Thursday, April 28, 2016

Part 2 - Japanese Adventure: Tokyo Disneyland and Kidzania

Last February, Mimi returned from her first day back after the school "ski break" (during which we neither broke nor skied) and asked me, "Papa, when can we go to Disneyland?" Apparently several of her friends had gone and she'd gotten the bug. Being in the Bay Area, she had a right to wonder why we hadn't visited the famous mouse. After all, I grew up four hours further away than she is now and I went before I was five.

I told her, "Well, honey, it's going to be a while. It's a long trip and it wouldn't be much fun with Mari and Kuri." "OK, Papa," she replied, somewhat forlornly. But what she didn't know was that I had a trick up my sleeve. Disneyland in LA, with its massive crowds and expense, would have to wait, but maybe, just maybe, we could sneak in a visit to Tokyo Disneyland.

And that's just what we did. The night we got back from Hakone, Sumie and I decided that Kuri and Marichan needed a day of rest, but Mimi and I would take the train out to Tokyo Disneyland. All we told Mimi was that she and Papa would be going out for a special day together. Early the next morning, I got Mimi dressed and we headed out right around 8:30am, just in time for the famously crowded Tokyo commute. Mimi braved the stuffed trains, though at her height, it couldn't have been much fun being basically at butt level.

Tokyo Disneyland is only about 20 minutes by train from Tokyo station. It's pretty fantastic. As the train from Tokyo station started up, Mimi asked me, "Papa, where are we going?" "To a park," I replied, which was technically true. She kept asking about the park - what it would be like - and I told her to just keeping looking out the window. Eventually, she saw the castle and the monorail in the distance. Still, she didn't make the connection. It wasn't until we got off the train and I told her to read the signs. "Tokyo Disneyland?" she made out. And then she slowly turned her head and met my gaze with a look of absolute incredulity. She thought I must be nuts. "This is Disneyland?" she ventured. "Yup," I said. Mimi took my hand, still not quite believing what was happening, and we headed for the park.

Although we got there an hour after the park opened, thanks to it being a Thursday, off season, and slightly rainy, we still had our pick of the rides. I know she's only five, but she was tall enough for the serious ones, so that's where we went. Star Tours: check. Space Mountain: check. I won't say she "loved" them, but she didn't totally freak out. On Space Mountain, I told her it was expected, even proper, to scream. And scream she did. The verdict on the ride: "My heart was pounding!!! I like it, but I don't want to ride it again today. Maybe when I'm seven." That will work.

To wind things down a bit we headed over to the Autopia. Mimi couldn't believe that she'd actually get to drive. I'd forgotten how much that had excited me at that age. Like Raymond, she was an excellent driver.
I really like the pic below. It's like she's channeling Senna in a hairpin turn (although here I think she actually had the wheel turned the wrong way).
And here she is taking it easy after the race.
The Merry-go-Round was a big hit, but not as big as the teacups. Sadly, I couldn't get a picture there as I was too busy trying to get Mimi to throw up, which for some reason she loved.
We entered Cinderella's castle for a tour...
...where Mimi found it endlessly hilarious to point at the Fairy God Mother.
I was hoping to go to the Bayou restaurant for lunch (you can actually get into it at Tokyo Disney), but Pirates and the restaurant were closed for renovation. We made do with a crepe.
And then headed for the jungle boat ride. If I recall, this has been removed from California, but it was great in Tokyo. Mimi kept exclaiming for the first half of the ride that the animals weren't real, but after a while, she really got into it.
We took a break from rides at Tom Sawyer's island, which actually turned out to be a lot of fun. It got me wondering if a lot of the Native American attractions on the island (Indian Village, etc.) were still at Disneyland in CA. Tokyo Disneyland, at least to me, seems a bit more old-school Disney in a way.
We eventually secured a large Minnie Bow...
...and got ready to watch the Easter Parade...
...again. At least the second time, we found a good spot where I didn't have a five year old on my shoulders.
Outside of the teacups (which Mimi couldn't get enough of) Mimi's favorite ride was "It's a Small World." Why?  Because it was "relaxing." Not the word I would use, but it did get you off your feet.
We left the park around 6:00pm. The longest we waited in line was 30 minutes. It was a fantastic day out. Compared to the parks here in the states, it's smaller, but at least you can go when your kids are out of school and everyone else in the country still has class. I think the park was at 40 to 50 percent capacity for the day. We'll definitely do it again the next time we visit Japan.

On the way home, we passed a series of Shinkansen (bullet train) displays. Mimi had to take a pic in the red one...
...the green one...
...and the blue one. There was no escaping the photo opportunities.
With Kuri and Marichan rested, we all went out to Kidzania the following day. This, sadly for Kuri, was also a Mimi-centric event (sorry kid, you'll get your full dose of fun the next time around). Kidzania is a bit hard to explain. It's a huge space, maybe 20,000 square feet, that has been mocked up to look like a town. The town is kid-sized and filled with scaled-down stores and services. There was a hospital, a fire department, security, department stores, bakeries, you name it. They were all sponsored by real Japanese companies (that's how I got my one Mos Burger in during the trip). At each storefront or service, your child can sign up for a 15-50 minute "experience" of what it would be like to work in that profession. I've never seen anything quite like it.

Mimi's first job was a baker. Here she is waiting to go into work.
And here she is with her partner working on the dough (she made quick friends with the little girl next to her and they were giggling throughout the session).
Sadly, the experiences were a bit advanced for Kuri, so he spent the time mainly watching and chilling out.
Mimi also got to work with babies in the hospital, much like her aunt Kae.
Mimi learned how to put on a diaper...
...and how to bathe a newborn. Sumie and I were pretty astounded by her technique. She was much gentler than most, but then again, I suppose she's had her fill of recent, hands-on experience.
Kidzania was really cool, and we'll definitely go again, but there are a few caveats. 1. You cannot sign up for more than one activity at a time or sign up early. Because there are often long wait times, this means there can be a lot of downtime between events. We thought a few hours would be enough, but it's really an all day event. 2. You cannot leave and come back. That's right. You're locked in. I don't know why, but they are fierce about it. When Mari and Kuri had had enough, I tried to exit, only to be told I couldn't bring my kids back in. Later, I tried to exit with just Kuri and was told that I couldn't take him out. It was all very confusing and a bit insane. Apparently, the "pass holder" (that was Sumie) has to be there for checkout, but even then they wouldn't let you back in. As such, if you do go, take only kids who can take part in the activities. Otherwise, you could very well find yourself strapped to two tired children who don't really have anything to do.

That concludes the big-ticket adventures. In my next post I'll cover the most important stuff: family, quiet time, and little adventures on the streets of Tokyo.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Two Kids and an Infant to Japan - Part 1: Flight and Hakone

It has been a long, eventful time.

Readers of this blog (though sadly not informed through the blog itself) will most likely know that our little family has grown. On February 29th (yes, we got a leaper) we welcomed Mariko Abigail Kemp to the world.
We were a bit worried about how the kids would react to the new addition, especially Kuri, but both were happy to meet her. Here they are while Marichan (our nickname for Mariko) naps inside.
Mimi has been particularly taken with her little sister. We'll be cooking or doing something else in the house when we hear Mari start to cry. Often, before we can reach her, we'll find Mimi soothing her with a pacifier or gentle pats on the head.
Of course, Mari being an infant, it doesn't always work.
Kuri has been surprisingly good about the new arrival, particularly for a two year old. Still, we try to make sure he has some one-on-one time with us, particularly Papa.
Mari's first few weeks were a bit of a wild ride (as bringing home a newborn always is), but we were about to try something even crazier than adding a third child to the family: we were all going to go to Japan. That's right, two parents, one five year old, one two year old, and one 5 week old were going to undertake international travel. Many of our friends thought us a bit nuts, but that was OK, because we basically agreed them. 

We obviously booked the tickets for our trip well in advance (more than five weeks). This made for an interesting predicament: how do you book a ticket for someone who doesn't yet exist? Sumie thought I was a bit silly calling the ticket agent at United at first ("There's an extra fee! Why don't you just do it online?" she said. "Trust me." I said, thinking myself the Han Solo of airline booking). Two hours later, at 1:00am, I was glad I had called. We managed to book two normal tickets, two tickets using miles, and one reservation for the child still in her Mama's tummy. In addition to actually booking the tickets, something else special happened that night. We officially named our little girl. We'd been hemming and hawing for months, but when it's one in the morning and you need a name for a ticket you've spent two hours securing, clarity comes quite quickly.

Now to the flight. Sorry to all of you expecting to laugh at our travails, but it was just fine. Mari slept in Sumie's arms, Mimi watched movies, and Kuri made a bit of a mess but was far better behaved than I would've expected for a two year old in the same seat for 10 hours. 

Being back in Japan felt a bit like coming home. It's amazing how comfortable the Tokyo area feels. We boarded the Narita Express (which made Kuri very excited) and headed for Sumie's parents apartment in Tokyo. We had a lot planned (which is why this post will be in three parts), but our first major destination was Hakone, a scenic and hot spring spot south of Tokyo.

Hakone (or as Mimi read it: Hack-wun) is a popular tourist destination. It's close to Tokyo, easily reachable by train, but still nestled in the mountains and crowded with onsen (Japanese hot springs). Neither Sumie nor I had ever been. She'd booked us a great little ryokan (Japanese style hotel) with hot baths and in-room dining. We were ready for some relaxation. Here we are outside the station, just getting into town.
On our walk to the ryokan, Kuri shouted "Firetruck!" And, lo and behold, there was one. Even better, the firefighters were out and offered to let Kuri and Mimi drive the truck.
Mimi was a natural...
...but Kuri was the one who really took to it.
Normally, Kuri wants nothing to do with strangers, but when it comes to firetruck access, he had no issues with the a stranger lifting him up into the cab and placing an official cap on his head. The boy has priorities.
Below is the tranquil river that ran in front of our ryokan. We stayed in the low, white building in the middle of the picture. Our room had a kind of balcony area overlooking the water, which made for some wonderful quiet time (once everyone was asleep).

We arrived in Hakone just in time to catch the tail end of the cherry blossom season. Many of the blooms had dropped, but there were still plenty to enjoy. The picture below was taken at 6:00am. Thanks to the kids, I was up before our hotel proprietors and found the only way I could contain the chaos was to take the kids for an early morning walk. We made for an interesting sight that morning.
The second day we were there we took a series of trams up into the hills. You can see some of the cherry trees in bloom off in the distance.
The trams ran through a series of switchbacks up the mountain, and then switched to a cable car, which climbed the seriously steep grade to the top of the mountains. Along the way, we stopped at a park to take a few pictures and enjoy the scenery.
Kuri is still figuring out how to pose...
...but Mimi has become quite adept and J-pop cuteness.
On the way home I spotted another Japanese-only wonder: a Trueno like the one from Initial-D! Sorry, being a car guy, I can't help it. We just don't have these in the states!

Back at the ryokan, Sumie and Mari assessed our travels...
 ...and Mimi got ready to go to the hot springs.
Our ryokan featured baths for men and women (hot springs are generally not co-ed in Japan, mainly because you have to enter them naked). There was also a large bath that could be reserved in the evening that everyone in your room could use at the same time. This was a real treat for us because it meant we could actually go in as a family.  Here are a few shots of the bath.

And here's Mimi, already soaking it all in!
After a nice leisurely soak, we returned to our room for dinner, which was fabulous. In ryokans, you can often opt to have your meal served in your room. It's a tremendously relaxing way to spend an evening, especially after a long soak. The meals were traditional Japanese and simply wonderful.
Before long, though, the kids were completely tuckered out. They didn't even make it to turndown service time, and we had to pull out a futon for them before dinner was done.
Our adventure in Hakone over, Mimi and Kuri settled into Tokyo life. They watched the Yamanote and Shinkansen trains from the bedroom window of Sumie's parents' apartment...
 ...and played with their cousins whenever they had a chance.
 It had been a great trip so far, but there was a lot more on our plate. More on family, Tokyo, and a special surprise trip to a "park" in the posts to come.