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

One day in Tokyo

Our first day in the land of the rising sun began gently with a stroll around the back streets of West Shinjuku. Mail was delivered by energetic postmen on mopeds, speed walking from gate to gate of the little dwellings squeezed along hilly single-track roads tucked beneath the looming shadows of corporate skyscrapers. Light rain prompted locals to pull out their umbrellas: pink, white, purple, transparent, but rarely black, each popping and vibrant against the dull backdrop of damp city streets. Vending machines are as omnipresent as the movies would have you believe, and sell every beverage you could hope for, from Red Bull to grape juice to super-sweet luke-warm coffee.

A Perfect Playground

We pottered along the length of Shinjuku Chuo Park from north to south, big M alternating between trespassing on the finely groomed shrub beds of the park and pleading for a playground. He was temporarily distracted by the cute tortoises in the pool behind the park’s impressive water feature and we enjoyed people watching as city workers ate lunch from bento boxes on park benches, but the moaning always resumed. So it was with a huge sense of relief that we found the entire south-western corner of the park dedicated to kids. M loved the climbing frame and big slide but Lucy had to stop him before he threw himself down a somewhat unique plaything: a concrete slope which, covered in a fine layer of water, was a death trap. We know this because I had a go, and have both the bruises and the damp trousers to prove it. (Update from day 2: in dry conditions the slide is both safe and great fun for kids)

The park is a pleasure to walk through and should be included as a restful pit stop on any Shinjuku itinerary. It is reminiscent of the most peaceful sections of New York’s Central Park, and with leaves slowly turning from green to infinite hues of golden yellow, red and brown, autumn is a great time to visit.

Local Specialities for Lunch

This locality is known for its ramen, and so we hunted down an authentic noodle experience for lunch. Our DK travel guide was either old or inaccurate because their recommendation did not exist but, unfazed, we squeezed in to a local neighbourhood lunch spot to sample some dipping ramen (“tsukemen”). I grappled with Maya whilst Lucy picked from an indecipherable menu of seemingly identical dishes and then solicited the help of the huge smiling waiter to place our order in the equally huge machine dominating the tiny entrance. When the ramen arrived we divided the generous single portion between the four of us and began slurping away. The flavour was superb, the soup much richer than a Wagamama ramen (I have limited ramen reference experiences!) and the pork was surprisingly tender and very tasty. And yes, we are pushing the boundaries of flexitarian this trip…

Our local ramen spot.

After a pit stop at the hotel for naps, we took the decision to risk an evening trip with tired kids for dinner. On our way big M grew frustrated at the amount of walking involved and began his rapid descent (it was instant) into terrible behaviour. His particular favourite is spitting in disgust at the moment. It took every ounce of patience and empathy in me to bring him back, which may be inspiration for a future post about dealing with angry behaviour!

We headed towards Shinjuku station and marvelled at the energy and vibrance of the tight web of streets west of the station before locating the restaurant we were searching for on the 14th floor of the huge Takashimaya Times Square mall next to railway lines. The restaurant, Katsukura, promised to be both “casual and kid friendly” according to Google, and looked lovely when we arrived, but the queue unfortunately was far too long for an impatient family of four, so we settled in to the nearby tempura joint for rice and perfectly deep fried prawns and veggies.