There was a veritable aura of anticipation as we pulled into Tokyo by uber-efficient bullet train. The height of the buildings, the vibrant colours of the omnipresent street signs and numerous indications of multi-level living were immediately evident. We checked into an apart-hotel in the bustling district of Akasaka.
Everything in our room was on a Japanese scale: lets say ‘compact’ or ‘small but perfectly formed’. There were tables and benches for school/meals, which converted at night to the girls beds, plus a ‘dinky’ kitchen (fine for steaming goyza snacks, but less functional for Shrove Tuesday shenanigans) and and an open plan bed space for James and I.
To make the most of our ‘weekend-day’ arrival, our inaugural outing was a high adrenaline blast at the Tokyo Dome (planned by James….. presumably that goes without saying). We launched the day riding a vast rollercoaster which frankly made me slightly regret my breakfast. I yoga-breathed my way through the ordeal. The others all claimed to love it, although their facial expressions in the obligatory rip-off mid-ride action photo seem to tell a different story! We rounded out the terror with a visit to the haunted house which was a walk around (one-way-no-backing-out) tour based on the story of a girl who was mutilated on her face from using a moth poison infused powder puff, after which she was buried alive. Apparently it was suitable for ages 6+, but the rising 9 yo and the unshakable 10 yo with their faces buried inside my t-shirt were both decidedly jittery all the way round.
Lunch was utterly thrilling in an entirely different way. Think Yo Sushi on steroids. Not only does grabbable sushi circulate on the lower conveyor belt, but you can create personal orders on your bespoke iPad, and the upper belt whooshes your freshly made dishes to the precise spot in front of you for you to pick up and eat. It wasn’t exactly a social experience, but 40 minutes of concentrated gluttonous/tech fuelled joy!
Around our perusal of the famous hectic Shibuya crossing, we stumbled across the statue of Hachikō, a Japanese Akita dog remembered for his remarkable loyalty to his owner, Hidesaburō Ueno, for whom he continued to wait at the train station for over nine years following Ueno’s death. This story inspired us to pick Haatchi for our Friday night movie which we all managed to find heartwarming despite wincing somewhat at the the constant Richard Gere eye ‘crinkling’.
Our original Sunday plans had to be ditched for an alternative rainy day programme. The incredible Panasonic RiSuPia centre saved the day. We got sidetracked downstairs for a while by an exhibit of all the Olympics torches from the past 12 Games, and some other inspiring preludes to Tokyo 2020. Upstairs in the Quest Gallery, I was literally blown away by how principles of science and maths were made engaging through games and incredibly clear explanations.
Explaining binomial distribution to Bella suddenly became fun!
I got a lot further with explaining the principles of equilibrium than I ever did in the playground with a simple see-saw.
And I learned at thing or 2 myself about cycloids….
The next floor up got a lot more digital/interactive, and we all had fun manipulating electromagnets, playing ‘prime-number’ air hockey, and even (to my amazement) getting obsessed by moving lines around a graph by shifting the x and y values. Kudos and gratitude to Panasonic!
Sunday happened to be the Hina-matsuri festival, when Japanese families pray for the health and growth of their daughters. Bella, Emily and I celebrated at the Keio Plaza Hotel where 6800 handmade silk hanging dolls, said to trap evil spirits and bring girls good luck, were showcased in the main lobby. The decorations have various symbolic meanings. Monkeys have the ability to ward off calamities, mandarin ducks reflect love between spouses, and pillows represent children who sleep well and grow healthily.
It is also traditional to eat lurid sweet rice crackers…….apparently!
Wednesday and Thursday this week delivered a social whirlwind beginning with meeting an old Google pal, James, who hosted us for lunch on the 43rd floor of the Mori building in the Google Tokyo Japan engineers cafe (eng always gets the best food!). The evening hailed delicious Thai food and a drop in from Justin (Emily’s friend Winnie’s dad) who was in town on business. We shared a quiet beer together before he embraced a full on Japanese client dinner/Suntory binge/Karaoke experience. And Thursday brought torrential rain and a wonderful meet up with Robin who was in my section at HBS. We hadn’t seen each other for 15 years, and she valiantly toured us round the Meiji Shrine where we admired the architecture, the trees, and the spirituality of the place, and took the opportunity to write our wishes on wooden plaques.
Meiji Shrine with Robin:
That afternoon, my usual ‘look at that fascinating lamppost over there’ diversion tactic failed on route back to our hotel, so we ended up in an 8th floor cat cafe. I have to say the cats were a lot happier/freer than I expected and it was genuinely a good experience for us, and I think not too horrific for the cats!
Tokyo has the most amazing set of museums, and most school mornings this week were spent taking advantage of them. Some highlights included:
Monday: Science Museum with plenty of good engine action
Tues: Lego Discovery Centre (after-school to be fair)
Weds: Samurai Museum (with dress up!)
Fri: Robot museum (plus a bit of space action)
And on the subject of school, the girls achieved number 1 in the global Mathletics Hall of fame this week – way to go!
To wrap up for today, some further reflections on Tokyo
- Everyone is extraordinarily compliant here. Literally no one jay walks. Pointless rule following is enforced ubiquitously even when your daughter is trapped on a Lego-land ride under a faulty safety bar. If you miss your appointed dinner time, you don’t eat. If you ask to swap out the corn soup for miso on the kids menu it really stresses out the waiting staff.
- Fruit is exorbitantly expensive. These (12!) special white strawberries are on sale for 16200 yen, equivalent to a whopping £112! And your basic orange and apple combo is 5400 yen, an eye-watering £37. Its all marvellously tasty though, so we haven’t eliminated fruit from our diet, we’ve just started splitting apples in 4, and nibbling them like rabbits!
- It is incredibly safe here. People
leave their running kit bags on the grass outside the Imperial Palace running loop with no fear of theft. Parents let their 10 yo kids roam the city alone. The supermarkets let you pay for your own groceries without analogous security mechanisms like the UK self-checkout weighing stations.
- It is not at all progressive on the gender equality front. I could rant here, but I’ll save it for over a beer sometime. And all the men wear a uniform of black suits, white shirts…….and ties.
- It is not at all multicultural. In contrast to walking around London, Tokyo is full of similarly coloured/featured Japanese vs the melting pot that we are used to at home and acknowledged in most S American countries. This is the result of very strict immigration laws. Even nationals are required to come home to live after any 7 year period abroad or they lose their Japanese status.
- Quality is ubiquitous. Everyone does a good job, of every job, even in service industries, because they take pride in their work, and it is expected rather than because they are pursuing tips. The few tips I have proffered have been (politely) refused.
- Gardens everywhere are gorgeous, well tended like pampered children.
- Onsens really work (especially the ones that smell of sulphur). I went with achingly stiff limbs after a rather over-zealous yoga session, and got out of the water feeling genuinely renewed.