One moment it was there – a large clump of pickled ginger perched on the wooden plate in front of my seven-year-old son. The next it had gone, and a small hand was tugging urgently at my elbow.
The two of us were sitting in a tiny sushi bar – no more than a counter with two taciturn chefs on one side and a dozen stools on the other – after a morning traipse around Tsukiji, Tokyo’s famous wholesale fish market. It was only 10am, yet already we’d watched a man pluck a restless eel from a bucket, bash a nail into its neck, then flash a blade up and down its spine to relieve it of two glistening fillets, all while sucking on a cigarette and muttering to his colleague.
We’d also seen a deadly blowfish puff up in outrage when a prospective buyer lifted it out of its tank, and then dodged a truck trundling through the aisles, loaded with a mountain of bones and tails. Then, while my wife took our five-year old daughter in search of something less fishy – and found cubes of tamagoyaki (Japanese omelette) served warm on a skewer and handmade ichigo mochi (whole strawberries smeared in red bean paste and wrapped in sugar-dusted rice-flour dough) – I treated our boy to one of the world’s great breakfasts.
Okame Sushi belongs to a handful of restaurants that operate within the market itself and offer some of the freshest sushi you’ll ever taste. We ate tender tuna, salmon, squid and mackerel, jewel-like fish eggs and plump prawns, all served on hand-moulded pillows of rice, for 2,500 yen (£18) a head. The price also includes a mug of soul-stirringly strong green tea, a bowl of miso soup – and that ginger.
Consumed in small pieces, the ginger has a fierily astringent quality that cleanses the palate, brings a tear to the eye and is said to neutralise any bacteria on the raw fish. Only a madman would attempt to down a whole mouthful in one. Or an unsuspecting little boy from half a world away.
All countries are different, but Japan is more different than most. For the adult visitor, its strangeness is part of the appeal – it offers an exhilarating escape from the familiar. But what about for two young children on their first long-haul holiday? Within hours of landing in Tokyo, my daughter had an unexpected encounter with a heated toilet seat (pretty much standard issue in Japanese washrooms these days; frankly, if you don’t have a lavatory that also lifts its lid when you approach and whistles a tune while you pee, you’re behind the curve). She leapt to her feet so fast that her hat plunged into the bowl.
Tokyo is a head-spinning playground of a place whatever your age. Each day we spent exploring the city played out as a series of bewildering transitions. Within 30 minutes of leaving the hubbub of Tsukiji, for example, we were engulfed by the green calm of Hamarikyu Teien, a centuries-old formal garden on the banks of the Sumida River, where the children played hide-and-seek among the manicured cherry trees. Another half-hour later you could find us 53 floors up in the glittering Roppongi Hills complex, grappling with the bold, child-friendly installations in the Mori Art Museum before emerging on to the outdoor Sky Deck to take in a staggering panorama of the city.
The next day, in Harajuku district, a 100m dash through a torrential downpour took us from the Ota Memorial Museum of Art – a jewel box of a gallery showing a small, rotating selection of traditional woodblock prints that hold an immediate, comic-book appeal – to an impromptu meeting with a robot. We’d spotted Pepper, billed as “the World’s First Personal Robot That Reads Emotions”, slumped in the window of the Softbank electronics showroom on Omotesando Avenue. But when the children approached her, she lifted her head and met their inquisitive stares with her own. Within minutes, the three of them – all of a similar height – were talking and dancing together, arms swaying madly overhead.
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It was fast becoming clear that the foreignness of Japan need be no greater hurdle for young children than it is for anyone else: boredom is their true nemesis, and in Tokyo that is never on the agenda. Other than when we were sleeping, we barely spent a moment in our apartment, a homely two-bed rental in the north-western neighbourhood of Ikebukuro. We were too busy shuttling from one enchantment to the next – along pristine streets or on local trains that run exactly when they are supposed to – refuelling as we went.
We wolfed down piping hot takoyaki (fried octopus balls) from a wooden stall tucked between the gleaming boutiques of Daikanyama, and had irresistible karepan (curried doughnuts) from the Angelika bakery that has been feeding the hipsters of Shimokitazawa since the Sixties. When the sun returned, we took a picnic pit stop on the pristine lawns of Shinjuku Gyoen park, eating tonkatsu bento (breaded pork cutlet boxed lunches) prepared while we waited at the mind-boggling basement food court (or depachika) of the nearby Takashimaya department store.
And then, on the fourth day, we boarded the Shinkansen – a gobsmacking train for even the biggest kid; as sleek as a jumbo jet and nearly half as fast – and struck out for the countryside. With the assistance of a British tour agency, InsideJapan, we had plotted an itinerary that would take us north to meet monkeys in the Japanese Alps, west to the temples of Kyoto, then back east to the rugged coastline of the Izu Peninsula before returning to Tokyo: a concise sampler of the variety Japan has to offer.
In both Yudanaka and Izu we were staying in traditional inns, or ryokan. Before we arrived I had wondered how the children – who tend to get increasingly bonkers as bedtime approaches – would handle the classic ryokan evening routine of onsen (natural hot-spring bath), followed by a leisurely, multi-course kaiseki dinner and then a night sleeping elbow-to-elbow on futons laid out on a tatami mat floor. The early signs weren’t promising. Bathing in an onsen should be one of the most relaxing experiences Japan has to offer. The 10 minutes we spent shivering beside the cedar wood tub on the roof of Biyu No Yado in Yudanaka, while our son, having dipped a toe in the water and declared it too hot, stomped around in the nude like a sociopathic strip-o-gram, were anything but. Only after his sister let out a delighted gurgle, having sunk up to her neck in the steaming water – taking her cue from the famous bathing macaques we’d seen earlier that day, a gentle hour-long walk away through the forests to Jigokudani – did he relent, and join her.
By the time we arrived a few days later at Hanafubuki Ryokan in Izukogen, a charmingly secluded inn where past guests have included members of the Japanese imperial family, both children were onsen addicts. After an afternoon walk along the dramatic Jogasaki coast, we spent a happy evening hopping between the ryokan’s seven private indoor and outdoor baths before settling down to an unforgettable, 11-course supper (raw river fish wrapped in persimmon leaf, octopus with azuki beans, Japanese black beef with wild garlic…).
Kyoto was frenetic by comparison, yet we had an ideal refuge from the crowds in Kakishibu-an, a traditional wooden house in the centre of the city. The proportions of the rental property – essentially one big room on each of its two levels, with an additional kitchenette and bathroom downstairs – could have been tailored for the children, as could the narrow alleyway leading to it, a miniature shrine marking its easy-to-miss entrance from the street. Each morning we would hear the elderly woman from the neighbouring house clopping in her wooden geta past our front door to offer fresh incense to the shrine’s deity.
Kyoto may be the most obvious tourist destination in all of Japan, and with good reason – no amount of advance knowledge, or influx of fellow visitors, can rob this enchanting city of its fairy-tale charm. With a choice of 1,600 temples, even the most determined visitor is only ever going to scratch the surface: travelling with young children forced us to be even more selective. We visited no more than two temples in a day, but lingered long enough in each to soak up its atmosphere properly.
I had feared the children would grow impatient at this kind of sightseeing, but the intoxicating allure of both Nanzenji’s austere Zen gravel courtyards and Shoren-in’s bamboo-fringed gardens seemed to get to them, too – as did the ninja-ish pleasure of padding in their socks through the temples’ creaky bare-board corridors. In the hills south of the city centre, they took similar delight passing through some of the thousands of raked vermilion torii gates that line the hillside leading up to the ancient Fushimi Inari shrine, a landscape as eye-popping as a video-game backdrop.
But the most memorable sight of our stay came courtesy of the Miyako Odori, an annual dance performed by a troupe of local geisha in Gion’s traditional Kaburenjo Theatre. As we sat on tatami mats on the balcony, a sequence of dreamlike intensity unfolded on the stage, to the accompaniment of atonal music unlike any we’d heard before, all twanged strings and syncopated yelps. The performance reeled through the seasons until, by the final scene, beneath a ceiling hung with cherry boughs, 60 identically dressed geisha were dancing together, their pale make-up immaculate, their kimonos extravagantly embroidered and their swooping, mannered movements utterly hypnotic. It felt like being inside a gigantic kaleidoscope: we were all entranced.
The day before our flight home, we were once again in Tokyo, this time staying on the 36th floor of the Keio Plaza Hotel, which occupies two plush towers in Shinjuku’s skyscraper district. On that last afternoon, as we packed our bags, our daughter sat in the window seat, sketching and gazing mournfully out across this sprawling metropolis, like Scarlett Johansson in Lost in Translation – only with shorter legs and a colouring book. I joined her to peer down at the antlike activity on the roads below and across the suburban sprawl towards the distant silhouette of Mount Fuji.
At this height, sealed behind a wall of glass, it felt almost as if we had already taken our first step homewards. Yet even after 10 days in Japan, none of us was ready to leave. So we set aside our cases – and crayons – jumped back in the lift and hit the streets of Tokyo in search of one final adventure. Or perhaps one last hit of ginger.
InsideJapan Tours (0117 370 9730; InsideJapanTours.com) offers a number of family itineraries similar to Benjamin Secher’s, including the 12-night Mountains Culture Family Activity Holiday, which costs from £7,350 for a family of four (based on two adults, one teenager and one child aged six-11). The price includes 12 nights’ accommodation, all transport in Japan and a number of cultural experiences, but not international flights.
InsideJapan Tours can tailor travel to suit each family, their interests and budget, enabling them to get the most out of a visit to the country.
British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) flies from London to Tokyo with return fares from £587.
In Tokyo, Benjamin Secher and his family stayed at an apartment rented through Japan Experience (020 3514 6932; japan-experience.com/rent-a-house-in-japan). The company has houses and apartments available in four major cities: Tokyo, Kyoto, Kanazawa and Fukuoka. Prices start at £57 per night, rising to £60 in Tokyo.