Diary of a Globetrotting Family
Connor’s complaint, 2 days of Tokyo Disney, and Aster’s first Shinkansen
From our rough arrival into Tokyo, we quickly recovered and immediately felt the excitement of being back in a country we adore. Aster has heard about Japan ever since she was a baby. Within the first day, she was bopping around our neighborhood, fascinated by the language, the stores, and the grinning cartoon characters that accompany just about any type of signage.
Our days in Tokyo would culminate with a couple of days at Tokyo Disneyland and DisneySea. From there, Aster would get to ride her first Shinkansen, or bullet train, as we left Tokyo and headed west to Osaka, our home for the next month.
Connor’s biggest complaint about Japan
Sleeping on tatami floors and futons. Eating fresh bread and pastries from bakeries. Riding trains everywhere.
“I love Japan,” Connor has been saying for days now. He loves the attention to detail that we find on everything from food packaging to the built-in strainer in the shower drain.
But he does have one complaint.
With the toilet in our hotel room, a small sink is built into the top of the tank. After the toilet flushes, clean water flows from a faucet into the basin, and you can use that water for washing your hands. It’s a concise use of small space, helps you do something you needed to do anyway, and conserves water.
“But the water is freezing,” said Connor, as he shivered, dried his hands, and then rubbed some warmth back into them.
May that be his biggest complaint about Japan.
We really should have gotten lunch first.
Snapshot: Spending a day in Tokyo’s Shinjuku area, we made our way to Meiji Jingu, or Meiji Shrine, only to realize that spending time in a big, pretty, park-like temple area was a bad idea if our bellies were rumbling—and if tempers were grumbling. After wandering along a quiet, sloping residential street, we saw a little diner called Popeye. While I looked at the menu on the outside window, the woman in charge came out and gave me both a menu and a huge smile.
Moments later, she also helped us figure out how we could sit together inside. The long, narrow diner could seat around eight to ten people, and you could look over the counter to see the kitchen in action. Whether along counters or at tables, eateries have had plastic partitions in between, to provide a little privacy as well as pandemic protection. At first we thought two of us would sit at the counter and two would sit along the front window. But as soon as some other diners finished and left, the owner came over, cleared away the partitions along the front counter by the window, wiped everything down, and motioned for us to sit together.
A few minutes later, she set down a steaming platter of three tonkatsus (pork cutlet coated in panko and fried), rice, shredded cabbage, and a bowl of miso soup with daikon radish cubes inside. Jodie and the kids had similar, though the kids had two cutlets and one fried shrimp instead.
Bellies sated and peace in the family restored, we thanked the owners and made our way to Meiji. The temple was beautiful, peaceful, and full of nature. The first time we visited Japan, almost exactly ten years ago, Meiji was one of the first places we visited. Then, as now, we noted how even one of the world’s most bustling cities faded away into green and calm.
But what matters most is actually not Meiji, love it though I do.
This was not a place we had researched, planned to visit, and set out for. Winding up at Popeye was happenstance, because we were wandering that way in search of a bite to eat. Thought we could have stopped by a Lawson’s convenience store instead. But the Popeye owners were welcoming, gracious—and, of course, damn good cooks.
Our travels, like our lives, have their mishaps, mistakes, and moments when we realize we could have done a better job checking in on appetites.
But Popeye reminded us: In the bustling city, there’s always a way to find tranquility—paired with tonkatsu.
Popcorn by the DisneySea
Let the record show we would come back to Tokyo DisneySea simply for the rides, the headgear folks wear, and the Frozen, Peter Pan, and Tangled-themed areas opening in 2024—but the popcorn flavors alone could get us to move to Japan and stay.
After our 2022 adventures at Disneyland Park in California and Disney California Adventure Park, I can’t say that we went into our full-time travels thinking that barely a year later we would be visiting another set of Disney parks in another part of the world. But as we figured out when Japan would be getting an entry stamp in our passports, we also quickly realized that we would go to DisneySea and Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo DisneySea.
In Anaheim, the kids and I got our introduction to the wonder of seeing what sort of matching outfits people wear for a day at Disney, and especially if there was some sort of snazzy, brightly colored, group t-shirt.
In Tokyo Disney, matching outfits were less a thing, and t-shirts were nowhere to be found. Instead, as the kids and I took turns pushing Jodie’s wheelchair, we realized that many people synced up headwear. Mickey or Minnie ears, with little figures down the back of the head. Woody or Jessie hats—or even more hilarious, three-eyed green alien heads—from Toy Story. Or my favorite, mouse ears with a teeny tiny sorcerer’s apprentice blue conical hat from Fantasia.
Instead of “lands,” DisneySea has 7 ports: Mediterranean Harbor, American Waterfront, Port Discovery, Lost River Delta, Arabian Coast, Mermaid Lagoon, and Mysterious Island. The new areas I mentioned above? (Those will be part of the eighth port, Fantasy Springs.) And each pulled you deep into a fantastical world represented by each port. Throughout each, calm waters lapped, a buffer for all the excitement flowing through the park.
But back to that popcorn
Throughout Tokyo Disneyland and DisneySea, every land has various popcorn vendors. Jodie had told us how throughout the parks, it wasn’t just about the popcorn, but about how you could find lots of different flavors. While at DisneySea, we used the popcorn not only to grab a bite when needed, but as a sort of snack scavenger hunt.
While Jodie and the kids rode a Flounder-themed roller coaster near Ariel’s Playground, I rustled up a bucket of white chocolate matcha popcorn. As we sang songs from Aladdin while exploring Jasmine’s Flying Carpets and Sindbad’s Storybook Village, we also hunted up the curry popcorn (and the sesame churros). Later, around the American Waterfront, it was time for a touch of dessert, with the milk chocolate popcorn.
Finding popcorn kept everyone focused, and when we needed to redirect the kids, asking about popcorn could re-center them.
DisneySea had me at 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. As a kid, I loved this movie. Being inside our own wee submarine, the sense of being underwater was so well done. Aster and I bounced back and forth as we tried to avoid a huge squid, and the lighting and electrical effects had me grinning and jostling as if we really were at the bottom of the deep ocean.
Later, in the Nemo & Friends SeaRider, we piled into our “miniaturized” underwater vehicle. Riding along with our fishy friends, the characters chatted in Japanese on the screen, and I heard someone say “yorushiku,” or “nice to meet you.” It was one of the few things I understood in Japanese—but it was a start.
The Indiana Jones Adventure: Temple of the Crystal Skull looms like a small mountain and is one of the park’s most prominent landmarks. The ride itself is similar to the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland in Anaheim.
“It’s a bit too scary,” said Aster. And Connor said he could stick with the movies—along with some milk chocolate popcorn.
The line for Toy Story Mania! was our longest wait of the day, and we had deliberately saved this ride for last. We blasted targets with our little stringed pop shooters. The sound of plates breaking in one of the shooting areas was my personal favorite gallery. Or maybe that’s because that’s also where my score caught up to Jodie’s…
Finding lost magic
We arrived at DisneySea first thing in the morning, and with only one day at the park, we were determined to stay until as close to closing as possible. But after a long wait in line and a day full of excitement and walking, the kids were flagging beyond even the aid of magical popcorn flavors.
Nonetheless, we knew some food would perk everyone up before heading back to our hotel. Jodie had found a bakery, and we zipped to it. She and I waited in line while the kids found a table outside and watched the park’s finale show for the evening. Familiar songs from Aladdin, Tangled, Frozen, and Moana wove through the cool night air. Since Jodie and I were waiting in line and couldn’t see the show as well, Connor asked for my phone. He recorded the performance so we could see it later.
As we watched fireworks, nibbled our sweet and savory baked goodnesses, and marveled at ornate floats, we felt the magic come back to us. Connor complimented how we had gotten in line at a good time, when it was still a short wait—and now the line stretched nearly all the way across the plaza where we had been watching the show.
As we headed for the exit, the magic came with us, through popcorn and fireworks, through attractions that brought you into imaginary worlds, and above all, through having fun with the people you love the most.
Hunted by Darth Vader at Tokyo Disneyland
One time, in Scotland, Dr. Frank-N-Furter flipped me off.
During my early twenties I lived in Edinburgh for a while, as a college student and a recent grad. Taking full advantage of generous student discounts, I spent many a fine evening in concert halls, cinemas, art museums, and theaters, absorbing and enjoying everything from experimental cinema to the best in Western classical music.
I was also a big fan of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. I’d been to a few showings, complete with costumes and talking smack to the screen while the movie played. In Edinburgh, I had a chance to see the stage version of the show. Not only that, my ticket had me right down in the very front row (downstage left, theater folks).
Throughout the performance, now and again, someone in the audience would fire off a comeback, a juicy zinger, a spicy quip. (When a toast was called for in the show though, no one in the audience threw toast. I’ve a feeling anything even remotely bread-like was confiscated at the door.)
Then, in the pivotal end scene, when the tables have turned on Frank-N-Furter and he finds himself at raygunpoint, he calls out, “Wait! Wait! I can explain!”
And I realized it was my moment. My turn to call out something quippy.
“This had better be good!” I shouted toward the stage. “You got shot last time!”
People in the audience laughed. With a quick sidestep and half turn, the actor playing the iconic cross-dressing mad scientist flipped his fist over and raised one notable finger in my direction. Then, without even a breath of pause, he kept right on in the scene, while I tucked that memory away in the forever box of my heart.
Fast forward twenty-some years, and now Jodie, the kids, and I were in line for our second ride on Star Tours at Tokyo Disneyland. The evening was cool, so Connor and I had on our matching light blue fleeces. Throughout the day, I’d also been wearing my blue hat, along with my Mandalorian and Grogu mask. Connor and I had also gotten matching double-mickey face sunglasses with circular blue lenses.
The idea with Star Tours is that you and your fellow galaxy goers are taking a wee tour around various planets and star systems far, far away. However, instead of the usual pilot droid, C-3PO has found itself in the driver seat, in front of the tourcraft’s glass—or rather, a giant monitor showing you the simulated action.
Funnily enough, R2D2 is the astromech droid on this particular flight. But I’m sure there’s no connection between that and the tourcraft taking off, despite C-3PO’s protests. Just as you’re about to leave the hangar, though, the ship is stopped and confronted by troopers led by… Well, it varies. The fun of Star Tours is there are different scenarios, so each ride can be a different experience. Sometimes you’re faced with a menacing, floating IT-O interrogator droid. Other times, it’s Kylo Ren.
But this time?
None other than Darth Vader himself had stopped us.
And now they know the truth
“We know you have this Rebel spy onboard,” says Darth Vader.
C-3PO denies this, of course.
But what we in the audience don’t know, is that as we each entered our Star Tours simulator tourcraft, someone randomly had their photo taken.
Now, that photo of the Rebel spy was flashing up on little screens at the front of the ship.
The spy in question definitely looked the part. The Mandalorian warrior on the spy’s concealment mask gave away their sympathies with a people who had opposed the Empire. The multi-lensed glasses clearly held various functions for detecting, spying, and harvesting information. And who but a spy would wear that fedora-style hat?
Jodie and the kids turned to look at me.
“Daddy!” said Connor. “You’re a Rebel spy?”
“I never meant for you to find out this way, son,” I replied. “I wanted to tell you myself, when you were ready to join the Rebellion.”
Fortunately, just as Vader and the troopers prepared to move forward and board the ship, R2D2 started firing the ship’s blasters, ran some evasive maneuvers, got us clear, and made the jump into hyperspace. We’d gotten away. For now. But I had left the encounter with a second fond memory to carry with me.
First, flipped off by Frank-N-Further.
Now, Darth Vader himself was after me.
Shinkansen to Osaka: Aster’s first bullet train
The morning after our two all-day days at Tokyo DisneySea and Tokyo Disneyland, Connor woke up with a groan.
“My feet will be permanently sore,” said Connor as he creaked out of bed.
I patted him on the shoulder. “Sorry to hear it, my eleven-year-old eighty-year-old.”
“Will there be a lot of walking today?”
“No,” I said, “but recover today, because tomorrow will have lots of walking.”
The next morning, Connor again asked about the walking.
Jodie and I shared one of our telepathic looks. “Only in between trains,” I said.
“How long will it take to get to Osaka?” said Aster.
“About five hours,” said Jodie. “But most of it will be on one train.”
And not just any train, either. A Shinkansen. A bullet train—so named because it can streak through Japan faster than a speeding bullet. During our first visit to Japan in 2013, Jodie, Connor, and I rode Shinkansen trains. But this would be Aster’s first tide, and she was pretty excited.
The evening before, we had picked up breakfast from a nearby shop. The kids tucked into their breakfast sushi, while Jodie and I heated up beef and clam noodle bowls.
From the Disneyland area, we caught a free, Mickey-themed shuttle bus from our hotel to Maihama train station. A twenty-minute train ride later, we alighted at Tokyo Station, figured out our Shinkansen tickets, and took care of the most important priority: getting lunch for the train. Soon, we were settled into our cushy blue seats. As Tokyo zipped by, we looked out the windows, watching countryside, rivers, and cities blur past, as we sped toward Osaka.
Who says Japan has tiny living spaces?
There are times where we have crazy travel days—such as when we arrived in Japan. But in our experience, every difficult travel day has been more than outnumbered by smooth sailing. Jodie navigated us from train to train with the ease of the well-prepared. Even once we got out at the train station in our neighborhood in Osaka, we made our way along side streets, and the side streets of side streets, and soon were unlocking the door to our home for the next month.
And it really is a home. Some say that Japan’s living spaces can be teeny, but this 900-square-foot, two-story townhouse is the roomiest place we’ve stayed in ever since leaving the USA. I’m typing this from the kitchen table in our front room. In front of me is my and Jodie’s bedroom. Behind me is a well-appointed kitchen. The children have what is essentially an upstairs apartment.
Around us is a quiet neighborhood, a playground, a line of the local tram network, and Sumiyoshi Taisha, or Sumiyoshi Grand Shrine, a massive temple complex that’s around 2,000 years old, not to mention the broad, green expanse of Sumiyoshi Park.
More importantly, there are restaurants, shops, cafes, and eateries everywhere.
Ramen diner in second city
My favorite neighborhoods are the ones where I can navigate not by Google Maps, but by landmarking tasty places to eat.
Take the side street past the corner bakery. Turn right when you’re across the street from the sandwich shop. When you smell the okonomiyaki stall across from the supermarket, you’re there.
Or in this case, when we saw the red lantern, the little awning, and the brown woodwork around a simple, unassuming ramen diner—exactly what you want to see when the evening clings to the far edge of winter.
Inside, a narrow strip of walking space had a counter with six stools facing the open kitchen. An older man in a white hat welcomed us and guided us through the menu. A TV showed Japan playing South Korea at baseball.
“I want Japan to win!” said Aster, and the ramen man smiled.
A few minutes later, Connor tucked into platters of gyoza, and Aster started on a bowl of salt ramen. While Jodie opted for a butter ramen, I went for the straight-up basic bowl.
After we ate, we bowed, thanked the owner, and, thanks to Google Translate, told him he had made our first night in Osaka most delicious. With full bellies and happy hearts, we walked back into the chilly night, already finding it easy to navigate back home along the quiet, safe streets of a workaday neighborhood in Osaka.