When I was 15, I sulked through family ski trips and family sailing trips, contemptuous and bored, an ostentatious cloud of teenage sarcasm casting a shadow of gloom on every holiday. I'm not 15 anymore, thank God, but recently, when it came time for me to plan a late-winter vacation with my son Tommy, he was. My first thought: Let's stay home! Tommy can hang out with his friends or sit contentedly like a mushroom in the dark, wrapped in his robe, hunched before a flickering screen. Because, really, where in the world can you take a 15-year-old?Where can you go?
Why?Because kids actually want to go to Japan, and so do you.
Why?Computer games, wide-eyed cartoon characters, Hello Kitty, karaoke, Pokémon cards, Iron Chef. The great, glistening rock-candy mountain of Japanese popular culture is as American as Mount Rushmore; the secluded garden of Japanese classical culture—woodblock prints, tatami-covered rooms, Shinto shrines, raked Zen pebbles—is not.
Why?Japan is not only the hippest place in the world, it's a place with room for your kids' passions and for yours—and it's a place that encourages those passions to intersect.
"Japan," Tommy said. "Definitely Japan." He'd gone with his father the year before, racking up some lovely frequent-flier miles, and he wanted to share his discoveries with me and my girlfriend, Janet. I couldn't believe my luck. My teenage son was enthusiastic about a family trip, and he would be our guide.
I shouldn't have been surprised, I suppose. From the time they were toddlers, Tommy and his friends reveled in sushi and Power Rangers and ninja posturing. And in Tommy's case, this gradually grew into a love of all things Japanese. Dragon Ball Z, a cartoon, morphed into Shogun: Total War, a computer game, which morphed into Shogun, the James Clavell blockbuster, which morphed into Musashi, Eiji Yoshikawa's historical novel about that famous Japanese warrior and scholar. Tommy's computer screen flashed the usual games but also Kurosawa films. Between the rhymes of Biggie Smalls and the din of Linkin Park, the wavering sounds of samisen music wafted out of his room. From Pokémon to Zen! Light at the end of the video tunnel.
THE PLAN According to Tommy the tour guide, Japan's affordable Western-style hotels are pretty generic; he suggested we stay in ryokan, traditional inns that roll out the futons every night. (See below for a list of our finds.) Tommy wanted to show us Tokyo and Kyoto, so we planned our trip around those hubs: three days in Tokyo; a two-hour train trip to Nikko in the north for a night; three trains west to Nara for another night; and then a 35-minute train ride to Kyoto, where we would stay for five days. "Pack light," Tommy said. "Will we have fish flakes for breakfast?" Janet asked. "As long as there's coffee," I said. "Is there?" "Just pack light," said our guide.
HELLO KITTY, WE'RE HERE The flight from New York was 14 hours, and so was the time difference. The airport was oddly hushed, and so were we. On the subway, adult men stood reading manga, Japan's comic books. "I told you to pack light," Tommy said as Janet and I crammed our suitcases in beside us. "I told you to pack light," Tommy said as we gazed in horror at stairways in Tokyo Station that seemed to ascend to heaven. We had planned to switch to a train that would get us closer to our destination, but without exchanging a word or a look, we all headed, trancelike, to the taxi stand.
It was March. It was raining. First impression: a hasty, gritty, mismatched jumble of buildings festooned with loops of exposed wires. Reality: Tokyo is huge, and within the architectural confusion there are the glinting skyscraper chasms of the Shiodome district; the new Mori Tower, a 54-story high-rise of urban optimism in Roppongi Hills; the Ginza, the main shopping drag, so lit up it looks like Times Square squared; and, here and there, the narrow streets and low wooden buildings of a neighborhood like Asakusa, which largely escaped the firebombings of World War II and retains the feel of an earlier era, when shoguns ruled and Tokyo was still called Edo. Fortunately, Asakusa was where we were staying.
The cheerful taxi driver in white gloves got directions on his cell phone (the system of streets and numbering is so random that even longtime residents get lost) and pulled into a quiet sliver of a street in front of the Ryokan Shigetsu. Japan is a land that understands the power of the miniature—a sort of inverse of, say, Texas—and this hit us with some force when we saw our room. The young woman who led the way politely told us to remove our shoes; we left them in a vestibule the size of a washcloth. Our futons had beenlaid out: one, two, three in a row, perhaps an inch of tatami visible around the edges. Tommy was unfazed; his friends spend whole weekends sleeping like packs of dogs on the floor of his room. But Janet and I hadn't been to a slumber party in decades. Thankfully, no sleeping bags here, just luxurious cocoons: the whitest of white sheets, and billowing down comforters, huge and weightless,over somewhat unforgiving mattresses.
SOAKING IT UP On the flight over, at Tommy's urging, I had started reading Shogun, and the hero, a louse-ridden English sailor who washes up near Kyoto in the 16th century, is constantly being beaten, urinated upon, and otherwise mutilated by suspicious samurai—only to revive himself in a steaming Japanese bath. Ryokan provide cotton robes, called yukata, and jackets for extra warmth, called tanzen, as well as slippers or wooden sandals to wear to and from the baths. That first night, as Janet disappeared beneath down, Tommy and I, so jet-lagged we could barely see, squeezed into the Shigetsu's elevator to visit the soaking-tub rooms, one for men and one for women, both of us feeling a little foolish in our yukata. Then we saw a Japanese businessman in an identical yukata and decided we were perfectly respectable. The innkeepers will tell you quite firmly that the baths are for relaxing only. You wash first: a hand shower, stool, and bucket sit outside the tub for that purpose. After scrubbing and rinsing, I sank into a deep cedar tub of gloriously hot, hot water and felt like that Elizabethan sailor, soaking away the modern world's equivalent of having been thrown into a dark pit awash in fish entrails.
There are whole towns devoted to bathing, and resorts built around onsen, hot springs formed by Japan's considerable underground volcanic activity. At one spot, snow monkeys slip into the pools beside the paying guests. But even without the snow monkeys, Tommy, Janet, and I became passionate devotees of the long steep.