“If you love me let me go back to that bar in Tokyo…”

I adore Tokyo. Andy and I have been there 3 times and I’d go back again tomorrow if I could. Tokyo is incredible. It’s huge, a city on a scale I’ve never seen before. It is also clean, safe, easy to navigate and, as we now know, very child-friendly.

We stayed at a hotel in Shinjuku where Andy and I stayed on a previous visit. Shinjuku is a brilliant neighbourhood with tons of things to do, places to eat and drink, easy access to public transport and more shopping malls than you could ever visit.

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Before we left Australia to head to Japan we put Georgia in a bit of “Japanese food training.” We didn’t want her to get to Japan and be unwilling to eat local food. I couldn’t stand the thought of my kid eating only plain pasta or crisps whilst surrounded by some of the best food in the world. So, for months before our trip Georgia and I would go out for sushi at least once a week where she’d order sashimi and salmon rolls (cost a bloody fortune, but worth every cent!) We’d go for Japanese noodles, we’d order her edamame, get her to try gyoza, she even at nato at a friend’s house (which makes her braver than I am, nato scares me to death.) So, after her training and 2 weeks in Osaka, Kyoto and Mt. Fuji, our girl was ready to take on the Tokyo food scene!

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Tokyo really is terribly kid friendly. Every restaurant, from the smallest noodle counters to packed and busy izakayas, had children’s bowls, glasses and cutlery for G to use. We’d often order just 4 adult meals and everyone would scoop some of their food into G’s bowl and no one minded. She was welcome everywhere.

We spent our days seeing the sights. We went to the shrines at Asakusa, visited the National Museum of Natural History (which has an exceptional kids play area… highly recommended), wandered amongst the raw-fish extravaganza that is Tsukiji Market, visited a cat cafe and checked out the Tokyo Museum and the Tokyo Toy Museum (both also brilliant for kids!)

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We spent our evenings eating and drinking and generally soaking up all Tokyo has to offer. After a few nights in Shinjuku we developed a few favourites… the izakaya with delectable gyozas, the stand-up place with no chairs and incredible tempura asparagus, Yakitori Alley where the whole street was filled with tiny bars serving skewers of meat and vegetables cooked over coals and our favourite place had a chef who always slipped us a free serving of scallops or clams. And in each of these places little Georgia was welcomed and well-catered for. It’s a remarkable city.

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And, to make the trip even more magical, on several nights my parents brought G back to the hotel early for her bath and bedtime and Andy and I got to stay out for Date Nights! We don’t get out on our own much, so this was a huge treat. We ate, we drank, we laughed at Andy’s attempts to speak Japanese. It was like revisiting our first two trips to Tokyo. Dreamy.

In fact, by the end of almost a month in Japan we’d gotten so used to having grandparents around to help us with our luggage and our toddler that we were tempted to beg them to continue on our travels with us and book themselves flights to London! Instead, we all slurped a few more bowls of ramen, gobbled a few more gyozas, hugged for ages and hopped on flights going in opposite directions across the globe. Next up… England!

Fuji San

Did you know tourists can’t drive in Japan without an International Drivers License? Did you know that I don’t have an International Drivers License? And neither does anyone in my family? For people who travel as much as we do this seems like an oversight, but we’ve never needed an International Drivers License…. until we tried to figure out how to get from Kyoto to Mt. Fuji.

Kyoto and Mt. Fuji are not far apart. Only about 350 kilometres. But, getting from Kyoto to Mt. Fuji without a car turned into a public transport BINGO game… train, bullet train, bus, taxi… BINGO! We had to take the train almost all the way to Tokyo, then back-track almost half way via bus to reach Mt. Fuji. But, it was worth it for the look on my Dad’s face when he first spotted Mt. Fuji from the window of the Shinkansen train. Parents get to watch their children see and experience new things every day. It’s not often a kid gets to watch her Dad see something new and significant for the first time. Japan is magic like that.

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We’d booked into a resort-type place on the banks of Lake Yamanakako with sweeping views across to Mt. Fuji. The resort was the kind of place where breakfast and dinner are served in a big dinning room at the same time each day. There was an onsen (Japanese hot bath), a karaoke room and a table tennis room. Basically, I was picturing a big family resort like in Dirty Dancing but, with less Patrick Swayze and more raw fish.

Wearing yakata ready for the onsen.

Wearing yakata ready for the onsen.

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And, I wasn’t too far off! We were the only non-Japanese guests at the resort, the staff spoke only a teeny bit of English, the competition for the karaoke room was fierce and the set menus each morning and evening included plenty of raw fish! Sometimes the raw fish on our plates was the only thing we could identify. The resort was pretty old school and the food was properly old fashioned Japanese… miso soup at each meal, food artfully arranged on coordinated platters, rice served at the end of the meal. I’m fairly certain we all lost weight during our stay because the effort to identify our food burned more calories than actually eating it!

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We spent a ton of time at the onsen baths, which were steaming hot, almost always empty and had a view of Mt. Fuji. We took the tiny bus to the village and proceeded to slip and slide our way on a walk half way around the lake whilst being pelted with snowballs from Georgia, who had never seems seen snow before. We slept on futons on the floor each night, left our shoes at the front door, watched a sumo wrestling tournament on TV and even had a few goes in the karaoke room! At the end of our stay at Mt. Fuji we felt properly Japanese.

Quick trip to Kyoto

Kyoto is the version of Japan that you often see on postcards or on the cover of the Lonely Planet. It’s beautiful beyond all sense, shrines and temples everywhere you look and a wide, tumbling river bisecting the city. It’s slower-paced than Osaka, quieter than Tokyo. Kyoto is graceful, well-preserved and at least for us, almost proved impossible to see.

Our time in Kyoto coincided with the Autumn Leaves Festival. Basically, Japanese leaf-peeping. And, since Kyoto is so darn gorgeous, its a super popular place to peep at leaves. Thus, the only accomodation we could find in the city was way out in the ‘burbs. The tiny little house we rented had traditional futon mattresses on the floor, a shower in the kitchen and the toilet in the living room.  Let’s just say, it’s a good thing we all really like each other.

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Having said that, once we found accomodation, getting TO Kyoto was very easy. Kobe, Osaka and Kyoto are all so close together that their outer suburbs just form one long sprawl. We took a train from Osaka and one Button lap-nap, 10 stops and a one kilometre walk brought us right to our new doorstep!

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We only had three days in Kyoto, so we hustled to hit the highlights. Andy and I had been to Kyoto before but we’d missed the Fushimi-Inari shrine, so that was first on our list. The shrine is said to have 1,000 lacquered orange gates. After walking for over an hour, I reckon it might be more than 1,000. The shrine was packed with other sightseers as well as local people who had come to leave offerings. It was beautiful and Georgia loved peaking through the gates at the forest around us.

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The next day we took a small local train up to Kumara Village in the mountains north of Kyoto. I’d highly recommend a day trip to Kumara for families travelling with kids. We took a gondola ride part way up the mountain and then continued the climb to the top from there. The shrines and temples along the way were gorgeous and the walk back down may have been even more scenic with dozens of little shrines, bridges and ponds. The legend of the boy who hid in the hills and practiced with his sword totally captivated Georgia’s imagination and she still talks about the statue of the boy by the train station!

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We also celebrated Thanksgiving while we were in Kyoto. I must say, I felt extra thankful this year for the opportunity to travel with my family and to show our daughter that the world is a good, safe place full of kind and loving people of all nationalities and cultures. Kyoto was a joy for all of us.