
- How to pick the best areas and parent-recommended family accommodation for Tokyo
- See a great guide to AirBnB’s in Tokyo
About the Blogger
Wisterian Watertree has lived in Tokyo for ten years, five of those with his kids. His children love to travel as much as he does, and have already visited more countries than their age in years. They keep asking to go back, too. Coming back after a brief spell in Bangkok, he set about rediscovering Tokyo, where he and his children keep discovering new things every day. His blog tells the story of their travels and what they discover, giving tips for other traveling families on how they should discover Tokyo.
You can follow along with Wisterian and his family adventures here:
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Images © Wisterian Watertree | Feature and train image: Pixabay