Skye Wishart cracks the formula on how to entertain kids on a Japan trip.
Visiting Tokyo is like climbing into a vortex of old and new, and climbing out with your mind blown.
If you're alone, you could begin your evening in sophistication, gazing over the labyrinth of city lights, 52 storeys up in the New York Bar like Scarlett Johansson a la Lost in Translation. Then you get eating and drinking at Michelin-starred restaurants or down alleyways in pint-sized yakitori restaurants, so jammed with other customers you'll make five best friends by the end of your meal. Still later, you get your fix of J-pop wackiness at the Robot Restaurant — a neon show where exuberant women sing, dance and operate giant battling robots while you drink beer.
But if you find yourself in Tokyo with children in tow, then clubs, shopping immersion, and Michelin-starred restaurants may be off the itinerary. All is not lost! Here are some ways to do "Tokyo with Kids, While Still Having An Epic and Interesting Experience For Yourself" (tried and tested on kids aged 7 and 9):
Fukuro no mise Owl Cafe in Tsukishima
There are many owl cafes in Tokyo, and this was the very first to open. Never mind the kids, my mind was blown. All species of owls, big and small, that can sit on your arm! Or your shoulder! Or your head! There's a bit of a trick to going — keep a whole afternoon and evening flexible for this, and arrive at least half an hour before it opens (this time varies, so check). When you reach the front of the queue, for 2000 yen ($27), they'll let you know when your half-hour slot will be that day. When finally inside, you'll be given a coffee or juice, an explanation about the owls, and then free rein to hold the owls. The days when they will have an English-speaking employee will vary, but even without one, it's still owls! There are also cat, rabbit, and bird cafes throughout the city — I hear there is even one with goats.
At a Yakiniku restaurant, older kids can channel their pyromania and cook their own wagyu steak pieces over a smouldering fire-pit in the middle of the table. Or at an Okonomiyaki restaurant, they can compete between them to make the best savoury Japanese pancake on a hot plate in the table, complete with the dried fish flakes that dance like they're alive. At a Kaiten sushi restaurant the sushi comes round past their seats on a conveyor belt, so they can choose what they want. As an adult, it's all just delicious, so everyone wins. We also heard of a restaurant where all the wait-staff are ninja.
The Toy Museum near Shinjuku
Allocate a couple of hours for this retro paradise. This is set in an old school, where each classroom has a different theme. No screens or cheap plastic here! It's filled with analogue, wooden toys of amazing craftsmanship. The kids can get hands-on, getting their fix of hand-eye co-ordination and brain stimulation. So much to try, the kids will get a huge buzz — and even I got a kick out of some of the trickier games.
The obvious choice, and it takes a full day. Even if you're not a roller coaster person, the people-watching alone is fascinating. The Japanese love dressing up as as their favourite character in groups or couples — much like the Wellington 7s with less alcohol and more Mr Potato Head popcorn holders. Best ride? Space Mountain and Splash Mountain. Be prepared for long, long queues.
Legoland Discovery Center
Around three hours. Something of a mecca for Lego-mad kids and adults alike, with life-sized Lego characters and small theme park rides (it is inside a mall). Includes a build-your-own race car room with ramps to test them out, and a huge jungle gym area where the kids can tear around. The food is average so take snacks. Prepare your mental fortitude for the purchasing onslaught in the shop at the exit.
The 100 yen shop:
Give the kids a handful of change and let them loose on Japanese candy, funky stationery, stickers, and lego nanoblocks, while you look at all the weird and wonderful devices commonplace in Japanese households. Also head to any pet shop — sometimes they let kids hold the puppies. See status-symbol toy poodle pups for $12,000 and shake your head in disbelief.
Hiring bikes in Yoyogi park
2-3 hours. Bikes of all sizes can be hired relatively cheaply, and as well as dispelling pent-up kid energy, you can see all sorts. There are groups of teens practising hip-hop, musicians playing among the trees, those quirky rockabilly dancers in costume, hordes of pampered pooches in a special area (many wearing zany clothes), and it's far from the concrete jungle vibe of inner Tokyo. Ah, peace. Besides, it's close to Omotesando if you're able to drag the kids through a shopping excursion for yourself, and also not far from Harajuku for some Harajuku Girl costume-spotting.
Riding the subway
Don't underestimate it — the first few times are a huge novelty for kids. Underground Tokyo is a world of unthinkably long escalators, they'll enjoy "beeping" themselves through the barriers, standing up on the train trying to reach the handholds, working out from the signs which stop is theirs, and using their subway cards to buy drinks from vending machines.
Ichigaya Fishing Centre
1 hour. This is inner-city catch-and-release fishing — a bizarre cultural experience for a Kiwi, and oddly peaceful. Mostly attended by old men (and one awkward teenage date in high heels), it involves sitting on crates around murky artificial ponds over the river in central Tokyo, casting your lines for fat, indifferent carp that have already gorged themselves with bait. At the end of your hour your fish are weighed and returned to the water: with a large haul you win more time. We caught only one but, for me, it was more a fascinating insight into that universal way to relax and kill time, but one that was very urban and somewhat futile.
Visit a Japanese house.
We rented a guesthouse for a couple of nights when we visited Kyoto, but you could do this anywhere. What fun for kids to experience the original tiny home: have a knee-height dining table, a tiny but deep bath, which is part of a wider bathroom where everything is designed to get wet, a narrow steep staircase to the upper floor, sleeping on futons and tatami flooring, and best of all? A toilet that warms and washes your bum.
flies direct from Auckland to Tokyo, with one-way Economy Class fares to Narita starting from $619.
For more information on Japan holidays, go to jtboi.co.nz