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Getting lost in Japan: Part 1

This winter, we went on a trip to Japan that we were all equally excited to take.  Being that we are in Southeast Asia, instead of voyaging home for Christmas, we’ve taken the opportunity to see more of the region, knowing that these places would be harder for us to explore from the U.S.

Japan was a delight for the eyes, heart, and soul.

Day 1: Wake up, we’re here!

Once we landed in Tokyo, we realized how different the experience was in comparison to Singapore, where almost everything is in English. 

With mostly everything is written in Japanese, we quickly started to get a lot more organized in how we were going to go about each day, knowing that our ability to just “wing it” as we go, would not serve us well.

We had our limited knowledge of Japanese and were hoping that would be enough to get us around and be able to enjoy this amazing country.

Looking out the window from our hotel room, it was incredible to see just how small any other city appears (including NYC) when you look out at Tokyo.  With a city 3 times the size and 4 times the population of NYC, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. But that’s not what we felt at all, we were all ready to explore.

Day 2: Lost in Transportation

We started early with a big breakfast and then headed for the subway (my husband was guardian of the map as we tried to get our sense of direction.) The first place was planned, Team Labs, but we couldn’t get tickets right away, which gave us a few hours to wander around.

The kids loved that they saw this awesome park to play in, as with the colder temperatures (55 F/12 C) it felt like the perfect time to play outside.  With over 2 years straight in sweltering heat, the cooler temperature in Japan was a main driver for our visit this Christmas.  And the kids were loving it.

They delighted in the freedom to run around without rules, time limits or anything but their imaginations and energy to drive them forward.  I often wonder if apartment style living is stunting them and making them too house-bound.  So to see them so carefree was one of the highlights of my day.

Once we left that area, we wandered off to eat, but how do you know if you would like the food when you can’t read the menu?  This led us to wandering until our feet hurt and bellies started to rumble.  Thankfully, we fell upon an area where we could find something to eat and rest until our activity began.

Team Labs was an incredible sensory experience that included walking up a hill as water is rushing towards you, wading in knee deep water as digital koi fish swim around you, laying on a planetarium floor as flowers cascade down and lying within a garden with real flowers that danced up and down. It was sensory overload but the kids couldn't get enough, with each part of the experience so beautifully designed and thought through.

The day wasn’t without a series of mishaps, between the kids losing backpacks, hats and gloves multiple times, walking so much our feet were aching, and losing our way a bit on the trip home, but in each instance we were able to course correct, pick up our troops and set ourselves in the right direction.

But such is life and definitely when you travel.  Not a day goes by without things that don’t go quite right, you will get lost, you will be tired, there will be complaining and then you figure out a better way and get back on track and hopefully find a good meal at the end.

We ended the day with incredible sushi at Junisoh. Everything was so fresh, the options seemed to be endless and the service was so high, we wondered how the next meals would compare, but little did we know at the time that every meal would compete to win in Japan. Our stomach's were delighted!

Day 3: A bit of Paris, a taste of Naples, a smidge of New York all wrapped up in Tokyo

This day was a great mix of sightseeing, surprises along the way and good shopping!  We started out at the Tokyo Tower, which is Tokyo’s answer to the Eiffel Tower, but instead it’s painted in a bright jubilant red, which I do have to admit adds a bit of fun when you see it in a landscape, like it’s not trying to take itself too seriously, but still wants to be noticed.

From the top of it we were able to get a great view of Tokyo which was awesome, as when you are down within this massive city, it’s hard to understand the scope or see even a fraction of what you can from the sky.

The kids enjoyed going up the tower and also the many, many gift shops we encountered on the way down.  (They clearly know what they are doing on the retail front - sure you can bypass one gift shop but how about 5?)

After purchasing some trinket, we were all starving for some good food and remembered a very long line we saw queuing around the block, although I remembered as we were passing by that it was an Italian restaurant.  I have nothing against eating international foods when in these large cities, but thought it would be odd to queue for Italian in Japan.

The que was absolutely worth it!   After waiting a few minutes to see if we could get seated in this tiny cafe restaurant (Pizzeria Da Peppe Napolistaca Kamiyacho), the owner Giuseppe “Peppe” Erricchiell, came out himself to find us a warm table out of the cold by the wood burning stove.  What commenced was a feast for the eyes and stomach with some of the best Naples style pizza and pasta we’ve tasted since our honeymoon in Italy.  We were floored and the food, just like in Italy, kept coming well after our initial order was delivered 

Next, we decided to head to the Ginza area to see what the shopping (which we were told was pretty great) looked like.  What started as a short subway ride, was an hour long voyage to try to find out where the heck we were going by using a paper map.  I can still remember how fatigued we all were by getting off at the wrong stop, climbing up and down so many stairs, escalators and hallways, only to find we were lost…again.  We decided to do away with the map turn to our phones to help guide us which became a blessing for my tired feet and grumpy children.

Finally, we found the lights, decorations, treats and crowds of Ginza.  All at once we were delighted to find the beautiful shops, great streets that led to more intimate shopping and large displays with wild windows all decked out for the holidays.  We bought the kids a small snack to tide them over and headed to the stores.

It felt like a cross between New York’s 5th Ave and Soho, with a dash of Singapore’s posh Orchard Road abundance and cleanliness all mixed with Japanese design & hospitality.  Once you can envision that, multiply the area by 2 to really fit it in all of the shops that were available.  We felt like kids in the candy store as the shopping was superb, the dollar was strong and we could take advantage of getting our taxes back.  Every salesmen kept reminding us how “cheap” it was compared to Singapore.

Living in a ridiculously expensive city definitely messes with your head on what is “cheap”

Once we could be pulled away from Ginza, we ended the day with a fancy night out for sushi, which was interesting to do with kids.  No sitter means they get to go to places that I never knew about until I had a job... actually not until I was well into my career.

In fact, the kids are getting to experience things that Jeremy and I are only just experiencing for the first time too.  As adults we are delighted because we are well aware of how special & unique these places and trips are.  Places we’ve heard of, studied, saw on television and movies but never thought we would go to.

Meanwhile the kids are having fun in these places or utterly bored as we go see yet another temple, church, museum, landmark or tour.  While we try to keep things balanced so it’s not all about us or all about them, I wonder how much they will remember, how these travels will impact them or if that really matters.

Mostly, I think it’s the difference between my husband and I feeling the impact of a trip while we are on the trip and the kids who may not feel the impact and the unique gift of travel until years or decades later.

Having spoken to some adults who were expat kids themselves, this seems to be the case, so I should just keep waiting for the light bulbs to turn on…in 2034.

Day 4:  We lost our minds and went to Disneyland Tokyo

We are NOT Disney people.

In fact, we sort of prided ourselves on the fact that we've avoided going in the almost 10 years with children.

Sure we’ve enjoyed Disney movies. But we heard the horror stories from families that went to Disney World or Land before us and that never looked very appealing when debating what to do with our precious vacation days.

So how did we end up at Disney?  As all things happen.  With peer pressure and a discount.

Part of the allure in being an expat (especially in Southeast Asia) is the crazy amount of diverse travel that’s so close by and this leads to running into a lot of other people who came here with similar hopes to see different parts of the world.

Which becomes a running conversation of swapping travel locations, hotels, experiences and guides with one another much in the same way that I used to swap tips with friends on the best places to shop.  It’s completely bizarre but also a wonderful part of the experience.

So when we said that we were going to Tokyo with our kids for Christmas almost every person asked us if we were going to Disney.  When we emphatically shook our heads no, you could see the horror creeping into their expressions as they wondered what kind of horrible parents would deny their kids Disney…on Christmas?? (LOL, I kid…kinda)

So began my search into Disney and to my surprise, it was both much cheaper than Disney World in Florida and looked much more doable to accomplish in one day.  My husband wasn't entirely sold on the plan, he was willing to try, for the children's sake.  Although he was still very much convinced that an amusement park in the winter was a terrible idea.

In the end, we spent over 11 hours in the park and have so many stories from that one very memorable day (which my son is still convinced he dreamed up), but there are two moments that stand out the most: seeing the kids on their first BIG roller coaster ride and witnessing how the Disney magic entranced the adults in very different ways.

Rollercoaster fun:

The kids have never been on giant roller coasters for two reasons, 1) our daughter was afraid of heights until this year and 2) they were too short to make it on any rides even if they wanted to go.

This time all fears were put aside and that autumn growth spurt put them both comfortably within the approved height requirement.  They were determined and ready for it!  I don’t know who was more excited by that fact, them or us. (We instantly turned into our ten year old selves the minute we crossed into the park.)

First on my list was Space Mountain.  I remember this ride as clear as anything from my childhood and couldn’t wait to experience it again as an adult.

It was even better than I remembered.

I don’t know if it was the upgraded special effects, the thrill of doing this with my family or the joy of going on an incredible ride after so many years.  All I knew was that it all worked.  We each loved it, but the kids looked like they were absolutely blown away. The fact that we gave them that experience made it so much sweeter for us, along with the fact that we were secretly (not so secretly) loving it too.

The magic is real if you believe:

Now, so much of the magic of Disney is in how it calls you back to your childhood memories, to a time when things were simpler, the lessons of the stories were clearly good vs evil and where you could safely suspend belief in exchange for a bit of fun & whimsy.   

I was prepared for that.

What I wasn’t quite prepared for was the intense way in which crowds of people not only lined up when the parades were coming around, but actually came specifically to see the parades.

I'm talking about lining up for over an hour to get a good spot, like this was New Year’s Eve in Times Square and stake out a good spot so they don’t miss a minute of a parade.

Is this what happens at all Disneys?  Am I out of step with the proper Disney agenda?

In my mind, Disney was all about the rides and experiences, but the parades at Disney Tokyo seemed to be the main attraction for many who came.  Don’t get me wrong they were fun, but I found myself taken aback to see hundreds of people forgo rides to wait for a parade.

But that was where the magic came for many in Japan. It was the characters and pageantry that enthralled them and made them come back for more.  Everyone was dressed not just in mouse ears but also as their favorite character.  This is what spoke to them and made them enjoy Disney.  Who was I to question that?

That day Disney served up a perfect day full of magic, mystery and fun, even with the exorbitant food and retail prices quickly increasing our initial ticket cost.

But once you’re in, all you can do is surrender to the mouse.

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