>Planning for Japan started very early in 2007. We realised that KH’s Krisflyer points were about to expire if we didn’t do something about it and it was a huge chunk – about 22,000miles. Extending the mileage would cost too much so we had to figure out a way to use them.
First option was actually Vietnam. I liked the idea of Hanoi and then sub-trips to Halong Bay and into the Sapa Valley. I had romantic visions of sitting on a raft, piloted by women in conical hats, drifting through a sea of green rice paddies with mountains looming overhead. KH brought me back down to earth when he said he didn’t think the baby would sit still on a raft for 2 hours just admiring the scenery!
The cost of it also didn’t make sense to me. It would cost about $5000. For a little bit more, we could go further, I thought. I considered Hong Kong – they had a cool climate, theme parks which the kids would enjoy etc but upon further research, I was not impressed with HK Disneyland – it didn’t seem to be a full Disney park and lacked some key rides (chiefly Haunted Mansion!). So again, I looked further and then it hit me. If we’re talking Disneyland, and LA is too far and too expensive, then why not Tokyo?
So I did my research and counted my pennies. With the Krisflyer points, we could book two tickets. KH was due to fly to and from Europe twice more during the year and this would easily chalk up enough points for a third ticket. We also realised then that NorthWest Airlines had a special promo deal with the UOB Signature card – 2 tickets for the price of 1! That would help save quite a lot.
Everyone said that Japan would be expensive. Whenever I mentioned Japan, jaws would drop and people tsk at how expensive it would be. But when I did my research – the Lonely Planet Japan, The Rough Guide to Japan, websites like JapanGuide.com etc all showed that the cost of travel in Japan was not as prohibitive as we thought. In fact, compared to the US or Europe, with the higher exchange rates, higher airfares, Japan would be a more economical choice. Even when compared with Australia, with the high Aussie dollar to the Sing dollar, and considering food costs/accomodation costs in Australia for our family size, even an Aussie trip would be quite costly. Japan was looking more attractive by the minute.
The more I read about Japan, the more excited I got and the more fascinated I was with the land, the people, the culture. I also had to consider the ages of the children and what would interest them. No point spending so much just to drag bored and unwilling children along from cathedral to museum. So HK was out (lacklustre Disneyland + both KH and I have been there), China was out (don’t think the kids would thrill to too much of 3000 years of culture) and anywhere nearby was out (climate too similar!). Korea and Taiwan were out (KH was already baulking at Japan and went on and on about how Japan, Korea and Taiwan are the last three places on planet earth that he ever wanted to go to and while I did not agree about Japan, I did agree with his sentiments on Korea and Taiwan – bleah).
Japan, I reasoned – had the weather, the scenery (cherry blossoms? autumn foliage?), the culture (shinto shrines and buddhist temples), the fun (Disney Resort and Universal Studios), good food (the kids’ eyes shine whenever sushi is mentioned) and glitzy city life.
With that, we agreed to go to Japan. Cherry blossom time in April was out – it was Gillian’s PSLE year and we agreed that there would be no major trips before the big exam and what kind of Singaporean mother would I be if I didn’t dangle the big trip as a carrot/incentive to work harder? So that left autumn or winter. Winter was too cold and autumn seemed ideal – to catch the lovely foliage and to enjoy good clear weather. Autumn in Japan had little rain, lots of clear skies but yet with crisply chilly temperatures.
I made the Krisflyer bookings for 9 days in November, bought the Northwest 2-for-1 deal and then went online to explore accomodation and land travel options and to piece together an itinerary. This was in Feb 2007. It took me almost the whole year to tweak the itinerary. I kept changing my mind – sometimes too much information is not a good thing.
Japan being so big, had lots of things to see and places to go. But the essential seemed to be Tokyo and Kyoto. One a shiny polished new capital and the other the dignified ancient capital. A must for the kids is at least a day or two in the Disney Resort. Disney Sea is new and unique to the Disney park family, and from what I read, lovingly detailed and elaborate in theming, but the rides also seemed more geared to older kids and adults. So for now, with the constraint in time, I killed Disney Sea and stuck to a day in Disneyland.
I also wanted a day at the famed Ghibli museum – where the works of Hayao Miyazaki were showcased. Fans of Japanese animation such as Totoro, Spirited Away, LaPuta, Kiki’s Delivery Service, The Cat Returns, Grave of the Fireflies, Princess Mononoke etc would know what I mean. I’ve always loved the colours, the characters and the whimsy that is so characteristic of a Ghibli production. So six months before the trip, I started immersing the children with Ghibli works. I found a box set of DVDs and the kids got hooked. Watching the animation together with them gave me a chance to casually point out certain interesting elements of life in Japan eg the use of the onsen (Spirited Away), the family bath (Totoro), the architecture of a typical Japanese house with shoji screens and tatami mats, the Shinto belief in Totoro, the 2nd World War (Grave of the Fireflies) etc. It helped create a sense of excitement and awareness in the children. Unfortunately, two weeks before the trip we realised that the Ghibli museum would be closed for the week that we would be in town! Drat that.
From the library, we borrowed picture books on Japan for the children to read, flip through the pictures etc. Food-wise they were already salivating at the thought of daily sushi! But I also introduced them to other foods eg ramen, soba, udon, oyakko-don etc.
We went into Google Earth where I showed them the places we would be going to, the Disney resort website, pictures of autumn in Kyoto etc. All this helped to whet their appetite for the trip.
To keep everyone as healthy as possible before the trip (I was worried about travelling in a plane with badly congested noses/ears in the event someone had the flu/cold – the pressure on the ears can be very painful and severe), I dosed everyone (KH and I included) with Sambucol, Echinecea and Vit C starting from about 8 to 6 weeks before departure.
My own personal research took the shape of web searches, guide books and chats with colleagues who have been to and/or lived in Japan. In the Design School, there are many who have done so and they willingly shared their impressions, gave great advice, tips etc.
When I booked my accomodation, I made sure the first few nights’ stay would be at a hotel near Disney – I knew that we would very likely stay late at the park and I didn’t want to have to make long commutes from TDR back to Tokyo city with 5 cranky tired kids. So I picked Family Fifty’s at Mahaima. This was a simple motel set-up which was one train station away from TDR and 15min away from Tokyo station. For about 9400yen a night for a triple room including a buffet continental breakfast, this was a very good deal. We booked two rooms for four nights.
I also found a very good shinkansen+hotel deal to Kyoto from Sunrise Tours, an offshoot of JTB (Japan Travel Bureau). It cost about $2700 and included shinkansen round trip travel from Tokyo to Kyoto and back, hotel stays at an upmarket hotel for 3 nights for all of us.
For our last night in Tokyo, I found a cosy, quaint little ryokan tucked away in a quiet corner of Tokyo called Ryokan Kangetsu. I could have booked the Tokyo International Youth Hostel (it was much nearer to Tokyo station than Kangetsu) but I also wanted the children to have a ryokan experience (ie sleeping on futons, using the rotemburo etc). That cost about $200 a night for all of us in one large room.
With everything almost done, I confirmed my itinerary, borrowed books from the library, did a last-minute scramble for long johns, borrowed backpacks and winter jackets, practised some basic Japanese phrases and we were ready to go.