Many years ago I, for a couple of seasons, tended to a compact vegetable garden in the back yard of our rental property in Brixton. For a couple of months we periodically ate carrots, potatoes, peppers, tomatoes, courgettes and more from the neat little plants sprouting from a range of containers in the garden. Fast forward nearly 12 years and I find myself with even less space to work with, but I’m enjoying watching a range of veggie plants grow on our balcony here in sunny Copenhagen.
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.
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.
The day started lazily, albeit early. Magnus woke at 7.30 and took himself off to the bathroom, quietly peeing and disposing of his “night-time pants” in the correct bin of the three available. There is a near incomprehensible waste system here, to do with whether or not waste is combustible or not, and whether recyclables are clean or not, but Magnus seem to have mastered it.
We fell short of an early departure, and left after midday. The transit time from Tama to central Tokyo is both a good gauge for the sheer size of this metropolis, and a crazy endeavour with two young kids. But we got to Asakusa as planned, albeit late, and after a little wander around, enquired in one of the many karaoke establishments – tired kids, confined space, loud music, what could go wrong?! It was just what we (adults) needed to shake off the long journey. We belted out Wonderwall, some Aretha (RIP) and some Lynyrd Skynyrd, before setting off for a rather more majestic cultural experience – the famous Sensō-ji Buddhist temple with its dazzlingly illuminated pagoda and huge lanterns. The surrounding shopping streets are touristic but enjoyable to peruse, and big M was so proud of himself when we bought him a little kimono-style outfit to wear for the temple trip.
Currently we’re sitting in Gon Pachi, a laid back little joint in Asasuka, which seems to be much more touristic than our previous area. Jazz is playing, which it seems to across a lot of Tokyo. The chef is busily preparing sticks of meat and fish on an open grill while the waiter fixes Lucy a homemade ginger highball (recommended by several reviewers of the restaurant).
Update: the restaurant is incredible. Highly recommended. The beef sticks in particular are mouth watering to even think about days later, and the tempura was crisp and succulent. Magnus loved his rice and chicken dish. The ambiance is a perfect balance of culinary energy and peaceful sanctuary. The waiting staff are incredibly attentive and understood the needs of our kids very well, with special cutlery and drinks served without our asking. And the price is right for the quality of food and service.
The prospect of travelling in Japan had me excited for many reasons: the culture-shock, the density, the landscapes, the birthplace of karate, the lo-fi hip-hop… But also: the whisky. Clearly the breadth of whisky on offer in Japan is limited, but an affordable supply of the various Suntory labels is an exciting prospect. What I wasn’t expecting was a) to find a grain whisky which I enjoyed as much as a malt, and b) to find a whisky which Lucy could spend an evening enjoying by my side. The whisky which achieved this feat was “The Chita”.
The only grain whisky in Suntory’s stable of distilleries it is an affordable and quite delightful dram. The nose is a subtle combination of vanilla, honey and light citrus. It’s gentle on the nose, particularly over ice, but the first sip reveals a burst of flavour: loads of vanilla, that rich honey, floral blossom undertones (honeysuckle maybe?). The finish is quite short and wraps up with those citrus tones first detected in the nose. It’s perfect over ice, and lovely for a late summer evening – not one I can imagine sipping as a winter warmer next to a roaring fire.
Lucy’s tasting notes: much more drinkable than a malt. Softer, sweeter but with a pleasant kick. Definitely a caramel-vanilla flavour coming through!
So there you have it: a whisky for the whole family. Did I mention it was affordable?!