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!
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.
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.
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!