Armed with lists and a stroller, Barry Divola and his wife head to Japan for 10 days, their nine-month-old in tow. Will they survive as a family unit?
It's fair to say this was not the original plan. In fact, we wanted to go to Japan for our honeymoon in 2010. It didn't happen - who knew that organising a wedding was both a time-consuming and cash-vacuuming exercise? Then we decided to go for our one-year anniversary. That didn't happen either - who knew my wife would be six months pregnant? So this year we were determined to get there for cherry-blossom season in early April, with new addition Coco - who would turn nine months old in Kyoto - along for the ride.
When we told other parents about our plan, the looks on their faces spanned the spectrum from pity to mirth. Some laughed openly. They were all keen to share their horror stories of travelling overseas with infants, from mid-flight meltdowns (both baby and parents) to trips ruined by the dictatorial feeding, changing and sleeping schedule of their little monster.
Both my wife and I are list-making Virgos, so after doing all our research we sat down and carefully mapped out what we wanted to achieve. We set aside six days in Tokyo and four in Kyoto and chose a specific area each day to explore. She's more optimistic than I am. I looked at the list of things we were expecting to do and then I looked at Coco. She blew a raspberry at me. Then I resigned myself to the fact that we'd probably only get 50 per cent of it covered.
The big day arrives and Coco sleeps like a baby on the plane. Which is to say, she's wide-eyed and giggly for an hour then wails like a siren for 45 minutes when we try to settle her in the bassinet and then slumbers sweetly for three hours. But as I'd envisaged nine hours of blood-curdling bedlam while being silently stabbed by daggers from the stares of fellow passengers, I'd score it as a seven.
We realise we've done even more than we intended.
The hotel we've booked in Tokyo is in Asakusa, near the Senso-ji temple in the city's north-east. As it's Sunday, after we've checked in we go straight out again and head to Harajuku. That's because Sunday is the day the Japanese congregate in Yoyogi Park to indulge in outdoor activities. We wheel Coco past ukulele groups, a couple of stand-up comedians, a jazz trio, some girls with ghoulish make-up and fake blood on their faces, a troupe of teenagers doing choreographed flag-waving and dancing, and rival groups of '50s-styled rockers wearing leather jackets, sporting dyed black quiffs and twisting and posing to a soundtrack of Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry and Eddie Cochran songs blaring from their portable stereos. The whole thing is like a cross between a Fellini film and an anime comic book.
Afterwards we plunge into Takeshita-dori, a street that's transformed into a packed flea market each weekend, full of stores selling clothing, trinkets, accessories and novelty food. As we've got the stroller and my wife is a sucker for two-dollar shops, we agree to split for an hour and I wheel Coco to a toy shop. Well, it's more about me than Coco. For a guy who grew up watching Japanese TV shows such as Astro Boy, Gigantor, Prince Planet, The Samurai and Phantom Agents, Tokyo is a pop-culture paradise. When I unearth an original Gigantor robot model kit for $8 in a seven-floor toy and comics store called Mandarake, I have to refrain from squealing like a six-year-old. During the next 10 days we also spend happily dazed hours in design and homewares stores such as Tokyu Hands and Loft, lusting after everything from stationery to furniture.
The season for sakura (cherry blossoms) is usually in early April but it's not always easy to predict and lasts only a week or two. Fortunately the trees are in bloom in the best viewing spots in the city - Ueno Park and Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden. The sight of the white and pink blossoms against the blue spring sky is stunning but it's just as fascinating to watch the behaviour of the Japanese. The parks are full of groups having picnics under the trees and taking photo after photo of the blossoms in close-up. It's a custom that goes back centuries and is referred to as hanami (flower viewing).
While enjoying our own hanami, we learn a new Japanese word. We're regularly stopped by women who ooh and ah over Coco, taking photographs and saying "kawaii". We later find out it means "cute". I know I'm biased but of course they're right. So we bow and say arigato (thank you).
Over six days we stick to our plan of one area a day, from wandering around the grounds of the Imperial Palace to perusing the upmarket shopping complexes of Roppongi. The subway isn't too difficult to navigate and even if we just miss a train, another arrives in two or three minutes.
Of course, we have to stop for feeding (baby and parents) and changing (baby only, fortunately) along the way but department stores are a godsend for both activities (see the family checklist below).
By the time we return to Asakusa in the evening we devour ramen noodles, tempura and sushi at one of the many good neighbourhood restaurants in the area before all three of us crash out from exhaustion.
On day seven we take the 2½-hour trip on the shinkansen (bullet train) to Kyoto, where we're staying in a ryokan - a traditional Japanese guesthouse where you sleep on tatami mats. Three Sisters Inn Annex is situated next to the popular Heian shrine and is run by one of the three Yamada sisters, Kay-san, a sprightly woman who is unfailingly polite and helpful, enamoured with Coco, and presents us with gifts at the end of our stay.
Kyoto is easy to navigate on foot (or on wheels for Coco) and we don't end up catching a bus or train the entire time. From our base we walk along scenic canals and backstreets, stopping to visit a few of the city's 1600 Buddhist temples and 400 Shinto shrines.
Sunday is spent on the Path of Philosophy, which winds along a canal between two of the city's most well-known temples, Ginkaku-ji and Nanzen-ji, and is named for the Japanese philosopher Nishida Kitaro, who used the path to do a walking meditation each day. Despite the crowds, it's still a relaxing and beautiful place to stroll, with the branches of cherry trees dipping towards the water under the weight of blossoms.
We cross the Kamo River on our final two days to investigate downtown. There we find a network of arcades and markets, and become blissfully lost in them. Angling the stroller through the crowded Nishiki Market is a challenge but it's worth it for the huge array of Japanese food on display, with free samples of often-undefined delicacies providing a bit of a thrill-seeker experience. The nearby Teramachi and Shinkyogoku arcades are full of little stores selling souvenirs, clothes, shoes, stationery, toys, arts and crafts, and more, plus cafes, bars and restaurants.
On our last night, we wander down Pontocho Alley, a lantern-lit, pedestrian-only cobblestone street next to the river. Renowned for its geisha from as far back as the 16th century, today it's best known for upmarket restaurants. We manage to find one within the budget for a final splurge and enjoy a five-course meal with a water view. Coco falls asleep after the third course, my wife and I settle in for a second drink, then walk back to the ryokan in the moonlight.
The next morning, while waiting to board the train back to Tokyo, then the plane to Australia, we look over our list of what we'd wanted to do in Japan. With the satisfaction only Virgos will truly understand, we start ticking off items and realise we've done even more than we intended. There was only one thing that eluded us. We wanted to have a drink in the bar at the top of the Park Hyatt in Tokyo, where Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson spent many jet-lagged moments in Lost in Translation. Alas, when we got there we were told with much apologetic bowing that babies were not allowed inside. We vowed to return in 19 years' time so all three of us can get in. And it's Coco's shout.
Japan with baby — the checklist
1 Remember to book bulkhead seats with a bassinet on your flight. You will have to sit your baby on your lap during take-off and landing, attached to your seat belt with a small auxiliary belt.
2 If you're doing the Tokyo-Kyoto return trip on the bullet train, as well as train travel within the cities, then buy JR (Japanese Rail) Passes to save both money and time. You have to pay for them in Australia before you leave, then redeem the receipts for the actual passes when you get to Japan.
3 Japanese department stores are your friends. Most of the major ones have nurseries with change tables and private rooms for breastfeeding. The B1 (basement) level is usually a depachika — a huge food hall filled with high-quality Japanese and Western produce, so you can stock up for a lunchtime picnic. Some of the best names to look out for are Isetan, Daimaru, Mitsukoshi and Matsuya. Make sure you check out the Tokyu Food Show below Shibuya station, one of the biggest and best food halls in Tokyo.
4 Although you'll definitely need a stroller to get around, be warned that not all train stations have lifts. Taking a few flights of stairs at opposite ends of a stroller is good for toning the arms but if you have to change trains a lot in one day or you're visiting less stroller-friendly locations such as Ginkaku-ji in Kyoto, consider taking the baby pouch.
5 Japanese hotel rooms tend to be small and on the expensive side. They often charge by the person rather than by the room. You'll also have to book a portable cot for your baby ahead of time. If you're travelling on a budget, you'll be living in close quarters.
6 Sleeping in ryokans involves thin, futon-style mattresses laid out on tatami mats. Your baby either sleeps between you or on a separate mat. It's more spartan than a hotel but more comfortable than it sounds and worth it for the experience.
7 Nappies, wipes and other baby needs are readily available in Japanese pharmacies but if you're particular about the ready-made baby foods you give your child, it's worth bringing your own supply.
8 Give yourself and your partner some time alone each day, even if it's just a solo walk or an hour or two to shop. As those great philosophers Chicago once sang: "Everybody needs a little time away, I heard her say, from each other."
Qantas, Jetstar and Japan Airlines fly direct from Sydney to Tokyo.
Hotel Sunroute Asakusa, 14,400 yen ($184) a double. 1-8-5 Kaminarimon, Taito-ku, +81 (0)3 3847 1511, sunroute-asakusa.co.jp.
Three Sisters Inn Annex, 16,590 yen, 89 Iriecho Okazaki, Sakyo-ku, +81 (0)7 5761 6333, www4.ocn.ne.jp/~k3sisanx.
See + do
Yoyogi Park and Takeshita-dori: take the Yamanote line to Harajuku.
Ueno Park: Yamanote line to Ueno.
Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden: Marunouchi line to Shinjuku-gyoenmae.
Tokyu Hands: various locations, tokyu-hands.co.jp.
Loft: 21-1 Udagawa-cho, Shibuya-ku, +81 (0)3 3462 3807, loft.co.jp.
Mandarake: various locations, mandarake.co.jp.
Path of Philosophy and Ginkaku-ji: five-minute walk from Ginkaku-ji-michi bus stop.
Nishiki Market and Teramachi and Shinkyogoku arcades: all lie in the downtown area bounded by Shijo-dori, Kawaramachi-dori and Oike-dori.
Pontocho Alley: runs north-south along the river from Shijo-dori near Kawaramachi station.