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.
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.