I started this post on the bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto, continued it on the bullet train back, looked at it for an hour on our transatlantic flight home, and then spent the last four days in a jet-lagged stupor trying to pull my thoughts together on ANYTHING, much less such a monumental vacation.
Here’s a teaser pic to get things started. This was taken in a neighborhood ramen joint on our last night. It was greasy and the pork was fatty and Claire’s dumplings were handmade by a guy famous for them. More pictures as soon as we sort them!
My emotions about the trip ping-pong from “OMG! Japan!” to “OMG. Traveling with a kid is HARD” to “OMG. Watching Claire experience Japan was the most amazing gift ever.” In the cab from the airport to our hotel the first night, Claire declared that “looking at things is boring,” and as far as I can tell, unless you’re going to Tokyo Disneyland, Japan is pretty much just looking at things. For the first couple of days in Tokyo, I honestly wondered how in the hell we were ever going to keep everyone happy and fed for nine days.
Don’t get me wrong. We had some great times, overall, but I honestly cannot recommend taking your seven year old to Japan.
Joel and I were discussing this over dinner a couple of nights ago, and even though Claire was an amazing travel companion (so, so good, really) and clearly enjoyed experiencing such a new place, the amount of culture shock was a bit overwhelming. Since we returned, she hasn’t mentioned Japan to me once, but has spent a lot of time telling me how happy she is to be home and have her friends and her animals and her houses and her mom. I think our trip was about two days two long for her, and I think she was one Japanese meal away from having a meltdown over having to listen so hard to the language and think so hard about soldiering through food that wasn’t what she wanted.
It didn’t help that we started in Tokyo, which is like Japan on steroids. So many people, noises, tall buildings – it’s the largest city Claire has ever been to, and of course no one spoke her language or looked familiar. On top of it all, we were exhausted and jet-lagged, and figuring out things like trains and restaurants and the like felt overwhelming even for the adults. (More overwhelming for having to make sure Claire was coping okay, but hard in any case.)
I didn’t realize how much I wasn’t enjoying Tokyo until we went to Kyoto, which might just be one of the most perfect places on earth. It’s possible I would feel differently about Tokyo if we weren’t traveling with Claire, but I doubt it. I’ve always preferred San Francisco over New York City, even Kansas City over St. Louis. I prefer Minneapolis to Chicago. I like the food of big cities, and the access to art and music. But at the end of the day, I want a slower pace.
It only took me, oh, 20 years to realize this about myself.
We saw so many things and took so many pictures that it’s going to take a few more days to pull together a What We Did post, but I thought in the interim I’d take note of some of the things I’ve discovered about myself, my family, and Japan.
- Let’s start with the cherry blossoms. They really are That Beautiful, and now I understand why people plan entire vacations around them. We were incredibly lucky that Claire’s spring break coincided with peak cherry blossom bloom. By the second day it felt sort of silly to point out every tree we passed, and yet. Every one seemed more pregnant with blooms than the last and eight days in we were still trying to get the perfect picture.
- Every guidebook under the sun says to take buses and trains instead of taxis, and they are right. Taxis are terribly expensive and traffic is very bad, especially in Tokyo. But. When you’re traveling with a jet-lagged kid who gets almost narcoleptically exhausted at the end of each day, a kid who is gamely walking miles and miles and managing to find something exciting at every shrine and temple, it just doesn’t seem worth it to schelp to a train station and add so much extra time to your commute. Joel and I are both horrified at how much money we spent on taxis this trip, but agree it was worth it to get the most direct route to wherever we were going.
- The jet lag is a real bitch. We arrived in Tokyo at 10:30PM on Friday night, and got to our hotel after 11. We went pretty much straight to bed and slept until about 4:30AM, and then everyone was wide awake. We did our very best to rest in the afternoons and then tried to stay up to re-set our clocks, but forcing it just didn’t work. On the second night we had a reservation at a great shabu-shabu restaurant, and Claire fell asleep in the cab on the way there. Ten minutes into service she could not keep her eyes open, and spent the entire meal asleep in Joel’s lap. After that, we stopped forcing it, and until the last two nights the entire family was sound asleep by 8:30 and awake no later than 6AM. Only on our final two nights in Kyoto were we able to get out and explore after dark.
- Traveling with a tiny blond girl draws attention. In all the time we were there, I can count on one hand the number of American/European children I saw. Claire was the only kid I saw out of toddlerhood, and at least one Japanese woman a day told us how cute she was. On our walking tour of Kyoto, an elderly lady went up to our tour guide to tell her how adorable “the child” was. At a kimono shop down a long alleyway in Nara, Claire drew a crowd of elderly women and men while the shop proprietress helped her choose the right one. On our second-to-last night, three geishas on our block smiled and waved at her. At a ramen restaurant, the owner brought out toys, showed her how they worked, laughed along with her, and gave her a samurai-sword bubble wand. Everywhere she went, people smiled and nodded and were overjoyed whenever she said arigoto (thank you). This was a huge relief to us as we had read a lot about how children are expected to be seen but not heard in Japan. As long as Claire was clearly enjoying herself and her surroundings, people loved her. Even at temples, where she carefully prayed the way our tour guide taught us, or at the Shinto shrines where she insisted on going through the water purification ritual each and every time. The men selling candles and incense watched her with open joy, so I did my best to ignore the voice in my head telling me that we needed to be more respectful or careful or quiet.
- Cash is King in Kyoto, and the only place to get it is 7 Eleven. In our normal lives, neither Joel nor I are ones to carry much cash, and the same is true when we travel. That bit us in the ass on this trip, first in a little neighborhood restaurant in Tokyo and then in Kyoto. These places do not use Square, my friends, and they will not take your American plastic. We did not find a single shop, restaurant or taxi that would take a card in Kyoto, including a mid-sized grocery store. We also had our debit cards rejected time and time again at various ATMs. The only sure bet is the machines at 7 Eleven, so it’s important to know where one is at all times. Luckily, they are not that hard to find.
- The toilets are different than you think. Everyone is familiar with at least the concept of a toilet that will wash your parts for you when you’ve done your business. But you might not be prepared for walking into a restaurant bathroom and finding the toilet in the floor, requiring you to squat like a bear in the woods. The first time I experienced this there was an accompanying sign saying that it was more sanitary, because everyone wasn’t sitting on the same seat. Um. Let’s just say people don’t always have great aim. Sometimes you end up standing in things you don’t want to. At one restaurant – a restaurant! – Claire got poo on her shoe. So. There’s that.
- Language really is a barrier, but mostly when it comes to restaurants. We stayed in an Airbnb in Kyoto in one of the last remaining geisha districts. The adjacent street was lined with tiny dining establishments, each with fewer than 10 seats. We suspect the food was amazing in some of these places, but we couldn’t eat in any of them because we couldn’t read the menu, and while most Japanese will kindly attempt to understand and converse in basic English, it does not work for conversations regarding the pickiness of a seven-year-old child. We probably walked by two dozen restaurants we thought looked interesting, but didn’t even bother to go inside. Even though we know Claire will try new foods, she rarely eats more than a bite or two of them, so our own food desires were on the backburner while we tried to fill her belly.
- Snacks from home save lives, and your sanity. I have been known to make fun of the moms at the park with a giant backpack full of granola bars and water and handi-wipes. I call them, broadly, the Lululemon Moms. But as everyone who has been a mom longer than five months can attest, it’s the only way to survive, and in a foreign country it’s the only way to get through the day. Claire survived this trip eating plain rice, dumplings, bread, strawberries/bananas, pastries, and almonds/granola bars/fruit twists I packed at home. As far as I can tell, she gets hungry about every 20 minutes – longer if she’s having fun, shorter if she’s bored – and 99% of the time we were nowhere near a restaurant where she could eat.
- Food, in fact, is my biggest regret of this entire trip. I only had three pieces of sushi the entire time – an appetizer at the restaurant where Claire fell asleep. It was good sushi, but not anywhere near the quality I know exists. We had plans to hit the fish market on our last morning, but by then Claire was clearly Over It and doing her very best to keep it together until we went home. Taking her to a place where someone would try to feed her fish eyeballs for breakfast seemed like a bad idea. Fine dining in Japan is not kid-friendly. We talked about, and dismissed, seeking out a top tempura restaurant, because Claire only likes about 10% of what they serve, and the good ones only serve tempura. The same is true of the good sushi joints. They serve fish, with a side of fish, and fish for dessert. They do not have chicken teriyaki. Thankfully, ramen places almost always serve dumplings, too, and Claire’s ability to snarf 10 of them at once is well documented. We had ramen twice. Huzzah! I also had an okay katsu (pork cutlet) for lunch at a hole-in-the-wall diner. If you – like me – have always dreamed of coming to Japan and eating yourself into bankruptcy, it’s probably better to schedule an adults-only trip to get that done.
- One caveat to the above bullet is pastries. You can find a French-style patisserie in almost every neighborhood, and the quality is astonishingly good. There is at least one giant bakery in every train station, and we ate more donuts, ham and cheese buns, buns stuffed with hot dogs, and sticky sweet buns than a family of three should honestly admit to. But, hey! We walked a lot, so I’m sure those calories don’t even count.
I feel like I need to stress that Japan and Claire are both awesome. I’m looking forward to another visit to the former and many future travels with the latter. I’ve really struggled with how to tell this story without sounding like a whiny brat, because it’s not like everyone can go to a place like Japan for spring break and have these experiences, but I feel like it’d be a copout to proclaim it an unmitigated success.