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Postcards from Japan: How to do Japan with kids, with Jo from The Tokyo Chapter

Johanna MacGregor, creator and writer of the blog, 'The Tokyo Chapter'

As a 16-year-old high-schooler, then a young working adult and now a mother of two, Melbourne-born Johanna MacGregor has experienced Japan from all the perspectives. Join us as we talk to Jo, now the writer of the popular blog, The Tokyo Chapter, about the blessings and culture shocks of the countryside, life in Japan as a mother and all her top tips and tricks for planning a fool-proof holiday with the little ‘uns!

Hi Jo, thank you for joining us today. First off, please tell us about yourself.
Hello!! I’m Jo and I write the blog 'The Tokyo Chapter'. I’m a Mum, a creative and I am a bit of a Japanese language nerd but also very, very Aussie at the same time. 
What made you first interested in Japan?
I learned Japanese in high school. At my school it was compulsory to take either French or Japanese for two years and then we could decide whether or not to further our language studies after that. This was back at the time when Australia and Japan had many strong trade and tourism-related partnerships in place so many Australian schools were encouraging students to even just learn the self-introductions basics in Japanese no matter what kind of career path you were hoping to travel down after graduating.  
I was just one of those kids who really enjoyed learning a new language. It was a special “secret code” to me but I also loved mimicking my teacher’s intonation and trying to decipher hiragana, katakana and later on…that dreaded kanji…

People’s introduction to Japan is usually through bigger cities like Tokyo and Kyoto, but yours was in the countryside of Kurashiki, and as a 16-year-old exchange student no less! What was the biggest culture shock from that experience? What were your personal highlights?
Haha yes - now that you mention it - it is quite unusual to not start off in one of the biggest cities, isn’t it? The truth is, I was awarded a scholarship as part of a Japan-Australia exchange programme through my school and (I think there were 5 or 6 of us that were given the chance to go that year?) and we were placed all over Japan depending on where the organisation imagined would suit us and matched up with their 'sister schools'.
Although the teen version of me was riddled with envy that one of the other girls from another state was being shipped off to big, shiny, 'kawaii'-shopping-corners-everywhere and Disneyland-on-tap Tokyo, it worked out to be such an amazing and authentic Japanese slow-living experience in one of most stunning Japanese countryside towns.  
I mean, I literally rode my bike down little winding raised roads next to the rice paddies and then down 'bikanchiku' (the historic areas on either side of the canal) every single morning on the way to school. That’s pretty special (a special-ness that was, at times, wasted on a teenager until I sort of came into my own)!

Even as an adult now, I am still really drinking in what an amazing experience it was. When else in life would you ever get to just switch lives and live like someone else, in a whole new language, in a completely different cultural environment?
I attended an all girls’ school as a senior high school student and lived with several different host families in their homes. I had the pleasure of dining with these families; cuddling up with their pets under the kotatsu in winter; watching their favourite tv shows; waiting for my turn in the bath; and desperately trying to converse with their grannies and grandpas. My school even assisted me in applying for summer and winter part-time jobs during the school breaks. 
Grown-up me could never ever - no matter how hard I would try - re-create such a fully-immersive cultural experience ever again! 

In terms of culture shock, I was incredibly homesick a few months in. My brain was tired and a bit 'over' trying to speak Japanese all day long. Also, at that time and place, many of the people around me who did speak English were often older teachers at my school - so not exactly ideal to have a gossip with or vent to, exactly. So establishing real friendships with my peers took a LOT longer than I ever anticipated. In case you couldn't tell, I’m a chatty person and it took a long time to go deeper than the “Do you like chocolate ice-cream or vanilla ice-cream?” level and have actual conversations about thoughts and feelings. 
Another culture shock (that was a good and a bad thing at the same time) was the level of independence I was given...but also not given at the same time. Commuting to school on my own and managing my own time after school hours was something that I’d never experienced at home in Melbourne before. This was also before mobile phones or anything too, so I loved the fact that I could just disappear off on bikes and trains whenever I had a spare moment. Maybe this is also why I’m still quite happy with my own company and love exploring on my own. 
But then to counteract that new independence was school, which I felt was the exact opposite. There was too much structure and so many rules all day long. Rules that kept us (my classmates and I) safe and on schedule, but also so many rules layered on top of other rules - some of which didn’t make a whole lot of sense but were just the done thing.
However, I must say that, when you don’t understand what’s happening language-wise at the start, rules and structure can make it much easier to fake that you know what is going on!

Jo's daughter with Mount Fuji during winter in the background

Is there any advice you would give to those who would like to visit rural Japan but may be a little hesitant to step outside the comfort zone cities like Tokyo provide for travellers? 
My advice is to dive on in and keep your mind open. In moments of culture shock or frustration, try your best to step out of your body and look down on the whole learning experience. It takes the edge off and makes you laugh at yourself a little more.  
Learn a little bit of Japanese first (doesn’t need to be at a high level or anything, just enough to greet others and show that you are trying) and remember that body language plays a major part in communication. Even when you meet someone for the first time anywhere in the world and you don’t speak the same language, it’s still easy to tell by their face and behaviour whether or not they are a sweetie pie or not, right? So it goes both ways. 

Ooohh! And one more slice of advice! If you find yourself in an intense, deep-in-the-culture, part of your experience, I recommend carving out time to be completely non-Japanese - all on your own. Somewhere where you can don't need to watch your own culturally-appropriate behaviour one little bit - just to let off some steam. That might be just flopping on a bed in your room with some music; going to a quiet cinema and laughing loudly and obnoxiously (mouth-wide, open-shovelling in popcorn) at a movie; a karaoke box session for one; or a phone call with a friend in your native language where you can be as silly and sarcastic as you like…Things like that balanced out the universe for me! 

Jo's two children having a good time up on the Hotel Gracery Shinjuku's Godzilla Terrace in Tokyo

You run the blog, ‘The Tokyo Chapter’; for those who might be unfamiliar with it, please tell us about the blog and its humble beginnings. 
So fast forward to further down the track after high school and uni in Australia, I came back to Japan on a working holiday visa. I taught English to kids in the morning so I could afford to pay for Japanese lessons at night. Then, once my Japanese was at a 'get-a-Japanese-job' level, I started working in interpreting roles, tourism-related roles and some administrative roles which enabled me to use the skills I’ve acquired to-date.  
So by then, I'd lived in Japan for around 8 years in total all together, in Kurashiki and then Kobe but never in Tokyo. 
I actually met my Scottish husband in Kobe, whilst he was working in Osaka at the time. We moved around overseas together for his work (South Africa & Australia) and during that time we got married and had our two children. We then moved to Tokyo - the first time for all of us! - as a family when my youngest was just a very small baby.  
I’ll admit that I was so so so cocky about how easy life was going to be as a parent in Japan - I mean, I knew the language and the cultural stuff pretty well, right? But it was more of an adjustment than I realised. It’s amazing how before kids, you never even notice things like playgrounds, playcentres, accessible train stations for travelling with a stroller, right?

When I did find my groove a bit, I had so many friends and friends of friends reach out with questions! Questions about hotels, about nappies, about restaurants that served traditional cuisine but also had child-friendly facilities and options. I was being asked so often that I decided to start blogging - first off, because I was just kind of sick of typing out the same information over and over again. But then, the blog got traction, not only with new expat residents, but with holidaymakers in Japan. From there, it just grew!

Jo's two children admiring the army of 'Maneki-neko' statues at Gotokuji Temple, Tokyo

What was the biggest or most surprising thing you learnt about Japan or yourself through having the blog?
For me, I think it’s really shone a light on what a super power it can be to understand many elements of Japan, but also 'get' the world here from an 'outsiders'' perspective.
Parents who seemed to be drawn to my blog are just the most respectful people. These people want an exciting and authentic Japan experience. They want to be as culturally appropriate as they can possibly be. They don’t want to just follow a basic touristy guide book. They want to really experience true Japan and give their kids the gift of that experience too. 
But they also have their own concerns and needs as they are travelling with their special 'babies' (I say 'babies' but 'babies' to me encompasses even teenagers). 
So I like to think I can bridge that gap; show them how to get what they need and take the 'worries' part out of their trip so that they can have a mixture of structured and spontaneous experiences while in Japan. 

What are your top tips for travelling in and around Japan with children?
Plan to allow for beautiful moments of spontaneity. It sounds boring but, as everyone realises when they take their first trip with kids, it’s different to pre-kid days. However, that doesn’t mean it can't be amazing! In fact, I love it - in many ways more. It slows you down in a good way. It allows for more human interaction. You’re going to need to conversate with local Japanese people - and they are going to want to learn more about you and your family too.  
You’ll take in more as you’re not buzzing around everywhere quickly. Setting a plan in place means that you can explore at your own pace and adjust your itinerary to make every member of the family so happy. For example, my trips often go like this: for breakfast in this area, a little walk through this garden or temple; lunch and a play here; this fun thing for Mum and Dad while the baby sleeps; matcha ice-cream for all and something active when my child wakes; oohh what's down this lane? Let’s see what this is all about...my 5-year-old has had enough so let’s go back to our accommodation for a familiar snack; let’s all now go out for a late-night walk and learn how to make something or look at the koi in the pond etc.

Playing in the mouth of an 'oni', a Japanese demon, at Nishikidani Park (also known as 'Oni Park') in Tokyo

My other main motto for travelling with kids is 'don’t make it harder than it needs to be'. If you child needs their nap - this holiday is not the time for trying to get rid of that nap. If the bus trip to the temple is the cheapest way but there are four of you and the taxi is three times the price, just do the taxi and save those tired legs for walking once you’re in there. If you’re worried because your child only likes one flavour of rice cracker from home, pack lots in your suitcase for when they aren’t feeling adventurous - and they might just surprise you one day!

So, you lived in Kobe for a time before travelling around overseas and then settling in Tokyo. Kobe is of course most known for their Kobe beef or ‘wagyu’, but as a former Kobe-local is there anything else you would recommend people MUST try whilst in town?
Hahaha, well, I’m a pescatarian so not the best person to talk about wagyu in terms of taste! But I did work for the Hotel Okura Kobe for many years and sent our special guests out for wagyu often. Sometimes, through work, I was able to attend and they would cook me a beautiful piece of fish and veggies. 
I think a proper 'teppanyaki' experience in Japan (and especially Kobe) is a must for anyone. It’s fabulous for kids too as they can see the ingredients being cooked in front of them and it just all feels a bit fancy. A warning to Japanese-newbies though: it’s not like teppanyaki overseas where the food is thrown around etc.! This is a high-end, special culinary experience. It also isn’t a cheap experience so I recommend going for lunch over dinner to keep costs down - especially when dining as a family!

Other Kobe recommendations?  

- Shukugawa river during cherry blossom time. 

- Lunch and 'zakka' ( accessories and homewares) shopping in Kitano.
- Rooftop dinner and drinks up near Shin-Kobe Station.
- Onsen time after a walk through nature at Mt Rokko & Arima Onsen.

Jo and her son enjoying a rickshaw ride at Arashiyama, Kyoto

What’s the next chapter - pun intended - of Jo and ‘The Tokyo Chapter’?
Oh! Covid put many plans on hold, of course. But I hope to write a book and I also hope to work with Japanese tourism and venues, hoping to cater to international families staying in Japan. I also hope to expand my blog post guides to include suggested itineraries for smaller towns in Japan (over the past few years I added Kinosaki Onsen and Takayama and I just loved helping families see beyond Kyoto, Tokyo and Hiroshima).

Thank you for talking with us!
Delighted! That was fun ! Thanks!


Ready to plan that Japan adventure with the kids? Hop over to Jo's blog, The Tokyo Chapter, for tips, guides and inspiration here! And be sure to give her a follow on either Instagram or Facebook.
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