Taking on Toyko
Last year, Rainer Jenss traveled around the world with his wife and two sons, and blogged about his experience here on Intelligent Travel. Now he’s writing a column that focuses on traveling with kids.
This summer, my ten-year-old son Stefan was invited to Tokyo, Japan, to take part in the 20th anniversary of the World Children’s Baseball Fair, an annual event where boys and girls from all around the globe participate in a baseball clinic that’s not only meant to improve their skills, but to foster an understanding of and appreciation for cultures other than their own. I was fortunate enough to be able to tag along, and while the kids were busy playing ball, I managed to slip away and explore some new areas in and around the city I’d missed during previous visits.
One morning, I took the metro to the suburban town of Kamakura, home of one of the most popular attractions in the entire country, a gigantic Buddha statue known as Daibutsu. It truly was a spectacular site, but what I enjoyed most in this one-time capital of Japan were its numerous temples and shrines that date back to 1180 – 1333 A.D. Complemented by lotus ponds, lush bonsai trees, rock gardens, and surrounding mountains, these architectural gems are where you will most likely discover those “moments of Zen” so celebrated by the Japanese.
Later that day I visited the historic village of Kawagoe, also known as “Little Edo,” whose shops and residences conjure up an atmosphere reminiscent of the period between the 17th to 19th centuries when Shoguns ruled the land. Kawagoe is only about an hour’s train ride from Tokyo’s Shinjuku Station. I leisurely strolled up and down the main street of Kashiya Yokocho, checking out the traditional merchandise shops that sold antiques and old-fashioned dagashi confections. On the way back to the train station I happened upon a summertime street festival and BBQ that featured an assortment of traditional singing, dancing, and drumming. Those are the serendipitous moments I relish so much as a traveler–getting immersed in everyday life in a way you just can’t appreciate staring out of a tour bus window.
Meanwhile, when the kids weren’t involved with the clinics, I joined all 250 participants as they traveled around the city getting a taste of Tokyo and Japanese traditions. The most authentic experience, and by far the most interesting, came when we visited the Togeki Theatre to get exposed to Kabuki, a highly stylized form of classical Japanese dance-drama. Kabuki plays are about historical events, moral conflicts, love relationships, and the like. The actors, all male and elaborately dressed, speak in an old-fashioned language that is a challenge to understand, even for most Japanese people. Since this is pretty heady stuff, I wondered just how the organizers intended to keep this many pre-teens engaged and sitting still during the 90-minute presentation. Wisely, they opted to show a pre-filmed performance narrated live by one of its performers. To make the presentation even more kid-friendly, the narrator invited some of the children on stage to try on the costumes, making for some good laughs and photo ops.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
We also traveled to nearby Odaiba, a large man-made island in the middle of Tokyo Bay. This is where I discovered one of the most impressive museums found anywhere. The Miraikan National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation symbolizes what the modern-day Japanese are perhaps best known for–cutting-edge technological innovation. Its futuristic decor and state-of-the-art interactive exhibits made me feel like I’d stepped directly into the future. There are dozens of fantastic displays and permanent fixtures to explore, but the giant Geo-Cosmos globe, which measures almost 20 feet in diameter and appears to float in a six-story open area of the building, is easily the main attraction. I was transfixed by the mosaic of images continuously acquired from weather satellites orbiting the planet. The images were projected from nearly a million LED displays that formed a 360-degree view of what the earth looks like from space: small, beautiful, and ever-changing–which also happens to wonderfully describe my son and all the participants of the Worlds Children’s Baseball Fair.
[Japan Travel Guide]
[Tokyo Travel Guide]
Photos: Rainer Jenss; images on the globe are via SSEC/NASA