The Parent Trap
Most of us
who've lived in Japan for more than a few months have been (for better or worse) host to a
parental visit. After all, it's an ideal opportunity for Mom and Dad 0to see "the
Orient" - with free room and board and a personal tour guide to boot. Kristen McQuillin did it - and lived to tell!
Virginia Haynes and a margarita Kampai
can you survive and even enjoy your parents' visit? Here are some tips from veterans of
visits from home.
Prepping the parents
A key step is to get involved early. Help your parents prepare for their visit; it can be
time-consuming, but it pays off when everyone agrees on a plan to follow.
Jay, whose father visited from New York City, suggests sending things in advance.
"Mail some English-language museum listings so they can figure out in advance what
they want to see, and send a phone card." The latter helps when they get off the
Narita Express at Tokyo station and need to find you and your keitai.
Recommend some guidebooks or order some and have them delivered. Give your parents a list
of things you think they might enjoy visiting - your top five sightseeing destinations -
and then let them pare down or add to the list.
If you're living in cramped quarters, you may want to make a reservation at a nearby hotel
or ryokan. Some parents will balk at the prospect of staying outside your
immediate vicinity, but in the long run it may help preserve family harmony.
When Renee's mother stayed with her, "I realized my place is too small," she
says, "and boundaries are hard to manage between mother and daughter in such a small
box! She didn't seem to appreciate so much that this was my apartment and she didn't pay
his genki parents on their first trip to Japan
"My in-laws came well prepared with a list of things they wanted to see," Kuri
says. "I could hardly keep up with them. This was my mother-in-law's first trip to
Japan, and she planned a three-day jaunt to Kyoto with my father-in-law, traveling on
local trains and staying in a remote ryokan. They speak no Japanese and I thought
they were headed for disaster, but they had a great adventure."
Depending on your parents' expectations, don't feel compelled to work out a
twelve-hour-a-day sightseeing schedule with yourself in the role of Chief Tour Guide.
Low-key activities, like dinner with friends or an afternoon's stroll through your
neighborhood, help to break up the sometimes grueling work of sightseeing. Even mundane
daily chores like shopping for groceries can be a fun experience.
Sometimes being a tour guide and English-speaking representative for Japan can be
frustrating. "My mother kept asking me questions like 'How many sumos are there in
Japan?'" recalls Renee. "And 'What is the minimum wage?' and 'Do Japanese people
more often have cats or dogs for pets?' I felt like I should have studied Japan trivia
before she came."
Parents can surprise you with their agendas, or lack of them. Aaron was a student at
Waseda University when his parents came to visit. His journal entry tells the story.
[December 31] "My mother said that they were coming because they wanted to see
me, but I can't believe that that was the case. So, I assumed that they had some sort of
interest in things Japanese or at least wanted to learn a bit about the world. It turns
out they really didn't. ...[T]hey seemed to have little desire to try any Japanese food,
learn Japanese language, or see Japanese things. I just think they would have had more fun
spending two weeks at Walt Disney World."
"In retrospect I feel I was a little harsh on my parents," Aaron now admits.
"I wanted to show them all the things that I love about Japan, but they just wanted
to bring me some Christmas presents and give me a hug. Listen to what your parents want to
do, and if they say that three days at Tokyo Disneyland is the absolute best thing for
them, then maybe you should take 'em."
A mother with experience counsels, "When trying to make plans for or with your
parents, give them a limited number of options based on your experience and knowledge so
making a choice will not become an issue of contention."
Ellen Bobrow on Moms first trip to Kyoto
Depending upon the flexibility of your daily schedule, your parents may find themselves on
their own for a while. They're likely to be able to manage quite well if you give them a
tutorial on getting around. Jay advises, "Give clear maps and directions on how to
get to places by themselves. If need be, check subway exits ahead."
"We explored, first the neighborhood around Seth and Tara's apartment, then, as we
grew more adventurous and had more experience with the subways and trains, we ventured
further afield. We wanted to see and do as much as we could without interfering with Seth
and Tara's normal schedule," says Myra Immell.
Most hosts try to take at least a few days off to devote to their visitors, but Viki
didn't need to arrange her schedule when her parents visited. She laughs, "They just
joined our routine, except our tennis suffered!" Which was lucky for her because
spending time with parents is often the best part of their visit.
Jay reminisces, "For me, the highlight of my father's trip was the ability to spend
some quality time with him. Home leave is always chaotic - trying to see everyone, go
everywhere and buy everything in a short period of time - and in several years I hadn't
had the chance to really visit with him and learn more about his life."
"When my mother visited the best thing for me was seeing Japan anew through fresh
eyes," says Louise Haynes from Nagoya. "After you've lived here any length of
time, things become atarimae - commonplace - and you tend to miss all those special little
things you noticed when you first got here. My mom goes crazy over the taxi and bus
drivers wearing white gloves and often asks me 'Do they still wear white gloves?'"
Doris Carlson with two maiko on their daughter's Kyoto honeymoon
Your parents will love it if you make an effort to introduce them to your friends and work
colleagues. Think back to your childhood: Didn't they like to know who you hung out with?
Aaron advises, "If you have some Japanese friends the same age as your parents, for
example your host family, boss, or teacher, it's worth getting them to meet. Even if you
have to interpret for an hour."
Louise agrees. "My 81-year-old mother likes learning Japanese and had a good time
'talking' with my friend's 83-year-old grandmother who doesn't speak a word of English.
They laughed and laughed. It was one of the highlights of her first trip here."
If you've lived here a while, Japanese food is a normal part of your life. But a big bowl
of ramen or a plate of sushi may be a bit over the top for some parents and struggling
with chopsticks at every meal quickly gets tiresome. Consider treating your parents to a
pizza or something else familiar. "Organize a couple of restaurants that adequately
meet your parents' culinary tolerance levels as well as their experimentation
threshold," recommends Roman, whose Austrian parents visited last year. "Stake
out the closest Denny's before they get here," suggests Louise.
Foods that most visitors enjoy include items that are identifiable or can be mapped to
something familiar. Yakitori is usually a big hit. Tonkatsu, tempura and okonomiyaki are
exotic but not too threatening.
"To help us decide what foods we would like, Seth and Tara brought samples of a
variety of dishes to the apartment so we could try them in private rather than in a
restaurant," explains Myra. Jessica Wickham tells how she prepared her parents'
palates. "We bought a cookbook the day they arrived - it helped them to understand
all the new kinds of food."
For some parents, Tokyo can be a physical challenge. Louise suggests, "Make sure when
you take your parents out that your route has places along the way to rest. If they have
any kind of leg problems, you have to plan in advance where the Western restrooms are. One
time we had to find the station master to get the key to open up the handicapped bathroom
because the station didn't have a Western-style toilet."
Robert Murphy, who visited his son Brendan, described the torture of getting lost.
"The store was only a few blocks from the apartment but I missed it completely, so I
kept on walking. Rather than going back up the hill to the apartment, I started to go
parallel to the street above. Big, big mistake. After some distance I attempted to go
uphill and connect with the street above. This led to nowhere. I had to stop every three
to four blocks and let my legs recover."
Brendan adds, "He's 79, so he has limits that bother him. If your parents are older,
think about all the walking required. This is especially difficult for Americans as we
don't walk very much in the US. While my dad was here we took taxis and used our
Sometimes unexpected problems have a happy outcome. Brendan continues, "Dad broke a
cap tooth while he was here. It was during Golden Week and we were worried that he would
have to pay a fortune to get it fixed. We went to a dentist in Otsuka who looked older
than my father. He did the work and said, "Service!" I couldn't believe it. He
felt my father was old and deserved a freebie. We really appreciated Japan after
For some parents the pain is more to the ego than to the body. "Having to try to
sleep (for three nights) on a thin pad in an Eastern-style hotel room made us feel old
because we knew that twenty or thirty years ago we wouldn't have minded it very
much," Myra grimaces. "My parents wished that they had done some stretching/yoga
in the weeks before coming to prepare for the physical side of sleeping on tatami and
eating in Japanese restaurants," Jessica adds.
Mom gets the
Myra advises all potential hosts, "Remember that your parents are adults and not
totally unaccustomed to fending for themselves. Give them credit for some degree of
sophistication. Think back to your own experiences the first week or so you were in Japan
and recognize that a lot of the challenges you encountered will face your parents