Having previously traveled as a family to the USA and Europe, we wanted to take the kids a bit further out of their comfort zone. We bounced all sorts of ideas around but so many places just didn’t feel right. Some countries that appealed came with high risks of sickness, and we knew that sick kids equals no fun. Japan had always been on our bucket list, but its reputation as an expensive destination meant we had never considered it for a family adventure. The idea came to me one rainy weekend morning and I just couldn’t get it out of my head. What better way to spend a rainy afternoon than racing around the internet doing some quick research on a new country. By the end of the day I was convinced it warranted further research and the Lonely Planets were ordered from the library. By the end if the week I was convinced we should go.
The biggest challenge was when to go. The kids quickly discovered Japan’s reputation for awesome snow and wanted to incorporate some skiing. We were keen to take in the famous cherry blossom season. I like the NCEA school system, but it’s not well suited to sneaking your kids out of school. The obvious option was to go in the summer holidays, but Anna in particular was reluctant to lose a good chunk of summer again. In the end we settled on the Easter Holidays plus a bit extra – a slightly risky option for the skiing but a chance to see Japan at its best with the blossoms. Not an ideal time for my work with financial year end, but I got round that by taking some work with me. We sneaked the kids out of school for 6 days – officially we got the naughty parents letter from the school (legislation prevents them blessing absences of greater than 5 days!) but off the record they were pretty supportive.
This was the first family adventure to a completely new country, but we had a few pre-conceived ideas. Some of it was what we expected but there were definitely a few surprises. The Japanese have a reputation for being polite and friendly, but we were blown away by just how kind they were. The people we met were consistently kind, happy, friendly and super-helpful. They went out of their way to help us and this was a common theme that other tourists we met always commented on too. The weather was a bit of a surprise. As an island nation like NZ, I had expected Japanese weather to be a bit like home. It reminded us more of British weather with very little wind, lots of boring clouds and steady light rain. We got our fair share of nice weather as well, and it was quite funny that our warmest weather was at the snow. Possibly the biggest surprise of all was that Japan produces really great ice cream and chocolate at bargain basement prices!
We expected Japan to be at the leading edge of technology and in a lot of ways it was. Apart from the multitude of technology shops, the Japanese manage to add technology to all sorts of things. Heaters that talked, automatic car doors and most of all the toilets. A simple trip to the loo was transformed in Japan. There were buttons to wash (with choices for water pressure, temperature, spray type etc.) buttons to dry, buttons for noise (to absorb the embarrassing sounds…..) and heated toilet seats. A lot of these buttons were a complete mystery as they were all in Japanese. Pushing random buttons gave interesting results, although sometimes there would be English translations to enlighten us. We felt better when Sachiyo admitted that even the locals get baffled by all the buttons. And then at the other end of the toilet spectrum were the Japanese squat toilets which came in two varieties – elevated or not. It was an interesting experience negotiating an elevated Japanese style toilet at 300km/hour on a bullet train.
But for all the technology, in some ways the country was strangely backwards – cash is still King in Japan and very few places take credit cards. With the smallest note 1,000 yen (more than $10), you quickly accumulate a large coin collection. Fortunately there are 5 million vending machines just waiting to eat your coins, although they don’t take 5 or 1 yen coins. Thankfully kind shopkeepers take pity on you and accept large quantities of these low value coins. The systems for things like railway bookings felt like a technology time-warp. I suspect the systems were leading edge 20 years ago, but they haven’t moved on. Maybe there is no money to upgrade them now the boom times are over.
Japan offers the traveller an incredible variety of experiences. We would have loved to have been there for longer and explored beyond the main island of Honshu. But we left feeling that we had made the most of our time. There were so many highlights that it’s impossible to pick our favourites, but undoubtedly the trip was made more special by our time spent with the Sasaki family.
So here we are back in NZ after 17,000+ air kilometres, 5,000 bullet train kilometres and we hate to think how many kilometres on foot. Japan seems to be largely undiscovered by Kiwis (the Aussies are definitely ahead on this one) but we would highly recommend it as a wonderful travel destination. I’ll finish this blog with our family tradition, the winners of the Creahan Japan Awards 2015….
Best restaurant – Buna Restaurant on the mountain
Best accommodation – Acco’s house, Kyoto
Best theme park – Disneysea (narrowly beating out USJ)
Best ride – Steel Dragon 2000, Nagashima Spa Land
Best shopping – Everywhere!
Best sweet treat – Steamed apple bun, Nozawa Onsen
Best entertainment – Baseball game, Tokyo Giants vs Hiroshima Carps
Most crowded place -Shibuya Crossing, Tokyo
Best view – Mount Kenashi summit, Nozawa Onsen
Best service -Villa Nozawa, Nozawa Onsen
Best cherry blossoms -Shinjuku Gyoen,Tokyo
Most impressive architecture – Himeji Castle
Nicest people – Sasaki family