Originally published on metropolis.co.jp on April 2013

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Cheap Thrills

Entertaining kids in Tokyo doesn’t have to involve big ticket prices

By Anna Cock Gibson

Imagine a world of rolling hills, cuddly animals, wild mud adventures, pony rides, splash parks and wide-open spaces where children can frolic with cheerful abandon. That place is Tokyo, a city whose concrete façade hides a network of spaces created just for kids.

While every neighbourhood boasts a slightly depressing, dirt-covered playground where taxi drivers converge to enjoy a smoke, magical places are just a short train ride away.

There are even playgrounds with no rules—aside from a ban on personal violence—where children are encouraged to smash up equipment with hammers, light fires, and wallow in mud. One such is Shibuya’s Haruno Ogawa Playpark, known colloquially as “Feral Park,” where a Japanese sign warns that children play at their own risk. The vibe is decidedly tribal and if Bear Grylls was a Japanese schoolboy, this would be his park of choice. The equipment is hammered and bound recycled timber, plastic piping and rope plus there’s an open fire, a tire swing that flies over a squelchy mud patch, and, when Metropolis stopped by, there was even a trio of uber-cool elementary schoolboys playing cards. The free park bills itself as suitable for babies to high-school age, but we’d steer clear until junior can at least walk.

Just up the road is the Yoyogi Pony Park, also free, where kids taller than 85cm may enjoy a guided ride around a circular pen. The park’s eight kawaii ponies—Macaron, Potato et al.—were all selected for their calm temperament. For little ones who are too scared, the park allows grooming of the animals with a brush and feeding. Bring your own carrots if you like, but remember these are Tokyo ponies who like their treats in long, slender sticks.

Further afield near Yokohama at Kodomo No Kuni (Children’s Land), another posse of ponies waits to ferry small children around—but in addition a small zoo offers up fluffy bunnies and guinea pigs to be petted on laps. Other entertainments at this vast 240-acre wonderland include train rides, cycle rental, boating, swimming, skating, and barbecues. For children with urban claustrophobia, a favorite attraction might be the green rolling hills. Not quite The Sound of Music; but as close as you’ll find in the metropolis.

There is also plenty of space for frolics at Niko Niko Park [pictured, top] in Meiji Jingu Gaien, with sleek play equipment, a rough-and-tumble “mountain” and ropes, swings, concrete tunnels and climbing frames. Recently renovated, Niko Niko has a roller slide, sandpit area (complete with sinks for washups), trampoline, flying fox, jungle bars—and best of all, rubberized matting to cushion the inevitable falls. Crawling babies and early walkers will enjoy an expanse of dirt-free artificial turf. Bring a picnic and arrive early to bag chairs and a table, or for the less-prepared there is a bank of vending machines with drinks and ice-cream treats.

In nearby Gaienmae is the more peaceful Ai-Port, a haven for babies and pre-schoolers housing an indoor play space decked out with beautiful wooden toys, an organic garden and a small outdoor playground with tricycles and hula hoops. Annual membership (¥500 for Minato-ku residents, ¥1,000 for others) is required to use the facilities and an hourly daycare service is available. Ai-Port runs an array of classes, including dance, music, craft, yoga, cooking, ballet, story-time and wakaba sessions to keep track of your child’s health and growth. The staff are kind and gentle and it is easy to meet other parents, whose company can be welcome during your baby’s first few months or years.

Similar local establishments, known as jidokan, are located throughout Tokyo. To find your closest one, visit the ward office to obtain a list. These small children’s halls are usually free, clean, and well-stocked with toys, books and play equipment—as well as likeminded kids and parents enjoying a play date close to home.

Shopping stops

Shopping with kids in tow can be a chore but with a few well-timed play stops much can be achieved. Our favorite boltholes include the Togo Shrine in Harajuku, incredibly serene given its proximity to Takeshita Dori and featuring a pond laden with carp and turtles. It’s ideal for toddlers as the pond is lined by a small fence that allows little people to see the creatures without tumbling in (and maybe toss them a morsel of stale bread). If malls are your thing, LaLaport Toyosu has a huge adjacent playground fitted out with equipment from Bornelund and a splashing pool in summer. Adjoining Roppongi’s Midtown complex is Hinokicho Park, with slides, swings, a basketball area and water bubblers; while Roppongi Hills has Robot Park with a wonderfully noisy roller slide, a lineup of colourful plastic slides, and a set of robot spring-riders.

Grassing up

An unfortunate aspect of a Tokyo childhood is the lack of access to a decent lawn. It can be downright embarrassing when your expat child wails in discomfort as their bare foot touches grandad’s freshly mowed turf. Get some training in at Shinjuku Gyoen’s English Landscape Garden, which boasts the finest lawn this side of Lord’s. We wish the curator at Shinjuku could spread the word around town—that grey dirt at local playgrounds just doesn’t cut it.

ADDRESS BOOK

☛ Haruno Ogawa Playpark Free. 5-68-1 Yoyogi, Shibuya-ku. Tel: 03-3481-9661. Open 10am-5pm, closed Thu. Email: harupure@bb.knet.ne.jp. Closest stn: Yoyogi-koen.
☛ Yoyogi Pony Park Free. 4-1 Yoyogi-Kamizonocho, Shibuya-ku. Tel: 03-3373-9996. Email: ponikou@tokyo-rc.or.jp. Open Tue-Sun 9am-5pm, closed Mon. Nearest stn: Sangubashi. Pony rides: Sat-Sun & hols 10:30-11:30am & 1:45-2.30pm & 3-4:30pm; Tue-Fri 1:45pm-2:30pm & 3-4.30pm. Carrot feeding: Tue-Sun 11:30-11:45am & 4:30-4:45pm. Brushing: Tue-Fri 1:30-1:45pm; Sat-Sun 10:15-10:30am & 1:30-1:45pm.
☛ Kodomo No Kuni ¥600 (adult), ¥200 (JH/elem), ¥100 (3-5 yo), free (under 2). Additional fees apply for some activities. 700 Naracho, Aoba-ku, Yokohama. Tel: 045-961-2111. Open Thu-Tue 9:30am-4:30pm (5pm in Jul & Aug), closed Wed. Nearest stn: Kodomonokuni. www.kodomonokuni.org
☛ Niko Niko Park ¥300 (adults), ¥100 (2 and older). 1-7-5 Kita-Aoyama, Minato-ku. Tel: 03-3478-0550. Open daily 10am-5pm (Mar-Oct), 10am-4.30pm (Nov-Feb). Nearest stn: Shinanomachi. www.meijijingugaien.jp
☛ Ai-Port Annual membership ¥500 (Minato-ku residents), ¥1,000 (others). 2-25-1 Minami-Aoyama, Minato-ku. Tel: 03-5786-3250. Open daily 10am-4.30pm. Nearest stn: Gaienmae. www.ai-port.jp
☛ Togo Shrine Free. 1-5-3 Jingumae. Shibuya-ku. Tel: 03-3403-3591. Nearest stn: Harajuku. www.togo.co.jp
☛ Lalaport Toyosu 2-4-9 Toyosu, Koto-ku. Tel: 03-6910-1234. Nearest stn: Toyosu. http://toyosu.lalaport.jp. Free outdoor playground located on waterfront between Lalaport and Gas Science Museum.
☛ Hinokicho Park Free. 9-7-9 Akasaka, Minato-ku. Nearest stn: Nogizaka. www.tokyo-midtown.com/en/facilities/green.html
☛ Robot Park Free. 6-16-46 Roppongi, Minato-ku. Nearest stn: Roppongi.
☛ Shinjuku Gyoen ¥200 (adult), ¥50 (child). 11 Naito-cho, Shinjuku-ku. Tel: 03-3350-0151. Open 9am-4pm, closed Mon. Nearest stn: Shinjuku-gyoen. www.env.go.jp/garden/shinjukugyoen/english