So, we made it. Years of wishing became a reality this Spring when we threw caution to the wind, and together with our 3 kids, ranging from 21 years old to 7, plus my Sydney based sister, we took a deep breath and headed to Japan. For just one week.
To say that the trip was whistlestop is a huge understatement. But, it was also massive fun.
Mack has already written her piece from the point of view of a zeitgeisty young woman…this is from the perspective of an over-wrought mother.
We had already looked at the Blossom Forecast for this year, and it definitely came in to our decision making process about when to go. It was kind of serendipity that this year Easter was falling so early, and would coincide with the blossoms. When we arrived, there were tiny pink buds visible on most of the trees….with a bit of luck, within the week everything would be at full bloom.
We planned our itinerary based on all the wish lists from the kids (age 7 & 9) Mack (22), ourselves and my sister – and plugged these all in to tripomatic, a really great little travel app. We did go off piste once we were in full swing of the trip and had got our bearings – some things got ditched based on cost (Monster Cafe and the Ninja Cafe) and somethings got pushed up the list as we discovered more about them (I give you the absolutely fantastic Science Museum).
Our first evening didn’t disappoint. We lived it up in Ginza, probably the only Westerners in a local izakaya bar. As we climbed the tiny wooden staircase to the top floor, we were met by the sight of the shoe lockers – oh yeah, gotta take your shoes off – we’d forgotten that part. Started to regret the kids Vans hi-tops round about then.
In for a penny, and all that, and we were soon chugging Japanese draft beer and looking quizzically at the menu. We needn’t have worried as the super-nice waitress helped us out and between her basic English and our less than basic Japanese, we ended up with her cooking utter deliciousness in front of us on the hotplate in the centre of the table – okonomiyaki and monjayaki. It was a brilliant start to the trip.
Sunday is the big day in Harajuku, the girl and boy gangs showing off their distinctive style and craziness. Flamboyant peacocks strutting their stuff and doing their thing. They must have such a great laugh. The kids had a whale of a time in Kiddy Land, 5 floors of ram-packed homage to StarWars, Snoopy, Hello Kitty and other local cartoon characters. Rice mould in the shape of Snoopy? Tick. Light up light saber chopsticks? double tick.
That lunchtime we ate at Maison, tucked out of the way out of the madness, in an area favoured by the locals. Set in an old bathhouse, with it’s pork katsu speciality a huge draw, we encountered the most surreal queueing system I’ve certainly ever encountered. It involved many stairs and much sitting. The wait was worth it though, and the staff were great. The kids had bento boxes full of sushi, the adults tried sake in its various form – warm, room temperature and cold, plus many beers. We tipped back out in the bright sunshine with a slight lilt from the sake and a spring back in our steps after eating our body weights in katsu and fish. We meandered (incredibly slowly because of the volume of people) back through the surreal sights of Harajuku, took in the temple and we were pretty much done for the day.
The rest of the week passed in a bit of a blur. We mastered the metro (kinda) took the bullet train to Kyoto, visited the awe inspiring bamboo grove, and ate in the Kill Bill restaurant, Gonpachi. Other highlights included the Museum of Modern art, the Ueno Park where many, many Japanese were gathering for picnics amongst the cherry blossom, and of course, an obligatory blast of karaoke.
Kyoto felt rushed – if you have the budget, try to go for at least one night. Getting a sense of old Japan, Kyoto was the political centre for many, many years and the winding streets gave a real sense of history and intrigue. You can imagine the Geishas running from place to place, though we didn’t see any – just an awful lot of young Japanese tourists dressed for the part. They were having a nice time though. The temples were stunning, just very busy – not the serenity you’d expect.
Back to the Science Museum – if you’re travelling with kids, we’d vote for this as a must-do. Not just for its architectural brilliance (which is utterly lovely) but for the interactive exhibitions and of course, the robots. Both kids had to be practically dragged out of there, with one of them in tears.
Tokyo. What else to say – it more than surpassed our expectations. You have old and traditional literally standing next side by side with super-crazy modern wonderment. What might look tacky here, looks just bloody brilliant and bonkers there. (*see Octopus Balls). The cherry blossoms were indeed in full bloom by the time we got to Friday, and the whole city was stunning. It felt like we were part of something, with suited business men taking selfies underneath the blossom, alongside school girls, kimono’d tourists and grandparents taking family portraits under the trees. Whilst I knew it was important culturally, I had no idea just how significant it clearly is. The sense of excitement really was tangible and it was just a little bit lovely to be involved.
As for the Japanese? At the risk of a cliché, Tokyo really was the friendliest city. Bear in mind we were in the busiest place in the world, you get ya map out – at least 2 people will ask if they can help you.
Go there if you can. You’ll have the most awesome time.
How we got there – We flew with KLM via Amsterdam, you can get flights for approx £400 upwards.
Where we stayed – We stayed in an airbnb – a top tip from a friend who had previously travelled to Tokyo. Tokyo hotel rooms are aimed firmly at business men, as such they are very small and functional. Not great when travelling with a family on a budget. Our airbnb was brilliant value for money, and based in Ginza, a very short way out of the centre of Tokyo.
Getting around – if you decide to take the plunge, get yourselves a JLR Japan Pass before you go. You can get these from various websites as well as the Japanese Embassy. You receive a voucher and when you get to the destination airport, validate the voucher with proof of your passport (the pass isn’t available to Japanese residents) – bit of a pain BUT pays for itself with one train journey from the airport and a trip to Kyoto. But you can also use it within the metro system on certain lines. Also useful is a Suica Pass – like the Oyster card on the London Tube but so much more; we discovered half way through the trip that you can also use them in many shops and museums/galleries, almost like a prepaid card. Bikes – everyone, and I mean everyone rides a bike in Tokyo. We weren’t brave enough and didn’t really have time, but I do wish we’d hired some bikes just for a day, and really lived like a local.