Japan: Day 10 – Jigokudani Monkey Park

Other than snowboarding (and making snowmen), our other main reason for visiting the Japanese Alps was to see the snow monkeys. Marc remembers reading a National Geographic magazine when he was about 10 years old about the Japanese macaques that soak in the hot springs during winter. It was incredible for him to be able to see them in person 30 years later. It was indeed a pretty special experience to be able to hang with wild monkeys in the Japanese Alps.

There are two options for visiting the snow monkeys who can be found at Jigokudani Monkey Park located in Yamanouchi – organized tour or go on your own. The tours are expensive at 12,000 JPY ($101 USD/$143 CAD) per adult and 8000 JPY ($67 USD/$95 CAD) per child (ages 3-11). We decided we could go on our own for 14,000 JPY ($118 USD/$167 CAD) for our whole family. Plus an additional 1000 JPY for bento boxes for lunch from Nagano station. I’m sure you will agree this is a significant savings.

So if you want to go on your own to Jigokudani Monkey Park from Hakuba, this is how you do it: take the bus to Nagano and then from Nagano take the bus to Shiga Kogen/Jigokudani Monkey Park. A discounted round trip ticket for the Nagano to Hakuba route is available for 2800 JPY for an adult and 1800 JPY for a child (under 6 is free). A one-way ticket for the Nagano to Jigokudani Monkey Park is 1400 JPY for an adult and 700 JPY for a child (under 6 is free). The Hakuba-Nagano bus departs and arrives at bus stop #26 at Nagano Station. The Nagano-Shiga Kogen bus departs and arrives at bus stop #23. The bus stops are almost beside each other making it super convenient for the transfer. A bus schedule is available at the Hakuba-Happo Bus Terminal for the complete route.

By making our own way there we also could take our time during the beautiful walk through the cedar forest to the hot springs where the monkeys are and we got to have as much time as we wanted with the monkeys. A slower pace is always nice when travelling with young children and in our opinion a better quality experience.

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Path through the forest to the snow monkeys

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It was an amazing 1.5 km walk through snow covered cedars

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The rare photo of me

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From the monkey park looking down into the valley

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Entrance to Jigokudani Monkey Park – admission is 500JPY per adult and 250 JPY per child

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First of many macaques we encountered. This one was literally at my feet.

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And at the children’s feet

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The hot springs where the monkeys hang on cold days

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This is my baby. I watched and photographed her/him for a long time.

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Just hanging with the homies

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The beginnings of a friendship

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An onsen is a perfect place for grooming

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This is a what blissed out looks like

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Japan: Day 7-9 – Hakuba, Nagano

When we decided we were going to Japan and timed it for January we knew we had to include a trip to the Japanese Alps for snowboarding (for the husband and the daughter of course as the boy and I are not quite ready to plummet down the side of a mountain).

Planning for this portion of our trip was surprisingly difficult as there was very little information on the Internet. Interesting considering Nagano, the largest city in the area, was the host for the 1998 Winter Olympics. So where exactly do we go and how do we get there were the questions. Hopefully my post will help you if you are planning a visit to Hakuba, Nagano.

Marc asked some Japanese colleagues for recommendations. I searched and searched the Internet. We had initially considered going to Shiga Kogen which is quite close to Jigokudani Monkey Park (which I will write about in my next post) but all recommendations pointed towards Hakuba as having the best powder and there are eight good resorts for Marc to choose from for riding. Hakuba can be reached by an hour bus ride from Nagano or a train ride from Matsumoto; which route to take depends on where you are coming from. Coming from Kyoto, I think the train would have made more sense for us as our train from Kyoto-Nagoya stopped in Matsumoto before moving on to Nagano. From Matsumoto, there’s a train to Hakuba. We didn’t realize the train was an option as everything I read only indicated the bus from Nagano as most of the people come from Tokyo. You can also take a direct shuttle from Narita or Haneda airport to Hakuba.

Once we decided on Hakuba, we had to decide on where to stay. There were only a handful of Airbnb listings in the area and they were all ridiculously expensive. The hotels are spread out in the different resort areas and not having been there before we weren’t sure how far apart all the resorts were from each other. We agonized over which hotel to stay at (well really it was just me as Marc doesn’t agonize over decisions). We finally picked one and hoped for the best. Our hotel (Hakuba Hotel Ougiya) was located in Hakuba Happo where the majority of the restaurants, bars and equipment rental services along with a couple of grocery/convenience stores were all within 5-10 minutes walk. It was also five minutes walk to the Hakuba Happo Bus Terminal where the bus arrives and departs for Nagano. The hotel was exceptionally clean, had a large drying room, a phenomenal natural onsen and a delicious breakfast buffet (included in the room rate). Both the owner and his wife were amazing hosts. We are definitely staying there again when we return to Hakuba.

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Our hotel

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The fabulous in-house natural onsen we took full advantage of every day. We loved the ritual of cleaning our bodies then entering the heat of the onsen and letting the natural spring water relax us after a day of playing in the snow. This one is the women’s. Marc says the men’s was the same except slightly bigger.

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The view from our room. We stayed in a traditional Japanese room complete with futons on tatami mats. It was super comfortable. Unfortunately I don’t have a photo of it.

Hakuba turned out to be the perfect choice for us. The area is breathtakingly beautiful, our hotel provided stellar service and amenities and the traditional Japanese mountain village had a totally cool vibe. This portion of our trip was the most memorable part of our visit to Japan.

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The village

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More of the village

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Tiny shrine in the village

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Nagano Olympic sign. Can you spot the kids through the snowstorm?

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Snow covered torii

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Shrine hidden amongst the trees and snow

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Beautiful Hakuba valley

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Ready to do some riding!

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It took us forever to build this tiny snowman as the snow was all powder and difficult to pack into a ball. The boy had a great time making it though.

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Riding in Hakuba together

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Just perfect slopes

 

Japan: Day 6 – Kyoto (Part 2)

There are so many pretty places to visit in Kyoto that it’s impossible to visit them all in one day. Here’s where we went with Goto-san on day two.

We started the day with a visit to Fushimi Inari shrine. It’s a shrine dedicated to rice, agriculture and in more modern times, business. It’s famous for the thousands of torii that line the path leading to the inner shrine. Each torii is a donation by a Japanese business. For 175,000 JPY you too can have your own torii at Fushimi Inari.

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Entrance to the main shrine

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O-mikuji, fortune and blessings tied after they’ve been read

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The path of the torii viewed from one side. It takes approximately two hours to walk the 4 kilometres of the path. Unfortunately we did not have time to walk the whole path. 

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And the same path from the other side with the names of the patrons

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Us:)

From Fushimi Inari we went to Sanjusangen-do, a Buddhist temple that houses 1000 life sized statues of the Thousand Armed Kannon (bodhisattva) carved in Japanese cypress and painted in gold leaf. Unfortunately, photos are not allowed inside the temple. Our visit to the temple coincided with the annual archery tournament referred to as Toshiya. The contest has been occurring for over 400 years. This made our visit a bit crowded but on a more positive note, admission was free for the day and the atmosphere was very festive with all of the Toshiya participants dressed in their traditional kimonos and holding their long bows.

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Crowd of Toshiya participants with their long bows

 

 

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Female participants in their beautiful traditional kimonos

 

We left crowded Sanjusangen-do for the quieter atmosphere of the Nishijin Textile Center. We went there purely for the free 10-minute kimono show. This stop is only worthwhile if you have a special interest in textiles or you really want to see a real kimono, otherwise don’t bother. We didn’t feel like this was the best use of our time.

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Really pretty kimono

After Nishijin Textile Center, we took an interesting walk through Nishiki Market (a.k.a. Kyoto’s kitchen).

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All kinds of fresh seafood

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The Japanese love pickled vegetables. We have come to really appreciate the many varieties and flavours.

 

We ended our day with a quick stop at one final Shinto shrine, Heian Shrine, before taking a last stroll through Gion to complete our time in Kyoto.

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Entrance to Heian Shrine

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The usual display of o-mikuji at the shrine

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Geisha of Gion? No, just a bride getting her wedding photos taken in a traditional kimono in Gion. A perfect ending for a visit to Kyoto.

 

Japan: Day 5 – Kyoto (Part 1)

Kyoto is one of my favourite cities in the world. This is actually the second time I’ve visited this beautiful city but the last time I visited it I was seeing it through the eyes of a teenager on her first overseas trip. My teenage eyes were not wrong, Kyoto is as lovely as I remember it. We chose an apartment at the edge of the Gion district for our stay and it was the perfect location. Gion is well known as one of the most exclusive geisha districts in all of Japan. It is also where you will find many of the traditional architecture.

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A view of the backs of the shops, teahouses and homes along the Shirakawa Canal

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A pretty storefront in Kyoto

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One of the most picturesque streets in Kyoto

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Another part of the pretty street

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Marc’s plans to touch a geisha was foiled by this sign;)

Just as we did in Tokyo, we hired a guide through Triple Lights for our two-day visit in Kyoto. Our guide Kazuhiko Goto was very accommodating and came prepared with knowledge and information on each place we visited. Having Goto-san definitely enriched our experience of Kyoto. Here are highlights from day one of our time in Kyoto.

We started off the day with a visit to the district of Arashiyama where we visited the picturesque bamboo forest and the serene Buddhist temple of Tenryu with its beautiful garden.

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We took this cool vintage electric tram to Arashiyama

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Arashiyama Bamboo Forest

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The family pic

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Lovely Arashiyama

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Buddhas to look after children

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In the garden of Tenryu Temple

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Fairies could live in this garden

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So tempted to step on this

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Lovely Tenryu Temple and garden

From Arashiyama we went to Kinkaku-ji, the temple of the golden pavilion.

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Ringing the bell for luck

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The golden pavilion and yes it is painted with real gold leaf

From Kinkaku-ji we went to Kiyomizu-dera, a Buddhist temple constructed without the use of a single nail.

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The area around Kiyomizu-dera is dense with tourist shops and tourists dressed in “kimonos” or as our guide and I refer to them as yukatas (or bathrobes) as they are not really kimonos.

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Visiting temples makes them feel like this

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Three tiered orange pavilion at Kiyomizu-dera

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A pretty side entrance at Kiyomizu-dera

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Kiyomizu-dera, built without a single nail and able to withstand an earthquake

And the last place we visited on day one was Nijo Castle a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was built as the primary residence of the Tokugawa Shogunate (the last feudal Japanese military government). The kids loved walking along the corridors and hearing the floor make bird chirping sounds and learning that these “nightingale floors” were built to prevent sneak attacks. They also found it neat hearing about the special doors hiding the shogun’s special bodyguard samurais.

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The elaborateness of this gate really shows the power and wealth of the shogunate

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Nijo Castle consists of multiple buildings over 275,000 square meters of space

Japan: Day 4 – Travelling within Japan

On Day 4, we travelled from Tokyo to Kyoto via Japan’s high-speed railway or Shinkansen.

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About to board the Shinkansen for Kyoto

Travelling within Japan via train or bus service is efficient and convenient due to its extensive network. There were trains every ten minutes making the two-hour journey to Kyoto. From our perspective there are only two problems with the train service in Japan. You have to physically purchase the tickets from a rail station. We bought our train tickets the day before with the assistance of our tour guide. I’m sure we would have been able to buy them easily ourselves but it was certainly more efficient with her assistance. And the other problem is that the tickets are quite expensive. The cost for a one-way ticket from Tokyo to Kyoto for one adult is over 14,000 yen; which is $175 CAD (at our current crappy exchange rate) or $120 USD. Thankfully children under 6 are free so we only had to pay for one child at half the price of an adult ticket.

My advice if you are planning a trip to Japan is to budget well and make wise decisions based on your budget. Everything is expensive here. Mid-range hotels with good reviews are $250+ CAD per night. We were able to save money by staying at Airbnb apartments for most of the places we visited. A meal for one person without a drink on average costs about 1000 yen and above. Our budget was a very conservative 10,000 yen per day for food for our family. That’s $85 USD or $125 CAD which might be acceptable to some of you but it’s quite high to us, especially having been living in China and travelling around Southeast Asia. So we were looking at a significant budget for Japan (over $600 CAD per day!) when we added the four main travel costs of transportation, accommodation, food and sightseeing. Thankfully I’m really good at finding cost saving strategies (i.e. hiring a personal tour guide instead of going on group tours, staying at Airbnb apartments instead of hotels, etc.)

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Rice ball bento box is a tasty and affordable lunch at 400 yen so you can afford the accompanying beer for 230 yen. All purchased at one of the many rail station convenience/food stores before you board. 

Despite the cost of travelling in Japan we would come back. It’s a beautiful country with incredibly nice people and delicious food. The Japanese people will go out of their way to help you. We have been personally helped in subway stations, on the street and walking down a mountain. As for the food, we haven’t had a bad meal yet.

I’ve digressed into the business of travelling Japan. Tomorrow I will get back to the fun of travelling Japan:) Up next, Kyoto.

 

Japan: Day 3 – Tokyo

Other than the neighbourhood around our Airbnb house we really didn’t get to see Tokyo until our third day in Japan. On a side note, with the exception of one hotel stay, we are mostly staying at Airbnb accommodations during our trip in Japan. Mostly as it’s more affordable in this expensive country but also for the extra amenities it provides for a family travelling lightly (washer and dryer comes in handy when you’re travelling with 3-4 outfits for 2 weeks).

We only had one day to see Tokyo so we decided to hire a personal tour guide to maximize our time. We love personal tour guides over group tours for several reasons. They often work out to be cheaper; especially when you have more than two people in your group. You go on your own itinerary on your own schedule; which is so helpful when travelling with kids. You receive 100% of the guide’s attention so you never have to worry about losing your guide or not being able to hear what they are saying.

Our Tokyo guide was a sweet retired Japanese lady by the name of Taka-san that we found through a Japanese tour guide service called Triplelights. We loved that she dressed in a traditional kimono for our benefit but worried that she wasn’t comfortable walking around the whole day. She assured us she was quite comfortable. Taka-san was also incredibly patient with us and never once showed frustration even when we took a long time buying train tickets or going past our scheduled time for the tour. Read on for highlights from our day.

Our favourite stop was at Meiji Shrine, a Shinto shrine dedicated to Emperor Meiji and his wife Empress Shoken.

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Torii Gate at Meiji Shrine. Torii gates separate the profane from the sacred.

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Meiji Shrine is surrounded by a forest with over 120,000 trees of 365 different species, donated from people all over Japan. 

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Just before the shrine, there are sake barrels on one side of the path.

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And wine barrels on the other side of the path.

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Learning how to purify before entering the shrine

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Exiting sacred space

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The usual family shot

If you know me, you know I like to eat so of course a highlight has to be lunch. One thing about Japan is that restaurants specialize in a particular type of food. The one our guide took us to was a kusiage restaurant. And no kusiage is not tempura as we learned. The breading is much more subtle than tempura. It was absolutely delicious!

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Shrimp and fish kusiage made in front of us

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The accompaniments 

I think one of the highlights for the kids was the forest of shaped and groomed pine trees we passed when we walked to the East Garden of the Imperial Palace. The kids loved the idea of climbing on full size bonsai trees.

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And the East Garden itself was lovely.

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The current emperor of Japan also happens to be a marine biologist – published in Science and Nature no less! He and his advisor bred this variety of koi fish found in the East Garden. Notice the fancy fins.

We visited many areas that I have not highlighted so here are some random shots from our day.

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Famous street in Harajuku where young Tokyoites can be found hanging out. Can you see us in the photo? Look carefully.

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Famous red lantern at Sensoji Temple

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That golden object is the top of the Asahi Beer Company. You can decide for yourself what it looks like.

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The famous Shibuya Scramble where we crossed the street along with 3000 people at the same time

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Too tired to eat out we picked up sushi from a grocery store. The selection was overwhelming. Better than some restaurants in Toronto.

Tokyo was not what we expected. Both Marc and I expected the craziness of a large metropolitan city but Tokyo felt more like a mid size city despite having a population the size of Canada. The buildings were mostly low to mid-rise. It was also quiet and orderly but that could be because our impression is skewed having been living in China for the last four months. Marc also says Tokyo has less robots than he expected.

 

Japan: Day 2 – Hanging with Friends

We spent an amazing day with our friend Tad and his wife and kids who happened to be back from California visiting their families in Japan. Tad has been a good friend of ours since our time in Knoxville, Tennessee (almost 15 years ago!) and although Marc sees him at least every couple of years thanks to being in the same field of work, it’s been a surprising 8 years since I have seen him. He of course looks unchanged! It was also the first time I met his beautiful wife and adorable boys. Tad’s parents graciously welcomed us into their home and Tad’s adorable mom prepared the most sumptuous and delicious home-cooked Japanese dinner. As we were leaving, our boy said it best, “I really like being in this home”. What a special way to experience Japan!

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A perfect thing to do with friends in Japan on a sunny day is to go for a walk to a lovely park with a tea room and enjoy some tea and sweets.

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Learning to drink tea the Japanese way with Godzilla

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Making new friends

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The next generation

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Isn’t she simply adorable?!

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A work of art!

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Look how pretty Tad’s mom prepared all the food. Almost too pretty to eat! But it was so delicious we ate it all up!

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Who better to learn origami folding from than a Japanese grandmother?

Japan: Day 1 – Tokyo Disneyland

Visiting Tokyo Disneyland was completely a last minute decision. I had actually decided that I wasn’t going to take the kids for several reasons – we were getting into Tokyo in the late evening so the kids would be tired the next day; the weather was going to be drizzly and cold; and I would be solo parenting as Marc was in work mode at the University of Tokyo. In the end I decided to brave Tokyo Disneyland in icky weather by myself with cranky tired kids in tow as it would be the only day we could go. Yes, I am a crazy woman. We had a great back up plan too. If you ever find yourself in Tokyo on a rainy day with children you might consider the Tokyo Toy Museum along with the Tokyo Fire Museum right next door. Apparently they are both great but I cannot personally comment on them. If you want to hear about what I thought of Tokyo Disneyland, read on.

Our day did not start off on the right foot. Or I should say Dominic’s right foot. The foot that caught on the threshold of the subway train as he was getting on, pulling his shoe off in the process which of course resulted in the shoe falling down through the gap onto the tracks. At the moment we realize all this, the door to the train closes and we speed off, minus one shoe. It took a minute for my brain to catch up to the ridiculousness of the situation and then we were off the train and getting on the train going back to the station where the shoe was. One hour later with the help of 3 subway employees and an English translator on the phone, Dominic’s shoe was retrieved from the tracks in surprisingly excellent shape. We were once again on our way to Disneyland.

Between the last minute decision to go and the shoe incident, we arrived two hours after Disneyland opened. Unheard of for us; we are typically there for rope drop! Nonetheless, we managed to squeeze in all the rides we had on our list with the exception of the Monsters Inc. ride which had a ridiculous waiting time of one hour throughout the whole day. The waiting times were strange at Tokyo Disneyland as the rides that we expected long waits for were short – Pirates of the Caribbean, 5 minutes; It’s a Small World, direct walk on, and Star Tours, 15 minutes (and the third time we rode it was almost a direct walk on!) but the ones you expected short wait times were not.

We found Tokyo Disneyland to be unsettling in general. It didn’t have any of the familiarity we were use to. No Main Street, U.S.A. No music piped throughout the park. No English on any of the rides or in any of the shows/parades. Having just recently visited Hong Kong Disneyland we realized how much all of these things matter in creating for us the magic that we associate with Disneyland. Hong Kong Disneyland gave us that magical feeling as we entered and maintained it throughout our visit. Their staff exuded Disneyness (yep, making up this word). Their shows were multilingual and grand as only Disney can put on. At Hong Kong Disneyland we felt the same magic as we do when we go to California Disneyland. Even though Tokyo Disneyland features almost the same attractions as California Disneyland it just didn’t have the magic. Could it be all these missing factors? Or was it that we were there on a crappy weather day and without Marc?

It turns out the reason might be that Tokyo Disneyland is the only Disneyland not owned by Disney. The Disney theme is leased by a Japanese company and their goal is to move away from the restrictions of the Disney Parks and add more of the Japanese identity. I think they have successfully done that. And it seems to be working for them as they are the second most visited them park behind Magic Kingdom at Disney World and it’s also the most profitable Disney Resort. It’s just not the right Disney park for me.

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Before the main gates

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Just doesn’t quite have the same feel as Main Street, U.S.A

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But there is Cinderella Castle

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Japan as seen in It’s a Small World

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Listening to C3PO speak in Japanese to R2D2 while waiting for the Star Tours ride X3)

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This kid’s got mad driving skills

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And this one’s always trying to take off on me

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Once Upon a Time light and fireworks show. The only show that comes close to the quality expected of Disney.