Japan has a love affair with playgrounds.
Playground equipment scattered throughout Japan seems to date from the 80’s to the modern era and delights millions of children every year. I get a nostalgic rush with many of the playgrounds I’ve encountered around Japan. Seeing my kids exploring and playing on these classics is both exciting and nerve racking. The prolific use of concrete and steel does nothing to set a parent’s mind at ease, but children find creative ways of hurting themselves no matter the environment. Just give them some pillows and a bedroom and I’m sure they’ll end up with bruises. Heck, one of my sons needed five stitches after banging his eye into a piece of equipment shaped like a cloud. There were no sharp edges.
My limited view of the United States these days is that everything is becoming more padded and protected. Perhaps lawsuits are to blame, maybe plastic just is naturally rounder. While I see the same trend here, it’s slower. Thankfully, the older play gyms of Japan have not yet met their end. Assuming there aren’t rusty nails or boards missing, I often stumble upon equipment that looks like it was built decades ago.
The playgrounds in Japan have unique ways of challenging your kids and here are a few of my favorite types of attractions to be found at Japanese parks that should give your kids some fun.
There are all kinds of concrete contraptions in Japan, from random walls just sticking out of the ground to a valley filled with dragons. It could be a pit in the ground that doubles as a slide and ant lion trap or a spiraling slide shaped like a conch shell. The best is when some park designer has had gotten to flex their artistic muscle and produce the masterpieces you find in a place like Showakinen Koen in Tokyo called the valley of the dragons. 国営昭和記念公園公式(showakinen-koen.jp) There are some great pictures and writeups out there on these concrete wonders – Photos of Japanese Playground Equipment at Night by Kito Fujio (spoon-tamago.com) as well as Japanese Playgrounds at Night (hyperallergic.com).
I’ve seen them covered and weaving their way down the natural incline of a mountain, you just have to hop in and hope you aren’t sliding your life away. There is a three-story corkscrew which is a bitch if your kid freaks out about halfway down. There are also the aforementioned funnels or antlion traps which are great at bringing a bunch of children at high velocities towards each other. The Wanpaku area of Mikamo Park in Tochigi わんぱく広場 | みかも山公園 (park-tochigi.com) has these delightful features. Then there are two-story-high concrete chutes at parks like Asukayama in Tokyo. As a bonus, you can watch the north-bound Shinkansens flying by at Asukayama Koen – 飛鳥山公園｜東京都北区 (city.kita.tokyo.jp).
If you like speed and living a bit on the edge, then these throwback slides are definitely for you.
Metallic climbing gyms and cargo nets
The typical steel jungle gym you grew up with that looks like a bunch of boxes stacked on top of each is still quite prominent in Japan. When you get to a good park, however, it is always taken to the next level. We aren’t talking about monkey bars with a few ups and downs. These are organic-looking structures that surround the child with a tubular shape that twists and turns with the landscape. Usually, the weave is tight enough that you don’t need to worry about falling through, usually. Whether the kids are climbing sideways, upside down, or just putting one foot in front of the other, they’ll be significantly challenged. Check out Kodomo no Kuni in Kofu, Yamanashi for a great example of this. 山梨県立愛宕山こどもの国・少年自然の家 (yya.or.jp)
The other popular variety of climbing apparatus is cargo nets. At THE HAKONE OPEN-AIR MUSEUM (hakone-oam.or.jp) they have an impressive multi-story structure that kids wiggle into and then climb, hop, and run around in. Getting adults into the thing is quite a challenge, so the kids are pretty much on their own. At the Mikamo park in Tochigi there is a giant sphere made up of cargo nets that you make your way into through cargo net tunnels and then do whatever you do inside a sphere of cargo nets. Try to take a quick power nap in my case.
The fuwa-fuwa dome seems to be a staple in larger parks. Fuwa-fuwa is an onomatopoeia that is used to describe something fluffy and springy like a marshmallow or balloon. Think bouncy castles where the air creates a cushion jump around on and then shape them like amoebas. These blobulous domes are a huge hit and found in places like Showakinen Koen and Koganekoen in Tokyo 小金井公園 (tokyo-park.or.jp). The former has the largest fuwa-fuwa dome I’ve seen to date – with 3 located within close proximity of each other.
You’ll find an amazing assortment of playgrounds throughout Japan. It’s good to keep a few keywords in mind to help pick the winners. Look for “wanpaku” or “kodomo no …” The creators of these parks have often gone at lengths to find ways to create challenging and fun adventures for children. If you’re lucky, they might just take you along for the ride.