Looks like I was just in time last week with my post about places to see the cherry blossoms in Tokyo! The cherry trees are breaking out now!
Today it is raining though and it may be a bit colder, so they will probably start for real this weekend. Japan always changes for the better when that happens.
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When spring comes, Japan turns into a pink cloud. The entire country shifts color from a wintery brownish grey to a fluffy land of pink.
Japanese people go out of the way to celebrate spring when it finally comes. They lay out blue plastic sheets on the ground and sit down to have a picnic - with the kids if it happens on a weekend.
The cherry blossom season often coincides with spring coming, the temperature shifts from verging just above zero to 20 degrees centigrade. But not every year. Some years the cherry blossoms wait until the warm weather comes, some years they spring out long before spring comes. Every year there is a special section on the news when the cherry blossoms break out in Kyushu, the southernmost of the main islands of Japan. In the southernmost province of Okinawa, the cherry blossom start already in January. But that does not count; Okinawa is almost in the tropics. In 2018, the forecast date for cherry blossom to start in Tokyo is March 28.
If you think the Japanese eat a lot of cherries, you would be mistaken, by the way. The cherry blossom trees produce small inedible berries. Their main product is the flowers. Or the visitors. If you have seen the bus tours around Japan during cherry blossom season, you will realize that the cherry blossom spots are an attraction for domestic as well as international tourists.
If you plan on taking a break during the walk, do not forget to bring a packed lunch, or at least snacks and a bottle of water for you child. There are places to buy either in most sakura viewing locations, but they will be crowded and overpriced.
So here are five recommendations for where to bring your kids in a stroller to see the cherry blossom. Just remember when you take the train to get there that you should try to avoid rush hour on weekdays. And on weekends, these places may be too crowded anyway.
1. Ueno Park
Ueno Park is where all Japanese go to see the cherry blossoms, or at least it feels that way. But there is a reason so many people in Tokyo go to see the cherry blossoms in Ueno Park: They really are stunning. Ueno was a temple before it was turned into a public park, and it was during that time it was planted with thousands of cherry trees.
So if you bring a stroller with a child, places like Ueno Park will seem even more crowded. Especially since you have to cruise between people having picknicks on a blue sheet, and people who had a bit too much at the picknick and fell off the blue sheets. But Ueno Park is still an amazing place to see the cherry blossoms, if nothing else because there has been thousands of trees blossoming here for more than four centuries.
There are two advantage to this being a public park, however. The first is that it has excellent paved walkways, and there are accessible slopes where there are stairs. Although sometimes you will have to be prepared for a detour.
The second advantage is that there are toilets with changing rooms. Of course, during cherry blossom season, they are not sufficient and the city puts up portable toilets. But if you need to change your baby, just go to one of the changing room toilets and the people waiting will let you go first in line.
The Edo Castle, as it was known until the emperor moved there from Kyoto, was one of the strongest fortifications in the world when it was built. When the ”black ships” came steaming into Tokyo Bay, it quickly became obvious that it was no match for their cannon.
The fortifications around what today is the Imperial palace are still impressive, and the moat is impenetrable if you do not cross at one of the bridges.
The northwest part of the moat is known as Chidorigafuchi, since it looks like a small bird. The area surrounding the moat is planted with cherry trees, and some of the people coming to see the cherry trees are doing it from boats on the moat. The boats are not something you want to do with toddlers, although an infant works fine. You do not want your child moving about in the boat.
But the area is equally amazing from the shore, and the sight of the boaters under the hanging cherry tree branches is likely to fascinate your toddler for several minutes.
This is a public park but toilets are not that easy to find. You have them in the boathouse and the subway stations (Hanzomon is the closest)but if your child needs an urgent diaper change the best option may be to find a café near the subway stations.
The little town of Nakameguro is an upscale shopping and restaurant destination next to the more famous Daikanyama. But Nakameguro has something that Daikanyama does not have: Meguro River. With banks planted with cherry trees.
The river is very easy to access - when you exit the station, go back in the direction you came (if you came from Shibuya), and at the bridge, and then walk to the left. This is upriver towards Meguro, and the banks of the river are planted with cherry trees all the way. And there are pedestrian paths all the way. Unfortunately they are not stroller accessible - there are steps at a few points, so you have to carry the stroller at a few places if you want to go all the way to Meguro. It takes almost an hour though, half an hour if you do not have a stroller. But just strolling around Nakameguro in cherry-blossom season is pleasant enough, and there are plenty of child-friendly restaurants and cafes in the area.
4. Shinjuku Gyouen
When Japan opened up to the west, the old residences of the samurai families were confiscated and attached to the imperial palace. Often, they were used by the military. After the second world war, most of the imperial properties were turned to public parks. Today, it is run by the Ministry of the Environment, which is why this incredibly attractive piece of land has not been built over by developers.
Shinjuku Gyouen is closed Mondays (unless Monday is a public holiday, but there are no Monday holidays during cherry blossom season in 2018). And it costs 200 yen to enter - 50 yen for children. But it is worth it, and the walks are excellently paved and there are plenty of toilets with changing rooms.
5. Imperial Palace East Garden
The Imperial Palace is literally a green island in a sea of concrete, and part of the grounds are open to the public. That is not the north garden, where Budokan is, although that is a nice extension to the walk if you enter through the Ote-mon gate, next to Maronouchi. Entrance is free, but the gardens are closed on Friday and Monday, except if those days are public holidays. They also close pretty early - at 1630 until April 15, then at 1700 after that.
The Imperial Garden paths are well paved, although there are fewer restrooms than in a public park. And it is interesting not just because it is so well tended, and has a lot of variation in the flowers planted, but also because of the historic ruins from Edo Castle that dot the grounds. The castle burned down in the 18th century but before that it was one of the strongest fortifications in the world. The guardhouses and other surrounding buildings still stand.
Some Cherry-Blossom Viewing Tips
as I mentioned, bring your own lunch, snacks, and drink. And a blue plastic sheet to sit on - you can buy it in the nearest 100-yen-store.
Always check the weather report before you go. It can turn quickly. Japan is an island, after all.
Avoid rush hour on the trains. Between 7 AM and 10 AM you do not want to take your kids on the train. The evening is much better, as I wrote about in a blog post.
Mornings are less crowded than afternoons. This is partly because bus tours will arrive around lunch.
Try some traditional Japanese sweets. Sakuramochi is a kind of soft rice cake filled with bean mush and wrapped in a pickled cherry leaf, usually with a salted cherry flower on top. You can eat the cherry leaf but not everyone does. Be careful with children, they may choke if you give them too large pieces.
This post is one in my ongoing series on how to navigate Japan for travelers with children. I have written before about the Japanese travel year and the Japanese travel day (for most people heavily centered around taking the train), but sometimes for long trips you can choose between train and flying. I have a couple of articles on buying diapers in Japanand buying baby goods in Japan. I have written about how to figure out where to stay in Tokyo and how much you should budget for your trip to Japan. The latest was about how to use a Japanese laundromat. And I have written about whether you will be safe in Japan. And of course, since I have three kids, I have written a lot about Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo Disney Sea. And lots more, like the collection of 20 questions I put together to help people planning a trip to Japan with your kids.
if you are staying in a place without a washing machine, or if you have saved up your washing to the night before you leave, you are likely to become the customer of a laundromat. Or ”coin laundry” (コイン ランドリー) as they are called in Japanese. Many of them are co-located with one of the many public baths spread out around Tokyo, and if you have not been to one, it is not a bad idea to soak for an hour and a half, while your laundry takes care of itself. Just beware that the hot water basins may be too hot for small children, and remember that everyone, including your kids, are supposed to wash before entering the basins. Including washing off all soap suds. Different from the public bath, however, the laundromats are open 24 hours.
Not all washing machines will take care of your laundry, of course. Most washing machines only wash, and then you have to move the laundry to the dryers yourself. But many laundromats have a type ofwashing machine that you load once, insert 1000 yen, and then come back a couple of hours later to pick up your laundry. The time left is indicated on the machine display.
The big washer-dryers are usually of the frontloaded type, as opposed to the more common top-loaded. Check the capacity before you use the washing machine, there are often two types of those as well, one bigger and one smaller. The big ones costs 300 yen per load in our laundromat, which is pretty usual.
Mind Your Basket
The washing machines in the laundromats nowadays more or less run themselves. You just insert the money, wash the washing machine by pressing the button with a shower on it. Japanese people may be very hygienic but you never know what the previous person washed, which is why there is an option to wash the washing machine before using it.
You will see that people leave their laundry baskets on top of the washing machines. This is to show that it is in use, just like hanging the laundry bag on the dryer door.
When you have put in your laundry it takes between 20 and 40 minutes to run a load. The detergent is added automatically in newer washing machines, and so is the fabric softener. In older washing machines you may have to put in detergent yourself, but in that case you can buy it from the machine that gives change. You will need 100-yen coins to put in the machine and later the dryers anyway.
Dryer Fluffy Difference
When the washing is completed, you do not want to carry the entire load of waterlogged clothes back home. You want to have them nice and fluffy. And this is what the dryers do for you.
If you could take one of the washing machines from the laundromat and use it at home (assuming you could carry it), the dryers are a different matter.
In the laundromat next door, there are several huge, industrial-grade dryers. During the rainy season, when moisture creeps in everywhere and the temperature creeping upwards creates ideal conditions for mold to grow, people dry their things an extra time. The dryers are also big enough to dry bed linen and blankets.
Step On The Gas
The dryers cost 100 yen per 10 minutes, and if you use two or three dryers for a load, then 20 minutes per dryer is probably enough. It still means 600 yen, and with the 300 yen you already put in, you are almost at the 1000 yen the big, self-running machines cost.
Since there are two dryers, you need to know which you are putting money in. 上 means up and 下 means down, so that makes it easy to figure out.
These dryers are gas-powered, which means they get very hot very fast, so you need to load them in a way that lets the air circulate between the items you put in. And be careful if you dry items with zippers and hooks. They may become very hot, even though the dryer runs a special cooling-down cycle before you can open it.
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When you are thinking about a trip to Tokyo, you will not only have to think about the not inconsiderable cost of the ticket, you also have to think about a lot of other things. Especially since you are probably bringing your kids. After all, that is the reason for this blog: To help people navigate Japan and Asia when traveling with kids.
After all, you are going to meet a culture that is as different from yours as it gets in modern industrialized societies. No wonder you are excited. And nervous. So here are some questions I have seen people ask, and that they have asked me, about their visit to Tokyo. I will probably make a separate post about traveling to Japan in general, and feel free to ask more questions in the comment field below.
Let me try to answer them one by one.
1. Where Should You Stay?
Japan has great hotels. And some ryokan, the traditional guest houses, are the friendliest places on Earth. Japanese hospitality can be second to none. But nowadays, especially in Tokyo, there is also a lot of options for traveling families through AirBnB. If that is how you intend to stay, rent a house rather than an apartment. You may not be able to stay as centrally as you had planned, but with children a short train ride from the center will not matter when you are going ”home”. And the dining options will be as good, or even better for families. I wrote a blog post some time ago about how to select the best area and place to stay.
2. How Long Should You Stay?
Tokyo is a big city - by some counts the biggest city in the world. It is not possible to see everything in the city in a lifetime. Not even if you consider narrowing it down. Especially if you include eating. Japanese food have so many variations and combinations that it is literally impossible to try them all. Even in the long Japanese lifetime.
So you need at least one week if you are just skimming the surface. Two weeks if you do not plan to come back in the next few years, because not only is this a huge city, it changes constantly, even if some parts have remained the same for hundreds of years. But a week is minimum.
3. Have You Considered How Long Time It Takes To Get There From The Airport?
Knowing where you are going in Tokyo is an important part of planning, and something you should think through very carefully before leaving home. That first day you will be jetlagged, and so will your children. Minimizing the stress and effort is going to be crucial for your experience - that day and the rest of the stay. If you are coming in to Narita Airport late in the day, consider going to the city of Narita and staying the night there. It is actually a quite nice city. If you are coming to Haneda airport, consider the airport hotel.
4. How Should You Get Around?
There is really only one travel choice in Tokyo: The train. It goes anywhere and very few attractions are more than a few minutes walk from a train station. And the trains are frequent. Once every two minutes during rush hour on some lines, more frequently every 10 minutes.
5. Will My Child Be At Risk Of Dehydration?
Yes, in summer. It is easy to underestimate how hot it can get, and it gets even hotter inside a stroller, especially if you have a sun shade that covers the entire stroller. Take care and make sure they drink properly, and check that they are not listless or unresponsive. Stay indoors if you are worried, and take trains and taxis instead of exposing your child to the heat.
6. Will My Child Be At Risk Of Freezing?
Yes, in winter. Children will scream and complain so much that you will change the environment just to cut the noise when they are freezing, different from heatstroke. But make they sure they are dry and wrapped in a warm cover, and you are pretty sure they will be OK.
7. Are There Any Seasonal Attractions You Should Plan To See?
Broadly speaking, the cherry blossom and the fall colors. There are some places which you should not miss in season, like the Ueno Park during cherry blossom, the Ikenohata lotus pond (next to Ueno Park) when the lotus flowers, and Mt Takao in fall. But generally speaking, the famous sights in Tokyo will not be seasonal. But of course, Japanese tourists flock to them as well.
That said, some sights are only available some seasons. There are no snow festivals and no snow monkeys like those in Nagano are wild animals and go back to the forest when the winter ends. But while it is possible to surf all year round, you can only go whalewatching from the Chiba coast in spring.
8. Do People Really Sleep On The Floor? Are There No Beds?
Yes, they sleep on mattresses rolled out on the floor. Saves space and is surprisingly comfortable. And makes co-sleeping natural. But in modern houses there are beds.
9. Do I Need To Plan For Rain?
It can rain on any holiday anywhere. Witness the biologist who went to the Atacama desert in Chile, the second driest place on Earth, and was met by a rainstorm.
Japan is a lot wetter than the Atacama desert and it does rain a lot, especially during the rainy season and winter. But you do get occasional rainshowers at all times of year. So bring your rubber boots and rsincoats, and be prepared for rain. Or do one of the seven things I recommend for a rainy day.
10. Should I Plan Any Day Trips?
Yes, you should. While there is lots to discover in Tokyo, there are things you will not be able to see in Tokyo proper. Japanese people typically go either to the mountains or the sea in summer, to escape the heat which can be truly oppressive in August. Just going to Mt Takao which is only an hour from Shinjuku will bring relief. But be careful what time of day you travel - you really want to miss rush hour.
11. So Where Are Good Places To Go For Day Trips?
Here are a few places you should go if you want to make a day trip from Tokyo:
- Kamakura. The Great Buddha is not the biggest buddha statue in Japan, but this little seaside town is worth a visit for other reasons as well.
- Nikko. This is where the founder of the precursor to modern Japan is buried. His mausoleum is well worth the visit, and with the express train it is only two hours from Tokyo.
-Hakone. This hot spring resort area is at the foot of an active volcano, but it only erupts poisonous gas. Make sure your kids do not run into the roped-off areas.
12. Should I Bring A Stroller?
For Tokyo streets, a stroller is not a problem. Getting onto trains and subways is also easy. There are elevators in all stations, although maybe not where you are.
13. Do I Need Car Seats?
If you are going to rent a car, kids up to the age of six are supposed to be in car seats, or at least booster seats. But in trains and buses, there is no way of using them; and taxis are exempt from the rule. So unless you are going to drive, you do not need it.
14. Are There Dangerous Diseases You Could Catch In Japan?
Not really. While there were a couple of incidents of Dengue fever in Tokyo a few years ago, those were probably an infected person being bitten by a mosquito and spreading it to others. Most contagious diseases are controlled in Japan, and measles is considered exterminated. Be careful not to contaminate others.
15. So Why Is It Called Japanese Encephalitis?
It was discovered in Japan, but today it is extremely rare. West Nile Fever is more common in the US than around the Nile, so names of diseases are not as important as you think.
16. Where Can I Buy Diapers?
In Japan, the best place to look for diapers is the drugstores. Not pharmacies, who sell specialized types of medicine; and not supermarkets, who sell food.
17. Can I Use My Credit Card To Pay In Hotels And Shops?
Yes. With some exceptions. While there used to be an issue with foreign credit cards, that is gone. But there are many stores, especially smaller ones, that do not take any other payments than cash.
18. Do I Need To Carry My Passport At All Times?
Yes, you do. Not only are you required by law, and it does happen that police asks to see it. One reason Japan is such a fantastically safe country is that there is police stations everywhere, and the police will not only help people who are lost, they will also check on anything suspicious. But there is an even better reason: Many stores give you a discount if you show your passport.
19. Are There Food My Child Can Eat In Restaurants?
Yes, many restaurants have a kids menu. There are types of restaurants which focus on families, if you go there you will be well served. Smaller restaurants may not have the choice and they also may not have a non-smoking section. And if you have a picky eater on your hands, there is always rice.
Just remember small kids should not eat fresh things. Sushi is not only fresh, and there is also vegetable sushi. The wasabi is also very spicy in a very fiery way. And you also want to avoid the mustard and chili oil (laju) in Chinese restaurants, and Korean food is usually spicier than kids will like.
20. Isn’t Japan Very Expensive?
It used to be. But now you can get by on 5000 yen per day, including accommodation (although it will be very basic). That is about 47 USD, 38 Euro, 35 British pounds, or 61 Australian dollars. Even though Japan is a highly developed country it does not have to be expensive.
This post is one in my ongoing series on how to navigate Japan for travelers with children. I have written before about the Japanese travel year and the Japanese travel day (for most people heavily centered around taking the train), but sometimes for long trips you can choose between train and flying. I have a couple of articles on buying diapers in Japanand buying baby goods in Japan. I have written about how to figure out where to stay in Tokyo and how much you should budget for your trip to Japan. And I have written about whether you will be safe in Japan. And of course, since I have three kids, I have written a lot about Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo Disney Sea. And lots more.
Picking strawberries in February? In the northern hemisphere? Yes, you can do it in Japan, where the strawberry season starts in December - just in time for Christmas.
Strawberries are one of the most important ingredients in the traditional Christmas food in Japan: Strawberry cake. But from new year on, you can buy strawberries in the grocery stores. Typically, they are priced at between 300 and 500 yen per packet, with a package holding about 250 gram, which translates to between 15 and 20 strawberries. Most of those strawberries come from the Tochigi prefecture, and they are grown in plastic greenhouses.
Skyberries Or Tochigi Tome
Japanese strawberries tend to be more on the tart side, with a sweet edge over the fruity sourness. The most common kind, Tochigi Tome (栃木 とめ), is specially bred for the conditions in central Japan, and work amazing in cakes and jams because of its acidity, which balances the sugar of the shortcake and the fattiness of the whipped cream perfectly. Recently however growers have developed a new kind of strawberry, Skyberry, which is much sweeter but still retains that fruity acidity.
Beware Of The Bees
We went to a place called Ichigo no Sato, which produces enormous amounts of strawberries every year, most of it for picking by visiting tourists. There are bus tours from Tokyo if you feel a craving for strawberries. You book half an hour to pick either Skyberry or Tochigi Tome. You have to make a reservation in advance, otherwise you will not get a spot. It can be terribly crowded during weekends, in particular long weekends. The price varies between 1200 and 2000 yen depending on the type of strawberries you want to pick. And eat, because you can not take them away. Pick the berries in the sun, they taste much sweeter.
The vinyl hothouse is really just plastic stretched over frames, and they are not called hothouses for nothing: It can be terribly warm inside. Especially when spring starts and the outside temperatures creep above 10 centigrade, which happens around the middle of March.
They are also intended to grow strawberries, not accommodate tourists. There is a beehive (for pollination) in each hothouse, and they grow the plants in soil beds, not hydroponics. Which means the ground can be soggy and you can get dirty. But that is what nature is like.
Ichigo no Sato is more than a destination to eat lots of strawberries, however. They also have a giftshop, a cafe, an icecream store, and a buffet restaurant. All crowded to overflowing by the tourists coming to see and eat the strawberries. The buffet restaurant has an amazinng assortment of desserts. But they get picked out pretty quickly. And the main courses are humdrum to be nice. Sure, the salad selection was not bad, but rice and curry tastes the same anywhere in Japan, and fried chicken is fried chicken. Your children will be happy if they have the patience to wait that long. Because everyone tries to eat at the same time. Ichigo no Sato is literally located in the middle of the strawberry fields, and even driving to the nearest restaurant takes fifteen to 20 minutes.
Is It Worth It?
If you like strawberries, this is your best chance to eat your fill. And the Tochigi strawberries live up to their reputation. But schedule your lunch in Oyama, the Tochigi area is famous for their gyoza and this is one of the capitals of soul food in Japan. You will find ramen and gyoza places galore there, and if you plan properly, arrive early in the morning and then let your kids fill up on strawberries, you will miss the lunch rush and get a great lunch all the same. Just avoid sushi places. You are about as far from the sea as you can get in Japan, and you can get much better sushi elsewhere.
Where Is Tochigi?
The Tochigi prefecture is located to the north of Tokyo, inland from Ibaraki. It is probably most famous among visitors for the Unesco World Heritage site of Nikko, itself an amazing place located in the northwestern corner of the prefecture. But for Japanese it is equally famous for its strawberries. The two inland prefectures of Gunma and Tochigi have the most sunny days of any place in Japan, which is one reason you will see so many solar farms there. It may sound stranges that these fairly northern parts of Japan have more sun than the tropical islands of Okinawa, but it rains much less in Tochigi. And this makes the climate perfect for cultivating strawberries in vinyl greenhouses. But the winter can be cold when the wind blows from the mountains. Even if you rarely have snow in Tochigi winter is much worse than Tokyo.
Ichigo no Sato, http://www.itigo.co.jp/
Address: 〒323-0058 Tochigi-ken Oyama-shi Ogawajima 408TEL : 0285-33-1070
Opening Hours : 9:00〜17:00
Last time we traveled in Japan, we went flying. Well, we have traveled quite a bit in Tokyo and the surroundings since, and we went to Sweden. But our last domestic trip was when we flew to Okinawa.
We were flying with an LCC, which is the Asian abbreviation for low-cost carriers. A few years ago, the Japanese government deregulated the airline market. The intent was to open up for new companies and pressure the incumbent companies to lower prices themselves. It actually happened, and they did it without decreasing service all that much. I suspect it is the long-distance travelers who pay the bill, because when we booked a long-distance flight the price with the Japanese flag carriers for the same route was more than twice what we paid for a Chinese airline to take us to the same place. Almost as expensive as flying via Dubai or Abu Dhabi.
It is true that if you book early, you can get almost the same price with a regular airline for domestic tickets as you get with a low-cost carrier. But while the LCC basically have two prices, the regular airlines have an infinite variation. And while the LCC publish their prices on the website months in advance, you never quite know what price the regular airlines are going to charge.
This time we took Vanilla Air, one of the airlines that sprung out of the liberalization of the low-cost carriers. They are owned by the ANA group, one of the two flag carriers, who also owns Peach.
Far Away Terminals
When we got to Naha, we ended up in the new LCC terminal. This is one of the disadvantages of flying low-cost carriers in Asia. In Europe, there are enough discarded airfields (both in the old East and Western Europe) that the low-cost carriers could start flying from different airports than the ”normal” airports. Stockholm-Skavsta and Frankfurt-Hahn are just two examples of airports which have almost exclusively LCC traffic, but are so far from the ”main” airports with which they share part of the name that they might as well be in a different country.
Or, in the case of the LCC terminal in Naha, a different airport. The LCC terminal in Naha is located in an old freight terminal, basically the shell of a building which has been fitted with baggage handling and security check equipment. But to get to the terminal for other airlines you had to take a bus for almost 20 minutes - traveling almost halfway around the airport.
The Ends Of The Big L
The Okinawa LCC terminal really felt like something knocked up to handle the LCC traffic boom. Okinawa is the only destination which is far enough away for flying to make sense anymore. The rest of Japan is now easy to reach with the Shinkansen. Of course, if you live in Hokkaido and want to go to Kyushu or the other way around, taking the train is a waste of time. Especially considering the geography of Japan, which looks like a big L, with Kyushu at one end and Hokkaido at the other, and Tokyo at the knee in the middle. But the market is not big enough, and even though there are international flights to Hokkaido as well as Kyushu, most of the people in Japan actually live in the stretch between Kobe and Tokyo.
Smaller Than California, Longer Than The Coast
Japan is a little smaller than California, but it is as long as the US West Coast - but the climate zones it covers are the same as the US east coast. Hokkaido has much the same climate as Maine, and Okinawa is as warm and sunny as Florida. If there were more people in Hokkaido, they might become snowbirds, but the island is as sparely populated as it is huge.
Most people who fly the LCC in Japan fly to Okinawa, or one of the islands surrounding the main Okinawan islands. The climate is the same as in Hawaii, since Okinawa and Hawaii are on the same latitude. Okinawa has typhoons which does make the climate a bit more severe than that of Hawaii. Or they fly to Hokkaido, which is not quite as far from the major population centers but still far enough that it is economical to fly, time-wise. If you are going to Okinawa you have no choice (well, there are ferries). But the Hokkaido shinkansen is one of the fastest trains in the world, and the convenience of boarding a train and not having to check luggage or go through security and passport control makes it competitive to flying. Kyushu is just on the borderline. With a flying time just over two hours, taking a bullet train for 5 hours is actually faster than flying - if you consider that the fastest train to Narita airport takes a little less than an hour, and include the time you have to spend in the airport.
More Expensive With The Train
But a one-way flight costs 7500 yen at low season, and the train ticket is almost 25000 yen for grownups. Having children quickly changes the equation though, as they travel free on trains until they are six, but you have to buy them tickets on the plane. And if you get a Japan Rail Pass, you have effectively paid for all trips you are going to make before you leave home. At just under 30000 yen for the ordinary ticket it pays for itself on the way back.
Another advantage is that there are several trains in a day. If you are going from Tokyo to Osaka or Kyoto there is basically one train every ten minutes.
No Station Breakfast
We got up really early and took the train to the airport. We had counted on getting breakfast in the train, since the foodcourt at the airport did not look too appealing (exotic though a foodcourt full of Japanese brands might be). There are convenience stores open almost round the clock in the stations, but in the concourse of Nippori station (where you take the express train to Narita Airport) there are both a bakery and a shop selling Japanese onigiri, the traditional riceballs which are a perfect meal for a three-year-old. And the quality and taste are so much better in the speciality stores than the convenience stores, even though they certainly are not bad either. And the bread in the bakery is freshly baked.
But they only open at 7 AM, and we got there at 0645. We had counted on the kids wanting to go to the toilet (which they did - but only after we had bought breakfast).
And we only had reservations on the 0745 train so we actually had breakfast in the waiting room in the station.
Last Grownup Seats
We got the last seats on the train, and only for the grownups. I know from before that the seats on that particular airport train are pretty big, and our kids had no problem sitting on our laps for the trip. Actually, they appreciate it a bit too much. We have been telling them that they are big now and no longer should sleep in mommys and daddys bed. Although we often wake up by someone trying to push us out of bed.
Keeping The Kids Walking
When we travel a little distance, more than 20 minutes usually, it is very hard to keep your kids awake in the morning and late afternoon. They are still sleepy and the rocking and rhythmic sound of the train will put them to sleep, although it does not compare to a car. Of course they fell asleep standing up, which meant they were extremely grumpy waking up, crying and screaming and kicking. It is at times like that you wish you had kept the stroller. Even my wife can not carry them any more, and then we have to get our carry-ons off. Even if we have sent the luggage ahead in advance, this takes time. And the train only stops a limited time at Narita terminal 2 station, where you have to get off if you want to go to terminal 3, either walking or taking the bus. So the kids have to walk off the train by themselves.
And Continuing To Walk
And continue to walk, because terminal 3 at Narita airport is not that close to the train station. You have to get up to street level and get to the bus stop to be able to catch the bus to the terminal. Which means you have to get your suitcases on the bus because there is no courier service counter in terminal 3. So dragging heavy suitcases and sleepy children two floors and then onto a bus, and after that riding the bus for almost 15 minutes, then dragging them off again and pulling them with one hand as you pull the suitcase with the other. Lucky we only had two suitcases and brought grandma.
No Water Inside
The shops and restaurants in the LCC terminal at Narita are all outside security. If you travel international I think you have better luck, but the domestic section only has one severely overpriced snack shop. Buy everything except water outside.
Speaking of water, the toilets are one floor up from the domestic departure hall. You had better make sure everyone gets a chance to go before you board the plane, because you may get stuck in the takeoff queue if you are leaving at a popular time. We did not expect to be sitting on the tarmac for 45 minutes. That, and the slow bus from the Okinawa LCC terminal to the airport proper, almost made us miss our flight.
If there only had been a Shinkansen to the Okinawan beaches. Tokyo Station is surprisingly small for the amount of traffic that passes through it every day. Obviously the land is more expensive in the center of Tokyo than it is in the Narita area. And the Haneda airport is built on an artificial island, so if they need more land they can extend the island.
Of course, Tokyo station does make more creative use of the land it is on than an airport. Or rather, the land under and above it, because the station has five levels of trains running through. There is only one level of Shinkansen trains though, although there is more than one entrance to get onto the Shinkansen platforms.
Only Shinkansen Stations
Since the Shinkansen trains run on separate tracks, you can not enter the Shinkansen platforms from the platforms servicing the regular tracks. And of course, the pricing is different, too. You need the special Shinkansen ticket, even if you do not necessarily need a reserved seat. If you want to take the fastest trains, you need special tickets and reserved seats. But if you are happy about arriving 30 minutes later, you can take a little slower train that stops at more stations where there are cars with unreserved seats in front of the train. They stop at more stations, but this is still the Shinkansen so the stations they stop at are far fewer than the stations a regular train would be stopping at, if there were regular trains traveling the same route.
The No-Change Convenience
If you are traveling from anywhere inside Tokyo with children, you will appreciate the convenience of not having to change trains. More than once, anyway. You may have some work to do if you are coming in on one of the lines which have their platforms the farthest from the Shinkansen entrance, but after having carried my deeply sleeping daughter from the Keio line platform to the Chuo line platform, which really is from one end of the station to the other, I do not think it will be too hard to get to the Shinkansen from anywhere.
No Luggage Carts
There are no luggage carts in Tokyo train station, something you will probably miss from the airport, but that is most likely the only thing you will miss. The food stalls on the Shinkansen platforms are much better than the restaurants in the LCC terminal foodcourt. Even if you are supposed to eat on the train. But you do not have to think about buying new water bottles after the security check. Bring any drinks you like, as much as you like.
Of course, there are no flight attendants on the train. Hardly any train attendants any more. There is a drinks cart and there are young ladies (I have not yet seen anyone old or man) going through the train selling bento, the pre-packed Japanese lunch boxes. But if you will need hot water to make formula, you are better off bringing a thermos.
No Space For Luggage
There is also very limited space for luggage. Of course, you can not send everything in advance if you travel with babies. You need diapers, formula, water, a couple of changes for yourself and the baby, and some snacks if the kids are eating solid food. And the stroller. But you do not need the big suitcase with the raincoats and rubber boots. You can send that ahead the day before, like the Japanese do. The only storage space for your luggage in the Shinkansen trains is the space behind the seat at the end of the trains, and the overhead shelf. And everyone in the train car has to share it. You might find yourself wishing for a luggage checkin, until you realize how convenient it was that the luggage was already in your room when you got there.
Shinkansen Is Better
On the whole, the Shinkansen offers an unbeatable value for families, especially if you have a Japan Rail Pass. Even if you do not, since it is so much more convenient than flying. You only have to plan ahead. But not more than when you take a flight.
This post is one in my ongoing series on how to navigate Japan for travelers with children. I have written before about the Japanese travel year and the Japanese travel day (for most people heavily centered around taking the train). I have a couple of articles on buying diapers in Japan and buying baby goods in Japan. I have written about how to figure out where to stay in Tokyo and how much you should budget for your trip to Japan. And I have written about whether you will be safe in Japan. And of course, since I have three kids, I have written a lot about Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo Disney Sea. And lots more.
PUK Pupa Theatro is not a traditional puppet theatre. There are no strings attached to the puppets, and in the Japanese tradition the stagehands are visible. But different from traditional Japanese puppet theatre, the puppet managers are also actors, playing different roles - and changing the scenery.
The puppets are really cute, but they know how to tell a story. When the company was founded in 1929, the story was part of the international peace movement, and the military police closed them down several times.
Today, the puppets are telling stories in a basement theatre in the theatre company building from 1971. This is a childrens theatre: the first two rows are reserved for kids.
Yes, it is all in Japanese, and your kids may not make sense of the finer nuances of the story. But that does not really matter. There is enough action for them to enjoy the show.
So What Did Our Kids Think?
A childrens theatre is useless if the kidd get bored. But that did not happen here. On the contrary, they followed the tale of a little fox who has to go to the human city to buy a pair of mittens so he can play in the snow with riveted attention.
They not only loved the show and the story, they also enjoyed meeting the puppets and puppetteers. Although children of the animation age that they are., they were a bit disappointed that the puppetteers were talking, instead of the puppets. They did recognize any of the characters of the shows we saw, but they might have. The shows are frequently featured on NHK, the Japanese national television.
Location And Opening Times
Puk Pupa Teatro is located just a few blocks from Shinjuku Station. When you get to the little Yoyogi Nichome Aoi Park, turn left. The theatre is behind the Zenrosai Hall. There are usually two shows per day during weekends, at 1030 and 1400. Weekdays may be less, so you had better check the the show times.
One issue is that the tickets are a bit expensive - 3500
yen for the kids. But we saved the money by not having an expensive weekend dinner. Although the kids ate their weight in cookies from the theatre cafe.
Was It Worth It?
Yes. The play was very nice and the puppets amazing. Ii was great for the kids to get to see how theatre actually happens rather than watching TV.
This post is one in my ongoing series on how to navigate Japan for travelers with children. I have written before about the Japanese travel year and the Japanese travel day (for most people heavily centered around taking the train), but sometimes for long trips you can choose between train and flying. I have a couple of articles on buying diapers in Japan and buying baby goods in Japan. I have written about how to figure out where to stay in Tokyo and how much you should budget for your trip to Japan. And I have written about whether you will be safe in Japan. And of course, since I have three kids, I have written a lot about Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo Disney Sea. And lots more.
I occasionally get involved in discussions on Facebook with people who ask if there is a baby monitor they could use while their child is sleeping in the hotel room and they want to go down into the lobby bar and have a drink. Or even go sightseeing.
I often get accused of attacking those people when I try to tell them what a bad idea it is. Because I strongly feel it is a very bad idea. Read on to find out why.
Now, all children are different, and all parents have different styles. Perhaps somewhere there is a child who likes that their parents are not around, and parents who are clever enough to understand that child before it can talk. If that is you, you are welcome to comment below.
Never Enough Attention For All
However, what I have to say is based on my personal experience as father to triplets, which also may not be a situation shared by everyone, but which ensures that I can not give all my children equal attention at any given time. One of them will often be screaming while another one is clamoring for attention and the third is yelling that she has finished at the toilet. They have to learn to be independent and manage things for themselves.
But it is one thing to be able to go to the toilet yourself, and a very different thing to be emotionally independent, at least when you are four years old. Even more before that. When I had to go away for half a day on business while we were in Thailand, my then 1.5 year old son hugged me so hard when I got back that I thought I would break in two, and wept rivers accordingly. And then grandma was still there to take care of them.
The Lone German Girl
That experience is part of informing my thinking about leaving your children alone in a hotel room, although I do not have any horror stories like the one a friend of mine can tell. He was on his way back to his hotel room when he encountered a small girl in the corridor. She looked to be about three years, and lost. Tears were streaming down her cheeks.
He finally figured out that she was speaking German, and in his rudimentary German could figure out she had woken up alone in her room, and went in search of her parents. She managed to open the door and get into the corridor, but not being able to read numbers, she had no idea about which room she had come from, or where her parents were. She probably had no idea about what a hotel is either.
Lobby Bar Parents
Gentle soul that he is, my friend figured that the best thing he could do would be to take her to the reception. At least they would know which Germans were registered in the hotel, and if they had any children with them. So he told her that, and either her parents had not been very good at teaching her not to follow strangers, or she was desperate enough that a friendly face and nice voice meant some safety and comfort.
As they got out of the elevator in the lobby, she spotted her parents sitting in the lobby bar. She ran over, crying and weeping. The parents were appropriately grateful but my friend gave them a stern talking to, using up almost all of his available German.
Right Place For Baby Monitors
I personally would never leave my children alone. They deserve to have someone who knows them and who they know and trust around (which is why we are reluctant to use babysitters). And this is now, when they can talk and tell us what they think. Usually that they prefer to be with mom and dad.
I am not saying that baby monitors are useless, by the way. They are very useful if you are at a location where you can easily reach your child. But that is exactly my point: you need to be able to reach your child.
Three Reasons Not To
Leaving aside the issue of whether it is ethical, or even legal, to leave a child alone by themselves, let me give you three reasons for why you should never leave your child alone in a hotel room.
1. You May Not Be Able To Reach Them If Something Happens
2. Being Alone Is Very Scary
3. You Are Sending A Message To Your Child
Let us go through them one by one.
#1: Getting To Your Child
Why should you worry about whether you can get to your child physically? You can hear them on the baby monitor. That is, unless you have used a pair of mobile phones, because the call between them will usually be cut off when you enter the elevator (as it is a Faraday cage where radio waves can not pass out or in). And since the phone at the other end is trying to reconnect to the phone you are using, the call may not go through, and you have to go back to the room or not have a clue whether your child has woken up and is screaming in terror or whether she is sleeping like a log.
What If Something Happens?
If something happens, like a fire on the floors between the lobby and your floor, the fire brigade can prohibit you from going up to your child. Or even worse, toddlers can get out of bed and out of the room. Apart from their pinching their fingers in the door, drinking the drinks in the minibar, or falling off the balcony, not everyone who meets a lost child in a hotel corridor may be as helpful as my friend in the story above. And if your child is old enough to open the door by herself, you have no idea where they went or what happened.
Other People In Your Room
Also remember that you are not the only one with access to your room. There are plenty of hotel employees who can enter after knocking. Your child may not take kindly to finding themselves in the room with a stranger, even if they actually are the nicest person in the world. You have no control over who knocks on the door, and since your child is either quiet and possibly asleep; or crying because you have not come back, they may enter.
#2: Being Alone Is Very Scary
The second issue is of course resolved the moment you come back to the room. But how long time does it take? Small children are more easily scared in strange environments and situations - at four, my son is occasionally afraid of going to the bathroom himself, and will rather pee in his pants than go without an adult. I would not even want to think about how scared I would be if I found myself in a place I had never been before, unable to move my arms and legs, and nobody I knew nearby. I would probably scream in terror, and I am an adult. Imagine what your child is feeling and how much she might scream.
It may only take ten minutes for you to get back, but those ten minutes will feel really long. And they will be longer for your child. If you compare your lifespans, ten minutes in the life of a two-year-old corresponds to 1.5 hours in the life of a 20-year-old. Have you thought about what it would feel like to scream for 1.5 hours?
Stressing Children Is Bad Parenting
I know that I try to minimize the stress in my childrens life. It is enough for them to stress to get to daycare. They do not need the stress of not having mommy, or daddy, or granny, or uncle, or anyone they know and trust around. I know there are babysitters they would like. We used to have a lovely lady come in, she was so helpful and the kids loved her. But we can hardly bring a babysitter on family vacation. And since we are usually not staying in hotels, we have to find an agency we can trust if we want to use a babysitter. And even if the person has the best formal qualifications in the world, there is always personal chemistry. Finding someone who your children will like is extremely difficult online, especially as they start walking and talking. But then you probably have stopped using a baby monitor anyway.
I know there are people who will tell you there are different parenting styles, and there are. But bad parenting is not a parenting style. And I think stressing your child unnecessarily is bad parenting.
Did You Consider The Message?
Your child will stop screaming when you come back. You will both feel a lot better when you have cuddled her for a while. But then you need to consider what message you have just sent to your child.
That we as parents are communicating with our children whatever we do is something we forget altogether too easily. Our children do as we do, not as we say. Just watch them picking their noses. And if we teach them that it is OK to leave them alone while we go off and do something else, we are teaching them not just one, but several things.
#3: What Is Your Message?
The first thing you teach your child by leaving her alone with a baby monitor in a hotel room is that you do not want to be with her. Yes, think about it. By going off and leaving your child alone you are telling your child that you have something more important to do than being with your child. You are telling your child that she is less important than whatever it is you are off doing.
That is going to create fundamental insecurity in your child. She will always feel she is less important than something else. Whatever your parenting style, I can not see how that can be good parenting.
You may consider getting a babysitter. I would not do this, I prefer keeping things in the family. But as your child grow older they may actually enjoy spending time with a babysitter. Not all hotels have this service, but many do. It will not be free (unless you go to a casino or something, which has its own motives for luring you out of your hotel room).
Are You Saying You Are More Important?
The second thing you are teaching your child by leaving her alone with a baby monitor is that you consider yourself to be more important than your family. Yes, that pink little lump of flesh is your family now. If you are a single parent, even temporarily single, you may consider this harsh. Are you never going to have any time on your own?
Children Should Come First
No. Your children have to come first. And going off alone is not a way of putting children first. Especially when you could do things together with them. Even if they are asleep. You can go to the convenience store with your child in a stroller. You can take a walk with your baby in the carrier. You can not participate in a conference, go have a drink in the lobby bar, or go gambling at the slots or the blackjack table with your child tagging along. If that is what you want to do most in your life, perhaps you should reconsider your priorities. You are not alone any more.
Well, that was a bit of a rant. But now I can point people who want to leave their children alone in hotel rooms to it.
If you are interested in more tips and opinions about travel with children, I have written about traveling with toddlers, keeping toddlers entertained in flight, tlying with a child with fever, about people who complain about your kids in flight, what you can do to avoid your child getting lost and how to beat jetlag with your toddlers. And lots more.
For most people in Tokyo, the train (or subway, or automated driverless train, or monorail, or tram) is the absolutely easiest way of getting around. There are buses that interconnect the train lines where they are far apart, and there are taxis which can take you from place A to place B, if you can give them an address or a well-known landmark to navigate to. Most taxi drivers do not know the city all that well, which is not very strange since they usually only travel part of it. Taxi rides in Tokyo are normally quite short, ten minutes or so. Drivers are happy to pick you up in the street (if the light on the top of the cab is lit, they are free). And taxis in Japan are also exempt from the normal requirement to use car seats (or booster seats) if the child is below six years of age. If trains and buses were not free for children under the age of six, it would be an economical option for big families. While few taxis have more than three actual seats, you can usually squeeze in a fourth and maybe fifth person in the back seat, in particular since the taxis are also exempt from the requirement that all passengers wear seatbelts. The driver will usually ask you to wear it if you go into the front seat, though.
You may wonder why, as opposed to Bangkok for instance, people do not drive themselves. The roads of Tokyo are excellent, and Japan has an excellent highway system, even if the roads are toll roads so you have to pay for using them. It is not very expensive, about 650 yen for a family car a normal distance.
But you need a car. You can rent one, but it costs about 10000 to 12000 yen per day, and then there is the cost of gasoline. If you rent a hybrid, or even an all-electric car, the gasoline cost will be less. How much depends on where you are going.
Free Under Six
However as I mentioned, trains are free for children under six. Given that most trains, not just the famous bullet trains, drive considerably faster than 80 km unless they are local trains in central Tokyo, the train will almost always get you there faster than driving anyway. There are no traffic jams on the rails either.
This is why most people take the train when they want to go anywhere. Sometimes there are so many of them that they push themselves onto the trains, so if you are bringing your children, avoid rush hour. If you start your travels a little late, you might be alone on the train.
Automatics And Antiques
Tokyo is crisscrossed with trainlines - and below them, there is a network of subway lines which connect the train lines. Many of the train lines are private, connecting central Tokyo with commuter destinations and tourist attractions in what used to be the surrounding countryside. Tokyo also has a number of transport options you are unlikely to find in other cities. The monorail to Haneda Airport would probably be classified as an antique in other countries, as it was built for the Olympic Games - in 1964. And there is the driverless Yurikamome train in futuristic Odaiba, which is actually automatic.
Yamanote All Around
All this means you can usually get anywhere you want in Tokyo on a train. And where there are no trains, there are buses. There is simply no reason to use anything but public transport in Tokyo.
The trains run mostly in either north-south or east-west direction, much because in southeast the city borders on Tokyo Bay. The biggest exception is the mainstay of Tokyo transportation, the Yamanote line. It runs in a rough circle with the Imperial Palace in the lower right quadrant. Two trains run clockwise and counterclockwise on parallel tracks, literally inside and outside, meeting at almost every station.
The Yamanote line connects the centers of Tokyo. The Japanese capital does not have just one center, it has several where the train lines intersect and the corporate headquarters and shopping centers are distributed. Ikebukuro, Ueno, Akihabara, Shinagawa, Shinjuku, Shibuya, and Tokyo are all connected through the Yamanote line.
There are more stations on the Yamanote line, destinations in their own right, but maybe not places which you would go to as a tourist. But the Yamanote line is extremely convenient, something that is reflected in how many people use it. Especially early in the morning. From seven AM until 10 AM, do not even think about bringing your kids into the train. The Yamanote line is incredibly packed at rush hour, as I have written about before. Avoid taking trains in rush hour not just on the Yamanote line, but all trains in Tokyo.
Rush And After Hour Accidents
That is when accidents happen. Well, and late on Friday nights and in new years party season, when people are so drunk that they fall off the platform. The cleanup after accidents is not a pretty sight, especially if the person got under the train. But the Japanese station crews are amazing at cleaning up, starting with putting up blue sheets to hide whatever is going on from the sight of travelers. Which is a good thing since the sight of someone run over by a train is enough to turn anyones stomach.
Four Reasons To Be Late
Accidents is one of four things which can make trains in Japan late. Customers becoming sick on board is another. Japanese companies care a lot about the welfare of their customers - customer care in Japan means that companies care both for and about their customers, as long as they are customers. It is not a myth that the driver apologises when the train is late - I have heard them apologizing when the train was 10 seconds late. And you get a little printed card that you can give to your company to prove why you were late.
The other two things which can make trains late in Japan are weather and earthquakes. Both happen frequently in Tokyo. While earthquakes can not be reliably predicted and will happen every once in a while, there are a few times of year when weather can be a concern for train travelers.
The first is late January to early February, when temperatures can drop below zero degrees centigrades and there can be heavy snowfall. Think ten centimeters or more in a day. That is enough to slow down trains anywhere, and Tokyo is no exception. Heavy snowfall in Tokyo will slow down the trains, make the railroads cancel some of them, and cause chaos in the stations. It only happens every three years, and usually the snow melts in a day (although not this year).
Typhoon Winding Down
There is another type of weather event that can screw up the train system of Tokyo. Not rain, although Japan gets much more than its fair share in the rainy season (which happens during june). It is high winds, and specifically typhoons. Japan gets several typhoons every year during the season, which lasts from late July to early October. Typhoons are hurricanes in the Eastern hemisphere, and if you look at a satellite image you will see that it is a whirlpool of air. The eye is actually calm but then the winds start again. They are actually strongest a bit out, so if you sit right in the middle of the typhoon the winds are not as strong as a near miss. Usually they are accompanied by rain but the winds are dangerous enough. Even if they are not strong enough to blow the train off the rails, the danger that they could blow something else onto the train is enough to make the train companies stop operation. Japan is extremely safety-conscious, and that mentality is why you are so safe in Japan.
No Timetable Worry
For most trains, you never have to worry about the time tables. If there are no trains every five minutes, they will come every tenth. But in case you want to go to the Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architecture Museum, on a Sunday you want to check when the express trains are running back to Tokyo, since they take less than 15 minutes. A regular train will take twice the time. There are specialized search engines like Hyperdia, but the Japanese edition of Google Maps also makes a good job of recommending different routes and trying to find the fastest way, and since the underlying information is the same, the result is usually the same (and if you type in an address it will recognize that, whereas Hyperdia only works with station names).
So if you want to plan a trip inside Tokyo, the tools you are used will be enough to help you. If you are planning a day trip, even to Kamakura where there are frequent trains, you will be better off asking a travel agent or using the train line website.
Hop-On Hop-Off Trains
But normally, trains in Tokyo are hop-on hop-off and you do not have to care overly much for timetables. There is no search engine that takes the extra time required with a stroller into account anyway. The only thing you can be sure of is that the time Google, or Yahoo, or Navitime or any other navigational search engine thinks it will take you to go through the station is almost certainly too short in reality. So do not worry. And do not rush, because that is the easiest way of making a mistake and either causing an accident or becoming one.
Cost, Route And Time
When you look up the time tables in your favorite navigational app they will also tell you the cost of each leg of the trip (not Google though). It gives you grounds for comparing the different ways of getting to your destination. But you may be less interested in saving 20 yen or 2 minutes, if you can figure out a way that lets you get there without changing trains. Toddlers may love to jump around on the seats and watch the surroundings rush by through the windows, but if your kid is still in a stroller she will quickly be fast asleep.
Complainers On Trains
If you are bringing toddlers onto the train, try to remember some basic Japanese train etiquette. Children in a stroller generally does not cause people to raise their eyebrows. As long as you do not try to squeeze onto a packed train, the child in the stroller will be out of the way. As long as they are not noisy.
Many Japanese people still have the idea that children should be cute and quiet. This is a country of old people, after all, with a quarter of the population over 75, and more dogs than children. They tend to give noisy children dirty looks, but they are too well-mannered to complain. Those who will complain are their children. And they may complain both loudly and rudely once your children pass their percieved threshold. Not that they can do anything more than their parents, and train rides rarely last long enough for people to get past dirty looks however noisy your children may be. Because in Japan, you are supposed to care about and be mindful of others. The basic tenent of the society is that you are dependent on others, and they are dependent of you. And since everyone is interdependent, you are expected to keep your children quiet. And take off their shoes when they climb up into the seat, so the people coming after them will not get their behinds dirty (and the cleaning staff will not have to vacuum the seats).
Basic Child Rules
Keeping quiet, not drawing attention, taking off your shoes so as not to dirty someone elses clothes or effects, those are all basic rules for getting along with other people on the train. Like not running around the train cars and bumping into other passengers, or playing or singing in loud voices.
Be especially careful when you are getting on or off the train with a stroller or small kids. There is a huge gap between the train and the platform in some stations. Big enough for a child to fall through if you are not careful. And always let people get off before getting on.
Don’t Toe The Line
While you are waiting for the train, always stand behind the yellow line. Or sometimes white. Or occasionally dotted. Anyway, there will be a line for you to stand behind. Stand with your stroller at an angle pointing the face of your child in the opposite direction the train will be coming from, especially on rainy days. Even more important if there is snow. The reason is that if they are passing trains, especially express trains, they will push a wavefront of rain or snow ahead of them. While trains passing platforms usually do not run fast enough to cause damage, getting a wavefront full of stinging snow in your face is hardly pleasant. Better face away from the oncoming trains. And while you are at it, back off half a meter from the yellow line. At many stations, the train and subway companies are putting in platform doors which close when the train leaves and open when the train has stopped. The idea that a train should not stop exactly at the marks where the doors are supposed to be will sound strange to a Japanese. In Japan, trains stop exactly at the correct spot, at the exact time. Not a second early or late. Such precision is normal in Japan, and they regard trains in Europe and America who miss the platform with surprise and astonishment.
How To Pay
The navigation and mapping apps may be able to tell you how much you should pay for the trip, but not how. And unless you have a particular desire to fumble around with coins, there is only one option: The Suica card (also available from private railways, subways, and bus companies under the Pasmo brand).
Using the Suica or Pasmo card is very easy. To pay, just touch it to the plate. The Suica and Pasmo cards can be used interchangeably by the way, everywhere you use one you can use the other. The only difference is who issues them.
Touch The Plate
When you touch the card to the plate (actually, it is sufficient to hold it about a centimeter from the reading plate) the sum required is deducted from the card. If you do not have enough money on the card, you can pay with coins or bills. You need one card per person, since you can only charge one trip per card. But standing in the door of the bus and fumbling to find coins that cover the sum required is much less convenient than using the card at all.
You can get a Suica or Pasmo card in the card machines in the stations, or the manned ticket offices. While there are English instructions on the machine screens, they are machine translations and understandable if a bit clunky. The staff at the ticket offices have no requirement to speak any other language than Japanese, and are likely to be embarrassed by not being able to serve you. There is often an international information office where people can help you, but it may be at another entrance.
If you arrive at Narita airport and you plan to take the Narita Express train to Tokyo, you can get a combination ticket with a special tourist Suica card. Not only do yo get a discount on the ticket, JR (Japan Railways) also forego the 500 yen deposit fee.
Charging The Card
That the price of the ticket is charged to your card every time you pass through the the ticket gates also means you have to fill up the card when it starts to run low. The balance on the card is shown when you go through the ticketing gates. Check it and if it starts to run below 500 yen, fill it up. You can get the balance on the card and the 500 yen deposit you made when you got it back when you leave Japan.
To fill it up, you either use the machine inside the station, or the charging machine outside. The charging machines outside are slightly more convenient - you just activate the machine by pressing the screen, put your Suica card in the aperture to the lower right, press the key on the screen that shows the amount you want to put on the card, put in the bills in the money slot, and wait for indication on the screen that the card is charged. You can also use a credit card to charge the Suica card. It may not work with all cards, especially not foreign cards and probably not prepaid cards either.
In other parts of Japan the cards may have different names, but they work the same way. And the price for the train rides are about the same as well.
This post is one in my ongoing series on how to navigate Japan for travelers with children. I have written before about the Japanese travel year and the Japanese travel day (for most people heavily centered around taking the train). I have a couple of articles on buying diapers in Japan and buying baby goods in Japan. I have written about how to figure out where to stay in Tokyo and how much you should budget for your trip to Japan. And I have written about whether you will be safe in Japan. And of course, since I have three kids, I have written a lot about Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo Disney Sea. And lots more.
If you have followed the blog, you will know that we spent Christmas in Sweden. Just to give you a bit of intercultural background, Christmas is to Swedes what Thanksgiving is to Americans, New Year (or spring Festival) to Japanese or Chinese, or Diwali to Indians. Even though most people are no longer practicing religion actively, the holiday is a huge thing. It is actually much deeper ingrained into the Swedish psyche than Christianity, despite the country having been officially Christian for more than 1000 years. Christmas, as it is celebrated in Sweden, had been celebrated in much the same way for more than two thousand years before that.
So just like the US during Thanksgiving, Bangkok during Songkran, or Greece during Easter, the stores are closed, the hospitals are run by a bare-bones staff, restaurants open only after the holidays, and everything is centered about staying with the family and enjoying traditional activities. Before the country was Christian, this involved feasting by eating lots of pork and getting drunk.
The feast was actually preceded by starving and the reason the pig was slaughtered was that the male pig had done his job and the female pig was pregnant, so he was now a liability. And it is dark for at least 16 of the days 24 hours.
Well, that was a bit of a digression. The kids enjoyed the abundance. We all did, a little too much. I had to buy new trousers and they still did not fit. The kids are growing vertically, and I should not be growing horizontally. But that is what happens during Christmas.
I used to fly a lot, but this time it felt even more strange. We popped into a plane in Tokyo, suddenly had to go through security and passport control in Beijing, and then - boom - we landed in Sweden. Where my cousin met us with a big welcome sign. Going back was pretty much the same feeling. Travel has changed a lot since travel stopped equal walking.
When my great grandfather went to his twice-annual military exercise meets (he was a professional soldier), he first had to walk for 50 kilometers, and then take the steam boat for half a day. His father would have had to walk, because 200 years ago there was no regular steam boat traffic in that part of the world.
To him, and to everyone born before him, travel was linear. The difference between going somewhere and being somewhere was not that great. Many travelers, especially those with the wanderlust gene (if there is one), prefer that mode of travel. When you are voyaging slowly, the road is literally the journey. For us, the journey is the airplane.
Enough of digressions already. What have we learned about traveling in Sweden?
Lesson #1: Google Has No Concept Of Time
Huh? Well, when there are major holidays, the opening hours of many stores are different than usual. IKEA, the Swedish furniture superchain, closes its Swedish stores during two days every year: New Years Day and Midsummer Day. But while Google shows you a customized page with the opening times of the store you were looking at, they are not clever enough to figure out if there are exceptions to the normal opening times.
Lesson #2: There Is A Hamburger Chain With A Social Conscience (And Vegan Burgers)
When the Swedish McDonalds franchise started to establish itself in the north of the country, they expected people to eat with their hands. In that part of the country, people feel very strongly that you should eat food with a knife and fork. McDonalds did not provide knives and forks. Their local competitor did, and by also providing better hamburgers, they outcompeted the megachain.
They have morphed since then, but their hamburgers are still a lot better than at McDonalds. And they have both vegan and vegetarian alternatives. Actually, the vegan alternative is better than many other hamburgers. Their cheese fries is to die for. And if you buy a kids meal your child does not get a piece of plastic from China, they get a picture book. Quite fun at that.
And all energy they use is renewably produced, and all their stores are carbon neutral. Like, wow.
Lesson #3: People Do Not Ask If Stores Take Cards, They Ask If They Take Cash
Sweden is probably the country in the world that has done the most to get rid of coins and bills. You can use your credit (or debit) card for everything. And there are no fees. You do not even have to type your pin for transactions less than 50 SEK (approx 5 USD).
Lesson #4: The Winter Is Not Cold In A Fleece-Lined Overall
My kids loved playing outside. To the tune of four to five hours a day - basically as long as it was light. Sweden in winter is dark and cold, but unless it rains it is a dry cold which does not feel cold. Especially not if you have an overall with warm fleece lining. Swedish childrens overalls are impregnated to be water-resistant. The biggest disadvantage is that they are really expensive, because they are expected to be inherited between siblings as kids grow out of them. That is not very easy to do when you have triplets.
Lesson #5: Plan For Bad Weather
Swedish houses are very comfortable in winter. You might expect that houses in a country as dark and cold as Sweden would be miserably cold and dark; but they are well lit and heated. Cozy, even, which perhaps should not come as a surprise given that most people spend most of their time cooped up indoors.
Kids can go out and play and they do, but when the playground equipment is icey and so slippery they may fall off, and the ground is so muddy they get dirty all through those overalls with fleece lining, you want to find a different alternative. Sitting inside and watching TV may not be so bad, but your kids will want to play other ways too. That is when it is a great idea not to stay in a hotel, but actually have a house of your own.
Lesson #6: Swedish People Have A Different Concept Of Distance
You could comfortably fit all of Tokyo, including the surrounding cities, in the area occupied by greater Stockholm. But while Tokyo has more than 30 million inhabitants, there are only about 1.5 million people living in Stockholm. Everything is roomier.
But while people in Tokyo view it as a day trip - and maybe even would stay overnight - to go from one end of their megacity to another, people in Sweden do it to buy a kebab or pick up their laundry. Swedis people think in miles, but their miles are ten kilometers.
Lesson #7: Driving Is Different
Unless you plan to stay in the center of a big city and never go outside the city boundaries, you need a car. If you are used to driving on the right, the actual driving is not too difficult. With three exceptions: When it is dark, when the roads are slippery, and when there are other cars on the road. Or pedestrians.
Pedestrians in the Swedish countryside tend to wear reflective vests and are easily visible. In cities however, people walk around in black clothes and shoes, which makes them extremely hard to see when they cross the street between crosswalks at night. Makes them invisible but they still have absolute preference.
Meeting other cars even with the lights dipped also makes you feel like deer and makes it impossible to see anything for a little while. When you meet lots of cars and more cars are coming up behind you shining their lights in your rear mirror. Even more scary when they start changing lanes just as you were planning to. You learn new ways of using the side mirrors!
Lesson #8: Everything Is Expensive
When I lived in Sweden, many years ago, I had a decent salary. Not all that high, but decent. Well, I think that even with taxes lower now than they were then, we could not make a living on that salary. The price of a lunch has doubled, too. But to be fair, it seemed quality has gone up as well. The food I remember seem to be a thing of the past.
Quality has improved in stores too. There are a lot of things made locally in the stores (try apple juice from the Roslagen area, sold in the same boxes as box wine, and differentiated according to the type of apples used in making them). And the cheeses have improved, which means some are amazing. And, different from everything else in the stores, really cheap. Comparatively speaking.
This was the last, or at least the latest, in a series of blog posts about our trip. I have written before about beating jetlag with your toddlers, traveling with toddlers, traveling with infants, traveling with a child with fever, people who complain about your kids when flying, and our night flight experiences. And I will probably write more.
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I am Wisterian Watertree, recently moved from Bangkok to Tokyo, with a brief visit to Honolulu on the way. I write about travel, especially with our three beautiful kids (two girls and one boy, soon turning four and a half - yes. they are triplets). Travel is education and fun rolled into one, and if you are like me, that is something you want to give to your kids. If you want more tips and want to find out when I will publish something, get it from my email list. If you want to be personal, drop me a note on email@example.com, or if you want general tips, follow me on Twitter @wisterianw.