Monday, December 31, 2018

Goodbye 2018, welcome 2019

I awoke from a 2-hour nap at 4pm, full of vivid, science-fiction-themed dreams. Partly this was something that just happened, but I won't deny that I strategised a bit to allow it to occur - I'm staying home this New Year's Eve, and I wanted a ballast against feeling besieged if there it lots of party noise in my street that prevents night sleep.

I'm now so rested that I'll certainly be good to see in the New Year regardless of noise, and can be
philosophical if I get no sleep at all, so that makes me feel good.

That slightly pointless little story is, as well as being a thing that happened, a relatively useful analogy for how this year has been for me as an individual, and my family at large.

We haven't magically discovered the capacity to change the world or our circumstances to suit ourselves, and we've had challenges aplenty in all areas of life.

But what we *have* gotten better at, and this is the real growth point of the year, is in finding ways to work with, instead of flailing painfully against, our lives, each other, and ourselves. Part of this has involved understanding ourselves, and each other, more fully.

Regarding the world at large, there is both too much to say and at the same time, nothing I can usefully add to the larger commentaries flooding out everywhere. Suffice it to say that while we live in interesting times globally (in the pejorative sense), we, as a family and a community, remain incredibly lucky and privileged.

Our 2018

As usual, I think the best way to try to summarise the year is in categories, and even then, I won't be including everything, or a lot of detail. In 12 months, with 5 active people, a huge amount happens! Here's a bit of a summary.

Work, Study, Hobbies and Creativity

For my elder two daughters, this has been a fantastic year at school. Completing years 8 and 9 respectively, they both excelled academically, and have also been able to pursue lots of extracurricular activities that they enjoy. 

My 15 year old plays clarinet in a band at school and will next year be doing VCE Japanese early because of her great results, while my 13 year old was in the top 10 academic achievers of her year level, was elected Social Justice Leader for 2019, and continues to be an active part of the school's photography and chess clubs.
Both girls also continued with debating, and both improved a lot this year, which thrilled my crusty old debating heart.

My 9 year old had a much more mixed year at school, for a few reasons, and we have decided in the end to move her to another school for year 5 next year. Academically, she is doing well, but we think the new environment will be a welcome circuit breaker for her. Fingers crossed!

My husband continued in the job he's now marked 15 years with, which is in itself a milestone. My freelance business grew again this year - starting the year with three ongoing clients, I've finished with five that I'll be carrying into 2019, including my Adelaide client. 

I've successfully travelled to Adelaide 8 times for work in 2018, which, combined with the flights undertaken for personal reasons (see Holidays below!) has seen me board a plane without melting down no less than 22 times, which in itself represents a massive personal triumph for me, given how much I dislike and fear air travel.

With five projects to service, I am busy, often a bit too busy, but I've been free to really focus on paying down the mortgage and putting money away against leaner times (because those will come, they always do), and that makes me feel more secure. 

I've relied heavily on my terrific subcontractor this year, and will be again in 2019. And in a great bonus, three out of my five clients sent me expressions of satisfaction with my work that were made at their governing body's final meetings of the year, so that is always very satisfying.

Creatively, it has been a good year, with one major disappointment. I won a poetry prize in May (the Ada Cambridge Commended) and my poems, Saudade and After an Ocular Migraine, were published in an anthology, so that was nice. 

My 15 year old had three poems published in an anthology put together by her online poetry group, which was also great. 

My 13 year old's creativity was largely expressed physically / visually, with her burgeoning interest in cosplay and particularly cosplay dance. She is now in two separate cosplay dance groups, which she is loving.

My 9 year old discovered both writing creatively and music this year, and is keen to do more of both next year. She and I are currently writing a story together, which is great fun.

The only thing I'm disappointed about on this front is that I did not, in the end, manage to get my planned poetry collection published. I just did not have the time or headspace in the end, and wound up being scared off from self-publishing by the horror stories and complications that I heard about from others. I'd like to try again in 2019, but might limit myself to an ebook release.

Health, Family and Activity

The biggest health news of the year for us was my 9 year old's diagnosis in November with Coeliac Disease. We had suspected for some time that this might be the case, but found out for sure then. 

It is not the end of the world, especially with myself and the 13 year old already diagnosed, but it has definitely been a transitional adjustment period.

My 15 year old has stuck with jujitsu all year and is really enjoying it, and will continue it into 2019. Both 9 and 13 year olds did weekly ice skating, but both have decided to not continue with it next year. The 13 year old will substitute dance (with her groups), while the 9 year old is probably going to return to weekly swimming.

We had, on the whole, a healthy year, with the odd cold or tummy bug here and there, but other than the lead-up to 9 year old's Coeliac diagnosis, no really sustained periods of ill health for anyone.

The saddest news of the year was my mother-in-law's death, aged 81, in March, which occurred the day before mine and my husband's 20th wedding anniversary. March was therefore a month of extremely mixed, and intense, emotions.

Holidays, Special Days and Keynote Events

What a year it was under this heading! If I started going into detail about everything, I'd never stop, so let's go dot points.

- We went on holidays as a family twice: to Japan in April, and to Sea Lake in September. Both were, in very different ways, terrific. Japan was honestly one of the best experiences of my life to date.

- We hosted an exchange student from Japan in July, which was marvellous.

- My 15 year old daughter went on a science trip to the USA, including a 5-day visit to NASA Space Camp, with a group of STEM kids in October. To say she loved it would be an epic understatement.

- We did the birthday thing - a party at home for youngest in February, we went with a group to Box Hill JapanFest for the middle kid in May, and the 15 year old got exactly what she wanted by being given the house to herself for an entire day in August to have friends over to hang out.

- My Dad's 70th in November was a blast.

- We did the convention thing in spades this year, mostly for the kids. As usual, we worked at OzComicCon in June, and also attended Japanese Summer Festival (February), JapanFest Box Hill (May), Animaga (August), and Madman Anime (November).

- Mother's Day and Father's Day were celebrated.

- We kind of skipped Easter this year, as we were in Japan, but Halloween and Christmas both got the full treatment.

- We went to some concerts and shows - stand outs were Roger Waters, which husband and I saw as our 20th anniversary thing, and for eldest kid, Evanescence.

Looking forward

The year ahead looks promising, if a little daunting, at this stage. Work and school will remain busy, and integrating my youngest into her new school  will no doubt have its challenges.

 My elder two are off to Japan again in April, this time for 2.5 weeks with a school group, while husband, youngest and myself are off to Far North Queensland for 12 days while they are overseas.

We're also going to Sydney in September for 10-12 days as a driving holiday, which will incorporate Sydney OzComicCon.

I have a 5-year plan now for my business (well, 4.5 from now - it is a plan from July 2018 - June 2023). I am hoping this will be a period of modest growth, or at least no decline.

I have decided that my goal I am setting myself is to be in a position to close down my business in December 2035, when I will be 62 years old.

My husband is 4 years older than me, so in the most ideal of worlds, we'd retire together at that time (he'll be 66). If we are very careful and very strategic, we should be able to do this. Then, I see myself putting more and more effort and energy into both poetry and volunteering. We shall see!

So, as the year draws to a close, I hope that 2019 holds good things for each and every one of my friends, acquaintances, colleagues and neighbours. No doubt it will be a mixed bag, because that is what life is - but let it be a time where light reaches into dark corners too. That is a small hope, but it is what I wish, for me, for you, and for all of us.

Monday, December 24, 2018

Christmas Card in a Poem

Christmas Day tomorrow, so herewith is my usual greeting of the season.

I hope 25 December is a good day, the best day it can be.

This is what I wish for those who will be doing big family events, and those having a quiet one at home with the teev.

This is what I wish for those for whom Christmas is easy and fun and joyous, and for those for whom it is hard and awful and terribly sad.

This is what I wish for those who don't celebrate Christmas at all, and those who used to, and don't anymore, and those who want to, but can't.

I don't do Christmas cards anymore, but instead I write a Christmas sevenling poem, as my card to you all. Please to accept it as my sincere wish for you all as 2018 draws to its end.

A Christmas Sevenling for 2018

Three colours dominate the season:
Red for the holly we do not grow; green for the pine trees brought to these shores;
white for the snow that never falls on us in the summered south.

Another way to look at it is this:
Red for all the blood of the ages; green for the promise of new things;
white for sadness, and also for purity, and also, hope.

The colours promise: the year, again, dies to be reborn, as shall we all.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Photo every day

I have started doing the "post a photo every day" thing on Insta over the past month. I quite like doing it - I am a big recorder of things, and this is giving me a daily prompt to record something from everyday life in an easy, straightforward way.

I created three collages of the first month of doing it, just for ease of reference. I thought I might post them here, on the basis that the more broadly they are distributed, the less chance one individual app will eat my record :-)

So here is 28 Days in My Life, in photos, without captions or explanations ... just for fun. I'll probably do a similar compilation every month. (For those who can count, yes, there is one less photo than there should be - this is because I posted a video one day instead of a still, and I can't embed that in a collage).

Sunday, November 18, 2018

On the world beneath the covers

Having finished Dianna Wynne Jones' classic The Power of Three, my 9 year old and I have started on now started on Terry Pratchett's Wee Free Men for bedtime reading.

I am going to profoundly miss it when she decides she is too old for shared reading. Reading to, and with, my girls has been hands down my favourite part of parenting. I have so, so many rich memories of particular stories and the way they have all responded, and the stories I have discovered and rediscovered with them.

It all started with picture books - things like nursery rhymes, The Velveteen Rabbit, Pumpkin Soup, Sleepy Pendoodle, all the Mem Fox and Pamela Allen books, Charlie and Lola, Shirley Barber, the Hairy McClarys, and my childhood pile of Golden Books. Early reader fodder from Roald Dahl, Enid Blyton, the Rainbow Fairies and many others - revisiting the Faraway Tree and Famous Five was a particular joy. Taking each child to the Misty Mountain and Narnia, and on the water with The Wind in the Willows, was incredible. The big girls and I particularly loved the Wrinkle in Time series.

I have passed on my devotion to The Dark is Rising series three times now. I did Anne of Green Gables with the older two, and the My Side of the Mountain books with the youngest. We got through the first four Silver Brumby books before horsey interest started to wane. We have read Trixie Belden and Nancy Drew, and with the older ones, Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie. We found new material together too, like the Sky Horses series, Clarice Bean and Ruby Redfort from Lauren Childs, and the wonderful My Australian Girl books.

There were more - so many more. If I have any regret at all, it is that I didn't keep a reading log (something I also wish more broadly in my own life that I had done, but ... bygones).

They all have their favourites. My eldest favours anything with even the slightest whiff of dystopia. The middle kid likes mysteries and sad stories. The youngest likes fantasy and nature stories. There is one clear overlap winner in terms of adoration, and that is The Dark is Rising (because Susan Cooper is queen, no don't argue, she just is).

I really hope that, when my girls look back on their childhoods, they remember that among all the many imperfections, there was always time and will to open up the covers of a book and step into wonder together.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

A Nonet for Baking at Home

after a day of slings and arrows
needlesticks and playground upsets
at last, sliding through the door:
straight through to the kitchen
to squeeze out the day
in soft butter
rich doughy
sweetness -

Monday, October 1, 2018

Spring holiday at the mirror lake: In pictures

We got home last Thursday from a 5-day family holiday to Lake Tyrrell, in Victoria's Wimmera Mallee region. Lake Tyrrell is a shallow lake resting entirely on a bed of rock salt. It is quite otherwordly and amazing; I highly recommend it as a destination if you want to have your mind blown (and get some awesome photos!)

Here are some of our really good shots.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

The half-year gone, the half-year to come

I have been such a desultory blogger this year. I have been busy, but it has been more than that - I'm finding myself more inclined to use my writing energy on poetry and flash fiction rather than life logging, and that is OK (to everything a season ...)

However, I'm not ready yet to give away my blog. It has served a lot of useful purposes for me over the years, not least as an aide memoire regarding the many things we've done, thought, tried, and loved. I thought it might be time to do a meta-check-in, for Future Me if nothing else!

2018 is now half-over. So far, in big-ticket items, it's brought me:
- A poetry award
- Our wonderful trip to Japan (April)
- A fulltime workload in my freelance business
- Great family birthday celebrations
- 3 business trips to Adelaide
- In sadder news, the passing of my mother-in-law

For the rest of this year, I am looking at:
- Continuing fulltime workload
- Small family trip to Sea Lake (just 5 days, but should be good)
- Possible USA trip for my eldest kid to Space Academy (she is hoping anyway!)
- Release of my poetry book, She Said: Women of Story
- Planning and booking our next overseas holiday to New Zealand (early 2019)

Health-wise, it has been a good year on the whole. We've all had minor colds and stomach upsets, and I have had one fatigue crash probably due to one of my autoimmunes lolloping out of control temporarily, but basically it's all been good.

Family-wise, I won't say it has been an unchallenging year. The events preceding and following my mother-in-law's death were very difficult, as well as, of course, the death itself and the emotions surrounding that. We have also had other problems of varying scope and severity, which we have worked through, but it hasn't been an easy journey.

I feel like I have already run a marathon this year and there is still half of it to go - both with tiring but amazing things, and with tiring and hard / painful things. Working a fulltime load and juggling between three clients, as I have been doing since returning from Japan, is taking a toll on me, and it will not let up this year - maybe not until mid-2019, depending on how things go.

I am hoping that the back half of 2019 will be a little less booked with work - my ideal would be 3.5 - 4 days a week, instead of the 5-6 I am currently doing - but that is a year away, which might as well be a lifetime.

The money is really nice, and is allowing us to make extra mortgage payments, have a holiday in NZ next year to celebrate my partner's 50th birthday (way earlier than we had thought we'd be able to go overseas again!), and look at some house renovations that we've been wanting to do. The cost, though, is real, in terms of energy, health, creativity, and family life. I can do it for another year and we'll certainly be able to make good use of the funds. But I don't want to keep going like this indefinitely.

Monday, June 4, 2018

After School Care and letting go of the guilt

My youngest child is now 9 years old. In Grade 4 at school, she is a happy student - loves going to school, has many friends, is doing well academically and enjoys the social aspects greatly.

Since she started in Prep in 2014, she has usually done 1-2 nights a week of after school care. In 2014, with her sisters who were then also at primary school, she went on Monday and Tuesday nights to accommodate my work schedule (I was at that time in a salaried office job). 2015 was a single night (Tuesdays) as I dropped to part time hours at work. In 2016, she only went on an ad hoc basis, as my freelance work needs dictated. In 2017, we booked a regular night each week (Thursdays) which gave me the capacity to have one longer day for meetings and client visits. This year, we started off just continuing the Thursdays, but starting from May, we also added in Tuesdays when I started a new project that requires one office day a week (which is Tuesday).

Unlike her older sisters, who tolerated after care but didn't love it, my 9 year old has always really enjoyed going along. We've been very lucky to have terrific co-ordinators of the after care program across the time that my kids have needed to use it, and the kids get a great mix of free play, activities, and guided games and learning. My youngest is a very social kid and she's really appreciated the extra play time with peers, and the fun of doing different things.

I have spent a lot of time feeling vaguely guilty about after care. Not so much the single night a week - even I, self-flagellator that I am, could not help but see that as an unequivocal good, for both her and my workload. Increasing to two nights caused me a bit of a pang, though, despite her excitement about it.

However, I had a bit of an epiphany last week. I had to travel to Adelaide for work for most of the week, and to accommodate her dad's work needs, she ended up going to after care for 4 of the 5 nights of the week (every day except Monday, when I was still in Melbourne). And guess what? She LOVED it. She was voted Student Leader for the week and had a magnificent time. She did crafts, games, cooking and science experiments. She consolidated friendships with kids she already liked, and met new friends. She had virtually no weekday screen time, and I am sure partly as a result, slept better than her usual wont.

I realised, finally, that I am not abrogating my parental duties by recognising that our week runs better (hers as well as mine) if she goes to after care and I have adequate time to do my work. It means that the time we get together is of much better quality, and more meaningful. We have paused her swimming lessons for 3 months, as we do every winter, so her only extracurricular activity at the moment is ukelele lessons (which she actually does at school, during lunchbreaks), so after care also fills a void very nicely for her in a way that causes zero extra stress for me when co-ordinating my increasingly demanding work schedule.

So we had a chat this morning, she and I, and we've agreed (to her delight) that from next term, she's going to be attending after care 3 days per week. Mondays, which is a fixed work at home day for me, we'll enjoy our walk home together with the dog and our Monday baking tradition. Fridays, I'll attend school assembly and we'll enjoy end-of-week downtime together. The other three days, she'll go to after care and have fun and I'll concentrate on getting full work days in so my life becomes more manageable.

I think this is going to end up being a good decision, for her and for me.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Year Three in Business

My third anniversary in business as a freelance policy, strategy and governance consultant will arrive in a couple of weeks' time, so I thought now might be a good opportunity to review The Year That Was and think about the year to come.

As always, let's start with stats. This year, I have:

- Worked for 6 clients - 4 universities, 1 state government agency, and 1 SME. The balance of the work has been roughly 50% University A, 25% University B, 15% state government, and 10% University C and D and the SME together. One of the university projects came online very late in the year (May), and another was very small, while the SME was a one-shot, which is why C and D and SME together were only a small contribution to the total.

- Had 12 weeks completely off - a week apiece in the July and September school holidays, 3 weeks over summer, a week apiece of project pause time in August, September and November respectively, and 4 weeks in April (the entire month) when we travelled to Japan.

- Worked an average of 4 days a week in the 40 weeks I worked (this was unevenly deployed, with a few 10-day-no-break stretches and some weeks with only a couple of working days in them).

- Attended client sites for meetings an average of 1 day a week except in my Monster Quarter, where it was usually 2 days a week.

- Did 3 business trips to Adelaide for a client there who I've been working with since November.

- Had a very uneven spread of work across the year, with Monster Quarter 2 (Sept-Dec) carrying 35% of the overall year's work while Quarter 4 (Apr-June) carried only 15% (this was largely due to the 4 week break in April and a billing cycle that has pushed some payments forward into next financial year). Quarters 1 and 3 carried 22% and 28% respectively.

- Again made use of subcontract labour to deal with overflow work. I have one very reliable subbie now who definitely helps me manage the fluctuations of the workload, and others I can call upon in desperate times, although that is not as successful generally as they don't have the depth of understanding of my work areas.

- Earned 85% of my earnings from 2016-17 (so a drop of 15%). My goal that I set last year was to have a drop of 10% (I knew that losing April, which is usually one of the most lucrative months of the year, meant I would not match, let alone exceed, last year's total), so I did not quite meet this goal, largely due to a quiet stretch in August-September that I hadn't anticipated. Still, my earnings were more than adequate for our needs, and given that I worked 3 less weeks, I can't really complain.

In non-statistical terms, it has been, on balance, a good year, with moments of being less stellar (but what job or work arrangement doesn't have that?) Learning how to effectively service an interstate client has been interesting and rewarding, and all the projects have had their challenging but also engrossing elements. I have had times of great fatigue, but because I work primarily from home, I have been able to calibrate around my health and energy in a way I wouldn't have been able to do in an office environment, so I count myself very fortunate in that regard.

Looking at my goals that I set last year, I did not too badly. My goals were:

- Get within 10% of 2016-17 earnings: As stated earlier, I didn't quite do this, with a 15% drop, but I went close.

- Take 10 weeks off: I actually had 12, but 2 of them weren't by choice!

- Try to expand my client base: I did this, picking up two new university clients with big projects (including my Adelaide client). I now have three large university clients and two more ad hoc / smaller universities, as well as one government agency and one SME. So that goal has worked out well.

For 2018-19, I am in the unusual position of having the first 9 months already sewn up with work. All three of my big university projects will roll on until at least March 2019, with one of them definitely continuing through til June and one other probably doing so. This means that my income projection is a bit more predictable than it usually is, and also that I am relieved of the burden of seeking further work - a part of freelancing I do not overly enjoy. While I could squeeze in other things - and will no doubt try, if the opportunity offers! - I am not in the position of *having* to find more work until at least March next year, and that's really quite nice.

I'll also be taking a more routine / structured approach to my work weeks, with one fixed day a week on campus for one client, further trips to Adelaide for another, and a more systematic allocation of days between the three big client projects, which I hope will both help manage the heavy workload and also help me with the code-switching I have to do between the projects and their different styles. I anticipate some weekend work will be needed in overlapping peak times, but I am trying to keep that to a real minimum.

My goals for 2018-19 in business are:

1. Exceed 2017-18 income by 20%. This effectively means doing 5% better than my best year so far (2016-17) and given my locked-in work, it should be more than achievable, given that I will not be absenting myself for one of the most lucrative periods of the year!

2. Take 6-7 weeks off. I will, as is my wont, take a week apiece in the July, September and Easter school holidays, and I'll take the Christmas and NY weeks over summer. I'll have to see how things are sitting, but if I can, I'll make that summer break 3 weeks instead of 2 (but given the projects' timelines, that may not be feasible). I'd also love to take another week, maybe configured as a couple of 2-3 day stretches, at some point in the back half of this year, while the kids are at school, to give me a chance to do a few time-hungry personal / life admin tasks I have been putting off, and catch up with friends I rarely see.

3. Plan work strategy for the next 5 years. I'll be 45 years old in a couple of weeks. At the moment, freelancing is working well for me, but I need to put some serious thought into whether this how I want to continue to work in the second half of my 40s, and if so, what my business plan might be for sustainable work attraction, delivery and future savings. I do have a tendency to roll on without thinking further ahead than the next 6 months work-wise, which can be an advantage in that it reduces stress of worrying about unknown unknowns, but isn't the best approach when you are trying to work out how to have a productive mid-life in preparation for a hopefully modest-but-not-impoverished old age.

We won't be taking any big trips in this coming financial year - we've got a nice little 5-day mini-break in the Mallee lined up for September, and will probably do a few days or a week somewhere local next Easter hols too - so that does make work planning easier in a lot of ways. We are, however, thinking of doing an overseas trip in 2019-2020, possibly to either Hawaii or New Zealand, so next year's planning will look a little different! But for now, onwards and upwards into the new financial year.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Japan Series 2: Accommodation in Japan for Families and Groups

View from our balcony in Kyoto
Travelling in Japan with a family, or a group of 4 or more that wants to stay together, can be a real challenge. Family rooms in hotels (ie rooms that sleep more than 3 people) are rarer than hen's teeth, especially in premium locations, and where they do exist, they are very expensive. If you add in a need or preference to be able to cook and do laundry, accommodation gets harder again.

We travelled as a family of 5, and ended up having a great experience staying in Japan - but not through wholly conventional means!

For families and groups, some kinds of accommodation options are off the table from the start. Hostels and capsule hotels (the ones where they slide you into a bed that looks like a pod - *shudder*) are not available for children at all. You really have three kinds of options:

1. Ryokans (Traditional Japanese hotels)
2. Apartment stays (there are several sites that do this, but for Westerners, by far the easiest to use is Air BnB)
3. Western-style hotels

We used each of these options in our time in Japan, with a preponderence of our stay being in Air BnB apartments. Each have their pros and cons, as I will discuss below.
Ryokan in Yudanaka

Option 1: Ryokan (Traditional Japanese hotels)

Ryokans are, it must be said, lovely. They involve sleeping on floor mats in tatami-floored rooms, but bathrooms and toilets are usually Western-style (although it is worth checking, especially if you have physical restrictions that would make it difficult to use a squat toilet). Many ryokans also have an onsite onsen (Japanese hot bathhouse), which adds a touch of luxury to the experience; and while you are there, you will eat traditional Japanese food (dinner and breakfast are often part of the price, and we found that they are so rich and bountiful that we only needed fruit and crackers for lunch).

View from the ryokan
The ryokan experience is not a cheap one. Prices vary, of course, but for a nice ryokan, especially one in a popular area with an experience attached to it (ie we stayed at one in Yudanaka, which is the town where tourists come to see the snow monkeys), you'd be looking at about $180AUD per person per night - not something most families could afford to do for long (we had 2 nights at ours). Of course, dinner and breakfast inclusions, and access to the onsen, does help offset that cost, but it is still not something most could do for an entire trip.

If it is something you can find the budget to do though, even if for a single night, I would highly recommend it. It gives you a slower, more measured and culturally embedded experience than Western-style hotels do.

Option 2: Air BnB

Corridor of our Air BnB building in Shibuya, Tokyo
Air BnB is regulated and regularised in Japan, by Act of Parliament. The Housing Accommodation Business Act comes into full effect this July (2018), and provides for Air BnB operators to legally and openly conduct their businesses provided certain conditions are met. Air BnB is proactively moving to ensure that its hosts will be in compliance with the law, and you can book via the site with confidence that the necessary permits and licenses have been obtained.

This does provide protections for Air BnB clients (as well as hosts, and very importantly, neighbours) that are not always present in less regulated Air BnB environments. I had a degree of nervousness about using Air BnB for family travel, but it proved unwarranted, thankfully.

One-room apartment in Shibuya. Bathroom was a tiny attached cell.
Air BnB was the option we used by far the most for our Japan holiday, with 17 of our 21 nights being spent in Air BnB apartments. We used five different AirBnBs - for 5 nights in Shibuya, Tokyo; 2 nights in Nagoya; 6 nights in Kyoto; 2 nights in Osaka; and 2 nights in Hiroshima.

Overall, our Air BnB experience was top-notch. We had no problems accessing any of the five properties - the instructions provided were detailed and accurate. All properties matched their description well, and all five hosts were excellent quick communicators.

Living room in Nagoya
We stayed at five very different kinds of places. The room in Shibuya was extremely basic - just a place to crash and no cooking facilities - but was excellently located. The apartment in Nagoya was very plain but serviceable. The Kyoto apartment, where we stayed the longest, was, in my opinion, the nicest - we had three bedrooms, a dining room with a table that seated 6 people, and a fully equipped kitchen, plus it was very well positioned. The Osaka apartment was little but funky, while in Hiroshima, the 5th-floor apartment was comfortable and well-equipped and had a nice view.

Nagoya kitchen
There were minor niggles in each location - hot water dodgy in one, unuseably slow wi fi in another, neighbour noise at 4am when a bakery was getting deliveries, that sort of thing - but nothing that really impeded us in any meaningful way.

One thing that was blessedly easy in Air BnB was our non-smoking needs. Air BnB hosts in Japan are SUPER stern about not smoking in the properties - so much so that they promise to bill you a hefty extra cleaning fee if there is any evidence of smoking. Perhaps we were just lucky in this, but prior tenants appear to have kept to the rules as none of our apartments had even the faintest hint of smoke. This is not always something that can be said for hotel rooms - not too long ago I had to get a room changed at a hotel in Adelaide due to smokiness - so I was very happy and grateful that it worked out so well with Air BnB in Japan.

Kyoto kitchen and living area
On balance, I think Air BnB is the best option for travel in Japan as a family or a group. Here are the pros and cons as I see them:


- Cost: Air BnB in the locations we stayed at cost around 40 - 50% what two hotel rooms (which we would need for 5 people) would have cost. This may come out closer to even though for two people travelling together who only need one room. The average cost per night we paid for our apartments was $275AUD (a little less in Nagoya, Osaka and Tokyo; a little more in Kyoto and Hiroshima). In each case, that was for a place that could sleep 5, had laundry facilities, and except in Tokyo, also had kitchen or kitchenette facilities.

- Ability to cook meals: For cost, kid-eating and gluten safety reasons, this was a huge plus for us. I estimate we saved at least $500AUD overall by me cooking our evening meals each night, and breakfasting at home, in Kyoto alone - and probably more than a few glutenings too.

Bedroom in Kyoto
- Feeling of being in a neighbourhood: Far more than being tucked up in a hotel, staying in houses or apartments and interacting with the neighbourhood shops, environment and transportation gives you a real sense of what a place is like. I enjoy feeling difference when I travel and finding points of commonality and discovery. I think you do this less when behind the "wall" of a hotel.

- Comfort: I don't really like hotels. I find them a bit impersonal and often noisy. I feel much more comfortable in a homier environment.

- No separation: Because we are a family of five and would have needed 2 rooms everywhere, this would have meant splitting up every night and the two parents never being able to sleep in the same room. That felt like a dreary option for 3 weeks in a row!

Apartment in Osaka

- Porting luggage: Travel to and from accommodations can be a nuisance as much as an adventure when porting heavy luggage. There are moments when a hotel's pick up service is very welcome (we embraced it at our ryokan in Yudanaka!)

- Gaps in check-in / check-out: The lack of ability (mostly) to store luggage after checkout can be annoying, although our Tokyo host was very kindly willing to let us leave our bags there after checkout while we went to Studio Ghibli. Most places are 10am checkout, 3pm check in, which can mean a gap of standing around train stations awkwardly sipping Starbucks while waiting for time to pass.

However, we also found that you can often check in a bit earlier than specified. It is all self check from a key in a coded keybox, and we have twice found the key there and the place ready a good hour before designated check in.

Bunk beds in Osaka

We had a really good experience Air BnBing in Japan. It saved us thousands of dollars and probably multiple health problems for me, and really enriched our experience by embedding us in areas where people actually live, as well as enabling us to relax together as a family in ways we just couldn't have in hotels. I would, and will, do it this way again and I would definitely recommend it as an option.

"Toilet of the future": With warmed seat, multiple buttons and functions!

Option 3: Western-style hotels

We stayed at Western-style hotels on our last two nights in Japan - one in central Tokyo, and one at Narita Airport (the night before our flight). The airport hotel was exactly like every other airport hotel I have ever stayed in - clean, adequate, not fancy, full of late-night noises of rumbling suitcases and travellers coming and going. It was reasonably priced and included the shuttle to the terminal, so I have no complaints.

The central Tokyo hotel was nice enough too. They did find us a family room, which was a bonus, but the cost for one night was more than I'd paid for the two previous nights at Air BnB in Hiroshima, and there was no laundry or kitchen facilities. 

You can sometimes get great deals on hotels via travel agents to reduce the cost of this option, but those deals rarely to never include family rooms. For a couple travelling together, a smart agent could probably get you great hotel options that cost less than Air BnB, but for families and groups, I am sceptical!


I started booking our Air BnB accommodation last September, for a trip in April. I did it slowly, with my final booking made just before Christmas. Booking that far in advance, I had a huge range of options, and was able to be really picky about getting places that ticked all my boxes. Out of curiosity, I checked Air BnB about 4 weeks before our departure, and found that options for our travel dates had narrowed massively. I would not have been able to get anything suitable in our price range in Tokyo or Kyoto by then, and would've had to look hard in the other three locations. So my advice is: book as early as you realistically can, and certainly, not less than 6 weeks before you travel, if you want good Air BnB options.

Some times of the year are much, much harder than others for booking anything (including accommodation) in Japan. We were there for sakura (cherry blossoms), which was peak season, but we avoided the busiest week of the year - Golden Week, from 24 April onwards. Accommodation (and travel, and attractions) during Golden Week is well-nigh impossible by all reports. The other peak is in Japanese autumn (October / November), which is apparently as busy as spring in terms of accommodation and attractions. Summer (July / August) is apparently easier for accommodation, but possibly even more crowded at attractions because it is Japanese, European and North American summer school holidays. 

The lowest season, and easiest for accommodation and other things, is winter (from early December to very early March). Dedicated skiers come in for winter sports, but other than that, general tourist numbers are much lower. (We are planning a winter trip as our next Japanese holiday - hopefully in three or four years' time!)


It's easy to be scared off by the intimidating pricing of Japanese hotels as family travellers, but really, Japanese travel does not have to be exorbitant if you are willing to use the full range of accommodation options available. I would encourage anyone to use Air BnB for Japan travel and to start looking as early as you have confirmed flight dates, to give yourself the best range of options.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Japan Series 1: Eating in Japan - Kids, Food Issues and Tips and Tricks

Classic ramen in Gion, Kyoto
The first thing to say about eating in Japan is this: for people who are neither fussy eaters (aka: kids) or food intolerant / allergic, Japan is a food paradise.

Prepared food is tasty, filling and ranges in price from the very economical (you can feasibly spend as little as $3 - $4 AUD on a hot cooked meal) to the very high end (there are some banquets that'll set you back $500 a pop, but I can't tell you what they are like as I didn't do one!)

Taiyaki - Soft pastries filled with red bean paste or cream custard
in Kyoto
We travelled with:
- 1 adult with expansive tastes and no food issues
- 1 adult with Coeliac Disease
- 1 teenager with expansive tastes and no food issues
- 1 teenager with more limited tastes and gluten intolerance
- 1 child with limited tastes but no allergy or intolerance issues

Because Japanese food (outside of the curries) tends not to be very spicy, we found that it was mostly palatable to the two kids with more restricted tastes, so that was helpful.

However, eating in Japan as a Coeliac is a huge challenge. Coeliac Disease is virtually unknown in Japan - unlike those of us descended from the Highlands of Scotland, Japanese people do not have the genetic mutation for it to a large extent - and gluten free food is frustratingly difficult to reliably source.
Leaf pastries on Miyajima Island

Almost everything has wheat or barley in it. Even things that look safe (like sashimi) are often marinaded in soy sauce, which is wheat-based, and cooking stocks also often have wheat in them. Eating from restaurants is a crapshoot and one that you will almost certainly lose at least once (I did!)


In the bigger cities, you may be able to say "gluten free" and have some understanding, but you are more likely to get a good result if you are specific about the ingredients you need to avoid. You need to specify not just wheat, but also no:

- flour
- barley
- soy sauce
- teriyaki sauce

The Japanese word for wheat is "komugi", while the Japanese word for barley is "omugi". Here are the characters you want to look out for if buying packaged food:

  •  むぎ wheat; barley (n)
  • 小麦 こむぎ wheat (n)
  • 小麦粉 こむぎこ wheat flour (n)
  • 麦芽 ばくが malt (n)
  • 大麦 おおむぎ barley (n)
However, this is not a dead cert either, as Japanese food labelling laws are not as strict as Australia's, and some additives may not be listed.


There are many types of restaurant and street food commonly available in Japanese cities and towns, but the main general ones we encountered were:

Gluten free ramen - a rare jewel
1. Ramen and Udon: Noodle soup dishes and dry noodle dishes were absolutely ubiquitous and these tend to be the kinds of meals you see a lot at smaller neighbourhood places as well as bigger restaurants. Typically, the meal comes in a broth with an egg, vegetables and one or more kinds of meat as well as the noodles. The most common meats are pork and chicken and sometimes some kind of white fish ... but that is because they are the most common meats *everywhere* in Japan, and by far the cheapest.

2. Bento Boxes: These are available everywhere, not just in restaurants. You can get them in konbini (see below), at train stations, in department stores - everywhere. They come with the usual assortment of things you might expect to find in a decent bento here - sashimi (usually only a tiny amount), seaweed, pickled veg, some kind of sushi roll, sometimes tofu, sometimes a bit of fried chicken.

Japanese BBQ style in Nagoya
3. Cook Your Own BBQ style restaurants: These are everywhere and they are very similar to the style that in Australia we most often call Korean BBQ. You get your own raw ingredients - either presented to you on a platter in higher end places, or you select them from a buffet in more local restaurants - and cook them yourself on a grill at the centre of the table.

If you are careful to avoid sauces of all kinds and any meat with a marinade, this can be a very good option for Coeliacs, as you can control the input to a large degree. The kids also enjoy it and the food is very tasty.

However, price-wise, this is not really a daily option, as a meal for 5 people at one of these places will set you back at least $80 and more typically $100 - $120. (Which is still not bad value, but more than most family travellers can spend on every single dinner!)

4. Sushi restaurants: There are many, many, many varieties of these, from really high-end places to hole-in-the-wall outlets.

Salmon and baked tater at Sizzlers
5. Western and other cuisine style restaurants and cafes: There are lots of chains that you will recognise in Japan. Maccers is everywhere, and it is exactly like every other Maccers you have ever been to. KFC is less ubiquitous, but it's there. Starbucks is like a kind of coffee virus, it has insinuated itself into every corner (even an artisan street in Kyoto, and a traditional handicraft market on Miyajima Island, much to our astonishment). Sizzlers is around. Wolfgang Puck is there. Bronco Billys (American steakhouse chain) is there. They even have Guzman Y Gomez in Tokyo.

We saw Indian restaurants, Chinese restaurants,
Mixed salad plate from Sizzlers
several Korean restaurants, and several American-themed outfits. There is a burger chain called Mos, which apparently does awesome burgers and has gluten free options BUT not suitable for Coeliacs as they use shared utensils and cooking surfaces (good for gluten intolerants like my daughter though, where contamination isn't really an issue).

Most of these places do the same kind of food they do in Australia, but the prep methods may not be the same. My first and worst glutening in Japan happened at the Wolfgang Puck in Harajuku, ordering something that should've been safe, and would've been in Melbourne.

Gluten free fried chicken at the Little Bird Cafe in Shibuya, Tokyo
My advice is that Western-style places are great for kids to give them a touch of the familiar every now and then, but should be treated with caution by Coeliacs. If you are going to eat at any, the safest bets are self-BBQ, steakhouses and Sizzlers, where you can get a plain steak or grilled salmon and then self select safe items from the salad bar. We had a lovely meal at a Sizzlers in Suidobashi in Tokyo with an old schoolfriend of mine, and it did not make me sick!


Basically, we found that food purchasing options came down to four main types. Types 1 and 2 are suitable for Coeliacs; Type 3 can be with adjustment; but Type 4 is absolutely no go for anyone with a gluten intolerance or Coeliac disease.

Savoury mince with egg (home cooked) (Kyoto)
Type 1: Buy raw ingredients and cook your own or eat raw 
If you have access to a kitchen or even a partial kitchen (ie if you are staying in an apartment rather than a hotel room), buying ingredients and cooking some of your own meals can be a great option when travelling with a family or working around food issues.

We were able to do this in every location except Tokyo, where our room in Shibuya was too small and basic to allow for cooking and there was very limited access to fresh food anyway.

Japanese supermarkets are not dissimilar on the whole to Australian supermarkets - fresh and cold food on the perimeter, packaged goods on the inside or a different floor in some cases, a separate section or floor for toiletries, cleaning and personal products.

Fruit plate in Tokyo
The kinds of foods available overlap considerably, but there are noticeable differences. The fish section is usually bigger than the meat section, and the kinds of veg available are not always the same as we see. Pork, chicken and beef are all obtainable, but beef is really expensive and you can only get thinly sliced varieties for quick frying.

One part of the seafood and fish section at a supermarket in Kyoto

Pork, chicken and white fish are all cheaper than they are in Australia; veggies are mostly around the same price. Some fruit is horrifically expensive (eg strawbs) but other fruit is well-priced - I mostly ate apples, bananas, mandarins and tinned peaches.

Rice is cheaper; most packaged goods are cheaper; eggs and dairy are about the same. Forget about lamb - you won't see it in a Japanese supermarket. I'm told you can get it from super-specialty shops for about a squillionty dollars if you really must.

Bento box
You can also find butchers, fruit & veg shops, and many, many bakeries in any of the marketing areas in the cities outside of Tokyo.

Cost-wise, to give an idea, we spent about 12,000Y ($145AUD or so) on the fixings for 5 family dinners and 6 family breakfasts while in
Eating from the salad bar in Kyoto Station!
Kyoto, which included 2 chicken-based meals, 2 pork-based meals and 1 beef meal. Breakfast was cereal, toast and eggs for the "normals", and fruit / eggs / white rice for me. That comes out as about $4 a head for the dinners, and while you can certainly find meals that cheap at some little restaurants, you can't find Coeliac-friendly ones in that price range!

Type 2: Konbini (convenience store) meals or snacks / Vending machine food and drinks
Konbini in Japan are ubiquitous in a way that it's hard to fully appreciate until you see it. There is literally one on every street corner, everywhere you go. (Well, granted, I did not go north). The main three chains are 7/11, Lawson's and FamilyMart. The 7/11s are particularly useful, as they also house international ATMs where you can extract cash from your Australian bank accounts or via Travelex cards if you have one.

The konbinis have a full array of meals to go and they are high quality foods on the whole - bento boxes, rice ball snacks of various kinds, heatable meals that they will heat for you if you ask. Konbini food is cheap-ish and quick and easy, and they also sell preheated fast food type stuff that can make an easy quick hunger-stopper for kids (eg chicken nuggets).

Konbini food
For Coeliacs, 90% of konbini food is risky, BUT Lawsons and FamilyMart both sell a line of rice balls that have no gluten. You can eat the plain salted rice balls, the rice balls with flaked salmon, and the rice balls with seaweed and sesame.

Type 3: Restaurant meals
Restaurants vary greatly in type, cost, accessibility and allergy-friendliness. Ironically (or perhaps not?) we had the best success with little neighbourhood places, and the least success with fancier places.

Our best experience of all was in Shibuya, Tokyo, where we went (twice!) to Tokyo's one and only fully gluten free restaurant - the Little Bird Cafe. The Little Bird does a mixture of Western and Japanese food and everything it serves is delicious and totally Coeliac-safe. I completely recommend it for both family eating and gluten free eating.

Our only really successful Japanese banquet style eating was at the ryokan (traditional Japanese hotel) in Yudanaka, where my food issues were well catered for and I got to have the full experience. If you can afford it, I would recommend at least one night in a good-quality ryokan, both for the cultural and the food experience - the kids adored it and it was such a treat for me to be able to safely try the full range of Japanese cuisine.

Gluten free gyoza at the Little Bird Cafe in Shibuya, Tokyo
In terms of sweets, Coeliacs are, on the whole, SOL. There is one shining, glorious exception in Kyoto - a gelato shop in the covered market near where we stayed, which sells delicious gluten free gelato. Because we were there in spring, I got to try sakura-flavoured gelato, and it literally made my entire day.

Banquet breakfast at the ryokan


Type 4: Street food
Many to most places, especially near markets and tourist attractions, have street vendors selling food, both hot and cold, sweet and savoury.

Sweet rice balls

Everything from octopus balls to sweet rice balls to pastry fish, and much more, is on offer. The kids really enjoyed having the chance to sample things as we walked around. Needless to say ... Coeliacs should not!

Spiced chicken on a stick at a food market in Hiroshima


Our experience was that, with certain notable exceptions (ie beef), fresh food was either similarly priced to Australia or else a bit cheaper. Cooked food in restaurants tended cheaper unless you ordered beef, at which time it became markedly more expensive. Konbini food was very reasonably priced for light meals, a bit pricier for packaged snacks. 

Gohan (rice) and tuna
Here are a few tips we picked up:

1. If you want to buy chocolate, go to the supermarket - konbini chocolate is about double the price.

2. If you want to buy packaged candy to take home as souvenirs, including weird flavours of Kit Kat, go to a Don Quijote. This is Japan's equivalent to our $2 Shops but much, much, MUCH bigger and more extensive. They have ALL the things. Including packaged candy!

Butterbeer and me!
3. If you want to go to noodle shops or smaller restaurants with other people and you are the only Coeliac, try this:

Step 1: Go with your travelling companions to most local cheap or mid priced restaurants. Self order ones are best.

Step 2: Order a large bowl of plain gohan (white rice). This is an option everywhere except fancy places.

Step 3: When your rice arrives, quietly open a tin of sea chicken (tuna) in oil and combine with rice. The brand I ate safely is Hagoromo.

Soy Sauce Shop
4. Do not assume that there will be many (or any) gluten free options at the big theme parks. We went to Universal Studios Japan in Osaka and all I was able to consume from the park was fruit I had brought in my bag, popcorn, and Butterbeer from the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. (It was nice though :-)

5. Take your own sauces from home! You will be able to buy things like salt, pepper, honey, oil etc easily in the supermarkets, but gluten free soy, chilli sauce, or even salad dressing is a huge challenge. There was an ENTIRE SHOP dedicated to soy sauce of hundreds of varieties on Miyajima Island, and not one of them was gluten free!


It is possible to eat well, relatively cheaply and have fun with food in Japan, even with food challenges, but you do need to work a bit for it. I was sometimes hungry in the days when I couldn't find lunchables easily, but I did not starve, and I enjoyed what I was able to eat all the more.