Picking strawberries in February? In the northern hemisphere? Yes, you can do it in Japan, where the strawberry season starts in December - just in time for Christmas.
Strawberries are one of the most important ingredients in the traditional Christmas food in Japan: Strawberry cake. But from new year on, you can buy strawberries in the grocery stores. Typically, they are priced at between 300 and 500 yen per packet, with a package holding about 250 gram, which translates to between 15 and 20 strawberries. Most of those strawberries come from the Tochigi prefecture, and they are grown in plastic greenhouses.
Skyberries Or Tochigi Tome
Japanese strawberries tend to be more on the tart side, with a sweet edge over the fruity sourness. The most common kind, Tochigi Tome (栃木 とめ), is specially bred for the conditions in central Japan, and work amazing in cakes and jams because of its acidity, which balances the sugar of the shortcake and the fattiness of the whipped cream perfectly. Recently however growers have developed a new kind of strawberry, Skyberry, which is much sweeter but still retains that fruity acidity.
Beware Of The Bees
We went to a place called Ichigo no Sato, which produces enormous amounts of strawberries every year, most of it for picking by visiting tourists. There are bus tours from Tokyo if you feel a craving for strawberries. You book half an hour to pick either Skyberry or Tochigi Tome. You have to make a reservation in advance, otherwise you will not get a spot. It can be terribly crowded during weekends, in particular long weekends. The price varies between 1200 and 2000 yen depending on the type of strawberries you want to pick. And eat, because you can not take them away. Pick the berries in the sun, they taste much sweeter.
The vinyl hothouse is really just plastic stretched over frames, and they are not called hothouses for nothing: It can be terribly warm inside. Especially when spring starts and the outside temperatures creep above 10 centigrade, which happens around the middle of March.
They are also intended to grow strawberries, not accommodate tourists. There is a beehive (for pollination) in each hothouse, and they grow the plants in soil beds, not hydroponics. Which means the ground can be soggy and you can get dirty. But that is what nature is like.
Ichigo no Sato is more than a destination to eat lots of strawberries, however. They also have a giftshop, a cafe, an icecream store, and a buffet restaurant. All crowded to overflowing by the tourists coming to see and eat the strawberries. The buffet restaurant has an amazinng assortment of desserts. But they get picked out pretty quickly. And the main courses are humdrum to be nice. Sure, the salad selection was not bad, but rice and curry tastes the same anywhere in Japan, and fried chicken is fried chicken. Your children will be happy if they have the patience to wait that long. Because everyone tries to eat at the same time. Ichigo no Sato is literally located in the middle of the strawberry fields, and even driving to the nearest restaurant takes fifteen to 20 minutes.
Is It Worth It?
If you like strawberries, this is your best chance to eat your fill. And the Tochigi strawberries live up to their reputation. But schedule your lunch in Oyama, the Tochigi area is famous for their gyoza and this is one of the capitals of soul food in Japan. You will find ramen and gyoza places galore there, and if you plan properly, arrive early in the morning and then let your kids fill up on strawberries, you will miss the lunch rush and get a great lunch all the same. Just avoid sushi places. You are about as far from the sea as you can get in Japan, and you can get much better sushi elsewhere.
Where Is Tochigi?
The Tochigi prefecture is located to the north of Tokyo, inland from Ibaraki. It is probably most famous among visitors for the Unesco World Heritage site of Nikko, itself an amazing place located in the northwestern corner of the prefecture. But for Japanese it is equally famous for its strawberries. The two inland prefectures of Gunma and Tochigi have the most sunny days of any place in Japan, which is one reason you will see so many solar farms there. It may sound stranges that these fairly northern parts of Japan have more sun than the tropical islands of Okinawa, but it rains much less in Tochigi. And this makes the climate perfect for cultivating strawberries in vinyl greenhouses. But the winter can be cold when the wind blows from the mountains. Even if you rarely have snow in Tochigi winter is much worse than Tokyo.
Ichigo no Sato, http://www.itigo.co.jp/
Address: 〒323-0058 Tochigi-ken Oyama-shi Ogawajima 408TEL : 0285-33-1070
Opening Hours : 9:00〜17:00
Last time we traveled in Japan, we went flying. Well, we have traveled quite a bit in Tokyo and the surroundings since, and we went to Sweden. But our last domestic trip was when we flew to Okinawa.
We were flying with an LCC, which is the Asian abbreviation for low-cost carriers. A few years ago, the Japanese government deregulated the airline market. The intent was to open up for new companies and pressure the incumbent companies to lower prices themselves. It actually happened, and they did it without decreasing service all that much. I suspect it is the long-distance travelers who pay the bill, because when we booked a long-distance flight the price with the Japanese flag carriers for the same route was more than twice what we paid for a Chinese airline to take us to the same place. Almost as expensive as flying via Dubai or Abu Dhabi.
It is true that if you book early, you can get almost the same price with a regular airline for domestic tickets as you get with a low-cost carrier. But while the LCC basically have two prices, the regular airlines have an infinite variation. And while the LCC publish their prices on the website months in advance, you never quite know what price the regular airlines are going to charge.
This time we took Vanilla Air, one of the airlines that sprung out of the liberalization of the low-cost carriers. They are owned by the ANA group, one of the two flag carriers, who also owns Peach.
Far Away Terminals
When we got to Naha, we ended up in the new LCC terminal. This is one of the disadvantages of flying low-cost carriers in Asia. In Europe, there are enough discarded airfields (both in the old East and Western Europe) that the low-cost carriers could start flying from different airports than the ”normal” airports. Stockholm-Skavsta and Frankfurt-Hahn are just two examples of airports which have almost exclusively LCC traffic, but are so far from the ”main” airports with which they share part of the name that they might as well be in a different country.
Or, in the case of the LCC terminal in Naha, a different airport. The LCC terminal in Naha is located in an old freight terminal, basically the shell of a building which has been fitted with baggage handling and security check equipment. But to get to the terminal for other airlines you had to take a bus for almost 20 minutes - traveling almost halfway around the airport.
The Ends Of The Big L
The Okinawa LCC terminal really felt like something knocked up to handle the LCC traffic boom. Okinawa is the only destination which is far enough away for flying to make sense anymore. The rest of Japan is now easy to reach with the Shinkansen. Of course, if you live in Hokkaido and want to go to Kyushu or the other way around, taking the train is a waste of time. Especially considering the geography of Japan, which looks like a big L, with Kyushu at one end and Hokkaido at the other, and Tokyo at the knee in the middle. But the market is not big enough, and even though there are international flights to Hokkaido as well as Kyushu, most of the people in Japan actually live in the stretch between Kobe and Tokyo.
Smaller Than California, Longer Than The Coast
Japan is a little smaller than California, but it is as long as the US West Coast - but the climate zones it covers are the same as the US east coast. Hokkaido has much the same climate as Maine, and Okinawa is as warm and sunny as Florida. If there were more people in Hokkaido, they might become snowbirds, but the island is as sparely populated as it is huge.
Most people who fly the LCC in Japan fly to Okinawa, or one of the islands surrounding the main Okinawan islands. The climate is the same as in Hawaii, since Okinawa and Hawaii are on the same latitude. Okinawa has typhoons which does make the climate a bit more severe than that of Hawaii. Or they fly to Hokkaido, which is not quite as far from the major population centers but still far enough that it is economical to fly, time-wise. If you are going to Okinawa you have no choice (well, there are ferries). But the Hokkaido shinkansen is one of the fastest trains in the world, and the convenience of boarding a train and not having to check luggage or go through security and passport control makes it competitive to flying. Kyushu is just on the borderline. With a flying time just over two hours, taking a bullet train for 5 hours is actually faster than flying - if you consider that the fastest train to Narita airport takes a little less than an hour, and include the time you have to spend in the airport.
More Expensive With The Train
But a one-way flight costs 7500 yen at low season, and the train ticket is almost 25000 yen for grownups. Having children quickly changes the equation though, as they travel free on trains until they are six, but you have to buy them tickets on the plane. And if you get a Japan Rail Pass, you have effectively paid for all trips you are going to make before you leave home. At just under 30000 yen for the ordinary ticket it pays for itself on the way back.
Another advantage is that there are several trains in a day. If you are going from Tokyo to Osaka or Kyoto there is basically one train every ten minutes.
No Station Breakfast
We got up really early and took the train to the airport. We had counted on getting breakfast in the train, since the foodcourt at the airport did not look too appealing (exotic though a foodcourt full of Japanese brands might be). There are convenience stores open almost round the clock in the stations, but in the concourse of Nippori station (where you take the express train to Narita Airport) there are both a bakery and a shop selling Japanese onigiri, the traditional riceballs which are a perfect meal for a three-year-old. And the quality and taste are so much better in the speciality stores than the convenience stores, even though they certainly are not bad either. And the bread in the bakery is freshly baked.
But they only open at 7 AM, and we got there at 0645. We had counted on the kids wanting to go to the toilet (which they did - but only after we had bought breakfast).
And we only had reservations on the 0745 train so we actually had breakfast in the waiting room in the station.
Last Grownup Seats
We got the last seats on the train, and only for the grownups. I know from before that the seats on that particular airport train are pretty big, and our kids had no problem sitting on our laps for the trip. Actually, they appreciate it a bit too much. We have been telling them that they are big now and no longer should sleep in mommys and daddys bed. Although we often wake up by someone trying to push us out of bed.
Keeping The Kids Walking
When we travel a little distance, more than 20 minutes usually, it is very hard to keep your kids awake in the morning and late afternoon. They are still sleepy and the rocking and rhythmic sound of the train will put them to sleep, although it does not compare to a car. Of course they fell asleep standing up, which meant they were extremely grumpy waking up, crying and screaming and kicking. It is at times like that you wish you had kept the stroller. Even my wife can not carry them any more, and then we have to get our carry-ons off. Even if we have sent the luggage ahead in advance, this takes time. And the train only stops a limited time at Narita terminal 2 station, where you have to get off if you want to go to terminal 3, either walking or taking the bus. So the kids have to walk off the train by themselves.
And Continuing To Walk
And continue to walk, because terminal 3 at Narita airport is not that close to the train station. You have to get up to street level and get to the bus stop to be able to catch the bus to the terminal. Which means you have to get your suitcases on the bus because there is no courier service counter in terminal 3. So dragging heavy suitcases and sleepy children two floors and then onto a bus, and after that riding the bus for almost 15 minutes, then dragging them off again and pulling them with one hand as you pull the suitcase with the other. Lucky we only had two suitcases and brought grandma.
No Water Inside
The shops and restaurants in the LCC terminal at Narita are all outside security. If you travel international I think you have better luck, but the domestic section only has one severely overpriced snack shop. Buy everything except water outside.
Speaking of water, the toilets are one floor up from the domestic departure hall. You had better make sure everyone gets a chance to go before you board the plane, because you may get stuck in the takeoff queue if you are leaving at a popular time. We did not expect to be sitting on the tarmac for 45 minutes. That, and the slow bus from the Okinawa LCC terminal to the airport proper, almost made us miss our flight.
If there only had been a Shinkansen to the Okinawan beaches. Tokyo Station is surprisingly small for the amount of traffic that passes through it every day. Obviously the land is more expensive in the center of Tokyo than it is in the Narita area. And the Haneda airport is built on an artificial island, so if they need more land they can extend the island.
Of course, Tokyo station does make more creative use of the land it is on than an airport. Or rather, the land under and above it, because the station has five levels of trains running through. There is only one level of Shinkansen trains though, although there is more than one entrance to get onto the Shinkansen platforms.
Only Shinkansen Stations
Since the Shinkansen trains run on separate tracks, you can not enter the Shinkansen platforms from the platforms servicing the regular tracks. And of course, the pricing is different, too. You need the special Shinkansen ticket, even if you do not necessarily need a reserved seat. If you want to take the fastest trains, you need special tickets and reserved seats. But if you are happy about arriving 30 minutes later, you can take a little slower train that stops at more stations where there are cars with unreserved seats in front of the train. They stop at more stations, but this is still the Shinkansen so the stations they stop at are far fewer than the stations a regular train would be stopping at, if there were regular trains traveling the same route.
The No-Change Convenience
If you are traveling from anywhere inside Tokyo with children, you will appreciate the convenience of not having to change trains. More than once, anyway. You may have some work to do if you are coming in on one of the lines which have their platforms the farthest from the Shinkansen entrance, but after having carried my deeply sleeping daughter from the Keio line platform to the Chuo line platform, which really is from one end of the station to the other, I do not think it will be too hard to get to the Shinkansen from anywhere.
No Luggage Carts
There are no luggage carts in Tokyo train station, something you will probably miss from the airport, but that is most likely the only thing you will miss. The food stalls on the Shinkansen platforms are much better than the restaurants in the LCC terminal foodcourt. Even if you are supposed to eat on the train. But you do not have to think about buying new water bottles after the security check. Bring any drinks you like, as much as you like.
Of course, there are no flight attendants on the train. Hardly any train attendants any more. There is a drinks cart and there are young ladies (I have not yet seen anyone old or man) going through the train selling bento, the pre-packed Japanese lunch boxes. But if you will need hot water to make formula, you are better off bringing a thermos.
No Space For Luggage
There is also very limited space for luggage. Of course, you can not send everything in advance if you travel with babies. You need diapers, formula, water, a couple of changes for yourself and the baby, and some snacks if the kids are eating solid food. And the stroller. But you do not need the big suitcase with the raincoats and rubber boots. You can send that ahead the day before, like the Japanese do. The only storage space for your luggage in the Shinkansen trains is the space behind the seat at the end of the trains, and the overhead shelf. And everyone in the train car has to share it. You might find yourself wishing for a luggage checkin, until you realize how convenient it was that the luggage was already in your room when you got there.
Shinkansen Is Better
On the whole, the Shinkansen offers an unbeatable value for families, especially if you have a Japan Rail Pass. Even if you do not, since it is so much more convenient than flying. You only have to plan ahead. But not more than when you take a flight.
This post is one in my ongoing series on how to navigate Japan for travelers with children. I have written before about the Japanese travel year and the Japanese travel day (for most people heavily centered around taking the train). I have a couple of articles on buying diapers in Japan and buying baby goods in Japan. I have written about how to figure out where to stay in Tokyo and how much you should budget for your trip to Japan. And I have written about whether you will be safe in Japan. And of course, since I have three kids, I have written a lot about Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo Disney Sea. And lots more.
PUK Pupa Theatro is not a traditional puppet theatre. There are no strings attached to the puppets, and in the Japanese tradition the stagehands are visible. But different from traditional Japanese puppet theatre, the puppet managers are also actors, playing different roles - and changing the scenery.
The puppets are really cute, but they know how to tell a story. When the company was founded in 1929, the story was part of the international peace movement, and the military police closed them down several times.
Today, the puppets are telling stories in a basement theatre in the theatre company building from 1971. This is a childrens theatre: the first two rows are reserved for kids.
Yes, it is all in Japanese, and your kids may not make sense of the finer nuances of the story. But that does not really matter. There is enough action for them to enjoy the show.
So What Did Our Kids Think?
A childrens theatre is useless if the kidd get bored. But that did not happen here. On the contrary, they followed the tale of a little fox who has to go to the human city to buy a pair of mittens so he can play in the snow with riveted attention.
They not only loved the show and the story, they also enjoyed meeting the puppets and puppetteers. Although children of the animation age that they are., they were a bit disappointed that the puppetteers were talking, instead of the puppets. They did recognize any of the characters of the shows we saw, but they might have. The shows are frequently featured on NHK, the Japanese national television.
Location And Opening Times
Puk Pupa Teatro is located just a few blocks from Shinjuku Station. When you get to the little Yoyogi Nichome Aoi Park, turn left. The theatre is behind the Zenrosai Hall. There are usually two shows per day during weekends, at 1030 and 1400. Weekdays may be less, so you had better check the the show times.
One issue is that the tickets are a bit expensive - 3500
yen for the kids. But we saved the money by not having an expensive weekend dinner. Although the kids ate their weight in cookies from the theatre cafe.
Was It Worth It?
Yes. The play was very nice and the puppets amazing. Ii was great for the kids to get to see how theatre actually happens rather than watching TV.
This post is one in my ongoing series on how to navigate Japan for travelers with children. I have written before about the Japanese travel year and the Japanese travel day (for most people heavily centered around taking the train), but sometimes for long trips you can choose between train and flying. I have a couple of articles on buying diapers in Japan and buying baby goods in Japan. I have written about how to figure out where to stay in Tokyo and how much you should budget for your trip to Japan. And I have written about whether you will be safe in Japan. And of course, since I have three kids, I have written a lot about Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo Disney Sea. And lots more.
I occasionally get involved in discussions on Facebook with people who ask if there is a baby monitor they could use while their child is sleeping in the hotel room and they want to go down into the lobby bar and have a drink. Or even go sightseeing.
I often get accused of attacking those people when I try to tell them what a bad idea it is. Because I strongly feel it is a very bad idea. Read on to find out why.
Now, all children are different, and all parents have different styles. Perhaps somewhere there is a child who likes that their parents are not around, and parents who are clever enough to understand that child before it can talk. If that is you, you are welcome to comment below.
Never Enough Attention For All
However, what I have to say is based on my personal experience as father to triplets, which also may not be a situation shared by everyone, but which ensures that I can not give all my children equal attention at any given time. One of them will often be screaming while another one is clamoring for attention and the third is yelling that she has finished at the toilet. They have to learn to be independent and manage things for themselves.
But it is one thing to be able to go to the toilet yourself, and a very different thing to be emotionally independent, at least when you are four years old. Even more before that. When I had to go away for half a day on business while we were in Thailand, my then 1.5 year old son hugged me so hard when I got back that I thought I would break in two, and wept rivers accordingly. And then grandma was still there to take care of them.
The Lone German Girl
That experience is part of informing my thinking about leaving your children alone in a hotel room, although I do not have any horror stories like the one a friend of mine can tell. He was on his way back to his hotel room when he encountered a small girl in the corridor. She looked to be about three years, and lost. Tears were streaming down her cheeks.
He finally figured out that she was speaking German, and in his rudimentary German could figure out she had woken up alone in her room, and went in search of her parents. She managed to open the door and get into the corridor, but not being able to read numbers, she had no idea about which room she had come from, or where her parents were. She probably had no idea about what a hotel is either.
Lobby Bar Parents
Gentle soul that he is, my friend figured that the best thing he could do would be to take her to the reception. At least they would know which Germans were registered in the hotel, and if they had any children with them. So he told her that, and either her parents had not been very good at teaching her not to follow strangers, or she was desperate enough that a friendly face and nice voice meant some safety and comfort.
As they got out of the elevator in the lobby, she spotted her parents sitting in the lobby bar. She ran over, crying and weeping. The parents were appropriately grateful but my friend gave them a stern talking to, using up almost all of his available German.
Right Place For Baby Monitors
I personally would never leave my children alone. They deserve to have someone who knows them and who they know and trust around (which is why we are reluctant to use babysitters). And this is now, when they can talk and tell us what they think. Usually that they prefer to be with mom and dad.
I am not saying that baby monitors are useless, by the way. They are very useful if you are at a location where you can easily reach your child. But that is exactly my point: you need to be able to reach your child.
Three Reasons Not To
Leaving aside the issue of whether it is ethical, or even legal, to leave a child alone by themselves, let me give you three reasons for why you should never leave your child alone in a hotel room.
1. You May Not Be Able To Reach Them If Something Happens
2. Being Alone Is Very Scary
3. You Are Sending A Message To Your Child
Let us go through them one by one.
#1: Getting To Your Child
Why should you worry about whether you can get to your child physically? You can hear them on the baby monitor. That is, unless you have used a pair of mobile phones, because the call between them will usually be cut off when you enter the elevator (as it is a Faraday cage where radio waves can not pass out or in). And since the phone at the other end is trying to reconnect to the phone you are using, the call may not go through, and you have to go back to the room or not have a clue whether your child has woken up and is screaming in terror or whether she is sleeping like a log.
What If Something Happens?
If something happens, like a fire on the floors between the lobby and your floor, the fire brigade can prohibit you from going up to your child. Or even worse, toddlers can get out of bed and out of the room. Apart from their pinching their fingers in the door, drinking the drinks in the minibar, or falling off the balcony, not everyone who meets a lost child in a hotel corridor may be as helpful as my friend in the story above. And if your child is old enough to open the door by herself, you have no idea where they went or what happened.
Other People In Your Room
Also remember that you are not the only one with access to your room. There are plenty of hotel employees who can enter after knocking. Your child may not take kindly to finding themselves in the room with a stranger, even if they actually are the nicest person in the world. You have no control over who knocks on the door, and since your child is either quiet and possibly asleep; or crying because you have not come back, they may enter.
#2: Being Alone Is Very Scary
The second issue is of course resolved the moment you come back to the room. But how long time does it take? Small children are more easily scared in strange environments and situations - at four, my son is occasionally afraid of going to the bathroom himself, and will rather pee in his pants than go without an adult. I would not even want to think about how scared I would be if I found myself in a place I had never been before, unable to move my arms and legs, and nobody I knew nearby. I would probably scream in terror, and I am an adult. Imagine what your child is feeling and how much she might scream.
It may only take ten minutes for you to get back, but those ten minutes will feel really long. And they will be longer for your child. If you compare your lifespans, ten minutes in the life of a two-year-old corresponds to 1.5 hours in the life of a 20-year-old. Have you thought about what it would feel like to scream for 1.5 hours?
Stressing Children Is Bad Parenting
I know that I try to minimize the stress in my childrens life. It is enough for them to stress to get to daycare. They do not need the stress of not having mommy, or daddy, or granny, or uncle, or anyone they know and trust around. I know there are babysitters they would like. We used to have a lovely lady come in, she was so helpful and the kids loved her. But we can hardly bring a babysitter on family vacation. And since we are usually not staying in hotels, we have to find an agency we can trust if we want to use a babysitter. And even if the person has the best formal qualifications in the world, there is always personal chemistry. Finding someone who your children will like is extremely difficult online, especially as they start walking and talking. But then you probably have stopped using a baby monitor anyway.
I know there are people who will tell you there are different parenting styles, and there are. But bad parenting is not a parenting style. And I think stressing your child unnecessarily is bad parenting.
Did You Consider The Message?
Your child will stop screaming when you come back. You will both feel a lot better when you have cuddled her for a while. But then you need to consider what message you have just sent to your child.
That we as parents are communicating with our children whatever we do is something we forget altogether too easily. Our children do as we do, not as we say. Just watch them picking their noses. And if we teach them that it is OK to leave them alone while we go off and do something else, we are teaching them not just one, but several things.
#3: What Is Your Message?
The first thing you teach your child by leaving her alone with a baby monitor in a hotel room is that you do not want to be with her. Yes, think about it. By going off and leaving your child alone you are telling your child that you have something more important to do than being with your child. You are telling your child that she is less important than whatever it is you are off doing.
That is going to create fundamental insecurity in your child. She will always feel she is less important than something else. Whatever your parenting style, I can not see how that can be good parenting.
You may consider getting a babysitter. I would not do this, I prefer keeping things in the family. But as your child grow older they may actually enjoy spending time with a babysitter. Not all hotels have this service, but many do. It will not be free (unless you go to a casino or something, which has its own motives for luring you out of your hotel room).
Are You Saying You Are More Important?
The second thing you are teaching your child by leaving her alone with a baby monitor is that you consider yourself to be more important than your family. Yes, that pink little lump of flesh is your family now. If you are a single parent, even temporarily single, you may consider this harsh. Are you never going to have any time on your own?
Children Should Come First
No. Your children have to come first. And going off alone is not a way of putting children first. Especially when you could do things together with them. Even if they are asleep. You can go to the convenience store with your child in a stroller. You can take a walk with your baby in the carrier. You can not participate in a conference, go have a drink in the lobby bar, or go gambling at the slots or the blackjack table with your child tagging along. If that is what you want to do most in your life, perhaps you should reconsider your priorities. You are not alone any more.
Well, that was a bit of a rant. But now I can point people who want to leave their children alone in hotel rooms to it.
If you are interested in more tips and opinions about travel with children, I have written about traveling with toddlers, keeping toddlers entertained in flight, tlying with a child with fever, about people who complain about your kids in flight, what you can do to avoid your child getting lost and how to beat jetlag with your toddlers. And lots more.
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.