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.
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.
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.