Updated November 2018
Twice now my daughter has chosen Tokyo for her annual one-on-one trip with me. She loves Japan – the culture, the language, the food (at least the Japanese food that’s common in the US), and the anime that she watches frequently on Netflix and YouTube. Originally I wasn’t excited about her choice. I had been to Japan twice. The first time was a 12-hour layover in Tokyo where I found it difficult to navigate the city. The second time was a photography trip with National Geographic from Kyoto to Hiroshima where I encountered a Japan that wasn’t particularly kid-friendly, especially the high-end food we were served everywhere.
But my kids can choose anywhere they want for their annual trips, so I booked it. It was an outstanding trip, and then we did it again this year and loved it even more. And it’s so much easier than I originally thought it would be. Tokyo’s easy to get to from California. We find it easy to navigate the city. My daughter stays entertained as we explore both the urban life and the gardens/temples. And the food is getting easier to figure out all the time!
Getting to Tokyo with Kids (Airports)
Tokyo has two international airports: Narita, with most flights to/from the US, that’s further from the city; and Haneda, closer to the city. My daughter requested Haneda the first time since it would be faster and easier to get to our hotel. I booked non-stops from San Francisco on United and attempted to use our Global Premier Upgrade certificates, given to very frequent fliers every year, both directions. We weren’t successful at upgrading on the way to Tokyo but we were moved to Business on the way back. We took taxis between the airport and hotel.
Our second trip to Tokyo with kids we flew into Narita, and then took a Shinkansen bullet train to Kyoto after Tokyo. Narita was a mistake. I chose it because I thought we’d have a better chance of getting upgraded. But once again it didn’t work, and our United flight was delayed seven hours. Arriving at 11pm, we just wanted to be at the hotel, so we jumped in a taxi. $264.98 later, we arrived. Most expensive taxi ride ever. Learn from us – fly into Haneda!
Both times we went to Tokyo with kids, we stayed at the Park Hyatt Tokyo. Originally I chose it because of Lost in Translation, which was filmed at the hotel and is one of my favorite movies. And the movie was constantly in my head the first visit. But I barely thought about it during our second trip to Tokyo with kids. Instead, we simply appreciated the hotel for what it is: one of the best hotels in the world. The service is perfect. The views are stunning. The 47th floor pool is magical. Breakfasts are excellent. It’s one of our favorite hotels anywhere.
Hotel Location / Getting Around Tokyo with Kids
The Park Hyatt is located in Shinjuku, roughly a 15-minute walk from the Shinjuku Station (the busiest railway station in the world) and its metro/rail connections. The hotel is a few minutes closer to the Tochomae underground station, but transportation options from there are more limited. We typically walk to/from Shinjuku Station at least once a day, and sometimes multiple times a day.
We purchased Suica cards our first visit at Shinjuku Station which give us full access to JR East trains as well as the underground and buses – although we still haven’t taken any buses. The Suica pass requires a deposit of ¥500. Mine was easy to purchase, but they required my daughter’s passport to issue hers. With them, we’re able to avoid queuing for the ticket machines every time we go anywhere and paying for overages if we don’t get the fare correct, and we save a little on every journey. We simply keep them and bring them back every trip.
Things to Do in Tokyo with Kids
Tokyo is a city of contrasts, with peaceful gardens and temples counterbalancing the hectic pace of the city. My daughter largely sets our agendas based on her research in books and online, but her suggestions skew toward the city elements. I make sure we add in nature and culture too. Here are all of our favorite things to do in Tokyo with kids from our two weeks stay (so far):
The Mori Building Digital Art Museum: teamLab Borderless
The coolest museum ever! When I saw photos after the Mori Digital Art Museum opened, I assumed it was a museum designed for selfies and Instagram. I couldn’t have been more wrong. While there are amazing visuals throughout, it’s impossible to do it justice on Instagram. The reason? Everything is interactive. The walls, and scenes, react to you. An animal made of flowers walking down the hallway will turn its head to look at you.
If you touch a Japanese symbol floating down a wall, all of the graphics around you reflect what you just touched (cherry blossoms, trees, rain, etc….). Sit on a hill with “water” sliding down it, and the water will go around you. Literally no one will ever take the same photo there, or have the same experience. Note: book tickets in advance, and if you arrive at a peak time, be prepared to wait a little while to enter. They allow visitors in slowly to make the experience better for everyone.
Arigato Japan Asakusa Family Food Tour
We’ve done a lot of food tours around the world, and this is our favorite. My daughter instantly bonded with our guide Asami, and we had a great three hours exploring the Asakusa area – even in the rain. Asami took us to multiple stores and street food stalls, educating us on Japanese food along the way. We also had an excellent multi-course lunch that was as much about Japanese customs and language as it was about the food.
It really is a brilliantly organized tour, and we walked away far more confident that we could go into any restaurant, even places with no English, and order a great meal. Plus we were able to visit Senso-Ji Temple, and my daughter even played a fishing game. In fact, we loved that tour so much that two days later we returned and retraced Asami’s path, spending more time in some of the stores that she took us to, and getting some of the same foods again. Website: Arigato Japan food tours.
Ikebukuro: Tokyo for Families Tour
When I was looking into kid-oriented walking tours, I found one that looked perfect for my daughter – a tour of Tokyo’s arcades, cafes and youth scene with Context Travel. We met our guide Irene at Ikebukuro Station and headed off into the arcades. Irene gave us background on the area and showed us everything that we likely wouldn’t have found otherwise – or if we did, we likely wouldn’t have been comfortable exploring on our own. We watched teens and businessmen playing intense games non-stop.
We used the photo booths that change your appearance to make you look younger, more Western and more feminine (yeah, my pics are disturbing). And we checked out animal cafes and department stores. My daughter’s favorite part was the arcades, despite how loud they were. And after we left Irene we went right back to one of the arcades and did a claw machine until we won. Took us about nine tries. Then our second trip we returned to all of the same spots in Ikebukuro – and once again played a claw machine until we won!
Harajuku has become a frequent stop for us. It’s only a couple of stops away from Shinjuku Station, but it’s also walkable from the Park Hyatt Tokyo through Meiji Jingu Shrine. Kiddy Land is always a highlight (see below), as well as the Harry Hedgehog Cafe. But my daughter loves exploring all of the streets and alleys, getting cotton candy (fairy floss), and checking out the random shops dedicated to Japanese cartoon characters.
We headed over to Shibuya because I wanted to see the famous five-way crossing near Shibuya Station, but beyond that, we enjoyed spending an evening in the area. We also searched out the Don Quijote store (below), ate dinner at a chain restaurant that I remembered as a kid but that I haven’t seen in years, and shopped a little. Starbucks is supposed to be the best place to look out over the crossing, but I was told it was difficult to get a window seat, so we didn’t even try. Next time. Maybe.
This was a different day than we planned, but it turned out well. My daughter had heard of the Ghibli Museum, dedicated to Japanese animation. She wanted to go so we took the metro over to Mitaka Station and walked about 1km to the museum. A museum has a ticket window, and you buy a ticket and go inside, right? Not this one. We had no idea that tickets sell out months in advance or that there’s a convoluted process to purchase tickets depending on what country you’re from. We hadn’t even planned this trip months in advance! So we were out of luck.
But we were near Inokashira Park, so we went to the zoo there and took a swan pedal boat out onto Inokashira Pond. We then had some pretty good lasagna for lunch nearby at Va Bene and walked to Kichijouji Station. No complaints, other than the disappointing museum ticketing process.
Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden
Only a few minutes (on foot) past Shinjuku Station is Shinjuku Gyoen, one of Tokyo’s larger parks. There’s a tea house, tree-lined walking paths, several ponds, and lots of room to run. We walked from the hotel to the park, explored for maybe an hour, and then continued on to the Meiji Shrine and walked around Harajuku – 23,760 steps total, making it my longest ever walking day with one of the kids. She did great though.
The Meiji Shrine, dedicated to Japan’s Emperor at the beginning of the 20th century, is actually fairly small. We love walking through the large forest that surrounds the shrine, with several large torii gates, whether it’s our destination or a cut-through between the hotel and Harajuku. It’s worth a couple hours, and since one entrance is next to Harajuku Station, it’s easy to get to.
Tokyo is full of department stores that stock everything you need for problems you didn’t know you had. We went to two – Tokyu Hands in Ikebukuro and Mega Don Quijote in Shibuya – and walked around in wonderment. Rice shapers? Check. Halloween costumes for small pets? Check. Dozens of types of Kit Kats? Yep. Actual live animals to pet? Absolutely. And Kiddy Land in Harajuku is one-stop shopping for Japanese characters (e.g. Hello Kitty and Pokémon) and anime.
The Park Hyatt Tokyo Pool
We head to the Park Hyatt’s 47th floor pool frequently, usually having it to ourselves. A great way to end every day – even if you’re not Bill Murray.
Shinjuku Chuo Park
Across the street from the Park Hyatt is a park with two playgrounds, walking paths and flowers. We go over every day to play and walk around.
Where We’ve Eaten
We have breakfast every day at the Park Hyatt right when they open at 6:30, thanks to jet lag. An excellent buffet with a view, with some of the best mango in the world and great pastries. My daughter always gets the same thing: mango, potatoes, salami, Comte, chicken sausage, sticky rice, miso soup and yellow kiwi. It’s her favorite breakfast in the world!
Lunch every day is wherever we happen to be in the city, from French bakeries to Va Bene near Kichijouji to the deli on the first floor of the Park Hyatt building. We’ve also loved the giant gyoza at Kailaku Honten in Ikebukuro and the tonkatsu from a small place on Takeshita Street in Harajuku.
The Kawaii Monster Cafe in Harajuku was the only lunch spot that we searched out, since it was on my daughter’s list. It wasn’t crowded and had a fun, crazy atmosphere. The food was better than expected.
Our best lunch of either trip was at the New York Grill on the 52nd floor of the Park Hyatt. It’s one of Tokyo’s top restaurants and worth dining at least once. We started at a table in the New York Grill with a large buffet of appetizers, from soup to sashimi to meats and cheeses. Then we ordered our main courses off the menu – sirloin for my daughter and the fish of the day for me. And then we were reseated next door in the New York Bar – where the bar scenes from Lost in Translation were filmed – for dessert. Everything about the lunch experience was amazing!
We’ve had dinner at the hotel often – either in the Peak Lounge or in our room. And twice we’ve walked from the hotel maybe 10 minutes over to the Pfizer building (well, there’s a large Pfizer sign on it at any rate) and eaten at an Udon place we discovered off the lobby. We get Udon bowls and tempura shrimp and veggies and it’s maybe $15 each time. Absolutely no English spoken or on the menus, but that makes it more fun! We ate at a Pompompurin character cafe that we stumbled upon in Harajuku one night as well. It was cute, but the food was decidedly mediocre.
Summary and Finance
These have been amazing trips – some of my favorite one-on-one trips that I’ve done with the kids.
Our plane tickets on United average $1,000 each. If we didn’t book in W class to try to get upgraded, we would save a couple hundred dollars. Rooms at the Park Hyatt Tokyo start at $427/night. We received a small media discount both trips. The Arigato Japan Asakusa Food Tour is $125/person. The Context Travel Tokyo for Families tour is $264.
Tokyo is all about the spring cherry blossoms and fall colors. We missed both by traveling at the beginning of October and beginning of November, but we had great weather most days, with rain twice. As with almost everywhere in the world, shoulder seasons have the best combination of good weather and low prices.
So what did we miss? What did you do in Tokyo with kids that were absolutely amazing? I’m sure we’ll be back next year!