Category Archives: family

Isehara Camping during Rainy Season

It’s fair to say that I like to get outdoors. Although I’m not a frequent or avid camper, now that the kids are sort of old enough, I think it’s important we all get out and get some outdoors and tent time in.

We first went together in 2012, but for a pile of reasons we missed last year, and so this year we’re trying to make up the trip count. June is  part of Japan’s rainy season, but undaunted I booked a spot at a place I hadn’t camped at before up in the mountains, near a river,called Yamagoya.  It’s only a bit over an hour  from the house, so I thought that if it turned into a complete disaster I’d just have to up sticks and it would be a short drive back.

As the date came up, it was clear it would rain at some point. On the day we drove up it was raining, and when we arrived, I expected the kids to complain, but actually they loved it, and I have to say, they didn’t complain once during the whole weekend.

The site is small, running about 100m along a small river bank. Come the real summer they’re mainly set up with family sized BBQ sites, but right now they just had a few tarps up covering about half of them. They actually only have 3 designated tent pitches. This was the first odd point  – the pitches were away from the river, and broadly flat, but they’d put several layers of stones there, which may have helped run-off and drainage, but made getting the tent pegs in quite a bit harder, and of course the rain makes everything more slippery.  Like the previous camp though, I set up my GoPro on time lapse, and afterwards made a video from it – the kids love watching the tent go up at high speed!

The stones could have been a bigger issue, had I not brought our Thermarests, of which I’ve become a bit of a fan over the last few years, meaning for the kids especially, they could get comfy in their sleeping bags on one of these mattresses, and get some sleep.

Once the tent was up we went in to the adjoining cafe for some lunch. They only have a small menu, very Japanese oriented, which is fine, but not much for the kids. That said, the tofu salad and udon we ordered was excellent, and we could divide it between the three of us. They also do desserts and kakigouri (shaved ice with some fruit cordial), which obviously did go down well with the kids. It wasn’t expensive, given they’re serving a relatively captive audience, but marginally more expensive than a family restaurant.

Tenting in the Rain

As the rain came down gently, it was actually quite picturesque, looking down the river, and off a slight cliff down the valley. The kids were happy with my decision that since they were wet anyway, paddling into the river a little wasn’t going to do any more damage, so we passed quite a bit of time just exploring the riverbank and the site.

One of the best things about camping is cooking outside though, and it’s something my kids like too. For normal meals at home they can sometimes be picky, but when it comes off a BBQ or the camping stoves, there are no arguments. The drizzle had let up a little, so I broke out our two stoves – one is my normal lightweight backpacker stove, the other is a domestic ‘cassette gas’ burner. I found one of the set out tarps which was anchored quite high up, and set up just below and to one side of it – you don’t want to be melting or setting fire to tarps – so we got some rain shelter and played safe. I do like cooking outdoors, and with two stoves, got some spaghetti bolognese going.

One thing I was glad I brought is my Gerber multi-tool – I somehow bent one of the guide lips on my camping stove, and had to gently bend it back into shape with my pliers.

There wasn’t any showers that I noticed, but the toilets were clean enough for a camp site, and part of a concrete building, so the kids weren’t too fussed about it. It’s still odd to me that the same kids who complain about a small mosquito at home, don’t seem bothered by much bigger insects when they’re camping.

Let’s talk about insects. I don’t really have a problem with insects when I’m outdoors, with the possible exception of the midges in Scotland. Insects live outside, it’s what they do. However, twice over the weekend, I must have looked like a tempting and tasty target to Yamaburi, which are Japanese mountain leeches, and I had to remove them both forcefully, but safely (well, safe for me, not so much for them). They’re hardy things I can tell you.

I should probably discuss something about the staff at the site too. They’re very nice and polite, but a little slow, and aren’t entirely intuitive. I noticed this when I booked the site as I booked over a week ahead, confirming everything down to kids ages, arrival and departure times. When my wife called a few days before to check on things (if they rented towels etc.) she got into a weird conversation that the booking was somehow not complete. Finally she got confirmation that actually it was all booked. We still don’t know what the story was there. If it wasn’t complete, why hadn’t they called the mobile number I’d provided. I wonder if they’re the off-peak part timers?

All in all then, a good, simple one night camp. I think we’ll go back later in the year, and take advantage of one of the BBQ spots, as well as the tent pitches, as that would be fun. All that remains is for me to find out how to dissuade the local leeches, or a better way to remove them (if you have any ideas, please add to the comments).

Rusutsu Snow Trip 2013

In January,  we took the family up to Rusutsu in Hokkaido for a bit of snowboarding and skiing. Yes, this post is a little late.

The resort feels very much like a bubble place, but essentially is a collection of hotels and a few chalets around three main mountain ski areas. We stayed in the Resort Hotel North, which is at the base of one of the ski areas. Is it really a bubble era hotel? Well, it has an animatronic talking tree, some animatronic bears (or dogs, perhaps), and a full double decker carousel in the foyer which you could ride for free every evening, so yes, it’s very much a bubble hotel, and there’s nothing wrong with that, as long as you aren’t paying bubble fees.

We went for an all in package with breakfast and dinner, especially as the food at the in-house restaurants was good – believe me, we’ve stayed at places where the breakfasts were awful, and yes, I’m looking at you, Yamada Onsen in Niseko! As I’ve learned, with kids, having a buffet with a decent selection is vital to keep the complaints down.

Rentals weren’t too expensive, and the kit was very good, as is pretty much standard here nowadays, and the staff were fairly multi-lingual given the decent number of Chinese and Australian guests – also pretty much standard here nowadays.  The instructors were good too, and our eldest got some lessons in when she wasn’t skiing with me. For once I wasn’t renting ski boots, having picked up a cheap pair of Head ski boots in Jimbochou for Xmas last year, and it was nice to have a consistent setup for a whole trip.

Rusutsu’s got a good selection of courses too, and on clear weather days, some great views. I’m not sure whether I prefer it to Niseko, but it’s still got a decent selection of runs, and some hilarious tree routes. There’s a snow park, where I spent a morning. I’ve never been much into jumps and such, but I did actually have a good time in there, so next season I might invest a bit more time in the snow parks and see how it goes.

I also took my GoPro out, and got some great shots of the kids skiing, and us out on our snowboards. As I’m a much better boarder than skier, it was interesting to shift from trepidation on even easier intermediate slopes on skies, to double diamond slopes through the trees on my board, and just feeling challenged, rather than concerned I was going to break something.

I tried the camera both mounted to the board, and a headcam, and actually, I think it works as both, but obviously you get a lot of snow blowing up onto the camera on it’s board mount. One note though, unless you have the anti-fog inserts, you’ll want to regularly open the casing to lot the condensation dissipate after about 20mins.!

All in all, we had a great trip, and even the flights and travel went fairly smoothly, so no complaints there.

湘南ベルマレ 1−1 東京ヴェルディ

Last night we went down to the BMW Stadium in Hiratsuka for a family night out to see a live football game between the local team – Shonan Bellmare – and visitors Tokyo Verdy. It was a very decent night out all told – the stadium is in a nice park and there was a lot of stalls almost like a mini-matsuri outside, selling shaved ice with fruit syrup, beer and a decent array of snack foods. The stadium is a nice, if somewhat Soviet-era looking concrete construction which apparently can hold around 18,000, but it felt plenty full with last night’s attendance of 9,370.

Shonan play in J2, the lower of the two Japanese professional leagues, but that’s OK – my local team in the UK isn’t exactly top flight, but that doesn’t stop an entertaining game, and the crowd were treated to some good football for 90minutes, and even two well taken goals in the second half giving the final scoreline of 1-1. Points have to go to the Verdy fans who put up a solid 90minutes of drums and chanting, and at least from where we were sat, drowned out the locals.

It’s been a while sine I’ve been to a J League game actually, though I always watch games when I go back to the UK, and whilst the support style might change around the world, the community feeling on the terraces and the appreciation of the play seems fairly constant. I have to say though, watching an evening game 3Km from the Pacific Ocean in a t-shirt and shorts contrasts oddly to Boxing Day games in the north of England.

Bottom line: if you’re in Japan, and you haven’t checked one out, go and see a J League game, and if you’re visiting, put it on your to do list.

I didn’t take many photos as I was assisting in keeping the kids under control as it was their first ever live football game, and whilst my eldest said she liked it, she was tired after 75mins., and my youngest spent some time with one of us walking about as he was fascinated by the stadium and all the people.

Family Camp – Stone Chair

I should say up front that though I’m not an ardent camper, I do like getting outdoors and camping now and then. Before we had the kids, we’d camp at the Fuji Rock Festival and such, and quite enjoyed it, so now the kids are a bit older, and at least big enough to fend off (or try to eat) all but the biggest insects, we decided to have a test family camping expedition last week.

I asked around some more camp experienced friends, about where was a good ‘easy’ camp site for families, and camp guru CL over at Shonan in English pointed us at Stone Chair, down in Izu, near Itou, about half-way down the peninsula.

I like to travel light, but with kids, that’s not quite as do-able, as you really need to carry a few more ‘Plan B’ items just in case. Most of the items we’ve been just adding to over the years, so now we’re pretty complete, and I put some of the things we’ve found really useful at the end of the post.

So we threw everything in the back of the car, and set off for Stone Chair, a little nervous that we are technically in rainy season, and the clouds were heavy, but actually we got lucky, since it was beautiful blue skies the whole time we were out and about.

Basic equipment list

The name you see most regarding camping here, is the Coleman brand – they make everything you could need for camping, and a lot more, and seemingly the quality is decent for the average family camp, during Spring, Summer and early Autumn. The ‘stuff’ we took then included:

  • Basic Logos 4 person tent ( a bit like this one)
  • Thermarest foam air mattresses – I personally think these are worth the money over the rolled blue foam pads
  • Basic sleeping bags – mainly Spring / Summer 15degC+ ones for the family
  • Coleman quad light (this is excellent as you can give the kids their own light for wandering around).
  • A head lamp – always useful to keep your hands free to work on things in the dark.
  • Cool box with ice packs for all the food
  • Some camping pots and pans
  • A camping stove, and we also took our ‘cassette gas‘ one.
  • My old Solio – great if the phone / game batteries run low.
  • Lots of anti-mosquito and bite spray!

That was pretty much it, the rest were some clothes, books, wipes, towels and the stuff you end up taking with kids to most places anyway.

I should say that the people at Stone Chair were great – they responded well to e-mails and phone calls, and kept their Japanese within my level, and made us feel welcome, but didn’t hang around too much, and let us get on with it.They also seem to have some wood artwork going on and there were some nice pieces dotted around the facilities.

Woodwork
Woodwork

The facilities aren’t too bad either – toilets are clean (if you excuse the inevitable insects), and there are showers available. Much of the space is devoted to tenting areas, all flat and set aside from each other with bushes and trees. If you fancy it, there are also plenty of proper barbeque places, as open camp fires are forbidden.

We also looked at the small lodges available, but who needs those when you have a tent! We didn’t see a shop nearby so you may need to drive to one, and depending on which way you approach the place, the roads can be steep and very narrow since it really is set aways back from the coast, on the side of one of Izu’s mountains, so it’s quiet, and quite secluded.

The fee for pitching our tent for the night, and use of the toilets and such was 6,000yen, though we got another 10% discount as we were midweek, and I think frankly because we were the only people there! So if you’re looking for a simple family camp area, take a look at Stone Chair.

A View from the Stone Chair

First Matsuri of 2012

I’ll admit that this post is two weeks late. What can I say, I’ve been busy. In my world, ‘busy’ isn’t just the day job, it also covers drinking tea, drinking beer, and sleeping, and I’ll confess to having done all three of these in the last month. Quite often.

So on with the post.

On May 19th., we went to our first matsuri of the year. For those few of you who don’t know what a matsuri is, a matsuri(祭り)is a community festival, and many are held in the Summer around Japan. I like these things.

This one was a little atypical, in that it wasn’t really a community one, but one organised by the local council in a nice stretch of family oriented park down by the river. There were a few game stalls, a few food stalls, some free popcorn, free balloon animals (though I got a balloon katana and tried to claim it was for my kids), some ponies to ride, and inflatable castle, a monkey and some vegetable stands. This is typical faire, even for a small one like this, though I admit, the ponies and monkey are a little out of the norm.

Given the beautiful weather and park locale, it was a really relaxing day, starting around 10.30am, and winding down at 3pm, which again is a little unusual as matsuris tend to be afternoon and even affairs.

I enjoyed all of the bits and pieces, and we did ponder getting a house nameplate carved on the spot by a local joinery company who had a stall, but somehow managed not to. I do like kakigoori (かき氷), which is a bowl of shaved ice – not ice chunks, but very thinly sliced ice, which makes it more like snow – with some syrup added. It’s a staple of the hot summers here at these kind of things, and something to look forward to. There was a stall selling what seemed to be edible gelatinous spheres. More than that I can’t say – I didn’t try them, and though they looked nice, at least candyfloss is straight-up honest sugar.

I have to admit to not have been sure about the monkey – part of me balks at that, and kids love it, but that thick rope didn’t make it look too friendly to me. The ponies looked a little happier, and their owner didn’t pan-handle for tips.

One game involves a small paddling pool filled with water with what are referred to here as balloon yoyos – kind of water filled balloons on long elastic bands if you can visualise that. Each person gets a hook on the end of a length of tissue paper, and has to hook the elastic band and retrieve the yoyo from the water before the paper breaks. In reality the kids all get one to prevent riots.

One energetic tyke was bouncing his balloon up and down and then tried a trick at the precise time the elastic band broke, and the balloon flew off and smacked me in the face. For a second I had a mosh pit flashback for some reason, but calmly picked the balloon up as this clueless kid just stood there with his mouth doing that guppy fish thing whilst his poor grandmother had to apologise. I tossed it back to him and asked him to be more careful in the future.

So this was a gentle introduction to the fervour of the matsuri season in Japan, and I look forward to a lot more in the next few months. Photos likely to follow, unless I’m busy.

The Road To Shiga 2012

Last month, the family once more hit the road to go up to Shiga in Nagano Prefecture to get a few days skiing and snowboarding in.

Compared to last year, a few things on the technical side had changed – this time we were in a Toyota Ractis since our beloved Vitz was written off by someone who just didn’t seem to understand traffic lights. The Ractis is slightly bigger, so was a bit more comfortable for all the hours on the road, but because of that, we had to buy some new snow chains. I’m not completely sure, but I think Carmate, who make the Biathlon car chains we used last year, have changed their product mix a little, since the most easily available model in their lineup was the ‘Quick n Easy‘.

One other change was that our son had outgrown his 0-12 month baby seat, so was now in a 12month – 11 year combination seat which we were a little unfamiliar with as we’d only installed it a few days prior, but it worked out very well, and he seems to love it. It’s the Aprica ‘Euro Impact Junior 01‘, and no, I don’t know who comes up with the names for these things; the ‘euro’ part though I suspect comes from the fact that it supports ECE R44.04, a European originating safety standard that all child seats now have to, or want to support.

Armed with all this, we set off from Kanagawa-ken, managing to be on the roads early, with ETC set up, a route in the navi, the kids well occupied (or asleep), and the usual rampaging DJs on FM Yokohama, we were away.

We kept to a stop every 90 mins or so, mainly for toilet breaks and such, to let the kids get out, and for additional tea breaks for the drivers – I’m apparently lucky that my wife doesn’t mind driving, so she took on the first third of the journey. Of course, as you get further up to the mountains, you eventually get to the snow line, and all the ice and fun which comes with it. We actually had to stop a few kilometres earlier than we did last year to put the chains on, and true to form and the couple of practice goes I’d had, the chains went on no problems at all – in fact, I think they were easier than the Biathlons we had last year.  If you’ve never driven with chains, especially on real mountain roads with a decent amount of snow, it is a very fun experience, providing you keep the speed down. I should say that going up a mountain always feels safer than coming down.

The hotel we chose was right at the end of the road we were on so at least we knew we couldn’t miss it. We got the booking sorted out through Snow Japan, a bit like we did last year, but for reasons I’ll explain later, I don’t actually think that route is really worth it. The hotel was the Okushiga-Kougen hotel, and we got a decent price on a family sized room, with breakfast included, and I’d read the breakfast was pretty good. So, to do the hotel review first: it *is* a good hotel – the staff were relatively efficient, the wi-fi (only in the lobby area) worked as advertised and got a decent throughput, and the carpark is right in front and fairly well sheltered and maintained, so I had less snow digging to do each morning. The breakfast was very good for a Japanese ski hotel, a decent western and Japanese buffet, with good sausages, bacon and scrambled eggs which weren’t swimming for a change. The down side is that all other meals are horrifically expensive – the dinners start at 2,500 for a childs set meal, go to a basic adult meal for 4,500en, and top out at 12,500en for a deluxe course. These prices are out of our range. What we learned are that for lunches and dinner it’s much better for quality and cost to either pop around to the Prince Hotel Shiga West, or over the road to the Hotel Grand Phenix, which oddly is an expensive place to stay, but reasonable to eat. The Italian restaurant there does a fantastic rabbit dish.

All of the Okushiga hotels are at the bottom of the slope, but let’s get something out of the way – the area is skier only – no snowboards are allowed. We chose the place though because our eldest is learning to ski, and the ski school there is excellent, reasonably priced, and even will sell you digital copies of some on piste photos of the kids for a small amount. When we were there, there were no other students. The ‘no boarder’ attitude, combined with some of the pricing means it’s pretty quiet, and the average age of people there is over 60 as far as I could tell. We simply put the eldest in ski schools in the mornings, which she loved, and then drove to Yakibitaiyama around the corner, where our youngest could play in the creche, and we could get some boarding done. I should also point out Okushiga does have a creche, but only on Saturday and Sunday, which was a minor fact they didn’t mention when we called in advance to confirm facilities.

The Okushiga Kougen hotel then worked out very well once we sorted the food sourcing out, and the onsen was clean, and the TV, though an aging CRT with a digital converter literally bolted to it, did allow us to use the audio/visual cable for the iPod so my daughter could watch her shows, which is invaluable when you’re a little bit confined for space. The in-room bath was also a little bigger than many other hotels, though still technically a unit bath/toilet room.

A notable experience for me on the snow side of things that was the first time I got to ski with my daughter, going up on the chair lift together and coming down and I have to say I was very impressed, though I think she was irritated with the grip I had on her on the chair lift, given she was quite relaxed.

When not on the slopes, we could play with the kids safely at Okushiga, though the snow is so powdery, it was difficult to make a snowman.

Coming back was as simple as going, but again, going downhill always makes me think a little bit, and we passed one person coming up who was sliding all over who apparently thought that normal road tyres on an SUV would be enough – it’s not.

As usually, we sent all of our boards and skis via Takkyubin, which is always the simplest way to do it. Perhaps next year we’ll try a roof gear holder for them.

Booking via SnowJapan used to get some decent discounts, but now I really don’t know since the prices we were quoted on the phone with hotels was the same as via their site, so aside from driving some traffic I’m not sure where the value is any more (and the SnowJapan make-over with Silverlight hotel finder was perhaps ill advised).

In all then, a massively successful trip for the whole family, and we managed to make use of all the lessons we learned last year, and learned a few for next year, as we wont be able to make another this year due to a stream of other commitments. I also got a nice ‘yuki 雪’ sticker for my old Macbook.

 

Photograph Digitising and Preservation

Perhaps as you get older, and certainly when you have children, you start thinking a bit more about preserving family photos. All photos of my kids have always been digital, so for me, preserving and archiving that has been a digital storage and backup dilemma, so have a look down the bottom of this post for my solutions on that.

However, almost all of my own childhood pictures are on single pieces of paper in boxes, some in albums, and some of which we still have the single negatives of. For me, that’s an issue as I live on the other side of the planet from the rest of my family and those photos, and there’s only that single copy, which we’d like to duplicate to have here in Japan as we start our own family, and not just to reduce that single point of disaster. I want to give my kids a giggle when they look at what I did when I was a kid.

Most of my old family photos were shot on cheap 110 film cameras with those stick flashes which melted after one use (my children will laugh at this post when they’re old enough to read it!)

110 film was widely available in the seventies and eighties, and roundly regarded as not very good nowadays. This means many of my childhood photos aren’t great technically, but from going through this process with a hundred or so photos so far, it isn’t the image quality that matters, it’s the memory of the moment, so don’t worry if that awesome memory you have in your head seems to have a coffee ring on the corner of the print and is slightly out of focus on the paper – it doesn’t detract at all.

Scanning

I have a recent, but not new, Epson GT-X770 scanner – it’s a mid range home scanner, and supports slide and negative scanning via a top lid light, and plastic negative holders. I did though, have to make my own holder for 110 film negative, as virtually no scanners support it natively. It also has some solid scan drivers and hardware elements for colour restoration, scratch removal etc.. I tend to scan two versions of each print; one a straight un-modded one, and one with colour restored because I actually find the scanner seems to do a better job of this that Photoshop for some reason.

The resolution I scan at depends on the source and the photo. There are plenty of guides out there, though I find some to be a bit off to me – a good website for reviewing some of the more technical aspects is ScanTips

Generally I scan colour paper print photos at 300dpi, and a few at 600dpi [dots per inch].

300dpi is easily good enough for most prints, and recently, what most photo print shops printed at anyway. From what I can tell from testing on the 110 prints, 300dpi is already far above what was captured on the paper anyway. I use 600dpi for some black and white prints from good sources, though again, I’m probably going too high and am pretty much capturing high resolution grain some of the time.

For negatives, you’ll use a much higher dpi setting (as the negatives are so small) and you start to see why scanners often have fantastically high scan numbers.

I tend to go for ~2400-3200dpi, but again, you run the risk of purely scanning grain in the negative, rather than capturing any real value, so no need to put the scanner on max, unless you have pristine, well shot slides or negatives. Again, for me, my sources are relatively poor, so I don’t need to go too far – to around 3200dpi for some 35mm negatives I had from early backpacking trips with my old Olympus.

Other Scanner Settings
I tend to just try to capture everything in the scanner, and then ‘fix’ in software on a copy. The only exception is really colour restore as I said, and some hardware features. Unsharp mask etc. I just leave for software adjustments later on.

File Format

When saving anything you’ve digitized from an analogue source, you want it to be in a loss-less format – this means that it’s exactly what you captured. The other system is ‘lossy’ and generally you don’t see the difference, except when you do multilpe generations of saves.

I save the files as loss-less TIFF files. This seems to be the most widely supported format, and holds comments and other things fairly well, it also has some lossless compression options, and handles high colour depth for those with higher end scanners. I’ve saved some of my own scans as PNG format also, as there’s nothing wrong with it, and has some advantages over TIFF in loss-less compression, but lacks support in some applications.

Never, ever, save as JPG – just don’t – always try to save a loss-less version as your ‘gold master’, and take JPGs from that. For any file conversion, I recommend IrfanView for Windows, and GraphicConverter for OS X.

Outsourcing

If the thought of getting a scanner and taking the time and effort to do all those photos seems scary or just plain painful, you can pay someone to scan your prints and negatives, and return them to you. This might also be an option if you’re looking at a huge archive.

There was some controversy a few years ago that many of the companies ship your photos to India for scanning and clean up, though there never seemed to be anyone who’d lost photos or had any other issues with any of these services, and as long as the end result is good, I fail to see how it’s an issue.

That Digital Storage
Backups for my computers used to really be about things I’d written and so on, but basically, like this blog – I always have a copy online these days, but I will confess I still backup a WordPress export locally now and then, but I think that’s relatively safe.

Prints are on paper, and you have a negative. There’s no worry about obsolete file formats, or applications, you just look at them in an album – risk of deletion is fairly low.

For any format though, there’s the risk of natural disaster, fires, theft and all manner of things – I tragically saw a lot of this when I went up to Tohoku to help clean up the tsunami damage – we all kept a keen eye out for any photos, CDs, hard drives or negatives which may help someone put their family memories back together.

I see a lot of people saying to keep a USB drive as a backup, but I’m not sure that’s safe enough. I believe in 3 copies – two different media locally, and one off-site copy. For me, most of my photos are on a Mac, that’s backed up sort-of live to a USB drive (not a portable one) on my desk via Time Machine, and then I use CrashPlan to upload another copy to their servers over the internet.

I used to back up to DVDs, but the libraries became just too large to burn, and I can’t trust small hard drives, though for a while i would keep one in my office drawer as a backup.

So that’s my setup for archiving the analogue photographic past. There are cheaper, simpler, or more expensive ways of doing it, but this is working for me. I don’t think you can go too wrong as long as you get a basic loss-less image file at a decent resolution, and back it up – and keep that original print or negative.

Baby & Child Product Recommendations

This is a bit of a different post for me, as I delve not only into product recommendations, but product recommendations for babies and small children. As some way of qualifying the following, we bought these products, and they worked for us, through two children, both born and raised in Japan, though you’ll quickly notice these are not Japanese products. These weren’t always the cheapest, and often weren’t the most popular, but we found that for our attitudes and lifestyle, they just worked, and they lasted and they endured the punishment two children and parents often put items through.

Obviously things are quite good in Japan in regards to being able to rent almost anything with regards to children, and often the economics work out, though sometimes they don’t, versus buying items. Also, unlike perhaps the UK or other European and North American countries, the culture of passing things on to friends and so on has only just started to grow, so often we couldn’t pick things up from friends, though we have managed to pass some items off to good homes after our second was finished with them. Anyway, here are five things which really worked for us (most of these were bought 2006-2008):

Stokke Tripp Trapp
Basically it’s a baby high chair, except it can be altered and adjusted to fit kids and adults of all ages. It’s incredibly simple, has no moving parts, requires no awkward strap adjustment, and is based on a simple ‘Z’ design. You can get a high chair with a built in, and often swing over table part, but we often heard tales of banged heads, and that the table part actually placed the baby too far from the family table if they were attempting to feed the baby when everyone else was eating too – which is what our two kids definitely preferred. We looked around, we spoke to friends, and we tested in shops, and ultimately went for the Stokke – it meant the kids could be near the table to feed them, was massively adjustable, easy to clean, simple to make and generally fitted the elegant simplicity I kind of like in products. They’re incredibly well built, and can be put together in minutes by pretty much anyone. I notice now there are quite a few look alikes, many cheaper, but I’d be willing to bet this is still better value for money.

Airbuggy
The search for a pushchair is a fraught one in Japan – prices just seem to have no ceiling, and much is fashion led. When we bought our Airbuggy in 2006, it was one in a corner of Babies R Us, and I think was the only pneumatic tyre three wheeler in the shop. Everyone else was fondling the MacLarens, and eagerly adding accessories. I played with the MacLaren and other small wheeled ones, and decided that when on smooth concrete and in shopping malls, they’d be great, but we knew we liked ‘off road’ – old paths, the big parks, the beach, the mountains, grass, the fun places for kids. A four mini wheel wouldn’t cut it for us, and we risked the AirBuggy. We never regretted it. In truth we had a problem with the frame after one year – we mailed the company a photo, not expecting anything out of warranty, but they replaced the frame with no questions. Also, they provided much cheaper accessories and support generally. As we glided down small stone and sand paths as solid wheeled Combis dug grooves and were pushed by out of breath parents, it became apparent the extra size and weight of an Airbuggy was a small trade off since the weight when pushing it was much less thanks to having real wheels and tyres. One thing though – especially with foreign baby cars – make sure they fit through a Japanese train station ticket gate. Though AirBuggy has Japan based models, ours was an early one, and only fitted through the wider gates. Not a huge issue, but something to remember. (And yes, pretty much every manufacturer now has a 3 wheel version!).

Baby Bjorn Carrier
When baby is tiny of course, you need something secure to hold them in, as you may be a nervous parent yourself. We looked at a whole pile of carriers in several shops, and basically they break down into front carriers (I suppose ‘dakko carriers’ in Japan) and rear carriers (‘onbu’ ones). There are pro’s and con’s to both and many parents have almost fanboy (fanmother?) devotion to them. We went for a Baby Bjorn front carrier. We decided the padding and adjusters were good more mother – father – and child (I couldn’t get some carriers on). My wife preferred a front carrier as she was concerned at not being able to see the child behind obviously, but also that her hair would get in the baby’s face.

Flexa Bed
As they get bigger and need a bed over a cot, you want something which will last a few years, but something which will be safe whilst they’re still flailing around at night. Again, we looked and looked, and in the end found a small shop selling these (oddly Flexa don’t seem to mention Japan on their international site at the moment). The Flexa system is, as it’s name implies, designed to be flexible – you can all fences to the bed, then later add stilts to make a bunk-bed, or a study desk space, even add a slide. It’s all thick solid wood too, but easy to home assemble – and disassemble and re-assemble as I found when we moved! Again, you pay for it, but when we looked at ‘kiddie’ beds, they either looked flimsy, as in the case of most themed ones, or just small or impractical.

Macpac Koala
Sometimes you just don’t want to take a buggy, or cant, and want that flexibility of when the child fitted in the front carrier, but now is far too large for that. This then is a child carrier pack – it’s essentially a state of the art hiking backback, but with a child carrier and some storage built in. I really like this, and we’ve done some excursions where even the AirBuggy would have slowed us down. It’s well padded and adjustable, and we added the sunshade and all containing rain cover too. It makes the child feel much, much lighter, and there’s enough space for some nappies, food and such at the bottom. It also has some supports so it can stand up on the ground as a seat though we always tethered it to something like this, so it couldn’t fall over! It was great for snow trips, walking around hills and ruins and such, and kids love being high up and seeing everything, but without the aches for parents of a prolonged piggy-pag.  I haven’t seen too many people with these in Japan, and indeed I bought mine from New Zealand, but they do have similar ones in some hiking shops (Jimbochou has several shops with them), and I’ve actually been asked a few times by curious fathers, who took notes of the brand and model, so there’s definitely interest here.

So there’s five things we found worked for us – again, totally personal requirements. I could go on about the things which didn’t work for us – for example: the ‘oshiri fuki’ (bum wet wipes) warmer we had recommended to us for use in the winter, which did nothing but dry the wipes out – useless. Some people recommended boiling milk bottles over microwave steaming them. That lasted 2 days as I remember before I was dispatched to get the small microwave container. My parents still wonder why we even entertained the boiling option.

We’d be interested to hear any other good hits, or hilarious misses on baby kit. I think Mrs. Nanikore will write a post at some point (in English and Japanese though) on things which worked for her – or didn’t – much closer to the front line.

Family road trip to Shiga Kogen

We just got back last week from our first snow trip of 2011. It also marked some other landmarks: at 644Km in 3 days, our longest trip as a family in a car, our first multiday trip with offspring #2, our first long run with the ETC, and of course, our first with the the (non metal) snowchains!

For background, we have an old Toyota Vitz (that’s a Yaris in a few other places), which is fine, but we knew we couldn’t get all the snowboards in the car, so we takkyubin’d them a few days before departure. Takkyubin is a wonderful thing – for 2 snowboards and our boots etc. as two bags, it cost 2,500yen all together, and even though I carried them a few hundred yards to the local Family Mart, they would have picked them up for not much more.

A rental car any bigger than the Vitz, for the time would’ve cost ~¥30,000, and then would cost more in fuel, so we decided to stick with the Vitz as a trial and spend that rental money on an ETC unit for it (~¥14,500 fitted at Autobacs) and some CarMate Biathlon Athlete ‘non-metal’ snowchains (~¥16,500 from 8&7 Wholesale @ Amazon).

The ETC unit would be a bit of a universal benefit – it’s the electronic toll road payment system unit so you don’t have to fiddle with change at toll booths, and gives you some discounts, so this was a nice to have anyway.

We got most of the car ready the night before, and followed some of the tips from flying – made sure the elder offspring had plenty of entertainment on the iPhone, a couple of books, toys, and drawing utensils for the stops. It’s also trips like this where buying that cheap car stereo which takes iPod/USB input pays off – we could have our whole music collection plus podcasts and audio books to listen to en route.

Trees n Snow
Trees n Snow in Shiga

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A New Member of the Family

I know I don’t go into personal things too much on this blog, but for those who somehow are reading this and weren’t in the huge bcc: e-mail, we’re proud to announce the birth of our son this morning at 5.13am JST following a rather hurried trip to the hospital since he was a bit earlier than expected.

Mother and baby are doing great, whilst big sister and Dad try to get the house ready, and don’t just build Lego castles all day.