The Konnichiwa Kid
Some boys are mad for soccer or skateboards. But writer Dorothy Kalins's son, Lincoln, has always been a sushi-rolling, Pokémon-watching kind of kid. At 13, he asked for Japanese language lessons. At 14, he spent two weeks at Japan camp in Minnesota. And at 15, he finally got to go to the country he'd always loved from afar.
There are several schools of thought about travel to Japan. Some people choose to visit Kyoto first, since its old parts instantly make you feel like you're in a foreign land. But I knew buzzy, futuristic Tokyo was the way to begin with my son, Lincoln. So on our first morning in Japan, we made a beeline to Harajuku, the neighborhood where trendsetting teenagers cluster on weekends.
A magnetic force drew us into SoftBank, where cell phone styles not even imagined yet in the U.S. are displayed like jewelry. "This is where I live," said Lincoln, doing the happy dance as his dad, Roger Sherman (a filmmaker and the photographer of this story), followed him like a paparazzo. Outside, Linc bought a black polyester kimono from a street-corner vendor because of its white crane design. "A symbol of longevity," he explained.
We moved on to the part of Omotesando Street that's lined with designer boutiques in buildings by the world's most renowned architects. But Linc didn't want architecture, not when there was Kiddy Land. He went slightly nuts in this palace of High Cute. Cell phone charms are an entire belief system there; half a floor is devoted to Hello Kitty. "Kiddy Land is a 5-year-old's dream," he said, though he nonetheless included it among his top 10 experiences in Japan (along with the heated toilet seats and the lovely gentleman at our hotel who graciously taught us that one does not tip in Japan).
Roger and I would have been delighted with the kind of aimless wandering any overprogrammed adult craves on vacation, but that wasn't a great idea for a kid who asks constantly where he's going next and how long it'll take to get there. (At one point during the trip, he actually said, "Why do we have to keep looking for the good tempura place? Can't we just go to any tempura place?") While splitting up would occasionally be an option—we knew there'd be nights when Linc's idea of heaven would be room service and TV, and ours would be anything but—the point of the trip was to experience Japan together. Relentless planning was the only solution.
Even people who've never been to Japan are aware that it can be hideously expensive. I researched our trip for months on end, searching for ways to save, only to watch the dollar's value drop 13 percent over three months. I felt queasy when I read the Wall Street Journal headline on the morning of our departure: "Japanese Economy Quakes Anew as Yen Soars Against Dollar," citing the lowest exchange rate (¥97 to the dollar) since 1995.
Our plan was to spend five days in Tokyo and five days in Kyoto, with shorter side trips in between. The biggest expense, after airfare, would be hotels. We needed the support only full-service hotels offer, because I knew from previous trips to Japan that despite its modernity, the country is challenging to navigate without knowing the language. But while our family's standard MO is a room with two double beds, there's evidently no such thing in Tokyo. Hotel websites kept suggesting a king-size bed for the three of us. If you have a somewhat smaller child than our 6'2" version, a rollaway is an easy fix. Eventually, I found a room with four (!) beds at the Keio Plaza Hotel Tokyo, conveniently located in Shinjuku, where we averaged $84 a night per person.
Tracking down food values is less difficult. Most hotels include breakfast; at the Keio Plaza, Lincoln regularly started his day with miso soup and chocolate cereal. For lunch, the spectacular food halls (depachika) at department stores like the lively Mitsukoshi in Ginza yield luscious prepared foods and bento boxes to go. Convenience stores (conbini) and train stations offer a traveler's dream: fresh, crustless egg-salad sandwiches and the addictively crispy, chocolate-covered cookie sticks called Pocky.
For dinner, it's so easy to find a generous bowl of rice (donburi, perhaps with chicken or grilled eel) or udon (hearty and filling wheat noodles) for $7 or so that naming specific restaurants is almost beside the point—and actually locating a specific one is beyond frustrating. Unlike Japanese restaurants in the U.S., restaurants in Japan tend to focus on one type of food: tempura, yakitori (skewered meat), soba, nabe (hot pot), tonkatsu (fried pork cutlets), izakaya (creative pub food), or ramen (whose rich flavor you smell as you walk in). In Tokyo, we had memorable meals at the Tsunahachi group of tempura restaurants, Iwasa Sushi in the famous Tsukiji fish market, and the 110-year-old Botan, home to a superb chicken sukiyaki. It was there that Linc suddenly remembered the word for water: "Mizu!"