My children were given frequent flyer accounts as soon as they graduated from lap riding to seats of their own; wanderlust has been a part of their existence from the beginning. Traveling with infants, I learned early how to change a diaper in spaces small enough to pin my elbows to my sides, how to help a them clear their ears during altitude changes, and which airport’s terminals had carpet dirty enough to permanently stain the knees of baby clothing.
We did shy away from long flights over oceans, though. The thought of strapping a two-year-old in a seat for 8 hours was a little frightening, especially when encountering the “keep the seatbelt on the child at all times when she is in the seat, even when the light is off” requests from flight attendants who clearly did not have small children.
As the girls grew, so did the distances we could travel. When our younger daughter was old enough to both not make us suffer while she sat through an 8 hour flight and to show some interest in people and cultures not like her, we began thinking about international destinations.
When we opted for Japan, the reaction of people we knew was universal surprise. There seems to be an assumption, at least in our community, that a first trip off the continent should involve either an English speaking country or Europe. I felt that those were better saved until the children were old enough to perceive the more subtle differences.
Japan really is the perfect first big international trip for children. First, the visual differences are obvious, even to a small child. The architecture of the traditional buildings is clearly not like old buildings at home. European cathedrals look like larger and more ornate versions of churches at home. On the other hand, we do not have large pagodas and Japanese temples. Tori gates and Shinto shrines are a rarity in our world. The quiet restraint of their gardens is a contrast to those we find at home, even those with Asian influence. Signs in kanji. Europe and Australia both share our heritage; they look too much like home for a young child to understand how they are different.
We are a minority. Aside from major tourist areas, the people are homogenous. Our family’s heritage is northern European, both of the girls are blonde. In Japan we don’t look like anyone there other than the occasional other gaijin. In more remote places, small Japanese children stared wide-eyed at our blondies. Our home town is seriously deficient in diversity, and when we visit an American city, there is a clear mix of racial backgrounds. In Japan, there is no such mix, and we are a very obvious minority. It is good for children (and the rest of us, for that matter) to understand that there are many ways of being.Japan is clean and safe. No worries about drinking water. People wear masks when they have a cold so as not to spread germs. We’re probably more likely to get sick in an American city. Japanese kindergarteners take the subway alone to and from school. Their society’s pressure to conform keeps rudeness and crime down. Although there is risk anywhere you travel, Japan feels very safe.
It’s about as close as Europe. For those of us on the West coast, anyway. Travel time for us to Tokyo or Geneva is really similar.
They have attractions for children, too. When the children tire of temples, there are abundant choices to interest them. Our children finally experienced Disney Land, albeit with Japanese narration. Neither John nor I have any interest in contrived places such as Orlando or Las Vegas, much to the disappointment of our children. Disneyland Tokyo was a perfect compromise, as it did not involve a stay someplace we would really rather not be. While exploring Japan, we also fed monkeys in Kyoto, deer in Nara, and squirrels and bunnies on Izu Oshima Island. We rode a funny little chairlift up Mount Takao, and visited the architectural wonders of the world at Tobu World Square in Nikko.
And so, for us, Japan seemed the best choice for a first big adventure away from North America. As we plan our world walkabout, our thoughts keep returning to this Land of the Rising Sun. I am sure in time our path will take us back once more.
The main Gill Adventures website has a few articles and a photo gallery about Japan. To wander further, start at the Explore Japan page for a list of what is on the site.