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…
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.
Flying with family is stressful. Despite best efforts bags are inevitably hanging from every shoulder and kids, rudely awoken at 4am, are short on patience. So it doesn’t take much to trigger a minor crisis which can have a ripple effect on the entire journey as moods sour.
This morning we were informed that Emirates had, in the past four days, discontinued their policy of providing bags for checked-in buggies. I was sent to have the buggy wrapped, for which I was expected to pay with cash which I did not have. And so began the hunt for an ATM, which I found only to realise my card was back with the check-in clerk. 20 minutes of running around later and stress levels are high before we have begun our journey, and only because a cost saving measure had been implemented without consideration for the customer’s experience.
Companies are getting much better at making investments with customer experience in mind. But few realise that the same methods can be used to implement a cost saving initiative. In this case, any measure which could have prevented me hunting around the airport at 6am would have been preferable, including simply charging us for the plastic bag which was once offered for free. We also discovered in this instance that we had the option to take the buggy to the gate, but only when another clerk stepped in after we had paid for the wrapping service. Another detail which matters: staff training.
Check-in experience aside we are now safely on board a 777 headed for Tokyo waiting for our take off slot. Little M is fast asleep which is wonderful for me but tough for Lucy who is holding her in the most awkward of positions. Big M is rattling through the first 10 minutes of every film we downloaded to his tablet and at this rate will have exhausted his entertainment supply before the landing gear is up.
We arrive late in Tokyo and have a 30 minutes taxi ride to the hotel. I’ve set up an account with the Uber-like Japan Taxi app, which I look forward to sharing my thoughts about. For now we have 9 hours to look forward to in the air, hopefully including a little time to reflect on the coming weeks and our arrival in the sprawling metropolis of Tokyo.
Tomorrow we travel to Japan. After 4 days of stifling heat in the cosy embrace of family here in Dubai, our adventure will gather pace as we trace a path over Asia, and will hit full swing when we touch down in Tokyo tomorrow evening.
I can’t deny being apprehensive about the flight. 6 hours from Copenhagen to Dubai was far better than we expected, even if little M slept less than we may have hoped, but we’re both wary of false confidence or complacency and so we’re managing our expectations carefully!
Emirates were fantastic on the way over. I’m not sure they could have done much to improve. The hostesses were all incredibly friendly, and we had some genuine conversations about our travels. The bassinet, although ineffective for our hyperactive 9 month old, was great for the 40 minutes in which she slept. Both kids were given a blanket and toys; big M was given an activity set and little M a handy bag with wipes, bib and spoon. The baby food was Ella’s organics (a meal pouch and a fruit pouch – perfect!), and the kids meal was a tasty tomato pasta which big M ate pretty well. Another nice touch was the personal Polaroid photo which a crew member snapped of us and presented in a neat card with a message from Emi, our Japanese hostess from Osaka. The only issue we had was the Emirates policy preventing kids from sitting on the floor during the flight. The bassinet seats provide ample space for kids to play and stretch out so its frustrating to be unable to let them. Otherwise full marks for an airline who have been recognised within the industry for their exceptional service.
On arrival in Tokyo we head to “The Knot”, a neat looking hotel in the shadow of the Metropolitan government building in Shinjuku. The location should give us easy access to one of the iconic districts of the city while we shake off any jet lag, while the transport links are close enough to explore before we move on to less central accommodation for a taste of authentic Tokyo life.