Hello, Hello Kitty! – 18 days in Japan with a toddler

Japan was long on my list but somehow we never got the chance till this May to jump on a flight to Tokyo. As we traveled with our 18-month year old baby, this trip required a bit more preparation in terms of advance booking of accommodation and itinerary setting. I do plenty of research before almost every trip (to make sure I do get my pick of the nice hotels at affordable prices and book ahead any sights to avoid long queues) but for the trips with the baby, it moves to the next level – control freak level that is!

This trip will be split into at least two different posts as the information is very fresh in my mind and I will probably dwell on the details more than usual. Also, if you plan to take this trip with a toddler (like us), I guess the more info the better. Please note however, we did not choose the itinerary or accommodation to suit the baby but rather tried to ease the baby into our travel pace. Therefore, no all inclusive, baby clubs or  private transfer for us.


Some information I wised I had before leaving:

  1. Your hotel in Tokyo and Kyoto might have trouble finding a baby cot/bed for your toddler. Some do offer baby cots for under 12 months old babies but do not recommend it for toddlers. Most Ryokans (traditional Japanese inns) will not have one available. We traveled with a Phil&Teds Travel Bed and I am very glad we did. We could set it up in no time and it took little space (you will appreciate this particularly in Tokyo). You can check it in as hand luggage as it is very compact. We put in a backpack as we already had three pieces of hand luggage.
  2. You will find baby food in Japan (in big cities and drug stores rather than super markets) but in our experience the tastes are not so easy to get used to. Except or some simple veggie/fruit purees, our son was not too keen on the food and ended up eating a lot of rice and bread. Unless you are in a flat and can cook your own food, get some baby jars to last you for about 5-6 days. We had 6 jars with us and once finished, we wished we had more. Fruits you will find easier than veggies.
  3. Check your bullet train Pass not only for name but also that the duration is correct- If you plan to travel in Japan a bit, you will buy a Rail Pass Voucher for high speed trains. It can only be bought outside Japan from authorized travel agents. Upon buying ours (children up to 6 years travel free), I checked that the names were spelled like in the passport but did not notice the duration. Upon arrival in Japan, when going to the train station to exchange the voucher for the actual train pass, I noticed the duration was 7 days instead of 14. It took more than an hour and several phone calls to solve this in Japan.

The itinerary we decided for alternates between city and some place located in nature. We flew into Narita, spent 4 nights in Tokyo, took the train to Takayama in the Japanese Alps and spent two nights. We then took the train to Kyoto and pent 5 nights. From Kyoto we went for an Onsen (Japanese hot baths) experience at Kinosaki-onsen (3 nights). We then returned to Tokyo for another 4 nights and flew out. Looking back, the only change I would make is to limit the stay in Kinosaki-onsen to 2 nights and add one to Tokyo. 


Once you arrive at Narita, transfers are pretty straight forward. We took a Limo Bus (there are several terminals with busses covering each Tokyo neighborhood) that dropped us in front of the hotel.

Tokyo is huge and confusing even for the most seasoned traveler as it is built on vertical as much as on horizontal. We used to joke with Mr CTT that is the size of Berlin, New York and Paris put on top of each other. A map will do little to help, especially in the beginning. For example, even if something is located on the other side of the street, you might still spend 10-15 min to reach that point via a sky walk.

We spent our first 4 days in Ginza – the business center of Tokyo. We choose this location for the vicinity with the Fish Market which is a must visit and must eat (fresh fish makes for amazing sushis), especially as it is set to move outside the city in preparation for the 2020 Olympics. We stayed at the Keio Plaza (Shiodome station) that has great Ginza views from the bar.


Ginza is well connected to the Central Station and from there you can reach almost every part of the city. We spend the first 2 days in Tokyo recovering from jet lag, visiting the Fish Market and the Hamarikyu Gardens (located close to each other) and the Tokyo Tower.


The third day we ventured out into Asakusa neighborhood to visit the Tokyo Edo Musem. If you do one museum in Tokyo, let it be this one. Fun for all ages, it really puts things in perspective as regards the rich cultural heritage of Tokyo and Japan. From there, it is still a 30 min stroll to Senso-Ji, the largest and most photogenic temple in Tokyo. The main road leading up to the temple is full with good value souvenir shops. On a Sunday, you will most likely stumble upon a local festival or gathering involving music, people in costumes and plenty of action! Asakusa is the neighborhood that best embodies the traditional Japan. From the same neighborhood, you can walk to the Tokyo Sky Tree and the Asahi Brewery Headquarters. If the temperatures are high, rest and enjoy a local tap beer at the ground floor of the Asahi modern building. There is German-inspired Brauhaus hidden behind the golden glass even if this is not obvious from the street.



The next stop in our trip was Takayama, in the Japanese Alps. To reach it, we took a shinkansen (bullet train) to Nagoya and then changed trains for a local train to Takayama. Travel time of about 3h in total. In Nagoya, we picked up a Bento box with local pork cutlets for lunch that proved more tasty that the look from the box. All train stations (even local ones) have a latin alphabet translation of their name. This came in handy for local trains to more remote locations as the indications of the conductor were only given in Japanese.

Takayama has a beautifully preserved city center and is well known for its sake breweries and tasty Hida beef ( same breed as Kobe but not from the Kobe region). The tourist info point is located in front of the train station as they have maps in English. We easily found the way to our Ryokan.

The next day, we headed for the morning market, on the river banks. If you are after traditional pickled food veggies or other souvenirs, this is a great place to shop. We then headed to the old city center and went for a sake tasting.  I was not a sake fan before but once I gave it a chance (actually about 12 chances, as there were as many varieties of sake produced by the brewery)  it started to grow on me.



After criss-crossing the city center a couple of times, we stopped for a short performance of  Karakuri wooden puppet theater. Here you can see the mechanical karakuri ningyō in action. The toddler was not too impressed but plenty of local children were very excited about what was going on on the stage.  On the same premises there is small museum of traditional lion masks. We finished the sightseeing day with a trip to the temples on the hills above the city.


A great memory from Takayma, beyond of the great historical center, was our Ryokan: Asunaro. They were so welcoming and going the extra mile to make sure we have everything  we need in the room for the baby (including a diaper bin). The kaiseki dinner prepared by them was delicious. They kept brining out all this great fish and beef… tasty and beautifully presented. It looked like a work of art!

To be continued …..

Happy travels,

Let’s go on a trip, ladies ! – Bangkok and Khao Lak

Thailand is by now a well-established destination for winter sun seekers. Not close enough for a short break but rather well connected to Europe in terms of flights so you do not need to take several connections and loose time in airports,  which maximises your time on the ground.

I was not particularly attracted to the idea of Thailand. To me, it conjures images of tourist hoards and temples queues. I could not imagine that there are still places where you could fell some connection to the country, its natural beauty and traditions and get to know the people. But then the opportunity of a reasonably priced direct flight from Paris CDG presented itself. My partner (Mr. CTT) had limited vacation days left as we were in end Oct – November 2016, close to year end. So I decided to ask some friends to join me and do a first post-pregnancy holiday sans-family. After this trip, I decided to do one ladies every year! Surely, Mr. CTT benefits of the same prerogative (except for taking ladies along…:).

Therefore, after a medium to long-haul flight – depending on your travel habits –   of 12h we were in Bangkok. The temperature was a warm and humid 26 -28 degrees. This being end of October, the rainy season was still lingering in the central and South Thailand. For the next 10-days we continued to have 2-3 h rain each afternoon. Contrary to European rain, the tropical rain was not so easy to negotiate when we were out and about. In other words, if it starts raining, you better take cover and wait. There is not rain jacket or umbrella that can resist the downpour for more than 1-2 min. One particular afternoon in Bangkok, the rain was so heavy and came about in a matter of minutes that we had no other choice than to hail a cab and ask for a ride to the hotel.


The accommodation in Bangkok was great treat (Ariyasomvilla), combining the local architecture with the traditional Thai hospitality. As we arrived from the airport, we were offered access to shower, fresh towels and pool to cool off as it was still morning and the room was not yet ready. Fuelled by the adrenaline of this exotic place, we took a shower and had a coffee and then dove right into the local sightseeing trail. The location of the hotel is a bit remote from the main/central area but there is access to a light rail system that is very convenient. The neighbourhood is modern looking, with a mix of shopping malls, hip bars and food stalls lining both sides of Sukhumvit road (Thailand’s longest road).  While the main road itself doesn’t offer a lot in terms of entertainment, in the adjoining ‘sois’ (alleys) you will find plenty of restaurants markets and bars. The hotel itself is at the end of Soi 1 – the first alley on the left hand side off the main road.


A capital with in excess of 8 Mio people, Bangkok can be pretty intimidating at times.  A good map is key to finding your way, especially in Chinatown or other back alley areas. Sidewalks are a luxury. Not always present and mostly crowded with stalls and different means of transport. You will end up walking on the street at times.

What added some element of chaos to our experience of the capital was also the death of the former Thai King that was ensued by a period of national mourning. Locals were pouring into the streets and queuing at the Grand Palace to pay their respects. The Grand Palace was closed for tourists at this time.

How we spent our 3 days in Bangkok? Combining sightseeing, river trips and walks in different neighbourhoods. Ah, and sampling great Thai food:

  1. Day 1: Tour Jim Thompson’s House – Do use a guided tour, included in the price. The grounds are beautiful and you could spend 30 min just looking around in the garden and the exterior. There is a nice terrace for a short coffee break. Take a food tour or a Thai massage in the afternoon. Dinner at the hotel was really nice. They specialise in vegetarian options and also have very tasty cocktails. As this is was our first day after the flight, we tuned in early.
  2. Day 2: Wake up bright and early and head to Wat Pho, home of the reclining Buddha and the famous Golden Buddha. The Wat Pho complex is big and encompasses more than just the area where the statue is housed. We spent more than an hour wandering the temple grounds and staring at the statues and mosaics. If open, go for the Grand Palace next or if you want something a bit more manageable in terms of crowds, the Wat Arun. For Wat Arun, you will have to cross the river. There are plenty of options – you can ride the water taxi up and down the river for around 20 baht and take a tourist hop-on-hop-off that will stop at all the main sites. Have dinner at Supanniga, Sukhumvit Soi 55 if you are based in Shukumvit.
  3. Go to one of the floating markets. Khlong Lat Mayom is a bit less touristy but expect some ‘traffic’ jams at peak times. For lunch, head to Chinatown and walk the smaller alleys. You can get great food for next to nothing in one of the many joints lining the street. We went at the Prachak Roasted Duck Restaurant and it was the best Chinese food so far. Finally, go for some a Mall experience. More than retail therapy, malls are like mini vertical villages where you can spend hours window shopping, eating and chatting while enjoying the AirCo. It is not only retail therapy; it is a way of life.


After three full days of Bangkok traffic and noise over-stimulation, it was time to escape to the beach. We took an internal flight with Air Bangkok and in 1h30 min we were in Phuket. I dreaded the island itself and its promise of an all-inclusive holiday mecca and headed up the coast to Khao Lak. It is an hour’s drive from the airport so rented a car and driver.

Khao Lak itself is nothing to write home about: a small medium-size sprawling village now living from tourism. It is quite popular for its (still) laid-back ambiance, uncrowded beaches and as a departure point for liveaboard trips to the Similan Islands. However, this might soon change as there were significant rebuilding efforts after the tsunami and additional accommodation options have sprung up. It is difficult to imagine that this was one of the worst hit areas hardest hit by the 2004 tsunami as everything seems to be up and running like it had been there for ages. There is now an early-warning system has been installed along the coast to avert the population in case of earthquake. That, combined with a handful of signs for tsunami evacuation routes, are practically the only clues to what went before.

We were based in La Flora Resort, a mid-range hotel that offered direct beach access, different morning activities and a spa with good value massages. It is walking distance to the many restaurants and bars that line the main street into the village. You will find a number of travel agencies in the village to help you organise all types of activities, much more varied that the hotel options. We crammed 3 activities in our 4 full days on the coast and we really enjoyed each of them:

A full day trip to the Similian islands – the trip out and back will take more than one hour each way. They are further afield compared with Surin island but both the landscape and the beach are uncrowded and almost unspoilt. The archipelago is part of the national park Mu Ko Similan so development is kept to a minimum. As part of the trip, you will meet a local nomadic tribe and have lunch on the island. I was really looking forward to snorkel there but I was less than impressed about the coral. Still, it is a great day out if you want to enjoy the beach and clear blue water and muuuch les crowded that the Ko Phi Phi or Ko Lanta.


A full day canoe trip to Phang Nga Bay – You know that James Bond island that everybody has on their Fb feed once they come back from Thailand? Well, it turns out that this is one stone formation in a bay of stone formations and, despite its international repute, there are better sights to be enjoyed in the same location. We took a small tour (about 12 people) that involved a boat trip sightseeing in the bay and a canoe trip to enjoy the internal lagoons at low tide. As soon as we were out in the canoe, the tropical rain started. It is difficult to describe the feeling of being completely surrounded by water plus more water pouring from above… The lagoons were great to explore by boat even if this involved some manoeuvring of the pressure inside the inflatable canoe to allow the boat to slide in and out the narrow passage ways. It was a great, if very wet, experience in an area of great natural beauty that rivals the Ha Long Bay in Vietnam.


Half a day Thai cooking class – We found a Trip Advisor recommendation of a great cook in Khao Lak. Here is her page: https://annkhaolak.wordpress.com/. Ann met us at the hotel and then we drove to the market to choose the ingredients. We then drove to her studio to cook and eat our creations. It was a great experience that helped us connect with some of the locals in the market and also though understanding some of the fruits and vegetables that were a mystery to us but staples of their kitchen. I really recommend you give it a try. She will send you the recipes by e-mail so you can always try to re-create the nice food at home. Do not forget to grab a jar of curry paste at the market and pack it in your suitcase before you leave though.


From Khao Lak it was back to Bangkok for us. After a short night spent on the Riverside of Chao Praya River in a beautifully landscaped but huge hotel (Anantara), we boarder to flight back to Paris.


What is your favourite part of Thailand? On a next occasion, I want to visit the North and get a better sense of the ‘real’ Thailand.

 

Happy travels,

 

 

 

 

 

India – a place that will stir up all your senses

When planning my last year’s trip to India, I was a bit nervous.

For one, I was traveling with two other girls. Any travel advisory out there, from Lonley Panet to the UK Governement Travel advice will imply that might not be such a bright ideea. Couple or group might be better. Even so, in my view, as three is definitely better then one alone, I had good chances of survival.

Continue reading

Komodo Dragons – Island of Flores, Indonesia

There are three things you will find about Indonesia on all travel blogs: 1) relax and visit temples in Bali; 2) dive and go to the beach in the Gillis and 3) visit the Komodo Dragon. You probably wonder why all the fuss about a lizard. Subject of countless documentaries and TV nature programs, the main thing about this lizard is that, like many other rare animals, it is only to be found on two little islands in the vast archipelago that is Indonesia: Komodo and Rinca. This usually involves either a long boat trip from Bali or a flight with a local carrier. These lizards are fierce creatures, the size of a large crocodile but more agile and ready to attack pretty much anything on two or four feet. Komodo National Park is a UNESCO site and is the only place to see the world’s largest lizard in the wild.

Continue reading

Outside Bali – Gili Islands

Few visitors venture outside Bali or even southern Bali for that matter. Accommodation is definitely high standard and you can get pretty much all the amenities you are used to in Europe/US. Also in Bali, there a still a few places that managed to keep their pristine beauty but they are getting less and less as big hotel chains advance toward the center of the island. East of Bali is Lombok. Somewhat less traveled than Bali but still firmly established on the tourist map. The north of Lombok holds a few treasures in the form of the Gili Islands. We have travelled to Gili Ayer and spent a few days in the sun. The atmosphere is very laid back. You can go about your business around the island without any shoes.

Continue reading