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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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
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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.
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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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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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I am Wisterian Watertree, recently moved from Bangkok to Tokyo, with a brief visit to Honolulu on the way. I write about travel, especially with our three beautiful kids (two girls and one boy, soon turning six - yes. they are triplets). Travel is education and fun rolled into one, and if you are like me, that is something you want to give to your kids. If you want more tips and want to find out when I will publish something, get it from my email list. If you want to be personal, drop me a note on email@example.com, or if you want general tips, follow me on Twitter @wisterianw.