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Tokyo on a budget: Top things to do with kids

  • February 20, 2018
  • By Matt
  • 0 Comments

Tokyo is an amazing city with many inexpensive, family friendly things to do. The city is huge, busy and fun with delicious food wherever you turn. Contrasts are everywhere in this home of high-tech robots and ancient temples where a love of shopping and gadgets sits alongside spirituality and tradition.

People are polite, the city is clean, personal safety is not a concern and getting around on the metro is so easy. When it is all too much you can easily escape the human crush in the many peaceful parks, shrines and temples. There is a lot to love about Tokyo.

It would take months to sample all of the things to do in Tokyo with kids. We visited in January after a ski trip to Myoko and a few days in Kyoto and thoroughly enjoyed four action-packed days in Tokyo. We focused on exploring the urban jungle but had we visited outside of winter we would have gone for a hike in the nearby mountain areas.

Tokyo is a fun city to explore with a number of distinct neighbourhoods that all have their own vibe. Check prices for hotels in the different neighbourhoods here. The city is easily linked by public transport but to minimise travel time I suggest you plan on visiting one or two neighbourhoods in a day.

Tokyo is a flat city that is great for exploring on foot but it can make for a lot of walking. Harvey was wearing a Fitbit and on one day he did over 40,000 steps! Our kids were aged 8 and 10 years old at the time. They were mostly OK with all the walking but we had to be mindful of planning breaks to rest weary legs and fill hungry stomachs.


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Fun things to do in Tokyo with kids

We had a packed agenda during our stay in Tokyo.  Cities in general are expensive, Tokyo especially so, and we were on a tight budget. As a result, a lot of what we did was free or inexpensive.  A great place to look for activities in Tokyo is Klook.com. They offer a huge range of activities, often with great discounts. Below is a list of things to do in Tokyo that our kids really enjoyed that didn’t break the budget.

Braving the Shibuya crossing

The Shibuya crossing is one of the busiest pedestrian crossings in the world and recognisable from several movies shot in Tokyo. Every few minutes the pedestrian lights go green and hundreds of people simultaneously swarm towards the middle of the intersection from 5 corners. People are heading in every possible direction. The simple aim is to get to the other side without bumping into someone heading the other way.

It is a sight to behold and also fun to take part and navigate your way through the crowd. The intersection is just to the north-west of the Shibuya railway station. The best place to appreciate it is from an elevated viewpoint in the evenings with the commuters making their way home under the light of the neon signs that surround the intersection. We found a spot where we could watch for free on the second level of the Tokyo Department Store at the west exit of the railway station. Another good viewpoint for the price of a coffee is the Starbucks on the opposite side of the intersection in the Tsutaya building.

Don’t be afraid to attempt the crossing yourself. Although it is intimidating facing a wall of people advancing towards you, just hold your line and the locals will dodge their way through with ease.

Viewing the city from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government building

I always like to get the lie of the land when exploring a new city. There are several buildings in Tokyo that give you a great aerial view of the vast decentralised city but many of them have expensive entry prices. The good news is you can view the city for free at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government building. The North and South observation decks are 202m above ground level and on a clear day you can see snow-capped Mt Fuji to the south-west. We went at night and the city lights seemed to go on forever.

The north and south towers are open at different times in the evening so if you want a particular view check their website for details. The kids enjoyed the view and the best thing is that if they tire quickly, you haven’t wasted your money as it is a free outing.

Tokyo night city view from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government building

Tasty, informal and fun Yakitori restaurants

One of the highlights of visiting Japan is the variety of delicious food. The absolute favourite for our family is Yakitori restaurants which offer chicken cooked on wooden skewers over a charcoal barbecue. It is simple but tasty food in a fun informal environment where the chefs grill your order before your eyes. The food arrives quickly to appease hungry kids and the beer is cold for the adults. You will find Yakitori restaurants almost everywhere.

One tip for eating out in Tokyo is to do a little research on places to eat before you go out. Many restaurants in Tokyo are not on the ground level, but up on the first or second floor which makes it hard to check out the menu, suitability for the kids and prices. Or to find them even! We used Trip Advisor, Lonely Planet and a few online sites to locate some options.  We had a few melt down moments trawling the streets looking for food and needed to be better organised.

For more great food ideas for your trip to Japan see our post on 5 foods you have to try in Japan.

 

Shopping in Ginza and the 4 level Hakuhinken toy store

We visited the suburb of Ginza to do some window shopping in the high end Miksukoshi department store. The food court in the basement is a must-see with a vast range of mouth watering food. It is worth a look around the store and nearby there are flagship clothing stores for local and international brands. My son is not a fan of shopping but he persevered on the promise of a visit to the nearby multi-level toy store.

The Hakuhinken toy store has 4 levels and a good range of toys of all types (although it is nowhere near as big as Hamleys in Regent Street, London). The kids and I enjoyed exploring the store which has a mix of familiar and unusual toys. The highlight was the big slot-car racetrack the 4th floor where we raced cars for a few dollars.

Hakuhinken toy store slot car track

Chilling in Yoyogi Park

Yoyogi Park in Harajuku is a great place to escape when the sun is shining. The park covers a huge area with paths winding through forest, open grassy areas and is home to the grand and atmospheric Meiji Jingu Shinto shrine. It is also a fabulous place to people watch. We saw families going for a cycle, people walking their dogs in prams, birdwatchers, people practicing dance routines and musical instruments plus a group of dancing rockabilies in denim with slicked back hair. The kids absolutely loved spending time in this park.

The expanse of grass is rare in Tokyo and when we visited in January the locals were still out enjoying picnics and throwing Frisbee.  Our kids needed to burn some energy and stay warm so we found a stick and a ball and played some cricket. Needless to say the locals thought this was pretty amusing. Yoyogi Park is right next to Harajuku Station, just north of Shibuya.

8 cute dogs on display in Yoyogi Park, Tokyo

Visiting a quirky cat cafe

Also in Harajuku is Takeshita Street, a pedestrian street totally packed with young Japanese people, trendy clothing shops and dessert stalls. About half way along this street is the unusual Harajuku Bengal Cat Cafe where you pay to sit in a room where cute Bengal cats roam around.  Right next to an Owl cafe. Go figure. The kids were really missing our cat and were keen to check it out, so we went in.

The cats were a bit aloof (well they are cats) but the kids won them over by dangling a piece of string and had a lot of fun playing with and patting the cats. The cats seemed to be healthy and treated well and were well adjusted to random strangers playing with them.

While it was strange, I wonder whether the demand is partly driven by the fact most people live in tiny apartments and can’t have pets of their own. I’ll admit it was not my best ever experience but it was quirky (like so many things in Japan) and the kids loved it. Don’t forget to get a crepe from one of the many nearby stalls before you leave the area.

Harajuku Bengal Cat Cafe

Checking out the fake food displays in the restaurant windows

Everywhere you go in Japan there are restaurants that promote their meals using fake food displays in the front window. These always attracted our attention and despite us not reading a work of Japanese we instantly knew what the restaurant offered. Really clever and simple.

We read online that there are places in the suburb of Kappabashi where you can make your own fake food display. We thought that would be fun but unfortunately could not find one that would accept non-Japanese speakers, or english visitors with a japanese interpreter. Bummer. If you are keen to do this I would suggest asking at your hotel or getting in contact with a local English school as their students are often keen to practice their English and may be able to take you there.

Checking out the realistic fake food displays in a Japanese restaurant

Learning to drive at the MEGAWEB Toyota Showcase

The MEGAWEB Toyota Showcase was an unexpected highlight of our Tokyo trip. It has various Toyota vehicles and concept cars and fun driving simulators. However, the real winner here was the mini electric cars that the kids learned to drive on their own around a small track and then completed a test to get their drivers licence.

The concentration levels were high and they were so proud  to pass the test and were given laminated licences complete with their photo. MEGAWEB Toyota Showcase is a bit out of the way on Odaiba island but the trip on the monorail across the harbour was also great and afforded a fantastic view of Rainbow Bridge and the city.

Learning to drive at the MEGAWEB Toyota Showcase, Tokyo

Singing really badly at a Karaoke Bar

Japan is the birthplace of Karaoke, where you can sing along to a video of your favourite song. There are karaoke bars scattered all throughout the city. We decided to give it a go at a Karaoke Bar in Shibuya. I can confidently say none of us will be offended when I tell you that we are not great singers.  I was relieved to be able to rent a private room for an hour so we could sing along out of key and not upset anyone. It was a lot of fun as we all chose songs and had a crack. My rendition of Sia’s Titanium was declared the worst of the night and has possibly ruined this song for all of us forever. Oops!

The Karaoke bars we saw were often above the ground floor and they typically have a number of rooms charged based on the number of people for a specific period of time. Many of them book out! So if you plan to go in the evening or on the weekend we recommend you plan ahead and book it. Otherwise you may miss out. Which depending on your singing skills may not be such a bad thing.

Karaoke with kids, Tokyo

Other suggestions for things to do

Travel with kids is always better if they are engaged and enjoying the experience. This is not always possible but everyone will be happier if you tailor your trip to try and achieve this. We visited several amazing shrines and temples in Kyoto prior to arriving in Tokyo. Although the kids liked these, we decided not to push the envelope and did not visit the following beautiful temples and shrines in Tokyo that Rachel and I visited on a previous trip;

  • Meiji Jingu Shrine
  • Senso-ji Temple


Klook.com

There were also a few things we thought would be cool but missed out on doing. Maybe you can check them out and let us know what they are like.

  • Watching Sumo wrestling – There are three big tournaments a year in Tokyo but unfortunately we missed the January tournament. You can check the schedules here.
  • Ghibli Museum – A whimsical museum showcasing animation and the work of Studio Ghibli, known for animae films such as Spirited Away. You need to book in advance. Tickets cannot be purchased at the museum. Details on how to purchase tickets is on their website.
  • National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation – We ran out of time to visit this cool looking museum covering robots, science and space which is located in Odaiba (close to the MEGAWEB Toyota Showcase). It has a very reasonable entry fee.

Where to stay

Hotel accommodation in Tokyo can be very expensive and incredibly small. While we almost always book our accommodation on Bookings.com in Tokyo we opted to use AirBnB.  While we often find AirBnB be expensive for short visits, in Tokyo they were reasonably priced compared to most hotels. Click here for a $50 credit on your first booking.

An apartment also allowed us to prepare a few of our meals and save a few more dollars. A lot of what we wanted to see and do was around Shibuya and Shinjuku so we limited our search to these areas. We found a compact but clean apartment in Shibuya only a few minutes walk from the metro station and this worked well for us.

Getting around

The trains and subways make it easy to get around Tokyo. Signage is all in English as are the self-serve ticket kiosks. One thing to watch out for is the subway lines and JR rail lines which are run by different operators. You need different tickets.

We had a Japan Rail Pass which allowed us to use the JR Rail trains for free so we bought single trip subway tickets as we needed them. There are lots of day pass options too that may make sense if you plan to travel a lot. The japan-guide.com website has a reasonable overview.

If you haven’t yet considered purchasing a Japan Rail Pass you should! It saved us hundreds of dollars on our 2 week trip to Japan.

Tokyo is a fun city to visit with (or without) kids with lots to see and do. Sure it is an expensive city, but I hope the suggestions of things to do in Tokyo in this post will help you have a fun trip on a budget.


Planning a trip to Japan

Flights to JapanSkyscanner is our favourite site to search for flights. It compares hundreds of sites and millions of flights to show you the best deals available.

Tokyo Accommodation – Our go to website for all accommodation bookings is booking.com.

Getting Around –  Trains are a great way to get around Japan and the Japan Rail Pass offers great value if you are wanting to see more of Japan.

Travel Insurance for Japan – we use World Nomads for all of our travel insurance needs.

Itinerary Planning – the Lonely Planet Guide to Japan is the #1 selling guide for Japan. They also offer a Tokyo guide available here.


Let us know what you are looking forward to doing in Tokyo. If you have already been, what did you enjoy? We would love to hear from you.

For more about Japan:

Things to do in Kyoto with kids

5 foods you have to try in Japan

Snowboarding and skiing in Japan at Myoko Kogen

 

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Things to do in Tokyo with kids

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