Yes, I know. It has been ages since I posted anything here. Life has been full. We have not only moved to Sendai, the city of trees and a very pleasant place to live (if you can stand cold and snow). But my kids have also become fluent in English. thanks to their excellent teachers. And I have had crazy amounts of work in my day job.
And then the coronavirus came along and upended the entire travel industry. It is already worse than during the height of the SARS epidemic, and travel restrictions will start to bite soon. The Japanese tourism industry was just getting going, with a substantial part of the tourists coming from China. Do not believe that the Chinese hate Japan, by the way. They are very curious about their neighbors, and those who can love to visit. Especially if they can afford to buy souvenirs.
But now, nobody will travel anywhere, especially not the Chinese. If I had any shares in a cruise line, I would have wished I sold them two months ago. Diamond Princess has, thanks to botched quarantine, given the entire industry a bad name. It will be years before anything in the travel industry returns to normal.
The COVID-19 virus is very contagious, but so is the common cold. They are probably closely related, too. But the common cold does not kill people with asthma. The infection will spread rapidly everywhere, just like the common cold.
For us, it means even more local travel. We had planned overseas trips, but now people in Japan are nervous just to take the train - there have even been incidents where people who cough on trains have been beaten up by fellow passengers. So we will probably travel by car, since our kids have runny noses all the time. When we take them to the doctor now, the first thing they do is test them for COVID-19.
And we are likely to avoid large gatherings of people. In a country where the Tokyo Marathon has already been cancelled due to the risk of infection, you do not want to go somewhere you have to be within five meters of another person unless you have to. So shopping is out, and sightseeing more likely to be wide vistas which you can watch from a car window.
I will try to use some of the time I get to finish up the book I started a long time ago, about bringing your children to Japan. The culture will not change any more than it did after SARS, but some things will change. In Japan, for instance, even before the coronavirus scare, you were likely to find bottles of disinfectants in the lobby of most public buildings. They were placed there during the SARS epidemic, and they stayed. What will change with the coronavirus is not as clear, but you are safer disinfecting your hands, and wiping the hands of your babies and toddlers.
Eventually the virus will either stop infecting new people, as the quarantine was effective; or it will spread like the common cold until almost everyone has had it. Most people who get COVID-19 actually do not get more symptoms than that. But it will kill about a percent of the population or so, which means a million people will die in Japan. Yes, they would have died anyway (since it is the elderly and sick who die from coronavirus), but over a longer period. How long it will take is anyones guess. Perhaps some people are already immune (like there are some people immune to HIV). Who knows. But in the meantime, you probably do not want to travel with your children any more than I do.
So let us assume it takes two to three years until most people have had a COVID-19 infection. If you are familiar with the way viral infections spread, you will know that is a reasonable time for an infection to work its way through a population. After that time, it will be safe to travel again. So then, you are welcome to Japan (you are welcome now, too). And in the meantime, I will try to collect tips about traveling in and to Japan with children, toddlers and infants in such a way that you can make use of them easier than looking at this blog. Which means I will shift the direction a bit, and tell you more about how that goes.
Maybe you wondered where we went (or maybe not...). But the reason blog posts have been scarce lately (and that I missed the last issue of the newsletter) is simple: We are finally moving to a bigger place.
If you have read this blog, you know I have triplets, now aged five - and they are growing, not shrinking. The apartment in Tokyo that worked so well when they were smaller has simply become too small. So we are moving to something bigger. And as usual with these things, it takes longer than expected (and is more work, too). I will come back once we are settled.
The Tsukiji fish market is iconoc. The tuna auctions were world famous, and this used to be the source of fresh fish for all the sushi restaurants in Tokyo.
Used to be, because already 25 years ago there were delivery trucks going from the fishing ports around Tokyo directly to the most discerning sushi restaurants - with a tank of water on the back that was full of live fish. The sashimi does not get mich fresher than that.
The closed inner market
Tsukiji in the past, like the new fish market in Toyosu, was the center of the supply of one particular type of fish: The tuna. The tuna auctions - which now take place in Toyosu - are not only world famous, they are also the center of whole tunafish distribution in the world.
But the marketplace in Toyosu is very different from the Tsukiji market, even if the auctions themselves have not changed. The outer market, which is still open in Tsukiji, is like a restaurant floor of a department in Toyosu. In Tsukiji, the market is more and more like a traditional Japanese shopping street.
For sure, there are still restaurants in the outer market. Some are fun, some are worth it, and it is a good way to try other fish cuisines than sushi. Japan has lots of different ways of preparing fish. Sushi is only one.
Fried fish for toddlers
Your kids may not be old enough to eat sushi, but in that case they will love the minced, breaded, and deep-fried croquettes. The fish is not uncooked and the croquettes can be very hot when they come out of the fryer, but once they have cooled down a little they are a great snack.
The offering at Tsukiji has changed drastically since the inner market closed, however. Tsukiji was always a food market, not just a fish market. It moved to the present location from Nihonbashi, what is now the finance quarter, already in 1935. Different other types of food were gradually moved to speciality markets - meat in Shinagawa; flowers, fruit and vegetables in Nakano. But as Tokyo grew, even as the need for central markets declined, the fish market continued to grow.
Navigating Tsukiji with toddlers
The inner market is closed and the streets surrounding the old marketplace are increasingly less crowded. But they are no wider than traditional Japanese streets, and while they are well paved, there is a curb everywhere.
If it were not for all the tourists, this could be an average shopping street around any Tokyo mid-sized station. It is already more like Ameyoko in Ueno or Jizou-dori in Sugamo than a speciality fish market.
Tourists replacing customers
The tourists are increasingly replacing the traditional customers, and owners of the small sushi shops that still dot the neighborhoods of Tokyo do not come here any more. They used to keep quality up, but with those customers gone, many of the shops selling fish and shellfish have closed, and those that remain are more interested in goods that make for a spectacular display than a sublime taste experience.
While some of the old stores remain, many of them have been replaced by stores selling bean confectionery or senbei, the Japanese rice crackers. Nothing wrong in that - our kids love them - but it is hard to think of a food less associated with fish.
From fish market to press center
The closing of Tsukiji has been mooted many times. The area is much more crowded now than in 1935 and it is already hard to imagine what a traffic chaos it was on the surrounding streets. The area is also attractive to property developers, bordering on Ginza. It is hard to imagine that there will not be a group of shining new "manshions" as Japanese call their condominium buildings.
But first it will see a different role during the Tokyo Olympic Games - as a press center.
If the press moves in, it is hard to imagine journalists not writing extensive diatribes about the pleasures of the old fish market, since they hardly have to go out the door to do it. But they will be missing the point completely.
The market is already more for tourists than for locals, and it is relatively easy to navigate with a stroller - as long as you stay in the outer market, and do not try to go in to the coveted markets that still exist. But there are two big problems: There is nowhere to change your babies, and there is nowhere for them to rest their legs (apart from the restaurants that are still open).
Still easily accessible
Bordering on Ginza means you are very central in Tokyo, and it is easy to get to Tsukiji. A fine day it is a nice walk.
The new market in Toyosu, on the other hand, borders on Odaiba which is even more fun for toddlers than Ginza (the parks in Odaiba are much better). But it is harder to get to and even if the Yurikamome driverless train is very exciting, and there are decent public toilets (with changing rooms) in the shining new market, it is modern on the verge of sterile.
Toyosu is better for lunch than Tsukiji, but it has much less soul. Even if Tsukiji is turning into a tourist trap it is still an experience. But if you want to see what Japanese markets used to be like, go to Sugamo.
This was both a post about what to eat in Tokyo and sights to see (or not to see). I have written about the food in family restaurants and the alternatives, the ten foods your kids will ask for more about in Tokyo, the top ten things to do with toddlers in Tokyo (neither Tsukiji or Toyosu are among them), and plenty more tips for parents taking their toddlers to Tokyo.
How should you dress in Tokyo, and how should you pack to make your stay in Japan as easy as possible?
I have written about the seasons of Japan before (there are five), about how to cope with the Japanese winter, and how to use a laundromat in Japan (where they are called coin laundries). But let me collect some of the answers I have been giving when people ask on Facebook, hopefully you will find it helpful.
The best time to go to Japan
Tokyo has five pronounced seasons: Summer, fall, winter, spring, and the rainy season. Most people probably do not think about monsoon when it comes to Japan, but the weeks from end of May to the beginning of July may make you believe that you are in Thailand. Only it rains even more than in Thailand during the monsoon in parts of Japan. One hundred millimeters of rain - one meter - is not unusual. Per day. Do not worry, you will be perfectly safe - the Japanese are masters at handling this kind of situation. And even though Tokyo does not see that much rain, the weather is never fine during the rainy season.
Rain turns to summer
The rainy season suddenly turns into summer one day, and the sky clears as the temperatures start creeping up. And up. And up. Followed by the occasional typhoon, after which the temperatures creep up some more. Toward the end of August, Tokyo can be positively dangerous if you are not used to the heat. For a few days, Tokyo can be hotter than Bangkok.
And then it breaks off, although there can still be the occasional typhoon, all until October. But when September comes, the weather turns colder as the days start to be noticeably shorter. Normally, the sunrise in Japan happens around 7 AM, and the sun sets as early as 5 PM. But in summer, the sun rises about 5 AM, and does not set until 7 PM.
Shorter days and colder weather
As the days become shorter, the weather becomes colder. In October there can be a distinct nip in the air, and although the temperatures do not usually go below 5 degrees centigrade, the contrast against the 15 degrees not uncommon in daytime even in December feels like a distinct chill.
Despite this, the fall in Japan is both the most pleasant and arguably the most beautiful of the seasons of the year. The autumn colors are stronger and more varied than the cherry blossoms, but no less gorgeous.
Winter in most of Japan is brief, only a couple of months or less, and the Tokyo area does not see snow or degrees below zero every year. But the northern parts of Japan, especially at higher elevations on the western coast, can see incredible amounts of snow - the reason Japan has had two Olympic winter games.
The spring weather switch
And then winter suddenly turns to spring one day at the end of February or beginning of March. The first winds of spring switches the cold and dry air of Siberia for the warm and moist air of the South China Sea. A few weeks later the country is suddenly covered in a pink cloud, as the cherry blossoms break out all at once across the country. When the cherry trees drop their flowers and the leaves break out, the spring turns less spectacular. But the weather is nice and the temperatures pleasant. It is the best season to visit Japan, with the exception of the first week in May, a holiday week as it has three holidays in a row. Japanese people will fill up hotels and attractions as they take a brief but well-deserved break.
Dressing for the gods
Famously at the Grand Palace in Bangkok, behind the giftshop to the right, there is a shop where you can borrow skirts or trousers. You have to pay a 300 baht deposit, but you get it back.
Japan and Thailand are two of an handful of majority Buddhist countries, and they share a lot of the same attitudes. The reason you have to cover up in the Grand Palace is out of respect for the King, even though the Thai royal family has not lived there for ages. But even though they do not have trouser rental, covering up is something you have to do in the Japanese temples.
You will not be thrown out if you do not cover up in the temples in Japan, but you will be frowned upon. Japanese temples are different from Thai temples, they are not as big (with some exceptions), and they are more like small monasteries than megachurches. Usually, they are attached to a graveyard so make sure your kids behave as they would on a graveyard at home.
Spirits in the surroundings
Some of the biggest places of worship are not temples, but shrines. The most famous example is probably Yasukuni Jinja, but there are many others, both in Tokyo and beyond. The shrines are dedicated to the Japanese animistic shinto religion, where spirits are worshipped. They open their grounds to the local matsuri once a year - when the entire neighborhood comes out to party.
That does not mean the grounds of the shrines are any less hallowed but the form of worship is different. And then, there are churches, which there are surprisingly many (and a couple of mosques).
Something a bit confusing to visitors is that Japanese temples and shrines are not simply enclosed under a roof, they extend into their surroundings. The shrine is a single building but the surrounding park is no less part of the place of worship, since it is spirits in nature (including humans) which are being worshipped. It is the same with temples, but there the temple garden is part of the worship, since buddhism is about achieving clarity and unity with the universe.
Regardless of what place of worship you are visiting, regardless of whether you subscribe to the religion or not, you should behave decorously. Do not laugh or let your kids run around. And dress in clothes which do not expose too much skin. It is easier in Japan than Thailand, where the weather allows you to walk around in a bikini almost all year. In Japan, you could only do that in summer, because in August Japan is hotter than Bangkok. But it would not be very decorous. Dress is something covering your body appropriately. Tatoos do not matter in temples or shrines, they are a problem only in public baths (onsen or sento), and there you do not have any clothes anyway.
What should be be in your diaper bag (besides diapers?)
Always pack a change for yourself, and for your kid(s). Extra pants or panties if they are that age. Diapers of course, in the right size. Baby wipes. Plastic bags to throw away used diapers. A few towels, at least in summer.
Are shorts and T-shirt OK?
Shorts and T-shirts are OK in summer. Unless you like having a cold, you do not want to walk around in shorts and a T-shirt in winter - or even from October to May, since that would be rather uncomfortable.
You will be doing a lot of walking. Flipflops may not be the greatest idea. You need sturdy shoes that are easy on your feet, light, and does not make you sweat if you are going during summer. Some kind of springiness in the sole also makes your feet less tired.
Forget fashion, avoid blisters
This goes for you and it goes for your kids once they start walking. Forget fashionable, you want to come home without blisters, chafing, or corns. Socks are almost as important as the shoes, as any seasoned walker knows. But you will be doing city walking, so you do not want boots. Be nice to your feet when you get home and massage them with a soft cream, or better yet, go to one of the many massage places that dot Japanese cities. A foot massage will put you back approximately 7-800 yen, and after a full day of sightseeing it is worth it. Even after a half day.
If you are going in June, you will need to pack rubber boots. It rains other times of year too of course, so always watch the weather forecast. But there is no time of year which is guaranteed to be rain-free. Buying them in Japan is not a bad idea - the Japanese have made fashion accessories out of their rubber boots.
Count on washing up (and include it in the itinerary)
I have written before about how to use a laundromat in Japan - they are easy to find and easy to use, at least if you have used a laundromat before. It is relatively cheap, but if you are single you will not fill even a small machine more than once a week, unless it is summer in which case you will want to wash more often. The reason is simply that in the Tokyo summer heat and humidity, you will sweat a lot. If you have kids they will seeat a lot too, so you need to wash up often.
Sweating in winter
Unless you dress right, you can sweat a lot in winter too. If you are wearing a thick down coat indoors you will sweat a lot, and while you will probably be comfortable if you take it off, Japanese buildings, especially homes, are heated in a very spotty way. There may be spots that are almost as cold as outdoors, and places that are uncomfortably hot. And your kids will play until they are sweaty, even in winter. We recently found a playground in the Showa park in Tachikawa, which had a really good bouncy plaything. Big, like a trampoline, but not flat. They played and danced and jumped for two hours straight, and were dripping with sweat afterwards.
The benefit of underwear
Putting on a thick coat when you are dripping with sweat keeps you warm, but you will continue sweating for a while. Your coat will smell pretty badly after a while, and the sweat will be closed into the coat, not wicked away. Like it would be with a fleece coat. Wear Uniqlo heattech underwear, a sweater, a fleece jacket, and a windproof jacket. This makes it easy to manage how much heat you actually retain close to your body.
How many changes will your kids need (and you?)
It depends on the season and how long you plan to stay. And on the age of your kids. If they have accidents that require a change of clothes you will probably need at least two extra changes. In winter, you may not need new clothes every day (otherwise it is easy to calculate), but maybe three changes for a week. If you have small kids that are prone to milxplosions, you need several extra changes for yourself - at least one per day, maybe more.
In summer, you also need at least one change per day, because you will sweat a lot. Everybody does.
If you visit in January or February, Japan (except for Okinawa) can be really cold. The cold may not look so bad on the thermometer, but it is wet and the wind will make it feel much worse. Wind protection in the most important part of your clothing, but you also need some way of keeping warm - and to decrease the heating when you get indoors. Buildings - and trains - can be heated to an uncomfortable level, especially if you are wearing a heavy down coat. If you are wearing a light windproof coat that you can take off easily over a fleece jacket or wool sweater, with warm underwear like the Uniqlo Heattech wear that heats you up closest to the skin, then you will be well off whether you are outside or inside. Combine it with a muffler or mittens if you feel really cold.
Dressing in layers
The easiest way to dress in Japan, whether winter or summer, is dressing in layers. This applies to adults as well as kids, but your children, especially your toddlers, have built-in heat engines. Small children who sit in the stroller need to keep warm, as does teenagers. But while your kids are toddlers and early school age, they can play so much that they become sweaty even in subzero temperatures. You need to make sure they do not get cold once they stop, that is when they need to put on fleece jackets and a windproof jacket.
Why do people wear blankets in summer?
You sometimes see people, usually women, wrapped in blankets in the middle of summer. When it is 40 degrees outside you would not believe anyone needing a blanket. But the heat outside is exactly the reason that they need it. Unless they are breastfeeding, in case they may use the blanket to cover themselves and the child while feeding. Japanese women often breastfeed, but they take care not to disturb others - the number one rule for behavior in Japan.
The Japanese government has for several years run a very successful campaign called "cool biz" which is basically telling companies and their employees that it is OK to dress casually during the hot season.
The result has been considerable energy savings - because in Japan, the air conditioning runs continuously during July and August. But when the staff in the office is dressed casually, they will feel the cooling faster than if they wear suits. A pinstripe suit used to be daily wear for salarymen, as office workers are known in Japan. There are special summer suits without lining and made from lighter cloth, but they are still suits and if you wear one, you want the room to be pretty cold. That is why you see women wearing blankets, they are dressed in a lot thinner clothes than their male counterparts. And a blanket.
This was part of my regular advice about how to navigate Japan with toddlers and strollers. I have written about the ten best things to do in Tokyo with children in strollers, the seven best things to do a rainy day, how to get around Tokyo on the train (and how you should behave on the train). And five places you can take your kids to see the cherry blossoms during the Tokyo sakura season.
There is a convenience store every 500 meters in Japanese cities. They are really hard not to find. For the Japanese this means you hardly ever have to cook or have anything in the fridge. Many families give their schoolchildren money for the convenience store instead of a family dinner. But for those with smaller children, the convenience stores can also be a lifeline, especially for those who have an infant in tow.
While convenience stores aim to be convenient, they are not all equally convenient for everybody, however. Some stores are in areas with few parents, and they do not carry diapers (those who do have only small day packs). Others are too small to carry more than the bare minimum of necessities, and hardly offer more than snacks and drinks. The owners of the stores are masters at squeezing in shops where you would never have expected anyone to try to fit a store.
Three-packs in three chains
There are three big convenience store chains in Japan: 7-11, FamilyMart, and Lawson. Then there is a slew of smaller chains: Circle K, Sunkus, Daily Yamazaki, and many more. Some are owned by the big chains, and you will recognize the brands and names of the goods, even though you had never encountered that chain of stores before.
And then there are the important things that help you care for and feed your child. The convenience stores in Japan are everywhere, and the three main chains all sell the same basic tings. The difference between a Familymart, Lawson, and 7-11 is smaller than the stores which are supermarket-sized and the pocket-sized stores you would classify as kiosks if you could not walk into them.
Copy, taxes, and dropping off
What you want is a reasonably big store, and not one of the stores that are squeezed into a corner of a shopping center corridor. The bigger stores are easy to find when you go out, as they are usually on the street level. They typically have more than two aisles and you can bring in a stroller.
The stores have all the normal services of a convenience store, which goes far beyond the goods you need to run your everyday life. Since you are probably not going to pay taxes and bills, you may not see the need for their administrative services, but you may find it helpful to use the copier.
The stores all work in the same basic way, and have the same basic functions. There is usually a ticket printing machine, a copier-printer where you can print out physical copies of documents (and send and receive faxes if you should ever feel that need), an ATM, a ticket printing machine for tickets to shows and events, and a bathroom. If you are staying long, it is probably useful to know that you can also make payments (of your taxes and bills), and pick up Amazon and other Internet shopping packages (or anything you can receive from one of the ubiquitous courier firms). And you can drop off things to be shipped, although they often balk at receiving suitcases you want to ship to the airport, or some other destination. The reason they are reluctant is that they do not have any space to keep them. They may direct you to the dropoff center for the courier company. Japanese typically either go there with their luggage, or more often they will have the courier company come and pick it up. Kuronekko Yamato, the biggest courier company, does have an English customer service. You can call and ask them to pick up, but if you stay in a hotel, guesthouse or ryokan they will help you.
Hot water at lunchtime
The convenience stores make most of their business around lunchtime. The number of customers buying bento lunch boxes far outnumber other customers.
The customers buying lunch do not always buy bento. Many people have cup of instant ramen for lunch, and the convenience stores provide a pot of hot water for those customers.
That is useful for you if you have a baby who is still on formula. If you bring your own bottles, and either measure out the powder in advance, or use the Meji formula cubes, you can quickly create your own formula at the right temperature by cutting it with a little cold water from a bottle you just bought.
That is a useful service to know about, but if you are looking for something to wipe off the result of the latest milxsplosion, or a pair of extra diapers since you ran out, then the convenience stores are even better for you. The bigger stores normally have diapers - in packages of three. Since the stores have a limited assortment of things there is not a lot of choice when it comes to brands and sizes, so if you want a better selection go to the drugstores. As I have written about before, the drugstores are the easiest places to buy diapers in Japan.
Open when closed
But convenience stores are open when the drugstores are closed, and there may not be any drug stores in the vincinty of where you are. But in Japan, you can be pretty sure there will be a convenience store.
Just be aware that it can be pretty random whether they have any baby goods. The convenience stores ruthlessly clean out goods that do not sell from their shelves, and if diapers do not sell, they will soon be gone. The only reason the store may want to keep them is if there is a baby oriented attraction nearby, like the Anpanman Museum near the Familymart store where I took the picture. But otherwise it can be pretty random.
They have other things that are useful for traveling parents as well. Tissues are the most obvious - and the lotion tissues are soft enough to use as baby wipes. Just remember that they are not flushable.
Toilets without changing rooms
Speaking of flushable, all convenience stores have a toilet for customers. But very few have changing tables. If you have toddlers who walk by themselves it is very, well, convenient. But not with a stroller.
The other baby product they have is baby soap. Babies have sensitive skin and especially if you are staying in a cheap hotel you may not want to wash your baby with the hotel soap. So running down to the convenience store is an easy way of being nice to your babies skin. They have towels in the convenience stores too, by the way.
When you buy something in a convenience store in Japan, they will stick it in a plastic bag. Even if you buy an icecream bar the cashier will hand it to you in a plastic bag. Those bags are really useful as used diaper bags. When you want to throw away the used diapers it will come in handy.
If you have toddlers you may appreciate some other things. Band-aids are something you will often need but do not have handy, and as you know, kids are masters at scratching themselves. Tissues are usually something toddlers need as well, and for those times when your kids fall or scratch themselves, disinfectant wet tissues can also come in handy.
Of course you can buy food and snacks in the convenience stores as well, but they typically do not carry baby formula or other specialized goods. The convenience stores have fruit and sandwiches, normally very heavy on either mayonnaise or fried food. But there are exceptions, like the strawberry and cream sandwiches. If you have toddlers or school-age kids, they will love those.
Best toddler food
The best toddler food is onigiri. I have written before about the ten foods your kids will love in Japan. For us, besides shaved ice, our kids love both onigiri and senbei, the rice crackers which are the healthiest alternative to potato chips in the world (and taste better too).
So if it is daytime, you may want to look around for a drugstore. They are more likely to have what your babies need, but they are not about convenience - which is what convenience stores do.
This was one of my posts about everyday life in Japan. I have written about how and where to buy baby supplies, how to take the train in Tokyo (and the rules you have to follow when you do), how to use a Japanese laundromat, 20 questions people ask about bringing their kids to Japan, why there are three wastepaper baskets when you find any, and many more posts to help visiting parents get around in Japan.
Nothing ruins a vacation like being forced to stay in your hotel room wit a high fever, cough, and a nose that does not stop running. Well, maybe throwing up at the same time. Well, maybe your kids doing it is even worse.
So we had our kids vaccinated against the flu, with two separate shots a few weeks apart. They love telling everyone that since they are five years old, they did not cry when they got the shots.
So when my son came down with high fever and vomited everything we tried to feed him, we naturally called the nearby clinic, since a child with 40 deg c fever does not walk anywhere. They told us to come in about 5 PM.
By then, his fever was almost normal. The doctor listened to my sons lungs, looked in his throat, and took a very unpleasant test for flu (by inserting a probe in his nose). And sure enough, he had the flu. His sisters were completely unaffected and in the evening his temperature was down to normal and he ate a double helping of Japanese curry, so it was over quickly (although it is the second day now and he is asleep, even though he stopped taking naps around lunch on normal days). So naturally I asked myself what we could have done. There are four simple precautions you can take:
* Wear a mask
* Stay out of crowded places
* Wash your hands
Why people wear masks in Japan
The need to protect themselves against the flu has meant some very publicly visible ways of protecting themselves. People in Japan wear masks - surgical quality face masks - during large parts of the year. There are four reasons people wear them:
* They want to protect themselves against germs, in particular viruses.
* They want to protect themselves against allergens, in particulsr pollen.
* They want to protect others against getting their colds.
* They want to hide their faces.
The last reason is not as common as you might expect, given that at times half the people you see on the train are wearing masks. But if you want to hide your face, you may be hiding something else. We have a neighbor whom I have never seen without a mask, but he is evidently somewhat famous, which explains it.
The other three reasons are much more common. And while you can see people with masks at any time of year (usually because they have a cold), you see many more from November to March - flu season, followed by the cedar bloom.
The Hello Kitty Masks
If your kids hate wearing masks (my daughter complained that it chafed her ears) there are lots of variety with cute motives to choose from. There are child-sized masks with Hello Kitty and Mickey Mouse in any drugstore. The masks filter out anything the size of a flu virus and above, and since the virus has to go from the person sneezing to your mucus membranes before they die to infect you, it means you will be safe. Be careful when getting rid of the mask, as viruses can be infectious up until 30 days after expulsion from the host, and if you get live virus on your hands and touch your babies (for instance, blowing their noses), you could infect them.
The masks are extremely effective at filtering out pathogens, but also allergens. This is a real problem in Tokyo, because many people (like anywhere) are allergic to common plants. But it gets extra bad in spring when the Japanese cedar is blossoming.
When temperatures go over 10 deg c, the cedars start to flower. Since the mountains surrounding Tokyo are almost exclusively planted in cedar trees, and when they bloom they can create so much pollen that it looks like a sandstorm. The masks filter it out, making the air considerably easier to breathe for allergics.
The masked innovations
The Japanese mask makers are nothing if not creative, and while cute prints on childrens masks could probably count as an innovation, just trying to find the right grownup masks are more likely to leave you stymied.
There are masks for people with glasses, with mint and herbal aromas, with extra filtering, and with moisturizing pads. Masks actually moisturize the air that you breathe by keeping the air that you just breathed out close to your face. Moisturizing pads are usually less necessary, but one innovation still missing from the market is masks that channel away the snot from your nose when it is runny. If you have a runny nose cold, the inside of the mask can get pretty icky pretty fast. Not that this stops a Japanese salaryman, especially when there may be important meetings about the format of documentation.
Killing viruses: Poison and violence
Killing viruses (or virii, for all Latin sticklers out there) is not very different from killing humans. You apply a little poison and a considerable amount of violence, and the virus goes to the happy hunting grounds. Well, it may be debatable if it was alive in the first place, of course.
The amount of violence that it takes to kill something microscopic is very small, however. Your three-year old child will be able to excert sufficient force - when they wash their hands. The combination of the rubbing action and the soap is really deadly to germs, especially if you carefully wash away any residue. So make sure your kids wash their hands, not just at the end of the day, but also before meals and after playing in the dirt. There is usually a separate wash stand outside the toilets in Japanese restaurants, even in McDonalds.
Crowded train epidemics
There is always an extra peak in the influenza epidemics after the new years holidays. When kids go back to daycare the viruses they may have been carrying mutate to adapt to the new hosts, and when the parents crowd onto the commuter trains, they are sure to be sprayed with viruses.
I have written before about the daily travel rythm of Tokyo, and why you want to avoid bringing your kids onto the trains in rush hour. The risk of getting the flu is just one additional reason. When people litteraly are packed together tighter than sardines in a can, unable to move either hands or feet, one sneeze will infect tens of people. Including your children, if you managed tosqueeze them on board.
The lobby hand sanitizers
One thing that will help you kill viruses, although on your own hands rather than those of your kids, are the bottles of hand sanitizer you will find in the lobbies of hotels, office buildings, and in many stores. Just push the dispenser once and a small shower of rubbing alcohol comes out. Do not use it on your kids; while this is not drinking alcohol, the sting can be unpleasant. Especially if they rub it in their eyes.
Those bottles are a fairly recent addition to the Japanese virus-killing arsenal. There used to be nothing in the lobbies and stores, but the bottles were introduced after the 2011 Great Northeastern Japanese earthquake and tsunami. Outside of Japan, it may be better remembered as the cause of the Fukushima Dai-ichi disaster. But following the disaster, companies and government offices started putting out bottles of hand sanitizer in their lobbies. Initially it was intended to ward off far worse epidemics, but the hand sanitizers proved so effective in reducing sick leave that they stayed.
An opening at the garglery
You may wonder what gargling has to do on the list of preventive measures, but it is very simple. The virus attaches to themembranes of the nose, throat, and mouth. There, they take over the cells of your body, making them produce more viruses in the process.
That is why a runny nose is a good thing when you have a cold, and why the influenza virus is more prevalent in winter. Winter in Japan means the air is dry, which is why you can see mt Fuji from Tokyo. There is no haze, because it freezes out in the cold air.
When the air is moist there is a constant lubrication of the membranes in your breathing apparatus. When the air is dry this does not happen. That is why a runny nose makes it harder for viruses to stick - and why gargling is effective. Always drink a lot (of water) when you are out, and gargle when you come home.
What do do to protect yourself from the flu
So let me sum up what you should do to protect yourself from the flu:
* Get vaccinated (it worked for two of our three kids!)
* Wear a mask when in public places
* Wash your hands often with soap and water
* Do not re-use the same towel to wipe your hands and your childrens faces, use paper towels
* Gargle when you get "home".
* Avoid rush-hour trains
This was part of my ongoing coverage about life in Japan. I have written about safety for tourists in Japan, what you should plan for your budget, how to figure out where to stay, how to buy diapers and other baby supplies, what and where to eat with your kids, ten foods your kids will love in Japan, how to cope with winter, how to use a laundromat, and how to avoid insect bites (and when you need to do it).
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You may not be old enough to remember, but there was a time when the air in Tokyo was so polluted that there were oxygen vending machines in the streetcorners. Japan was drowning in household garbage, since the small islands have limited space for landfill - in particular landfill that pollutes by runoff into the groundwater, smells and attracts noxious birds. The traffic was so bad that it could take several hours to get from one part of the city center to another. And all those cars would create even more pollution.
Today, Japan is well on its way to meet the Paris targets for carbon dioxide pollution, and the country could become a fossil-free economy if the governement worked a little harder on it. All households recycle plastics, glass, and metal, and household garbage incineration generates hot water and electricity. Most people take the train or subway when they want to go somewhere.
The air is clean and breathable, except when there is a dust storm from China or the Japanese cedars are flowering. There are so many of them in the mountains surrounding Tokyo that the pollen becomes like a dust cloud. But in winter, you can see mt Fuji from almost anywhere in Tokyo.
Quiet and poop-free
.But even though Tokyo is one of the biggest cities in the world, it is also one of the cleanest. Even though dogs outnumber children (by some counts two to one or more), it is rare to see dog poo anywhere outside the dog exercise compounds in the parks, and even there the owners pick it up. There is hardly any grafitti (it is considered a crime, although sometimes the grafitti remains for months in unmonitored places). There is only occasional littering, even though there are no public wastebaskets.
And it is quiet. Noise is a kind of pollution but you do not have to go far from the main streets of any neighborhood in Tokyo at night for it to be as quiet as a boreal forest, the occasional cyclist.
The main reason that Tokyo is such an ecologically successful city despite its size rests on two things: strict regulations and an eco-conscious population. And this is also how you notice the eco-consciousness as a visitor.
The most noticeable thing is the lack of public wastepaper baskets. You have to carry your garbage with you either until you get "home" or until you come to one of the few places with wastepaper baskets. There are public wastepaper baskets in some parks, in the train and subway stations, and in some convenience stores.
Triple wastepaper baskets
There used to be wastepaper baskets outside all convenience stores, where you could throw away the packaging of the things you just bought, or the bento trays after eating. But in many places they have moved them inside the stores, because people threw away their household trash. In Japan, garbage is collected on alternate days, so you have to keep your trash at home until the pickup day comes.
That does not apply to diapers (or nappies) which are not recyclable no matter what you do with them. There are usually plastic bags and wastepaper baskets in the changing rooms, but not always. That is why you need to carry a few plastic bags of your own, so you can put your trash there and tie it shut when you are done with the change. Even if it is tempting you should not throw it away in the convenience store or train station wastebaskets. Especially not in summer. You can imagine yourself what it will smell like.
There will usually be at least three wastepaper baskets in a row, which are used for sorting garbage. All garbage in Japan is sorted in at least burnable and plastics. In addition the PET bottles and cans are sorted separately, and often glass bottles as well. The train station wastebaskets usually have a separate wastepaper basket for newspapers and magazines, especially the incredibly popular manga comic books that people read on the train. Those are often fished out by people who resell them from streetcorner stalls for 100 yen or less.
Use it till it breaks
Japan has a long tradition of re-use and resource stewardship. To mend things and use them until they have broken so badly that they can not be used anymore is common, but so is throwing away things that are no longer wanted. But the perception of what is old and what is broken is not necessarily the same as yours. At times, things that may be considered completely new are thrown away. Often they end up in the recycling stores, if they can be reused.
Mottainai means no waste
It begins at home, where children are told that the "mottainaimonster" will come if they waste water, or heat, or cold, or other things. "Mottainai" translates as "wasteful" and is very negative when it comes to household economy, although it does not really apply on the macro plane (to things like bridges to nowhere and airports on uninhabited islands). But not wasting is a virtue in Japan, although it is always subsumed by the goals of the activity. If you have a goal to achieve a certain amount of waste is allowed, and if the goal is to entertain, expected.
Not wasting, including time
Not wasting means not wasting time as well, which is one reason trains always run on time. To consider your neighbor and their resources is the oil that makes the gears of the Japanese society revolve and makes sure that things do not come to a screeching stop. That includes time. To waste the time of other people is frowned upon, so as a tourist you will be appreciated if you make your questions easy to answer and if you do not ramble along but come to the point quickly. While people will take a long time to become visibly frustrated, they will be seething inside that you are taking advantage of their kindness and wasting their time.
This was one part of my ongoing series about daily life in Tokyo. I have written about how you buy diapers as a parent, how and where to buy other baby supplies, how to get around in Tokyo taking the train, how to use a laundromat in Japan, how you can get your tax back when you go shopping, and what foods in Japanese supermarkets your kids will love. And answers to 20 common questions about traveling with children in Japan.
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Did you know you can get the tax back on the diapers you buy in Japan - and then some? It is one of the perks you can enjoy as a foreign visitor.
The stores that will give you tax back have a special red sticker in the windows. Usually you have to spend over a certain amount, which can vary from 30 USD to 300 USD. You will have to fill in a special form that declares you will not resell the goods you have bought, and that you are not living in Japan and are not buying for someone living in Japan. And you will have to show your passport, so be sure to bring it.
Make sure to get all the tax back
When you shop you either get the tax free price right away, or the store will give you the tax back. If you shop in a mall you can package all the items together. In that case, you need to seal them in the same bag as other items. Normally, only consumable items need to be sealed in special bags.
Be careful to only shop in stores that actually give you the full 8% back. Some will not give you all the tax back.
Additional social discount
Some stores will give you an additional discount if you show your passport. Others, like Matsumoto Kiyoshi (at least some stores) give you an extra 5% on top of the 8 % tax back if you sign up for their social media channel. And I just got an offer for a 7% off cupon from BIC Camera when I rented a car.
Other stores have a similar offer. This means you can buy a package of diapers for 1100 yen instead of 1500 yen. Even more if they have a discount offer. And it may be even more if they have a special offer. Check before you shop.
An extra tip is to buy gift cards in a ticket store and pay with them. Gift cards is a very common gift in Japan but sometimes people want to cash in on the full amount rather than buy piecemeal. So they sell the gift cards. Sometimes companies also ask employees to buy gift cards before the end of the fiscal year to increase turnover, and give the employees a discount, and they will sell them instead of using them.
You buy the gift cards in the ticket shops that also sell concert tickets, train tickets and other tickets of all types. The ticket stores buy the gift cards at maybe 10% off face value and sell them at 95% of face value. So if you buy gift cards and pay with them you get a 5% additional discount.
The 5% additional discount
Just check in advance that the store takes the kind of gift card you want to pay with. An additional 5% takes an additional 50 yen off your packet of diapers, which may not soung much but if you buy something else than diapers which takes less space in your suitcase than diapers, you can get 50 dollars off your 1100 dollar purchase.
If you have a credit card that gives you an additional discount or cash back, check if you can use it to pay for the gift cards. That will give you an additional discount an in addition of course the airline points you are no doubt collecting for your next Japan trip.
The department stores take most kinds of gift cards. And they have desks with English speakers to help you.
Did you enjoy this post? It is one in a series of posts about shopping in Japan. I already covered buying baby supplies in Japan, how to shop for diapers in Tokyo, and what to but to prepare for the Japanese winter.
Anyone who thinks Japan is expensive should know that there is a snack which costs only one US cent - 10 yen. In the picture below you get 30 for 278 yen plus 8% sales tax, but in the Lawson stores they sell single sticks for 9 yen. That is cheaper than senbei, ang less than a tenth of the price of onigiri.
The price is not the only amazing thing about the Umai Bou. The snack comes in a variety of flavors, some of whinch may be a little too spicy for small kids. But there are other flavors which are more child-friendly.
The Umai Bou (tha name translates simply as "tasty stick") comes in a variety of flavors, some seasonal. They also make promotion versions for events like the launch of different anime. Try giving yor kids the corn potage flavor, or cheese (which does not taste like Cheetos). As usual, the best thing is to check yourself first before giving it to your children.
The taste variation is the most fascinating thing about the umai bou, since it is not much to write home about nutritionally. It is filling but not for a long time since a lot of what you are eating actually is air.
The Umai Bou snack has a cosistency somewhat similar to cheese doodles, but the similarities end there. It looks a bit like the traditional Japanese fish paste chikuwa, because the production process is somewhat similar.
Seriously, nothing much happens in Japan on New Years Eve. It is very much like Thanksgiving in the US. Most people enjoy a traditional meal with family, watch the song competition on TV, and go to the shrine to give alms to the gods, get blessed and get their fortune told for the new year.
When the Christmas decorations come down, which they do on December 26 if not sooner, they are replaced with traditional new yer
ars decorations made from bamboo and pine branches. They will only stay until offices open again on January 3, although since many offices do not open until January 7, they may stay until then.
In resudential areas temporary shacks selling new years decorations start appearing just before Christmas. They are usually affiliated with a nearby shrines and the decorations have religious significance. You are supposed to destroy them by burning them at the shrine the year after.
Renewal and reflection
In the old Buddhist tradition you would extinguish the fire in the hearth in the evening, and make a new one in the morning. New year in Japan is a time for renewal and reflection, and preparation is a big part of the celebration. Traditional households turn over the tatami mats, throw away everything old, and celebrate by eating a traditional meal. The reflection extends to companies and stores, which normally are closed over New Year. Everything is closed, including ATMs and convenience stores. Restaurants may be open, but most will be closed.
From Chinese year to calendar year
The Chinese new year used to be the same time of year, but when Japan adjusted the calendar and the calendar year became the official year instead of lunar year during the Meji revolution, the end of the year became the end of the calendar year.
People go visit the shrine at New Years Day, eat soba noodles, and special new years dishes. It is more like Thanksgiving in the US than New Year anywhere else. However, this year is a bit different: It is the last new year of the Heisei era, since the old emperor (and he is really old) steps down in April and hands the throne to his son. There will be several public holidays in May celebrating this. So products with the Japanese year written on them will be excellent souvenirs.
Theme park and shrine celebrations
That there are few to no public celebrations does not mean that there are no celebrations, of course. If you want to join the more than a million who do so at the Meji shrine, that is a special experience, although trains are more crowded than at regular rush hour. There is also a special train from Shinjuku to mt Takao to see the sunrise.
The big celebrations are happening at the theme parks in Japan. There are fireworks at Disneyland, New Years celebrations at Universal City Japan in Osaka, and at many other theme parks and discotheques in Japan.
So what does this mean for travelers with children? With museums closed, public gardens closed, attractions not open, and the most fun thing to do is visiting shrines. There are lots of them, not just the Meji shrine. Many are even more interesting, like the shrine to admiral Togo in Shibuya, the undisputed victor of the biggest fleet battle of the Russo-Japanese War and the only Japanese admiral who has had a Finnish beer named after him. There is also the Yasakuni shrine, which is fascinating whatever you think about its precepts. The Yushukan war museum is open on New Years Day, but there are several days during end of December when it will be closed, so check the website before you go. There is also the Kanda Myojin, one of the grandest shrines in Tokyo.
Japanese shrines are dedicated not to personified gods like the Greek temples, but forces of nature, sometimes personified as emperors. Or admirals. The hatsumode, the visit to the shrine at the first day of the new year, is a great time to see Japanese traditions. And the shrines are not as crowded as you might think.
I have written about holidays in Japan on my blog before, about coping with the Japanese winter, celebrating Christmas in Japan and about the Golden Week holiday. And I covered the Japanese travel year as well as the Japanese travel day. Please check it out if you are planning a trip to Japan with your kids, especially Tokyo or Osaka.
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I am Wisterian Watertree, recently moved from Tokyo to Sendai, previously of Bangkong and Honolulu. I write about travel, especially with our three beautiful kids (two girls and one boy, soon turning seven - 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 firstname.lastname@example.org, or if you want general tips, follow me on Twitter @wisterianw.