Hawai‘i Herald Columnist
“Ojisan. Not Ojiisan, try.”
I hadn’t quite given up hope, but I was a little guilty about the fact that my kids were not speaking Japanese despite being fluent myself. I was hoping that this trip to Japan would inspire them to speak it more. Even if it was pronouncing Uncle as “Ojisan’’ and not ojiisan, grandpa. Insert exasperated palm to face.
We arrived in Nagoya – our first full day there is on a Saturday – and my O-mama said to come by. Never mind that the family is getting together on Monday, she’s eager to see her great-grandchildren. So, after checking out the zoo for a bit, we caught a train a few stops over to her place.
My kids – now five and eight, have no memory of Japan, and everything is fresh and new. So far, we’ve spent several days in Tökyö, a few more at Disney Resort, a day trip to Kyöto, and now the last leg of our trip, time with family and no real itinerary. It’s my favorite part of the trip thus far.
As we wander through the town I spent my summers in, I’m gliding along like a homing pigeon that just knows where to go, even after being away for seven years. Even after seeing all the jarring updates that make me second-guess my route. We trek on anyway and I point to my old ballet studio – the downstairs area of someone’s home. I comment on how it’s strange that my favorite Lotteria (a Japanese burger chain) has been replaced with a gym. As we approach the neighborhood park, I build up suspense for the kids, knowing they are about to fall in love with the place in the same way I had. I casually point out the baseball field and tell them stories of how we’ve had bon dances; we walk down a narrowing path and I gesture where the festival booths and food stalls go, purposely blocking the park before stepping aside to tell them, “and this is where Mommy grew up playing.”
Two pairs of eyes sparkle and grow wide at the sight. “Can we play there now?” I nod and they dash off at full speed.
“Shouldn’t we get to O-mama’s soon?” asks Brent.
I shake my head, “She’d grumble and ask why we didn’t take them to the park if we go straight there, I already know.”
“Did you take them to the park?” O-mama asked as soon as we arrived. I glance over at Brent with a smirk. We had stopped in to the grocery store near the train station first to buy a case of beer – a new Asahi Nama beer along with a beer cocktail that sounds both intriguing and suspicious. My uncle takes the beer and loose cans straight to the fridge. Normally, my aunt – a fantastic cook – would have had something whipped up but she’s sick and quarantined upstairs. So off to a neighborhood restaurant we go.
Our last week in Japan was spent like this. The kids immediately took to my uncle –whom I’ve always simply called “Ojisan.” Recently retired from his tenured position at Toyota, he let them play with two matching very well-produced Camry replicas –retirement gifts from the company.
My uncle was the reason why my cousins and I had the opportunity to travel to Europe – his job had moved him there for over five years and we all got to spend our summers there with O-mama. His career was demanding so we never saw him with his own children – my cousins, now grown men. My aunt (his sister) had mentioned that my uncle was happy to spend time with us. It felt strange to bother him yet heartwarming to see him with the kids as they ran around freely in the house, sticking their curious faces into his and asking all sorts of questions in English. He was every bit the indulgent uncle, offering to take them to the park to run off their energy while Brent and I shopped. I asked if he would be bored once that high energy was gone and he nodded with a smile.
I look back fondly on our most recent family and first trip to Japan with the four of us. Our kids are already asking when we can return. They even picked up Ojisan’s favorite exaggerated expression of disbelief, “EEEEEEEEEEHhhhhNnnnnnHHHH?!” Said properly with forehead tilted forward, jaw slacked and eyebrows neutral, eyes beaded in a blank stare. It’s the juxtaposition of a not so expressive face with that of an overly long “EEEEEEHhhNNnNHHHHH??” that really sells it. The kids love it.
I know I promised a list of places and an itinerary for when you travel with kids in my last article so here goes some unsolicited advice along with a plan of attack for traveling to Japan with kids:
Tōkyō – Five days
• Day 1: Chill day, explore zoo
• Day 2: SkyTree and Solamachi for sightseeing and shopping
• Day 3: Travel day and KidZania Tokyo
• Day 4: Full day at Tökyö DisneySea
• Day 5: Full Day at Tökyö Disneyland + travel day (arrive in Nagoya by 6 p.m.) Nagoya – Nine days
• Day 6: Day trip to Kyöto/ Toei Studio Eigamura
• Day 7: Higashiyama Zoo + neighborhood park
• Day 8: Nagoya Port Public Aquarium
• Day 9: Neighborhood Mochi Nage Festival
• Day 10: Atsuta Jingu (Shrine)
• Day 11: Ghibli Studio Theme Park
• Day 12: Higashiyama Zoo
• Day 13: Shopping
• Day 14: Back to Hawai‘i
1. Ask them what they want to do
Mine think they’re ninjas so when we took a day trip to Kyöto to visit my father, we planned a day at Toei Eigamura (aka Toei Studio Park) and it was totally worth it. They still use the place as a set for Edo-era shows and films but the buildings also have several ninja courses for families to crawl through.
2. Factor in travel time and luggage
Traveling with kids means bathroom breaks and not walking too much. We stayed at Shinagawa Prince Hotel for our first three nights in Tökyö to stay close to a main station and have easy access to taxis if needed. When it was time to change hotels we opted to taxi to Disney Resort. We didn’t have to worry about lugging our bags through the train station while keeping track of kids.
KidZania is highly recommended for families with children but it’s very much out of the way. Learn from our mistakes though, we went there on a travel day because KidZania was closed the day before (a Monday). Since advanced reservations are recommended to guarantee a spot, I booked us for the first shift. We got there at noon and the kids only got to do about two activities. Still worthwhile but we want to spend a full shift there on our next visit.
3. Embrace Family Mart and hotel breakfast buffet
Growing up, I always felt like Family Marts and convenient stores were a waste of time – why buy something there when there’s so much more to explore and enjoy? But when you’re with kids, Family Mart becomes essential. From snacks to our favorite seasonal alcoholic beverages, there’s truly everything for the whole family at a ridiculously cheap price.
4. Culture isn’t boring
Japan is kid friendly so there are a lot of play areas available in many malls and neighborhoods but I wanted to also give them a glimpse of the culture in which I grew up in, too.
I snuck in a cultural moment with a visit to a very large and very old shrine where they had a katana collection. The Toei Studio Park was also a sneaky cultural moment for the kids – now they’re even more obsessed with ninja. Nagoya is only a 30-minute Shinkansen ride from Kyōto, which made the day trip easy. While we would love to spend more time in Kyōto, I think that a day at Toei Studio Eigamura was perfect for my hidden mission.
5. For the love of everything, don’t move around with all that stuff
Japan is family friendly but not traveler friendly. Large suitcases will hinder you at any given train station. I stuck to the minimum number of hotels as possible to reduce travel days and maximize our time in each area – and to keep us from dragging luggage back and forth. While Shinagawa Prince was far from Tokyo Disney Resort, it wasn’t as far from KidZania, which was located in a large shopping mall. So yes, we spent an extra night at Disney Resort without spending much time there the first night, but getting situated the day before helped us enjoy the park first thing in the morning.
Being immersed in the culture and having the opportunity to write about my experiences in a monthly column has been both cathartic and giving me space to properly reflect on my childhood; so thank you, readers, for essentially becoming voyeurs of my therapy journal. Hope it wasn’t too awkward or weird.
I also hope that this inspires you not to give up hope if you (or your kids) are struggling to learn the language. Oftentimes, it seems, nothing beats simply being there and letting yourself get caught up in the moment and enjoying time with family and friends, no matter how limited that time may be.
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.