Cool and cultured
Ninjas, drums and family fun
Samurai and ninjas haunt every corner of our home. There are ninja headbands in the wardrobe, the Young Samurai series weighs down the bookshelves, and there is the frequent crunch underfoot of Lego Ninjago figures.
Which is why my karate-loving son is looking so proud in the dojo in Kyoto as he steps out in full samurai regalia, wielding his alarmingly realistic replica sword (thankfully blunt). In the course of a morning, he learns the guttural shouts used by the fearsome warriors in battle, the cross-cutting sword slash with accompanying motion to shake blood from the blade, and both the silent samurai shuffle and the proud swagger. To top it off, before we watch the professionals in action, he learns a kembu routine which, with sword swipes, spins and gestures with a fan, is a kind of dance the warriors performed before battle for courage or mental concentration.
Kyoto, and indeed all Japan, is proving to be a huge hit for us in the family holiday stakes, neither as daunting to get around nor as expensive or sushi-filled as I’d feared. It certainly seems to be custom-made for nine-year-old boys, with wall-to-wall hi-tech, including everything from robots to bullet trains, as well as those crafty ninjas, the enemy of the samurai. These assassins of the night have already reared their heads in Tokyo, where we eat in a somewhat cheesy ninja-themed restaurant that we both agree doesn’t do them justice. In Kyoto, though, they come somersaulting back with a vengeance.
At the Toei Kyoto Studio Park, with an ancient Japanese set that features as the backdrop to many television shows and films, son Christian disappears into the costume department as a scruffy-looking boy and comes out as a convincing ninja. Where one foreign boy might fear to tread, his ninja counterpart is confident enough to volunteer in front of a Japanese audience to fight the samurai in a superbly hammed-up open-air show. Then it’s time to try to escape from the ninja house, all panels that turn the wrong way, secret passageways behind awnings and double sliding doors.
Escaping is a little more complicated for me, especially when we reach the crazily sloping floor of one room, as I’m wobbling on the high wooden okobo sandals worn by a maiko, or geisha apprentice. Not wanting to be left out in the dressing-up stakes, I’ve spent an hour being made
STARRY, STARRY GUIDE
The 2015 Michelin Guide to Tokyo includes a new category of washoku eateries in its best-value Bibs Gourmands section; these establishments serve quality meals at JPY5000 ($52) or less a head and the new volume sorts the washoku into categories such as teppanyaki, izakaya, various kinds of noodle cafes, and those specialising in the likes of yakitori or tempura. Washoku cuisine has been accorded a UNESCO listing for “intangible cultural heritage” while more mainstream Michelin inclusions cover 12 three-star restaurants, 53 with two stars and 161 with one star. More: michelinguide.com. up and trussed up in a kimono, with all the white cream wadding and belted accessories that entails. But the result of our efforts is authentic enough that as we wander around the 200-year-old set of old Japan, we are stopped at every street corner by Japanese tourists wanting to be photographed with us. Also in Kyoto we take a guided cycling tour, which is a brilliant way to see the sights without complaints from the younger members of our party and leads us along the river to the Imperial Palace and the largest Shinto shrine to the local gods in Japan. As if on cue, three couples in ceremonial dress converge on the Tatsumi Shrine at Gion Shinbashi, hoping to get a snap for their wedding album. The capital of Japan for more than 1000 years, Kyoto today is neither modern nor quaint but a sprawling city, with a futuristic train station. Yet peppered throughout are remnants of the past, including 1400 temples.
When you’re travelling with kids, you’re only likely to be able to squeeze in a couple of temples before they complain, so it’s best to choose wisely. We head first to the shimmering Temple of the Golden Pavilion, a posterquality image of Japan. For something completely different, there’s the Ryoanji Temple, with its Zen rock garden. Be warned: do not, on the basis of tales that only the spiritually enlightened can see all 15 rocks at any one time, make a bet with your son over his own enlightenment. (I can report that if you head to the very far right corner of the viewing platform, you can indeed count 15 boulders.)
Temples ticked off, there is more hands-on fun with a taiko drumming lesson. Once a symbol for war, and now often played in an ensemble, these huge drums take quite a beating over the next hour, as we learn to sound out first the rhythm, then the melody, before literally bashing out a duet. It’s great exercise and fantastic fun, but it makes us pretty hungry, so our next quest is for food. Kyoto is the matcha (green tea) capital of Japan, and we have fun tracking down and tasting green tea Kit Kats (a bit like white chocolate), ice cream (pleasant) and a dubious Starbucks green tea latte. More unusual foods are to be
The fun side of art at Hakone Open-Air Museum, top; ninja skills in Kyoto, above