Hello, Osaka.

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.

Moments like this

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.