Here is a small movie of the trip. This blog is from my faded memories in 2006.
We had originally intended to go to Japan in the fall of 1999, but there was that nuclear reactor leak, and Griffin broke his arm on a neighbor's trampoline. It was a bad break, and hurt the nerve so that his hand movement was impaired (this improved over the next year). Such is Griffin's curious attitude toward pain, that we did not even notice the arm was broken for several hours. As he was put under anesthetic, wearing his bug-patterned underwear, he kept calling the doctors "poo-heads", and woke up hours later saying the same thing.
Anyway, we went to Spain that fall instead. Luckily, we had free-flight vouchers from Virgin, from a time when they bumped all five of us from a flight to Boston. So we went to Japan in the following cherry-blossom April. By that time the children were aged shichi-go-san (seven, five and three, considered significant ages by the Japanese).
I found out about the National Children's Castle (Kodomo no shiro), which is not far from where I used to work in Shibuya many years ago (I remember the building being under construction). I booked a room there for both ends of the trip. On the return visit I was only able to get a western-style room: the tatami ones are preferable. And though the children's activities are nice (climbing frames and playing with art), the experience was a bit over-priced.
While in Tokyo we went to Tokyu Hands and the electricity museum (Ross has always been crazy about electricity -- his first word was "tina" which meant "vacuum cleaner").
From Tokyo we went to Takayama, which has a reputation for being a pleasant rural town, and for delicious hoba miso. We stayed at Nagase Ryokan, and had a great family-bath together the first night, with bubbles and a picture-window onto a small garden. Unfortunately, such are the complexities of ryokan bath schedules that we were not able to duplicate the experience on the following nights -- boys and girls had to bathe separately (boys in the nice bath, of course). I remember that the food was good, and that the laundry service managed to stain my shirts somehow.
One of the first things we did was to go to a toy shop -- this was at the height of the Pokemon craze. We were surprised at how expensive the cards were, but we bought a cheap set for Ross. These turned out to be "trumps" (regular playing cards) and Ross burst into tears. So we went right back inside and bought a proper Pokemon deck, whatever the price. We also found several types of Pokemon fabric, so that P was able to make a Pokemon quilt when we got home. We found a quilt shop in Takayama (pic at left), where P had a fine time. On backing and bowing my way out, with Claire in my arms, I fell into one of those thigh-deep gutters and whacked Claire's head on the street, but only lightly it seemed, as she just looked at me in perplexity.
Of course we visited the samurai residence. For some reason Ross particularly remembers the water-pits for putting out fires.
And we visited the Hida folk village. After that we had soba and visited a teddy-bear shop.
We did not manage to see the Takayama festival, but we did see the museum. And we were collared by a man with a shop, who gave us tea and a bunch of biscuits, which was lucky, since we had run out of money. No cash machines in Takayama accepted foreign cards. Good thing we had rail-passes, as we headed out to Kyoto.
At Kyoto we stayed two nights at Ryokan Benkei, which we happened upon in a curious way. I send out lots of faxes and emails trying to make a reservation in the Kyoto/Nara area. Nobody replied: perhaps they were not keen on young children, or foreigners. But then P received a phone call from a Japanese gentleman in London. He had honeymooned at Benkei, and the proprietor, a close friend of his, had called him and asked him to deal with arranging our reservation. We could hardly refuse such a great story, though Benkei ended up being one of the most expensive places we have ever stayed. It had a fine cedar bath, immediately abandoned by two old men, when I came in with the boys, though I do know proper bath etiquette. And Benkei served fancy kaiseki meals, which pretty much justified the expense. Since the younger children did not touch many of their exquisite portions, I may be one of the few people ever to have pigged-out on kaiseki.
I well remember the name Benkei from the famous legend.
Our friend Laurie stayed with us here, and also the next two nights at Co-op Inn. She was taking a year off to travel around the world. You can see her in the video with the biting deer. She and P went shopping while I took the kids to Monkey Mountain, which they enjoyed.
Of course we visited Kiyomizu and Ryoanji and so on. Ross loved the cake-making machine on the shopping street approaching Kiyomizu.
In the same area, P's Japanese parents, the Akehis, took us on the Hozu river run. You can see it in Ross' diary-scrapbook at left. We shared the boat mostly with old folks. Ross's favorite part was at the end when a cook-boat floats up next to you and sells roasted squid and mikans.
The Akehis took us to Adventure World. It was a good drive-through zoo and sea park. The hotel had a big selection of baths, including the infamous denki furo -- I did not let the kids try that one, but they enjoyed the waterfall on the balcony. There was a small earthquake that evening but the children slept through it. At the nearby Shirahama beach we built a regulation British sand boat out of the imported white Australian sand.
Back in Osaka, the Akehis also took us to the superb Aquarium. While everyone rushed ahead to look at the whale-shark, I stood transfixed at a simple fresh-water tank at the entrance. It contained a Japanese giant salamander that was several feet long. They are covered in goo (that smells like sansho powder, hence the name o-sanshou-uo giant pepper fish ) and they bite. The Tokyo science museum had a naff fake concrete one in a tank. On a future trip to Japan I am determined to visit the Salamander Center. You have to wonder what their omiyage is.
We did the Hakone thing, including the pirate boat. P adored the open air museum, which features prominently in the video. I had seen it before (ok 20 years ago) and am a cheapskate, so I ventured ahead to look at the volcanic springs, which I knew the kids would like. But they only left the museum, where they were copying Picassos, at closing time, and we had to run to catch the last ropeway and ship.
Back in Tokyo, at the end, we went to Ueno zoo, which was an anticlimax. But the nearby peony garden is always a thrill.
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