Listen man, I know your secret.
How? Because it’s not really a secret. I have a kid too. And I love the little guy, just like you love your little guy or girl. But we all know that some kid activities are excruciating. Yes, it’s for their development, bless their dear little hearts. So we go to dance recitals and school plays and soccer games that look like a greased pig chase.
Which is ok, when you’re home. You can sit on the sidelines and wave in between emails, or chitchat with the other parents. And when someone finally catches that greased pig, you can escape back to the homestead and relax in familiar surroundings.
Well, that’s not what’s going to happen here. Maybe the Big Meeting is over early; maybe you’re on vacation or an extended layover. Whatever the reason, you are in one of the most exciting cities in the world with your spouse and your 2.3 children. You’re in Tokyo, darn it, and you’re going to do something fun. Together, as a family! And you are going to do something that you cannot readily do back home. No, Mom and Dad (or however you organize yourselves), there’s not going to be any waving from the sidelines on this trip. Put on your walking shoes, we’re gonna do Tokyo!
WHO WANTS BREAKFAST?
Who wants breakfast? You want what? A Japanese breakfast?
No. No you don’t. Trust me on this one. Your kids are thinking “Anime-Os” with a Giant Robot Prize inside the box, but that’s not what they are going to get. A Japanese-style breakfast comes with things like baked fish, rice, pickles, soup, and other assorted unidentifiables. I’m pretty open-minded about what I eat, but fish and pickles is too much culture for that early in the morning.
For a Western-style breakfast, your hotel will be the most convenient spot. But if you must go somewhere, you can try Anna Miller’s in Shinagawa (visible across the street from the Takanawa exit; open daily 0730-0300) or the Terrace at the Westin Hotel in Mita (closest train station is Ebisu on the Yamanote line, and you’ll have to take a taxi from there; breakfast 0630-1030 daily).
But we’re traveling with kids here, and we all know how this goes. You pay a wad of cash for the buffet, and all the kid will eat is a single forkful of eggs and a half-bowl of cereal. Past experience tells you that he or she will be hungry in half an hour, but the little ankle biter adamantly refuses to eat anything else. Until, of course, you encounter the first McDonald’s after you leave the restaurant, at which point they begin howling about how hungry they are. Thus, the big fight begins.
If you suspect this is about to happen to you, avoid the stress and go to a bakery. They are everywhere in Japan—in department stores, in front of train stations, and in their own little shops on the street. Japanese bakeries have breads, donuts, croissants, pastries, and all kinds of other baked breakfast goods. Some of them even have coffee, mom and dad! And even if the kids don’t want all of whatever they get, you can put it in the bag and save it for later. Or eat it yourself, which is my recommended solution.
This is where your nerd children want to go. If they’re older, coming here is probably the only reason they will risk being seen together with their parents in the first place. Akihabara is on the Yamanote line, is very easy to get to, and is foreigner-friendly.
If you are into anime and video games, you will be in heaven. Akihabara is the place where good nerds go when they die. Shops selling toys, figurines, video game paraphenalia, t-shirts, and related items are located here. There is no one best place to shop, so browse everywhere! Half the fun is souvenir-hunting through the bins and the little shops. The back streets are also a treasure trove of oddities, full of ¥100 bottle holders for your backpack, keychain bubble-wrap popping simulators, and possibly your very own camera drone. It’s worth a look.
Thanks to the huge duty-free shops, souvenirs of other kinds are also available. Everything from ninja t-shirts to fridge magnets all the way up to cameras and household appliances, the duty-free shops have them here. English-speaking staff are available at all locations to answer your questions. If you must have an appliance, buy it here. Items from the duty-free stores are adapted to work in your country of origin, which likely has different voltage/amperage requirements than Japan. This may not be the case if you make a last-minute stop at a department store before getting on the plane to go home. And many of the duty-free shops deliver to hotels!
Then there’s Don Quioxte. I have no idea what this store’s connection is to the literary figure, but it is a must-see. The best way to describe this place is as a cross between Wal-Mart and Spencer’s Gifts. It has the mundane (snacks, drinks), the strange (poo-shaped hats, Engrish-printed clothing), to the outright bizarre (boob pillows, maid outfits). The top floor is the AKB48 theater, where you can watch members of the famous all-girl pop band perform (for tickets, go to http://www.akb48.co.jp/english/overseas/index.html).
Arcades are also a big part of Akihabara. They may be as common as dinosaur stampedes where you’re from, but Japan’s arcades know what they are up against–few games here are something you could get on a console at home. UFO Crane games, a taiko drumming game, Puzzles and Dragons Battle Tactics (which is apparently a thing), multitudes of fighting games, and head-to-head Gundam battle arenas were the highlights of my visit. Go inside and check out the card game/video game hybrids so you can see what your grandkids will be wanting for Christmas in 2040. Drop a few coins in the newest gee-whiz game or play a few of the classics. What kid doesn’t want to tell his friends at school that he played video games in an actual Japanese arcade?
Here’s another fun thing to do at the Sega arcades. The bathrooms have “peeing games” at the urinals (sorry ladies, I have no idea what’s in your powder room–couches and “Gone With the Wind” on continuous loop?). The screen is over the urinal, and to play you just step right up, no coins needed. Walk around, load up on liquids, then go into the arcade and do your business. I played one with a full bladder and ended up filling four and a half cans of pee. I don’t even know what that means or why you should be impressed, but there it is.
There are places to eat once you get hungry, but Akihabara is a grab-and-go kind of place. For fine dining, look elsewhere. If you are not planning to go to Odaiba (see below), there is a Gundam Cafe here (outside the Akihabara JR Station Atre1 Gate), where you can get lunch and some souvenirs. The Gundam Cafe is right next to the AKB48 Cafe, if you are more into the girl band than you are into giant robots. There are several coffee cafes in the area that offer sandwiches, and of course, two area McDonald’s for your picky eaters.
CAUTION NOTE #1: If you want to purchase anime, video games, or other electronic material, make sure that they will be compatible with the media systems you have back home. The small store owners will tell you, but it might be safer to buy that sort of material at one of the many duty-free shops in the area.
CAUTION NOTE #2: Ok, I know you’ve heard of it, so here it is: anime porn. Keep the kids away from anyplace that is bright pink, has the “No Under 18” sign, or has artwork of improbably-proportioned anime models over or around the door. The shops that sell these kinds of items aren’t ubiquitous and are usually subtle in their sidewalk advertising, but you could encounter them. Forewarned is forearmed.
CAUTION NOTE #3: “Not smoking indoors” is not a thing that has caught on in Japan yet, and arcades are particularly heinous. Check the floor signs to see if smoking is allowed on that floor. If your kids are particularly sensitive to smoke, going into an arcade that allows smoking may not be a good idea. If they can take it, have fun, but it’s always a good idea to limit your exposure to secondhand smoke.
I am a married man. Women want to shop. Therefore, it is inevitable that I (or maybe you) will get dragged on a shopping trip. It’s a cliche for a reason. Are you done not laughing? Good. Let’s continue.
It will do no good to explain to your significant other that (beyond the obvious regional variations) they have the same stuff at Japanese malls that they do in the malls where you come from. The same stores, even. That just makes her mad and even more determined to get her retail therapy on. But I am here to help! With a little mental judo, convince your one-and-only that Odaiba is the place to go for all of her shopping needs. That way, you and the kids can do something besides drag yourselves through the same jeans store you have back at your local mall.
At Osaki station (on the Yamanote line), change to the Rinkai line (dark blue; get on the train going towards Shin-kiba). Eleven minutes and ¥330 later, you will be at the Tokyo Teleport Station, in the middle of the Odaiba shopping area (what, you don’t have teleport stations in whatever backwater you’re squatting in? You poor dears). From here, you can walk or taxi to any number of malls. Here are the highlights–
What? You’re going to Japan, and you are going to eat at McDonald’s?!?!? I think not. The Me-Matsuri Food Court on the fifth floor of the Aqua City Mall specializes in ramen and is easily accessible to English speakers. There are actually several different styles of ramen, all reasonably priced (¥600-¥1100, depending on what you get). All menus are in English–just choose, point, and pay. If the weather is nice, you can even sit outside and get a view of the Rainbow Bridge and Tokyo Tower. I remarked that I saw a blue shell fly across the bridge to knock out the leader; my son rolled his eyes. No one likes the blue shell. (open 1100-2300).
For the picky eaters, there are a couple of American fast-food places in the food court on the first floor. But maybe you can convince them to try Kua’aina Hawaiian Burger place (same food court) or the Longboard Cafe on the third floor. It’s worth a shot.
After lunch, you can occupy the time of younger children at the Sony ExploraScience Museum. Obviously, the “science” focuses on Sony products, but the interactive exhibits are a lot of fun and it’s a neat thing to do for an hour or two. My son and I enjoyed the voice pitch-switcher and the motion-capture puppet screen (I got a robot to dance the Robot!). Be sure to compete in the electronic Smile rankings and try to get the best smile of the day! (5th floor, open 1100-1900; Adults ¥500, Children ages 3-15 ¥300, under 3 years old free).
DECKS TOKYO BEACH SHOPPING MALL
Alright, Lego fans, here’s your spot. Decks Tokyo Beach Shopping Mall is right next to Aqua City. And inside on the third floor is Tokyo’s Legoland Discovery Center! Even if you’ve been to one of the other Legoland theme parks, you can come here to see Japan-specific brick sculptures, like a Lego sumo match, or a room-sized model of Tokyo. Stop in the shop; even though the Lego is waaaay more expensive where you are from, you can snag a ¥350 minifigure from the current collector’s edition set, or a ¥700 keychain of your favorite Lego character. Singing an awesome song is optional, but if you forgot the words, don’t worry–it’s playing constantly while you’re in the store. I’m sure the clerks love that. (open 1000-2000 on weekdays , 1000-2100 on weekends; admission for all ages is ¥2200 walk-up)
Decks also has a Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum, so older children who may not Lego-inclined can go inside and have their picture taken with their favorite celebrity. (Open daily 1000-1900; Adults ¥2000, Children ages 3-15 ¥1500, discounts available online.
If you want to see both a Lego Tokyo Tower and a wax Angelina Jolie, you can get a discount on a combo ticket pack.
DIVER CITY TOKYO
This mall is a little farther away than the other two, but don’t worry; you can see it from Aqua City or Decks. It also gives you time to spin a tale. This one requires a little bit of prep.
Seed this dad joke with a few episodes of the Gundam anime series in the months before you come to Japan. You can find it on your Netflix. Before you get to Diver City, make sure the kids know that you flew a Gundam and had all sorts of interstellar adventures before settling down and becoming their dad. “Yep, all that’s over now,” you might say. “I parked the old girl around here somewhere before I walked away. I wonder if it’s still here…”
Then you take them behind Diver’s City, and look! Dad’s old Gundam is still here! The 18-meter tall attraction is constantly surrounded by people taking pictures, and surely no one would mind helping out the former pilot by taking a picture of him with his kids in front of his old rig. Afterwards you can stop by the nearby Gundam Cafe and pick up a souvenir or two (I recommend a coffee cup). There is a Gundam Front trailer outside near the Gundam, where you can pick up a model if you feel inclined.
On the seventh floor is the gold mine–there is a Round1 Stadium and the Gundam Front Tokyo, right next to each other!
The Gundam Front Tokyo contains a museum of Gundam figures (free to enter), a shop, and a clothing store. You can also visit the inner areas and see the art museum and some awesome dioramas (open daily 1000-2000, Adults ¥1200, Children ages 3-15 ¥1000, you can buy in advance for ¥200 off)
Round1 Stadium is an indoor amusement park/recreational facility. You and your kids can play some indoor basketball, try a batting cage, go roller skating, and even ride a mechanical bull. There are video games all over the place, including a four-player Pac-Man machine and a strange game in which the objective is to do as much damage as possible by rage-flipping a table. There is a rest area with massage chairs (great for worn-out adults) and a classic video game arcade with hits from the 80s and 90s. The pricing scheme for all of this entertainment is rather bizarre (if you can make heads or tails of it, you are a better man than I), but the mall has an interpreter phone service you can use to figure it all out. As you can see from the price list, it can get expensive, but I never had a bad time there. Also, the odd hours mean that if you are suffering from jet lag at a nearby hotel, you can sneak out and get in a few rounds on the mechanical bull. (Open 7 days a week. Monday – Thursday 1000-0600 the next day; Fridays and public holidays 1000-all day; Saturday 24 hours; Sundays and holidays open until 0600 the next morning. The facility will not allow children aged 15 and under in after 1800 or 16-18 year olds after 2200).
Have a little extra time to spend in Odaiba? Check out our photo tour of Odaiba for some more ideas on things to do.
For more tips on traveling in Tokyo with kids, visit our article Getting Around Tokyo with the Family.
36 Hours in Tokyo: Touristy/Off the Beaten Path Mix has even more ideas for you!