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Jenss Family Travels: Sayonara Japan

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Rainer Jenss and his family are on an around-the-world trip, and they’re blogging about their experiences for us here at Intelligent Travel. You can keep up with the Jensses by bookmarking their posts and following the boys’ Global Bros blog at National Geographic Kids.

Week Three of our immersion into the world of Japanese culture brought us to Tokyo, the city that fueled my longing to return to this country after my first visit there some fifteen years ago. Since we had gotten acclimatized to city life from our time in Kyoto (not to mention Beijing and Shanghai the previous month), dealing with crowded train stations, especially the subway platforms of Shinjuku, which are the city’s busiest, didn’t faze us. Besides, the boys were too fixated on the various types of trains that shuttled us around the country to even notice.

So besides zipping around on the Japan Railways, we aimed to find some activities that would strike a balance between kid-friendly and culturally enriching. Sorry guys, we didn’t come all this way to go to Tokyo Disney!  Fortunately, this proved to be far less challenging than I originally thought because Tyler and Stefan were becoming fond of Japan. Furthermore, they enjoyed learning the basic phrases and didn’t seem bothered at all by the language barrier. This proved quite helpful as we headed out on our first day trip in Tokyo.

But while seeking cultural experiences, we had to admit that there’s only so much that will hold the interest of an eight- and eleven-year-old. If Carol and I had been here by ourselves, we surely would have attended the Kabuki Theatre to take in one of the oldest and most traditional Japanese art forms. Instead, we found ourselves in a place called Kidzania, a child-sized replica of a real city that enables kids to learn about the adult world, and the value of money and work, by experiencing various professions. So what could possibly be so culturally relevant about that?  For starters, I must admit that I was growing rather fatigued from continuously asking the kids to mind their manners since we arrived in Japan. After all, this is a country that from early childhood emphasizes discipline and restraint, and nowhere was this more evident than in a children’s entertainment center. With all due respect to American families back home, Kidzania confirmed that the Japanese by-and-large have their children under control and very well behaved, which only added to my anxiety of scrutinizing our children’s every move. Nevertheless, Carol and I were amazed at how well they adapted to the culture. Kids are certainly known for their resilience, but I never would have imagined that they both would be eating several varieties of raw fish, pickled vegetables, soups and noodle dishes by the time we left. Stefan has even gone so far as to say he’d rather eat a meal with chopsticks than a knife and fork.  And Tyler was completely serious when he requested a heated toilet seat for his next birthday.

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The following day, we went on an organized tour of the city, which included something for everyone, from a cruise of the harbor to a visit to the Meiji Shrine. When we arrived at this imperial shrine there were preparations going on for what looked like some official business. As it turned out, a special ring-entering ceremony performed by a sumo wrestlers after they has been promoted to the exalted rank of Grand Champion was about to commence, and we had front row seats. Actually back row, for we got a close-up view of their renowned behinds, much to the boy’s hilarity.

Our journey to Japan culminated with a three-day excursion to the Ishikawa Prefecture, four hours north of Tokyo by bullet train. I knew relatively little about this area before we actually arrived there, but it had come highly recommended by the JNTO for its onsens, or hot springs, and beautiful countryside.  After almost three weeks touring Japan, I figured we could use a little reprieve.

The first day we spent the afternoon just relaxing and appreciating the scenery at the Tadaya Ryokan in the seaside village of Wakura-Onsen, famous for its hot springs baths. The boys and I did some fishing and took great pleasure in just hanging out along the water watching the fishermen bring in their catch. For the fifth time in two weeks, we spent the night in our room being served a traditional kaiseki dinner and slept on the tatami mat floor, something all of us have grown to really like. The next day started with a kid-friendly activity, the Notojima Aquarium, although I’m not sure who enjoyed it more, me or the boys.Then we headed for the hills of Yamanaka, a small town known for its fine crafts and beautiful river gorge and bridges.  We even had a chance to visit with a wood carver who specialized in making lacquer ware, something that made us value the craftsmanship of everyday Japanese housewares. That night, we stayed at the Kayoutei Onsen overlooking the mountains. By the time the morning rolled around, even the boys started to appreciate the tranquility and Zen-like atmosphere of these onsens – much to my delight (see previous blog!).  After searching so hard to find the true essence of Japan, especially with the kids to consider, it seemed to finally come together in a place I least expected.

So before we get on the shuttle bus to take us to Narita, we’re all a little saddened to be leaving this country even though our next stop is Bhutan, the one place I’m probably most excited about seeing. It’s been written that the kingdom’s newly elected monarch declared that the barometer for success will be measured by Gross National Happiness, not GNP.  It seems our timing could be just right given all the news of economic turmoil of the past few weeks.

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