A Family Trip to Japan

Walking through the streets of Japan makes one appreciate how clean it is.
A Family Trip to Japan
The Tea House at beautiful Hama-rikyu Gardens in Tokyo is a relaxing place to visit and enjoy sampling tea and a special pancake or an occasional formal tea ceremony. (Sharon Whitley Larsen)

As I strolled down Chuo-Dori—the main street in Tokyo’s Ginza district—on a rainy Sunday afternoon, it was magical to see pedestrians holding colorful umbrellas reflected in the damp pavement. This ritzy area with high-end designer shops is closed to traffic each weekend afternoon. And what a great outing for my husband, Carl, and me to stretch our legs, see the sights, and recover from jet lag.

We had flown into Tokyo’s Narita International Airport the evening before from San Diego with my brother, Mark; sister-in-law, Betiana; and my niece Kalea, 12. Since there were five of us with luggage, we opted to book a private van to take us for the 90-minute ride into the Ginza area of Tokyo to our hotel. It cost $260 total but was well worth it for the personalized convenience.

I had surprised Kalea several months earlier on her birthday with a 12-day trip to Japan for her and her folks. I'll never forget her excited thank-you yelp—“Arigato!”—when she read my personalized invitation. She had been intrigued by Japanese culture and language (which she was teaching herself) and had been dying to visit.

The Japanese people are so friendly and helpful, and the country is clean with relatively little crime. Some people think of Japan as expensive, but we thought the prices were fair and even visited several free sightseeing areas. And the hotel and restaurant staff and other workers don’t expect tips.

Ginza's magical, sophisticated main street is closed to traffic every weekend afternoon, allowing pedestrians to stroll by the area's designer shops and popular restaurants. (Sharon Whitley Larsen)
Ginza's magical, sophisticated main street is closed to traffic every weekend afternoon, allowing pedestrians to stroll by the area's designer shops and popular restaurants. (Sharon Whitley Larsen)

The bonus for this trip was that my friend since 4th grade, Karen Smith Takizawa, has lived in Japan for 50 years and was thrilled to be our tour guide for five days. Carl and I had visited Japan in 2017 and were anxious to introduce the Japanese lifestyle to Kalea. And, although some signs were in English, it helped having Karen negotiate buying tickets in the subway and train stations and contribute great suggestions for our itinerary.

We all met at our Ginza hotel each morning at 10, setting off with Karen for that day’s adventure. First on Kalea’s wish list was a subway ride to Akihabara, a popular shopping area for youth pop culture, anime, electronics, and fashion. One day, we visited the beautiful Hama-rikyu Gardens. At the Tea House, as is the custom, we removed our shoes and sat down for an inexpensive cup of matcha served in a traditional tea bowl, and sampled dorayaki (a special pancake).

We had lunch another day at the Asakusa Culture Tourist Information Center, with great views from its eighth-floor cafe and free observation deck. Afterward, we checked out the popular, crowded seventh-century Senso-ji Buddhist Temple, Tokyo’s oldest, and the interesting outdoor craft and souvenir shops.

A highlight was visiting Karen and her husband, Kenzo, at their home in Fuchu, a suburb of Tokyo, where we had a delicious homecooked meal on their veranda. Another was a 90-minute train ride to Kamakura to see the 800-year-old Great Buddha and the Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine—other popular tourist draws. We loved the breathtaking city views from the 45th floor of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, also free.

The 800-year-old Great Buddha is a popular tourist draw in Kamakura, Japan. (Sharon Whitley Larsen)
The 800-year-old Great Buddha is a popular tourist draw in Kamakura, Japan. (Sharon Whitley Larsen)

In the Shibuya area, we viewed the famous Akita dog statue of Hachiko, a tribute to his loving devotion. For nearly 10 years, Hachiko waited by the train station for his beloved late owner to arrive. Today, a long line of patient fans wait to pose by Hachiko’s statue for a photo.

Back in the Ginza area, Carl and I took the family to a dramatic Kabuki theater performance one evening. Our last-minute tickets were good for only a 20-minute show, and although it was short, it introduced Kalea to the 500-year-old tradition and the all-male costumed performers.

One surprise was the Ginza Six Rooftop Garden—at the popular world-class high-rise shopping center (271 stores and restaurants). Free to visit, the rooftop garden is a relaxing place to people-watch with tables and chairs, benches, grass, plants, and trees. It is sort of a mini Japanese version of New York’s Central Park, with great views of Ginza’s main street, Chuo-Dori.

We sampled some of Ginza’s cosmopolitan restaurants, including Lion Beer Hall—Japan’s oldest beer hall, opened in 1934 in the Ginza Lion Building—and dined at a charming Spanish restaurant, Spain Gourmeteria y Bodega. Next to our hotel was one of the city’s many Family Marts, where we could use the ATM and stock up on reasonably priced breakfast items, fruit, candy, snacks, and wine.

After a week in the Ginza district, our hotel arranged a private van ($80) to Tokyo Disney. Tickets (conveniently sold by our Sheraton Grande Tokyo Bay Hotel, next to the park) were only $62 for adults and $52 for children.

Kalea and her folks flew home after their 12-day tour, and Carl and I stayed another three days, especially enjoying the sunset view of Mount Fuji from our high-rise room. Then, it was only $20 each to take an hour-long shuttle bus from the hotel back to Narita for our flight home.

When You Go

Go Tokyo: GoTokyo.org Viator (for private van airport pickup): Viator.com The Royal Park Canvas Ginza 8 Hotel: Canvas-Ginza8.jp/en Sheraton Grande Tokyo Bay Hotel: Marriott.com/en-us/hotels/tyosi-sheraton-grande-tokyo-bay-hotel/overview
Sharon Whitley Larsen is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com. Copyright 2024 Creators.com.
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