Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Quirky World: 10 Things from our trip to Japan

My son is suddenly all grown up. Now 16, he’s got himself an apprenticeship and transformed himself overnight from off-the-rails schoolboy to mini-businessman. Now he does things things like wear a suitcatch commuter trainsgo to team meetings and email clients. I’m still in a state of (relieved, exhausted) shock.

So in celebration of that, I thought I’d write a ‘retro post’. I’m picking out some quirky highlights from what he says was the best holiday of his whole childhood: our one-week trip to the Kansai region of Japan when he was 9. Just me and him. I have to agree it was a cracker.

1. Fake food & DIY restaurants
The land that loves raw fish – and blowfish that can kill you outright with one mouthful come to that  might not seem like an easy place to feed kids. Wrong.

So much of Japanese food is warming, comforting, filling and flippin’ delicious: from fat slabs of the squishiest toast in the world for breakfast to sweet, sticky, grilled chicken on sticks for dinner.

And what's really great is you can ‘see’ the food before you eat. Just about every cafe and restaurant has a window of droolingly realistic plastic models of the dishes they serve. “Just choose and point” I told my son.
Nope, these ice-cream sundaes aren't real either.
Eating in Japan is far more fun than functional anyway. We barbecued our own meat (yakiniku) at the table.
We mixed and flipped our own Japanese ‘pizza-pancake’ (okonomiyaki).
And we were never more than a few steps away from a HOT can ("ooh, ow") of hot chocolate from a vending machine.

2. Taking a "Bath Stroll"
Kinosaki is a small, pretty and charmingly old-fashioned town where the Japanese come to eat fresh crab and bathe in hot springs.
But you don't just take a dip. Oh no. There are seven bath-houses here, all with different features (waterfalls, cave-pools, mountain views...) and the tradition – or challenge! –  is to put on a kimono and and shuffle from one to another until you have sampled all of them.  

Within minutes of being welcomed at the traditional Japanese inn we were staying at, we'd been undressed and dressed in full Japanese garb by an old Japanese lady, presented with towels and flannels, a map of where the bath-houses were, coupons for free entry and thrust us out the door with the words, “OK, let’s enjoy Japanese baths!".

Clip-clopping down the street in our wooden shoes in broad daylight, felt something halfway between the excitement of going to a fancy dress party and the embarrassment of accidentally going out in my dressing gown. “Are you sure we’re meant to be wandering around like this?!” asked my son, giggling.
As we entered the first bath-house, I was pleased to find out my son could come in the female section with me (allowed up to puberty, apparently). He was not so pleased to find out he had to strip off naked. 

Copying everyone else, we began by sitting down on little stools with a shower hose and bucket and scrubbing every nook, cranny and crevice of ourselves. Then we eased –  no, grimaced and winced – ourselves into the insanely hot spring water. It was a bit like being boiled alive. 

We were really happy to discover the ‘Penguin Sauna’ – a sort of walk-in freezer for humans – set at -5°C. The contrast of temperature was an utter relief and pleasure. My son spent the rest of the time bounding backwards and forwards from bath to freezer enjoying the sensation.

How many bath-houses did we manage? Only three. Epic fail, as my son put it. 

3. Lift ladies
In Japan, customer is king with a capital K. And in department stores, this goes as far as employing "Elevator girls". Incredibly smart, polite, perfectly-groomed women in uniforms who ride up and down in the lift all day operating the buttons and bowing deeply to customers.
They are strangely fascinating. The way they gesture you in and out of the lift with precise, robotic hand signals. The way they announce in precise, sing-songy voices things like "Third floor, ladies underwear". We rode up and down in the lifts just so we could watch them.

“It must be a really boring job,” said my son after a while. “Let’s try and make this one laugh.” We tried our best but only managed to get the tiniest hint of a smirk out of her. Super-professional.

4. A cage full of humans
We were really excited about seeing wild monkeys at Arashiyama, a beautiful mountain park near Kyoto. Until we saw this sign. 
The woman at the ticket booth worried us even further, “Be very careful of the big monkey you meet. He is the chief and he gets angry very quickly. Also, it is mating season, so he gets angry even quicker." Oh crikey. 

Our hearts were pounding as we set off up the steep, narrow path, gripping each others hands. In our peripheral vision, we could see monkeys sitting in trees but daren't look up. "What's the point of coming to see wild monkeys if you're too scared to look at them?" asked my son. 

We should have known the Japanese had thought it all through. At the top of the mountain, we were surprised but relieved to be ushered into a cage. Inside, there were little bags of monkey nuts, apple and sweet potato to buy and within seconds we were surrounded by monkeys asking for food. 
And there was one more surprise. The way down the mountain, round the other side, began with a long, slippery slide.

5. Twisty train seats
We couldn’t resist a ride on the Bullet Train and nipped from Kyoto to Osaka for the super-smooth 27-miles-in-7-minutes journey. 
But even ordinary train rides were pretty fun. My son, a "kinaesthetically creative" creature (= likes to fiddle with everything) quickly discovered that at the push of a pedal you could flip the double train seats around to face either way to make a twosome or a foursome. He spent a long time trying out all the different permutations before finally settling down to his bento (or "packed lunch in compartments" as he called it) which we'd bought from the trolley man.
“This country is so organized,” he said, a more than satisfied passenger.

6. Build-your-own Barbie doll
Super Kids Land in Osaka is five whole floors of toys –  many of which we’d never seen the likes of before. From ingenious marble runs to miniature room kits to wooden sushi-making sets. 
But the most eye-boggling section of all was the build-your-own Barbie type doll section with a choice of heads, torsos and legs. Yep! Would you prefer a blonde, a brunette or a red-head, young madam? Large, medium or small breasts? Pear shape or straight up and down? I couldn't decide if this was a healthy thing for girls (celebrating that we're all different shapes and sizes) or if it was aimed at...erm...a different market altogether.

My son got so excited in the transport section he begged me to give him his next eight weeks' pocket money in one go so he could buy a Bullet Train set. (Fine by me. The perfect souvenir.) 
When we finally emerged after two hours of browsing, he said, “That’s got to be the best toy shop in the world." 

7. Singing in a box
In my own country I am not a fan of karaoke. I associate it with alco-pops and falling over in high heels to a screechy rendition of I Will Survive. But in Japan karaoke is a serious business. It was invented here after all. The idea is to sing well, sing earnestly, often traditional Japanese songs about love and heartache. So it was only right that we gave it a go.

We were unable to find a karaoke bar that let kids in, but we were directed instead to a "Karaoke Box" – our own private room, hired by the hour, with all the equipment we needed and six bulging books listing just about every song in the world. 

So with no-one watching, and still in our kimonos, we selected our favourite pop songs and sang our hearts out. Badly and frivolously. And I have to admit, that after a couple of beers, even I could kind of see the fun in it. I didn't fall over though.

8. The aquarium where you can eat the fish
You can touch rays at London Aquarium. You can do sleepovers at Plymouth Aquarium. But Marine World on the shore of the Sea of Japan takes the ‘experience’ concept to a whole new level. For a start, it must be the only aquarium in the world where you can catch a fish with a fishing rod and have it cooked for your lunch. 
We couldn't squeeze all the experiences on offer into one afternoon, so we opted for "Dive Adventure" where you are submerged into a tank of sea creatures in a sort of glass elevator... 
...and "Dolphin Trainer" where you get to wade into a pool of dolphins and learn how to get them to do tricks like waving goodbye and turning in circles.

9. Big wheel on the side of a building
The HEP 5 (Hanky Entertainment Park) in Osaka is a building bursting with fun and gluttony. You can mess about in purika (photo sticker) machines, play old-school arcade games and eat ice-cream sundaes as big as your head. There's even a virtual theme park on the top floor where we tried "Sky-cruising" – a scarey 3D ride where you sit in a simulated hang-glider together and steer yourselves at top speed through mountains, waterfalls, forests and caves.

But our first stop was the seventh floor because this is where – bizarrely – you board the giant ferris wheel. This is because it is actually fixed high off the ground on the side of the building itself. It gives you spectacular views of the whole city. There is even a diagram of the skyline on the window of each pod so you can pick out landmarks.

10. Naked with strangers in a lift
We spent the final afternoon of our holiday at Osaka Spa World, an incredible multi-storey complex of water-based fun and relaxation. Indoor baths, outdoor baths, salt baths, herb baths, mud baths, jacuzzis, steam rooms, streams, bridges, gardens... There's even a family water park on the top floor.

My son, however, was reluctant. “I did not come to Japan to keep getting naked with lots of Japanese women,” he said as we entered the ladies changing rooms. 
“And I am definitely not wearing those,” he added, pointing to the pink pyjamas they'd given us to relax in afterwards.

But just two minutes later he was in the buff and splashing from bath to bath like a born-again baby elephant, squealing, “This place is amazing!” 

Eventually we decided to head up to the water park. But what was the etiquette? Should we put on our pyjamas to travel between floors? Er..no...it seemed this was unnecessary. So then there we were. In the lift. Naked. With other people. And we didn't even care.

We were almost disappointed to find that we had to put swimming costumes on to go into the water park. Which we had all to ourselves (yep, it was a school day in Japan!). 
We got a double raft for the two of us and rode down a terrifying dark roller-coaster of a flume which shot us into this giant plug-hole where we were spun round and round before being plunged backwards into the pool. My son was ecstatic.

Finally, we settled down in a roof-top jacuzzi just as it was getting dark and the neon lights of the city were coming on. It was magical. “I don’t want to go home tomorrow,” said my son. 

Then he put on the pink pyjamas.


  1. Wow, what an amazing trip of a life time. That must have been a wonderful experience together. Not sure I'd be comfortable with all the getting naked, but sounds fantastic!
    Thanks for sharing with #LetKidsbeKids

    1. Ha! You'd be surprised at how quickly you forget you're naked!