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!"
Lincoln was a whiz at deciphering the complex fare diagrams in Tokyo subways. Yet we three tall foreigners were often so visibly confused as to attract attention. We'd be there still but for the kindness of strangers who, eager to practice their English, generously led us to the correct track or sometimes even exited the station to walk us to our destination.
We also had an official guide for a day. Through the Japanese National Tourist Organization (see "How-to Info" box), I had learned that it's possible to engage a regional volunteer guide in advance—you e-mail a query and then see who bites. Our Tokyo request was answered by a vivacious young illustrator named Nobuko Araki. Her student-guide group requests only that you pay the guide's subway and lunch expenses. Nobuko's first act of kindness was to escort us to the Japan Railways ticket office, where she helped us negotiate tickets we couldn't purchase in the States—a mind-boggling exercise that belies the trains' efficiency. (The Japan Rail Pass, which you must buy before leaving the U.S., offers unlimited travel, but you have to travel a lot for it to make sense.)
As Nobuko, map in hand, took us down the back alleys and up the winding stairways of Akihabara ("electric town"), Lincoln was wild-eyed throughout an assault of music and promotional advertising. Please do not make our mistake and take your child to Akihabara with no intention of buying one of the several million electronic devices that are sold there. Just buy the gadget: You'll pay one way or the other. As a refuge, I'd researched a lunch place, the 130-year-old Yabu Soba, on a corner only blocks away (though it felt like centuries). The restaurant was the perfect antidote, with bowls of pale green noodles and windows that open onto a garden. When the waitresses called out orders, it sounded like singsong poetry— which Nobuko attempted to translate for us. After lunch, she took us to Senso-ji, the Buddhist temple in Asakusa (photo); no one was surprised when the crowded shopping street leading up to Senso-ji engaged Lincoln more than the temple itself did. (photo)
In any event, we had already planned a pilgrimage to a different kind of temple. Lincoln grew up on the films of Hayao Miyazaki. My Neighbor Totoro was his Mickey Mouse; he still loves Spirited Away, Howl's Moving Castle, and Kiki's Delivery Service. (Roger and I do, too.) Visiting Ghibli Museum, the fun house of an animation museum, about a 20-minute train ride from central Tokyo, was a must. We thought we had to buy tickets in advance from the U.S., but we learned later that it's possible to purchase tickets at Lawson, a Japanese convenience store chain, too. Linc thought the museum—with its animation exhibits, films, and eccentric stairways and rooms, especially a re-creation of the master's book-and-drawing-packed studio—"was like being inside Miyazaki's head." Somehow, he resisted a $50 stuffed Totoro, round as a hug.
Sounder minds might have questioned the wisdom of dragging a 15-year-old on an almost three-hour bullet train trip to Osaka, then across town to another 90-minute train ride south into the mountains, and finally to a steep ride on a cable car, all for one night at Eko-in, a Buddhist temple on Mount Koya (Koyasan). A sacred place with more than 100 temples, Koyasan was founded in 816 A.D. And after Tokyo, Roger and I needed old. (photo)
Through the Wakayama prefecture volunteer-guide site that serves Koyasan, my detailed letter of request for someone knowledgeable was answered by a Koyasan aficionado. Kaori Kodama, who's spent 13 years studying and guiding tours there, led us inside the monumental temples of this World Heritage site; we watched in awe as a prayer service unfolded with the power of an opera. After our vegetarian dinner was brought to our temple room on low, lacquered trays, Lincoln ignored the TV in our tokonoma (most traditional Japanese rooms have this special viewing niche), preferring to wrap himself in his futon and watch Ratatouille on the laptop—my favorite image of him. In the morning, we entered the cemetery of Okunoin, a mysterious forest with wandering dark paths of moss-covered memorials. It was, fortunately, the first day of spring, when the annual procession of abbots from all of Koyasan's temples heads up to Lantern Hall, where 20,000 lights hang to commemorate ancestors and to bring good fortune. (photo)
In Kyoto, our timing continued to be lucky. We arrived on the grounds of the Imperial Palace just as the cherry blossoms burst into bloom—pink and red and white, locals joyously photographing them with their cell phones. (Like everyone else in Japan, we had been tracking the flowering at gojapan.about.com/cs/cherryblossoms.) (photo) In this you-should-have-been-here-yesterday world, we also happened to be in town during the one-day-a-month food and antiques market at Kitano Tenmangu Shrine. We scored old kimonos for $20 each, and for less than that we adopted a brass mascot we named the Fish God.
Just as we had in Tokyo, Roger and I craved stillness the way Lincoln craved stimulation, so we yo-yoed between the two. We wandered the old streets of the Gion neighborhood, searching for pottery in ancient shops, only to be dragged to Teramachi-dori to find the latest Boa CD. We longed for a proper tea ceremony lasting hours; Lincoln preferred his tea cold, in a bottle, from a vending machine. Sometimes we just had to leave him behind playing Mario Kart on his Nintendo DS while we went off to Fushimi Inari Grand Shrine (the thousands of vermilion gates undoubtedly played a role in inspiring Christo's installation in New York's Central Park) (photo). The three of us agreed on spectacular cones of green-tea soft-serve ice cream; Nishiki, the covered food-market street where Linc photographed turnip pickles and dried fish (photo); and a magical arm-in-arm walk through the otherworldly moss garden at Saiho-ji Temple, which looked, he proclaimed, "very Miyazaki." (photo)
The most insightful book I read before the trip was Alex Kerr's Lost Japan, about Japanese cultural traditions. It was Kerr who founded Iori, a company that has restored eight machiya—wooden, two-story, former artisan's shops—and rents them weekly as town houses. Our best move was to rent a machiya. The houses, which vary in size (accommodating from two to 14 people), also vary wildly in price, depending on the season. We averaged about $110 per person. (photo)
Our former teahouse seemed unadorned at first. Slowly, we noticed the details. We counted a dozen woods, ranging from the pale-blond cypress of the soaking tub to the rough-hewn dark-cedar of the beams. Windows have sliding shoji, their surfaces patterned by divided grids and bamboo blinds. Soft futons float on sheer, woven tatami. The low beams threatened our foreheads, and, as I reminded Linc, "They teach humility—you're forced to bow."
The best amenity was the support staff. Bodhi Fishman, Iori's director, has the depth of a scholar and the grace of a born host, pointing us to the best knife maker (Aritsugu) and to a convenience store for cheap breakfast food, turning us on to small neighborhood restaurants (at chef Takashi Tsubaki's Negiya Heikichi, we learned the meaning of oishii, or "delicious"), and setting up a visit to a kimono-making studio (photo), Tomihiro Dyeing, where Lincoln was allowed to paint his own swath of fabric. Bodhi even showed us how to manipulate the machiya's washing machines.
Lincoln lobbied for a return to Tokyo, but I wanted us to have the experience, though a splurge, of a night in an authentic ryokan, Monjuso, where dinner and breakfast are served in the room. (Plus, I yearned to visit Iio-Jozo, an artisanal vinegar brewery.) So we climbed on the train again, north to Amanohashidate, on the Sea of Japan. (photo) Nearby Ine is a fishing village that looked just like we wanted it to.
One of the marvelous things about Japan, for our family anyway, was that, indeed, we could all get what we wanted. For Roger and me, that meant temples, gardens, and museums—intrinsically Japanese places whose very ancientness is their charm. Most of what made Lincoln's top 10 list, including the shinkansen (bullet train) we took back to Tokyo, didn't make Roger's or my list. But for Lincoln, Japan wasn't so much a foreign country as a place from his childhood that he knew was there all along.
Keio Plaza Hotel Tokyo
2-2-1 Nishi-Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku, 011-81/3-3344-0111, keioplaza.com, double from $163
4-6-16 Ginza, Chuo-ku, 011-81/3-3562-1111, mitsukoshi.co.jp
3-31-8 Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku (22 Tokyo branches), 011-81/3-3352-1012, tsunahachi.com, lunch from $12
5-2-1 Tsukiji, Chuo-ku, 011-81/3-3544-1755, arp-nt.co.jp/iwasa, nigiri selection from $20, 5:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
1-15 Kanda Sudacho, Chiyoda-ku, 011-81/3-3251-0577, dinner $64 (cash only)
2-10 Kanda Awajicho, 011-81/3-3251-0287, yabusoba.net, lunch from $7
1-1-83 Shimorenjaku-ku, Mitaka-shi, 011-81/422-40-2233, ghibli-museum.jp/en, $10, kids $1–$7
Alteka Plaza, 1-13-9 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku, 011-81/3-6406-0711, mb.softbank.jp
6-1-9 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku, 011-81/3-3409-3431, kiddyland.co.jp
011-81/736-6-2514, firstname.lastname@example.org, $95 per person, with dinner and breakfast
011-81/75-352-0211, kyoto-machiya.com, from $240
3-260-4 Bukko-ji Agaru, Nishi-kiyamachi-dori, Shimogyo-ku, 011-81/75-342-4430, kiwa-group.co.jp/restaurant/i100063.html, dinner from $38
420-7 Nanban-cho, Matsubara Sagaru, Nishikiya-machi, Shimogyo-ku, 011-81/75-343-7070, dinner $35 (photo)
Kitano Tenmangu Shrine market
The 25th of every month, kitanotenmangu.or.jp
Request admission weeks in advance. Search "saiho-ji" at japan-guide.com for what and where to write
Nishi-iru, Gokomachi, Nishikoji-dori, Nakagyo-ku, 011-81/120-38-5599, aritsugu.com
011-81/772-22-7111, japaneseguesthouses.com, $182 per person for a group of two
373 Odashukuno, Miyazu-shi, 011-81/772-25-0015, iio-jozo.co.jp