words & images: Liz McMillan

I have been lucky enough to have had a number of visits to Japan. I spent a year as an exchange student there, worked on a skifield for a season and have travelled there several times to visit friends. I hadn’t been back since 1998 and was wondering what was in store. This time I was taking my two children, Floyd 13 and Estella 11. We had booked to stay for three weeks, enough time I thought to go back to my favourite haunts and to catch up with friends. Floyd really wanted a day skiing, Estella a day at Tokyo Disneyland and I was keen to give them the real Japanese experience by staying with as many friends and visiting as many places as we could.

We arrived at Narita airport late on New Year’s Day and caught the bus to Yokohama. Japan pretty much shuts down over “oshogatsu” (New Year) and so the next few days were about family and food and visiting temples and shrines. Our first day’s experience was “ohakamaeri” visiting the graveyards of the ancestors and offering incense and prayers.

Some of our highlights from our trip were:

Our day visiting the old town of Kamakura. We caught the train there and walked to Hasedera (temple) and giant Buddha statue. We also walked up the hill to a shrine to wash our money to make it grow. My children thought this was hilarious and couldn’t believe the people with bundles of yen and even credit cards! Kamakura is vibrant with lots of shops, and people walking around wearing hired kimono.

Tokyo Disneyland and Disney Sea. We had booked one of the resort hotels so we could spend as much time as possible there. We went to Disneyland first and then the Disney Sea after 6pm. This was possibly too much for one day. I love Disneyland, but the queues were just so long.

Nikko is also another area that is famous for its beautiful shrines and temples. It is also the place of Edo Wonderland – which sounds a bit touristy and tacky, but ended up being one of my highlights of the trip. The village is based on the old Tokyo – and described as a cultural theme park. Our first stop was to sign the kids up for ninja school. They were given a jacket and headband and taken to a building where they were shown some basic ninja moves, throw shuriken and act in a scene of their own ninja show. It was all in Japanese but they could easily follow what was going on. At the end of the hour they were given their ninja licences. We spent the rest of the time wandering around the village. There were actors dressed in costumes and we also watched the Ninja show, a geisha dance and made our own senbei (rice crackers) over a fire.

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Judy McAuliffe is a writer, and publisher Essence Mid Canterbury. Her experience in media is extensive and includes approximately 15 years as Creative Director for The Radio Network, writing, and managing the writing of radio advertising, mainly in Invercargill and Greymouth. In the late 1990’s she transferred to Christchurch, moving into an Account Management role with 91ZM. In 2007 she and a business partner set up Essence Mid Canterbury, very quickly adapting her radio-writing skills to print media. Judy became sole owner of Essence Mid Canterbury in June 2014. Judy is a ‘people person’ and has found her niche writing feature stories about the community she lives in and the people who live there. She is also available for freelance writing assignments.