Indoor play spaces for young kids in a sweltering Japanese summer

Japan in the summer is hot, hot, hot.

Visiting Japan in the summer with kids is still hot, hot, hot.

What to do?

Head inside!

semi in the heat of a Japanese summer

Except if you’re semi. (cicada, Kumamoto)

Indoor Playgrounds

Indoors playgrounds come and go. Our favorite near our family’s place closed within months of our last visit. And this one was wild! Almost empty every time, it had a ball shooter, extensive caged “soft play” area (Peppa Pig’s version is remarkably similar), mini trampolines, padded slides, a playhouse area, arcade games and rides, an eating area and the ubiquitous massage chairs for weary caregivers.

Despite this one closing (and many more closed temporarily these days), keep searching as these places are worth their weight in relieved sighs and a brief (or several hours long) escape from the heat.

Some playgrounds have single-use options and others have memberships. For a small fee, you get a membership card ranging from simple paper to fancy plastic and sometimes some sort of bonus (aka sabisu).

Some are even free! Check out city halls and ward offices to see if they have a play space for kids. You’ll probably have to remove your shoes, park your stroller and sign in using a complicated form but don’t let all the Kanji deter you. The helpful older ladies in aprons will guide you through and then your little silly billys can run wild through tube slides, ball pits and, for the younger ones, bordered spaces with battered toy shinkansen (aka bullet trains) and well hugged Anpanman.

Where to find these places? Check out spaces near grocery stores and inside electronics stores and department stores. We returned to Yamada Denki in Ikebukuro, Tokyo countless times for our oldest to turn into a monkey and clamber over, under and around padded machines that rotated, spun and wiggled for endless shrieks. Our youngest was content with the little play pit outside the gated space. The noise was intense next to the indoor arcade and hundreds of toy vending machines but we didn’t care. The toilet was nearby for diaper excitement and we could collapse on the chairs until our oldest’s hair was plastered to her face and cheeks lobster-red before retreating a floor or two down to be jiggled and jostled in more massage chairs.

What happens if you don’t speak Japanese? Bumble your way through the best you can. Things will happen eventually and trust me, you’ll be immediately told otherwise if you do the wrong thing.

bullet train at station

Toy or real, these trains are always a hit! (JR West Shinkansen/bullet train)

Tokyo Toy Museum

The Tokyo Toy Museum in Shinjuku is a phenomenal place to visit again and again. The theme is wood and I felt like I’d escaped into a pleasant, brown wonderworld.

It’s a little challenging to find when your brain has melted and it feel like it’s a 3 hour hike from the nearest train station. (It’s really only about ten minutes.) In this soppy state, you need to take care on the narrow side street with genki (high energy!) children who seem to be impervious to the heat. But suddenly, those school gates appear on your right and you quicken your pace just a little, if that’s even possible in a humidity soaked +37C.

You dream of air conditioning and a lovely break inside a serene space, only to glide inside to the same heat as out but you smile anyway, plunk your change in the vending machine for a cool drink, store your extra bags (’cause children always require three times their weight in luggage, even if leaving home for only 10 minutes) in the free lockers and head up the stairs to the heaven that awaits you.

The toy museum has several floors with different zones suited for different ages. The basement is for the wee ones and there is a breastfeeding space. While times are changing, when I returned to Japan with our first, I nearly caused several heart attacks when I breastfed at a friend’s house during a gathering. The second time with another baby in tow, I did things the Japanese way and retreated to the breastfeeding rooms to hang out in peace. (And frankly, by the second kid I didn’t care and when I had to peel off a sweaty layer or two, I was thankful for a little cubicle.)

The upper floors had several rooms that we never got to, a space to make leader-led crafts, and a fantastical room with a wooden ball pit, wooden games and a two-story tree house! There was a little bit of air conditioning once inside but bring those sweat towels, don’t forget socks and stay hydrated.

The toy museum is in an old school that is also a community centre. Each time we went, we saw something new as we parked the stroller outside the entrance… a kendo practice, a series of short plays being rehearsed by high school students and a dance class.

In cooler days, there is an outdoor playground with water taps and raised mini hills. A child’s paradise? Yes, but it was empty for a reason.

small branch pushing out from fresh snow

Ah, to be enveloped in a snow blanket just like this little branch right now…

Public Libraries

Husband and I love to walk everywhere, especially when on vacation and especially in Japan.

Let’s recap. Are we in Japan? Check! Is it a steamy and getting-to-be an unbearably hot July/August morning? Check! Do we have not one but two children tagging along? Check! Is one in a stroller and the other one wishing to be in that stroller? Check! Did we plan to play outside (refer back to weather report) en route to the Tokyo Tower? Check!

Why are we the only ones in the park? (Adult brains already goo as no sane resident would be out playing right now.)

Despite jelly-brains, both adults make the wise decision to escape to Minato Library right beside Shiba Park to get up our energy to continue our slog to the Tokyo Tower. (Both of us neglected to remember that the tower was built on a substantial hill.)

Minato library was a delightful spot to get a drink of water, use a toilet, and breastfeed in a lovely spot with a fan. The kids rolled around in the play space and we even found some of our favorite English books to read.

When you too are melting faster than in ice cube in an oven, don’t be afraid to check out the local library.

books, books wonderful books!

Outside Tokyo Spots

Shonandai Children’s Museum in Fuijsawa

Fujisawa City is in Kanagawa Prefecture past Yokohama. It is about one hour from Tokyo. We drove to the museum and parked in the cheap lot under the museum but the facility is easily accessible by public transportation.

The complex was super loud, super fun and super strict. We spent most of our time in the Children’s Hall.

The basement had more exhibits than could be counted and everything was interactive. We braved the cacophony with not one, not two but four children, and despite leaving hearing impaired, it was a fantastic way to spend an afternoon. Our youngest happily pounded on a drum from a far off land while hollering “Dai! Dai! Dai!” while our oldest scrambled up the mini boulder staircase to fling herself down the semi-tube slide again and again while kind of avoiding other children doing the same.

The strict part comes from their rules. I attempted to be oblivious and casually snuck a sip of water from a water bottle stuffed low in our stroller off to the side in the stroller parking zone. Within seconds, a staff member swooped down to deliver a stern reprimand and hastily guide me to a taped out spot on the floor just outside the paying entrance and around back of the elevator where I could finish swallowing.

A grocery store down the street was a convenient place to get snacks and enough for meals before and after our visit. The kids also had a great time throwing themselves around the concrete structures outside the entrance.

water bottle collection

Follow the rules!

Science Museum in Utsunomiya

Utsunomiya City is considered, depending on the year, the gyoza capital of Japan. It is in Tochigi Prefecture about two hours from Tokyo. We drove here and parked in the huge and very cheap lot but public transportation is available.

The Science Museum is unbelievably inexpensive. Inside, there is a maze of exhibits that are completely interactive. It didn’t matter that some exhibits weren’t working and others were comically dated. This all added to the fun! It was like going back in time to the science museums of my childhood and I couldn’t have been happier.

There is a planetarium and even if you speak no Japanese, it can still be fun to lay back in the very well used chairs and stare at the reproduced sky.

The cafe has the classic Japanese cafeteria/comfort food and is spacious and, no big surprise, cheap!

Even though it was ridiculously hot, we still strolled over to the outdoor playground for a few runs down the blazing metal roller slide. I’ve tried out a few of these around Japan and they are giggle-inducing fun. It looks like a slide but the edges are higher, the “slide” is longer and instead of a single piece of metal or plastic, the slide part consists of hundreds of metal tubes laid side by side that spin when you go over top of them to propel you down.

dragon roller slide, Iwaki

dragon roller slide, Iwaki

Any more ideas?

Convenience stores are too small with kids so try shopping areas, department stores, and grocery stores for mini escapes.

We discovered play spaces beside food courts and in a large shopping complex outside Tokyo, we stumbled across a huge indoor play space. There was a mini go-cart track, a huge sand pit with a cross between kinetic sand and sand that didn’t stick to your hands, a climbing zone and arcade games.

Have fun, try to stay sane with your offspring, and check out these other tips on surviving the heat in Japan.

Sweatiquette! Part 1: six ways to deal with sweat during a Japanese summer

Sweatiquette! Part 2: arm guards to onsen, 8 more ways to survive Japan’s steamy summer

Sweatiquette! Part 3: for when “my sweat is sweating”

10 tips for running (slogging?) in sticky heat far from home

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