One last vacation before baby #2 arrives
At 32 weeks pregnant in the middle of a hot, humid summer with an active, curious 15-month-old who is already throwing temper tantrums, Michal and I could have easily decided to stay home in Seoul and prepare our second nursery.
But we instead squeezed in one last adventure during a recent long holiday weekend. Toddler triumphs and trials in Tokyo and Kamakura, Japan (a scenic little beach town/natural hideaway close to the big city), along with being in third trimester of my second pregnancy, made for another unforgettable international travel experience!
Planes, trains and automobiles: Transportation with a toddler
We heard from friends who are fellow expats in Tokyo that taxis are expensive (in contrast to what we’re used to paying in Seoul), so we brought a light-weight umbrella stroller and purchased a subway card right when we landed. The subway system in Tokyo reminds me of Seoul as it’s clean, efficient and modern. It is just a lot bigger and confusing to navigate at times, as we got completely lost meeting friends in Shinjuku Station.
*To clarify: When I describe taking the train in the following section, I am referring to long-haul trips or distances within a country, not quick trips on local subway lines.
Of all the trains we’ve used while I’ve been pregnant and Sophia has been an active toddler, our experience on Korea’s KTX express train from Seoul to Busan was the most comfortable and convenient with the ability to purchase tickets easily online, numerous English signage, elevators throughout the station and a diaper-changing table/nursing room on board. (I was definitely not a fan of using the train while we were in China.) Our toddler-on-a-train experiences in Japan come in a close second to train travel in Korea.
We were surprised we couldn’t buy our tickets online for the trip from Tokyo to Kamakura (about one and half hours away), as we could easily do in Korea for that type of travel. Although, there is an option to “upgrade” to nicer seats by buying “Green Car” tickets at the platform.
With luggage, a stroller/toddler and a Pack and Play (which we had to bring because we were staying at Airbnbs that couldn’t provide baby bedding), we were overwhelmed. After exhausting ourselves with much walking and up/do movement of luggage going from Haneda Airport to our first Airbnb in Tokyo, we tried to cut ourselves some slack going from Tokyo to our second Airbnb in Kamakura by using a taxi to get to the train station and giving ourselves plenty of time, as well as doing the same when en route to the airport for our final departure back to Seoul. We were thankful for all the elevators and escalators in Japan (which were more rare in China) and for the ingenuity in using the Ergo baby carrier as a harness for the Pack and Play on top of our luggage.
With our prior experiences on Asian flight carriers, we were not surprised at how accommodating the airline representatives, specifically the flight attendants, were on Japan Airlines. Many of them played with Sophia (as we scheduled flights for during her “awake periods”) with offering a variety of toys on-board and to take home. We also received bulkhead seating (score for more room, getting served food first and being near bathrooms!), and on the way to Tokyo, we even managed to get a whole row to ourselves. Lastly, we got priority baggage claim so we could be the first to grab our stuff and go!
Similar to Incheon Airport in Korea (although not as new or elaborate), the Haneda and Narita airports in Japan had padded kids’ play areas. Sophia loved going down the slide and swaying on the rocking horses. I just wished the space was more enclosed (like in Incheon) as she would randomly run away at moments and dart into the paths of travelers rushing to their gates.
Future Foodie: Dining with a toddler
An aspect we enjoyed of traveling in Japan are all the kids’ accommodations at restaurants. Kids’ menus are a bit of a rarity in Korea unless at a Western-style restaurant. In Japan, there were adorable, creative and nutritious set meals for toddlers and children at almost every restaurant we found. I was impressed many times at the level of attention, detail and courtesy we were paid.
When at a restaurant in Takashimaya Times Square, the chef created little shapes, like a Mickey Mouse head, out of rice and seaweed. When getting dessert at the free observation deck of a government building, a server made a paper crane for Sophia. When eating at a restaurant in downtown Kamakura, the kids’ meal came out with little sausages that were cut and shaped into baby octopus.
One trick we learned from my fellow expat mom friend in Tokyo concerning high chairs without harnesses or straps: Use the carrier. This was key for us as Sophia’s developed a recent odd habit of standing precariously in her high chair.
The two places we took Sophia that didn’t have high chairs or kids menus were iconic Japanese dining experiences that we just had to do – ramen ordered using a ticket system from something that looked like a vending machine in Shibuya and sushi on a conveyor belt at the famous Tsukiji fish market. At least both environments were entertaining and quick enough with service to undergo Sophia’s short attention span!
We also got a baby sitter one night in Tokyo when we wanted to do a fine dining experience with kobe beef. The restaurant we selected was convenient as it was near to our Airbnb in Akasaka/Roppongi Hills and we reserved it using OpenTable. It specifically didn’t allow children and it was a multiple-course kaiseki meal, so it definitely warranted a baby sitter.
*Side note on baby-sitting in Tokyo: We found an excellent English baby-sitting service through a travel blog called Chubby Hubby. Communication was quick, background information was thorough and the whole process was very organized and reliable. Cannot recommend them enough!
No place like home: Lodging while traveling with a toddler
This was the first multi-city trip in Asia we’ve taken where we stayed only at Airbnbs (usually we mix it up with hotels, resorts and friends’ homes). As Japan is one of the more expensive countries we have visited, not to mention it was a major holiday weekend and a bit of a last-minute planned trip, we weren’t left with much choice but to go the Airbnb route. However, we were fortunate to find Airbnbs that were at least roomy and modern for a family with a toddler.
We were happy to discover the luxuries of typical bathrooms in Japanese homes as they are usually equipped with small bathtubs that have electronic buttons to control the consistency of the amount and temperature of the water. This was perfect as it made for easy bathing for Sophia every night!
Both of our Airbnb homes also had full, equipped kitchens and separate living and dining rooms, making it easier to clean bottles and prepare baby food. We were also grateful for full-size washing machines/dryers as we didn’t have to carry loads of dirty laundry through the trip.
There were a couple hindrances in staying at our Airbnbs. First of all, both Airbnbs labeled themselves as “family/kid-friendly,” however both were not baby-proofed, did not have any child features (e.g. high chair, potty seat, plastic-ware) and the hosts at our Tokyo Airbnb in particular were not helpful with requests regarding baby sitting nor were understanding with any issues related to having a child.
We also noticed the garbage sorting was a lot more complicated than in Seoul. We do sort all our trash on a daily basis at home (e.g. food waste, clean paper, clean plastic, metal, glass and general garbage in a bag we pay for). However, the sorting in Kamakura specifically was at a whole other level. The explanation from the city was in a long booklet, and we didn’t realize we were supposed to separate the poop from Sophia’s disposable diapers until it was too late and we were about to leave for the airport! Yikes.
So many sights to see: Balancing sleep and activity with a toddler
Now that Sophia is down to only one nap per day, it was a lot easier for us to see more of an area than ever before.
On this trip, we were usually out the door by 8:30 a.m., and we would be out all day until right before bath time/bed time around 6:30 p.m. During her afternoon nap from about 12:30-2:30 p.m., we always planned a long walk so she could fall asleep in the stroller.
With this daily outline, we figured out what was best to do before and after her nap time. Before her nap – anything that didn’t involve a lot movement or interaction from her like shrines/temples and observatory towers/landmarks.
During her naps, we strolled in parks or along shopping streets that had flat, wide walkways and lots of natural white noise. After her naps, we found activities that catered to her active play time like kid-friendly museums and playgrounds in the parks we were just strolling through.
Relaxing retreat: Date night in Kamakura at Enoshima Island Spa
The one other night we got a baby sitter on this trip was while we stayed in Kamakura and visited Enoshima Island Spa. Our Airbnb host’s friend (a mother of five) was kind enough to watch Sophia for the night (much cheaper than professional baby sitting services and a necessity as it’s harder for those types of services to reach smaller areas off the beaten path). A former colleague from my undergrad newspaper who remotely works with the spa and used to live in Tokyo had helped to generously provide my husband and I with free entrance passes.
Michal and I are suckers for hot springs, mineral baths, etc. Whether it was the extensive indoor and outdoor pools of Budapest in our pre-baby days, or the numerous jjimjilbangs we’ve patronized while living in Korea, this activity is always a highlight for us on our travels, especially toward the end of the trip after much walking so as to soothe our aching feet/muscles.
Enoshima Island Spa was very different from the Korean spas we’ve recently frequented as it was more couple-centric, especially on the day and time that we visited on a Sunday night. (No children at all are allowed on Sundays, and no children under 6 years old are ever allowed entrance to the spa.) In contrast, going to the spa is actually a family event in Korea. I’ve been in many where babies and kids go in the baths with parents. (One exception was Spa Land in the Shinsegae Department Store of Busan as they catered to a high-end clientele with a focus on quietude.) Enoshima Island Spa also adamantly did not allow photos to be taken on the property – even in the clothed, co-ed areas for “the sake of privacy.”
Views were spectacular and serene, especially from the outdoor infinity pool area. The majority of the facility were the co-ed pools (again different from my time in Korean spas as I’m used to spending most of it in the gender-separated nude areas and only meeting Michal and friends of the opposite sex when going into the numerous dry sauna rooms or other common areas like dining). There were caves/grottos that my husband jokingly said mimicked the Playboy Mansion as they were dim, cozy areas, and there was another set of indoor pools that played a sort of Vegas-style light and water show with flash and mist.
I couldn’t do as many of the hotter temperature areas as I’m pregnant, so I opted to get a pregnancy treatment while Michal enjoyed more of the saunas and hot water pools. The prenatal massage intrigued me because the description for the service required that the patron be five to eight months pregnant. It was completely different from any other massage I’ve received while pregnant as I was face-down on a special pillow/mat created for pregnant women. The padding was curved around my belly and graduated in height so that I was at an incline. In contrast, all prenatal massages I’ve received in Korea have required me to be on my side. In addition, part of the treatment included rubbing coconut oil on my belly to ease stretch marks and relax the very active baby inside me, which was also a new experience for me in a prenatal massage.
Wanderlust continues but travel is on pause for now
Ultimately, this was an exciting and much-needed last adventure/babymoon before we have to stick around town in anticipation of our second child’s arrival.
Michal and I felt like we finally figured out how to best travel with one baby/toddler as Sophia’s schedule has become more predictable and we’ve become more discerning about how to spend our day so that we’re all happy and peaceful. And it was a special time we’ll cherish with being able to just focus on our firstborn. So we have to laugh as we look forward to inevitably complicating our tried and true travel methods with a newborn/second child.
Perhaps we’ll concede that it’s actually time for us to settle down?