The temperature on the beaches in Okinawa may be pretty much the same as Tokyo today, thanks to an unusual warm spell. But even though the temperature is about the same, the sun is not nearly as strong in Tokyo as it would be in Naha.
Okinawa is on the same latitude as Hawaii, while Tokyo is closer to San Francisco. You may not think that is much of a difference (after all, both have a very nice climate), but while the sea and the winds provide a moderating influence in Hawaii, the sun can be extremely hot.
Not everyone has dark skin (a genetic adaption to strong sun), and there are occasional people who are so prone to skin cancer that it can be triggered by a few unprotected hours in the sun. Or a few days at least.
If you plan to take your kids to a tropical destination, you probably do not belong to the second group. Especially since the disposition tends to be genetic. If you plan to, find a different destination.
But you do not have to suffer from a disposition for skin cancer to suffer in the sun. Contrary to what you may think, even people of African or south Indian descent can get sunburned (as opposed to tanned). If you are not used to the sun, take it slowly the first few days, until you have built up some pigmentation as protection. Use plenty of sun lotion, or even better use plenty of sun lotion and stay in the shade. You get sunlight there too, but it is not at all as strong (i. e. dangerous), since it has lost some of its energy by being reflected.
Sun screens actually work by either reflecting or absorbing the rays of the sun before they get to your skin. The white stuff Australian lifeguards smear on themselves is usually zinc oxide or titanium oxide, both of which appear white to the eye. A white surface actually reflects all possible colors, which is why it shines back all colors. A green surface, on the other hand, absorbs all colors but green, which it reflects. This is why white clothes feel cooler in the tropics - and also why black clothes feel cooler, since they radiate more of the sunlight.
It is the ultraviolet rays which are the most dangerous, since they both have higher energy than the other wavelength, and shorter wavelength. One is the reason for the other, and the result is both that the ultraviolet rays penetrate deeper into the skin and make more damage once they get there. The result is the red and itchy, flaking skin, the result of your skin cells dying from being irradiated with the closest you can come to gamma rays in unadultered nature. No wonder people with a disposition for skin cancer feel afraid. As they should be.
If you have fair skin, you need to be careful. You may not need to be as careful as people in Japan and Korea, where especially old ladies carry parasols to cut out the rays of the sun.
Not protecting yourself from the sun can be dangerous, and it will certainly be painful. One of my own most painful vacation memories was the day after I figured half an hour in the Hawaiian sun on Waikiki beach could not hurt. Just let me tell you it did.
That is not an experience you want your children to have (it will put them off going to Hawaii forever, which is a shame). And it is easily avoided if you dress them in bathing suites that cover at least the upper body, and a cap that covers the neck, nose, and top of the ears.
It is not hard to find full body covering bathing suits for your kids, but you have to look at the label to make sure the cloth cuts out ultraviolet light. That limits the selection a bit, but not that much. And while your kids are small enough, you can still overrule them when it comes to the model (try doing that with a teenager). Go for safety over fashion, they will thank you later (although perhaps not when you show the pictures at the wedding).
But protective swimsuits and a hat is not enough. That cap will come off your childs head at the first opportunity (if you do not have a bucket, it is perfect to carry water that you can pour on your sisters sandcastles). So you need sun tan lotion as well. On any exposed fleck of skin on their bodies. As I mentioned, do not forget the top of the ears and the nose. Use a strong sun protection factor. And it had better be water resistant, if you are going to the beach. The sun lotion will wash off when your kids have a shower in the evening, something they will need since they will be both sweaty and sandy anyway.
Putting on the sunscreen can be a chore and unless you like to endure protests from your children, use a sun tan lotion that is combined with insect repellent.
It may sound weird to talk about insect repellent and mosquito bites at the beach, but if you think about it, thousands of half-naked bodies being baked slowly in the sun must be more attractive to anyone interested in sucking blood than a herd of wildebeest is to a pride of lions. If it was not for spraying with insecticide, beaches would be festering with infections and disease. This was actually the case until the 19th century, when draining the swamps that used to lie behind all beaches (except those in the desert) reduced the rampaging malaria epidemic that also struck many countries in Europe, as far north as Sweden.
Since beaches are (or at least used to be) such hotspots for disease, you want to make sure your kids do not get infected by an insectbite. I wrote in a previous post about how you can protect yourself and your kids from infection. Your children will squirm and squeak when you put on the sun tan lotion, so it makes no sense to try again with the insect repellent.
And do not try to mix them yourself. You will end up with one diluting the other, and anyway none on them will have the effect you expected. Buy a pre-mixed solution, and check that it is approved for children in the agegroup your children are. There are some sunscreens you should not put on children below three because it might irritate the skin or create allergies, and an allergy a child acquires at a very young age will stick around for the rest of their lives. You do not want your kids to have that hanging over them.
Not every restaurant is family friendly, and finding a place to eat when your kids are starting to feel peckish might become the item you have to plan the most for. Unfortunately, it is also one of the hardest things to investigate in advance, and there is a risk that you end up eating spaghetti and/or hamburgers every meal, every day.
If you want to try local food with toddlers you had better hope there is a chain of restaurants that allow children and which caters to locals.
You do not want to take your kids anywhere, and you can not take them everywhere. Japan is full of restaurants serving delicious fare that are hard to access for a healthy person, on the second floor or down in the basement after a narrow, winding, badly lit stair. And once you get there they have three tables where you can barely seat two people without bumping into each other or your neighbors, and a counter where there is not even room to drink unless you pull in your elbows.
And then I have not even mentioned smoking. In a world where smoking in restaurants is about as fashionable as beaver felt hats, Japan still stands out as a place where people are allowed to poison their fellow diners. You do not want to bring your kids into many traditional restaurants. The Tokyo government has decided that all restaurants will be smoke-free in 2020, but most officials do not believe in it themselves.
Luckily, there are many restaurants which are already smoke-free.
You see ordinary restaurants doing it, in particular if they are new. They do not want that morning-after stink of old cigarette smoke that permeates not just soft objects like curtains and furniture, but sticks in a yellow incrustation on paint and woodwork, nicotinizing the entire place for future visitors. Saving two years before you have to renovate must look good on any business plan.
Then, there are a group of chain restaurants that have made it a business idea to provide a smoke-free, family-friendly environment. In Japanese, they are known as "famires" which is an abbreviation of family restaurant. Japanese often borrow English words (sometimes in combinations no native speaker has ever heard of) to express new concepts, and the family restaurant concept was created to cater to families going out for lunch or dinner, even though the customers often are elderly ladies taking a break from their busy shopping schedule.
The menues in these restaurants have gravitated towards Japanese cuisine and healthier fare from the original steak and fried foods. The salads in Cocos are better than many you would find in speciality restaurants. Some places, like the Big Boy chain, sport salad bars (still a rarity in Japan). But even if they give your kids crayons and a coloring sheet, they rarely offer them a healthy menu.
The kids menues in the family restaurants in Japan would be prohibited to an adult with even the slightest cholesterole problem. The breaded deep-fried shrimps with mayonnaise (tartar sauce in the better restaurants), french fries, high-fructose jelly, a sole broccoli flower and maybe a lone half tomato does not make any parent with even the slightest idea of nutrition happy. The healthiest item on the kids menu is the Japanese kids curry (which would never be at home in either Thailand or India). And that is only because this rather thin stew contains some vegetables that were boiled beyond disappearance.
The kids love family restaurants, though, and they are one of the few places where you can eat in Japan where nobody will complain that your kids are noisy (after all, their kids are even worse!). Adults are typically able to forgive any faults they may have found when they see the dessert menu.
However, all of the restaurants try to be "american international". Both Dennys and Jonathan are originally American brands (but you will not get miso soup at Dennys in the US), although now throroughly Japanized. Gusto, Big Boy, Cocos and other family restaurants all serve the same basic fare.
If you want real Japanese food, you will be looking for a different place. Most restaurants are small and crowded, but in new developments you may find roomy restaurants where you can bring the family. They are usually one of two types: noodle restaurants, or kaiten-zushi.
There are many different types of noodles in Japan, but the ramen restaurants are typically not as family-friendly as the other two types. Ramen is the thin kinds of noodle typically served in a soup that Japanese salarymen (white-collar workers) use as a late-night substitute for the family dinner. Ramen is hardly the high point of Japanese cuisine, but as comfort food it is unsurpassed (save possibly by kara-age, the fried pieces of chicken that Japanese children devour). The other two types of noodles have more of a culinary reputation, and they often come with a lot more vegetables, and a lot more savory soup, than ramen.
Udon restaurants, serving the chewy thick wheat noodles, are particularly family-friendly. Put your family at a table (there are usually high chairs, but never enough). You can order the noodles cold, in which case the cook will first boil the noodles and then chill them by washing them in ice water. Mix one large portion (oomori, 大盛) of cold noodles with a medium-size portion (futsuumori, 普通盛り) of noodles in hot soup, and they will become perfect eating temperature.
Normally, you can add various additional dishes, like fried chicken, fried vegetables, or fried squid. There are also rice balls (onigiri おにぎり) . Hold the ginger and onions, and remember to get chilrens plates and forks before you sit down.
The other type of noodles, soba noodles made from buckwheat, are thinner and slightly astringent - not bitter, but somehow feeling differently on the tounge. The nutty taste may not be to everyones liking, but if made with high quality ingredients the soba noodles can be amazing. It is not for nothing that there are soba restaurants which have been operating constantly for more than five hundred years.
Soba noodles are either served cold, or hot in broth. The broth is seasonal and can be delicious - and piping hot. So here, again, you order one portion of cold noodles (often served with tempura, the lightly fried vegetables and seafood), and mix it into the broth.
Since soba restaurants are more upscale than the udon and ramen places, you may be asked to keep your kids quiet and not touch the decor (break it and you have to pay for it, much more than you had planned for the entire trip). And you may be frowned upon because your kids eat with their hands. Try to make them be quiet and behave, at least if you want to come back. Soba noodles are so good that you are likely to want to.
But the third kind of the family friendly non-famires-restaurants is the one your kids will want to come back to. Surprisingly, the shrimp here are not fried, but fresh. It is the sushi restaurants, or to be more precise, the kaiten-zushi restaurants. No, it is spelled right. There are umlauts on consonants in Japanese.
You have probably seen them on TV: the places where food runs around, around on little plates on a conveyor belt. Not only is this a must-do for any first-time visitor to Japan, it is a must-visit for any families with children looking for a typical Japanese family meal. Go there on a weekend and you will discover how much Japanese families like them. But try to find a big one, which has stalls for family seating.
Kaiten-zushi restaurants have some points of etiquette you have to observe. Take the plate with the dish you want (not just the sushi), and never return a dish you took. You will get extra plates when you order speciality dishes or drinks. Green tea is included (either as tea bags or macha, which you take and stir up in a little water, adding more to taste). So that green powder on your table is tea, not wasabi.
There are three condiments in kaiten-zushi restaurants, but your kids may not like one and definitely will not like the other. The third is soy sauce, which enhances the meatiness (umami) taste and adds a hint of saltiness. Just remember you do not need more than a teaspoonful in your dipping plate at the time.
On your table, you will find a box or jar of sliced and pickled vegetables. That is gari, pickled ginger sliced thin. Gari (sometimes pink, thanks to red shiso leaves in the pickling bran) is what you eat after a particularly filling and fatty piece of sushi, to cleanse your palate from the oil of one kind of seafood and making yourself ready for the next taste sensation. Since it is sweet your kids will eat it, but they may not like the spiciness of the ginger.
The other condiment is wasabi. Some restaurants actually sprinkle a little herbs on some dishes, or put a little chopped leek or onion on top of the grilled salomon, but the condiment you can find in almost any dish in a sushi restaurant is wasabi.
There are two reasons for this: one is the taste. A little hint of spiciness enhances the other tastebuds (opening your breathing passages for the scents, for one). But even sushi chefs overdo it, putting on too much wasabi and killing the finer tastes. Wasabi is not ketchup, and you are going to kill all the taste if you slather it on like mustard. Some Japanese may take a little extra wasabi but they would recoil in horror if someone took more than the tip of a knife. If they saw someone taking a teaspoon or more, they may faint.
The argument that you do not think it tastes anything without wasabi is actually a sign you would be better off not eating sushi. Sushi is intended (even in the family-oriented kaiten-zushi restaurants) to be a symphony of taste, look, and texture. Japanese food is not just intended to be eaten, it should be consumed. The sushi chefs (even those working to feed families of ravenous kids) study the art of creating a dish that will imprint itself on the palate of the customer. And not with the hydraulic press power of a spoonful of wasabi.
But wait a minute. This fish is all fresh, right? So how do I dare to take my kids there? They are still small and their stomachs delicate. I do not want them to catch norovirus or worse from bad fish.
Yes, but it is free from parasites, bacteria and other bad things. This was the second reason for the wasabi: it kills parasites. Nowadays, fish is frozen to make sure it is safe, and the big chains have invested heavily into the logistics of bringing super-fresh fish to all the different parts of Japan where they operate. And anyway, your kids (and you) do not have to eat raw fish unless you want to. Most kaiten-zushi restaurants feature cooked dishes as well as the sushi, and even then there are some types of sushi which is cooked (and that kids love), like the omelette sushi, and the nori rolls with cucumber.
If you do not see anything you like, you can order it from the menu. Many restaurants have their menus on iPads or tablets, in multiple languages. Your dishes are delivered riding on a little Shinkansen train.
That makes it fun to order on your own. But you may not have to. In many kaiten-zushi restaurants, you suddenly see a bowl of karaage, the fried chicken that children love, coming down the belt. Or fried potatoes. Or fried shrimp. Hopefully with tartar sauce.
When we lived in Thailand, we once were careless with the insect nets. The morning after my daughter was so blotched and swollen that my wife rushed to the hospital we used, so the doctor could check out what was wrong.
Luckily, it turned out that she was only bitten by mosquitoes, and there were no bad aftereffects. Luckily, since in Thailand mosquitoes carry both dengue fever and malaria. While all mosquitoes are not carriers (as we found out) you have no way of knowing which insects will carry disease, and which do not.
Nowadays, all the talk is about the Zika virus, but Zika is actually only dangerous if you are pregnant. In other persons, it causes a mild fever and goes away. West Nile virus, which now is endemic to the United States, is much more dangerous (although the effects are not as hard to deal with). And it is carried by mosquitoes, too. Although it still pales compared to malaria, one of the oldest scourges of humanity.
You do not want to find out the hard way which disease is the most deadly. While malaria can be cured, it is still debilitating while it lasts, and to cure it you have to take medication which while generally safe always carry the risk of side effects. You do not want your children exposed even to the smallest risk, so better be careful with those insect nets.
That is even more true for dengue fever, also known as breakbone fever - because the muscle contractions can be so bad they break the bones of the diseased person. You can guess how painful it can be. It is definitely not something you want your children to have, especially since the immunity you get from being exposed to one strain of the virus does not give you immunity to the other strains. And the second time you catch the disease, it may be lethal.
In most big cities, mosquitoes keep away. There is simply no places for them to live, although in Hong Kong the authorities warned against small pools of water, like flowerpots orthe inside of discarded tires, which can serve as breeding grounds for mosquitoes. But in most big cities, there are no bodies of standing water.
Bangkok is a flagrant exception, as the city is built in a (poorly drained) swamp. The explosion of condominiums (none of which come with screen windows) are all built for you to keep the air conditioning on high. If you want to avoid placing your kids in a cold draught of dried out air and use some natural ventilation, which is perfectly feasible in the Thai winter, you are out of luck. Most people actually keep the windows closed because they not only want to keep the cold air in, but also since they want to avoid the smell of swamp gas, which can get in even where mosquitoes can not.
But mosquitoes are everywhere In the world, even in the Hawaiian islands (where there were none when Europeans arrived). Most of them do not carry either malaria or Dengue fever, but all bloodsucking varieties create itchy blotches (like the ones that scared my wife so much). Add itchy blotches in places where the sun does not go to red and itchy flaking skin blisters where the sun shone too much, and you are in for a night without sleep thanks to a crying baby. Not the thing you were hoping for during your vacation.
Nowadays the big scare is Zika virus, which is also easily spread by mosquitoes (and through sexual contact). The virus can affect anyone but is really dangerous to pregnant women, as it can cause birth defects in their babies.
This is why you can be a danger if you are bitten and get infected but does not get sick (or at least not so sick you can tell it from a common cold). You can spread the virus if you get bitten. This means the virus can suddenly appear in areas where it did not exist before, if you are not careful. Epidemics work like that - the reverse of immunization, which causes small spots where the infection can not spread.
Since being infected means a risk to pregnant women in the area, the risk is very real and you should be careful. You do not want the responsibility of babies being born with microencephaly weigh on your conscience. And you need to be extra careful of your children. Even if the symptoms can be mild and hardly distinguishable from an influenza, the pain can be severe. And the child will be a carrier. So you want to be sure the children do not get bitten, either abroad or at home.
The best way of keeping mosquitoes away is to keep all doors and windows closed, and keep a higher air pressure inside than outside. This is of course easier said than done if you live in an ordinary house.
A second best are insect nets and screen doors and windows. If you want to sleep in the natural breeze of your destination (hard to resist in many places, especially by the beach where the sound of waves will lull you to sleep), you need insect nets. And not just one layer, but several. You need screen windows and you need insect nets over your beds - one net inside the bed, and a bigger net outside that. Infants can not swat mosquitoes away, so you have to help them.
When you take infants for walks, you can put insect nets on the stroller so they are protected. You have to make sure there are no holes and gaps, especially not around the back if you have a sitting stroller. It may be quite difficult and you should factor into the decision to buy the stroller.
But once your kids start walking, you need to consider insect repellents. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in the US do not recommend insect repellents for children under 2 months, but you really want to avoid chemicals at all for as long as you can. Do not use insect repellents with oil of lemon eucalyptus or para-methane-diol on kids under three.
Insects identify their prey by smell (yes, despite the difference in size, that is what you are to them). Insect repellents block some smells better than others, which means different insect repellents work better for certain types of insects. Flies are attracted to certain smells (not pleasant to humans), which means the same goes for mosquitoes. But not all mosquitoes are the same. Different species are attracted to different parts of the smells humans give off.
Almost all diseases which affect humans, but zika and dengue fever in particular, are spread by the Aedes Aegypti and Aedes Albopictus. One of the consequences of climate change is that these species, which require higher temperatures, are spreading northwards. Aedes Aegypti was behind the dengue fever scare in Tokyo a few years ago - before then, nobody had ever got dengue fever from a mosquito bite in southeastern Japan. But this summer, there is a very real risk.
So insect repellent is necessary for your kids. If you do not forget any spots, they are safe from the different insect-bourn diseases. Not ticks, though, they are actually not insects.
The trick is not to miss any spots. The key to doing that is not to have to slather your kids in insect repellent first and sun tan lotion later, or the other way around. If you use a combined sun lotion and insect repellent you have a much easier time of it.
Previously, I wrote about how to free up memory in your iPhone (and Android phone, but that is much less of a problem). Having a flash drive where you can store your photos frees up memory on your phone by backing up your photos (unfortunately only your photos, not your iTunes music, podcasts and iBooks) and deleting them so you can take more photos and videos of your kids. And share them to Facebook or whatever means you use to communicate with the kids grandparents and other people who appreciate how cute they are. The sharing works from your thumb drive, too.
But as I mentioned in the previous post, there are disadvantages too them, too. They are small, which makes them easy to handle, but also easy to lose. Or for your children to get hold of and play with, which can destroy the sturdiest memory stick.
There is another alternative, which you can not drop down the drain: Cloud disks. The disadvantage is that they generate considerable data traffic when photos are uploaded. That limits your usage to places where there is free wifi, unless you have adata roaming plan that works internationally (and be careful, in some countries there is national roaming, so you have to pay more when you leave your home zone).
If you have an Apple device, they are kind enough to include 5 GB of cloud storage capacity for free. You can set up sharing with your family, and they do not have to have Apple devices to see the pictures and videos you upload either.
With Dropbox, you get 2GB free, and 1 TB if you pay (about 10 dollars a month). The free account is a good deal, since it includes automated backup from your phone. On the other hand, you will be surprised at how fast it fills up.
With Google you get 15GB and while you have to share it with your Gmail it is a lot. There is also an app that lets you back up your photos, calendar, and contacts to the Google Drive. Although only when you have a wifi connection.
You can get even more capacity from Google if you put your videos on Youtube. You can get 20 GB and it is possible to keep videos private, so they can only be seen by people who you have explicitly given access. The upload app works from both iOS and Android.
And for the adventurous there is another alternative: Make your own cloud drive. A terabyte-size hard drive costs a lot less than a one year Dropbox connection, and if you know enough about Internet connection management you can set it up in the safety of your home. Or bring it with you. A terabyte drive with integrated wifi costs about the same as a year of Dropbox, and while you probably want to leave it in the safety of your rented apartment or hotel room, you can set up your phone to synch when you get "home". And these drives have one more advantage: they are too big to fit in a drain.
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 six - 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.