It’s a small world

Manga, Poke­mon, ro­bots and ninja keep kids amused on a value-for­money fam­ily hol­i­day

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Japan - JU­LIA BROOKES THE TIMES

WHEN can we go to the Poke­mon Cen­tre? And the gi­ant Gun­dam ro­bot? And the cafe with the flash­ing loo?

For two years at least, my 10-yearold son has been bad­ger­ing us to go to Ja­pan — he loves manga, is fas­ci­nated by samurai, ninja and swords, has filled the house with Poke­mon and Yu-GiOh! trad­ing cards and, given half a chance, would eat break­fast, lunch and sup­per at Waga­mama.

All this is why he is grin­ning from ear to ear when he finds him­self in a stage school in Osaka, learn­ing moviestyle samurai swash­buck­ling and star­ing wide-eyed at a humdinger of a sword. It’s large, heavy and lethal­look­ing and when samurai ‘‘am­bas­sador’’ Hiroki Iman­ishi hands it over, I think Rory may spon­ta­neously com­bust with de­light.

There fol­lows 11/ hours of small-boy heaven. He learns the samurai swag­ger (well, it’s dif­fi­cult to walk nor­mally when you’re wear­ing vo­lu­mi­nous hakama trousers plus a tu­nic and breast­plate), how to thrust and parry with suit­ably gut­tural grunts and roars, and how to ‘‘die’’ with max­i­mum im­pact.

The next day we take the tram from Ky­oto to the Eiga­mura, aka the Toei Ky­oto Stu­dio Park, a tele­vi­sion and film set that dou­bles as a theme park. We wan­der around a mock Edo-era samurai vil­lage — com­plete with red­light dis­trict and har­bour with a scary mon­ster that pops up from the briny — and take cover from driv­ing rain by vis­it­ing the ninja mys­tery house, where we ne­go­ti­ate trap doors, slid­ing pan­els and madly slop­ing floors to es­cape from our (very jolly) ninja pur­suers.

The high­light, how­ever, is the live samurai show. Even with­out un­der­stand­ing a word of the di­a­logue, we love the ac­ro­batic sword fights, spe­cial ef­fects and mag­nif­i­cently over-the-top death scene. It may be the height of kitsch, but it’s su­perbly done.

We dis­cover more ninja magic at Nijo Cas­tle, built for Ja­pan’s then ruler, Shogun Toku­gawa Ieyasu, and guarded by samurai. Its main at­trac­tion is its 17th-cen­tury sur­veil­lance sys­tem — the ‘‘nightin­gale’’ floor de­signed to thwart ninja as­sas­sins. Our guide, Miyama, ex­plains how up­side-down V-shaped j oints move within the boards un­der the slight­est pres­sure; how­ever hard we try, ev­ery step re­sults in a squeak.

Ja­pan is a bril­liant choice for a fam­ily hol­i­day. For chil­dren it feels like one big, ex­otic play­ground with ev­ery­thing from heated loo seats to bird­song play­ing in sub­way sta­tions, and vend­ing ma­chines on ev­ery street that sell crazy con­coc­tions all adding to the fun.

We’ve even man­aged to bag a stay in Ky­oto’s an­swer to a Wendy house, a machiya, a long and nar­row tra­di­tional wooden town­house full of slid­ing pan­els, ex­posed beams and low ceil­ings. The build­ing is beau­ti­fully re­stored, with a tiny Zen gar­den, and it’s our chance to live like the lo­cals.

‘‘Re­frain from mak­ing loud noises or any other dis­gust­ing be­hav­iour that would cause an­noy­ance for the neigh­bours in the sur­round­ings,’’ the in­struc­tion book­let says, and we try to com­ply, but I fear we are not the ideal guests. The small and neat would be at home. We, on the other hand, feel like cor­nered sumo wrestlers, crash­ing around and bash­ing our heads on the light fit­tings. Al­though there’s a small kitchen, we don’t try to cook or eat here for fear of spoil­ing the pris­tine tatami mats.

No mat­ter — it’s no hard­ship to eat out in Ky­oto. We­head for Gion, the old quar­ter with its wooden build­ings, tea­houses and smart restau­rants, where we glimpse geiko (as geisha are called in western Ja­pan) shuf­fling along in their zori san­dals and gor­geous ki­mono. (When my daugh­ter and I have a geiko dress-up ses­sion a few days later, we feel like trussed chick­ens.)

But it’s all too for­mal and we end up across the road in Sen­mon­ten, a tiled and mir­rored bar that serves glo­ri­ous gy­oza dumplings. They are so mor­eish we’re tempted to try to beat the gy­oza eat­ing record: 150 in one sit­ting. We fail, but it wouldn’t have bro­ken the bank. The big­gest sur­prise of this trip is that we can eat out well rea­son­ably cheaply. Even in Tokyo, home to the $500 steak, it’s easy to get a de­cent meal for four for about $50. Our hunt­ing grounds are the base­ments of of­fice blocks and the top floors of depart­ment stores that sur­round ma­jor sta­tions filled with rows of restau­rants.

In the base­ment of the World Trade Cen­tre we find a bril­liant mum and dad-run katsu (cut­let place), slurp soba noo­dles with hun­dreds of salary­men in a pub-like iza­kaya and de­velop a real taste for okonomiyaki cafes, which spe­cialise in a savoury pan­cake-like dish with var­i­ous top­pings that we cook at the ta­ble.

Another sur­prise is how cheap and easy it is to get around us­ing the sub­way and the Pasmo travel card.

We spend a morn­ing in Rory’s spir­i­tual home, Ak­i­habara, long fa­mous for its elec­tron­ics shops and now a Dis­neyesque dis­trict that is a mag­net for the anime and manga geeks (or otaku, the Ja­panese term for a geek). Then we head to the ar­ti­fi­cial is­land of Odaiba to see the 20m-high Gun­dam ro­bot that guards the shop­ping cen­tre (with a de­tour to the flash­ing loo in the Gun­dam cafe).

This is all good fu­tur­is­tic fun, but for a taste of samurai-era Tokyo we ex­plore Ni­hon­bashi, one of the city’s main busi­ness dis­tricts, where a bridge, built in 1603, is the sym­bolic cen­tre of Ja­pan. The orig­i­nal premises may be long gone but you can still find re­tail­ers that started trad­ing in the 17th cen­tury, in­clud­ing fan-seller Ibasen; Ozu Washi, which makes ex­quis­ite pa­per; and Mit­sukoshi, the grande dame of Tokyo depart­ment stores.

In the 1600s, traders and their cus­tomers around the bridge would have been able to look di­rectly at snow­capped Mount Fuji; th­ese days you have to climb a lit­tle higher. We hoped to see it from the Skytree — at 634m, the world’s tallest broad­cast­ing tower and a Tokyo must-do at­trac­tion — but we can get tick­ets only for the evening, when the cityscape turns to su­per­charged neon.

We fi­nally glimpse the iconic peak on a blue-sky day, from the 38th floor lobby of the Man­darin Ori­en­tal, af­ter a trip to the vast Tsuk­iji fish mar­ket.On our fi­nal night it’s time for a last dose of kitsch. We­book a ta­ble at the Ninja restau­rant in Akasaka, set up like a se­cret lair through which we are led by a smil­ing ninja wait­ress to our booth. Con­firm­ing that the Ja­panese adore a good theme, it’s all j ust the right side of cheesy, the food is de­cent, there’s fake beer for the kids and each ta­ble gets a close-up magic show.

At the end of the evening we are de­canted back into the Tokyo night. Sud­denly the black-clad ninja wait­ress leaps out be­hind us. She does a twirl, un­furls a huge ban­ner and screams out its mes­sage: ‘‘Please come again!’’

Clock­wise from above, Ak­i­habara elec­tron­ics dis­trict; manga comic books; Toei Ky­oto Stu­dio Park; the writer’s son Rory learns samurai sword play

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