Before departing for Tokyo my major worry was the plane ride. SAH had headed over a week before us to attend his work conference while Little A and I would follow on a Friday night flight.
I prepared myself mentally for the nine-hour flight; I armed myself with favourite snacks, ‘gifts’ (small packets of Lego to delight and distract), new pajamas and an iPad filled with videos and apps. I needn’t have worried about the flight.
Little A was a consummate flyer, taking it all in his stride as if he’d been doing it for years. And as soon as we’d got past customs we headed straight for the nearest convenience store to try weird new snacks and try our luck with the vending machines.
But the best-laid plans of mice and men … we had a rocky few days of adjusting to international travel with a preschooler. Reminding each other to have empathy for our small person whose world has just been turned upside SAH and I tried to solider on regardless. We finally worked out a rhythm that suited everyone: slow mornings followed by a bit of exploring, afternoons back at the apartment and evenings out in the neighbourhood for dinner.
Our neighbourhood was Shimokitazawa, a quick 5 minute train ride from Shibuya station. The area is a tangle of streets, where brave drivers maneuver their tiny delivery vehicles down the shared roads while pedestrians stroll about browsing the numerous vintage stores, boutiques, ramen houses, curry shops and yakitori joints. The people were incredibly welcoming and while weekends saw an increase of local visitors and the odd tourist, the overall feel was laid back and authentic. It was definitely the highlight of our trip staying here and being able to return everyday to wonder the streets, go to our local grocery store and have a regular café (whose barista trained in Melbourne).
Our two favourite meals were had in Shimokita. Sitting at the bar in a tiny Yakitori joint I was in awe as SAH deftly ordered stick after stick of delicious chicken and vegetables cooked over charcoal. Not to mention Nama Biru!
While I, not being as adept in ordering food in Japanese as SAH, relied on the ol’ point and sign method when ordering at bakery and café cona sora – a hidden gem we stumbled upon one morning . Ordering us a traditional Japanese breakfast and an enormous sandwich using bread baked on the premises. It was an amazing feast which Little A happily tucked in too as well.
Our accommodation was a 2-bedroom apartment (found on AirBNB) on the fringes of the busy area, close enough to feel involved but not too close for it to be noisy. By Japanese standards the flat was huge and certainly large enough for us to move around in a not feel as though we were living in each other’s pockets. However I will say this for apartment living, SAH and I were on constant tender hooks in an attempt to keep the noise levels to a minimum. Not an easy feat with a tantruming preschooler.
Navigating the train system, strangely, was a lot of fun (once we’d gotten over the hurdle of commuting with our luggage) and after becoming familiar with the lines, changes and PASMO ticket system we ran the gamut of sightseeing in Tokyo. From visiting Harajuku on a Sunday (severely disappointing and nothing like the place that changed my life as a 16-year-old); braving the tail end of the typhoon to go Miraikan The National Museum of Emerging Scienve and Innovation – which has one of the best interactive play area for kids I have ever seen; to wandering the streets of Shinjuku and Shibuya stopping in department stores, Tokyu Hands (!! Oh my lord I was in love); and then there was Tokyo Disney.
Tokyo Disney was so vast that we barely made it half way around before the sunset and Little A threw an enormous tantrum and fell asleep in SAH’s arms just as they were getting on the carousel. The only ride I wanted to go on was closed for maintenance and I was crushed – It’s a small world featured the imagery by one of my favourite illustrators, Mary Blair. I also sewed a pair of capri’s especially to wear on the Small World ride (but more about that another day), I still got to wear them and look pretty awesome anyway.
We leisurely pushed Little A in the stroller until he woke up and was able to squeeze a little more in to the visit before we had to leave.
But the highlight of Tokyo was visiting the Studio Ghibli museum. Entering the ticket lottery we managed to snag entry on the second last day of our trip. Giddily we wandered the halls of the specially created building, spending time leafing through reference books in the recreated artists studio, staring fascinated at the interactive room filled with stop motion creations and optical wonderment. SAH and I shared a look of glee as Little A giggled independently throughout the featurette movie (exclusive to the museum). Although Little A flat out refused to play on the enormous Cat Bus. I gasped when I walked into the library and saw framed prints of Mary Blair’s ‘I can fly’ illustrations, then greedily stacked my shopping basket full of Ghibli toys – for me, not the kid.
My kid is not a fan of shopping. Well, he thoroughly enjoys the supermarket (mainly dumping things in the trolley) but any kind of shopping that requires browsing, consideration or enjoyment is utterly painful for him. So why I thought he would suddenly enjoy it in a foreign country is somewhat perplexing to me.
But that did not stop us as we persevered. Refining our shopping techniques with a combination of tag-team minding/shopping, distraction method and seeing the store at a run.
Sounds exhausting? It was. We did manage to pick up a few lovely items but I am sorry I missed out on taking my time browsing through craft and bookshops.
The whole trip was an amazing experience and I was happy to share it with my lovely little family but I did come away slightly shell-shocked and weary, learning some important lessons in travel with a small kid and swearing that we will wait a few years before we go overseas again as a family.
We also celebrated our 5 year wedding anniversary whilst in Tokyo with Yakitori, Beers, taiyaki and adorable selfies (this kid is definitely related to me).
One afternoon in September SAH called and asked ‘So, um do you want to go to Japan next month?’.
Turns out SAH was being sent to Tokyo for a fancy packaging conference in October and the opportunity was too good for Little A and I to pass up. So we quickly booked plane tickets as I started scouring AirBNB for the perfect pad to make our home away from home for 10 days. I made contact with a few Tokyo-based designers organising visits to studios, making this work opportunity for me too.
Emails flew fast between my lovely freelance buddy and Japanophile, Shell (Kitty and Buck), while SAH and I excitedly listed the restaurants we’d go to and the shops we’d visit. Oh the time I would spend browsing craft stores and book shops, leaving no stone unturned… I can hear the parents who’ve travelled with their kids laughing from here.
As you can probably guess our romantic visions of cruising around Tokyo with our kid, being hip global travellers was completely deluded and reality was less than perfect. It took us a few days and some monumental melt downs (from all three of us) to find our rhythm and settle in to some understanding of international travel with a three-year-old.
Staying in the bohemian and oh-so-hip neighbourhood of Shimokitazawa – home of Hello Sandwich, dozens and dozens of very well stocked vintage stores, cafes, tiny trendy bars, and cool young persons night life – we faced a daily conflict: do we stay in Shimokita and explore every lane, alley, backstairs and nook; or do we go off and see the rest of Tokyo.
In the end we ventured outside of our neighbourhood most days, only to return in the afternoon and relax in the surrounds, wander, shop, eat and on one excellent afternoon indulge in delicious street food festival.
We learnt the hard way early on that life would be easier for all of us if we included kids activities in the day so one sunny afternoon we made the trek to the ‘local’ park. ‘Local’ because it was a 3.5km walk away with no direct public transport. Still when we arrived at Setagaya park we were rewarded with facilities that made our jaws drop. Free for small children to use and policed only by their very polite parents were peddle cars and an intricate track complete with working traffic lights. Along side this craziness was a small but packed skate park, decommissioned steam train kids were climbing all over and a sign that pointed us in the direction of a miniature steam train one could ride (but as the walk had taken so long we had missed its hours of operation).
I spent a large portion of our time in Tokyo dawdling, staring up at signs, stores, buildings anything that caught my eye, while following SAH as he pushed Little A in our stroller. Such was SAH’s dedication to pushing the stroller, that I jokingly said I was going to make a film entitled: ‘Man pushes stroller’. Turns out I wasn’t joking and in the end I created three videos that document our time in Tokyo and my view for a lot of the trip.
Here is one of them
I’ve come away inspired in more ways than I thought possible.
Travelling with a small child and the restrictions that come with it (no wild nights, solid hours on end of shopping, over crowded tourist spots) we needed to explore the city in different ways and all of it via public transport and on foot.
Slowly walking through the suburbs and we found life away from bright lights and obnoxious trucks playing the latest pop sensation on loud speaker (a way of advertising).Textures and patterns emerged and the realisation that everything has some form of illustration on it. Grimey concrete, sharp lines of repetitive box housing, clever street signs painted on the ground in narrow streets, pops of bright colour cutting through utilitarian hues, traditional sandwiched between the urban. This is the Tokyo we saw and loved.
Next post I will go into more detail on wheres and hows and even add our hard found tips on travelling with kids in Tokyo.