Have kids, will adventure: Japan

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Walking the cedar lined avenue towards upper Togakushi Shrine, Nagano Prefecture. Image: Dave Lock

Our love affair with Japan began nine years ago when my husband, Dave, and I spent a month honeymooning in Tokyo and snowboarding the mountains of Hakuba. We returned for a similar length trip with our daughter, Milla, when she was 20 months old, dividing our time between Osaka, Kyoto, Hiroshima, Kochi [Shikoku Island] and Nozawa Onsen. Earlier in 2016 we returned from our third trip, this time travelling with our two children, Milla [now aged 7] and Ari [3].

I've received a number queries about these trips and taking kids to Japan, so thought I'd share the places and highlights of our recent adventures, as well as some of the tips we've picked up travelling with younger kids in the country! This post covers our main destinations on this past trip - Tokyo, snow areas Nozawa Onsen and Myoko Kogen, and Gankoyama Treehouse Village - and concludes with our travel tips. Please note: this is a longer blog so if you're not interested in all the destinations just skip ahead! Please feel free to contribute to the conversation or sing out with questions in the comments section below!

||  W E   H E A R T   J A P A N  ||

We chose Japan as our honeymoon destination given our love of snowboarding and stories shared by Japanese friends and Australian mates who lived and worked in the country. Our three trips have all occurred mid-winter to [temporarily!] satisfy our snow cravings, and as the opening picture of this blog attests, this has proven to be a beautiful time of year to travel. Generally the weather off-mountain is crisp with clear skies, with most of the rainfall in places like Tokyo occurring with the humid summer season. The right clothing is essential for winter travel, enabling you and the family to  take in the sites and enjoy Japan's coolest season in comfort [think: quality materials and layering including thermals and jackets, gloves, and beanies]! 

Our trips have all comprised an intoxicating dose of mega-city life, followed by lots of snow and nature-based adventures. Japan has never disappointed us as travellers: the country and culture is a fascinating - contrasting and yet complementary - blend of tradition and the ultra-modern, witnessed across many aspects of daily life. This epic short film,  'In Japan', by Vincent Urban, Alex Schiller and Alex Tank exquisitely captures the contrast and beauty of Japan. Ahh, take me back already!

Japan is also an easy country to travel in: 'the Japanese' are courteous, conscientious, helpful and friendly [yes you can get by with basic Japanese and hand gestures!]; its clean; generally very safe; and super efficient! While travelling with children is certainly different than travelling sans kids, our travels have proven to be a unique cultural experience and influence on our two young explorers, and have also opened up some wonderful conversations and experiences.

F I R S T    S T O P    ||     T O K Y O

Tokyo's Shibuyu intersection by night

On our trip with toddler-edition Milla, we learnt the importance of identifying places and factoring in time for little ones to stretch their legs and run wild, particularly when staying in the megacities! With this in mind, for Japan Round 3 we identified a number of Tokyo's free and unique playspaces and planned our five day city stay around visiting a few of these. On the hit list: Nishi Rokugo Koen [Tire Park] and Yume Park, a free-play adventure playground [you can check out my Pinterest board for more ideas on Japan's quirky and cool playspaces].

As shops open and close later than Australia, we'd generally structure our days to head out to a playground in the morning, have some relaxation time back in our apartment in the afternoon, and then head back out again in the evening for a meal. We stayed in an apartment through airbnb and this location panned out well given it was a short train ride to Tokyo's must-see Shibuya district and also on the local line to check out the aforementioned playgrounds.

Highlights of this Tokyo stay included:

NISHI ROKUGO KOEN [TIRE PARK] || Tire Park is a retro playground comprising more than 3000 tyres! Giant dinosaurs and robots constructed of tyres provide for an eye-widening entry to the playground; tyres of all sizes allow for a unique loose parts play experience; and a cement slide that can accommodate 20 children across the width catered for many different ages and levels of adventure seekers. We enjoyed a relaxing and free morning of play under blue winter skies at this park, along with many other families.

SHIBUYU || This Tokyo shopping district makes for a jaw-dropping destination at any time but we particularly enjoyed our night time adventures in the area, absorbing the billboards, neon signs and mass of people moving seamlessly through the world's most famous four-way intersection.

HARAJUKU || Harajuku is renowned for its shopping, Tokyo youth culture, and people watching [its here you'll find the teenage cosplay - costume play gang - assembled on the weekends]. We leisurely strolled from Shibuya to Harijuku, revelling in the grittier streets before hitting the main stretch where we couldn't help but gawk at the incomprehensible opulence of the high end fashion houses. A visit to the multi-storied toy store, Kiddy Land, was a massive highlight for the kids, and a mind blowing experience for all of us [Dave and I tried not to panic in the intensely crowded store - which even included a whole level dedicated to Hello Kitty and her kawaii *cute* pals!].  Cue nature, and Asahi!

YOYOGI KOEN [PARK], HARAJUKU ) || Yoyogi comprises over 50 hectares of tall wooded forest and replenished us with a much needed nature fix after our Kiddy Land experience and a few days of megacity life! You can follow walking trails that ring the Park, visit the Meiji Shrine, throw down a blanket for a picnic, or check out the range of cool and eclectic happenings including music and martial arts practices, dog watching [outfits galore!], fire eating and more!

SNOW GEAR || If you're in the market for snow and outdoor gear - clothing, footwear, equipment, accessories, you name it - Ochanomizu is your one-stop destination in Tokyo. Thanks to our mate Bazz, we've discovered this stretch of high-rises ready to cater, and potentially overwhelm, all your needs and snow fuelled desires. Given we'd be spending a few weeks in the snow, we bought the kids their ski outfits and gum / snow boots for walking around the snow villages and I indulged in a pair of Sorel boots [which proved to be a valuable investment for our snow missions to follow]!

The points above are just the tip of what you can explore and discover in Tokyo. A visit to Ghibli Museum is on the hit list for next time and previously we've: stayed in Shinjuku; risen early to explore and dine in the Tsukiji Fish Market; taken in panoramic city views from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Offices; and even hung out in a pet store trying to comprehend the variety of hand-bag sized dogs breeds and range of canine outfits for sale?! 

N O Z O W A   ||   O N S E N   

Walking / hitchin' the 2km forest trail to snow monkey park, Nagano Prefecture

To the snow! From Tokyo we travelled by Shinkansen [bullet train] to Nozawa Onsen, a snow village by winter  / farming village by summer in the Nagano Prefecture. We've been to Nozawa on each of our trips with highlights including the quaint village setting and architecture, abundant onsen [hot springs], and the town's famous annual fire festival on January 15. For our latest trip, we arrived for New Years Eve and stayed for 6 nights, catching up and staying with friends from Australia [a family also with a 7 year old daughter].  

SNOW || For us, this Nozawa visit was about introducing the kids to the snow for the first time - watching them discover, marvel, and play with snow; learning the basics of skiing; enjoying the mountains; and sampling a taste of ski lodge life. To get the kids started on the slopes, we booked several English-speaking ski lessons through our accommodation, Lodge Nagano, and made the most of a few kid-free hours to hit up the steeper terrain. We definitely had some testing times early in this week trying to introduce basic concepts of snow safety to the kids when we first arrived, and getting ready in the mornings! Things did settle however, and we have some incredible memories, my favourites being seeing the kids learn to ski, and being able to ride down the mountain as a family and with friends. THE BEST!!

FOOD || Nozawa has many delightful traditional family-run restaurants to experience and we enjoyed a number of evenings around sunken tables with the kids and our friends. You'll also come across small street stalls selling steamed buns filled with an assortment of savoury and sweet mixes - a warm and fulfilling snack apres ski or whilst strolling the village.

ONSEN || As the name implies, Nozawa Onsen is renowned for its hot springs - 13 in fact - located throughout the village! I'd really encourage you to give onsen bathing a try as it is such a unique experience, relaxing in the hot baths, soothing sore muscles, and warming yourself to the core - leaving the onsen in to a snow covered mountain environment is pure magic! You can learn about onsen etiquette here, or discuss with your accommodation hosts.

SNOW MONKEYS || Jigokundani Snow Monkey Park is a worthy day trip, with or without kids! Our two were tired after their initial few days of skiing so we ventured off-mountain for a day, signing up for the snow monkey tour offered through Nozawa Holidays. The Park is part of the Joshinetsu Kogen National Park and is covered in snow for around a third of the year. The resident monkey troop comprises approximately 200 Japanese macaques that live in the forest and around the hot springs. It is quite the sight to see them reclining in their onsen against a snow covered mountain backdrop and getting up to all kinds of, er, monkey business!

FIRE FESTIVAL || The Nozawa Onsen Fire Festival is held on 15 January every year. According to Nozawa Onsen Guide the Festival is staged by two groups of men, aged 42 and 25 (the so-called unlucky years), to celebrate the birth of a family’s first child, to dispel evil spirits and also to pray for happy marriage. A “fire-setting battle” occurs in the evening which culminates with an offensive team setting fire to the shrine with blazing torches and the offering of torches to the deity. Families and spectators gather to watch the Festival which can often run for several hours. There's plenty of sake as part of the festivities so perhaps don't plan to do much on the 16th, or conversely hit the slopes fresh and early to enjoy a quieter mountainside! 

M Y O K O    ||    K O G E N

Kids in ski school = a few hours snowboarding with friends! [Myoko]

    From Nozawa we made our way into the neighbouring Niiagata Prefecture for 10 days of snow in Myoko Kogen, one of the oldest established ski areas in the world. The ski area comprises nine resorts connected by a shuttle service [there are also numerous other mountain resorts nearby] . We'd arranged to meet up with two sets of friends in the Akakura Ski Resort area: a couple honeymooning and a Japanese-Australian family of four. Highlights of this part of the trip for us:

    ACCOMODATION || One of the things that made this part of the trip so memorable was our stay at Pension Bunk, a charming family-run Pension located within walking distance to Akakura. Thankfully our Japanese friend discovered and booked this place for both our families, and we were treated to the warmest, family-friendly, service by our hosts SaSa and Etsiko. The accommodation was picturesque and welcoming, set in a quiet area over looking a wild natural space, complete with squirrels running up the trees in the morning! The kids were well catered for with toasted marshmallows, card games and other informal entertainment by the evening fire, but the biggest asset for our two families was the snow-covered lawn area which saw hours upon hours of snow play: snowball fights, tobogganing, cave construction and snow angels aplenty! 

    POW || The Myoko ski area boasts an average seasonal snow fall of 13 metres, thick beech and aspen forests, and on-piste and guided back country experiences. Children are well catered for in the area with children's snow parks available, runs to cater for all ages and abilities, options for childcare, and English speaking ski and snowboard lessons in a resort that still retains a very Japanese feel. Note: Myoko's runs are busy with weekend Tokyo crowds, but you'll be in absolute riding heaven mid-week!

    COFFEE || We've struggled to find good strong coffee in Japan so there was much joy upon discovering the sweet nectar available in the Myoko Snowsports store cafe! Caffeine addicts rejoice! 

    TOGAKUSHI SHRINE || We joined our hosts and family friends for a day trip to Togakushi Shrine, which comprises a lower, middle and upper shrine in forested mountains. The upper shrine is situated two kilometres into the forest and stands in the steep mountainside of Mount Togakushi. The kids made it halfway along the snow-covered trail to a spectacular thatched-roof Gate, which marks the start of an avenue lined with ancient cedar trees leading to the upper shrine. Two of us adults continued up the mountain, following the spectacular corridor of trees  through the Park to reach the mist-shrouded upper shrine. We completed the day trip with lunch at Uzuraya, an acclaimed Soba noodle restaurant [that sits beside a 900-year old tree!], and a visit to the middle shrine. I'd highly recommend this as a day trip, and would love to revisit in another season too! 

     ||    G A N K O Y A M A    T R E E H O U S E    V I L L A G E    || 

    The treehouse we called home for a weekend, Gankoyama Treehouse Village

    I have a slight obsession with treehouses and wanted to see if we'd be able to check out the work of Japan's legendary treehouse maker, Takashi Kobayashi . You can experience some of his work in this incredibly moving cinematic masterpiece, Through the Lens with Rob Machado - Taka's Treehouse, which sees Rob follow Takashi for a week as he completes a treehouse constructed for the children of the Tsunami stricken Sendai region of Japan. Its must see viewing [and perhaps grab the kleeenex too if you're anything like me].

    Whilst conducting my research I came across Gankoyama Treehouse Village located just two hours from Tokyo in the Chiba Prefecture. As a treehouse and nature nerd, you can imagine my delight at discovering not only could we stay in the rustic treehouses, but the village is founded upon Japanese forest culture and sustainability principles and runs off-the-grid We subsequently signed up for a weekend stay and completed a Forest Survival Skills course, which you can read all about here in my blog [originally featured by Nature Play SA]. Our time in the village and with Master Gankoyama was a remarkable experience that the kids still discuss regularly and I'm so glad we could fit this component in to our trip!

    O U R   T O P   T I P S   ||   T R A V E L L I N G   W   K I D S   I N   J A P A N 

    Their first snow experience together, Nagano Prefecture

    So a few top tips from our travels!

    LUGGAGE || Travelling with luggage, kids and a pram through Tokyo and the Japanese train systems can be a challenge. Consider how much you really need to pack and how it will all be transported.  We limited our gear to one large family bag, one backpack per person, our snowboard bag and a light-weight pram. It's also better to avoid travelling during peak times such as the business rush and Japanese holidays if you can.

    COURIER SERVICE || Fortunately there are fantastic luggage and courier services in Japan and our first stop after clearing airport customs is to locate the 'black cat' courier service ['black cat' spotting ended up being a game we played throughout Japan as you'll see signs and company vehicles throughout your travels!]. Luggage can be sent ahead to a destination so we arranged for our snowboards to be sent via black cat to our ski lodge, enabling us to travel more lightly into and out of Tokyo. We also used this service towards the end of the trip to send the majority of our luggage straight to the airport, enabling us to take a small family bag and pram to the treehouse.

    BE FLEXIBLE || A flexible approach to travel helps. Allow time to get between places and avoid over scheduling with kids. You may also have to adjust your expectations on what you can fit in to any given day, particularly if the kids are struggling after a sleepless flight or have spent lots of time strapped in a pram / getting around on public transport. Locate the parks and playgrounds in the areas you're visiting and make the most of these. 

    CHECK HOLIDAYS || The Japanese tend to have specific times for holidays, such as the week of Christmas / New Years, Golden Week and public holidays. It's worth checking if your trip will coincide with any of these dates and factor this into your plans / expectations as there will be more people travelling and visiting key sites and places. From experience, we recommend avoiding travelling through Tokyo station and using the Shinkansen on New Years Eve!

    INVOLVE AND ENGAGE || Involve the kids in the trip in ways that are appropriate for their age. For older kids its good to engage and involve them in aspects such as figuring out how to get to certain places and ordering food. We found directing Milla's energy into considering our train route on the subway maps, buying train and fare adjustment tickets, locating elevator signs and so on gave her some responsibilities and independence, and also helped to avoid our most energetic child repeatedly colliding with innocent subway users...!

    SNOW || Our experience has been that skiing / snowboarding in Japan is better value and affords far greater flexibility than Australian ski resorts, not to mention the quality and abundance of the snow fall in Japan. Kids 6 years and under ski free in many resorts [one in the Myoko area even offers free skiing for under 17s] and our adult tickets were purchased anywhere between 1/5 - 1/2 of the price of the equivalent ticket in Australia [NB. this is also subject to exchange rates]. We would also sometimes split a lift ticket between Dave and I - where one of us would ride in the morning and the other take the afternoon session - if the kids were tired or we felt like a quieter day. 

    FOOD ||  s o o o  m u c h   g o o d   f o o d!  Food is basically an art form in Japan and different regions also have their own culinary specialties, with an abundant selection of things for adults and children to try. Our two demolished sushi, sashimi, gyoza [dumplings], edamame [soy beans], ramen [noodle soup], Tonkatsu [aka Japanese schnitty], and green tea and sesame ice-creams. Some food experiences to also try with kids are: cooking Japanese savoury pancakes - Okonomiyaki -  on your own hot plate table, and hitting up a sushi train where you can place an order from your table's smart screen then watch food and beverages arrive on a miniature bullet train! 

    CONVINI [aka convenience store] || Our kids loved the sushi triangles available at the 7-11s and other convenience stores. The tuna and japanese mayonnaise filled ones were a hit, providing a cheap, relatively healthy snack to have on hand throughout our daytime adventures. Ridiculously sweet hot coffee-in-a-can is also available for warming up hands and brains in the morning, plus biiru [beer] for when the occasion calls!


    I hope this information proves to be of value if you're considering travel to Japan with kids. We can highly recommend this destination as a fun and unique cultural experience for families and look forward to returning with the kids - they've certainly not stopped asking to go back! If you've got any questions or are after more specifics on the trip please don't hesitate to ask. If you've been to Japan with kids, please feel free to contribute any of your own tips to the comments below!

    Snow play outside our Pension, Myoko Kogen

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