It can be difficult to get my kids moving on weekends, but I knew just how to motivate them for an outing one Saturday. “Hey boys,” I said. “Wanna go to a park where visitors fall into the water so often that they rent out spare clothes?”
I’d never seen my kids shed their pajamas so fast.
Within minutes we were out the door and on a train. Our destination? Shimizu Koen, a large park in Chiba Prefecture with a reputation for beautiful cherry blossoms. For kids, though, Shimizu Koen is better known for having the largest “field athletics” obstacle course in Japan.
The use of the phrase “field athletics” in Japan confuses native English speakers, who wonder if it means sports played on fields. It is pronounced fuiirudo asurechikkusu and describes a type of exercise and obstacle course, built mostly from wood and rope, which is unique to this country. There are hundreds of such courses around the country, and they are wonderful places to take kids.
My older son, then 8, was awed when he saw his first field-athletics course shortly after we moved to Japan. “They’d never build a course like this in America!” he exclaimed. “It’s way too dangerous!” Coming from a boy his age, those were words of admiration and approval. And that is what my kids love about the courses: There’s enough risk to be exciting, but not so much to be truly scary.
Field-athletics courses are professionally designed to minimize the risk of injury, and most courses that meet basic safety standards are certified by the Japan Field Athletics Association. But it is possible to fall or bonk your head, so you need to use some judgment about what you and your kids can handle.
The course at Shimizu Koen has 100 different activity stations (called “points”), divided into three different courses. Each point requires an activity seen in nature, such as crawling along a log like a lizard, or swinging on ropes like monkeys swing on vines. Judging from our two visits, the clientele is mostly elementary-school-age children and the adults they drag along. But I also saw groups of middle-schoolers, university students and twentysomething company employees, all having a great time.
If you’ve never done field athletics, the 40-point Family Course at Shimizu Koen is a good place to start because you can walk around anything that seems too challenging. Little kids are allowed on this course, but a few points are off-limits to children under 6. The signs stating this are written only in Japanese.
Kids under 6 are not allowed at all on the Water Course (suijo kosu), which is my boys’ favorite place “in the whole wide world.” It boasts 20 activity points spread out across a large pond. To complete the course, you have to balance on beams, jump across a string of tippy rafts and perform all sorts of cool tricks that are likely to land you in the water. My kids went in “accidently on purpose” again and again, but true spills are so common that the park really does rent out changes of clothes. You’d be smart to use this service, or do as we did and bring an extra outfit, including shoes and underwear.
Being more sedate by nature than my children, I chose to bypass the demanding activities, particularly on the Water Course. I said it was because I had the camera, but my kids still accused me of cowardice. “Mom’s taking the ‘Chicken Course,’ ” they teased, as I tiptoed around obstacles on the narrow walkways provided for parents and other cowards. Be forewarned that it’s impossible to avoid all strenuous activity on the Water Course and the 40-point Adventure Course (boken kosu).
The park offers plenty of activities for those who don’t want to swing on ropes. For young children, there are pony- and toy-train rides near the entrance to the park. There is also a campsite (with day-use an option), barbecues and fishing. And there’s a large flower garden called Hana Fantasia as well as a separate herb garden across from the pony rides. All these activities charge separate admission fees, so you can play a la carte, paying only for what you use.
Simple snacks and drinks are available in the park, but for something more substantial you’ll need to walk to the restaurants near the station. Or bring a picnic. There are tables inside the field-athletics course area and a grassy picnic area by the Buddhist temple, within the park grounds. We had to refuel our kids so often during our six hours in the park that we ended up using all three eating options.
So how’s my inner Tarzan? Alive and well, but decidedly middle-aged. I got in touch with muscles I didn’t know I had. However, a few sore body parts is a small price to pay for an active family outing that made my kids truly happy. And very wet.
This is Japan’s largest field-athletics course, in Noda, Chiba Prefecture, about 90 minutes by train from central Tokyo. Take the JR Joban Line from Ueno or Kitasenju to Kashiwa, and change to the Tobu Noda Line for Shimizu Koen. The park is a five-minute walk from the station. Limited paid parking. Open every day, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. (no entrance after 3 p.m.), except Dec. 29-Jan. 3 and rainy days. (Call ahead if the weather seems uncertain.) Entrance is 570 yen for children 6-12; 670 yen for middle-schoolers, and 820 yen for ages 15 and up. The park rents out shirts and shorts (315 yen with a 1,000 yen deposit) and shoes (300 yen, adult sizes only). There are also changing rooms, coin lockers and showers. No signs in English. For more information, call (04) 7125- 3030 or go to www.shimizu-kouen.com
This 45-point course is another of my children’s favorites, closer to home in Tokyo’s Ota Ward. It’s a 10-minute walk from Heiwajima Station on the Keihin Kyuko Line, or a short bus ride from the Central Exit at Omori Station, on the same line. Entrance is 100 yen for children 6-12, 330 yen for ages 12 and up. Preschoolers aren’t allowed to use the equipment, but can play on a free seven-point course. Open 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. (no entrance after 3 p.m.). Closed Monday (Tuesday, when Monday is a national holiday) and Dec. 29-Jan 3. Paid parking fills up early. No signs in English. For more information, call (03) 3766-1607.
Yokohama Tsukishino Course
A 60-point course near Nagatsuda and Tsukishino stations on the Denentoshi Line. Entrance free for children under 3, 500 yen for children 3-12, and 800 yen for everyone else. For more information, call (045) 983-9254.
Rokkosan Country House
In Kansai, there is a 40-point field-athletics course at the top of Mount Rokko, a great place from which to view the city of Kobe. Take the Rokko cable car and change to the Rokko-Arima Ropeway to reach the station at the peak, Rokko Sancho. Field athletics costs 500 yen for children 4-12, 900 yen for ages 13 and up. Closed Thursday (except July 20-Aug. 31) and on rainy days. For more information, call (078) 891-0366 or see the English home page www.infocreate.co.jp/home town/kobe/midoko-e.html
If you want a free taste of field athletics, there are a few pieces of equipment inside Rinshi-no-Mori Koen, a pleasant park 10 minutes on foot from Musashikogane Station on the Tokyu Meguro Line. Other small but free courses in Tokyo include those at Nogawa Koen in Chofu and Shinagawa Kumin Koen near the Shinagawa Aquarium. In Kanagawa, try Boken no Mori Koen in Yamato City.