Travelling with teens. Three small, seemingly inconspicuous words that strike dread into even the most hardened parental team. Arduous plane journeys spent with a sulking slab of adolescent misery hell-bent on pouting their way home again spring to mind…
As a 15-year-old, I admit that I’ve been guilty of this sort of behaviour. But when I was told we were taking a two-week break in Japan and that I should like it or lump it, I needed no encouragement to like it very much.
There is one steadfast rule to making a teen happy, and that is never, ever cut them off from Facebook. For that reason alone, Japan is perfect, with Internet cafés as ubiquitous as Starbucks in most cities. In Tokyo, especially, computers are not only readily available but politely chirrup greetings when you log on – as do the escalators, lifts, doors and the robots directing the traffic (no, really). In fact, everything and everyone maintain a constant level of cheerfulness and politeness that comes as a pretty pleasant shock if you grew up somewhere like Manchester…
Though there are certain areas where you can still find men in flat caps walking whippets, Japan is filled with technology and six-metre-high televisions that made my gadget-loving heart sing for joy. As soon as I arrived, all I wanted to do was explore, and luckily my parents were happy to oblige – there could not be a safer place to let your teens wander. Even in the heart of Tokyo, kids of all ages stroll freely – there are no dodgy back alleys, no one collapsing in the street or falling out of a taxi after a night bingeing on cheap cider. And the clubs aren’t dingy basements but mostly karaoke bars: annoying, at times, but enjoyable too.
As a slightly atypical teen, I pored over phrasebooks, delighting at the chance to drive my family crazy with my half-formed attempts at Japanese. However, at the risk of sounding like your typical British tourist, I have to say that only a few key phrases were actually needed – nearly everyone I spoke to wanted to help or practise their English on us. Indeed, one man was so desperate to help us find a temple that he forced us to take a personal tour despite the fact that we weren’t lost, just really slow walkers.
Of course, a huge part of Japan is its heritage, and I admit to having been pretty sceptical about a week’s worth of history and culture when I could have spent another year in the Harajuku district, ogling the abstract fashion. But the temples were beautiful and fascinating.
My advice when it comes to where to stay is to opt for traditional Japanese accommodation (a ryokan) – it does mean sleeping on a mattress on the floor, but it’s both cheaper and much more fun. Japan has many amazing hotels, but these are mostly filled with businessmen and rich, vaguely obnoxious, tourists who gazed at us in horror as we lugged around the enormous bags we had strapped to us, backpacking being apparently a frown-evoking sin.