A Great Day on the Great Barrier Reef

On Friday, we left the kangaroos (feeding the Wallabies), the forest and the crocodiles (feeding the Salties) behind us to explore the Great Barrier Reef.

A helicopter flew us there (board short flight). This was a first for me, Alvar and Austine.

helico

We flew to a big platform in the middle of the ocean, with everything you need to dive, snorkel, and discover the corals, even a semi-submersible, which was great for Austine who also had her share of “enorme(ous)” fish (one of her new words, she practiced everytime a fish passed by the window).

platform

sub

Alvar has been brave and snorkelled for the first time. He loved it so much, we had to force him out of the water, shivering with excitment, cold and tiredness.

DIVE

The cruise back to Cairns was another great way to enjoy the amazing North-Eastern coast of Australia.

cruise

Next stop, Auckland, New-Zealand.

Frosty’s Folks

During my trip in Australia, I bumped into a familiar face. My surprise grew bigger when I realised I was actually standing in front of Frosty’s relatives, also vacationing near Cairns.

Hugs and kisses Frosty, from your folks back home.

Alvar

PS: for those who don’t know Frosty, he is the Etoiles de Mer’s class mascot (Alvar’s class at the Gower School).

frosty'sfolks

Down Under

It has been a long trip from Kyoto to Cairns : 2 trains, 1 eight hour flight (nearly missed it because of a new visa requirement we were not aware of) and a short drive to reach Palm Cove, a family  resort of the north eastern coast of Queensland. We landed at 4am and checked in just in time to see the sunrise. Wow. Exactly what we needed after two months of packing, moving, planning, travelling. Thumbs up for the children who were really patient and surprise us every day with their ability to feel at home anywhere.

Our hotel is located half way between Cairns and Port Douglas, and some 60 miles away from the Daintree River and Rainforest. It is the “wet season” but the locals say it has been really dry. 28 to 34 degrees, with occasional  light to heavy rain, just what you need to cool off.

The beaches are incredible. Unspoiled, pristine, paradise like. No one in the water.

There is a reason for this : this is the kingdom of estuarine crocodile (aka: the Big Salty), which can measure up to 8 metres long and are hungry enough to eat a horse or a cow, as well as the home of deadly stinging jellyfish. As the hotel staff told to us when we arrived : “Keep clear of the Jellies – the’re pretty dangerous. If they sting you, well, you die”. We learned today that when stung, the pain is so awful that victims typically pass out and drown. The ones that survive have terrible scars and feel the pain for weeks after the incident. Welcome to Oz.

So the rules are : stay 2 metres away from the waters edge and don’t ever go into the water.

I thought it would be frustrating, but I am starting to love it as it keeps the beaches clean and natural, and we still can enjoy a really nice lagoon pool at the hotel. Our trip to Cape Tribulation, where Captain Cook badly damaged his ship in 1770, gave us the impression nothing has changed here since.

captrib

Since we arrived, we have seen a lot of animals, some really fun or sweet, some others really dangerous and repulsive. The children loved the kangaroos and wallabies,

kangourouwallabies

and I had a little crush on Michaela, a female Koala I had the opportunity to hold for a couple of minutes.

lalakoala

We met cassowaries on our way to the rainforest, and got introduced to several “saltiies” (salt water crocodiles) and “freshies” (their river counterparts) in a crocodile farm. We’re not about to forget the terrifying noise of their jaws … so clear, yet so powerful. Also, many colourful frogs, snakes, spiders, scorpions, turtles, and all sorts of birds.

cassowaries2

We enjoyed walks in the rainforest, surrounded by hundreds of species of plants. Alvar spotted some flying foxes and Ben found a weird little dragon who seemed glued to the trunk of a tree. This land is so full of life, and it is obvious that man is just one of the multiple species around. He has to fight for his part of the land.

forest3

Tomorrow, we will get a closer look to the Great Barrier Reef.

Tips for parents travelling with kids in Japan

After two weeks in Japan, I thought I would share some tips for parents planning a stay in either Tokyo or Kyoto with young children.

First, let me reassure you : this is totally doable. It is not always easy, but with a little preparation before your trip and each morning once in destination, you can ensure a smooth and enjoyable stay despite this relative child unfriendly environment.

Our children are aged 6 and 2. They have different needs and interests, but both enjoyed exploring the two cities.

Packing and Travelling
You must travel light, as there is little to no room for luggage in trains, subway or JR trains. Having said that, we’ve always managed to find some room for a small buggy (MacLaren Quest – folded when necessary), and two duffle bags (90 litres each).

We also felt like the only Europeans in Japan, as high season does not start for another week. Things may get even trickier when thousands of people gather to witness the cherry trees blossom. In any case, you can’t hide from labelled a tourist and as long as you don’t mind the occasional stare, you’ll be fine. But don’t count too much on external help. Even taxi drivers tend to stay comfortably seated in their car, letting you load and unload the trunk on your own.

Most of the train stations in Tokyo have escalators and/or elevators. In Kyoto, we used taxis a lot. They are really easy to find, relatively inexpensive (more or less 600 Y for a 10 minutes ride for 4 people), and it helped keep everyone’s energy levels high. Not doing so and you run the risk of the children being tired before you reach your destination and start your visits of the day.

Taxipause

We also brought along a baby carrier (ergo baby type – fits in a backpack) which was really helpful on many occasions, especially in Kyoto where the streets are narrow and the temples have never ending flights of steps. In many temples, you will be asked to leave the buggy at the entrance, so I would say the carrier is your best bet for this type of visit.

templesteps
sling

Hotel

In Tokyo, we made a mistake and rented two rooms in a hotel located in the Shiodome business area. The location was really convenient for transportation, but barely suitable for children. I would recommend you double check the surface of the room prior to making any booking and get in touch directly with the hotel to ensure you get communicating rooms. Ours were not, and 22 sq.meters for 4 gets every cranky in no time.

House Rental

We rented a traditional house in Kyoto. It was great to feel at home and to have access to a full kitchen. Traditional houses are exactly what you want to experiment when you come to Japan, but sliding doors, low tables and paper thin walls can sometimes be a challenge with a 2 years old. Apart from these minors inconveniences, we all enjoyed our little place in the Gion area and the children loved their room with moving walls as well as their futon bed.

Things to do

Temples are ideal visits for children. They have bright colours, nice gardens, strange amusing statues (dragons, foxes, tigers etc) and there are a lot of rituals they can experiment by themselves which makes the visit more interactive and helps them better discover what traditional Japan is all about.

FoxAlvar

It is however sometimes challenging to help them understand what is ok and what is not ok to do in such sacred places that sometimes, to them, come across as elaborated playgrounds. Our son loved purifying fountains and burning incense, but didn’t quite grasp the religious dimension and kept asking for more incense sticks, sometimes a bit too noisily.

alvarfontaine

I must also admit our little one did some running around in cemeteries, without much consideration for those resting in peace.

CemeteryAustine

Same for all the “offrande” shops you find everywhere around the temples, most notably in Kyoto. You’d better set a limit or you’ll end up buying more souvenirs than you can carry.

Our daughter had a passion for throwing pebbles in each and every pond of those perfectly well kept gardens. It was sometimes exhausting to run after her and the occasional tantrum not always easy to manage in places devoted to worship. For some reason we can’t yet explain, it appears the Japanese child does not know the tantrum… But apart from a few moments of great solitude, both our children very much liked visiting the temples and we had a great time learning about ancient Japan.When we previously travelled as a couple, we often found ourselves running from one site to another, trying to see and do as much as possible. Museums were our primary targets. Not any more. This time, we limited ourselves to one: the Edo museum. At the beginning of our stay, this visit served as an introduction to our future walks and explorations in modern Tokyo. The museum was interesting enough for our 6 year old to enjoy, mostly because it is full of models and scenes of the past (and for those wondering, yes, our 2 year old slept through the visit).

EnoMuseum

Food

Wow… that was a shock. For those who don’t know me, I don’t eat fish or seafood and I suffer from a slight food paranoia, both for myself and my children. Needless to say this has been an adventure. Our son is very curious and enjoyed discovering new flavours as he bravely tasted most of the local delicacies. But in the end, he was not found of Japanese gastronomy and it soon became a challenge to keep him from starving. His gargantuan appetite made this feat even more sizeable. 

sushi

In Tokyo, we decided we would eat as much as we could during breakfast. The hotel offered a buffet, with continental, american and japanese breakfasts. I took a thermos box and filled it with pasta every morning, in case we were not able to find the children something they would like at lunch time.

For lunch, we ate in japanese restaurants or take away. But if the tastes were not what they expected (which was often the case), I knew they could fill up on pasta so we could keep them up and running in the afternoon.

For dinner, we opted for italian style restaurants or room service. We deeply missed variety and green vegetables, but survived.

In Kyoto, we used the kitchen to prepare our own dinners and breakfasts. Mini-supermarkets allowed us to buy a mix of local and european style foods, vegetables, dairy and fruit – which was quite a relief after 8 days of rice and noodles.

For our toddler, baby milk has been an issue as soon as we arrived. I only had baby formula (growing-up milk) for a day or two when we landed in Tokyo. It had been very easy to find formula in Hong-Kong so I thought it would be as easy in Tokyo. I was wrong. I still don’t know what Japanese mothers feed their toddlers, but there is no baby food or formula in supermarkets, apart from a small and weird range for very young babies in highly specialised stores. Fruit purees are not common either. Instead, they  have a type of jelly in a pouch. Tasteful but with strange consistency. Our daughter tried it a couple of times, but did not find it that appealing in the end.

As we could not find any milk, I tried to give our toddler some fresh cow milk. She never took it. And as she had nothing else she was used to, the only thing she ate for the first two days was pasta, pasta and …pasta. We had to go across Tokyo to finally get some milk, diapers and wipes. I found them in what they call a western style department store, this one was called “peacock store”. The baby nappies were found next to the nappies for old people (!). The wipes are tiny (same size as a face wipe in Europe or North America). And the milk comes in solid portions. Great for travel, but not so great when you don’t warm up the bottle as it takes them a while to dissolve in water. Also, keep in mind that all the instructions are written in Japanese and finding an english speaking japanese is almost as hard as finding the baby formula. In the end, our daughter enjoyed her japanese milk as much as she did the French and English milk.

If were to do it again, I would travel with the food she is used to and save us all time.

Change / toilets

Changing tables are widely available in Tokyo. I haven’t seen any in Kyoto.

In Tokyo, plan on carrying your dirty nappies and snack left overs with you as oddly, bins are not that easy to find.

Tickets for trains / visits / museums

Children pay no entry fees or pay half price. It depends on their age. You will be asked if your child is going to primary school rather than asking for the child’s age.

Playgrounds

We found a few playgrounds whilst we were exploring Tokyo and many were quite dusty. Gardens are a serious matter in this country, and it can sometimes be frustrating for children as they only have acces to the gravelled paths and not to the lawn, ponds or trees. We found a great park near Shiodome and the children were free to run everywhere with few restrictions. You have to pay a small fee to enter, but it is a very nice garden to spend several hours. I would recommend you bring a picnic.

Tokyopark

Kyoto is full of gardens, but swings and slides are not easy to find. We ended up walking in Maruyama Park and along the river where they could see ducks and enjoy nice views of the mountains.

riverKyoto

Kawai

Both our children are blond and our daughter has big bright blue eyes. The Japanese were quite fond of her and would  stop and take pictures of her quite regularly. Women were usually staring at her with big smiles, saying ” Kawaiiiii”. Luckily, our daughter is very sociable and she was not too worried about being the center of all this attention. But often, it felt weird. And it did not seem fair to our son, who did not complain, but whom was abviously not getting what was so special about his sister.In conclusion, I would say that I am glad we did it. We learned a lot and the children enjoyed their time in Japan, despite the physical challenges they took on by walking long distances, under or over ground. But I would probably have a very different experience and opinion about Japan if I were to go back without the kids. So, if this is one of several trips to Japan, taking the children with you is a good idea. But if this is a once in a lifetime trip, maybe you should wait until they are a little older.

WC

I never thought I would write a post on toilets, but this is worth sharing.

One cannot visit Japan without noticing the sophistication of their water cabinets, and more precisely, the toilets. In comparison to the boring simplicity of our latrines, the japanese throne offers it user a range of services analogous to the rich feature set of luxury sedans: seat warmer, multiple force flushes, silencer, water level control, bidet for men and women, etc. (and that is probably a subset of what is possible without referring to the user guide). The pictography is great.

This raises two questions. The first, why has so much R&D been invested in this specific area and second, why has such an enhanced user experience not been adopted by other countries outside of Japan?

IMG_0590

PS: they also come in toy format for the dollhouse. We leave in 24 hours, so place your orders now 😉IMG_4664

PPS: Yet another example of Japanese ingenuity and efficiency. The below is a public WC in a temple in the mountains. Using the water of the flush to power the tap. So simple, yet so green.

IMG_4649

Shinkansen

Dear Gower School Friends,

I finally went on the Shinkansen (did you know it is also called the the Bullet Train?). It was very long and went very fast (200 mph – that’s slightly faster than our beloved Eurostar). It has a funny pointy nose and we could see Mount Fuji from the windows.

See the Shinkansen pull in the station here.

Shin2

Capital City : kyo·to

From one capital to another…

It was 23 degrees when we left Tokyo on Tuesday morning. We enjoyed a walk in the Hamarikyu Gardens where the first signs of Springs (sample) were already noticeable.

hanami2

We then headed to the station to board the renowned Shinkansen. Efficient, fast and clean with beautiful glimpses of Mount Fuji. Two hours and some minutes later, we were in Kyoto.

FUJI
Here, we rented a traditionnal but modernized house in the old Gion district. After almost two weeks of hotels, we all appreciate the space (relatively speaking of course), comfort and joys of a simple home-cooked meal.

Out on our first stroll in the city, Alvar met a couple of friendly Geishas.

Geisha

Local delicacy at the Nishiki market: squid-on-a-stick.

squid

We also visited the Kiyomizu temple, erected in 1633 and part of the Historical Monuments of Ancient Kyoto. Grandiose with its large veranda, supported by tall pillars, that juts out over the hillside (13m high).

Kiyomizu

Believe it or not, not one nail was used in the construction. There is an expression in Japanese that goes “to jump off the stage at Kiyomizu”, equivalent to “diving into the deep end”. Apparently, an old Edo era tradition of jumping off the veranda successfully (i.e. living through it) ensured one’s wish would come true. It so happens 234 jumps were recorded, with a fatality of 15%. The practice is now no longer authorised.

Dressing up

It is not an easy task to sum up a whole week in Tokyo.

Seven days is a short time to discover such a complex culture, but this is a long time when you need to look after two young children in a not so child friendly city.

If I had to sum up my observations, I think that “dressing-up” would say it all.

We admired the elegance and grace of most of Japanese women, whether they wore the traditional outfit or the every day modern attire. The sheer number of fashion stores in Tokyo proves the importance of elegance, as we discovered walking the streets of Ginza (sample) or Shibuya – where we happened to stumble upon a St. Patrick’s Day parade (sample)

On the other hand, the business man’s appearance is dull, wearing almost exclusively black costumes adhering to what appears to be an austere and rather strict dress code.

In opposition to adults, Japanese teenagers are famous for their extreme outfits, either branded from head to toe or assembled from scratch with unparalleled attention to detail as if they were parading for a carnival. They often walk by pairs, with their BFF. Our trip to Tokyo’s Disney Sea gave us a great insight into the importance of brands, accessories and style.

Disneygirls

And for those of you who wonder what attraction ride queues are like in one of the world’s most populated cities, well, let’s just say patience is a mut-have quality (and no, we didn’t wait the 150 mins).

waitingtime

wait

But it appears clearly that dressing-up is important in Japanese society. Understanding and appreciating what this symbolises would require a more in depth immersion – something unfortunately we will not have the opportunity to discover. If you add to this the inevitable language barrier impeding communications, you end up  feeling as a simple observer. I wish I could have shared more with the locals and hope that in Kyoto, we will have the opportunity to better engage with the Japanese people we meet.

We also enjoyed a day trip to Kamakura, an hour from the capital and a peaceful getaway from the bustling and glitzy Tokyo. A place where surfing meets history with the numerous and quite beautiful temples and shrines (sample).

templekamakura

Tomorrow, we take the famous Shinkansen and this should be quite exciting for all of us, but mostly for Alvar of course.

xxxx

To my friends in les Etoiles de Mer at The Gower School

Hello everyone,

I hope you are all well and learning great things with Miss Kelleher and Miss Ritchie. I saw that you were skipping like crazy to raise money for the heart foundation. I am sure you skipped very high !

I have arrived in Tokyo, capital of Japan, four days ago. I have visited several places like the Tower of Tokyo (looks a bit like the Eiffel Tower), and I went to Ueno Zoo where I saw pandas, bears, elephants, seals and a polar bear. I can also see the famous Shinkanzen from the window in our hotel room.

I also visited the Ueno Museum where I learnt about the Great Fire of Edo. I thought about what we learned in les Etoiles de Mer, about the Great fire of London, so I wrote a little recount to share with you. I also wrote a little text on the Samurai and another one on a temple I visited in Hong-Kong. It would be great if you could let me know what you think about my writing.

I miss you. Hugs and kisses to everyone. Lots of Love.

Alvaralvarwriting