Japan Family Travels according to the Ford Family

The Ford family in Japan

Janne Ford and her family recently visited Japan at peak cherry blossom time, taking in the shades of pink in Tokyo, Hakone, Kyoto, Hiroshima and Takayama,giving them a good taster of the country.  It is often quite a task for anyone planning a family holiday, to get something that everyone in the family will enjoy, but Japan easily came up with the goods for Mum, Dad, the 18 and 16 year old lads and 11 year old girl.  Enough from me, here’s Janne and the Ford family Japan adventure…

 

As I sit here writing on this showery April day I wish I could be transported back to that first exciting afternoon at Zozo-ji temple, just ten minutes walk from our hotel at Shiba Park. Blue skies and cherry blossom…. everything we could have hoped for on our first day in Tokyo. Everywhere we looked was a visual feast.

The Ford family in Tokyo

With Tokyo tower making a dramatic backdrop to the temple and the smoke wafting through the cherry blossom from the huge incense burner, it was difficult to know where to look first. I spotted someone in a kimono; the boys spied ‘pocari sweat’ in a vending machine. As is the way with our family, camera phones were out and we instantly split in several different directions!

 

We only had a few days to spend in Tokyo. The city is vast and we realized we couldn’t possibly see everything on our list. We decided to investigate Asakusa, home to Tokyo’s most sacred temple. We all loved it. Not only is the temple simply spectacular in terms of its colour, its garden, its pagoda and shrines, but also for the hustle and bustle of the surrounding ancient streets full of traders, tourists and worshippers. It feels authentic and timeless to visit shops that only sell hairpins or paper crafts – or to take a ride in a rickshaw through the back streets eating a green tea ice cream!

We chose a tiny restaurant at random for lunch and were shown to a table for tempura. It seems to be the area for tempura restaurants and it was delicious. We are all still craving it!

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Whilst in Japan, we wanted to experience an authentic stay in a traditional ryokan. For this, the Ichinoyu Gora in Hakone, our next stop, was perfect. With paper screens, roll-out futons and cotton yukata to wear, we were all set for the ryokan experience! We all agreed that the food was amazing. Would we choose rice and miso soup for breakfast at home? No, definitely not! But at Ichinoyu Gora, a tray full of exquisitely presented pickles, algae, fish, rice and steaming bowls of miso made a perfect start to the day. That and the hot spring tub on our balcony! We have to thank the InsideJapan Info-Pack for recommending a bakery just down the track at Miyanoshita though. Our Western cravings for something doughy and a cappuccino had kicked in by mid morning.

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Although Mt Fuji was shrouded in cloud during our visit, we still took the cable cars to the viewing area and visited the Hakone Outdoor Sculpture Park on the way back. This has to be one of the best art museums we have ever been to. The mountains make a dramatic backdrop rain or shine; this is an easy way to spend a day with children of all ages and has the added bonus of a large canteen-style buffet restaurant with western food options for those craving it.

Kyoto was our next stop and again we had opted for an authentic experience in a traditional Japanese house rather than a hotel. We had booked for a guide on our first morning, and the lovely Kimmee took us to the beautiful Nijo Castle. She was very knowledgeable and we learnt more from her about the history of Nijo than we would have by going it alone. After the castle, she took us to a kimono shop in the old part of town (because we asked) and recommended a lovely restaurant for lunch.

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We had long planned to visit Himeji Castle from Kyoto, and we were just so lucky that our visit coincided with the reopening after years of refurbishment. About an hour away by train, the ‘white egret’ castle is stunning, particularly when surrounded by blossom and blue skies. As it was the weekend, hanami (flower-viewing) parties were in full swing, but we braved the crowds and all the wonderful distractions and headed straight for the castle. We weren’t disappointed – it was one of our most memorable days in Japan.

Of all the cities we visited, we felt we could have spent longer in Kyoto (Kyoto Station itself is worth spending a good couple of hours in). Unfortunately, our two days were soon over and it was time to head back to the station and on to Hiroshima and Miyajima Island.

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My 16-year-old would say this was his favourite place. The Peace Memorial museum was ‘eye-opening’ and very poignant. Whilst my husband and teenage boys were totally absorbed in the history, it was too much for our 11-year-old daughter so we whiled away the time in the Peace Park. Whilst you couldn’t have a trip to Hiroshima without acknowledging the absolute devastation of the past, the city has so much else to offer in terms of restaurants and shopping and we had lots of fun here.

Miyajima Island, just a short ferry ride away, was a real highlight of the whole trip (and the main reason we chose to stay in Hiroshima). Again, shrouded in mist, (we never saw the top of the mountain here either) the island is picture-perfect with the torii gate and Itsukushima Shrine being the main draw. The tame deer that eat anything (including our map) wander amongst the tourists, and the craft shops are filled with lovely artisan products that we hadn’t seen on the mainland. Away from the touristy waterfront, the Misen trail takes you to Daishi-on temple, which is as intriguing as it is beautiful. We reluctantly left Miyajima Island at nightfall and headed back to the mainland.

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Takayama was our home for the next two days. It was refreshing to leave behind the urban sprawl for a smaller town. We opted not to visit any temples whilst here as everyone was a bit ‘templed out’, but instead concentrated on the Hida Folk Village, which was great for kids. We were slightly out of season so seemed to have the place to ourselves. However, it had snowed that morning which may have had something to do with the lack of other tourists! We kept warm by making our own souvenirs in the craft centre. Again this was a really enjoyable hour or so, learning from two local women and chatting about the town.

Sadly, our holiday was nearly at an end and it was back to Tokyo for another two nights. This time on the Shinjuku side of the city, which is all bright lights and nightlife. To make the most of our last day, we followed an InsideJapan suggested itinerary from the Info-Pack, which took us back to Asakusa (more souvenir shopping and tempura) and a trip down the river. We finished the evening in Starbucks with our noses and cameras pressed to the window watching the madness of the famous Shibuya crossing. We left Tokyo knowing we couldn’t physically have packed any more in to the two weeks.

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I have only mentioned just a few of the highlights from each place and the InsideJapan Info-Pack proved invaluable for all kinds of tips and ‘must-sees’. There are countless more and we left Japan knowing we must go back. There is too much yet to be discovered!

 

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18 great Japanese beach destinations

Ishigaki Island

As we have frequently bemoaned on this blog, Japan’s excellent beaches are very much undervalued by the international community. Sure, Japan is no Maldives or Hawaii – but if you know where to look, it has some truly excellent places to catch some rays, splash about in the water, do a bit of snorkelling or scuba diving and just generally relax.

Anyway, without further ado: the following is a roundup of some of our favourite islands and other beachgoing destinations in Japan. As usual, these are in no particular order – we each have our own preference! If you find yourself in Japan during the summer, be sure to check them out.

OKINAWA

No discussion of Japanese beaches could possibly be complete without recourse to Okinawa: a string of small islands which make up Japan’s southernmost prefecture. Though they do have a tendency to make much of their comparison with Hawaii, the Okinawan Islands do harbour many beautiful briny gems, and they are just a short (and cheap!) domestic flight  from the mainland.

Ishigaki Island

Located in the southerly Yaeyama group of the Okinawa Islands, Ishigaki is one of Japan’s most beautiful spots. For stunning views and dazzling white sand, head to Kabira Bay (unfortunately no swimming is allowed here); for swimming and sunbathing make your way to Yonehara Beach.

Iriomote Island

Next-door to Ishigaki is Iriomote Island, barely populated and covered in dense jungle and mangrove thickets. This island is home to the rare, endemic Iriomote wildcat, but you’re unlikely to spot one on your travels! We highly recommend taking a buffalo ride across the sand at low tide to Yubu Island, and heading to Hoshizuna Beach – where the grains of sand are shaped like stars!

Taketomi Island

In the same small group as Ishigaki and Iriomote, Taketomi is much smaller and boasts one of our favourite luxury beach hotels: the Hoshinoya. There are also some fabulous beaches here, blessed with the same star-shaped sand as Iriomote. Nishihama Beach and Kondoi Beach both come highly recommended.

Taketomi Island

Taketomi Island

Miyako Island

Leaving the Yaeyama and heading slightly north you’ll come to Miyako Island, another beautiful spot with some of Japan’s best beaches. The top spots to visit here are Maehama, Aragusuku, Yoshino, and Sunayama Beaches.

Zamami Island

Moving further northwards still to the Kerama Island group (still part of the Okinawa Islands), Zamami Island offers more island paradise just a stone’s throw (read: two-hour ferry ride) from Okinawa Main Island. Furuzamami Beach and Ama Beach are both good options – and we highly recommend seeking out one of the island’s observatories for great views over the area.

Tokashiki Island

Another gem in the Kerama Island group, Tokashiki Island is a little larger than Zamami – but still very small! Our favourite beach here is Aharen Beach.

Kumejima Island

About 90 kilometres west of Okinawa main island is Kumejima, part of the Okinawa Shoto Island group. Kumejima’s most famous beach is Hatenohama, a seven-kilometre, sparkling white sandbar which can only be accessed by joining a tour.

Hatenohama sandbar from above (photo: Japanguide.com)

Hatenohama sandbar from above (photo: Japanguide.com)

KYUSHU

Yakushima Island

Yakushima is a beautiful island off the coast of Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan’s four main islands, and is covered with primeval rainforest – including some of the world’s oldest trees! For any anime buffs among you, Yakushima also served as the inspiration for Hayao Miyazaki’s masterpiece, Princess Mononoke. The island is an important breeding ground for Loggerhead turtles, and if you visit at the right time of year, you can watch the mothers laying their eggs – or the babies hatching!

Ibusuki

Japan is famed for its seismic activity, which is responsible for one of the country’s favourite pastimes: soaking in volcanic hot spring baths. On a beach at Ibusuki, you can benefit from the heat in a different way – by being buried up to your neck in relaxing hot sand!

Viv enjoying the sand baths at Ibusuki

Viv enjoying the sand baths at Ibusuki

SHIKOKU

Naoshima Island

Located on the Seto Inland Sea just off the coast of Shikoku, Naoshima is one of our absolute favourite destinations in Japan. Famous for its art museums and installations, it also has some excellent beaches – where you can even spend the night in a yurt!

Kochi

Katsurahama Beach lies about 30 minutes’ drive away from Kochi on Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s four main islands. Unfortunately you can’t swim here due to strong currents, but you are able to paddle and get in a bit of sunbathing.

Katsurahama Beach on a rather grey day

Katsurahama Beach (admittedly not looking its best on a rather grey day)

Asakawa Ozuna

On Shikoku’s south coast is the lovely Asakawa Ozuna beach, generally rather quieter than Japan’s other popular beaches and great for swimming. Sea turtles come to lay their eggs here from May to August!

HONSHU

Tottori sand dunes

In the rural southwest of Japan’s main island is one of the country’s most impressive beachy sights: the Tottori sand dunes. Spanning 16 km of coast and rising up to 50 metres above sea level, here you can take camel and horse rides, go paragliding and sandboarding, and even visit the Sand Museum if you are feeling truly adventurous.

Kii Peninsula

The Kii Peninsula is Japan’s largest peninsula, and has some great coastline to be enjoyed – as well as the wonderful, forested pilgrimage network of the Kumano Kodo, one of our favourite rural escapes in Japan. Our top pick of the Kii beaches is Shirahama, which boasts white sand and good surfing conditions.

Noto Peninsula

The Noto Peninsula extends about 100 km into the Sea of Japan, and is known for its rugged coastal secenery. Chirihama Beach, which extends along the western base of the peninsula, is unique in Japan in that you can drive your car (or motorbike) directly onto the sand and along the 8 km stretch.

A Japanese couple goofing around at Chirihama beach

A Japanese couple goofing around at Chirihama beach

Kamakura

One of the best beach locations close to Tokyo, Kamakura is a small city that’s famous for its giant seated Buddha – as well as its pleasant beaches. The Shonnan Coast offers some of Japan’s best surfing conditions, whilst the beaches around Enoshima offer sand, sea and views of Mt Fuji on a good day….the area is promoted as the ‘Miami Beach of the East’..hmmm…Japan’s most beautiful coastline this is not, but it’s certainly more convenient than Okinawa!

Izu Peninsula

Another destination within easy reach of Tokyo, the Izu Peninsula boasts some great countryside and lovely beaches – the best of which is Yumigahama Beach. Slightly further along  the southern tip, you’ll find popular beach resort of Shimoda. The white sands of Shirahama beach are a busy place during the ‘swimming season’ that runs from mid-July to the end of August, but  the area has good beach weather from May through until September. The water is also renowned for some of the best temperate diving in Japan.

Ogasawara Islands

Last but not least, the Ogasawara Islands are technically part of Tokyo, but in actual fact are about 1,000 km away in the Pacific Ocean. This truly is undiscovered Japan, and you will find untouched nature, a subtropical climate, coral reefs, jungle and beautiful beaches. To find out more, read our tour leader David Lovejoy’s recent blog post.

Ogasawara Islands

Ogasawara Islands

That’s all folks! And sorry Hokkaido…

Shimane: Rural Japan

Situated in the Sea of Japan, to the north of Shimane Prefecture (south-west of mainland Honshu), the Oki Islands have a natural and cultural landscape unlike anywhere else. If you are looking for a truly unique Japanese adventure, look no further than the remote Oki Islands.

By considering the geohistory of the area, we can begin to understand the sui generis nature of its landscapes and cultural traditions. Developed through a series of stages, the land from which the Oki Islands consists was once part of the Eurasian Continent. Over time it sank first to the bottom of a lake, then to the bottom of a deep sea. Large-scale volcanic activity saw eruptions thrust the land up from upon deep and the islands were brought into existence. They became connected to mainland Japan during the glacial ages, before separating once more and taking their current form. In September of 2013, the Oki Islands were granted Global Geopark status. Geoparks are “designated areas of significant geographical heritage”, an initiative supported by UNESCO.

Bridge to Heaven

The relatively recent history of Oki is interesting, too. Its geographical location resulted in Oki being an important port of call for traders sailing around Japan, and for those en route to mainland Asia, since ancient times. Obsidian (a type of naturally occurring volcanic glass) is believed to have been an Oki export for as long as 30,000 years.

Due to its remoteness, the Oki Islands were a place of exile for court nobles for around 900 years. These nobles introduced court culture and traditions that failed to reach less secluded places on the mainland. The most famous and celebrated exile was the Emperor Go-Toba. Following his defeat in the Jōkyu Rebellion, he was sent to the islands in 1221 to see out his days. In 1331, following the Gēnko Incident. Emperor Go-Daigo was also exiled to the Oki Province, as it was known at the time. However, with some assistance from powerful friends, he escaped to the neighbouring Tottori Prefecture on the mainland. Here, at Funigama Mountain (present day Senjo-san), he built an army, returned to Kyoto and re-took the throne from Emperor Kōgon.

Bridge to Heaven, the Oki Islands

The beautiful and interesting features of the Oki Islands are many and varied, and thus selecting just a few to describe is a difficult task. However, listed below are 5 sites and traditions of particular interest.

Dogō Island

1) Ushitsuki

Ushitsuki (Bull Sumo), is one of the oldest cultural practices in Japan, with a history of more than 800 years. It has been practiced on Oki since the time of Emperor Go-Toba and can still to this day be observed on Dogō Island. As with regular sumo, much of the spectacle is concerned with Shinto rituals and traditions. The island is split into bull sumo fighting sides that contest for honour, not financial gain. The well-cared-for bulls lock horns and push against other until one of them turns away. The bulls are then separated by their handlers and one of them pronounced the victor.

Ushitsuki, on Dogo Island

2) Chichi-sugi

There are many majestic Japanese cedar trees on Dogo Island. The Oki Islands are where the Ura-sugi type last originated, as the species was able to survive in Oki during the last glacial age. One famous example on Dogo is the Chichi-sugi, which means “Breast cedar” due to its unusual shape. The tree itself is a shrine dedicated to a maternal deity and is about 800 years old.

Chichi-sugi, on Dogo Island

3) Shirashima Coast Lookout

Stunning coastal views can be enjoyed from this popular viewpoint. The white cliffs here contrast wonderfully against the clear blue sea and deep green of the pine trees carpeting the coastline. Shirashima is a good spot to observe Streaked shearwater birds and hydrangeas, which bloom until November.

Nishinoshima Island

Nishinoshima Island

4) Mt. Takuhiki

At 452 metres, Mt. Takuhiki is the tallest mountain on the island and is the central pyroclastic cone of the Dōzen Caldera. From the parking area, take a pleasant 15 minute hike through the forest to the mysterious Takuhi Shrine, the oldest structure of its type in the Oki Islands and designated as an Important Cultural Property of Japan. Built partially into a cave, the shrine is dedicated to the deity of safe sea voyages and has attracted sailors and fishermen praying for maritime safety for hundreds of years.

Takuhi Shrine on Nishinoshima Island

5) Kuniga Coast

The Kuniga Coast is arguably the most photogenic spot on the Oki Islands and is not to be missed. A 2.3km walking trail winds its way down from a height of 257 metres, past various interesting rock structures formed as a result of volcanic activity and subsequent coastal erosion, all the while offering spectacular coastal views. The trail, considered one of the Top 100 Walking Trails in Japan, takes you past a natural rock arch known as the Tsūtenkyō (Bridge to Heaven) and a grouping of oddly shaped rocks called Tenjyō-kai (Heavenly World). Horses and cows share the route with the walkers, adding an extra element to an already photogenic setting. The whole, breathtaking scene can be viewed from the Akao Lookout.

The Kuniya coast, on Nishinoshima

* The Oki Islands can be reached by ferry in approximately 2½ hours from Sakaiminato (Tottori) and Shichirui (Shimane) Ports. The Rural Japan Explorer Tour runs for the first time this May and is completely sold out. Don’t miss out on this beautiful place at this beautiful time of year for 2016 with a tour set for 16th May.

Travelling with a baby in Japan

Congratulations are in order to our Sales Manager Harry Sargant and his wife Sveta, who welcomed baby Matthew into the family on the 4th of April!

If the idea of travelling in a foreign country is a daunting prospect for many, the idea of travelling in a foreign country with a baby in tow is enough to give anyone the heebie jeebies. But don’t worry – parenthood does NOT mean the end of exciting holidays! We promise!

At InsideJapan we have years of experience organising fantastic holidays for parents and babies in Japan, so we know that travelling with kids doesn’t need to be scary or stressful. Plus, as our clutch of InsideJapan babies steadily grows, we’ve been gathering some excellent first-hand experience ourselves!

In this blog post, we’ve collated some hints, tips and advice from our various InsideJapan mums and dads, gleaned from their experiences travelling with sprogs in Japan. If there’s anything we’ve neglected to cover, please don’t hesitate to let us know in the comments below.

Mark & Rie, both members of the InsideJapan team, in Japan with baby Jun

Mark & Rie, both members of the InsideJapan team, in Japan with baby Jun

Can you breastfeed in public?

It is quite uncommon to see women breastfeeding their children in public in Japan, but there are good nursing rooms available in many places. Here you’ll find curtained booths for privacy, and hot water machines for mixing formula too.

If you are riding the bullet train, there is a multipurpose room that can be used for nursing – but you will need to ask an attendant to unlock it.

When we picked Rie’s brain on the subject, she told us that if you have a baby carrier that you wear on your front, you can often get away with breastfeeding completely unnoticed in any public place. This goes for whether it’s on the train, in a restaurant, while walking down the street or even when running across a pedestrian crossing!

Rie also recommends avoiding taking the subway at busy times of day if you’re travelling with a baby, as it can be very crowded and you can’t assume that you will be given a seat.

Rie and Jun

Rie and Jun

Should I bring nappies (diapers)?

We suggest bringing a supply of nappies for the flight and for the first few days of your trip, but it’s very easy to buy more in Japan so you don’t need to worry about stuffing your case with the buggers.

Matsumoto Kiyoshi
If you need to buy nappies, then keep an eye out for drug stores such as ‘Matsumoto Kiyoshi’ for nappy supplies.

What else should we bring?

Our company Co-Director, Simon, travelled to Japan with their young daughter, Florence, in 2013. Simon recommends that parents bringing young children to Japan pack both a child carrier and a pushchair, as he and his wife Bethan found both extremely useful on their trip. Pushchairs are particularly handy, as they are free to take on board most aircraft and you can wheel them as far as the plane door. They also provide a good opportunity for your beloved sprog to have a little nap during the day, or even to sleep in while you’re out in the evening.

Simon also recommends bringing a stash of baby food from home, since although baby food is available everywhere in Japan, it can sometimes be difficult to coax your child into eating the local version! Games and toys are a great idea for the plane journey, too.

Florence waits for the bullet train in Tokyo!

Florence waits for the bullet train in Tokyo

 

What should we do?

The main piece of advice our InsideJapan parents could offer in this department is not to try to pack too much in – take your time, go slowly, and don’t expect to keep up the pace you would if you weren’t with kids! Of course, it depends on the age of your little one – but what we’ve found is that the thing they enjoy most is having lots of attention from Mum and Dad, so in actual fact it doesn’t matter a huge amount what you do.

Ordinary sightseeing and everyday activities like riding the train or visiting a garden provide excitement enough without the need to worry about packing in specifically “child-friendly” activities – although there are plenty of adventure playgrounds, aquariums, theme parks and activities available for those who do want to fit them in.

Interacting with other people can also be one of the most enjoyable aspects of bringing your sprog to Japan, and you may well find that your baby is treated as something of a minor celebrity during your trip!

Max Mundy, offspring of PR & Marketing Manager Jim Mundy, makes friends in the park

Max Mundy, offspring of PR & Marketing Manager Jim Mundy, makes friends in the park

What about accommodation?

Japan is very well geared-up for family travel, with a great variety of family-orientated accommodation options, from self-catered apartments to family rooms in hotels and traditional inns. Do be aware that you will need to pre-book cots or family rooms before you travel.

Some useful Japanese for travelling with a baby:

・my child / baby is x months / x years old
私の子供は x ヶ月/ x 才です
(Watashi no kodomo wa x kagetsu/ x sai desu?

・child chair / baby chair (e.g. at a restaurant) / do you have a baby chair?
ベビーチェア/ ベビーチェアはありますか?
(Baby chair / baby chair wa arimasuka?)

・push chair / can I take my push chair?
ベビーカー/ベビーカーを持ち込んでもいいですか?
(Baby car/ baby car o mochikondemo iidesuka?)

・Bottle warmer / can you warm this milk?
哺乳瓶ウォーマー/ミルクを温めてもらえますか?
(Honyubin warmer/ Miruku o atatamete moraemasuka?)

・Where can I get baby food?
どこで離乳食が手に入りますか?
(Dokode rinyushoku ga teni hairimasuka?)

・Do you have any antiseptic / a plaster?
消毒液/ばんそうこうはありますか?
(Shoudokueki/bansoukou wa arimasuka?)

Anpanman

Jun and Anpanman

・Do you have child minding service?
託児所はありますか?
(Takujisho wa arimasuka?)

・Do you have child medicine for temperature/pain?
小児用の解熱剤(げねつざい)/鎮痛剤(ちんつうざい)はありますか?
(Shouniyou no genetsuzai/chintsuzai wa arimasuka?)

・Where can I find a doctor? my baby is ill…
小児科はどこですか?子供が病気なんです。
(Shounika wa dokodesuka? kodomo ga byoukinandesu.)

・Can I take a picture of my child here?
子供の写真をここで撮ってもいいですか?
(Kodomono shashin o kokode tottemoiidesuka)

・Do you have a cold compress/ice pack?
アイスパックはありますか?
(Ice pack wa arimasuka?)

Max & mum Vanessa sampling okonomiyaki

Max & mum Vanessa sampling okonomiyaki

・nappy / diaper おむつ (Omutsu)

・baby change facilities おむつ交換用ベッド (Omutsu koukanyou beddo)

・baby meals / child meals 離乳食 / キッズメニュー (Rinyushoku/ kids menu)

・Straw/sippy cup ストローのついた乳幼児用カップ (Straw no tsuita nyujiyou kappu)

・Bib よだれかけ (yodarekake)

・Crayons クレヨン (crayons)

・Child’s menu キッズメニュー (kids menu)

・Whole milk 牛乳 (gyunyu)

・Formula 粉ミルク (kona milk)

・Nursing room 授乳室  (junyu shitsu)

・Wipes おしりふき (oshirifuki)

・Cot / crib ベビーベッド (baby bed)

・Cutlery/spoon for my child 子供用のナイフ・フォーク・スプーン (kodomo you no knife, folk, spoon)

Mark, Rie & Jun

Mark, Rie & Jun

If you need any more information about travelling with young children in Japan, don’t hesitate to get in touch and we’ll do our best to answer your questions.

For more on travelling with kids in Japan, see our previous blog posts: How to travel with a toddler in Japan and Baby loves Tokyo.

Tattoos in Japan: Taboo?

So you want to travel to Japan but – uh-oh – you’ve read in the forums that tattoos are a no-go. Thanks to that ill-advised tribal you got when you were seventeen you’re going to be banned from swimming pools, hot springs and waterparks and kicked out of shops, hotels and restaurants. But you’ve already bought your plane ticket! What are you going to do?!

"I knew this was a bad idea!" (Photo: bigtattooplanet.com)

“Damn! I knew this was a bad idea.” (Photo: bigtattooplanet.com)

Well, don’t panic just yet.

Tattoos are indeed something of a taboo in Japan. The reason is simple: for many years, tattoos = yakuza, and yakuza = criminal.

traditional Japanese tattoo

A traditional Japanes tattoo by Horiyoshi III (photo: pinterest.com)

Some history

To give a bit of background on the matter, Chinese records dating back thousands of years indicate that tattooing might have been a part of Japanese culture since the Jomon Period (12,000-300 BC).

Later in history, however, tattooing seems to have gained a certain level of stigma – probably beginning when the Japanese began tattooing criminals to mark them out as offenders. However it wasn’t until the mid-19th century, when Japan finally ended its long period of isolation, that they were banned altogether.

As Kotaku reports, this is because the Japanese government was worried that the practise of tattooing might be seen as barbaric by the outside world, exposing the Japanese to ridicule at a time when they wanted very much to be taken seriously. Though this ban was lifted after World War II, it was by then too late for the stigma to be reversed.

Tattooed yakuza members (Photo: listverse.com)

Tattooed yakuza members (Photo: listverse.com)

The yakuza, often called the “Japanese mafia”, have their roots in the Edo Period (1603-1868) and traditionally sport full-body tattoos, called irezumi. The associative links between tattoos and crime thus remain very strong in Japan, and even though the popularity of tattoos has increased in recent years due to Western influence (especially amongst the Japanese youth), your ink is likely to draw a few disapproving stares!

Will my tattoos be a problem for me in Japan?

Not necessarily. Opinions are steadily changing, and the majority of Japanese people are now aware that tattoos are much more acceptable abroad than they are at home. You will even see young Japanese people with discreet tattoos out and about in Tokyo, Osaka or indeed any Japanese city. Nonetheless, hundreds of years of stigma are not easily forgotten (as recently as 2012, for example, the mayor of Osaka launched a controversial campaign to force employees of the city to declare their tattoos to their employer) – so to avoid causing offence we recommend covering up your tattoos if you can.

Places where your tattoos may well be an issue are in hot springs (onsen), on beaches, at theme parks, at water parks and in swimming pools. It is still the norm at these establishments to ban tattoos entirely, and where a ban exists you will see prominent signs informing you of it.

Signs forbidding tattoos at Tobu Super Pool

(Photo: spoon-tamago.com)

If you have a very small tattoo, it will most likely go unnoticed in most onsen (I have a tiny tattoo on my back, and have never been asked to leave a hot spring in Japan). Still, if you can cover your ink with a plaster or a bandage, you should probably do so just to be on the safe side.

If you are heavily tattooed, however, or have a tattoo that’s too large to cover – it is pretty likely that you may be asked to leave by staff.

But that’s not fair! I was looking forward to my first onsen experience…

Yes, it does suck. Especially because these bans usually only affect foreigners and those who obviously have no connection with organised crime. (If a real yakuza member walked into an onsen or a swimming pool, would you want to be the one to ask them to leave?).

Nonetheless it is a fact of Japanese culture, and there’s not much you can do about it. If you are heavily tattooed and would like to have an onsen experience (and we do highly recommend it!), we suggest booking a stay at a Japanese inn with private rotenburo baths, or where the communal baths may be booked out for private use. Alternatively, when my (heavily tattooed) brother came to visit me in Japan, he found that visiting the ryokan’s onsen late at night when most visitors had gone to bed was a great solution.

Meanwhile, if you’re feeling very bold, there are also bathhouses throughout Japan that cater specifically to yakuza members – though we certainly won’t be recommending any of those!

Horiyoshi III: a former gang member and one of Japan's greatest living tattoo artists.

Horiyoshi III: a former gang member and one of Japan’s greatest living tattoo artists. (Photo: Wikimedia.org)

STOP PRESS –

Highend Hoshino Resorts, who run a number of beautiful ryokan across Japan, have recognised the problem with Japanese perceptions of tattoos and the fact that many foreigners have them. It was announced the other day that Hoshino Resorts would allow guests to bathe in the hot spring baths, so long as their tattoo could be covered by a 8 x 10 cm white sticker. Is this the start of a changing in attitudes?

Tokyo vs. Kyoto: Clash of the Titans

 

Just to set the record straight before I begin, if you’re umm-ing and ahh-ing about whether you should visit Tokyo or Kyoto on your trip to Japan, you can stop right away. The answer is simple: you should visit both.

But what if it doesn’t tie in with your holidays plans? What if you don’t have time to do both? In that is the case, this blog post is your whistle-stop tour of Japan’s two greatest cities and their multitude of attractions. I warn you, though, it won’t make the decision any easier!

History in a nutshell

Tokyo

Ever since Japan’s economic bubble of the 1980s, Tokyo has been a byword for high modernity and space-age technology. Think of Tokyo and you’ll probably imagine a Bladerunner-esque landscape of soaring skyscrapers, neon lights and overhead flyovers – and there are certain times (when soaring across Tokyo Bay on the monorail to Odaiba Island, or when standing in the midst of the clamour of Akihabara, for example) when Tokyo seems to live up to its futuristic reputation. But it wasn’t always like this.

Tokyo began life as a small fishing village called Edo (meaning “estuary”). Fortified by the Edo clan in the late 12th century, it boasted a castle by 1457, and was chosen to become the centre of the military government of Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu (the founder of Japan’s most powerful shogunate) in 1603. Over the course of the long and peaceful Edo Period (1603-1868) to which it gave its name, the city of Edo became one of the largest and most populous cities in the world: Japan’s capital in all but name.

In 1867 the last Tokugawa shogun was overthrown, and in 1869 the young Emperor Meiji moved his imperial capital from Kyoto to Edo – renaming it Tokyo (meaning “eastern capital”).

In the 20th century, Tokyo suffered two major catastrophes: the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, which killed 140,000, and World War II, which saw the city’s population dwindle from 6.7 million to just 2.8 million. Both events wrought widespread destruction on the mainly wooden buildings of the city.

Following the war, Tokyo defied all expectations to make a spectacular recovery, culminating in the economic bubble of the 1980s, which brought the breakneck development and massive building projects that made Tokyo what it is today.

Asakusa district, Tokyo

Asakusa district, Tokyo

Kyoto

Often posited as the yin to Tokyo’s yang, the city of Kyoto is considered by many to be the custodian of Japan’s traditional culture – with a beautiful temple, shrine or garden seemingly hidden behind every corner and sliding door. This reputation is the legacy of more than a millennium as Japan’s imperial capital, which, as you might expect, left the city with an incredible repository of cultural and historical treasures.

Kyoto (or Heian-kyo, as it was originally known) was established as imperial capital by Emperor Kammu in 794, inaugurating the Heian Period (794-1159) of Japanese history. The city was based on the grid-style capital of Chang’an (now Xi’an) in China, and remained the political as well as the cultural heart of the country until power shifted to Kamakura in 1185.

Despite suffering destruction in various conflicts over the centuries, Kyoto was spared bombing during WWII and survives today in better condition and with more pre-war buildings than most Japanese cities.

Kyoto’s reputation as historical treasure-hoard leads many first-time visitors to expect a quaint, wood-panelled town with quiet, traditional streets – but don’t be fooled. Kyoto did not escape from modernisation unscathed, and today you will find a bustling, modern city that hides its cultural gems beneath a veneer of concrete, steel and glass.

Kyoto Station area

Kyoto Station area

See and do

Tokyo

Tokyo has pretty much everything, if I’m honest. The way the city grew over the years to absorb neighbouring towns means that there is no one “city centre”, but a number of different centres, each with its own character and attractions.

Shinjuku is the entertainment and business hub, packed with skyscrapers; Akihabara “electric town” is the home of flashing neon, Maid Cafes and otaku counterculture; Asakusa is the city’s traditional district, home to Senso-ji Temple and souvenir shops; while Harajuku is the mecca for Japan’s outrageously-attired youths and atmospheric Meiji Shrine. These are just a few of Tokyo’s many districts – there’s also cosmospolitan Roppongi, exciting Shibuya, seedy Kabukicho, futuristic Odaiba, upmarket Ginza… you could stay in Tokyo for years and feel as though you haven’t seen it all.

What are the highlights? Of course, that’s a very subjective question – and in a city that offers so much, you could choose almost anything. These are a handful of great sights and experiences to start with:

Tsukiji Fish Market – the largest seafood market in the world, Tsukiji welcomes tourists every morning for the tuna auctions and fascinating main market. Go now, as it’s due to move to a new location soon – and will stop accepting visitors!

Golden Gai – hidden in the middle of Shinjuku, Golden Gai is a totally unexpected slice of old Edo slap-bang in the skyscraper district. With just six narrow alleyways groaning with over 200 tiny clubs and eateries, bar-hopping here is an unmissable Tokyo experience in my book.

Hamarikyu Gardens – Sipping green tea at the teahouse in the serene centre of Hamarikyu Gardens, quite literally an oasis at the heart of the metropolis, is a definite must. Even Prince William thinks so!

Tokyo Skytree – Tokyo’s 634m Skytree is the tallest tower in the world, and the views from the top are incomparable. If you’re strapped for cash, however, you can take in your surroundings for free from the top of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building.

Senso-ji Temple – Located at the heart of Asakusa, Tokyo’s most traditional district, the bright red Senso-ji is the city’s oldest temple. Be sure to wander the surrounding market stalls and grab a bite to eat from a roadside stand!

Studio Ghibli Museum – For fans of Hayao Miyazaki’s animated masterpieces, the Studio Ghibli Museum in the Tokyo suburbs is a must-visit.

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Kyoto

What’s to see in Kyoto? Temples, temples, temples. And maybe a garden or two….so much more!

A visit to Kyoto is a chance to see some of Japan’s finest historical architecture, and with over 2,000 temples and shrines to choose from – we’re sure the city won’t disappoint! If you get tired of temples, moreover, there is plenty more to keep you busy, from a rickshaw ride through the bamboo groves of Arashiyama to a morning spent sampling the delights of Nishiki food market. Here are just a few of Kyoto’s highlights:

Fushimi Inari Shrine – my own personal favourite, Fushimi Inari’s tunnels of red torii gates have been immortalised in countless travellers’ photographs and are even more impressive in the flesh.

Kiyomizu-dera Temple – Located on a hillside above the city, drinking from one of Kiyomizu’s three streams is said to improve your luck in either brains, love or money.

Kinkaku-ji Temple – This golden pavilion at the centre of a lake is one of Kyoto’s most famous sights. It’s even more beautiful in the snow, as I found out last winter.

Ryoan-ji Temple – Japan’s most famous Zen rock garden – Ryoan-ji is most definitely not more beautiful in the snow. As I found out last winter.

Nijo Castle – Quite unlike an ordinary Japanese samurai castle, Nijo is famous for its “nightingale floors”, which squeak to warn the inhabitant of intruders.

Gion – Gion is Kyoto’s traditional teahouse district, home to the city’s elusive geisha population. InsideJapan Tours can arrange for you to have a private audience with a trainee geisha – a truly rare and privileged experience!

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Day trips

It’s not just what’s in the city that counts – it’s also the side trips you can make as part of your stay. For me, Kyoto really takes the biscuit in terms of nearby attractions, but many of my colleagues would insist that Tokyo wins! Decide for yourself…

Tokyo

Nikko – Perhaps the best side-trip from Tokyo is Nikko, a national park that’s home to a shrine and temple complex built in honour of Tokugawa Ieyasu.

Kamakura – A small city that once served as Japan’s de facto capital, Kamakura is famous for its lovely beaches and giant bronze Buddha.

Hakone – Japan’s most popular hot spring resort, located in the shadow of Mount Fuji. A great place to stay in a traditional ryokan inn.

Tokyo Disney – Boasting Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo DisneySea, if you’re after a Disney fix in Tokyo you’ll be spoilt for choice.

Kyoto

Mount Koya – Though you could just about do Koya in a day from Kyoto, an overnight stay is much better. This atmospheric mountaintop temple community is my favourite place in all Japan, and a great chance to stay the night at a temple lodging!

Nara – One of Japan’s ancient capitals, Nara boasts a wide open park, a resident population of friendly deer, the largest wooden building in the world and an amazing giant Buddha, too.

Osaka – Big, brash, bold Osaka is one of Japan’s most exciting cities, and is known for its colourful Nanba district and delicious street food. Universal Studios Japan is also located here.

Himeji – Just a short hop on the Shinkansen line is Himeji, home to Japan’s largest and most impressive original castle – recently reopened after a five-year facelift!

This is just the tip of the iceberg of things that can be done with a little time and inclination in Tokyo and Kyoto. Already I’ve rambled on longer than I should, and without even touching on food, nightlife, museums, transport, accommodation…

Brief as it is, I hope this short introduction will help you understand a little of the character of Tokyo and Kyoto, and why these are indispensable destinations on any Japan itinerary!

Making Sense Of The Tokyo Metro

Tkyo Subway

You see that spaghetti dinner up there? That’s the map for Tokyo’s subway system, Tokyo Metro. Although it may look daunting at first glance, with a little explanation (and a lot of pictures) you’ll be riding the underground like a true Tokyoite in no time!

First off, let’s learn a bit about the subway situation in the big city. There are two main subway operators in Tokyo: the Tokyo Metro and the government-owned Toei subway. Altogether, these two operators combine to make 290 stations on 13 separate lines. With over six million passengers per day, sometimes the carriages can get pretty packed.

And this is before the rush...

And this is before the rush…

Wait, TWO different operators, you say? Doesn’t that confuse things even more, you wonder? Has Tokyo gone mad, you exclaim?!
Well, you’re correct on all accounts. Both the Tokyo Metro and the Toei subway form completely separate networks, and the tickets procured from one will not work on the other. Fares can be different, and to transfer from one operator to the other necessitates purchasing transfer tickets, further complicating things. As mentioned earlier, daunting, right?

Will the ticket you just bought get you home?Possibly!

Will the ticket you just bought get you home? Possibly!

You may, at this point, just throw up your hands and resign yourself to spending a fortune on taxis for your holiday in Japan. However, we’re here to help! Perhaps realizing how intimidating the Tokyo subway system can be for foreign visitors, much effort has been made recently to help accommodate those looking to travel underground comfortably.

You can breathe a big sigh of relief and put away your change purse and calculator watches, as there is another, better way to pay your fares. There are a variety of contactless, RFID pay cards available for purchase at certain train stations. These cards can be charged up with cash and then just waved over the card reader at one of the many gates leading to the platforms. And the best part? These cards work between lines and operators, cutting out the need to buy individual tickets and saving time and money in the long run! Easy, right? And with names such as Pasmo, Suica, and Manaca, the cards are as fun to say as to use.

One of the best purchases you can make on your holiday to Tokyo!

One of the best purchases you can make on your holiday to Japan!

 

Just touch your newly bought card to one of these, and you're in!

Just touch your newly bought card to one of these, and you’re in!

What’s that? You can’t understand Japanese? No problem! Subway station signs are in English, as are most maps and other signage. There’s even an English option on the ticket machines. Once you’ve boarded the train, announcements are in both English and Japanese, ensuring a stress-free, smooth transition whether you’re getting off at the next stop or transferring onward.

And, if you don’t want to read anything, English or Japanese (hey, you’re on vacation, right?), each subway line is numberd, signposted, and color-coded, making catching your train that much simpler. For example, you want to catch the Tozai Line to Nakano? Just take the blue colored line with a “T” in the middle. You’ll be browsing manga and anime goods at Nakano Broadway in no time!

 

Helpful signs in English will get you where you need to go.

Helpful signs in English will get you where you need to go.

Of course, for the tech savvy among us, Tokyo Metro provides a free tourist information app. Using this app, you can search areas by popular landmarks, chart the best course there, and enjoy restaurants and tourist information all in English. And with free wifi available at over 140 subway stations in Tokyo, it’s easier than ever to stay connected. However, be sure to factor in to your crazy night out that the Tokyo Metro does not run 24 hours! If you find yourself out past midnight, prepare to stay out a little while longer, as the trains don’t start again until around five.

I think you'll find something to do...

I think you’ll find something to do…

Phew. That was a lot to take in, I’m sure. But, now that you know the basics of the Tokyo Metro, you can ride with confidence on your next holiday to Japan….and of course, if you are travelling with IJT, you will have your Info Pack to help you along and make you travels easy!

 

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