By Amy Suski
The older the kids get the harder it is to hold their attention on a family trip, so we decided to do something radical. Over spring break, instead of heading to the beach we hopped on the "Sushi Express", a Japan Airlines direct flight from Boston to Tokyo, known for flying freshly caught tuna from New England coastal fisherman to the famed Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo. Without question, it was one of the best family trips we've ever experienced. From the amazing food experiences, the bright city lights, and the grace and hospitality of the people, Japan had us at Konnichiwa.
Cool Thing #1: The ultra-modern and super comfortable Dreamliner flight took just 13 hours. I'm not sure I'd try that with a toddler, but our teens were more than happy to plug into a lazy day of eating, sleeping, and watching movies. Plus, flying over the Arctic Circle was very cool!
Cool Thing #2: The best way to get from the airport into Tokyo is the Narita Express (NEX). If you purchase a Japan Rail Pass in advance of your trip online (which I highly recommend if you are traveling to any other cities outside of Tokyo) this train is included. A Japan Rail pass will give you access to the famed bullet trains, which we used to travel from Tokyo to Kyoto and Kyoto to Nara. Tip: when validating your pass, take the time to make seat reservations. Reservations are free and will save the anxiety of trying to find seats together while boarding.
Cool Thing #3: Nothing says "hey, we're not in Kansas anymore" than fish and pickled vegetables for breakfast. Surprisingly, the kids were eager to dive into their traditional Japanese breakfast, even after discovering that the little orange crunchy things had eyes.
Cool Thing #4: If you've seen films like Lost in Translation or The Tokyo Project you'll definitely want to try the so-called "Shibuya Scramble" for yourself, where thousands of people and cars cross the same web of intersecting streets in synchronous time under the glare of millions of pixelated lights. While there, be sure to visit the famous dog statue of Hachiko. After his owner died, the loyal dog continued to wait for his owner's return outside the train station every day for the rest of his life. Tip: The best aerial view of the intersection is from the second floor of the Starbucks.
Cool Thing #5: For a bird's eye view of the largest city in the world, you can pay big money and wait in long lines to visit the top of the Tokyo Skytree OR you can get a pretty awesome FREE view from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building in Shinjuku.
Cool Thing #6: The first time you visit a Buddhist temple or Shinto shrine is pretty amazing. Even amid the throngs of tourists and worshippers, you'll get a sense of their sacred purposes. Amid burning incense visitors cleanse their hands in fountains and the sound of chants and gongs may be heard. Often there is a place to make a coin offering and write a prayer onto slips of paper. Since we were visiting Kyoto next (known for its beautiful shrines and temples), we didn't overdue it in Tokyo, but we did visit the big ones: Sensoji Temple and Meji Shrine. Tip: To avoid offense, try to read about the etiquette and customs before your visit to any religious site.
Cool Thing #7: History is woven into the fabric of Japanese life, so a visit to some of the more controversial historical sites is worth doing with older children. One such site is the Yaskukini Shrine and Yushukan War Memorial Museum in Tokyo, which honors Japanese war dead and displays military artifacts. At the museum you can read a very different perspective on Japanese military history that was worthy of discussion in the context of the American history lessons the kids are taught at home. Naturally, the boys thought all the swords and airplanes were pretty cool too. Tip: Look for stamp stations throughout the museum that our kids enjoyed collecting.
Cool Thing #8: Sushi isn't for everyone (and certainly not my younger kids), but if its for you, there is no better place in the world to be than Tokyo. For my oldest son, a sushi and sashimi dinner at Kyubey with his father and uncle was a super special treat. At this world class restaurant, there is no menu, instead you sit at the counter and are served a selection of delicacies ranging from urchin to eel, some of it still twitching.
Cool Thing #9: Yes, the Robot Restaurant is a tourist trap. Its a crazy, loud, laser-filled light show with giant robots, show girls, and super heroes. Although its entirely appropriate for older kids, its best experienced by anyone over 21 under the influence of a glowing green drink (which they will happily sell you at hefty price). Once was enough for me, but I guarantee you'll never experience anything like it anywhere else. Tip: We found the best price for tickets on the website Klook. Its a small venue, so all the seats are good. I wouldn't bother paying extra for the front row and I also wouldn't recommend buying the suspicious looking sushi bento box meal. There is much better street food in the surrounding neighborhood.
Cool Thing #10: The Takeshita Dori in Harajuku is the absolute craziest teen mecca I've ever seen. On a Sunday morning, the place was mobbed with tourists and teens alike, shopping for trendy clothes, people watching, and eating crepes and ice cream. Although the rest of us felt a bit suffocated, my tween daughter couldn't have been happier. Here we shopped for super cute "kawaii" stuffed animals at Kiddyland, visited hedgehogs at Harry's Hedgehog Cafe, designed Barbie purikura stickers at Noa, ordered ramen bowls from a vending machine at Afuri, oogled crepe shops, and rewarded an extremely patient brother with a trip to Kamo for an authentic Japanese soccer jersey. [Big brother gets super bonus points for posing in the Barbie photo booth with his sister.]
Cool Thing #11: Capping off our long weekend in Tokyo, we treated ourselves to the Sunday night drum show at Gonpachi in Roppongi. As the inspiration for an iconic scene in Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill, this unique restaurant has become a big tourist draw but its still a great place for fun izakaya dinner seated on mats around low wood tables. Tip: the free drum show is only about 15 minutes, starting at 8PM on Sundays. I recommend making a reservation around 7:30 or 7:45PM so that you're sure to catch the show.
Although we were only in Tokyo for 3 days and 4 nights (and much of that time we were jet-lagged) they were some of the most memorable days of our lives. For a trip with big impact for teens, this one went to 11.
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Kid Trips' blogs profile fun events and cool family-friendly venues. We focus on regional and national family travel articles.
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