Travelling in Japan with my Little Cook

Many parents worry about finding familiar food for their children to eat on holiday, but my recent experience in Japan taught me to trust and encourage their sense of adventure! When the opportunity arose to visit Japan I knew couldn’t miss the chance to visit such an amazing culture, both for me and my little cook. However, I must admit to being a little nervous taking my fish-sceptic son to a country that reportedly consumes 10% of the world’s fish catch!

We began our adventure in Tokyo which, after learning how to navigate the tube system, became much easier (and cheaper – taxis are expensive!) to get around. It is wild, whacky, noisy, busy, bright….everything I expected but so much more.

What surprised me most when we arrived in Tokyo was how willing my little cook was to get involved in the food. He eats well but, like a lot of kids, likes what he likes. I had no idea how he would take to the food but he refused cutlery on our first dinner out, practiced using chopsticks until he looked like a pro, and then tried everything and ate almost everything. It made me realise that, despite being a nutritionist and doing what I do, I have been guilty of not encouraging him to try more, for fear of it being rejected and wasting time and food.  I am going to incorporate much more spice and flavouring into everything we eat from now on and cannot wait to find a Japanese cookbook to explore new recipes, especially sweets with red beans in, they were exceptional!

One of the highlights of the trip was taking a journey into the mountains which were breathtaking. We stayed in traditional ryokans, saw some incredible sights and the food was out of this world. My adventurous former fish-sceptic little cook ate a whole fish covered in buckwheat groats, including the fish and eyeball! After a week or so though we really missed fresh fruit and yogurt for breakfast.  Eating rice, fish and miso soup for breakfast, lunch and dinner does get a bit much!

To end the trip, we travelled to Okinawa island and spent some time on the stunning beaches there. We stayed in a fabulous hotel which offered a few western food options which I must admit was refreshing – my little cook ordered chips for lunch and we finally had fruit for breakfast! Okinawans are famously long-lived, with the highest proportion of healthy centurians anywhere in the world. I asked the people I met what they thought was the secret to this long-life. They attribute it to certain foods they eat – goya, a bitter melon which is highly nutritious, and the local pork they rear and eat. But what came across most was their mindset – the Okinawans described themselves as people who don’t want for more than they need and who have a very positive and optimistic outlook. Much we can learn from that!

There is a lot to learn overall from this fascinating culture, not just about their food. On a societal level a couple of things really struck me – I didn’t see one homeless person, and very little obesity. It definitely feels like there is a stronger sense of community and caring for their elders, which may go some way to explaining the low homelessness. And the low levels of obesity, I think, can be party attributed to having much less refined and processed food in their diets. Lots of rice, fish, meat, tofu, soups, some vegetables (although not as much as I’d expected), not much fruit, and very little refined sugar. One negative to point out – Japan is WAY behind on the plastic memo! It made me realise just how far the UK has come. I bought some cakes for a train journey and they were in individually wrapped in plastic, inside a plastic container, inside a plastic box!!! I refused the plastic bag they offered to put them in, but as a country there is a long way to go.

Japan has something for everyone – amazing cities with top restaurants, shopping, nightlife, history, culture, mountains, beaches…all made easily accessible by the incredible transport system. The food is out of this world – in the whole trip we didn’t have a single bad meal, whether from a café in a bus station or a fancy restaurant. It is clean, literally no litter anywhere despite there being no visible bins; safe, I left my handbag in a cafe with my laptop in and no one stole it; friendly, and there is an admirable sense of pride. People are genuinely proud of their jobs, no matter how menial they seem to us, and perform them as well as possible – the taxis are spotless with white linen covers on the seats and the drivers wear gloves and uniforms; the teams who clean the trains line up to bow to each other and the train when they have finished; people will not stop until they have helped solve whatever issue you are having. I will particularly miss their loos – heated seats, spotless, lids that automatically lift when you walk in!

One huge insight I had about travelling with my little cook – I took 2 colouring books, a reading book, a writing book and no devices and I don’t regret it. He made do and I know if we’d had a device he would have asked for it all of the time instead of looking out of the window and taking in the scenery, or asking questions about what we were doing. Devices can be lifesavers but my generation grew up without them and somehow survived!

This was a once in a lifetime trip, one I hope has helped shape and create lifelong memories for my son. I know it has for me.

A few recommendations:

Tokyo

  • Eat at Ninja Akasaka a fantastic restaurant to visit with kids
  • Eat at the robot restaurant which was loud, weird but strangely wonderful;
  • We found a café full of hedgehogs
  • The Borderless Exhibition which was mind blowing and a MUST see with kids (and without);
  • Visit Ueno Park with its incredible street performers (and a zoo which I didn’t like – the animals did not seem happy and it just felt a bit wrong);
  • Make sure you see some Sumo wrestling in action
  • Rainbow Karaoke – the best Karaoke studio I’ve ever been to
  • And the famous Shibuya crossing.

The mountains

  • Stay in traditional ryokans
  • We took the Kurobe to Tateyama alpine route which had some spectacular scenery
  • We visited the beautiful village of Komekichi and trekked to see the snow monkeys,
  • Visit Matsumoto castle, and bath in natural onsens from the areas natural hot springs.

Okinawa

  • Beautiful beaches and a wonderful place to relax – maybe you’ll discover their secret to a long and happy life!

 

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