Parenting

An Ant in Tokyo: Playgrounds aplenty

It’s nearly a month now since Kawaii, The Diplomat and I arrived in Tokyo, and so far the experience has been a sensory explosion – the hearty aroma of deep-fried tempura, the soothing five-o’clock chimes that remind us of the prospect of a cataclysmic natural disaster and the garish neon that makes even the classiest restaurant feel like a greasy diner.

I’m spending a large part of each day out at about with Kawaii exploring a different neighbourhood. In spite of – or perhaps because of – Japan’s very low fertility rate, Tokyo is a remarkably kid-friendly city. It is easy to get most places with a pram, although peak-hour trains and buses are best avoided unless you’re keen to get up-close and personal with a salaryman’s armpit.

The abundance of public parks, with lots of kid-friendly equipment, make it easy to wander around confident in the knowledge that there will be somewhere fun to play. Because of the high density of apartments in Tokyo, kids often don’t have much room to play at home, so communal outdoor spaces are pretty much essential. The lack of alternate open space means the playgrounds are also where office workers go with their lunch, or smokers loiter with a sly dart, or trysting couples plan a visit to a love hotel.

Still, the playgrounds are safe places for kids and prams. We’ll often leave our pram, complete with bags, valuables and vending machine detritus, sitting near a bench while we wander. Out of habit I occasionally glance toward it from elsewhere in the park, but such is the security of Tokyo I’m more likely the find an origami crane deposited on the top than I am have anything go missing. In spite of a lack of rubbish bins, the playgrounds are near spotless – pockets and prams get crammed with the flotsam of the day.

Fun slide
Slide? Check. Swings? Check. Dirt on the ground? Check. No bins? Check. Looks like we’ve got ourselves a Tokyo playground.

Each playground has its own unique design, but a slide and a set of swings is a near-certainty. Oddly, getting up the steps in order to go down the swing is not as easy as it should be. We’ve found sets of steps that are too high, are oddly shaped, feature gaps, are at an odd angle or are too narrow, but barely a set that offer an easy climb up for a new walker. Perhaps it is designed to introduce kids early to the Japanese habit of disciplined self-denial.

Octopus slide
This slide, from Tako Park in Ebisu, is styled on an octopus and offers three ramps down. Unfortunately there’s no easy climb to the apex for a young ‘un, so it is best admired from the side rather than actually used.

Unusually, from an Australian perspective, grass is rarely a feature of the playgrounds. Instead the play equipment is often situated in dirt, meaning kids are adept at dusting themselves off whenever they tumble into it. Given the sunshine and rain that Tokyo receives, it seems that grass would grow well in many playground sites, but alas it remains absent. Even the “sand” pits seem filled with black dirt, which means it can be a bit confronting when a little one starts running their hands through it and putting it through their hair or that of a playmate. That’s one way to toughen them up.

When we visit playgrounds during the day there’s a high probability that there will be other kids there as well. Kawaii is getting the hang of interacting with other kids, taking turns to sit on the swing, head down the slide or complain about the difficult steps. As a gaijin, Kawaii is occasionally an object of curiosity for Japanese kids, but the interaction is always friendly.

Often our playmates at the playgrounds are kids from a local kindergarten or primary school, who come to play as a group, usually donning matching hats or T-shirts in order to stand out from the crowd. It is an impressive show of discipline that kids as young as four can be walked to the playground alongside main road, linked hand in hand, without wandering off or otherwise causing heart palpitations for those nearby.

Day care child mover
Kudos to the teachers who keep their young ones happy and safe. Photo via Facts and Details

Once they get there the kids are usually happy to play on the equipment, but often the kids play games in the open space. One common one is janken (known elsewhere as rock-paper-scissors), a game Japanese kids seem to have turned into a competitive sport. (Basically, the kids line up as two teams in single file facing each other head on, with the front two in combat and the winner of each bout progressing down the line to take on the next challenger. Mesmerising to watch.)

Pick the right park and there can be a few twists (sometimes literally) on the conventional playground setup. The Ajiro public park in Azabu Juban has an enormous slide that is comprised of small rolling cylinders, so the child (or drunken adult) slides down like a box of ramen noodles at the Nissin factory. That same park features a wide slope leading to a sandpit, which is best used by sitting on cardboard or something else to reduce bum-on-cement friction.

Long slide
Sliding down like a box of ramen noodles at the Nissin factory, at Ajiro public park.

Sadly dads are a pretty rare sight at the playgrounds. Beyond the aforementioned kindergarten educators, mostly it is mums taking their charges to the park to burn some energy, and in affluent neighbourhoods it seems it is the nanny doing the duty. While some mums are admirably hands-on, others seem to have fallen into the national (possibly global) obsession of staring at their phones while with their kids, only occasionally raising their head up to ensure their offspring hasn’t gashed their head.

Now that we’ve had a taste of the kid-friendly things to do in Tokyo – parks and beyond – it’s time to get a bit methodical in sharing our experiences. Over coming months (and possibly years) I’m keen to share my reviews of some of the more interesting places for kids to go, so that others can seek them out or avoid them, if that’s how they roll.

So, Tokyo-ites – what is your favourite park?

Parenting

An Ant in Tokyo: Baby on board

It was late in the afternoon when Kawaii finally lost it. She was sobbing inconsolably, struggling to take in the requisite breaths in order to continue her cycle of woe-is-me cries. Neither the offering of a teddy bear nor the whispered singing of AFL club songs was able to stem the tide of tears.

Who could blame her? Here we were, in a van heading from Haneda, the more central of Tokyo’s two airports, to the digs that will be our new home for the next few years. Our day had started 18 hours earlier several seas away, and Kawaii was simply vocalising what The Diplomat and I were feeling.

We were lucky that it was in that small van that fatigue finally got the better of her. After all, our only company in that space was our world-weary driver and a colleague of The Diplomat who had greeted us at the airport. Had she have lost her composure an hour earlier, our company would have been a planeful of well-heeled commuters towards the pointy end of an A350.

As it happens, our flights were about as good as we possibly could have hoped for with an 18-month-old. She was in a good mood, slept a few hours, paged through some books and ate enough to develop a healthy distrust of airline food. By the end she was even asked for selfies by hosties enamoured with her curly locks and cheeky smile.

Before the flight I had asked a few people for advice on long-haul travel with a toddler. Two themes came up repeatedly: make generous use of Phenergan, and queue up plenty of videos.

For some parents those two had clearly worked well, but I wasn’t sure it was right for us. After all, using a sedative for the first time could be a risky move and does seem a little like using a performance-enhancing drug in the Parenting Olympics. And encouraging Kawaii to zone out in front of a screen would take her a step closer to being the screen zombie I fear.

Flying long-haul with a toddler is a test of character: how far are you willing to compromise your parenting principles for the sake of peace and quiet? It is easy to have all sorts of family rules when you’re in the comfort of your own living room and the only people who need to hear the wails of dissent are you. But when you’re fraying with tiredness, stressed by logistical complications and trying to stay nice with a bunch of strangers, it’s tempting to bend the rules.

In the end we held firm against using a sedative, or even making liberal use of the free-flow chardy on board (for any of us). But we did yield a little on screen time.

Desperate for some quiet and sick of looking for that fucking green sheep, I sat Kawaii in my lap and turned on the screen in front of us. I sifted through countless menus until I finally got to the kids section and scrolled through. The options were high-energy cartoons, epilepsy-inducing action and happy-clappy song-and-dance numbers.

But among them were a couple of gems: Wallace & Grommit in The Wrong Trousers and a Bugs Bunny special featuring the usual suspects in all their politically incorrect glory. Gold. If I was going to let my daughter gawk at a screen for an hour, I was going to expose her to the best bits of television of my own childhood.

Being mid-flight adds an extra degree of difficulty to feeding a toddler. Normally we’re pretty adventurous in what we feed Kawaii, knowing that if she doesn’t like what we offer her that she’s got a pretty effective way of letting us know. Then we sponge it out of our hair and move on.

But try that same strategy in the air, and we could find ourselves wearing some unloved morsels for the rest of the journey, or worse still trying to identify a mysterious squelch each time we adjusted our seat. A safety-first (and dignity-first) strategy demanded that we only offered things we knew she’d like. That left us poking and prodding at our tray, debating the merits of each forkful before we offered it up, like heathens offering sacrifices to appease a vengeful god. Dangerous business, that.

Apart from a few tense moments, Kawaii remained the good kid she always is. We made it through the flights intact, then passed through border control and jumped in the van that would take us to our new home. Then she cracked.