When asked, Lucy, myself or Magnus would probably choose our day trip to Minna Island as the best day of our trip to Japan. We got off to a bad start. Tired from yet another tough night of wakeful kids we didn’t have much more than a loose idea that we might take a proper day trip, and spent breakfast researching whilst trying to get some food into Magnus to avoid a day of hunger-induced rioting. Our research turned up Minna Island, and we committed to the endeavour, packed up our bags, and piled in to the car. On the road we double checked the ferry times and realised we had 15 minutes until the final morning departure, with a 15 minute drive on roads with strict 40 mph speed limits ahead of us. Panic and disappointment set in, a toxic combination, but lack of sleep somehow inspired a delirious surge of optimism which carried us to the terminal in just enough time to swoop onto the boat before it set off.
The boat was delightful, cruising at speed over the small body of ocean between mainland Okinawa and Minna Island, a tiny crescent-shaped mass just west of Motobu. We docked and began exploring, Lucy south and Magnus & I north while Maya slept. The sun beat blissfully down on coral sands and turquoise seas lapped gently at the shoreline as we searched for shells and paddled, on the look out for bright tropical fish.
The island in the summer is a tourist trap. According to the gentle-mannered engineer on the ferry, the boat is on the move non-stop in the summer season, dumping hundreds upon hundreds of souls on the island whereupon they collapse on the beach in droves, destroying the picturesque vista over the bright white sands and talking over the quiet peace. But just weeks later, the weather still gorgeous, the season is over and the tourists are back at their desks pouring over keyboards. The Minna Island we experienced was more or less abandoned, a tropical oasis with only a handful of locals. We found paradise by accident, and enjoyed 7 perfect hours exploring on foot, chatting with local craftspeople, snorkling above coral outcrops rich with luminous fish, and playing together on the deserted beach.
Go to Minna Island. But wait until summer is “over”.
After several months back in dark, damp Copenhagen, I find myself more and more frequently reflecting on our time in Japan. As we hypothesised may happen at the time, the memories of the challenging moments are fading and the good memories are beginning to glow warmly in our minds, and none so brightly as wonderful Hakone.
Lake Asti, with its beautiful vista towards Fuji-san, was as pure and peaceful a place as I have ever experienced. I can close my eyes and retrace my footsteps as I strolled along the lakeside from our room at the Prince Hakone hotel to the beautiful onsen which overlooked a sparse woodland and on to the lake. Dipping into the hot water of the onsen, the surface shimmering in the late afternoon sun, with steam rising like morning mist forming on the foothills of Mount Fuji, I felt more at peace than I can recall ever feeling before or after. The brief solitude in the presence of such natural beauty has had a profound and lasting effect on my attitudes towards life. I guess these experiences are why we travel.
Maybe it was the warm air that hit us as soon as we stepped off the plane. Or the bright orchids that smiled from the windows at the airport. Or the airport staff who wore floral shirts. Whatever it was, as soon as we landed at Naha on the main island of Okinawa, it felt like we’d arrived in Hawaii. And then we arrived, tired and bedraggled at our guesthouse, Ma-Blue in Motobo a couple of hours later, and it turned out to be Hawaiian themed. The room had hammocks and bright prints, and the restaurant was kitted out like a beach shack, with a straw roof, surfboard pictures and road signs for Hawaiian destinations. Plus Hawaiian souvenirs you could buy: Hawaiian T shirts, mugs, coasters, coffee beans and trinkets. It was a bit of a mind-trip: as we ate American style pancakes with cream and pineapples, and listened to the Beach boys with the baseball on TV, it was difficult to remember we were in Japan.
We stayed in north western town of Motobu which at first glance, seemed a bit of an odd decision. The guesthouse advertised itself as having a private beach and a pool. The pool was empty. The beach was a scrap of sand that only emerged once a day at low tide and was covered in plastic. Emerald Beach, only 5 minutes’ drive away looked promising at first, with white sand and gorgeous turquoise water. Little hearts leapt. Except swimming was forbidden due to not one, not two but four different types of dangerous jellyfish and fish in the area. And then there was a tannoy on the beach, blaring out Japanese elevator music interspersed with adverts in four languages. Most odd.
But we made it work. We paddled, made sandcastles, hunted for pretty shells and crabs and paddled some more. By the end of it, we were sun kissed and wind swept and the small disappointments of the day didn’t matter anymore.
And that was how the rest of the week turned out. We didn’t get to learn much about the history or visit many important historical sights. But we did what we could manage and that mainly consisted of driving and discovering places and enjoying what we found. Like Minna Island, a tiny island no more than 4km circumference and only 15 mins away by boat. The closest thing to a tropical paradise I’ve ever been to. Only a handful of people visited that day, so we had the place to ourselves to wander around and absorb. It was magical and re-set our batteries just so.
The Ocean Expo Park was a big hit. An aquarium, a dolphin theatre, and an adventure playground which we went to most days. And the most unexpectedly enchanting hot-house plants/gardens called the Tropical Dream Centre. Big M loved spotting different tropical fruit trees, feeding the fish, touching huge stag beetles and running up a shell-like tower. We had the place to ourselves which added to our sense of wonder. It felt like we were discovering the place.
I think that’s what made our week on Okinawa. We barely touched the recommended sights of the guidebooks. But we found little independent coffee shops and wine bars on Kouri island, and watched the sun go down under a bridge on Sesuko Island. We swam off deserted beaches (for my part, quite hastily. Turns out I prefer my seas cold and lifeless) and went for ‘jungle’ walks, finding huge purple hermit crabs and ‘techno’ bugs. We imagined vast palaces at castle ruins and ate noodles whilst watching sumo wrestling on TV in the castle cafe. We danced on the decking as the sun rose and had huge bubble baths. Big M even rode a goat.
It wasn’t planned, there were places we were gutted not to see and I don’t know if I’d recommend staying where we did. But as we landed back in a greyer, cooler Osaka I looked at myself in the mirror and realised I had freckles, was smiling and had a tropical flower in my hair. Okinawa was just the tonic we needed.
Towering bamboo forests, a thousand bright vermillion Shinto gates, glowing intimate dining rooms reflecting on the canal on a stolen walk at night and discreet, and shuttered entrances which hinted at geishas and an exotic underworld. Zen gardens with trickling water features, lush green trees on the turn, blue skies and stone foxes. Hot, sticky, fried food, bean-paste sweets and grilled pork/octopus/sweet corn with chunky sweet potato chips dipped in sugar.
A rusty and forgotten playground in faded pastels, perfect for discovering lots of ‘treasures’ (tiny plastic balls, a tiny red bow, a sticker packet and two coffee beans). An abandoned playground sandwiched between two train lines, offering one little train enthusiast a lot of excitement. Two sets of adult legs, swinging up to the sunset. A bustling playground with four slides (!) and teeming with nursery groups in bright baseball caps whilst dolphins fly in the air behind.
Tiny shops filled with bright kimonos, delicate ceramics, exquisitely wrapped sweet delicacies and trinkets. Dusty storefronts displaying electric parts, tiles, lightbulbs and paper fans.
A vintage store stuffed with old kimonos, sparkly jewellery, wood blocks, tin adverts, geisha dolls and lanterns. A bookshop cafe, cool and aloof. A concrete and wood cafe serving freshly baked walnut muffins and strong coffee, and offering a haven for our morning routine.
Bikes, weaving their way between pedestrians and cars with no room for any of them. Buses with no room for buggies and feeling awkward but met every time by friendly, adoring, elderly fans of little M who made the journeys bearable. People. Lots of people.
Kyoto. We only glimpsed you, in the day time and with the dulcet tones of children in our ears. We loved you but there is so much more we want to know and taste. We need to come back.
After 6 days in the majestic city of Kyoto we are now in Osaka for an evening, awaiting our flight tomorrow to Okinawa – the vacation within a vacation which should offer us a chance to relax and refuel before our final week. This evening we’re in the Mitsui Garden Hotel Premier, which is relatively affordable but offers both a quiet lounge area for “superior” room guests, and a penthouse spa/onsen which Lucy is currently enjoying as I tap away at my keyboard.
Osaka is more charming than expected. The hotel is a couple of stops away from the main station and we had a short walk from the metro station to the hotel along the river. We enjoyed the afternoon autumn sun filtering between the browning leaves of the riverside trees against a backdrop of towering skyscrapers and the homogenous mass of business-people in black suits returning from lunch. Several city workers were quietly chatting around us in the restaurant we hastily selected for lunch – a soba restaurant serving a traditional plate of cold noodles with dipping sauce, some tempura and a selection of cold meat and vegetable varieties which was rather nice, although neither Lucy nor I quite have the taste for cold noodles yet. Several patrons around us chose to smoke – a strange fact about Japan is that whilst many parks and public spaces force smokers into tiny glass boxes to light up, most restaurants allow smoking, which is not something we miss in the UK or Denmark.
We’re two weeks in to our travels, and for my part at least I’m struggling with the intensity of 24/7 parenting and the frequent cycle of packing and moving, hauling around our cases and managing the not insignificant demands of two kids (one in particular). We’ve learned some considerable lessons along the way of course. Top of the list is to not move around too much. The kids respond well to routine and consistency, and these are impossible to establish if we’re never in a place for more than two nights. We’ve done some rebooking for Okinawa and the following week to act on this insight and are really, really hoping it helps.
Lucy and I love hotels, and had a good mix of hotels and home rentals on our itinerary, but lesson number 2 must relate to the spaces required for four beings to get a good night’s sleep and for the adults in that configuration to be able to relax and debrief in the few child-less evening hours available. In a hotel it is very difficult to book an affordable two room set-up, and so our time in hotels has resulted in disturbed nights and hushed conversations in the bathroom when unreliable hotel WiFi conspires to undermine the otherwise superb baby monitor app we use. So in future we’ll pay the extra for two rooms or stick to AirBNB homes – there may be no onsen or room service, but at least we’ll be able to have a conversation.
Both Dan and I have woken up with colds and sore throats. This doesn’t bode well. Energy and positivity are key ingredients to make our days work.
It’s our second morning in Kyoto. We hope to, at some point, actually write about what we are seeing and doing. That is actually happening! But by the time it gets to post-kids’ time at night, we’ve nothing left. We barely even talk, let alone have the will to reflect, debrief and analyse. Or plan the next day of sight-seeing.
Living with big M at the moment is like living with Jekyll and Hyde. He turns on a knife edge from being chatty, sweet and curious to being how I can only describe as someone possessed: shouting or full on screaming, kicking, throwing anything to hand, spitting, biting, scratching, or simply running away. Sometimes just a couple of those behaviours and sometimes all of them in quick succession. Then repeat. Managing those meltdowns takes a huge amount of patience, control and energy. When I say managing them, I mean trying to calm him down or give him space to feel his feelings without destroying his surroundings/hurting people. Sometimes he can snap out of it quickly. And other times he just simmers for a bit and then explodes again.
It’s the in between times that also require a lot of energy to avoid these meltdowns. It’s like living with a pressure cooker that you can’t take off the heat but can only sometimes turn down. Sitting at breakfast quickly becomes tense because you can tell from his bum-wriggling, loss of indoor voice ( not going to lie: this kid has no idea what an indoor voice is! And in Japan it’s kinda crucial. Everyone’s very sotto voce), biting of pens and grabbing of anything on the table that he is about to…BLOW! So it’s all hands on deck, entertaining with different activities: spot the difference, drawing, stickers, colouring in, noughts and crosses and about 15 trips to the buffet. This is all to last us 45 minutes of breakfast time. Which I suppose is a long time for a kid to sit down. But it only takes that long because of the million different things we try to do to keep things cool. Plus we have to all feed ourselves and poor little M too (who, I should add, is off her food and doesn’t like sitting still one bit)
So by 8.30am, Dan and I are already tired. And of course big M hasn’t had any physical activity since he woke up at 6.30am so it’s off to the swimming pool to burn off some energy which we practically had to draw straws for. It was Dan’s turn so I’ve had some time to sit by this window and look out on a Kyoto road. And gather my strength.
Crucially, time to remind myself that it’s all good. It’s just a phase or ‘IJAP’, as Dan says. Usually when our eyes meet over little heads. It’s our hourly mantra. IJAP, IJAP, IJAP. In IJAP we trust. 🤞
After a ride from our Airbnb host and then three train rides, when big M lost the plot at Hakone station (twice, actually. Once on the platform because the train buffet car was closed and he wanted a sandwich and then again at the bus stop because the hot dog didn’t have any ketchup. Epic disasters, clearly) the thought of travelling another hour on a local bus kinda killed me. Plus there didn’t seem to be any space for luggage on the buses (important to note future Japan travellers: neither local trains or buses have any allocated room for suitcases/rucksacks/buggies.) So we decided to blow the budget and grabbed a cab and by some miracle, big M had stopped screaming and got willingly in it.
Little M, however, had just woken up from a nap and was in no mood to be strapped to me in a car for 30 mins. And because she was crying, big M decided he was upset too. Thus ensued half an hour of ‘Contain the Cry!’, that fun, fun game whereby I frantically grab toy/book/sequin pencil case/iPad/food and thrust them at my children at varying intervals with the big aim of deterring Major Meltdowns.
The drive was uphill and slow and windy. I cursed myself for ever thinking that travelling around the countryside was a good idea. It wasn’t. It was insane. Of course the kids were tired and bored and frustrated. What were we thinking?
Dan kept pointing out the scenery whilst taking pictures (from the comfort of the front I should add) and I was there, gritting my teeth in pure survival mode.
But then we arrived at Lake Hakone and…the sun was bouncing off the little waves, the bright red gates to the shrine were standing majestically in the water and the trees and mountains were everywhere. And the hotel Prince Hakone (more on that soon) with which we had decided to treat ourselves was immediately: bliss.
As the doorman came to ferry our luggage from the taxi to the reception, I actually teared up. I felt like when you’re having a shit day and someone who loves you asks if you’re ok and you just burst into tears because you’ve been carrying it and whoosh, it all comes out.
It wasn’t just the journey, which had actually gone pretty well. It was the whole experience of travelling with small kids: the stress and responsibility of their happiness, and the lack of sleep and lack of time to actually talk to D or unwind or truly take it all in and reflect. It was all that.
I didn’t actually cry, there in the lobby. But I think D could sense my stress levels and said those magic words: take an hour for yourself. So I did.
Before I go on, I should say that I’m well aware of how petty and privileged this all may sound. I’m on the trip of a lifetime and have the luxury of being able to share it with my family. I’m extremely fortunate to even be here, doing these things. I know and acknowledge all that. I feel very lucky.
Particularly, as I slipped on my brown pyjamas and slippers to try out my first Japanese ‘onsen’. For those that haven’t been, an onsen is an outdoor, hot, natural bath. Tattoos are strictly forbidden so after covering mine up with a wound dressing (yay for first aid kits) I self-consciously made my way through the hotel to the onsen. Once there, I carefully followed directions to strip off and shower in these little open cubicles next to the onsen. They provided scrummy shower gel, shampoo and conditioner as well as face cleanser, exfoliater, and moisturiser. It’s important that you clean thoroughly before entering the bath and as my showers are usually 2 minute rush jobs with curtain open watching Maya, I luxuriated in this one.
I stepped out into the crisp air and sank into the steaming, hot water. And felt like crying all over again. The beauty and serenity of the moment: being naked, alone, in an onsen, overlooking the silver lake and above, green fir trees, blue skies and birdsong… it was overwhelming. For these moments, do we travel and explore and seek out. For these moments, do we push our limits and step out of comfort zones. My first Japanese onsen by my first Japanese mountain lake. And as I sit and write this on our balcony, watching the sun go down and the lake turn from golden to pink to silver, I think: yes, it’s all utterly worth it. Of course, I know this is a moment. It’s fleeting. Any second, little M will wake up, big M will come charging back in and noise and energy will resume. But perhaps it’s only when you have moments such as these, that you truly appreciate them. Perhaps.