Christmas was something of a quiet time for me in 2015. With most of my friends off visiting family for the holidays and no travel plans of my own. I was at something of a loose end. However, rather than get all down and despondent about it, I utilised my seasonal solitude as a means to recharge the batteries, before the coming storm, before my parents arrived!
Of course I jest. On the contrary, when my parents arrived at Kansai airport on the morning of December 28th I was absolutely delighted to see them. However, as anyone who has lived in Japan for any length of time will tell you, having to guide family and friends around Japan, when they cannot read, write or speak any Japanese at all, can be a tricky business.
Furthermore, my parents’ situation was further complicated by the fact that they both have health issues, and my father in particular isn’t quite as mobile as he used to be, requiring the use of a walking stick.
Photo : Titoy' on Flickr
Additionally, Japan’s hard-working culture being what it is, I was only able to take 1 week off between Christmas and New Year to be with my parents, so for the final 9 days of their holiday, for the most part anyway, they would need to get around on their own.
To make sure they got the most out of their holiday would require a lot of patience as well as some careful planning.
As someone who is still, relatively speaking, fairly young, I hadn’t even considered the challenges older, less mobile, and non-Japanese speaking people may face when they come to Kansai.
For starters, most of Kyoto was ruled out right away. Even the tourist hotspots like Kiyomizu Temple and Kinkakuji would require extended periods of walking from their nearest bus/train station.
I love the artistry and historical vibe of Kyoto, it stirs similar feelings in me to what I used to experience walking around the old town district of Edinburgh back in my university days. However, much like its Scottish analogue, Kyoto shares a similar scarcity of transport infrastructure. Great for someone like me who loves a good walk, but not so great for folks like my parents.
Photo : schnaars on Flickr
Thankfully, transportation is one area where Osaka excels.
My apartment is located right outside a subway station, so within 20 minutes or so, my parents could easily get to the central hubs of Namba, Umeda and Tennoji.
One tricky point however was in showing which trains they should take, and where they should change lines. I hadn’t occurred to me until then just how few train stations in Japan have full rail network maps in English. Thankfully, like most 21st century problems, “there’s an app for that!”
If you’re either an android or iOS user, I strongly recommend downloading the “Japan Trains” App. This wonderful little marvel, is an English search engine for all train stations in Japan. From the huge central arteries like Osaka, Tokyo and Nagoya, right down to those little one man stations in the middle of nowhere, all you have to do is type in your “To” and “From” locations, your intended time of arrival, or departure and let the app do the rest. It will give you about 4 or 5 different routes to choose from dependent on where you are going, and it also has the option to search without the hi-speed “Shinkansen” bullet trains, for those of us who prefer to take the scenic route and go at a more sedate pace.
In Osaka itself, pretty much all the major tourist hot spots are within a minute or two’s walk of a major train station. The only exception to this would be the Umeda Sky Building, which is about 7 to 10 minutes’ walk from JR Osaka Station.
Another thing I noticed while my parents were here, for all Japan enjoyed its busiest ever year for foreign tourism in 2015, actually finding English resources for tourists is very difficult. I spent about 3 hours one day visiting every major bookshop in and around Umeda and I couldn’t find a single guidebook specifically about Osaka, in English. For all their recent progress, I think it’s fair to say that Japan’s tourism authorities still have a long way to go, in making Japan more tourist friendly.
Of course the internet is a constant source of travel information and visitors to Osaka would do well to go back and read some of my earlier work here at Taiken Japan, but unfortunately my parents’ generation aren’t quite as tech savvy as us “young pups” are these days.
With this in mind, I would recommend that you do some research on your own before any friends or family members arrive. Make a list of all the places that they want to visit, sketch out a route and an itinerary, and where possible, try to buy the tickets and passes required in advance, to minimise the need for buying such things on the day.
Another simple trick I would recommend, buy some plastic knives and forks from the local 100 yen shop. My parents have only been to Japan a few times before, and aren’t really comfortable eating with chopsticks. Keeping a few sets of disposable cutlery in your handbag for such occasions was definitely one of my mum’s better ideas.
Likewise, as both my parents are diabetic, lack of sugar free drinking alternatives was also a concern. I made a note for my parents advising them how to request non-sugar food and drinks and also how to explain their condition to restaurant staff in Japanese. For any other potentially dangerous medical conditions that could be prone to a sudden and unexpected “flare up” while on holiday, such as epilepsy, asthma or heart conditions, I recommend that you try to research similar phrases and give them to your family members when they arrive. As in all cases, we hope for the best, but should also prepare for the worst case scenario.
My parents loved their time in Japan, and I loved spending time with them too. Hopefully, it won’t be too long until I see them again.
Photo : Jared Wong on Flickr