29 Oct


Our final day was spent on another fast train, this time back to Tokyo. We spend the evening hopping between yakitori joints in the smoky alleys of Shinjuku, also the scene of our first night . Really just a lane of small shops, each housing a counter with 8 stools and some glorious bits of charcoal goodness. 
I’m excited about returning to our life in Melbourne, I’m thrilled that we had this experience as a family. Japan has been exotic, pushed us out of our comfort zone and made us feel like travellers again. The hand gesture has become a key communication tool over the past fortnight. It has also felt like a holiday in the true relaxing sense with many books read, ice creams eaten and naps taken. 
We’ve also just felt pure joy in watching our children travel and to see them mesmerised as they explore the world, see new things and meet new people. A relative once said the biggest developmental leaps happen when you’re on holiday and it has certainly been the case in our experience. Our toddler took to his pins when we went to France last year. This trip he’s refused to sit down, insisting on walking everywhere even when we’ve put in 10-15km days. He’s also started to really converse and being able to talk to him at the end of the day about what he’s seen or experienced has made travel richer. Our little baby has stopped being a newborn and started taking in the world around her. Even if they don’t remember a minute of this trip, I hope that they will learn that there is so much more to the world than what they know and that it is open to them to explore. 


Castles, hipsters and red meat

27 Oct


We begin our day with a stroll through Dontobori which is almost a ghost town compared to the frenzy of lights and people at night, on our way to Orange Street, a little slice of hipster Fitzroy in Japan. This street is all about the coffee, converted warehouse aesthetics and fixies. It is hardly bustling but that may be related to the Japanese hipster’s love of a late start. Those in attendance don what we have come to recognise as the hipster uniform in Japan – a striped t-shirt and chunky beanie, preferably with groovy thick rimmed glasses. 

After a caffeine hit we make our way to Osaka Castle. Twice destroyed the main castle was rebuilt only last century so is in remarkably good nick but the surrounding walls and structures (including two very impressive moats) date back to the 1600s. We go straight to the eighth floor of the castle for spectacular views of Osaka. 

In the evening we venture to Hozenji Yokocho, a shrine and historical alley tucked behind the neon lights of Osaka. The WHO findings today that cured meats, and to a lesser extent red meat, are linked to higher rates of cancer have put us in a defiant mood and we indulge in a final dinner of Japanese beef in all its marbled glory. The WHO conclusions seem to ignore that the studies they are based on couldn’t really separate the variables that may explain these higher cancer rates. That is it might not be the meat itself but factors associated with higher meat intake diets – low fibre, lower vegetable consumption, lack of physical activity and other factors associated with less healthy lifestyles that are responsible for the higher rates. We’ve unintentionally hedged our bets this trip with a mostly fish and veg diet so we indulge without guilt. Almost as delicious are the vegetable sides, so we manage to maintain some balance after all. 


unimpressed at being asked to pose for a snap


unintentionally donning the hipster uniform



26 Oct

  Thanks to another fast train we raced from Kyoto to Osaka and in a mere 26 minutes found ourselves in Japan’s third largest city. The taxi from the station to our apartment gave us a glimpse of luxury shopping on a scale we haven’t seen in Melbourne with everyone from Mr Dior to Mr Vuitton reigning over a store that more closely resembled a mini shopping centre in size. 

In contrast we are situated in Dōtonbori, once the theatre district and still a hub for nightlife. We ventured out in the evening into an area whose planners may once have had a hand in amusement park design. The neon sign reigns supreme rivalled only by that of the mechanical variety. Mega sized crabs complete with waving claws, behemoth octopus and giant gyoza leave the diner in no doubt as to the cuisine offered within. The restaurants back onto the canal with another line of street food stalls in front to ensure all budgets are catered for. The people watching is pretty fantastic and leaves us in no doubt about the high level of selfie stick sales. We can’t believe the crowds given it is only Monday night. It’s a bit gritty, incredibly lively and very exciting!








Fushimi Inari

25 Oct

It’s our last day in Kyoto and we are wishing we could spend longer here. Perhaps it’s our affinity for second cities (or in this case a seventh city) but we’ve preferred the pace, scale and history to the capital. We were interviewed by a group of local volunteers who want to make Kyoto more accessible to tourists but in our view it is pretty perfect! The volunteers seemed to think more vegan and halal restaurants were required and less raw fish needed to be served to boost the tourist industry. We aren’t so sure. 

Today we made our way to what is perhaps the city’s most famous destination, the Fushimi Inari Shrine. It is more like a large compound of Shinto shrines that you visit as you climb your way up a mountain through a mesmerising corridor of vermillion tori gates. Luckily the toddler insisted on walking as it is not a pram friendly hike. As with many temples here we are struck by how closely commerce operates to religion with stallholders selling everything from dried blueberries to waving cat statues dotted along the mountain trail. The shrine or rather shrines are aesthetically striking but it doesn’t make for a calming temple visit, particularly with the frenzied weekend crowd. The vendor selling icy cold green tea though is a very welcome sight! 

Sunday lunch


ringing the bells



24 Oct

Entry to Nishiki market

Today was all about the food. Our weekend ritual of post swimming lesson sushi is a highlight in our week. Whilst we knew actually visiting Japan would open our eyes and stomachs to tasty treats not found at home, the extent of our ignorance has been staggering. Wandering the centuries old Nishiki market today we hardly recognised most of the offerings. The skewer is king of the market snacks here and bears everything from fermented cucumber to baby octopus. We tried all manner of pickled goodies from radish to pumpkin and were ultimately defeated before exploring all five blocks.

We’ve found ourselves thinking about the gloriously atmospheric  Pontocho Alley for days and so decided to return, this time for a feast of omi beef, a marbled wagyu from Shiga Prefecture. It was our third occasion on this trip going out for a proper dinner with the little ones and we realised we’ve underestimated the tots, particularly the toddler. Although we haven’t opted for family friendly or touristy establishments, we’ve mostly stuck to places where a plate of soba noodles costs a few dollars and is eaten at the counter and a handful of sushi meals, both of which can be consumed quickly before we hit the sightseeing trail again. We had it in our heads that cheap and quick or picnics soured from the amazing train station offerings would not only be best but really our only option if we didn’t want rioting children. However lingering over a special dinner, the toddler devoured the meal with gusto, we found ourselves relaxed and he provided a running commentary on the highlights all the way home. It’s been a rather delicious lesson for us.

subway to Nishiki market felt like a trip back in time


burnt miso ramen – a deliciously smokey Kyoto speciality

lantern lit Pontocho Alley



23 Oct


Today the honesty and efficiency of Japan truly won us over. On our second last day in Tokyo, distracted with unloading tots and the stroller, we left a mobile phone in a taxi. By the time we realised, the car was long gone. We had no receipt and were pretty sure we would never see it again. A few minutes later I received a fortune which said, amongst other things, that lost objects would be found. On a whim we asked the host of our apartment if he had any ideas. By that evening he had tracked down the cab, arranged for the driver to send the phone to head office and the next day arranged for the head office to courier the phone to us as we were now in Kyoto. We were asked to nominate the hour we would like to receive it so we wouldn’t have to hang around the apartment waiting. It arrived beautifully packaged and the whole transaction cost us $8. Suffice to say it was one of those moments you have as a traveller where you think your home country could learn a thing or two. 

As an added perk, not having to wait to receive the delivery meant we could squeeze in a day trip to Nara, home to Japan’s first capital in the early 700s. Its role as the premier city was short lived as the government felt threatened by the influence of the Buddhist monasteries and upped sticks but the legacy of those monasteries remains a major drawcard. The pilgrim’s path from the station is now lined with shops to ensure no tourist goes more than 50m without being able to get their green tea soft serve fix. We tried the regional specialty, sushi wrapped in persimmon leaves and wasabi leaves. The former is very delicately perfumed whilst the latter offers a real nasal tingling kick. 

The most remarkable part of wandering through Nara is that almost outnumbering the tourists are the local deer. They’re not the slightest bit bashful and will forage for lunch in your bag if you don’t fend them off. We were lucky enough to spot a couple of babies and joined the throngs purchasing crackers to feed them.  

Our real highlight though was the Todaiji temple, originally built in 752 and then destroyed and rebuilt twice. The scale of it from the entry to the 15m Buddha within is staggering. Originally it was book ended by two 100m pagodas for good measure. Although the Great Hall is now a tangle of tour groups and selfie sticks, it is still an incredibly calm and uplifting space. 



Shrines, parks and kimonos

22 Oct

Kyoto is so achingly beautiful that at times it is difficult to believe this is a real city and not some modern day reconstruction for tourists. As big cities become more homogenous, Kyoto has cleverly preserved its old quarters, going so far as to remove telephone poles, ban cars and pave the streets traditionally in parts. It is all the more special in a country where so many historical treasures were destroyed by the war.

After Tokyo we are particularly appreciative of the slower pace of Kyoto. We have a slow start ourselves. The toddler and I go foraging for breakfast at the supermarket on the corner. Foreign supermarkets are always fascinating but Japan’s are particularly fantastic with the assortment of sushi and sashimi for a couple of dollars that rivals the best we’ve eaten in Melbourne. Well fed we hop on the subway to the perfectly preserved

Higashiyama District along the slopes of Kyoto’s eastern mountains. In this city of 2000 shrines we’ve decided to focus on a few and the Yasaka Shrine is a highlight. The toddler loves ringing the bell and spotting heron in the adjacent park. We then spend an afternoon wandering the narrow lanes dotted with wooden buildings housing traditional merchant shops and tea houses that once catered to pilgrims and now allow Westerners to purchase their fill of Japanese ceramics and traditional garments. One unsettling element of the tourist trade are the merchants renting kimonos. We witness dozens of tourists, mostly Japanese and Korean, robed in traditional dress posing in front of the sights. Some are even being carted around in rickshaws.

The parks and gardens are as captivating as the architecture and I find the aesthetic particularly appealing as it reminds me of my childhood home with its fishponds and Japanese maple tree. The calming effect of this landscape design is miraculous, even on the little ones. The first blush of autumnal colour is hitting the foliage and even the kimono clad tourists with selfie sticks are unable to spoil this beautiful setting.