Saturday, 5 October 2013

Jaunting Around Japan (With Kids!)

Have you ever considered Japan as a family holiday destination?  Now I know I'm slightly biased: I've had a love affair with the country since I first visited at the age of 15.  I did a degree in Japanese and am a freelance Japanese translator.  And I lived there for three of the happiest years of my life.  It's also where I met Mr Mum On The Move.

But even if I discredited all of those wonderful facts, I'd still say it shapes up as a brilliant family destination.  Here's a report I wrote on a trip we did a little while back.



"Look, a doll lady!'  This was a phrase we heard a lot from our two-year-old during our four days in Kyoto, as we ambled along the old streets of the famous Gion area, home to Kyoto's mysterious geisha culture.  The nighttime bustle of Ponto-cho's narrow streets, crammed with traditional teahouses and restaurants, provided the perfect contrast to the daytime serenity of Kyoto's world-famous temples and shrines.  Kyoto was the starting point for a ten-day holiday our family of three took in July.

We arrived in Japan at Osaka Airport and then took the relatively straightforward train journey into Kyoto.  Four days was a perfect length of stay for us - just right for fitting in some of the major sites without succumbing to the all-too real phenomenon of 'temple fatigue'.  Alongside traditional Kyoto we found soft play centres, parks and gaudy neon-lit arcades aplenty, ensuring a happy balance for parents and two-year-old alike.  People traveling without children or with older children might be able to uncover more of Kyoto's gems over several days, but we were happy to limit ourselves to the splendours of Kiyomizu Dera, Ginkakuji, Fushimi Inari and Kinkakuji.  For those with children, the aquarium in Osaka is a must-see when you are in the Kyoto region, particularly for the impressive whale sharks.  

Fushimi Inari

We then took a ‘shinkansen’ (bullet train), much to Mister Two's delight and traveled very comfortably up to the small city of Utsunomiya in Tochigi Prefecture.  Few tourists venture here as there is little of particular note but it holds great sentimental value for us as it is where hubby and I met and rented out our first (dingy) little apartment together.  I'll gloss over the rest of our stay in Utsunomiya as to go into any detail would cause me to wax lyrical about the amazing restaurant that serves chocolate dumplings on a bed of rice, the cinema where we watched Godzilla and the exact bit of pavement where said husband crashed the bicycle that was carrying us both home in the snow late one night.  These were all wonderful trips down memory lane for us but going into any more details here would be akin to showing you a very long and tedious holiday album.  

We then took our last train journey and traveled into Yokohama, the metropolis that lies south of Tokyo and an excellent base for Tokyo itself as well as the beautiful historical town of Kamakura.  We were lucky enough to stay with friends who have an apartment on the 32nd floor of a swanky new skyrise.  The view across Tokyo, and on a clear day, as far as Mt Fuji was breathtaking.  We had the very good fortune to be driven around Tokyo by our friends, but once you get the hang of it it's also relatively easy to explore on the amazingly efficient subway system.  Tokyo is far too big to summarise in a short article, but some of the highlights for us include Shibuya, a manic but exciting entertainment area, Harajuku, a centre for the craziest Japanese fashion and in particular the 'cosplay' (costume play) phenomenon (in a nutshell, girls dressed like Little Bo Peep and boys in manga garb), the grand and somewhat more sedate Imperial Palace and Ueno, home to a huge park that houses a zoo, galleries and museums. 

Find an arcade in Tokyo - your toddler will love it!

Perhaps less frequently cited in guidebooks, but well worth the trip in my opinion is the Tokyo Honda Showroom in Aoyama.  I must be honest, for me it's less about the cars and motorbikes and more about Asimo, Honda's humanoid robot who makes regular daily appearances there.  His short performance is impressive stuff, as he dances, runs, high fives and generally shows off on a small stage in the showroom.  He's highly entertaining...and free too.

Visit Asimo at the Honda Showroom 

One final feature to touch on here is the Sky Tree, Tokyo's brand spanking new observation tower.  We didn't have the time (or perhaps energy) to pre-book tickets, but looking at the shiny, er, tree-like structure was entertaining in its own right.

A two-centre Kyoto and Tokyo trip is an ideal way to encounter both Japan's historical and modern beauty, as well as some of the quirks (and you doubtless will find some).  Of course, there is so much more to discover beyond these two big cities but they do make a good starting point.

If you do travel to Japan, bear in mind that English is not as widely-spoken as it is in many other parts of Asia.  It's worth getting a Japanese speaker to write down a few key phrases, either phonetically or on small cards in Japanese script that you can quickly flash during linguistic predicaments.  This is of course all the more relevant if you are traveling outside the major sightseeing areas. 

It's also worth mentioning here that whilst Japan is by no means a cheap destination, it is entirely possible to travel around without breaking the bank.  Prices are generally comparable to London, but you can make real savings if you look for them.  'Konbinis' (convenience stores) are excellent places to buy good quality budget-friendly picnic lunches, with sushi, rice balls and good salads aplenty.  'Famiresu' (family restaurants) are also good places for reasonably-priced meals when sushi fatigue sets in.  If you are considering traveling quite a bit you would do well to buy a JR Pass.  This seven or fourteen day pass will allow you to freely use most bullet trains with or without reservations and is cost effective if you are visiting more than a few regions.  Hotels are pricey, but 'ryokans' (traditional inns with futons on tatami mats, a hot bath or 'onsen' and usually excellent meals) often work out cheaper and are, in my opinion, a good deal more fun. Tripadvisor has pages and pages of listings for ryokans in both Kyoto and Tokyo.

Traveling with children is fairly easy and there are excellent facilities for nappy changes and baby feeds, and even training toilets for toddlers in many public areas. If you have a curious child (or husband, wife, partner) they will find Japanese toilets to be a source of great amusement with their many, many bells and whistles.  Unfortunately they are rarely decipherable in English so be prepared for a few surprises! 

This rounds things off quite nicely, with Japan's high-tech bathroom appliances providing a good (positive!) analogy: there are surprises aplenty, things are not always easy to understand or readily communicated, but once you try it for yourself Japan is innovative, warm and aesthetically pleasing.

4 comments:

  1. Lovely post, thanks! We've got a trip booked to Japan next year, and we're flying in and out of Tokyo... and I'm wondering, do you have any other spots to share or recommend that are on the coast/beach?

    A. x

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  2. Hi Alice

    I'm glad you found it somewhat helpful. You'll have a wonderful time in Japan...it's almost guaranteed!
    In terms of coastal spots, one area you might want to check out is Miyajima. It's a small island just outside Hiroshima (which is an equally incredible place, though the A Bomb Memorial isn't appropriate for younger children). It's home to a stunning shrine and 'torii' gate and there are wild deer that roam the island - perfect for children. It's not a swimming destination though.
    The Izu Peninsular is closer to Tokyo and possibly somewhere you could visit if you are making a trip to Mt Fuji. I must admit it's been years since I was there last (pre parenting days) but it might be the ticket if you are looking for somewhere to spend a weekend not too far out of Tokyo. I believe there is an aquarium.

    Hope that helps a little? The JNTO website (http://www.jnto.go.jp/) has lots of good advice so I'd recommend you have a look at what they say about coastal regions too.

    Have fun planning!

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  3. Wow..This post remind me of my experience to Japan last year with my son when he was 9 month old, all the japanese there were so nice and helpful! I felt that Japan is children friendly place :) I went there in march when I visit Mt Fuji park we couldn't see the preety mountain, it was hide behind the could :( From Tokyo to Mt Fuji we took Bullet Train and it takes around 40 minutes. Should visit this place again one day

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  4. Hi Monthi

    Great to hear you've had good experiences in Japan too. I feel the same - it's a place I want to go back to time and time again. Hope you get the chance to revisit soon!

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