When you rent a place with infants, you are not looking for the same thing as the family with pre-teens. Your child is more likely to appreciate a nice park nearby than a game store, and you will find easy access to supermarkets more important than a Pokemon center. Living on top of a subway station may not be as important as it would be for teenagers. You are more likely to appreciate a place where you can park the stroller and where you can change the diapers easily. A house is not a bad idea, and there are AirBnB hosts in Tokyo who offer houses, although they are likely to be typical Japanese houses. Which does not mean sliding paper doors and tatami mats in every room, although they will definitely have tatami mats in some rooms.
Let Your Kids Make Noise
Most people in Tokyo actually live in apartments, although about half the families have their own houses. Japanese houses tend to be very small compared to Western housing. When you see them, you will be surprised that it is even possible to squeeze in a house on a plot of land that size. Often, the distance to the neighboring building is not even two feet, and there is neither a garden nor a parking lot. But a house has one advantage over apartment complexes: The kids can be as noisy as they like.
Typical family houses in Tokyo.
Families in Tokyo often live in apartments in huge apartment complexes. These apartment complexes can have hundreds of tenants, and most of the highrise towers that you see when coming on the train from Narita or Haneda airports are actually apartment buildings, equally tall as the office towers and corporate headquarters which also dot Tokyo city. Most people live in apartments that would be considered very small by Western standards, but were the norm in big cities two to three hundred years ago. It is not unusual for a family of four to squeeze together in a two bedroom apartment, and even bigger families can live in small apartments. Rental apartments tend to be even smaller than the apartments in condominium buildings.
No Market For Old Houses
When a Japanese family buys an apartment in a condominium building, they will be looking to the future, not for a place to sell. The property markets in Tokyo are extremely sluggish, and even if it is possible to sell a condominium, you would probably not be able to make any money doing so. There is hardly any market at all for old houses, since they tend to be torn down and new houses built on the land when the property changes hands. Tearing down the old house is often a precondition for selling the property.
House Renewal Cycles
This means houses go through renewal cycles as the families who lived there move out and new families move in; in practice, houses are torn down every thirty to fifty years, and new houses built in their places. It is not quite the same with apartment buildings, which tend to stand for seventy years or more, until the condominium leases expire and the land reverts to the owner. You do not have to worry about it when you are looking in AirBnB for the best place to stay.
Old Houses Are Rare
This means it is rare to find an actual old building in Tokyo. Most of the buildings in the city were destroyed during the war, so anything which was left standing is automatically an antiquity. But of the buildings which were remaining, few were residential. Free-standing houses in Japan have always been built to be torn down, and the old city of Edo was full of low wooden buildings packed tightly together, prone to fires which would be vast disasters, leaving large areas burned-out wastelands. Modern houses are somewhat better built, but since they will be torn down when the land is sold, houses are temporary structures. Even if they feel every way as permanent as houses in other countries.
Do Not Judge By Their Looks
Condominium buildings are more permanent and robust merely as a matter of mechanics, since they have more floors and more individual units. But once they get older, they can become rather run down, and renovations are the responsibility of the owner of the individual unit, not the landlord. An apartment can be incredibly fresh and well equipped, but the building can have a run-down feel. This does not mean you will have any problems with it, but it does mean you can not judge the place by looks only.
Toilet Morning Congestion
One thing to consider if you have the choice between a smaller, central apartment and a somewhat larger house, but more distant from the city center is the number of bathrooms. Or toilets, actually. If you are a family of two adults and an infant, you may not find sharing a single toilet much of a problem. But if you are more than two adults, or if your children are toddlers or even school age, you will find that one single toilet for a family of five or more can be very congested at certain times of day.
The actual bath and the toilet are usually separated in Japanese homes, so taking a shower or changing your baby while someone else is using the toilet is not impossible. Japanese tend to take hot baths in the evening, for relaxation as much as hygiene. Just as in the bath house, you wash first, then go into the hot water. In most families the father takes a bath first, then other family members. But the bath and toilet is an inconvenience to consider when renting a place in central Tokyo, where apartments tend to be small and two toilets in one apartment would be considered a luxury. Houses tend to have more than one, which makes it more convenient to rent a house if you are a big family.
Check The Floor First
Unless you are looking for a house, check out which floor the apartment is on. Most new buildings in Tokyo, unless they are private houses, have more than two floors so staying in a building with more than two floors is an easy way to avoid sitting on top of the restaurants or shops. Tall buildings also tend to be somewhat removed from the street, which is another advantage. The really fancy apartment buildings even have a little park surrounding them, which will be welcome for short walks and play.
No Street Noise High Up
If you are staying several floors up in a building more than 20 floors high, you will not notice the noise from the street nearly as much as you would if you were staying on a lower floor. You might not care as much if you are staying in an entertainment quarter, even though it may feel somewhat awkward at night, walking around with a stroller in the middle of hostesses trying to pull you (or your husband) into their establishments, or waiters waving menues at you, trying to sell you cheap drinks. From the 10th floor they will just be part of the background noise anyway.
Look At The Streetview
If you rent a house, however, you want to check whether it is on or near a busy street. The easiest way to do that is to look in Google Maps, and see if this is a street which has many restaurants. Allow for a couple of blocks leeway around the restaurants as well. Restaurants are rarely noisy in themselves, even in the entertainment areas, but the customers may be. Especially when going home, which is relatively late at night (even though most restaurants will close at 22 hours). While having a supermarket or convenience store next door is very convenient, staying on a street with plenty of restaurants is not going to make it easier to make your children fall asleep. Especially if the property you rented was on top of the restaurant.
Delivery Truck Wakeup
Staying away from the main streets and areas with many restaurants and lets you avoid another source of noise, and that is deliveries. In Japan, the convenience stores get their deliveries several times a day, but the regular stores get theirs in the morning. Including the supermarkets. Having delivery trucks stopping and unloading at four in the morning outside your window is not going to make it easier for your babies to sleep, especially if they are jetlagged.
The convenience of being able to cater for yourself outweighs the disadvantages several times over, if you take the distance from potential noisemakers into account. With a small baby, you have to get up several times at night to make formula and change diapers. Being able to fall asleep again without being disturbed by street noise is an advantage. So is not having to worry about disturbing the neighbors.
Japanese condominium building are as robust as they come, but like all shared buildings, there is always some noise carrying over to the neighbors. And while you may have an image of the Japanese as a people who would rather grin and and bear inconveniences than complain, that is not true behind the scenes. They complain, they even sue each other. And when that does not help, there have been the occasional (well-publicized) episode of violence against too noisy children. Unfrequent as they are, the less you disturb the neighbors the better.
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The very nice blog Bebe Voyage has featured us! If you want to know more about a typical day in the life of the Watertree family (Saturday two weeks ago actually), read it right there!
This weekend we will be even more busy than usual, but normally we make a little excursion every week. We pmay visit the Tokyo Food Festa if it is not raining. Our grocery store always has (organic) produce grown in the sub-city of Tokyo where we live, less than 10 km from the Imperial Palace. It is fascinating that there are farmers that near the center of a city of 30 million. You would never find that in Bangkok (even if we actually woke up to the crowing of our neighbors cocks). The people in the shacks near our Thai condo grew their own food and ate better than their neighbors shopping in Tesco Lotus.
You may not know it, but there are actually two Disney parks in Tokyo. Or maybe I should say three. Because Tokyo Disney Resort not only consists of the Tokyo Disneyland and Disney Sea parks, there is also a shopping mall, Ikispiari, right next to the Maihama train station. As my wife noted when we had lunch in the Rainforest Cafe in Ikispiari this weekend, that may have been enough for the kids and we could have skipped Disneyland. Many people do, because it is a complete destination, with all the shopping, dining, and experience you could wish for in an ordinary dating destination. As it is located near the Disney parks, there are curious people coming through all the time, so there are even more interesting restaurant offerings than usual. It even has its own microbrewed beer, Harvest Moon, although it is not available in all the restaurants (Rainforest Cafe, the only one in Japan, does not carry it).
The other good thing about Ikispiari is that there is a grocery store in the basement, stocked with all the daily needs of a family. Unless you prefer the hotel convenience store, you can do your own shopping for snacks and dinner. And there is a drugstore for diapers, baby powder and the like.
The main draw of the Tokyo Disney resort is not the shopping, however, even if some people probably enjoy that more than the rides. The biggest Disney store in Japan is located in Ikispiari. But it is the two parks that make people come to the Tokyo Disney Resort.
On one side of the fence, you have Disneyland, a clone of the California park. Attractions are a little different and in slightly different locations, but if you were put in a teleporter and instantly transported from one to the other you might not know the difference until you had some food, and then became surprised at the sudden change in quality. Disneyland is Disneyland, and the company works hard at maintaining that brand image. And you can not have a beer.
Beer In Disneyland
On the other side of the fence, things get more interesting. Not only can you have a beer (at several times the price of the Tokyo high street), but the Disney characters suddenly behave much more like the adults they supposedly are. No, there is no sex. But there is daring and adventure and love and tragedy. Suddenly, the Disney characters seem to have mentally stepped off the twodimensional cartoon paper and into their threedimensional costumes.
Not that they overdo it, of course. At an archaelogical dig in the jungle, Minnie is still the same Minnie that was skipping to meet you at the morning photoshoot outside Cinderellas magic castle. Or so my daughters like to attest. They have photos to prove it too. Rather expensive, they were.
Jules Verne Steampunk Vibe
The ride in the archaeological jungle dig, by the way, is based on the movie "Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull". It is not really suitable for toddlers, but it is fun for grownups, if you like 360-degree looping rollercoasters.
There is a bit of a steampunk vibe to the Disney Sea part of the park. Go into the volcano and you will feel like you are in the middle of a K.W. Jeter novel.
The inspiration for much of this park of the park originally came from Jules Verne, the French science-fiction author, who would have seen several of his novels the subject of Disney filmatizations, had he been alive. But he has been dead for more than 100 years, which is of course one reason Disney based rides on his stories - the copyright has expired.
That said, they have really managed to create a fascinating park, and riding a roller coaster through a volcano (even if it is a pretend one - the volcano, not the rollercoaster) is a fun ride. This is also where most the shows are collected in the Tokyo Disney parks. There are several stages and the shows are real musicals, even if they are adapted to a Japanese audience. You may appreciate the culture shock of watching Goofy perform a song about deep-fried shrimp, but most of the shows are more traditional musicals.
Hotel Inside The Park
But the best thing is the parade. Actually, they do not call it parade, they call it show and there is a lot of sense in that, since it all happens in one location. It takes place in the harbor, which could be located somewhere in Italy. It actually looks and feels like the Amalfi coast, or Cinque Terre, had there been an active volcano in any of those places. Vesuvius is too far from Amalfi to give the same impression. And the show runs on water, which both means you need a raincoat, and that they can use projections in very new creative ways. In the evenings.
Another advantage of having something resembling a small Italian city inside a theme park is that you can put a hotel in it. Other Disney hotels may offer early entrance to the park (even as it opens at 0830 many mornings), and it may close at 2200 most days, but here you are smack in the middle of the park itself, all night long.
Amalfi is not the only model for the park. Part of the Italian quarter is based on Venice, and you can actually take a gondola inside the park. But cross the bridge of the little canal where the gondolas run, and you are all of a sudden in an American port city just before the first world war. The warehouses may look like pawnshops or seamens hostels, but they are actually all restaurants and gift shops.
Take the electric railway to Port Discovery, however, and you are back in steampunk land. Unless you take the Nemo Seafarer ride. The water scooter ride is also great fun.
Like everything in the Tokyo Disney parks, you get the impression that whomever built the parks must be an origami master. They have managed to fold everything into and on top of another, which means many of the rides are indoors, something that is great if it rains. The Mermaid Lagoon, a huge hollow space, is somehow folded under the volcano.
The Disney Sea park is divided into zones which are (sometimes loosely) associated with a story or figure, and usually has a ride as part of it.
Fainting For Ariel
Sometimes that ride is fun for a little while, like the two-storey carousel in Akabah (the home city of Alladin), sometimes you can not tear your children away (like was the case with our kids in the balloon fishes in the Kingdom Under The Sea). They have models who impersonate the characters in the movie, and once your children meet Ariel, they will swoon and might even faint. Unless they are Rapunzel, Jasmine, or Cinderella fans.
This would not be Japan if people were not dressing up as different characters, however. Here, especially on holidays, the visitors dress up as their favorite characters. Sometimes their costumes are better than those of the cast.
The park is huge with Japanese measurements, but it is small enough that you can walk around all of it in a day, if you want tired children and sore feet. Although if you want to try all the rides, you may need to get a three-day pass.
The Accessability Advantage
Another advantage of Disney Sea is its accessability. The park entrance is located on the other side of the Ikispiari shopping center, the next station of the monorail. Although as the Disney monorail train moves anticlockwise around both parks, you will have to take the train almost full circle from Ikispiari (and the railway station) before you get to the Disney Sea entrance.
So should you take your children to Disney Sea? Yes, if they are over four years old (although my kids loved it when they were three, too). Smaller children may be confused, although the park is as stroller-friendly as they come. Disney really do changing rooms very well, and there are plenty of toilets everywhere. And you may enjoy it more than your kids, especially after a beer or two.
They can go to Disneyland for free until they turn five", said my wife.
"No, it says four here" said I.
"What? Then we need to go this month!"
So we are going to Disneyland. Or actually Disney Sea.
We are going this weekend, as this happens to be a long weekend. We are going to Disney Sea since we went to Disneyland in June. Also, the kids have been asking to go to Disney Sea. Here are a few things we have thought about that may be helpful for others to consider too.
1. Book A Hotel
We actually could be at Disney Sea (on the other side of Ikispiari mall, to the left as you exit the station) in about 1.5 hours, maybe less. But the park opens already at 8 AM on weekends. So if we were to go there we would have to get there very early. Easier to stay in a hotel. But much more expensive.
2. Buy Tickets At The Hotel
if you stay in a Disney partner hotel, you can buy your tickets right there. Much more convenient than standing in line at 6 AM.
3. Ride The Best Rides Early
The kids are walking now, and they are physically big enough to ride most rides (one of my daughters is over 120 cm!). They still want to ride together with mommy and daddy, though.
If you do go ride you should go as early as possible. Not everyone who intends to visit the park are coming at 8 AM, even though they will miss the character greetings at the gate (those only happen within an an hour or so after the parks open). The lines to the rides are much shorter in the morning. And it puts your kids in perfect mode for watching a show or parade.
4. Bring The Popcorn Containers
Disneyland and Disney Sea take popcorn to a whole new level. There are popcorn carts dotted all over the park, and they have different taste. We are talking not just butter, but caramel, soy sauce and butter, curry and lots more.
When you buy popcorn you can get a plain paper container, or you can get a souvenir container. There are Mickey ears, Minnie ribbons, Dumbo, and a host of other Disney chsracters.
But in Tokyo Disneyland and Disney Sea, you will also find other popcorn containers - R2D2 and other Star Wars characters were out in force when we were there last. I hope to see some Marvel characters this time. They actually are stuff you can sell on eBay. But bring them to the Disney parks and you get a serious discount. Fill up your children on popcorn. The food in the Disney parks is not bad, but it is expensive. Even if you can get beer and wine with your meal in Disney Sea.
5. Eat At Ikispiari
just outside the gates to Disney Sea is a shopping center called Ikispiari (if you think the name looks weird, try pronouncing it, then it makes some sense). Like all Japanese shopping centers, it has a huge selection of restaurants. There are even more in the train station.
The prices in those restaurants are at least 30% lower than those inside the park. And since you can leave the park and come back on the same ticket, it pays both in terms of money and taste.
6. Make Sure Your Kids Have Good Shoes
i am constantly amazed at people putting five-year-olds in strollers and pushing them around the park. Yes, it is convenient if your child falls asleep. I carried my daughter through Tokyo Station last time, and she weighs 25 kg. There are very few strollers which can handle that.
But your kids have legs for a reason. They are meant to walk and run. They have amazing stamina, which parents often do not. But their parents have sensible shoes, and give their kids beach sandals. Give them proper shoes, and they will love Disney Sea even more.
What does it mean when something has 98 % 水? For baby wipes, it means nicer to your kids skin. It means the wipes contain 98% water, without harmful alcohols, preservatives, and detergents. Yet they wash the skin of your child as effectively as any swipe with alcohol. Or even better. And they are cheaper than baby wipes in other countries, with the exception of Korea.
But when you stand in the grocery store asking yourself where you can find them, because you can not spot the baby department, you soon come to realize that you are in the wrong store. Baby goods in Japan are not sold in grocery stores, they are sold in drug stores or speciality baby goods stores.
Two Dominant Chains
There are two chains of baby goods speciality stores in Japan which dominate the market: Nishimatsuya and Akachan Honpou. Akachan Honpou has a store between Meguro and Osaki in southern Tokyo, Nishimatsuya has one in Odaiba. But unless you are living close to one of them, it is not necessarily the most cost effective way to spend your shopping time.
If you are looking for consumables, like baby wipes or diapers, you can go to any drugstore. While the text on the diaper packaging will only be in Japanese, it is not that hard to figure out what you want - you start by choosing whether you want the tape model or the pants model, then you look at the weight of the child they are intended for, and you are all set. I wrote a separate blog post about buying diapers in Japan earlier.
Watch Out For Senior Diapers
There are two things to look out for: the training diapers intended for night use, which you actually tape into their pants. And do not buy the kind with old people on the package. Japan has a growing population of increasingly elderly seniors, and many of them has an incontinence problem.
The seniors may buy diapers, but they typically do not buy baby wipes. You usually find them next to the diaper section, and they either come in packages of two or three packs, or they come in boxes of 10 or 12 packs. Which you buy depends on how many you are going to need, and that is of course depending on how many children you have, and how long you are going to stay. Remember that having a pack of baby wipes in your diaper bag (or going out bag) is useful not just for wiping baby bums, but also noses, hands, tables, toilet seats and iPad screens (99% water works better than alcohol on keeping your screen clean, actually).
The drug stores in Japan is also where you will find both formula, baby food, baby oil and cream, soap and schampoo, and any other baby product you may think about. Including baby food and formula.
Formula in Japanese drugstores is made in Japan without exception, and it is usually manufactured by the chemistry branches of the main dairy companies. We used to feed our kids hohoemi (ほほえみ). They had problems with international brands (and colic), but when drinking that, the stomach problems went away. And so did the colic.
Milder Baby Soap
While there are some products which have international brand names on them (often produced under license in Japan though), most of the products on the drug store shelves in the baby department are made in Japan.
The soap/schampoo (in Japanese 石鹸 or ベービシャンプー or ベービソプ) comes either in refill bags or pump bottles. Depending on how long you are staying and how often you intend to wash your children you may want to pick up more than one bottle (or one bottle and one refill bag). Japanese baby soap is milder than baby soap in other countries, and so you are able to wash your children more often. Japanese children take a hot bath with their parents (usually one of them) every day, at least during winter, so the soap can not be too strong.
Once your kids grow a little older you will need toothbrushes and toothpaste. Toothbrushes are easy to find and identify. Japanese toothbrushes are a little softer than European or American toothbrushes, something to remember when you brush the teeth of your children. The toothpaste (歯磨き粉 or はみがきこ) come in a number of flavors and often contains xylitol, preventing tooth decay even after you brush the teeth.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org, or if you want general tips, follow me on Twitter @wisterianw.