Well, we survived it. We travelled around Japan with 4 adults and 4 children under four. I realise that some people would not look upon a holiday with their own children as a thing to be survived, but this required the sort of mental and physical stamina even the Brownlee brothers would have been proud of. Holidaying with children is HARD WORK. Whatever the Japanese equivalent of Majestic Wine is, our trip necessitated two hefty deliveries.
We had been sitting on the tarmac at Heathrow (minus a pilot, apparently) for two hours and things were just starting to get tense when a kindly air hostess approached us, I hoped, bearing activity bags and Toblerones and invitations to the cockpit. She asked me how old they were, presumably to tailor the contents of their activity bags. “She’s three and he’s 18 months,” I replied, hopefully. She looked at the boy and said, “Worst possible age. Absolute worst age to travel. You’ll have a nightmare.” Marvellous. Thank you, BA, for those words of comfort. I had also forgotten to bring food for the baby which was upsetting on two counts: 1. Slight Mum Fail. Quite bad. All I had was Pringles and Wine Gums; 2. I would have to share my own food with him. I love plane food.
Japan is beautiful. A magnificent land full of colour and kindness and contradictions. So brilliant and so bonkers all at once. It is so safe that nobody locks their houses, children take themselves to school in the middle of Tokyo from the age of seven, and you drop your iPhone in a park and come back a day later to find somebody has popped it on a bench for you. One woman approached me to tell me I had dropped some money on the floor. I told her that it wasn’t mine and she immediately put it back on the floor. When she’d gone I picked it up and pocketed it. I’m culturally respectful, I’m not mad.
The women are incredibly beautiful and stylish and uniformly tiny. I felt like Big Bird. There are a lot of Culottes and Breton Stripe combos, which seemed like a look I might be able to pull off: a wide leg and an elasticated waist – lovely. But half an hour in the Uniqlo changing rooms proved me wrong. I looked like a weeble in a hospital gown.
Daddy Ug had a planned an Olympian-style itinerary for our stay. We had a schedule and we would stick to it. Or actually we wouldn’t. Because small children don’t move fast. Unless it’s in the opposite direction or you’re trying to brush their teeth. We got the Metro to Shibuya crossing in the middle of Tokyo and it took us an AN HOUR to leave the station. Someone needed a wee, then someone had their nappy changed, then we got lost trying to find the lifts, then they were hungry. I thought I was going to grow old and die down there. On about Day 4, Daddy Ug hissed at me through gritted teeth, “I expected to only see 50% of what I wanted to see. I did NOT expect to only see 5%.” Oh. I did. This is exactly how I expected it to be. Like the rest of my life, only in Japan.
We travelled to Hakone, a kind of Japanese Lake District, for an overnight stay in an Onsen hotel. Onsens are the hot springs and baths used by the Japanese for a bit of “naked communion.” Yup. No cozzies allowed. How would I manage without my reinforced mum-panel and distraction-ruching? Nudity is not my bag. I like clothes. As many as I can get on; a cardy if possible. Not so the Japanese. We had watched YouTube videos entitled What to do in an Onsen, because, frankly, how else would you know? There are little stations around the edge of the bath with a stool and a bowl and a showerhead, and you must spend a long time washing your body before you get in. So, there you are, NUDE, next to your equally nude friend, scrubbing your bits and wishing you hadn’t had such a big lunch. But once we had got over our own wham-bam-here-I-am nakedness, it was actually quite fun. Mums on the loose. With their norks out! It was also our only childfree afternoon in three weeks. You can take children in, but why anyone would want to is beyond me. Actually, I would take a Japanese child in. Just not one of my own. These are places of peace and rejuvenation, not somewhere someone does a poo in the water.
After three weeks I can safely conclude that Japanese children aren’t like the British ones. Ours are a bit like a drunk auntie at a wedding. Loud, spill stuff, sing a lot and a bit weepy at the end of the night. The Japanese are altogether more… refined. The babies seem to be born with manners and poise. Nobody eats on public transport in Japan; in fact nobody eats in public. It’s rude and it leaves crumbs. We try to be respectful of customs, but I’m afraid this was a leap too far. I never travel without snacks (unless I’m on a 12 hour flight). What madness. How would I bribe them? I’m not saying they are wheeled down the road cramming a steak slice down their necks every day; I am saying it’s easier to get them in the buggy with the help of a bag of Maltesers. Small, elegant Japanese children (and adults) looked on open-mouthed at the flailing limbs, the fox-like screeching, the occasional mooning and the renditions of Let it Go which followed us wherever we went. On the train one day I looked over to find Eve brushing the hair of the lady beside her with our nit comb.
We took them to a temple with giant golden buddhas and ponds with huge koy karp; they liked the gravel. We took them to a food market with amazing pickled vegetables and black sesame ice cream; they liked the ramp. We went to the Cup Noodle Museum and made our own flavour of deliciously-processed pot noodle; they liked the stairs. We glimpsed geishas in Gion and they missed them because they had dropped their cake. We saw tiny dogs dressed in hats and coats being pushed around in their very own prams; I pointed them out to Eve, who replied, “I’ve got my eyes closed today. Can’t see.” Great. I’m pleased we’ve come.
The food was incredible for anyone who ate meat (which was everyone except me). They all ate like kings: squid and lobster and sashimi and pork tempura. The children ate like kings who only ate plain rice and plain noodles. Also a good many white-bread jam sandwiches from the Seven Eleven. The edges of the (crustless) sandwich are sealed together by a machine in a neat and mess-free way which won me right over. See, no crumbs. Ingenious. I ate a lot of Japanese omelette. Which is an omelette rolled in a tiny tatami mat. Exotic. We sampled delicious okonomiyaki pancakes, which was tricky to do as they are cooked in front of you on a hot plate: your whole table is a scorching sheet of metal, ideal for burning small hands. So we found somewhere that would leave the hotplate off and cook them in the kitchen for us. (Number 784 in Daddy Ug’s evidence log of How Children Ruin Your Cultural Experience.) All arranged using wild gesticulation and charades-style demonstrations of babies on fire.
We had a disappointing trip to a cat café, where we were informed on arrival that the children had to be 11 in order to come in. What? What is the point of a cat café if you can’t take small children? Who else is going there? There are also penguin cafes and owl cafes. How old do you have to be for those, 25?
We did karaoke in the afternoon in a pink padded booth and discovered that a three year old’s repertoire is rather limited. We walked in the shade of the glorious bamboo forest at Arashiyama and stood in a cage feeding monkeys who were free to run about the mountain. We cycled round Kyoto with the babes on our bikes and I confess I am not a natural cyclist. I have no sense of balance or of what I can fit between. The bikes were electric and I still couldn’t do it. I managed to crash causing both me and the baby to fall off in a ridiculous heap of ineptitude in the middle of the road. I did plenty of helpful screaming and imagined spending the night in Japanese A&E. I was informed by our friend, behind, that if I had laid the baby down in a meadow of clover his landing could not have been softer. Still, we didn’t get bikes again.
In Hiroshima we found a city so full of peace and quiet remembrance you could not fail to be moved. It is a thriving place, a bustling, modern city full of young people. But the Atomic Dome stands, just as it did that awful day, 72 years ago, a reminder of all that was lost. In the museum we wept over the testimonies of survivors, of parents who had lost their children. One woman could identify her son only by the lunchbox he was still clutching, its contents charred and blackened; another recognised her daughter by the kimono silk she had sewn onto the girl’s sandals, somehow miraculously preserved. And still now, all over the city, people fold paper cranes, in tribute to the little girl who survived the bomb but developed leukaemia years later. She believed that if she folded 1000 paper cranes, she would be granted her wish: a world without nuclear weapons. She was 12 when she died. We came outside into the afternoon sun of the Peace Park and kissed our babies. The peace that graces the city seems borne of a resolve to forgive, but never ever to forget; of an unequivocal belief that such atrocities must never happen again. But now more than ever, 62 years after that little girl’s death, her wish still seems so horribly far from being realised.
One day we will go back, and see all the things on Daddy Ug’s list which we failed to see this time. But we will remember this as a holiday full of friends and kids and fun. And wine. I asked Eve what her favourite bit was of going to Japan and she replied, without blinking, “Watching Sofia the First on the plane.” Raaaahhhhhhhh! For her the makings of a good holiday seem to involve escalators, ramps, DVDs and sandwiches. We might as well have taken her to Asda.