Sascha Koki
Hawai‘i Herald Columnist

I recently came across a video in my discovery feed on Instagram that asked, “When you are visiting a new country, what’s the best way to find all of the good attractions and dining spots?” The Caucasian guy then proceeds to follow an Asian family and a text appears saying something like, “follow the Asian families! Just don’t be a creeper about it.” Brows were raised, eyes were bombastically sided. So, naturally I went to the comments section. I saw that he meant it in earnest (though still a little racially charged); he went on to explain that he noticed that Asian families do a lot of research before they get to their destination so you know that you’ll get a great experience if you follow the pack. I also thought, That’s something you can easily do yourself; but multiple comments from Asian women took this as a praise, “This is true! We know how to plan these things.”

So, I’ll take it as praise and say this rings nearly always true. My mother wasn’t a typical Japanese mom and, therefore, I did not grow up learning the ways of this mythical ninjitsu technique that is apparently dormant for all of us Asian mothers. I had to learn to tap into this Japanese Mother in Vacation Mode (aka J-Mama Vacay Mode for short) and it happened when I was put under the most stressful vacation trial of my life: my first vacation with the in-laws.

For context, our first trip to Japan was similar to how my husband, Brent, and I approached our other vacations – we knew roughly who we’d be meeting up with and when but the bulk of it went without an itinerary. I’ll also add here that I love my in-laws and we are one big happy family; our children are raised in a multigenerational household and Brent’s parents are very much a part of that dynamic.

Anyway, we visited Japan in 2016 with my oldest (not even 15 months old at this point) and my in-laws in tow. If I didn’t know the stress and pressures of planning a vacation before, I sure learned then. This trip with the family was the moment I fully came into my J-Mama Vacay Mode. See, it was my in-laws’ first time to ever travel beyond the continental U.S., they went to Canada but never abroad to another country. This was going to be a big deal, and I didn’t want to let them down.

My father-in-law was nervous at the thought of being in a new country where he couldn’t speak nor understand much of the language. He asked for an itinerary so I created one after looking up visitor attractions, something I’ve never done before. Japan to me is home, not a vacation destination – what do tourists do when they visit anyway?

Brent, husband of columnist Sasha Koki, riding on a train in Japan with their eldest child. (Photo by Sascha Koki)
Brent, husband of columnist Sasha Koki, riding on a train in Japan with their eldest child. (Photo by Sascha Koki)

When I showed his father my first itinerary, there was a family meeting (yes, it was intimidating and also funny). “Where were we going on this day? What time were we leaving? Did we grab tickets for that? Where would lunch be when we got there? What was happening next?” Brent and his mother exchanged amused glances while my eyes progressively widened in panic. I don’t know, we always just wing it? That tactic was clearly not going to fly this time.

I took his notes and recommitted myself. I had to dig deep and find my inner J-Mama Vacay Mode. Working in a visitor industry-adjacent marketing agency has taught me the ways of the J-Mama; she watches all of the specials on Hawai‘i when they air, she buys up all of the latest travel guides and tabs them up like a catalog. She knows the rough budget of every meal, every omiyage, and every activity they will participate in during their trip, before the trip happens. She does this so that she doesn’t blow their budget out of the water, and so they can go on this trip again. Did you know that over 50% of Japanese visitors to Hawai‘i are repeaters? It’s not surprising when you think of the planning that goes into each vacation.

It suddenly dawned that all I needed to do was channel that type-A “Mama needs a vacation” energy that I already had within me. And along the way, I realized that there was no going back; I would forever be this way on future trips. Because it works. This year, I am visiting Japan again in the fall and have kept up that energy. The biggest difference is that we’re traveling as a family of four with my youngest in tow. Also, Brent has now come to expect this manic mode from me when it comes to vacations so he just lets me be (bless him).

And so, below, I share the secret ninjitsu techniques of the J-Mama. I hope they come in handy because they sure helped me.

  1. Know your audience

The greatest challenge of visiting Japan with my in-laws was that they had no clue where they themselves wanted to go. When I explained that I didn’t visit as a visitor, they seemed okay with it but I wanted their first experience of Japan to be a positive experience with lots of memories. Similarly with this upcoming vacation, I realized that it would be my children’s first true memory of Japan – my oldest was still a baby during his last visit. My focus for both trips are the same: make them fall in love with Japan.

2. Make a must-visit list

With my in-laws it was important to show them the essence of Japan through places and food. It was Tōkyō in all of its glory, an onsen village in the mountains with fall in full effect, and visiting my family in Nagoya. Three very different vibes all with a lot of memorable experiences. For our kids, it’s all about kid-friendly Japan and all that it has to offer without overwhelming them with attraction after attraction. I’ll save where we ended up going for another time – we need to assess which ones are worthwhile first.

3. Watch online videos

YouTube has become increasingly popular for travel guidance and for good reason. The best part is that there are so many people visiting Japan that there’s always a new video on the exact topic you’re probably looking up. The worst part is the sheer number of videos to sift through. There are two effective ways to do this: 1) find a favorite YouTuber you connect with – their preferences are probably similar to yours or, 2) look up very specific locations and very specific topics (“family travel Tōkyō,” for example). The tips and recommendations that come in handy here and you’ll get a sense of what to expect upon arrival.

4. Read all of the recommendations

When we traveled to California with the kids, combing through blogs and doing lots of research paid off. I found solace in the mom community that understood the specific challenges and panic-inducing fears of going anywhere with kids for the first time. While YouTube is great for visuals on attractions, blogs are a key resource for logistics and practical things (such as sample itineraries, candid reviews on hotels and best practices on modes of transportation). Pro tip from travel mommy bloggers: stick to one big activity per day because everything takes longer with kids.

5. Spreadsheets are your friend

This particular piece of advice actually came from a colleague who has always maps out her trips in spreadsheets. She applies what we do for work (coordinate photoshoot schedules) to her personal life and honestly, it was an eye-opener. With simple research, you can easily budget for activities and book things along the way while you’re at it. And while things change even with the most meticulous of plans, I’ve found that having an itinerary and a budget helps make the most of our vacations.

That first trip with the in-laws? While there was a learning curve, overall we had a blast. They were excited about future trips and now that I know what to expect, I can wholeheartedly say that I would be more than happy to plan the next one with them, wherever we end up going.

Join me on my journey to self care and happiness along and see how I do with the rest of my goals. You can find me at @saschakoki on Instagram for more.

Sascha Koki is the vice president of Media Etc., a PR marketing company based in Honolulu. As a Japanese and Black hapa bilingual woman who grew up in Hawai‘i and Japan, Sascha has a unique perspective on growing up with three rich cultures; she sees herself as a bridge that connects these worlds through her career and in life. Happily married and a mother of two humans and one pup, she strives to raise her pack of wild cubs into compassionate beings that wield their powers for good while enjoying all that life has to offer. Passionate about fashion, beauty, wellness and good (okay, and bad) TV in near equal measures, this former Miss Waikiki and UH Rainbow dancer is a true Aquarius.

In her column, she plans to write about “lifestyle” which really means anything and everything, all at once. Her wish is to inspire and shed light on everything from cultural issues to hilarious culture shock moments through personal stories.


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