(Andrew Killeen is currently exploring Japan with his wife and two sons, aged ten and seven. In this series of posts he shares his experiences of travelling in 日本 with children.)
“Can’t we just have a holiday where we stay in one place?” Joseph grumbled.
He had a point. Attempting to pack a lifetime’s worth of Japanese dreams into a one-week visit was sometimes an exhausting experience. We flew into Tokyo, immediately took the shinkansen (bullet train) to Osaka, where I had booked tickets for sumo wrestling the following day. From there we went to Nara, and on for one night in Kyoto. The boys decided that “One night in Kyoto” sounded like a horror movie title, so whenever anybody used these words, they were required to do so in a gravelly, ominous voice. However we survived without zombie attack or other mishap and traveled over two hundred miles just to see a castle, (although Matsumoto turned out to be a charming little town which we all loved). Finally, we returned to Tokyo for the last three days.
In total we covered 750 miles in four days. With children, this would have been nightmarish, if not actually impossible, in most countries. Japanese trains though are quick, clean and efficient. (In fairness I should point out that China’s bullet trains are just as pleasant to use.)
We bought Japan Rail (JR) Passes, which cost JPY 29,110 (around RMB 1700 – half price for children under 11). These allow you to travel on much of Japan’s rail network, including most shinkansen. It doesn’t cover the Tokyo subway, but we got around the capital on the overground rail network without difficulty, and quickly got used to looking for the “JR” sign. Bear in mind that you have to buy these passes before you travel to Japan. Vouchers, which you exchange for the actual passes on arrival, can be purchased from travel agents or Taobao.
Keeping children entertained is another challenge of long train journeys. As a parent there’s always a trade off between not spoiling our children, and the occasional need to bribe them to shut up for the sake of other people. The Nintendo DS was for us both pacifier and sanction, to be withheld as a punishment for bad behavior. We also took cards, dice and books. As the week went on, the hours on the train became a welcome rest for us all, after the whirlwind of seeing a city in a single day.
One thing we learned is that even with children, it’s possible to travel light. We carried one suitcase, one rucksack, and two smaller bags for drinks, books, electronics etc. Most of the guesthouses we stayed at had washing machines and driers available for the use of guests, and we simply washed as we went.
We’re back now, and planning our summer adventures. It’s all aboard the Trans-Siberian Express for us. Maybe we’ll schedule in longer stops this time.
Photo: Karen Killeen