Living together with your family in Tokyo is often remembered as one of the best experiences by many former expats who have had an opportunity to live in multiple countries.
The experience of living in Japan also seems to rank highly among spouses and children—if they were old enough to remember their time in Japan.
Family adventures in Japan are likely to vary quite a bit, depending on the ages of your children. Still, a few elements of this experience will transcend their ages.
Families with Young Children
No matter where you live, it is always a good idea to consider your surroundings from your children’s perspective.
For young children not yet old enough to attend school, their frame of reference will most likely revolve around life at home with mom and dad.
Especially if both parents work, they may, however, be enrolled in a daycare program. Finding a daycare program for small children in Tokyo can be difficult for anyone, including foreigners.
However, there are some additional challenges that may be faced by foreign parents seeking daycare services in Tokyo.
One of the biggest challenges is the language barrier. Many daycare programs in Tokyo operate in Japanese, and finding a program that offers services in English or another language may be challenging.
Additionally, the application process and paperwork may also be in Japanese, making it difficult for non-Japanese speakers to navigate.
Another challenge is the high demand for daycare services in Tokyo. The city has a shortage of daycare facilities, and many programs have long waiting lists. Foreign parents may also face discrimination or bias from some daycare providers who may be hesitant to enroll children who are not Japanese.
However, there are resources available to help foreign parents find daycare programs in Tokyo. Some international schools or expat organizations may offer assistance in finding daycare services or provide information on programs that cater to non-Japanese speakers.
It may also be helpful to enlist the help of a bilingual or multilingual friend or colleague who can assist with communication and paperwork.
Fees are all across-the-board and can range from as low as 10,000 yen (approximately US $74) per month to 70,000 yen ($520) per month. Some private facilities may charge more and often also require a one-time entrance fee.
Overall, while finding a daycare program for very small children in Tokyo as a foreigner can be challenging, it is not impossible. With some patience and persistence, parents should be able to find a program that meets their needs.
Explore Your Neighborhood
With small children, you will probably find that most time not spent either at home or when they are in a daycare program is occupied by visits throughout the neighborhood—especially to nearby parks.
Japanese neighborhoods often have a wide variety of parks. Some will have playground equipment suitable for young children, whereas others will be designed for older, more independent children. It is important to check out which kinds of public parks are easily accessible to any property that you are considering.
The Setagaya Park has a mini “SL” train that is a huge hit for young children and their parents. While not common, you can even find pony rides in some parks.
One popular location is the Tokyo Chuo Park, which is located in the Chuo ward of Tokyo. This park offers pony rides for children on weekends and holidays from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm. The cost is 200 yen ($1.50) per ride, and children must be accompanied by a parent or guardian.
Another option is the Tama Zoological Park, which is located in the Hino City area of Tokyo. While this is not a public park, it is a large zoo that offers pony rides for children. The cost is 300 yen ($2.25) per ride, and children must be under 130 cm (4’ 3”) in height to ride.
In addition, Yoyogi Park is a highly recommended option for families with children. Known for its spacious lawns and picnic areas, it’s an ideal location for family outings. The park also offers bicycle rentals, allowing families to explore its picturesque surroundings on wheels, creating a perfect blend of exercise and enjoyment.
In Tokyo, the choices are plentiful, ensuring your child’s outdoor experiences are as diverse and exciting as possible.
Explore Other Parts of the City
Given the wide range of experiences designed for young children in Tokyo, it would be a shame to limit your movement only to your immediate neighborhood.
Unless you have access to a car, you may, however, find that simply getting around the city with small children and their assortment of gear from baby carriages to extra clothing can be challenging and often requires a bit of advance planning.
Lugging all of this “stuff” through the train system can be a pain, but if you check in advance the location of elevators along the way, such trips are certainly not impossible.
Tokyo offers a wide variety of activities for young children that are both educational and entertaining. Here are some of the most popular things to do focused on young children in Tokyo:
- Visit the Tokyo Disney Resort: Tokyo Disney Resort is a popular destination for families with young children. The resort features two theme parks – Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo DisneySea – as well as hotels and other attractions.
- Visit Museums and Galleries: Tokyo has many museums and galleries that cater to young children. Some of the most popular include the National Museum of Nature and Science, the Edo-Tokyo Museum, and the Tokyo Toy Museum. The Yokohama Anpanman Children’s Museum is also a perennial favorite.
- Visit Animal Parks and Zoos: There are several animal parks and zoos in Tokyo that are great for young children, such as Ueno Zoo, Tama Zoological Park, and Inokashira Park Zoo. Don’t forget the Yokohama Zoo, which is called “Zoorasia.” It is one of the largest zoos in Japan that exhibits, raises, and breeds wild animals from all over the world.
- Play in the Large-Scale Parks: Tokyo has many parks that are perfect for young children to play in, including Yoyogi Park, Ueno Park, and Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden.
- Attend Children’s Events: Tokyo has many events throughout the year that are specifically designed for children, such as the Kanda Matsuri festival and the Children’s Castle in Shibuya.
- Play in Indoor Play Areas: Tokyo has many indoor play areas that are perfect for young children, such as the KidZania Tokyo indoor theme park and the Tokyo Dome City Attractions amusement park. These are especially good to remember during the rainy season, which typically spans from mid-June to mid-July.
- Attend Workshops: Many workshops in Tokyo are designed for young children, including cooking classes, pottery classes, and art classes.
Besides these interesting places to visit as a family, sometimes you may want to relax in a setting more similar to life back home.
While membership is certainly not inexpensive, a couple of country clubs that are particularly popular with expats include the following:
- Tokyo American Club (TAC and commonly called “tack”): This private social club was founded in 1928 and is one of the oldest and most prestigious private clubs in Asia. The club is primarily aimed at Americans living in Tokyo, but also welcomes members from other nationalities. The club offers a wide range of facilities and activities, including dining options, fitness centers, swimming pools, a golf driving range, tennis courts, squash courts, and a spa. It also hosts various events throughout the year, including social events, cultural events, and sports events. TAC is located in the Azabudai area of Minato ward in Tokyo, and its facilities include multiple dining areas, a library, a movie theater, a bowling alley, and a range of meeting and event spaces. It is a popular venue for business meetings and social events, as well as a hub for the American community in Tokyo. Membership to the Tokyo American Club is limited and requires a sponsorship by a current member and a waiting period. Memberships are available for individuals, families, and corporations. Here are some general guidelines for membership fees at the Tokyo American Club:
- Entrance Fee: The entrance fee for a full membership is currently ¥3.5 million (approximately US $26,000), which is payable in a lump sum or in installments over three years.
- Annual Membership Fee: The annual membership fee for a full membership is currently ¥1.2 million ($8,900), payable annually.
- Junior Membership: For members between the ages of 21 and 34, the entrance fee is currently ¥1.05 million ($7,800) and the annual membership fee is ¥420,000 ($3,100).
- Corporate Membership: For corporations, the entrance fee is currently ¥7 million ($52,000) and the annual membership fee is ¥2.4 million ($17,800).
- Yokohama City & Athletic Club (YC&AC and commonly called by the same initials): This private social club located in Yokohama was founded in 1868, making it one of the oldest and most prestigious private clubs in Japan. YC&AC offers a range of sports and fitness facilities, including a 50-meter swimming pool, a full-size soccer pitch, tennis courts, squash courts, a fitness center, and a golf driving range. It also has dining facilities, including several restaurants, a bar, and banquet rooms for private events. The club is located in the Yamate area of Yokohama, which is known for its historic Western-style architecture and international community. YC&AC is open to both Japanese and non-Japanese members, and membership is by invitation only. The club hosts a range of events throughout the year, including social events, sports competitions, and cultural activities. It is a popular venue for business meetings, weddings, and other private events, as well as a hub for the international community in Yokohama. Many members live in nearby Tokyo, though. Here are some general guidelines for membership fees at YC&AC:
- Entrance Fee: The entrance fee for a full membership is currently ¥5 million (approximately US $37,000), which is payable in a lump sum or in installments over five years.
- Annual Membership Fee: The annual membership fee for a full membership is currently ¥1.25 million ($9,300), payable annually.
- Junior Membership: For members between the ages of 20 and 29, the entrance fee is currently ¥1 million ($7,400) and the annual membership fee is ¥300,000 ($2,250).
- Corporate Membership: For corporations, the entrance fee is currently ¥10 million ($74,000) and the annual membership fee is ¥2.5 million ($18,500).
Finding a Pediatrician
Life is, of course, not all fun and games.
The parents of young children will also want to locate a pediatrician upon arriving in town. Finding an English-speaking pediatrician in Tokyo can be a challenge, especially for non-Japanese speakers.
Here are some tips to help you find an English-speaking pediatrician in Tokyo:
- Ask for Recommendations: Ask other expats or English-speaking locals for recommendations on pediatricians who speak English.
- Check with Your Embassy: Many embassies in Tokyo have lists of English-speaking doctors and medical facilities in the city, including pediatricians.
- Contact Hospitals with International Departments: Some hospitals in Tokyo have international departments that cater to non-Japanese patients. These departments may have English-speaking pediatricians on staff or be able to refer you to an English-speaking pediatrician. Here are some hospitals in Tokyo with international departments:
- Tokyo Medical and Surgical Clinic
- St. Luke’s International Hospital
- The American Clinic Tokyo
- Tokyo Healthcare Medical Center
- Keio University Hospital
- Check Online Directories: There are several online directories that list English-speaking doctors in Tokyo, including pediatricians.
- Use a Medical Concierge Service: Medical concierge services in Tokyo can help you find an English-speaking pediatrician, make appointments, and provide translation services during your visit.
It’s important to note that even if a pediatrician speaks English, they may not necessarily be familiar with the healthcare system in your home country.
It is, therefore, a good idea to bring any medical records or information with you to your appointment and to make sure you understand the doctor’s recommendations before leaving the appointment.
As your children get older, you will find that your family’s activities will, most likely, revolve around their school.
Families with Elementary ~ High School Age Children
All of the international school communities offer a variety of activities for families, which is a great place to meet others in your situation.
Particularly if you choose to join one of the private social clubs listed above, you will, undoubtedly, find that much of your time with your family will also be spent at these clubs.
Be careful not to fall into the trap of living in an expat “cocoon,” as you may miss many opportunities to interact with your Japanese neighbors.
Travel Sports Programs
Although some programs are more competitive than others, like in the U.S, it is also possible to get your children into various sports programs, many of which involve travel.
While a lot of fun, the challenge will be finding a program that accepts foreigners and can deal with any language issues. Also, such programs typically work on the Japanese fiscal/academic year which runs from April through March, and they rarely accept new players midway through the year.
Many have try-outs, and the competition to get in can be intense. Practice is not optional.
Participation in such programs requires a real commitment both on the part of the players and their supportive parents.
As can be expected, the emphasis of most programs is on teamwork (e.g., passing skills in soccer) rather than the development of stand-out players.
No matter the sport, your child will benefit on multiple levels by being a member of a Japanese kids sports team.
Newfound Independence & Mobility
Especially as they get older and enter the period when interacting with their friends becomes paramount, your kids will love being able to get around the city on their own, and you can—for the most part—rest assured that they will be relatively safe.
Tokyo’s extensive and relatively inexpensive public transportation system provides many more opportunities for your children to travel around the city on their own rather than remain dependent upon either mom or dad for a ride somewhere like back at home.
Especially once they get to high school, your sons and daughters may be exposed to some situations in which alcohol may be readily available—especially in and around Roppongi, a famous nightlife area in central Tokyo. Larger and more mature-looking boys may, in particular, find that they can get into various clubs and bars without being carded.
Thus, it is important to discuss with your children your expectations about how to act when going out with friends, curfews, etc. Middle and high schools typically provide guidance on this topic, as well.
Escape the Big City Every Once in a While
No matter the age of your children, finding opportunities as a family to escape the big city every once and a while often help to bind your family together and provide opportunities to make family memories.
Given Japan’s extensive domestic plane, train, and road networks, taking the whole family on short trip away from Tokyo is relatively easy and can be managed within a reasonable budget.
While the convenience of traveling by one’s own car certainly has its advantages, sometimes you may end up getting caught up in a very long traffic jam at the end of the weekend.
Thus, to ensure that “getting there is half the fun,” travel by train can help to transform your weekend get-away into a real adventure for the whole family. It will limit the number of times you’ll have to answer that dreaded question, “When are we going to get there?”
While flying out of Haneda Airport makes the entire country within reach, even Japan has its share of airport hassles. Thus, to safeguard against delays, boarding a train is often your best bet. Many hotels have shuttle buses that will also pick you up at the train station nearest your destination.
The best places to visit provide various experiences, depending on the season.
From spring through autumn hiking in the mountains can provide breathtaking scenery and a cool respite—at least at night—compared to the urban heat islands of central Tokyo.
Here are some options, all within about 90 ~ 120 minutes from the center of the city:
- Izu Peninsula: The beaches along the coast of the Izu Peninsula are easily accessible via the famous limited express trains called Odoriko and Saphir Odoriko. There are lots of hotels, traditional ryokan and minshuku, airbnbs, etc. where you can stay.
- Mountain Hot Spring Towns: Similarly, you can take the “Romance Car” limited express to the hot spring resort of Hakone. Another classic get-away is Karuizawa in Nagano, which can now be reached by the bullet train in less than 70 minutes. From Asakusa you can reach the hot spring town of Kinugawa Onsen. It is near the Toshogu Shrine as well as the Nikko Edomura, a historical theme park that recreates life in a town during the Edo period (1603 ~ 1868).
- Ski Trips: In the winter lasting family memories are often made on ski trips, and Japan has hundreds from which to choose. Some of them like the GALA Yuzawa Snow Resort in Niigata can be reached in just 74 minutes from Tokyo Station.
Tokyo has a lot to offer that will be of interest to the whole family. The biggest problem is often finding time to do as many activities, as possible. While sometimes easier said than done, remember to put away your laptop, leave the stress of your job at the office, and make the most of your “down-time” with your family.