Monday, October 19, 2015

Tokyo, Japan: Tips and Places to Visit While Traveling With Kids

We just got back a few days ago from a family vacation to Japan something that we had been planning for years.

My wife and I have been there before, years before we had kids and at the time couldn’t believe how shockingly kid-friendly Japan was overall. Completely clean, the safest city on earth, and so much to do. 
We’ve always vowed we would return when our kids were of good traveling age. Now that our youngest is 5 and both kids had a "fall break" vacation at school plus airline tickets are pretty half of what they normally are, and a really strong dollar (best I've ever seen) it seemed like a perfect time to go.  

So what’s there for kids to do in Tokyo?  A few places I recommend:

  1. Tokyo Disney Sea/Tokyo Disneyland. You can buy your tickets in advance on the Tokyo Disney resort website. The best part is - the tickets are about 40% CHEAPER than U.S./EU Disney-owned Parks since the ones out there aren’t owned by Disney. They’re licensed by a Japanese company, Oriental Land Company. In my opinion they're actually better than Disney-owned parks in regards to merchandise and food quality. I recommend 2 full days exploring these parks. If you only have one day, definitely visit Disney Sea which is in my opinion, the best theme park in the world.
  2. Kidzania. The only way to describe this place is what my daughter said about it, “if one of these were near our house, I would live there!” It’s basically a giant indoor kid city with about 70 different careers. Kids choose what they want to be and ‘work’ there for about 45 mins and then they get paid in Kidz Cash and can spend money or use an ATM to deposit their money into savings. It’s pretty overwhelming and something that can't all be done in the allotted time. I recommend buying tickets online (early shift or afternoon shift) as it gets crowded. They have english Wednesdays, but my kids got by just fine as the 'hosts/managers' speak a little english.  
  3. Kawagoe. A great day trip to old Japan or "Little Edo" as some called it about 30-mins from the Tokyo Ikebukuro station (on the rapid train.) You can walk by foot through the the old downtown to the warehouse district. Lot’s of traditional houses with clay roofs, old buildings, shops and museums. The highlight for the kids was Candy Alley or “Confectionery Row” with traditional candy. There's even a cool Shaved Ice place with a monkey! Oh, and one more cool place - a Cat Cafe on the main downtown pedestrian street. You pay around $1.50 per 10 minutes to sit in a cafe/living room with cats. 
  4. Harajuku. Crazy shops and character restaurants and nearby “Kiddy Land” a 7-story toy store like no other in the world. I highly recommend getting a "crepe" - which really isn't a crepe at all but a giant cone of deliciousness. Afterwards wander right over to the Meiji Shrine through an amazing forest in the middle of the city.
  5. Robot Restaurant. This is basically the Moulin Rouge of Japan, except with giant robots and monsters, and it’s totally fine to bring your kids here. Some reviews on Trip Advisor will say "there are women dressed up in crazy costumes and dance suggestively" but in reality, I've seen worse on Disney Channel. In reality, they're dressed like characters out of a video game, not  even bikini's but board shorts/volleyball shorts and skirts. The show is bizarre yet spectacular and is now my most recommended place for anybody visiting Tokyo! Both my kids couldn’t stop talking about it, especially about how in the world they get so many floats and robots into such a tiny basement-type space.  During intermissions, they sell popcorns, soda's, beer, and Dorrito's!? A warning - it's extremely loud, so loud that they give kids headphones (take them!) and it's in a seedy alley in Shinjuku, which in Japanese terms means - you'll never really know it walking around. Get your tickets ahead of time and if you get them at Veltra, they're around $15 off per ticket. 
  6. Genki Sushi, Shibuya. This place is so cool that we visited twice. Order food from an iPad (english option) and then a little robot car brings it to you and while you wait, the iPad plays rock, paper, scissors and you can win a capsule prize. 
  7. Shibuya pedestrian crossing at night. This area brings shame to New York's Times Square. We just stood near the train station and people-watched. It's pretty amazing. 
  8. Tokyo Tower at night. Tokyo’s version of the Eiffel tower, except with lots of shops and stuff on the lower levels. The lights at night are spectacular. 
  9. Ueno Park, Zoo, shopping. Great zoo and swan boats on a giant “pond.” Great pedestrian shopping/eating area under the JR tracks just south of the Ueno station. 
  10. Meiji Shrine (Harajuku.) A giant forest in the middle of the city. Great walk after visiting Harajuku. 
  11. Shinjuku Gyoen (Park.) This is one of those places were you pick up food at a Lawson’s or 7-11 and picnic. It’s huge! There’s always some fair or festival happening on the weekends on the large lawn area. 
  12. Akiharbara - This place feels like stepping into Blade Runner. Near the station they have all kinds of weird (USB) junk you can buy really cheap along with some of the coolest capsule machine finds (cat bandana's, waitresses IN food, and underwear for your water bottle.) The only odd/bizarre thing around are the “Maid’s Cafe’s” which we did not visit.  Read the link - these weren't that big in my previous visits. 
  13. Ghibli Museum - Mitaka. The home of Totoro. This place is a trek but totally worth it. Even the walk from the train station to the museum is nice. Only downside, you need to get tickets in the U.S. beforehand as they sell out fast. 
Some overall tips and etiquette for visiting Japan, in general:
  1. Summer is humid. Really humid. Fall and Spring are best time to visit. Spring is my absolute favorite during the Sakura/Cherry Blossom festivals that happen at nearly all parks and in Kyoto. I recommend bringing a light blanket along sit on. 
  2. Don’t eat or drink while walking,  it's considered rude, even if you have a Starbucks coffee in hand. People sit. It’s a strange and nice cultural thing, but makes sense especially in the subways and trains when that many people are walking without distractions.
  3. No trash cans, anywhere! For being the cleanest city on the planet, there are virtually no trash cans anywhere. You need to carry your trash with you until you find one. Oh and if you find one, they separate everything: plastics, cardboard, food, whatever. 
  4. Never sit on the ground without first placing something down or step on a seat. Even on Disney park rides, people don’t use any ride seat as a step. 
  5. All restrooms are extremely clean. Like immaculate compared to U.S. public restrooms, even at public parks but they don’t have paper towels - some have dryers. You'll need to carry along a small washcloth to dry your hands. Nearly everybody has one with them. 
  6. Women shouldn’t show cleavage. Unless you want persistent stares; on the other hand, if you like stares, go right ahead. Although really, really short skirts showing a lot of leg are somehow O.K. 
  7. Don't stab your food with chopsticks, or worse, leave your chopstick sticking out of a bowl. If you can't use chopsticks, bring along a fork with you or chopstick trainers.
  8. Although you don’t need to learn Japanese it’s good to learn a few phrases such as “Hello”, “Goodbye”, “Good morning”, “Excuse Me”, "No, thank you" "Thank you very much”, “Do you understand English?” These are easy to learn and people there really appreciate the effort. Get an App to learn! Most people in the city, shops, restaurants, and hotels speak/understand a little English, enough to get by and/or point to menu items. Most restaurants have at least 1 menu in English. It was never an issue for us communicating. 
  9. Japanese are extremely polite. They never speak loud, or scream, and are rarely rude, so don’t be rude or act angry. Especially in public. Another fact, nobody tries to rip you off or steal even in stalls/marketplaces. It’s pretty shocking, but true. 
  10. The trains and subways are extremely efficient and are overwhelming at first the nice part is all stations have English written and the main trains say the station names in English. I highly recommend buying Suica cards from the JR Rail Ticket Office (located at JR stations) that are good for all Tokyo subways and trains, then load them with money at the machines. The machines have an “English” option. Afterwards, you can get a refund from any JR Rail Ticket Office on anything unused (minus a $2 return fee) which was great! For kids, they need their passport to validate age. And another fun thing - they "tweet" like birds when the kids use them.
  11. Taxis - I recommend taking trains and subways first and foremost. Taxis in Japan are like nowhere else in the world - very clean, white doilies, and white gloved drivers in suits. Never touch the door handle is my advice! They're more expensive that anywhere, in the world but they offer great service. In addition we used UBER twice (from Haneda Airport to our hotel in Shimbashi/Ginza) which was great and fast. I recommend using a Taxi or UBER as lugging around luggage on the train/subway is just crazy with the stairs. I regularly use UBER for work in other countries and it's always been great! But in Japan, the App is really 'iffy' - I kept getting server issues responses. I don't think UBER is as big in Japan as the Taxis there are just fine, unlike every other place on earth where they're just plain bad (New York being the worse!)
  12. Fly into Haneda Airport and not Narita. Haneda is really convenient - around 20 minutes from Tokyo and the Taxi's/UBER's are around $50 one way. Narita is FAR. Like $180-240+ for a Taxi or UBER, or hours getting to your hotel on a "Limousine Bus" for $26/per person which stops a million times. I've been to Tokyo a few times and will never fly into Narita. It's like landing in Santa Barbara when you want to land in L.A. I don't understand why people land there; it's completely inconvenient especially when you'll been on a plane for 12 hours. 
  13. Use your ATM card to get cash. It’s OK to carry large amounts of cash and to flash it as stealing is virtually nonexistent (still hard to believe until you see 100’s of unlocked bikes on the street or purses left on table unattended in public spaces.) The best places to find international ATM’s is at the airports or 7-11 ATM's which are pretty much everywhere. 
  14. Credit cards are normally accepted at larger shops, department stores, or larger restaurants. For the most part Tokyo is still a cash-only place. 
  15. Don't talk on the cellphone on the train. Although you can play games or do whatever on your cellphone. In fact, trains are quiet and really clean as everybody is on their cellphone!
  16. If you have a cough or are sick, wear a sterile mask. They all do - it's pretty common and quite frankly, I wish we did this in the U.S.
  17. 100 yen stores are the best! Pretty much their version of $1 stores. You can find gifts and all sorts of cool things at any one of them. 
  18. Tipping? Don't do it. Nobody does and it's considered rude. The first time I tried 'tipping' (my first time in Japan) the waitress ran out the door to give me my 'change.'

Hope these tips are helpful for anybody considering or planning a visit to Japan. It's definitely a amazing cultural experience like no other!
For any other tips or questions, feel free to comment below.