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.

The importance of play

I’m sitting in Shinjuku Chuo Park, in a patch of sun. The place is packed today with nurseries: lots of pre-school kids with brightly coloured baseball caps. Reminds me of Copenhagen. The use of public space by nurseries and schools is something both cities have in common. It’s such a clever way of using public spaces and ensuring good investment in them because they are being used. Something the UK could learn from.

Nursery kids at Shinjuku Chuo Park

Anyway. We’re here at the playground again because this is what travelling is like with a 4 year old. Our 4 year old at least. He’s gone from a routine where he has free play all day to one where he’s in a confined space of a hotel room or restaurant or shop or train or museum or shrine. All day. It’s no wonder he’s acting up. And when I say acting up, I mean being a nightmare. Causing both of us to wonder what exactly we do next and neither of us having a clue. Those parenting moments wen you think: “Fuck. This is mental. Who is this creature? How do we tame it? Can I leave?!” We had that last night when trying to put big M to sleep after little M was down. He didn’t want to get out of the bath and that was it: caged tiger, hidden dragon, all spitting and firing at once. So little M woke up and then we have two overly tired little ones screaming.

That’s the thing about travelling. We are all in a small room together. There is no space to give time-outs or allow big M to cry it out or re-centre himself in his room. It’s very intense and I’m wondering how others do it. If we had loads of money, we’d get two hotel rooms next to each other. But it’s twice as much (and accommodations is already expensive) and would also mean every night Dan and I would be apart. So…

On ‘dead worm road’ on the way to Meiji shrine…
Acorn collecting in Yoyogi Park

Importance of play. This is one of our tactics, after a debrief over corner-shop beer and whisky in the small hours of this morning. Others include reducing sugar intake, remembering healthy snacks, eating proper meals at set times, communicating expectations and no physical interventions (ie. if he refuses to leave playground/get out bath, don’t pick him up to force him). These things we already know but it’s good to remind ourselves. When tiredness and irritation kick in, it’s hard to parent perfectly.

And most of all: cuddles. For everyone. It’s important to feel connected. Especially for the adults. Go team.

Post-bed time coping strategy