January 22, 2014

On the Road: JAPAN , part 1

Last summer when we confirmed that J Crew was going to shoot it’s catalogue on our farm, we had a friend Regena, who is a life coach, staying with us at the time. Just after we had finished negotiating the location rental fee, Regena turned to Christopher and asked, “How are you going to spend the money?” “Well it will certainly make the school fees less painful for a while,” he replied. She looked across the table at me, smiled, then turned back to Christopher and said, “Well, what if you use the money to go on a once-in-a lifetime family vacation?” I love it when a girlfriend advocates on your behalf, don’t you? Regena is one of the few people my husband finds it difficult to say no to, and such was the case here. “Not a bad idea,” I was surprised to hear him respond with little resistance. So we set about thinking where would constitute “once in a lifetime.” I knew I’d want to go somewhere in Asia as I had never set foot on that continent. I first thought of India. I liked the idea of spending ten days sightseeing and then a week or so chilling on the beach in Goa. But Christopher and Coco both made disagreeing faces for reasons I still don’t understand. We did agree, however, that the place we chose should be somewhere none of us had ever been, so we could all share in discovering a new place with the same sense of wonder.

Then Christopher suggested Japan. We had planned to go there for our 10th anniversary but had to cancel when I accepted the job at Barneys. And thank god we did – our planned trip would have fallen during the time of the tsunami. Back in 2011, we definitely saw Japan as an adult trip. It was too expensive to take the kids, and we weren’t sure they would appreciate it. But now they were nearly three years older, and with the additional funds provided by JCrew, it would be more affordable. Ever since I was 9 years old I have wanted to go to Japan. I first experienced a taste of its culture when my American neighbours in Bronxville had recently moved back from spending three years there because of the dad’s job. They taught me how to count to ten in Japanese and had better Hello Kitty school supplies than anything you could find in the States. Then two Japanese girls entered my school in 4th grade, and I promptly attached myself to them – making sushi at their homes after school and doing sewing projects with their moms on the weekend. With Coco and Zach now 12 and 10 respectively, we felt they were old enough to appreciate such a foreign culture. So off we set for 18 days over Christmas to discover a new world.

What we were all excited to experience in Japan was the sheer foreign-ness of it all. We wanted to see things we hadn’t seen before and didn’t recognise. The kid’s first sense of wonder at the unknown and unfamiliar happened at the airport, just off the plane in Tokyo. They LOVED the drinks vending machine – the colours, the lighting, the variety, the graphic design. There were both cold drink and hot drinks – Coco discovered hot Macha latte and Zach chose an Orangina in a different shaped bottle.
We arrived at the Park Hyatt for a week’s stay in Tokyo. As we were planning to stay in smaller, more authentic hotels for the rest of our trip, we thought it would be fun to stay in something totally sleek and modern in Tokyo. We also thought the kids would be impressed by the large indoor pool, the tv over the bathtub, the view over the city and the choice of Japanese, French and American restaurants in the lobby. Our expectations didn’t disappoint. They had these fresh strawberry “lollipops” with dipping options like caramel, chocolate and sprinkles waiting for the kids in the room when we arrived.
Despite the sugar, the kids passed out shortly after we arrived at 4 in the afternoon. We forced them to wake up around 7pm and head out to dinner.
We consciously decided not to plan many formal dinners, thinking we would just wander Shinjuku, our local neighborhood, in the evening and find a place that caught our eye. It was a good plan.
Coco isn’t a big follower of fashion, but she loves Commes Des Garcons. Her cousin gave her a hand-me-down polka dot CDG sweatshirt and she has paid attention to the brand’s many diverse offshoots – the black edition store in Paris, the PLAY collection at JCrew and the namesake collection at Dover Street – ever since. In Omotesando in Tokyo there was a building filled with all the different CDG concepts and it was really cool. I was proud of her for not buying a t-shirt she coveted. Even though she really loved it,  she would have blown her entire Christmas money for the trip on her first day in Japan.
As you probably know, the Japanese just love cuteness. Everything is cute. I like the Margiela store’s version of cuteness in this 7 ft high cat composed of giant box blocks.
Christmas lights in Shinjuku.
We made just one reservation for dinner while in Tokyo. We wanted a really good sushi meal, and a friend of ours recommended a place called Sushi Kanesaka. Christopher and I love sushi and sashimi, as does Coco. But Zach hates it. He’s never put a piece of raw fish in his mouth, ever. But I figured he could have tempura or teriyaki like he does in New York. When we arrived we realised that this was not a place for kids. There were about a dozen seats at a sushi bar, with a chef at each end. No menu, no tables. The place was virtually silent and everyone stared at us as we walked in. When the chef put the first plates down he stared at the kids until they pate what was in front of them. Zach quickly glanced at me with a doubtful face before picking up the raw tuna and bravely putting it in his mouth. The chef cracked a beaming smile and gave him course of course of raw fish. I would never been able to make my kids eat half the things they did that night, and I’m sure they never will again, but the proud and imposing sushi chef easily pushed them both past their limits with sea urchin and raw shrimp and tuna cheek (seen above). On the way home, we all laughed about our experience. I asked Zach how he liked raw fish and he admitted that he hated it but was too scared not to eat it. Christopher said it was the most expensive meal we had ever had, but after he got over the shock, we all agreed it was worth it.
The sushi bar at Sushi Kanesaka.
Mackerel with leek paste at Sushi Kanesaka.
Zach is a huge fan of Hayao Miyazaki movies like “Spirited Away,” “Ponyo” and “My Neighbor Totoro.” So he was especially pleased to visit the Ghibli Museum dedicated to all of his work. Truth be told we were all blown away by the creativity and talent of Miyazaki and his collaborators.
I love how Japanese embrace iconic design from other cultures, like this VW Beetle.
Coco and I spent an afternoon at the Isetan food hall. It blew our mind. We spent hours there staring, tasting, snapping pics. This lady is making strawberry dumplings. Yum!
The fruit at Isetan was insane. It was huge, beautifully packaged and breathtakingly expensive. I don’t know how much this grapefruit was, but a single melon was the equivalent of $35!
After our first few sleek, modern and neon-filled Tokyo, we set off the see some older culture in Asakusa.
Believe it or not, I took this picture at this sweet little amusement park that was built in 1949. The rides were a bit rickety (scary!) but it was kitschy and cute in the most charming way, and there was this beautiful garden and koi pond smack in the middle of it.
We came across this udon restaurant in Asakusa. It was so simple and delicious. Except for the people slurping around me. Not sure I could ever get used to that!
In Ginza, Coco and I saw a sign for the world’s smallest ice skating rink and had to check it out. We followed the signs around a few turns and came across this hilarious scene at the Hermes store!
A room-sized plastic rose at Dover Street Market.
While we didn’t make it to the Tsujiki Fish Market at 4am for the tuna auction, our visit there was still the highlight of my time in Tokyo. It was such an authentic, fascinating, other-worldly, one-of-a-kind experience.
Octopus in the fish market.
Tiny little fish in the market.
Crab in the fish market.
These charming little street stalls had some of the best food we ate in Tokyo.
Coco is a mad sushi lover, and I knew she’d get a kick out of visiting one of the conveyor belt restaurants. We had a total pig out, and this was her stack of plates at the end.



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6 years 4 months ago
Hi Amanda, what an incredible experience! I went to Japan the first time when I was 13, on a school trip for one month. I lived with a family and went to school with them everyday. I think this age is a perfect time to experience Japan, because it feels so completely unreal to the life you know, and therefore so exciting. I still see Japan through those 13 year old rose-colored glasses! On another note, I just wanted to mention what an inspiring mother you are to me. You seem to have a wonderful family relationship with your kids… Read more »
6 years 4 months ago

amazing pics!! great experience you must have there!!

6 years 4 months ago

Amazing – all those sushi pics are making me very hungry. Japan is so fascinating, I visited 13 years back – remember being very struck by its blend of the futuristic and the traditional.

6 years 4 months ago

Thank you for sharing, looking forward for more !
25 years ago, when visiting tokyo i also was impressed by the design of the daily items. I remember the fridges in color! pink, blue etc. At that time i started collecting clothes pins, because of the japanese : nice colors and design. And…. the quality is amazing… i am still using them!

Kris Angel
6 years 4 months ago

Great blog, great photo's,