A safe, clean and unapologetically eccentric city where futuristic technology collides with ancient culture, Tokyo is a dream destination for families.
Toying with tradition
While many visitors to Tokyo choose to make the pilgrimage to Meiji Shrine in Harajuku or follow in the footsteps of geisha past at Asakusa’s Senso-ji temple, my kids are more inclined to explore the city’s more unique temples and shrines.
At Yushima Seido Temple, we see students pray for good grades and get a giggle watching tech geeks getting gadgets blessed at the 1,286-year-old Kanda Shrine. My Marvel-mad son is all over Zojoji Temple, which starred alongside Hugh Jackman in 2013’s The Wolverine.
But it is Gotokuji that has my kittens most smitten. The birthplace of the Japanese maneki-neko (aka lucky cat), this tranquil suburban temple is strewn with thousands of the cute beckoning cats that have the kids purring. We found the little-known temple thanks to the inside knowledge of one of Inside Japan Tours’ amazing local guides. The in-the-know tour company is also how my culturally curious little warriors find themselves, swords in hand, for a lesson in the discipline, etiquette and techniques of the samurai at HiSui Tokyo. And there’s more tradition in store on a visit to a sumo-beya (sumo training house), where the kids are lucky enough to catch a sumo morning practice.
Of course, Tokyo is not all tradition, it’s a neon-lit titan of technology. The kids get hands-on at the Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation (Miraikan) where they meet game-changing ASIMO, the world's most advanced humanoid robot.
We delve into the Akihabara district where the streets are packed with everything from one-man stalls to colossal department stores heaving with whiz-bang tech. It’s also ground zero for gaming goodies, including cool retro offerings at Super Potato.
Across town, my little gamers also take a shine to the Pokémon Centre at Sky Tree Town, squealing, “pika pika”, as they charge through the merchandise-packed store.
But it is teamLAb Borderless that truly turns them on to tech. From space-age trampolines to infinite crystal worlds, light gardens and laser sculptures, the hours fly by as we explore the interactive world of light-filled magic at this modern art museum.
Over the rainbow
For more outrageous robot action, we head to Robot Restaurant in Shinjuku, where the confusing but captivating floorshow includes a lineup of 3m-tall robots and mechanised sharks. But Robot Restaurant has stiff competition as Tokyo excels at kooky and kaleidoscopic eateries.
We opt for total visual overload as we surf an outrageous wave of retina-searing colour at Harajuku’s Kawaii Monster Cafe. I need a few minutes to adjust to the ocular onslaught of dangling bottle-fed unicorns and psychedelic mushrooms, but the kids go wild for the rainbow decor and insanely over-the-top food.
Of course, no family trip to Tokyo is complete without donning a set of mouse ears. At Tokyo Disneyland we find classic Disney experiences as well as character meet-and-greets, shows and incredible parades, including the glittering Dreamlights Electrical Parade, a character-filled cavalcade of more than one million sparkling lights.
But it is neighbouring Tokyo DisneySea, a park inspired by the myths and legends of the sea, that truly floats my kids’ proverbial boats. The park’s seven immersive ports prove to be pure liquid magic, my son loving the exhilarating Journey to the Center of the Earth attraction, housed in an erupting volcano, while my little one delights in more gentle rides such as the Nemo & Friends SeaRider.
After spinning, coasting and flying our way through a dazzling Disney day, DisneySea’s incredible night-time extravaganza Fantasmic! proves a fittingly fabulous finale.
While location and price are what most families look for in a hotel, Tokyo adds pop culture preferences to the options. Keio Plaza Hotel proves there’s no such thing as too much of the world’s favourite cat. Located in lively Shinjuku, the hotel offers a little feline fun in their Hello Kitty Suites. There’s a pretty-in-pink Princess Kitty Room, but we decide on the Hello Kitty Town Room, an outrageous pop art explosion of Hello Kitty art.
If you're more of a dog person, you might like to head to the Imperial Hotel in salubrious Ginza for Snoopy-themed rooms. But for roar-some fun, my little monsters can’t go past Shinjuku’s Hotel Gracery and its Godzilla-themed rooms with life-size Godzilla claws looming over the beds.
Top five tips for Tokyo
1. Japan is a cash society, so make sure you carry plenty of yen as some ATMs don’t accept foreign cards.
2. To save time on the Tokyo subway and metro area JR trains, buy a prepaid Suica travel card.
3. Don’t eat and run as it is considered impolite to eat takeaway food on the go and you should only eat food at or in front of the place you bought it.
4. Navigating Tokyo can be confusing, as Japan numbers addresses by block, not by street, so you’ll need Wi-Fi and Google Maps to navigate.
5. It’s can be a bit tricky for tourists to buy a prepaid SIM card in Japan, so I recommend renting a Pocket Wifi online before you go.
All images: Aleney de Winter