Running: check. Climbing: check. Hiding and seeking: check and check. These are just a few things on kids’ summer to-do lists. July and August mean crushing heat and humidity in Japan, yet a big part of summer for families still involves open outdoor spaces for play.
Fortunately, Japan has more playgrounds than you could ever visit. Admittedly, some are more like patches of dirt with a few swings, but others are spectacular constructions that can inspire the childish imagination. Here are a few worth seeking out.
Some of these play spaces are close to downtown Tokyo, while others may require a day trip. All are worth your time. There are too many to include here, so I’ve whittled them down to a few that are both fun for all and uniquely photogenic.
Shiokaze Park (www.tptc.co.jp/en/c_park/01_03) occupies the green western corner of Odaiba. The playground here resembles a pirate ship, but the real summer fun is the path leading to Water Fountain Plaza, where kids can splash and play in the water. This area gets a nice breeze off Tokyo Bay as well, which helps everyone stay cool as the temperature rises. If the kids want to move on, remember you’re in Odaiba. The entire area is like a playground, with lots of room to run around, plenty of restaurants and indoor (i.e. air-conditioned) activities.
Moving southwest from Odaiba we reach Nishi-Rokugo Park (Tire Park, bit.ly/tirepark) in Ota Ward. I’ve added this one partly for its kitsch value. That said, it’s still a lot of fun and makes a great background for some freaky family photos. As the name implies, Tire Park is made almost exclusively from old car tires. There are swings. There are robots. There are dinosaurs (or is that Godzilla?). What these black figures have in common is that they’re all rubber and covered with tread.
Now let’s travel further west of Tokyo to Tachikawa’s Showa Kinen Park. (www.showakinen-koen.jp) This massive space has beautiful open fields, spectacular seasonal flowers, paddle boats plus a great pool and mini water park.
It also has some of the most fun and imaginative playgrounds in the country. There are fields of nets to climb across and terra cotta dragons to climb. My favorite playgrounds here, however, have an otherworldly look about them. One looks like a cloud, while the other virtually becomes one. Located near the northwest corner of Showa Kinen Park, the Sea of Clouds play area resembles oversized milk bubbles. These wobbly white hills are inflatable and act like bulbous trampolines. Not far from here is a separate field covered with mounds of earth that are similar in shape to Aztec pyramids. Several times a day, hoses spray mist over these hills giving it a mysterious look of its own.
Kodomo no Kuni Park near Nagatsuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, (www.kodomonokuni.org) is a large area that, like Showa Kinen Park, is best traversed on bicycle rentals. It’s also the only amusement park-like attraction that I’m mentioning here. There are many more that could make the list, but what is great about Kodomo no Kuni Park is the abundance of (and reliance on) old-school playground fun. There are bouncy inflatables and a river/splash area to cool off. Our favorite aspect of the park is a long roller slide. Either sit or squat on a small plastic sled and coast down the metal slide atop thousands of tiny colorful rollers, which depict pixelated images of beetles and rainbows.
Moving further west to Minamiashigara, Kanagawa Prefecture, we arrive at the newest playground to make this list: Parcabout (parcabout.jp, Japanese only). A series of nets, ropeways and trampolines, Parcabout looks like what would happen if Ewoks built a jungle gym. The multicolored ropeways are suspended up to nine meters above ground and it’s all set within a forest. Parents are welcome to join their kids here, too. Just make sure everyone brings proper footwear, because sandals and flip-flops are not allowed. Less than a 10-minute walk from Parcabout is the Only You onsen (hot springs). After a day in the trees, an hour in the tubs could be just what the doctor ordered.
The last recommendation on this list isn’t technically a playground, but it is as good as one, and even looks like one.
The Hakone Open Air Museum (www.hakone-oam.or.jp) is a fantastic place to visit with kids. It’s photogenic, and many of the artworks on display within these lush green lawns are meant for touching and climbing. There are Picasso statues, lovely walking paths and jaw-dropping installations that were designed to be explored by little ones.
We especially love Peter Jon Pearce’s massive geometric climbing frame (often called “The Soap Bubble Castle,” as well as Gabriel Loire’s “Symphonic Sculpture,” which feels like walking into the heart of a kaleidoscope. And then of course there is Toshiko Horiuchi Macadam and Tezuka Architects’ “Woods of Net,” which is similar to the Parcabout idea but more aesthetically stunning. Just look under the “Kids & Family” page of The Hakone Open Air Museum official website to find out more.