Postcards from Japan: Family campervanning, worldschooling, and 9 months in Japan during a global pandemic, with The Galavanting Family

 
When the global pandemic struck and all sorts of travel restrictions sprung up, one family was lucky enough to time their mega-trip of a lifetime so that they entered Japan just in the nick of time. Since then, they have spent the summer exploring the country as a family in a rented RV campervan - something much easier to do in Japan than most people think - and hopping between Airbnbs.
We asked them about how they've managed it so far, travelling Japan with no tourists, the concept of worldschooling, and the glorious experiences they've been documenting on their Instagram @thegalavantingfamily!

Hi guys! Thanks for speaking to us. Could you tell us a little about yourselves?
We are an American multiracial family of four. Viet (dad) was born in Viet Nam and emigrated to the US after the war. Liezl (mom) was born in California to a Filipino mother and a white father. Luna (daughter aged 11) Leo (son aged 8) were both born in NYC.
Viet is the primary teacher in charge of the kids’ education on the road. Prior to worldschooling, Viet ran the family’s vacation rental business in NYC. Liezl works full-time from the road, advising non-profits in Africa and Asia on fundraising strategy. (find out more about her firm and its projects here)


Where in the world had you been before ending up in Japan? 
We started our worldschooling adventures Sep 2019 spending 2 months each in Indonesia, Philippines, Viet Nam, and Thailand, plus short trips to Singapore and Hong Kong. We were in Thailand when the borders starting closing around the world, so we quickly traveled to Japan in March 2020 deciding Japan would be a safe and beautiful place to ride out the pandemic. 
 
Where have you visited in Japan so far? 
We started with Kyoto in March to catch the cherry blossoms and stayed for three months. Arriving during the start of the pandemic gave us the opportunity to experience Kyoto in a unique way. With no foreign visitors and hardly any Japanese tourists, we had Kyoto to ourselves for 3 months!
We then rented a campervan and took a 7000 km road trip throughout Honshu and Hokkaido. By skipping the toll roads and taking side streets, we not only saw more scenery, but saved a ton of money on expensive tolls. We spent the nights at Michi No Eki and bathed in onsens. 
After the road trip, we spent three months eating and exploring the many neighborhoods of Tokyo. We went to 5 museums and ate a ton of amazing ramens. We are now back in Kyoto to experience the fall foliage and Viet’s 50th birthday.
 
(For shorter trips around Japan by car and campervan, also check out the Expressway Passes which provide exemption from toll roads for a fixed fee, over a fixed period)


What first got you enthusiastic about visiting Japan and what brought you back?
After Liezl graduated university in 1998, she moved to Japan for a year a half to teach English in Saitama. We were dating then so Viet visited for a week and both loved it, especially Kyoto. We’ve known since then we would return one day with our kids. We didn’t realize we’d return for such an extended stay! 
 
What has most surprised you guys about Japan?
Luna: How clean the country is. How much everyone follows the rules.
Leo: How delicious and abundant gyudon is.
Viet: That the country is more affordable then we had budgeted for, even accounting for the covid discounts.
Liezl: How much freedom the kids have to roam about, ride their bikes, run errands without having us present. Japan is not only safe, but the society reasonably expects children should be able to navigate the streets on their own. Luna and Leo spent a half-day by themselves in Tokyo, traveling by train to Harajuku for lunch, then back home. They felt accomplished and we weren’t worried at all. 


How has it been travelling through Japan during this period? 
It’s been amazing to explore and experience Japan during these last 9 months. Places that would normally be full of tourists and or fully booked are empty and open. We are able to stay at places that we would not normally be able to afford because there’s little  demand for Airbnb’s and hotels. 
It has also been fun to see the kids pick up basic Japanese and begin learning the alphabets. 
The downsides are that we have seen wherever we have traveled first hand the devastating impact the pandemic has had on businesses that depend on tourism.
Another downside is not being able to socialize with locals and other expats at izakayas, family meetups, karaoke. We meet new friends and tend to hangout outdoors, but it's limited because of the pandemic.


How have you been balancing work and home life throughout the trip?
One of the benefits of worldschooling is that we are not bound to a traditional school calendar and schedule. We can visit museums midweek to take advantage of smaller crowds or take online classes at night due to time zone differences.
Liezl has been working virtually since 2016, with heavy travel to her clients in Africa and Asia before the pandemic. Now without the travel to her clients, Liezl is able to spend more time with family and balance worldschooling with working from wherever we are. As long we have have strong internet and a quiet space, Liezl can be productive. She keeps odd hours often taking calls starting around midnight, which hasn’t been a problem as she’s adjusted her sleep schedule accordingly.


Can you tell us a bit more about the concept of ‘worldschooling’? How does it work and what got you into it?
Worldschooling is a take on homeschooling while traveling. It’s a movement that believes that children can learn from travel and the world around them can be an education via culture, people and places. We teach them math, grammar, and science that they would learn at a regular school and add to that the richness of the country we are currently living in. We got into worldschooling by combining our love of travel with our love of learning. Worldschooling has added to our lives as much as our children's.
 

What have been the personal highlights of the Japan trip so far?
- Walking around Sensoji Temple in Asakusa in traditional summer kimono
- Tasting local sake from a traditional tasting room in Niigata
- Amazing coastline along the Sea of Japan, starting in Niigata and north to Akita. 
- Hiking along the Oraise Gorge
- Playing with wild horses near Aomori in Cape Shiriyazaki
and pretty much all of Hokkaido!
Also, riding our bikes all over Kyoto during both spring cherry blossom season and now for fall foliage. We’re staying near the Kamo river and ride along the banks everyday.
 

What have been the most memorable experiences you’ve had in Japan as a family?
- After 6 months in hot and steamy Southeast Asia, arriving to Kyoto just as the blossoms started to open. We as a family will never forget our first day and impression of Kyoto. 
- Spending the day at Fuji Q for Luna’s 11th birthday, which was practically empty!
- Campervanning as a family! The daily/nightly onsen were so special. Viet and Leo spending quality time in the boys section and Liezl and Luna bonding in the girls section.
- Eating Lawsons, Family Mart and 7-11 on the regular. 
- Viet and Liezl getting asked to leave onsen twice during the trip because of our tattoos!
 
(For some background on tattoo culture in Japan, and tips on how to access and enjoy onsen even with tattoos, check out this article)


How easy is it to travel Japan by RV? What have been the pleasant surprises and what are things to bear in mind?
Traveling around Japan with a campervan was easier than we thought it would be. We had heard that toll roads were really expensive but we found that Google maps made finding alternatives rather easy. Roads are well maintained and signage is clear. The biggest surprise was how amazing michi no ekis are. These roadside rest stops have everything a traveller needs including free 24 hour parking, wifi and restrooms. Most have an information counter, restaurants and shops with local crafts and food. The one thing we would take into account for the next road trip would be that vans and RVs are not made for Japanese cities as they won’t fit in many parking spaces in the city. 


This month we're looking at the word 'tabigokoro' meaning 'the innate urge to travel'. Where is it that you are most keen to travel to next within Japan and why?
Japow!
We are always daydreaming and planning our next chapter and adventure. We’ve been doing a lot of research on the amazing powder snow  (#japow) in Hokkaido and can’t wait to try it ourselves. We are avid skiers/snowboarders and would love to be able to teach our kids in a powder wonderland like Niseko for an entire season. We hope immigration will extend our visas for another 3 months so we can head to Hokkaido by the new year.


Where are you planning on taking the worldschooling after Japan?
Travel in the time of COVID is really difficult to plan around. We would love to stay in Japan until March through the end of snowboarding season, and what’s next depends on the state of the pandemic. If the Vietnam border re-opens, we may head there. We are also eager to go to Georgia (the country), which would be a fascinating starting point to transition our trip from Asia and Europe. We recently were approved for the “Remotely from Georgia” program which is offered for digital nomads to live/work remotely in Georgia for up to a year. If the pandemic is still raging by the spring, we would love to stay in Japan.
 
Thanks so much for speaking to us, guys! We can safely say we're all very jealous...
If you're interested in campervanning with the family in Japan, or the worldschooling life, make sure to follow The Galavanting Family and their progress over on their Instagram @thegalavantingfamily.
 

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