JAPAN: Living the Kawaii Life without splashing the yen

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“How will you afford it?” was the top question we got asked when we said we’d be spending eight days in Japan. However, at the end of our trip I’m pleased to report we’ve had a fabulous time, without singeing the credit card too much.

Kawaii means ‘cute’ in Japanese, in case you are confused by my title. The children are ‘kawaii’ apparently, and so are a whole lot of things we saw on our flying eight-day visit to Toyko and surrounds. Hello Kitty is kawaii, and so are cats, bunnies, maid outfits on grownups and crepes featuring cartoon characters.

Whether kawaii or high culture, Japan has been almost universally fabulous, so if you’re considering taking the children I’d urge you to go. We’ve laughed so much this week – frequently at ourselves. Here are some of my top tips – most of them bargainous. No wonder Japan has fallen back into recession – we clearly weren’t spending enough.

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  1. Bafflement comes for free

The best thing about Japan – its complete and utter otherness from everywhere else, is completely without charge. In fact, you can’t avoid it as it assails you from the second you get off the plane. There’s bowing, unintelligible writing (seldom explained in English, though I was amused to discover the existence of a group of ‘ninja translators’ who sneak into public toilets – presumably at the dead of night – and stick English stickers below the signs telling you to mind the step. God bless you, ninjas) and food that is so beautifully presented you can’t tell whether you should be eating it or soaping yourself with it.

Yoghurt in your tea? Until you learn the Japanese characters for ‘milk’, this, and other Lost-in-Translation-style mistakes come as standard.

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  1. The ordinary becomes extraordinary

Because of the bafflement, you don’t need to go and see the sights to have a completely new experience. The local convenience store will do. What is all that stuff? Even the apartment you are renting is a whole new ballgame. After all, the toilet seat heats up at the press of a button and the water heater will talk to you in Japanese. Still got no idea what it was saying but it sounded pretty cross. Also, you can get almost anything from a bag of rice to a china kitten in a teapot in a vending machine. The children will love this much more than you will. What’s the Japanese for ‘pester power’?

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  1. Youth culture can be done on the cheap

We took a stroll around Harajuko, where the yoof of Japan hang out. Here they eat crepes with cartoon characters on them (and lots of spray cream), and you can spend a whole 400 yen (that’s about two pounds) on something called purikura. This is where you get in a photobooth with some friends (or your family in our case) and come out with a whole bunch of pictures of you looking a bit like an alien (or kawaii, if you prefer – since the booth will add Japanese-style doe eyes, and give you a bit of a pointy chin. Afterwards, attempt to add doodles and backgrounds with special pens against the clock while the machine talks to you in Japanese. As a bonus, everyone in the mall will gather round to stare at the strange English family who are indulging in a pastime favoured mainly by Japanese schoolgirls.

The laughter’s free – for everyone.

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  1. Karaoke is a bargain during the day

If your feet ache while you’re pounding Tokyo’s streets, perhaps a trip to the karaoke booth is in order. Rather like rats in London, you’re seldom more than five feet away from a microphone or two- and because you aren’t a drunk salaryman whiling away your evening, you get an off-peak rate. And you’re singing in private, which removes the embarrassment factor.

Some tips. Make a list of songs FIRST, as your mind will go blank on entering the booth. Do not allow Clover to take total control of the microphone (I’m still bitter). Be aware that you will have to buy an overpriced drink or two. The bright-green melon drink had amusing after-effects in Clover’s case so I wouldn’t recommend it.

Be aware though, that your children may get addicted. Daisy and Clover would probably have spent most of the last eight days singing Katy Perry songs and hits from Frozen. So go on, just Let It Go.

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  1. Lots of things are very convenient – but never in the way you expect

Coin operated lockers in every station so you can leave your bags there? Clean loos everywhere? Print from a USB in any convenience store? For all its bafflement Japan is very comfortable – which makes it great for families.

On the other hand some things are surprisingly inconvenient. The ATM networks don’t always accept UK cards (so you’ll need to find the few that do – mainly in the 7-11), and my UK mobile phone wouldn’t work on the Japanese network. There’s not a lot of wi-fi either, so be warned. You can circumvent this with a Japanese simcard bought at the airport – surprisingly confusing to set up, but then worked like a charm.

  1. Good food isn’t expensive

Apparently Tokyo has more Michelin stars than any city in the world, but without seeing a single one of them we had fabulous food. The Japanese expect to eat well all the time – and like things to be convenient – so you can get great food anywhere. We stayed in the suburbs and ate sushi from neighbourhood stations, gyoza from the local supermarket and delicious breaded things from all sorts of places. The corner shop would provide a complete meal including edamame (which the children will eat like sweeties), saving you from constantly eating out. When you do eat out, lunchtime is cheaper than evenings. As well as gyoza, the girls enjoyed pork buns as big as their heads from the beautiful department store food halls, breaded chicken from the supermarket, chicken skewers and self-cooked sausages from the okinomiyaki restaurant where Paul and I made our own pancakes under Bethan Kushida’s expert guidance.

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  1. The bullet train is amazing- at least once

Like some picture from a 1980s ‘Visions of the Future’ book, the Japanese bullet train (shinkansen) is more than a tiny bit thrilling. Unless you’re Daisy, who thought it ‘wasn’t that fast’. You can’t impress all of the children, all of the time.

We used it to go to Kyoto, and then travelled from there to Hakone at a more leisurely pace. Slower trains are cheaper, and a bit more squeezed. The Tokyo metro is very good value and you can while away the time trying to work out the bizarre signage. Is this panda crying or sweating? And why?

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  1. With children; pay for experiences not sights

After three months in Asia, I can’t blame the girls for being ‘templed out’. I am a bit myself. Instead of visiting lots and lots of temples, our attempts to experience Japanese culture included;

a) A tea ceremony at Camellia Tea Rooms, where the lovely Atsuko took us through the whole ceremony complete with explanation, and allowed the girls to make the tea themselves. Daisy and Clover have never been so quiet.

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b) A traditional ‘onsen’ (hot spring) bath at the hostel we stayed at – Hakone Tent – highly recommended.

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c) One night in a traditional tatami mat room with sliding paper screens (one night was enough for my old bones, and because of the stress of keeping children quiet under those circumstances- the neighbours can hear everything!)

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d) Studio Ghibli – the fabulous and child-centred museum from the creator of films such as Howl’s Moving Castle and Spirited Away. Buy limited tourist tickets in advance, unless you have a lovely lovely friend who goes out of her way to buy them for you. Thanks Bethan! The girls particularly enjoyed a large furry ‘cat bus’ that was essentially a soft play centre, as well as some beautiful zoetropes etc.

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e) Telling fortunes at Senso-Ji temple – put in 100 yen and pick a stick with your fortune on it. If you don’t like it – tie it nearby and pray for better luck next time.

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f) The Hakone Open Air Museum. Why take children to a sculpture park? Because it has a brilliant children’s area, fantastic stuff to see and a Star Garden for hide and seek. We had to drag them away. The autumn leaves were just so beautiful too.

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g) A cat café. Because the girls insisted. Watch bored cats being poked by feline-loving Japanese people wielding cat toys. The girls liked it, but I felt sorry for the cats.

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h) Ueno Zoo, which isn’t expensive at all – but we felt some of the cages were a bit small. Thrilling to see pandas for the first time ever though – apparently I’ve been wanting to see them almost since I could talk!

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  1. Stay in the suburbs

Tokyo is big, but the transport is efficient, so staying out of the centre isn’t tricky. We picked two apartments from Booking.com for the two parts of our stay. Both came with two bedrooms and a kitchenette, and a bathroom with tub and washing machine. In space-starved Tokyo that’s pretty impressive, and you can keep costs down – and yourself sane – by staying in for dinner and breakfast, thanks to all of that lovely takeaway food available. Suburbs have nice playparks as well, and a little slice of ‘normal’ Tokyo life that is very relaxing for a travelling family. And I could do my own laundry (yes, still obsessed).

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Japan. Just brilliant. Perhaps it is true that new experiences make you feel younger, since travelling there made me feel about 15. Or perhaps it was the purikura. But do, do take the kids.

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