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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So next week we are off. This time the entire family flies away for a week. We usually do one long trip per year and then we do daytrips around our home town. Last year, we went to Sweden for a month. So where are we off to this time?
Let me give you a hint: It is warm. And it has a beach. OK, not much of a hint maybe, it still leaves a lot of potential destinations.
An Accessible September Beach
There are not too many places in the northern hemisphere (which is where we are going) where the beaches still are great in September. The beaches in Japan close at the end of September (when summer offiicially ends). Except for Okinawa, where the beaches are still open in December. And the Yaeyama islands even further south, which are among the most beautiful beaches in the world. But this time, we are not going to anywhere in Japan. We are going to southeast Asia.
Malaysia, truly Asia
You have heard the jingle, and probably have a hard time getting out of your mind: Malaysia, truly Asia. And pictures of stunning white beaches and sumptuosly luxurious hotel resorts. I hope we are going to get some of those. We are going to Langkawi.
For those not familiar with it, Langkawi is an island (actually an archipelago) off the west coast of Malaysia. Located in the northwest corner of the country, it borders on Thailand. Pukhet is actually closer than Kuala Lumpur, although not by much. But Langkawi is a continuation of the archipelago on the west coast of Thailand, which also continues through Myanmar up to Bangladesh. That part of the archipelago is not as exploited as Langkawi, which even though it is a UNESCO ecopark has been a tourist destination for a long time.
The pre-trip preparation
When you have a family of six, preparations are essential. Even if three of them are going to celebrate their fifth birthday when we get home. Well, maybe that makes preparations even more essential. Finding things that are equally interesting to kids and adults is difficult. You have to do a lot of research. I have probably read all the websites about Langkawi that are in a language I can understand. You want to know and understand your destination, but even though you have read everything about the destination you do not know anything about it until you get there.
Worrying about everything, or nothing.
i find it pretty useless to plan for travel, actually. Even if I write blog posts about it. There is always so much to worry about when you travel that it is useless to do it. And then my motionsick daughter throws up her breakfast, grandma simply HAS to pee before she gets on the escalator, we go to rhe wrong terminal at Narita Airport, I forget my international drivers license at home, a meteor from outer space strikes the airplane and the alien invation starts, and any of a hundred things happen. Or do not happen, but you worry about them. Or do not worry about them - if you are prepared. Preparation is the key to a successful trip. Just do not prepare too much.
When it was only me and my wife traveling, we went somewhere and discovered what we could see. With kids, you can not really do that any more. You need a home base with some activities, beds and toilets close by. Especially the first day. Malaysia is actually much further east than you would think when looking at a map, so the time difference to Japan is only two hours. Which means I do not think jetlag will be too much to worry about. It was a real problem when we went to Hawaii, but then we found the magical solution.
Beyond jetlag worries
So even if we do not have to be worried about jet lag this time, arriving at your destination, checking into the hotel, and crashing on the bed is what you need to be prepared for. Even if you arrive on the same day as the night market in Kuah, where our hotel is. I am definitely not sure that the kids will be up for it, even if it is only a 20 minute walk. And then have the pools and beach ready for the second day. And some nice restaurant.
The first day is set, the second is pretty set too because the kids just told us they wanted to go to the pool everyday. And to the beach. And then back to the pool. So of course the pools and beach are the most important parts of this trip.
What do you need to book?
That said, there are some things you have to book in advance. A hotel for six people is not all that easy to find. Especially not a nice one. And then the flight (with the ensuing complaints from my wife that I did not book a day in Kuala Lumpur first, even though I am pretty sure I asked her... oh well. We have been married for ten years now). And a car. Making sure all our passports are current and has more than six months left. But the most important thing after booking is printing out the bookings.
I always print out everything that have to do with the trip. Not everyone agrees with this and passports are usually enough (if not then a credit card works), but once you have had a bad experience with your phone crashing you learn that the brief inconvenience are worth a lot in reduced worry.
Money is the next big thing
Making sure you have money is the next thing. Not just money in your account, but also money in your hand. I always prefer to have some of the local currency handy, because not everyone will take credit cards. Very few places are like Sweden where restaurants and hotels happily declare themselves cash-free and street vendors ask you to pay with their mobile phone. So you need some cash, and you need your credit card, and you need a way to wirhdraw more cash when you need it.
Prices in Malaysia seem to be reasonable, much more reasonable than in Hawaii or Japan. Malaysian cooking is a mix of influences from all over the world. Nonya cooking from Melaka (which is in Malaysia) is one of the great cuisines of the world, even if it probably is one of the biggest secrets in Southeast Asia.
What can you see besides the beach?
Langkawi has a lot more to offer than beaches. It is a fairly big island with rice fields and some reasonably big mountains. One of the beaches is a black sand beach, and now that the one in Hawaii is evidently engulfed by the lava flow.
The cable car, the skybridge, the ecopark, all of those are interesting to kids as well as adults. A sunset boat ride is probably also going to work for all of us, except for grandma who has severe motion sickness. But we have not booked any of it in advance, and that is actually part of the travel planning.
Building half-day itineraries
We plan but not too much. It will rain some days (more than some in September), and the kids may get tired. So figuring out what you can do in half a day works great for us. If you want to stay away a full day just connect two half-days together. That means the black sand beach plus the ecopark; the ropeway and the skybridge; Kuah town; sunset cruise. There, two days gone already. We did the same when we had the kids in their stroller, although then it was walking. Now we will have a car.
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This is my 100th blog post. It has been an intense three years since I started, since I do this in my spare time (most of it during my commute to the office). I wish this could be a full-time job, but at this point I only have some 3000 visitors per month - which is awsome in itself. I only know a few by name, however. Those who left comments and signed up for my email list. I would like to know you better, so I can write blog posts which are meaningful to you as well as for me. as I sit here under the beach bar roof at the Bella Vista Waterfront in Kuah, Langkawi.
itfeels like forever since my parental leave ended and I had to stop going for long walks in the stroller. We still go for long walks but now they walk themselves. But since I had to go back to my day job I can only do it on weekends. Still, I can tell you a lot about discovering Tokyo with a stroller.
My kids favorite posts
Well, they could not care less about Daddys hobby. And they do not read very well yet (although they can read picture books in Japanese). They also love puzzle books, which keeps them very quiet during long flights. But what they love most is Disney. They like the post about Disneyland, they like the questions and answers about Disney, and they appreciate the post about the other two Disney parks. But their absolute favorite is Disney Sea.
Tokyo Travel Posts
i have written quite a few posts about how to get around in Tokyo. I have written about how to get around in Tokyo using the trains, and what the travel day in Tokyo is like. I have written about what to do on a rainy day in Tokyo, the best places to see the cherry blossoms, where to see the Christmas illuminations, and the top things to do with a toddler. But also how you should choose a place to stay in Tokyo, and where. And of course I have written about what happens when you happen on a local matsuri in Tokyo.
Japan Travel Posts
There is a lot to see in Japan, and few places are as easy to get around as this country. You do not need a car in Japan, except when you are going to places which do not have public transport (those hardly exist), or when you are transporting heavy or bulky things.
When you go somewhere in Japan you take the shinkansen train. It is only when you go to Okinawa you need to fly. And while taking the Shinkansen is a lot easier than flying, there are still a few things you need to think about.
But in addition to that, I have written some posts that are very practical. How to use a Japanese laundromat, for instance, and answers to peoples questions about Japan. But I also wrote about the budget you will need for your Japan trip, and whether you will be safe in Japan. The post about ten foods your kids will love in Japan also belongs here.
Things to do close to Tokyo
But when you travel in Japan you need to do it at the right time. The Japanese are great travelers, but these days travel more inside Japan than outside. And since they also work extremely hard, they usually travel on weekends and public holidays, with a couple of exceptions. Like the fifth season.
if you travel only on public holidays you probably do not want to go away for several days, you want to go on a day trip. And Tokyo has several interesting things to see within an hour or two with the train from one of the central stations. Some of them are seasonal, like the Koga fireworks. They also have a beautiful park with hundreds of peach trees, a fantastic sight just before the cherry blossoms, by the way.
Your favorite posts
Since you have not signed up to my email list, I do not know if you actually liked it, but my post about buying diapers in Japan, and buying other baby products in Tokyo, are consistently popular. As are the posts about how to beat jetlag with toddlers (this is one of my favorites too), how to entertain your toddlers when you are on a long flight, how to entertain infants in flight, flying with infants, flying with toddlers, how to entertain toddlers in flight, and what happens when you fly with a toddler with a fever.
Other favorite posts
My mum really loved the post about how you make sure your kids are found fast when they are lost, and my brother loved the post about where to see the sakura in Tokyo with a stroller.And my wife really appreciates the post about the kds menus in restaurants.
A Few Rants
I love my children, as all parents do, and I feel very strongly about some things. One is leaving your children alone, especially in hotel rooms. Another thing I am not fond of is racism. Although I am discriminated against a lot less nowadays, looking different in Japan is still not easy. Especially if you come from a place when the blond and blueeyed were on top. Or thought they were.
Places we have been
Apart from the short trips that we do a lot - like daytrips around Tokyo which you can easily get back from the same day - we typically do one long trip every year. Partly this is for budget reasons, partly because we want to minimize our carbon footprint.
So far, I have written up the trips we made to Seoul in Korea, to Ishigakijima, the little archipelago at the very southern end of Japan, to Okinawa where we rented a villa on the beach, and to Sweden, which were a real winter trip. And I keep getting time to write up Honolulu. I guess this years trip to Langkawi will be a faster writeup. But we are leaving on Saturday september 1!
Some things I plan to write more about
Tokyo is a lot what this blog is about, but it does not change all that much week by week. I mean, the Imperial Palace has been there for more than 500 years, even if it was quite different at the beginning. And it takes a couple of years to create a landmark like Roppongi Hills, and then it is going to sit there for 70 years or more.
So Tokyo is changing slowly but there are lots of things to discover. More interesting to visitors, however, is getting out of Tokyo itself and do a day trip. There are so many interesting places around Tokyo to discover, often much more of a capsule from the picturebook Japan you imagined you were going to see when you planned your trip.
That is one thing I will be writing more about, but also the potential discounts you can get by purchasing a discount card. And the online and offline resources available to visitors. But you tell me what you want to see and what would be useful to you. Use the comment field, or the form if you do not want the world to see it, or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What about that book you have been writing?
Well am I glad you asked! It is my fourth baby, or baby four and five actually. Right now, it is soaking - I do not want to edit it myself until I have let it sit for a month or so. Or two. The reason is that editing often means killing your darlings, if you are familiar with the term. It comes from advertising and means to remove what you personally favor but is not meaningful to your would-be readers. The reason it is easier to remove after soaking is simple: when you nail that perfect phrase it gives you an euphoria rush on par with when you succeed doing something physically difficult perfectly. Like handstands, or a bicycleta, or making the sails raise on the model inside the bottle.
Two months removes you from that rush. You look at the words and say ”what idiot wrote this?”. And then you remember, and remove it.
If you enjoyed this post, or some of those I link to, you might enjoy my upcoming book as well. It is an ebook so it is intended to be read on your mobile device, and it contains my experiences - so you can not find the same information via Bing or Google. Nor in this blog, in fact.
If you want to know more about the book, especially when it becomes free,
The line must have been 200 meters at least. And it did not move fast. My wife dropped me off at the end of the line and went to buy Korean cosmetics. We were in Koreantown, the shopping enclave north of Shinjuku station. And I was designated to buy hottoku. Or hotdogu. Or maybe hottodoggu. Not hottoki.
Brillat-Savarin said that the discovery of a new dish is a bigger service to humanity than the discovery of a new star, and in that case the Japanese streetfood scene must be more valuable than a few hundred astronomy departments. And nowhere more so than in the Koreantown of Tokyo.
However, he said nothing about the quality of the stars. And nothing about the quality of the dishes.
Where is Tokyo Koreantown?
In the beginning, this was just a few stores and restaurants specialized in Korean food. Some of the original restaurants are still there, serving specialities like burbot Korean style. The customers of these restaurants were not always the most upright citizens, and this was one of the few areas in Tokyo you would not go after dark.
40 years later it is a boom town, feeding off a Japanese frenzy for Korean foods, Korean cosmetics, and Korean boys bands (most of the visitors are women). Even though flights to Korea are cheaper than ever, you can not get there and back again in a day. But you can go to Koreantown from most of Japan. And back again.
The map above is showing a lot of stores and restaurants with Korean names, but the Koreantown designation is still unofficial.
The Korean Cosmetic Takeover
Koreantown used to be where you would go if you wanted to have authentic Korean cooking in Tokyo. Even though Tokyo has a considerable Korean minority, a reminder of Imperial Japan when Korea was formally a part of Japan and Koreans were imported as cheap, if not slave, labor.
Today, there are hundreds of thousands of ethnic Koreans in Japan. Most are second or third generation and equally much Japanese as Korean. But there are Korean public schools in Tokyo created for this minority.
A few years ago the restaurants were complimented by a new type of stores, selling Korean cosmetics. The first success of the Korean cosmetics industry, at least in Japan, was snail slime cream. The industry quickly moved on and there were soon hundreds of stores selling Korean cosmetics. Now, while there are cosmetics for men, I am not among their customers. And I have been married too long to tell my wife that the cosmetics do not work, since she is beautiful already.
Ethnic Enclave Tourism
When you go to Yokohama Chinatown, you can sometimes feel like you are in Hong Kong. The buildings are modelled in Chinese style, and there are hundreds of stores selling Chinese goods and tea. Chinatown in Yokohama was actually started at the same time as the first European settlements, since the opening of Japan meant opening to Chinese merchants as well. The Europeans and Americans spread out all over Japan, but many of the Chinese merchants stayed.
Going to Chinatown in Yokohama is a great experience for kids, because they really feel they are abroad. Going to Koreatown does not really feel like going to Korea.
What Is Koreatown Like?
The main customers of the shops in Koreatown are young women. The restaurants are playing Korean boys and girls bands in an infinite loop. There are theatres and dinner shows with Korean boys bands (no girl bands that I could find). And it is incredibly crowded.
Our kids like Korean food, at least the non-spicy types. But they do not really fit in Koreantown, even though they love going to Korea. It is not very child-friendly, and there are neither high chairs nor places to put your stroller in most places. The entire environment has a subtle (and occasionally not so subtle) undercurrent of repressed sexual tension which do not really feel right with kids.
Should we go to Koreantown?
Unless you are a girl or two, I would not recoomend it. As a guy, you feel slightly out of place. You get better grilled meat in Korean restaurants that do not carry the same baggage. Visiting ethic enclaves are interesting but Koreantown no longer works for me. But my wife loves it, so we are probably going to go back.
So did you like the hottogu?
Actually, I was not all that impressed. The idea of molten cheese in a deep-fried shell is nice but there is too much shell. And dipping it in coconut sugar was interesting but honestly does not do much for the taste.
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This is very unusual. I just took this photo from our bedroom. You can see Mt Fuji quite clearly. And it is August.
Normally, you only see Fujisan in winter. Then, the white snowcap makes it easy to see. Normally, it is a bit cloudier and you can not see the mountain at all during the summer months. As a matter of fact, the day when you can see Fuji inofficially marks the end if summer. But I was lucky today, so I wanted to share it with you.
Tokyo is a great city not only in itself, but also because it is surrounded by interesting sights and places that you can easily reach within a couple of hours, and come ”home” at the end of the day.
Here are five places we have visited and enjoyed. We travel a lot around Tokyo so our kids get to see and enjoy lots of different things. Not everyone will enjoy the same things, of course, but perhaps you will find some of these interesting.
These trips are easily doable in a day, leaving in the morning and coming back in the afternoon. And even though I have written about how crowded the trains in Tokyo can be during the mornings, it is likely to be less bad on these lines. You are going against the commuter flow, away from Tokyo and the corporate headquarters and governement offices that fill up with commuters traveling from the furthest reaches of the Kanto plain to slave away until long after dark. If you start a bit later, these trips are still easy.
Mt Tsukuba is in Ibaraki, to the north of Tokyo. The mountain is only 800 meters high but it juts out of the surrounding plain, making the view completely unobstructed.
There are two peaks on the mountain, served by respectively a funicular cable car and a ropeway with gondolas. Since the cable car leaves from the main Tsukuba shrine, in the little city with all the tourist shops, it is often quite crowded. The ropeway is less crowded and the view from the gondolas is much better, but you have to go halfway around the mountain to get there.
To get to Mt Tsukuba, you take the Tsukuba Express train from Akihabara to the end station. Take an express train, then the ride is only 45 minutes. At Tsukuba station, take the bus up the mountain and get off at the Tsukuba-San Guchi station for the cable car, Tsutsuji-ga-oka for the ropeway. You will want to remember that the last bus leaves the mountain station already around 6 PM.
The best thing about mt Tsukuba is the view, and many other visitors will think the same. Since the best part of the view is to see the sunrise reflected off mt Fuji, you had better be early. That is a great way of beating the crowds too, since many visitors hike up the mountain, and then take the cable car or ropeway down. It is not a particularly strenous hike, although you should probably not try it until your kids are about seven or eight. And it is absolutely not doable with a stroller. Once you get to the top, it is easy to get around with a stroller.
2. Mt Takao
Most visitors are surprised when they find out that Tokyo has actual wilderness inside the city limits, but Tokyo is both a prefecture and a city. The westernmost corner borders Yamanashi, where mt Fuji is located. But the Tokyo mountains are not nearly as tall as Fuji. As a matter of fact, mt Takao is a mere 599 meters tall (that missing metre must be a thorn in the butt for many people in Tokyo).
That it is not as tall makes it much more accessible. You can easily walk around the mountain in a couple of hours (even with a stroller), once you have got up to the top. And since there are no other mountains in the way, the view can be amazing on a clear day.
The little city between the cable car station and the train statio is full of stores selling the staples of Japanese mountain tourist attractions: Soba noodles, pickles, and manju. Try the soba noodles with mountain herbs, they are delicious.
There are two ways to get up Mt Takao: Either take the chairlift, or the cable car. But with a stroller, the chairlift is not really an option. When you are there, it is easy to go around the mountain paths, mostly paved or consisting of hard gravel. Your kids will insist that you go to the monkey park, but for adults this is more depressing than fun. The Buddhist temple on the top has been in operation for more than 800 years.
Getting to Mt Takao is easy. You can do it in two ways: The Keio line from Shinjuku to Takaosanguchi, which takes about 50 minutes with the express train; or the JR line to Takao, and then change to the Keio line to Takaosanguchi.
You know Narita, right? That was where you landed in Tokyo, unless you flew in to Haneda. But Narita airport is a latecomer compared to the city of Narita, which has grown up around the Narita buddhist temple. The city streets leading up to the themple from the stations look exactly like you would imagine a Japanese city.
And it is worth a visit in itself. Plus it is very easy with a stroller. Even considering it has been in operation for more than a thousand years. It is probably the only place you will find where the same ceremony has been repeated every day for more than one thousand years.
Getting to Narita is easy, but do not take the airport train. Instead, you need to take the train to Narita city, either JR line or Keisei line from Keisei Ueno station.
When Edo, the city that would become Tokyo, was still small it had a little brother. The city of Kawagoe was so prosperous and important that it become known as Ko-Edo, or ”little Edo”. Most of the buildings in the city today were built in the 19th century, after a fire devastated the city.
Today, the city largely retains the 19th century atmosphere. Even modern buildings are being replaced by buildings in the old style, like the Koedo Kurai traditional goids shopping mall. This is what makes Kawagoe an attractive destination, that and the Kita-in temple. This temple was so important in the 17th and 18th century that the shogun donated some buildings from Edo castle to renovate it after an early fire. Since Edo Castle burned down shortly after, this is the only place you can find buildings from Edo castle today.
Kawagoe is the endpoint of both the JR Kawagoe line and the Seibu line. That means there are plenty of trains each day from Shinjuku and Ikebukuro. Take an express train, then the trip takes a little more than an hour.
Before Edo was even a small village, Kamakura was briefly the capital of Japan during the two Mongol invasions. Both unsuccessful, but not thanks to the shogun, the military commanders who ruled the land from Kamakura. Rather, the reason the invaders were deteated was that their fleet was destroyed by storms.
While the city was capital, it also became headquarter for several of the Buddhist sects that are integral to Japanese religious life. Those temples are still there, and the reason to go to Kamakura today.
actually, the best way to see Kamakura is not to go there first, but get off the JR train in Fujisawa, and then take the Enoshima line to Hase, where you can find both Hase-dera, one of the most interesting temples, and about 20 minutes walk away Koutoku-in, with the great Buddha statue. From Hase it is only two stops to Kamakura station.
Did you think this was interesting? Did you know that I am writing an entire book about great daytrips from Tokyo? And did I tell you that I just finished my guidebook to Tokyo for families and will edit it soon? If you want to know more about what is coming, sign up below!
You may never have heard about it before, but the little city of Koga (古河) at the very edge of Ibaraki, is not only home to the biggest fireworks in the Tokyo area, it is also home to the biggest peach blossom viewing festival.
Unless you planned to spend time traveling around the backways of the Tokyo area, Koga was hardly on your map. But this little town was once a major stop on the road to Nikko, the Unesco world heritage site that is the burial place of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the shogun who united Japan under a military rule that lasted for almost 400 years.
In those days, you would walk. Horses were rare in Japan and you could not get to Nikko in a boat even if you tried. So if you wanted an outing and needed an approved destination to go to, a pilgrimage to Nikko would fit the bill. Remember, Japan was a pretty harsh dictatorship at this time, and you needed a pass to go anywhere except for close to home.
A city made for driving
The old Koga city center was in the area from what is today the train station to the golf links at the shores of the Watarase river, which comes from Nikko in Tochigi prefecture, now one of the UNESCO world heritage sites of Japan. There was even a small castle, and since this was a major rest stop on the road to Nikko, there were several restaurants specializing in haute cuisine for wealthy travelers. Many of them remain today.
But apart from the restaurants, the shops have moved away from the city center. Koga is spread out like an American city, and if you plan to do anything but watch the fireworks,
The fireworks exception
while you have to drive to get around Koga, that does not apply during the fireworks festival. The street from to the station to the Watarase riverbank is closed off to cars, and everyone walks there between the market stalls.
The best place to see the fireworks is from the river wall above the golf course. But you have to get there early. The best seats are pre-reserved and paid for, but there is plenty of places where you can spread out a “blue sheet” and have an early dinner while you wait for the fireworks to start at 19:20. It will not be too late for your kids as the fireworks end at 20:30. You can let them sleep on the way home. Just remember to slather them in insect repellent. August is hot and prime season for mosquitoes. And the fireworks happen next to the river.
Koga fireworks bomb. Children inserted for comparison.
Walking along the market stalls along the Koga main street is a fun experience. However, eat a proper dinner while you wait for the fireworks. Most of the markrt stalls are selling food of one kind or another, and those that do not sell food will sell toys. Crappy plastic toys that may last until you get home to your hotel.
Are these the biggest Kanto fireworks?
The Kanto region (of which Koga claims to be the geographical centrepoint) stretches from Hakone in the south to Fukushima in the north. The plain used to be the granary of Japan, endless stretches of rice fields fed by the rivers running off the surrounding mountains.
That means if you claim to be the biggest fireworks in the region, you have to make good on it. And you will have a lot of competition. There are huge fireworks in Yokohama, in several of the Tokyo suburbs, and in Tokyo itself. But with 20000 enormous fireworks pieces, each weighing 650 kg, Koga has a good claim to the title. These are not your ordinary sparklers, they are more like artillery grenades. And they go on forever. The fireworks last only for a little more than an hour, and like most Japanese fireworks,
How to get there
Koga sits on the Utsunomiya branch of the Shonan-Shinjuku Line, and there is a train about every 20 minutes. But the last train to Tokyo leaves already at 2130, so if you miss that, you may have to stay the night. And that will not be easy during the fireworks festival.
if you are not coming from Tokyo you may want to drive. There will be parking spaces surrounding the fireworks but be prepared to walk for quite a long distance.
Watch out for the crowds
The Koga fireworks attracts tens of thousands of people, if not hundreds of thousands. It is the same with all fireworks festivals in Japan. The fireworks themselves only last for an hour, but for people coming all the way from Tokyo, Maebashi, or Fukushima, you will not want to spend an hour watching fireworks and then go home. Many people come earlier and take seats on the river wall. Others enjoy the market stalls.
But almost everyone who does not live in Koga go home at the same time. The trains get incredibly crowded. All the roads to the riverbank fill up with people walking home. Most are blocked to traffic but there is the occasional residents car trying not to run over anyone. It is better to wait for an hour or so and then take the train home. Or take the train to Nogi, the next station towards Utsunomiya, and then switch to the Tokyo-bound train.
Is it worth it?
So is it wort it? If you love fireworks, absolutely. But if not, then you may want to look for something closer to Tokyo. There are plenty of fireworks around Japan in summer. But I must say, it was impressive. Although keeping the attention of three four-year-olds are hard at the best of times.
oI have written more than 60000 words about Tokyo now. This is actually my second book about Tokyo. If you want to see the books I have already published, take a look at my Amazon author page. .
These are my kids, by the way. They are triplets and soon five years old. They are both the reason and the resource behind my writing travel guides to Tokyo.
The kids as a reason
When it was just us, me and my wife loved to travel to discover new things and collect new experiences. When the kids came, we wanted to share those new experiences with them. We have traveled to lots of places across northeast Asia, which is our home region since we live in Japan.
Since we want to give our kids the best experience possible, we like to know what we should see in the place we are going. That means doing quite a bit of research. As an old journalist, I know a bit about making research, and I have been able to leverage it during my writing. It is much easier than it used to be, now that there is online information about almost anything.
My kids as a resource
While having kids is great in a lot of ways, as a travel guidebook writer creating guidebooks for families having kids is a precondition. I learn what children like by asking my kids (and observing them when we travel too). And they tell me and show me other important things, such as how far a four-year-old can walk. Or how often they want to go to the bathroom. And having kids will show you unexpected things, such as how many attractions at Tokyo Disney Sea that are unavailable to children shorter than 120 cm.
Why would you need a guidebook?
Nowadays, everything is available on the Internet. So why does anyone need a guidebook?
While it is true that you can find information about almost anything, there are two problems: You do not know if the information is trustworthy, and it is not adapted to your needs.
When I am writing, it is from our own perspective. I have been there and done that. I know how to find the elevators, and I can tell you whether they go up or down. When you read my book, it will help you figure out what to expect. If you are a parent with kids in a stroller, or toddlers just walking, you will find it helpful.
I do not want to make a list of hotels, restaurants, and stores. Everyone has their own preferences and when you read my book you will know what we liked. If you want something diffrrent, for whatever reason, there is always Google. Or Bing. Or, in Japan, Yahoo. Or any of a number of specialized search engines. No need for me to try to compete with them. This is actually one of the things I was not so pleased with in the BebeVoyage Abbreviated Resource Guide, which you can find in Amazon. So I will do that part differently this time.
When can we expect the book?
Writing is only part of the process of creating a book. The research comes first, but often second as well in parallel with the writing. You always need to check things. But once the writing is done, you have to edit the text at least once yourself. Ideally you should have an editor go through the text after that, but in my case I am going to skip it for now, since I am an experienced editor myself.
But I have to let the text rest before I am editing it, so I get some distance and it does not feel as fresh. A month at least, maybe two. So with life and everything coming in between, do not expect anything before new year. Although I actually plan to write a different book before then, or really edit this one into something completely different (did I tell you I am an editor)?
Warning: This is something of a rant and contains personal opinions based on personal observations from living many years in Japan, half of the time with kids. You may find that it makes sense or not. I do not usually write like this, so check out the blog again next week for more ordinary tips on bringing your kids to Japan and having a great time.
Japanese people can be awful racist. Usually this is not noticeable, and most of the time they are extremely friendly. But then, you come across a sign saying "no foreigners allowed", usually in badly spelled English. They are rare, and actually illegal.
This usually means the owner does not speak English (or any other foreign languages) and would be embarrassed to try. But there are darker sides, and Arturo Debito, an American turned Japanese citizen, famously fought a long court battle to end discrimination at a local bathhouse.
He won, and in the process became friends with the proprietor. So discrimination based on race is illegal. That is easy to say in a country which has hundreds of years of tradition discriminating against the "casteless", who would handle dirty things like dead animals. To say nothing of how Koreans and Chinese were treated during the time both Taiwan and Korea were part of the Japanese empire.
Korean and Chinese look pretty much like the Japanese, especially if they get their dresses from a Japanese store and go to a beauty parlor to have their hair made. So racism in Japan is not a matter of looks only. Or probably at all. It is more a matter of being different.
You are equally likely to be discriminated against if you are colored, Indian, or blond and blue-eyed. You are not them. If you are different - look differently, then talk differently - you are likely to be discriminated against. This could be a simple thing like not getting a tissue outside the station. But you may also be the wrong sex. Many of the tissue packs, especially outside certain stations, are handed out to women only. The tissue packs contain advertising for beauty salons and other places where men are typically not customers.
If you have been discriminated against, you are more likely to be thin-skinned. The cause may not be racism, it may just be ”foreigners will go away and so are not worth investing time in”. You do not know. But one thing you do know is that in Tokyo, where the percentage of non-Japanese living there is more than 10%, the discrimination has decreased. It is just a personal observation, and I do not think that the people who are racist are less racist now. But the discrimination has decreased, so if that is true, then it had other causes than racism.
There is another type of discrimination that famlies is more likely to be subjected to, which has nothing to do with race but everything to do with family. That is when you enter a restaurant and they are ”full” despite your being able to see that there are free seats.
You can of course not prove that the restaurant has taken reservations for the tables and that the customers will come 10 minutes after you have left. You do not want to eat in a restaurant that does not want to serve you anyway. But the reason they do it are your children. First, they do not have any tableare or high chairs for children. Second, they are worried about your kids disturbing other customers.
So how does mesh with the famous omotenashi concept, that arguably won Tokyo the 2020 olympics. Here is my attempt at explaining, but first let me explain what ”omotenashi” is.
Omotenashi means ”without front” - i.e. Something that is transparent and honest. The Japanese culture has two concepts that do not exist, at least not to this extent, in other cultures: Honne and tatemae. Tatemae is what you say because you think the person listening will like it. Think white lies and flattery rolled into one. Honne is what you actually think, but traditionally you do not express it to anyone except in your closest family.
Harmony, making everyone get along, is more important in Japan than anywhere else, and even though people are the same everywhere, Japanese try to hide their feelings to make things flow smoothly. If someone throws a racial slur at you they are intentionally being disruptive, which probably means they are drunk. Or anyway idiots. Other people will look aside and not try to be involved.
This is also why the police will not go out and knock on the door of business owners who put up discriminatory signs. They want to preserve the harmony in their in-group. The tourist will be gone in a few weeks, the business owner is there forever. But this suddenly changes when the foreigner is going to stay and live there. The policemans contract changes and he will go to talk to the business owner.
It helps to think about Japanese hospitality, and actually any relation in Japan, as a contract. When you make a contract with a ryokan to stay there, they also contract to give you the best experience possible. And that is not all. You become a member of their inner group. When Japan was still a mysterious and hard to access place, there were books and books written, and academic studies done, on what made the Japanese so different. One of the theories had to do with social organization. The thinking was that Japanese tend to organize their relation in terms of the social distance from themselves. If you were a member of a group close to a person, you were entitled to a much better treatment than someone who is not a member of their in-group. Since racism is more a fear of threat to somebodys status quo than an automatic hatred of people with different eye color (or other perceived group characteristics), this means the outgroup automatically overlaps racism.
The policeman, in our example, wants to preserve harmony. If the foreigner is going to be a bigger pain in his behind than the owner of the place not letting foreigners in, then he will act. If the foreigner complains. Change does not happen by itself, in Japan or anywhere else.
So what was it about omotenashi again? Omotenashi is being honestly delighted at being able to host you. It is being helpful and delighting in it. Kind of hard to say ”this guy looks like a German so I will not help him”. Delighting in being helpful does not mesh with being a racist. Even saying ”I want to help everyone but people who look German” grates. You will not find many racists in service industries, it does not go well together. There will be other reasons they refuse you service, if they do.
The basis of racism is objectification, that you see the other person as a thing. You will find it happening to you if you have blond and blue-eyed kids. The in-group consists of real people whom you have relations with, the out-group is everyone else. They are not people in this way of reasoning.
In Japan, children have a strange position. They are cuddled and sheltered but they are somehow the property of their parents. older Japanese may reach out and pet your children, Japanese children too, but especially blonde and blue-eyed children. They remind these older Japanese of the dolls they had as children, which were sent from the US as support for the bombed out country. Even today, Licca, the homegrown Barbie alternative that is much chubbier and shorter, outsells the American doll toys. They just do not look Japanese enough.
Did you hate this post? Check out some other pieces on my blog to see how I write when I am not emotionally annoyed but try to be helpful. I am writing guidebooks to Tokyo, and I can tell you they are much more fun to read and much more helpful than the above.
One more thing: If you write trollish comments below, and do not try to help the conversation, I will delete them. I want us to have a helpful discussion.
I am Wisterian Watertree, recently moved from Bangkok to Tokyo, with a brief visit to Honolulu on the way. I write about travel, especially with our three beautiful kids (two girls and one boy, soon turning four and a half - yes. they are triplets). Travel is education and fun rolled into one, and if you are like me, that is something you want to give to your kids. If you want more tips and want to find out when I will publish something, get it from my email list. If you want to be personal, drop me a note on email@example.com, or if you want general tips, follow me on Twitter @wisterianw.