Asia / City Breaks / Japan / Travel Tips

Two days in Tokyo: Exploring the city and surrounds

We’re in Japan! It’s my first trip to Japan, and I cannot believe that I am here with my two children, navigating the area with two preschoolers is going to be a challenge – but I’m up for it. BRING. IT. ON.

As we are here for about 10 days, we decided to split up our trip. We’re spending 3 nights in Tokyo and then 6 nights in Hakone. This gives us two full days to spend in Tokyo – which is barely much time at all as there is so much to see and do in this city – but we’re going to make the best of it.

Travel Tip: If you’re planning to travel by train in Japan around Tokyo/Yokohama, it is worth getting the N’EX (Narita Express one-way or return ticket) + SUICA (the stored value travel card) package deal at Narita Airport on arrival in Japan!

After a quick breakfast at our ryokan (the traditional Japanese inn), we strolled down to the nearby subway station and took a train to Tsukiji Market.

fresh-sashimi-japan-tokyo-market

Looking and smelling (and tasting when invited!)

We decided not to attend the 5am Tuna Auction as I felt that the overall environment would be unsuitable for little ones (and I had a horror of trying to drag myself and two travel-weary owlets out of bed at some godforsaken hour). Instead, we stayed mostly in the outer market and avoided the wholesalers inner market area.

There was still plenty to see – fresh fish, sea cucumbers, shellfish, urchins and other delicacies lying in styrofoam containers, stalls of fresh fruit and vegetables, little restaurants serving sashimi, oden and grilled seafood, and wholesalers selling chef’s knives and specialist kitchenwares. Many of the wholesalers invited us to taste their wares, so the whole trip was a wonderful sensory experience.

The most impressive thing about the Tsukiji Market is its cleanliness. Most wet markets that I have visited have an unpleasant aroma of filth. I was fully prepared for the Tsukiji Market to have sticky wet floors and to smell of rotting fish. But I was pleasantly surprised! The grounds were clean and dry, except around the wholesalers selling seafood – and even then, the sloped floors ensured that dirty runoff would flow into little drains and be carried away. All that was left was the pleasant, salty smell of the sea.

When we were done browsing, we hopped back onto the train and headed for Mitaka, home of the Ghibli Museum.

Travel Tip: Preschoolers (5 years old and under) travel for free on all forms of public transport, and enjoy free entry to most tourist attractions in Japan! Awesome!

We were all looking forward to visiting the Ghibli Museum. Ever since I introduced J and Little E to ‘My Neighbour Totoro’, they have become big fans of the works of Ghibli. When I told them that we were visiting Japan, one of the first things they asked me was ‘so, when can we see Totoro?’. I knew that I had to get tickets to the Ghibli Museum!

Mitaka-Anime-Manga-Ghibli-Miyazaki

We love all things Ghibli!

Tickets to the Ghibli Museum have to be purchased in advance from a vending machine (known as ‘Loppi’) which is available at the popular Japanese convenience store, LAWSON. There is a Lawson at Narita Airport, so most travellers to Tokyo wait until they arrive in Japan to purchase tickets. The tickets are quite popular and do sell out very quickly, so if you need to visit the museum on a specific day or time, it is better to buy the tickets in advance from a travel agency in your own country (ticket prices will of course be marked up significantly!).

Unfortunately, since we only had 2 days in Tokyo, we did not have much flexibility in our schedule for our visit to the museum, so we enlisted the help of a friend in Japan to help us purchase tickets.

Enjoying the Ghibli Museum

Enjoying the Ghibli Museum

The Ghibli Museum is such a wonderful place. I cannot imagine the amount of planning that went into the design of the building and all its features!

As we approached the building, we could see a robot soldier peering down at us from the roof. J got very excited because he recognised it from his favourite film, ‘Castle In The Sky’ and would not be appeased until we brought him to the rooftop garden to see and touch it. Every nook and cranny of the building is filled with some interesting object or cute creature just waiting to be discovered. And yes, most of the exhibits and signs are in Japanese, but neither the children nor I had any problem understanding what was being communicated.

We had a light lunch at the Straw Hat Cafe where we sat on the terrace amongst the Mitaka red pines and looked out over Inokashira Park. Then we headed indoors to the Saturn Theatre to watch a short animated feature from Ghibli that is exclusive to the museum! This month’s screening was called ‘House Hunting’ and it was a true delight.

Inokashira-park-mitaka

Walking to the Mitaka train station is a delight

We could have done with more time at the museum, but I could see that my 2 year old Little E was starting to get tired, so we quickly headed back to the train station, walking through Inokashira Park on the way.

Little E made it most of the way to the train station, which is about a 15 minute walk away, but soon became too tired. She fell asleep on my shoulder and was peacefully asleep all the way back to Tokyo.

I would have loved to spend a day shopping in the busy Tokyo shopping malls of Shinjuku and trendy Shibuya, and perhaps spending some time exploring the off-beat Harajuku district, but with only two days in Tokyo, this was an impossiblity.

So, I did some research and decided on a place to go which would not only allow me the freedom to do some retail therapy, but would also be a fun place for the children to discover the quirky side of Japan.

Which is why I took the children to the Tokyu Hands store in Ikebukuro.

Tokyu Hands is a huge chain of Japanese departmental stores and their motto is “When you visit, you find what you want”. And it’s true. The Tokyu Hands store in Ikebukuro had 9 floors of everything from washi tape to chopsticks to bicycle seats to air purifiers. EVERYTHING. I went absolutely nuts in the stationery floor because everything was just so beautiful[1].

The best part was that the store had a cat café called Nekobukuro on the top floor. This is a place where people can pay a small cover fee and spend time playing and interacting with friendly cats.

tokyu-hands-pet-rental

At the Nekobukuro Cat Cafe – we are all Very Excited!

In Tokyo at least, most of the apartments do not allow pets and many workers feel that their work schedules are incompatible with keeping a pet. Cat Cafés are seen as an alternative to pet ownership, so people can benefit from interaction with warm, cuddly, purring kitties without worrying about the expense and responsibility.

Nekobukuro has a stable of 30 or so cats, and they are rotated throughout the day in order to make sure that the cats get enough rest a are not over-handled. To ensure that the patrons behave themselves in the presence of the cats, everyone is given a list of rules to read, and there are several wandering keepers inside the café who carry treats for the cats as well as a selection of cat-disturbers cat-dancers and toys.

pet-rental-ikebukuro-tokyu-hands

There’s nothing like a warm, fuzzy belly.

Needless to say, both my kids were over the moon when they entered this nirvana which had cats draped over every visible surface. There were sleek Russian Blues and fuzzy marmalade Maine Coons and snobby looking Persians and round Scottish Folds, all playing, purring, and preening in various corners. J and Little E have had plenty of experience with cats, so they know not to chase them or play rough with them. This made it easier for me to ensure that they complied with the Nekobukuro rules.

After some vigorous hand-washing (always wash your hands after handling animals!), it was time for dinner. We had a very nice, inexpensive meal at Ootoya, where the kids enjoyed a big bowl of sashimi-don each.

ootoya-ikebukuro-tokyo-fashion-sashimi

A night out in Ikebukuro

They LOVE salmon sashimi.

However, salmon sashimi is practically unheard of in most parts of Japan, as it is a fish that is more commonly eaten in the northern provinces (where it was discovered that freezing salmon would kill off parasites found in the fish) and is only now become popular in the rest of Japan. Some of the conveyor belt sushi places serve them, but if you’re in a restaurant, it’s hard to find salmon sashimi on the menu.

Instead, the kids had maguro (tuna) sashimi. They really enjoyed that! It is now their favourite kind of sashimi. It has a mild, clean taste.

Walking about the town towards the train station, we bumped into a pink lady all decked out in gyaru style complete with tutu skirt! Little E was so excited to see her, she yelled out ‘IT’S THE PRINCESS!’ and started dancing around.

That totally made my day.


[1] It took me all my will to stop myself from putting out my arm and just sweeeeeeeeeeping the whole shelf into my basket. Honestly. The stationery floor is a trap for people who like pretty things.(Go Back)

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8 thoughts on “Two days in Tokyo: Exploring the city and surrounds

  1. How fun! You made me excited to visit Tokyo with the kids one day. The Ghibli museum sounds amazing. I’ve never been to Japan, unless you count transiting at Narita.

    • Oh, you should definitely go! This was my first visit to Japan too! The kids LOVED the Ghibli Museum. They are both fans of Mr Miyazaki’s works so it was very special for them.

  2. Pingback: Visiting Tokyo for the First Time: Tsukiji Fish Market, Meiji Shrine, Shibuya Crossing, Harajuku and Roponggi [Day 2 of 4] | The Eager Traveller

  3. I love Japan and hope to visit again with Sophie especially now that she knows there’s a Disneyland in Tokyo. Hakone is so beautiful and soaking in the hot spring was such unforgettable experience. I miss Japan! Enjoy yourselves!

    • You should visit again – Sophie will LOVE the Tokyo Disneyland and there’s plenty to do here with kids! I wanted to visit Ueno Park (because of the TV serial Oshin) but there just isn’t enough time. I heard that it’s very pretty with plenty of space for kids to run around, and it has quite a nice little zoo as well.

  4. Pingback: Soundscapes and school projects | Owls Well

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