It’s a small world
Manga, Pokemon, robots and ninja keep kids amused on a value-formoney family holiday
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