Mention the word Tokyo and it conjures up clichéd crowded trains and crosswalks, temples overshadowed by futuristic skyscrapers, sushi, robots and Hello Kitty-style cuteness.
While Tokyo is home to all that and more, many people don’t realize the city is one of the most diverse in the world and can deliver virtually any experience you’re seeking. Without even leaving Tokyo’s city limits you can be on a peaceful volcanic island paradise surrounded by seas of azure blue, in the most stunning forest hike through century old trees and ancient shrines, or atop a snowcapped mountain. Tokyo’s also been kind enough to lay itself out like massive department store, with different areas best known for specializing in specific things. Akihabara for electronics, Ginza for luxury goods, Jimbocho for books – you get the idea. No matter what your particular hobby or interest, you’ll no doubt find a Tokyo suburb to match your wildest whims.
So where are the best areas for families to stay while visiting Tokyo?
Well, it’s all subjective. Aside from making sure you stay in an area that aligns best with what you’re seeking, the other big thing to keep in mind is Tokyo’s a massive labyrinth, and navigating the railways – as amazing and efficient as they are – can be exhausting. What looks like it’d take just a hop, skip and jump to reach can easily spiral into an Amazing Race style saga. Some of the major railway stations are so massive that just getting to your platform can equate to walking a few kilometers – so factor that in when you’re calculating how to get to your end goal, then multiply that tenfold if you have humans with little legs in tow. Basically, you’ll find yourself walking A LOT. Many guidebooks advise against prams due space constraints on trains and the volume of stairs that abound around stations, but baby carriers or a light and easy to fold up stroller could save your bacon. (If your child is too big for a carrier but only just past stroller stage, you might want to take one anyway just to ferry them around). For big kids, pack good walking shoes, plan lots of breaks between sightseeing, and don’t underestimate the power of bribes.
So the best idea? Stay in areas you’d most like to explore, choose areas easy to access, and be selective on how often you venture beyond the immediate area. If you can avoid too many cross-city jaunts, you’ll limit the total time you’re spending on transport. After four very different trips to Tokyo, we’ve found it’s better to really enjoy a handful of sights rather than trying to cram in seeing the whole city in a couple of days (thereby exhausting yourselves and seeing more insides of a train carriages than highlights).
If you’re only staying for a reasonably short amount of time before using rail passes to venture elsewhere in Japan, there’s a few ways to approach this. The first option is to stay within walking distance of Tokyo Station or Shinagawa Station, two areas that have both a shinkansen (bullet train) and regular JR stations as well as a reasonable amount of cool things to see and do nearby. The second option is to stay within one of the other bustling suburbs that sit on Tokyo’s Yamonote line, a circular route that takes in most of the city’s major attractions – it’s very hard to get lost when you’re just riding a loop, plus the Yamonote Line also easily connects you to Tokyo Station to catch the shinkansen when you’re ready to leave town. The third option is just to stay wherever you’re most drawn to, and work out the travel logistics later – I’ve listed a few popular tourist hubs that don’t qualify for the first two options, but are still fairly easy to get to.
For longer stays or for those who are looking for a more low key neighborhoods, the outer suburbs may better suit, especially if you don’t mind the commute. However if you’re only in Tokyo for a couple of days, consider Maranouchi (super handy) or alternatively Shibuya or Shinjuku just for the lively atmosphere and plethora of things to do within walking distance. Just a caution here – while there’s no particularly dangerous areas you’d need to avoid in Tokyo (consistently rated one of the safest cities in the world) I’ve listed areas you’d still probably want to avoid with kids (ie red light districts) if you don’t want to be answering lots of questions from puzzled kiddies.
We’ve listed the main drawcard ( ie Train Stop, Tourist Desination etc) in brackets ahead of the following suburbs.
[Bullet Train Stop] Marunouchi / Tokyo Station
A busy commercial hub that’s best known for being home Tokyo Station and the Imperial Palace (residence of the Japanese royals), Marunouchi is a good base for travellers thanks to plentiful hip dining and shopping options and good upscale accommodations. But as Tokyo Station is the main transportation hub for the whole of Japan, the big bonus of staying in this area is mainly due to accessibility. Basically, from Tokyo Station there’s unlimited options for local or long haul train travel.
[Bullet Train Stop] Shinagawa
Right near Tokyo Bay, Shinagawa is a major stop on the Shinkansen (Tokaido line) route from Tokyo heading south towards Osaka and beyond, but it’s also on the Yamonote ring line that’ll give you easy access to Tokyo’s sightseeing suburbs. None of the most infamous touristy Tokyo attractions are located in Shinagawa, but if you’re on the water side you’re fairly close to Odaiba and it’s entertainment district (see below).
[Tourist Hub] Odaiba
A manmade island in Tokyo Bay, Odaiba was built to protect the city from invasion but was converted into a dining an entertainment precinct in the 90’s. As such it’s modern layout has a very oddly artificial, theme-park-esque feel, but on the upside it’s more spacious and roomy than the older suburbs to stay or wander around. It’s all shopping malls, restaurants, and hotels, and there’s a boardwalk (and even a beach) where you can take in sunsets views of the city from across the water. Thanks to its space and leisure facilities in close proximity to the CBD, Odaiba will host several of the 2020 Olympics events.
[Tourist Hub] Asakusa
Asakusa is a bit of oldworld Tokyo. You’ll find traditional craft shops and street-food stalls along Nakamise Street near the ancient buddhist Sensō-ji temple, a major drawcard to the area. The stalls around it (mainly selling food goods) are touristy, but still retains a certain charm. Mid-19th-century Hanayashiki amusement park has rides, while riverside Kuritsu Sumida Park hosts regular festivals and firework displays. Casual izakaya bars (Japanese tapas pubs) dot the neighbourhood, along with yakitori restaurants serving grilled skewers and beer. It is the old part of Tokyo and therefore “human scale” – less skyscrapers drowning you out. Asakusa is also close to another landmark attraction — Tokyo Skytree (tower and observation deck, admissions apply)
[Tourist Hub] Maihama /Tokyo DisneyLand/ Tokyo DisneySea
If your main purpose for stopping in Tokyo is visiting Japan’s spin on this international franchise, and especially if you have little desire to stay in the big city, then staying out in Maihama could save you lots of headache. Maihama is across Tokyo Bay in Urayasu, northwest Chiba, a prefecture known for its farmland and beaches – while you’d barely surmise that judging from the fabricated concrete surrounds within proximity to Disney’s Resort area, it’s why there’s more space to spare, hotel rooms are bigger, and there’s less domestic traffic – it’s its own legitimate small world, after all.
As Disneyland is a major drawcard for lots of international visitors it’s not too hard to find transport (shuttle / train / bus connections from Narita or Haneda abound, and Maihama train station is part of the JR rail network, so covered by Rail Pass) and if you change your mind and feel like venturing into Tokyo proper, it’s only a half hour train ride.
[Yamonote Line Stop] Ueno
Ueno is part of Tokyo’s classic downtown; gigantic Ueno Park could take several days to explore on it’s own, and is home to Japan’s oldest zoo (with pandas), amazing historic temples and shrines, playgrounds and coffee shops, and numerous world-class museums (including Japan’s National Museum) and art galleries. It’s also a famous cherry blossoms spot (usually in bloom during late March and early April) attracting large numbers of ‘hanami parties’. Near Ueno station there’s also a bustling street market, Ameya Yokocho (which sprung up as a post-war black market and still peddles knock-off goods amongst its food and fashion options).
You Might Want To Avoid: Southwest of Ueno station – it’s a red light district/ bar area at night.
[Yamonote Line Stop] Shinjuku
With 35 platforms, over 200 exits and 3.64 million commuters per day, Shinjuku Station is Japan’s busiest and a total sight to behold. Aside from it’s train connectivity, it’s a huge commercial district that’s also a great base for sightseeing and a destination unto itself – home to Tokyo Metropolitan Government (with it’s free viewing platform) and all the bright light, big city vibes many people expect to find when they visit Tokyo. Its headquarters of major businesses, gigantic department stores, and more restaurants than you could visit in a lifetime. But there’s lots of green spaces including Shinjuku Gyoen (originally built as the garden for the Imperial Household), quite famous for cherry-blossoms (March/April). From Samurai Museums to ancient shines, Shinjuku also packs a cultural punch. Wandering around all-night eatery areas like Omoide Yokocho (Memory Lane) or Golden Gai is like stepping back in time, winding back streets filled with tiny restaurants and bars (although most aren’t very kid friendly- tiny spaces with even tinier tables, many which still allow smoking). The Tokyo Robot Café is here too – a crazy cabaret light show/tourist trap that we chose to skip. Depending on which end of Shinjuku you’re in, you may also be close enough to walk to Yoyogi and a short ride to Shibuya (see below)
You Might Want To Avoid: An area called Kabukicho, a 100 block area accessed by Shinjuku Station’s East exit and Japan’s largest redlight area.
(Shinjuku Station divides the district West to East, so if you’d prefer to stay right away from Kabukicho, stay in West Shinjuku).
[Yamonote Line Stop] Harajuku/ Yoyogi
The suburb Gwen Stefani rightly or wrongly felt compelled to sing about it, Harajuku is smack in the middle of Shinjuku and Shibuya and really popular with young folk – it’s known for being a hub for trends and fashions. Located directly across from the station, Harajuku’s Takeshita Dori is a touristy mish-mash of crepe stores, 100 Yen Shops and souvenier stalls that our kids loved. Adjoining there is Omotesando, a wide tree lined avenue that lures in youth shoppers en masse with more on-trend international brand name stores.
It’s also home to Yoyogi Park, one of Tokyo’s largest and most famous parks, where you’ll find Meiji Jingu, a historic shrine, and loads of lush foresty greenspace. If you manage to be in the park on a sunny Sunday afternoon the area is well known for the constant stream of people out to show off their wildside. From teens in cosplay costumes to rockabilly dancers and buskers, it’s a colourful people watcher’s paradise.
[Yamonote Line Stop] Shibuya
Like its neighbor Shinjuku, Shibuya is all neon signs, bustling streets, vending-machine restaurants, malls and 100 yen shops. It contains two of Tokyo’s most easily recognized landmarks for foreigners; the Park Hyatt that featured in the movie Lost in Translation, and Shibuya Crossing (that crossing you’ve seen all the photos/videos of) which is right outside the station’s Hachiko exit – if you love people watching there’s a Starbucks on the corner across from the station where you can get a birds eye view of the crossing from above thanks to it’s second story vantage point. The sheer magnitude of entertainment and dining options makes it an exciting spot to stay with a family – look for Genki Sushi, an affordable train sushi chain that makes your food fresh to order from selections you enter by keypad at your table, then delivers it via a multi track remote control trains (our kids wanted to eat there everyday).
You Might Want To Avoid: To the far west of Shibuya, Love Hotel Hill is common slang for the area between Dogenzaka and Bunkamura streets with a few love hotels and nightclubs etc.
[Yamonote Line Stop] Akihabara
World famous Akihabara, home to electronics, anime, otaku culture and robot kitsch. This suburb is the world epicenter for all things gadget or cartoon orientated, but also embodies all that is weird (and wacky) about Tokyo – it’s like Mecca for geeks, but be warned; if you’re travelling with older kids there’s bound to be a few eyebrows raised. Amongst all the harmless nerd fodder and wall to wall electronics, you’ll have severe trouble avoiding shop displays and streets posters for cartoons that border on pornography, violent video game graphics and all sorts of stuff that would be hidden away from sight in other cultures. So you’d be fine if you’re travelling with babies or kids so young it’d all go over their heads, or ditto for kids old enough to be seeing much worse on their Facebook feed, but you’d probably need blinkers (or a different destination!) for kids who are in the middle.
[Yamonote Line Stop] Ginza (Yarakucho)
Ginza is Tokyo’s high end shopping area, and home to some of Tokyo’s most exclusive and upmarket sights – famous international brands, lavish restaurants, five stars hotels, art galleries and renowned Kabuki theatre (Kabukiza). But on the flipside it’s also home to Rappongi, an infamous Tokyo nightclub district that never sleeps. Somewhere between these two worlds is the family-friendly side. Bristling with things to do with kids, the Roppongi Hills Complex has attractions like Tokyo Tower (the one that looks like Tokyo’s answer to Eiffel), Mori Tower (stores, restaurants, galleries and museums), and Tokyo City Observation Deck. Culturally the area feels a little sterile, but on the upside because this area is popular with both tourists and expats you’ll have no trouble getting around with English translations abound.
Avoid: The Rappongi area (not to be confused with Rappongi Hills) is great by day, but with loads of nightlife it can get a bit seedy at night – it’s called ‘Tokyo’s best and worst neighborhood’, as it’s some of the most expensive real estate but also home to some of the city’s most notorious partying.
[Yamonote Line Stop] Ikebukuro
Ikebukuro is a bit less glitzy than some of the aforementioned suburbs, but it’s perfect if you’d feel more comfortable exploring ‘Tokyo-lite’, the midstregth version of the city.
It’s best known for anime and manga stores that appeal more to females ¬– kind of like soap opera style/ love story characters for women as well as your Hello Kitty and Little Bright Star girly cuteness – and while not as famous as Akihabara it’s a bit of an electronics/ gaming hub too. While more lowkey than YoYogi or Shinjuku, you’ll spot cosplay fans hanging out in stores or strolling Naka-ikebukuro Park. Anime-themed cafes, are plentiful, and as it’s a bit more suburban, strolls in backstreets you’ll find tiny and authentic little neighborhood ramen shops and sushi bars. Ikebukuro’s other big drawcard is the eclectic Sunshine City complex, a giant shopping mall/skyscraper with an observation deck, aquarium and atrium on the roof, and mini theme parks inside, including Tokyo (and possible the world’s) largest Pokemon Centre, a completely wacky attraction called Namja Town (I think I need to write a whole page about its craziness!) and much more. Tokyo Metropolitan Theater is also based in Ikebukuro, a plus for fans of classical concerts and opera.
You Might Want To Avoid: A few blocks from the west exit of the station there’s a nightclub/love hotel area. There’s also an enclave on the East Exit too.
A Note About Rush Hour:
Yamanote Line’s circular route makes a full loop in around an hour, with trains departing every two minutes during the day and every 30 seconds during rush hours. As it connects Tokyo’s major nerve centres it’s super handy for travel around the city, but this also makes it heavily trafficked – it’s a breeze off peak, but avoid peak hours if you can as it gets very crowded (often running at 168% capacity – you do the math!).
Planning to travel by rail? Wondering if the Japan Rail Pass is worth it? Click through to see our rundown.
We’ll be adding to this list of Tokyo suburbs popular with travel families – have you got a fave not listed here? Let us know below!