We took a few days in beautiful La Rochelle. The sun warmed our faces as we explored the charming streets, the crumbling facades of sun bleached townhouses providing the perfect backdrop for my snapshots.
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.
Both Dan and I have woken up with colds and sore throats. This doesn’t bode well. Energy and positivity are key ingredients to make our days work.
It’s our second morning in Kyoto. We hope to, at some point, actually write about what we are seeing and doing. That is actually happening! But by the time it gets to post-kids’ time at night, we’ve nothing left. We barely even talk, let alone have the will to reflect, debrief and analyse. Or plan the next day of sight-seeing.
Living with big M at the moment is like living with Jekyll and Hyde. He turns on a knife edge from being chatty, sweet and curious to being how I can only describe as someone possessed: shouting or full on screaming, kicking, throwing anything to hand, spitting, biting, scratching, or simply running away. Sometimes just a couple of those behaviours and sometimes all of them in quick succession. Then repeat. Managing those meltdowns takes a huge amount of patience, control and energy. When I say managing them, I mean trying to calm him down or give him space to feel his feelings without destroying his surroundings/hurting people. Sometimes he can snap out of it quickly. And other times he just simmers for a bit and then explodes again.
It’s the in between times that also require a lot of energy to avoid these meltdowns. It’s like living with a pressure cooker that you can’t take off the heat but can only sometimes turn down. Sitting at breakfast quickly becomes tense because you can tell from his bum-wriggling, loss of indoor voice ( not going to lie: this kid has no idea what an indoor voice is! And in Japan it’s kinda crucial. Everyone’s very sotto voce), biting of pens and grabbing of anything on the table that he is about to…BLOW! So it’s all hands on deck, entertaining with different activities: spot the difference, drawing, stickers, colouring in, noughts and crosses and about 15 trips to the buffet. This is all to last us 45 minutes of breakfast time. Which I suppose is a long time for a kid to sit down. But it only takes that long because of the million different things we try to do to keep things cool. Plus we have to all feed ourselves and poor little M too (who, I should add, is off her food and doesn’t like sitting still one bit)
So by 8.30am, Dan and I are already tired. And of course big M hasn’t had any physical activity since he woke up at 6.30am so it’s off to the swimming pool to burn off some energy which we practically had to draw straws for. It was Dan’s turn so I’ve had some time to sit by this window and look out on a Kyoto road. And gather my strength.
Crucially, time to remind myself that it’s all good. It’s just a phase or ‘IJAP’, as Dan says. Usually when our eyes meet over little heads. It’s our hourly mantra. IJAP, IJAP, IJAP. In IJAP we trust. 🤞
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.
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.