The Japanese winter is not really cold. At least not for someone used to the snow and cold of borthern Sweden. Which does not mean you and your kids can not get bad colds if you are not careful. You have to dress right.
In Japan, Uniqlo has a line of specially engineered clothes - Japanese high tech - that keep the heat close to the body and wicks away the sweat that would cool you off if it was allowed to stay on your skin. Ito Yokado, the department and supermarket part of the group that owns the 7-11 convenience stores, has a similar line of clothes. But while Uniqlo also has some clothes in childrens sizes using the HeatTech technology.
Uniqlo and H&M and all their competitors have clothes for a little bit bigger kids - toddlers and up. Not so much for babies in strollers. And stroller bags are unknown. The best you can do is most likely a blanket. If you have winter gear for your baby, you should bring it. If not, you need one of the specialized baby goods stores, or the department store baby departments. But the specialized baby goods stores are not located in the center, and the department stores are expensive. So if you have small kids the stores may not be much help. And watch the sizes. Our kids are five but "European size", which means they wear clothes intended for Japanese second graders.
Overheating the homes
In Japan, strangely enough for such a high-tech oriented country, thermostats often seem to have two settings only: Off and max. The Japanese traditional heaters worked that way, but that was more than two hundred years ago. Today the airconditioners in homes double as heaters, leveraging the heat pump in the air conditioner that takes the heat from the inside air and dumps it on the outside. They have very sophisticated sensors, and are able to direct the hot (or cold) air to the spots in the room where people are, achieving a comfortable temperature on the way.
But the normal way a home, or a hotel room, are heated is not that way.
In winter the train companies also switch on the heating beneath the seats. It is nice if you get wet in a rainstorm (or snowstorm), but it gets a bit too toasty on everyday trips. The seats can be uncomfortably hot, and you start worrying that your kids will burn their fingers.
The muffler winter wear
The Tokyo and Kyoto areas are about 5 degrees centigrade in winter, although the temperature can get up to 15 degrees. But if it snows then the temperature can go down to zero, even if it rarely drops below. It does not snow every year either.
Most people do not really put on winterwear, at least not compared to other countries. Heattech keeps you warm with a thin sweater or jacket on, and when you enter the overheated rooms you can take it off. Many people only wear a muffler for winter clothing.
The air-driven heater pads
Not everyone feels warm with only underwear and a sweater, or even a winter coat. If you are sensitive, or if you are going to be outside for more than a few hours, you will want a heating pad.
In Japan, you can buy heating pads in packs of ten or more. They are packed in an airtight bag, and when you open it the air starts reacting with the chemicals in the pad, and heat up. The pads are adhesive so they stick to your clothing, keeping you warm where you need it.
Just be careful if you put the pads on your children. They do get pretty hot, not enough to cause burns but enough to be uncomfortable if you do not have a few layers of clothing in between. If you put it in the stroller, put it under the seat pad so it becomes comfortably warm.
Winter fashion goods
Japanese people are as style-conscious as Italians, and design should not just be functional, it should be fun as well. But while old standbys are kept on market as long as they sell, every year sees a flood of novelties combining high tech and high design. It can be anything from hot water shoes (to keep your feet warm in the same way as a diver does, bu without getting wet), and USB-enabled socks and mittens with built in heaters. To find the novelty goods, go to Tokyu Hands, a big department store that specializes in home goods and DIY supplies.
Did you like this post? I have written about the five seasons of Japan before, what to do on a rainy day in Tokyo, about seasonal activities you can do in Tokyo, and the Japanese travel year (very much weather related).
If you want to find out more about my upcoming books about traveling to Japan with children, go to the book
Onboard the trains, both private and those run by JR, there is a number of rules you should follow. These are not unwritten rules – on the contrary, there are posters in the stations and the trains telling you how to behave on the trains, and stickers to remind you to give up the “silver seats”, as the seats reserved for elderly, people with disabilities, and parents with babies are known.
Make sure your children sit still (and do not put their shoes on the seats). Running about is not only disturbing other passengers; since they do not understand Japanese, they will not understand announcements declaring that the train is stopping suddenly, or that the train is about to change tracks. Small children can fall and hurt themselves
The first rule of inconvenience
The first rule in Japan, as always, is not to inconvenience others. Babies screaming loudly and children playing around and making noises are inconveniences. At least make an effort to hush them. Make sure to take off their shoes before they put their feet on the seats, and make sure they do not bump into others. Talking loudly on the phone is another inconvenience for others – the Japanese invented the “manner mode”, the ringtone mute function, on phones so that it should be quiet on trains. Playing music that spills out from the headphones so others can hear it is another inconvenience you had better avoid.
So is pushing other people with your huge rucksack or bag. When the train is crowded, it is better to keep the backpack in front. Unless you are wearing your baby there. But bringing lots of luggage onto the train is going to make it hard for others to move around and finds seats, and so it is better to avoid.
Do not even try to pick it up
If you frop something on the track, do not risk your life trying to retrieve it. Even if it is your childs favorite toy and she is screaming blood murder. Get the staff and ask them to pick it up for you. They know the timing of the trains and they have a really long thing with a grip at the end that quickly gets whatever it is off the tracks. Japanese subways do not have a third rail (at least not in Tokyo) but the trains can not stop if someone is on the tracks, so do mot risk it. Especially not for a stuffed toy.
If you mslay something on the train, you can be certain that it will be in the lost-and-found office the next day. If you forgot something on the train that just left, the staff may be able to ask the staff at the next station to pick it up and hold it for you. Japanese service is like that.
Line up properly
Lining up in a proper line in front of the train doors, and letting people get off the train before you try to enter, is another positive behavior you will find advertised on posters around the stations. So is making sure to line up behind the yellow line. This line is often paved with studs for blind people to feel with their white canes, so try to stand behind it. If you have a toddler you may want to make sure they hold your hand, as they may run around or cross the line to see the oncoming trains. This can be quite dangerous if the station does not have platform doors, since stations are often passed by express trains on the track closest to the platform (there may only be one), and this can mean they are pulled along by the wind from the passing train. It can happen to strollers too, so make sure to have a good grip and stand it at an angle to the platform edge.
Yielding to children
Once you get on you may find people yield their seats to your children (but not to you). But in the morning and evening, the manners of tired commuters go out the window, and they may even grab the seat before you instead of giving it up. To say something would be to shame them publicly though and that is even more impolite. Instead, do like the Japanese do: Stand in front of the seat you want them to give up, and make your children make a show of how tired they are, without directly asking the person. This may seem strange to you, but in Japan it is perfectly normal, since once you are in the seat, it is yours until you give it up. Regardless of the rules. But if the need of the person in front of you is bigger, then Japanese will feel they have to comply.
Careful with smartphones
There are huge signs in the station warning you against walking and texting. Apart from people who are drunk on their way home from parties, this must be one of the biggest dangers on the crowded and narrow train and subway platforms. And in the trains it is a nuisance too, as in the picture above. Not bothering others is the golden rule when it comes to smartphone usage on Japanese trains, like everything else.
Careful with strollers
When you bring a stroller you can usually put it close to the seats, but be careful not to block the door for people getting on or off. And do not block the door between the cars for people who are going through. If your child is asleep, you can keep her in the stroller. If you take her up, try to keep her quiet, as being quiet onboard the train is one of the rules written on the signboards in the stations, and featured in (often humorous) posters declaring that you should not chat loudly, talk loudly on your mobile phone, or generally disturb other passengers.
Get the silver seats
When bringing a stroller, you should look for the sign at the step which says where the silver seats are. They are usually in the ends of each car, and the seats themselves are a different color. Chances are that if you bring children in a stroller, you will get a seat there. But you may also want to check if there is a wing sign (羽) since that means the air conditioning is weaker in that car. In summer, Japanese tend to turn the air conditioning up high, and while the air is no warmer than in other cars, you do not have to put your babies in a cold wind if you choose those (the character in this context does not mean wings, but weak).
There is one thing to remember about taking trains in Japan, and especially in the big cities, that is not written anywhere on the trains or stations. It is that you should not even try trying to take trains and subway during morning rush hour. This is when people try to squeeze on the trains and the staff attempt to make sure their limbs and luggage are not sticking out and blocking the doors so they can not close. Give the trains a miss between 7 AM and 9:30 AM on working days.
No eating but drinking is allowed
A rule that actually is unwritten is that you should not eat on the trains. Generally, eating in Japan is a much more disciplined activity than eating in many other countries, both because of the crowded circumstances and because of the Japanese attitude to eating, which involves eating only when you have your own private space. This does not apply to small children who are excempted from most rules anyway.
Drinking is allowed, including alcoholic drinks, but in moderation. And there are no toilets on the local trains if you drink too much. There may be some on the long-distance lines that cross Tokyo on their way to somewhere els, but unless you specifically boatded such a train, you have no guarantees.
Things to remember about taking the train
☐ Do not take the train between 7 AM and 9:30 AM during working days. It is too crowded to travel with children.
☐ Put your phone in “manner mode” (the ring signal on mute) and do not talk on the phone. And do not walk and text. It is even more dangerous than walking and talking.
☐ Always let passengers get off before you get on.
☐ Offer your seat to the elderly or infirm.
☐ Take off your backpack or wear it in front, so you do not bump into other passengers.
☐ Find the car with the weak airconditioning.
☐ Avoid bringing heavy luggage onto the train, do like the Japanese and send it ahead.
☐ Do not speak loudly to others in your party or on the mobile phone.
☐ Do not eat on the local trains. Drinking is OK. Small children are excempt from the rule.
☐ If your kids play on the seats, take off their shoes.
☐ If you drop something on the tracks, call the station staff.
☐ Try to keep your kids quiet. That babies scream is unavoidable, but try to make your toddlers be quiet.
This was one of several posts I have made about taking the train to get around Tokyo. I have written about the Japanese travel day, how to take a train in Tokyo, about the Shinkansen platform tickets, when you need a car in Japan, when flying makes sense over taking the train, what you need to think about when you take the Shinkansen, why Shinkansen is the best travel alternative, and what you should budget for your daily travel (kids under six travel free on Tokyo trains!).
Did you find this interesting? You have actually been reading a chapter from my upcoming book, Bring Your Babies To Tokyo, about how to navigate the Japanese capital with kids in a stroller - all based on our personal experiences from getting out and about in Tokyo with one twin jogging stroller and one umbrella stroller.
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Yesterday, the Cabinet put a law before the Parliment making the day of ascension to the Imperial throne of the Crown Prince a public holiday. And the following day will also be a holiday. So now it is official: the Japanese will suddenly have Golden Week holiday from April 27 to Monday 6 in 2019. And this is on top of the governement mandate to take five days of paid holiday every year. But it will revert to more normal holidays in 2020. Unless the government declares holidays for the Tokyo Olympics 2020.
Golden Week was already the preferred holiday week of the Japanese people, mostly since it meant taking three days off to get five days leave . Some years only
two days. But this year, the government is giving everyone a present: An entire vacation week. For families, three days extra pay is nothing to sneeze at, even if they will have to take it out as salary in April the year after.
Why is Japan changing emperor?
The current emperor is really old. He has ruled since 1989, and is 84 years old now. People get tired and frail at that age. Our grandma spends most of the time watching TV. I am pretty sure the Emperor would do the same, but he is going around the country visiting his people, meeting foreign ambassadors, dining with visiting heads of state, and so on. He did a fantastic job supporting people after the Great Northeast Japan earthquake, that led to the Fukushima disaster. You can see that he wants to retire.
The throne accession day
Akihito, the current emperor, will step down on April 30, the day after the holiday that celebrates his father, usually known as Hirohito in the West but the Showa emperor in Japan. His son Naruhito will take over on May 1. Making May 1 a holiday means both April 30 and May 2 become holidays, since they are sandwiched between other holidays. So suddenly the entire week is a holiday, and ending with a long weekend.
The ascension ceremony is not until October, so there will be an extra holiday then.
So what does it mean for tourists?
Much as it pains me to say so, you should not come to Japan between April 27 and May 6. It will be crowded everywhere. Worse than usual, and that was already crowded, as I have written about before. If you can, go after May 6. Then everybody will be at work, and the hotels and especially the ryokan will be empty, more or less. However, museums will be open (it is part of their job as educational institutions), and temples and shrines will not close. Stores will likely keep open, as people on vacation shop more than people at work. Trains will most likely run normal schedules, but there will not be any rush hours, different from the ordinary working days I have written about before.
50 % Off Afterwards
If the potential crowds and full hotels are not enough to make you less interested in coming during Golden Week 2019, here is something plenty of people have pointed out: The prices in hotels after May 6 are half, or even less than half. That is pretty stunning and tells you that May will be a very good time to visit Japan, especially as it is sandwiched between Golden Week and the rainy season. With great weather and small crowds. What is there no to like?
Every shopping street with visitors from outside the area has at least one: A stand where not only do they make crackers in front of your eyes, toast them over a fire and dip them in soy sauce and add spices - if they want it.
They are making senbei (せんべい), the Japanese rice crackers. When you are walking down the shopping street you can buy one fresh off the grill, dipped in soy sauce and crackling as it dries.
Rice snack from rice flour
Senbei is a Japanese favorite snack, and there are lots of variations. Different from other rice snacks, they are made from rice flour. The beaten dough made from glutinous rice called mochi is different. There are senbei made from mochi too, grilled or fried, like a kind of popcorn without the corn.
Dipped in soy sauce
But the regular version is made from rice flour dough. It is kneaded and beaten to a flat disk, about half a centimeter thick and ten to twelve centimeters in diameter. And dipped in soy sauce, sprinkled with a seasoning, and dried quickly. There are wet kinds, which are soft and squishy, but senbei are commonly hard - as crackers.
Many sprinkled seasonings
The main flavor may be soy sauce, but the seasonings sprinkled on top can be spicy, or salty, or sweet. Or citrus, from the Japanese yuzu fruit. There are senbei with sesame seeds or beans baked into the dough, and those lightly dipped or soaked in soy sauce. And there are other kinds which are not round, but shaped like sausages or squares or other shapes, and which are seasoned with soy sauce absorbed by the senbei. You want to be careful with the red pepper ones. Your kids will not like them.
Supermarket senbei section
Most Japanese supermarkets have a whole section of different senbei, because there are a huge number of manufacturers. Most of them are basically the same, but different people have different favorites. The cheapest kind are the "waresenbei (われせんべい )", which have been broken during manufacturing. Nothing wrong with the taste, but they are half price compared to the unbroken ones.
Crunchy yet chewy
Senbei are great snacks, especially if your children has just got their full set of teeth. They are crunchy when you bite into them, and they are chewy once you have got them into your mouth. They contain neither sugar nor fat but the soy sauce dip gives them "umami" flavor, just like meat. And they are cheap - you can get a big bag for around 200 yen.
Was this helpful? If you liked it, I have written about the 10 foods your children will ask for more of in Japan, kids menus in family and other restaurants, how much it costs to visit Japan, and of course about picking strawberries in Tochigi. If you want more, I am working on a guidebook for families coming to Tokyo. Follow my progress and get discount cupons by signing up to my newsletter below.
Welcome so much everybody! This week I had 1002 visitors. Glad you enjoy it, because there is already a lot to enjoy - and you can tell me what I should write about next.
It is so gratifying to see people interested in my sharing our experiences from traveling in Tokyo and Japan, and especially when people comment on my blog posts. Please keep the questions coming.
What can you expect more from this blog?
As I am getting closer to publishing my first book (well it is the third under my own name actually, but it is the first that builds on this blog), I am trying to spin out content from the book into the website. The book does not contain any website links - why bother with telling you things you can google yourself? And there is another goid reason not to put links in anebook: It disrupts the reading. But I know people want those links, so I will be putting them on a special web page.
More travel tips from outside Japan
As you probably have seen, we make one big trip every year. Not yet decided where to go next year, although Australia, Belgium, and Tahiti are on the shortlist. But we need to figure out when we can go and if we can get any vacation. As you may have seen the Golden Week in Japan next year will be a sequence of consecutive holidays - from April 24 to May 6 will be time off. For everyone exept store clerks and people in the hospitality industry, who will be extremely busy when families try to figure out how they should socialize when they are forced together.
More travel tips from inside Japan
We have traveled a lot more with our kids than I have written about here, and sometimes we make experiences next to home that can be valuable to you too. Japan is fascinating but there are many rules (written and unwritten) you need to follow. Especially off the beaten track. I will never forget the afternoon I spent in the rotenburo in an onsen in Gunma with a local Buddhist priest. He must have been in his 60's - but I was the first foreigner he had ever spoken to.
Paths that untrodden are hard to find. But there are many experiences that are uniquely Japanese that you can have even in Tokyo. And many more which have been slightly sanitized for tourist use. Even in Japan the customs of one part of the country seem strange to another. To say nothing of the food.
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There are accessible toilets in almost all train and subway stations. The governor has made it a mandate that Tokyo should be accessible ahead of the 2020 Olympic games, and the offial accessability guide spans 153 pages. Sometimes the signs advertising accessability can be as hard to decipher as Japanese writing. Like the elevator I wrote about
before. Accessible Japan had a good post about this.
This particular toilet is a mens toilet, that should be clear to everyone (for those hard of sight, there is a speaker declaring what kind of toilet it is - although only in Japanese).
But who else can use it? People in a wheelchair, and people who have osteomathy - the operation where your lower intestine is shortcut into a bag on your stomach.
But what about the lower row? Well, the picture of the baby must mean you can change diapers on your infants, right? But what does the lower right picture mean?
It means there is a changing table for grownups, and it is foldable. I am not sure how you use it but I am sure that for those who need it, it does come in handy.
I also wanted to share these directions from the Lalaport shopping center in Tachihi, two stops from Tachikawa on the Tama Monorail. They are really useful. But if you are looking for the diaper changing room, that is next door. They do provide a special notice, puctured below. Just to make it clear the babies do not have to change their own diapers.
Christmas is not a holiday in Japan, although this year the Emperors birthday is celebrated on Christmas Eve (although it actually is the day before). But Christmas Day is a normal working day. As are the rest of the days of Christmas. In Japan, new year is the big holiday.
You could have fooled me, because the entire city is full of Christmas decorations. They go up the moment the Halloween decorations come down. Literally. The stores change from one set of decorations from when they close in the evening to when they open in the morning. Sometimes the staff will literally work through the night to get all the decorations in place by morning.
The Christmas Gift Shops
About 10% of all Japanese are Christians. But close to 100% of all Japanese do some Christmas shopping. The idea of buying gifts for their loved ones has penetrated the Japanese traditions and almost every store puts up decorations to entice people to buy Christmas gifts. Of course it has not yet reached the level of giving that you see in Europe, to say nothing about buying and giving gifts in the US. But that only makes the merchants try harder.
Toddler Christmas Shopping
Children in Japan are as eager as children anywhere to get a visit from Santa, although there are very few houses with chimneys and even fewer with mantles on which to hang socks. But if they have been bsd, it is not Santa who will be coming, giving them gifts. It is the Black Santa, who takes their toys away.
Do They Really Eat Cake For Christmas?
When KFC launched in Japan, they did not have a market. The Japanese style karaage is fried chicken but in a different size, without bones and in smaller pieces. But not too many customers made their way to the restaurants, not because they were sceptical of fried chicken or did not like it, but because there was no special reason to eat it.
So the KFC management, the story goes, decided to launch their fried chicken as a Christmas food. Nobody in Japan at the time celebrated Christmas, but people were starting to discover it. In a country which at the time was coming out of a period of occupation and American rule, there was an audience hungry for something different - literally. And so fried chicken became a fixture on the Japanese christmas table.
The other traditional Christmas food, and the reason strawberries is a spring berry in Japan, is the Christmas cake. In a country where the ground freezes only on the northern island of Hokkaido, you can start growing things in hothouses already in December.
That is exactly how the strawberries in Japan are grown. We have been picking strawberries in Tochigi, where there are more hours of sunlight than anywhere in Japan. Tochigi gets rnough sunlight that they can grow strawberries in vinyl hothouses in the middle of winter. And some strawberries they are! Juicy, full of flavor from the first to the last bite, crunchy yet soft with a deep red color, sweet yet tart with a tinge of sourness. These may be the best strawberries in the world. And then, they put them on cakes and eat them on Christmas eve.
Watching The Christmas Lights
Christmas The most important Christmas activity in Japan is window shopping. Since Japanese really have no Christmas tradition of gathering and sharing gifts, gift-giving recipients are either romantic partners or children. Santa is kept very busy in Japan, where parents traditionally have had a hard time saying no to their kids. But stores for grownups are kept as busy as the toystores, although many if most customers buy things for themselves rather than children.
The most attractive things are not in the stores but outside, however. December in Japan is almost balmy and the sun sets around 4 PM, so it is pretty nice to take a walk (although you may want to wear a jacket). The child in the stroller will want a blanket. But then, walking around Tokyo to see the Christmas lights is a fun experience. Here are some of the places that were nice last year.
They call them Christmas illumination, by the way, but they will normally stay until February (when the spring decor with cherry blossoms take over). If you are pressed for time you can go to Maronouchi or Tokyo Dome. If you go to Tokyo Dome your kids will demand that they get on the rides, so make it a full day. There are several kids rides that are open to kids under 5. Under 4 even.
Christmas Market Cheer
Tokyo has embraced Christmas markets (and Oktoberfests), but they are nothing like what they were before the 2007 financial chrisis.
But there still are Christmas markets in Roppongi and Hibuya Park. They tend to be mock-Bavarian although the band playing German schlagers does a credible job of molesting "Living Next Door To Alice" (Alice? Who The F*ck Is Alice?). If that sounds mysterious, just picture yourself after a few glasses of gluhwein with a few stollen in your stomach listening to a parody of German music (99 Luftballons). And trying to convince your kids they do not want painted wooden toys.
The Christmas markets may have gotten smaller and fewer but gluhwein is slowly working itself into the Japanese consciousness as the preferred Christmas drink. In Maronouchi it has to compete with the champagne stands. But the Christmas celebrations still feel a bit lost in Tokyo, especially since the Christmas holidays are ordinary working days for most people.
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Just in case you wonder, I will tell you about what is going on in Japan but also give you a discount (this month readers got 50% off my next book).
You may have seen that I ask you to sign up for my newsletter at the end of each post. Well, if you just want to read and comment on the blg, there may not be any good reason. But if you want to tell me what I should help you with next, or if you want special discounts on my books, there is no better way.
This was a fun attraction at the Tokyo Dome amusement park, by the way. You pedal to produce enough electricity for your kids to ride a little Shinkansen train around a track. Or in this case, the kids pedal and Daddy is riding the train. It was their idea.
But let me tell you about the sections of the newsletter and what is in them, so you can decide if you want to sign up or not.
Right now in Japan
In this section I try to cover what is happening this week in Japan, especially that can be of interest to families with children in strollers or parents to toddlers.
We got a pamphlet about fall in Kyoto which really made us jump on the Shinkansen and go. Fall is in the air and last weekend was when everyone ate mochi balls with red bean jam inside, because the rabbits you can see in the full moon are making mochi.
The typhoon has passed and the weather today is great, but the weekend and next week will be rainy.
What to expect from next month
Here I give a little preview of what will happen during next month (the one after the one covered in the newsletter).
October is when the fall colors start coming to Japan, and they will be at the most gorgeous at the end of the month and beginning of November in the Tokyo area. There will be plenty of group travelers on the trains, and you will also see school sports teams traveling to tournaments.
Next upcoming holiday
This is where I tell you about the upcoming holiday and what it means for you as a traveler.
Next holiday is October 8, Health Sports Day, but other than that there is just a long hard slog towards new year.
Tokyo tip of the month
Here I give you a tip about what is going on in Tokyo this month.
There are no big festivals coming up in Tokyo this month, but plenty of Halloween events. October 20-21 is the days of the festival in Kawagoe, a town northwest of Tokyo (30 min with the express train).
Family travel tip of the month
I have to do a little better job with this one. But
the idea is to tell you about something to improve your family travel.
You can filter for family friendly accommodation in booking.com. In the column to the left.
New on the blog
I will tell you about the most recent posts on my blog and what they contain.
I published two posts, one about Langkawi (which was actually the first in a series - here is the second), my 100th blog post, and this week I hope to publish the second Langkawi post. Then it is back to Japan tips. Anything particular you want to know about, let me know.
Please help me with my next book
Since you signed up I assume you are interested in reading more of what I write. But you probably want to read about things that will help you too. This is where you get a chance to tell me what that is.
I continue working on my next book and I have almost rewritten the first book in a different format. I plan one more rewrite before I publish, so there will be three books at once. But if you let me know what you want to see in there it will be a lot better!
Your discount coupon for this month
I want to thank you too, so for every issue or the newsletter I will give you something. In this issue it was a discount on my next book. In the next newsletter, I think it will be a downloadable Tokyo visit planner.
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A few weeks we came back from Langkawi. Yesterday, my daughter asked to go back to Malaysia. “What did you like most?” we asked her. “The beaches”, she said.
The beaches of Langkawi were really stunning. And there were a lot of them. You could have your own, if you could get to it.
Is Langkawi worth visiting?
Yes, absolutely. The beaches are stunning and the rock formations spectacular. And the nature is beautiful if less accessible than you may expect. For one, even though there are alligators in the canals in the middle of the city, it is not so easy to get to the nature. You need to have some kind of transportation to get to places that are not builr up or cultivated. For another, it is hot. Even a short walk will leave you covered in sweat and mosquito bites. You want to spend most of the time in airconditioned rooms, the sea, or the pool.
What is the weather like?
Langkawi is hot. Kuala Lumpur is even hotter because Langkawi has a nice sea breeze, but when we were there (the first week in september), Tokyo was consistently hotter than Malaysia. And the rainy season had started. It did not rain every day, but close. And when it rained, it poured. We are talking buckets poured from the sky, not individual drops. When the sun shines, it is unrelenting, and will give you a tan in minutes. Red, if you are not careful. And did I mention how hot it was? Wonderful vacation weather, and it does not rain the part of the year that we were not there.
Where did we stay?
We stayed in the city of Kuah, in a hotel on the waterfront called Bella Vista Waterfront. And it was literally on the waterfront, with amazing harbor views. Not the fanciest hotel but definitely more upscale than many places in the neighborhood. Although the waterfront was becoming a hot spot for entertainment and relaxation. Not that Kuah is a city big enough to be busy. The Cenang waterfront felt much more like a busy city, and it was attached to a great beach. It is not hard to imagine Pantai Cenang becoming a Malaysian version of Waikiki in a few years. The advantage of staying in a city is the access to restaurants, and since they have not yet priced in tourism, you get much more in Kuah than you would in Pantai Cenang. At least at Wonderland, the seafood restaurant we ended up going to several times. Both for the food and the service, and the fact that our kids could watch the alligators in the canal.
Where did we shop?
Langkawi is a tax-free destination. Even if the population mostly are Moslem there are plenty of wine and spirit shops, and the only thing that was hard to find was pork. But we do not usually buy that for souvenirs. Instead, we bought lots of chocolate, mostly to give away. And some durian sweets and cookies. There are.literally hundreds of shops all across the island and they are all dirt cheap with our measuring sticks. We shopped a little bit everywhere.
How did we get there?
We flew Malaysian Airlines from Narita, for two reasons: They have the reverse schedule from Air Asia, and they fly A380. If you do not know why that matters, the A380 is the most comfortable airplane for long trips. You do not notice it has two floors while you are sitting inside, but they have really put in a lot of work into the lighting and air conditioning on board.
One general piece of advice: Do not give your kids too much snacks, because if they are motion sensitive that can produce disastrous results. The Malaysia Airlines handled our daughter throwing up very professionally. And makesure they do not have too much to drink, because that can produce disastrous results if they do not make it to the bathroom in time.
Malaysia Airlines do have full service on board, by the way. Even though they only charge like a low-cost carrier.
What should you eat?
When you are in Langkawi, you must try the seafood. The islands sit in a piece of unpolluted ocean, and with so many magnificent beaches and rocky places it would be strange if the crabs and shellfish were not good. And the fish are simply amazing. Pair that with a fertile agriculture where fruits, vegetables and spices literally grow around every corner, and it is hard for a chef to fail. A good one can reproduce Paradise in your mouth.
Malaysia of course sits in the tropics and fruit and fresh juice are amazing treats. Malaysian cooking otherwise tend towards either Chinese or Indonesian, but Malaysia is home to Malacca, home of Nonya cuisine which otherwise has been popularized by Singapore.
One other thing: Not all restaurants are great. Like in the rest of Southeast Asia, it is cheaper to go out and eat than to cook at home. But “home cooking” is not by any stretch a culinary experience, unless you like instant noodles and deep-fried things of uncertain origin.
How did we get around?
There is public transport on Langkawi, but it does not seem to run very often and I could never find any time tables. Maybe they exist. But there is no need to look for them, since renting a car was so cheap and easy. And gasoline was even cheaper, even though we were not even close to emptying the tank even after a full week of driving around the island.
What is there to do for toddlers?
Tons of things! This morning my daughter told us that she wanted to go back to Malaysia. When we asked her what she liked most, she said “the beaches”. The beaches were indeed amazing. Exactly as in a tourist brochure. But the kids also loved the hotel pool and the hotel pool bar attendants. And if hanging in the pool bar is not for you, then the rope way is probably something you would love. And the Oriental Village attractions were not uninteresting either. What child can resist a petting zoo? But we also loved the island hopping tour, although I came to realize you should rent your own boat for a day. Or two.
Do we recommend a Langkawi vacation?
Yes! It was one of our best vacations ever. Even with the weather, or perhaps because of it. There was so much to do and see, and people were very friendly and easy to communicate with. We will definitely be back. When the water park is open.
Did you like this? It was the second installment in our series about Langkawi. You can read the first installment about our Langkawi trip here. And if you are curious about this blog in general, take a look at my 100th blog post.
We are home again and my wife complained that she has already forgotten that we had been on vacation. Then, she opened a bag of durian coffee....
We liked Langkawi a lot, and we will definitely come back. But probably the waterpark next to the hotel will be open then. It seems construction was almost finished but there were no rides open. So from what we could see there were several rides that our kids could not use anyway. Perpaps it was good that it had not opened yet, since they would have been disappointed.
We stayed at the Bella Vista Waterfront in Kuah, which is the biggest city in Langkawi. Although the island is pretty much populated everywhere, except in the mountains. We had planned to get a condo and cook for ourselves but then we would never have ended up in the Wonderland seafood restaurant, which was just across the canal from the hotel. A canal with real live alligators if you got there around sunset.
The Bella Vista Waterfront was a nice enough place to stay in and the view of the harbot was amazing. Our kids were extremely happy when we got down to breakfast one day just as the rain ended, and they got to see a really spectacular rainbow. But it was not the luxury hotel that the management would have you believe, and the room furnishings can be very basic. Spartan, even. And quality was sometimes really crappy, like the stopper in the sink that got stuck and we could not get up however we worked it. The warm water in the room was also sporadic. But the beds were nice.
Although I had booked a suite we ended up getting two rooms, which meant a lot of running back and forth, which is problematic when you only have one key per roon and it has to be stuck in the electric switch, otherwise there is no light and even worse, the airconditioner shut off.
When I asked my son what was the best thing about our trip he said ”the pool and the breakfast”. And when it comes to the Bella Vista Waterfront in Kuah on Langkawi, I tend to agree with him.
The breakfast was served in a huge beach hut next to the pool. They were actually running the restaurant all through evening, and we were lucky that they did, otherwise we would not have had any dinner the first day. Or maybe only salted egg potato chips from the concenience store.
We would have needed the bottles of wine they gave us for staying seven days that first night. I will never be able to figure out why marketing people are so insensitive to their customers needs, especially when it comes to things like this. Now, I am not one to complain about getting a free bottle of good Chilean wine, but I could not help wonder what they would be giving Moslem customers. And they had a lot of those.
I would rather have had something we could use with the kids, like a 40 ringgit cupon for the island hopping tour. Instead we got one bottle of wine in one room in the middle of the week, and the other bottle the last day, so we could only drink part of it since we had to pack.
So how did we like the hotel?
The Bella Vista Waterfront has some unique advantages. The location is the biggest. And the breakfast was really amazing. Nalaysian cooking is somewhere between Thai and Indonesian, but Nonya cooking is one of the worlds great cuisines and a fusion of a lot of different things.
But the breakfast at Bella Vista Waterfront was divided into different stations that specialized in different things - fresh seasonal fruit, vegetables, bread, curries, noodles, congee, and eggs with the most delicious waffles you ever had. Our kids ate lots which four-year olds should do for breakfast, but unfortunately so did their parents. We skimped on lunch instead, except the day we went to Marrybrown and the kids got toys with their meal. And the other day when we went to McDonalds, where the food was better but the toys were less fun.
When other tourists view your kids as props
Our kids went aquatic and spent most of the days in the pool. Really. Which meant either me or my wife had to be there. My wife had to jump in in her clothes the first day when one of my daughters went out at the deep end. No, they can not swim, at least not properly, and they were not wearing their floats because Malaysian Airlines had forgotten to load one of our suitcases when we changed planes in Kuala Lumpur. But when they got those the only two things that could get them out of the water was a really big thunderstorm or dinner.
But while they were playing in the water, singing happy songs and really enjoying themselves, it happened several times that people started filming them. I asked them to stop and they gracefully did, but I still have not figured out what goes on in the heads of people who take photos and videos of your kids. I mean, do they sit down at the party after the trip and show pictures of these really loud Japanese kids who were playing in the pool? I do not think they were trying to capture their naked skin. There were Indian and Chinese kids who wore even more skimpy bathing suits. But you never know, and as a parent you become extra careful.
The only explanation that makes any sense to me is that they view my kids as props. Part of the hotel environment. Lit pool, check. Pool bar, check. Happy kids playing in the pool, check.
Needless to say that I do not want my kids to be regarded as the equivalent of pool chairs. If your concept of an exotic destination includes kids that you can film you need to revise your expectations. At least as long as you are staying in the same hotel as the Watertree family.
When it rains in the tropics, it pours
Malaysia is a tropical country and Langkawi shares the same climate as Puhket in Thailand. We did not go during the rainy season, but we missed the great weather season since we could not get away from our day jobs. So we were prepared for thundershowers. What we were not prepared for was how violent they would be. We were lucky that both times we went to the beach, we had just got out of the water and dried off when the storm broke. The first time was at Black Sand Beach, where the sand is actually black. Even if there was not too much of it.
There is a small marketplace on the bluff up the stairs from the beach with a really nice playground. Our kids made a valiant effort to play even though it was raining. But they had to quit, because the rain was so heavy that they may as well have been underwater. We ended up having lunch instead.
The second time we went to Pantai Kok, which was spectacularly beautiful. Our kids got so tanned they had tan lines over the tan lines, and relaxing in the warm sea watching the coconit palms wave leisurely in the wind was some of those things that suddenly make you believe in tourist brochures.
3-D museums are made for instagram
One of the most amazing attractions in Langkawi is the ropeway to the top of Gunung Machinchang. There are glass bottomed cars but the regular cars were scary enough. Like a very tall and fast Ferris wheel. The mountain is almost 800 m high so it is quite a ride.
The view from the top is amazing but as we were there the clouds started rolling in. We got glimpses but then the view turned grey. So we skipped the shybridge, which is a pylon bridge to the next mountain, and went down again. We missed the rain for that entire day, even though we spent a lot of time in the Oriental Village, a sort of shopping and entertainment village at the foot of the mountain.
The owners have tried hard to turn Oriental Village into a sort of 21st century amusement park. No Ferris wheels or rollercoasters. But a new type ofattraction - projected and 3D.
The Oriental Village had several of these, including one that was included in the cable car ticket. I am sure I have ridden it before somewhere else, but I can not remember where. It was called ”escape from dino island” in at least one version. You know, a Jurassic Park clone where the ride goes off track and then escapes back through the ”portal”. It was fun but our kids enjoyed the rabbit petting zoo more.
The prize among the attractions - and also included in the cable car ticket - was however the 3D Museum.
This was a museum not in the sense of exhibiting some great artworks, although everything that was on show was art. Very cleverly done and interesting enough the paintings seemed almost crude up close, but take a photo and it merges seamlessly with your kids making people believe that you have been surfing, even though the long and shallow beaches of Langkawi do not really lend themselves to big waves.
This must be the ultimate instagrammable museum, because it is made to take photos. With other people in them. Just taking pictures of the paintings themselves would not be half as fun, or even a third. They are made to put your kids in the picture and take photos. Sometimes thry can be fun but often they were confusing. Our kids loved it though and constantly asked us to take photos. Almost made me wish I was on Instagram, because this museum was really designed for you to publish your pictures.
Learning to use the left rear-view mirror
We rented a car, a Toyota Innova which was a very nice car even if I think it was a lie to call it a seven-seater, when two of the seats are in the back. But we managed to squeeze in both ourselves, the kids, and three suitcases.
Unfortunately, even though we drive to the left at home, I made a couple of wrong turns and ended up having a way too close encounter with a signpost. The roads in Langkawi were mostly very wide and new. But one day the GPS system decided that we should take a shortcut across the fields. Well, there were lanes there but it was a tight fit. That was when I figured out what the system meant when it said ”tirn left on row”. It meant those lanes.
Sometimes, thankfully not on those lanes, a scooter would come at full speed on your inside. That is when you find out what the left side mirror is for, and that you need to check it at least as often as the right side mirror.
Unless the scooter speeding down the inside is coming towards you. That happened a lot and was more nerve-wracking than the driving itself. It made me really happy when we had to drive home in pouring rain. I am not kidding if I tell you that it felt more like boating than driving. At least there were no scooters.
I had another intetesting experience with the GPS system, by the way. The GPS box suddenly reset and told us it was acquiring sattelites. Now, if you know anything about GPS, you find that fascinating. This was much closer to the equator than I have ever driven before, and there are more satellites visible on the equator than near the pole. Unless you get a latidunal shadow. Hm.
If you want a private beach, rent a boat
One other thing we discovered in Langkawi is that the small islands are dotted with beautiful beaches. Next time I will rent a boat. It does not have to be much more expensive than staying at a hotel like Bella Vista Waterfront in Kuah.
This was the first in a two-part series about our recent Langkawi vacation. You can read the second part in the Langkawi series here. Usually, as you may know, I write about travel with children and travel in Japan. If you found it interesting you will probably like the next in the series, as well as the posts of our family trips to Seoul, to Ishigakijima, and to Okinawa.
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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 firstname.lastname@example.org, or if you want general tips, follow me on Twitter @wisterianw.