Over 13 days in Japan Oliver and I got to experience an incredibly child-focused country. Between children’s museums and science museums and neighbourhood children’s centres, it’s obvious that Japan cares about its children and invests a lot of money and effort in creating facilities to entertain, educate and enliven them. Here are our favourites in Tokyo.
This was our first stop on our first full day in Tokyo and we spent 6 hours there. It’s a stunning building in the futuristic Odaiba district, and it’s filled with interactive exhibits about science, nature and astronomy. We particularly enjoyed the 3D dome-theatre trip through the universe (included in the ticket price and available with English translation via headset), the robots, and the display of electronic artworks. Much of the interpretation is in both English and Japanese, and the staff were able to help us in English most of the time. There’s a nice café on the upper level that’s very child-friendly.
By fortunate chance, this museum of design was hosting a child-focused exhibition called Design Ah! during our visit, and we spent two hours experiencing it with a gaggle of Japanese families on Saturday morning. The museum building is intriguing: mostly underground, at the edge of a park, and filled with twists and turns.
The Design Ah! exhibit was truly amazing: an introduction to design for children that involved both interactive activities – learning how to fold fabric into a holder for books, paper folding, coin rubbing – as well as intriguing deconstructions of things like a soy sauce decanter and a public school. There was music and video and stunning visuals.
By far the most interesting exhibit of the show was a Kinect-driven machine that took movement and translated it into Japanese language characters; hard to describe, but this video does it justice:
There was also a pretty fantastic 360 degree video room teaching kids about numbers, colours and shapes; here’s a clip from the “counting” section:
The Tokyo Midtown development is right across the park, and there are plenty of places to eat and drink there (there’s not-too-bad coffee in the Dean & Deluca café in the basement and a nice French bakery on the main floor).
If Miraikan is the flashy new kid on the science museum block, the longstanding workhorse is the Tokyo Science Museum. Very much in the classic Exploratorium model it turned out to be an unexpected gem, perhaps because it has been able to resist the corporatizing and infotainment tendencies that have afflicted museums like the Ontario Science Centre in recent years.
There were several highlights here, but the big one was Oliver’s starring in the demonstration of liquid nitrogen in the science show in the “Workshop” area of the museum, ably guided by Mr. Hamashi, who was perhaps the best science communicator I’ve ever enountered:
The area devoted to an exploration of mechanics was also particularly well-done, with a bunch of activities involving moving big metal balls around. There’s no better way to understand mechanical principles – levers, inclined planes, pulleys – than experiencing it all physically, and the mechanics exhibits did this very well:
Also worthy of note was an entire wing of the museum devoted to the northern lights. In a dozen exhibits there was discussion of the sound, light and electricity of aurora borealis with a depth that I’d never seen elsewhere.
There’s not much English in the museum, although we were helpfully given an English-language map and guide on arrival. There’s a tiny café with two seeminly-competing vendors offered rice and noodle dishes; you’re on your own to figure our what’s what. The museum is on the edge of a very pleasant park that makes for a nice walk to and from the metro station.
Admitedly a niche museum, but a good one nonetheless. Located in the basement of the Toppan Printing company, the museum provides a good overview of printing and communication from pre-Gutenberg through the digital age. While there are some interactive elements, most of the exhibits are more classically “museum-like,” the notable exceptions being a good introduction to wood block printing using a classic Japanese image deconstructed into its individual plates, and an exhibit where you can use rubber stamps and different coloured inks to assemble a calendar on a postcard.
The really great thing about the Printing Museum, however, is the workshop area where printers provide a hands-on introduction to letterpress printing. This was initially a little frustrating for Oliver as it was conducted entirely in Japanese (it was mostly lost on me too, although many of the concepts were familiar). But once we got an opportunity to actually print, things took a turn for the better. We had a chance to print on a Gutenberg-style press, and then to make some business-card-sized prints on an Adana Eight Five (my first press; they have a nice collection of about a dozen of them for larger workshops).
The museum is a little off the beaten track, and there’s no much around restaurant-wise, but it’s easily reached by a couple of metro lines.
This might have been our favourite place of all, partly because it was lots of fun, and partly because it demonstrated such a strong commitment to child welfare: in one building is a gym, a pool, an art studio, a music studio, a video library (with viewing pods), a play hall, a homework room, a computer lab, a roof garden filled with tricycles, and a child development and wellness centre.
It’s an “all you can eat for one price” place: you pay $4 for kids and $6 for adults and then everything is available to you. We started our visit in the art studio where there was a pre-planned craft activity, making a whirlygig. The instructions were provided in Japanese by an animated and patient instructor, and after 20 minutes of cutting and pasting and gluing and colouring we had ours made:
From there it was up an outdoor twisty-turny exercise track with stations every once in a while with things like hoola hoops and stilts, up to the fifth floor rooftop garden where Oliver had much fun racing around on a hand-operated tricycle:
The view from the fifth floor rooftop is pretty neat too:
Next it was back down to the fourth floor to the music studio, where they had every manner of musical instrument available for playing:
We had a lot of fun playing the xylophones:
A quick turn through the video library – 20,000 tapes and DVDs and about a dozen little rooms with players for watching them – and we were off, having spent a couple of hours having a lot of fun. I can imagine that if we lived in Tokyo, especially when Oliver was little, we’d have spent a lot of time here.
There’s a café on the first floor, but there are also lots of places to eat in the Omotesando neighbourhood where the castle is based.
The simply fact of being in Tokyo itself is enough to entertain and delight anyone for weeks on end. Between conveyor belt sushi (Pintokona was our favourite) and the metro and the coffee shops and the parks and just walking around the crazy bright-lit streets, I can’t imagine any child being bored in Tokyo. Nor, indeed, any adult.
Emerging from the Shimizu metro station, we walked through narrow streets at twilight, finally arriving, after about 10 minutes, in front of two minimal beige buildings separated by an alley: TRUCK on the left, Bird on the right. We were famished, and Bird looked bright and warm and inviting, so we headed in for supper.
We were greeted warmly, and shown to a table (a TRUCK-made table, as it turned out), and a kind and patient waiter brought us menus (in Japanese with a few English words thrown in helpfully) and with the help of my “point the camera at the word and I’ll translate it for you” app on my phone (a technical violation of the “please turn your phones off” guidance by the door) we translated ourselves into a pork cutlet (ポークカツレツ) for Oliver and a Turkish avocado and bacon sandwich (アボカドとベーコンのターキッシュサンド) for me, along with a glass of red wine and an orange juice.
There was jazz on the PA, and a bustle of diners filling up the place, and the vibe was relaxed and neighbourhoody, and when our food arrived we wolfed it down.
By the time we’d finished up and were back out into the Osaka night it was well-past the 7:00 p.m. closing time at neighbouring TRUCK, so we walked back to the metro and made a note to visit again if we could, if not on this trip then on the next.
As it happened, on Monday morning we were both in need of coffee and with a few hours to spend before taking the Shinkansen back to Tokyo so, after stashing our bags in a locker at the Shin-osaka station we made our way back to TRUCK and Bird for an encore.
We were greeted by the same waiter who had served us on Saturday night — “Welcome back!” he said, enthusiastically — and this time, for lunch, we ordered two “Bird Rice” (Birdライス) and a cup of coffee with milk, which was served in a substantial brown mug on a well-proportioned wooden platter:
We really didn’t know what “Bird Rice” was, but our waiter said it was quite popular, so we dove in blind. It turned out to be exactly what you might imagine it to be: a bed of rice topped with a ring of pumpkin, cabbage and other vegetables with a poached egg sitting in the middle to form a “nest.” I quickly passed my egg of to Oliver, not being a fan; everything else, though, was tasty in a way you wouldn’t imagine from something so simple.
After relaxing in the sunny Osaka afternoon for a bit, we paid and headed across the alley and up the stairs to TRUCK.
It’s hard to do justice to TRUCK Furniture in words, for their products — simple, beautiful, functional furniture — really must be experienced to truly understand them. They make things that don’t hit you over the head with “style” but rather things that feel, on sitting on them or at them or around them, like they have been in your life forever.
The retail space is comfortable and airy and bright and the the kind of space where you’d want to spend a lot of time. Indeed visitors appear to be encouraged to sit and read or watch or think — to get a handle on the furniture. TRUCK doesn’t make cheap furniture — tables cost thousands and chairs cost hundreds — but it seems like these would be pieces that would follow you for life; the sort of opposite of IKEA.
We wandered the aisles for 30 minutes, looking and sitting and touching, and then picked up a copy of the excellent history of the operations and the lives that begat them, TRUCK nest, the introduction to which is a good thumbnail sketch:
For years TRUCK has created simple, honest furniture in their workshop in Osaka, Japan. This book traces the nine-year journey of Tokuhiko Kise and Hiromi Karatsu, the couple behind TRUCK, as they set out to create a place of their own, where they could live and work comfortably with their large family of one daughter, five dogs and eight cats.
Together they planned and constructed a house, a store, a workshop and, with the help of their friend, celebrity chef Kentaro, a cafe called Bird, and surrounded them with individually selected trees and plants.
I’ve been reading it over the weekend, and it’s an inspiring tale and, in a sense, a call to arms to live life more intentionally.
If you happen to find yourself in Osaka, I encourage you to drop by for a meal and a visit.
The Ghibli Museum is a portal to a storybook world. As the main character in a story, we ask that you experience the Museum space with your own eyes and senses, instead of through a camera’s viewfinder. We ask that you make what you experienced in the Museum the special memory that you take home with you.
As with navigating by GPS, the introduction of digital cameras, without the limiting factor of expensive film, into the travel-with-children experience is something I think a lot about. Visit any children’s museum or science museum these days, and 75% of parents with children will have a camera out and will be taking photos of their kids. A lot of photos.
I know from my own experiences that focusing on recording the experience means, of necessity, not participating in the experience yourself; if you’re busy taking a photo of your kid getting dressed up in a kimono you’re staging a performance, not engaging in an activity.
I don’t think it’s impossible to do both, to record and engage, and I do believe there’s a larger value in at least some recording. But I also know that engaging with children, actually doing something with them, takes effort and concentration, and that interrupting that to fiddle with a camera can ruin that engagement.
Japan in known for having a difficult-to-parse street-addressing system and Tokyo is equally known for having a labyrinthian metro system, both of which make travel for tourists more challenging. Fortunately, in our case, both of these were mitigated significantly by using Google Maps on our rented Android phone to find our way. Google Maps has excellent coverage in Japan (in contrast to both Apple’s and Nokia’s maps offerings, which pale by comparison), and Google has particularly good transit routing; I can’t imagine how we would have navigated Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka without it.
Google Maps recognized both places as I was typing their names, and gave me the next metro times from the nearest station, along with the cost (160 Yen); selecting any one of these I get step-by-step directions, including the platform number, train direction and number of stops:
And touching any of the steps along the way shows even more detail:
From that map I can clearly see that I want to take exit A2 out of Omotesando station (a very useful piece of information as that metro station along has myriad exits spanning many different city blocks).
While I truly can’t imagine how we would have efficiently navigated Tokyo without Google Maps, I equally realize that outsourcing our wayfinding to Google came at a price. Here, for example, is a Google Latitude trace of our travels around the Akasaka neighbourhood on the right and the Omotesando neighbourhood on the left. We took the metro back and forth myriad times for different purposes, ended up walking, through the Roppongi district, from one to the other once, and spent a lot of time in and around each neighbourhood:
It is only now, however, looking at these traces, that I have any real sense of how these neighbourhoods sit relative to each other geographically. I realize only now that places in Omotesando that I thought of as being miles apart were actually on adjacent blocks. I realize only now that there was a huge cemetery between the two neighbourhoods that we skirted once as we walked, but otherwise weren’t mindful of.
It’s this kind of context that I would have been forced to gain in a pre-Google Maps travel world, where a good printed map of the area and a more detailed manual parsing of the metro network would have been the only tools at hand.
Don’t get me wrong: I treasured the efficiency that Google Maps’ routings afforded us. But in its efficient point-to-point routing what we lost was a greater sense of place. We were, in a sense, being routed by Google as packets in a network, emerging from the metro at various points in the network that is Tokyo to engage in some activity or another, only to go back underground to emerge somewhere else, completely unmindful of how point A and point B might relate to each other culturally or geographically.
There are two major ways of navigating: by spatial navigation or by stimulus-response methods. The spatial method uses landmarks and visual cues to develop cognitive maps that enable us to know where we are and how to get where we want to go. The second method relies on repeatedly traveling by the most efficient route, as though on auto-pilot. The second method will be familiar to those using GPS.
In Japan we were clearly in the “as though on auto-pilot” camp, and, beyond any long-term effect on our hippocampi, I truly do believe we lost something in the process, whether it be “getting lost gracefully” or simply understanding the lay of the land more intimately.
Ironically one of our favourite discoveries in Osaka happened due to a Google Maps accident. We were trying to find Truck Furniture and relied upon an “unverified” Google Maps listing to get us there:
This turned out, in fact, not to be the location of Truck Furniture at all (it was 90 minutes walk away to the north). But what we did find, on the next corner, was the excellent Cafe Noto, a “third wave” coffee shop, where I had an excellent espresso and Oliver an excellent crème brûlée. It was a discovery we never would have made without “getting lost,” and a highlight of our visit to the city.
The McGill researchers suggest a hybrid approach to navigation might be in our longterm best interest:
Bohbot suggested it may be wise to restrict GPS use to an aid in finding the way to a new destination, but to turn it off on the way back or when going somewhere that is not new. Building cognitive maps takes time and effort, but with the hippocampus, it may be a case of “use it or lose it,” and Bohbot said she does have fears that reducing the use of spatial navigation strategies may lead to earlier onset of Alzheimer’s or dementia.
I don’t know about dementia, but I do know there’s value, and joy, in understanding geography, making mental models of places, and in getting lost. So perhaps on our next trip to Japan we’ll do some more aimless wandering in addition to our precision-targeted packet routing.
While we were in Japan over the last two weeks I was using a rented HTC Evo from Global Advanced Communications. While the customer service from the company was excellent — the phone was waiting at the desk of my hotel when we arrived, as promised, and was all ready to go — the phone itself was a klunky older model, very bug-prone (apps, especially Google Maps, crashed regularly; keyboard input was difficult) and the promised “max 40 Mbps” of throughput via WiMAX never amounted to much more than 1 Mbps. And the battery was incapable of supporting a full day’s worth of use (fortunately a spare battery was included, which I needed to use from about 4:00 p.m. onward every day).
But it did the job, had a good camera (see the results in Flickr), and, being an Android phone, was dead-simple to connect to my existing Google ecosystem. Including Google Latitude. Which means that we have a very nice set of digital breadcrumbs of our trip. Here’s our footprint in Japan over 13 days:
Here’s our footprint in Tokyo, where we were from March 14 to 20 and then again from March 25 to 27:
And here’s Kyoto and Osaka, where we were from March 20 to 25:
It’s all frightfully accurate, and thus useful for tracking down “when exacting did we eat lunch at Bird?” or “where was that little gallery we visited?” Here’s that lunch at Bird, for example, on Monday morning before we left Osaka (it’s in PEI time; Osaka time was 12 hours ahead, so it was just before 2:00 p.m. on Monday):
One of the projects I plan to carry out during my Hacker in Residence project at UPEI is a mechanism for slurping in geopresence for a variety of sources into a “personal geopresence archive.” Google Latitude, along with Foursquare, Twitter, Plazes, and other sources will be the target data sources, and this Japanese trip gives me a nice place to start.