Traveler: Jamie Colosimo
When: January 2015
Where: Tokyo – Nagano- Kamakura- Nagoya
Traveling with kids for the first time may seem like a daunting task, especially a baby. There is an added element of stress when the considering international travel. Parents often worry about how their child will handle a change in schedule or whether, if necessities like diapers and formula will be readily available, and perhaps the most dreaded part of the entire experience, how their kid(s) will survive such a long flight. Let me reassure you that children are incredibly flexible and most of these anxieties will be in vain. With that said, let’s talk about my baby’s first trip abroad. It was January of 2015. My daughter, Naia, was on the brink of 5 months when we received word that my husband, a submariner in the US Navy, would soon pull into port in Japan. Since we hadn’t seen him in several months, I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to surprise him. However, I had never been to Japan and the thought of traveling with a baby in a country where I didn’t speak the language was a bit overwhelming.
My greatest concern about travelling abroad with a baby, in addition to those already mentioned, was safety. In this sometimes turbulent world, it’s important to assess the risk of traveling, especially with children. Two factors you’ll want to consider are crime rate and the prevalence of disease. The United States Center for Disease Control and Prevention has an excellent site at https://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/destinations/list to research pertinent health info such as what immunizations are recommended or required prior to entering a foreign country. The U.S. Department of State website at https://www.state.gov/travel/ also proved a valuable resource to investigate any recent travel alerts concerning our intended destination. A quick search of Japan brought up a fact sheet covering an array of topics including Embassies and Consulates, Destination Description, Entry Exit & Visa Requirements, Safety and Security, Local Laws, Health, and Travel & Transportation. Lastly, many travel websites like TripAdvisor and Lonely Planet offer informal forums on which you can ask or search previous posts for suggestions and recommendations. I often recommend these sites as they provide a personal perspective rather than third-party information you often find in store-bought travel guides.
After careful research, my impression of Japan was positive. Not only is it considered one of the safest places in the world for tourists, but it also boasts top-notch medical facilities in the event an unexpected emergency arose. This was the confidence boost I needed to secure our plans. I booked our flight through Hawaiian airlines, flying directly from Honolulu to Tokyo – about a 9 hour flight each way. To save money, I chose to purchase my daughter’s ticket as a “lap infant”. Now if the thought of holding a baby for 9 straight hours gives you anxiety, you are not alone… but here’s an insider secret: most airlines allow passengers travelling with infants to bring their car seat aboard IF the flight has a vacant seat – for no extra charge!. After all, a happy baby ensures that all the passengers on board have a smooth – and quiet! – flight.
A second option for travelling with infants on long international flights is to request a bassinet seat. This is like a mini-crib that is screwed into the wall directly in front of the passenger’s seat. It contains straps that secure baby into place during flight time. However, be forewarned that the baby will need to be removed during times of turbulence which goes against rule number one of parenting: “Never wake a sleeping baby!” The third option, of course, is simply to buy the baby his or her own seat. While the most costly option, it offers the greatest peace of mind if you can afford it. We got lucky. Although I had booked Naia’s ticket as lap infant, an extra seat was, indeed, available. In fact, we ended up with an entire row to ourselves. My daughter slept about 80% of the flight – which brings up another reason that traveling with infants is easier than you think. They sleep – a lot! Add in the gentle hum of a plane, train or car and you’ve got yourself a guaranteed recipe for sleepy dust.
Now you may be thinking, sure, that’s great for getting to and from your location but how do you travel around with baby once you reach the ground? In one word: Babywearing. This is the single most important piece of advice I can offer for baby’s first trip abroad. In cultures throughout the world, especially those which emphasize mobility, babywearing is a natural part of life. It allows you to hold your child without actually holding your child. Sheer genius! There are many types of carriers available to consider but for me it made the most sense to use a wrap – essentially a long cloth that can be tied in a variety of ways to hold baby on your chest, back, or hip. Since I was traveling in the winter, I opted for a heavier fabric which would help keep my daughter warm on our journey. I also fell in love with the playful pattern and vibrant colors. You can view this wrap and others at http://www.kokadi.de/en/babywraps/ Again, I will emphasize that the options for babywearing are endless and I have friends who swear by Tula’s or Kinderpack’s or Ergo’s or Moby’s. The list goes on and on. Just find one that works for you and baby! And definitely practice your technique a few times before you reach your destination as babywearing can be a tricky habit to master your first time around.
Tokyo – Our Central Hub & The Best Sashimi on Earth
I’m generally not impressed with cities. They are loud, congested, polluted and after a while they all tend to look the same. This was not the case with Tokyo. What immediately struck me was how incredibly clean the streets were – and quiet! Walking to the train station at 6 a.m. felt as though I had been transported to a future where, cleanliness and conformity were no longer options but a requirement of society. We stayed at the Courtyard Tokyo Station by Marriott which proved the perfect location for day-tripping from the city. Prior to babies, I preferred to bounce from hotel to hotel to maximize the distance traveled each day. However, I have discovered it is much more practical with kids to use a central hub where you can store supplies and luggage. This allows you to pick and choose what will be needed for the day ahead rather than bringing all of baby’s belongings on each individual leg of the journey.
We spent a total of three days in Tokyo, each of which started with a short walk to the train station, a mere 4 blocks or so from the hotel. Japan is known for the speed and efficiency of its transportation, particularly its trains. For tourists, there is an option to buy an unlimited train ticket on the JR Railways Group which just about encompasses most cities and towns you’ll want to visit on your travels. More information can be found on their website at: http://www.japanrailpass.net. It’s worth mentioning that the JR Pass needs to be purchased BEFORE you arrive in Japan as it is not available upon arrival. It is by far the most economical way to get around the country and best of all, children under 6 are free. The catch, of course, is that they are not allowed to occupy a seat if another passenger requires one. However, not once did we encounter this issue. There was always ample seating on the trains and, much like planes, the sleepy dust seemed to take hold very quickly every time we jumped aboard the Shinkansen.
Due to time constraints, we didn’t explore Tokyo as much as I would have liked during this trip. Nevertheless, there was one area I refused to miss: the Tsukiji Fish Market. Here, “fresh catch” literally means right off the boat. I had thoroughly researched my options and narrowed it down to a few of the top rated restaurants only to discover each and every one had an extensive line, some of which extended down the alley and clear around the block. Feeling a little dismayed, I wandered into small, unassuming restaurant with just a few stools and tables. As I assessed the menu, I heard a lady’s voice ask: “How did you find this place?” Worried I had somehow overstepped a cultural boundary, I told the woman that I simply wandered in off the street. She laughed with delight before revealing that it was a secret hotspot among politicians and local celebrities. If there were any famous Japanese there that day, I‘ll never know but I will tell you it was, by far, the BEST sashimi I have ever had. The name? Well I probably shouldn’t tell… but then again, I’ve never been too great at keeping secrets:
“Iwasa Sushi” located at 6 Chome-27-3 Tsukiji, Chuo, Tokyo 104-0045, Japan
Day Trip from Tokyo #1 – The Snow Monkeys of Nagano
I am an avid animal lover and as such, you might notice that many of my travel experiences center around unique animal encounters that would not be possible anywhere else on earth. In Japan, there was no experience more intriguing and worthwhile to me than venturing to visit the Nagano Snow Monkeys. Many years prior, I remembered reading about these adorable mountain-dwelling monkeys who took refuge in natural hot springs when the wintery weather arrived to Nagano. A park, Jigokudani, had been constructed around the area to protect these monkeys while still allowing visitors a rare glimpse into the antics of these hot-tubbing creatures.
The name “Jigokudani” means “Hell’s Valley” due to the hot springs interspersed throughout the area. In retrospect, the nickname also seems fitting because I had a hell of time trying to find it. Jigokudani is located in Yamanouchi, Nagano. To get there, you must first take a bullet train from Tokyo to Nagano, transfer to local line and from there catch a bus. The first part of the journey by train was easy. I arrived earlier than anticipated and eagerly bought my ticket to transfer to the bus. However, this is where I experienced my first “lost in translation” moment. As I was getting onto the bus, I asked the attendant if this was the bus to see the “monkeys”. She nodded and repeated a word which began with an “m” so I prematurely assumed she said “monkeys”. I was wrong. An hour or so later, I was marveling at the snow-covered peaks outside my window when they announced Madarao as the last stop. (There was that “m” word!). So there we were, in a stunning ski village set among what I later found out was considered the Japanese Alps.
It was unbelievably beautiful! The only problem was it was not my intended destination of Jigokudani. In a panic, I struggled to explain the mix up to the bus driver only to realize, he did not speak ANY English. Luckily, a young Japanese college student came to my rescue and provided prompt translation. We were able to resolve the confusion and they provided me with a bus transfer to be used when we got back to the station. Although this mishap added some unexpected tension to my travels, in the end I was grateful because it taught me the importance of clear communication with the locals and also took me to a gorgeous spot I would have not otherwise seen. A tip I often recommend to first-time visitors of Japan now is to seek out the younger generation when lost. Since English is a typically a part of the curriculum in most urban areas of Japan, students always seemed more-than-willing to help out the lost American. Now I’m sure there are exceptions, but for me, it proved a successful strategy for the remainder of my travels in Japan.
Upon arriving back at the bus station, this time I triple checked to ensure I was on the right bus to get to Jigokudani. Taking the scenic route had cost me a couple of hours and I couldn’t risk another miscalculation. From the bus stop in Yamanouchi, it was two-mile trek to reach the park. And it was COLD! And slippery! I strongly urge travelers to dress appropriately – hat, gloves, boots – the works! Right about the time I started questioning my sanity for embarking on this journey, I looked ahead and saw monkeys scampering down a snowy bank. We had finally arrived at Jigokudani. All the stresses of the day melted away as I watched the playful monkeys wade in the hot springs. They were somehow even cuter in person than I had imagined, so human-like in both behavior and features. There weren’t a whole lot of monkeys – maybe about 8 – but being so late in the day, there weren’t a whole lot of tourists either. All the tour buses were long gone for the day and we pretty much had the park to ourselves. I could have stayed for hours but my earlier detour had severely cut into our available time. We stayed just long enough to enjoy this amusing spectacle of nature while gathering energy for the return hike. The monkeys happily (?) posed for a few pictures before our departure.
Final thoughts? On a scale of 1 to 10, I would rate Jigokudani a 7 on the baby-friendly scale. Had we not been rushed, the experience would have surely been less hectic. With that said, it I were to do it all over again, I would reserve a room closer to the park rather than making the journey back to Tokyo that evening. There is plenty more to be seen in the area than the monkeys so if you enjoy winter activities like skiing, you could easily spend a few days exploring the region which is also known for its many onsens, or natural hot springs. More info on the Japanese Alps can be found here and places to visit within this region can be found here: http://www.japan-alps.com/en/
Getting to Jigokudani from Tokyo:
Take the Hakutaka Shinkansen from Tokyo Station to Nagano Station which takes a little over an hour and a half. Then take the Dentetsu Line to Yudanaka station (the express train takes about 40 minutes). Finally take the bus from Yudanaka station to Kanbayashi Onsen stop (about 15 minutes – any more and you are on the wrong bus, trust me!)
Day Trip from Tokyo # 2 – Visiting the Great Buddha at Kamakura
What initially attracted me to the coastal town of Kamakura, located just an hour south of Tokyo by train, was the opportunity to gaze upon the Great Buddha, a bronze statue of immense proportions dating back to the mid-13th century. As soon as I arrived, however, I realized how much more Kamakura had to offer than this famous icon. For starters, the town, itself, is very walkable. After the fiasco in Nagano, I was relieved to realize that the station was located very near to the heart of the town. No bus transfer required! Though the winter winds casted a chill to the air, it was a sunny day with picturesque blue skies, perfect for a stroll down the cobblestone alleyways. With Naia napping peacefully in her wrap, I meandered through the streets at leisure, taking in the sights and window shopping through the town’s many boutiques. While Kamakura retains traditional Japanese charm, it is also intertwined with western influences. You are just as likely to find a burger joint as a sushi restaurant in these parts. It wasn’t long before I found myself on the beach watching surfers, dog walkers and kids playing catch along the beach. In a word, I was smitten. I decided then and there that if the “fates” (by which I really mean the US military) ever relocated us to Japan, this would be the place I would choose to take up residence. It felt like “home” in a way I rarely encounter on my travels.
The Great Buddha, or “Daibatsu”, is housed on the grounds of the Kotoku-in Temple. While not the largest Buddha worldwide or even in Japan, its scale is nevertheless impressive and it makes an excellent photo-op considering it is the biggest outdoor Buddha and photography within Japanese temples is prohibited.
Within close proximity to Kotoku-In is another temple worth visiting: Hase-dera. For about 300 yen, you gain access to this multi-tiered gorgeously groomed courtyard containing a number of temples, shrines and statues. From the uppermost level, you can also take in spectacular views of the coast while eating lunch from one of the several vendors on site. One of Hase-dera most noteworthy features is 30 foot reproduction of Kannon – the goddess of mercy. I’m not sure whether it was the gold cast or Kannon’s eleven heads but the look of awe on Naia’s face as she gazed upon this deity is a moment I will never forget. As mentioned previously, temples have a “no photography” policy so this is a memory etched only in mind, and in a way, that makes it all the more treasured.
Our last stop at Hase-dera was a site of somber beauty for it contained dozens of small Jizo statutes brought by parents in mourning who lost a baby prior or during birth. This touching tribute made me realize just how lucky I was to be here with a healthy baby of my own. I stopped to say a prayer for these sweet souls and I left Kamakura happy and humbled. To this day, the idyllic town still holds a special place in my heart.
Getting to Kamakura from Tokyo:
The JR Yokosuka Line connects Tokyo Station directly with Kamakura Station and it takes less than an hour.
Day Tip from Tokyo #3 – The Castle and Street Markets of Nagoya
Before your next trip, I strongly urge you to tap your social networks for resources. Originally, Nagoya wasn’t even on my list of places to see in Japan. However, when my aunt caught wind of my travel plans, she reached out to me with an opportunity to meet up with her extended family in Nagoya. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse! After all, isn’t one of the main reasons we travel to experience another culture in the most authentic way possible? For that very reason, Nagoya became a significant highlight of my visit to Japan
After meeting me at the train station in Nagoya, the Yamada family wasted no time in showing me the “real” Japan. In fact, our first stop was not a tourist attraction at all but their home where they welcomed me with gifts and a feast of yakitori, or Japanese meat skewers.
Despite the language barrier, the conversation stream remained steady thanks to the Yamada daughters, both of whom had studied English in school and provided translation between me and their parents. We enjoyed a delicious feast in their living room, our legs under a cloth-covered table called a “kotatsu” which they explained was strategy for conserving heat during the chilly Japanese winters.
After lunch, we set out for a day of sightseeing around Nagoya. Having personal tour guides made a world of difference as the Yamada family led me around city’s busy subway stations with ease. Our first stop was at the Nagoya Castle, a gorgeously restored, 5-story palace filled with museum-like exhibits that offer a glimpse into the history of the city. You will need at least 2-3 hours to explore and even that seemed rushed as there is just so much to see. The attention to detail in the craftsmanship is what really stood out and I especially enjoyed the recreation of royal rooms adorned with golden wallpaper and intricate silk screens.
The next destination on our list was the Osu Shopping District, a popular area among locals and tourist alike offering over a thousand shops and restaurants. Here, we explored the Osu Kannon Temple, sampled food from the street vendors (a fun little dish I like to call “crab on a stick”) and shopped extensively for souvenirs to take back home with me. As we passed one of the many kimono shops, I confessed how I had hoped to buy one on my travels but it was a splurge I simply couldn’t afford. Sensing my disappointment, the Yamada’s came up with the next best thing – a Kimono fitting! The shop owner graciously obliged our request and for the next hour or so, we had a blast playing “dress up” in the store.
Castles, kimonos… I felt like royalty – a Japanese princess… but wait, where was my prince? After all, the whole reason I came to Japan was to surprise my husband. As it turns out, his boat did pull into port… but on the complete opposite side of Japan! All I can say is “Thank Buddha” for bullet trains! So this tale has a happy ending – our family was reunited and we spent several days in southern Japan, eating conveyor belt sushi, shopping in the 10-story mega malls, and visiting some unplanned sites like Hiroshima… and though I never did purchase a kimono of my own, I discovered baby sizes were a lot more affordable – and waaaaay more adorable.
Getting to Nagoya from Tokyo:
On the Tokaido Shinkansen, this trip takes about two and a half hours. You can also take the Nozomi train if you want to save an hour but, be advised that the JR Pass is not valid on these trains and they are a bit more pricey. Time is money and no where has this proven more true than Japan.