Japan is a great place to let your kids experience being out of their comfort zone without being too much out of yours. Of course, there is a language and general ‘strangeness’ barrier (for lack of a better word) but everyone is super friendly and helpful, there is no crime (that would impact on a tourist anyway) and no pushy sellers haranguing you at every turn. Everything is clean, orderly and well signed and with a bit of forward planning, things go very smoothly.
Language is not really an issue in Tokyo. All public transport is signed in Kanji script and English, that includes all the ticket machines, maps and signs in the stations. Lots of restaurants offer an English menu but even if they don’t, plenty use pictures and of course, there is always the plastic food out the front to point to. And to be honest, we’ve never been afraid of a random dish anyway. That’s half the fun of travelling. People are very keen to speak English with you too. In such a busy place, there’s always someone nearby who’s happy to help translate if you need it.
The exceptional busyness of the city might also be a turn off for some. There’s no denying that Tokyo is busy. Other than parks and gardens which seem to magically transform into havens of peace and quiet, there seems to always be a constant throng of people everywhere you go. But it’s nothing to worry about. As mentioned on my Day 6 post, the Japanese have an inherent sense of personal space. Even on the busiest metro carriage or in the moshpit that was Harajuku on a Sunday afternoon, there is always a sense of calm and space about you. Certainly in Australia, there would be an jostle here or a tut there but we have never encountered this in Japan, and this was our fifth visit including doing some very populated activities on national days. You learn to move with the flow: just make sure you know where you’re going.
Peak hour on the metro was probably my biggest personal worry with the kids. Luckily I have a husband who loves all things public transport and had done his research before each trip. Sure, the trains at times were very busy. We collapsed the stroller and tucked the kids between our legs when we had to squish in. Mostly though, it was about being prepared. You need to know where you are changing trains and know which station you will get off at. Fortunately, Stephen is an expert in all this. Prepare the kids to get off the train at the next station and move decisively. When off, keep moving to the centre of the platform and then you can take your breather. The tide of salarymen and women will wash around you leaving you unscathed. There is lots of information to be gleaned in the stations so it’s worth taking your time to get your bearings to make sure you come out the right exit to save yourself a lot of walking.
The only down-side to travelling on the metro or train network with a stroller is a lack of elevators and escalators. It was not at every station but many exits had nothing but steps, so Stephen got the job of lugging the stroller with John inside (it was just easier that way) up and down countless flights. I have mentioned it in another post, but once again, it is time to sing the praises of our Combi stroller. The 6kg stroller is designed in Japan so it’s meant for these conditions. It was pretty much the only brand stroller we saw in the whole of Tokyo too. However, had John been heavier, or Stephen not so capable, it would have made the whole public transport thing just that little more difficult.
The other issue to consider is accommodation. Stephen and I have travelled extensively through Japan before and know how miniature hotel rooms can be. Double rooms are designed for travelling businessmen and usually feature only a 1.5 size bed and next to no room for luggage. We knew that this would not be suitable for a family of four, one who is sleeping like a beached whale at the moment. We made the decision early on that we would book an apartment and, for ease of booking, stay in the one place. We looked at plenty of hotel booking websites but didn’t find anything as suitable as the private apartment we booked through airbnb.com. This was a two roomed beauty just a five-minute walk from the world’s busiest pedestrian crossing in Shibuya. It was the perfect location for getting around Tokyo and for the day trips we wanted to do to the west. The room featured a double bed (which was in fact a futon, not quite as comfy) plus two futons for the floor. There was also a fold out couch (1.5 size) for my mum had she actually made the trip as originally intended. The floor futons were great for the kids because it meant we didn’t have to worry about them rolling out of bed and there was plenty of space for them to spread out. Booking this apartment also meant we got a full kitchen and washing machine plus free internet access and a stuffed rabbit thrown in for good measure. It really was ideal.
Possibly food is another concern. I guess it comes as no surprise that most of what you’ll encounter is Japanese, although some of the bigger hubs do have the obligatory western or western style burger and chicken chains. However, the good news for pregnant and fishophobes out there is that it is not all raw fish. There are plenty of noodle places that do cooked seafood or a mean vegetarian broth and rice bowl places that do quick and simple meat (usually pork) and rice. There’s gyoza and steamed buns at both restaurants and convenience stores. In fact, convenience stores have a wealth of food options including plenty of cooked treats on sticks. Fruit and veggies are pricey but when you do happen to find a green-grocer it’s worth stocking up on stuff you can snack on. The basement floor of all department stores is also like a supermarket of sorts with plenty of straight to mouth or cook at home options. It might come as a surprise, but food is also relatively cheap. Sushi/sashimi plates are about half the price of what you’d pay in Australia. Rice and meat bowls or noodles are also cheaper than what you’ll pay for burgers and most places do a meal with salad, miso soup and green tea. Our boys did not turn their noses up at too much, although behaviour wise, there are a few restaurants that we wouldn’t want to show our faces in again.
Like a boy scout, our advice is also to be prepared. Do your research before you go. Find out as much as you can about the places you want to visit and how to get there. (Google street view was great for helping us identify our apartment, how to get there from the station and what food was available in the immediate vicinity.) While there, plan your move(s) before you get into an uber-crazy environment. Tell the kids that you expect the next train/road/place of interest to be busy and how you want them to behave (holding your hand etc). That way they are expecting it too and will hopefully rise to the occasion.
There is no other place in the world quite like Japan. It’s quirky, traditional, crazy, ordered, boggling, serene, friendly, beautiful and exciting all rolled into one neat package. And what’s more, that’s how the Japanese live, it’s not put on for tourists, or hidden away where only those ‘in the know’ know about it. Our boys have learned so much from just a week away and we of course, love seeing the world through their wondrous wide eyes. We can’t wait for child number 3 to be old enough to enjoy it too.