Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Live from the Budokan 

We just returned from a 6 week trip to Asia, 5 of which were in Tokyo and 1 in Taipei. Why so long? We were amortizing the pain from a transpacific flight with 2 little kids, and also accounting for only getting about 3 productive hours per day and needing about a month to accomplish what we used to do in a week in pre-kids life! What fun we had being Tokyo "residents" again and re-experiencing the city with kids! We saw Rich's mom every day for 2 weeks both in Taipei and Tokyo, where she took Isabella out to play and babysat; we saw Rich's dad and relatives too. Josh, Denise and their kids Kenzo and Sachi were with us for 4 weeks of the Tokyo portion and lived in an apartment 2 floors below us. It was a treat having another family to travel with; the kids became quite close buddies!

Here are the highlights of the trip: (long, but hey we were gone for a month...)

what i loved most about tokyo: the FOOD! (click on link for map of restaurants we liked) so amazing and surprisingly never got sick of it (more about this below); clean and high tech bathrooms; great baby care rooms; considerate people; convenience of having everything within a stone's throw

most surprised by: what a sanctuary tokyo is when you have a recently potty trained kid and a baby; see my blog post below

funnest day trips: tokyo disneyland (it's a small world, the parades and meeting cinderella & the prince were isabella's favorites), and tama zoo (lion bus where lions eat meat hanging outside bus inches away from your face)

typical day: Josh wrote a nice summary of our typical day here. our days are carbon copies of theirs, but include:
- isabella constantly opening the sliding door to her bedroom to peek/giggle at us sitting in the living room at bedtime/naptime; then continuously asking for things thereby often delaying sleep and driving parents crazy
- our mornings woken up by the sounds of isabella opening the 2 doors between us and jumping into our bed
- most of the day would be gone if we waited for Sebastian to awaken from his morning nap, so we would often have Sebastian nap in the Bjorn/sling when we went out even if he could only sleep about 1/2 hour that way; thank goodness he is so mellow! our Maclaren Volo (LOVE the stroller! far surpasses our Peg Perego Aria in performance) is too upright for him to sleep in...
- from our window, we watched the Tokyo Disneyland fireworks (at a distance) at 8:30 almost every night

isabella's favorite activities: taking trains, waving to the train conductor (all of them waved back!), riding taxis without seatbelts

best unexpected free activity: taking yurikamome train to odaiba, where kids could sit in the front seat pretending to be "drivers" and wave at trains

most annoying part of trip: isabella needing to do exactly what kenzo was doing or else have a meltdown. if kenzo sat on mommy's lap, she needed to sit on mommy's lap; if he changed his mind and got off, she needed to get off within seconds; if josh was wearing shoes, rich needed to wear shoes; you get the point....; and only worked half the time when it came to getting her to eat more vegetables

parent's biggest shock (aka biggest benefit from isabella copying kenzo): isabella willingly hang out with kenzo, josh and denise alone, without her parents around!

what we should have done more of: have kids play at the playground at the rooftop of a department store, while parents eat mouth watering bento boxes from store's massive basement food section

greatest benefit of living in japan: portion sizes much smaller than in the US. in the beginning, felt hungry after meals, but got used to it and lost 4 pounds and appetite reduced by 1/3-1/2! also, isabella's eczema completely cleared up and she had smooth soft skin

what i won't miss about about tokyo: constantly worrying about how i or my kids are being totally inappropriate

very tokyo moments:

very tokyo: typical - mom with perfect makeup and hair, very composed wearing skirt, pantyhose, heels carrying baby in Baby Bjorn; or check this out - wearing 3 inch silver stiletto heels, walking up the subway stairs while carrying her 30+ lb child with one arm, bag and stroller in other arm. you get the idea. mommyhood is no excuse to dress casual, let alone look like a slob.

favorite overengineered items: overengineered saran wrap box so that saran wrap doesn't get stuck to the box, and cuts at such an angle that saran wrap doesn't get stuck onto itself after you cut it; washing machine with "allergy sensor" which rinses your clothes more if it detects any more soap on your clothes

most amazing service: airline gate attendant finding us at the airport (2 gates over) asking if we needed our stroller checked, then taking our stroller to the gate to check it in, and bringing it back to us!


areas i'd meander/shop if i didn't have kids with me:
- back alleyways of harajuku - cute little shops in winding alleys; close to omote-sando
- daikanyama - more little cute shops in alleys, not as developed as harajuku
- shibuya and shinjuku - good for watching young people; packed!
- ginza - main street closes to traffic on sundays so it's a nice pedestrian mall; high end shops; older more sophisticated crowd

favorite shopping excursions:
- tokyu hands - a must while in tokyo; they've got everything
- ranking ranqueen - stocks the top 3 sellers of certain merchandise (beauty products, food, etc.) from all tokyu stores; i love tokyu hands too but this store is convenient because it narrows down the popular items especially if you're limited on time, or so you don't get sensory overload from the plethora of choices available!
- Kappabashi-dori - restaurant wholesale district with Japanese pottery, plastic food, old school shops (i.e. tape manufacturing store); very cool
- 100 Yen Store in Harajuku - lots of good deals on decently cute stuff

favorite shopping excursions for kids:
- akachanhonpo - a members only mega store for all things baby (like a Japanese babies r us) which sumin kindly brought me to; japanese solutions for the same issues! sorry, think you need to be a member to go in though
- Hakuhinkan Toy Park - one of the oldest and largest toy stores in Japan (it first opened in 1899), several stories; this is the place to go for all the latest cute and strange toys

best 100 yen (80 cents) spent: kids' first karaoke with Isabella singing "ABCD" in earnest while Kenzo overpowers her by yelling "Hello Tokyo!" nonstop into the microphone

favorite overpriced food: strawberries - perfectly shaped, the deepest red, with no white anywhere, sweet as candy. but $6 for a basket.

our apartment

best thing about our apartment: amazing location - probably about a hundred restaurants within a 6 block radius; across the street from a subway station (akasaka-mitsuke) with 3 subway lines, 24 hour convenience store downstairs, Citibank in the same courtyard, delicious free breakfast every morning (Isabella gets spoiled by chocolate muffin, plain or chocolate croissant and strawberry or aloe yogurt everyday; i like the cheese bread, rich gets the chocolate croissant; isabella helps make coffee in the very high tech coffee machine); great views; very comfy

most annoying thing about our apartment: all doors closed behind you. (japanese like to hide their living space). we created makeshift door stops for every door and needed to be careful about closing doors quietly while kids were sleeping

food: (HUGE focus on our vacation; rich tagged the great places we ate at on google maps)

yummiest meal: actually, the food was so delicious everywhere that it is probably easier to narrow down where the food wasn't good (the zoo cafes). i think the stand out yummiest meal for me was tonkatsu at maisen with kurobuta (black pig), shiso and daikon, notable because i generally dislike fried food and would never order this at home. honestly though, people take such pride in their craft, that really it's hard to find a bad meal.

most ridiculous meal: meal at botan, a 100 year old chicken sukiyaki restaurant. the food was delicious and we had lots of fun, but it was a comical evening. we had a private tatami room; technically, we are not supposed to get a tatami room because it is for minimum 6 people, and even though we're 8 people (4 adults, 2 toddlers, 2 babies), we only order 4 set dinners; we're further deemed bad customers because we only order water; rich is the only person who understands the cultural nuances, so feels so bad about the offenses we are causing that he feels compelled to order lots of drinks. because we're sitting on the floor on cushions, the kids get up and once in a while stand near the hot coals where rich is cooking, or otherwise playing with a beautiful paper scroll on the wall or a classic book on the shelves - either way, parents nervous all evening. josh is squeezing his 6'3" self under a 1 foot tall table. denise and sachi are sweating nursing right next to the hot coals. Sebastian poops (after not having pooped in like 5 days, he chooses to do it at the restaurant); I change his diaper on the floor of the tatami room hoping staff won't come in and see; more poop comes out whilst I am changing the diaper (!) so i am working to make sure i don't get poop on the tatami; I only brought 1 emergency diaper, therefore requiring me to borrow everything from Denise; staff criticizing rich for his cooking abilities and what we're doing wrong and rich working hard to oblige while trying to manage isabella when I'm busy with Sebastian; towards the end of the meal, isabella runs out of our room and rich is so exasperated by the whole evening that instead of running out to get her, he just pours himself a glass of sake and pounds it.

coolest restaurant owner: davis restaurant. nice italian restaurant with white tablecloths, exposed brick wall and art on canvas. brent takes us there saying it is "child friendly". (??!) kids are actually very well behaved for the first hour, but there's a looong delay between appetizer and entree, so after about 1 1/2 hours, kids start going crazy: running up and down the restaurant, driving "cars" on art, etc. all civility collapses within 30 seconds as one kid starts crying, signaling all kids to melt down, quickly emptying our table for 10 as parents take all toddlers outside, leaving josh and i alone with the 2 sleeping babies; meanwhile, there is a couple in the corner who thought they were having a romantic dinner until we walked in! we feel totally guilty and buy them wine; owner calms the frazzled parents saying it's no problem and is totally cool despite the mayhem; owner even held sachi for a while so josh could eat!

favorite sushis that you can rarely find in the u.s.: chu and o toro (fatty tuna), engawa (muscle from halibut fin)

favorite neighborhood restaurant: jangara ramen - Japanese people really know how to make their noodles right; great slightly firm texture, with buttery soft (probably because of all the fat!) cubed pork, cha siu, spicy fish roe, egg in a delicious pork and chicken broth. mmmm.

total doh! moment: after lots of running around in our private tatami room, our friend's son dylan punching a hole in the rice paper door!

most beautiful meal: canal cafe in iidabashi overlooking the cherry blossom lined canal; kids fed the koi fish in the pond and loved watching the trains pass by and people rowing boats

Isabella's favorite food: soba noodles, beef sashimi (yup, that's raw beef)

Sebastian's favorite foods: mushed up yaki-imo (roasted sweet potatoes), kabocha

best new food discoveries: yuzu sorbet, cherry blossom ice cream and sorbet, raw firefly squid

first meals back home: cactus mexican, and intermezzo veggie delight salad (sebastian subsequently pooped 3 times later that day); we ate japanese food 5 days after returning from japan.

And there you have it! What a fantastic trip. See more pictures from the trip here.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Parental Oasis 

I know this may sound silly, but when figuring out where in Asia to visit, a major factor in our decision was what destination was going to have the cleanest bathrooms. (if you have small kids, you'll understand) Think about it. You have a recently potty trained preschooler, and you have to rush her to smelly facilities with wet floors, and a completely rancid or absent seat. You need to change your baby's diaper when there is no changing table so you have to balance your wiggly baby on your lap and somehow change that diaper before he rolls away and you get poop on yourself. (or, you do this on top of that filthy seat or floor). Yes, I know locals do it all the time, etc. but c'mon - we're on vacation. So, we picked Tokyo since we know how obsessively clean the Japanese can be! Well, much to my surprise, Tokyo way surpassed my expectations, and wound up being an oasis for a family traveling with a baby and recently potty trained preschooler! I was almost crying coming home!

The things that impressed me the most:

A no brainer - the "baby care room" or "nursing room" 授乳室 ("Ju-nyu-shitsu")

To the left: A common sign to this parental refuge (note that since it is a baby care room, either mother or father can use it!

To the right: The most modern, coolest looking baby care lounge I found was at Takashimaya Department Store! It felt so trendy I thought there'd be a velvet rope and usher at the entrance...

A comfy couch, very common in nursing rooms. Check it out - this one even provided a very clean Boppy nursing pillow! (At the airport! WOW!)

No waiting here - there are 7 changing tables!

Check out the soft cushioning! These super plush changing tables are the norm!

To the right: Wipes and plastic bags are often provided!

Sebastian likes being in the baby holder so he doesn't have to worry about being pee'd on.

To the right: sign on the door to indicate baby holder inside.

You can weigh and measure your baby to assuage that parental curiosity...

Different nursing rooms available. You can choose to invite Dad in for the nursing session, or just have Mom.

Child height and clean restrooms

Since everything (and everybody) is shorter, Isabella can reach the sinks, paper towel dispensers and light switches! Isabella is intrigued by the "water flushing sound" on the toilet remote.

Other cool things found in restrooms / baby care rooms: mini-urinal in the women's bathroom for little boys! (at Tokyo Disneyland); Stokke chairs; microwaves; kid sized toilets; small toilet seats that rest on top of adult ones (at the children's museum - duh! no brainer!). It's like a parent's dream!

Additional aspects of Japan that were unexpectedly kid friendly:

A meal in a tatami mat room. Everyone is sitting on cushions on the floor, and tables are at child height, so kids love it. Rooms are usually private, so you could create whatever havoc you want in that room! Kids can stretch out or play (for better or worse but when your meal becomes 3 hours long it is a good thing), babies can happily roll around or comfortably nap, and even get their diapers changed! All restaurants provided child-sized utensils, and many gave the kids a toy or sweets as an end of meal treat.

Amazing airport playground facilities! OK, I cheated and this picture is technically from the Taipei airport, but the playground facilities at the airports in Japan are equally amazing! and clean! People very respectful of "follow the common decency" (quote from sign).

Despite our awe over all the excellent facilities, when your baby's got to eat, you do what you gotta do. Denise and I still had informal "La Leche" meetings everywhere, including Tom Sawyer's Island in Tokyo Disneyland!

Friday, April 06, 2007

Tokyo living 

This picture pretty much sums up our vacation: hanging out in a bunch of kid spots (i.e. the zoo - see the giraffes in the background) surrounded by beautiful cherry blossoms, while Rich has been drinking a lot (that's beer in the cup), I've been going picture crazy, and Sebastian is mostly unseen. All in all, we're having a great time.