Japan Part 1 - Tokyo
I’m going to pre-fix this blog by saying I am not a travel writer. Like at all. But I do love to travel (even though it’s been a while - hello kids!) and I’ve had countless messages from y’all asking about my tips and hacks for travelling in Japan with small kids, so here I am.
Japan had always been a bucket list destination for us and it lived up to every inch of the expectation. We visited in the middle of November and to be honest it’s taken me this long to write about it and release the blog because I just didn’t know where to start.
There were SO MANY highlights along the way, that it would take me a whole series to go through everything (turns out that what I’m going to be doing too now). The country is beautiful, the people are warm and friendly and it’s so so safe that we had absolutely no second thoughts about taking the girls everywhere we went (and then leaving them with a babysitter for 5 hours while we went on a date night in Tokyo! ) For ease of navigating my Japan blog(s) I’m going to divide our travels into cities so you can just read the parts that interest you most.
Regardless of where you head to in Japan if you plan to travel by train (which is hands down the easiest way to cover those vast distances quickly) you’ll want to purchase a JR pass. The JR pass is available to tourists - not Japanese nationals, and must be purchased before going to Japan. We bought ours through Japan Rail Pass Australia (but there are loads of different companies that will sell you the exact same thing), not only does it save you a tonne of money if you are travelling quite a lot on the bullet trains, but you can use it on any other JR line too. If travelling on some of the private lines around the cities you’ll need a separate Suica card - which you can buy easily at the train stations when you arrive.
Another handy tip I have is to get a pocket WIFI device, so that you can easily navigate and use your mobile devices whenever you need. We got ours from Japan Wireless, and having the ability to quickly check things without having to go out of our way to find a WIFI hotspot, input all our details was invaluable. If you arrange it with a few weeks or even days to go, they can send it to your hotel and have it waiting for you when you arrive.
Our first destination. We landed at about 5:30pm after a direct flight from Brisbane - highly recommend the direct flight if you can swing it, we took the bus to a stop near Tokyo Station (much cheaper then the airport train per person) and walked to our Hotel - The Royal Park Ginza 8 in Ginza.
I had been so apprehensive about the size of our hotel room as I’d heard horror stories about being crammed into tiny little spaces, but I have to admit I was pleasantly surprised. Hattie (being 5) bedshared with us in a kingsize - pretty standard even when we are home, and Harper had a full size single pullout lounge which converted into a bed. With a nearly full-size bathroom, bathtub, and separate toilet all separated from the sleeping area by a wooden sliding door - which made for an easier bed time for the girls, it was cosy, modern (construction was finished in 2018) and well appointed. A small fridge, storage area for our luggage and full size closet rounded out the room. At the time of booking I remember the rates being very affordable when compared to other hotels.
Arriving rather late to the hotel we checked in and set out for some dinner within walking distance (and a quick pit stop at a convenience store to pick up some Alcohol) before putting the girls to bed ready for a full day.
Day 1: Ginza/Shibuya Crossing/Harajuku/Ikebukuro
Hot tip - Nothing opens before about 11am, and if you follow Jo from The Tokyo Chapter you would know that. Trust me when I say, she’s right. Convenience Stores are, but virtually everything else is closed. We were up at 6am… because #kids and they were hungry. After walking around for about an hour and thinking to ourselves ‘Surely something will be open at 7am’ we gave up looking and got some breakfast at our local FamilyMart (Thankfully convenience stores are dotted almost on every block, and are very well stocked with plenty of delicious options). With our tummies full, and being a Saturday we headed straight to the train station bound for Shibuya Crossing.
We chose to activate our JR passes on the 3rd day of our travels because we wanted to optimise using them on the Bullet Trains, which meant that on our first full day in Japan we needed to pick up a Suica card (one of those other travel cards I mentioned earlier). This was probably the only slightly stressful time we had in Japan, and I think it had more to do with the lovely fellow that was trying to “help”. With the Olympics coming up later this year in Tokyo, all (don’t quote me on that) the ticket machines in the train stations have English options. Simply follow the prompts to get the cards issued, and then load it up with Yen (we loaded 1000Yen at a time)
Shibuya Crossing - still early in the morning it was lovely and quiet. We got our photos on the scramble crossing (didn’t get hit by any cars doing it) and Tim even indulged me taking several goes to get THE shot. If you’re looking for the best shot of the crossing totally packed though, check out the tips here.
From there we headed to Harajuku, known all over the world for it’s fashion, food and youth culture. While some of that culture seems to have dissipated with the droves of tourists that pass under the Takeshita Gates every day, I do still highly recommend meandering along the road, wandering through the stores and sampling the tasty sweet treats on offer! I loved it, and so did the kids - Tim wasn’t as convinced. However, he had planned a trip to the Sega Megastore later on in the afternoon, and so he indulged me in my desire for Crepes at AngelCrepe and let’s just say neither of us were disappointed in our first day in Tokyo.
The afternoon was spent exploring 7 floors of arcade games, claw machines and 1 level of photo booths. I’m not a gamer - I just don’t care all that much for it, but even I had a good time. There were things there that I have NEVER seen, Tim was in his element and apparently so were all the business men donning their suits and white gloves ready to give it a crack. One of my favourite keepsakes from the while trip is a sheet of photos from the Photo Booth that we tried - they are MUCH cooler then the ones in Australia.
*Sorry Lads if you plan to come by yourself you’ll be out of luck as this floor is strictly for women. The only way you’ll make it onto this floor is if you have a female companion to go with you.
We dropped into Kushikatsu Tanaka for dinner - Japan’s equivalent of fast food. Fried meat, fish and/or veggies, on a little skewer, dipped in a delicious sauce. Opt for a set menu or order the skewers a la carte if you prefer. Make sure you take note of the rules on double dipping into the sauce, and use the cabbage leaves as a spoon after the first dip! We had an absolute blast here - the girls loved the skewers (and the dipping) and Tim and I had a blast playing the entirely rigged (that’s not true, but the odds are stacked against you) Chinchiro!
To play just say “Chinchiro” to your server and they’ll bring you a pair of dice. Roll an even number and you get your next regular drink half price. Roll an odd number and you’ll get a mega-sized highball—but for twice the price of a regular. Roll a double and you’ve won a free drink. Good luck and watch out for the hangover from the Highball!!
Day 2: Moff Reff Bunny Cafe/Akihabara/Ueno Park
Rising slightly later then our first day in Tokyo we set out at around 9am, popped into our FamilyMart, purchased 2 seaweed onigiri (the girls became obsessed with these!) and we set out for another full day of sightseeing. Ever since we told the girls that we were heading to Japan they had asked to go to a bunny cafe - obviously something that I fully supported. There are countless animal cafes dotted around, so it’s up to you where or what animal you chose, but I owned rabbits as a child, so it was a no brainer for me. Tim had planned not to come with us, but even he admitted that he had way more fun then he expected. For 1100Yen per person you will receive a drink, bunny food and get to sit and play with these cheeky little fellows for 30 mins. Longer times are available if you want to spend more time there. It’s a rather unassuming building, and you’ll probably need a map (or Google maps) to get there but well worth it.
Departing Moff Rell we walked to the Akihabara Food Market through blocks and blocks of tax free shopping (mostly shoes) We hadn’t really planned to come here - but did make some purchases as it was too cheap not to take advantage of if you are in need of a spot of shopping.
The Food Market is a sight to see and the food options are endless. Everything smelt SO GOOD. As we had the girls in tow and it was lunch time the streets were jam packed full of people, the crowds were massive and every seat or standing room was already occupied. We popped off into one of the side streets and found an equally busy sushi train style restaurant. Our motto for the trip with one fussy eater had been “Try Everything” and the girls both readily downed 4 plates of eel sushi, among some other favourites. With our bellies full we continued our little walking tour and came to Ueno Park.
Settled among the bustling city is the glorious Ueno Park. Visiting in November meant the leaves were a magnificent yellow, orange, amber, and red. With one lone Cherry blossom tree deciding that it was meant to be flowering - and the subsequent throng of tourists crowing around the blossoms to take their obligatory photos (and yep, your girl did it too).
We spent a causal hour or 2 walking through the park, exploring the temples/shrines and watching some of a baseball game until we were too tired to go on. Baseball is one of those games that is almost as important to the Japanese as it is to Americans. Heading back to the hotel the girls wanted Cup Noodles from the FamilyMart - who was I to deny them :P Tim and I tag teamed it in finding dinner after they were asleep.
Day 3: Tsukiji Outer Market/ Team Lab Borderless Digital Museum/Date Night
Our last full day in Tokyo started with a walk from our hotel across to the Tsukiji Fish Markets. Although the actual market with the famous tuna auctions has moved across the bay, the outer market still exists and again it’s a foodie’s delight. With countless streets of fresh fish, oysters, sushi, sashimi and even stalls that are selling the most amazing marbled beef by the gram it’s an experience not to miss.
After visiting the market we jumped on our first train of the day this time from Shimbashi Station headed to TeamLab Borderless. You can not take a JR train here, so you’ll need your Suica cards and to find the Yurikamome Line. Once on the train you’re looking for Aomi Station. There are a stack of cool things to do at Pallet Island (an entirely massive and man made island in Tokyo Bay)
If you are car fan Amusement Megaweb is down here too - a massive automobile-themed amusement park is a dream-come-true for fans of all ages. It
s also host to Toyota City Showcase where you can take a look at a bunch of cars and drive them (it’s totally not my thing).
The line to get into Borderless was not like ANYTHING I’ve ever experienced in my life. We got there at 11, we should have gotten there earlier. The line was hundreds (if not thousands - i’m not exaggerating) long, and just when you thought you were at the end of the line, you turned a corner and it kept on going. Even the guy with the sign at the end of the line was laughing as he saw the weary travellers when they’d gotten to the end. Long lines aside, it moves quickly and it was totally worth it.
The Mori Building is home to the incredible, fully immersive digital art museum, teamLab Borderless. Covering 10,000sqm it’s located right next to the giant ferris wheel Daikanransha (which we went on - you can’t miss it, and it’s really reasonably priced)
Walking through the exhibits, you're encouraged to touch, follow, disrupt or add to the artworks. Watch as pieces flow between rooms, hence the museum’s ‘borderless’ moniker. Before you leave be sure you visit the En Tea House (booking in advance is recommended especially if you are visiting in a busy season). Besides the amazing cup of tea you’ll have, you’ll also be treated to another stunning digital display while you go on your journey.
Date night in Shimbashi
It was one of the first things we booked once we decided that we were really going on holiday. To be in one of the worlds truly global cities we needed to make the most of it. But how would we sample the great adult treats of Tokyo with kids in tow? Simple… get a BABY SITTER!!! I was initially incredibly apprehensive about leaving the kids with a stranger in a foreign city for a few hours - but not apprehensive enough to rule it out completely. We did our research - again tapping into The Tokyo Chapters blog and some independent research about which companies we should be looking at. We eventually settled on Care Finder. We selected our babysitter based on her profile and went with a lovely Ukranian girl who had made Tokyo her home 10 years ago. She spoke English well and the girls loved her. Once we were all comfortable Tim and I left for our date.
Tokyo is one of those places that I’d be confident to say has no upper limit when it comes to the amount you can spend on food and drink, and I have no hesitation in saying that you would find some of the finest food on the planet in Tokyo, but that wasn’t what we were after on this date. We wanted to get out and have fun, eat good bar food and just enjoy our 5 hours away from parenthood. Tim had done his research and our first stop was a tiny little Sake bar near a train station - tucked away in some random corner, and you’d only know about it if you were actively looking. We ordered 2 flights of sake to sample and some bar food. With standing room only there was a good reason this place was popular with Japanese businessmen. Great snacks and great Sake for next to nothing! Wrapping up our tasting paddles we set off again.
This time it was to stop in to play Pachinko Slots. The Japanese LOVE to gamble and Pachinko is one of those things that really has to be witnessed to understand it. It’s loud - I’m talking INCREDIBLY loud! Thousands, if not millions of tiny metal balls getting loaded into machines at a rate of knots. It took me a while to understand exactly how to play, but once I did i had a few good rounds, accumulating a nice little pile of the ball bearings for myself - Tim was not so lucky.
Gambling is illegal in Japan, but you can get around the law if you know how :P (and every body does) right next to Pachinko Slots you’ll find a little kiosk - and the only form of currency it will accept is ball bearings. Catch my drift? Swap your bearings for money - but it has to be on the same day or you’re out of luck.
Continuing on in our mini pub/bar crawl we walked through the bar lined streets of Shimbashi looking for something that appealed to us. We stumbled across a small hole in the wall, where the chef was talking to some locals, went to step up, and got turned away. Ugh I thought, but actually more common then you think. Many establishments will turn patrons away if you haven’t been before, are not a guest of the chef or a guest of another restaurant go-er. Its a cool little system (although I admit at the time, I was quite upset that we were allowed to eat there, as it looked cool as shit!). We continued to walk around and came across a picture of a pig with the word BBQ sprayed across in big letters. Great! I love some BBQ pork!
We were handed an english menu and told that if we wanted to sit we needed to order alcohol. No problem - I was on date night! We ordered a handful of little plates and a set of assorted skewers. It was here at this smiling BBQ Pork Palace that we ate our fair share on entrails. Pork Uterus, Colon, Intestine, Liver and the humble tongue. Chewing through the Uterus (I can only assume) was one of those really unpleasant experiences. The taste was brilliant - initially. The texture was something else entirely. Do Not Recommend, unless you just want a kickass story to tell about that one time you ate Pork Uterus in Tokyo. Tim and I struggled through our assorted plate of entrails, but got through it because I was not about to cause embarrassment to the servers, chef or ourselves. So we settled in ate all the horseradish and asked the server to please keep the drinks coming thick and fast.
After eating our meal and questioning our abilities we settled the bill in search four final destination - Land Bar Artisan. Tucked away in a little basement this 6 seater bar is owned by Daisuke Ito. He hand carves all the ice himself, squeezes fresh seasonal juices, and imparts his wisdom (in very beautiful english I might add) as he makes your drink. His signature blend of Gins and Tonic comes high recommended as does the Gimlet. While tim can vouch for the Old Fashioned and Manhattan. While drinks here are on the pricer side for what we were used to paying this trip, it’s inline with that you’d expect to pay for a cocktail at a nice bar here.
With our time on the clock (or off as it happened) we said thank you and goodbye, climbed the stairs and set out onto the chilly streets back towards our hotel. How quickly 5 hours of child free bliss disappears! Feeling slightly hungry and all together not entirely satisfied with our dinner (I wonder why?) we ducked into (you know it!) FamilyMart and picked up a dirty Kombini Okonomiyaki, some more alcohol and proceeded to have a party on the tiled floor outside the bathroom once we'd put the girls to bed.
if you’ve made it this far, stay tuned (but not too tuned cause it might be a few weeks) for the next part and quite possibly the worst of all the days we had on our travels (due in large part to lack of sleep from our tiny travellers).
Next stop Kyoto!