Highs and lows in Japan

Tokyo did not give the Johnsons a warm welcome. George got kicked on the metro and our hotel refused to let us check in until we’d paid for an extra room. The hotel had us over a barrel, it was the beginning of the Golden Week period when the majority of Japan is on vacation and accommodation in Tokyo was rarer than a bleu steak. When you get a bad first impression of somewhere it can be hard to move on. I spent our first couple of days in the capital in a foul mood feeling like the whole place was against us. And I didn’t even see Bill Murray.

Our accommodation woes followed us to Kyoto. Where we were informed that children weren’t allowed in the room we had booked and we would have to pay more for a different room. We sucked it up. Clearly this was how they rolled in Japan. The guest house, owned by an ancient matriarch, was run down and infused with the delicate aroma of cat piss. It was interesting to stay in a traditional japanese house but with the warning from granny to keep the children quiet I didn’t warm to its paper-thin walls.

Happily our digs with their lumpy futons were the lowest point of our stay in Kyoto. The neighbourhood was great. Although a way out of town we were right next to a massive temple complex, with exquisite gardens, a playground nearby and wonderful local restaurants. We made the most of our Japan Rail passes, enjoying day trips to enchanting Arashiyama and to visit the tame deer in Nara.

And so it was we went from the ridiculous to the sublime. A yurt, on a smallholding, in the Japan Alps. Our own space where the kids could run around and make as much noise as they liked. Yuu and Megumi run a book shop/cafe/gallery space as well as guest house accommodation. There are a couple of fabulous installations in their grounds including a giant organ and camera obscura.

Our days were filled with happiness: hunting tiny frogs, hiking in the Alps and soaking in the local Onsen (public bath). Our evenings were spent feasting on Megumi’s wonderful food, sipping sake and conversing with their artist friends. On our last night we were treated to a mini-gig from Yuu’s band. The hills were alive with the sound of Beatles covers.

We were dreading leaving our haven in the hills and we bickered our way through the bus journey back to Tokyo. We’d had no luck finding somewhere to stay but Yuu and Megumi came to our rescue, securing a place to stay with a family friend in the suburbs.

That’s how we found ourselves at Maki and Yossy’s house where we were embraced as part of the family. They live in a lovely old house in an inspiring community and run ’Alumonde’ a workshop space where people can use tools to fix their stuff or swap unwanted items for things they need. They live near a city farm where we gatecrashed a bbq and got to make gelatinous rice cakes. We hiked a nearby mountain, enjoyed a full moon dinner party, ate Wagyu beef and experienced the intensity of a Japanese festival.

We didn’t  see a Geisha, Sumo wrestler or Mount Fuji but Nick did manage to soak himself pressing the wrong button on a high-tech toilet. The trains are super fast and the food is sublime. However it was away from the stereotypes that we saw Japan at its best. We got to experience a side of Japan that many visitors to the country would not see. I certainly would not have missed our haven in the hills or the sense of community we had for all the sushi in Japan.

Trains, planes and auto rickshaws

The plan was simple. Travel by bus from Wayanad in Northern Kerala to Kochi on the coast, changing in Calicut. But you know what they say about the best laid plans of mice and men.

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The first leg passed smoothly enough. We’d gotten an auto from our farm stay to the bus stand in Sultan Bathery and boarded the Kerala State Transport Corporation bus. The scenery was beautiful as we passed through plantations of rubber, coffee, banana and tea. And even the 9 hairpin bends coming downhill didn’t phase us (it was nothing compared to a certain bus journey in Nepal).

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We arrived in Calicut and, after having brought some provisions for the journey, sought the next bus. We were shepherded onboard by a conductor assuring us his was heading for Kochi.

We got comfortable (well as comfortable as we could squeezed into two seats) and settled in for the ride. I promptly fell asleep. Sometime later I woke to the sound of the boys bickering and my frazzled husband trying to mediate. Nick saw I was awake and casually mentioned that he didn’t think we were going the right way.

I dug out our now well-thumbed Lonely Planet and checked the map. We had indeed been going the wrong way. For two hours. We made our enquiries with the conductor who found our situation most amusing. Nick and I did not. Let’s just say we are not proud of our behaviour in the ensuing minutes as the bus stopped and we rather unceremoniously disembarked.

We found ourselves at the side of a dusty road in a small town somewhere. As we gathered ourselves (and apologised to the children for setting a bad example) we checked our belongings. Bugger. George’s backpack was still on the bus hurtling away from us at high speed.

Nick quickly persuaded a nearby motorcyclist to give chase. George and Tomas were upset about the loss of said backpack it’s contents being their books, toys and headphones. I tried to comfort them as I worked out where we were.

Meanwhile the motorbike was speeding down the road weaving in and out of traffic in hot pursuit of the bus. Nick didn’t hold much hope of catching up given the bus driver’s need for speed. Luckily the rider that Nick was clinging onto for dear life recognised our bus at a petrol station about 30km from where we had jumped off.

The boys were hot, bothered and fighting as I tried to work out how we were going to continue our journey. My stress levels were rising and just as I was beginning to fret about Nick’s whereabouts he returned, triumphant, with George’s backpack. What a hero! We tried to give the guy some money to show our appreciation but he was just happy to have helped.

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We made our way to the nearest train station, Mahe, which by happy coincidence was about 5 minutes away. There was a train in half an hour that would take us to Kochi. On the platform we chatted to Ansar, a book salesman from Calicut and he let the boys look at his wares whilst we waited. And I had a random conversation in French with a teacher from a nearby Alliance Française.

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We had naively thought getting the train would be straightforward. We anticipated it being busy and prepped the kids. However, when the train pulled into the station it was longer than everyone had expected and we were therefore stood in the wrong place. By the time we had rushed down the platform the train was pulling out and I had my second sense of humour breakdown of the day. We said goodbye to Ansar who had also failed to get on the train and headed back to the bus stop.

We fought our way onto a packed bus and headed back to Calicut. Where we blew the budget by checking into a nice hotel and chalked the eventful day up to experience as we went in search of a much needed beer.

Bardia National Park

We were met by a jeep where the bus set us down at the turn off to Bardia. We huddled under a blanket as we bumped along the dirt track. It was still dark and very cold. Every bit of me wanted to sleep but the boys had slept well on the ‘party bus’. It was going to be a long day.

We were staying at Forest Hideaway lodge. A series of ‘cottages’ based on the traditional Tharu mud and thatch dwellings but with ensuite Western bathrooms. These are set around picturesque gardens with tables and hammocks dotted around.

We chucked our gear in our room and with a longing look at the bed went for breakfast. Our guide, Santos, introduced himself and we discussed our programme for the next few days. People usually want to rest when they first arrive but we had no chance of that with two young boys bouncing off the walls, so we agreed on going into the park on a jeep safari.

We spent an enjoyable day roaming round the park. Bardia covers an area the size of London and we explored the equivalent of the West End in the jeep. During the course of the day we saw spotted deer, wild boar, monkeys (Macaque & Langur) crocodiles, lots different birds, and (very exciting for G and his current fascination with snakes) a python.

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Santos and Manu, our driver, tracked tiger prints and spoor and at various places we would pull up and follow these signs on foot. The boys were happy to spot spiders, bugs and butterflies. Towards the end of the day we swung by a look out point, there were a handful of other tourists with binoculars and big cameras focused on an area of bush across a small river. They were extremely quiet so we decided not to spoil the party with our noisy children.

We called it a day and visited the crocodile breeding centre and the blind rhino that resides at the entrance to the park. This being the

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highlight of the day for the boys. Whilst there Santos got a call that another group from our hotel had seen a tiger at the look out point we had just left. We’d missed the bloody thing by 20 minutes!

We had a lovely dal bhat dinner and enjoyed hearing from the lucky folk who had seen the tiger. Then we headed for bed. A firm mattress and soft pillow was a welcome combination and we all had a great night’s sleep!

The following day we were up and out early for an elephant safari. There was a beautiful sunrise and as the morning mist cleared we enjoyed the ride through the sun dappled forest. The mahout had a machete to hack off low hanging branches and Nick kept a keen eye out for webs containing massive spiders; he’s not a fan!

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It was a very evocative experience, such a peaceful way to explore the forest and even the boys were quiet (apart from giggling at elephant farts!) During the ride we saw another python as well as spotted deer and monkeys.

The elephant*, Santi, seemed to bulldoze its way through the forest but the vegetation sprang back up behind us hiding its passage. I found it fascinating how something so large could walk through dense forest leaving little trace.

The rest of the day was to be spent on foot. Santos and another guide, Nanu, lead the way. Walking through the thick elephant grass, listening for any sound, I had butterflies tickling my tummy with a familiar feeling of anticipation. The excitement I felt at the possibility of seeing animals in the wild stirred memories of safari trips in Uganda with my Dad and Sister. My mind wandered and I caught myself laughing out loud at the bad jokes – ‘look a crocodile, keep a straight face’ ‘ahh an elephant, and by the size of its ears I deduce that it is an African elephant’ and animal impersonations (if you know Catherine get her to do her buffalo – it’s uncanny).

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Walking along a dry riverbed with tall elephant grass on either side we had to be particularly quiet as to not startle the wildlife as there would be no means of escape from a charging animal. Santos had regaled us with stories of being chased by tigers and elephants and we understood the danger and importance of not drawing attention to ourselves. Happily George stayed quiet and Tomas was fast asleep on my back. In fact his snores were mistaken for a noise in the bush at one point which raised a giggle from me and Nick.

We passed the place the tiger had been spotted the previous day then continued, across a river onto an island. We stopped for a couple of hours for lunch at a lovely spot overlooking a river. We didn’t see any animals there but the children were happy playing in the sand and Nick dosed in sun whilst I kept watch with binoculars.

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I’m not sure if my memory is playing tricks on me but I can’t recall all this waiting around from my trips to Queen Elizabeth National Park. Mind you I used to nod off in the jeep safe in the knowledge I’d be woken if anything exciting happened.

Santos got a call that we’d missed a tiger again by about half an hour. I was beginning to think, that whilst there were trying hard to be quiet, the boys’ noise was scaring off all the wildlife.

Then as we started to make our way back we saw it. A one-horned rhino. It was a safe distance away (I wouldn’t want to be up close) and we had an excellent view through our binoculars. It was wading in river eating algae. It was a wonderful feeling to see this rare creature in its natural habitat. I cursed the Indian dust that has buggered the shutter on my SLR camera and took a feeble shot with my iPhone.

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After watching a while we walked back to where everyone except us had spotted the tiger. Lots people were waiting there. By this time it was hard to keep the children quiet. Nick and I took turns entertaining them with snake hunts and tree climbing but it was obvious our day had run it’s course. As we walked back we saw a Barking deer and shared a laugh with Nick and thought how dad would have made some joke about it being a long way from home!**

When we got back the boys played with some children outside the lodge. I was happy to see them running around roaring after having to be still and quiet for so long. I was less happy about them joining in a game of chase with a dead rat.

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The next day was to be spent rafting on the Geruwa river. Santos asked if his family could join us. We figured the more the merrier and thought the boys would enjoy some young company. We collected his wife and two children (a boy, 6 and girl 2) from their home near the lodge and headed to our put in point at Chisopani. Our other guide for the day (whose name escapes me) was Santos’ brother-in-law so it was a real family outing!

It was a sunny morning with an icy cold wind. The boys attracted the usual attention of local children whilst Santos inflated the raft. We also garnered disapproving looks from the grown ups at Tom’s (as ever) underdressed state.

The water was crystal clear and happily the wind was behind us so it was pleasant to drift along the river. George has a deep affinity with water, (I’m sure he was a sea creature in a previous life) and he was desperate to get in. It reminded me of a time we visited a friend on her boat and instead of getting to meet her new baby I spent the time keeping G from flinging himself into the freezing water at Brighton Marina. He is older and wiser now and understood to wait until later in the day when it would be warmer.

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I enjoyed spending time with Santos’ family. Whilst his wife didn’t speak much English we were able to communicate a little. I delighted at her 2 year old daughters insistence on nursing and the ease with which she slept at the breast. It would definitely be a useful tool to still have up my sleeve (or top!) We also talked about the joys of a family bed and sibling squabbles over the duvet. Santos’ son was very quiet and still – the polar opposite of our own boys.

We stopped for lunch on a sand bar where rivers would join in the monsoon. Lovely peaceful spot, we still needed to be wary of wild animals and we saw plenty of footprints to demonstrate their existence but apart from a lone horned deer there was nothing about. The children played in the sand and Nick dosed in the sun whilst I watched the bush with binoculars (I see a theme emerging).

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The rest of the afternoon was fairly uneventful. George finally got his dip in the chilly water and was joined by Tom and Nick but they didn’t stay in long. We enjoyed the thrill of rushing through some rapids (very mild ones that probably don’t even get on the white water scale). In other places the water level was very low and a couple of times Nick and the guides jumped out to give us a push. Santos said that they’d manage one more raft trip the next day and that would be it until the spring snow melts swell the river again.

We saw elephants on the river bank (and from the size of their ears I deduced that they were Asian elephants) but they turned out to be domestic elephants in the park to graze. We also saw lots of birds including kingfisher, osprey and vulture.

When we stopped for the day the boys’ shoes were nowhere to be found. We seem to be getting through shoes at an alarming rate. In two months we have lost 1 croc, 1 Birkenstock, 1 pair of flip flops and now two pairs of sandals.

That evening we were entertained by a cultural dance. I tend to steer clear of this kind of thing at hotels but this was in fact a load of local teens having fun. Nick, Tomas and I joined in as well as the handful of other guests. George however was more interested in his desert.

We were due to leave the next afternoon so in the morning we wandered down to the local market to find shoes for the boys. It was a pleasant walk through a traditional Tharu village. The houses are made from a mixture of mud and dung spread over a wooden frame. Many houses had chickens, goats or buffalo and there were pumpkin patches on the roofs of the cowsheds.

A waiter from the lodge had come with us to point us in the right direction and he delighted in introducing us to his extended family along the way. At one point we terrified a poor toddler who had never seen a Westerner before. We happily greeted some of the dancers from the previous evening as we passed them on their way to school.

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On the way back we stopped to watch the women of the village working in the river. The water level was low and by making a series of dams they had pushed fish, eels and crabs along and then caught them in big nets. The boys were fascinated and we spent a long time there whilst they helped sort the catch into different buckets. Which were then shared amongst the women. George was given a fish and was most upset that we wouldn’t let him keep it to play with on the 14 hour bus ride.

And with that our visit to Bardia was over and we braced ourselves for all the fun of the nightbus back to Pokhara. We may still have not seen a Bengal tiger but we really enjoyed our time exploring the park. It was peaceful, beautiful and a wonderful way to spend a few days.

*Santi appeared well treated and low visitor numbers at Bardia mean she is not over worked but I have since learned more about how elephants are trained and am left feeling deeply uncomfortable.

**Barking is an area of East London