Family Travel Japan: Nara and the Great Buddha

Nara was added to my Japan To-Do list pretty early on as I felt it was an easy combo of culture, religion and cool stuff for the boys, ie lots of roaming deer lol.  Oh and this place is ancient!

The boys and I were on our own (which is always slightly terrifying for me at the moment because…..Nixon!).  Dave was working so we packed up and headed south on the train.  One little local line (¥150 ea) and then we were free-riding on the JR trains with our passes.  Ethan and I make a good team whilst navigating train stations so we managed to complete the 3 transfer trip with no problems.

You don’t have to walk far from the station to experience the cuteness, and often aggressiveness of the Nara Park deer, 50m from the train station they are out of the pavement, harassing punters for deer crackers!  In the Shinto religion, deer are considered messengers of the gods and there’s over 1000 of them roaming the giant park.  Purchase the little crackers from the vendors with green umbrellas for ¥150, break them in half and have fun.

New Zealand's Top Mummy Blogger Parenting Travel Blog Family Japan Nara Park New Zealand's Top Mummy Blogger Parenting Travel Blog Family Japan Nara Park New Zealand's Top Mummy Blogger Parenting Travel Blog Family Japan Nara Park New Zealand's Top Mummy Blogger Parenting Travel Blog Family Japan Nara Park

After Fun with Deer, we wandered for a bit as there was a small lake nearby and my fish-mad boys needed to see if there were fish to peruse.  

Nara Park is so, so big guys.  I was super stoked we had the stroller as the walk from the station to Todai-ji, the Buddhist temple housing the world’s largest bronze statue of the Buddha Daibutso was quite a hike.  But, on the way, we (accidentally) found the Yoshikien Garden.  A beautiful moss garden divided into 3 separate areas.  With free entry for foreigners we were in like flynn and the boys really, really enjoyed exploring this deserted but stunning corner of the park.

New Zealand's Top Mummy Blogger Parenting Travel Blog Family Japan Nara Park New Zealand's Top Mummy Blogger Parenting Travel Blog Family Japan Nara Park

Nix didn’t want to leave but I eventually coaxed him out of the garden and we headed to our final destination within the park, Todai-ji, which was, until 1998, the worlds largest wooden building.  The scale of this complex is so huge it boggled our minds.  Watching the boys soak up the history and craftsmanship in world heritage sites such as this is what our trip was all about for me.  Hopefully, they remember how these sights made them feel about their place in the world – I’m probably reaching here a bit with Nixon I realise lol.  The Daibutsu statue, the flanking Bodhisattvas and the two wooden guardians protecting him are so beautiful you simply won’t want or be able to rush through the building.

Entry was around ¥600 each for Ethan and I, approx $7.50NZD and totally worth every cent.

New Zealand's Top Mummy Blogger Parenting Travel Blog Family Japan Nara Park New Zealand's Top Mummy Blogger Parenting Travel Blog Family Japan Nara Park New Zealand's Top Mummy Blogger Parenting Travel Blog Family Japan Nara Park New Zealand's Top Mummy Blogger Parenting Travel Blog Family Japan Nara Park

Like other large stations in Japan, there are some great shopping and restaurants to experience in Nara before you board your train.  Though on this day, Nix was so beat, we sat down in McDonald’s for the ONLY western takeaway meal we would eat for the entire two weeks!  That’s not a bad track record, plus, I really wanted to eat an egg burger lol.

You could definitely spend a whole day exploring Nara Park and see so much more than we did, my boys can’t be pushed for speed when they are doing lots of walking – and neither should they when it’s of the sightseeing variety.

Don’t miss Nara, it’s fun, low key, relaxed (providing there’s no festival on at the temples) and you can explore at your own pace.

New Zealand's Top Mummy Blogger Parenting Travel Blog Family Japan Nara Park

Fly Jetstar to Japan like we did > www.jetstar.co.nz

Family Travel Japan: Tokyo > Kyoto on the JR Shinkansen Bullet Train

Lord have mercy bullet trains are freaking amazing.  Pure Japanese innovation and technology designed to increase the efficiency of people moving between Japan’s two biggest cities.  Of course, the Shinkansen trains now run the full length of the country and with the amazing Japan Rail pass you are free to use Shinkansen at will.

mummy-blog-new-zealand-blogger-mommy-travelblog-family-Japan-Tokyo-KyotoWhen we planned our multi-stop itinerary; Tokyo > Kyoto (with day trips to Nara, Osaka, Hiroshima) > Nagano > Tokyo, it was obvious that investing in the JR pass was the way to go, and after our first foray from Tokyo to Kyoto, I’m totally hooked!

So, until this point, we had not made one wrong move on the trains.  Which is seriously impressive if you’ve ever tried to negotiate Tokyo or Shibuya station with 3 massive pieces of luggage, a teenager and NIXON.  But oh yes, arrogance comes before a fall and we made the grand JR Pass faux pas of getting on the blacklisted Nozomi Shinkansen as we flew out of Tokyo Station:::::::gasp:::::::

Ethan was mortified as we searched for our seats (which were taken by legit Nozomi passengers) thundering the aisles with 60+ kgs of luggage and NIXON, only to have our mistake discovered by a friendly European businessman (very Christian Gray), who looked at our tickets and pronounced our fate:  you’re on the wrong train.

No major problem, we were supposed to be on the Hikari, so we just hopped off at the next station and re-embarked a couple of minutes later when our actual Shinkansen arrived.

So, big differences between the local lines and riding on Shinkansen;

  1. There are reserved seats.  It’s roomy, comfortable and there are power outlets to charge you shizz!
  2. You can eat and drink on Shinkansen which is a big no-no on local trains.  There is always a full complement of restaurants and convenience stores at Shin stations plus the wee shops on the platform are super cheap and have delicious sushi, bento boxes and sandwiches as well as beer, wine and cocktails.  So charge it!
  3. You get everywhere you want to go super fast.  Obviously.  But you pay for that for sure.  For example, tomorrow’s trip from Kyoto to Nagano costs ¥13,000 which is around $161 NZD each.  Considering we rode the Shinkansen from Tokyo to Kyoto, Kyoto to Osaka, Hiroshima, Nagano and then Nagano to Tokyo, as well as all of the local trains we rode every day in each stop, the $579 pp for the Japan Rail Pass was a GREAT investment.
  4. With a JR pass you have to do all bookings and transfer through all gates manually, you can’t use the ticket machines (this applies to local lines as well as Shinkansen).  Your JR pass allows you to reserve seats on the bullet trains, which is awesome, but, if the reserved section is full, don’t be afraid to take a gamble and jump in an unreserved car.  We did this rather than waiting on the way back from Hiroshima to Kyoto and it was totally worth it.  Seats the whole way and no waiting!
  5. DON’T ride the Kodama unless you have to.  It stops at every station and sometimes is subject to long waits at the platform.

When we arrived in Kyoto, we realised (surprisingly!) that we weren’t in Tokyo anymore!!  The local train network was not as fancy, easily signposted or as comprehensive as we had become used to and we quickly hopped on a JR train heading in the wrong direction.  Off/on, backtrack we eventually arrived at the right station, (not JR arghhh) and set about trying to find our AirBnB.

The street it was on had no house numbers and we had no image of what the property looked like.  Did I mention it was raining?  Eventually a schoolgirl walked by and I showed her the address on my phone.  It turned out we were standing right in front of the place the whole time.

Kid status:  great!  The boys are super good on the trains as we allow them their iPads so they watch Netflix play their games for the duration and we make sure they have heaps to eat lol.  

So, our Kyoto arrival was a little fraught, but we made it and settled in for the next 5, busy, days.

mummy-blog-new-zealand-blogger-mommy-travelblog-family-Japan-Tokyo-Kyoto

Family Travel Japan: Day 3, Ueno Park

After declaring it an anime-shopping-free day, we decided to make the most of the beautiful weather in Tokyo so headed for Ueno Park.  In Cherry Blossom season, this is one of the spots to be in Tokyo, however, as we are visiting in winter I was willing to take a gamble and have a wander.  Home to many museums and Ueno Zoo, 3 temples and one shrine, Ueno Park is a beautiful place to wile away the hours.  

I was actually really stressed out on Tuesday when we visited.  Nix has been really, really hard work so far on this trip and he’s sucking the life out of me, so it was with great delight that I saw a freaking peony garden, IN FULL BLOOM no less, entry fee ¥600 ($7.40NZD).  Dave saw that and was like, go ahead babe, I’ll hang with the boys.

Hallelujah.

mummy-blog-new-zealand-blogger-mommy-travelblog-family-Japan-Tokyo-Shibuya mummy-blog-new-zealand-blogger-mommy-travelblog-family-Japan-Tokyo-Shibuya mummy-blog-new-zealand-blogger-mommy-travelblog-family-Japan-Tokyo-Shibuya

One thing to remember about travelling with kids is that it can be quite tricky to steal a little quiet time.  Dave and I find that we are so tired each night, we usually go to bed right after the boys so there’s not a lot of alone time to regroup.  Ergo, a wander through some Japanese peony gardens was exactly what the doctor ordered.

We took our time exploring the park grounds, finally heading down a hill to Shinobazu Pond and the Bentendo Temple.  This was such a great spot to wile away the sunny winter afternoon.  The temple stands in the middle of the pond so there was lots for the boys to explore and look at, delicious food vendors (we enjoyed chicken katsu and crab skewers), as well as a lovely spot to sit and enjoy a cold Asahi.

mummy-blog-new-zealand-blogger-mommy-travelblog-family-Japan-Tokyo-Shibuya mummy-blog-new-zealand-blogger-mommy-travelblog-family-Japan-Tokyo-Shibuya mummy-blog-new-zealand-blogger-mommy-travelblog-family-Japan-Tokyo-Shibuya

mummy-blog-new-zealand-blogger-mommy-travelblog-family-Japan-Tokyo-Shibuya

As it was our last night in Tokyo we couldn’t resist the urge to head back to Shibuya and see the crossing in all of its after work, neon glory.  I seriously LOVE this place, the energy is amazing but at the same time mellow and fun.  Such a strange juxtaposition.  We wandered and found the statue of Hachiko, the gorgeously loyal dog who would wait at the train station every day for his master Ueno to return, even after his passing, #heartmelt!  We also saw a full Mario Cart tour stopped at the lights at Shibuya Crossing.  This was something Dave and I really wanted to do but you need to hold an international drivers license so make sure you grab one of those in New Zealand before you leave home.

New Zealand's Top Mummy Blogger Parenting Travel Blog Family Japan Tokyo Shibuya

mummy-blog-new-zealand-blogger-mommy-travelblog-family-Japan-Tokyo-Shibuya mummy-blog-new-zealand-blogger-mommy-travelblog-family-Japan-Tokyo-Shibuya

For only the second time (gasp), I popped into a shop I wanted to look in – Zara was having a huge sale so naturally I had a quick browse and nabbed four t shirts for $28 NZD!  Everything in a size L is always on sale here, it’s the one time I’ve genuinely been stoked about my size lol.

New Zealand's Top Mummy Blogger Parenting Travel Blog Family Japan Tokyo Shibuya

One thing we are definitely missing is fruit and vegetables.  The meat, seafood and carb situation is plentiful and awesome but we love our fresh produce so we stopped to pick up some dinner from the mind-blowing Tokyu Food Show at Shibuya Station.  I don’t even know where to start here.  Think, every type of uber-fresh seafood and meat in a small format market, complete with butchers, fishmongers preparing your purchase, but, in a fancy metropolitan supermarket.  It was crazy packed, frenetic but so, so amazing.  There was a whole ‘restaurant’ section in the market where you could find anything under the sun so Ethan picked out some sushi and gyoza while Nix wanted (more) chicken katzu and some potato wedges.  Dave and I ate some crazy omelette-y meat/rice combo from a teeny restaurant around the corner from our house.  Full tummies = happy Jacks.

So, a different kind of day here, and one just as enjoyable.  The parks here are beautiful and so worth exploring.  It’s super easy when travelling to get in the trap of ‘paying’ for your experiences in a country, but you just don’t have to at all.  Let yourself wander unscheduled and you may start to finally find that ‘I’m on holiday feeling’.

mummy-blog-new-zealand-blogger-mommy-travelblog-family-Japan-Tokyo-Shibuya

Family Travel Japan: Day 2, Ikebukuro

In my fast and loose ‘Mind Itinerary’, I had pencilled in Monday for a trip to Sea Disney in Tokyo.  However, after one day on the ground, what we really wanted to do was simply see and experience more of Tokyo.

So, we ditched Disney and saved hundreds of dollars.  The kids did not care and Dave and I were infinitely happier!

We began everyday in Tokyo with a visit to the most amaze bakery about 20 paces from our front door.  I had NO idea that bakeries were a thing here, and my god, everything that comes out of Japanese ovens is fit for the gods I tell you!  The Arteria Bakery was divine, the best pastries, breads, curry buns, melonpam, blueberry and apple pies………we tried it all.  Yes.  We.  Did.

New Zealand's Top Mummy Blogger Parenting Travel Blog Family Japan Tokyo Ikebukuro

New Zealand's Top Mummy Blogger Parenting Travel Blog Family Japan Tokyo Ikebukuro

Dave had to work, so the kids and I headed off on foot, navigating the 30-minute walk to Ikebukuro where the boys were super excited to experience J-World, an anime theme park featuring Dragon Ball Z – off course.  I find Google Maps a bit dodgy at home in NZ, but here the app works perfectly.  We were navigated through gorgeous, quiet wee residential streets and alleys, just as spic ‘n span as the rest of Tokyo, and made it to Sunshine City in Ikebukuro in no time.  I’ve realised on this trip the beauty of having no car!  Exploring on foot is such a pleasure here and gives a real sense of what life is actually like here in Tokyo.

New Zealand's Top Mummy Blogger Parenting Travel Blog Family Japan Tokyo Ikebukuro

We had unwittingly stumbled upon a kids-go-free day at J-world so we were off to a great start.  Ethan loved this place, Nixon enjoyed it even with only a cursory knowledge of anime, however, give it a miss if you or the kids are not fans as it will all go right over your head as there is no English translation or context.  That said, the boys were happy so I was super happy!  

New Zealand's Top Mummy Blogger Parenting Travel Blog Family Japan Tokyo Ikebukuro New Zealand's Top Mummy Blogger Parenting Travel Blog Family Japan Tokyo Ikebukuro

Sunshine City is a HUGE mall, it was a struggle to navigate but we found the restaurant level and I braved ordering food without Dave for the first time.  The kid’s option was easily identifiable by the Hello Kitty plate and was so perfect for Nix.  It came with a giant tempura shrimp, about 10 fries, a small hamburger patty and some rice, dessert and orange juice.  Literally ALL of Nixon’s favourite foods, neatly separated how he likes it.  The dessert was a strange custard that he wasn’t a fan of, but aside from that 10/10.

New Zealand's Top Mummy Blogger Parenting Travel Blog Family Japan Tokyo Ikebukuro

New Zealand's Top Mummy Blogger Parenting Travel Blog Family Japan Tokyo Ikebukuro

I had a good look at the menu before ordering and noticed that there were two prices; one for the individual item and one for the ‘set’ which included rice and miso soup.  As Ethan is not a fan of miso and the rice servings are huge, we ordered one set and one individual item and saved around 200¥!

After a quick visit to the Pokemon shop (soooo cute!) we headed upstairs to the Sunshine City Aquarium located on the roof of the mall.  We absolutely LOVED this place.  Skip the sea lions and penguins and head for the aquarium tanks.  There were so many fish, reptiles and amphibians here that we had never seen before it was amazing for my animal-mad boys.  A leopard shark, huge sunfish, giant spider crabs, poisonous frogs and so much more.  It def got us pumped for the big aquarium visit to come in Osaka.

New Zealand's Top Mummy Blogger Parenting Travel Blog Family Japan Tokyo Ikebukuro New Zealand's Top Mummy Blogger Parenting Travel Blog Family Japan Tokyo Ikebukuro New Zealand's Top Mummy Blogger Parenting Travel Blog Family Japan Tokyo Ikebukuro

New Zealand's Top Mummy Blogger Parenting Travel Blog Family Japan Tokyo Ikebukuro

Whilst in Ikebukuro we headed straight to the heart of this shopping mecca and soaked it all in.  There was a girl on the street with an owl advertising the ‘Owl Cafe’ nearby, there was an 8 story department store dedicated to DIY and basically, home and lifestyle called Tokyu Hands.  I could have spent hours in here but I was with 3 boys so time was limited lol.  Ethan was granted his final Dragon Ball Z shopping mission and found a figure he wanted in the giant Animate store.  He was happy and I was happy the search was over.

The neighbourhoods between Ikebukuro and our accommodation were so pleasant we opted to walk the 30 minutes home again and pick up some don bowls for dinner on the way home.

New Zealand's Top Mummy Blogger Parenting Travel Blog Family Japan Tokyo Ikebukuro

I know no-one will believe this but, the only shopping I’ve done for myself is a $5 floppy felt hat on clearance from Uniqlo!!!  Shock horror I know.  Not even ANY sneakers!

There are 12 more days though.

Day 2 = AWESOME.

Fly Jetstar to Japan like we did > www.jetstar.co.nz

Family Travel Japan: Day 1, Tokyo

Lord.  Japan is far, far away from Auckland, New Zealand.  

And I mean far.

But that is what makes it so amazing.

New Zealand's Top Mummy Blogger Parenting Travel Blog Family Japan Tokyo

New Zealand's Top Mummy Blogger Parenting Travel Blog Family Japan Tokyo

After two great Jetstar Flights (thanks Jason for the attention you gave the boys on the long Gold Coast – Narita leg!), we landed on Saturday night at 6.30pm at Narita Airport.  It felt heaps later of course as it was fully dark (mid-winter) and we’d been awake for like, days by that point lol.  This is where my planning came into full effect.  There are 3 terminals at Narita Airport and we flew into #3.  There is no train station there so we really enjoyed our walk to terminal 2.  I’m not joking either, despite how awesome the Jetstar crew were, after 8 hours on a full plane with a kid with Hirschsprung’s the fresh air and being able to stretch our legs was luxury.

The walk between terminal 3 and 2 is just over half a km, there is a shuttle bus you can take if you cbf walking.

I had pre-purchased our Japan Rail passes in Auckland from www.traveljapan.co.nz (who were totally awesome, I highly recommend dealing with them).  This was quite an investment, $1737 NZD for 3 adult passes (under 6’s ride free) but we are travelling extensively within Tokyo, using the Shinkansen (bullet train to Kyoto), day trips to Osaka, Nara, Hiroshima, ferry to Miyajima, then north to Nagano and back to Tokyo via Shinkansen so it’s absolutely worth the money.  JR passes are exclusively for foreigners so you are issued with a voucher in NZ and have to exchange this for your actual JR pass upon arrival in Japan.  

The JR information centre is on the station level in Terminal 2 at Narita and located in a great spot right by a 7-11 for snacks, a Foreign Exchange kiosk and a Pocket WiFi rental shop.  I picked up our passes, Dave rented our WiFi gadget ($99 for 2 weeks, unlimited data and up to 10 devices!) and we settled down to a cold Asahi while we waited for the Narita Express into Tokyo.

Like Auckland Airport, Narita is a good haul out of the main city, almost an hour into Tokyo Station where the train split, literally.  The first 6 cars went on one line and the rest went through to Shibuya Station which is where we transferred to Ikebukuro.  This was probably the trickiest part of our commute as we had to use a local line to get to our AirBnB, which meant we had to buy tickets and generally figure things out as the line is owned by a company other than JR.  Super cheap though, $1.70 per ride and probably even cheaper if we buy multi-trip passes which we will over the next couple of days.

New Zealand's Top Mummy Blogger Parenting Travel Blog Family Japan Tokyo

New Zealand's Top Mummy Blogger Parenting Travel Blog Family Japan Tokyo

Booking our accommodation was by far the most difficult part of planning our trip to Japan.  The cities are so huge, I had to figure out which parts were quiet and suitable for a family, what we could afford, where homes were in relation to the trains and our to-do list.  I would have spent at least 5 hours researching each of the 3 properties I ended up booking.   

Here’s where we are staying in Ikebukuro > https://www.airbnb.co.nz/rooms/10222084 and it’s absolutely perfect, bigger than it looks, sparkling clean and about 50 steps from the train station.  We arrived at around 11.30pm on Saturday night, the neighbourhood was silent with no one around, despite a couple of sake bars on the street.  It felt so safe.  After picking up some pastries for breakfast from the bakery on the way to the train station this morning we were utterly convinced that this property and it’s location are an absolute win for us.  If you like a sleep in the trains might bother you as they start running from around 6am I think, but Nix is such an early riser this doesn’t bother us at all.

Day 1 – Tokyo

The most difficult part of trip planning is scheduling in your itinerary in my opinion.  So I really try not to do too much of that.  Speaking frankly, kids hate being rushed around from here to there, trying to meet trains/deadlines/expectations so, we just don’t travel like that.  I have ‘region goals’ I’d like to hit while we are in Japan, but little else cemented in.  You get a better feel for what you want to do more of, see, once you’re on the ground I reckon.

So today we rose early, headed out at 9am after some cuddles and showers, hit the local bakery for the MOST amazing croissants, apple pies and cream cheese and blueberry pastries and hopped on the Tobu Toju line back to Shibuya Station.

New Zealand's Top Mummy Blogger Parenting Travel Blog Family Japan Tokyo

We coffee’d at Starbucks and found the incredible Shibuya Crossing, probably quite quiet as it was Sunday morning lol but still totally awesome.  What we noticed immediately was that Japanese locals walk like they are driving ie they stay in their lane!  Big contrast to our family where the boys are constantly running, backtracking, stopping in the middle of the footpath………we are very conspicuously the square pegs here!

New Zealand's Top Mummy Blogger Parenting Travel Blog Family Japan Tokyo

New Zealand's Top Mummy Blogger Parenting Travel Blog Family Japan Tokyo

So we did a little shopping, not much to be honest and just had a really great time wandering around.  At lunchtime, we charged a local eatery which, as it turns out specialized in pork Sta Don bowls.  Dave nailed the kiosk ordering system and we had a delicious meal of fried rice, gyoza and the pork/rice bowls.  I’m not a huge pork fan but the meat was shaved and thin it looked like bacon but was brown rather than pink.  We were quite proud of ourselves after that!

New Zealand's Top Mummy Blogger Parenting Travel Blog Family Japan Tokyo

Ethan had done some research and wanted to visit a store called Mandrake which was 4 floors underground in Shibuya.  Specializing in all things Japanese anime, this is a collectors paradise.  We saw one Pokemon card with a $1550 NZD price tag!  E is on the hunt for Dragon Ball Z merch while we are here so this was a perfect starting point.  

Always walking, we headed away from Shibuya and found ourselves gawking at the uber-trendy fashion hub that is Cat Street, Harajuku.  Our destination was actually Kiddyland which was just around the corner, a large toy store dedicated entirely to character toys.  Think Miffy, Hello Kitty, Star Wars, Marvel, Pokemon, Peanuts, Trolls………super fun, very cute, also very crowded and hot.

Everyone was slightly frazzled after Kiddyland so we stopped for a snack (and cocktail hour!) before diving into Takeshita Street which was seriously amazing.  A mix of huge international stores and small independent market-style shops, wandering along as night fell, stopping for crepes and enjoying people watching – this is Harajuku after all – was so, so fun.  The crowd is INTENSE, however, but Japanese people are so incredibly lovely, quiet, well mannered and patient, even with my nutty family, you never really felt affected by the masses of people.

New Zealand's Top Mummy Blogger Parenting Travel Blog Family Japan Tokyo

New Zealand's Top Mummy Blogger Parenting Travel Blog Family Japan Tokyo

New Zealand's Top Mummy Blogger Parenting Travel Blog Family Japan Tokyo

After that, we were well and truly done for the day so we hit the trains and headed back home.  We had realised throughout the day that Nix was not going to be able to hang with the amount of walking we’ll be doing on this trip, so Dave found a Babies ‘R Us and set off again to bring home an umbrella stroller and some dinner.  The footpaths here are clean as a whistle, super flat and perfectly maintained so pushing the stroller is no problem and everyone seems to be accommodating regarding leaving the stroller to enter stores and restaurants.

Day 1 was so awesome!  Everything has fallen into place and we are just in LOVE with Japan, so excited for what the rest of the trip will bring.