Many young and often first-time parents I know are either hesitant or unsure when the ‘best’ time is to bring their kid on his or her first trip, or have simply ruled out travelling with their infant or toddler because they are still “too young to enjoy”. While it’s not a terribly important decision — most folks go when they have the urge to, sort of like when nature calls, or when they think the “time is right” — understanding what contributes to feeling “ready” is useful in speeding up the process. It’s never too early to expose children to new environments; it’s amazing how new experiences can contribute to a child’s development.
For me, there are three golden rules to remember when going on a vacation of more than a week with a young one, say, under 2 years. And by vacation I mean a holiday that requires exploring new places and trying new things, not the stay-in-beach-resort-and-suntan-by-the-pool-while-my-other-half-helps-baby-build-sandcastles type that you’d have to forgive your friends for thinking you never left town. These principles worked extremely well for our family during a recent trip to central Japan right smack in winter.
Rule #1: Choose your destination and duration wisely — those are 2 of the few factors you will be able to control.
Other than trying to survive the trip itself, the preparation phase must be the most challenging. There are a million, if not more, considerations! We decided on Japan because of several factors, but the main one was flight distance — our daughter Trinity had coped well on the plane as a 7-month-old to Bali and back, so we were confident that at 15 months, she would be able to handle a 7-hour jet journey. Singapore and Japan share a similar time zone, and food was not an issue since she loves rice. Having been to Japan thrice ourselves but never in winter, we felt that this was an apt opportunity.
Ultimately, how you derive at the ideal destination is really dependent on your own unique circumstances and preferences. More importantly, common sense must prevail over emotional desires. For example, how you manage jet lag will provide a useful indication — but not guarantee, obviously — how well your child can adapt to a different time zone. Or rather, use this as a sanity test: if you typically need time to adjust to time differences, forget about going anywhere that will cause jet lag, because both managing the condition yourself and coping with a kid with it might send you into instant depression.
Ben and I consider ourselves to be rather aggressive travellers — we have driven to and spent time at two US national parks in one day, walked from 78th St. to Battery Park in Manhattan, and clocked 14-hour daily gallivanting averages in Hong Kong — so our itinerary for this trip was theoretically easy peasy. Theoretically. We decided to allocate two weeks since we were to take it slow, but we still had a hard time planning an “easy” route based on our must-see/do highlights — Sanrio Puroland, Fuji 5 lakes area, Fuji Safari Park, Snow Monkey Park near Yudanaka, and Takayama and the nearby Shirakawa-go. We limited the accommodation bases, but there were still at least three days where we had to travel, with luggage in tow and sometimes through snow, for over 4 hours.
While we didn’t intentionally set out to do so, our itinerary gave us time to adjust to the cold. After two nights in Tokyo and four near Kawaguchiko, the biggest lake at the foot of Mt. Fuji, where temperatures were above 0 degrees, the cold had become more bearable by the time we headed up to the snowy landscape in Yudanaka via Nagano for two nights. The snow in Takayama and Shirakawa-go thereafter was somewhat heavy, but that was a nuisance more than cold misery.
Rule #2: Never allow yourself to believe — not even for a moment — that such a holiday will help you relax or rest. It will be one of the most tiring and challenging periods of your life!
I honestly cannot remember when was the last time I actually felt refreshed after a non-beach holiday, and accepting this
fact did somewhat mentally prepare me for a 14-day journey with a rascal who isn’t afraid to stare you down or throw a nasty tantrum in public (whoever said “terrible” is associated with 2-year-olds was obviously in denial!). But naturally, nothing can be more exhausting than going through the process itself. Many a times, tiredness sets in as soon as we set out, which is typically about 2 hours after waking up. During that time, we would have completed a long mental checklist of to-dos — change diaper, put on at least three layers, have breakfast, pack extra clothes and diapers, prepare milk feed for the afternoon, and so on.
And despite being familiar with Japan’s rail system, the sheer complexity and scale of this transportation network is still overwhelming. With two wheeled-luggages, a backpack, hiking baby carrier, a sling bag and a busting-to-the-seams diaper bag, moving from point to point was at best a chore and at worst a nightmare. There weren’t always elevators, and when there were, they weren’t always near. Having several layers of clothing on made us clumsy and our movements awkward.
Not to mention, Lil’ Miss Bossy was constantly demanding our attention, pleased that we were her slaves 24/7. She would sometimes resist going into the backpack carrier, nearly always want to hold hands while walking, and was hungry to practise talking. We couldn’t always rest when Trinity was napping, and when we could stop for a break, she was raring to go.
How did we cope? By hitting the sack as soon as we could, after the daughter was asleep. We had early dinners and were back in the hotel by 8pm, as much as possible. The only ’nightlife’ we had was sneaking out — once — to the onsen for a quick soak. Most nights the lights went out before 11pm local time.
Rule #3: Less is more; adaptation = survival
If rule #1 is handled well, #3 is definitely much easier to adhere to. In the case of Japan, any supplies we needed would not be too difficult to find — a Family Mart is never far off — and that also applied to items such as winter gear. On our second day, we stopped by at a Daiso after our visit to Sanrio Puroland and found a pair of adult woollen gloves and a sweet small blanket for Trinity.
On hindsight however, we definitely could have packed lighter, even though we already made a conscious effort to bring less and had to do some washing during the trip. In fact, I even miscalculated the amount of formula milk and we ran out about halfway through. That wasn’t a problem — at least not for us — as we were already in the midst of switching her to whole milk and we simply bought a small tin of Japanese formula to supplement.
One thing us parents know but fail to practise or believe it wholeheartedly is that young ones are way more hardy than we think. Our girl decided in sub-zero temperatures that it was fun to repeatedly use her teeth to pull off one glove — so that the other one could come swiftly off by hand.
As #3 suggests, flexibility is also important — be prepared to forgo, modify and improvise! Sometimes, the best/fastest way to reach a destination may not be the most appropriate. The concerned owner of the Yudanaka hotel we stayed at stressed repeatedly that we should take a direct bus from Matsumoto to Takayama which would cut down the travelling time and stops, but we didn’t heed his advice simply because we knew space was essential for someone eager to practise her newly-acquired walking skills. Being trapped in a bus for 2.5 hours would be pure torture, for Trinity and eventually us. We also cut short our visit to the Snow Monkey Park thanks to a grouchy babe who made the primates seem like angels, and missed taking pictures of the beautiful Japanese macaques in the dreamy snowy landscape (it only started snowing when we were leaving!). Other times, we skipped items on our itinerary because we overslept, took too long to get ready, or simply wanted to have a slower pace.
When we finally made it home, it took another few days for life to return to normal. Though I’d jested to friends that we shouldn’t have brought Trinity along for the holiday, seeing how much she ’grew’ over the two weeks and having the infant-care teachers echo the exact same sentiment, impressed upon us that travelling is the best classroom — and that’s more than enough to spur us to plan for our next family trip.