More than just a destination for business travelers, Tokyo offers families an opportunity to experience Japanese culture through its unique and lively districts.
There are many reasons to recommend Tokyo as a destination for a family vacation. Come to experience city life and temples in the downtown core. Stroll Ginza Street and enjoy shopping, especially if you have a teenaged girl in tow! Eat your way through an endless supply of sushi, shabu shabu, seafood, and noodles. But Japan is more than sightseeing and world-class cuisine. Japanese culture provides rich lessons for kids, especially teenagers; the Japanese are respectful, hospitable, and extremely efficient. Overall, both my kids declared our trip to Tokyo to be “the best vacation” that they’ve ever had.
KidTripster Tip: If you visit Tokyo during the summer, pack lightweight clothing, as it’s hot and humid. Pack lots of sunscreen and even a sun umbrella, if you can.
Where to stay?
We were planning on a week’s stay in Tokyo with two teenagers. We wanted to rent a flat, so that we weren’t living out of a suitcase and eating out every meal. Downtown Tokyo has many distinct neighborhoods, all boasting their own character, including Shibuya, Shinjuku, Roppongi, Ueno, Chiyoda, and Ginza. Although it was a bit more expensive than the other locations, we chose Ginza because of its proximity to attractions, shops, metro lines, grocery stores, and restaurants.
We rented a flat in East Ginza via the website VRBO. The apartment was located about 10 minutes from the main shopping district and 15 minutes from Tsujiki Fish Market. It was a comfy home away from home in every sense. In typical Japanese style, the owner’s attention to detail made our stay stress-free. She thought of everything, even stocking the refrigerator with the essentials and greeting us at the door. In a city where few speak English, she became our tour guide, friend, and host.
What to do?
We started with a very long "to do" list. But once we settled in, we focused less on “checking boxes” and more on a good balance between sightseeing and pure relaxation. Because we visited during the summer, we found it best to get out in the morning, seek shelter from the heat and humidity in the afternoon, and then venture out again to experience Tokyo at night.
Spend one early morning at Tsukiji Fish Market. It’s quite the experience! But before you go, watch the movie Jiro Dreams of Sushi. You will recognize many places in the film, and it shines a new light on the intricacies of Toyko’s fish business.
Shopping is entertainment in Tokyo. Harajuku District is touted as being the place to go with teenagers, and it didn’t disappoint. Pick up a map of famous Takeshita-dori Street (more of an alleyway) and peruse the shops. Your kids can easily spend an hour in the three-story Daiso, a 100 yen store, which is equivalent to a U.S. dollar-type store. Shibuya District, too, boasts an endless supply of funky shops with the biggest Tokyu Hands department store in Japan. Overall, the shopping in Tokyo was above and beyond what we expected. It was a dream come true for my 14 -year-old daughter. Some of her favorites stores included GU, UNIQLO, Tokyu Hands, Itoya (mega stationery store), and a variety of 100 yen stores (Daiso, CANDO, and Seria).
KidTripster Tip: Take your passport when you shop. Most stores honor the tax-free rule, if your purchase totals over 5000 yen (around $50). Just show your passport, and the cashier will staple a copy of the sales receipt in your passport.
To soak in some Japanese culture, visit the Sensoji Shrine in Asakusa and theTomioka Hachimangu Shrine in Koto to witness and participate in prayer services. We were lucky to be there to see the festivities, parades, and prayers during the Obon Festival. The Imperial Palace in Chiyoda is a beautiful place for a leisurely stroll.
Shinjuku District is gorgeous at night. We had an authentic Japanese dinner at Ginzo Restaurant on the 29th floor of the SW Shinjuku NS Tower Building amid spectacular views. Another night, head to the Ueno District, especially Ameyoko Street, where you’ll find lots of street food and restaurants under the railway tracks.
As Disney fans, we did spend the day at Tokyo Disney, which is about a 20-minute train ride from downtown. But to be honest, we were a bit disappointed by the fact that it’s so much like Disneyland in California. We were hoping for a more authentic Japanese feel to the park. We went during the Obon Festival holiday amid very large crowds and long lines. With all the other attractions to see, in hindsight, we probably should have passed on this one. Cost: Youth $64; Adult $74.
Where to eat?
Our family consists of one (mostly) vegetarian, one very picky teenager, and two adventurous, culinary enthusiasts. Needless to say, our experiences were quite different from each other. It was difficult to find food that appealed to all of our palates, but we each found our favorites.
Japan boasts some of the best food in the world. For the culinary enthusiasts, an endless supply of sushi, Japanese curry, and noodle bowls were available on every corner. Way too many great places to name, but Tsukiji Tama Sushi and Iroriya in Ginza are good ones.
For the mostly vegetarian, finding food was a little more challenging. Luckily, there are plenty of Indian restaurants; our favorite was Nataraj in Ginza. The basement of the Matsuya Mall in Ginza is also a great place. It serves everything from fresh salads to pasta to cucumber and avocado rolls.
For the picky teenager, Salvatore Pizza across the street from our flat was a favorite hangout. We also tried Spontini Pizza in Shinjuku; it probably was the worst pizza that we’ve ever had! The $7 slice of margherita had a one-inch thick crust with way, way too much cheese. We all felt sick after that meal. We had a far better experience at Bondi Café in Shinjuku, where we finally found an acai bowl (a thick smoothie with granola and fruit on top) and excellent French fries seasoned with a spice mixture which made us wish that we spoke Japanese, so we could ask what was on them.
KidTripster Tip: The Japanese 7-Elevens serve a great variety of prepared foods, perfect for on-the-go lunches. Some of our favorites were the salads, sandwiches, and rice to-go packages.
KidTripster Tip: There are vending machines everywhere with a great variety of local drinks. We liked C.C. Lemon, a carbonated lemon drink with 50 lemons worth of vitamin C in one bottle! It was quite tasty and refreshing, especially during a long walk.
KidTripster Tip: Do not eat or drink on the subway trains or in stores or while walking. The store clerks will ask you to put your food away and even give you a wet napkin to clean your hands.
One of the many impressive things about Tokyo is the subway system. Every time we took the Metro, we found ourselves amazed by its ease and efficiency. There are 13 lines, each color-coded with stops represented by a number and letter. With the long stop names, this letter-number system was our saving grace! The kids quickly caught on and had a lot of fun navigating the system. The subway runs just like everything else in Japan - with extreme efficiency; most trains leave every six minutes exactly on time.
KidTripster Tip: To purchase subway tickets, you need a credit card with a chip; if your card doesn’t have a chip, be ready with cash. If you’re riding the subway multiple times a day, it’s best to get a day pass, which will cost between $6 to $10/day.
Most major cities have direct flights to Tokyo. Since the U.S. dollar was strong in Canada, we decided to book our flight out of Vancouver, British Columbia. We drove from Oregon to Vancouver, which added six hours to our journey. In the end, the savings was worth it, as we flew from Vancouver to Tokyo for a mere $600/person.
Balbinder Banga lives in Portland, Oregon, with her husband and her two children, a 12-year-old son and 14-year-old daughter. The family loves to travel and has an oversized map in their living room with white tacks for past destinations and black tacks for future must-visits.