Tokyo Is A Grand Destination - My Family Travels

Discover activities for families traveling with juniors, seniors and in-betweens in Tokyo and the countryside of Hakone, both highlights of a country where age comes before beauty (and guarantees wisdom!)

Imperial Hotel is a peaceful enclave of service and style in the heart of Ginza’s throbbing shopping district. It’s amazing how quickly a thoughtful concierge or smiling waitress can make a foreigner feel at home in Japan’s busiest city. But Tokyo, the epicenter of old and new Nippon, boasts many refuges for travelers who are overwhelmed by its pace.

If you don’t want to experience a frantically busy financial center, such as the Shinjuku district at lunchtime, you can opt for the rural ambiance of the Imperial Palace East Garden (Higashi Gyoen) on a weekday morning. If your teens don’t delight in the neon boutiques and strains of club music emanating from Shibuya, take them to the Tomb of the Emperor Meiji, the country’s most revered leader, who lays in peace amidst shaded gardens. Afternoons, broad paths are occupied by Tokyo’s private school students, who meet to do homework together.

Not far from the main entrance is the Harajuku rail station and the end of Omotesando-dori, an avenue snaking through another hip neighborhood filled with Japanese youth and trend setters. It is this steady mix of the old and the new that make Tokyo such an intriguing city for travelers spanning several generations.

Perfecting Manners

In Japan, it is said, children are cherished and elders are revered. To us, this behavior was widely evident (though we did hear some seniors grousing about “rudeness” from the younger generation!) My family enjoyed discussing old Japanese customs and new manners, and whatever we didn’t understand was usually well explained in the free publications we got from the Japan National Tourist Organization.

Your youngest generation is sure to notice kids on their cell phones responding to e-mail, but do they appreciate the etiquette? Japan’s DoCoMo i-phone system is one of the world’s most sophisticated. Cell phone wrist straps are decorated with icons ranging from Hello, Kitty to Eminem. Fortunately, you’ll rarely hear the thousands of pop tunes that sound instead of rings, because they have been muted. The Japanese feel it is very inconsiderate to annoy others with noise — even coughs. Another aspect of good manners: People walking around in surgical masks are taking precaution to protect passersby from their colds or germs. Bowing is another obvious form of manners; even the computer-generated characters on payphone LEDs ‘bow’ to customers after your phone card is inserted. Non-smokers will be pleased to know that a few years ago, seven districts throughout the city became No Smoking zones, both indoors and out, as a courtesy to others.

Old & New Drama

A favorite traditional pastime of Japanese grandparents is Kabuki, the traditional musical theatre. At our visit, two of Japan’s National Living Treasures (isn’t that a wonderful designation for a grandparent?) were performing at Kabuki-za, the city’s principal theater. Unsure of our 9-year-old’s ability to sit through a Kabuki performance (and I admit, of our own), we were dismayed to learn that orchestra seats were over $90 each. In another example of Japanese thoughtfulness, the theater’s management has set aside a limited number of cheap seats in the uppermost balcony for those who only want to watch one scene from the whole. There is a 20-minute intermission between each scene, allowing enough time for the many grandparents, toddlers in hand, to descend the three flights of stairs. At our performance, a 2-year-old in silk robes was making his stage debut as the “Spirit of the Buddha”; quite a crowd-pleaser.

Active grandparents who don’t mind getting their shoes wet should rustle up the troops at 5am (an easy activity when jet lag hits) for an expedition to Tsukiji Fish Market, Tokyo’s dramatic wholesale fish and produce market. After a brief walk from the subway station, we strolled through parking lots surrounding large warehouses until some passerby in waders said “Tuna?” and pointed. Inside an enormous florescent-lit space were hundreds of large frozen tuna being sold for US$10,000 to US$15,000 apiece. It was very theatrical to watch men on cell phones poke at the fish and costumed auctioneers shout out the highest bids. After touring stalls displaying hundreds of live fish and mollusk species, we wandered outside and into the nearest sushi restaurant. The sushi chefs were delighted to watch our son chowing down on tekka maki, his favorite tuna sushi roll.

Japanese cuisine is its own dramatic art form, with specialty restaurants featuring only one from a wide variety of tastes, textures, serving styles and price ranges. We were surprised that so many foods are unfamiliar (usually scary for kids) and that menus rarely had the broad selection of America’s Japanese restaurants. We quickly learned that a ramen noodle, zushi, tempura (vegetables and fish lightly fried in batter) or “tourist menu” restaurant would provide all ages with a satisfying meal (though we do have some legendary tales of mispronouncing dishes and receiving some wild-looking food!) On the trains and near the parks, many shops also sell take-out bento boxes with small portions of several items. Their presentation was always so special (be it the real thing or the plastic version hanging in the shop windows!), that our son sampled everything and ate white rice if he didn’t like the offerings.

Old & New Entertainment

Japan boasts every conceivable plugged-in fun as well as exquisite traditional art forms. Depending on the interests of your children and grandchildren, you may want to schedule an outing to the Palettetown theme park, built on landfill in Tokyo Harbor. The “train ride” by private aerial monorail, while expensive at US$2.50 compared to using a JR Rail pass on Tokyo’s underground system, is a magnificent sightseeing opportunity. Palettetown is a commercial complex of chrome and glass lit by lasers, with a Toyota showroom (visitors can “drive” electric cars on tracks free of charge) at its core. Moms and daughters will love Venus Fort, a lavishly decorated, so-called Women’s Theme Park that’s really a pastel-pink and ruffles mall. (Notice how the lights change on the cloud-painted ceiling to simulate sunset.)

Traditional culture and fine arts should be part of any visit. Our favorite family museum was the Tokyo National Museum (81-3/3822-1111) in pretty Ueno Park. This park, itself a center of traditional Japanese recreation, is the place for kite-flying and watching elders show off their favorite kimono during Cherry Blossom season. As a very large green space in the city’s heart, it provides a soothing break from the sightseeing routine. Bring a Bento (boxed picnic) or buy snacks from the colorful pushcart vendors or stands selling tiny teacakes. As for the museum, it can be compared to the Louvre in scope and is best seen over a few short visits, especially with younger children.

Old & New Shopping

Shopping is a perennial Japanese pastime that may interest your brood. Each neighborhood has its own enormous mall complexes, most of several stories, but the small custom shops and featured craftsmen that once differentiated areas of central Tokyo are almost gone.

Where to begin? There are broad generalizations: Ginza for upscale shops and designer boutiques; Shibuya and Akihabara for cheap electronics, videos and music; Asakusa for traditional candy shops, street markets, vendors of religious imagery; the Ryogoku Kokugikan Stadium area for sumo ware. Each neighborhood has its own unexpected pleasures: for example, Asakusa has many shrines and temples dating from the Edo Period (1600-1868), and Shibuya is home to a statue of legendary Hachiko, the Akita dog who faithfully met his master daily at the train station, even 10 years after the master’s death at work.

If you narrow down your shopping choices, your hotel concierge will assist in locating resources. Once he or she suggests a certain shop, be sure that you have its street address, a notation on your map with the nearest subway stop, and the shop’s name written in Japanese. (It’s very easy – and a lot of fun – to get lost.) And for a bit more fun, ask the concierge if there are any of the new 100 Yen shops (like “dollar stores”) around, where kids can blow their allowance.

And prices? The Yen has strengthened against the US dollar in mid-2007, so most Americans would find few things, other than sake, a bargain. Daily life is very expensive for the locals, too. My family learned an important lesson in realizing that Japanese families only buy the best products and take good care of them.

This teaches children about quality, good craftsmanship and beauty; and caring for possessions instills a sense of frugality. Don’t pass up any of the “teachable moments” you are sure to encounter in your travels through Japan. These are difficult values to teach children in most Western societies.

Old & New Lodging

Many travelers consider Hakone, a touristy but traditional village within view of Mt. Fuji, to be a must-see destination. If you can, spend at least one night at the 125-year-old, hilltop Fujiya Hotel in Fuji-Hakone National Park. It’s an oasis of Victoriana and Art Nouveau Japonnaiserie, both serene and surreal. There are hotspring baths indoors, a very civilized and kid-pleasing High Tea in the gorgeous lobby, and a lovely garden for playing.

Fujiya Hotel
359 Miyanoshita Hakone-machi
Ashigarashimo-gun, Kanagawa
Tel: 81-460/2-2211

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