We’ve just returned home from three weeks in Japan, so bear with me while I use this space to unpack everything that it was.
The way I feel about Japan can be summarized by that line in The Fault In Our Stars: “I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once.”
It held me curiously to begin with – Japan did – an interesting lover I wanted to know more about. I was intrigued in the way one is when they meet someone new – a heightened sense of the good but specifically aware of all the ways we might not fit. The flashing, neon harshness of Tokyo, the sheer volume of humanity that pushed its way through the subway, the way it exhausted me entirely: I was somewhat captivated but knew I wanted more soul in a partner — the stimulation it brought upon my senses a shocking assault, like a rollercoaster I couldn’t get off. Then, the mountainside of Hakone offered a peaceful reprieve – Japan redeemed its calm – and cycling through the old-world streets of Kyoto, I started to feel myself slip into the romantic spell of Japan’s charm, the way a lover’s jumper becomes a familiar, wanted smell against your neck. I didn’t slip all the way, but enough to wonder if Japan might be special enough to bring home to meet my parents. Onto Hiroshima, another city to me with not a huge amount to offer my heart, and I recoiled inwards from the blossoming love affair. Still nice enough, but nothing that blew me away. I decided I liked Japan, enough to bring home for a Sunday family roast, but I accepted that it probably wasn’t The One.
It wasn’t until I arrived in Hokkaido that it happened, and all at once.
Hokkaido can not be described, perhaps but for this: Our friend arrived to work for one season, and nine years later, he has never left. Its main appeal is a skiing location, tourist-wise, and he came for the winter, but then winter turned into spring, spring to summer, summer to autumn, and autumn turned once more to snow, and the enchantment of the place never ceased to awe. Years and years in, he says he still takes in each season as if it were the first time he has seen it.
The sheer beauty of the natural world in Hokkaido is spectacular, and shockingly so. Mt. Yotei, which sits at the base of where we stayed in Niseko, pulls you in like a magnet — as though it were casting a sacred spell you can’t escape. Every day, my eyes were drawn to its peaks, noticing the tiny ways it seemed different – the way the clouds billowed past, the fog rising over it, the snow that sheeted upon it, as if overnight. The mountain range was captivating; the dormant volcanos charging the air with some kind of magic. And at their bases, each season bringing its own kind of beauty; fields of soba flowers in the spring, hues of gold and reds in the autumn, sheets of clean white in winter. Hokkaido just feels like a pretend, fairytale storybook that is too beautiful to be real. I was intoxicated the minute I arrived and now that I’m gone, there remains a nostalgic longing for a parallel life I could have lived, like a man I might have married, in another time, another life, another set of circumstances.
“Let’s just do it. For one year. Let’s move here. Let’s be brave with our lives,” I said to Joel about 3 days into our time there. Our friend who lived there, as if on cue, followed up my plea with a mild, “It’s not even that scary.” And because I like to gather any evidence of my latest obsessions as if they were signs of clear confirmation — that despite their lack of logic, the court case I was mounting against all odds could be won – I very specifically filed that away as a key component in my claim. Joel smiled and said nothing, and I decided to take that as further evidence that my lawsuit was going to be successful.
We are moving to Hokkaido, folks. It’s official.
Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself. Every time I travel abroad, then return home again, I have this huge, enlarged feeling of life. The great big point of travel lies not so much in where you go, but in the way it causes you to understand that how you think, what you eat, how you behave and how it is you live is not the only way. And what a wonderful thing to have happen to you.
Here are the precious memories of our entire trip, broken down into specific cities/places (in case you are pulled to visit and fall in love as well).
Tokyo is intense in the way all huge, bustling cities are. However, what struck me the most can be described by this story: One day we went to a park in the middle of the city. We were there for roughly an hour walking through its grounds, playing on the grass. As we were leaving, on our way back out, I noticed Ella’s jumper at the entrance – it must have fallen out of our stroller as we arrived. It was folded ever so neatly and carefully draped over a fence rail, the arms perfectly matching up and the leaves dusted off it. This is exactly the feeling of the place; that despite the sheer volume of humanity and the bright, flashing, neon way it pounded you, Tokyo never felt abrasive. Even in the Shinjuku subway which passes a million people through it every day (and, I admit, was completely overwhelming for someone like me to deal with) there remained, simply, a level of respect and tolerance — a kindness and gentleness that felt entirely welcoming. No one pushed and shoved. Our cultural differences were forgiven as we tried and failed to work out train passes. People waited their turn, offered up seats, smiled and helped. It all worked together peacefully.
Things to do:
We stayed three days, and though one would probably have been enough for me, maybe for you three would be ideal. Set off on foot to explore. Base yourself someone near Shinjuku station, but really Harajuku, Shibuya, and Shinjuku are all ideal. We stayed at Hundred Stay, which was in a lovely, quieter, tree-lined neighbourhood about 15 minutes walk to Shinjuku station. It had a gorgeous view of the sprawling city of Tokyo and the perfect window ledge to perch and watch the bustle beneath you. Visit the two main city parks, and also enjoy the insanely busy and infamous Shibuya intersection. Disneyland and KidZania are also good options for families.
From Tokyo, we caught the Romancer train to Hakone, about an hour from Tokyo on the way to Kyoto.
Hakone is a quaint mountain town where we stayed two nights in a gorgeous traditional Japanese guesthouse (which I forgot to take photos of). We bought an all-access travel pass which gives you access to the buses, trains, cable cars and boat so you can discover the entire mountain. This is also a great place to go to an onsen.
We then took the Shinkansen (bullet train) to Kyoto.
Kyoto is like a secret. When you first arrive, it doesn’t seem like much, but once you start exploring down side streets and backstreets you begin to get a sense of the true quaintness it holds. It has an old world charm, what with its cobblestone streets, wooden shrines and tea houses, little alleyways, small canals and bridges, and lots of geishas and lanterns in the Gion district. It had a very Amsterdam feel to me. We cycled everywhere and it was really such an amazing way to take in it all. Peaceful, beautiful and a much needed reprieve from the intense pulse of Tokyo.
To see: We stayed here three days – the first day walking around and exploring, the next two days cycling around and out 10-15 kilometres from where we were staying in Gion. (And if you are carrying around a slew of children may I suggest hiring motorized bikes which make all the difference — cycling around 30kms each day, it was the only way we could have done it!) We cycled out towards the Eikando temple and around the base of the mountain range (Philosopher’s Walk) which was so beautiful and definitely recommend. The other day of cycling we visited the famous bamboo forest (which really was beautiful if you can squint past the hoards of tourists), and the nearby monkey park, which I liked because the monkeys were wild and the people were the ones caged in. Wandering around the Gion district at dusk and then dinner out is also must. Kyoto definitely needs to be experienced by bike so do hire one if you visit. Ella refused to ride on the back of me, however, because – and I quote – “I just feel like you can’t ride a bike, mum.”
We then took the Shinkansen to Hiroshima and then a train straight to Miyajima island where we stayed a night. Wild deer roam the island which was a drawing card for deciding to go there (the kids loved it) and I especially loved the island after the tourists all took the last ferry back to the mainland at 4pm and the island was overcome with calm.
We headed back to the mainland and stayed three nights at an amazing house we found on Air Bnb which was about a 30 minute train ride from Hiroshima city.
Hands-down, my favourite part of Japan, and the only reason I’d go back again and again. Bear with my gazillion photos! We flew from Hiroshima to Sapporo then hired a van and drove to Niseko where we stayed for 8 nights. We stayed at Country Resort in a mountain chalet which was so absurdly good and a one minute walk from our friend’s house we were visiting. There is so much to do in Hokkaido besides skiing in the winter. We went apple picking and ice skating, indoor rock climbing and wandered through the pumpkin village. (Our friend: Oh, I forgot to mention, there’s a village nearby that loves pumpkins for some reason. They completely line the streets and right now is peak pumpkin season.) PEAK PUMPKIN SEASON. Joel went surfing, we went for walks through the amazing autumn tress and we shopped for groceries at the farmer’s market and local co-op. We went whiskey tasting at the distillery and had home-made gyoza dinner nights with friends, and to top it all off, it snowed the day before we left, so after I had a full blown cardiac arrest, I regained my composure and we had snowball fights and toboggan rides and took late night outdoor onsens while the snow fell down around us. Ridiculous, honestly. Just utterly magical. It was truly a storybook. I cried when I saw the snow and I’m not even kidding. The last morning we were there, we woke up to it everywhere, the white dusting of snow settling over all the wooden house with their pitched roofs and their snowy pine trees. I couldn’t cope with any of it. Dear world, I love Hokkaido and I will be back.
And our makeshift Halloween this year, celebrated early because we were flying home overnight on the 31st: We raided the 100 yen store for costumes, went for a trick or treat treasure hunt around the neighbourhood and ended the night with the lighting of our carved pumpkins. Low-key, but lovely all the same.
A note for visiting: There is a lot to do around Niseko but it is spread out — sprawling villages interspersed with countryside and farmland. You will definitely need a car to get around. And if you can, time it in that perfect window where autumn is at its peak, but you also might get lucky enough to catch the first show of snow. Obviously, you can’t ever predict nature but as a guide, we were there in the very last week of October. Of course, going in winter would also be lovely, hitting the ski slopes and tobogganing and building snowmen also a fun holiday to have. Spring also wonderful with all the soba flowers and activities on and around the lake. BASICALLY GO THERE ALL THE TIMES AND IT WILL BE THE BEST TIME HAVE I MENTIONED THIS PLACE IS SOME KIND OF MAGICAL LAND AND I DON’T KNOW WHY EVERYONE ON GOD’S GREEN EARTH DOESN’T LIVE THERE PERMANENTLY.
And some tips for travelling with small kids: Yes, it is hard, it will be hard, there is no escaping the hard. But absolutely do not let “too hard” be a reason to stop you from doing anything in life, least of all travel.
Strap them on your back and figure it out as you go — embracing the fallouts with as much humor as possible. You’ll be together, writing a wonderful adventure, experiencing the high and lows of all this world has to offer, and what else is this life for? Just go with it. Some of the loveliest moments happened to us in really challenging situations, like in Tokyo we were on an excruciatingly crowded train, Georgie wanted to get out of the carrier and was pawing at my chest to be fed. She was screaming. Howling, if we’re being factually correct. I was trying to remain calm and soothe her to no avail, until a Japanese couple next to me lifted up their baby, propped him right up in Georgie’s face to distract her, waving and smiling and cooing with the kind of understanding that all parents have, stealing side-ways glances with me as if the language barrier we had was completely non-existent. These real, messy moments you find when the shit hits the fan are still an experience, and they are simply part of the travelling with kids deal. If I can recommend anything, it is just to sink into all the moments that arise and try as best as you can to find peace in them. Travelling with a baby is at least 50% terrible, sometimes 80% when you’re moving every couple of days, but what’s left over after the hard is pure magic and that magic is why we do it. Besides, there’s nothing quite like the feeling of showing your children the great, big, beautiful world out there. It’s such a privilege.
To travel, to Japan, and most of all, to Hokkaido. What an amazing love affair.