A Perfect Day

Some days are just amazing, and Monday was one of them. We set out for the northwest of Kyoto, to visit the Golden Pagoda and Ryoan-ji. 

Kinkaku-ji, Golden Pavilion

The Golden Pagoda was overwhelming for several reasons. It’s a stunning building covered in gold leaf, and situated on the edge of a beautiful pond. It’s no wonder the tourists flock there, and they come in droves, herds, gaggles, you name it. Tons of bus tours, so we had to keep a close eye on Ren, who definitely found the rock paths and duck ponds the most interesting part of our visit. Oh, and the green tea soft serve ice cream, but we all enjoyed that.

New favorite flavor!

Ryoan-ji was the perfect counterpoint to the chaos of the Golden Pagoda. It’s a landscape garden with a enclosed Zen rock garden at its heart, containing 15 rocks that are carefully placed for no discernible reason. The date of construction and the designer are unknown as well. I like the theory that the garden represents a tiger carrying her cubs across a pond. Sit, contemplate, and find peace. If you can, that is, because I made the fatal error of giving Ren slippers that were too big with Winnie the Pooh, so I had no peace. Oh well! Our visit was still lovely, relaxing and calming. 

Do you see the tiger?

We were pointed towards a specific restaurant about 15 minutes away for lunch, and Ren fell asleep in the carrier as we walked so we detoured to a giant complex across the street: Ninna-ji. There was no way to walk past the imposing gate without peeking inside, and it turned out to be a wonderful surprise, sparely decorated with tatami mats and brush paintings on screens. All of the visitors treated it with a bit of reverence, and we enjoyed our hushed visit as Ren napped and I sat by a manicured gravel garden overlooking a landscaped waterfall.

Peace.

We crossed the street back over to Sakon, the restaurant, and were ushered into a private dining room. We decided to splurge on a multi-course meal, and proceeded to have one of the more memorable meals of my life. 

Ren said the tuna was delicious

Delicious food presented artistically, great company, meticulous service, and Ren enjoyed some of each course too – devouring ikura, cooked salmon, raw tuna, beef and oranges. We were stuffed by the time we finished, and basically closed down the restaurant. 

She even tried octopus!

Back onto the train after a detour to a playground, and towards a shrine close to where we were staying called Fushimi Inari.  

Colorful complex

The shrine is at the bottom of a mountain, and was very colorful to visit with bright orange, white, and gold buildings and thousands of origami cranes hanging alongside prayer boards. 

Making wishes and prayers come true

A temple brochure called the paint color vermilion, but I’ve always thought of that as a red color. I’d call this bright orange! Thousands of these orange Torii march up the mountain, apparently sponsored by individuals and corporations.

Peekaboo!

We didn’t make it all the way up, which would have taken hours, because we had other goals for the evening: karaoke! Adam indoctrinated us into the Japanese tradition of renting a private room and belting out some classic hits. Ren liked it too, or at least she was kind to us in our efforts. Late night ramen was a fitting end to a long, terrific day.

Singing our hearts out, while Ren grooves.

 

Memoirs of a Geisha

Remember that book? If you don’t, go read it. I just reread it at the beginning of our trip, and it is mainly set in Kyoto, specifically in the neighborhood of Gion. That’s where we started off on Sunday, and it was a bit of a thrill to step out of the subway station next to the kabuki theater mentioned in the book, and to walk down the street past the red walls of the prominent Ichiriki teahouse where the geishas entertained.

Our destination was Yasaka Shrine, where we strolled through the buildings and continued on to Maruyama Park just behind the shrine. It had been recommended as a good stop for kids, and didn’t disappoint. Ren peered closely into the pond looking for fish, and was thrilled when Adam showed her that if you clap they come. The pigeons were also a big hit, and she chased them in her funny stuttering way back and forth over a little bridge. Luckily, Ren didn’t fall in, and no pigeons or fish were harmed in her delight.

Clapping to call the fish

We continued uphill to Chion-in Temple, the head temple of the Jodo sect of Buddhism. I listened to the monks chanting, and we saw the largest temple bell in Japan. We also purchased a goshuin-cho (special shrine book), that many people use to collect stamps and calligraphy from temples. Thus began our quest! It was a lot of fun to seek out the calligraphers at each temple or shrine, and made for a great souvenir. It reminded me of the pilgrim passports from the Camino de Santiago, and apparently Japanese pilgrims use these to record their travels too.

Temple bell at Chion-in

Ren was in need of a nap, so she and I went back to our house, while Adam and Grant kept exploring. They found old Kyoto, and took me back to the narrow shopping streets that evening. This is clearly a touristy area, but was fun to poke around all the little shops, and of course our friend Hello Kitty was well represented. Ren was riding high on our shoulders with her Hello Kitty hat on too, greeting her public.

Atmospheric streets in Kyoto

We saw a few geisha on a side street, which made my trip, and ended our evening with Korean BBQ, watching Ren watching music videos and dancing along from her seat.

Geisha in Gion

 

On to Kyoto

Our last day (for now) in Tokyo was pretty low key. Ren and I went to Yoyogi Park, and just enjoyed being outside. We watched some teenage girls practicing their dance routines, listened to birds who seemed to caw “hello”, and found dozens of preschool kids admiring the few cherry trees in bloom. Ren was fascinated by the groups of kids, who all wear colored caps to identify themselves (blue group, yellow group, pink group, green group, etc). Some of them appeared to have arrived by crib, and we’ve seen local daycare or preschool kids being pushed around as a group of six or so in a crib with large wheels. They all carefully posed for group photos under the blossoms. Kawaii!

Beautiful day with cherry blossoms in Yoyogi Park

After the park, we walked over to the Ota Memorial Museum of Art, which is home to one of the best collections of ukiyo-e (woodblock) prints in Japan. Their collection rotates, and the current exhibit was called “Kawaii: cute girls in Ukiyo-e“. I could have spent much longer here if I was by myself, but Ren did a good job looking quickly at the prints, and describing what she saw, “Mama, baby bath!” or “brush hair!”, with a lot of enthusiasm. 

We hit another playground that evening, and three local girls (maybe ten years old) adopted Ren and took her up and down the slide. Dinner was memorable for Ren, since we met up with Grant and went to a sushi place where you ordered via iPad, and your food zoomed to you on little tracks. If all of her meals could be delivered that way, she’d be in heaven.

The next morning, we packed up and met Adam to take the Shinkansen (bullet train) to Kyoto. Great way to travel, and of course a really fast train ride was approved by Ren. Here in Kyoto, we booked a traditional machiya (townhouse) via Airbnb. It’s down a tiny dark passageway, and has plenty of space for all four of us. We’re all sleeping on Japanese futons (floor mattresses), even Ren! Thankfully, she has had no problem adapting to this, although this is the first time she isn’t sleeping in a crib.

The house has a lot of character: tatami flooring, a steep ladder-like staircase that we’re all kind of crawling up and down, sliding doors, and only heaters in two rooms. Luckily, once you snuggle under the blankets it is warm enough, and we’re hanging out in a room with a kotatsu (table with a built in heater underneath, and a comforter draped around it) when we aren’t asleep. 

Nearby temple entrance

Our neighborhood is Southern Higashiyama, and every few feet there is another temple or shrine. Perfect location for sightseeing strolls. Kyoto is a great city to walk around, and we’re working off everything we eat!

Kyoto Tower at night

 

Signs of spring

The sun has appeared, and it feels like spring in Tokyo! Blue skies have been beckoning us outside, and yesterday Ren and I visited the East Gardens of the Imperial Palace. It’s the only part of the palace grounds open to the public on a daily basis without a reservation.

Imperial Palace grounds (the part you can’t enter)

We took the train to Tokyo Station, which surprisingly has a very western brick facade and would look perfectly at home in Europe. To prolong our time in the garden, we stopped and picked up some food for a picnic from that classic purveyor, 7-11. That’s right, given all of the food options in Tokyo, we went for 7-11. It’s not just a hot dog and slurpee destination here, but actually has a wide range of choices. Ren, given her choice of everything in the store, chose “bubbles”. After chuckling, and saying that I didn’t think 7-11 would be able to provide that, I noticed she was actually pointing at onigiri (rice balls) with an ikura (“bubbles” to Ren) filling. Go figure! I got a fatty tuna roll, and we picked up a string cheese to balance the toddler picnic out. 7-11 saves the day!

Enjoying our 7-11 picnic

It was about a 15 minute walk to the garden entrance from the station and I feel like I should get a medal in the toting toddler Olympics. We’re using our Beco carrier daily, and I never imagined I’d be carrying a 27 pound toddler in it! Luckily, she loves riding in it and it lets us explore greater distances while not worrying about safety in a hectic city environment. Plus, no toting a stroller up and down subway steps. 

Upon entering we were each handed an admission token, although it was free to enter. I’m not sure exactly what purpose the token served, but we had to hand it back when we left. I think it was the highlight of Ren’s garden tour, and she delighted in showing me she still had it and taking it in and out of her pocket.

Samurai guardhouse

We climbed a hill, past samurai guardhouses and through gigantic stone walls, ending up on a flat lawn area surrounded by different garden areas (orchard, tea garden, etc). The highlight of the visit for me, was an early blooming winter cherry tree and we joined the small crowd in taking a gazillion photos of the blooms.  

Our first cherry blossoms in Japan!

We picnicked in the sun and played shadow tag across the bleached grass before Ren gave into exhaustion and napped the whole way back to our hotel. She keeps proving how flexible she can be and it’s really a joy to travel with her.

Cherry blossoms for you!

Post nap, we visited a play space in a mall in Roppongi Hills (an area popular for arts and nightlife), and then met up with Grant for yet another ramen dinner. This was our favorite dinner so far, partially because the restaurant was really relaxed with Ren and had a high chair and eating utensils ready for her. This was the first time in a week she’s had a high chair! Much easier on us, and we got to sit at the counter like the locals with her in between us.

View of Tokyo Tower from Roppongi Hills

Today, we visited the Fire Museum in Shinjuku and it was a big hit with Ren. The entrance hall had lots of different fire trucks to look at (old vs new), and even a fire fighting helicopter suspended overhead! We went upstairs where there were hundreds of buttons that needed to be pushed, a cartoon movie theater that even had English voice overs, and a fire truck and helicopter to climb into. 

So many fire trucks, so much joy.

The best button pushing experience was in the pretend house, where you pressed buttons next to mirrors which then showed you the danger associated with the scene you were standing next to (baby could fall out of a drop side crib, boy could fall out of an open window). My favorite was this one: child may eat cigarette butts thinking they are candy, and be sad (as translated by Ren).

Learning at the fire museum

The cartoons were pretty great too. We caught the end of one in Japanese that was about animal friends who accidentally started a fire, but were saved by the firefighters. They learned to watch out for sparks, and at the end all the male cats and dogs chased a cigarette butt down the street and peed on it triumphantly to put it out. You can’t make this stuff up! The one we chose to watch in English was about a firefighter from the future who is sent back to our time accidentally, and teaches the kids he finds not to play with fire or fireworks without an adult and a bucket of water nearby. There was an evil guy in it too, who kept trying to incite kids to set fires and he was kind of demonic with flames all around and yelling “burn, burn, burn, die everyone”, but luckily it ended on a positive note and Ren didn’t seem too scared. Go figure!

We made some new friends on a local playground this afternoon. The centerpiece of the playground was an octopus, where you climbed up the suckers and slid down his tentacles. I’d import this idea!

Octopus slide

 

On our own in Tokyo

Grant is working this week in the Tokyo Amazon office, so Ren and I are on our own. It’s amazing how few photos I can take when wrangling a toddler around a city by myself! Not a single one yesterday, in fact.

We walked Grant part of the way to his office, and stopped off at a playground on the way. It was pretty simple, two regular swings, monkey bars, a slide, and a bouncy riding thing…and a zip line that was basically just a rope hanging down with a knot in it. I thought it looked pretty cool, but most of it was a little too old for Ren so I’m not sure we’ll head back there. Instead, we left when it started raining on us and went to do Ren’s second favorite thing: watch the trains. When that got old, we moved forward to most favorite thing: ride the trains! 

We got on the JR Yamanote line, which does a circular loop through the city, and rode to Shinjuku. Lots of skyscrapers, department stores and a super busy train station. We wandered the streets, and ducked down a tiny alley with fake cherry blossoms overhead. It was an interesting juxtaposition to the busy broader streets, and home to dozens of tiny restaurants with just a few counter seats. Turns out, this area is Omoide Yokocho (literal translation is Memory Lane, colloquially known as Piss Alley). Looked like a fun pre-baby excursion, but probably not in the cards on this trip.

We did a little shopping in the area, and headed back to the hotel where we napped and took it easy. Dinner was bento boxes in the room from the nearby department store food hall, and a late evening return from Grant just in time to tuck Ren in.

Mount Fuji is the white peak near the center of the photo

Today we woke up to quite the surprise: a view of Mount Fuji from our hotel window! Also, an amazing blue sky and sunshine, a first on this trip. Fuji-san likes to play peekaboo almost as much as Ren, and was hiding in clouds just a few minutes later.

Ren and I set off in the sunshine to ride the subway to the other side of town, our goal being the SkyTree and the aquarium at its base. It’s the world’s tallest free-standing broadcasting tower, and it really was impressive. 

Working on our selfie game 

Ren found the dismantling of a temporary ice rink at the base much more interesting and we passed the long ticket lines and followed the other moms and kids to the aquarium. It was a really nice place, sparkling clean and plenty of exhibits at toddler eye level. 

Up close and personal with a shrimp 

We watched the jellyfish for a while, and then discovered a workshop next to the penguins where for ¥500 (about $5), you could buy a plain white T-shirt, and decorate it with penguin and heart stamps. Right up Ren’s alley, both in subject matter and activity, and it made a great hands on souvenir for us. The penguins were fun to watch, but even better was the diver cleaning up penguin poop. 

Underwater vacuuming for penguin poop!

 Wrapped up this evening by getting together with Adam, an old friend of Grant’s from Concord who we will be traveling to Kyoto with this weekend! We’re already looking forward to our time with Uncle Adam.

Meiji Shrine and Shibuya

Today started with the small miracle of Ren sleeping until almost 8! We’re officially on Tokyo time, and I think we’re all a little shocked that it has happened so quickly.

Mauling a bear for breakfast

Ren continued on her quest of consuming the cutest pastries possible for breakfast by mauling a teddy bear bun for breakfast, and we headed out to Meiji Shrine.

Meiji Shrine is next to Harajuku Station, and is a Shinto shrine dedicated to the deified spirits of Emperor Meiji (first emperor of modern Japan) and his consort Empress Shoken.The original shrine was destroyed by the Allies during WWII, but it was rebuilt shortly thereafter. It’s on the grounds of Yoyogi Park (home of the 1964 Olympics), and is a little shocking to be only steps away from the busy shopping district we visited yesterday, but to be in a relatively peaceful forested area.

Torii gate at Meiji Shrine

Our intention was to give Ren some space to roam, and this fit the bill perfectly. She was not at all impressed by the massive torii gates, but was quite taken with the muddy puddles. She did warm up to some of the etiquette – particularly the ritual for visiting the main shrine buildings: drop coins in the offering box, bow twice, clap twice, and bow once more. She would have done it over and over again if we’d let her!

We purchased an Ema (wooden tablet onto which you write your wishes), and talked with Ren about what we should write down, and she hung it carefully on a hook under the camphor tree. Being the weekend, it was a popular time for weddings at the shrine, and we saw three different brides and grooms posing for pictures and processing through the courtyard. We felt really lucky to see them.

Ren just hung the Ema on the top left.

We also visited the Meiji Jingu Gyoen (Imperial Garden), and Ren loved watching the fish at what was the Empress’ favorite fishing spot.

Hi fishies!

We intended to have a laid back lunch, but managed to stumble into one of the more tense meals we’ve had. We had heard that there were restaurants with views in the tower across from our hotel, and we decided to check out the menus and see if anything looked kid friendly. After spying high chairs through the doorway (our first sighting in Japan!), and seeing noodles on the menu, we walked confidently into a restaurant….only to realize once we had been seated that it was a teppanyaki restaurant, and that unlike in the US where diners sit around a central grill at a fairly safe distance, here we were sitting at a normal sized table for four, with a hot griddle taking up most of the middle of the table. Grant won the honor of sitting next to Ren, and did an admirable job of restraining her. The food was fine, but I don’t think we’ll be repeating the experience voluntarily.

Post nap, we had thought we would head to Asakusa in Northern Tokyo (visit a Buddhist temple and do a little souvenir shopping while strolling through a more traditional neighborhood). After gauging Ren’s energy level, we decided that a long train ride wasn’t in the cards today, and we headed to Shibuya. 

Shibuya is where the famous “scramble crossing” is, and we watched from an elevated walkway in the train station as people flooded the streets when the lights changed. We all enjoyed watching the ebb and flow, and Ren was in rare form when we finally got down into the streets ourselves, dancing and pointing at all the neon lights from atop our shoulders.

Shibuya’s scramble crossing

Shibuya is a different animal from Harajuku, all flashing lights and giant video screens. We walked around for a little just checking out the scene, and decided to stop for dinner at a ramen place, thinking that noodles would be perfect. Dinner was good, although Ren’s favorite parts were the broth from my bowl and the grape lollipop that the waitress treated her to. The atmosphere was kind of strange, with music from rap to country playing, but I think I have a new mission: to find my favorite bowl of ramen.

Ramen for Ren

Detouring through Mitsukoshi on our way home, Ren found the toy department and a little indoor playspace, and we found the nicest “babyroom” we could ever have imagined with multiple changing stations, kid friendly vending machines, a formula preparation area, and a separate nursing room. Why can’t we have spaces like this at home?

Tomorrow Grant is off to work, so Ren and I will be on our own for adventuring through Tokyo. Wish us luck!

Konnichiwa!

That’s right, we are in Japan!

We’ve done a little travel since Ren was born: Vancouver, most of the East Coast from Maine to North Carolina in several trips back east, and Hawaii. Hawaii was like a dream, and we spent a week on Maui in November 2014, so when the opportunity arose to join Grant on a business trip to Tokyo, we jumped at it. Literally, since we bought our tickets just over a week ago, and now here we are! We are loving Japan, and Japan loves…Ren.

Ready for our first Dreamliner flight!

The flight yesterday went really well, and she charmed everyone on the plane and in the airport yesterday with her clownfish backpack. She was consistently greeted with “Nemo…kawaii!” She was in great spirits. Today she’s been making friends with her Hello Kitty hat on. I think Japan was made for adorable two year olds.

The hardest part of yesterday was the final 1.5 hours on the bus from Narita to Tokyo, Ren started strong but about 40 minutes into the ride (perhaps not coincidentally as the sun was setting) she started to crash hard. Can’t blame her as it was around 1 AM Seattle time and she had a normal nap on the plane around 4 PM Seattle time, so she was zonked. We were all very relieved to reach the hotel and get Ren into her crib, where she crashed around 7PM local time/2AM Seattle time. The grown ups stuck it out until around 8:30.

This morning we were up bright and early (around 4:15AM)! We decided to strike while the iron was hot (while the kid was energetic), and head to Tsujiki Fish Market. It’s a 10-15 minute walk to the actual subway station (Ebisu) closest to us, but luckily it was a straight shot on that line to the market. Ren dozed off on the subway, even though she had been really excited to take the “choo-choo”. We had her in the Beco carrier, which she was delighted to ride in again (it has been a few months since we’ve used it at home). 

Yum!

Strolled around in a drizzle, dodging carts and trucks (it is a very busy area, and clearly a hard working market!), and spent most of our time in the Outside Market, which is stall after stall of fish, vegetables, restaurant supply stores, and tiny restaurants serving the freshest sushi. Had to take advantage of that, so once Ren woke up, we headed back to the one that had seemed the friendliest. The ground floor was packed, but the man outside waved us in, shouting orders to the people inside. They whisked us up a flight of stairs, to a tiny room with four tables. Very friendly people, colorful picture menu, and we both ordered miso soup and a chirashi bowl (rice with sashimi on top). Grant stuck to tamago, tuna, salmon, and minced fatty tuna (which Ren declared yummy), and I got a bit more adventurous with salmon,albacore, tuna, shrimp, sea cucumber?, and salmon roe (ikura). The biggest surprise and hit of the day for Ren was ikura, aka bubbles. She ate almost all of them (probably 3-4 healthy spoonfuls), along with a nice amount of the fatty tuna and two-thirds of my salmon. The restaurant loved her, and brought her a little teddy on a stick, and several people stopped by to say hi to her. She must feel like a rock star.

A little more wandering around, and we headed back to the hotel by 10, with a stop on the way for bunny bread – a little roll shaped like a bunny with chocolate chip eyes and chocolate pudding inside. That may become a regular treat!

Bunny bread

 We’re certainly getting our exercise, walking around and carrying Ren in turns in the Beco! We’re working on our Japanese, and are saying Ohio (good morning), Arigato (thank you), and Sayonara (good bye), and trying to get Ren to say it too. The funniest thing she’s doing is responding to our requests for her to say Ohio with Ni hao! I guess the Mandarin stuck! It’s an extremely consistent response.

Namiyoke-jinja, Shinto shrine next to the market

Post nap, we headed to Harajuku to visit KiddyLand, a huge toy store. Something for us in the morning, something for her in the afternoon! We strolled down Omotesando, a broad avenue apparently sometimes referred to as Tokyo’s Champs-Élysées, and dodged the crowds until we found the store. We worked our way from the top floor down, since the top floor was Hello Kitty central, and Ren has a close, personal relationship with Ms. Kitty. Sure enough, we now own a Hello Kitty doll in a kimono, and a plate, washcloth, and toothbrush adorned with the cat. And, we have a very happy little girl currently snuggled up to the doll in her crib.

We were aiming for gyoza for a mid-afternoon meal (Dinner? My stomach has no idea where it is.), but at 2:15 PM there was quite a line at the restaurant that had been recommended, so we wandered the small side streets and made our way back to the JR station and on to Ebisu figuring that our quieter neighborhood might have some good choices around here. In Yebisu Garden Place, there were plenty of options, and Ren’s request was “bubbles”! Ok, more chirashi, and she ate almost all of my tuna, avocado, ikura bowl. 

Not satiated, we detoured through Mitsukoshi, a big department store with food halls in the basement, on a quest for more bubbles. We found them, along with cherry blossom shaped rice crackers and an assortment of other kid approved treats including a teddy bear shaped bun. They were showing a film made in the plaza that we were walking through, and Ren watched a little and ran around to get her wiggles out before we headed back to the hotel by 5. She made it to 6:45 tonight, and has really been a trooper. She’s already looking forward to another choo-choo ride tomorrow. 

It’s so much fun to see the world through her eyes. The silence in a Japanese subway car isn’t oppressive or intimidating to her, but a great opportunity to make funny noises and tell everyone that the train is going fast!

Evening view from our hotel room