I read a thread in one of the Facebook groups where I am a member about worrying during travel. You can worry about lots of things in addition to the things you normally worry about with your kids, like them falling sick or falling down a cliff or falling prey to a predator. Or falling meteorites.
When you travel, the dangers are very different than you are used to from home. Where I come from, the two things you have to worry about is bears attacking in spring and running out of gas for your snowmobile in the middle of the forest. Neither is a problem in Tokyo.
Things are so different when you travel. There are exotic animals with stings and teeth, exotic flowers with thorns and poisonous berries, exotic people who will lure you with exotic dances into exotic bars and spike your drinks and take your money. Well, the last one may be less of a concern if you have three kids in tow.
Continous Travel Worries
They bring their own concerns, though. You continously have to worry about the kids falling off a cliff, or the bed. You have to worry about all the stinging insects and especially the diseases they may carry. They do not have to be lethal to put you off travel for a long time - dengue fever is one of the most unpleasant diseases you can have. You have to worry that your child does not run out into the road, or the pram trundles down the stairs, or that they put their fingers in an electric socket, eat a dangerous chemical, or run into a sharp corner and hurt themselves. And you have to worry about traffic.
Same Worries At Home
Luckily, most of the things you need to worry about when you travel are the same as those you worry about at home. And the remedies are the same. Childproofing an AirBnB is not very different from childproofing your home, although you want to be careful with the glue on the corner and edge protectors. You do not want it to remove paint or veneer, which may happen. Our furniture at home is a testimony to this, exposing spots and tearmarks that someone without triplets may think looks terrible (we are past caring). That means you can not use your regular childproofing gear. We used masking tape and wadded up newspapers before our kids got large enough to understand that a sharp corner hurts if you run into it. As you probably have guessed, it happened pretty fast.
Do The Descriptions Match?
That the place you have rented is not childproof and that your kids will break something so you have to pay is a big worry when you rent an apartment or condo. It is less of a worry in a hotel, as I have written about before, but we do not fit in a hotel. Unless we book several rooms, and then the money worry becomes too big.
The descriptions of the places leave a lot to desire. We had a lovely place in Hawaii but when our kids took the doors off the bookshelf and started chewing the books, I started to worry. For sure, the furniture was pretty crappy to begin with, so even if we had broken it I do not think we would have had to pay much. But it is still a worry. And the description, even the photos, showed nothing of the kind. So maybe I should have worried more about the mismatch between the description and the actual place.
Traffic Worries On Sidewalks
In most places, your children hurting themselves on the furniture is something to worry about indoors, but as soon as you go out, traffic is a worry. In southeast Asia, people drive like madmen, and adults have to watch out that they do not get run over by a motorcycle messenger running full steam in the different direction. In Japan, the streets are so narrow that you have to duck into a doorway so that you do not get squeezed by a passing car. In Seden, cars skid and swirl on the icy roads so you have to dive into the ditch not to get run over. The list goes on. There is no way a toddler can fathom what is going on.
Eating Bugs, Dirt, And Parasites
Most people maybe do not worry that their kids will eat the furnishings, but if there are bugs and dirt you should worry about your kids eating them, at least until they are a certain age. While children actually improve their immune system by ingesting various bacteria and other bugs, they can also get parasites and worms that you do not want in their bodies. So while they are the age when anything goes into their mouths, you should worry about them eating dirt. As they grow a little bit older you can stop worrying about that and go back to worrying about biting bugs. Ticks are really bad, and in Southeast Asia you have centipedes that can be up to 30 centimeters long, if not longer. Luckily, you do not see them all that often. Not as often as mosquitoes, which you will find everywhere in Thailand, and often indoors. We had big problems with that in Thailand - one day my wife took our daughter to the hospital, since she was covered in purple splotches. It was after that we started with double mosquito nets.
Unknown Window Screens
Window screens are almost completely unknown in Thailand, although mosquito nets (around your bed) is very common. In winter the temperature is low enough to sleep with your windows open, although in summer you want to keep the air conditioner going to keep the temperature comfortable even at night, although it dries out the air of the room which is not good for your kids either, especially if they are too small to drink water on their own. Drying out the membranes of the nose and throat means it becomes easier to catch infections. And you do not want that either.
Changing The Smell Of Your Kids
Luckily the mosquitoes are easy to keep away.
We actually used to have two mosquito nets around our kids beds, in layers. As mentioned before, mosquitoes can spread some really nasty diseases. But that only keeps them away when they are in their beds. Of course, infants spend most of their time there anyway.
Many insects track their prey by their chemical emissions, especially body odor. You can not get rid of it by washing, they smell your body. Including the carbon dioxide on your breath. I actually saw a report that the body odor of children infected with malaria changes so they become even more attractive and easier to find for the mosquitoes carrying the malaria parasite.
Hiding Body Odor
So the best way of keeping mosquitoes away is to make sure they do not get your scent. And your body odor is actually easy to hide. There are chemicals like DEET and several organic versions using different herbs and plants which confuse the insects. You can not mask the plume of carbon dioxide from your mouth, but you can make your body smell differently. Spray your children before they go out. It makes sense to use a combined sun screen and insect repellent, especially in the tropics, because then you do not have to worry about sunburn on top of insect bite worries.
Hiding From The Sun
That is not even mentioning sunburn and sunstroke. Sunburn may be more painful to deal with (unless you like comforting crying toddlers), but sunstroke is a lot more dangerous. That is why you want your kids to drink plenty of water, and why you want them to wear a hat (even if they do not like it).
This is only the beginning of the list. I have not even mentioned worrying about money or missing the plane. But like all worries, there is a cure: To prepare.
For sure, you prepare very differently for an encounter with mosquitoes than for an encounter with a motorcycle messenger barreling down the sidewalk. You prepare differently for encounters with sharp corners than you prepare for countering sunburn. But the important thing is that you can prepare. And you should.
This was part of my ongoing series about traveling with toddlers. Did you like it? Why not sign up to my mailing list so I can tell you whenever there is a new installment? Just fill in the form below!
In Japan, most people do not have cars, despite this physically small country being home to the headquarters of a lot of the global car industry (and arguably the leaders in technology as well). And most people do not need a car.
If you are making a long trip, say going from Tokyo to Kyoto, Osaka or Sendai, or anywhere in the same radius, there is no discussion: taking the Shinkansen train is by far the most economical and fastest way of getting around in Japan. As a matter of fact, there is no alternative. There are no flights from Tokyo to Nagoya any more.
Beyond those cities, however, the train time-wise breaks even with flying. It takes about the same time to fly from Tokyo to Osaka as it does to take the Shinkansen if you include the transit time to and from the airport.
When You Want To Rent A Car
The other alternative is renting a car, but until your children turn 6, they travel free on the train. And until they are 12 the tickets are half price. So renting a car for long distance travel does not actually pay, unless your children are over 12 or you are going somewhere that does not have easy train access - yes, those places exist. Probably the most famous is Kusatsu Onsen. And if you want to bring luggage, skiing equipment or surfboards will be a hassle to take on the train and expensive to send ahead.
Going to Hokkaido or Kyushu, the southernmost and northernmost of the main Japanese islands, airlines are time-competitive with the Shinkansen - and more. If you are going to the outlying islands in Okinawa, to Minami Oshima or the Ogasawara islands (formally a part of Tokyo city), there are no trains. And taking the ferry takes a day. At least.
Okinawa Is Car Country
But when you are in Okinawa, you need a car to get around. There are long-distance buses, but then you have the problem of getting to your final destination. And that is true for many other places in Japan as well. Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto are criss-crossed with subways and trains, but you only have to go to Ibaraki prefecture, 45 minutes north of Tokyo, to find yourself as lost without a car as if you were in Dallas, Atlanta, or Los Angeles. While there is public transport, it is scarce and takes detours. Even in Tokyo prefecture there are places where the bus only comes twice a day.
When You Need Car Seats
So you need a car, if that is where you are staying. But if you do, you also have a lot more freedom to move around. Just remember that until the age of six, your kids have to be in child seats or booster seats, and they all need seatbelts. If you are a family of six, a seven-seater is a perfect fit (because you also need somewhere to put your luggage).
Makes No Sense Before Age Six
Renting a car does not make sense if you have children under six for long trips. Until the age of six, which is when children in Japan start school, they travel for free on trains. If you want them to have a seat of their own, the seat reservation is half price. Unless you take the fastest Shinkansen trains. I wrote about the convenience of taking the train in Japan before, as well as taking the train in Tokyo. But I am not sure I mentioned that the kids pay half price between six and 12.
Cheaper Without Children
So how does the train tickets compare to renting a car? Let us say you want to take a three hour train ride, which usually will cost in the area of 3000 yen per person one way (depending on distance). So you pay 18000 yen for a family of three grownups and three kids under six (you have to go back as well). The cost of renting a car is about 5000 yen per day, but of course it depends on size and model. And you have to pay for gasoline and parking, if it is not included in the rent for the place where you are staying.
Not Economical In Urban Areas
In the metropolitan areas, the pricing means even for short distances, car travel is not economical. For short distances, you rarely pay more than 500 yen on the train, and there are trains almost everywhere you want to go. If you are staying within walking distance from the station, you have to make 10 trips (20 if you need a car as big as we do) around central Tokyo. Not counting gasoline and parking, both of which can be pretty expensive, especially in the dense metropolitan areas.
Again, if you are going to stay in a part of the country where distances are more of a factor than central Tokyo or Osaka, you will probably find a parking spot available at your house or apartment. Even in those comparatively sparsely populated parts of the country, short-term public parking is comparatively expensive. Rent a spot for a year and it is much more reasonable. The reason is that you are not allowed to buy a car before you can show that you have a spot to park it in.
No International Drivers License
Apart from the credit card you need to pay for your car rental, you need one more thing. And it is not just your drivers license. For people from most countries, you need an international drivers permit, often known as an international drivers license - although there is no such thing.
What you get is an International Driving Permit (IDP) according to the 1949 Geneva Convention on Road Traffic. This is a paper booklet with your photo in it which you have to show together with your national drivers license when you rent the car, and to the police officer if they should ask you. If you do not get the IDP from the police or drivers license office at home, you will get it from the automobile federation or similar.
That is the only formal documentation you will need to drive in Japan. There is no extra training to help you drive on the left, or to handle some of the Japanese-specific traffic rules.
Two Car Seat Exceptions
One of those rules concern car seats. Children up until the age of six must be in a child seat, which can be a booster seat if they are big enough. The law is flexible about the age where you go from a forward-facing seat to a booster seat. All passengers must wear seatbelts regardless of age and how big they are, with two exceptions: If the child is ill, so she has to lie down; or if you are breastfeeding or changing diapers. It is not clear how new diapers would stop a child from being catapulted forward if the car comes to a sudden stop (like runs into something). It is safer to find a rest stop.
You will not get fined if you are caught with a child without child seat, but you will get a point struck from your license, which may not affect you as much as an international visitor as it would a Japanese driver.
Renting Spotless Seats
Rent the seats from the car rental company. They are guaranteed to be spotlessly clean - no Japanese rental car company would consider providing seats which were dirty or had wears or tears. As is the car, by the way.
Do not bring your own car seats unless you want your children to sit in them on the plane. You will not be able to use them in trains, buses, or even taxis. Japanese taxis are exempt from the otherwise stringent requirement to have children sit in car seats. The reason, supposedly, is that the drivers are so well trained that they have no accidents.
Local Traffic Signs
Japan is a signatory to the 1949 Geneva Convention on Road Traffic, but it is not a member of a number of other international conventions on road traffic. The traffic signs are completely local, and the stop sign is an inverted red triangle with a white border and the word 止まれ (tomare) which means stop in Japanese. It makes sense to know some of them, even if most of them will be evident from the context. You will not need any assistance to figure out that two crossed yellow bars with black chevrons on them mean “railway crossing”, but you will need to know that all crossing cars have to stop before the crossing and that the driver is supposed to look and listen (opening the window if you have to). This is strictly enforced.
Unharmonious Speed Limits
Another thing that may surprise you when you drive in Japan is the speed limits. And that people do not follow them, if the traffic moves more smoothly at some other speed.
Japanese cities are densely built and there is not much space for cars, so the speed limits inside cities are often 30 kilometers per hour, or even 20. But evrn bigger roads have a speed limit of 50, and the maximum speed - even on the excellent freeways - is 80 km per hour.
Except when it would be unharmonious to drive that slow. This is Japan, where a nice surface and smooth operation has higher priority than formal rules. So when cars start lining up behind you, you had better speed up. Nothing makes a Japanese driver as angry as being stuck behind a road hog, even if you are sticking strictly to the speed limit. If you pick up enough of a train the police may even wave you to the side. As a foreigner you will find it extremely difficult to know what speed you should really drive at.
Avoiding Older Drivers
Apart from that, you have to be careful about seniors wandering out into the road in unpredictable places. They are a much bigger danger than kids running out into the road. Senior drivers, who feature a mark like a flower on their cars, tend to have bad eyesight and hearing, and overestimate their reaction speed and driving skills. They are involved in a disparate number of accidents, sometimes really stupid ones like mistaking the accelerator for the brakes and ramming convenience stores. If you see a car with a tag like the that, avoid it.
No Foreign Driver Sticker
The senior driver tag is not the only one you will see on cars, by the way. While there is no sticker saying “the driver is a foreigner” that would be really helpful in defusing the road rage you may cause by sticking strictly to the rules, there is a tag that you can put on your car which lowers the expectation threshold of Japanese drivers and make them more forgiving of your bad driving. That is the “new driver” tag which you have to put on the car until you have had your license for a year. It looks like an arrow pointing down, the left half yellow, the right green.
Absolute Beginners Brand
In Japan, this mark (the 初心者 or shoushinsha mark) is used to show that something is intended for beginners, often appearing on websites or in brochures where they give the basic explanation of a concept, or a super-easy explanation of how to fill out a form. It can be used in any situation where you are a beginner - not just on cars - as a shorthand for where to go. A pair of magnetic marks will cost about 500 yen. You can order from Amazon, or if you like, fill in the form below and I can send you a pair.
This post is part of my ongoing series helping parents make the most of Japan with their kids. I collected links to other useful articles on a separate page (link coming soon), but meanwhile, fill in the form below to get fresh updates.
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Family rooms are common in Japan and Korea, where multi-generation travel is the norm. When you have grown up co-sleeping with your parents, you think nothing of co-sleeping with your grandparents as well. And if the bed is a futon mattress on the floor, then the boundaries of your bed are harder to draw than if it is raised 30 cm above the floor.
Since children stay for free until they are six in most cases, the hotels do not make anything off their stay. On the contrary, they are a cost since they will eat breakfast and require changes of bed linen and room cleaning. When you book a family room, you have to pay for the kids as well - it is baked into the price of the adult stay.
If you are a group of more than three - for instance, a family of five with a grandma in tow - you are probably better off if you stay in an AirBnB than a modern hotel. You can find very nice places for a fraction of what you would pay for comparable hotels. And you do not have to trade off much, you might even gain from it. Our kids still talk about Villa Kohola that we rented in Okinawa, surrounded by a wonderful garden and within walking distance to the beach. But there were no hotels near there. Well, a small pension up the hill.
We had a wonderful trip to Okinawa, by the way, and it made a great impression on our kids, providing them with some really good learning experiences.
But we had to rent a villa to house all of us. If you are a big group, the price comes down quickly. But the supply is limited. You have to be very early to find a great place that is not booked already.
Finding a great place is much harder than finding a place. Especially if there are more than two of you, the number of people most hotels are built for. Reviews on AirBnB are as accurate as reviews on Amazon, but occasionally you hit a dud. And you can hardly return the room you rented to AirBnB and pick a new one, like you would return a book you did not like to Amazon and pick a new one.
Getting the place you are going to stay right is crucial, both to the enjoyment of your trip and the economics of it.
But if you have to book three rooms in a hotel that has 300 rooms you are booking one per cent of their rooms. If you are booking three rooms in a hotel with only thirty rooms it is ten percent.
More Than One Room Required
As a family of six (when we bring grandma), we often run into problems how to stay when we travel. Not all hotels are as well-equipped as the Hilton Tokyo Bay, one of the Disney partner hotels close to Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo Disney Sea. They have family rooms which sleep up to five - adults. And kids under six are free (as long as they use the existing beds). The breakfast was great for kids too, even if the pool could have been bigger (and as warm as that of Sheraton next door). But they have a great convenience store downstairs.
But not every place is like that, and most hotels have much smaller rooms. Business hotels hardly have space for an adult to turn around, and capsule hotels are not even possible to consider. This means you are either constrained to two rooms or very upscale hotels (or ryokan, which is not a bad idea). Or AirBnB. Case in point: When we stayed in the Royal Park Hotel The Haneda at Haneda Airport, we had to have two rooms. Only if you have three four-year-olds you can imagine the soundscape of the bickering and argumentation for who should sleep with their parents and who would sleep with grandma, because with two rooms they can not run back and forth between the beds until they settle down (or we tell them it is enough), as they would if we were sleeping in a family room.
No Discount For Bulk Purchases
When you fill up the hotel that way you should expect a discount. But booking an AirBnB is much cheaper than booking three hotel rooms. Cheaper than one hotel room, in many cases. And booking the right place to stay is crucial for your positive memory of the trip. Even if it is just a stopover. We typically use Booking.com rather than AirBnB, by the way. The biggest advantage is not the selection - professional hosts tend to be on both AirBnB and Booking.com. But Booking.com offers something else that is very useful: Free cancellations. If you have not decided when or where you are going, you can book a great place and then cancel if your plans change, without any extra cost. The free cancellation periods vary though, so you have to be careful that you cancel before the offer expires.
But if you are going to stay, it is surprising that the booking sites - or the hosts - do not treat you better. For sure, their business is to run an automated system, not to be hospitable to people they have never met, but to give you a membership and points that you can only use at their site is a bit lame. When you frequently book for a large family, having some way of skewing the selection towards child-friendly rooms would be nice. Even though they will probably not get paid for it, since children under six are usually free in Japan, as long as they do not need beds (or cribs) of their own.
The Hotel Will Forget Your Name
f I go into a store and buy ten pairs of trousers, they will probably throw in some socks and underpants as well, because I am now a very good customer, and they probably want me to come back. Preferrably before I have worn out all the pants.
But once I check out of a hotel room I might as well have taken the next flight off the surface of the Earth. I greeting messages from the place we stayed in Seoul, which is great because we would definitely consider staying there for our next trip. It is great because I keep forgetting where it was (in Seoul, but I get the location wrong for some reason).
But other hotels seem hardly to care less. Maybe they thought our kids were too noisy. But we clearly did not make it into the VIP category. Or maybe they are so big that they do not care. I can sort of relate how the Hilton Tokyo Bay, one of the Disney partner hotels and one we often use, do not feel it is meaningful to come back to all customers. Although if they knew my kids, they would know that dropping me an email a couple of months before their birthday would guarantee them a booking. Frozenland is not open yet but when it opens my kids are likely to be first in line.
Being too few for a group booking does not really help. The closest I have got to someone offering group discounts to ordinary people is Hotelplanner, but a family of six is does not seem to be big enough for them to bother (they have not came back to my requests).
So perhaps as a traveling family you need to be more proactive, and bring more families to a location. Perhaps renting an entire hotel would help, although the conference I arranged would never have filled a hotel. It is no more difficult to book a vacation for a group than for an individual if you do it online. The hard part is getting the group together.
Do It Like Thomas Cook
If you are inviting people you do not know you to share your trip you are not doing anything different from what Thomas Cook did in 1841 (although that many people would be overkill - you would need a pretty mig hotel). But if you could get a nice discount it would be nice to share with more people.
Maybe you do not get access to the same discounts that a travel agent would, but hotels are quick to give discounts if you book everything they have. This would be feasible with a small hotel or pension, and the good thing about the idea is that there are plenty of those in Japan.
So I have a proposition: Join us and let us rent a hotel. There are plenty of nice hotels in the Japanese ski resorts, many of them with hot spring baths. Although not all of them will be able to promise four meter deep powder snow, and not every year.
Want To Come Travel With Us?
Let me know if you and your family would be interested to go see the snow monkeys in Nagano and go skiing with your kids. The skiing season in Iapan is short but we have lots of snow. February 2019 looks like good timing. Our kids will be five and a half by then. Let me know by May 2018 if you would be interested. Email address is firstname.lastname@example.org
Japan is an amazing place with cultural sights, food experiences, and hundreds of things you can not do in other parts of the world. And there is a hidden secret: most of them are easy to experience with children - toddlers as well as infants.
Japan is an amazing country for eating out, too. Many of the foods are seasonal, as Japan has five pronounced seasons. Yes, you read that right. Between spring and summer, Japan has the rainy season, which is very similar to the monsoon in southeast Asia. Which means it rains every day, and often throughout the day. And frequently so heavily houses, bridges and roads are washed away by the floods.
But the main changes in the menu come when spring comes. In old times, this was when fresh vegetables and herbs were big enough to harvest. Today, many of the seasonal vegetables can be grown in vinyl hothouses. The seasons become much longer - strawberries are available in Japan from December to May. But good though they are, chances are that your kids have already had them.
So let me tell you what my kids ask to have again, even though they eat Japanese food almost every day. Or perhaps because of it.
Summer is coming to Japan (soon) and in summer, one of the coolest things you can eat is kaki-gori (カキ氷) This unfortunately more and more often turns out to be crushed ice, but the ice should actually be shaved, preferrably with a razor-sharp cutter blade - an old samurai sword, if you have one. The softness of ice shaved that way is like snow melting on your tounge.
Japanese shaved ice is different from Taiwanese shaved ice, where the ice itself is flavored. Japanese shaved ice is not flavored in itself, the flavor comes from the syrup you add on top. When the ice melts, it becomes like a soft drink, which is why it is often sold with a straw that has a spoon at the end. You eat the ice with the spoon from the top, and drink it from the straw at the bottom.
Unlike Hawaiian shaved ice that often comes in rainbow flavor, the Japanese shaved ice comes in one flavor. Be careful not to add too much flavor, it will become oversweet and unedible.
2. Kyouhou grapes
Japanese grapes taste much better than the imported varieties, and the Kyohou (巨峰) grapes are big, sweet, and literally bursting with flavor. You will be able to find them in most grocery stores and fruit stores during the season. They may be pricey but they are worth it.
If you are visiting Japan in late August to early October, go picking grapes in Yamanashi. This region, on the other side of mt Fuji from Tokyo, is known for its grapes. And wines. And other fruits. It is one of the few aress which is not too wet for growing grapes (although there are vineyards in many other places in Japan).
3. Azari Udon
The chewy white wheat noodles are usually sold in a soup stock made from dried bonito flakes and soy sauce (and lots of secret ingredients). But in early spring, when mussel fishermen start going out on the mudflats of Tokyo Bay and collect the Japanese shellfish, udon with mussels come on the menu. Today, most of the mussels are cultivated, but spring is when the are in season, and only for a few weeks.
4. Konbu and Okaka onigiri
Onigiri (あにぎり) are the triangular rice balls wrapped in a crisp green sheet. They come in a lot of different flavors, many of which are great for kids. But others are not so good. You want to avoid giving your kids raw tuna or raw egg, and you do not want to give them anything spicy (like mentaiko, the spicy fish roe; or pickled wasabi, the fiery mustardy root which spices up most sushi).
With so many choices and possibillities, you want to avoid those which will not work. And there is one option which will work with most kids: Konbu (or こんぶ in Japanese).
Konbu is a kind of seaweed (known outside Japan as kelp), but boiled and pickled in soy sauce. So it adds umami to the rice, as well as a bit of saltiness. It is both healthy and tasty, and a great snack for when your kids are extra hungry and want somerhing quick.
Like the konbu onigiri, this is a triangular ball of rice wrapped in a sheet of nori. Just like the konbu onigiri, the taste is heavy on the umami, thanks to the soy sauce marinade and the thing it marinates: fish flakes (the combination is called okaka, おかか).
Those tiny flakes of dried bonito (katsuoh, かつお) are the flavoring that makes kids go crazy for okaka onigiri (or hate it). It is like a caramel, but instead of the sweetness there is umami. Small children have a sense of taste which makes them appreciate concentrated tastes much more than grownups.
Sakuramochi (桜餅) is a piece of mochi, the rice cake created by pounding glutinous rice with a wooden hammer. You may have come across mochi at home, typically square and dried.
Fresh mochi is different. And this mochi is pink, usually because it is flavored with cherries. It will be wrapped in a pickled cherry leaf (you can eat it or you may want to skip it). It is wrapped around a wad of bean jam (which sounds weird but is no stranger than marzipan if you think about it). Just be careful if you give it to your children - small children can choke on mochi, so cut it up before you give it to them.
But for toddlers, who know how to bite and chew, it is not dangerous. Except if they overeat. But sometimrs sakuramochi is so cute it is hard to eat. It normally comes with a salted cherry flower on top. The salty-sourish-sweet dessert is hard to let go of.
6. Ichigo Daifuku
Japanese strawberries are not just eaten in shortcakes or with cream. They are also served inside a bun made from mochi, the pounded rice cake, with an, the bean jam. Before you start thinking too deeply about this combination, try one. The different flavors complement each other fabulously. Just be careful with small children and mochi. They can choke on the mochi if they bite off too big chunks and do not chew properly.
7. Inari Zushi
Sushi is not just pieces of raw fish on cushions of rice. There are many types of sushi which are made with vegetables. You may already have come across kappa-maki, the rolls of rice around a cucumber staff wrapped in nori, the crispy seaweed.
But this is not the only type of vegetable sushi you will come across. There is a kind of brown packets of rice wrapped in a brown sheet which tastes a little sweet and chewy. It is actually marinated fried tofu. Those are called inari-zushi (because inari, the fox goddes of prosperity, loves fried tofu; the z is because there is a wovel ahead of it). Our kids love them.
8. Soy-Dipped Rice Crackers
Japanese rice crackers, senbei, are made from rice flour and grilled rather than oven baked. And then flavored, often by dipping them in soy sauce. The soy sauce sticks to the cracker and gets into the cracks, drying out in the flame and flavoring the cracker.
Fried chicken was not invented in Kentucky. It was most likely not invented in Japan either, but the Japanese have perfected it. The karaage, fried chicken, is rolled in flour and spiced and fried. Sounds simple, but is extra tasty - crispy and crackly on the outside, juicy on the inside. There is a type of chicken bred to be tasty, the Nagoya Cochin chicken, and if you find a place that sells it, line up. It is so good you will not just lick your fingers but your whole hands.
10. Shiitake Mushrooms
The Japanese kitchen is famous for its varieties of fish and shellfish, but the vegetables in Japan are equally varied and fresh. And among the vegetables, the different kinds of mushrooms are the least known outside Japan. Every supermarket has a variety of mushrooms which do not taste like champignons at all. They have various uses in Japanese cooking, often in the ubiquitous miso soup. They used to only be available only in certain seasons, but the mushrooms you find in the supermarket nowadays are cultivated under laboratory conditions.
Except for the shiitake, which only grows on logs of a type of Japanese oak. They are cultivated in all seasons and often indoors for ease of harvest, and the logs are infected with the mycelium (the actual mushroom - the part that people eat is the spore carrier, more like a fruit compared to a tree). The best ones come from logs left out in a forest, but for everyday consumption the hothouse grown ones are good enough. Just to clarify, these are not the dried mushrooms you can sometimes find in import stores (they are usually made in China). These are fresh mushrooms, and just slicing them up with a few green vegetables and frying them lightly in butter is likely to make your kids ask for more. Of the vegetables as well.
Was this interesting? This post is part of the ongoing chronicles of the Watertree family in Japan. You can find links to other posts on the country web page (coming soon!)
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.
When you have infants in a stroller, you want to take them out and show them the city. And you want them to get some fresh air and expose your children to greenery at the same time. If there is a play area you may want your kids to get out of the stroller and run around a bit, climb the jungle gym, and ride the slides.
Tokyo is dotted with minimal parks, small enough to fit in most peoples pockets. They are actually used as evacuation areas in case of earthquakes or fires.
But the parks are small for a reason. Land is incredibly expensive in Tokyo, especially in the center (which means near the Imperial Palace). The gardens are partially open to the public, but the central area, where the emperor actually lives, is off-limits except for two days every year: the Emperors birthday (December 23) and January 2, when the public is allowed to greet the emperor and receive his blessings.
During WW II, the imperial palace (and the grounds) was the only thing in the entire Tokyo area that was not bombed. The rest of the city was turned into a field of ashes and twisted rubble, but the American strategists realized that if they were to kill the emperor or damage the Imperial Palace, the entire country would raise up in a holy rage, and they found the Japanese fighters hard enough to deal with anyway.
Today Tokyo has turned into a city of highrises, skyscrapers popping up not just in the Shinjuku area but all around Tokyo, as builders develop ways of stabilizing the ground under them and make the buildings earthquake-proof. With land as expensive as it is, they proliferate especially in central Tokyo. The Imperial Palace is gradually becoming surrounded. But it continues to be a green spot in the center of Tokyo, and if you look at a map you will see that the subway lines make bends and curves to avoid the Imperial Palace grounds.
You are not allowed to enter, except for certain days and areas, but the roads around the palace are built with a wide pedestrian walkway on the palace side. This is a favorite area for runners, who use the walkway along the moats as a running track. The road around the palace is roughly 5 kilometers, with wide sidewalks and no obstacles, unless you try to go through the historic gates at Sakuradaimon.
1. Imperial Palace South Side
Start at Hanzomon subway station, named for a 16-th century samurai who helped Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of modern Japan. You go out via elevator 1, which is in the middle of the station and takes you to the left side of the street. Go east for a couple of hundred meters and cross the big street. This side of the castle is where the stone fortifications are the most impressive, and the Hanzomon gate is impressive in itself, giving you a feeling for how hard it must have been to enter the Edo castle (the original name of Tokyo, a name which means "eastern capital"). The bridge is narrow and actually built to be destroyed if an invader got this far.
Go to the right, following the moat as you walk down the long slope towards the Maronouchi skyscrapers. To your right, across the expressway, is the Tokyo National Theater; behind it is the Diet, the Japanese parliament, and the different ministries of the Japanese government. Mostly in anonymous office buildings where the bureaucrats of the government slave away their working days while you are out in the autumn sunshine, showing your children a foreign and unique culture.
As you continue down the slope, be sure to brake the stroller so it does not run away. You get some great views of the ramparts and the moat; the water is so clear and shallow that you can see the ducks diving and the carp.
Continue down the slope as it gradually turns right, and the road flattens out as you move towards the Sakuradaimon gate, one of the original palace gates and still standing. It is hard to go through the gate but you can go around it. Continue over the huge gravel yard to the park at the end, and then cross the main road to get to Wadakura Fountain Park. If your kids are getting antsy, you can cross the road earlier (do be careful with cars, they drive on the other side of the road from what you are used to), and let them run on the grass.
From Wadakura park, with some of the coolest fountains you will ever see (and a better public toilet than near the palace), plus a nice café, it is only a couple of blocks walk among the skyscrapers to Tokyo Station, where this tour ends.
2. Imperial Palace And Hibuya Park
Start this walk at the Kudanshita subway station. The station is located almost at the palace moat (no subway lines run under the palace itself), and the name means "nine steps below", as in steps in a staircase. Below the palace, of course.
Go out through exit 4, which is closest to the Imperial Palace. The elevator is at gate 7, in front of the Royal Host restaurant, so you have to cross Yasukuni-dori (the Yasukuni shrine is up the hill, but that is a different walk). After that, go to the left. Continue for a couple of blocks and you come to the palace moat. The palace on the other side is as close as you can come to the original, and even though the expressway passes through the palace park and you have to pass under it. Large parts of the palace grounds are actually used for non-imperial things, like the Science Museum and the world-famous Budokan, which you will pass on another walk.
As you follow the moat you will continue to see the palace buildings on the right side. The imperial palace grounds were actually one of the few areas in the greater Tokyo area which were not firebombed during World War II, as the Americans realized that this would have triggered a wave of nationalism that would have made it impossible to invade Japan, atom bombs or not.
Today it is impossible to imagine the area as burned-out and bombed, as you pass the Wadakura fountain park and the immaculately kept pines in the immaculately kept lawn. The highrises looking down on the Imperial Palace, full of banks and corporate headquarters, are all creations of the last 40 years. Some of them were constructed during the "bubble years" when Japanese property values went through the roof, fuelled by cheap loans made possible by a glut of retirement funds looking for a few more percentage point yields. But there is continuous ongoing construction here, as the Maronouchi area, where the samurai serving the shogun used to live, is one of the most prestigious addresses in Japan. New corporate headquarters keep popping up by the day. Continue straight ahead, but be careful of the traffic as you pass the old ramparts and cross the street to get into Hibuya Park.
This has been a park since 1903, although like so much of Tokyo it had to be reconstructed following the fire bombings during the second world war, but the reconstruction was faithful to the original, preserving the fin de siecle feeling of much of the park. Since it has a central location and a fairly large open space, it is a very popular place to arrange events. There are Oktoberfest and Christmas markets here every year, and many other events. If you are interested in Japanese wine, mark Hibuya Park for your November walk. On Culture Day, November 3 every year, the Yamanashi prefecture winemakers come and introduce this years Yamanashi Noveau, produced the same year in the same way as Beaujoulais Noveau. There are some remarkable wine makers in Yamanashi and it is incredible how much character their wines can develop in such a short time.
Finishing the walk, you can either go to the Hibuya stations on the Chiyoda line, the Uchisawaicho on the Mita line, or walk an extra block to the Yurakucho station. Depends on where you are going next.
3. Imperial Palace North Side With Budokan
Start at Tokyo Station or the Otemachi subway station, and go to the entry gate to the Imperial Palace east garden, which is where you will find the ruins of the Edo Castle. It is not open every day and closes fairly early, but it is free. Read more at the website of the Imperial Household agency.
The buildings at the Imperial Palace grounds are impressive but they are nothing against the original castle, which burned down several hundred years ago. When it was built, the central tower must have been the tallest building in Japan, since it towered over what was then known as Edo, challenging Mt Fuji (also since the roof tiles were white).
The only thing left from the original castle is the foundations - and the surrounding buildings, which is what you see in the east gardens, and the surrounding ramparts, today. Some of them are fascinating, like the guard barracks. The gardens are however more interesting if you are looking for Japanese gardens, since they are different than the formal temple gardens you may have come to associate with Japan. They represent a style of garden which used to surround the grand palaces in Tokyo. These were the palaces of the feudal lords which they maintained to entertain and live in style when they visited Edo, as they were required to do. And for their families to live while the lords were back in their domains, because the families were kept as hostages for the good behavior of the lord while he was back at home.
That these are strolling gardens rather than formal gardens means they are very accessible to parents with children in strollers, especially since the paths have been paved. It is a great way to give your children some fresh air and yourself a history lesson. The path through the east garden ends at a very busy street - actually, one of the freeways criss-crossing Tokyo. There is a pedestrian footbridge but you have to go up the stairs to cross the road, and down again on the other side. You are better off waiting for a gap in the traffic, they will come. Just look out to both left and right.
As you cross you enter another park, which also used to be part of the Imperial Palace gardens. As a matter of fact, large parts of what today is central Tokyo used to be part of the gardens of the Imperial Palace, in particular the green spots. Other parks belonged to the grand feudal residences. But first the Emperor started splitting off parts when he moved to Tokyo after the generals who had run the country for three hundred years were overturned; then the US started splitting off parts as they needed them for barracks; and then the Japanese government created parks of parts and started building museums and arenas.
In the north garden, that is exactly what you will find - apart from a very stroller-friendly park. The first thing you will come across is The Museum of Modern Art, which is actually three museums in one. Part of it, housed in a stunning modern building, is intended to collect and showcase Japanese modern art, which can be every way as convoluted and contrived as its Western counterparts. A little further along is the Science Museum, which is focused on interactive exhibits, and while it can be a bit dry it can also be exciting for toddlers. Since a lot of the explanations are in Japanese they are better off if they are not able to read them, most of the exhibits are self-explanatory.
Walk past that, and you come to a small lake with really lovely views - it will make you believe that you are somewhere rural, looking at views from the patio of a British country house. Amazingly, you can be almost alone.
Walk along the road, past the cafe, and you come to the Budokan. It was built for the Tokyo Olympic games, when judo became an Olympic sport. The arena (which is not open to the public, and anyway quite hard to access with a stroller) is built so the performers are surrounded by the public, with seats 360 degrees.
It happened to have great acoustics, which was not planned but led to the arena being used for some legendary concerts by the Beatles, followed by a number of American bands touring Japan, and the creation of some LPs that arguably changed the music business and the way people listen to music.
Today, the Budokan is used in two ways: As an arena for the Japanese budo sports, and as a performance arena. Bands often play here, both Japanese and foreign, because of the central location and the size. There are other events as well, like the AKB 48 annual "stone-paper-scissors" game.
But they have to give way to the martial arts, for which the arena was originally built. There are many more martial arts than judo and karate, most of which are not as familiar to a Western public. But there is no explanatory materials, museum or anything, even though that would be helpful.
Continue past the Budokan and turn right on the main road, and going downhill for a little while will take you to the Kudanshita subway station. There is a Starbucks cafe across the road, if you want to rest your feet before you continue.
4. Imperial Palace And Yasukuni Jinja
Go to Takebashi and walk along the main road. You will have the moat to your right. The first bridge across the moat is Takebashi, which means ”bamboo bridge”. There used to be a number of bridges around the palace which were designed to be easy to tear down in case an enemy got as far as the moat. And a bridge built from bamboo is of course easy to tear down.
As you leave the bridge behind you will enter a street with modern buildings, many of them public buildings of some note. The vincinty of the Imperial Palace not only draws major corporate headquarters, it also attracts both the politicians of Japan and the ministries where bureaucrats actually run the country. But the area around the palace also attracts the judical branch, including the national courts and the national prosecutor.
As you turn the corner onto Yasukuni Dori (one of the boulevards with a proper name in Tokyo), you have the Showa museum to your left. This prominently placed but unassuming building is dedicated not so much to showing life in the Showa era, but informing about it. If you find it confusing that everything talks about the period before and during the war, and until the 1960’s, that is because Japanese historical periods are named for the emperors. And the Showa emperor was none other than the emperor known as Hirohito in the rest of the world.
The museum is not dedicated to the emperor but his period, however. When Japanese people wax nostalgic they talk about the Showa era, and there are stores at all Japanese tourist destinations that sell Showa candy, snacks and toys in a (replicated) historic settings.
But not here. Unfortunately the museum is not very child-friendly. If the weather is nice you are better off continuing up the hill. But you should cross the road next to the Showa museum. The simple reason is that it gets much harder to cross the road later.
Continue straight up the hill. You see the iron torii, the characteristic gate to the temple. Continue towards it and pass through it, then you can let your kids run free until you come to the temple gate proper. Remember as you enter (you may require some assistance with the stroller) that this is a place of worship, whatever you think about the spirits being worshipped there.
Parts of the grounds can be hard to traverse with a stroller, the paths are gravelled not paved, so it may be easier to walk your children instead of pushing them in a stroller.
The museum is also fascinating - if you are an adult. If not, never mind. Kamikaze bombers, cannon and field gear rescued from fields in the Philippines do not hold much fascination for kids anyway, although the actual steam engine from the ”Bridge over the river Kwai” railway makes an excellent playground. But there are restrooms which are great for changing your kids.
5. North Side And Chidorigafuchi
Exiting the subway at Kudanshita, the elevator is located at the far end of the little square in front of the Royal Host restaurant. As you exit, turn around (with the restaurant to your right), cross the road so you are on the left side as you take a right on Yasukuni Dori (the big road in front of you). It has excellent sidewalks so wheeling your children is an easy stroll.
At the first traffic light, turn left. You now have the moat on your left side, with the cherry trees hanging over it. The moat becomes wider as you continue towards the south. After about 500 meters you come to the boathouse on your left. Even if there are no waves in the moat, I do not recommend taking infants in the boats; there are no lifevests for infants available. Have a coffee in the boathouse instead, before you continue along the moat.
As you continue walking, you enter the Chidorigafuchi park, a long and narrow park along the moat. This means there are toilets at regular intervals, should you need them. And while the park is beautiful in cherry blossom season, it is not paved all the way, so while this is a good place to let your children run and play, you may want to go on the sidewalk along the road with your stroller. After a while, the park narrows and disappears, and as you go down the hill the vista opens up and the cherry trees disappear. Continue down the hill, and at the bottom of the hill turn right and go to the Sakuradamon subway station.
More to come on my Japan page. Will update as soon as the page is ready.
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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
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.