The looks of incomprehension became commonplace, from colleagues, friends, neighbours and, most severely, my mother-in-law.
“You’re taking her… to Japan?” they asked, through a variety of similar rhetorical questions.
A trip to Japan should surprise no one, these days. The island state is undergoing an eye-watering boom in tourism, with visitor numbers soaring from 13m four years ago to more than 30m today.
Events such as this autumn’s rugby world cup and the upcoming Olympic games have added to the feelgood factor, with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe – who has built his reputation on a determination to reverse Japan’s decades-long economic slump – planning to attract 40m tourists in 2020.
But while the destination may be increasingly on-trend, most visitors, one suspects, do not choose to drag a 20-month-old toddler alongside their luggage.
First of all there’s the flight eastwards – in this case a 12-hour night journey across Siberia. Our primary fears were realised when the infant in question woke, crying, with five hours still to go. Thus I was introduced to Japan’s famous levels of hospitality and sheer politeness while still at 30,000 feet; the Japan Airlines crew ushered us into staff-only areas, helping ensure that as few passengers as possible were disturbed by the irritable child.
There is no way to sugar-coat (or matcha-coat) a 24-hour round-flight with a toddler, however. It is tough, but achievable. Stack up on snacks, toys, books, stickers, downloaded cartoons and bank on the airline granting you an empty seat even if you are only paying for two. Crucially, of course, children travel for free (bar taxes) up until their second birthday, so it really is worth considering a long-haul trip of a lifetime. In our case it saved over £1,000 on the flights.
Japan is ideal for such an adventure, partly due to all the boring stuff that suddenly becomes important when you have kids. Cleanliness, reliability, famously good transport, and an almost total absence of petty crime.
Thus we were able to plan the entire trip in advance, taking in Tokyo, Mount Fuji, Osaka and finally Kyoto. The folk at travel agency Inside Japan arranged minicabs at every juncture and our hotels provided a luggage-forwarding service for each leg of the trip. You make a plan and everything works. Welcome to Japan.
I had only vaguely heard about luggage forwarding services but they took on a whole new significance. As with many Japanese ideas, it makes you wonder what on earth we’re doing back home in London as we tut-tut behind “stupid” tourists on the Tube with their coffin-sized suitcases.
Put simply: your hotel will forward your luggage to your next hotel, for around £15-£30 depending on weight. Levels of smug as we boarded the stunningly beautiful Fuji-express train with just a rucksack each, a pushchair and a child, were combined with the knowledge that there’s no way we could have manhandled two massive suitcases in addition.
As well as seeing the awesome and almost haunting Fujisan – Mount Fuji – from the train, we also experienced the equally exciting Thomas Train, a special shuttle to the place of joy that is Thomas Land! Exactly as you might imagine, though with far less Ringo, Thomas Land will force you to learn all of the names of Thomas the Tank Engine’s friends as you feed thousands of yen into the machine to purchase tickets for little Sebastian and Imogen to enjoy ride after ride. The kids enjoy it, at least.
From the lakes around Fujisan we traveled west again for the main part of the trip – Osaka and Kyoto. Japan seems primed for travelling with children, given the prominence of food on the go and ubiquitous, spotlessly clean toilets.
Suddenly, train stations become a joy as using the loo and getting your lunch is actively pleasurable, not something one can say at Euston or Manchester Piccadilly. And when you’re the parents of a Tiger-Who-Came-To-Tea appetite-sized child, this is no laughing matter. A local tip in which we delighted was buying food on the platform of the Shinkansen; freshly made hot bento boxes (when they’re gone, they’re gone) mere steps away from the specifically numbered section of platform where your ticket tells you to wait.
The St Regis hotel in Osaka is exceptionally plush, to such an extent that checking in with a toddler felt frankly absurd. Head chef Gianluca Visani did little to help combat this feeling when he insisted on making our spoiled infant spaghetti pomodoro to her exact taste. Thankfully his skills were also present in the adults’ tasting menu.
But one doesn’t come to Osaka to indulge in high-end Italian fare, and fortunately the St Regis is located is a lively part of town close to Dotonbori, a canal-side neighbourhood renowned for Japanese street food and in particular, takoyaki (fried octopus balls). Given the effortlessly healthy nature of most Japanese food, by now we felt more than justified gorging on takoyaki, karaage (fried chicken) and two or three beers.
The most extraordinary meal of the trip, however, came courtesy of Kenny Row at his self-titled restaurant in a suburb of Osaka. This tiny venue, housing just 10 diners with only one service per evening, is a unique one-man-show as Kenny preps, slices, carves, and cooks on the teppanyaki directly in front of you – and then does the washing up.
Thoughtfully accommodating, he offers kiddy-friendly meatballs in tomato sauce (also for big kids who can’t quite stomach Japanese sea snails.) The glistening orange ikura were lip-smackingly salty and juicy, the tender rare beef doused in the in-house gravy – do take a bottle home with you – accompanied by rich mushrooms and asparagus shavings, this was grown-up food taken seriously, but not without humour as chef Kenny practices his English jokes learnt while cheffing in Australia.
We finished our journey in the ancient city and former capital, Kyoto. Although the originator of many stunningly beautiful images of temples and gardens, you don’t get this impression arriving at the modern-ish train station, with the 1960s Jetsons-style Kyoto tower to greet you. However, a trip to the top of the tower reveals Kyoto’s serene position, nestling in a belt of green with temples stretching out on all sides.
Our home was the Hyatt Regency Hotel, handily situated opposite the Kyoto National Museum and nearby many temples. An international hotel with strong Japanese motifs, it includes a daily dance performance given by a Geisha, or Geiko, in the Kyoto way, and the kind of brutal shiatsu massage that will make your back and shoulders feel like plasticine – in a good way.
The in-house Japanese food goes far beyond what one expects from hotel fare, and I must give a nod to the ebi tempura (battered prawns, a phrase which does absolutely no justice); you come this far partly to experience better Japanese food than you can find in London, and we certainly discovered it in the unlikely surrounds of the Hyatt Regency’s Japanese restaurant.
Such is the depth of experience offered by Japan that it is only possible to skim the surface when faced with the limitations of time and an ultra-demanding infant. Nonetheless the increasingly-popular destination is unique not just for its singular, island culture, but also for how exceptionally suitable it proves for a young family.
From the commonplace, epic playgrounds to the tolerance of passers-by, Japan felt like one of the world’s most child-friendly societies as we meandered our way across its southern coast. As tourism booms, expect to see more wide-eyed western infants being whisked around Japan’s major cities and attractions in the years to come.
InsideJapan’s 12 night Mountains and Culture Family Activity Holiday costs from £8530 in total for a family of four (excl. international flights). Call 0117 244 3380 or visit InsideJapanTours.com.
The Hyatt Regency Kyoto has rooms available from £245 per night. Visit hyatt-regency.kyotohotelspage.com/en/
The St. Regis Hotel, Osaka has rooms available from £295 per night. marriott.com/hotels/travel/osaxr-the-st-regis-osaka