Traveling With Kids in Japan
By Lauryn Axelrod,
Japan is a land of contrasts. From modern, neon-lit cities to remote hillside temples, from groups of business-suit clad salarymen racing down crowded sidewalks to lone Geishas tiptoeing along lantern-lit alleys; from awe-inspiring mountains and clear rushing rivers to ruined monuments to atomic horrors, Japan beguiles, bemuses, inspires and arouses.
But, for all its fascinating history and modernity, most people don’t think of Japan as a family or budget destination. True, Japan is expensive and will stretch your budget to the max. But for families, Japan can be a wonderful destination: it is clean, safe, interesting and surprisingly inviting.
In fact, we discovered the country to be full of entertaining, educational and relaxing destinations and attractions where locals shower children with attention and gifts, and all for less than we anticipated in terms of cost. Bright Lights, Big Cities It has been said that Japanese cities are the noisiest cities in the world: talking streetlights; blaring TV screen advertisements; pachinko and video games sing-songing and clanging into the night. To some degree, that is true. Especially Tokyo – a never-ending ultra-modern cacophony of lights and sounds. Even after the bustle of Beijing and the hustle of Hong Kong, Tokyo was overwhelming: a tidal wave of lights, sounds, cars, people, buildings and shops. Many adults find it jarring, but kids love it! However, the interesting thing about Japanese cities is that a few feet away from the noise and lights are peaceful alleys, quiet retreats, temples and gardens where the din and rush are muffled by the breeze in the trees, the gentle ripples across a pond, and traditional Japan is still alive and well.
My husband, Chris, met Josh and I in Tokyo and we spent two days exploring a city that could take a lifetime to get to know. From the quiet, elegant alleys of Ginza to the flashing, blaring lights and sounds of Shinjuku, we got our first tastes of Japan.
Tokyo does offer a few sightseeing attractions – temples, gardens, Imperial palaces — but the real lure of the city is its texture: each neighborhood offering a different facet of modern Japanese life. In Ginza, we meandered past discreet boutiques and expensive restaurants where kimono clad women shuffled by with Gucci bags. In the Sony Building, we stopped to play with the latest tech gadgets, oohing and ahhing over digital cameras and mini-laptops. We ate lunch in one of the inexpensive noodle shops in the basement of an office building, and hung out with salarymen after work snacking on grilled chicken and vegetables at one of the Yakitori stands in Yakitori Alley.
In Shinjuku, we listened to Japanese pop music at the Virgin Mega-Store (Japanese Ska is really fun!), and played videogames in one of the ubiquitous arcades that line the streets of all Japanese cities. In Aoyama, we poked around art galleries exhibiting contemporary and classical Japanese paintings and ceramics. In Harajuko, we joined the ever-trendy Japanese teenagers taking pictures in photo booths, shopping for funky fashions, and in Sendagaya, we escaped the crowds and joined the older theatre-goers for a meditative, late afternoon Noh Theatre performance at the National Noh Theatre.
After each excursion, we retreated to our ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn, where we could savor a cup of green tea or nap on our futons laid out on tatami mats, re-energizing for another outing into the bright lights of the big city. But two days was all we had here. Our plan had been to alternate cities with rural destinations, so we boarded the Shinkansen bullet train and headed to the hills.
The Hills Are Alive in Takayama
Nestled in the Gifu region of the Japanese Alps foothills, Takayama is called “Little Kyoto” for its perfectly preserved Edo period wooden buildings, temple walks, rivers, canals and quiet ambience. Walkable and neon-less, it turned out to be the perfect antidote to urban Tokyo’s tumult. From our lovely riverside ryokan, we spent three peaceful days wandering the canal and flower-lined, narrow cobbled streets, visiting restored Edo merchant homes, sampling local food specialties, shopping for apples and souvenirs in the morning market, stopping at sake breweries, and visiting the more than one dozen shrines and temples along a wooded path.
Takayama is also famous for its fall and spring festivals, in which massive, elaborate, golden floats – some more than 400 years old — are carried through the streets like a Japanese Mardi Gras Parade. Unfortunately, we were too early for the festival, but several of the floats are on display at the Festival Floats Exhibition Hall, and their histories and details are well-explained in the English audio guide. Even if we missed the festival itself, we felt like we had some idea of what it must be like from the video in the exhibition.
On our last day, we visited the Hida Folk Village, an open-air museum that details the life and lifestyles of the nearby villages. Featuring thatched roof farmhouses, craftsmen’s shops, working waterwheels and rice fields, the park is a fantastic way for children and adults to learn about traditional Japanese culture. It was also a perfect way to enjoy a cool mountain day before heading back to urban Japan. Kyoto Daze Even more than Tokyo, Kyoto is a city of contrasts.
The spaceship like Kyoto Tower rises above a state-of-the-art glass and steel train station, while in the shadows below, monks do morning chants in serene temples as they have for hundreds of years, old women place offerings at brightly painted Shinto shrines, and Geishas and Maikos (apprentice Geishas) clip-clop in their wooden sandals down ancient cobbled lanes.
Along the banks of the Kamo river, Japanese punk bands busk for pink-haired teens and in the cloistered Kaiseki restaurants, suited businessmen dine on delicacies to the refined sounds of koto music. There is so much to see and do in Kyoto that in our 6 days in the cultural capital of Japan, we only scratched the surface.
With over 2,000 temples and shrines, a slew of museums, hundreds of gardens, markets, crafts shops, castles, festivals, performances and outdoor adventures we had to pick and choose carefully.
It’s easy to overdose on temples in Kyoto, so we restricted our temple visits to one intensive day with a few scattered shrines thrown in during other excursions. Since our lodgings for the first two nights were in a temple near the most famous religious sights, it made a convenient base for visiting. The Japan Tourism Board provides easy-to-follow walking paths that take you from temple to temple, so we began our tour at the sand gardens of Ginkakuji Temple, where perfectly groomed seas of white sand form a magical landscape for ancient wooden temples and peaceful gardens with the earliest hints of fall color in the leaves. From there, we walked down the shaded Philosopher’s Path beside a babbling canal, stopping at Hohen-in and Eikan-do temples, poking into galleries and ceramic studios and stopping for a refreshing drink at one of the trendy cafes along the way.
An hour or two later, our walk ended at the magnificent Nanzenji Temple where we sampled a mini tea ceremony in a tatami room overlooking a lush, tranquil waterfall. In the afternoon, we took a short break from temple going to visit the delightful and informative (and free!) Fureaikan Kyoto Museum of Traditional Crafts, where we learned about the wide range of handicrafts – from silk dyeing to sword making – for which Kyoto is famous. Back on the temple trail, we headed to the famous Kinkakuji Temple to marvel at the Golden pavilion reflected in the peaceful lake, and then back to Chion-in, a huge temple complex, where we have the good fortune to witness a ceremony in which monks chant prayers for the elderly. Further on, we finished our temple tour at Kodaiji Temple, where 400 year-old teahouses are nestled among Zen gardens.
As dusk fell, we walked on into the old Geisha quarter of Gion, where we caught a glimpse of a painted Geisha, walking quickly to an appointment in a nearby restaurant. It was magical: from ancient temples to the lantern-lit alleys of Gion, we felt worlds away from modern Japan. Market Madness
The next day was raining buckets, so we headed to some indoor (or at least covered attractions): markets. The Nishiki Food Market is a marvel of the tasty and bizarre. Three covered arcades of vendors selling everything from fresh fish, sushi to go, pickles and vegetables, to delicate, fanciful confections: fans made of rice, baskets woven from seaweed, flowers made of noodles, and even fall leaves from sugar! We sampled our way through the stalls (a wonderful thing about Japan – free food samples!), and by the time we reached the end, we had had lunch and lessons in Japanese cuisine!
The Teramichi Arcade made a convenient passage, but brought us back to modern, trend-conscious Japan: shop after shop selling hip fashions, shoes, jewelry and more. The newest thing seems to be resale, vintage clothing from the West. But even in the markets, the old and new contrasts exist. Every market area has its own temple and shrine, and monks bringing offerings or praying stand beside teens with purple mohawks and spiked boots! Kyoto has plenty of other markets, from local farmers’ markets to department stores (markets of a kind, for sure), but no market or its contrast can compare with the To-Ji Flea Market, held on the 21st of every month on the grounds the To-Ji Temple.
Having been held for hundreds of years, the market is an immense free-for-all with everything from ceramics to antiques to food. Monks and worshippers mingle with shoppers as stall after stall attracts thousands of people searching for treasures. If you are in the market for a kimono, this is the place to be. There are thousands of used ones to chose from, and you can pick them up for $10 each: the best bargain in Japan! Off The Beaten Path Not all of Kyoto is temples and markets. In fact, there are some fun and unusual adventures to be had. North of the city proper, the hilly suburbs of Sagano and Arashiyama offer river rafting, hiking and peaceful trails past temples and artists studios, little known to foreign tourists. On a hot day, this is where Kyotoites come to escape the heat, so we joined in.
We took the train from Kyoto station to Sagano to board our small boats for the 16km ride down the clear Hozugawa River to Arahsiyama. For two hours, our oarsmen guided us past mountains and through gentle rapids, where the landscape is reminiscent of Japanese woodcuts. The boatmen let Josh try his hand at paddling, and he developed a new appreciation for the hard work these men put in. But, the breezes were refreshing and the ride, while not the most challenging, was a welcome change of pace from city exploring. We disembarked in Arashiyama, a district that feels miles away from urban Kyoto, but is only a short commute. We had lunch in a local restaurant and then wandered through the cool, bamboo forest to shrines and artists’ studios, past lakes and forests, stopping to admire Zen-like restaurants and a doll-maker’s work. It was a lovely area and, even though it is popular with local tourists, didn’t feel crowded or busy at all.
That night, we attended a Full Moon Festival at a local shrine, where priests chanted blessings for good harvests followed by performances of traditional Japanese music and dance. We were the only foreigners there, but we were welcomed warmly. Museum Bound Feeling the need for a little more culture, we spent the following day visiting museums. But instead of heading to the art or history museums (which weren’t exactly kid-friendly), we went to the little known ones. The Costume Museum in central Kyoto housed a gorgeous reproduction of the palace life as described in the classic novel, Tale of the Genjii, with amazing dolls in elaborate period costumes. The museum also offered visitors a chance to try on the period clothing, including the multi-layered kimonos worn hundreds of years ago that were so long and heavy, women had to crawl along the ground instead of walking.
We spent the afternoon at the incredible, but little visited Kyoto Museum For World Peace. Part of Ritsumeikan University, the museum houses fascinating, informative and moving exhibits about war and peace, focusing on the Japanese military history and it’s atrocities (rare confessions about the use of biological weapons and torture during occupation of other Asian countries), daily life in Japan during that time, World War II both in Europe and the Pacific, the Vietnam War, War crimes tribunals, and of course, atomic warfare and disarmament, all explained with a clear, comprehensive English guidebook. It was history class plus, and by the end of our visit, Josh, Chris and I were intensely moved. More importantly, it was a good introduction to the next day’s excursion: Hiroshima.
War and Peace Visiting
Hiroshima was one thing Joshua really wanted to do in Japan. So, early the next morning, we caught the Shinkansen again, and by 10 a.m., we were standing beside the A-Bomb Dome on the outskirts of the Hiroshima Peace Park. Cutting a dark silhouette against the bright blue sky, the skeleton of the A-Bomb Dome is a powerful testimony to the destructive power of the bomb that detonated over Hiroshima on the morning of August 8, 1945. The dome itself is the preserved remains of one of the 3-4 buildings left standing in Hiroshima after the bomb fell. But as haunting as it is, the impact is only really felt in context: the rest of the Peace Park and the museum bring the impact of the bomb into vivid reality.
We spent all day at the Park and the Museum, stopping at the Children’s Peace Monument, a poignant sculpture of a stylized atomic bomb with 3 flying children and one on the top holding a crane, the symbol of peace. The Children’s Monument was built at the urging of the classmates of Sadako, a young girl who was exposed to the bomb and died of leukemia 10 years later. Before she died, she folded almost 1,000 paper cranes, in hopes that doing so would cure her. Her story has been retold in the popular children’s book, Sadako and the Thousand Cranes. Today, the children’s monument stands as a memory and to all the children who died as a result of the bombing, and the sculpture is surrounded by thousands of multicolored paper crane chains, folded and donated by children from around the world as a prayer for peace. Josh was moved to make his own cranes to add to the monument. Fortunately, a young girl nearby taught him how to fold them and we were able to add a few more prayers for peace.
Next, we visited the Victims’ Memorial, where we were able to read the stories of victims and survivors of the bombing, including some of the thousands of children who were working on building demolition crews that day. But the biggest and most moving monument is the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum itself. Three stories detail the history of Hiroshima from its pre-bomb days through the bombing itself and rebuilding.
Exhibits included dioramas of before and after, exhaustive details about the bomb and the bombing, videos, relics and remains, excruciating details about the effects of radiation on the victims, and more. Detail after detail mounted until you could longer believe the horror of nuclear war. But, that’s the point of the Peace Park, really: No More Hiroshimas. It was a history lesson Josh would never forget. We walked out into the late afternoon sunlight, stunned. Around us, the modern city of Hiroshima buzzed. Trees and plants flowered where nothing was supposed to grow for 75 years. Children played, couples walked hand in hand, the streets were lined with shops and restaurants and offices: was this really the same city that lay in burning rubble just 57 years ago? Yes, it was.
Phoenix-like, Hiroshima rose from the ashes of nuclear devastation, a permanent reminder of the horrors of war, and of man’s desire to end it. Mellow Matsumoto Chris left for home the next day, and Josh and I said farewell to Kyoto and headed to the sleepy Japanese Alps town of Matsumoto, famous for it’s castle, dolls, and hot springs. We settled into our ryokan in the historic quarter beside the river and went exploring. It was nice to be back in a small town, and we needed the rest after Kyoto. The next day, we visited Matsumoto Castle, or Crow Castle, as it is called for its dark black and white construction. An impressive 16th Century fortress surrounded by moats, the castle is fun to climb up and around and houses a collection of medieval Japanese Samurai weaponry that was fascinating for Josh. A short visit to the Matsumoto Museum introduced us to the Tanabata Dolls, a Matsumoto tradition. Every July 7, townspeople display beautiful kimono-clad paper and wood dolls outside their homes in memory of ancient story about a Prince and Princess forbidden to meet but once a year.
Next, we visited one of the nearby onsen, or hot springs, for which the Alps region is famous. While many hot springs have resorts built around them, the nearby Asama Hot Plaza is a day visit complex, featuring a series of indoor and outdoor pools, saunas and tatami rooms for picnics. Unlike spas in the US or Europe, a Japanese onsen is a family affair. Kids are welcomed in the spring pools, which are divided by gender, and entire families make a day of it, bringing lunches to enjoy after bathing. Josh and I had a great time testing the pools, getting massages in the massage chairs, and scrubbing away the stress of two weeks of travel in Japan.
By the time we left, we were thoroughly relaxed. On our way back to our ryokan, we wandered some more through the town, stopping in at the Berami Doll Shop, where Tanabata Dolls are made. In addition to making dolls for purchase (we can’t resist), the shop contains a fantastic collection of antique Tanabata dolls, as well as another Matsumoto specialty, flat cloth dolls. Mrs. Berami, the dollmaker, and her family were incredibly welcoming and spent over an hour explaining the dolls and their designs to us. We left laden down with dolls to take home, as well as other gifts. And that seemed to be the way Japan had been all along. Everywhere we went, we were warmly welcomed and showered with gifts. By the time we left, Josh had received fans, food, bubble making toys, and hugs from Japanese schoolgirls, while Chris and I were treated with the utmost politeness and assistance.
We found ourselves saying “Thank You” hundreds of times everyday in everyway we knew how. Wherever we ate, waitresses and restaurant owners went out of their way to help us choose correctly from the menu (even if it meant dragging them outside to point to a plastic model in the window). Shopkeepers did their best to explain local crafts and always wrapped our purchases in brightly colored paper as if it were a Christmas present. The hosts and hostesses in our ryokans were ever ready with advice on where to go and what to see. Everything from sleeping to eating to bathing was a new experience for us, and for Josh every day brought something interesting and fun. Familiar, but unfamiliar, modern and ancient, Japan proved to be a wonderful, fascinating family-friendly destination, and in the long run, less expensive than we thought!
Where to Eat
Eating cheaply in Japan is always a challenge, but fortunately the cheapest food is also the most kid-friendly. Inexpensive noodle shops abound in every city and town. For less than $5, you can get a steaming bowl of ramen, soba or udon noodle soup with vegetables and meat and all the water to drink you might want! Ticket noodle shops are even more fun. Buy a ticket for the soup you want, hand it to the cooks, and slurp away! Quick, cheap and entertaining! For a more relaxed meal, head to an Izakaya, or small restaurant, where $10-$15 will get you Japanese standards like tempura, rice dishes, miso soup, or tonkatsu (fried pork cutlets). Set meals are the cheapest option. If sushi is your thing, the robotayaki, or automated sushi restaurants, are cheap and fun. Just grab a plate as it goes around the conveyor belt and your bill is tallied at the end! Every region of Japan has specialty foods, so whenever possible, check out the local delicacies. Mountain vegetables, kobe beef, even specialty tofus make for interesting dining. If you want to splurge a little, try Japanese interactive food like Shabu-Shabu (Japanese Hot Pot with veggies and meats), or Okonomiyaki, a cheaper veggie and egg pancake cooked on the grill in front of you!
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