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Exploring a land designed with children in mind

by Danielle Demetriou

There are pros and cons to raising a child in the heart of one of the most densely populated places on the planet.

The best part? There are few safer, cleaner and more smoothly functioning cities than Tokyo, a metropolis that constantly strives for the perfect balance between futuristic progress and a local sense of livability (not to mention sushi on tap).

The downside? The lack of space, more concrete than green and that unspoken code of urban restraint that exists in all cities, in contrast to the unshackled sense of freedom experienced by young children in rural settings.

And so one challenge facing many Tokyo parents is finding a place where their children can express themselves freely and let their imagination (and legs) run riot.

On a recent blue-sky winter day, I found precisely one such place: namely, Kodomonokuni, a children’s park in the Aoba district of Yokohama, less than an hour by train from Shibuya.

The space, whose name translates as “Children’s Country,” was founded in commemoration of the marriage of the Emperor and Empress in 1959 and officially opened its doors for business on May 5 — Children’s Day — in 1965.

Fast forward half a century, and its objectives remain as pure as its origins were grand: Its website describes it as a natural park “of which the main purpose is to contribute to children’s sound mind and body.”

The park is a children’s utopia: Spanning 240 acres, it is home primarily to vast green spaces filled with woodland paths, stone tunnels and expansive parklands — and peppered among the bucolic landscape, endless entertainment can be found.

There are cycling courses, a dairy plant where cows are milked, a petting farm, a small zoo, a swimming pool, a swan pond with boating, pony rides, soccer fields, ice rinks, bouncy castles — all spaciously spread out across the park.

Best of all? Not only is it the antithesis of shiny, bright, plastic Tokyo Disneyland (and significantly less crowded when we visited), it’s like a time warp, with the toys and games shrouded in nostalgia; think slightly faded 1950s-style bumper cars and old-school mechanical animal rides.

The day we arrived, there was a steady stream of people walking into the park from the station — and yet crowds appear to immediately disperse in the green space upon arrival.

The sense of space is palpable immediately upon entering: Not only from the design of the park — the vast, wide sloping entrance path gives way to views over green parkland, flower beds, fields and trees — but also because of all the colorful chalk etchings on the ground by children.

My 1-year-old daughter’s energetic desire to run free at all times dictated our somewhat haphazard route through the park. So we followed a winding woodland path through a tunnel — and to the delight of my daughter, we stumbled across a clutch of vintage-looking mechanical furry animals.

After she’d clambered onto the back of a panda, I put ¥200 into its coin slot, and as my daughter shrieked over-excitedly, the animal started clanking bumpily down the path while playing a loud Japanese nursery rhyme.

It was a fitting introduction to the nostalgic, and in this instance surreal, encounters that define a visit to Kodomonokuni. Highlights from the rest of our day included riding in toddler-friendly bumper cars (a slightly faded Anpanman was a favorite), feeding ponies carrots, racing around a track on higgledy-piggledy cycling devices customized for young children and stroking large floppy-eared rabbits.

Tip: Bring your own food or a picnic, as the restaurants and kiosks are a little limited. Another option in sunny weather is to bring food to cook in the Barbecue Garden (reservations required).

All in all, it was a relaxing, low-key day that involved lots of leisurely ambling, no queuing and, from my daughter, ample exclamations of delight, surprise and a little fear of the big pig in the zoo.

Even my normally stoic husband — who has lived in Tokyo for decades but was raised in a small mountain town in Aomori Prefecture — found himself sighing nostalgically throughout the day as he marveled at how “free” it was.

And the ultimate sign of toddler contentment? My daughter happily enjoyed a perfectly timed nap in the middle of the day as we wandered under the trees in one quiet spot, enabling my husband and I to have a quiet moment to savor the peace — and tuck into some nostalgia-infused soft ice cream in a cone.

700 Nara-cho, Aoba-ku, Yokohama; 045-961-2111; www.kodomonokuni.org; adults ¥600, junior high school/elementary school pupils ¥200, children 3-5 ¥100, under-3s free. Many activities involve additional costs: children’s zoo ¥200, row boat ¥400 (30 mins.), pony ride ¥350 etc.