Take a trip to Yokohama Doll Museum. // © 2018 Getty Images
Feature image (above): Yokohama’s Minato Mirai waterfront district // © 2018 Getty Images
There’s something for every kid (and kid at heart) in Tokyo, from Hello Kitty and Sonic the Hedgehog to anime and robots. However, sensory stimulation and crowds may prove to be a bit much for some kids, as well as for parents who want their vacation to include family time in the truest sense. Luckily, a wonderful alternative exists: Yokohama, which is less than an hour by train from central Tokyo — and a world apart.
At first glance, Yokohama has a futuristic look to it, with an expanse of dramatic skyscrapers, sleek shopping malls and public art. Walk a few blocks, however, and it’s hard to believe that it could be Japan’s second-largest city. Even in busy neighborhoods — such as Chinatown (the largest in Asia outside mainland China) and the posh but genuinely welcoming Motomachi Shopping Street — clients are less likely to encounter the crush of humanity found in Tokyo. This alone is an excellent selling point for parents traveling with younger children who have a tendency to wander.
Toys and Treats
Many of Yokohama’s family-friendly attractions are delightful throwbacks to a simpler time, when kids did not require electronics to have their curiosity and imagination stimulated. Cup Noodles Museum allows children to design their own ramen and cup packaging, and it provides details on how the food became a global phenomenon.
Yokohama Doll Museum, meanwhile, not only reveals that there was life before Hello Kitty, but also presents Yokohama’s maritime history through doll displays on one floor, and the global appeal of baby and fashion dolls through the 20th century on the other floors.
Hara Model Railway Museum, on the site where Japan’s rail system launched, contains a prolific collection of model trains, as well as various artifacts covering modern industrial history around the globe. Even more amazing is that the technology put into real trains — including gears, leaf springs, bearings, swing bolsters and brakes — are used in the scale models.
Heading outdoors, visitors can board former military training ship Nippon Maru and ocean liner Hikawa Maru, known for its Yokohama to Seattle route before World War II. Both crafts now serve as floating museums that tell the story of Yokohama’s maritime roots. Guided tours onboard Hikawa Maru, which features restored original 1930s decor, include stops at various passenger cabins, public areas, crew quarters and operations rooms. There are also fun bits of trivia shared along the way, including Charlie Chaplin’s shipboard romance with tempura and a rumor that he hired the vessel’s chef to teach his culinary staff to reproduce the crunchy treat.
On the Midway
Osanbashi Pier is an ideal place for families to spend a lazy Sunday during the warmer months. The pier, which dates back to 1894, was reopened in 2002 as a passenger terminal. However, it is also the site for a weekly farmers market that showcases local vendors proffering everything from produce and home-grown snack foods to craft beer, sake and food-truck fare.
Other waterfront attractions include Yokohama Cosmoworld (home to the city’s iconic Ferris wheel) and Anpanman Children’s Museum. Both ooze with cute Japanese characters and fun rides without the Tokyo Disney price tag or stress.
Yokohama Zoo Zoorasia, opened in 1999, puts a modern twist on the zoo experience. Operating under the themes of “Symbiosis of Life” and “Harmony with Nature,” animals live in thoughtfully landscaped, ecologically themed areas (Asian Tropical Forest, Subarctic Forest, Oceanian Grassland, Central Asian Highland, Japanese Countryside, Amazon Jungle, African Savanna and African Tropical Rainforest).
The layout of the grounds makes the experience feel more like a safari hike than a zoo.
A Different “Tomorrowland”
The science and technology that makes Japan so appealing to kids lives and breathes in Mitsubishi Minatomirai Industrial Museum. Several elaborate but well-organized rooms cover aerospace, ocean biology, transportation innovation and alternative energy and their impact on daily life. Special sections tailored for the youngest visitors include the Kid’s Ground and Hands-on-Corner. However, the only-in-Japan standout is the Tomorrow Screen, a digital interactive installation that transforms one’s shadow into a futuristic vehicle, effectively making anyone a “Transformer.”