As winter makes its exit from the archipelago and the pink petals of spring begin to emerge, I feel an intense pang of nostalgia for my old neighborhood on Tokyo’s east side. Sure, the city’s cherry blossoms are beautiful in places like Yoyogi Park and Shinjuku Gyoen, but one of the nicest things to do during the hanami (cherry blossom viewing) season is simply stroll along the streets and waterways near the Sumida River. If that’s not incentive enough to head into shitamachi (downtown) with the kids, then let me recommend a few of my favorite activities in the area. The sakura (cherry blossom) tree-lined paths that follow this area’s numerous canals are great places to wander, but I’m going to suggest a short walking tour through the neighborhood, with a few family-friendly stops along the way.
Right outside of Kiyosumi Shirakawa Station (Oedo and Hanzomon lines) is Kiyosumi Teien, a small traditional Japanese garden that was once the private residence of a feudal lord. The numerous bridges and stone paths over the water here can keep little ones occupied for half an hour, but the pond’s occupants may prove more entertaining. The koi carp here are the size of house cats and possibly tamer. Bring bread to feed them, or just buy some once you’re there. There is a small concession stand next to the pond, and in addition to sodas and ice cream they sell bags of crumbs that the kids can toss out to the ducks, turtles and fish that occupy the water a few steps away. You can practically pet the koi, although I wouldn’t recommend it as they are quite slimy to the touch.
The neighborhood to the east of this garden has a number of charming sakura trees, temples and shrines, as well as one of my favorite museums in the city: the Fukagawa Edo Museum. Not to be confused with the massive Tokyo Edo Museum a few kilometers further north in Ryogoku, the much smaller Fukagawa Edo Museum is a more specialized experience. Where the larger museum covers the entire history of Tokyo, with hundreds upon hundreds of displays, relics and restored items, the Fukagawa Edo Museum focuses its efforts on re-creating one corner of an 18th-century Tokyo neighborhood. As you walk into the cavernous main room, you look down into a one-block recreation of Sagacho, a part of Tokyo’s Fukagawa district where the museum now stands.
Take the steps down into the reconstruction and you are surrounded by replicas of Edo Period (1603-1868) village life, including a granary, a market and family homes. But the best part is that this is a completely hands-on experience. Guests are welcome to step inside the buildings and touch many (but perhaps not all) of the objects they find there. Kids can operate machinery that husked the community’s rice, and then handle the pots that were later used to cook the grains. You can step into the houses (shoes off first please) and peruse some of the now-somewhat-alien belongings that would have been commonplace in their time. A few small video exhibits in a nearby room help explain what some of these objects are for.
The bad news for non-Japanese visitors is that there isn’t much English explanation on the displays. The good news is that the museum frequently has volunteer tour guides available, and there are often a few who would like to practice their English. The last time my daughter and I went, we enlisted the help of a sweet little grandmother who seemed thrilled to explain the history of her ancestral hometown to a girl that was around the same age as her grandson.
You will appreciate the attention to detail. Not only are the building replicas pleasingly realistic, but the ambiance has also been considered. For example, the entire space goes through a day’s lighting cycle about every 45 minutes, complete with sunrise and sunset. There are a number of ambient sounds piped in through hidden speakers, as well: a cat meows from the roof, and a rooster crows at dawn.
If you finish at the Fukagawa Edo Museum and are keen to explore further, then continue walking east until you reach the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo. Located at the northern end of Kiba Park, this spacious, modern museum is extremely kid-friendly. In fact, it is currently hosting a 30-year retrospective exhibition of artwork from the Pixar Animation Studios until May 29.
After this, if you and the children are keen for some open space, then Kiba Park is laid out before you for nearly a kilometer south until you reach Kiba Station on the Tozai Line. Whether you walk this way home, or head back the way you came, you will have had an excellent stroll on Tokyo’s east side.
Kiyosumi Teien is ¥150 for adults and free for children. bit.ly/kiyosumigdns
Fukagawa Edo is ¥300 for adults and ¥50 for children. bit.ly/fukagawaedo
Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo is showing “PIXAR: 30 Years of Animation.” Tickets are ¥1,500 for adults, ¥1,000 for high school and university students, and ¥500 for elementary and junior high students. bit.ly/motpixar