Play your heart out,Tokyo

By on June 8, 2015
When it comes to Japanese playgrounds, we’ve observed two extremes since moving here from the U.S. last summer. Kids are either given a dusty, paved, empty lot with a piece or two of vintage metal equipment in their neighborhood or they are welcomed into an elaborate wonderland filled with whimsical, challenging or playful structures.
I love it.
More to the point: My five-year-old son loves it.

He probably loves the latter, elaborate kind more, but he is a kid. Give him a stick and a field and he’s going to have a good time. It’s me that’s surprised to see simple playgrounds here that harken back to my own childhood of burnt thighs, thanks to the incandescent heat a metal slide achieves in direct sunlight. Stateside, it’s been years since I’ve seen a steel merry-go-round, anywhere, or a jungle gym rising above something other than a very rubbery, soft surface.

We had some good playgrounds back in Ohio. The community we lived in valued children and their need to play, judging by the dozen or so parks we had within a 15-minute drive of our suburban home. I can’t – and won’t – complain. But… the playgrounds we’ve enjoyed in Tokyo, whether they are fancy or simple, all seem to share a common element missing in so many playgrounds back in the U.S.

Danger.

Or should I say Derring Do? That’s an old, archaic term that means acting bravely. I think it’s the perfect attitude for little growing people. I want my kid to have fun when I take him to the playground. I want him to use his imagination. But I also want him to stretch himself, to try new things and to face – and conquer – his fears. To do that, he needs to take risks. A good playground, the best playgrounds, help him to do that.

NR Park 2

Noyama Kita-Roudouyama Park

A few weeks ago, we tried out Noyamakita-Roudouyama Park in Musashimurayama, Tokyo. A friend had mentioned it featured a giant slide that meanders down a wooded hillside, but that was just the start. The “playground” is really a series of obstacle courses in the woods for the 10-and-under set. My kid threw himself into climbing nets that led to treehouses that led to ladders that led to climbing walls. I hoisted him up onto a zip line and he beamed as he careened down a hill. On a walkway of swinging logs, he wasn’t smiling as he crossed – he was too busy chewing on his lower lip – but I loved how determined he looked. He earned his high five on the far end.

He didn’t manage everything on the first try. Shortly after we arrived, he had to request a rescue from one of the high nets. On our way out of the park, he scampered over to give it another try. He lost his footing several times, but he kept trying, and he did make it eventually to the platform at the top. My heart raced a little for him but he was fine.

We’re lucky enough to also live near Showa Kinen Park in Tachikawa, Tokyo. The park – a converted former military air base — is now a child’s paradise. There are a couple of great playgrounds there that are roughly equivalent to the larger play structures I’ve seen in the States. But there’s so much more. How about giant marshmallow-like hills for hundreds of shoeless kids to bounce on at once? The fuwa-fuwa domes are canvas mounds buoyed by air. Run! Jump! Leap! Flip! It’s all good! The hardest part about this soft play area is attempting to drag my kid away from it so he can go play on the dragons.

ShowaKinenDragon

Showa Kinen Park

We definitely didn’t have dragons in Ohio. But Japan does. Showa Kinen has a special area featuring stone, mosaic-covered dragons whose mouths are large enough to swallow a gaggle of kids. When he’s done hiding behind their teeth or leaping from their backs, he can walk to another part of the park to haul himself up into an extensive nest of hammock-like nets. Or he can go climb and jump in a gully filled with giant boulders. Or trek up a pyramid that looks like it should be in an Aztec jungle.

We’re just getting started in our exploration of the parks here. I know there are many more amazing ones for us to try out. I’m glad we get to live in Tokyo for some of my son’s best playground-playing years. It bothers me that the U.S. has become so obsessed with children’s safety in the last few decades. America’s ultra-safe, uber-designed, risk-averse playgrounds are just one manifestation of that attitude. No one wants their kid to end up in the emergency room, but sometimes the best way to learn how to be safe is to practice. Swing on a rope. Fall off a merry-go-round. Shed a few tears. Climb a tree. Reach that top platform. Roar with all of your might. By playing, we learn how to live.

About Susan Dalzell

Susan Dalzell is an American freelance journalist living in Tokyo. Follow her Japanese adventures on Twitter, @susandalzell, or on her blog: susandalzell.wordpress.com.