Toy. The word may well evoke images of flashy plastic gadgets, singing and dancing polyglot dolls and rainbow-bright furry aliens — particularly if you are under the age of 5.
But toys today are increasingly synonymous with sensory overload and so dazzlingly bright, noisy, active and try-hard clever that any sane adult in the vicinity would do well to reach for sunglasses and earplugs.
There is one special space, however, that defies such modern stereotypes; where adults can marvel at the quality of the designs while children and babies are equally enthralled: namely Tokyo Toy Museum.
Housed in a cavernous former elementary school on a quiet lane in Shinjuku’s Yotsuya 3-chome, the museum spans three floors and is home to a network of toy-filled spaces.
It was five years ago that the museum made the inspired decision to move from its original home in the Nakano district, where it was founded in 1984, into the abandoned school.
The concept is simple: It focuses on good-quality toys — not the battery operated variety but mainly timeless, low-tech analogue creations, many of which are handcrafted by Japanese artisans from woods such as sugi (cedar).
Best of all, it’s about experiencing the toys: 300 volunteer staff, dressed in red aprons and called “toy curators,” work at the museum — not to stop children from touching displays, but to actively encourage them to interact and play.
On a recent crisp Sunday morning, my husband and I took our 1-year-old daughter to explore — her eyes widened almost immediately when she spied the playground full of children in front of the entrance.
Inside, we wandered past the gymnasium where local pensioners were enthusiastically playing ping-pong and headed up to the second-floor museum entrance before entering the first space: the Good Toy Gallery, filled with low round wooden tables dotted with various toys.
Unsure at first, my daughter stared at a pile of wooden blocks and a hammer until a “toy curator” smilingly stepped forward and showed her how it worked — and then she was off.
“The concept is to allow people to play with the toys,” says Shin Yamada, a manager at the museum. “The children can touch at least 70 percent of the toys on display.”
The biggest challenge, it transpired, was getting my daughter to move from room to room: after some initial screams of resistance, we went to the special exhibition space, consisting of wooden-toy creations from across Japan (among the favorites are Tadashi Miura’s minimalist round wooden birds, trees and acorns).
But the holy grail for this floor is at the end of the corridor: the Toy Wood Forest. Here, shoes are slipped off little feet before they run into a children’s wonderland made from a jigsaw puzzle of woods, complete with tunnels, secret passages and abacus themed games.
The most popular feature? Undoubtedly the round “bath” filled with 20,000 small balls of aromatic wood inside which my daughter flailed around in unadulterated bliss.
It proved quite a struggle getting her out of the door, but more fun awaited just downstairs. A major highlight — certainly for those up to the age of 2 — is the Wood Education Baby Room.
With daylight streaming through the high windows, the shoeless space, created by toy designer Shinpei Arima, is baby and toddler heaven (incidentally, a second Baby Room space created by the same designer is opening this month in Okinawa).
Center stage is a gently inclined white circle on the floor, filled with handcrafted wooden “pebbles.” All around are larger abstract pebbles formations, upon which the children happily clamber, and clusters of wooden toys.
My daughter spent a long time sitting in the white circle, touching all the wooden pebbles, before exploring further afield — and eventually deciding that her favorite place was atop a rocking giraffe while talking animatedly on the (wooden) telephone in her hands.
I ended up leaving her there with my husband as I snuck in a quick tour of the rest of the space: the top floor is best for older children, with a network of rooms filled with different games from Japan and around the world (there’s even a Babyfoot table) with professionals regularly coming in as instructors.
The Toy Factory is another highlight: a traditional classroom space that’s been given a super crafty makeover (cue colorful handicrafts hanging from the double-height ceiling) where children can take part in toy-making workshops.
After chasing my daughter around the Baby Room when it was time to leave, we made one last stop at the Museum shop Apty, a cornucopia of wooden delights (my daughter’s treat was a ball containing three tiny wooden animals on wheels from one of the ingenious coin toy slot machines).
And with Christmas looming on the calendar, our visit was a timely reminder that not all toys are neon, noisy, plastic and battery-operated — natural handcrafted materials can be preferable for children and parents alike.
Tokyo Toy Museum is at Yotsuya Hiroba, 4-20 Yotsuya, Shinjuku-ku; 03 5367 9601. Open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. (closed Thurs.). Entrance adult ¥700, children aged 3 through elementary school ¥500. One child and one adult ticket ¥1,000. Free for under 2s. This month also marks the opening of its first sister establishment, the Yambaru Forest Toy Museum in Okinawa. For more information about both museums, visit www.goodtoy.org.