The life-changing magic of taking my son to Japan

Since 2010 I’ve been working on a really important project:

I’ve been educating (or really, brainwashing) my son, since his birth in 2010, to fall in love with Japan.

The life-changing magic of taking my son to Japan

Japan is a country that’s really important to me, after living and working there for a couple of years in my twenties, and a country that keeps calling to me, with its special mix of quirk, beauty, food, traditions, fun and did I mention quirk?! Brainwashing is a strong word … but I honestly think that’s what I’ve done, with all my stories, books, pictures and food to demonstrate all the reasons to love Japan.

My son’s growing love of Japan

One of the best days of my life – I’m actually not kidding – was attending my son’s school Art Show when he was in the first grade, aged six. The theme was “The Places We’ll Go” and we wandered round the gym to find his class’s artwork – and it should be said that my son luckily has about a billion times more artistic talent than me – and discovered that my son’s painting was of Kyoto’s golden temple, Kinkaku-ji. I barely remembered talking to him about Kinkaku-ji, but of course I had at some stage (his teacher didn’t know about it), and shown him pictures, and it had stuck in his head.


That afternoon I told him someday soon I’d have to take him to see the golden temple for himself, and that’s when the proper plan began to show him my beloved Japan.

Decision time: Booking flights to Japan

Fast forward a little. By this time I was a single mother on a not-huge budget, and I was a little scared of Japan’s reputation for being expensive. When I’d lived there, rent had seemed astronomical, although I’d figured out that by eating local (delicious) food you didn’t have to spend much beyond your rent to survive. A couple of travel blogger friends spent some extended time in Japan and I realised that accommodation like Airbnb in Japan was not expensive at all. If I didn’t buy an expensive train pass and try to see the whole length of Japan in one trip, we’d be fine.

And then my son and I went to one of the Lego exhibitions he’s enamoured with, to see The Brickman’s Wonders of the World collection – an envy-inducing collection of original, enormous Lego models of some of the world’s most famous sights. We loved many of them, but when we came across Japan’s Himeji Castle, I found myself telling my son again: I’ll have to take you to Japan soon, and we can see Himeji Castle for real.

Himeji Castle with my son - from Lego model to the real thing in Japan

Himeji Castle with my son – from Lego model to the real thing in Japan!

With that in my head, it was no real surprise when I was fiddling around in my frequent flyer points account (this is something all travellers do, right?) and realised I could get us to Japan during cherry blossom season, that I didn’t even hesitate to book.

The life-changing magic of being in Japan – with my son

You’ve heard of Marie Kondo, right, the Japanese cleaning superstar who wrote The life-changing magic of tidying up? Honestly, her decluttering and tidying methods scare me a bit (as a lifelong, happily untidy person) but there is something about her concept of joy that I love (along with the coincidence that she is Japanese). She says you should keep possessions which “spark joy”. It’s the same in travel. The places you should go aren’t the ones on everybody’s “bucket list” but they’re the ones that “spark joy” for you. It doesn’t even matter what the reason is, it’s just a feeling, and that feeling is intense for me when it comes to Japan.

Before we flew from Perth to Osaka, I was equal parts crazily-excited and nervously-terrified. Finally taking my son there, at age seven, seemed so important to me, and I wanted him so badly to love it.

We arrived late at night, and struggled to buy a Japanese SIM card for my mobile phone in Kansai Airport. From 10pm, things start closing there: first, a counter I’d tried to buy a SIM card at, which had sold out of the ideal card for me; then the SIM card vending machines themselves closed too, including the one that would change the cash I had – only 5000 yen notes, unfortunately – into notes that the other (still open) vending machines would take. I began to despair that my whole Japan plan would unravel and went back to the second counter – and despite what I’d been told, they had exactly what I needed and all was okay in the world again.

Excited face of my son at a Japanese restaurant

The excited face of my son at a Japanese restaurant, waiting for his next chopstick-using attempt

I think my son was too tired to remember much of that. We slept at an airport hotel that first night, and had a Japanese breakfast in its buffet restaurant the next morning. That’s when the magic began for him. He was so excited by all the different Japanese foods we could choose from. He was determined to eat every meal with chopsticks, no matter how long it took. (You might remember he’d been training for that, but still, he was way more obstinate about it than I’d expected!)

Why kids are better travellers than we think

I have just so much to say about our trip to Japan, and during the next few months I’ll write more posts about some of the specific experiences we had. But my biggest lesson was this reminder: I think our expectations for our kids when we travel with them is often too low. (And don’t get me started on the people who say “why take them travelling when they won’t even remember it.) My son’s been extremely lucky to be able to travel quite a lot in his short life – I hadn’t even been on a plane at his age, or out of the state or the country – but it’s shaped him, and this trip to Japan is when I really noticed this so strongly. Here are just some of the wonderfully life-changing things I noticed:

Kids learn about languages while travelling

Over the years, I’ve taught my son a few words in Japanese and more for my benefit than his we’ve had the Japanese hiragana alphabet hanging on the wall recently. But because he was learning French at school (and teachers are always way cooler than mothers) he was much more interested in that.

Until we hit Japan. The beauty of the very polite culture in Japan means that you hear all the polite phrases people in shops and restaurants use over and over and over again and my son learnt to say arigatou gozaimashita (thank you very much) with a perfect accent. He also pronounces Japanese place names with the correct Japanese pronunciation. It’s gorgeous to hear!

From watching Japanese children’s TV in our Airbnb apartments, he also had lots of interesting questions for me. I explained to him about the tricky way Japanese count different kind of objects, and about the word order of their sentences, and so much more.

Travelling makes kids more open-minded

This was evident in so many ways – because in Japan you can see a lot of weird things, but my son asked me about them in a respectful way, not critical at all – but my most significant moment was actually in a museum theatre waiting for a train documentary to start. A Japanese boy about the same age as my son came up and sat next to us and kept saying the same thing in Japanese, asking when the movie would start.

This kid annoyed me long before my son got annoyed. In fact, he never really got annoyed. He answered him in English at first, told him he can’t speak Japanese, got me to translate and then answered him in Japanese, and then they started checking out each other’s watches even though this kid was still asking the same question. His grandfather came to fetch him eventually, but I was so impressed with my son’s inclination to interact with this boy for so long.

Seven-year-olds can walk ALL DAY LONG

Oh my goodness, this is the best part about my son being a bit older. It didn’t matter what I threw at him, he could just keep going and going. Some of our days in Osaka including so much walking to and from train stations and out to sightseeing spots and to restaurants. He has a step tracker and even days he reached 20,000 steps didn’t tire him out. He got further up the many steps through the bright orange torii at Fushimi Inari than most of the adults, on a cold and rainy day. He was awesome.

My son walking at Fushimi Inari shrine in Kyoto

My son walking (forever) at Fushimi Inari shrine in Kyoto

Walking a lot, I have always thought, is one of the best ways to really know a place well. I remember a trip to Paris where I walked between basically all the main attractions just to see what Paris was really like above ground rather than being in a train, and it was incredible. Japan is even better because there is something curious around every corner.

Travelling helps encourage the deep interests kids have

My son has long had a very deep love for Lego; I actually love helping him indulge that love! He makes amazing creations with it and he was amazed and inspired by the huge Lego sculptures they have at Legoland Japan.

Like many boys he also has rather a thing for trains; that meant it was a super-exciting day when he got to ride on his first shinkansen or bullet train, and when we also got to visit an enormous railway museum that day it was heavenly.

Travelling helps kids be brave about trying new things

My son outdid himself in the trying new things stakes while we were in Japan. For example: we had an awesome lunch from a restaurant with a view to Himeji Castle, with a gorgeous friend of mine from when I lived in Japan. It was one of those meals with numerous small dishes that seem to keep on coming. I freely admit that some of them I could totally not identify – and yet he sat there – using his chopsticks of course – and trying nearly everything that was put in front of him.

Being brave about meeting the Nara deer in Japan

Being brave about meeting the (head-butting, biting, shoving, but sacred) deer in Nara, Japan

There’s also something about being in a faraway strange place that seems to help my sometimes-nervous kid be totally brave about exploring the unknown. My son doesn’t love heights (okay, he hates them) but in the cause of seeing something he really wanted to – like getting to the top of Himeji Castle – he will grit his teeth and keep climbing.

 

Getting lost? Not with a seven-year-old on hand!

If you’ve been to Japan you’ll know that finding your way places on foot is not always super-easy. Addresses aren’t too logical, cities are large, busy and crowded. In Osaka, we stayed a short walk from Namba train station but of course Namba train station isn’t just one station, it’s a junction of different train lines and shopping malls and it’s like a mini-city all of its own. Oh and you’re underground a lot of the time and my phone didn’t like to give directions down there.

No bother. While I was still getting used to which way we needed to go to get from the different train lines back to our apartment (I even took photos on the way in to help me), my son was totally “it’s this way” and always right. How did he do that? Again, I was impressed.

Kids like routines, but they’re adaptable too

When we are at home and we deviate from our normal routines, my son is thrown a bit – not as much as when he was younger, but it’s still an issue. Overseas? No problem. He just learns new routines and adapts so easily. In Kyoto we had a new routine of figuring out where we’d go that day and taking a bus there. In Osaka, our routine involved walking past the stadium where the sumo wrestling was happening and then heading into shops or restaurants or into the train station to go somewhere further. We added “searching for vending machines selling Peach Nectar drinks” to our routine (and drank one whenever we found one!). He learnt all the different convenience store names and loved that they also sold perfectly healthy food like onigiri.

New routines with convenience stores in Japan

A happy boy outside a Lawson convenience store near our apartment in Kyoto

What this Japan trip taught me about myself and my son

Let’s start with my son. You know that phrase, “Give me a boy at seven and I’ll show you the man”? (Apparently an old Jesuit phrase, but I know it from the awesome Seven Up documentary series.) If this is in any way true, then I’m very pleased with what I see. When I was seven, I had never been abroad and if I’m honest had barely spoken to anyone from another country, apart from my aunty and cousins from Thailand. My son already understands that people around the world look different and speak differently, but instead of thinking it’s “other” or wrong in any way, he just wants to know more about it. His constant questions about the differences between Japanese life and ours made me proud. He loves to learn about things that are different between cultures and adopt the ones he thinks make sense into his own life. I can only imagine that this openness will stand him in good stead as an adult. It also makes my heart sing.

And what did this trip teach me about me? Well, it taught me that as a parent, I must be doing a decent job. It also reminded me of how much my experiences in Japan during my twenties shaped me, and made me homesick and nostalgic for those days, and I find settling back home to Australia after even just this short trip incredibly trying. I’ve still got lots to think about, but I’m happy for that. Watch this space!

 

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Comments

  1. Gorgeous I am so inspired by you. Yes and don’t even get me started about they won’t remember either. I can’t wait to go.

  2. How wonderful Amanda! We all learn with travel and so wonderful that your son adapted so well.

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