Making Yourself At Home: Vacation Rentals Are a Plus With Kids in Japan

Finding “Home”

Accommodation in Japanese cities is ridiculously expensive.  No matter how far out you stay or how low-budget you try to go, prices are high and space is minimal. If you’re not careful you’ll find yourself in a hotel room where you can’t even turn around, let alone squeeze your kids on the floor to sleep. Finding spaces that work for families is easier outside Tokyo, and even more so in smaller cities and town, but our most recent trip was only to big cities. We had no choice but to dig deep for good options for our family with two kids under 4.

After much investigating we opted to rent an apartment for our time in Tokyo.

Tokyo apartment kitchen

The tiny but functional kitchen in our Tokyo rental apartment. The front entrance is visible just beyond the kitchen.

We did find several hotel options that could have worked, such as the Citadines Aparthotel. However for a similar price to the hotels, with an apartment rental we could get a little more space plus a kitchen and washing machine.

We rented a tiny, 7th floor apartment labeled a “1-bedroom” by the rental company, Live in Asia. It would would barely pass for a studio apartment in New York City. The “1-bedroom” moniker only worked because of a sliding door through the middle of the space. Nice for privacy, did nothing for sound.

The bedroom in our 1-bedroom Tokyo apartment.

The tiny double (twin plus?) bed in our 1-bedroom Tokyo apartment.

We paid about $260/ night and this was after negotiating down the price as visitors to Japan were very few due to the tsunami earlier in the year. No, Tokyo is not cheap.

One pro of renting an apartment vs. a hotel is that we found ourselves in a residential neighborhood rather than a tourist district. This meant we were close to a large grocery store and pharmacy, as well as many restaurants and a train station. Two other big plusses for us in an apartment were having a kitchen, albeit a tiny kitchen

Anna's bed

Anna (1) slept in her Peapod bed in the closet while Grace (4) slept on the floor in the kitchen.

(think RV trailer kitchen), and a washing machine. We still ate most meals out but had breakfast at home each morning. As for washing clothes, we have never seen a public laundromat in Japan so when traveling with kids it was essential to us to have easy access to a washing machine and avoid hotel laundry expenses.

In Kyoto we also rented but a private house called Koto Inn through VRBO. The home was located in a residential neighborhood but very close to the subway, busses, restaurants and a number of tourist attractions including the Heian Shrine. We loved feeling part of a neighborhood yet being able to quickly access public transportation, food and activities.

Front of machiya

Steve and Anna out front of the lovely machiya, The Koto Inn, near the Heian Shrine.

The rental house was very small, although significantly larger than our Tokyo digs and for a slightly lower cost. The Kyoto house, a traditional machiya, consisted of two small bedrooms with a small sitting/ eating area between them, plus a small but well-stocked kitchen and a good-sized bathroom/ laundry area.  The English-speaking owners provided an excellent orientation to the home and neighborhood, as well as written instructions in English for how to work everything in the home.  We found the home suitable for our needs and we loved the traditional old machiya style, which is a small old-fashioned wooden house.

Kids in Machiya

Grace and Anna hanging out in one of the machiya's bedrooms. Note the fragile paper screens in the background. Fragile but beautiful.

However “traditional” in Japan equals “fragile.” Think paper walls and delicate glass doors. Combine that with two small children and a few rainy days, which we had, and we discovered that renting such a home can be a little stressful with little ones. Our kids loved sleeping on the tatami floors and sitting on the floor to eat but given the delicate nature of old Japanese homes we would rent something more modern if we did it again, at least with such small children.  VRBO offers many good options in Kyoto, both modern and traditional. A machiya is a great option with older kids or non-mobile babies, a more modern/ less breakable home could be more restful for worried parents.

Note: For our full review of the Koto Inn in Kyoto visit the home’s site at VRBO and scroll down to the review entitled “A Lovely Place to Stay in Kyoto, A Little Difficult With Children.”

Japan With Kids: Finding Calm in Chaotic Tokyo

Inokashira Park Tokyo Japan

The lake and trees at Inokashira Park are a green oasis in bustling Tokyo

Big cities are not what a lot of parents think of when planning a “kid-friendly” vacation. And Tokyo, the biggest city in the world by some counts, might not fall high on your list of places to explore with small children.

There are good reasons for this. Tokyo is HUGE. It dwarfs New York City.  Its subway system is efficient but not always simple for foreigners to navigate. Tourist destinations are far apart and if you don’t think ahead you can find yourself spending hours on public transportation, changing trains multiple times, no fun with little ones. When we discovered Tokyo Disneyland was actually several hours by train from the part of the city where we’d be staying, we opted not to the Japanese version of the Magical Kingdom.

Yes, the city is vast, saying it’s crowded is an understatement, and it’s expensive. But it’s also historic, cutting edge, and incredibly exciting. So last summer during our Japanese adventures we decided to devote a few days of our two weeks in this mad metropolis.  Our favorite Japan guidebook, Frommer’s Japan , gives great overall Tokyo information including coverage of the top historical and tourist sites. There are two spots with kids we especially enjoyed which we want to highlight for families with kids taking on Tokyo.

Swan boats for rent at Inokashira Park in Tokyo

Renting a swan boat is a great family activity at Inokashira

Inokashira Park

Green, open play areas for kids are few and far between in Japan. In fact many playgrounds we saw were akin to those we’ve seen in developing nations: rusty, unmaintained, and completely unappealing. Therefore we were thrilled to find a green oasis at Inokashira Park just south of Kichijoji station.  Its lush forest canopy made the park several degrees cooler than the rest of the hot city on a sweltering summer afternoon plus the local ice cream vendor helped cool us off even more. There’s a lovely quiet lake with swan boats for hire and a small but decent playground for little ones. The park is full of walking paths, several small zoos and of course the ubiquitous vending machines, always good for a cold drink. Before heading to the park we picked up an amazing bento lunch in the food hall at Kichijoji Station. (Side note: There’s an incredible shopping center and food hall in the station, where you could easily pass several happy hours with or without kids. Bonus on a hot day is the air-conditioning). We enjoyed our bento on park benches, then Grace and Beth took a turn around the lake in a swan boat while Steve and Anna looked on. All in all we give the park two thumbs up.

Inokashira Park playground

Inokashira boasts a small but satisfying playground

National Children’s Castle (Kodomo-no-Shiro)

Swimming at the National Children's Castle

Ready for underwater adventures at Tokyo's National Children's Castle

Contrary to our expectations the National Children’s Castle is not housed in a large, ancient Japanese castle nor a recent reconstruction but rather in a typical Tokyo high-rise building. Nevertheless this destination is a delight with small kids and we easily passed the better part of a day here. We visited with some good Japanese friends and their two small boys, but like most places in Tokyo there is enough English (or plenty of people to try to speak it) that you could get by and enjoy it without Japanese friends accompanying you.

The top level of the “castle” has a large outdoor wading pool full of splashing kids and their parents. There is an indoor swimming pool option too but we were told it was for “swimming” only, i.e. lap swimming. It seemed older kids would be welcome there but only if they were interested in swimming laps.  Our kids had a blast in the outside pool, easily passing several fun hours. There were even a handful of baby pools set up complete with water toys where Anna (12 months at the time) was able to happily splash away from the thrashing bodies of the older kids.

If it’s not a swimming sort of day or if that’s just not your kids’ thing, also on the outdoor top level there is a big track set up with lots of tricycles and small bikes. We saw lots of kids having a great time on those as well, although with the 90 degree weather our kids chose to spend as much time as possible in the water.

After lunch at a fabulous self-service udon restaurant, Marugame Seimen, we returned to the Children’s Castle to explore their indoor offerings.   A live band was playing and instruments were provided for kids to play along. There was a craft room where kids could make their own creations. The indoor air-conditioning was a welcome reprieve from the outdoor heat and the kids had a blast with so many hands’ on activities.

The National Children’s Castle is a short walk from the Shibuya train station.

Hachiko statue Shibuya station

Shibuya station's famous Hachiko statue

While you’re at the Shibuya train station make sure you find the Hachiko dog statue. There’s a great children’s book of the same name telling the story about a loyal dog, Hachiko, who waited at the station faithfully for years night after night for his master. We read the book to Grace before our trip so it was fun for her to discover a landmark in Japan she already knew something about.

Note: Besides Frommer’s Japan we also found Kids’ Trips in Tokyo: A Family Guide to One-Day Outings to be full of helpful information. Although a bit outdated (published in 1998), it still had a lot of helpful tips and would be especially useful for anyone staying for a longer period in Tokyo with kids.

For more on Tokyo watch for our upcoming posts on finding kid-friendly accommodation in Japan and navigating Narita with kids.

Discover The World From Home

Many parents have commented to us how they wish they could take their children all over the world but can’t due to various, very real obstacles. Finances, work and school schedules, family commitments, health issues and other impediments can make travel, domestic or international, difficult to impossible. There are still so many things we as parents can do to introduce our children to the world beyond their back door, even if we can’t get on a plane with them and jet set somewhere exotic. Here are a few of our ideas we do with our kids while at home. Please share your ideas too!

1) Read books with global themes. A few of our recent favorites include Four Feet, Two Sandals (Afghanistan); Hachiko: The True Story of a Loyal Dog (Japan); Selavi, That is Life: A Haitian Story of Hope (Haiti); and Whoever You Are (Reading Rainbow Books).

2) Make other languages normal and fun.  The summer she was 4 Grace attended a summer Spanish language camp near our home. She learned some new words while discovering that new languages are fun, not scary. Many community centers offer language classes or clubs for kids. Try out words in a new language yourself to show your kids it’s fun to try, even if you make mistakes.

3) Bring the world to your family. We regularly invite people into our home from around the world. In recent years guests have been from Haiti, Japan, Germany, Colombia and Taiwan. Some have been over for a meal, others have stayed a few nights.  Many have brought books or toys or snacks to our children from their home countries, which expands our kids’ horizons even after the guests have left. We both grew up in homes where hospitality, especially to those from far away, was regularly practiced and we do the same in our home. Some families host international exchange students for an extended period of time, giving their child a big brother or sister from someplace new and interesting. Having a friend from a distant country makes that place seem a lot closer and a lot less “foreign.” We’ve even video skyped with our friends in Japan. Their kids loved the “tour” we gave them of our home by toting the laptop through all our house’s rooms!

4) Check out local ethnic restaurants, festivals and fairs. Expand your children’s (and your own !) sense of adventure by showing them the wonders of new foods, smells and sights by finding those experiences in your own community. They might make new friends too!

5) Read the newspaper. Sure not everything is appropriate for kids but we share articles/ pictures in the daily paper about places our kids have been or heard about. It helps them grasp that a lot goes on all over the world, every day, even when we’re going about our regular daily routines.

How do you expand your children’s world while close to home?

And Then There Were Three

Image

We started Kids Go Global when we were traveling footloose and fancy free, meaning with just one child. Our little family has quickly expanded, adding Anna in 2010 and now David who was born in December 2011. People ask us a lot, “Are you still going to keep traveling now that you have three?” For us the answer is a resounding “yes!”  At 19 months old Anna has already been to Mexico twice and Japan once, not to mention camping trips and other overnight travels closer to home. We just wouldn’t be our family without travel.

But it would be naive to think that traveling with three will be the same as traveling with one or two. The logistics of two little ones last summer to Japan were incredibly challenging. After that trip Steve and I agreed no more trips like that (i.e. involving lots of public transportation and lots of moving around the country) until kids are old enough to help carry luggage. Also no more trips like that while pregnant. Or in the suffocating heat of summer.

As I write this David is just six weeks old so it’s too soon to be planning anything too crazy. We are headed back to the Mexican Yucatan in May, all three kids in tow. But that’s more of a “vacation” than true “travel.” That’s what we can handle right now and it fulfills our need for different scenery, different food, different weather, using our Spanish, and letting our kids experience a different culture. So we’ll take it.

I have big plans to catch up on this blog. We have lots more to say about travel in Japan with kids plus more to write about our favorite part of Mexico with kids, the Riviera Maya. Those posts will get written, more adventures will be planned. These days I’m spending a lot of time dreaming about where I want to go as soon as all three can carry their own bags. Any suggestions?

Japanese Summer – Culturally Rich. Physically Exhausting. Delightful.

Stroller saves the (hot) day in Ashiya

Stroller saves the (hot) day in Ashiya

Traveling with our two small children (Grace, 4 and Anna, 1) in Japan this summer was a mixed success.  There are lots of sights and sounds, free food, transport and accommodations for kids under 6, and always friendly people to stop to say hello and “kawaii!”. Overall our Japan experience was fabulous but we do have some cautions for others as well.

Getting around in train stations is becoming easier than we found on past (pre-kids) trips, as the country does a better job of making accommodations for the disabled with ramps and elevators. Almost every station, even the smallest, has at least one elevator.  Taking the Mia Moda Cielo Evolution Stroller was essential – we used it to let kids rest, pile on the bags and stuff little things in the basket.  A few smaller stations however had only stairs and this is likely even more frequently the case in rural areas. Lugging a stroller and kids up and down long staircases is exhausting but those stations were infrequent enough that the stroller was definitely worth it.  Anna, our 1-year old, spent a lot of time in the Ergo, joining just about every Japanese kid her age we saw. Even Grace at 4 enjoyed a few rides on daddy’s back in the Ergo when her little feet were especially tired of pounding the pavement.

Traveling in Japan in the summer is HOT, and it’s a humid kind of hot.  Our primary reason to travel there in July was for a good friend’s wedding. If we had a choice as to time of year we would definitely avoid the summer and go in spring or fall. We were sticky sweaty most of the time, and needed showers twice a day.  There is no central air conditioning in any apartment or home, and some of the individual room a/c machines are not up to the job.  In addition, after the earthquake and nuclear plant shutdowns, all businesses are required to cut their energy consumption, so many stores and restaurants are weakly cooled, so you may find yourself sweating through your meal of udon or ramen.  The trains on the other hand will rescue you with a blast of icy air.  In the context of all the Japanese have had to face since the disasters hit, this sounds trite, but it might be part of your calculation in choosing when to visit with family.

The other aspect of Japanese culture that affects traveling with kids is space.  We remember Japan having small rooms and tight quarters, but cramped living takes on a new dimension when you have a 4 year old and a 13 month old with you.  Kids have amazing wells of energy and a need to let it out by jumping and bouncing and singing.  When there’s no yard nearby, the park looks like a nice place to contract tetanus, and any other outdoor space is pushing 100 degrees, it makes for difficult indoor behavior issues.  Some Japanese homes also have beautifully decorated tatami rooms with doors made of thin paper.  (Note to parents: a four year old’s foot goes quite easily through said door, as we unfortunately discovered).

Not to say that traveling in Japan is impossible with kids, and the positives outweigh the downsides.  We discovered delightful places for kids, like the Osaka aquarium with a massive tank full of sharks and hundreds of fish.

Osaka Aquarium: Grace watches a ray

Osaka Aquarium: Grace watches a ray

Spa World

Spa World

We also discovered Spa World, an indoor swimming – sliding – onsen – super-fun -waterpark.

We swam on the rooftop of Tokyo’s National Children’s Castle and let Grace run free in the huge indoor play structure, followed by participating in the drawing and music rooms.  We found out that while Kyoto is known for its temples and shrines, it also has a decent zoo with a small amusement park. Kyoto also boasts an interesting Handicraft Center where Grace was able to design and paint her own fan.

And lest you think that Japanese food means a bunch of sushi that kids won’t eat… our kids discovered the wonders of Japanese noodles and many variations on rice.

Grace and Anna enjoy bento

Grace and Anna enjoy bento

Grace at 175 miles per hour

Grace at 175 miles per hour

And what kid wouldn’t be thrilled by zipping around at 175 miles an hour on the bullet train?

So, in addition to the wonderful experiences of reconnecting with old friends, we discovered many ways in which Japan is wonderful for kids, if you’re prepared for some unique speedbumps along the way.  We plan to share details from some of these experiences over the next few posts.

Are All-Inclusive Resorts a Sellout?

We like to think of ourselves, perhaps somewhat haughtily, as travelers rather than tourists. Travelers immerse themselves in the local culture, living, eating, speaking and getting around as much as possible as locals do. Tourism is isolating, making a trip as comfortable as possible at the expense of authentic interactions with local people and their ways of everyday life. So we say with our noses in the air.

We love all-inclusives when we need hassle-free travel

All-inclusive resorts seem to fit easily into my cynical definition of tourism. You can stay at one without ever speaking a word of the local language, or eating regional food, or bumping shoulders on a crowded bus with someone who actually lives in that locale. You and your children can be entertained all day long by activities staff without ever knowing what people in that country do for fun.  You can eat bacon and eggs for breakfast, hamburgers for lunch and pizza for dinner.  You never have to make decisions about where to stay, how to get to a destination, or where to eat. The decision-making thrill (or burden, depending on your perspective) of travel is removed for you as you’re plunked down in a microcosm full of staff who cater to your every desire.

So what was this traveling family doing spending our last two family vacations at an all inclusive resort in the Riviera Maya, Mexico? We were having wonderfully relaxing, culturally-rich vacations, that’s what. Oh yeah, and revising our misconceptions of all-inclusives as well.

The original motivating factor for an all-inclusive vacation was our desire to travel soon after the birth of our second child, Anna. We knew roughing it was out with a 3-month old but we still wanted some sun and a bit of an escape so we booked ourselves and the grandparents into Marina El Cid in Puerto Morelos, Mexico, just south of Cancun. We thought it would be a one-time thing we could justify because hey, we had a small baby and hey, weren’t we brave to go ANYWHERE with a baby?

Upon arrival at Marina El Cid we found ourselves in a little piece of heaven. Powdery soft sand beach, warm turquoise blue ocean water, a gigantic swimming pool complex, spacious suites, attentive pool-side waiters, 3 delicious meals every day, it was all around amazing. Our first trip was September 2010 which is the start of the low-season so the resort was also fairly empty, meaning we had plenty of attention from staff for our every need and never ran into lines or crowds. Never. We all relaxed, slept, swam, dozed, ate, rested  and had a marvelous time. We enjoyed a meal in the sleepy town center of Puerto Morelos and visited a small local zoo, but other than that reveled in the quiet isolation of this beautiful resort. For that phase of life with a newborn and an energetic 3 1/2 year old it was exactly what our family needed.

Fast forward to March 2011, 6 months after our first trip, when we returned to Marina El Cid, this time

Enjoying homemade paletas (popsicles) in the local little town near the resort

with grandparents from the other side plus Steve’s brother and his family.  Yet again we found ourselves in paradise. With Anna now 9 months old we had more freedom to leave the resort so we enjoyed a fabulous combination of relaxing beach and pooltime with excursions out of the complex (more on recommendations in an upcoming post).

As for tourism vs. traveling, while much of our vacation was spent in “cultural isolation,” our particular resort served authentic regional Mexican food which we enjoyed at every meal.  The resort staff appreciated our attempts to converse with them in Spanish. Plus we left the resort multiple times, exploring the region as well as the local small town. Another plus for us was we chose a resort off the beaten tourism path so we did not encounter large touristy crowds, which can dilute any sort of authentic experience.

Playing on the playground in town with local kids

We won’t always stay at all-inclusive resorts. We thrive on eating local, talking local, staying local and love the thrill (and yes, the stress!) of travel logistics. But for our family we’ve discovered there are (at least) two specific times in life that make all-inclusives perfect. The first is when we want to travel with very little children. The predictability and comfort of an all-inclusive makes travel a possibility at a time when we otherwise would probably stay close to home. The other is traveling with extended family. Our extended family enjoys each other the most when there are minimum decisions to be made or schedules to keep.

To those of you who already knew how great all-inclusive resorts are, we apologize for our past snobbery.  We’ve been won over and we are already planning next year’s stress-free getaway!

Welcome Baby Anna and plans for Mexico

We welcomed Anna Clara Sethi into our family on June 22nd. She’s a beautiful baby girl and we’re loving getting to know her. Now at almost 3 months we’re getting lots of smiles, longer stretches of sleep (hallelujah!) and are about to embark on our first international adventure with 2 kids.

We’ve chosen a low-key vacation at an all-inclusive resort in Puerto Morelos, on the Mexican Yucatan peninsula. It’s near Cancun but quieter and less touristy than Cancun, so we’ve heard. My parents are joining us, making the prospect of traveling with two little ones far less daunting.

In the meantime, our three-year old, Grace, is getting excited about our Mexican adventure. This is the first trip she’s actually asked questions about beforehand. Tonight as I laid in bed with her she wanted to know every detail about our travel: what time she’ll be woken up, what we’ll do when we get to the airport, where Daddy will park the car, how he will find us in the terminal, etc. etc. It dawned on me – she’s actually old enough to care!  This little girl has six stamps in her passport but she has never really known that she was in some of the most incredible places in the world, let alone asked questions about how travel logistics work. How exciting that she now anticipates travel, perhaps even more than I do any more!

After she was tucked in bed I got in a bit of a tizzy about making this trip “culturally meaningful” for Grace. She’s going to Mexico, a place she knows a little about from Mexican friends. She knows a few token Spanish words (gato and adios, in particular).  In my quest to make this trip more than a week playing in the sand for my little preschooler, I went on amazon.com and discovered this great booklist of bilingual Spanish-English books. Of course I reserved them ALL at our library (where oh where will they fit in our luggage?).

In my zeal I may find myself overloaded with library books. Still what a discovery to realize we are now a family of travelers, no longer a traveling couple with a child or two in tow. While Anna may just be along for the ride this year, Grace will be able to absorb new people, new words, new foods, new sights, new smells. Our job as parents is to find creative ways to enhance those discoveries.  Way #1: a trip to the library to pick up that pile of books I reserved.