Although I am completely, 100%, biased as a parent, my children really are something. They have this lovely olive skin and a streak of brooding dark looks that make them pretty obvious in a crowd of people.
Genetics really does occasionally get it right; despite its treacherous attempts to make me look like a dropped pie. Thank goodness it came through for the kids.
Mrs B maintains this is thanks to her efforts in the pregnancy department, but equally, it’s down to our mixed Irish-German-Cornish-British-Italian-Japanese family heritage which makes our family tree look more like the Garden of Eden than the normal straight up, straight down lineage you would expect to see.
The minimum we sit down to a family dinner is fifteen and we have an entitlement to a range of passports that would make James Bond look like a rank amateur. It is, as you would expect, absolute chaos in our lives.
So, when Mother B announced she was returning to Japan for the New Year to see family, it made sense that we tagged along so the children understood a part of their huge, global heritage.
“Japan?” you gasp. “Isn’t that expensive?”
At this stage, I shrug a little. It can be… if you want to go all out. However, if you have a nose for a bargain (step forward, Mrs B) and do a little planning, it can work out as pretty reasonable. I’m talking mid-thousands here, and that was only because we went during New Year.
A Week in Tokyo
New Year is the big holiday in Japan, and as a result, everyone needs a hotel and accommodation is expensive. However, the very minute the industrious people of Japan return to work, the price plummets and you end up paying half of what you would have paid in peak season. Lesson learned, eh?
Now, the plan here was simple. We’d spend a week in Tokyo doing family and kid-friendly stuff, and then we’d travel south, to the city of Osaka and spend a week with long-lost family.
We’d scoured Skyscanner for the best flights and settled on Etihad, who fly from London Heathrow to their hub in Abu Dhabi, UAE and then, after a reasonable 2-hour layover, onwards to Tokyo Narita airport, totalling 18 hours of travel time.
I could write a whole other blog on the wonders of Etihad – and Mrs B probably will make me, so stay tuned for that one.
Tokyo Hotels to Stay In
Of course, the first thing you’ll need in Tokyo is a base to stay in. Tokyo, like every other major city in the world, has an array of hotels to suit all tastes and budgets.
We spent hours scouring booking.com for something that meets the holy triumvirate of cost, quality and location. Of course, Sods Law says you can have any two of the three at any time but after many hours of searching, reading reviews and generally doing all the leg work so you don’t have to, we settled on the Hotel Century Southern Tower in Shinjuku.
We settled on Shinjuku for a few reasons – it was a reasonable travel time from Tokyo Narita airport, it has the most walkable family-friendly sights within a reasonable distance (crucial if any member of your family has little legs!) and it has some of the best travel connectivity in Tokyo, and that’s saying something because Tokyo has some of the best public transport (insert Jeremy Clarkson voice) in the world.
The Hotel Century Southern Tower won us over with its rave reviews, decent facilities and lovely fusion of Japanese efficiency and Western styling.
It’s also a pretty big building (and again, that’s something in a city where skyscrapers are everywhere) but a room on the 35th floor gives you some stunning views of the Tokyo skyline and you can really see just how massive Tokyo is.
It’s buildings, as far as the eye can see and you’re treated to some of the most stunning sunsets as the day comes to a close. The food served in the immaculate restaurant is a fusion of Western and Japanese tastes, with breakfast offering everything from the prosaically normal toast, jams and fruits, through to piles of steaming fresh rice and pickled fish to start your day.
Our children are of an age now where cramming everyone into a single room simply doesn’t work, so we opted for two twin rooms that were almost adjoining.
The rooms, while a bit small by Western standards, were well thought out, had everything you’d expect and came with the ubiquitous high-tech Japanese toilet, complete with a warmed seat.
Honest to God, once you’ve used one of those, you’ll never go back. You realise that cold toilet seats are the mark of a brutal, savage Nation.
But of course, you’re not here to read about toilets – or maybe you are, and I should also write about those – you’re here for a steer on staying in Tokyo.
Long story short, you cannot go wrong with any accommodation in Tokyo. Japanese customer service is truly exceptional and people will bend over backwards to make sure you are comfortable. Pick one you like the look of, and you’ll be absolutely fine.
Some other Hotels we looked at in the Shinjuku area and have good reviews include:
Things to Do with Kids in Tokyo
Tokyo is amazingly kid-friendly, both for the obvious things you would expect, like loads of high-tech arcades and amusements, but also, it’s things like the fact Tokyo is incredibly safe and welcoming.
It’s the fact that there are vending machines everywhere if the kids need a boost from a quick drink. It’s the fact that public toilets are everywhere and are immaculate and kids will always need a wee at the most inconvenient moment.
It’s the fact Japan really loves a sweet treat so you can constantly bribe and encourage kids with a snack from the omnipresent convenience stores that are everywhere. It’s the fact that public transport is so quick and convenient you can whip around the city quickly, and, because public transport is so good, the roads compared to London are genuinely quiet.
So with all that in mind, you can relax, safe in the knowledge that it’s a genuinely good city to explore.
We opted for a couple of big-ticket items for a couple of days. We took a day trip to Tokyo Joypolis in Odaiba to scratch the kid’s itch for rides and games. It was a rapid, 30-minute journey from our hotel and, being an indoor activity, it was weatherproof.
More incredibly, it was unbelievably cheap, with adult passport tickets (over 17) being 5,000 Yen (about £27) and children’s tickets (under 17) coming in at 4,000 Yen (about £22).
Yup, you read that right. Access to three huge floors of modern, high-tech rides for less than a hundred quid for a family of four in the capital city of an advanced nation. That’s staggering.
That gives you unlimited access to 21 different theme park quality rides ranging from the frankly terrifying Gekion Live Roller Coaster down to the slightly more sedate Pirate’s Plunder ride or the more active Sonic Athletics.
There’s something for everyone and each ride is loosely related to a Sega video game, so it’s not simply a matter of sitting down and strapping in, there’s some interaction required on your part, even if the only interaction is terrified screaming. Which is what I mostly did on the Transformers ride. Well, no one told me it went upside down.
We also took the opportunity to visit Tokyo Disneyland in Maihama because why not? Tokyo Disneyland is pretty much the same as Disneyland Paris, or indeed actual Disneyland, with the notable exception that everything is in Japanese (obviously).
Tickets work out cheaper than the other parks worldwide, with a basic adult ticket coming in at about 8,400 Yen (about £45) and children’s tickets coming in at 5,600 Yen (about £30). Again, compared to the UK, that’s an absolute bargain to get the Disney experience and once you’re through the gates of the magic kingdom, the whole of Disneyworld is your oyster.
You can download the park app via iOS or Andriod app stores to help you get around and all of the rides you’d expect are there. It’s A Small World After All remains a firm family favourite and the newer Pirates of the Caribbean ride is a thrill.
We broke for lunch at the Pan Galatic Pizza Port (yes, from Toy Story) where the pizzas were hot and fresh and only 960 Yen (about £5). For those seeking a short injection of adrenaline, both Space Mountain and Thunder Mountain promise, and deliver, a terrifying ride as always.
Both of those theme parks took up a whole day comfortably, and for those who really want to, you could easily go back for a second day if you wanted to experience them some more. Unfortunately, I have a small boy who is allergic to queues, so one day each was enough for us, but if you’re blessed with patient children, you could go again.
Also, if you are blessed with patient children, please leave a comment letting me know how you have achieved such a miracle…
Getting Around Tokyo
I get it. Tokyo can be absolutely intimidating to a lot of people. Hell, it’s intimidating to my mother, and she’s been Japanese since *checks calendar* birth. There’s a confusing language, a confusing currency and thanks to mobile phone companies being bastards, expensive data roaming to work out where you are and what is not a viable option.
Fortunately, again, Japan has thought of this and found some solutions, and of course, those options are technology-based. On your arrival in Tokyo, you absolutely, 100% need to find the nearest mobile Wi-Fi provider to connect your phone to.
You’ll read on other, much inferior, travel blogs that you can arse around with mobile SIM cards, e-SIMs and purchasing tablets and absolutely none of that is necessary.
Simply rent a mobile WiFi box from one of the many providers near the arrivals gate, connect your phone to that instead of the local (and expensive) mobile network and voila – your phone now operates as it would back home, allowing you access to Google Translate (vital), currency exchange apps (useful) and Google Maps (even more vital).
They all work on the same principle; you get a small black box, the box connects to the local 5G/4G network and then rebroadcasts that signal to your phone via a small WiFi network between your phone and the box.
We went with Sakura Mobile as their offering came with 24/7 English language support (which we didn’t need in the end), it was rechargeable via USB and in an emergency, the box itself can be used as a handy power bank to recharge your electronics.
Most of the suppliers also offer a simple pick-up and drop-off service for the boxes at airports and prices start at 9,000 Yen (about £40) for a week’s rental.
And then suddenly, you’ll have the ability to translate and navigate via your smartphone and you’ll feel a lot more confident about getting around – and when it comes to getting around, Google Maps is integrated into the Japanese transport system like you wouldn’t believe.
Punch in your destination and Google Maps will let you know what railway station to head for, what time your train will be, what platform it will come into and even where to stand for the quickest boarding and exit.
Because when you move around Tokyo, there really is only one option and it’s trains. That’s it. That’s all you need to know. You don’t need a bus. People will look at you like you’re insane if you ask for an Uber. The Tokyo train and metro system goes everywhere with frequent trains. But again, there are a couple of things you need to be aware of.
Rail passes are an option, but to determine if they’re value for money, you need to work out how much travelling you’re actually going to do. Again, they’re freely available at all major travel outlets.
We thought we might not need them, so went for a pay-as-you-go option, but this in itself came with a bit of complexity. Japanese rail companies are seemingly independent of each other, so if you wanted to buy a ticket to a destination that uses more than one line, ticket machines often only sell a ticket for that line, causing you to break your journey to buy further tickets.
When it comes to buying rail tickets, have no fear. Stride confidently up to the nearest ticket machine, take one look at the bewildering menu options in Japanese, realise you have no idea what it means and instantly press the English language option.
Don’t worry, all the railway station names are in English on the stations too, and as mentioned, Google Maps is incredibly accurate, so you’ll soon find yourself happily travelling around Tokyo with no problems.
Strangely for Japan, contactless payment hasn’t reached a lot of Japanese railways yet, so you’ll also need a wallet full of yen. The only other thing to be aware of is that some lines have clearly marked women-only carriages, normally during rush hour.
Food and Drink in Tokyo
Again, it’s an advanced first-world capital city, so the normal worldwide fast-food choices are available if you have any fussy eaters in your party, but only the most insane or fussy children fly 5765 miles to eat the sort of Big Mac you can get at home.
Of note, Japanese people seem curiously taken with Italian-style food, of which we saw many examples of while travelling.
But, in the main, Japan is the home of delicious and delicate sushi and the most appetising of noodle dishes, as well as less known comfort meals, like my personal favourite of yakitori chicken, best served with some sticky white rice and a cold beer.
We tried, amongst other things, the restaurant inside the Hotel Century Southern Tower, where the Wagu beefburger was a complete hit, a really good combined Japanese Italian in Shinjuku but the one that sticks in my mind was the highly amusing Cat Cafe Moff Yodobashi Akiba in Akihabara.
For just 1,000 Yen (about £6) each, you can relax and feed cats treats while enjoying a coffee or a slice of cake. It’s quite something to have a dozen cats purring and clambering around you and strangely relaxing if you don’t mind being covered in cat hairs.
Yes, those crazy Japanese love an animal-themed café. It’s not just cats, there’s cafes where you can relax with dogs, hedgehogs, capybaras, snakes and God alone knows what else.
The reason for this is, of course, that many Japanese people live in tiny apartments, where there’s just no room for any sort of pet, so in the spirit of consumerism, if you can’t get a pet, someone will sell time with their pets to you. Everyone’s happy, but especially the cats who get more attention than they’ve ever dreamed of.
Final Thoughts of a Futuristic City
Tokoy is a genuinely incredible city. At one time, it was regarded as quite futuristic because it was all neon and skyscrapers and technology. But that was then, and this is now.
Skyscrapers are commonplace from Belfast to Bogota, and even the most austere cities like Riyad have a splash of neon colour now. When it comes to technology, everyone has a smartphone in their pockets. So, that’s all a bit old hat … isn’t it?
What Tokyo actually is, is a huge testament to forward-thinking from the city fathers in the post-war period. Not in the way you’d expect from technology and trains, but unlike some capital cities I could name, they saw that that the population would only grow, and grow, so they made sure everyone had a place to live by building upwards.
They made sure everyone could get around with the bare minimum of fuss by maintaining public transport. Service is still perfect, from white-gloved train conductors to low-bowing hotel staff.
They also made sure that public services were adequately funded so there were mostly immaculate streets, parks and toilets absolutely everywhere and even though trying to travel at rush hour might make you feel like a sardine, you’re at least reassured that your train will arrive.
And to make sure that their forward planning survived, they made sure everything they built was earthquake-proof, fireproof and, in one example, Godzilla proof. That was always the real futuristic thinking, even though we all thought it was wristwatch sized TVs.
We could definitely learn a thing or two from them.