For family fun, divide Tokyo into a handful of accessible districts, says Simon Rowe
WHERE else in Asia do traffic lights talk, dogs wear raincoats and ice creams come in seafood flavours? Where else but the Big Sushi; Tokyo, that is. A family sojourn in the city Asiaweek magazine has called the region’s most livable can be a stimulating experience, packed with sights and sounds that baffle and bemuse, and flavours to keep the tastebuds guessing. But for parents it can also be a challenge; we are the ones who must ford the human rivers at peak hour, make educated guesses at restaurant window displays and advise which touch-panel button flushes the hotel toilet.
Six hundred years ago, Tokyo, then called Edojuku, was a thatched-roof fishing village on the muddy banks of the Hirakawa River.
These days it is a place of light-speed living, inhabited by 13 million techhungry, fashionable workaholics who enjoy more lifestyle choices than any other of Asia’s city dwellers.
With children in tow, the sheer number of things to see and do may seem overwhelming. Tokyo Disneyland is an obvious inclusion but the city can be tackled one district, or ku, at a time. There are 23 in all, but to make life simple one could consider these: Chiyoda-ku for the Imperial Palace, Chuo-ku for bustling seafood markets, Taito-ku for historic spots, Minato-ku for seaside fun and Shibuya-ku for its colourful streetscape. All districts are connected by a fast and efficient subway system and can be easily enjoyed in a half day; many of their sightseeing activities are free. Chiyoda-ku: Start cycling Start your grand tour at the Imperial Palace in the heart of the city. This was the site of a majestic castle and the seat of power for most of Japan during the Edo period (1600-1868). Only the watchtowers remain but it is easy to imagine when imperial samurai patrolled the high walls and deep moats, ready to sacrifice their lives to repel invaders.
Rent a trusty two-wheeler for free next to the Imperial Plaza and head for the East Garden (Higashi Gyoen) to enjoy the Ninomaru ornamental garden. Torpedo-sized carp cruise its teacoloured ponds and the groves of weeping willows and cherry trees are a shady pit-stop in summer.
North of the East Garden lies the Science Museum and Kitanomaru Park, where youngsters can tinker away an afternoon with hands-on exhibits that don’t require Japanese language skills, be it testing their driving prowess in a simulator, using an X-ray machine or controlling a tower crane. Chuo-ku: Fishy business Early risers will love Tsukiji, the world’s busiest fish market. Seafood arrives from more than 75 countries daily and no less than $150 million worth of fish changes hands before lunch. It is a lively place, full of yelling and screaming, bartering and bidding, and the varieties of fish on display will keep your kids guessing.
For breakfast, drop into one of the cosy cafes serving tea and toast that surround the market unless you feel up to the Tsukiji standard, a bowl of fresh tuna sashimi on warm rice, accompanied by green tea, at a street counter.
Split bamboo and handmade paper, called washi , mean one thing to Japanese kids: kite-making. If you have avid kite-flyers in your crew, the Kite Museum, located in nearby Nihonbashi, will give them plenty of ideas for their next creation. Three thousand kites are on display, ranging from postage stamp-sized specimens to those dating back 100 years to the Taisho period that feature painted kabuki-actor and samurai faces. Taito-ku: Temple town The Taito district brims with lively temples, teashops and traditional souvenir shops, but head to Asakusa precinct for the most atmospheric neighbourhoods. To experience Tokyo before vending machines and hybrid cars overran its streets, go to Shitamachi Museum, where daily life in the Low City — the area that lay on the flatlands to the city’s east — has been replicated in all its working-class glory. There are history lessons aplenty inside the Edo-era homes of artisans, merchants and shopkeepers, displayed as they were before the Great Kanto earthquake and fires of 1923.
Fancy a plastic pizza or a rubberised red bean ice cream? Replicating is a Japanese art form and on Askusa’s restaurant supplies street, Kappabashidori, you can peruse the famous fake food used to advertise shop menus across the city. (But as souvenirs they are not cheap.) Minato-ku: Hit the beach This district is best known for its manmade island, Odaiba. It is a wonder the place hasn’t sunk, considering all the restaurants, boutiques, museums and amusement parks crammed on it. From May to August, cooling off at the Odaiba Seaside Park (swimming beach and sandcastle competitions) or hitting Palette Town (an amusement park featuring the Giant Sky Wheel) are popular pastimes for Tokyo families. If the weather is misbehaving, then Mega Web, Toyota’s interactive museum with self-drive exhibits, is a good place to wait out the rain clouds.
There is also the Museum of Maritime Science, which rates as one of the Japanese capital’s best hands-on attractions for children.
Let them clamber over seaplanes, explore fishing boats and try their hand at radio-controlled miniature ships on a purpose-built course. The museum also has a water theme park that opens in summer. Shibuya-ku: Living colour It takes only 15 minutes to cross Shibuya on foot, but if you were to peruse every boutique, ride every department store escalator, sip in every hole-in-the-wall cafe or dine at every table on the way, it would probably take more than 10 years to conquer.
Tokyo’s fashionable youngsters like to meet in Hachiko Plaza, outside the JR Shibuya train station, where the bronze statue of an akita dog stands. This is Hachiko, the dog that waited for its master to come home from work every day during the 1920s. When the man died, the dog continued to wait. When Hachiko died, city officials erected a statue to honour its loyalty.
Yoyogi Park, in nearby Harajuku precinct, may provide some muchneeded fresh air after your shopping forays. Its spacious green areas, public pool and bird sanctuary are a hit with Japanese families on Sundays and there’s the added attraction of Hokoten (literally: walking around heaven), where teenagers put on bizarre fashion shows on weekends. www.tokyowithkids.com www.travelwithyourkids.com www.jnto.go.jp/eng