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You’d Never See This in Eugene – The Tokyo Toddler

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I’m not talking about the bicycle. Eugene has those like a forest has mushrooms after fall rain. I’m talking about the suit. You just don’t see those kind of clothes in Eugene.

But in Japan? Even the salarymen wear suits when they ride bicycles.

This, though, you would see in Eugene. I couldn’t get a better angle, but there’s a wee girl sitting in the very cool black seat on the back of the bike. From here, she and her dad are heading to the Noborito train station, which is only a few hundred meters away.

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Checking Off Our Tokyo Travel Checklist

Tokyo with an American Expat

Godzilla statue in Tokyo’s Central Business District, check. We’re here with our awesome guide for the day, Jodie’s high school friend turned expat, Brooke

Follow the adventure: The Tokyo Toddler

Travel is a chance to reconnect. That’s why, on our last full day in Tokyo, we saw the city with a high school friend of Jodie’s who has now lived in Japan for 8 years.

The thing about a city on the scale of Tokyo, New York or London, is that it is devil hard to take in the major sights. Tokyo sprawls beyond the eye and the imagination. Getting around takes a lot of chuffing and coordination. It’s much easier, though, if you know someone on the inside.

Family photo at the Imperial Palace, check

Brooke met us at Noborito Station. “Today we check off your Tokyo tourist checklist,” she said. “We’re going to see the big things that everyone comes here to see, and a few other things too.”

Having a guide also means you don’t have to focus as much on the logistics of getting around. Brooke already knew the train lines we needed to take and the directions we needed to walk. Instead of spending precious sightseeing time looking over maps, pointing and discussing, Jodie and I could simply wheel Connor along and follow Brooke’s shiny blue scarf.

Diaper change in a huge Japanese train station, check, but not by me. Despite the diaper and a bag of wipes gearing up my Ergo Carrier Chest Bandolier, there were no changing facilities in the men’s room. Jodie had to take Connor to the women’s room for this change. However, Japan overall had good facilities for changing rooms, dedicated handicapped/baby bathrooms, and changing tables in many men’s toilets too.

A day like this also balances out travel. Yesterday’s visit to the wooded, peaceful Meiji Temple gave us an intimate, restorative moment with Tokyo. It took us into ourselves, recharged us after the rigors of the last couple of days. Jodie, Connor and I could take a deep breath and feel truly ready for the 3 weeks ahead.

Today is when we start cashing in that renewed energy. Today is seeing Tokyo for its dazzle, its fast pace, and for the things that, once you’re home, you really just need to be able to say, “Yup, I saw that.”

Tokyo Station with drowsy toddler, check

From Noborito we took the train to Tokyo’s Central Business District, or CBD. From the tall buildings of the CBD, we wandered toward the more open grounds of the Imperial Palace, low flat spaces covered in a few trees. Seeing Tokyo’s Imperial Palace is a bit like standing outside the gates of Buckingham Palace in London. It’s the closest to royalty you may ever get, and the buildings and grounds are pretty.

Park packed with cherry trees, plum trees and people devoting some of their day to hanami, check

We wandered through nearby parks, giving Connor some needed time to romp around and climb things.

Back into the CBD, Brooke took us to the Godzilla statue in Hibiya Park. Godzilla movies comprised a fair few moments of my childhood, and it was a proud papa moment to show this bit of geekery, erected in 1995, to my wee son.

Saw these tie t-shirts on wee kids all over Tokyo. Really, really want an adult size. (I wear either a men’s small or medium, btw)

With over 3,000 trains passing through and over 381,000 passengers boarding every day, Tokyo Station is one of the world’s busiest and largest train stations. We stopped for a photo in front of it, but our visit was not just for snapshots and checklists. Jodie and I also needed to activate our 7-day Japan Rail Pass. After Tokyo we’d be hopping, skipping and jumping around for the next few days, and the JR Pass was going to save us a lot of money on trains. By showing our pass, we could board pretty much any train on the Japan Rail network (not subways or private train lines, but no worries).

There’s nothing like sightseeing and rail pass activation to work up an appetite, though. Brooke steered us to the Ameyayokocho street shopping area, a network of narrow streets packed with locals, tourists and lots and lots of stuff for sale. From fresh fish to Dr. Bronner’s liquid soap, you can buy anything in Ameyayokocho except for a square foot of space that doesn’t contain another person. Tucked off a side street that I couldn’t find again if my life depended on it, Brooke guided us to her favorite sushi restaurant (you can read about our only sushi meal in Japan here).

Souvenir stalls with tourists and plum trees in Tokyo’s Asakusa neighborhood

After adoring the wonders of the sea on twin beds of wasabi-laced rice, it was time to adore the wonders of spring. We wandered parks where thousands of people admired the plum and cherry trees (though in true Asian all-things-coexist fashion, the start of one stunning park was just down from a building’s massive “Adult Movies” sign. We did not point this out to Connor).

Not part of the checklist. I just love this photo. Check.

From the hanami, we turned both inward and outward, to ponder the desires of life, the needs of the moment, and the profound. To do so, we made our way to the popular Asakusa area, where the 7th-century Sensoji Buddhist temple lies at the end of the Nakamise shopping street. After all, the profound must be balanced with the mundane.

Sensoji Temple in Asakusa, check. The huge red lantern marks this as the “Thunder Gate.”

My time is Japan is primarily research for my Rucksack Universe travel fantasy fiction stories. As a long-time admirer of Japanese culture, I knew it was only a matter of time before I’d want to set stories here. These first days were the first of many mad dashes of scribbling in my notebook, and Sensoji alone provided reams of ideas.

A statue stands on the right and left of the Thunder Gate lantern. “One of the statues has a closed mouth, and one has an open mouth,” Brooke explained. “It’s said to symbolize the beginning and end of something—a sentence, the universe, you name it.”

As you can imagine, my pen starting flying over my notebook.

There is nothing profound to be found in this statement

Sensoji was packed with tourists and locals. Like us, many came to just see the place and take in one of the most amazing temples in Japan. Many others came to pray and make offerings, all the better to deal with whatever bits of life they sought help with. Despite the crowds, a calm hung over the place. Sure, we were surrounded by thousands of Japanese and foreigners. But it was easy to feel wrapped in a wee bit of silent serenity too, where the mundane world really did seem left at the end of the shopping street.

Yummy sweet bean paste-filled treat Asakusa is known for, check. Also: bought a Coke from a food stall, which according to our guide is run by the Japanese mob. So I’ve also knowingly made my first purchase from the mob. As you can understand, I didn’t take a picture of the seller.

Leaving Asakusa was like a personal energy top-off. Restored by Sensoji’s relative calm, Brooke now steered us to one of the world’s largest intersections and pedestrian crossings: Shibuya. It’s been captured in countless photos and videos, and if you’ve seen that movie Lost in Translation, you’ve seen Shibuya. Every time the signals change, thousands of people cross the street at the same time.

It’s exactly the sort of thing I doubt Jodie and I would have done on our own. But when you have someone with you who knows the place better than you do, well, you don’t argue.

You’re also glad you listen. Crossing Shibuya was a thrill. All around you are people going in various directions, just as you are. They cross for countless reasons, each with their own destination in mind. Some are like us, crossing because, hey, how many people who don’t live in Tokyo can say they’ve been here? And some are crossing, like the chicken, because it’s the road and they need to get to the other side. Regardless, it’s a place packed with people and intent that has its own buzz to it, like midtown Manhattan or downtown London. There’s a lot of life going on in these few square meters, and it has a lot of places to go.

Crossing the street at the famed Shibuya Crossing along with a few thousand other people, check. This is strangely thrilling—so much so we did it twice.

Our last big sight of the day was a view of nighttime Tokyo from the free inside observation deck on the 45th floor free of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building. I’m actually really glad to have seen this skyline at night. Even when I think about it now, Tokyo’s scale leaves me breathless. This city seems somehow beyond human comprehension and capacity, more like a massive lifeform than a collection of buildings, streets, people, animals, plants and objects. The lights of the city shone out as far as I could see. Anything could happen here. So much happens here that we will never know about.

Yup, out comes the notebook and pen again. A city like this, where anything can happen—well, eventually, anything does.

At the end of a long day of seeing Tokyo, Connor looks out over the entire city from 45 stories up. And yes, there was some soothing to be given once he freaked out at the whole “standing high above the ground and not quite understanding glass” thing.

Later that night, we said our good-byes to Brooke and made our way back to the Noborito homestay. Exhausted but beaming, it had been an intense day, but a thrilling day. We’d seen many of the major sights of Tokyo, but we’d also seen countless day-to-day bits and pieces of life. I’d gotten heaps of material for stories, ideas I only could have gotten by being on the ground in Japan.

We settled in for a good night’s sleep, and I wondered if this night would pass without more early-morning outings and dawn garden tours. My legs and torso, tired from walking and carrying Connor on my back, were happy for a rest. My mind stuffed all the ideas and input from the day into the back of my imagination, where they would slow cook and percolate into stories, settings, plots and characters.

Brooke had given us an amazing day in one of the world’s most intense cities. As we closed our eyes, the bright lights and big buzz of Tokyo’s dazzle was upon us. But soon it would all be a memory.

Tomorrow we would take a Shinkansen, one of the famed “bullet trains” of Japan, from the modern capital of Tokyo to the old, beautiful, former capital of Kyoto. We’d be heading into a completely different type of city, and to a different homestay too, from bachelor pad to family flat, where all sorts of new adventures awaited.

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Sushi at 15 Months

What does Connor think of Japan’s most famous culinary art?

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When seeing the big sights of Tokyo, you also need a big lunch. So our guide made sure to whisk us to the special upstairs room of her favorite sushi restaurant, where reminders of cultural differences awaited.

“My mom found this place a few years ago,” Brooke explained, “and she is very loyal.”

¥4000 later (about US$41), I could understand why.

To find our secret sushi spot, you must find the right side street off the ever-packed main drag of Tokyo’s Ameyayokocho street shopping area.

Like most of the world’s truly great and memorable restaurants, Kappa Sushi is rather unassuming from the outside. Even if Ameyayokocho’s teeming streets were empty, I doubt I could find the place on my own. (It’s unassuming from the Internet too; if they have a homepage, I haven’t found it yet.) Brooke was also quick to note that her place was not the same as the chain of conveyor belt sushi restaurants of the same name.

“It’s the hipster Kappa Sushi,” she said with a laugh.

The line stretching outside Kappa Sushi certainly reminded me of hipsters queued up at trendy Portland brunch joints on a Sunday morning. We were all ready for a meal and a sit, and I began to wonder how Connor was going to weather the long wait. A hungry toddler cannot live on rice-and-sesame crackers alone.

But Brooke just smiled. “It’s okay,” she said. “The wait is for the lower level. Since we have at least three people, we skip the line and go to the upstairs room.”

Within moments we were settled in and drooling over the menu.

You are reading that correctly. From the time they open until 8 p.m., all sushi menu is 2 for the price of 1. No mention made of the wheelbarrow needed to escort out sushi-coma Westerners, however.

One glance at the menu revealed another reason Brooke had brought us here: until 8 p.m., all the sushi on Kappa’s menu is 2 pieces for the price of 1. Which in Anthony-and-Jodie terms pretty much rings out to, “order everything!”

With Brooke’s help we prepared a massive order of sushi: sea urchin, fatty tuna, salmon, roe, octopus, more tuna, pickled daikon radish, egg, mackeral, barbecued eel and a bit more tuna. Hot oolong tea and savory, refreshing miso soup perked us up for the meal ahead, and restored us from the sightseeing rigors of the day so far.

Now, I will not get into the specifics of whether or not to feed raw seafood to your 15-month-old toddler. The main reason I won’t is because there aren’t specific recommendations one way or another. Jodie researched this topic quite extensively, and I will summarize her conclusions thusly: your guess is as good as mine.

One rule of thumb says 2 years. Another said 8 years. Some resources reminded to minimize fish such as tuna, which tend to contain more mercury than other sushi fish. Some said to go for it, just be wary of the possible (though improbable) risk of parasites.

What did we do? We did decide to play it safe for now, but mainly for reasons of texture, not rawness. Connor is still working on getting his molars in—1 down, 3 on the march (just in time for this trip). Gumming raw seafood struck us as more of a choking concern than anything else. So we kept Connor to the egg sushi and rolls of pickled daikon radish, which he munched up with toddler glee.

Kappa Sushi has 2 levels. There was a huge queue for the lower level. Parties of 3 or more, however, are whisked upstairs for immediate sushi bliss.

The Japanese are a wonderful people. The trains run on time. You can buy hot, decently tasting coffee from a vending machine for ¥100 (about a buck). Sushi is edible art.

However, the Japanese have not quite sorted out the whole smoking in public thing. Granted, we live in Eugene, Oregon, where smoking hasn’t been allowed inside restaurants and bars for years. One whiff in our upstairs sushi haven, though, reminded us that different places do things different ways.

“They’re working on it,” Brooke said. You can’t smoke on trains, and outside there are often designated smoking areas and places you can’t smoke. But they haven’t yet banned smoking inside restaurants.

Oh well. Sure, there are some Yanks who may have made a scene, and furthered that oh-so-lovely reputation Americans have for being overbearing demanding wankers. But I just don’t see it as my place to tell someone else what to do in their own country. So Connor was getting a bit of exposure to secondhand smoke? He’d be okay. And no, it’s not the aroma I prefer to savor over miso soup and sushi. But it wasn’t going to kill us, and really, it wasn’t too bad.

Besides, we had a feast to enjoy.

3 adults and 1 toddler only just polished off these 2 massive platters of sushi. A few delectables of note include the sea urchin (yellow stuff on left plate), unagi (to left of urchin; different eel used from what we know from Oregon), roe (to right of urchin; salty, briny goodness), pickled daikon radish (the 12 nori-wrapped pieces on the right plate; crunchy and just-right piquancy).

Ages later, we staggered out of Kappa Sushi, full, sushi-blissed and ready for the next part of our Japan adventure. In fact, this was the only sushi we ate in Japan, but it is a meal I will always remember with finger-licking fondness.

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Hats Retrieved

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I’m a sucker for quirky signs. Yes, they have their function. But different signs in different countries can also just look different and interesting to those who are new to them.

Such as this wonderful wee sign, seen throughout Japan and first spotted by me in Tokyo. What could be more touching than a sad girl knowing her hat will be saved by a friendly station employee with a long clawed stick?

“More importantly,” adds Connor, “where can I get one of those sticks?”

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The Gardens of Noborito

We were in time for much of Japan’s hanami, or the viewing of the plum (ume) and cherry (sakura) blossoms. In this Noborito residential garden, trees bloom while greens grow.

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As Connor and I wandered Noborito on an early Tokyo morning, we each kept marveling at the gardens in the neighborhood. Living in the Pacific Northwest, we’re accustomed to fascinating gardens. They make you wonder about who lives in a house, what they’re like, how their personality is expressed in their garden. Noborito’s neighborhood gardens evoked that same curiosity.

I sometimes get the trees mixed up, but I’m pretty sure this is a plum tree. Plum blossoms usually bloom before the main attraction of the cherry blossoms. The Japanese also consider spring and its time of change a good time to do new things. In Japan, for example, blossom time is when the school year begins and people often start new jobs.

It’s easy to think of Tokyo as all bright lights and big city. But even in one of the world’s great cities, there is nature, tilled earth, and green things growing.

A gardener is up early watering the plants in his backyard plot.

Large or small, chaotic or meticulously maintained, Noborito’s gardens gave me and Connor a wee glimpse into the variety of people and personalities in this small part of Tokyo. It was a good reminder that we were seeing folks just like us: people who take their wee part of the world and make it their own through plants, or how they decorate their home, or a million other details and decisions.

Wow, a big park right in the middle of the neighborhood, right? Wrong. This is someone’s yard.

As Connor and I wandered, I also thought about the blossoms and what they mean to the Japanese. Not only do they represent the coming of spring, they embody change, and the transience of all things. The blossoms are beautiful; they spring into life on bare trees, bringing early color to a world still pale from winter. And then, after a couple weeks of vibrance, it will take only a stiff breeze to knock the petals to the ground like snow.

The blossoms will fall. The memory stays—and so does the inspiration to take advantage of what life brings next.

Does it mean that beauty is brief? Sure. But only this particular type of beauty. After all, the blossoms are followed by leaves, just as spring is followed by summer. The beauty doesn’t disappear, it transforms.

As I watched Connor smile and giggle while he wandered Noborito’s streets, I pondered how he is changing right now. Our baby is now a toddler, walking and curious, testing the world and indulging a growing rambunctiousness. That baby is still there, but every day Connor is more and more a little boy. As his abilities develop, he’s becoming more engaged with the world around him. There are new excitements and frustrations, new things he can do and, of course, new things he suddenly isn’t allowed to do. He is still my beautiful boy, but that beauty is changing and growing.

A backyard of oranges and hanami.

As Connor grows and changes, I hope that I am growing and changing too. I have much to learn as I parent a toddler. It’s not always easy, and this trip also is a time where we will have many new difficult moments with Connor. There will be public meltdowns. There will be lots of use of the words, “No, because…” There will be times where I’m going to feel absolutely mortified that my child is screaming, or doing something he shouldn’t do, or is crying loudly because he’s tired as hell because the way we’re traveling didn’t allow for enough naps today.

Just as the blossoms fall, I’ve also got to let my fears fall. Becoming a parent is one of the most exciting and most terrifying things I’ve ever done. I’m stoked as hell that we’ve flown our one-year-old across the world for a 3-week adventure in a different country. And I’m scared as hell that I won’t parent Connor as well while out of my comfort zone as both a traveler and a parent.

Seems like just another driveway past another wee house.

The world changes. Connor grows. I evolve. Things change—and as they change, they transform to fit the times, and to bring out more of their true selves. The best I can do is to try to see the world as Connor sees it, while being his companion and guide in a life where we both are always learning.

Nope. Down this driveway is another fascinating wee garden, serene and harmonious. I could really get used to this country.

My child is like a garden. I can over-prune, over-manage, and warp who he is. I can be neglectful, do too little, and maybe his best self can’t come out because there’s too much nonsense in the way. I’m hoping to raise my child the way these Noborito gardens are tended: little enough to let nature do as nature knows best, and just enough to bring out the best self the way love and caring discipline can do.

Connor has so much to learn and do. And so do I. Starting with enjoying a walk through some gardens in a simple neighborhood.

My favorite funky Noborito front yard garden, complete with super-cool mailbox and front gate.

We have so much to do and to look forward to on this trip. Some times will be difficult. There will be frustrations. It’s all something to learn from. It’s all something to get through as best we can. And no matter what, it will all be worth every moment—because we are here, in Japan, and Jodie and I are sharing the world with our wee son.

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The World Needs More Moist Towelettes

Get so much as a wee pack of dried crab chews in Japan, and you’ll get a nice moist towelette.

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Americans love napkins. We go through reams of the things every day. The Japanese, however, favor the moist towelette. Individually wrapped and given to you pretty much anywhere you get food or drink, these handy little buggers clean up far more thoroughly than napkins. Which makes sense, because they’re essentially baby wipes (and they’ve also done a far bit of baby wiping duty for a food-covered Connor).

These wee towelettes are also strangely gratifying. It’s one thing to wipe your hands with a dry napkin. Wiping your hands with a nice moist towelette, you feel suddenly refreshed. And, if you’re like me and your face occasionally needs a good de-greasing, there’s nothing like a moist towelette to keep you feeling all peppy and scrubbed for a day’s travel.

Yes indeed. The world needs more moist towelettes.




Apology Bread

Toddler wakes people up? In the morning leave apology bread

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In addition to dealing with a 16-hour time change, 3 molars are cutting their bloody way through Connor’s gums. This made for a rough night.

We warned our homestay host and fellow couchsurfers, and apologized in advance in case Connor had some middle-of-the-night wakeups. He did better than we expected… if your given definition of “expected” stops at about 4:30 in the morning.

Still, life is about making up for the rough parts. At the end of a really really really really early morning walk with Connor—we’ll get to that—I stopped in a bakery to pick up a loaf of Apology Bread. As we packed up to head out for a day of Tokyo sightseeing, I sliced up the bread and left it with a wee note.

Sorry, everyone. Molars respect no clocks. More raisin bread?

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Dad, Let’s Help Tokyo Wake Up

Maybe I was sleepier than I thought…

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Sunrise in Noborito’s Neighborhoods

“Dad, I want to go exploring,” Connor said.

At least, that’s what Connor would have said if he could speak like that yet. The meaning was clear enough though.

After a good night’s sleep till 4:30 a.m., then an hour of tossing and turning while Jodie and I tried to get him back to sleep, Connor was tired of being in bed. A toddler can be like a puppy in this way: up early to play, he needs outside, he plays hard, then he crashes out later that morning.

Eugene has lots of bicycles, but it’s nothing compared to this small Tokyo suburb. By mid-day, this lot was packed full of scooters and bicycles, ridden in by people catching the train.

As Connor’s frustration grew, so did his noise. We didn’t want to wake up our host or fellow couchsurfers, but there was nothing we could do to get this time zone-befuddled wee guy to go back to sleep. So finally, at about 5:30 in the morning, I shook my head, smiled at Jodie and said, “I’m taking Connor for a walk.” By a little before 6 a.m., a groggy dad pushed a wide-eyed wee boy in a stroller out into the streets of Noborito.

Granted, this was not exactly how I wanted to spend my first morning in Tokyo. I’d hoped we would stay asleep at least a couple more hours to shake off the remnants of jetlag. Thinking only of coffee, I aimed us first toward Noborito Station. Instinct steered me into a 24-hour Family Mart store instead.

Time for my first-ever vending machine coffee. At 120 yen, or about $1.28, it was pretty darn good. And yes, it was hot.

I picked up a carton of grape juice and 2 musubis, triangular snacks of rice pressed around a filling and wrapped in nori, or dried seaweed. At about $1 a pop, musubis fast became one of our favorite snacks—cheap, healthy and filling. Plus, Connor loves them.

Things were slow at Noborito Station. The supermarket and bakery weren’t open yet—no ridiculously good coffee for Anthony at 6 in the morning. Nope. Connor and I hunkered down, had our snacks and watched commuters wander by.

Not only were the food and walking helping me feel more human, they were helping me shift my attitude too. As I sat with my son, Connor looked at me with an excitement in his eyes. Here we were, in another country on the other side of the world. It was just him and me, dad and lad, and he was so excited to be up and about. And that clicked something over for me. As with travel, so too with parenting: your challenge and your responsibility is to find your opportunity in the moment. I realized that Connor being up at this early hour gave us a chance to do something really cool: watch part of Tokyo wake up.

“Son,” I said as I strollered us to the elevator, “let’s take a walk.”

Empty sake barrels outside a bar

“Walk down me,” said the small street near Noborito Station. “I’m narrow.”

Our wander began by walking beneath the station, out into a narrow, windy street packed with small shops, bars and eateries. At this hour they were all shuttered, from the wee noodle shop with a display of plastic food out front, to the Indian restaurant flying the green, white and orange flag. The occasional scooter buzzed by, passing us and the smattering of suited salarymen off to a day at the office.

What I love about Asia is its coexistence. Where something can be, something is. Such as an English-style pub sitting above a noodle shop:

Sadly, it was too early in the morning for me to test their claim of “Best English Pub”

Coming out from this wee street, we crossed into a neighborhood. Noborito is a small residential area. This isn’t the neon-and-glass-skyscraper Tokyo. This is the Tokyo of small front patio gardens and wee shops. You can walk down the middle of neighborhood streets. (Though there are still vending machines packed with hot and cold beverages. I am quickly becoming addicted to Japan’s vending machines.) As Connor and I strolled along Noborito’s quiet streets, I began to realize that on our trip I really wanted to try to see things from Connor’s perspective. Which given what a short-arse I am, it could be argued that’s already very easy for me to do.

Want to play in the gravel and the driveway? Cool. You’re happy? Win-win.

We walked by amazing gardens, and we smiled and said “konnichiwa,” or “hello,” to people passing by on bicycles and scooters. Connor laughed and smiled, and pointed at things that fascinated him. Once we’d walked into the neighborhood a wee ways, I let him out of the stroller so he could explore at his own pace. We looked at this part of the world together, just him and his dad, and we were both the happier for the wandering.

Amidst the houses and apartment buildings of Noborito, you can also find the Hickory Pizza House.

What began as a nuisance—a jetlagged toddler waking up at an ungodly hour—quickly became one of my favorite experiences of the trip. Connor and I were just hanging out, father and son. We had no schedule to keep, no goal to achieve. We were just two guys out for a stroll on a pleasant morning in a country that was far from home, but felt like home.

I loved it. It was an amazing morning. But I’m also glad that since then, Connor has been sleeping much, much later.

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Big in Japan: Meiji Temple

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When getting ready for our trip, we put a big call-out to pretty much everyone we knew: any tips or contacts in Japan that you could share with us? Our friend Pam came through big when she introduced us to her friend Kiyomi, who lived just outside Tokyo. They had met and become friends when Pam had come to Japan on an exchange program. Now, as Kiyomi prepared to move to another place in Japan to start a new job, she nonetheless made room in her busy schedule to meet up with us on our first full day in Japan.

After a morning of getting our bearings and overall starting to feel human again, we met Kiyomi at Noborito Station that afternoon.

“What do you want to do?” she asked.

This is a tougher question to answer than you might think. Obviously, we wanted to see and do everything. Yet as we talked, we realized that what we really needed was a little something else. Our bodies were feeling better… but we needed something that was good for the soul.

“I know just where to go,” Kiyomi said.

A few train rides later—including back through the infamous Shinjuku Station—and we got off the train at Harajuku Station. Just across the street, in the midst of hectic, bustling, crowded Tokyo, stood a quiet, forested paradise: Meiji Jingu Shrine. Standing outside the torii, or shrine gate, we all breathed in deeply. Trees covered a broad path. The city’s cacophony faded.

“Is this okay?” Kiyomi asked.

“It’s perfect,” Jodie and I said. “This is exactly what we needed.”

Meiji is a major shrine for Tokyo. It is dedicated to “the divine souls of Emperor Meiji and his consort Empress Shoken,” who passed away in 1912 and 1914 respectively. I won’t pretend to know much about Shinto—though I will say I very much want to learn more—but I do dig that Japan’s ancient religion has no founder, no holy book, no need to tell anyone what to believe. It seems to focus on the animate, vital energy in all things living and non-living.

The story goes that the Japanese people wanted to commemorate the virtues and memory of the Emperor and his consort. They donated 100,000 trees, some from Japan, some from all over the world, and created this urban forest themselves. The shrine opened on Nov. 1, 1920 (with dedications including barrels of French wine and Japanese sake).

Now, there was no shortage of people in this park. The collective footsteps of hundreds of people crunched all around us. At first it’s surprising. You’re heading into this reflective place, where people go to pray or just ponder some bit of life. How do you do that with a bunch of damn gravel crunching like a giant eating boulders?

But then you get to the flagstones near the main temple. The noise stops. A silence is restored. And it’s like this sudden absence of sound makes you all the gladder, all the more relieved, to be where you are. Maybe the gravel is there to make you appreciative of the spiritual experience ahead. Maybe gravel is just a cheap way to maintain a big path. Either way, or both ways, it works.

Before going into the main shrine area, there is a wee spot off to the left where you clean off your dirty hands—or rather, purify your spirit so as to be in the presence of the kami, or spirits, of the shrine. Out of respect for the customs of the shrine, we stepped up to the water dippers. Kiyomi was kind enough to help Connor go through the paces of pouring water on his left hand, then his right hand, then drinking some water from his left hand.

At the shrine itself, we all paid respects to the spirits. I added a wee prayer for our trip to go well, and for us to travel together in healthy and harmony as individuals and as a family.

In the meantime, however, Connor began building his Japanese fan club.

As I write this we’re a few more days into the trip. As Connor’s dad, and as a regular caretaking parent, I thought I’d gotten accustomed to the attention this bright-eyed, bubbly kiddo gets.

I was not at all prepared for how big my son is going to be in Japan.

Mr. Smiley Blue Eyes didn’t have the occasional photo taken. There wasn’t the occasional “kawaī,” pronounced “koh-ay-ee,” which means “cute.” Oh no.

My child had a bloody entourage.

People followed him around the shrine, making him laugh, taking pictures, waving, and talking with him. Like many kids, Connor brings people out of their shells, and he busts the Japanese out of their shells faster than a few beers. The Japanese may be famous around the world for their reserved stature, but that reserve falls like cherry blossoms in a high wind once he starts laughing and smiling.

Most of the rest of our visit to Meiji was spent following and watching this spectacle of people wandering after my child and taking his photo. And no, this didn’t seem weird to me, and it didn’t seem like something to be worried about. A goodness shone through in the people who were around Connor, a joy at seeing this happy wee toddler bopping around their part of the world. He smiled at everyone who passed by, and that brought out many smiles in return. We all shared many laughs, and had a few conversations in halting Japanese and English.

And you know what? It was indeed exactly what was needed. A shrine, after all, isn’t just about quiet reverence. It’s about respecting the fire of life, the spark and spirit that burns in you, me and everything, and that keeps existence rolling along. It’s about enjoying joy when you have it, and learning from sorrow when it comes. Seeing Connor laugh, smile and run freely is something that I know I already draw on when I need to lift my spirits. And if other people drew in that same sense of joy, then I was grateful to share it with them.

As our afternoon at the temple wound down, Jodie and I looked at other and Kiyomi in agreement. We couldn’t have picked a better first day in Tokyo. Listening to the trees rustle in the breeze, looking at the branches, taking in the sunlight as it filtered through the still-bare boughs, Jodie and I realized we felt renewed, recharged. We had a busy three weeks ahead of us—and now we felt all the more ready to face them with joy and gusto.

His entourage now tending to other matters, Connor came back to earth. He finished his Meiji trip in the same place where, eventually, pretty much all toddlers end up: the changing table.

Hey, he may have an entourage, but we still gotta keep the kid down to earth, you know?

As we wondered out of Meiji and back to the rush hour hustle of Tokyo, the city seemed not only new, but welcoming. We thanked Kiyomi and wished her well on her new job. She kindly accompanied us all the way back to our station to make sure we got back okay. Eventually we parted, and left with gratitude at having made a new friend our first day in a new country.

Now it was time to relax and grab some dinner. Meiji had restored us, and just in time. Tomorrow an expat friend of Jodie’s was taking us out for a big day of checking off our Tokyo travel checklist.

More Tokyo Toddler




First Morning in Tokyo

Connor stretches his legs at Noborito Station

Follow the adventure: The Tokyo Toddler

Our first morning in Tokyo dawned bright, warm and lovely. Last night’s wind and rain were a memory, a story to tell when we got home. We chatted briefly with our host, a young Japanese man who works both in business consulting and as a musician. We also chatted with our fellow couchsurfer, a Frenchman who’d spent the past few weeks in Japan and was now leaving for Malaysia.

After cleaning up and getting our bearings, it was time to get out in the sunshine and start feeling our way around this slice of Tokyo.

Taste of home? Freshness Burger is a chain of “burger cafes” in Japan. We have it on good authority from a Yank expat that it’s good, “especially if you wants to remember what a hamburger is like.” We haven’t tried it yet, but we shall see…

Only a few hundred yards down the area’s main street, we wandered past various shops. People went by on foot, in cars, on bicycles and on mopeds. This wasn’t a touristy part of town; it was simply a place where people got on with their lives. We enjoy seeing the sights just like any other traveler, but we also like glimpses into people’s day-to-day lives. After all, when you get down to it, most people are more similar than different. They want to get through today better than they got through yesterday. They have dreams and disappointments. They have work to do and homes and families to take care of. No matter where we go, we always like just being in and about different neighborhoods to get that feel of the pace of life.

I have no idea what these places are, but don’t they look interesting?

In this area, men in suits rode bicycles to a huge parking lot where the sun glinted off thousands of chrome handlebars. Then they would dash off to the train station to head into central Tokyo. Children in school uniforms walked by, carrying bookbags or instrument cases (quite a few of which were violins, Jodie noted with not a little satisfaction).

Coffee and baked yumminess

It turns out that Noborito Station is really easy to find from where we were staying. Not only that, when it’s not raining sideways the station’s top platform makes both for great people-watching and a great place to have a relaxing breakfast. Since so many people use the trains to get around day to day, the train station had a supermarket, a noodle shop and a bakery.

Various friends had told us that the Japanese have amazing bakeries, a claim we of course had to test.

Wee pubs and eateries, like this ground floor place with the brown doors, are all over the place.

The coffee was rich, complex and perfectly roasted. The baked goods were tasty and satisfying, yet light on the palate. And not too sweet, either. There was sweetness, but where many American pastries go over the top on the sugar, these Japanese pastries brought out more flavors along with the sweet. Though these balanced flavors have a downside—they’re so fun to eat, so tasty, that you want to get about five times more than you normally would. But hey, we’re walking everywhere, right?

Noborito Station’s grandmotherly cleaning ladies quickly grew fond of Connor.

We ate in the sun and talked about the craziness of the night before. We also talked about the day to come: later in the afternoon, after lunch, we were meeting a friend of a friend. She was Japanese, and was going to show us around some of Tokyo.

More Tokyo Toddler




Hi.

Anthony St. Clair - Travel Fantasy Author / Craft Beer Writer / Business Copywriter

Author and copywriter Anthony St. Clair has specialized in online content since 2000, blogged since 2004 and is the author of the Rucksack Universe travel fantasy series.

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