This year (2019) I’ve had the opportunity while going around the world to have my mom meet up with me two times! This is different than when she visited me while I was living abroad obviously as on this year’s trips she was joining me as more or less a backpacker. A backpacker version senior…over age 65 (for her sake we won’t get into details but add a few more years for your guess, a senior). To me this means nothing, because she gets around very well for her age…to her though, age scares her.
Our two trips were to Japan and Italy. Japan was not on my list of places to visit this past year but in the end it was a very welcomed treat. We picked it in Australia while my parents visited for my Ironman race…chosen only because my mom wanted to fly home without doing layovers alone and wanted me to escort her to the airport. We wanted to go to Hong Kong but to do so she would have to change planes on the way home so instead we headed to Japan where she’d fly direct! Then Italy was a trip I have wanted to do with my mom for years so the year off seemed the perfect opportunity and was planned for August, when I thought I would be around that side of the world…it was later moved to September (which was way better for me as I learned months later) and even moved dates again even after I had tickets. This trip to Italy was special because we would go to our families hometown, a place I had never been and where I thought would be best with the Italian, my mom.
In this post I will focus on the Japan trip with my mom. Part II here
We were in Japan together for over a week after which I continued solo for another week and a half or so. Together we did Tokyo, Kyoto, Arima Onsen and a day tour to Mt. Fuji together. In Tokyo my mom marveled at the shopping, the innovation with robots and fell in love with bubble tea (although it is from Taiwan…we did have a layover there and explored so I guess all is good). Meanwhile I was very impressed by the outstanding culture so well preserved, the respect, the cleanliness, general ways of life…and of course the food!
We arrived to Tokyo in the evening and took the train to our Airbnb…it seemed like forever to arrive from the airport and then once at our station we got lost. Lost with no map, no cell service, no Japanese language known but with the directions (photo included directions…but I must say 7-11 should never be a landmark, there must be millions in Japan lol)..We eventually made it and loved the neighborhood but that was after plenty of walking. Enough walking that I finally sought out a person on the street who was kind enough to help me find the place (walking out of his way with his girlfriend and all)…while I left my mom to wait my return because according to me she had already walked enough…since we got lost the place was about 15 more minutes walking so I felt bad and asked the owner to borrow a bike (so many bikes on the street here I figured he had one) and then went for my mom on a borrowed bike…sized for a 7 year old…he he…Once she got on it though she totally forgot she was mad at me for leaving her alone on the corner with all the bags for so long…she had complete joy she to ride the bike…it was so fun to watch her on that tiny bike completely happy. The owner at the airbnb was so helpful to get the bike — his second bike option after we went down the street to get his from storage which he found to have been stolen 😦 – Heads up Japan is very safe but even in safe places things can go missing (As a precaution I took all our valuables before leaving my mom) — In the end this was the perfect place to stay (our favorite overall) even though the owner spoke little English he was the kindest most understanding person.
Tokyo was a uniquely huge city…besides being impressively clean, it was tiny and quiet all the same. Everything was in mode miniature…the bathrooms, toilets, roads, cars, shops…literally everything…until we went to sumo wrestling and they were only miniature because we sat so far away lol! I think the tiny concept there to make good use of all space available is smart and is what oddly makes it seem quiet even if it is a bustling city of 18 million. I also found it interesting for how modern it is yet it’s still very much a cash society. My mom who usually uses her credit card…owed me quite a bit of money by the end of the trip lol…(this also happened in Cuba when we went…I had to leave all my cash so my parents could survive their last few days because US cards don’t even work there and my parents barely carry cash…or research ha ha).
After a few great days exploring Tokyo our second stop in Japan was Kyoto. We took the bullet train, Shinkansen, which is a treat, they go 100 mph and you don’t even realize you are going fast when inside them. It isn’t until you see it pass in front of you that you realize their speed…seeing them pass is sooo so so very impressive, amazing transportation that takes just over 2 hours to Kyoto from Tokyo (this is via Shinkansen…there are several options of these trains or other cheaper but longer methods to arrive).
There we toured Kyoto’s many temples getting a taste of older traditions like the geishas. It is the perfect city for biking and walking. We biked around for 2 days enjoying helmetless cycling as the locals do on their cute bikes (literally everyone has a bike in Japan!…with baskets and a kickstand). Biking was great because my mom doesn’t walk much due to a knee injury a year ago (she was always preparing for the trip by walking or cycling and every night would look at her steps…awe). I was always making sure she wasn’t on her feet soo much and knew back home she bikes daily and is very happy riding a bike.
Besides biking to reduce walking we used the subway elevators (or escalators), nearly all stations had them (we used them mostly in Tokyo) because stairs seem to be the hardest for her these days…by the time she left Japan I was so trained at seeking elevators that I found myself now alone waiting for them ha and when I actually returned to taking stairs they now hurt lol (… I did adjust to using stairs after a day or so).
Any who Kyoto was charming, fun, relaxing and beautiful. Since many temples required plenty of walking we picked only a few to see and I would then add runs to my day to explore a bit more of the city. I ran to one really popular one and it was crazy the amount of tourists buses offloading passengers. I ran to the top climbing maaany stairs before it was clear of the crowds! These runs made me feel as if I actually saw a good chunk of the city since I usually cover much more distance in a day when I travel alone but with my mom going slower than me the best plan was to simply see less…if traveling with older parents you won’t see it all and you have to be okay with that. Too much sightseeing when older is simply too much so I threw my version of touristing aside while with her (I also tried to absorb her slower version too).
I tend not to have plans for where I go next because I was doing long-term travel and everything can change daily therefore flexibility is best as you learn about destinations or deal with different emotions, stresses, interests and experiences along the way. I realized quickly that my mom was worse, she wanted someone to just take her to the sites and make the plans…lol…she usually just followed behind me…or according to her I was her shepherd (yes meaning she was the sheep lol). If on a short, regular vacation, I do usually plan and research plenty before I go but traveling long-term has caused me to really go with the flow, sometimes I don’t know until the next morning where I will go or what I will do that day. This made it interesting with my mom who I wanted to make sure we included stuff that appealed to her interests too…like shopping for instance..I avoid that usually on a trip…while she is drawn to it. I like when people with other interests join mine because it makes for a unique experience. Each night we would research places of interest and sights to see. She would suggest this and I that and then we would just pick…for instance one day in Tokyo I learned it was Sumo season and so we decided to go see this unique sport that literally lasts from a few seconds to a minute. Unless you had bought tickets in advance (obviously not us) you can still go but have to go early to the stadium and wait in line for same day tickets (fyi cash only and until tickets sell out). I planned to go get them and incorporated my run in on the way back exploring (mind blowing run btw going across town and through tiny streets and surprise gardens, etc) while my mom rested and worked a bit (yes she still works…it’s her own company).
From Kyoto I didn’t have any idea where we should go but since her interests differ she researched what she thought Japan was known for and that she liked…hot springs came up and so we were headed to an Onsen :). While she had the idea I researched how to get there and where it was which for us was Arima onsen, not too far away. We took a bus (approx. 1 hour) and spent a few days in the mountains (it is actually just behind Osaka and Kobe). My mom didn’t research enough though because at the onsen the Japanese go naked and she wasn’t having any of that lol (I did…mention…to her that I had heard about the nakedness). The first onsen we visited she went in with her bathing suit (women and men each have a separate side), I would have joined with my suit but I saw no one else like that so per usual I adapted, I went bare naked too, while my mom was quickly kicked out after 10 minutes lol. We spent the rest of the day outside the other onsen soaking our feet in the free hot springs there lol and exploring a bit of town in the rain. The next day we tried another onsen in town, a more upscale one…it worked, there no one bothered her about the swimming suit, but they did look at her wondering lol. It was an interesting experience to do the Japanese onsens ha ha being naked next to my mom felt odd at first but more so were the conversations with other Japanese while naked ha ha until I saw past it and started to enjoy how cool it was that because you were also naked like them that they talked to you…ha ha yes, simple conversations even in Japanese could be understood and all while enjoying the onsen naked… no one stared. The ritual for getting in them is also quite interesting, if you have never been…first you take shoes off…then elsewhere strip naked (lock all belongings except a tiny towel in lockers provided)…enter onsen area…before entering water you must sit and shower thoroughly in front of basically a vanity mirror then finally you get in. Yukatas, aka robes, are used often between locker rooms or even walking around town to the onsen (usually in sandals). Some have creative dipping areas…in the last one I loved the round copper tub all for you and the sauna to cold water room (clearly I tried all available options).
We ended our tour doing a day tour by bus from Tokyo to see Mt. Fuji (Fujisan) which included shopping at an outlet mall in Tokyo…a perfect day without thinking just going along with the tour and seeing more of the country. I would have preferred to hike or bike this mountain instead but it wasn’t going to happen (seeing all the cyclists going up though tempted me a lot)! The bus tour was perfect for us as travel can wear you out and having everything organized for us was so nice…it even had a stop at the mall for mom (which I later learned has the highest grossing store in Japan for my previous employer). On the bus we even met a solo senior female traveler from Argentina who we were impressed with as she was a widower yet had places to visit she wanted to visit so she just went.
I took my mom to the airport by train and returned via bus to save some money. I stayed an additional day in Tokyo to see some friends and run around the city exploring (running the rainbow bridge loop and olympic stadium loop and some regular tourist type exploring too) before heading to visit more friends in the Yokohama area. Eventually off to Osaka and further to Hiroshima via a rail pass (JR rail passes are the best way to travel through Japan). An offering for foreigners only – rail passes can cover the whole country or just a region (as I did). You can get them before arriving to Japan (highly recommended if moving around a lot) or if you forget you can get them in Japan as long as you have a week and an address for sending. My mom and I didn’t use a pass we just paid the round trip cost (best way to do it if only going to 1 other city on your stay). I later bought a regional pass to travel which is different than the JR rail pass and is available on the same day. JR rail passes cover most routes, the most touristy stops for sure, some in city metro lines (there are 2 main metro companies in Japan – oh so confusing and can be problematic) and even some Shinkansen (speed trains)…while a regional is just that limited to a certain region of Japan and certain cities/transportation. Overall the passes save time (less stops at machines and Shinkansen access) and a lot of money (unlimited travel on trains with some fine print of course).
By the way there is so much to see in Tokyo but our favorites were the Tokyo Tower with it’s glass floor sections (at night) – a true Tokyo icon – and although I am not into shopping some of the shopping areas like Harajuku (very hip area) and Jinnan (trendy designers) were very cool to walk around.
Specifically my mom loved strolling down Chuo-Dori Street (Ginza) window shopping (very high end!) and the robotic coffee stands and hotel reception while for me it was swimming at the pool…entertaining to find yourself kicked out on the hour (every hour) to get out and stretch – everyone participated while they change lanes/lifeguards/etc – (not to mention the automated entry and shoes off before entering locker rooms)….and the Shibamata neighborhood that is totally off the beaten path for tourists and the fact that we just stumbled upon this historical area and it´s hidden beauty was amazing!
Off the beaten path Tokyo (didn´t actually use this link while there but just found it and it has some good info)
Tokyo metro map (important to have and understand when picking your hotel – didn´t use before arrival…bad bad bad)