30 January 2015

Japan in Pictures (mostly)

I've been to Japan 3 times now. The first was for 24 hours en route to Cuba. Craig and I stayed in a hotel near the airport, took a train into Tokyo for about 4 hours to look around and flew out.

The second time was when I was 33 weeks pregnant with Lily and my in-laws kindly offered to mind the three older kids so we could enjoy a 'last hurrah' before becoming parents again. We went to Tokyo for 2 nights and Kyoto for 2 nights. It was stinking hot, even in September, and I was huge. Walking was an effort, my feet swelled enormously on the flight and I felt like a barrel of lard trying to get on and off the subway. Only middle aged women acknowledged my pregnancy and no one gave up their seats for me on trains, even though there are seats reserved especially for the pregnant, the elderly and those with 'internal disorders'. A friend who lived in Japan for many years explained that they were probably so embarrassed for me that they didn't want to deepen my embarrassment by acknowledging my condition, which they would have done had they offered me a seat. Nevertheless, I loved Japan and spent most of my time there thinking how much the kids would love it and we have been planning to go again ever since.

Shortly after returning from America last January we booked flights, in the spirit of keeping the feeling of travel alive by booking the next trip. Then we did exactly nothing at all, including booking any accommodation, until about a week before our scheduled departure. Luckily Craig was on holiday and likes organising that sort of thing (I tell myself) and he arranged the whole trip, including tickets to the Sumo wrestling, the Japan Rail cards (which we used heaps) and entrance to Studio Ghibli, all of which has to be done outside the country. We had such a wonderful time. Travelling with four kids is never exactly easy and none of us speak any Japanese. Also our kids aren't the most adventurous eaters and don't particularly like fish and mushrooms, both of which feature heavily in the Japanese diet. Nevertheless, we muddled our way through, and I was so proud of how the kids pushed their comfort zone and acknowledged the cultural differences without complaint - for example they totally got that eating in public is not appropriate in Japan and never badgered us for food even when they were starving and we were wandering around trying to find somewhere that could both fit us in and offered food that at least half of us were likely to eat.  They were all happy to abandon modesty and join me nightly at the public baths.  The onsen were pretty damn hot, especially for Lily who took about 20 minutes to actually get herself into the bath - sort of the reverse of entering a freezing ocean.  But oh so delicious once you could submerge yourself up to your neck, especially as outside it was freezing and snowing.  I've always been a huge fan of baths.  The three older kids all tried sushi and Ruby and Nina also tried assorted other dried fish and fishy things - none of which they liked but still, I'm so happy they tried.

Golden Pavilion, Kyoto

Grace and Lily in kimono in our traditional Japanese house in Kyoto

At the Sumo wrestling.  These guys are the highest ranked sumo wrestlers and come out dressed in their formal regalia, before stripping down somewhat for their actual bouts.  There is a lot of ritual and throwing of purifying salt and slapping of body parts, before the few seconds of actually quite thrilling grappling.  Size is definitely not an indicator of skill.  We all loved it.

We fed Lil's fascination with Pokemon by visiting the Pokemon Centre in Tokyo.  Here, Lily sets up a lunchtime sumo bout between two characters (whose names don't know), watched over by Ash and Pikachu.

Everyone was a big fan of gyoza.  By the end, all the kids were proficient chopstick users too.

We went to the Mirakan Museum of emerging technology.  The 'androids' and robots were  a little disappointing actually.  It would seem that we are still a very long way from making anything close to human.

Dumpling sellers everywhere.  This little stall in Kyoto was open from early morning to late night.

Sleeping arrangements at our Kyoto house.  Very warm and cosy but futons are a little rough on my back.

We ate a lot of pocky - a thin biscuit/bread stick covered in chocolate of different flavours.  Dark chocolate was my favourite but the kids liked strawberry.

We spent four nights at Nozawa onsen - a ski village with abundant natural hot springs.  The town smells vaguely sulphuric.  We stayed in a ryokan - traditional Japanese inn, which was freezing apart from our actual room which had a low table covered with a thick quilt and an element in the table that was heated.  You sit on the floor with your legs under the table getting toasty warm.  Our hostess, Saiko, prepared us a very traditional meal on our fist night, which was just gorgeous (the kids didn't necessarily agree, having tried sushi the day before....)

At the golden pavilion you can light a candle for all sorts of things  - that you'll do well in your exams, avoid traffic accidents, get into a good school.  I lit one called 'Cancer Get Well' for my sister who underwent major surgery for liver cancer shortly before our trip.  I really hope it works.

The sushi conveyor belt at one of many sushi joints near the Tokyo fish market.

Nozawa Onsen.  It snowed for 48 hours without stopping. I have never seen so much snow.

There were 4 meters of snow at the base of the mountain

Not sure what this establishment does or sells in this little side street near Shinjuku station

How you get your beer refilled at the Sumo

Waiting for your udon to arrive can be exhausting

The kids loved the yukata (cotton cross between a robe and a kimono) that the ryokan supplied.

Poor Nina only got one day of skiing in after being pretty ill.  It turned out that she had an asthma attack.  All very scary but resolved within minutes once an inhaler was procured.  

Hot cocoa and map reading after skiing.  I don't ski, so I become a sort of ski valet - helping get boots on and off, holding gloves and hats, bringing along changes of both, hauling Lily up and down the small slopes and coaching her 'pizza pizza pizza'  - rather amusing as I've no idea how to ski, but I just repeat the instructions from the one lesson I did take.  It would be good to be able to ski with the kids, as Craig frequently reminds me.  But I know that the effort required to get anywhere close to competant is just not something I'm prepared to expend at the ripe old age of (nearly) 44, with many other demands on my time.  It means that in some ways skiing holidays aren't that much fun for me, but I do love to see the kids extend their skills and I hope that in a couple of years they'll all be good enough to go off without me needing to be at hand.  And then a skiing holiday offers the attractions of chunks of time alone to read and take lovely walks in snowy countryside.

There really was a lot of snow

Lanterns at the Yasaka Shrine in Gion, Kyoto

A perfect crescent moon at Yasaka Shrine

These little capsule vending machines are everywhere, selling all sorts of little figurines,  many quite odd: various dogs in sandwiches, rolls and baguettes; raccoons in bowls of soup and noodles,; mushrooms and other fungi dressed in Samurai outfits.  Mostly they are 200yen which is about $2 so we ended up getting quite a few.  What you get is always random too. Sometimes you got the one you were hoping for, mostly you didn't.

The stairs in our Kyoto house were alarmingly steep - more like a ladder.  The whole place was just gorgeous, though it is slightly stressful spending time in such a place with four kids.  The walls are made of paper and I kept seeing a body part accidentally going through one....

A school excursion to the Sumo.  Japanese school boy uniforms seemed modelled on 19th century Cenrtal European soldiers.  They all looked like something out of a Brecht play.  The girl's uniforms seemed to be either sailors costumes, or very old school English  - tartan skirts with hats or berets, long socks, blazers and shirts with Peter Pan collars.  The girls did look adorable, especially with their little leather school satchels.  We saw lots of tiny kids in small groups on the subways in both Tokyo and Kyoto by themselves.  Kids who looked about 6 or 7 (they may have been a bit older but not much).  I thought that was great and both cities certainly felt extremely safe.  Many older men and women wore kimono to the sumo.

Fabric vegies.  There were hundreds of these, as well as a huge selection of fabric sushi.  I had to buy some, though of course they look a lot better en masse.

A fantastic bowl of udon waiting for the 'soup' to be added.  You got to chose whether you had it hot or cold. (I always chose hot)

This shop in Nozawa Onsen only sold apples, and, as far as I could tell, just the one variety.  I guess in the non-apple season it sells something else.

Studio Ghibli. You are not allowed to take photos inside and you have to arrange to tickets before you get to Japan, but it is well worth a visit, and tickets are inexpensive.  It was beautifully done and very appealing.

We took the kids to Harajuku on Sunday to see some of the famous costumes that some Japanese teenagers dress up in. We saw quite a few, though got side tracked by Kiddyland (5 stories of toys!) and by the time we got out, most had gone home.  It was very fascinating though, and the clothing and hair and little details, like bags and hats and gloves, were incredibly elaborate.  Ruby was bemused at why people would want to dress like that.  She felt a bit uncomfortable at the over-the-top girlyness of it, wondering whether they thought it made them 'more' girly or if that was really their idea of what it meant to be a woman.  We had an interesting discussion about different ways to rebel, ways to make a statement by what you wear, especially in a society like Japan that is largely racially homogonous and where you don't see a lot of overt rebellion on the streets.  I've no doubt it it there, but it isn't quite as obvious as in other countries.  I thought these girls were a fantastic visual spectacle if nothing else.  I wasn't game to take a photo from the front but that was even more dazzling.

Craig even scheduled a morning for me to fabric shop while he took the kids to Tokyu Hands - a large department store specialising in stationery.  Given I only had a few hours I just went to Nippori.  I dropped rather a lot of money in quite a short time.  It was so tempting to buy so much - most of the quilting fabrics were a half to a third of the price they are at home.  I don't sew many garments, but I was enticed to buy some fabric and a pattern for a loose smock kind of dress that looked simple enough for me to manage.  The shops, especially the bigger ones like 'Tomato' had many young men bustling around, efficiently stocking and restocking the shelves, cutting the fabric and wheeling little trolley bins across the floor filled with bolts.  Most fabrics were a m minimum cut, which is quite a lot for quilting fabrics, but at those prices I indulged. They also had a great range of fabrics with a coating - I can't think of the word, but like oil cloth, for bags and purses, or to make waterproof tablecloths, and lots of great patterns on fabrics that you'd use to make raincoats.  Hundreds of great stretch fabric (I didn't buy any though) and every shade and weight of linen.  If you like those bold colourful echino fabrics you would weep  - shelves of them ranging from about $7 to $12 a metre.  I would happily have stocked up on solids, but time and space got the better of me.  I did get quite a few of the beautiful Kei honeycomb spots that I adore for $7 a metre.

Just a little sample.  The fabric with the animal (I'm not sure if it's a dog or a bear) and the one next to it are lightly laminated fabric.

This was an unplanned but great experience - we went to a Karaoke place in Tokyo.  Nine floors of booths, ranging from the luxurious through to the 'regular'.  We just went for the regular and it was hilarious.  Despite looking like a brothel, the next booth was filled with what appeared to be a mother's group meeting, all with their little tots in slings and carriers.  I guess belting out a few tunes over some snacks and drinks is a bonding experience.  We went in the middle of the afternoon, booked an hour but had so much fun we stayed for two.  The kids kept choosing songs they actually like and refused to listen to my wisdom that cheesy numbers work best.  But we did a damn fine 'Mamma Mia', 'Sweet Caroline' and of course, what has to be the new karaoke anthem 'Let it Go'.  We finished with 'Bohemain Rhapsody', at which point Lily fell asleep (!).

Ruby's long awaited dream to visit a 'Cat Cafe' was realised.  Sadly only she and I could go as age limits restricted the others from entering.  There were 40 cats (40!) over two floors.  You could buy little containers of cooked chicken to feed them.  There were many varieties, our favourites were the Scottish folds.  Most of the cats were only interested in you if you had food to give them.  Many were asleep. Some were very shy, some were extremely bold.  I like cats and it was interesting, but I wouldn't go regularly.  There were lots of Japanese people there and a few tourists and I guess if you had no animals and no prospect of getting an animal, it might be something of a substitute, but I didn't really feel like I got to interact with the cats.  It was more like they came up to you looking for food and moved on once you'd given them some.

On our last night we stumbled upon a Pokemon Cafe where all the food resembles Pokemon characters.  There was a long queue of Japanese people so we didn't go, plus the food looked frankly unappetising, but most hilarious.

Despite what I had heard about Japanese vending machines and the variety of items you can procure from them, 99% of them, as far as I could tell, were for drinks.  I was intrigued that you could get both hot coffee and hot tea in a can from these machines.  I tried a tea and it was not unpleasant.  Hot and milky and sweet.  It would suffice in an emergency.  I don't drink coffee but I'd love to try the 'creamy latte'.    One of the other things that intrigued us was that, although drink vending machines are ubiquitous, you very rarely ever see anyone drinking (or eating) in public.  If you've just bought a hot tea from a vending machine, surely you wouldn't take it home to drink it?  I read that you are expected to drink it right by the machine but I never saw anyone do that either.  Anyway, I didn't have a home to go to to drink my tea, so I drank it on the street (though I stood still).

Hands down the most delicious pastry we had  - and there is an abundance of bakeries in Tokyo.  This is a Taiyaki - a  fish shaped croissant.  I chose the custard filled one and it was delicious.  There was also a red bean option (I am SO not a fan of red bean  - it's the texture that feels all wrong I think, the flavour is innocuous) and one I think was probably chocolate that looked a bit rich.  

This was the tunnel with 'walking road' that takes you up the mountain at Nozawa Onsen.  Our ryokan was only a few metres from the start of the road, so access to the ski fields was incredibly easy.

A kimono show in Kyoto

Sugar cake in Kyoto.  Unfortunately filled with red bean paste, but isn't it just so beautiful?

We had such a wonderful time. It really felt like a special trip, partly because of the very stressful few weeks leading up to it, and partly because of the place itself. It is such a very different country in so many ways, however sufficiently familiar to make travelling there with little kids pretty easy. I was very sad to leave and really hope we get back there before too long.


  1. Wow, what wonderful photos! Sounds like it was a wonderful experience. Aside from that asthma attack (eek! so glad she's okay!), did the kids do all right then? We're planning to take ours to the Philippines in the summer and I'm still at a loss as to what to do with them while I'm doped up with dramamine for the flight...

  2. The flight to Japan from Australia is pretty easy as it is over night and the kids slept. In seat individual entertainment also helps a LOT. There is a bit of standing around looking like country folk visiting the big smoke whilst trying to make sure you're altogether and you've got all your luggage getting on and off trains, but it is so worth it and the kids often surprised me by how well they did. Especially pleasing was when the oldest kids stepped up to look out for the youngest. You'll have a ball in the Phillippines.

  3. I saw lots of these shots on instagram but it's wonderful to read the full commentary. Looks like a fab trip.