10 Things to do with Kids in Tokyo

things to do with kids in japan

Things to do with Kids in Tokyo

Most of my tours focus on history and culture. However, there are lots of great things for kids to do in Tokyo. From indoor activities to outdoor excursions, there’s no shortage of fun to have on your vacation to Japan’s bustling capital. This list is aimed at families with pre-teens to college kids, but many experiences work for younger kids. Some of you grown-up kids will love these too! (I’m talking to you mom and dad!)

tokyo disneyland

Tokyo Disneyland AND Tokyo Disney Sea

Many people forget that two of Disney’s greatest theme parks are located right on Tokyo Bay! In operation since 1983 and 2001 respectively, Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo Disney Sea provide fun for the whole family. At the time of writing, they’ve begun expanding the park. Soon, there will soon be more to love about Disneyland in Japan. Also, because of Tokyo’s mild winters, both theme parks are open all year round. Just remember. In the summer, Tokyo is hot and humid, so keep that in mind if being outside all day is stressful for your kids.

the kawaii monster cafe

Kawaii Monster Café

The Kawaii Monster Café is one of those ridiculous “only in Japan” experiences, combining a whimsical Alice in Wonderland-esque décor and over-the-top entertainment by the café’s very own kawaii monster dancers[i]. It’s perfect for lunch, but there are often long lines to get in. So, I recommend making a reservation and skipping the queue – I’m happy to arrange this for you. Actually, I often incorporate the Kawaii Monster Café into some of my Tokyo Day Tours because it’s popular with my clients who want to see Tokyo’s quirky side. The menu is simple so even picky kids can find something they like.

tokyo giants - japanese baseball

Baseball GameS

Japan’s national sport is baseball, and if you’re a baseball fan, you’ll find the level of play top notch and, in my opinion, the carnival-like atmosphere is way more fun that MLB games. Japan is consistently in the top three countries for international baseball. It is also a host nation of the World Baseball Classic. I’m happy to get tickets for your baseball-loving family, but it’s probably best to just add on a game to one of my Tokyo Day Tours. That way, we can enjoy the game together (or in the case of my European and Australian customers, I can explain the rules). Tokyo has two baseball teams: the Tokyo Giants and the Tokyo Swallows. I’m a Giants fan and the indoor stadium is great rain or shine. The Swallows play outdoors which can get hot and humid and games are occasionally rained out or delayed.

the poop museum

The Poop Museum

I’ll be honest with you. The Poop Museum is one of Japan’s most ridiculous experiences. Kids, teens, and adults alike can appreciate this weird place. It’s silly, colorful, and extremely childish, but you’ll probably get some of the best family photos of your whole trip here. Originally a temporary exhibit, the Poop Museum became so popular that it found a permanent home in Odaiba, near Tokyo Bay. There are lots of goofy exhibits and nothing gross or distasteful here, just really colorful and cute fun. Because of long lines, I recommend purchasing tickets in advance and skipping the line. I recommend doing this as part of a customized Tokyo Day Tour so I can maximize our day and not waste any time waiting around or taking weird train routes from across town.

video game arcade

Video Game ArcadeS

In Japan, video games are a way of life and video arcades are as popular as ever! I often take people to Akihabara, the heart of Japan’s otaku culture[ii], where we can experience the most awesome multilevel game centers. However, in Tokyo, arcades are located everywhere, but finding the good ones (and the non-smoking ones) can be tricky sometimes. Besides video games, there are also crane games, gachapon machines, and sometimes even VR and purikura photo booths. If you don’t know what that is, let’s get you and the kids in there for the ultimate weird photo both experience!

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round one

Round One

If video games aren’t your whole family’s thing, why not try Round One? In addition to video games, you have batting cages, inline skates, “sports challenges,” private karaoke booths[iii], darts, bowling, and more. This is great when the weather is bad you can’t do cultural stuff, but still want to enjoy your day as a family. None of the activities require Japanese language ability, but the staff probably doesn’t speak English, so it helps if you bring a local with you to ensure things go nice and smooth. It’s great for kids of all ages, including you adult kids lol.

fishing in tokyo

Fishing in Tokyo Bay

If you’re outdoors types, fishing in Tokyo Bay gives you fantastic views of the city skyline and puts you in touch with the capital’s humble beginnings. Tokyo began as a collection of villages based on fishing and seaweed production. If you can’t speak Japanese, this kind of experience is generally inaccessible for most travelers. But don’t worry. I can set it up and interpret for you the whole time. Sea bream, perch, and flounder are plentiful. But if you really want to go for it, you can also catch albacore tuna, skipjack tuna, yellowtail tuna, sea bass, and various types of mackerel. Squid and octopus also live in Tokyo Bay. If you kids like fishing, this is a really unique chance, in my opinion.

the miraikan

National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation

Known as Miraikan in Japanese[iv], the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation is one of the coolest family-oriented museums I’ve ever been too. It’s English-friendly and has lots of interactive exhibits. You can see Asimo, Honda’s line of robots developed in the early 2000’s. Also, getting there is half the fun, as you can take the Yurikome Line, a driverless, robotic monorail that passes through the Tokyo Bay area! Kids love the hands-on experiences and Tokyo just exudes “future,” so this is a pretty obvious choice.

kiddyland

Kiddyland

I normally recommend clients skip the Harajuku area as it has devolved into an insufferable tourist trap and locals avoid it like the plague. However, there are still a few good reasons to visit the area. If you happen to be in this part of town with kids, Kiddyland is a timeless toy store that is definitely worth checking out. Most of the products are limited to Japan, even if they’re from international IP’s. Even adults will enjoy browsing the shelves at this Tokyo institution!

the samurai museum shinjuku

The Samurai Museum

The Samurai Museum is an English-friendly museum that teaches about samurai. It has a nice collection of armor, weapons, and features a demonstration of Japanese swordplay that you can participate in! There’s a lively guided tour that isn’t too heavy on history, and plenty of time for Q&A with the staff. The gift shop is filled with samurai-related goods that any kid would be happy to bring back home. Also, at the end of the tour, they have samurai armor and Japanese princess outfits for you to try and snap some memorable photos that you’ll love to share with your friends.

There’s Plenty More Family Fun in Tokyo

I hope my Top 10 Things to do with Kids in Tokyo has given you some ideas for you trip. Obviously, there are hundreds of more ideas. If I know what your family is into, I can help customize the perfect day — or days — for you. I’ve been in Japan for 16 years and know Tokyo inside and out. Let’s start planning your day tour now!


__________________________
[i] Kawaii is the Japanese word for “cute.”
[ii] Otaku means “geek” or “nerd” and refers to people who love anime, manga, and video games.
[iii] Everybody knows karaoke, but did you know it comes from the Japanese words for “empty orchestra pit?”
[iv] Miraikan means “Hall of the Future” in Japanese.

Is Emperor Worship Really a Thing in Japan?

Emperor Jinmu

Is the Japanese Emperor a God?

“Do the Japanese worship the emperor as a god?” This is a question I get all the time. Anyone who’s seen a WWII documentary about the Pacific War has probably come away with the impression that the Japanese emperor is god. The native faith of Japan is 神道 Shintō, literally, “the way of the gods.” Traditionally, this has been a decentralized, polytheistic, animistic religion whose oldest myths describe the imperial family as descendants of the sun goddess, 天照 Amaterasu. However, having divine blood was not the same as being a god. It wasn’t until a period from 1868 to 1945, the time of the Japanese Empire, that the State promulgated the idea of “emperor worship”[i] for about 60 years or less. Of course, Japan is an ancient country, and the story is much more complicated than that.

Emperor Jinmu with bow and arrow
Emperor Jinmu – the “first” emperor of Japan

From Ancient Times to 1868

The most distant period of Japanese history is 神代 Kamiyo the Age of the Gods. In this mythological time, legends tell us that the divine grandson of the sun goddess herself established a court on earth which embarked on illustrious conquests of the Japanese archipelago. The divine grandson’s grandson became the first emperor[ii], and to this day the imperial family still has the ancient and noble blood of the sun goddess coursing through their veins, or so it has been said. As time went on, warrior clans, known as 侍 samurai came to hold not just military power but also political power. The imperial family was still important, but were relegated to Shintō rituals in the imperial capital of 京都 Kyōto and served as pawns in elaborate martial chess games played by samurai warlords during the Japanese Middle Ages. Military rulers called 将軍 shōguns never abolished the imperial line, but relied on them for ceremonial legitimacy, thus there was general harmony between the parallel imperial and shōgunal lines[iii] right up until the 1850’s.

Yasukuni Shrine in WWII
Soldiers prepare for battle at Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo

State Shintō and the Empire of Japan

In 1868, a bizarre revolution took place in Japan. Disaffected antiforeign, pro-isolationist samurai used the restoration of imperial rule as a means to topple the current samurai government[iv] which had overseen 250+ years of strict isolationism. The revolutionaries “restored imperial rule” after roughly 700 years of emperors just performing religious ceremonies, writing poetry, and conferring titles upon the samurai court in 江戸 Edo (present day 東京 Tōkyō). Again, the emperor was just a pawn, but rebels now used his “divine origins” to emphasize their so-called righteous overthrow of the Edo Government. As a descendant of sun goddess – who was herself the embodiment of Japan[v] – the emperor became, in effect, the head of all Shintō religions in addition to the august symbol of the country. The term “State Shintō” didn’t really exist until the final years of WWII, but it was a concept for military propagandists in the short-lived fascist Japanese Empire. Hirohito, the Shōwa Emperor[vi], was also used as a chess piece – this time as a justification for things like kamikaze pilots, fighting-to-death rather than surrender, and for citizens to kill themselves and their families in defense of the divine emperor and his divine realm in which they were fortunate enough to be subjects. The military-controlled fascist government twisted the myths of divine imperial descent into “emperor worship.”

Imperial Palace after WWII
Bowing in front of the Imperial Palace (former Edo Castle)

Post-War Japan

There is a famous photo of presumably ordinary Japanese citizens gathered in front of 正門 seimon the main gate of the Imperial Palace[vii] and bowing low to the ground to pay respects to the Shōwa Emperor after he announced Japan’s surrender to Allied Forces at the end of WWII. This photo depicts the last gasp of State Shintō and therefore “emperor worship.” General McArthur assumed control of Japan during the Occupation and initial reconstruction – including the Tōkyō War Crimes Tribunal which purged the Japanese Empire’s top military leadership. Despite eliminating all cadastral branches of the imperial clan, he protected Emperor Hirohito and, in effect, the direct male line since 1868[viii]. However, in the early days of the Occupation, McArthur demanded that the emperor renounce his divinity as a direct repudiation of State Shintō. Furthermore, separation of religion and government was expressly written into the new Japanese Constitution and it took root. These days, if you meet a person who considers the emperor a living god, you’ve probably found a complete loon. In fact, Japan is one of the most secular nations on earth and outside of history geeks and old timers, many modern Japanese are unfamiliar with State Shintō as a concept[ix].

Verdict

Reiwa Tenno
Current emperor and empress of Japan

So, is emperor worship a thing in Japan?
The short answer is “No. The Japanese emperor is not a god.”


While deeply revered as the descendants of the sun goddess, emperors were never worshiped as living gods except for a short period during the build up to WWII[x]. This attitude, known as State Shintō, began as a way to legitimize the emperors in their new position as constitutional monarchs after 1868. In fact, I’d venture to say that Hirohito[xi] was the only one actually worshipped as a living god – at least until 1945. Now the Japanese imperial family is similar to the royal families of Europe, just much more private and therefore far less scandalous. Also, due to the secular nature of modern Japanese society, the concept of gods – let alone a single living, human god seems like an alien concept.

Further Reading:

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[i] This wasn’t a unique idea. Just look back at the Roman Empire which deified their emperors, initially after death, then eventually while they were still alive.
[ii] His name was 神武 Jinmu and the beginning of his reign, February 11th, 660 BCE, the Japanese government still considers this date the birthday of Japan. It’s a national holiday. By the way, ancient chroniclers completely made up that date, 660 BCE. The first verifiable, historical emperor reigned during the 6th century CE.
[iii] There were a few times when an emperor here and there got uppity, but the samurai governments controlled the military, so that usually didn’t last for very long.
[iv] The samurai government in Edo was tbe Edo Shōgunate (or, the Tokugawa Shōgunate). The Tokugawa clan were the hereditary rulers of this peaceful dynasty. It had recently become begrudgingly anti-isolationist and pro-“modernization,” but still very much a military, samurai government. If you’re confused, so were they! This revolution is still cause for much debate today. Some call it a “restoration,” I call it a “coup.” But no matter what your position is, it’s a fascinating and dramatic stretch of Japanese history.
[v] “Japan” literally means “source of the sun” and usually poetically translated as “the land of the rising sun.”
[vi] In Japan, there is a taboo against saying the names of emperors. Rather, they are known by their posthumous names which – since 1868 – have been used as era names. Hirohito is the Shōwa Emperor.
[vii] Actually, they are bowing in front of the gate. No commoner would ever be allowed access to any of these bridges and gates until recently – and even now, most gates and bridges to the castle are still off limits.
[viii] 1868 was the Meiji Coup – the overthrow of the legitimate samurai government by the clowns who put Japan on a collision course with WWII.
[ix] The national curriculum is a topic for another article lol
[x] I have to note one major exception. When you die in Japan, you become a 神 kami. This term is sometimes translated as “god.” This is a kind of ancestor worship. Upon accession to the Chrysanthemum Throne, emperors take a posthumous name. You could argue that they’ve already become kami at this point. But this is a discussion for religious scholars, not a travel blog.
[xi] The Shōwa Emperor – ie; the WWII emperor.

Religion in Japan

What religion is Japan?
Okuninushi, one of Japan’s earliest civilization-building gods

Is Japan a Religious Country?

People always ask me “what religion is Japan?” Well, pretty much none. This answer may surprise you, given the importance of shrines and temples in the lives of modern Japanese society and the expected inclusion of these spiritual complexes in any visit to the country.

Yes and No

Japan is a secular nation that guarantees freedom of religion in its constitution. In fact, Japan is often cited as one of the most non-religious countries on earth. And unlike my country of origin, the United States, Japan takes its establishment clause very seriously – especially in light of the devastation so-called State Shintō and “emperor worship” brought upon the nation[i]. In fact, while most of my Japanese friends and family are respectful of spiritual practices, most of them see these as merely traditional acts. That is, these are cultural performances, not acts of deep religious devotion. So, no. Japan isn’t particularly religious at all.

That said, there is a joke popular among foreigners living in Japan. “Japanese people are born into Shintō, marry like Christians, and die as Buddhists.”[ii] This isn’t a reference to an individual’s spiritual growth from cradle to grave, but rather a reflection of Japan’s ancient syncretic religious tradition where all beliefs mesh well together.

First, Let’s Define Some Terms

神道
Shintō

Shintō
Literally, “the way of the gods” or “kami-ism”

Shintō is the native polytheistic religion of Japan. There are an infinite number of kami spiritual beings in the world. Some might be a beautiful bend in the river, a striking mountain peak, or local kami who protects the local rice harvest. Every human who has ever lived can theoretically be honored as a kami, so the number of kami is truly infinite and evergrowing.

Shintō has shrines.
仏教
Bukkyō

Buddhism
Imported from the Asian mainland, Buddhism was more of a philosophy than the animism of Shintō, but it too suggests that a theoretically infinite number of humans can reach enlightenment (that is, becoming a Buddha). Therefore, there are an infinite and evergrowing number of enlightened souls.

Buddhism has temples.
syncretism
syncretism
Syncretism is when two or more religious traditions blend and create a new culture. Shintō and Buddhism played very well together and basically merged into a unique Japanese spiritual outlook. That is to say, for the average person, kami and Buddha are the same[iii].

Shintō, Buddhism, and Other Religions in Japan

In Japan today, the trappings of Shintō and Buddhism are all around you. Shintō buildings are called 神社 jinja shrines. You can identify them by their distinctive 鳥居 torii gates, mirrors, lightning-shaped white paper decorations, and sacred ropes wrapped around sacred trees, gates, and often the shrine itself. Entering a Shintō religious complex requires ritual purification with water provided in special basins. Shrines also tend to have a lot of greenery and sacred pools or moats.

Buddhist お寺 o-tera temples, on the other hand, have no torii gates, usually don’t require ritual purification[iv], and 95% of the time have a huge statue of a Buddha inside the main hall of worship.

Hakone Shrine floating torii gate #JapanThis

In contemporary society, the most well-known functions of Shintō shrines are ceremonies like 七五三 shichi-go-san which literally means 7-5-3 and refers to the age at which children are brought to shrines for blessings. In pre-modern Japan, the infant mortality rate was so high that if a child lived beyond their third year, fifth year, and seventh year…well, that was something of a miracle and deserved to be celebrated. While Shintō considers death a spiritual defilement, Buddhism was OK with death and arrived with ideas regarding what happens after humans die[v]. This is why most cemeteries in Japan are Buddhist.

Nikkо̄ Rinnо̄-ji, a Buddhist temple with distinct Shintо̄ attributes.

So that explains a big part of the “Japanese are born Shintō and die Buddhist.” So, what about the other part? Well, neither Shintō nor Buddhism have ancient traditions of marrying people, but guess what? Abrahamic religions are all about getting up in people’s sex lives, so of course they have ancient traditions of marrying people. Western movies provided Japan with romantic scenes of marriages on the Silver Screen and voilà, the blushing bride in a white wedding dress[vi] became the dream of many a young Japanese girl. Today, the most popular type of wedding is the so-called Christian Wedding, which is essentially a secular version of a traditional western wedding.

japanese western wedding

Still Confused?

So, now you understand why “Japanese people are born Shintō, are married Christian, and die Buddhists.” And, hopefully you can see how these are just cultural traditions and not firmly held religious convictions. Which brings me to another anecdote I like to share. If you question a random person on the street in Tōkyō and ask them “what is your religion?” I’m fairly certain they will automatically reply “Buddhist.” However, if you press them about supernatural claims, they’ll probably admit to being non-religious or atheists. That said, they probably regularly pop into Shintō shrines if they pass one on the street, and they most likely do the same when passing by Buddhist temples.

As for other religions, Japan is basically 1% Christian (mostly foreigners) and 0.0016% Jewish (mostly foreigners). Although Muslim immigrants are increasing, the numbers are unclear (but the majority are also foreigners). All of this said, nearly 40% of Japanese people claim no belief in gods.


What is the Religion of Japan?

Like I said, Japan has long Shintō and Buddhist roots, it’s pretty much a secular nation that is tolerant of foreign religious practices. Given its syncretic, polytheistic tradition, people here tend to be very skeptical or even suspicious of monotheistic religions[vii], but if you’re respectful, you’ll get respect in return. In short, religion isn’t very important in modern Japan, yet you can see and experience its religious history and traditions everywhere.

If you want to know about the Shintō worldview in very ancient Japan, you might like my article Japanese Cosmogony. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know. Cosmogony[viii] is weird word. Anyhoo, if you’re interested in Japanese mythology (which I haven’t talked about at all here), give it a read. I think you’ll find it interesting!

Further Reading:


[i] Yes, we’re looking at you, Imperial Japan.
[ii] By the way, I’m not a fan of this trite saying. I’m just repeating it because other people repeat it ad nauseam.
[iii] In fact, there are special names for Shintō avatars of Buddhist saints and special names for Buddhist incarnations of Shintō kami.
[iv] If they do require purification, this is probably because of the blending of Shintō and Buddhism.
[v] Most sects used to teach reincarnation, but these days I think most Japanese Buddhists see death as pretty final.
[vi] The acceptance of the immaculate white wedding dress is kinda hilarious if you think about it. In traditional Japanese culture, a white kimono is what was used to dress a corpse for wakes. In fact, when samurai committed 切腹 seppuku ritual disembowelment, they wore white kimono.
[vii] By definition, monotheistic religions are less tolerant than polytheistic, syncretic religions.
[viii] And its brother, cosmography.

From Tourist to Tour Guide

Have you ever visited a country and loved it so much that you thought, “you know, I think I could live here?” That’s pretty impulsive thinking.

Nobody would ever do that…

tokyo shitamachi neighborhood mita koyama-cho

My First Trip to Japan


The first time I visited Japan was New Year’s 2002-2003 and I was very lucky. I’d had a lot of Japanese friends and roommates in university who were eager to show me around Tōkyō, bring me to their parents’ homes in the country, and take me to the best clubs and restaurants. I wasn’t just a tourist looking at Japan from the other side of the glass. I got to participate in the culture and experience everything just as my friends who grew up here did. Everything was fascinating and I had so many questions – and my friends, despite being Japanese, were running out of answers. So, I decided to move to Japan to immerse myself in the language, culture, and traditions until I understood everything and could get it out of my system.

That was almost 20 years ago… and I’m still here, still asking questions, and still wondering when I’m gonna get bored with it all and just move on with my life. But now I’ve taken on the role my friends once played for me. I know the cool neighborhoods, the best restaurants, and crazy stories that bring this ancient samurai capital alive. Don’t think of me as a tour guide. I’m your cool friend in Japan.

travel in japan 1999


Find Your Backdoor into Japanese Culture


Everyone comes to Japan with a different motivator in the back of their mind. For some, it’s anime and manga, for others it’s history and tradition, and – let’s face it, there are those who are just in it for the food and atmosphere.

My backdoor into the culture – and Tōkyō specifically – was through Japanese History. I sorta reverse engineered my way into the present by way of the traditions and customs prevalent prior to 1868, when Japan opened up to the world and became the first Asian country to “modernize.”[i] I think this is what distinguishes me from any other guide you’ll in Tōkyō or in Japan. I’m coming from the angle of a hardcore history nerd living in an ancient land blessed with the cooler attributes of Blade Runner… and it’s been a trip.

But why was that my backdoor? As I said earlier, my Japanese friends showed me around, took me to their homes, explained a lot of things to me – and this was great. But then I started asking history questions. Really specific history questions. I asked architecture questions, language questions, and stupid things like “why do Japanese people bow?” They couldn’t answer these questions, so I had to do the research myself. Bane of my existence… I ask a lot of silly questions, and then I track down all the silly answers.[ii] Then I need to share that knowledge because I think it’s really interesting stuff that everyone should know. So let’s talk about it.

ikegami park tokyo tour guide japan

Passion for Japan
A Passion for Life


Anyhoo, When I design a tour, it has to meet one exacting standard: am I the only one who can do this right? That means, every tour is a passion project for me.[iii] Hell, just living in Tōkyō is a passion project for me. Life in general should be a passion project, right? Which brings me to my super-secret second standard: if you have to work with people, work with people on vacation because they’re just here to have fun, learn, and dive into a whole new way of seeing the world.

So, there ya have it. I’m a guy who thought, “you know, I think I could live here?” and proceeded to actually try and make that work. After all these years, I’m still in Japan and I’m still making it work. Let me share my knowledge and experience with you.

Further Reading:

______________________________
[i] In many ways, Japan just “Westernized” in the beginning, but soon found its own footing towards becoming “a Westernized nation” with “Japanese characteristics.”
[ii] And you definitely want me on your team in Trivial Pursuit.
[iii] And one that I don’t think it’s possible to train other people to do authoritatively.