Rainer Jenss and his family are three months into their around-the-world journey, and they're blogging about their experiences for Intelligent Travel. You can keep up with the Jensses by bookmarking their posts and following the boys Global Bros blog at National Geographic Kids.
Three important occasions marked our second week in Japan: a milestone, a birthday, and an anniversary. It was also a time that brought to light the joys and unique challenges of spending a year traveling with your family.
To celebrate Carol’s birthday and our fifteen-year wedding anniversary two days later, we had made plans to be in Kyoto because I had been told, by the editor-in-chief of National Geographic Traveler no less, that it was one of the most magnificent places on Earth. Needless to say, expectations were high when we arrived via bullet train from Nagasaki after spending most of our first week in the rural areas of southern Japan (like the well known EuroRail pass, Japan Railways had two week unlimited travel passes available that are good throughout the country – a big plus).
Over the course of the first three months of this trip (a hint to what the milestone is), I repeatedly emphasized to the boys the importance of first impressions. “When you initially meet someone,” I explained, “how you act towards them in the first few minutes will likely form their opinion about you forever.” I further clarified that this also applies to places and objects, and told them that judging something before getting to know it was foolhardy. In the case of Kyoto, I realized I needed to heed my own counseling. This was a big city. Not New York or Tokyo big, but big enough where 1.47 million people call it home and mass transit is the best way to get around. This was not the vision I had, however, from admiring so many photographs of its famous temples and gardens. It is also not the romanticized pre-WWII Memoirs of a Geisha Kyoto either. Experiencing the tranquility of meticulously manicured rock gardens or seeing a genuine geisha was going to take some effort and experienced guidance. Or maybe a babysitter, for as the week progressed, I become obsessed with this quest for enchantment. But could it even be possible with two children and a host of other tourists to contend with? I was determined to at least give it a go.
To get acclimated, we took a city tour on our first day. It covered the major must-see attractions, highlighted by the Golden Pavilion and Sanjusangendo Hall, home of an impressive 1,001 Kannon statues, all beautifully carved from Japanese cypress. There was no transformation happening here because of the abbreviated time at each location and choreographed schedule, but it was certainly a good way to learn about the city’s historical significance.
Day Two was Carol’s highly anticipated birthday and the kids were excited to see their mother dressed up like a geisha. This (sans the makeup) was part of our special stay at Yoshi-ima, a traditional Japanese ryokan right in the heart of the famous Gion district. The fun was that we boys were included in the act, so on a rainy late September afternoon, all four of us hit the streets in full kimono regalia. Despite the attention we attracted along the way, the kids really enjoyed the experience which I’m sure will leave an indelible memory for years to come. The in-room dinner and tea ceremony that followed kept the novelty of the day going right until bedtime, which in true Japanese fashion, was on tatami mats and futons. Maybe I didn’t need a rock garden to feel some of that magic of Kyoto after all.
For our big anniversary, a babysitter definitely wasn’t an option, and because this trip is rated G, we went out for a special family dinner to a restaurant with a private garden room, which allowed the boys to be boys without the usual anxiety we get about their restaurant behavior. Furthermore, the house specialty, shabu shabu, made it even more kid-friendly since it involves cooking meets and vegetables in a pot of boiling oil right at the table. Since we made Stefan the designated chef, all was right with the world.
For more family fun, we headed out to the Toei Uzumasa Movie Village and found a place called Monkey Park Iwatayama in Arashiyama. Toei Uzumasa is a working Japanese movie studio that doubles as a modified theme park. Despite the fact that almost everything is in Japanese, the boys had a lot of fun and the language barrier didn’t seem to bother them all that much. Besides, when you’re watching samurai, ninjas, and Power Rangers battle it out, kids don’t get lost in translation.
So what about capturing that harmonic Zen experience that seemed so illusive? Before the week was through, I dragged Tyler with me to the Fushimi-Inari Shrine, famous for its thousands of torii gates leading up into the mountains. While I found the two-mile hike exhilarating, I didn’t reach nirvana, and Tyler tired out and wanted to go back to the hotel. At my urging, we also took a family outing to Philosopher’s Walk, a path that winds along a cherry-tree-lined canal, passing several temples and shrines, including the Ginkakuji, or Silver Temple, another well-known landmark complete with sand gardens, water fountains, and a bamboo forest. Did I find tranquility? Nope, not when you have a massive school group there on a field trip and our kids releasing pent-up energy. It seemed that the more I tried, the further out of reach enlightenment would be.
But then I realized that once in a while you can get shown the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right. We’d just completed a quarter of our trip – the first lap of a mile race around my high school track. All four of us are healthy. Tyler and Stefan weren’t complaining about the food. We were still laughing and having fun. We woke up every morning excited about the day ahead. We loved Japan, and have over 1,000 pictures in my photo library (plus several hours of video) to prove it. If this isn’t true bliss, what is?
Find out more about Japan online at National Geographic's Travel and Cultures website.