Confessions of a family gap year: We ate McDonald’s in Toyko

Confessions of a family gap year: We ate McDonald’s in Toyko

Tokyo’s iconic Shibuyu crossing pops up in many films

Water spurted all over the pristine toilet cubicle as my son, always keen to press a button, tested the bottom wash. Outside a member of staff was finishing her cleaning duty, polishing the mirror.

Our Little Man (OLM) chuckling wholeheartedly, thankfully figured out how to end the torrent as, horrified, I grabbed for tissues to soak up the mess.

It was our first introduction to Japan’s multi function toilets. I’d only ever seen similar ones in Disney’s Cars 2 film! There were buttons for music to drown out your doings, various speeds of shower for your nether regions and others we did not work out.

I’ll say this quietly, due to the shame of the admission, but we were in a McDonald’s. In Tokyo. Yep, 6,000  miles from home, we’d just consumed a lunch of chicken nuggets and fries, albeit in the unfamiliar setting of a near-silent restaurant with seats  predominantly laid out for solo dining and filled with businessmen working on laptops.

A chef preparing sushi in front of our table near Tokyo’s Tsukiji Fish Market – we did eat ‘local’ most of the time!

It was Day Four in Japan, our last in Tokyo, in the midst of a very frustrating couple of hours trying to find a route to the seafront.

To that point we’d been surprised how easily we navigated around, we’d even successfully hopped aboard a train from the airport to the city on arrival. Signs in all the train and metro stations had English translations. It’s yet another place in the world you can feel the guilt and gratitude of having English as your first language and get away with relying upon gracious and accommodating hosts. Fewer people were fluent in English themselves than in Europe but everyone we encountered was endlessly patient with our poor attempts to converse in minimal Japanese and gesticulation.

I was prepared to be utterly confused and overwhelmed in what was my first time in Asia. Armed only with a couple of words of poorly pronounced Japanese and a screen shot of a phrase to alert food vendors of the nut allergy my son and I have, I expected to struggle. But we didn’t.

Our only real point of confusion with the transport system came that day as we tried to get to Odaiba, a shopping and entertainment district on a man made island in Tokyo Bay. It takes a little care to not mix up the Japan Rail, TOEI and Tokyo Metro lines, but the maps are clear and, a minimally more expensive pass that allows use of all is perhaps, in hindsight, a more wise option.

Eventually we realised The Yurikamome Line to Odaiba was a separate monorail line. Once we found it, the state-of-the-art monorail, over Rainbow Bridge, was spectacular.

We got distracted by the giant Gundam robot at DiverCity

The area it took us to was packed with things we wanted to see – the beach, science and maritime museum, Panasonic Centre, which sounded excellent. Ultimately though the area was a metaphor for our entire stay in the city. We found attractions we hadn’t expect to and ran out of time for the rest.

It was early afternoon by the time we arrived, left the train and got lured to DiverCity Tokyo Plaza shopping arcade by a photo of a 20m high Gundam robot which is stationed outside the centre. (Apparently it transforms many times each day. We didn’t see the transformation – please don’t tell my son!)

We went in to discover the Gundam Base, part museum, part shop where you can buy and make one of the robot model kits. In a wrong turn, we stumbled across a rooftop football pitch and sports courts, where teenagers played and enjoyed a barbecue. Then OLM’s eyes lit up at an arcade games area where one modest fee meant unlimited play for 90 minutes. Natural wonders like the Grand Canyon and Yosemite are all very well but…

Whilst Nigel joined OLM in the arcade, I amused myself window shopping, lusting after the fashions I had been constantly admiring on the stylish and classy locals. It was a classic, classy look including nipped in waists with tucked in floaty tops and loads of lovely tailoring. Granted we were mainly in city and business districts, but I saw hardly any women in jeans. Even casual clothing was about soft pleated, elegant skirts and tailored slimline and wide legged trousers.

It was dusk when we emerged from DiverCity leaving little time for anything else, but there was a silver lining. It meant we got wonderful nighttime views of Tokyo, the bridge and the city’s very own replica Statue of Liberty. Who knew?

Tokyo’s very own Statue of Liberty and eye-popping skyline

For the duration of our stay we had been bemused by the lack of supermarkets until I Googled and discovered they were hidden in the basements of department stores where a full range of fresh fruit and vegetables and other fine fare can be sourced both to cook at home or in the form of bento (a single portion take-out meal usually of rice and fish or meat). Many stores have roof gardens in which to eat, I read.

Times Square in Shinjuku, where we were staying in an Airbnb, was said to be at the higher end of this offer. We skimmed into the basement area at 7.40pm, 20 minutes before closing, having travelled on trains still rammed with commuters.

We expected the supermarket/foodcourt area might be quiet at that time, but it was packed with shoppers and queues as well as an amazing and vast array of options. An hour or more could easily have been spent just browsing. Instead we made quick selections and rushed to the roof garden. Fortunately that was open until 10pm and we found an oasis of twinkly fairy lights and seating surrounded by restaurants. We arrived jaded by a busy day of trying to pack in more than time allowed but the beauty of it and a balmy evening kept us going long enough to be pleased to have made the effort.

We caught a glimpse of Meiji Jingu shrine

That day ended as every other in the city had, later than intended, feeling we had packed three days of events into one and still not seen enough.

The city was so clean. We witnessed vacuuming of exterior steps on the underground, the seats on the trains were fluffy and displayed their original colour and pile and subways and public loos did not have a trace of a whiff of wee.

Everyone we encountered was warm and smiling. People approached us as we consulted maps in stations to check if we needed any help (and not in the way they do in Bangkok where it seemed every approach is the preamble to an attempted con).

I was even thanked by a shopping centre worker just for visiting the country! I’d read there is a push to increase inward tourism to Japan and measures being put in place to make things easier for visitors. It has already been a success, I’d say.

Within Shinjuku Gyoen gardens

We visited the pretty and free Imperial Palace Gardens and glimpsed Meiji Jingu Shrine. We meandered Shinjuku Gyoen gardens where we stumbled across what appeared just like the kind of community fete we have at home. There we watched traditional dance displays and ordered a bowl of delicious unrecognisable food – noodles of some kind in a broth. As in most places we visited we were the only westerners we saw. We were greeted extremely warmly, one vendor even insisting on giving us a packet of biscuits and refusing payment.

Another day we looked down on skyscrapers from the free to enter Metropolitan Tower. In the shop at the top, we enjoyed browsing all the unusual toys, such as interlocking construction kits akin to Lego, but that we’d never seen. My son was treated like a celebrity as Asian women cooed over his blonde hair and wanted their photos taken with him.

We took in the city’s famous Tsukiji Fish Market where we wondered at tanks containing crabs bigger than my son’s head and ate sushi that was prepared in front of us in a side street restaurant.

We left the market feeling there was more to see but keen to get to Asakusa Kannon Temple. We decided to stop off briefly at Kokugikan, the sumo stadium in the Ryogoku district of Tokyo, just to take in the atmosphere of the place, knowing out trip did not coincide with any of the three annual tournaments. When we arrived at the gate an excited steward rushed to get her English speaking colleague who explained a special one-off tournament was about to begin and inviting us in for a tiny donation of 1,000 Yen. Tickets would usually be 10,000 Yen each, she told us. So we got to see Sumo live, just like that.

We stumbled across a rare sumo event

At the end of that day, we just had time to whizz across to take in the spectacle of Shibuya Crossing, the world famous intersection where thousands of people cross the street each day. We missed Asakusa Kannon Temple, but with Kyoto awaiting we hoped to make up for it.

We felt we hit the jackpot not just in seeing the Sumo but throughout our time in Tokyo, in October 2017. I didn’t even mind that our packed out days left no choice but to get out of bed and do our laundry at 5.30am before our bullet train reservation! We left Tokyo exhausted but enamoured.


2 thoughts on “Confessions of a family gap year: We ate McDonald’s in Toyko

  1. I just saw your post on TripAdvisor and came to read your blog post. We are going to Japan with our 12 year old and 10 year old sons in July. (I’m sure there will be at least one stop a a McDonald’s for our younger “pickier” son!) We’ve got all the usual tourist spots planned – is there anything you’d recommend for kids that’s a big off the beaten path?

    1. Hi, to be honest I felt we only just scratched the surface with 10 days in Japan. Not exactly off the beaten track but we really enjoyed Also Osaka Science Museum was very good (though probably not a ‘must’ as such as not specifically a Japanese attraction). As with most travel trying not to pack too much in and giving yourself time to stumble across things is probably wise. Certainly some of our highlights were the unplanned bits. Have an amazing time. I am very jealous!

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