It sounds crazy, probably because it is, but last year my husband suggested that we start taking a yearly trip with the children. Not one that we need, one sitting on a beach, swimming and soaking up the sun but one that inspires us, an adventure that would teach us all.
The children learn about different cultures at school but to actually see a new and exciting country, to learn a new culture first hand, well we thought that would be pretty incredible.
We bought the Maps Atlas that’s beautifully illustrated and shows other countries in a fun and exciting way. Every day we flipped to a new page and learned a few facts about each place. The minute the page fell open on Asia, we all got excited and our first trip was decided, Japan it would be. Not entirely perfect for me but at the time, I didn’t realise I would be 6 months pregnant, and so planning commenced.
My husband travels to Japan often and knows it well and the children are always fascinated by his tales of this wonderful country. We knew that Tokyo would be first on our list and that time was short. I called on our friends and contributors, Original Travel to help me plan a once in a lifetime trip and they persuaded me to enlist Tyler from Inside Asia to show us around Kyoto.
And so during this Michelmas half term, just over a week ago, we flew half way across to world to start an epic journey where we would no doubt be completely and utterly lost in translation.
We flew 12 hours from London to Narita airport which is just over an hour from the centre of Tokyo. Tokyo is Japan’s largest city and its capital since the Meiji restoration of 1868 returned power to the Emperor. This seemed like the perfect place to start our adventure.
The views of giant skyscrapers dominate the skyline as you get closer to the city and the hustle bustle of this electric city can be felt even before you arrive. With a population of over 12m it’s easily one of the largest cities in the world.
We deliberately took a night flight and luckily the children slept for most of it. I woke them a few hours before landing and re set our clocks to local time. We reached the city just after lunch time and decided to jump right in and find somewhere to eat.
We headed for the Tokyo Plaza building in Ginza where we stopped for sushi at a typical modern sushi conveyor belt and tried some unusual dishes along with some familiar cut roles.
On the 2nd and 3rd floors is a space for new technologies to exhibit and we were lucky to find Mitsubishi sponsoring the METoA Ginza showcasing an array of robots which the children were able to operate after watching a light show.
The kids wanted to have some fresh air so we walked to Hibiya Park and played on the swings and monkey bars before walking through the beautiful garden festival showcasing some tiny but beautiful and intricate gardens.
On the way back to the hotel we found a little foot massage shop and all stopped for some reflexology to help combat the jetlag or at least that’s my story!
We tried to stick to local time and ate meals at the right hour to help with jet-lag but the children still woke for a couple of hours at about 1am. Luckily they both drifted back off and had to be woke at just after 8am.
The next day was spent exploring the city, it’s a place my husband knows well and he wanted to share some of his favourite spots with the children.
We started with the Tsukiji fish market which is set to move place but is one of the most inspiring markets can visit. We were too late for the famous tuna auctions but spent time wandering through the halls, looking at the fresh fish and then wandered out in to the outer market to sample some local fruits and vegetables which are all presented exquisitely.
On to Kiddyland, a great Mecca of all things Miffy and sells the latest toys. This is my husbands favourite shop for it has a whole floor dedicated to snoopy and the children couldn’t quite believe their eyes.
Next stop was the mad Kawaii Monster Cafe which the kids adored. A psycadellic dream of a place that felt more like we had fallen down Alice’s rabbit warren. We feasted on Cat Food (cereal in a plastic bowl) technicolor pasta and got to make our own fizzy cocktails. This place is bonkers but worth a visit.
We strolled the streets of the fashionable Harajuku district for shopping and a bit of exploring fore heading to my favourite Daikanayama where I love to see what’s new at Beams Kids’ store and popped in to a great toy shop called Bournelund which has lots of modern but wooden puzzles and toys.
I had promised the kids a doughnut for tea so we strolled to Log Road for the all famous glazed ones at the Fred Segal cafe and they had a run around. I love everything on Log Road and one can easy spend a day here.
On our way back to the hotel, we stopped at a friends shop, Park-ing which is in the car park of the Sony building. Not much in the way for kids but the latest trends for adults and a great selection of trainers. There is an awesome restaurant serving toast and our favourite is thinly sliced with sheets of seaweed of the great doorstop served with a slab of butter melting in the middle like a hot buttered crumpet.
On the top floor they often have fun interactive displays which is great for the children and they found themselves being flung through the air in a game of Angry Birds.
We woke early the next day and although my husband and I were rather bleary eyed, the children slept well. They woke again in the middle of the night but not for as long this time. I was relieved because today was a day they had been dreaming of for months, a trip to Tokyo Disney!
We were sensible not to choose a weekend but the park, (there are two), a water and a normal, was filled with local girls dressed in character for Halloween. They weren’t so bothered with the rides but more, the meeting of Disney princesses. That left the way for queues of only 30 minutes. We did more in a day here than we did in 3 in Florida! They do have fast passes which is sensible for the longer waits but we were very lucky. Like most Disney parks, there is an app you can download with waiting times and that did help with our planning.
If you want to eat at a restaurant, it’s best to book well in advance but we grabbed a quick pizza and some soya sauce popcorn before moving on. Like everywhere in Japan, there are countless vending machines filled with every type of tea, hot and cold and an array of weird and wonderful drinks including plain water.
We left at just after 2pm having done at least 10 rides and the children were still running on adrenaline so we decided to keep going. After a quick power nap in the taxi, we made a reservation at the eagerly anticipated Harry the Hedgehog Cafe and stopped at my mother in law’s beautiful spa in midtown Roppongi.
This beautiful shopping mall, Isetan, is full of fabulous shops and restaurants and is connected to a lovely park where the kids can run about despite being in the middle of the city. After visiting the breathtaking spa, we stopped at a fruit shop called Takano to see their square watermelons with a giant price tag and looked at the beautifully presented grapes, boxed up like treasures. There is also a Dean and Deluca if you feel like some American treats and Kayser, the most delicious bakery serving fresh bread and pastries.
An hour later we had a slot at Harry the Hedgehog Cafe, easily number one on my daughter’s list and it didn’t disappoint. You arrive at a tiny cafe lined with glass tanks, each of which contains one or two baby hedgehogs. An hour is given to play with them, and we were able to hold up to four each and feed them on tiny centipedes with tweezers.
These little creatures are adorable and remarkably not that prickly. Being nocturnal they fall asleep in your arms and seem happy to be stroked.
My son soon spotted some tanks on the floor that housed an array of lizards and to his joy, was allowed to hold a few before the hour was up. The shop above was a similar in set up but with bunnies and chinchillas. We peaked our head in before rushing back to the hotel to flop in to bed.
Being our 3rd night in Tokyo, the children finally slept throughout the night without a blink and I woke them after 12 hours for the next chapter of out trip, the bullet train!
We walked to Tokyo station and found the platform for the Shinkansen (bullet train) to Nagoya. We popped in to a station shop and I was amazed at the array of goodies and stocked up for the journey.
Beautiful Bento boxes piled on top of each other and packets of rice wrapped in seaweed made for healthy snacks. We also used this time to sock up on funny flavoured Kit-Kats for friends at home.
We were lucky to be travelling on a clear day and 40 minutes in to the journey we managed to see Mount Fuji. The trains in Japan are very tidy and are kept in great condition. For luxury travel there are many luggage forwarding companies that take your suitcases for you and a Green Class for first class travel where the seats can swivel to make a 4 seat sequence facing each other. The trains run on time so we kept to a good schedule and arrived in the countryside 2 hours later. The transfer to our hotel took almost 3 hours but was a sure sight to pass bay after bay studded with tiny islands and waters littered with oyster rafts. We were all ready to stretch our legs on arrival at a sleepy national park.
Located on the far tip of the Ise Penninsula this charming stretch of coastline was the perfect place for a bit of zen in the middle of our trip.
Kashikojima is only an hours drive from the famous Ise Shrine, which is arguably the most sacred of all Japan’s hundreds of thousands of Shinto shrines. A dear friend of ours grew up here and met us for a day of sightseeing and a day we’ll never forget.
Starting with one of the best meals I can remember, he took us to a local lunch stop in Oharaimachi where we feasted on fisherman food; bowls filled with sticky rice, topped with tempura or raw tuna and hot tea.
After lunch we strolled down the streets and finally got to try the famous soft green tea ice cream. The children went for local chestnut and cherry.
With bursting tummies we made our way to the shrine that nothing could have prepared us for. A gigantic bridge which leads to to the entrance where people bow before crossing and to the left, a single Japanese flag dominates the view, batting in the wind above the Isuzugawa River.
Hoards of people walk to the shrine each day, many of them school trips of giggling girls who seemed fascinated with my kids. Kiwayee they said over and over again which means cute, before asking to have selfies with them. I can’t say I saw another westerner all day so they stuck out with their blonde hair.
Before you reach the shrine, you have to cleanse your hands in holy water, first the left and then the right and then let the water trickle down the handle on the cup cleansing it for the next person. The shrines are immaculate and very well looked after. Every 20 years the temple is taken down and re built on a plot next to it. There are lots of shrines and our friend taught us to ring the bell, clap, bow and offer coins.
He later took us to one of the two local zoos where we got closer than I’ve ever been to otters and turtles, dolphins and seals. We finished with my son dipping his feet in the rock pools with school children where tiny little fish nibble at the dead skin on your feel. Something that costs a small fortune in England and something I’ve never been brave enough to do.
On the way back, we walked along the coast searching for ‘wedded rocks’ called Meotoiwa which there are many of throughout the country. These imposing rocks are exposed from the water and tied together by rope and sometimes make a family.
When we got back to the hotel, we found an old fashioned paper story book about these wedded rocks which we read before jumping in to bed.
The next day we woke early and the children did 20 minutes of Radio Therapy, a class that most school children practice each day before lessons. It’s meant to stimulate the brain for learning and makes for a longer life. The children loved it and it reminded me of a mix of aerobics and stretching.
With a clear mind, we headed off in the pouring rain to Toba, home to the world famous Mikimoto Pearl Company, an island where the process of artificial pearl cultivation was born. It felt a bit like a school trip and the museum had seen better days but it was fascinating to learn about pearls and how they’re made. We also got to watch women dive for pearls in the freezing waters dressed in local white robes.
Although it felt like we were living through a tropical storm, I had promised the children a swim at our hotel’s hot water springs so off we went. The steam rose up in to the crisp air and we all plunged in to the delicious hot bath like springs. I only managed a few minutes but it was an experience and the water felt like warm milk.
Our friend took us for the most extraordinary sushi for dinner. Only 6 seats in the restaurant which felt more like someone’s home, this hidden gem served the best sushi I’ve ever had.
For the last leg of our journey we headed for Kyoto the next morning which took just over 3 hours but was a lovely drive.
Kyoto is one of the most culturally rich cities in Asia and is home to 17 World Heritage sites and has over 1600 Buddhist temples and hundreds of Shinto shrines. Kyoto is based in a grid system but your eyes soon wander to the hidden gems nestled among the back streets and even among shopping arcades. Our eyes were wide open in this mysterious place and within only 3 days, we barely scratched the surface, but sure tried!
We arrived in time for a bit of exploring and after the success of the hedgehog cafe, went to the Owl Cafe. This funny little place was a hit with the kids but not more than the Leopard cats that we past coming out and spent time stroking and playing with.
We strolled the streets and fell in to some beautiful paper shops and little artisans in central Kyoto and finished in the Nishiki food market while my husband popped in to his favourite shop, Sophnet. This area is bursting with fashion boutiques and you can find everything from a Snoopy Cafe to Paul Smith.
I didn’t know if the children would be up for more shrines but the Fushimi Inari Grand Shine was not one to miss with its thousands of orange tori gates built throughout the hillsides and extraordinary views. The whole path takes over an hour to walk but we managed well over half way before turning back. The children loved inning free under the arches, stopping at shrines or to light candles.
Most of Japan follow both Shinto and Buddhism for religion and I was told that it’s not unusual for marriages and christening so to be held under the Shinto belief and funerals to be more Buddhist.
We were all craving noodles for lunch and were taken to the top of Kyoto station, a sight that shouldn’t be missed. An imposing but beautiful structure with the most incredible views of the city.
The top floor if full of little restaurants selling ramen noodles and we picked one that looks most authentic. It was delicious! True bone broth overflowing with noodles and sides of dumplings.
Refuelled, we drove to Arashiyama and took a punt on the Oi River, also known as Hozu. Not a long journey down river but a jaw droppingly beautiful one hugged by mountains and green. The children loved docking up to another boat which served warm cans of hot chocolate and green tea. We passed on the fish!
Back to dry land and on to the Bamboo Forrest, something I had been really looking forward to.
You can either walk around or take a Jinricksha, a rickshaw which is pulled by young men who run you through the Forrest and take pictures of you among the bamboo which grows at an astonishing rate and is left to grow to its full height.
We grabbed an early dinner at a Yakitori restaurant called Kushikura Honten which was simple and delicious, serving chicken and vegetables on skewers and my husband’s all time favourite tuba tempura which is not always in season and is the creamy part of the tofu.
It was Halloween so we did a bit of face painting and scared people on our walk back to the hotel.
The last day came around only too quickly and we finished the trip with an action packed day.
First stop was the Arashiyama Monkey Park where we walked a thousand steps through some of the most stunning woodland. At the top is a little park where the children played before getting distracted by the passing monkeys.
We walked a little further up and reached the heart of the park with fabulous views of the city below and were able to get closer to the monkeys and then feed them through little windows in a wooden hut. There are lots of rules when visiting the monkeys and we were very strict with the children.
For our second last meal in Japan, I had been desperate to try Honke; a restaurant serving noodles and somewhere that has been family run since 1456. I found on Courtney Ademo’s blog months ago and have been longing to try it. Easily the best noodles I’ve ever tasted and could have come back for dinner! Serving soba or udon noodles, hot or cold, it was scrumptious and we bought a few packets on the way out to take home.
After lunch we had an appointment at a Taiko drumming workshop where we learnt to play traditional Japanese drums and the kids were falling around laughing and really enjoyed the lesson.
We stopped at Arabica for the most delicious coffee and a walk about Higashiyama which is well known for it’s beautiful temples and is dotted with gorgeous boutiques. We stopped at the most beautiful pagoda at the base of Yasaka Pagoda before heading to the famous Gion district where we had a private teahouse visit to see a Maiki (Geisha in training) who taught us drinking games and danced for us before we head out on to the sleepy lantern filled streets from a scene of Memoirs of a Geisha.
An early start this morning took us to Osaka airport where we boarded a short flight to Tokyo and from there on to London which is where I am now busy tapping away as the children watch their iPads for the first time since we arrived in this magical country that has stolen a little piece of all our hearts.
- Info 127m population
- GMT plus 9hrs
- Flat 2 pin plug
- Police 110
- Fire and ambulance 119
- Dialling code +81
For all contacts please see hyperlinks within the post. I would like to mention a special thank you to the amazing Tom Barber and Miranda Boord from Original Travel, and Tyler Palmer from Inside Asia Tours.