Cool and cul­tured

Nin­jas, drums and fam­ily fun

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Japan - JANE KNIGHT

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


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: michelin­ 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

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