After a twelve hour flight we can tell the kids are officially tired as they are now communicating in grunts and quite amenable to being prodded in any direction we need them to walk, despite the weight of their backpacks. We hope we're reading the subway map correctly as instructions are in Japanese only and it’s now 10.30pm. Tokyo International Airport is an hour ride on the train into the centre of the city but we make it at last and feel very proud of ourselves for not getting lost in a foreign country at midnight.
Tokyo, with its vertical street signage, flashing lights and music is an exciting assault on the senses. Thankful that the lack of time difference from Australia minimises jetlag, on our first day we venture out into the brisk April breeze to find Sakura buds tentatively beginning to peek from the tips of branches. We eventually find a long queue which we join out of curiosity and a desire to act like locals. Men are barking instructions through megaphones. It turns out the Imperial Palace has opened its gates to the East garden. We shuffle along admiring the landscaping with thousands of other tourists, all carefully sticking to the path. There is a moment of awkwardness when I mistake an octogenarian woman for our ten year old son and try to usher her along. They are the same size and both are wearing navy raincoats.
Afterwards, we take a trip on the subway to Asakusa to find a Sushi Train, but soon discover much to the chef and other customers’ delight, that it is an experience far removed from our local restaurant back home in Queensland. The meals are exclusively sashimi based, with no mayo in sight and I don’t think our twelve year old will be making the same lunch request again soon. We move on to Senso-Ji temple with its enormous red lantern and pagoda, followed by an ascent of the Tokyo Skytree where the views of the city roll beyond the horizon from every angle.
A visit to Akihabara, district of all things Anime and technology is worthwhile too. There appear to be themed cafes everywhere and, lured by the promise of ‘cute food’, we venture inside a maid café. We select pancakes which are served topped with cream and fruit salad which looks suspiciously like it has come straight from an SPC can. The young women are dressed in short, flouncy maid costumes and perform a karaoke dance. We are encouraged to meow as cats and wear headbands with animal ears. It feels like we have inadvertently stumbled into someone else’s sexual fantasy and indeed at the next table there is an aging business man appearing to enjoy the attention he is receiving wholeheartedly. As my ten year old says afterward, 'well, that was weird...'
We are off to Kyoto aboard the 700 series Shinkansen which will take us there at a speed of 300 kilometres per hour. This is not the fastest train we could catch but we are on a budget and, as I discover after bagging the window seat, you can’t actually see the scenery in any detail as it rushes by so quickly you have to stop looking or risk throwing up. It has been my dream to visit this ancient city since reading ‘Memoir of a Geisha’ and it doesn’t disappoint.
The food situation is proving tricky when travelling with kids. Although they’ve been game to try new dishes, such as Monja pancakes in Tokyo and octopus for example, the diet is fish heavy and quite foreign to our Australian palates. Fortunately there is are 7 Eleven corner stores where you can purchase sandwiches and drinks for under $15 dollars to feed a family of five.
Our first experience with Airbnb has been excellent. We have saved 75 percent on our accommodation costs by going this route. Instead of squashing us all into a hotel room, we have been able to book two and three bedroom apartments. The kids get to argue who will sleep on the futon, which they assure me is quite comfortable.
First up we visit Nijo-jo and Ninomaru castles, which have squeaking 'nightingale' floors to warn occupants of potential assassins. Next stops are Higashiyama and Gion Districts, the traditional place to see geisha. Rightly or wrongly, wherever we go, we feel exceptionally safe. Manners and cleanliness are of supreme importance and a point of national pride.
We complete our day with a two hour ninja training session – our ten year old has a grin stretching wide across his face the entire time. Our instructor is an actual ninja who professionally guides us in the arts of throwing ninja stars and blowing 'poison' darts, using swords and creeping stealthily. There are an array of weapons available for purchase which would not survive the trip back through Australian customs!
We couldn't have timed the cherry blossom in Kyoto any better. It is lovely to see the Japanese getting just as excited as the tourists about it. Many women are renting kimono to wander about in and celebrate the Sakura season.
In the morning we are off again on the Shinkansen to visit Hiroshima for a more somber experience. When we arrive we are disappointed to find that tonight's accommodation doesn't offer a heated toilet seat. My six foot one husband also bumps his head on the door frame. Standing in the presence of the Dome memorial, several metres away from the T-Bridge, is sobering, as are the exhibits in the Peace Museum. Among them are school children’s shredded uniforms and a shadow on a step, which is all that remains of a customer who was vaporised when the bomb hit. The people of Hiroshima are committed to a message of peace, and still suffer the effects of that terrible event to this day. After an uplifting side trip to the island of Miyajima with its floating shrine, gondola, and wild deer roaming the streets, we return to Tokyo where we have promised the children a trip to Disneyland.
One aspect of our trip we have discovered is how mono-cultural Japan is. Despite the massive crowds it is rare to see the face of another nationality. As Australians of European descent, it has been such a valuable experience being in the minority. At times unsettling, I am grateful for the courtesy and respect we have encountered at every stage of the trip. It also reinforces how much I love living in a multi-cultural country too.
By Joanna Beresford