Japanese Alps, september 2014

Yukka on

He is totally baffled. “To Japan!? With those two!!!?” The taxi driver who brings us to Schiphol airport points to the back seat. Our children stare back with resignation. They don’t see the problem.

We do see the problem though. Feel free to call it irrational, but a week after the MH17 plane crash, there are nicer things to think of than boarding an Aeroflot plane with your family. Ellen has bursts of fear of flying. She even asks if we can rebook to a cottage somewhere close to home, it doesn’t get much crazier than that. Personally, I’m particularly afraid of problems if Vladimir Putin starts interfering with our flight schedule. “We’ll see about that,” I keep telling myself. And I actually have a point there. You don’t know how things will turn out anyway.

And why Japan? For the food, we would say six years ago, when it was just the two of us travelling around in Japan. Right now, that’s less of a motive. Even though we are secretly very proud that our four-year-old is not fussy about oysters, sashimi or fermented shark, the food will be a little less elevated this time. We will find simple noodles on our plates a little more often. The Japanese themselves are definitely a factor. You can’t generalise too much, but I guess you may call the Japanese very pleasantly disturbed and hospitable. Furthermore, apart from natural disasters, Japan is a safe country. That’s a good thing, especially with children.

Seventeen hours will the flight last, including a few hours of leg-stretching at Moscow airport. I have always maintained that flying-with-children is heavily overrated as a problem. Do I still feel that way? Mwah. Teun is asleep in an extremely relaxed way, but suddenly wakes up and has to vomit. And right after that, he happily starts to eat his food. Tessel doesn’t want to sleep at all and tosses her cuddly toy onto the chair next to her every five minutes. Thank God the most friendly travelling companion you could wish for is sitting next to her, a Cuban musician who treats our daughter as if she were his own grandchild. Each time, he picks up Tessel’s cuddly toy without a care, more than that, he visibly seems to enjoy it.


We land in Narita. It’s a place for us to recover for a while, before picking up our rental car the next day and travelling onwards. Our hotel is western, say functional, with a mediocre buffet, but with presents for the children. Opposite the hotel is the Christmas Chapel Hotel, by the looks of it a ‘love hotel’. You go there with your mistress, not your family. It’s Las Vegas Japanese style. Then again, our hotel has a rooftop bath, semi-Japanese-style – you do keep your swimwear on. This is the dress rehearsal for the real Japanese baths, the onsens. Tessel seems to sense this and straight away poops in her swimming nappy. As always, the swimming nappy does what it is supposed to do, we can blindly rely on it, but that does not alter the fact that it is always a challenge to clean up the mess without damaging our sanitary reputation.

In the evening, we have dinner at a restaurant near Narita-san Shinsho-ji, one of the largest temples in the country. The owner looks surprised when we tell him that we are going to drive around in a rental car, in the Japanese Alps no less. The cook even calls us daredevils. “Hm yes, why is that again?” I ask quasi-nonchalantly, because I really don’t know, but to show that would look somewhat unprepared. He says that although the roads are as level as his floor, they are very narrow. Ellen seems unimpressed. I decide to leave it at that. She is driving, and she has researched this extensively. If you’ve been queuing for a full hour for a rollercoaster, you don’t suddenly turn around either, even if they tell you it has three loopings and a free fall. Then you smile politely and solemnly promise yourself to have a better knowledge of what you are getting into next time.

The next day – a day too late – Ellen discovers that we should have picked up the rental car right at the airport. A cosmetic error – but it is now Sunday and the local car rental office is closed. Slight panic. A quick breakfast, then a bus back to the airport. Before we know it, everything is sorted. Customers are king in Japan. The navigation is set up for us, and we are given a few A4 sheets with instructions in English – not just for the navigation, but also to read how to fill the car up with what fuel, and how to negotiate a toll road without complications.


And there we are, driving around in the Japanese countryside. With “those two” on the back seat, which means we are going to keep our daily travel distances within reasonable limits. Where without children we sometimes went crazy and crossed half a continent in one day, the one hundred and eighty kilometres from Narita to Nikko is already quite ambitious for one day. Soon we bombard Seven-Eleven as our court supplier of takeaway sushi, iced coffee and free Wi-Fi. These ‘conbini’ are everywhere and the range is very consistent. These kinds of routines are nice in a country where the language and culture gap means you regularly feel like you have to reinvent your entire daily life.

Driving is not too bad here. The Japanese drive like elderly people. Speed limits are very low: eighty kilometres per hour on the motorway, fifty outside it and forty in built-up areas. Japanese do have a habit of throwing their car abruptly onto the road though, that is slightly worrying. And it takes some getting used to the fact that you always have to come to a full stop at a railway crossing. The first time, Ellen hits the brakes a little too late, bringing us to a halt right in the middle of the railway tracks. Fortunately, no shinkansen is approaching. And yes, people drive on the left here. Thank God! As a matter of fact, so do we.

In the course of the afternoon, we find our hostel. It is nestled between a mountain road and a fast-flowing river, about half an hour’s drive from Nikko. We are a little too early; the room has not yet been prepared. We consider having a look around Nikko in the meantime. Scout – the manager, and by the sound of it an American – looks doubtful. “Technically speaking, you are already are in Nikko.”
We were referring, of course, to the world-famous temple complex near the city centre of Nikko.
Scout looks at his watch. “That closes at four o’clock.”
“Ah, no problem though. Then we’ll go for a swim now and go to Nikko tomorrow.”
“This IS Nikko. Get used to it.”

And sure enough, we get used to Nikko. And we get used to Scout, for that matter. He permanently looks like he has just woken up, but secretly he has quite a soft spot for his guests. Every morning he whips up something surprisingly tasty for breakfast, and during the day he drives his carless guests around in his van. It looks like we are experiencing a temporary throwback to the backpacker circuit. Here we are, with two small children among the woozy backpacker stereotypes and the ever-present nosy and All-Knowing German.

Our room is an old train carriage. In the bushes between the carriages there is a Wi-Fi router, kept dry by an overturned bucket. Just outside the door is a sink. We shower in an indoor bathing area about the size of our whole house, with an onsen bath built out of rocks that must once have been very beautiful. There is a male and a female room; once you go in and close the door, it becomes a family bathroom. There are only a few guests in the hostel so this works quite well. Tessel loves it. Whenever we suggest taking a shower, she spontaneously starts dancing. “Yes…shower! Shower!!!” One time the four of us go swimming in the fast-flowing and very cold river. Teun loves it, but it’s a little bit too intense for Tessel.

Going out for dinner is a lot of fun here. Twice we dine in a “family restaurant”. Imagine a small pub with a couple of low and high tables. On the wall is a menu, in Japanese only, of course. We can only read the prices, and they are so reasonable that we dare to be uncertain. With a little help, we manage to order buckwheat noodles, tempura and beer, and soya beans as an appetiser. It’s simple food, but it strikes a chord, especially with Teun. Fiddling with cold noodles in a dipping sauce is right up his alley. The best part is the heartwarming hospitality. Both evenings, the hostess brings out a small gift for Teun and Tessel, a car or a sticker sheet. Even other guests, a couple sitting next to us for dinner and with whom we have a chat, give our kids a present before they leave, a fleece cuddly toy. The owner takes a picture of us – which he prints out and hands to us a little later. And I haven’t mentioned the singing and dancing doll the cook puts on the table as soon as the food is finished. When we get into the car, we are waved off by the whole family. We almost feel guilty for not having anything to hand out ourselves. It is not a bad idea at all to put some nice trinkets in your suitcase before you go to Japan. Especially with children, you’re an eager to spoil guest, and it’s nice when you can give something in return.

Dinner is not always such a smooth and joyful affair, by the way. At another eatery, the interaction is limited to taking and serving the order. Apart from those moments, the hosts retreat to the hermetically sealed kitchen. We are the only guests, and we sit in an eery silence. That’s how it is sometimes here. The underlying thinking, no doubt, is that a customer should be able to enjoy their food undisturbed, which is not compatible with waitresses who come by every 30 seconds to ask if everything is still to your liking. But it’s all very uncomfortable. Our kids seem to feel the tension, and are unusually silent. The dinner ends in style as we receive our bill and it’s seems to be way to low. We twice ask if they didn’t forget to add something – which the owner vehemently denies, backed up by calculations I don’t understand. Confused, we walk back to the car. There was extensive bowing and smiling but somewhere in your head gnaws the feeling that you have just broken something irreparably.

Our children happily go along to all the temples in Nikko. As always, Tessel is totally zen in her back carrier. Teun is spontaneously lifted up by a Japanese gentleman to stroke the head of a Buddha statue. In the afternoon, we stroll through the Kanman Abyss, on a footpath along a fast-flowing river. On the dry side of the path is a photogenic row of stone statues covered in red fabric. They are statues of the patron saint of travellers and children. What more could we want. In the afternoon, it is Teun who marks the end of this trip by suddenly shouting that he has to poop, and that it is already too late, only to find on arriving at the toilet that it was a false alarm. But visiting a Japanese public toilet is never a waste of your time. You can easily spend half an hour there with your family without getting bored. Even if you don’t have to go to the toilet.

Japanese Alps

We take a day trip to Chuzenzi Lake, a lake created 20,000 years ago by an eruption of nearby Mount Nantai. From Nikko, a one-way road winds up towards the lake. Japanese take this as an invitation to race, well, drive a little faster than usual. We take the cable car up, to a plateau overlooking Kegon Waterfall, which we then also go to see up close. I can no longer visit a waterfall without wanting to estimate how high it is. A case of professional deformation; estimate fall time and then calculate five times squared. I end up with 125 metres, in reality it is 97 metres. That’s close enough, given the primitive method. Japanese youths seem to be using this waterfall for suicide in droves, which is less cheerful news.

A grand tour of the Japanese Alps, that’s basically our itinerary. In winter, you can ski in this area to the west of Tokyo, just think of the 1998 Nagano Games. Now, of course, it is summer, and the ski slopes in Minakami Kogen look green and fertile. We sleep in a minshuku, a guesthouse. It is our first night of Japanese-style accommodation: tatami mats on the floor, futons to sleep on, and an indoor and outdoor dining area. A couple, a brother and sister, run the place. In the morning and evening, they fill the entire dining table – completely symmetrical, of course – with delicious dishes. How about skewers with pieces of squid and cucumber? “Ice cream!” says Tessel, and she keeps this up, even after licking it for 15 minutes. At breakfast, Teun puts a slice of fried salmon in his mouth as if it were a piece of cake. By contrast, he is very finicky on the little green bits in his food, such as seaweed or spring onion. So I am holding off on the nomination for “first four-year-old omnivore”. It’s a bit complicated sometimes, eating with the kids in Japan.

A cable car takes us up Tanigawadake Mountain. At the top, we hike through lush greenery. In the distance, we see snow on the mountains. It surprises us. Down in the valley it’s tropical, up here it’s probably still well above 20 degrees Celsius, and the snow doesn’t seem to be that much higher. We would have liked to go even higher, but there is only a chairlift without any safety device. That strikes us as somewhat un-Japanese, and not suitable for small children.

Yudanaka – snow monkeys

On Saturday, we relocate to Yudanaka. On the way, we make a stop at Kusatsu Onsen. It is a lively, fairly touristy village. And all because it has hot water coming out of the ground. The central square is steaming with it. If you’re tired of strolling around, you can relax in the foot oasis. On the way to Yudanaka, we visit the Snow Monkeys, the famous baboons who spend their days in and around a warm natural pool. The set-up is a bit dubious. In winter, the monkeys come to the onsen by themselves, but in summer, food is needed to lure them there. Anyway, Ellen hates monkeys with a vengeance. But she also wants them in front of the lens; a diabolical dilemma. Tessel automatically adopts her mother’s fear and fascination. For half an hour, we observe how the little monkeys constantly bicker with each other while the larger ones fight for their position on the proverbial monkey rock. The atmosphere is a bit tense and it doesn’t feel very comfortable. We quickly seek the safety of our car again.

In the evening, we have a picnic in our room, on the floor, with trays of noodles and sushi from the Seven-Eleven. After dinner, the futons come out. That means bedtime, but not in the eyes of our children. They see it as the kick-off to some very rough playtime. A ryokan as oasis of calm? It is a small miracle that we do not leave any Teun- or Tessel-shaped holes in the rice-paper walls. Even in the – otherwise beautiful – onsen, our little ones go wild. Fortunately, here too we are allowed to use the men’s or women’s section as a private bath. And thank goodness no one is in the other half of the onsen, as the partition keeps out unwanted glances but not noise. All in all, the socio-cultural damage remains limited.

Obuse and Hakuba

On the way to Hakuba, we make a stopover in Obuse, known as the place where painter Katsushika Hokusai used to live. Even if you have never heard of him, you will most likely have seen his most famous work, a woodcut called the Great Gulf of Kanagawa. At the foot of the mountains just outside Obuse is the Ganshoin temple, where you can see a ceiling painting by Hokusai. A friendly monk asks us to sit on a bench opposite him. He grabs a plasticised A4 sheet and starts reading aloud, in English, about the history of the temple and the ceiling painting. He is so concentrated that he doesn’t realise that Tessel is constantly talking through his words. After a tour of the beautiful temple garden, we visit the Hokusai museum in Obuse.

In Hakuba, in the ryokan an exuberant display of Japanese hospitality awaits us. Within five minutes, we are having iced tea, are given biscuits, fruit, sweets, and the children are given fireworks – to be lit if they behave well. The hostess immediately starts looking for suitable yukatas for “Tess and Tuna” so the four of us can dress in style (yukatas for adults are already standard equipment in a ryokan). To our surprise, the children want to put them on and even keep them on. The result is an endearing photo session. And Tessel has a new phrase to add: “Yukka on! Yukka on!”

There is a lot of beautiful things to see in the area. We take a cable car up into the mountains, in two long stages, to go on a hike at the summit. Quite a few Japanese people are joining us up there, wearing expensive outdoor clothing, including hiking poles and rain covers for their feet. These guys are going to do serious stuff – or is it a bluff? According to Ellen, Japanese have a knack of hiking over-equipped. For the hike we are on, advanced equipment is completely unnecessary. Much of the walk is on wooden boardwalks. That does not alter the fact that it is very beautiful. It is extremely green with lots of wildflowers. Here and there we see elderly walkers kneeling thoughtfully around a plant, botanical map in hand. From her comfortable position on my back, Tessel is doing a charm offensive. With conviction, she sings her favourite songs and shouts “konnichiwa!!!” to all oncoming hikers. She also calls them “kawai!!!” – the Japanese word for cute.

Completely different but also fun: the Energy Museum in Omachi. The trigger is a nearby hydropower plant, but no excuse is needed at all for physics experiments, challenging puzzles and a cool roller coaster simulator. With a heavy heart, I have to decline the invitation to take a look at the brand new planetarium. After Tessel’s afternoon nap, we visit a playground, located next to a campsite, among the rice fields. Teun gets to ride around on a mini-shinkansen for a while. A dead-serious Japanese gentleman is driving the locomotive. And Teun gets on the trampoline, one of them with bungee-jump rubber bands. Perhaps the most Japanese attraction in this playground is catching fish – bare-handed – in an ice-cold stream lined with chicken wire. The catch goes straight onto the barbecue.

Life is very good at ryokan Hakuba Ski-Kan. The cooking is fantastic. Even when host Takako asks if she can make a western breakfast for once, she manages to surprise us. Soon there is a picture of Tessel on her facebook page – with her face full of sticky rice. The only downside we can think of to this accommodation is the lack of curtains in the room. The first morning we are woken up at five o´clock by the singing from inside Tessel’s sleeping tent. For the next few nights, we attach a makeshift curtain to the rice paper so that even Tessel understands that she has to sleep.

During the traditional rough playtime before bedtime, Tessel bumps her head into Teun, resulting in a nosebleed. Sheer panic! A toddler with a nosebleed is one thing, but you especially don’t want to leave any stains on the precious tatami! In the end, there are only a few small stains on Tessel’s yukata and mine. Teun also makes a mess. He has become a fan of the sanitary water jet. Essential when using that jet, is that you put your bottom exactly above it, otherwise it becomes a watery mess. And you catch the drift, that’s proving to be a challenge for Teun. We begin to seriously doubt whether we can meet the high standards of Japan. And right at that moment of despair, the owner asks if we might have left some pants in the onsen – dirty pants that may be! They eventually turn out to belong to her own husband. So you see, Japanese are just like people. We are enormously relieved. After three days we leave Hakuba, but only after I have had a calligraphy lesson, Teun has had his picture taken as a Samurai, and there are lots of mementos in our suitcase. Should you ever go to Hakuba this should be your spot.

Noto hanto

Secretly, it’s a long drive to Noto Hanto, a peninsula on the west coast. The atmosphere in the back seat is fairly okay. Tessel talks a lot about “drawing!” but somehow never really gets around to it. And Teun defends his resources like a modern shogun: “You’re going to share these, and I get to share these.” Despite some minor hiccups, the driving never gets boring, especially when you hit a “musical road”. That is a stretch of road surface that is ribbed in such a way that your tyres start singing a song.

In Nanao on Noto Hanto, we also meet a hostess with a capital H. She is so lovely. Although we booked a one-room apartment, we are allowed to use the entire floor. This is an offer we cannot refuse, despite the fact that we usually sleep pretty well with the four of us in one room. While her husband is glued to the TV, she brings out trays of lego and dinosaurs for Teun and serves us fruit from her own garden and cola and ice creams. She tells us several times that she is going to make “colored rice” and offers to let us taste it. This eventually turns into her cooking an entire meal for us without asking for anything in return. “Coloured rice” then turns out to be “curry rice”. She already looked so surprised that we had never heard of it.

Using hands-and-feet English, we talk at length about the Netherlands, stroopwafels, Japanese holidays and origami. For years, my interest in paper-folding art hovered on the level of knitting, flower arranging and line dancing. Unjustly, it now turns out. It is almost shocking to see what top origami artists are capable of with a single sheet of paper. And then, if you put a mathematical spin on it, it’s absolutely beautiful. I note as an action point for myself to buy an origami instruction book and for you to watch Robert Lang’s TED talk on ted.com.

In the flow of such a nice chat, we sometimes forget to keep our slippers on our feet, which means we are standing barefoot on the terrace. In doing so, we cause great hilarity combined with a hint of contained disgust. Despite these minor missteps – or maybe because of them, you don’t know – our hostess says upon our departure that it feels like her own son and daughter are leaving.

What else do we do in Noto Hanto? We walk among the seaside rice terraces in Sogoti. At first glance, they are a bit disappointing in terms of size. We drove past them without noticing them. Nevertheless, it is a particularly beautiful sight. Furthermore, we visit the Kiriko Lantern museum in Wajima. We promised our children we would go “lantern watching”, but that diminutive word is somewhat out of place. We are talking about amazing structures up to 30 metres high being carried around in religious parades. Unfortunately, we are not in the right season to witness one of these processions live, but judging from the videos, it is a wild affair, with boisterous hordes of half-naked young men.

In the evening, we watch the fireworks. From the water’s edge, we see it being set off in the town across the bay. During the fireworks show, there are also thunderstorms. How spectacular! The show ends somewhat unsatisfactorily, without a grande finale, after which we get into the car. Only to find that they were not even halfway through. We were too inpatient.

The weather has turned from outright sunny to rainy in the last few days, although for now it seems an exaggeration to speak of the “torrential rain” that was predicted. Anyway, the cause is a typhoon that is approaching southern Japan, the flanks of which we are in danger of picking up. Not dangerous for us, just unfortunate.

Before leaving the peninsula, we visit Notojima Aquarium. Japanese are very good at aquariums, we know that from experience, and they don’t disappoint us here either. As soon as we walk in, we see a huge basin in which, among other things, two whale sharks swim around. From above, you can even touch them. Equally interactive are the nibbling fish – not their scientific name. The challenge here is to stick your hand into a tub of water, and then avoid falling into uncontrollable fits of laughter, acute incontinence and other forms of loss of control as soon as these little fish start nibbling at your hand. Teun thinks it’s really all cool, but he’s also in a huge hurry. At the end, the penny drops. Ellen promised him a stuffed animal from the shop. And Teun wants to cash in on that promise.


Ainokura is one of three mountain villages in this region recognised as Unesco World Heritage Sites.
We spend the night in a gassho-zukuri farmhouse, a traditional farmhouse with a striking thatched roof. In the middle of the living room is a fire pit, just between the tatami mats. Surprisingly, it is still in use, to prepare our dinner. Starting in the late afternoon, we watch fish being roasted on sticks. Everything here breathes tradition, but at the same time, we undergo the height of toilet automation here. A toilet seat with a control panel is nothing special in Japan, but over here the lid rises automatically as soon as you open the door. I even get the impression that the seat is pre-heated. All this instils such confidence in me that I finally dare to try out the rearward water jet. Well, my verdict: it would be very efficient if it would be a bit more effective. My advice: don’t abolish toilet paper just yet. Bear in mind that this is rather personal; our son, for instance, is very happy using it. Anyway, I suspect he has self-cleaning buttocks.

All this sophistication does not take away the fact that we sleep with other guests in a noisy old house with ultra-thin walls. That works out surprisingly well; our children don’t wake anyone up. Dinner is a little bit more difficult. Both dinner and breakfast are served around the fire pit. All the guests sit in a circle on the floor. During dinner, I quickly flee with Tessel to our bedroom, to avoid embarrassing scenes. Or at least hide it from view, because eventually my daughter still steps with her full weight on my carefully composed meal. By the way, it is no longer rainy – it is raining cats and dogs now, and full stop. A stroll through the village is the highest level of outdoor activity for us in Ainokura. The weather forecast for the next day: 500 mm of rainfall. Please feel sorry for us. But especially for those poor Japanse people, as this week is Obon holiday, one of the only weeks in the year they have free time.


We need to get to Norikura. After half an hour of extremely narrow roads full of hairpin bends, we encounter a stream of water right across the road. After some hesitation, we drive through it. Not much later we see (to us) unreadable warning signs, and a gentleman doing something with a fence across the road. He opens the gate, or just closes it, it doesn’t really even matter – we decide it is better to turn around and find an alternative route. When in doubt, don´t drive on.

The rest of the day we drive on one of the most beautiful roads of the holiday, unfortunately largely obscured by rain and clouds. We pass tunnel after tunnel, including one as long as 14 kilometres. What strikes me is that Japanese often mention the radius of curvature at bends. Nice and quantitative, not the vague stuff about sharp and faint bends. By the way, Obon’s influence is noticeable, it is busy on the road. To our surprise, we also see the occasional cyclist. The combination of rain, tunnels and traffic makes this look uncomfortable, not to say suicidal. We make a lunch stop in Furakawa, and visit Hida Furakawa Matsuri Kaikan, a museum focused on local festival culture. A folklore museum, but Japanese-style, with a delightfully geeky sauce on top. There is a 3D film, a demonstration of a fully automatic puppet show, and of course a table with tough wooden puzzles.

Tessel is scared of a lot of things these days.
“‘Wanna walk away’ she says, which is Tesselian for ‘I want to leave here NOW and you will come with me’. In this museum, too, she sees a lot of scary things. The lady who proudly shows us around doesn’t back down. “Maybe she will like this.” (A pair of 3D glasses.)
“Wanna walk away…”
“Or this!” (A traditional costume party.)
“Wanna walk away”
“This then, perhaps?” (A moving doll.)
“Wanna walk away,daddy!!!!”
Our guide persists, it is quite moving to see.
At the end of the visit, it’s still raining. And we are not done yet, the children receive bags of food for the carp in the pond. We buy an umbrella, the four of us stand under it, and patiently feed the huge amount of hungry carp. The museum quickly gifts us with an extra umbrella. That’s how they are, those Japanese.

Norikura looks like an English town; we see all kinds of establishments with names like Maple Syrup and Milkpot. We step into some kind of Irish pub; it’s ten o’clock in the morning. We are the only guests and “the coffee is ready”, but the Japanese owner looks like a herd of elephants is stepping into his china shop. He snatches a sugar bag from Teun’s hands and hisses at Tessel when she disrupts the delicate ordering process. As we sit down to cappuccino and pastries, he polishes his tap and glasses rather obsessively. Meanwhile, he keeps a close eye on us. He is visibly relieved when we ask for the bill. “Nice place,” I say before we leave. Bit of provocation. As we walk away, we remark that fortunately, most Japanese are not like him.

We sleep in a huge hotel, among the holiday-seeking Japanese. At the entrance there is a stuffed bear. And there are lots of slippers, as always arranged in perfectly straight rows. There are also two pairs of children’s slippers. One pink and one blue pair, which can hardly be a coincidence. For Tessel, we usually manage to negotiate exemptions but Teun is slipper bound. He puts on a pink and a blue slipper. At home, he sometimes wears different shoes too. I suspect it is his way of upsetting the system, a trait he then inherits from his mother. You can just feel the stress in the hotel, now that one blue and one pink slipper are left at the entrance.

We ourselves are also distressed. We forgot to withdraw cash, and we have nearly run out of money. You can only withdraw money in post offices, and the nearest post office is far away, and closed, because it is Obon. With our last yen, we dine on pizzas at a truckers’ cafe. It’s surprisingly tasty. But a mere hour later, I have to part with my pizza, due to an uncontrollable migraine attack. Always look on the bright side of life! That whole thing about toilet slippers is now paying off. You can kneel on the floor in front of the toilet here with complete comfort – you could even eat off the floor – without getting sick. That is, if you are not sick already, of course.

We consider shortening our stay in Norikura by a day due to lack of money. After careful consideration, we decide to stay after all. While the food here is mediocre, the futons are above average. And that’s quite important because Ellen is suffering quite a lot from futon hips, even though she uses two futons on top of each other as standard. The hotel also has a nice onsen. Not a family affair this time, but a public bath, one for males and one for females. We make frequent use of it. Tessel is doing fine in the onsen, although it remains a form of Russian roulette to go into a public bathhouse with a child that is not potty trained yet. Yoy can’t use swimming nappies in an onsen. By the way, there are many families with small children in this hotel. It’s very educational for us. This way, we discover that even Japanese children scream, make a mess and cry. In the dining hall, our children are not that much worse in disciplinary terms than Asian children.

At the end of our stay in Norikura, the sky clears up a little, the sun even starts to come out. We go to a wasabi farm. It is clearly a popular Obon outing. The place is packed, but in a fun way. The wasabi plants grow in an elaborate irrigation system and are protected from the bright sun. While we know wasabi mainly from the green lump next to sushi and from wasabi nuts, here they also sell wasabi ice cream, wasabi biscuits, wasabi burgers, wasabi soft drinks and wasabi beer – unfortunately only on tap, and it’s still too early to drink.

At the wasabi farm, we notice again that Japanese have a fetish for reverse parking. They often go to enormous lengths to park the car in reverse. On the internet, an explanation is circulating for this behaviour, based on the people’s nature. Japanese think ahead, are always thinking about the long term, and thus invest in a smooth exit as soon as they park. Americans, on the other hand, are opportunistic; they park their cars forward, to get business done quickly. We as Europeans are a bit in between, alternating between forward and reverse parking. Strangely, the Japanese seem to make an exception in Seven-Eleven’s parking spaces. Perhaps this is because it is an American company. If so, this will be the exception that confirms the theory.


Matsumoto is the only town of reasonable size on our holiday route. In a traffic jam, we drive into the built-up area. Suddenly a problem arises: Teun needs to pee. He very badly needs to pee. And we have nowhere to stop in this traffic jam. Peeing out of the window is not an option, for socio-hygienic reasons. We only see one way out: he has to pee in an empty café-latte cup. The idea is put into practice, though it takes a hefty dose of parental persuasion to do so.

Matsumoto is best known for two things: the castle, and Suzuki, not the cars but the violin method for little kids. For us, Matsumoto is also where Tessel is reunited with Hammie, her favorite cuddle. We accidentally left Hammie behind in Hakuba. On the piano, we can still see him sitting there. “Hammie gone. Find Hammie!” Tessel cried every day since it happened. To make a long story short: Takako from Hakuba Ski Kan offered to send Hammie by mail to Matsumoto. So here we are, collecting Hammie, mummified in plastic wrap, with another present attached. Customer is king? Say emperor!

We take an evening stroll through the city. It looks very atmospheric, with lanterns hanging along the canal. The castle is downright spectacular at dusk. The huge carp in the moat complete the picture. The next day we return to see the inside of the castle. The cashier nervously explains that it takes about eighty minutes. Absolutely perfect, we think. We buy tickets. As we walk through the castle gate, we see that eighty minutes actually is the waiting time to enter the castle! Hundreds, if not thousands of people stand or sit in line in front of the castle door. My god, that is way too long, our little ones won’t survive that.

As we saunter around the castle, a man and a woman approach us. They are wearing uniforms and badges. Ellen expects a reprimand; after all, we are walking outside of the waiting line. They ask us though if we want our picture taken with a Samurai knight, for a tourist brochure. Tessel is scared to death when she sees the knight. “Wanna walk away daddy, wanna walk away!” The Samurai himself also becomes quite flustered. He realizes he will be photographed with a Western Giantess and her son. He starts giggling, and the photo session doesn’t go to plan.

We use Matsumoto to buy some souvenirs and presents. Teun and I end up in Japanese nerd heaven, a floor of a large department store completely filled with model trains and planes, robots, kites, a huge one-million-yen aircraft carrier, and – because sometimes even technology gets boring – three-dimensional manga girls.

Lake Kawaguchiko

Our last destination is Lake Kawaguchiko in the Fuji Five Lakes region, at the foot of the famous volcano.
Mount Fuji, as usual, is covered in clouds and completely invisible. We have to wait to check in, and kill an hour at the World Teddy Bear Museum. It costs eighteen euros for the four of us to see a few rooms filled with teddy bears. Quite a rip-off. On the other hand, if this is the only data point for the claim that Japan is an expensive country, then we can dismiss that hypothesis. The next day is Obon. At six in the morning, we wake up to fireworks. And to a ray of sun that shines through the curtains. What, sunshine? Where are we? Fuji? Fuji! We throw the kids in the car, we’ll have breakfast later. Bam! There’s she is, mount Fuji in all her glory, with a few subtle lens clouds as her crown. Happy faces, even among the Japanese jogging along the lake at this early hour. Obon, sun, Fuji, can it be any better? We take a scenic drive along the other lakes, up to the small Lake Shojiki. It’s all so very beautiful.

Driving along the highway here, you can already see the huge rollercoasters of Fuji-Q Highland. It is a spectacular sight. The nice thing is that you can enter this amusement park for a modest fee if you pay per attraction. This is very convenient, as our children are still too young for all those big rides. Furthermore, we see at the entrance that the waiting times for these attractions reach three to four hours. We have probably picked the busiest day of the year. Nevertheless, the place is great fun. Teun and Tessel have a good time in Thomasland, a part of the park dedicated to Thomas the Train. And when it gets too hot, we cool down in the wild water rapids.

In the afternoon, we calm our senses down in a flower nursery. It has a fun playground with a water circuit where children learn about locks and pumps. The four of us ride around on a family cargo bike. The thing is not built for our Western legs. Ellen and I alternate as drivers to save our legs. Teun pedals along, in a different gear, so he is actually the one moving the four of us forward. He has earned himself an ice cream after that.


To avoid toll roads, until now we have mostly opted for the “economy” option on our navigation system.
Today, however, we are happy pay for the toll roads. We will take the motorway back to Narita, straight through Tokyo. Self-driving in Tokyo city traffic is usually strongly discouraged. The toll road, on the other hand, is perfectly doable. And this way we still get to experience a bit of the world’s largest metropolis. By now, Ellen is so comfortable in Japanese traffic that at one point she grabs the DSLR camera out of my hands to snap a few pictures. I am not arguing that she photographs and drives a car better than me, but that this would also apply simultaneously is news to me. For that matter, she has also tried to adjust the navigation while driving, but that is not allowed in Japan, those devices are protected against that.

The service stations along the toll road are great. On the one hand, there are plenty of places to have good food and drinks, such as little restaurants, Starbucks and vending machines for hot food. On the other hand, there is often a toilet block that is so extensive that it is deemed necessary to hang a layout map at the entrance. There are toilets for men, for women, for the disabled, for children, for men or women with children, for men or women with babies, for men or women with dogs, and I’m sure I’m forgetting a few target groups right now.

And so we cruise towards Narita. How appropriate it is to end a Japan travel blog with toilets. After a tiring flight – only after Moscow do we get some sleep – it is a real challenge to preserve our holiday memories. The next day, we also have to go back to work cold turkey. Sure, we have the photos and this blog, but the best thing is that we always buy a useful household item from the country we visit – because normal souvenirs tend to disappear in drawers. We now have rubber slippers marked with the word “toilet” in our rest room.