Japan with Children Trip Report

Old Feb 23rd, 2008, 01:38 AM
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Japan with Children Trip Report

I've been a reader for a few years, and have turned to this site for travel advice and tips many times. Now I am returning the many favors. The four of us (two adults; two children, 6 and 11) spent 9 days in Tokyo and Kyoto earlier in February; we flew United non-stop from IAD to NRT...

The customary travel crisis that usually befalls us just before departure came the night before, when an entire 60 minutes were spent looking for DD's Nintendo. It was eventually located in the "secret compartment" in the back seat of the car, but the reprimands about respect for personal property weren’t redacted. From start—the taxi taking us to the airport—to finish, arriving in our Tokyo apartment, the travel time was 24 hours. We were given a complimentary upgrade to Economy Plus, and having no other seatmates in our section allowed the four of us to stretch out over seven seats for the 13.5 hour haul over the North Pole and across the International Date Line. That’s about the next best thing to first class we could think of. The flight was only 60% full, so we even enjoyed clean lavatories for the duration. The food was pretty okay—airlines seem to skimp on children’s meals, and the regular meals are what they are, but my special “asian vegetarian” meals actually had some flavor. All in all, DH and I slept about 4 hours each, and the children perhaps a little more.

Immigration and customs were a snap; with DH traveling on an official passport neither of us were fingerprinted or photographed, plus there were few travelers on this post-Asian New Year’s weekday to slow us up anywhere at Narita. Picking up our Rentafone rental mobile phone was another snap, as was purchasing our N’EX Suica cards, and within an hour we were on the Narita Express heading for Tokyo. Bleary-eyed and jet-lagged, our only navigational mistake was in selecting a rapid line train rather than a local, and having to backtrack a couple of stations. After the usual apartment introductions with our host, and exchanging gifts (a CD of Japanese music for us, and a tin of Virginia peanuts for our host), we ventured into the 24 hour Japanese grocery store right below our apartment to find food—yakitori, ramen and a salmon bento box, along with some breakfast-y items—and then tumbled onto our futons for a long snooze...

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Old Feb 23rd, 2008, 01:48 AM
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Meiji Shrine and Kamakura

Our apartment host had stated that Tokyo was expecting heavy snow, so we were (just a little) disappointed when we awoke the next morning to find neither snow, nor forecast of snow on the television morning show. (Japanese weather maps on this particular channel had little snowmen in northern Honshu—totally cute!) In fact, the day turned mostly sunny and 50 degrees! With no particular daily agenda, but rather, a list of places to see depending on each days’ weather, we took advantage of the nice day to visit first the Meiji Shrine, the most important Shinto Shrine in Japan, and then take a small trip outside the city to Kamakura.

We exited our train at Harajuku, but on this day Japanese children were in school, so the crazy Harajuju fashions so commonly seen in this area were mostly replaced by darling school uniforms. Perhaps later in the trip we’d see the Goth-Cinderellas. The Meiji Shrine is located here in a lovely park; along the walk to the shrine we observed a collection of beautifully decorated small prayer wheels, as well as a collection of wine casks from France to symbolize the good relations between the French and Japanese. (We found little bits of French culture were sprinkled throughout our trip, in everything from cafés to stores. Interesting.)

At the shrine we observed the ritual cleansing of hands and mouth—left to right with the wooden cup handle, and no touching of the cup to the lips. The water was so cold that we barely bring ourselves to cleanse at any other shrines! Inside the shrine we all bowed and clapped respectfully, and left a small offering. In a side courtyard were the many wooden prayer tablets with their beautiful calligraphy script; we purchased a blank one to take home, and the children each purchased charms to keep them in “sound mind and body.” Charms for all sorts of occasions and events were everywhere, and, in one of the many old-meets-new scenes, were often attached to cell phones. By now it was lunch, and our noses directed us to a small, contemporary café (another French connection) off Takeshita Dori where we ate vichyssoise and amusing Japanese-style Croque Monsieur sandwiches, washed down with ginger iced tea.

Refreshed and ready to go, we caught a JR to Kamakura, a city along the Yuigihama Bay about 45 minutes southwest of Tokyo. (On an aside, we were fascinated with how folks queue up to board the train, so very orderly and polite, and laugh hysterically when we compare it to the swarming that we see at home on the Metro!) The town is very artsy, and one could see how it would come alive in the warmer months. On this day the crowds were minimal, another benefit of traveling in the off-season. From the train station we boarded a local bus to Diabutsu, the Great Buddha. And great it was, an impressive 13 meter-high structure meditating in a lovely space surrounded by pine trees. We and the children marveled at how DH (at over 6 foot tall) could mostly hide in the Buddha’s ear, it having a structure height of about six feet. Although we couldn’t climb into the Buddha’s ear, for a mere 20¥ each we were able to climb inside up to the Buddha’s tummy (the statue is made of cypress wood with a copper patina), definitely a first for all of us!

Bowing sayounara to the Great Buddha, we walked a short distance through the city to Hase-dera Temple, as recommended by the friendly guide at the Visitor Center. And, like with the entrance tickets to Meiji, the temple tickets were quite pretty, miniature works of art to remind us of our travels. First to delight us were the koi ponds, with the resident orange, blue, yellow and spotted fish swimming toward us, mouths open for any tossed morsels, but we had nothing for them on this afternoon. We suspect they benefit from the throngs of Japanese school children that must visit.

The temple path took us up a little higher, to a grotto to Jizo, the god of compassion and the one associated with children who have died. In this grove were hundreds of small statues, presumably to represent the lost lives; tucked in between was a tiny shrine, where many visitors had left token gifts of toys and food for the little lost souls. Continuing along the path, we shared a nice view of the city and the bay with soaring hawks and two very noisy crows before coming to the shrine devoted to the 11-headed kannon, the largest wooden structure in Japan. As there was a children’s guide to the statue (in English!), DD was our tour guide. Near the shrine was a building housing a large wooden prayer wheel, and we watched a couple of people submit their wishes. At the very top of the “mountain” was a cave, containing various statues that one could submit prayers and wishes to, and an even smaller side cave that held hundreds of tiny statues, all tokens once again for the little lost souls. DH made it through bent nearly in half without needing medical attention afterwards.

On our way down from the top of the temple complex we visited the koi once again, and then made our way to Yuigihama Beach, the sole purpose being to stick our fingers in the Pacific Ocean on the other side of the world. We stayed a short while, beachcombing along the dirty sand before catching the regional Enoden train back to the JR station for our return home.

At Shibuya we exited the station and crossed that crazy intersection that puts 5th Avenue at Rockefeller at Christmas time to shame, our mission being the 7th floor of the Tokyo Hands store for Godzilla action figures. Except that our Fodors book had either misled us or all the Godzillas had just been sold out, for there were none.

Adding “disappointed” to the growing list of complaints, including “hungry,” “tired,” and “getting cold,” we called it a day, stopping at the Seiyu to pick up dinner provisions. Tonight we followed the lead of many of the grocery store patrons and selected fish cakes, sushi, more yakitori, udon noodles and steamed dumplings, all packaged and ready to take away. Funny, but no one seemed to be purchasing the packaged squid, either cut up or in bundled miniatures, for dinner!

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Old Feb 23rd, 2008, 01:54 AM
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Tsukiji and Toshogu

The morning bell rang early today for us on Tsukiji Market Day. Being there for the early a.m. auctions seemed a little absurd, so we aimed for 6:30 to catch the post-auction chaos. All we have to say is “wow.” The dashing carts, the scurrying fishmongers, the ginormous tuna being sawed, literally, into steaks amused us greatly and, we have to say, makes the Chatham Fish Pier on Cape Cod seem a little quiet! We roamed the market for about an hour, “ewwing” and “aahing” at the offerings. With it being winter very little of the ice had melted around the stalls, so we decided to forego the plastic bags over our shoes and it worked out just fine. Having seen our fill of whole squid, jumbo tuna, even more jumbo shrimp and lots of other sea life we could not identify, we roamed the market alleys behind the market, lured by the sights and smells of stalls bearing everything from pickled lotus to shoes. Tucked in between many of the stalls were little sushi bars, jammed packed with people likely enjoying super fresh sashimi with their steaming udon.

By now it was time for a nibbly to warm our frosty noses, but sadly the only place we could find open at this early hour was a Starbucks at Tokyo Station. We took a pass on the rice bran muffins with black beans and seaweed and went totally American with coffee, cinnamon rolls and soy milk pancakes. From there we headed to Ginza for a morning of shopping, but the warm and sunny day changed our course and we headed instead to Ueno Park to see the Toshogu Shrine, a shrine to Japan’s first Shogun. The shrine was impressive, even in its faded glory. We were able to go inside (shoes off, of course) and could imagine a Shogun hosting a ceremony or doing whatever Shoguns did in their temples.

From the temple we started back toward Ginza, stopping at Akihabara to check out the very weird neighborhood of electronics geeks. The only item we were in the market for was a USB cable to replace the one I left at home in order to download pictures from my camera onto the laptop. With only space for 866 pictures on the memory card, restricting myself to 75 per day could have made for an ugly scene. DS was disappointed with the lack of cool electronic games to purchase in the many stores, and the fact that they all cost thrice what they do at home.

Hard to believe, but the cinnamon rolls and soy milk pancakes did not sate our hunger for long, and by early afternoon we were ready for lunch. After roaming a bit through Ginza we chose a tidy little place called Soba for lunch. Our fellow diners were a cross-section of Japanese life: a group of older kimono-clad ladies who smiled a lot at Anna; younger workers on their lunch break, well-heeled Japanese women who made slurping their noodles an elegant epicurean art, and the four of us. We all chose noodle soups for lunch (but funny enough, not soba noodles) and tempura, the most popular items ordered from my quick scan around the restaurant, and it was all delicious.

I had spied a paper store on our walk through Ginza before lunch, so after we ate the boys dutifully stood on the sidewalk while DD and I gently caressed the beautiful sheets before finally selecting a considerable number to bring home, in theory to share. We’ll see how that goes. Later I learned that the paper store had been there since 1662, so it’s doubtful I’ll be sharing any of the paper. From the paper store we window-licked our way (like my French connection here?) past Longchamps and Furla and Paul & Joe to the Sony Showroom to be wowed by the latest in technological must-haves. We were not disappointed, unlike the feeling we had when we eventually, with the assistance of a kind person, found the Hinkuhankan Toy Park. Four floors of electronic whoozits and whatzits, but not a single Godzilla.

And so our second day came to an end, but not before the ritual stop at Seiyu for dinner. On the menu tonight it was tempura, something yakitori (Chicken? Pork? Octopus? Who knows. We just pointed at the case and the kind clerk wrapped it up), shu mai and another bento box. Lights were out early, in anticipation of a full agenda tomorrow.

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Old Feb 23rd, 2008, 02:01 AM
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Senso-ji and Edo-Tokyo

Lights were on early—for some reason we all were done sleeping by 5:00 a.m. Today that worked to our advantage, since we were sightseeing in northern Tokyo and had a bit of a subway ride to get to our destinations. Our first stop of the morning was the Senso-ji Shrine, the most important and sacred shrine in Japan. Tucked in between tall buildings and busy streets, the complex was overflowing with visitors today. The entrance gate was guarded by the gods of thunder and wind, who also served to guard the shrine treasures housed within the massive red gate columns. The shrine itself is impressive; gilded chandeliers hung from the ceiling, and there were black lacquered benches upon which to meditate, most unlike the unadorned structures we’d seen thus far for comparison. This shrine also had a concrete floor, so the removal of shoes was not necessary. Prayer bells were being rung by many visitors, and cameras were clicking away, so the atmosphere was more festive than contemplative. The complex also housed other shrines, including one to the benefactor who funded the post WWII restorations; a pagoda, the second one of our visit; and a zen garden considered one of Tokyo’s best kept secrets and one which, if we interpreted the sign correctly, will likely stay that way as it never seemed to be open. There was also another koi pond, with even bigger fish than at Hase-dera, and several little Jizo shrines, with their guardians all robed in warm red covers. The path leading up to the shrine was an example of a Japanese street from long ago, lined with tiny stalls selling beautiful sweets, junky souvenirs, silk kimonos and everything in between, and we escaped with only minimal pocket book damage. But, finally, Godzilla.

From Senso-ji we made our way across the river to the Edo-Tokyo Museum, one of the few museums we’ll visit on this trip, and most definitely worth it. We spent about two hours with Keiko, our personal tour guide who gave us the early history of Tokyo through the scale models, dioramas and cut-aways of the museum, starting with a walk across the Nihonbashi Bridge. We don’t profess to have earned a degree in Japanese history, but we felt alot more informed for the rest of our trip.

All that learning made us hungry, and intrigued by Tokyo Mei, a museum restaurant specializing in “Western Nostalgic” food, we ducked inside for lunch. The menu was brief (perhaps the Japanese are not all that nostalgic for the West?) and included foods like pork cutlet and hamburger croquette, both of which we ordered. The food was tasty, and surprisingly not expensive for a museum restaurant. After lunch we returned to the museum to tour the “Modern Tokyo” exhibits, as we were curious to learn how WWII would be portrayed. That portion of the exhibit began with the air raids on Tokyo, and ended with post-war innovations. The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki focused on the lives lost and the destruction rendered, and offered no discussion as to why the bombs were dropped. We left the museum wondering how international visitors view our museums.

The weather today was cloudy and chilly, the first such day of our trip, and our sightseeing enthusiasm had started to wane by late afternoon. From the museum we went to Harajuku for souvenir shopping at Kiddyland, a way-better-than-Haruhinkan Toy Park store; and Oriental Bazaar. Within OB was a smaller, independent “store” selling paper products, many varieties of which are returning home with us for the children to share with classmates and friends.

More iniri, sushi, noodles and yakitori were on the menu for dinner from the market, but not for mom. I decided instead on a nigiri plate, which I ate while searching Google to figure out what I was eating. If Google wasn’t fibbing, I had salmon (yum!), fatty tuna (yum yum!), salmon roe (yum yum!), razor clam (eh), sweet shrimp (yum yum!), squid (eh), and halibut (yum) The one nigiri roll I took a pass on was sea urchin, and not for the reason you might think. Turns out that sea urchin nigiri is made from the reproductive organs of the creature. I draw the line there.

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Old Feb 23rd, 2008, 02:07 AM
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Konichiwa, Kyoto!

From the Shinkansen we were treated to a very nice view of Fuji-san as we sped along, and in no time at all we arrived at Kyoto Station. That was the easy part. With four people, and (now) four suitcases (gotta have a place to put the souvenirs), taking public transportation to our house was not a viable option, so we split up into two taxis, one Boy Scout per gal. Team 1 had the mobile phone and address, and Team 2 had the address, a mental image of the house and a general idea of where it was located, having made the reservations, wire transferred the rental funds, communicated with the owner, and so forth. Neither team had a taxi driver that spoke English nor a team member who spoke Japanese.

Our rental home was located off the path that leads to Ginkaku-ji, one of the “must see” temples in Kyoto. The path is closed to vehicular traffic, having given way to vendors much like at Senso-ji, only more so, so one must walk through the area to gain access to the surrounding neighborhood. Team 2, dropped at the start of the path forged into the crowd, suitcases and all. Not having much of a clue as to where they’re headed, the team leader showed two shopkeepers the address and received two sets of directions that seemed to agree, so onward they trekked. After meandering for about ten minutes, the lost team returned to one of the shopkeepers, who seemed surprised that they had returned—it turned out that the “right turn” she had motioned was not at the top of the hill, but just a few steps away. Team 2 quickly found the house, but although the entry gate was open, no one was there…

…Meanwhile, Team 1, having been deposited in the same, heavily tourist-laden area, wandered off into the opposite direction and was eventually directed to the police station for assistance. The police called the house owner’s telephone while consoling, in Japanese, the teary-eyed little gal who was worried that she would never see her mom and brother. Moments later, however, Team 1 had started walking back toward the taxi drop and spied Team 2, just as the house owner appeared, having been summoned by the police to fetch the lost Americans. Within moments we were all at the house, laughing and enjoying roasted green tea with our host. Much as with rental houses in other countries, our host showed DH how to operate the electronics, and showed me the kitchen and laundry.

Our Kyoto home was rather splendid. We were welcomed in the front garden by a plum blossom tree in near bloom and a plate of dango on the dining table to enjoy with our roasted green tea. On the main level was the kitchen, high-tech WC, both a Western and Japanese dining room, and the bathing room. On the upper level were the two sleeping rooms—one with a raised tatami bed and the other with tatami flooring.

The rest of the afternoon lent itself to exploring the neighborhood we had all been lost in and comparing tall tales of our navigational woes in the warm afternoon sun. A stop at the nearby market produced salmon nigiri, noodles and more iniri for dinner, except for DD. Having been a little frightened by being lost, she chose some good old American comfort food—pizza Kyoto-style, with sliced hot dogs and a thin layer of mustard. It was surprisingly good. Later in the evening, while mom and dad mapped out the Kyoto sights for the next day, the children sat on their mats in the dining room, mesmerized by the flat screen television showing cartoons in Japanese.
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Old Feb 23rd, 2008, 02:15 AM
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Temples, Shrines and a Zen Garden

With the forecast calling for sunny skies and temperatures around 50, the plan for today was temple and shrine-hopping. Sort of. With over 2,000 such structures in Kyoto, our goal was 3, more like temple crawling.

The Kyoto bus system is extensive and relatively easy to use; understanding the language would undoubtedly make it easier to locate bus stops, but we got through the day with only two small navigational mistakes. The first stop was in the Higashiyama Area to see Kiyomizu Temple, a temple associated with no particular sect but rather a temple for all people and presided over by a motherly goddess. The grounds also contain a sacred spring from which one can enjoy the waters. Kiyomizu sits atop Mt. Kiyomizu, and we trekked a ¼ mile up for the spectacular view of both the temple and of Kyoto. On this morning the sun was shining, and clouds were tucked in between some of the mountains—I’m sure the photos won’t capture how breathtaking it was. We felt like we were in a Travel Channel special on one of those places you never think you’re going to get to visit. The temple and adjacent building were sights to behold as well; the main pavilion having been constructed from wood without the use of nails, and, across the ravine from the temple, a small three-level pagoda. At the temple we had the opportunity walk into the “womb” below the shrine to make a wish. This entailed descending in pitch black darkness beneath the shrine, relying only on a handrail (and one’s beliefs, presumably) to guide you through to the lighted “womb” where the wishes were made. It was quite an experience. Also on the grounds was a small “Love Shrine,” where couples came to say a prayer for all phases of their relationship. Not really sure of what sort of wishes we should be sending, DH and I played it safe by just watching the other couples and hoping any good wishes would carry over to us!

From the temple top made our way down the hill, passing all of the little shops that were now open selling the famous Kiyomizu pottery, but could not figure out a reason to bring some home. We continued north to the Gion area to see Yasaka Shrine, which oversees the city’s main festival in the summer. The grounds were very lively; in one area a group of Boy Scouts and Girl Guides were hosting some sort of event involving pounding dough with a mallet, and DH and DS were recruited to assist! Both sides shared a laugh and a handshake over their Scout brotherhood after they finishing “kneading” the dough. From the shrine we went to see the Chion-in Gate, the largest Buddhist temple gate in Japan. With the weather being warm and sunny, and it being a national holiday, a sizable queue had formed to climb to the top of the gate to see Japan’s largest bell, and for a view of Kyoto, but we did not feel like joining them.

It’s important to note here that temple viewing is time consuming. The temples are not grouped in large numbers, and transportation between them takes time. Once “at” the temple gate, there’s anywhere from a two-minute to fifteen-minute walk before actually reaching the temple itself; and finally, touring the temple can take up to an hour. So, having proffered these excuses, we sorry sightseers had only taken in two temples by noon!

Another word about temples. Viewing them is largely an outdoor event, and all that fresh air makes a person hungry. From Yasaka Shrine we set out along Shijo-dori, the main Gion street in search of lunch. Wary of restaurants that offer English menus, we tucked into a little place that only had pictures and Japanese descriptions in the front window. Once seated, however, the waitress handed us English menus. We were the only diners for a few moments, and felt a little bummed that we may have been in a touristy place, but within moments the restaurant was filled with locals and just a couple of other Japanese people with tour maps. Our respective lunches were delicious: Nishin, an udon soup with a whole smoked herring in it; Kitsune Donburi, a rice dish with fish and fried tofu; An Kake, another udon soup with a ginger broth; and Oyako Donburi, a rice dish with chicken, scrambled egg and green onion.

We left the restaurant feeling happy, and in the warm sunshine of the early afternoon headed for Eikan-do, a Buddhist temple complex set against the mountains. The temple was founded in 835, but the buildings are 16th century reconstructions. Imagine—the reconstructions are older than the US! The temple was magnificent; Buddhist monks may live a life of poverty, but they’re doing so with splendid architecture. Adjacent to the complex is the Eikan-do Kindergarten—those lucky children had a waterfall and koi pond to enjoy at recess!

Although not the most efficient, we decided at this time see Ryoan-ji, the UNESCO site with the famous Zen garden (and clear across the other side of Kyoto), to take advantage of the beautiful afternoon in the event the forecast crummy weather arrived for the remainder of our week. On the bus across town a couple of middle-school aged girls sat behind DS chattering and giggling, and each time he would turn around to talk to us the girls would look at him. He was mortified!

Ryoan-ji. Yes, the Zen garden is supposedly “perfect”…call us uncultured, or maybe UNESCOphobic, but DH and I have a thing about UNESCO sites; they just don’t seem to live up to the hype. (We are probably the only people who were not impressed with San Gimigano and the long line of busses disgorging tourists upon it.) Even without all of the visitors, it just wasn’t the most spectacular Zen garden we saw on this trip, although the children seemed intrigued with the design.

By the time we were done being enlightened evening was nigh, the air was becoming brisk, and we were ready to call it a day. We headed east toward home, and from the market we chose various bentos, nori rolls and noodles and a particularly delicious dish of fried tofu and pickles for dinner. And another perfect day came to a close.

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Old Feb 23rd, 2008, 02:22 AM
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Imperial Palace, Calligraphy Lessons and Nijo Castle

We awoke to icy drizzle, a most unwelcome start to the day. But for the morning at least this didn’t matter much, as we had plans to be indoors. The boys were off for their tour of the Imperial Palace, and we girls had calligraphy and origami lessons at the Women’s Association of Kyoto. Finding the building was a bit challenging for us, and we girls were almost reduced to tears when we could not find our building. Our thinking was that if the WAK offered courses to English speakers that perhaps the sign(s) identifying their building would also be in English. That assumption was only partly correct. At 10:10, already late for our lessons and ready to give up hope, I spied a tiny sign in the window of a street level storefront indicating that WAK was in that building, the entrance being around the corner. Within a few moments we were at our location, apologizing profusely for having gotten lost. The kind woman at reception only smiled and said, “Yes, everyone seems to have trouble finding our building.” Shortly after depositing our wet jackets and umbrellas we were ushered into a warm room set with just two lesson places. Hurrah! It was a private lesson! Our teacher, Momo-san introduced us first to calligraphy, giving us a brief history of the writing before demonstrating the different strokes. She then took each of our hands to guide us before turning us loose to create our masterpieces, and after each piece she would critique our strokes. We had great fun writing “friend,” “happiness,” and “truth,” plus learning to write our names. Our masterpieces were collected in a portfolio to bring home, with a few of the pieces actually suitable for framing.

While the calligraphy mats and supplies were being cleared, we enjoyed tea and dango with Momo-san, who told us of her plans to visit Boston, NYC and DC in May, and that she hoped to visit with us while in our country. We were also presented with a large piece of obi as a gift, to use as a decorative mat at home. Once tea was over, Momo-san opened beautiful paper boxes containing sheets of lovely patterned paper, and it was hard for me to contain my excitement. I love beautiful paper. Perhaps to boost our confidence, Momo told us that origami is taught in kindergarten (presumably because it is so easy). That is likely true, for DD picked up the folding styles faster than I did! Our first project was a warrior, a fairly easy one to warm us up. Then came the flapping crane, which delighted DD tremendously when Momo showed her how it flapped. Soon thereafter our lesson was over, and we waved a cheery “arigato” to our instructor and set out to find the boys, who were to meet us at the building. Ha ha. We found DS first, who had been staked at the intersection in search of us while DH walked the street. En route to lunch, the boys shared their stories of the Imperial Palace, and the tour that had them outside in the rain for two hours.

As usual, finding the restaurant we had chosen from the guide book was impossible (guide book in English, restaurant name in Japanese!), so we ducked into a diner after studying the display in the window and glancing in for a quick cross-section of patrons. DS ordered a kamenmeshi with pork; DD, a tori no kara-age bowl; and DH and I ordered teishokus. We enjoyed our meals, and then headed out into clear, but cold, skies (another hurrah!) toward Nijo Castle. This is the famous castle with the nightingale floors, and we all had fun making them squeak. And having learned about the construction of shogun castles at the Edo-Tokyo museum, we were better able to appreciate the interior architecture style of Nijo. This pretty much wrapped up the day, and thus we returned home via the market with the various nigiris, noodles, and tempura to enjoy for dinner.

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Old Feb 23rd, 2008, 02:26 AM
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Himeji, Hiroshima and (Almost) Miyajima Island

A looooong day. We were out the door into the falling snow by 7:15 to catch an early Shinkansen to Himeji, and arrived to sunny and slightly crisp but blue skies. We walked from the train station to the castle, marveling at the bright white structure against the blue skies high atop the bluff. Himeji was different from the other castles and temples we’d been to, for there were things to look at beyond barren walls, and that held our attention for some time as we climbed along with two school groups up to the 6th floor, with DH “minding his head” on the low ceilings! The views from the top were panoramic, although the city's industrialization detracted from the full beauty.

On our way back to the train station we stopped at a fabulous market, where, for less than 2000¥ total, the four of us prepared the most delicious take-away teishoku lunches that included soup, rice and hot green tea, and jumped on a Shinkansen to Hiroshima. Once again we were fortunate to have beautiful blue and sunny skies, even though the forecast called for rain and snow. Public transportation in Hiroshima was easy to navigate; the main A-bomb site and Peace Museum are located just a few streetcar stops from the train station, and were the two primary reasons for our visit. The museum, we agreed, was balanced and very well done. Some exhibits could evoke emotion and might not be suitable for young children, but we knew that in advance, so DD and I moved a little more quickly through those exhibits. She liked very much, though, the story of the young girl, Sadako, who developed leukemia as a result of the atomic-bomb poisoning and believed that if she made 1000 paper cranes her wish to become healthy would be granted. Sadako died before reaching her goal, but her classmates finished the cranes. Now the crane has become an international symbol of peace.

By the time we had finished touring the museum the afternoon had passed, and with a two hour train ride back to Kyoto ahead of us, we did the only rational thing a traveler should do—go further away from home in order to see something else. A half-hour’s train ride from Hiroshima, Miyajima had been on the “to see” list, but it fast became a non-option with the pace we were keeping in Kyoto. Still, to be so close to the famous red torii and not see it would be like visiting NYC and not taking the Staten Island Ferry for an up-close of the Statue of Liberty even if we didn’t have time to visit Ellis Island. So we did a very touristy thing and took the ferry across to Miyajima, but did not visit the island. We saw the red torii at near high tide, and we’re now even more inspired to return to Western Honshu and all of its beautiful places.

The train ride home was quiet; our dinner, some terrible sandwiches from a “French” sandwich café at Hiroshima station (at this late hour all the bento boxes were gone). I don’t believe the French put steak sauce on hot dogs, and nor do they make panini. Cie la vie.

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Old Feb 23rd, 2008, 02:30 AM
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On this, our last day in Kyoto, the agenda included the “Must-See” Kyoto temples, lest we return home ashamed. We started with Kinkaku-ji, the Gold Pavilion. We’d had light snowfall the night before, and now the warm sun was shining brightly so that the island temple twinkled spectacularly, and it was almost magical. Of course we could not go inside the structure, but the walkways throughout the complex offered beautiful views from all different directions. The next stop was Ginkaku-ji, the Silver Pavilion near our house. The shogun of Ginkaku-ji was never able to gild the pavilion with silver, so it does not glimmer nearly the same as Kinkaku-ji, but the beautiful gardens and views more than made up for it, as far as we were concerned!

Absorbing all of this beauty made us hungry, and, as we were walking along the path from the pavilion into “town,” we passed a small restaurant whose proprietor was on the sidewalk, beckoning all passing folks to come in. So we did, and we weren’t disappointed. We enjoyed steaming rice bowls with salmon, another nishini bowl, donburi, and udon with pork, just the fortification necessary to visit one more temple, Nanzen-ji.

Nanzen-ji is one of the five great Zen temples of Kyoto, the others being Ryoan-ji and three more we did not see. I guess we’ll just have to come back. It begins with a massive gate, like Chion-in, and has an amazing aqueduct tucked in between the beautiful gardens. It was also one of those rare places that permitted photos inside the buildings. The grounds are quite extensive, and the better portion of the afternoon was spent here.

Our day ended at a more reasonable time in order to pack and tidy up the house before returning to Tokyo for one last night. Per usual, the local market provided our nigiris, noodles and sushi for dinner.

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Old Feb 23rd, 2008, 02:34 AM
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One Last Day

Promptly at 8:00, our host rang the doorbell to bid us farewell, and brought lovely little gifts for all of us. We were sad to leave Kyoto, but holidays are only holidays if there are at least intermittent returns to reality. The taxi driver to Kyoto station was very accommodating, and jammed all of our luggage into the trunk so that only one taxi was necessary. (Insert clown car analogy.) We got to the station just in time to miss the 9:00 Shinkansen to Tokyo, so we trolled about for an hour before boarding the next train, an easy thing to do in a train station with ample shopping. Our ride to Tokyo afforded us views of the beautiful snow covered mountains. We were also treated to glorious views of Fuji-san again, which disappeared as quickly as it had appeared.

Once in Tokyo we hailed a taxi to our ryokan, a quaint Japanese inn tucked in near Ueno Park, and enjoyed green tea in our rooms before setting out for an afternoon of souvenir shopping, beginning with a quick bite of lunch at a conveyor belt sushi restaurant in Ameryoko Promenade, a mini city of unusual shops and restaurants beneath the JR lines. From Ameryoko we strolled to the Kappabashi District, a set of streets devoted to the Japanese chef. The family let me browse at will at the beautiful knives, massive serving platters and other kitchen objects that would cost fifty times more to ship home than they were worth, and I appreciated their patience. We spent some time in the fake food stores, amused and amazed at the very real appearance of fake soba bowls, whole fish, steamed dumplings and everything in between. When all was said and done, several pieces of sushi returned home with us.

As dinnertime in a ryokan is promptly observed, we returned in plenty of time to freshen up and change into the yukatas. There were no yukatas for DD, so I decided not to wear one, either. We expected, from what we’d read, to be dining with the other guests at the inn, but to our surprise we enjoyed our seven-course dinner in a private dining room. The children were given a smaller, three-course meal, while DH and I enjoyed beautifully presented and equally as delicious dishes. Who would have thought that squid and constricted Neptune could be so tempting?

Our dinner lasted nearly two hours, after which it was most certainly time for sleep. Ryokan rooms are generally sized for two persons and ours was not an exception, so we divided by gender and fell into dreamland atop our tatamis and super-fluffy covers. In the morning our traditional Japanese breakfast was ready promptly at 7:00, and we enjoyed one more pleasant experience before trekking to Narita.

We parted here with DH at Narita, who was headed to northern Honshu for a week of work, that being the motivation for this trip. The flight home was unremarkable. The three of us didn’t look pathetic enough to earn any upgrades, but we managed the 10.5 hour flight in Economy just fine. Before we knew it, we had crossed the Pacific and most of the continental US, and were being welcomed home by the Customs Officers. Our dog was excited to see us, our neighbor gave us the neighborhood update, and all began returning to our version of normal…

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Old Feb 23rd, 2008, 04:25 AM
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Fourfortravel - what a brilliant report. There are six of us (three adults, three children) doing this exact trip in August. Your description of the "two teams" trying to find your house in Kyoto is a scenario I have been playing out in my head since the plane tickets were purchased.

Sounds like you all had a great attitude. Your report is now required reading around here. Thanks.
 
Old Feb 23rd, 2008, 07:17 AM
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A lovely travel report full of great information.
Can I ask about your rental home in Kyoto? Is this a rental from someone you know or can you tell us more about it please?
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Old Feb 23rd, 2008, 12:15 PM
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Colduphere, thanks. It was hard to have a bad attitude in a country where everyone was so polite, friendly and helpful!

Janev,both the Tokyo apartment and the Kyoto house were found through vrbo.com. We've used vrbo for about a half dozen international rentals plus our annual end-of-summer vacation; it's just nicer to have a "house" to come back to at the end of the day rather than a hotel room or two, especially with children. We've also found it to be more economical than a hotel stay.

With space at a premium in Japan, our Tokyo apartment was understandably small, but we knew that when we rented it. The Kyoto house, though, was a lovely place to return to each evening. Both were very convenient for sightseeing.
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Old Feb 23rd, 2008, 09:38 PM
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44trvl,

Loved your wonderfully detailed report. Thank you!

You have a great eye for catching those little things that most don't notice until their second or third trip to Japan.

Are you planning a return trip?

Aloha!

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Old Feb 24th, 2008, 12:39 AM
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Your teacher's name Momo = peach.

I'll have to find time to read this.
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Old Feb 24th, 2008, 12:50 AM
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HawaiianTraveler, thanks! We're always "planning" trips, but the ones we usually end up going on are the result of luck or resources or timing or something else. This year's "planned" trip was to visit friends living in Beijing over the summer, but that turned into Japan in February. We just keep the dogsitter on standby and the passports current...

mrwunrfl, yes, thank you for reminding me that Momo=peach. I remember her telling us that now.
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Old Feb 24th, 2008, 04:33 AM
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fourfortravel - we are returning from Japan/China on labour day weekend. I have been wondering about jet lag and the kids going back to school. I notice you posted at 4:50am. Can I ask if you are still feeling the effects?
 
Old Feb 24th, 2008, 12:08 PM
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colduphere, I'm an "extreme lark," one of those folks whose eyes pop open at dawn or before, so a 5:00 a.m. posting is ordinary for me. We had no time difference woes going to Japan; once home, the children slept 14 hours the first night, and were back in sync very quickly for work and school. We planned our return for a Saturday of a three-day weekend to give ourselves two days to adjust, and it worked well.
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Old Feb 24th, 2008, 03:06 PM
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I loved the insights you provided about the kids. We are returning to asia for the 3rd time this fall, but will take our 8 year old son for the first time. Im glad to hear how well they did with the jet leg, that was a huge concern for us.

I do have one question...... were your kids used to eating japanese food before the trip? That's our top concern now is getting our chicken finger eating son to not starve! He keeps saying he can do it now becs they have mcds and he will be fine! Any tips on the food would help us a lot!

Thanks again for the wonderful report!

Jeffrey, April, and Parker
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Old Feb 25th, 2008, 12:49 AM
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traveduo, although we eat a variety of foods at home, our 6 year old is a little more cautious of what she eats than her brother, but she still found plenty of foods to like. Most of the donburi bowls--chicken, pork or fish with rice--she enjoyed; udon in plain broth was also a favorite, as well as "easily identifiable" nigiri--ones with shrimp or salmon. The markets also had a tempura section, from where our daughter chose shrimp and vegetables. With respect to dining out, so many restaurants displayed their food in their window that she could always find something to eat. Plus, she was usually willing to sample a few items from our plates.

Because they were curious, the children ordered "teriyaki" burgers from McDonald's at Narita airport--that was the only time they ate that food.
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