This past long weekend we had grand plans of bringing Elliot to the zoo and to various outdoor playgrounds to enjoy time as a family. Alas, the dreaded haze returned to Singapore and clouded what was meant to be a wonderful weekend together, casting a shadow over our outdoor plans.
But no matter. We didn’t want to let a little haze get in the way of family time. Friday was spent roaming around Plaza Singapura super duper early. Let me share with you a little tip, that I noticed a few other families also seemed to do: Malls in Singapore are mostly empty before 11 am. Go to a mall early and you get the whole place to yourself. You can run like a crazy toddler (or woman) through an empty floor, sit for as long as you want on the coin-operated mechanical kiddy rides. Because Spotlight opens early as well, we enjoyed roaming the aisles looking at the colourful fabrics and home crafts. We left just before 12 noon and hardly encountered much crowd.
On Saturday, we got up early and spent the entire morning making goop.
I found the recipe on my favourite parenting channel on YouTube, What’s Up Moms – they called it Non-Newtonian Fluid, but I just call it goop!
Goop is incredibly easy to make. To me, DIY kids activities need to require as few ingredients / materials as possible, be as easy as possible to make and quick and easy to clean-up afterwards.
So after researching many, many, many DIY kids activities, I finally settled on making GOOP!
The result was SOOOO much fun, I really can’t wait to share it with everyone.
Ingredients 1) Corn starch
2) Food colouring
Method 1) Measure out 1 cup of corn starch into a plastic bowl
2) Mix the food colouring with 1/3 cup of water
3) Pour the coloured water into the corn starch
4) Use a tablespoon to mix it up
I know it seems extremely easy. It really was! And it was so much fun. The end result is this gooey viscous liquid that “solidifies” when you touch it or hit it but then melts when it is left alone. Maybe some of you might have made this in school, unfortunately I didn’t!
E loved playing with it, because in his own words, he was “making cake”. But he didn’t like touching the goop with his hands. That’s why he decided to use a spoon and a measuring cup instead. I, on the other hand, was content to dig my fingers into the thick liquid – playing with the unique viscous texture! Needless to say, it was fun for everyone!
Do let me know in the comments if you have tried this out!
Naturally, when it comes to eating in Kyoto, we were spoilt for choice. One thing I have to say was, we were surprised to find that tatami mat restaurants became a problem for us. You would think that tatami mats were the perfect solution to dining out with kids!
So the first tatami mat restaurant we went to was a complete eye-opener. It was our first proper Japanese lunch in Japan with Mr E on our first day in Kyoto. For some reason, Mr E went NUTS. It was a whole new experience for him – having adults sit on the floor with him, he just went insane. If you know him, you’d know he’s a pretty well-behaved kid, especially at the dining table. So we were shocked when suddenly he went crazy, He was running around the room, grabbing everything he could get his hands on – spare chopsticks, napkins, decorative stones, slippers, umbrellas… We then realised that having a child sit on a tatami mat gives the child a false (or perhaps true) sense of freedom. The only reason he is so well-behaved at other restaurants back home in Singapore is because he’s literally constrained in a high chair, he can’t escape. So #TravellinginKyotowithaToddler Tip 4: If your child is like mine, inquisitive, try your very best to avoid restaurants with tatami mats, where possible. Or just ask to sit at a table with chairs rather than on a tatami mat. OR if all else fails, just ask for a private room with a tatami mat – they normally agree because it’s always safer for everyone that an over-enthusiastic child be kept inside a private room than running wild outside disturbing the other patrons.
As you can imagine, it was almost impossible to avoid restaurants with tatami mats in Kyoto – so after a few meals, we improvised. Some restaurants provided these little wooden chairs that kids would sit on on top of the tatami mat. The next day, we had lunch at this very famous 600-year-old udon shop, Honke Owariya near the Imperial Palace. Before going in, we gave him a stern lecture about how he had to respect the restaurant, its owners, its workers and the other patrons by behaving. He seemed to understand.
Actually, I’m not sure how much he cared about embarrassing us and himself, but he was pretty well-behaved in the restaurant because we decided to restrain him in the little wooden chair they offered children. We used his belt and created a makeshift safety buckle so that he thought that he was constrained to the chair (just like in high chairs where they have the safety buckle). That kind of worked for a while. It also helped that he was and IS obsessed with udon. So he just sat there quietly devouring up his udon.
To be honest, the udon at Honke Owariya wasn’t as life changing as we expected it to be. I guess that really is the true burden of being a 600-year-old udon shop: the extremely high expectations. The udon we had was undeniably springy and soft, but the soup just wasn’t as tasty as we expected it to be. It was nonetheless very cool to have eaten at 600-year-old restaurant. Given that my nation is only JUST turning 50, I don’t think I’m in any way qualified to comment about the cuisine of a restaurant and culture thousands of years older than mine.
ANYWAY, since we are on the topic of food, I am so thankful that Mr E is truly in love with Japanese food. It made feeding him SO easy. Japan has some of the freshest produce in the world so all of us, not only Mr E, were spoiled for choice. Almost everyday, my dear mother would go to the grocery store to buy fresh cherry tomatoes, fresh cherries, straw berries and one day, we even enjoyed super sweet Japanese grapes with the extra crunch inside and were just at the verge of fermentation. Oh my, DELICIOUS.
Ok, to round off this food section, I guess there were THREE standout restaurants for us that impressed me because of the quality of their food and their service toward families with kids.
If I had to rate the restaurant with the best cost to quality ratio, it would definitely be Chojiro, a sashimi and sushi restaurant we had on our first night in Kyoto. It is a casual dining restaurant located right in the heart of city, near Gion. Luckily, we asked the ryokan staff to make a reservation for us because when we got there at about 7:30 pm, the queue extended out the door. Luckily we got a booth seat with a high chair for Mr E. We ordered via an iPad which made communication very easy. The prices were at least HALF the prices of restaurants in Singapore so we were going nuts. We just kept ordering and ordering. The staff were so very very friendly and kept playing and talking to Mr E. It really was a very family friendly restaurant but with excellent food. You see, I normally don’t like unagi in Singapore, maybe because the ones I have tried in SIngapore are not as fresh and a bit chewy, but when I bit into the unagi at Chojiro, I could not believe it. It was sweet and so soft that it literally melted in my mouth like butter. The unagi I have had in Singapore has been rubbery and fishy, a complete opposite to the unagi I tried at Chojiro. The rest of the sushi and sashimi we ordered were no less incredible. And to top it all off, the cost of the whole dinner, where we were literally ordering without control, was only S$100. My father commented it would cost at least three times more in Singapore. Oh and please don’t ask me about food photos – I don’t think I have the capacity or restraint to be a food blogger because I can’t bear wasting time taking photos of food.
The next restaurant I would definitely go back to in Kyoto is Hiro Yakiniku Restaurant also in the heart of Gion. Sorry, again, I really don’t have photos of the food because I really wasn’t setting out to blog about my meals. But trust me, it was INCREDIBLE. It came recommended by a very discerning luxury magazine editor friend of mine so we were assured the quality of the meat was amazing. The restaurant put us in a private room which gave Mr E freedom to run around the room as fast as he could ignoring our shouts of, “Don’t go near the fire!!! Don’t go near the window!!! Don’t touch that!!” But otherwise, it was a lot of fun and the beef was, as I shared earlier, INCREDIBLE.
I believe there were three yakiniku sets we could choose from OR we could choose from the a la carte. The glutton in me ordered the set dinner, but in retrospect, maybe we should have ordered a la carte simply because when you order the set menu you can’t choose the meat they will give you. So while the restaurant was discerning with the quality of the meat they served, they were undiscerning with the part of the cow they served. So we were presented with beef heart, beef liver, beef stomach, alongside the more palatable parts. My father was in gizzard heaven because he normally doesn’t get the chance to eat all these innards, so he was eating them up! During dinner, i mustered up enough courage to try beef liver and surprisingly it wasn’t as strong tasting or awful as I thought it would be.
[I AM CURRENTLY SEARCHING HIGH AND LOW FOR THE NAME OF THIS RESTAURANT!]
Finally, the last restaurant I’d like to mention is one that we happened upon by chance. We decided to spend our second last day in Kyoto walking through Gion again – we decided it was too much trouble to go to Kobe just to eat Kobe beef. Although we didn’t go to Kobe, we were still bent on eating Kobe beef and after getting rejected by a few top restaurants because we didn’t have reservations, we dejectedly trudged through the streets looking for a restaurant that had good food. Note to self and #TravellingwithaToddlerinKyoto Tip 5: ALWAYS make a lunch / dinner reservation before you head out for the day. Get your concierge or hotel staff to do it. You do NOT want to be pushing a stroller around Kyoto looking for food. Not only is it a waste of your precious holiday time, it is tiring and demoralising. So after about 20-minutes of walking around, my father gestured for us to go into this small restaurant by the street corner. Tired, hungry and cranky and that was me, not the baby – we went into this tiny restaurant that literally only sits about 20 people max. There was only ONE guy manning the whole restaurant. We secretly suspected he was the chef, waiter, dishwasher and proprietor all rolled into one. We also guessed he probably inherited the shop from his father and had decided to follow his fathers footsteps. Apparently, Kyoto people hardly sell their landed property, especially the old-style houses. It’s really unheard of in Kyoto to sell the house that your parents left you. Back to the nice chef proprietor, he was also one of the nicest guys we’d met in Kyoto. Seriously. SOOOO NICE. He graciously allowed Mr E to run around the restaurant, walked us upstairs to show us where the bathrooms were – which amazingly included a baby changing station, filled up our teacups, washing plates, cutting vegetables, cooking noodles… All with a big smile on his face.
Ok, so maybe we also made his day because if we didn’t walk in, there would only be two other people for lunch that day.
So, before I get ahead of myself, I must go back to why my father chose this restaurant. He said he saw a big picture of marbled beef outside the restaurant. So we assumed it was a steak house / restaurant selling grilled beef. We were so excited, but also starving so at that point would eat anything. So when we went in, we expected to be hit with pages and pages of beef in his menu. Unfortunately, the only menu he had in English was a typed-out A4 sheet that said something vaguely about a set lunch with fish, leeks and green soba soup. Imagine our disappointment. Fish and leeks? And green soba soup. So with much confusion and feeling extremely disappointed, we ordered four bowls of green soba noodle soup. He graciously took our orders and started work.
It was an hour into the meal preparation that we realised our tragic mistake. Things take a bit longer when you are the restaurant owner, dish washer, waiter all rolled into one. We were running after Mr E on the second floor when we stumbled upon this beautiful menu in Japanese with glossy pages of deliciously marbled beef. It was like a hallelujah moment. I felt as though a light switch went on, or some hallowed stage light suddenly turned towards us. The same marbled beef we saw outside the shop. YES, it was true! This really was a yakiniku or steak house. It wasn’t a mirage we saw out there in the wilderness where people without lunch reservations go to wander! It was just unfortunate that his English menu was a bit confusing and wasn’t clear! And also because he couldn’t speak English. This poor man so kindly prepared this crazy stupid tourists leek and green soba noodle soup when they were in a premium steak house!!! He was probably thinking, “These poor poor Chinese tourists. They have no money and are so desperate that all they can afford to eat is leak and green soba noodle soup.” So we quickly ran downstairs and pointed to this brochure, “Is this true?? Do you really serve beef??” And he nodded and said yes. And we said, “Yes! Please prepare this for us!” Unfortunately, we only ordered one set because if we got him to prepare four sets, we were afraid we would be there until dinner. Anyway, my point is, the beef set that finally came was AMAZING. It was made from Kyoto beef (not Kobe) and prepared on hot charcoal – a traditional Kyoto style of cooking on a hoe. It was amazing and such a cultural experience. Apparently Kyoto beef is rarer and finer than Kobe beef, it certainly tasted ambrosial! I felt SO UPSET that we didn’t realise our mistake one hour earlier, otherwise we would all have our own charcoal Kyoto beef set, instead of crowding round my father’s. Lesson learnt. It was a great experience, one we are likely to remember for some time to come!
Unfortunately, the only evidence we have of this restaurant is this matchbox that we collected as a souvenir. So, your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to read the words on this matchbox and tell me the name of this restaurant so I know that it is much more than a wonderful desert mirage!
[EDIT: I just realised the matchbox I initially put up was for Honke Owariya. I am looking for another clue and will put it up when I can find it.]
In May, when Mr E was about 20 months, we brought him to Japan for his very first family holiday. Of course, because the thought of a week alone with Mr E in a foreign land felt just too physically and emotionally daunting, we brought reinforcements: The Grandparents.
We decided to go to Kyoto over Tokyo because we wanted a city that was a bit slower in pace. We were also drawn to the fact that Kyoto is literally just filled with temples and parks, making it a safe place for an inquisitive toddler to run around in. I use the word literally, literally. It is literally filled with temples and parks! I’m going to share with you how we travelled to and around, where we stayed, what we ate and what we saw in Kyoto in a series of three blog entries. So let’s start with travelling to Kyoto and where we stayed!
HOW WE TRAVELLED TO KYOTO
It seemed we weren’t the only ones who thought that Kyoto would be a lot more family friendly than Tokyo. The Singapore Airlines flight from Singapore to Osaka was carrying more than the normal load of babies and toddlers. About an hour into the flight, we became fast friends with a French family who were seated at the bulkhead seats across the aisle from us. They too embarked on inter-generational travel as the boistrous one-year-old boy introduced us to his charming mother, father and grandmama. They too were enroute to Kyoto for a family holiday.
To be very honest, the aeroplane ride to Osaka was horrible. Mr E was restless and frustrated. When the air stewardesses first set up his bassinet, he couldn’t wait to hop in and lie down because it was such a novelty to him. Our relief was short-lived when ten seconds later he wanted out and wanted to run up and down the aisle. The stewardesses were less than amused and warned us that we had to keep him off the aisle when they were serving the meals. I think he just wanted to reach across the aisle for his French friend most of the time. But was prohibited from doing so by the stewardesses which further added to his irritable mood. All I can say is, thank goodness for Peppa Pig.
We arrived in Osaka at night. Oh which brings me to #TravellinginKyotowithaToddler Tip 1: Don’t be a hero. You are already a hero for travelling with a toddler. To make your journey as comfortable as you can for you and the child, if you arrive at night, book the airport hotel. So luckily we did, and we spent the night at the Kansai Airport Hotel. It was a God-send seriously. We literally just stumbled out of the aeroplane and into our beds. It seemed an Indian family that also travelled with their toddler on the same plane as us had the exact same idea with us giving each other sheepish awkward smiles as we recognised each other in the hotel lobby and walked towards the same lift.
The next day we took the train, which was just outside the Kansai Airport Hotel, to Kyoto. It was so easy. We just pushed our airport trolleys into our rooms the night before, and then pushed the same trolleys out of the lobby and into the train station. SO CONVENIENT. It was at the train station that we bumped into the French family again. Seriously, Kyoto is a baby magnet. When we reached Kyoto, I noticed many other tourists pushing around strollers or carrying their babies in slings. It’s just that easy to travel around in Kyoto with your child.
When we reached Kyoto station, we decided to go with the easy option of just hailing a taxi to the ryokan that we booked. The cost of a daily bus pass in Kyoto is about 500 Yen (approx S$5). The staff at the ryokan advised that the cost of a taxi from the station to the ryokan would be about 800 Yen. So we decided that since there were four of us plus a toddler, it would be actually cheaper to hail a cab. I guess that brings me to #TravellinginKyotowithaToddler Tip 2: Again, don’t be a hero. Actually, sometimes, the more comfortable option may be the more economical one. One of the best things about cabs in Kyoto is that they are so polite and so accommodating. Even though some drivers may not speak English, they will try their best to communicate with you – to find out where you are going. I guess that also brings me to #TravellinginKyotowithaToddler Tip 3: Try to get the name of the place you want to go to written in Japanese before you get into the cab. While this is a probably a universal rule, it is even more true in Kyoto as most of the drivers can’t speak English and unless you have great Japanese pronunciation, you’d probably mangle the attraction name, causing embarrassment to both you and the driver when he finally figures out what you are trying to say and says it in a completely different way.
WHERE WE STAYED
We stayed at the Ryokan Sakura Honganji, just a 10 minutes cab ride away from Kyoto station. As we’d never stayed in a ryokan before, we were quite excited. Nat and I booked a traditional tatami room and my parents booked a Western room. When we first entered the ryokan, we were pleasantly greeted by this sunny chirpy lady. She told us that although we were early, check-in time is at 3 pm, she’d be happy to keep our luggage for us and deliver them to the rooms, as we headed out for lunch.
The ryokan itself was decent enough. It was filled with Americans, most notably, American university students when we were there. Also – it did not have wifi in the room. We had to use wifi downstairs. It kind of reminded me of my boarding school days where we would all huddle around the living room trying to detect a faint wifi signal. The wifi signal was strong – just inconveniently located downstairs.
Sleeping on a tatami mat was interesting. I’d slept on floors before, but I wasn’t used to such a thin mattress so it took some time getting used to. Nat thought it would help his back, but after five days, he realised it probably made it worse. The only one who was absolutely thrilled with the tatami mat was Mr E. He loved the fact that during the day, the whole tatami mat area was transformed into a free-for-all play area where he could run and jump up and down to his hearts content.
Breakfast wasn’t exciting. Luckily, we only tried breakfast once – just out of curiosity. The salmon was hard and the soup forgettable. I guess it wasn’t a traditional ryokan with a 95-year-old lady stirring rice porridge in the kitchen like I had dreamed about. Most of the staff in the ryokan when we were there were in their early 20s, a few generations away from my fantasy of a 95-year-old innkeeper who cooked food passed down from her grandmother. BUT, to make up for it, apparently there’s a famous ramen shop just 1 minute from the ryokan. Unfortunately we didn’t get to try it, but apparently the queues are pretty long.
I must say I liked the location of the ryokan. It was located right in the heart of a residential district with a playground just down the road and people cycling too and from work. It was also very quiet in the evenings which made retiring for the day very easy and peaceful – we didn’t have to worry about waking up to shattered wine bottles.
At the end of the day, I realised that the kids working in the ryokan weren’t too bad. At least they could speak good (almost fluent) English, I doubt my imaginary 95-year-old innkeeper can!
Stay tuned for Part 2 to find out what this little kiddy ate in Kyoto!
Our after dinner routine often begins like this: “LET’S GET READY! READY! GET READY! YOU GOT YOUR HELMET? YOUR SHOES? LET’S GO!!!!!!” Often spoken as loudly as the capital letters imply.
And then E-Man runs to put on his shoes, grabs his helmet, gets put into his car seat and then our little red hatchback flies off into the night. No quiet time or winding down time for this family.
We often reach the park at around 9 pm. I know, most other toddlers are in bed before eight, but ours goes to bed about 10, well, ok 10-ish. I finish work late and because he has nothing better to do during the day than to sleep, eat, poop and play, so the night is family bonding time.
We often spend our time playing with this spinning top catapult that you catapult into the air so you can watch it fly with the breeze with its inbuilt LED light flickering away amongst the park lamps. E-Man loves this especially because he gets to pick up the top wherever it lands. Sometimes our spinning top catapult attracts other young kids who stop and watch us play. Sometimes I let them have a go as well. Most other times we bring our big bottle of bubbles and let E-Man run after the bubbles.
We aren’t the only ones in the park.
Once, as we walked towards the space we often occupy, we met an older couple dancing in rhythm with a ball and racquet. We were all mesmerised for a while. It looked a bit like tai chi or qi gong, but yet different. I had personally never seen anything like that before. E-Man loved it. He watched them for a while, enjoying the traditional Chinese music blaring from their small transistor radio.
After a while, when they stopped for a break, we went over to talk to them. Conversations always flow easily with a baby in your arms. They let him play with the ball and we realised the ball wasn’t as light as it seemed. They explained what they were practising was called “rhythm ball”, a form of tai chi (I think). They even gave me the opportunity to try out their steps. It was certainly not as easy as they made it look! They actually told me that there’s a lady who teaches a group of rhythm ball enthusiasts every Friday and Saturday evenings from 8 pm. I actually went to the park once during those times, but didn’t see anyone, sadly.
Another reason we like the park is because we get to see and meet so many dogs! E-Man is a HUGE animal lover. Every time he sees a little dog he HAS to go up and grab it. Much to the delight of the owner. They just love seeing a little baby run up to their dog to give it a big hug.
We also play catching and hide-and-seek. I can’t imagine anywhere else in the entire world where a baby can run completely uninhibited in a public park at 9 pm at night.
Oh, I guess at this juncture I should explain why he has to wear a helmet to the park. Yes. It’s because he runs TOO freely that sometimes he topples over. Most of the time it’s my fault because I play a serious(ly fun) game of catching with him. The park is so big and wide and safe that we just run like crazy people everywhere and once he ran too fast and toppled over head first on the path. I heard a thud. Do not judge me.
Needless to say, he has worn a helmet from that time on. It’s actually become a ritual for him. Like he knows that before he gets out of the car, he needs to put his helmet on. Then when he gets back into the car, he gets to take it out.
A few times since then, while playing hide-and-seek, he has accidentally bumped his head on a pole, which was completely pain-free. He even noticed the difference the helmut makes and insists on it when he goes out now.
Apart from the dog-walkers and rhythm ball dancers, I’ve come across late night picnic goers, cyclists, sword fighters, Thai boxers (I think?) and people just sitting on benches talking on phones.
It’s a really safe space for the community. I must also confess that there’s also a large MacDonald’s in the park. I’m not sure what the health conscious amongst us have to say about that, but we personally like it. We can go in and buy a cone anytime we want or even, I confess, chicken nuggets.
E-Man is also thoroughly tired out by the time we get home at 10. So by the time he gets home, he is completely spent and ready for bedtime. Really, raising E-Man is a walk in the park.
I knew nothing about babies when I became a mother. I still don't. Seems like Baby E isn't the only one taking baby steps!