It’s 6pm in Shinjuku, Tokyo. As my 16-year old son disappears out of the hotel lobby with his mate Ricki I ask; “where are you going?”
“It doesn’t really matter. Pretty much everything in Tokyo is cool.” So they disappear into the relatively safe night to wander the streets of Shinjuku.
And I guess, as I came here specifically to search out “What’s Cool for Teens in Tokyo”, that means; Mission Accomplished. I can now sit back with my glass of Japanese merlot and relax. No need to search – its everywhere.
Well, clearly (like everywhere) some areas are cooler than others and then of course, there are some standouts.
Shinjuku is a good place to start. Bright lights big city and all that – this is the Tokyo that most people recognize from its moments in Hollywood, the backdrop to Lost in Translation with its bright neon lights and giant video screens.
Below them, there are busy streets lined with shops, karaoke bars, games arcades and a huge range of eateries selling ramen, barbeque and katsu.
Close to the enormous bustling station the laneways are particularly good fun to explore. There you’ll find alleys no wider than corridors filled with bars and barbeque hole-in-the-wall cafes no bigger than a wardrobe.
Across the road, more bright lights and after passing few dodgy pink-curtained joints, you’ll find a restaurant like no other: Robot Restaurant.
Giant fembots greet you at the entrance, dancing along to a loud rock band dressed a bit like Power Rangers. We’re lead inside and taken upstairs to the… shall we call it a lounge?
A room decorated with more colours and patterns then the human eye can register and large over-stuffed chairs with gold leaf trimming.
The walls and ceiling are replaced with large video screens playing strange music videos starring bikini-clad female gladiators, and we’re given a pet robot dinosaur to play with as we wait for the ACTUAL show to begin.
As showtime approaches we head down a psychedelic staircase to the basement level, pick up a bento box and take our seats.
Then we are well and truly bedazzled.
A floor show that starts with platinum blond bikini-clad Taiko drummers, followed by a sequence of stories played out that involve dinosaurs, gladiators, ninjas, robots versus dinosaurs, motorbikes, giant fembots and eventually a shark-riding mermaid who saves the world.
At least I think that’s the gist of the storyline.
The next day we venture out to Tokyo Disney Resort – a Disneyland like no other, where the people-watching is just as much fun as the rides themselves.
It’s Spring Break when we visit, and hordes of kids – and teenagers – have descended on the place, all dressed up in mouse ears and matching costumes. (Disneyland is better for younger kids while the Tokyo teens prefer to hang out at Disney Sea.)
The Japanese love of all things “kawaii” (cute) is evident everywhere you look. Girls in matching Minnie Mouse outfits carry collections of teddy bears, with Disney character popcorn cups slung around their necks.
The park opens at 8am during peak season and stays open until 10pm, and I highly recommend getting here early and making a beeline for the FastPass queue of your choice.
Our next Tokyo highlight involved a very different animation studio to Disney: the Studio Ghibli Museum, in Mitaka.
The stable of animated features created by Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli has long been loved in our household. The incredible storytelling and imagery are both enchanting and mesmerizing.
So it’s no surprise then, that the museum celebrating the life and work of this anime master is equally enchanting.
Housed in a building that a child perhaps dreamt up, with secret passageways, tunnels, bridges, spiral staircases and a rooftop garden is… a collection of well, amazing things.
There are 3D zoetropes featuring Ghibli characters like Totoro, Kiki and the Cat Bus, antique cinema projectors and even stereoscopes. There are working models of some of the crazier robots and flying machines created by Miyazaki, as well as beautiful dioramas made using animation cells.
Upstairs there is even a giant fluffy Cat Bus (My Neighbour Totoro) with dozens of kids clambering all over it and in the rooftop garden, a life size bronze statue of the robot from Laputa Castle in The Sky.
In a word, it is magical.
Tickets are not sold at the door, you’ll need to book them (weeks in advance) online, or if you’re in Tokyo from your nearest Lawson outlet.
Our anime feast continues in Akihabara; Tokyo’s so-called Electric City. The streets here are filled with multi-story amusement arcades that seem to progress upwards from cranes to Taiko drumming and DJ games to more serious online gaming the further up the stairs you venture.
Then there are the biggest comic book stores and that fill in the gaps between gaming arcades and a selection of Manga Cafés where you can rent a booth to read manga, surf the internet or sleep in reclining chairs.
Akihabara is also famous for its Maid Cafes, where you can go and be served by cute Japanese girls dressed in animé style maid costumes who’ll play games with you and entertain you as well as serve you something to eat.
I decided Maid Cafés were something my son could explore without me and we opted for the nearest hole in the wall curry café for lunch.
The final stop in our quest to find all that’s cool for teens in Tokyo is Harajuku.
Sunday is supposed to be the best day to visit this area to see the local teens dressed up and strutting their stuff, but in my experience, it’s pretty busy here most days from around 3-4pm after schools finishes for the day.
Wander down busy Takeshita Street from the station and check the 200 Yen shops, Harajuku/Punk clothes and shoe shops and gorge yourself silly on a crepe with whipped cream.
Good people-watching fun to be had as you make your way through to larger more mainstream retail outlets such as H&M and GAP, and even more fun wondering at shop names like “Store My Duck’s” and “Sex Pot Tokyo”.
Oddly, the most popular café here was called “Eggs n Things” Est. Hawaii 1974. The queue to this place went down the street and around the corner for no explicable reason. We opted for katsu at a place almost hidden from view further down the same lane.
So, there you have it. Most places you go in Tokyo, and indeed Japan, you can’t go wrong with teens. The whole Anime/Manga culture that our kids grew up with is everywhere you look. Even in Disneyland.
Where to Stay.
The Ibis Tokyo Shinjuku is in a fantastic location, being a short walk to Shinjuku Station, short stroll to the hub of gaming arcades and karaoke bars and a stumble out your front door to the nearest great (cheap) places to eat.
Directly downstairs there is a wide range of barbeque and ramen joints, pubs and bars, with plenty of vending machines in between. Reasonably priced rooms, helpful and friendly English-speaking staff and full buffet breakfast.
I flew Cathay Pacific, who I can highly recommend, even at the non-pointy end of the plane. More about that here.