You might not have known it, but Japan is a country with five seasons: Summer, fall, winter, spring, and the rainy season. And when it rains during the rainy season, from beginning of June to the beginning of July, it literally pours. You might easily believe you are in Bangkok in the middle of monsoon season. Except that it is a little cooler than Bangkok.
When the rainy season ends, summer starts and with it the typhoon season. A typhoon is a storm that is strengthened by the earths rotation as it builds up over a shallow baisin of water. In the Eastern hemisphere (actually northeastern quadrant) they are known as typhoons, which is the anglification of the Japanese taifun. In America they are known as hurricanes, but they are the same thing. Strong winds combine with rain brought by the mixing of cold Northern air with moist, hot Southern air. The rain is actually worse in the outer bands of the typhoon, so the center does not have to pass overhead for the rain to pour down.
And of course, it rains other times of year too. The longest dry spells are in fall and spring, but it is a rare two weeks that see no rain at all in Tokyo.
So it is raining. No going to the park, no walks in the stroller. The ground is wet and even with a raincover your babies get all sweaty and wet. What can you do?
Luckily, Tokyo has underground shopping malls galore. And in many cases, the walk to the nearest museum is very short. Even if it is not possible to get out of the rain entirely, you can minimize the distance in the rain.
1. Tokyo Station Character Street
Tokyo Station is not the biggest station in Tokyo - that honor goes to Shinjuku, which sees more people pass through than the population of Norway.
But Tokyo Station has been extensively remodelled in the last few years, and that remodelling extends not just above the ground, but several levels below the ground. The former boring passage between the Maronouch and Yaesu sides have been turned into a multilevel shopping mall, with restaurants, shops, and speciality stores.
And while the shopping mall itself may not be particularly interesting, there are two streets that are more interesting for foreign tourists on rainy days than anything else. They are the Character Street and Ramen streets. And there is also a Snack Street.
The Character Street is full of shops themed with Japanese anime characters, mascots, and other dolls, figures, and chomic characters that represent a business. But you will not just find Little Rascal, Heidi, Ultraman and similar Japanese characters here. There is a Lego shop too.
The Snack Street is full if stores selling snacks made by Japanese companies like cows-to-candy dairy giant Meiji, and potato chip maker Calbee. Freshly made potato chips is not a bad idea, actually.
2. Tokyo Station Itself
Tokyo Station was originally built in 1914, more than 40 years after the railway first came to Japan. For many years, trains from the south terminated at Shimbashi station (the original station building is now a restaurant), and trains from the north terminated at Ueno. The station quickly became a symbol for the continued modernization of Japan, with two of the four platforms dedicated to electric trains. It was also the official gateway to Japan, opening as it did directly into the Imperial gardens.
Different from the Imperial Palace, however, it suffered horribly from the firebombings during the second world war. For the American military, it was a strategic target. It was quickly rebuilt but the rebuilt version was a quick fix. Fire damage and heavy wear did not help as the station continued to grow to the sides and downwards, as trains were put in tunnels during the remarkable expansion of the Japanese economy, from a bombed-out shell after WW II to the second biggest economy in the world.
Tokyo Station today continues to be rebuilt as it serves millions of travelers every day. You often see areas shuttered off or behind heavy plastic sheeting - that means new stores, elevators, or even train tracks may be coming.
But the most impressive thing is the renovated station building. The original domes are back, the old bricks are polished, and the building is literally beautiful. It has an art gallery and there are regular exhibitions of the art from the latest anime films. And you do not need a train ticket to see most of it, either.
3. Mitsukoshi Nihonbashi
Few businesses can claim both to use the same 400 year old business model and be so iconic that they have given their names to thei subway stations, but Mitsukoshi in Nihonbashi is one. And on top of it, the business has been in roughly the same place during its entire existence.
The department store was invented in Japan in the 17th century, and again in England and separately in the US in the 19th. Mitsukoshi was actually founded in 1673. When the modern world invaded Japan, the Japanese were familiar with the department store idea - so they built one with all the modern trappings. Mitsukoshi had it all: Elevators, flushing toilets, an organ in the central staircase.
Now, almost 200 years later, the organ is still there, and there is a concert every Sunday. The elevators have been modernized, although they still have elevator attendants. Your kids will appreciate the childrens menu at the family restaurant on the fifth floor in the annex building. It is the only place we have come across so far that allows you to eat from a choo-choo train while it is actually puffing (thanks to creatively applied dry ice).
The driverless Yurikamome train that runs through the futuristic Odaiba neighborhood is not only convenient, it is also conveniently accessible from the Shimbashi railway station at one end, and the Toyosu subway station at the other. You can manage without getting wet (although at the Toyosu end you may be challenged by getting into the elevator).
That there is no driver (the train is entirely run by computers) means you have an uninterrupted view both backwards and forwards. Since there are several cars, your kids will become massively impopular if they try to run back and forth comparing the view. Better to stick them in the front, since that is the most exciting direction anyway.
The Yurikamome runs past the Shiodome highrise area and then makes a turn, scaling the Rainbow Bridge in a series of impressive loops, and then goes through the futuristic buildings and shopping centers of Odaiba. This area is actually landfill, although it was built up by connecting several smaller islands, one of which contained a fort during the feudal times that was supposed to defend Tokyo from foreign ships, like the black ships of admiral Perry. It was never used - the government realized how seriously undergunned they were long before they could start thinking about firing. But it is still there, and on a day when it does not rain, it is a great walk with the stroller.
Today, Odaiba has residential and office blocks, as well as several huge shopping malls. You can not see it from the train, but the life-sized replica of the Gundam fighting robot sits next to the Diver City shopping center, which has made the restaurants in that part of the complex unproportionally popular. But since it is raining, you are probably not in the mood to ride Ferris wheels or enjoy the beer park, but will continue on past the Toyosu fish market, which is intended to replace the Tsukiji fish market (famous for the tuna auctions) as soon as it has been sanitized. There has been several scandals regarding the buildings, which were constructed during the previous governement of Tokyo.
5. Tokyo City Office Towers
Tokyo does not have a traditional city government; it is a province as well as a city, and it is directly ruled by the governor. Other cities around Japan have a mayor and a city assembly, and then there is the province assembly and the governor, which report to the national government. But not in Tokyo. All governors are directly elected (different from the prime minister, who is appointed based on parlimentary majority). Why is this important? Because if you take the moving walkway from Shinjuku station under the skyskrapers to the Tokyo city government buildings, you will be going to the office of the governor as well as the city assembly. The Japanese government is not given to huge demonstrations of its own self-worth (local administration offices around Japan are probably the most unassuming you can find), but the Tokyo government buildings are an exception. They were build to showcase the importance of Tokyo as a capital city.
That is important to you because inside the cavernous entrance hall, there are two elevators which will take you all the way to the top of either of the two towers that characterize the Tokyo government buildings. The elevator, and the observation platform on top,, are both free. There is a cafe in the south tower, and there is a returant with a bar in the north.
6. Mori Tower Observatory in Roppongi Hills
The Roppongi Hills complex turned what was a rather seedy neighborhood into a posh destination. The office tower, built on land which formerly housed the Swedish embassy, is the Most prestigeous office address in Tokyo, housing the Japanese offices of companies like Google and Nokia.
But the Mori group also believes in giving back to the public, and from the spider sculpture straddling the entrance (sure to scare your children) to the changing exhibitions in the top two floors of the tower which house the Mori art museum. It is not particularly child-friendly but the views are amazing - looking down at Tokyo Tower and spotting the planes taking off and landing at Haneda Airport will keep them busy for a couple of hours, and there is no lack of lunch and dining options in the shopping center at the bottom of the tower when you get tired of the view. Or the art.
The Shiodome area was built on the old railway tracks (the old station house is now a restaurant), so there was space to build big buildings. And build big buildings they did. The area rivals the Shinjuku highrise area for tall skyscrapers, but here the buildings are either offices, hotels, or entertainment complexes. Several of them have restaurants on the top floors, but if you want to pay for the view you are welcome. Have lunch in the basement restaurants close to the station.
The most amazing sight in Shiodome is not a building, but the walking castle clock at the Nippon Television building. Your toddlers will love it, regardless of whether they have seen the film or not (it is more than a little scary in parts).
Based on the Hayao Miyazaki animated Studio Ghibli film Howls Magic Castle, the clock is a miracle of electronics and mechanics. Try to get there at 12 noon, but beware: The clock is not easy to view from anywhere under a roof.
These are seven attractions you can reach almost dry, or even completely dry if you are staying in a hotel which has an exit into the vast underground malls that crisscross the major station areas - and that connect to the subway and train stations through their underground exits.
I am Wisterian Watertree, recently moved from Bangkok to Tokyo, with a brief visit to Honolulu on the way. I write about travel, especially with our three beautiful kids (two girls and one boy, soon turning six - yes. they are triplets). Travel is education and fun rolled into one, and if you are like me, that is something you want to give to your kids. If you want more tips and want to find out when I will publish something, get it from my email list. If you want to be personal, drop me a note on email@example.com, or if you want general tips, follow me on Twitter @wisterianw.