Listen: don’t read this first part over lunch. Japan got real in Hokkaido, and not in a we-stayed-at-a-ryokan-what-an-experience sense, but in a my-daughter-projectile-vomited-eleven-times-on-our-flight-to-Sapporo kind of way. These experiences offer no lasting souvenirs (thankfully) and few pictures. I will never forget the subtle way the Japanese flight attendant’s face contorted when she glanced over at our bile-filled aisle while delicately displaying a perfume sample for less complicated passengers. She ran in her pencil skirt to retrieve disinfectant and paper towels. The stomach-churning virus eventually spread to the rest of our family lasting an excruciating 48 hours while we squirmed in our well-appointed but tiny hotel room in Sapporo. Without enough square footage on the floor to fit a crib, we pushed the three beds together and wasted away John Lennon and Yoko Ono-style in front of our children’s iPad eating convenience store rice and pastries.
Did I mention one of the hotel cleaning staff demonstrated for me how to throw up in a trash can? I would have laughed had I not been crying while trying to explain that the spew was all from my not even potty-trained let alone vomit-trained one-year-old (she also couldn’t walk, details). Another staff member even offered to spray me with disinfectant at a particularly fragile moment. I declined.
In Tokyo we were healthy wide-eyed tourists, snapping pictures, scratching our heads a bit over directions, but always pleasantly observing our surroundings from the outside in. In Sapporo, we were in it: vulnerable, infected strangers in the cleanest country we have ever visited. Our sickness pushed us past the pleasantries of strangers in a strange land and into the greatest game of charades and Google Translate for the love of children’s Tylenol, diapers, wipes, and even shoes for our daughter (it got so bad we threw out the pair from the plane).
We survived and given the way my daughter’s eyes rolled to the back of her head on the infamous plane ride, survival equaled happy ending. In that spirit, a spirit of connectedness, maybe not with one another but with our host country, we carried out the rest of our journey in northern Japan. We were ready, Japan Part 2, Take 2.
Our sick spell emboldened us. With half our Hokkaido time lost, we decided to rent a car and cover more ground. And as expected we were starving, but wary. Having shed a collective six pounds, we wanted sustenance more than conveyor belt sushi. We fired up the rental car and let our stomachs’ guide us on a culinary vision quest that led to what we later found out was Sapporo’s red-light district. There we devoured fried chicken cutlets and white rice smothered in curry sauce at what can only be described as a charming chain diner.
Later, still feeling unready for anything raw or adventurous, we housed fresh pretzels with mustard and washed it all down with a German-style disinfecting beer in a gastropub along the canal of Otaru. We started to feel stronger and more confident, when after an entire day frolicking on giant-sized play equipment at Takino Suzuran Hillside Park we then ordered world famous Hokkaido miso ramen but kept it real with bunny-shaped pancakes. It all arrived in, no joke, less than five minutes, but tasted like it had been whipped up over grueling hours. Given our success, and the beer glow from Otaru, we ventured to the Sapporo Brewery, touring a century of Sapporo ads and brewing techniques and then took on the challenge of cooking our own pile of meat on a sizzling Mongolian barbeque. Bibs served as our only safety at this meal, a touch the kids loved so much.
On one of our last days on the island, we felt no fear and set out to visit Noboribetsu Onsen, the island’s largest and smelliest hot spring resort town. The main attraction, known as “Hell Valley” in English, famously belches from its vents like a frat boy at a Sapporo-filled kegger. The whole area reeked of rotten eggs from the sulfur, an odor my son likened to “tuna” and my daughter apparently found delicious humming “mmmmm!” the entire walk into the heart of the geothermal crater. Powered up from consecutive calorie-heavy and satisfying meals, we hiked up to explore the surrounding old-growth forests and sulfur lake. We saw a slender green snake slither off our path. Later we took our appetites to a ramshackle seafood restaurant full of live creatures in big plastic tubs of salty water. We devoured our best meal of the trip: bowls of fresh sashimi delicately laid onto pearls of fragrant rice, along with miso soup and seaweed salad. It was a common and simple meal by Japanese standards but divine by ours. And we ended with our most dangerous bungie-jump-into-a-ravine experience yet, a wafer cone of unpasteurized ice cream so good it made both my husband and I cry savory tears that only added to the rich flavor.
Having eaten our way back from bantam to middle weight, we flew to a netherworld of greater Tokyo…Disney. Travelers seeking “authentic experiences” or “experiential travel” might balk, but after several international vacations with our children, we have learned the longer the trip, the harder the end. Often a Bermuda Triangle of tantrums ensues after altogether too-much-togetherness (this is the scientific name) and, ahem, exhaustion. After Tokyo round one and the health rollercoaster of Hokkaido, we were ready to reward ourselves with a hotel offering a built-in playhouse a monorail’s distance away from world class theme parks. Never start a longer trip with children at Disney unless you plan to explain why the rest of it does not consist of underwater rides with Nemo & Friends, giant tubs of popcorn, and parades ending with fireworks way past bedtime.
It was strangely disconcerting but also heartwarming to experience Disney presented by the Japanese. Although much of the park appeared eerily the same as in Florida or California, the robotic drunken sailors slurred in Japanese on “Pirates of the Caribbean,” soy sauce flavored popcorn filled Mickey-shaped tubs, and parasol-wielding women lined the midday parade path shading children devouring bento box lunches. We attended an utterly incomprehensible live Aladdin comedy show that was apparently super funny. Hundreds of adults dressed in perfectly matching outfits, a fashion phenomenon known as osoroi code. This uniquely Japanese Disney adventure added fresh layers to a well-tread experience.
At the moment we began to feel a little forlorn for the proverbial giant Disney turkey leg, we saw something extraordinary, something we had yet to witness on these pristine Pacific islands: children tantrumming, children tantrumming hard. I’m talking arched backs, flailing arms and legs, and lots of screaming. Obviously the post-lunch Disney breakdown knew no cultural boundaries or geographic borders. And although pure schadenfraude, my husband and I relished in the sweet sounds at an outdoor cafe over a couple of cappuccinos while our own children slept in park strollers. We savored this frothy moment after so many days of keeping our own kids contained while in silent subway cars and over hotel breakfasts well-suited to silent retreats.
Disney offered so much more than shows, rides, and fair food; it was a parent’s social safe haven, even in Japan, promising thousands upon thousands of overwrought children to drown out our own. And as we finished off our delightfully sweet afternoon treats, before we toiled with the airport and getting home, we reflected on it all. Japan, sometimes unusual, always unexpected, frequently magical, and just like the unpasteurized ice cream in Noboribetsu, brought tears to our eyes.