By Maren Pauli
In Japan, families are just as likely to spend the day at the mall as they are to go to a park. Japanese shopping malls are worth the side-trip while traveling in Japan, especially on days when it is too hot, too cold, or too wet to be outside.
The biggest mall in Kita-Kanto, Bell Mall, is in Utsunomiya City, Tochigi Prefecture. How about a bath, massage, dinner and a movie at the mall? At Bell Mall, find Bell Sakura bath house (8 AM – midnight), Bell Fitness, Toho Cinema, and eateries to suit every taste (Subway, Mr. Donut, Japanese and western fast food and slow food).
Look out for deals at Toho Cinemas - you can see a movie for just Y1000 on the 14th day of each month for example, or if you are with somebody older than 50. For parents who want to enjoy a movie, there is a daycare in the mall, Land Creche. Once a month or so, Toho offers Mother’s Club Theatre (for dads too) where babies and young children are specially accommodated for.
Bell Mall has all the bells and whistles. Bells, lots of them, inside and out, play a tune every hour. Whistles, literally and figuratively. The mall also has alpacas. Yes, large, wooly South American animals are kept at the mall, in an enclosure outside – for viewing only, not for sale.
Near the alpacas is a free water park for little kids, thoughtfully set up so in the afternoon, the building shades it. Water sprays up randomly from a number of underground spouts onto a tiled area surrounded by benches where dry towels and a change of clothing can be kept. If you come between 10 and 12, you may find some shade under a tree. This is one of the only public places I know of in the area where little kids ages 1-7 can frolic in water. Find a nice playground almost across the street from the water area. The bus stop and taxi stand are adjacent to the water park area.
It it is not unusual to come across a live show of some sort under the indoor bells at Carillon Plaza: hula dancing, piano recital, choir, you name it. Check Bell Mall’s “Event News” on their homepage. Like music? Bell Mall has an HMV. Other big shops include Sports Depo, Golf 5, Ita Yoka Do Supermarket, and Department Store. Foreigners may delight in Kaldi Coffee Farm, which often serves free coffee samples, and where you can find international foods, and Village Vanguard which has many weird and wacky products.
Nursing mothers and parents with diaper-clad infants will appreciate the large, clean, well-appointed baby rooms. At Bell Mall, this space can be found on the second floor adjacent to the baby/maternity wear department of Ito Yoka Do. In the same area, find a padded colorful zone for infants and toddlers to be let loose with various shaped cushions to play with, surrounded by benches for tired parents to rest.
I have seen these kind of facilities in many shopping plazas in Japan, but never in my home country, Canada. In addition, all the regular washrooms in the mall also have change tables and seats in the toilet stall area for infants.
A kid-sized train, “Bell Kun,” runs through the mall, starting in front of Game Taito Station on the 2nd floor. A ride around the mall on this miniature train costs Y300. My youngster is just as happy to ride in one of the many Disney/Kitty/Anpanman-themed grocery carts, requiring a Y100 coin deposit. Speaking of Y100, don’t miss Daiso, the Y100 shop.
For older children, Bell Mall has an awesome play area on the second floor in Game Taito Station. Follow the noise, look for plastic tunnels, nets and a ball pool. You need to enter with your child. Your entry time will be noted and you will get a tag to wear around your neck from the reception desk. Thirty minutes in this area will set you back Y315; every additional 10 minutes costs Y105. The kids playroom includes kids’ shops, fully-appointed play kitchen, toy trains, internet, lockers, ball pool attached to a slide and a maze of nets and plastic tunnels (for kids less than 120 cm tall) and sticky sand play area (I recommend bringing an apron for that!)
I would say the difference between Japanese malls and those in other countries I have been to are the number of family-friendly facilities and families you will see; at Bell Mall it is usual to see whole families walking around together in the mall, especially on weekends.
Bell Mall opens daily at 10 AM. Mall shops close at 9 PM . Restaurants and Ito Yoku Do Department Store/Supermarket stays open til 10 PM daily. Make a day of it!
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