“So, how was Japan?” My friend asked me when I saw her after our year-end trip to Tokyo and Osaka. I shrugged unenthusiastically.
Her eyes shot in disbelief. “What happened?”
I couldn’t blame her for her response. I think I would have done the same. I mean, it’s Japan! The land of the rising sun; the home of delicious foods and all-adorable, well-created knick-knacks and snacks in well-designed packaging; the holiday destination that our friends would arrange to come back to just as soon as they land at home.
So, what did happen?
We wanted too much. Just to give you a brief background, we traveled to Japan with my big family. In total, there were thirteen of us, including two senior citizens (my parents) and my (at that time, three months old) baby niece, two almost-three-year-olds, two children below ten. There was certainly a lot of “I want to go here…” and “I want to do this…” to accommodate. Unfortunately, however, we didn’t put enough effort into planning. Call it a last minute trip, an attempt to be spontaneous, and we didn’t take timing into consideration. We also spent a lot of time on the road. We wanted Tokyo… and we also wanted Osaka. And Kyoto. And Shirakawa-go. We wanted Tokyo Disney Sea… and we also wanted Universal Studio Japan in Osaka. However, we didn’t take into account that it was the holidays and that half of the entire population of Japan would be in those two theme parks at the exact same time we were. Although it is refreshing to see local tourism well and thriving and how much the Japanese value their own landmarks and attractions, we really should have taken that into account before planning a holiday at the busiest time of the year. We actually went into Tokyo DisneySea only to watch (and be in awe) of the crazy long queues at EVERY ride and to get out of the park before noon. The Japanese can queue, though. Actually, culture-wise, it was beautiful to witness.
Despite the admirable culture though, I didn’t feel too much at home there in the land of the rising sun. In fact, I had a lot of opportunities for self-condemnation when I saw how barbaric my children were in comparison to the well-behaved and soft-spoken Japanese children. Do the Japanese send their kids to some kind of military boot camp from birth or something? They behave so well. I don’t think I ever saw a Japanese child being rowdy or throwing tantrums the whole time I was there. (Note to self: I seriously need to learn about Japanese-style parenting!)
When we got back home, I asked the children to rate the 12 days holiday and they gave it a solid “A”! I looked at them in disbelief and told my husband that I’d give it a “C, max!” It’s funny how our perspective on the subject varies. So, since it’s always nicer to pen something positive to be stored in the memory bank, I asked my six-year-old son, M2, to name the things he loved about our vacation. To be honest, his answers took me by surprise… and left me slightly embarrassed of myself.
- “Snow was the highlight of our whole trip!” Snow. Well, actually, this one wasn’t too surprising! It was all they expected to see since the moment they heard that we were going to Japan. “There’s snow in Japan, right?” They’d ask me a gazillion time before we left. We went to Shirakawa-go, a Unesco protected village that looked like a picture straight out of a Christmas postcard. Being in it made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. Unfortunately, it rained the whole two hours we were there. Rain, wet snow and a bunch of tourists … hmm, it was not exactly the perfect combo. We didn’t stay very long. We didn’t get to make snowmen or have a snow fight… and I could tell by their long faces the moment we stepped back into the bus that they were disappointed. We redeemed it the next morning though, with a pile of freshly fallen snow from the night before… in the parking lot! It didn’t matter where they were. It just mattered that there was snow, and they were so happy!
- “I really like the huge aquarium. There were so many fishes to see!” We took the kids to the Kaiyukan Aquarium in Osaka. It was truly spectacular! A world class aquarium, 8 stories high. We started at the top and worked our way down. We saw just about every kind of the sea inhabitants as we spiral down each story. There are multiple exhibits – specific kinds of fishes and even animals that lived near the sea, from whales to crustaceans and beavers, in all kinds of shapes and sizes. We aren’t fish lovers in particular, but we had great family fun in this place. (Kaiyukan Aquarium, 1-1-10 Kaigandori, Minato-ku, Osaka)
- “Funko blind boxes = toy heaven!” There’s one place in Ginza that we took the kids to a 4-storey toy store, Hakuhinkan Toy Park. It’s one whole building full of all kinds of toys! It is needless to say that the kids (and their dads) had a great time there. In fact, I think that the dads had a much better time because there is a little boy in every grown man. Be prepared to allow more than just a few hours to explore every nook and cranny in this place.
- “Good food every day! Chicken Katsu, yum!” Every meal we ever had in Japan was delicious. We didn’t have one meal that we didn’t like. The culinary experience was memorable indeed. The deep friend cutlets (Katsu – both chicken and pork), served with Japanese rice and miso soup, were always the kids’ first choice. Before we left I was asking a few friends who often went to Japan to recommend the “must try” places in Tokyo and Osaka. They said to just walk into any restaurant, order whatever they’re serving (because in Japan, most restaurants are specialty restaurants that serve one kind of main meal – with different variations – and side dishes) and it will be good! I’ve got to agree with them… the food was special!
- “Everything is so clean!” I gotta agree with him on this one. I think that if they ever dropped any food on Ginza, I might just ask them to pick it up and stuff it back in their mouth again. Yep, it’s that clean. (I wouldn’t actually do that though, but you get what I mean.)
- “The vending machines are cool!” Oh, you’re so right M2! These machines are godsend and they have saved me from hitting the fan on more than one occasion. There is a vending machine on every corner that sells almost everything. The most impressive for me was the warm vending machines that dispense warm lattes, warm milk teas and cream of corn soup in a can. I had these every day.
- “Going on the bullet train was awesome!” The speed at which these trains travel is really amazing. Although they are a rather pricey mode of transportation, when you’re racing against time to get the most out of the trip, this does save a lot of hassle. Here’s a fun fact: they sell different kinds of bentos at every Shinkansen station. That’s the uniqueness of Japan right there!
- “Mount Fuji is perfect for pictures.” A few days after we arrived, we headed straight up to the 5th station at Mount Fuji. It was packed with people, but we had a chance to just stare at the view (while getting accustomed to the chilly winds) and take some nice family pictures while we’re at it. Every time M2 looks our pictures at Mount Fuji, he’d always say, “Let’s go back to Japan!” Oh, and by the by, there are Mount Fuji biscuits that are sold exclusively at the convenience store on the 5th station and the kids love it!
- “Toilets are cool!” There’s really no need to question their DNA, people. This kid is definitely mine. (See our love for good toilets on our last trip.) Almost every toilet in Japan has been upgraded to high-tech ones that have seat warmers, flushing sounds (to cover more unpleasant sounds in the toilet, maybe?) and different variations of sprayers – soft spray, hard spray, warm, cold, you name it. (Wait, did we go to Japan just to be impressed by the toilets?)
- “Traveling with the whole family on the bus.” You know, I have to admit that I had tried to make a list on my own before M2 did and this one didn’t even make mine. In fact, this one actually never even crossed my mind and I felt slightly embarrassed when I heard him say it. We went to a travel agent to help us plan our trip. We told them what we wanted, which cities we wanted to visit, and they arranged the transport and hotels. Being a big family, they arranged for a bus to standby for us. At first, I wanted to disregard the idea entirely because (The Mister and I) opted for a local experience which means, the use of public transport. However, the agent brought up a good point – we’ll be traveling in a big group during the holidays, public transport will be a lot of hassle. I conceded and went with the bus plans. I had initially dreaded the travel time on the bus. I had thought about all the potential disasters that can come from being cooped up in a bus as we traveled from one city to another. But when I think about it, our big family were pretty inseparable during those times. We shared conversations we might not have had if we weren’t there. In between the stories and the laughter, we let the bond of our family grow stronger without having any interruptions for our day-to-day lives. I got to talk to my dad and my brothers. My children got to hang out with their cousins. And my husband got to connect with my family even more. Come to think of it, traveling on the bus ended up being a pretty good decision actually (and it helped a lot that we didn’t experience any traffic jam!) Here’s a picture of our big group, minus the Mister who was taking this picture and M3 who was asleep next to me.
Snow, souvenirs, cleanliness, good food, new experiences, and togetherness… that’s what made the 12-day trip earn a solid A by my son’s standards. Those are, what I initially thought was, the little, trivial, less important things that almost went by unnoticed. It takes a lot of living in the moment to see the beauty there is in every experience that comes our way. And when our adult eyes are closed to the beauty because maybe our heads wouldn’t allow us to see it, borrowing our children’s innocent eyes will help us find it.
Yes, the trip opened up tons of opportunities for us to go insane, but apparently, it opened up much more opportunities to make happy memories we would treasure for years to come.