I first visited Tokyo almost 15 years ago and have been lucky to return a few times since then. The city is huge, busy and fun. Contrasts are everywhere in this home of high-tech robots and ancient temples, where a love of shopping and gadgets sit comfortably alongside spirituality and ancient tradition. Needless to say I was excited to visit the city again and explore Tokyo with kids.
There is a lot to love about Tokyo, one of the world’s largest cities. The people are polite, the city is clean, personal safety is not a concern and getting around on the metro is simple. When it is all too much you can easily escape the human crush in the peaceful parks, shrines and temples scattered through the city.
It would take months to sample all of the things to do in Tokyo with kids. This time 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 and found many inexpensive, family friendly things to do on a budget.
Tokyo with kids on a budget
Cities in general are expensive, Tokyo especially so, and on this trip we were on a tight budget. It was the first of 30 countries we explored on our family gap year so we were being very frugal with our money and looked for free or inexpensive things to do.
Here are some of our favourite things to do on a budget when visiting Tokyo with kids.
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 the crossing is from an elevated viewpoint in the evenings when the commuters are making their way home under the light of the neon signs that surround the intersection.
There are many expensive cafes surrounding the crossing, but 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. The kids had a lot of fun at this crossing and it was completely free!
Take in the City Skyline
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.
Tasty and informal Yakitori restaurants
One of the highlights of visiting Japan is the variety of delicious food. The absolute favourite for our family is a visit to one of the many Yakitori restaurants. The specialty here is 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 some 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 even find them!
We used Trip Advisor as well as Lonely Planet to locate some options. The Lonely Planet Tokyo Pocket Guide is small and convenient to carry as you explore the city. We had a few melt down moments trawling the streets looking for food and needed to be better organised. Click here to check availability and the latest prices.
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
Shopping with kids? Fun?! 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.
Nearby are flagship retail stores for many local and international brands too. If you are in the market for new luggage, bags, clothes or shoes, this is THE place to go. You probably won’t find any bargains, but the range of products available makes it worth the trip.
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. This makes a great kid-focused outing when in Tokyo with kids.
Chilling out 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.
After a morning exploring Takeshita Street in Harajuku we made our way to the park. 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, throwing Frisbee and taking the dogs out for a stroll (in their custom dog prams).
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 and is a must when visiting Tokyo with kids.
Visiting a quirky cat cafe
Takeshita Street in Harajuku is a famous pedestrian street. It was packed day and night with young locals hanging out with friends, shopping in the trendy clothing stores and eating treats from the dessert stalls set up everywhere along the street.
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 pet 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 tempting them playfully with 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 many 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. They are delicious. The hardest decision is which one to choose!
Admiring the fake food displays in 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 word of Japanese we instantly knew what the restaurant offered. Really clever and simple.
It is possible to take a class and make these fake food displays! We think this would be a pretty cool souvenir to collect when in Tokyo with kids. Klook now offer tickets to a tempura food sample making class. Click here for the latest prices and availability.
When we were in Tokyo we had heard of places in the suburb of Kappabashi that run courses, but you needed an interpreter if you were non-japanese speaking.
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.
Learning to drive at the MEGAWEB Toyota Showcase
The MEGAWEB Toyota Showcase was an unexpected highlight of our visit to Tokyo with kids. It has various Toyota vehicles and concept cars and fun driving simulators to try.
However, the real winner here was the mini electric cars in which the kids learned to drive on their own around a small track. They had to take a quick lesson then completed a test before they could get their drivers licence.
The concentration levels were high and they were so proud to pass the test. They were awarded 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 skyline.
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 you couldn’t go to Tokyo with kids and not give it a go.
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 turn. 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. The fee is based on the number of people and time period. Some have mandatory food purchase requirements so check the conditions before you book.
It is worth making a booking as they often book out, especially in the evening and on weekends. Which depending on your singing skills may not be such a bad thing.
Other suggestions for things to do in Tokyo with kids
Travel with kids is always more enjoyable when 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 our luck and did not visit the following beautiful temples and shrines in Tokyo.
- Meiji Jingu Shrine
- Senso-ji Temple
If you have a little more budget to spend, other fun and uniquely Japanese activities with the kids are the Robot Restaurant and experiencing a tea ceremony. If your kids are early risers, there are plenty of things to do in Tokyo in the morning.
A great place to look for discount tickets in Tokyo is Klook. We regularly book tickets on line with Klook as they offer a huge range of activities in Asia, often with great discounts. Click here for activities and latest prices in Tokyo.
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 Tickets – A whimsical museum showcasing animation and the work of Studio Ghibli, known for animae films such as Spirited Away. To visit you need to book in advance as tickets cannot be purchased at the museum. Klook offer a ticket combined with a 30 minute guided walk. Check the price for this combined ticket here.
- 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 in Tokyo with kids
Hotel accommodation in Tokyo is famous for being expensive and incredibly small. When visiting Tokyo with kids it makes it pretty challenging on a small budget.
Whilst we almost always book our accommodation through Booking.com, in Tokyo we opted to use AirBnB. While we often find AirBnB 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 allowed us to prepare a few of our meals and save a few more dollars.
It is a good idea to look for accommodation in the neighbourhood where you will spend most of your time. 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. Find the best hotel prices in Tokyo here.
Getting around Tokyo with kids
Tokyo is a fun city to explore with a number of distinct neighbourhoods that all have their own vibe. 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 which makes it great for exploring on foot, but it can make for a lot of walking. Our son wore 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 regular breaks to rest weary legs and fill hungry stomachs.
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.
There are lots of day pass options too that may make sense if you plan to travel a lot in the city. The japan-guide.com website has a reasonable overview of these options.
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 kids, with plenty to see and do. Sure it is an expensive city, but I hope these suggestions of things to do in Tokyo with kids on a budget will help you have a fun trip whilst not spending too much money!
Planning a trip to Japan
Flights to Japan – Skyscanner 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.
Let us know in the comments below what your favourite thing is to do in Tokyo! We would love to hear from you.