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Travels to Japan | Claire Cooke travels from Abu Dhabi to Tokyo and Kyoto on a family adventure

Claire Cooke, our Abu Dhabi correspondent, shares her latest travel story to Japan with her husband, Andy, and two daughters.  See her top travel tips below.

Lost in translation…childcare on tour!

The ‘bucket list’

My husband and I had always wanted to travel to Japan. It was most definitely on our “bucket list” and – due to an accumulation of airmiles – we realized we could finally get there.  This would entail the colossal task that every parent knows well of…deep breath…planning travel with the children.

Our honeymoon dreams of losing ourselves in serene temples, walking peacefully through cherry-blossom-laden trees and sampling the finest sushi and sake known to mankind were perhaps no longer 100% realistic (I was forced to admit this as I peeled my toddler away from our neighbour’s dog, who was apparently “Galahad the horse”), but surely we could still consume some Japanese culture. And maybe, just maybe, even have a holiday too!

Holiday research 

After a frustrating and fruitless morning of internet searches on where to stay with children, and how to build a meaningful itinerary in Japan, I was delighted to be recommended a company who could actually help us design and plan our trip. Enter www.uniquejapantours.com, who became our virtual guardian angels and held our hands through the whole process and trip.

As we had already booked our flights, I provided the details and proposed budget for our trip to my new virtual friend, based in Dublin, and one day later a personalised itinerary was emailed to me, complete with airport transfers, local guides, hotels and activity suggestions.  The vast possibilities that Japan offers where thoughtfully honed into an inspiring and achievable plan for the whole family.

Which pushchairs for the two kids?

As our dreams of our trip merged into the admin of room-bookings, rail itineraries and a shortlist of temples, I consulted my friends for advice on what to take for the children.  Interestingly, the common consensus was that a double pushchair would simply not work in Japan, but had I considered a buggy board?

Against the broader background of how we would actually survive in a country where we could not speak the language, and English was a rarity, my overriding concern became the potential burden of our trusty Phil & Teds double pushchair.  Would we regret lugging it to the other side of the world, along with our wet-weather gear, porta-potty, backpacks of familiar snacks, favourite teddies, books, iPads and suncream?

We took a gamble based on our generous amount of luggage allowance, and the fabulous luggage-forwarding service that exists in Japan, which enables travellers to send their bulky luggage on ahead to their accommodation. The double pushchair was coming.

The holiday

Before we flew, a folder arrived from my Dublin-based mentor, containing a wad of pre-booked rail tickets, a very detailed itinerary, local maps, train times, times for dropping off our luggage for forwarding (essential!) and helpful hints for surviving our trip.  This was a precursor to the level of organization that exists in Japan – everything seems to run like clockwork, and certainly a lot more smoothly than other places we’ve had the privilege to visit.

We decided to keep the children on Abu Dhabi time, which worked well throughout the whole holiday, as Japan is 5 hours ahead.  This meant slower starts to the mornings, but the opportunity to stay up a little later and eat dinner as a family. The girls loved the “treat” of going out for “tea in the dark” and I have to admit it worked well as a bribe for encouraging them to try the new food in front of them.

Tokyo Science Museum and a birthday party

On our first day, our guide met us in the hotel reception with balloons, toys and sweets for our girls.  Our 3-year-old’s birthday had not been forgotten, and we were whisked off onto the futuristic metro to Tokyo Science Museum for a fun day out.  Our guide was a lovely lady, local to Tokyo, with years of international experience.  Her fluent English helped smooth out our embarrassing attempts at Japanese, teaching us all about how to ride the metro, navigate the city and understand the local customs.

The Tokyo Science Museum was a real highlight of the trip, and has something for adults and children alike.  The children dissected plastic bodies, rode in a submarine and watched the most amazing robots we have ever seen.  Noodles and blue ice-cream with sprinkles, plus the ability to bounce around and pretend to be puppies (their favourite game) made for an unforgettable birthday for our little one, before heading back to the hotel to sleep off our jet-lag and organise ourselves for the fortnight ahead.


Japan is an assault on the senses in every way – lights, music, noise, the timbre of the local dialect, the outrageous and stunning fashion sense of everyone around, the sheer speed that everyone and everything moves at.  The first phrase I learned to say pretty quickly was “sumi masen” – the Japanese for “excuse me” – fairly useful for a family of four, with our controversial double pushchair, backpacks and a miniature cast of Disney’s Frozen, which our 3-year-old insisted on taking everywhere with her in her strong little fists.  This useful phrase also doubled up for meaning “sorry” with a bowed head innumerable times a day, after one of the children had stepped on someone’s foot, got in the way of a power-walking city executive, or inserted afore-mentioned Frozen character somewhere they shouldn’t have done.

Japan Rail

Hubby and I adopted a “working holiday” mentality – no sunloungers or spas on this trip – set our alarms, pumped up the tyres of our trusty steed (aka our double pushchair) and embraced the Japanese culture of sightseeing.  Our Japan Rail passes enabled us to travel wherever we liked in Japan during a period of 7 days (the passes are also available to purchase with longer validity), introducing us to the amazing shinkansen (bullet train rail network) which facilitates speeds of up to a maximum of 320 kph (200 mph) so smoothly there are no cup holders in the arms of the chairs.

Cities in Japan

During our holiday, we used the shinkansen to travel between Tokyo, Hakone, Kyoto and Osaka. With children, this was our maximum amount of voyaging, as we were mindful of ensuring that we didn’t spend our entire holiday in transit.  From the stunning cherry-blossom of Kyoto to trendy Osaka, we couldn’t tear our eyes away the visual feast that awaited us around every corner.

We had a truly intoxicating fortnight in Japan – the children loved everything about it, including the food and the different places we stayed.  They adored having an itinerary to follow every day (they were Gina Ford babies and the whole “routine” approach seems to have stuck), and took great interest in learning about the different places we visited.  Role-play opportunities arose frequently – while my husband and I were being shown around a palace in Kyoto, our two little girls were being ninjas, creeping along the “nightingale floor” – so-called to alert the former king of any approaching threats.  Whenever the girls became grumpy, we could usually find ice-cream to reward good behaviour, and both of them climbed into the pushchair and just slept whenever they felt the need.  This meant we could stay out all day, and even have the occasional dîner-à-deux while both the girls snoozed.

After a few days in a machiya (self-catering townhouse) in Kyoto, we were ready to return to the comforts of a hotel, and our final stay in a “Happy Magic” room at the Disneyland Hilton Tokyo Bay was the girls’ absolute favourite venue.  They were amazed to find a friendly little character hidden in a “magic” mirror in our room, a soft-play area in reception and limitless ice-cream in the restaurant.  One observation that struck true again and again was that the Japanese really understand children, and are very creative with their provision of activities, toys and even child-friendly bathrooms in every public place.  Although our porta-potty did come in very useful in parks and on the occasional train platform…when you gotta go, you simply gotta go!

If you’re looking for a family adventure, particularly if you can avail of a shorter flight from the Middle East, consider Japan.  You will have the holiday of a lifetime. Oh, and if your children can still fit into a double pushchair – take it!

Top tips from Claire

The trip to Japan was organized and booked through www.uniquejapantours.com

She stayed at…

The Park Hotel, Tokyo: http://en.parkhoteltokyo.com/, the Geppaku machiya in Kyoto: http://www.kyoto-machiya-inn.com/geppaku/, and the Hilton Tokyo Bay: http://www3.hilton.com/en/hotels/japan/hilton-tokyo-bay-TYOTBTW/index.html

They ate at…

Small, family-run restaurants – no fancy restaurants for us, with the exception of “Bills”, which we stumbled across on a walk down Ometosando: www.bills.com.au/#

The main highlights for the Cooke family were:

Tokyo Science Museum: http://www.jsf.or.jp/eng/

Legoland (Tokyo): http://www.legolanddiscoverycenter.jp/tokyo/en/

Meiji Jingu shrine – preceded by a Sunday walk down Omotesando (stop off at Antique Bazaar to buy gifts) and through the Harajuku district

Osaka Kids’ Plaza: http://www.kidsplaza.or.jp/en/

Kyoto – there are so many wonderful things to see in Kyoto.  We loved walking through the parks and the older area of town (Gion).  A guide can really enhance your visit to Kyoto – recommended!

What you need to know:

Check the temperature / seasonality of your visit.  We visited in cherry blossom season, but found it surprisingly cold.  We had to wrap up warm every day, and needed our rainjackets.  You can buy umbrellas everywhere, very cheaply.

The toilets are amazing.  We grew very accustomed to heated seats, music and – occasionally – were baffled by which button was the flush!

The Japanese are on time.  If your hotel says breakfast finishes at 10am, they will take away all the food and coffee in one fell swoop at 10am.  Even if you’re holding onto your plate.  Be on time.

Fashion has a whole other meaning in Japan. You can try and make a statement too, or just sit back, admit defeat and admire.

You need shoes you can walk in and a raincoat.  This does not really work with trying to make a fashion statement.  Although my Nike stacked trainers got some admiring looks – result!

Children are expected to behave. Do what you can.  We incentivised with an iPad, which came with us for sneaky use under the table at restaurants after all food had been attempted and a decent amount eaten, allowing us to linger over a glass of sake…happy holidays!

Hello Beautiful | The impact of words we use with our children | Claire Cooke

Claire Cooke is a mum of two little girls, based in Abu Dhabi.  She has lived in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Paris, and is originally a Yorkshire lass who tried to teach her fellow graduates at Oxford University the merits of a short “a”.  You can follow Claire and her family on her Instagram account @claritycreatives

“Hello beautiful!” The words just popped out of my mouth.  And – in the context of what my friends and I had been discussing – this wasn’t a good thing.

We have been debating the power of language and the impact of the words that we choose to use with our sons and daughters.  Inspired by the incredible Jenni Murray and her guest on an early January “Woman’s Hour” podcast, Susi Orbach (author of “Fat is a feminist issue”), I am now watching my words very carefully.

Try to compliment a girl without commenting on her appearance. Just give it a go.  In most cases we have to think twice – or at least a little deeper – about how else we can boost her self-esteem and pay her a compliment without referring to the way she looks.

The same goes for small boys – and by constantly commenting on their appearance, we are affecting their self-esteem. In doing so, are we effectively teaching our children that appearance sits at the top of the list of compliments? Is this because we know that we tend to perform better if we look and feel good about ourselves?

It’s really important to be selective in the language we use around our children, to empower them to believe in multiple positive aspects about themselves, beyond their Bieber-style bangs or their Beyoncé-style booty.  With the Kardashians and Miley polluting our media intake, as parents we have a very hard task at hand to convince our children of their self-worth.

We also live in an environment where aesthetic self-improvement is very much a daily deed – many of the mums on my school run look amazing with their designer shoes and perfect blow dries.  I take my hat off to them. But I also wonder what message we are sending to our children.  Is perfect grooming so critical?  What are we teaching them about how we spend our time? We are our own “brands” – but what if our “brands” signposted a morning of gardening, or several hours in front of a computer rather than a mirror?

The word “balance” came up several times in our discussion, as we acknowledged the importance of taking care of your appearance, and the boost to a woman’s self-esteem when she is told she is beautiful.  It is important to brush your hair, or do whatever it takes to avoid giving the people you might meet on your morning stroll a bit of a shock! By all means, if putting on mascara gives you a confidence boost,  I can guaran-damn-tee you that once you’ve tried Chanel’s Le Volume, you’ll never look back.

The balance comes in proactively complementing our children on their achievements, their positive attributes or simply the effort we know it took in just trying really hard with their work, on their playdates and with their siblings at home.

Parenting experts are constantly reminding us to celebrate the positive behaviours our children display, to make a real effort to congratulate good behaviour to offset the need for so many reprimands and also to bring those aspects to the surface of their sense of self-worth and self-esteem.

So what do we say to our children? We agreed on positive language about their achievements and behaviour, balanced with the occasional compliment about their appearance, linking where possible to the benefits of a healthy lifestyle, eating well and exercise.  After all, you can’t go through life looking like you’ve been dragged through a hedge backwards (we want our kids to get good jobs after all) and it is important to brush your hair, clean your teeth and keep up some level of personal grooming.  And if you can work those amazing pigments from the Mac eyeshadow counter, go for it!

Above all, we want our children to make the right choices about the way in which they look, and hope that they’ll always be privileged enough to be able to do so.