It's fair to say this was not the original plan. In fact, we wanted to go to Japan for our honeymoon in 2010. It didn't happen - who knew that organising a wedding was both a time-consuming and cash-vacuuming exercise? Then we decided to go for our one-year anniversary. That didn't happen either - who knew my wife would be six months pregnant? So this year we were determined to get there for cherry-blossom season in early April, with new addition Coco - who would turn nine months old in Kyoto - along for the ride.
When we told other parents about our plan, the looks on their faces spanned the spectrum from pity to mirth. Some laughed openly. They were all keen to share their horror stories of travelling overseas with infants, from mid-flight meltdowns (both baby and parents) to trips ruined by the dictatorial feeding, changing and sleeping schedule of their little monster.
Both my wife and I are list-making Virgos, so after doing all our research we sat down and carefully mapped out what we wanted to achieve. We set aside six days in Tokyo and four in Kyoto and chose a specific area each day to explore. She's more optimistic than I am. I looked at the list of things we were expecting to do and then I looked at Coco. She blew a raspberry at me. Then I resigned myself to the fact that we'd probably only get 50 per cent of it covered.
The big day arrives and Coco sleeps like a baby on the plane. Which is to say, she's wide-eyed and giggly for an hour then wails like a siren for 45 minutes when we try to settle her in the bassinet and then slumbers sweetly for three hours. But as I'd envisaged nine hours of blood-curdling bedlam while being silently stabbed by daggers from the stares of fellow passengers, I'd score it as a seven.
The hotel we've booked in Tokyo is in Asakusa, near the Senso-ji temple in the city's north-east. As it's Sunday, after we've checked in we go straight out again and head to Harajuku. That's because Sunday is the day the Japanese congregate in Yoyogi Park to indulge in outdoor activities. We wheel Coco past ukulele groups, a couple of stand-up comedians, a jazz trio, some girls with ghoulish make-up and fake blood on their faces, a troupe of teenagers doing choreographed flag-waving and dancing, and rival groups of '50s-styled rockers wearing leather jackets, sporting dyed black quiffs and twisting and posing to a soundtrack of Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry and Eddie Cochran songs blaring from their portable stereos. The whole thing is like a cross between a Fellini film and an anime comic book.
Afterwards we plunge into Takeshita-dori, a street that's transformed into a packed flea market each weekend, full of stores selling clothing, trinkets, accessories and novelty food. As we've got the stroller and my wife is a sucker for two-dollar shops, we agree to split for an hour and I wheel Coco to a toy shop. Well, it's more about me than Coco. For a guy who grew up watching Japanese TV shows such as Astro Boy, Gigantor, Prince Planet, The Samurai and Phantom Agents, Tokyo is a pop-culture paradise. When I unearth an original Gigantor robot model kit for $8 in a seven-floor toy and comics store called Mandarake, I have to refrain from squealing like a six-year-old. During the next 10 days we also spend happily dazed hours in design and homewares stores such as Tokyu Hands and Loft, lusting after everything from stationery to furniture.
The season for sakura (cherry blossoms) is usually in early April but it's not always easy to predict and lasts only a week or two. Fortunately the trees are in bloom in the best viewing spots in the city - Ueno Park and Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden. The sight of the white and pink blossoms against the blue spring sky is stunning but it's just as fascinating to watch the behaviour of the Japanese. The parks are full of groups having picnics under the trees and taking photo after photo of the blossoms in close-up. It's a custom that goes back centuries and is referred to as hanami (flower viewing).
While enjoying our own hanami, we learn a new Japanese word. We're regularly stopped by women who ooh and ah over Coco, taking photographs and saying "kawaii". We later find out it means "cute". I know I'm biased but of course they're right. So we bow and say arigato (thank you).
Over six days we stick to our plan of one area a day, from wandering around the grounds of the Imperial Palace to perusing the upmarket shopping complexes of Roppongi. The subway isn't too difficult to navigate and even if we just miss a train, another arrives in two or three minutes.
Of course, we have to stop for feeding (baby and parents) and changing (baby only, fortunately) along the way but department stores are a godsend for both activities (see the family checklist below).
By the time we return to Asakusa in the evening we devour ramen noodles, tempura and sushi at one of the many good neighbourhood restaurants in the area before all three of us crash out from exhaustion.
On day seven we take the 2½-hour trip on the shinkansen (bullet train) to Kyoto, where we're staying in a ryokan - a traditional Japanese guesthouse where you sleep on tatami mats. Three Sisters Inn Annex is situated next to the popular Heian shrine and is run by one of the three Yamada sisters, Kay-san, a sprightly woman who is unfailingly polite and helpful, enamoured with Coco, and presents us with gifts at the end of our stay.
- Sydney Morning Herald