Tokyo Disneyland

Pete and his dragon

Pete and his dragon

Everyone around the world loves the Disney films and its characters, and as Japan is the land of anime-loving people, Mickey and all his friends are especially welcomed and loved here.

The atmosphere at Disneyland Tokyo is polite, friendly and cheerful- you won’t find a more pristine Disney lot anywhere. The crowd is also entertaining as most are completely decked out in lively Disney hats, t-shirts, dresses and other Disney themed accessories- you’ll marvel at their dedication to the theme.

When Disneyland first opened in Japan in the 80′s it was the first branch to open outside of the US. It has grown in popularity each year and continues to be a huge hit with Japanese and foreign tourists alike. In fact, it has been so popular that in 2001 the company that runs Tokyo DisneyLand opened a companion theme park nearby called DisneySea.

The DisneySea park is considered a more “romantic” version of disney as it offers more dining choices, a central water view (with reflections of the fireworks at night), Gondola rides and European style streets to wander as well as a variety of more usual Disney attractions. The promotion materials seem aimed more at young couples on dates and teenagers than families.

Disneyland Tokyo's Night Light Parade

Disneyland Tokyo's Night Light Parade

We went to DisneySea last year so we decided to enjoy a day at the original park this time. We were a bit scared to go during the high season as we were warned of excessive lines and crowds on the weekend, but we had a great, family day out. Sure it was crowded, but there were parades through the main streets every few hours which kept the lines of people waiting for rides and at the attractions to a minimum.

We would wander around and enjoy the sights, food and atmosphere and only join lines that were 30 minutes or less. At the more popular rides, we registered for the fast pass early in the day so we could head back to enjoy them later (at the designated time) and bypass the long lines. Many people waited for up to 2 hours for the popular rides like “Splash mountain” but with fast pass, we were in the front of the line in 5-10 minutes.

Compared to other Disney theme parks around the world I’ve been to, this Tokyo Disneyland seems a lot more spacious, cleaner and more efficient than the original park in LA. This made it easy to wander around to the different areas to enjoy the varied views, food and rides. It would be great if there were a telephone app available to let you know which rides had shorter waiting times as I am sure they fluctuate throughout the day. However, we found more than enough to keep us entertained, well fed and happy.

Cuddles at the Morning Buffet Restaurant with Characters

Cuddles at the Morning Buffet Restaurant with Characters

If you’d like to meet some of the Disney characters, and you are able to get to the park when the gates open, I recommend heading straight to the Crystal palace restaurant (Adventureland). Here you can enjoy the special breakfast which allows you to meet and pose with a few famous characters while you eat. It was a really wonderful chance to get personalised attention from the mascots which made it a special start to the day for our kids. We found very few other opportunities to see the characters in costumes during the day as they are busy performing in the parades.

There is no need to worry much about the language barrier here, although announcements and performances are done in Japanese, all the essential information is also available in English.

No food or drink is allowed to be brought into the park unless you have special dietary requirments or allergies (just mention it to the staff as they check your bags on the way in the gate). We were happy to find fresh cut fruit snack stands and fruit juices and smoothies available alongside the more typical junk food theme park fare. Vegetarians will find it a bit of a challenge, but there are options at the Sweetheart Cafe Bakery or Village Pastry, there are also vegetarian options at the Eastside Cafe, but most other options around the park are very meaty.

Some people prefer to stay overnight near the park for convenience, but we commuted in from Yokohama station on the Disney bus (50 minutes) and arrived just before the gates opened at 8am (* times vary a bit throughout the year, you can check the schedule on the official website).

Tokyo’s Disneyland “Maihama” station is 50 minutes from Yokohama station, 45 minutes from Haneda airport following a direct train line (clearly listed in English) and only 15 minutes from the main Tokyo JR station. You can see all the access details on this page.

There is wheelchair access to most of the rides and attractions, baby changing facilities in most restrooms, stroller rentals available – all clearly marked on the English map available upon entry.

This article also appears on JapanTourist.jp.

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Aquariums in Japan

Kids all over the world are fascinated by the sea and the creatures that live there. This is no different in Japan, maybe even more so since everyone here is surrounded by marine life, culture and the traditions and foods associated with it.

Just outside the city of Osaka, there is the famous Kaiyukan aquarium, which is one of the biggest in the whole world.

When you visit, your journey starts at the top of the building and you slowly walk down past huge glass enclosures marveling at the sea creatures within.

Hamada beach town along the coast in Shimane has Aquas – a smaller marine museum, but they have some rare white whale like creatures which blow ring shaped bubbles and do other crowd pleasing tricks.

On the island of Miyajima in Hiroshima, there is the newly renovated aquarium featuring finless dolphins, a nice sized area where kids can touch starfish and other ocean creatures as well as other interesting exhibits.

While Aquas in Hamada and the Miyajima aquarium are not necessary places you would go out of your way to visit, Aquas is located opposite a long line of great beaches to enjoy in summer season and Miyajima is one of Japan’s most pristine sightseeing spots.

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The Key to Enjoying Oahu with Kids

The North Shore is a Great area to explore

Handmade hut on the beach

It is so wonderful to spend time somewhere it is never too hot or too cold, the food is a great & healthy mixture of cuisine to choose from and there is beauty at almost every glance. Ah, yes- we are talking about a trip to Hawaii.

Some may prefer a break on an outer island, this would be great if you are only looking for a beach holiday with the family or friends you go along with. If, however, you want more variety from your experience and you have kids that like making friends with others on a crowded beach or in a park, want to take in a few movies or a bit of shopping that is not aimed at only tourists- then Oahu is the best bet.
Rainbow Drive-in - among one of the best local eateries on Oahu

True, the traffic situation is a mess in downtown honolulu- so make sure if you have to go past town or into it, stay off the roads during busy commutes unless your idea of a fun family holiday is playing “I spy” amid traffic for hours. In fact, if you can- rent a place in the West Shore, North Shore or Windward side to have access to great beaches that are family friendly.

On the West Shore: Ewa beach has Ma’ili, White Sands and Nimtz as well as public access to the private resort’s safe man-made beaches at the Ko’olina resort.

The North Shore‘s Haleiwa area has the sprawl of beaches worth a visit from Makakilo

Always look out for hazard signs like this on the beach before you go in

swim between the flags and observe warning signs

and Waialua and as you drive further you’ll find Chun’s Reef and Turtle Bay as well as other great beaches.  These spots usually don’t get waves or undercurrents that are too dangerous for young or inexperienced swimmers. These beaches aren’t too rocky to enjoy as some others around the island can be (including those in Waikiki). It is worth noting that when traveling to beaches outside Waikiki, you should always watch out for weather warnings in the news and look for the life-guarded areas if you want to make sure you are in a safe area. Haleiwa town is also a fun, easy to navigate distraction before or after hitting the beach or in bad weather.

Kailua beach park has the softest sand to play in & calm waters

shallow, clear waters & soft sand at Kailua beach

The Windward side of Oahu has so many great family-friendly adventures to enjoy including the Pali lookout, a state park at the foot of the mountains, a range of hiking with spectacular views and the beautiful Kailua and Lanikai beaches. There are many vacation rentals to set yourself up near these amazing beaches, but make sure to ask how many minutes away from the beach you are “on foot” as many of the accommodation further into the suburban sprawl near the mountain area is misleading.

Of course, the beaches of Waikiki and Ala Moana are not bad kid-friendly beaches, they are just not the ones I would recommend highly. However, if you want to rent a condo or stay in a hotel in Waikiki without renting a car- you can enjoy the shopping, nightlife and be near easy beaches for the kids reaching everything easily on foot. But being surrounded by overpriced stores, tacky souvenir shops and high brand shopping doesn’t make me feel like I’m in paradise.

If you do end up staying in Waikiki, if at all possible- rent a car for at least a day and get out to these better beaches mentioned above- you will thank me!

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Building Travel Confidence in Kids

Learning to do Travel Essentials IndependentlyThere are so many things we do while traveling which we can let our kids do for themselves that gives them a sense of accomplishment and travel confidence. Changing money, ordering food to eat (no matter what language they need to use) even checking in for the flight for themselves. It becomes more of a personal adventure, it can be an exciting challenge.

Not only is it a learning experience, but it makes the trip more fun for them to do it instead of just standing idly by watching their travel companions take control.

Train your kids before they attempt to do it with what they should say to be polite, but clear when talking with staff or salespeople. Use key words and phrases like “Excuse me, ..” “Could I please …?” and of course “Thank you” at the end. Being polite goes a long way, especially coming from a kid.

On many occasions, we have heard staff say, “What a great kid” or “Wow, he was really polite for a kid” or similar compliment as our kid was walking away after doing something independently.

On a trip to France, after ordering in a restaurant in French, other traveling kids near us looked longingly at our kid doing it for himself and some kids asked their parents to try as well.

At first, the parents were reluctant, thinking it was too hard for him to attempt. But when our son saw one of the kids ask- he offered to go with him.

It was so cute watching their nervous, excited faces as they went up to order and their jubilant looks of accomplishment when they came back to our tables, what a great memory for them.

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Popular Vegetarian Foods in Japan

Japan is a wonderful place for kids to enjoy healthy, meat-free foods. The traditional Japanese diet is essentially based on vegetables and rice with some fish and seafood. Vegetarianism has strong roots in Japan, eating meat is a more decadent, recent habit in Japan that is bringing obesity and health problems with it.

Noodles are a great staple food for vegetarians in Japan. The three most popular varieties of noodles are: Soba (buckwheat noodles) are brown and light tasting, served mostly hot (with a fish-based dashi stock soup, but also cold in summer months (with a soy based dipping sauce). Udon (white flour) noodles are served thicker and have a bit heavier consistency. Udon is served in the same way as Soba both hot and cold. Somen (white flour) noodles are served cold (a summer favorite) in thin slices with a soy-sauce based dipping sauce.The pink and white decoration on top of most hot noodles is Kamaboko, fish cake.

Okonomiyaki is a kind of vegetable pancake. Kansai style: in the Kanto (Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, Nara and surrounding areas) and Osaka regions, all the ingredients are mixed together all in the same bowl then cooked like a pancake. The most popular ingredients in this type of dish is cabbage, batter (like pancake mix), ginger, *meat*, shrimp or other chosen ingredients and egg.  Hiroshima-yaki: the Hiroshima style version differs as it  is made in layers.  First the pancake layer, then the cabbage, noodles are cooked and then added as well as a layer of egg. Crunchy tempura crisps are also added to the mix. Katsuobushi Bonito fish flakes are also often added to the top of the dish. It is also usually served with strips of bacon and extra lard is used, but you can easily order it without meat by saying *Niku Nashi Kudasai. which means it should also be made with oil instead of lard (animal fat).
Other popular ingredients to order inside the okonomiyaki is pounded rice Mochi, Cheese, Negi green onion, and even Jalapeno peppers. You can see a veteran Hiroshima-yaki expert making the famous dish while being interviewed here. The savory sauce that is used on the Okonomiyaki sauce comes in different varieties, some have meat extract in them while others like Otafuku brand sauce (picture of a woman on the label) gets its sweetness from dates.
Gobo (Burdock Root) Tempura by nAokO

Tempura is a wonderful Japanese dish that celebrates fresh vegetables by covering them in batter and quick frying them in deep oil. Good tempura is never greasy and you can always taste the crisp, fresh vegetables inside. Most tempura sets will include a giant prawn, but you can ask for vegetables only Yasai-dake kudasai without a problem in most places. Mixed vegetables typically found in tempura are carrots, Renkon root, Gobo burdock root, Piman green peppers, mushrooms, eggplant, Shiso mint leaf among many others depending on what is in season. A little pile of salt is often served next to the tempura for adding extra flavor by dipping the hot fritters in it. Sometimes, Tempura-don tempura served on a bowl of rice, comes with a light soy based sauce to drizzle over the dish before eating.

(This article appears courtesy of Happy Veggie Kids)

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Tragedy and Moving On: Japan After the Tohoku Earthquake, Tsunami & Radiation

Blossoming flowers in March in Japan

Hope for a Brighter Future

Having made Japan our home now for over 17 years, we are no strangers to the strength of the Japanese character. There is a positive force in this society to get on with things despite hardship. Even when the Hiroshima Hibakusha survivors talk of the A-bomb and radiation, contamination and difficult years that followed- they don’t attach blame or resentment. To me, as an American resident of the Hiroshima community, this is surprising and a great example of the character strength of the Japanese people.

The earthquake and tsunami in the North followed by the radiation has had more longterm effects than most natural disasters. There have been continuing problems with shutting down the nuclear power plants, contamination of vegetables, fish stocks, soil, seawater and even tap water has been contaminated as far away as Tokyo. The radiation has also slowed relief efforts and has hindered food, water and supplies from reaching survivors. It has also hurt the economy as exports have also been contaminated with radiation and this has damaged the high quality image of products from Japan in general.

Near Hiroshima's Shinkansen station

Skies full of pink blossoms, views of Hiroshima

At first I was so frustrated by the “business as usual” approach my colleagues and people in the community here had. The distance seemed to stop people from caring too much about what was happening other than to comment on how “awful” or “scary” it was. But I have since been encouraged by the contributions and proactive volunteerism of the people here. University students forfeiting their usual events at graduation parties to donate the money they would have spent instead to the Red Cross; the huge number of residents donating blankets, towels, dry food and bottled water at the Hiroshima Carp baseball stadium last week; people sending warm clothes to the Salvation Army and dry food to Second Harvest as well as to other charities, friends or family in the North from the Takkyubin delivery office.

I was actually in Australia as an escort to Japanese students on a home stay program when the earthquake and tsunami ravaged the Tohoku coastline. It was unbelievable to watch unfold on Australian news. The generosity of the local families offering to keep our students longer was heartwarming as we contemplated the safety of flying back to Japan amid radiation fears.

These Australians in the Queensland area suffered horrible flooding, powerful cyclone “Yasi” and had been strongly affected by the earthquake disaster in neighboring Christchurch. However, it was the nuclear radiation fears that made the Japan situation seem so much worse, even hopeless to them.

Thinking back, the problems of the Kobe Hanshin earthquake in ‘95 were easier to overcome because there was no nuclear fallout. The problems this time will be much longer lasting as still details of power plant problems and recovery difficulties are unfolding each day.

Creating clean, safe energy for us and our community

I am hoping that rebuilding efforts will be based on safe choices that help build a safe future for Japan. Since Solar is already a big industry in Japan and the government is a world leader in incentives for individuals and companies to invest; not to mention has a few exciting solar farming projects being built, the economy can be rejuvenated by solar and wind farming powering the country instead of nuclear reactors. Japan can lead the world in clean energy and green innovation. And most importantly, the Japanese government can use the positive momentum created by its people to rebuild itself to be better and safer than ever.

Thinking of traveling to Japan

Hanami Parties to Enjoy the Blooming Cherry Trees

The cherry blossoms are starting to bloom soon and it is a hugely popular time to visit Japan for foreign tourists, but Tokyo and areas in Northern Honshu have canceled events and usual festivals this year. However, areas further south are welcoming many more visitors than usual this year as tourists flock to more southern regions like Kyoto, Osaka, Hiroshima, Ehime, Fukuoka, Kagoshima and Okinawa instead.

The American and British Embassies and even the most conservative governments are asking people to stay away from the nuclear reactors in the North of Honshu at least by 100 km (62 miles). This should not affect the area of Tokyo, Yokohama and Chiba (where Disney Sea and Disney Land are) but since they have had some contamination in the tap water levels, it is important to keep that in mind and drink bottled drinks like water, juices and teas when in the area. However there will be rolling blackouts in Tokyo and areas on Honshu to the North expected through August, 2011.

The Japanese government assures that vegetables, eggs, fish, milk and food stuffs that have been contaminated have been banned from domestic and international shipments. So you shouldn’t have to worry when eating out or buying groceries when traveling in the Southern Honshu, Shikoku, Kyushu or Okinawa island areas.

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Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary

Eco-Tourism at its best in Currumbin, Gold Coast Australia at the Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary. Learn about and even try some Bush Tucker (plants you can eat and survive by) and learn other aspects of Aboriginal culture and see a wide variety of Amazing Australian animals in action.

If you or the kids are up for a challenge, try out the Eco-adventure course (kids 6 years and up as long as they can reach up higher than 140cm) for no extra charge. The instructors are very good and all the participants just need to sign up near the Kangaroo enclosure. For the course, participants are provided with jumpsuits, put into harnesses and also given gloves to use. They are lightly supervised from the ground or instructors will climb up and assist if need be.

There are three levels of difficulty which teach course safety and survival techniques as well as being fun. The courses are all challenging for first timers and a reasonable level of fitness is recommended for all participants.

In other parts of the park, you can feed the Kangaroos and Wallabies, hold a Koala, Lorikeet bird or a baby Crocodile for a photo opportunity. See the recently endangered Tazmanian devils, Emu birds and a wide variety of reptiles. There is also a great playground that is not only fun but teaches kids about wildlife too.

The cafes & toilets around the park are good quality and quite clean (just try not to feed the giant lizards and Ibis birds that wander around the eateries and hang out under tables begging for scraps).

The park is located just a few minutes drive down the road from the Gold Coast (Coolangatta) Airport. Entry for adults and kids seems a bit pricey, but includes all access to the adventure parc where you can climb up trees and sail through them on safety lines (great for kids: 6+ and adults with covered shoes)
Adults: $49/($45 online) Kids 4-12: $29/($25 online)
Significant online Seniors & Students (international okay with ID) & group discounts available from the official Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary website.

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Fun for Younger Children at the Gold Coast Beaches

Gold Coast, Queensland Australia is famous for amusement parks inland like Sea World, Movie World and Dream World & White Water, Wet and Wild and the Australian Outback Spectacular dinner and show.

Along the coast, there are wonderful little beach side towns- Tugun (near Coolangatta airport) and Currumbin where there are safe swimming spots and fun shaded playgrounds for kids to enjoy.The only downside to the area are the frequent planes flying overhead to and from Coolangatta airport, but after a few days you don’t notice them as much. Luckily the planes stop before 9pm and don’t start again until almost 7am so families with children will likely not lose much sleep over it (at least the kids usually don’t).

There are a few nice hotels and a lot of self-catering apartments available for rent in the Currumbin area, try to choose something that is walking distance to the beaches as driving around the popular beaches gets difficult especially on the weekends. If you do need to drive, make sure to get to the beach park early in the day, enjoy a few hours in the early morning sun and head off midday to escape the strongest sun rays and heat. Then head back to the beaches and parks after 4pm and enjoy a few hours of cooler, less intense sunshine and heat.

These areas have a lot of nice, easy walks to do that are mostly shaded as well. Near the main Currumbin beach area, there are marked paths where you can do an easy walk through the trees to see coastal views, behind Currumbin Wildlife park, there are paths around the small lake which are active with ducks and quite large little lizards on the paths that kids love to look at. This area is also alive with the colorful Lorakeets in the trees- their colors are so beautiful.

We found Palm beach (we coined Pirate beach thanks to the Pirate ship playground in front of it) is located just over the bridge from the Currumbin Wildlife Adventure park, off the main road on the right as you head toward Currumbin central. There is no lifeguard here, but it is a safe, wave and current free swimming area where you can relax with the kids. Clean sand and good showers and toilets as well. The main beach at Tugun and Currumbin have quite big waves and strong currents and undertow which is not safe for young and inexperienced swimmers. Make sure to heed the warning signs on the beach and swim between the flags on lifeguard protected beaches to be safe on the bigger beaches.

From Tugun or Currumbin, head up away from the beach on the Pacific Coast highway for 20 minutes toward Brisbane and see the busier Surfer’s Paradise where there is a lot more on offer for shopping, surfing lessons, nightlife for parents, more options for restaurants and bigger mainstream hotels. I have also heard good reviews of the Sunshine coast further north from Brisbane.

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Movie World Gold Coast – Family Fun for all ages

Movie world on the Gold Coast is less than an hour’s drive from the Coolangatta Gold Coast airport and is well worth the trip. We were pleased it had so much shade in the central area where many shows are performed for the crowd. We saw Batman fight the Ninja’s and take down the baddie, Scooby Doo, Bugs & friends and other characters entertained us with songs and dance while we were there.

The roller coasters are lots of fun too, the Superman’s Escape ride, Batman’s Spaceshot drop and inside adventure The Ride2, Scooby Doo’s scary Spooky Coaster ride, the Lethal Weapon Roller Coaster and the wet Wild West Falls ride are the main attractions. However, there is a good kids section for younger kids to enjoy in the Kids’ WB: Fun Zone which includes water to play in, smaller and less scary roller coasters and other carnival types rides and games. There are also shaded bumper cars for little kids in this section as well as bigger kids & adult bumper cars to enjoy as a family in the air-conditioned game center.

The stunt driver show was really fun family entertainment although it was a bit loud and could be upsetting for little kids. The 4-D Journey to the Center of the Earth (based on the movie) is more like a ride than just entertainment, also may prove frightening for younger kids as air is blown in your face and things seem to be very realistic when they come at you.

If you spend some time in the main square area, you will have a chance to pose for photographs with the mascot cartoon characters that walk around like Bugs Bunny, Tweety bird and the Cayote. There are also other movie themed characters in costume hanging around posing and waiting for people to ask for a photo opportunity like Batman, Marylin Monroe, Austin Powers and the Scooby Doo gang. Some professional photographers are usually on hand offering their shots from nearby shops, but you are free to take your own pictures and there is no pressure to buy. All of the big attractions also have cameras snapping away during the ride, you can buy these shots at the gift shop at the end.

Since sun exposure in the Gold Coast is an issue, I was very impressed by Movie World- there is ample shaded areas in the main square, there is also a few shaded rides and entertainment to enjoy as well as cover while waiting for the more popular roller coasters. They also had a good variety of fresh salads, fruit, yoghurt and other kid-friendly healthy options in the bakery and restaurants, vegetarian fare and reasonably priced juices, flavored milks and water.

Although there was a sign at the entrance warning against bringing in outside food, they were allowing people opening bringing in food and drink in coolers and bags without a problem, so perhaps the policy has changed. Families were having picnics on the grassy, shaded area in the main square with a combination of their own food and bought treats and drinks.

Height requirements for kids to go on rides alone were 120 cm for most rides, children can go on many of the rides if over 100-110 cm with an adult. Some of the rides in the kids section can only be ridden by kids under 120 cm. Superman Escape and Lethal Weapon roller coasters also have upper height limitations of 196cm/200cm for taller adults.

Non-smoking sections are ample, but the smoking sections could be better separated and labeled for visitors. We were able to smell smoke in one of the eating areas outside.

Overall, we would give Movie World a big thumbs up!

Here is our slideshow of pictures and videos from Movie World- Gold Coast

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Burning of Old Good Luck Charms- Tondo Festival in Japan


January 14,15 & 16th this year (2011) were the days designated for Tondo-Matsuri in Japan. This is a time for shrines to hold religious ceremonies followed by sacred bonfires burning last year’s amulets, good luck charms and other religious decorations.
We were then invited to roast Pounded rice “mochi” by first cooking it over the sacred fires to eat.

Once we walked up the steep flight of stairs through the red torii gates and stone lanters (symbols that it is a “Jinja” Shrine and not a “Tera” temple in Japan) we heard the clapping of hands, the jingling of money thrown into the donation box and the ringing of the bell over the altar for good luck. This is a busy time of year for most Japanese to observe the traditional rituals of the Shinto and Buddhist religion in Japan.

The ceremony we had come to see on the 14th was called “Tondo” the burning of the old charms, a necessity of starting the new year. It began with the priests from the shrine chanting a blessing on the event and then blessing the crowd by sections. We bowed our heads when the priest came to our section and he chanted a “prayer” and wove a stick with folded paper on it over us.

Then they blessed the mochi and the sake and special branch of leaves. Then some students and local residents volunteered to light the bonfires of straw and good luck amulets from the previous year. Once lit, the bamboo inside each bonfire started to pop like firecrackers which was quite exciting. Then we were invited to come and get bamboo poles and mochi to start roasting over the fires.

There was one teenager who seemed to be choking from eating the mochi, but luckily he was okay in the end. There are usually a few deaths each year due to choking on mochi. Apparently, the best method to extract this sticky treat if lodged in the throat is with a vacuum cleaner hose.

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New Year’s At Shrine With Kids in Japan

If you are lucky enough to be in Japan over the New Year with kids, head to a local “Jinja” shrine in any town or city around the country.

Once you are there, buy a lucky charm like a Daruma doll to make a wish with by coloring in one of the eyes and when the wish comes true, fill in the other eye. Or a lucky arrow to

lucky fortunes

keep as decoration in your home, even a Rake if you are hoping to have good fortune in the coming year.

Each year has its own lucky charms based on the Chinese zodiac year and everyone takes the previous year’s charms back to the shrine to be ceremoniously burned. It is bad luck to keep a charm past it’s year.

You can also buy fortunes, there are special papers for children “Kodomo” ??? and for adults. You are hoping for the best kind of luck ?? “daikichi” on your paper. Then you should tie it up on a string or tree nearby on the shrine grounds.

Don’t forget to go to the altar and pray for good luck too- throw a coin offering in the box, clap your hands two times and bow while you make your wish for the new year. Not sure how to do it? Watch a few people and imitate to be safe.

On the 14th of January, shrines will be burning the previous year’s charms and it is quite an amazing sight to see. You can hear the popping sounds of the bamboo as they burn in the bonfire.

During the New Year, the larger shrines also serve food like pounded mochi rice cakes, hot sake or have “Matsuri” festival type stalls selling other foods, toys and offering kids chances to play games.

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Nabe, A Great Family Winter Food

Nabe SobaWinter is a great time to huddle up and spend quality family time together, what a better way than over a good meal together.

A popular wintry favorite in Japan which has worldwide appeal is Nabe a kind of hot-pot type dinner that is cooked on the table with a variety of vegetables, fish, meat, noodles, spices of almost any kind that you can imagine. Once something is chosen from the main pot, many people like to dip their cooked choices in a Ponzu or Soy sauce before eating with bowls of rice, Musubi rice balls or Yaki-onigiri grilled rice-balls. Although this is a home-cooked favorite, there are also Nabe restaurants, most run by a retired Sumo wrestler as Chanko-Nabe is the staple diet of these giant Japanese athletes. Sukiyaki and Shabu-Shabu are two types of Nabe which are popular with meat lovers- dip raw beef or pork strips into the boiling chicken and vegetable broth before seasoning in a dipping sauce and eating.

courtesy of BBC sport

http://news.bbc.co.uk/sport2/hi/front_page/6411195.stm

Vegetarian nabe is a great healthy option- add water 3/4 full in your pot, then add small chunks of potato, carrot and other hard vegetables first with a kombu sea vegetable or shiitake mushroom dashi broth packet, add Negi green onion, mochi rice cake, konyaku (devil’s tongue) root, daikon radish and shiitake mushrooms then a few minutes before eating add spinach and noodles. Then choose your favorites with your family, eat and talk about your day. Nabe is a great dish to enjoy discussions over as everyone likes to take their time eating and warming up. In fact, many Japanese families enjoy eating it while sitting around a heated table called a kotatsu. An efficient way to warm up without central heating as most houses in Japan do not use more than space heaters.

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Vaccinating Kids Before Traveling Abroad

Vaccination Image Via Creative-Type Dad

The Haiti cholera outbreak is suspected to be from a UN aide workers camp who some fear was the source of infection that is killing thousands of refugees. True or not, no one would want to be the source of a local outbreak, be safe- protect yourself, your kids and those you interact with when you travel abroad.

In the last few years, there has been a fair amount of debate over the issue of vaccinations in the US. It has mostly been connected to whether or not it increases your child’s chance of developing Autism. Despite there being no scientific proof of any link to autism, many informed parents have chosen not to vaccinate their children against diseases that have almost become extinct thanks to worldwide vaccination campaigns.

Whatever your stance on the issue at home, it does seem to be a different concern when you are traveling abroad- outside of your small community where they may not have cases of Polio, Whooping cough and other almost wiped out diseases that some believe it doesn’t seem as necessary as it used to be to get vaccinated for at birth.

If you choose not to vaccinate before travel, you run the risk of not only your own children contracting a dangerous disease, but also endangering the local population who do not have the benefit of modern medicine.

India, Japan, Thailand, China, Cambodia, Indonesia, Korea, parts of Africa and other popular family travel destinations have outbreaks of measles, polio, whooping cough and other potentially fatal diseases which most of us in Western countries can choose to get vaccinated against. My little Nomads writes about mandatory vaccinations proof that is required before traveling to certain parts of Asia.

The CDC has a very useful website for travelers to use as a resource for recommended vaccines before they travel.  However, it is a good idea in the case of travel to Africa for instance, if the anti-malaria drugs are worth the risk to children or if changing travel plans or taking other precautions is a better bet.

You can only plan and prepare for what you forsee, but yet sometimes accidents and illness still occur. If you get ill abroad, get local recommendations for hospitals nearby by the local hotel or residents you are living near, or consult the worldwide US consulate network for emergency help or assistance.

It is great to travel as a family, but you want to be as safe as you can as well. So research the area you are going to visit as much as possible, research specific area concerns or local dangers, get your basic vaccinations or boosters and ask locals for any additional advice about local dangers you may not have come across in your research once you arrive. If you are unsure of which vaccines to get even after online research, make sure to ask your local pediatrician’s advice at least 6 months to a year before your trip to make sure there is enough time to get multiple vaccinations if necessary.

Then try to relax and enjoy your family adventure abroad.

Online updated research resources:

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Kids Needs to Broaden Horizons

There was a horrible case of bullying here in Japan which ended in a 6th grader hanging herself in her room. She wasn’t physically hurt, she was ignored and ostracized and it drove her to kill herself.

My grandmother used to say, “get over it, that doesn’t matter in the end” when I would act selfish or complain about friends that were being mean to me cause I didn’t have the right clothes or hairstyle, or how I “had to have” the latest game or toy because my friends had it. When I visited her in her nursing home when she got older, I started to see that having “things” or looking “cool” or even fitting in with others really didn’t matter. Even going to a nursing home, outside my usual realm of experience, really started to open my eyes to the world around me.

We are now raising our kids in Japan, none of us are Japanese, we do not have any obvious links to the culture, country or community- but we have made it our home and our community nonetheless. Our elementary aged son goes to a regular, public Japanese school in our neighborhood and to say he stood out would be an understatement. He came home upset on a couple of occasions because his friends referred to him as a gaijin (foreigner). He honestly didn’t understand what they meant since he was born here and spoke Japanese and was living in the same community just like all the kids in his class. No kid wants to feel different. Explaining that the other kids didn’t mean anything bad by it, they were just “observing” that he wasn’t the same didn’t help much. However, once we spent the summer in France, a month in Australia and a few weeks at a time in England and Hawaii with family, he started to be more relaxed. Of course he still doesn’t like being called gaijin, the same as I didn’t like being called haole in Hawaii growing up there, but it is part of the human condition to label things into groups, classification helps people quickly organize information in their head- but this of course is the root of stereotyping, even racism, discrimination, bullying and other hurtful behaviors. These behaviors simply wouldn’t happen if people could put themselves in the other person’s situation and be able to empathize with their situation.

Our family action plan to tackle the problems of discrimination our kids might encounter is: build up our kids confidence by exposing them to many different groups of people, many different cultures, languages and countries as they grow up. This should broaden their horizons and show them that they can survive, make friends and live a great life no matter where they are, who they meet or what situation they find themselves in. No matter what ethnicity, religion or nationality the people we meet, we try to look beyond the obvious differences we see and find things we appreciate and like about them.

We can only hope that the people we meet and interact with do the same with us.

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Family Christmas Break in Oahu (Hawaii)

Sandboarding Christmas in Hawaii is always a fun choice as most of us can escape the cold and thaw out from our normally cold winters. Be warned, however, that December-January is the rainy season in Hawaii and there will be more rain then than at other times of the year. One year we were there, it rained for 20 days straight! Usually however, a rainy day on one part of the island usually means it is sunny on the other part of the island, so check the weather forecast carefully.

If it does rain, there are a variety of indoor museums and fun water themed things to do on Oahu, putt-putt or mini-golf in Waikiki is fun (and inside) at Big Kahuna’s glow in the dark golf. The Ala Moana center has great shopping, entertainment and dining, but not in bad weather as only the department stores on either end of the open mall are sheltered. The Pearl Ridge Mall is a better option for bad weather as it is all enclosed and there is a monorail linking the two large shopping complexes. The PR mall has department stores, food courts, game center (Fun Factory) and a multi-plex movie theatre amongst other specialty clothing, gift, music and toy and hobby shops. Pearl Ridge mall starts photos with Santa from the middle of November and also has a Keiko (kids) club which has regular events for children up to age 12.

Glow in the dark Mini-Golf at Big Kahuna's

Boots-n-all has some great ideas for kids on the Hawaiian island, including some “rainy day fun” at Bishop museum (just outside of the city center of Honolulu). The museum was founded by descendants of the Kamehameha family in 1889 and has been a great place for visitors and residents young and old to learn not only about the Hawaiian islands history, traditions, artifacts and culture but also modern “cool” topics kids love too. The Science adventure building and the planetarium are two permanent features that children love, there are also seasonal events and exhibits which often include hands-on activities for all the keiki who attend.

Another lesser known (with visiting tourists) indoor, family gem is the Ice Palace, ice-skating rink not far from the Aloha Stadium (near Pearl Ridge). Open every day of the week with evening skating into the night on the weekends.

locally grown, sustainable Hawaiian christmas trees

The polynesian culture center with interactive exhibits, shows and famous Luau dinner and show are world famous. Many of the attractions, including the popular haunted lagoon and canoe ride are outside, but some of the attractions like the IMAX movie about Polynesia and the main show are inside or under cover. Other popular family attractions outside of Waikiki like the DOLE plantation (although none of the Pineapples are actually grown in Hawaii anymore) and the world’s largest outdoor maze, as well as visiting the Pearl Harbor Memorial,  enjoying a beach day, going to Waimea Falls park, hiking up Diamond Head and enjoying the popular Hanauma bay for coastal sightseeing and snorkeling, or a day at Sea Life Park or the Wet-&-Wild water park are best left for good, sunny weather days.

If you are interested in watching surfing- Hawaii’s native sport- Winter is a great time to catch some amazing action on the North Shore of Oahu (bring your binoculars and zoom lens).  November to February is high surf season on the North Shore when you can see talented athletes and daredevil life-rescue teams in action on the North Shore. Check out Vans Triple Crown’s website for the best surfing competitions event listings and information. Stop through Haleiwa on your way to the North Shore for great eats at the relaxed veggie Paradise Found Cafe or local style plate lunches, chili-rice or burgers at the long-time local favorite L&L diner or the recently mega-hit Kua Aina Burger which has since hit international cities worldwide with their grilled Mahi-Mahi fish burgers served with fresh, local avocado.

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Christmas-New Year Family Fun in Japan

Japanese people as well as people in many other parts of Asia, don’t really celebrate Christmas in their own families.

In fact, December 25th is a regular working day for most people. Saying this, the country

Illuminations along Peace boulevard, Hiroshima city

does invest a lot of time, money and effort into the Christmas lights or illuminations like at Dreamination in Hiroshima city.
Wandering around these at night with kids is lots of fun. The only place to get a true Christmas dinner? You would have the most authentic fare by finding a British pub like Molly Malone’s, but outside any major city you would probably only find KFC. Actually, fried chicken and decorated sponge cake are “traditional” Japanese Christmas foods. The whole reason to decorate and play Christmas music everywhere is purely commercial, so don’t expect the Christmas feeling to linger- usually on December 25th all the Christmas decorations come down and New Year’s decorations go up.
However, if you are in Japan over New Year’s, there are lots of interesting festivals to enjoy, like the Chinka-sai festival on Miyajima island on NY eve.

Miyajima Island

NY eve Fire festival on Miyajima island, Hiroshima

Gokoku Shrine, Hiroshima on New Year's DayAround other parts of Japan, many shrines and temples will be heaving with people wishing for a good year, drinking sake, eating sweet Oshiruko or Zenzai azuki bean soup, buying fortune telling slips of paper (also special ones for kids), praying at the altar and buying an assortment of good luck charms (and burning last year’s charms) like arrows, rakes and Daruma dolls to keep around the house.

At the onsen ?? in YUFUINNeed to warm up? Onsen hot-spring baths and Sento hot public baths are a great family experience. Some of the most famous onsens are located on Kyushu (south island) in the towns of Beppu and Yufuin (Oita prefecture). Many Japanese style Ryokan or Minshiku inns have wonderful hot bath facilities as well as some chains of hotels like the Dormy Inn. Men and women are segregated and young kids usually go in with their mothers. The basic rule is to wash outside the main bath, rinse all soap off and then enter for a long, soak. Some of the baths in Beppu are more like water theme parks (Suginoi palace for example). Most onsen and sento usually have good eating areas in the same building or nearby. Japanese people believe it is good for health to drink milk after a hot bath.

Airborn-Yuzawa Ski Resort in NiigataWinter sports Although it seems the national pastime to get through the cold winter is sitting under heated Kotatsu tables eating Mikan oranges and watching TV, skiing and snowboarding are very popular here. Hokkaido (north island) is the most famous for snow sports and the winter snow festival with huge ice sculptures is also fun to see in Sapporo. Niigata, Nagano and even other areas in the Chugoku region have a lot of great places to both stay in, enjoy snowsports, hot spring baths, great food and mountain culture. Outdoor Japan is a great place to start looking for places you might be interested in going to during any season if you are interested in enjoying the outdoors.

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Halloween Away From Home

Courtesy GetHiroshima.com

GetHiroshima Kids Halloween 2010

Even when you are traveling around Halloween in a foreign land, there is a good chance that some ex-pat, international community there is celebrating this classic Autumn tradition.

The picture of Superman here is  from an international community Halloween get-together in Hiroshima, Japan. It was sponsored by local long-time foreign residents who run the online magazine, GetHiroshima. They put together this kids Halloween fundraiser for the Room to Read organization.

In Japan, Hong Kong, India, Thailand, Singapore and Korea as well as many other countries with thriving ex-pat communities or military personnel worldwide, many visitors and new residents are making connections and finding out about upcoming events through groups on Facebook. Trick or Treat 2008 - Halloween - Yongsan Garrison - US Army Korea - IMCOM(US Army Korea’s IMCOM)

If you are traveling in the US, Family Travel is a good listing service for events and other information. If you are in Mexico, they have their own unique Halloween-like festival in the beginning of November called Day of the Dead, celebrated by everyone including families and children all over Mexico and nearby areas.

Another expatriate network site is Internations where you have to request to first be invited to join their international community. Although Halloween may have its roots in Europe; dressing kids in costumes and trick-or-treating door to door has become a modern day “American” tradition that is celebrated in different ways around the world. Each country’s way of celebrating Halloween is unique and in some ways connected to their own traditions as explained here on pumpkinpatchesandmore.org

In the United Kingdom, there isn’t a tradition of costumed trick-or-treating, but as the Halloween is becoming more well known on kids movies and TV, there are some Halloween events for kids held across the country. In local areas, some schools and groups of friends will hold costume parties for their kids. However, on the 5th of November, a more traditional British festival called Bonfire night is held. Bonfire night and the burning of the “Guy” seems similar to Halloween in some ways (scary and a bit mystical, outdoor festival)-  kids also enjoy fireworks at many of these events.

According to GetInTravel.com, which has a great list of the top 20 places in Europe to celebrate Halloween, Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen, Denmark and the Witches festival (Fête des Sorcières) held at the end of October in Chalindrey, France (near Langres) are listed as the top two destinations.

Frommer’s travel site What’s on When has detailed listings of Halloween events around North America and Europe when you search for “Halloween” although all of the events do not seem to be children friendly.

Wherever you are this autumn, here’s hoping you have interesting and fun Halloween experiences with your kids.

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Oahu Water Fun Favorites

Oahu, Hawaii is the main island of the Hawaiian island chain and has the largest variety of activities available for traveling families. I hope you will find this quick list useful when you are planning marine life explorations and fun water centered activities for your next family trip to the Aina.

Beaches
Many of the beaches on Oahu are not kid friendly unless you are watching big wave surfing from a distance on the North (during Winter) or South shore (Summer) for one of the many popular big surf championships. However,?even if the waves don’t look threatening, the undertow and currents in the Hawaiian islands are so strong, it is always best to swim on lifeguard protected beaches and follow all safety signs and instructions from the lifeguards on duty.

Usually safe, family friendly beaches on Oahu

Waikiki Beach Sunsets are spectacular

  • Ala Moana Beach is at the edge of Waikiki, this sheltered beach park is opposite the famous Ala Moana Shopping Center. Lifeguards are on duty, but there are also a protective barrier of rocks to keep out waves or currents. This beach park is very popular with local families on weekends having picnics, get-togethers and barbeque parties. Also a popular meeting point for sports training clubs and sometimes competitions (early morning to midday on weekends sometimes). Usually, popular for families with small children, unsure swimming and long distance local swimmers doing their swim workouts in calmer waters. Free parking, public showers and toilets are available.
  • Waikiki- the busiest tourist beach stretch on the island. It covers a long area in front of all the major hotels on the famous waterside. Restaurants, bars and hotel pools open onto the beach giving it a lively atmosphere day or night. Although many entry points to the water are rocky, most areas have small to flat waves reaching the shore. Rental surfboards, boogie boards and other water activity equipment can be rented at various locations along the beach.
  • Hanauma Bay is probably one of the most popular beaches you can visit on Oahu for good reason. The variety of fish in the calm cove below the cliffs are simply unbelievable. Although the presence of so many fish around you as you swim may be unnerving for some, the experience is truly one of a kind. Make sure to get to the gate for parking early in the day if you want to get in without a wait. However, to simplify things, there are easy access buses and shuttles from Waikiki.
  • Kailua beach park- Completely wave-less and flat on some

    Mecca for Water Sports

    days and bigger waves or strong currents on others irregardless of season. Although this is one of the premiere family beaches on the island, it’s wise to check with the lifeguards on the day you go to Kailua to find out if the conditions are safe for swimming or the activities you want to do. Kailua has always been the most famous beach on the windy coast and it has become a mecca for windsurfing and kitesurfing fans. The silky white sand, rainbows, cool breeze and beautiful views from the beach have also made this a popular area to vacation or fall in love with and become a local. The clear blue water and occasional visit from sea turtles makes it a popular snorkeling, scuba diving, kayaking and swimming area as well. Public toilets and showers, but no beachside eaterie. There is a great little market on the main street near the beach entrance and a popular steak house opposite the beach.

  • Turtle Bay is probably the only truly safe beach for small children on the North shore anytime of year. Although it is in a private resort, all beaches on Oahu must provide public access which means you are allowed to ask for permission to enter to go to the beach at the main security gate. If the public parking is full (best to get there before 10am if you want a parking space any day of the week), you can say you are going to the restaurant on the beach and be allowed more parking access (validation required).  As the name implies, this used to be a haven for turtles, the small beach area is a protected cove with an interesting little reef area to swim over snorkeling. There is a nice beach-side cafe (open to the public), public toilets and a small shower is available.
  • Ko-olina is in the Kapolei area of the island, famous for golfing and has also become a popular suburb in the last 15 years. Although Ko-olina is a private golf and holiday resort, like Turtle bay, they have to allow public access to their beaches. There are 4 different man-made coves in the Ko-Olina resort, all built with a running walking path winding along them. The beaches and resort were made famous in the surfing girl movie Blue Crush. If you cannot get into the free public parking, use the restaurant parking to get some food and drinks (parking validation required) as you enjoy your day at the beach. Public toilets, public showers, beach side restaurants and bars are all open to the general public.

Water Museums : Sea Life Park and the Waikiki Aquarium

Sea Life Parkis a little expensive for a family trip ($30/adults (12 years +) and $20/children aged 3-11 (try to find discount deals online before you go- there are often deals available)

However, it is one of the most popular family attractions on the island for good reason. You can swim with the dolphins ($200 +/pp) or just meet them as well as have other “encounters” with the other marine life at the park. There are open aquariums around the park where you can feed or touch marine life. Regular dolphin, sea lion and other marine animal shows are the main attractions. You can see driving directions, pictures and other customer reviews here on Google maps.

a view underwater

a view underwater at Waikiki Aquarium

Waikiki Aquarium is run and managed by the University of Hawaii is a fun, educational outing to learn about Hawaii’s sea-life, located just outside of central Waikiki. Admission prices are all under $10 and kids under 4 years old are FREE! It was originally opened in 1904, it is the oldest aquarium in the US. With digital and interactive displays, friendly, knowledgeable staff and open pools for kids to touch and learn about marine life first hand, the Waikiki Aquarium is a must-do family favorite for locals as well as visitors to the island.

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Kumano Brush Festival

The Kumano Brush Festival is a wonderful annual event held just outside the Hiroshima city center in the small town of Kumano. Kumano, as you may have guessed is the home of the most famous calligraphy brushes and cosmetic brushes in Japan.

During the festival, the highlights were the performances, dances and activities all centered around the famous “fude” brushes. In the center square, giant brushes are used to demonstrate the art of big-brush calligraphy. Just before this an “omikoshi” altar is carried up the hill to the shrine where it is spun around (for luck) and then “mochi” rice cakes are tossed down to the crowd from the top of it. In another part of the town a huge area is being used in a more usual festival style for dance performances, food sales and game stalls. The school buildings in the town are alive with everyone from young children to older pensioners trying their hand at “Etagami” calligraphy brush painted pictures and calligraphy writing of various kinds. After the giant calligraphy performance is finished, they hang the giant mural up nearby and the center becomes a “Taiko” drum free-for-all for the kids when little ones can try their hand at the traditional instrument.

If you can make it on the first night of the festival, you can catch the night-time celebrations and performances, but there is no parking available. It takes about an hour to get there on local bus from Hiroshima city’s Sogo bus terminal.

On the Sunday, there is parking at a nearby school and free shuttle buses into the city center.

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Active Fun in Montpellier

Sports, Active adventures and Shopping in Montpellier
There are many great parks for picnics and running around, playgrounds for climbing and playing with other kids, a fun (Free) zoo with lots of shady paths to walk around to explore the animals (mostly from Africa) that you can see there. The Odysseum has a climbing wall (6 years and up), ice-skating (all ages), bowling, merry go-round, cinema and Aquarium as well as many shops and boutiques, cafes, restaurants and bars in an outdoor, open-air mall that all the family can enjoy. Prices for activities seem quite reasonable (family of 4 can do ice-skating with skate rental for around 25 Euros). Easily accessible by city tram. You can buy a family pass for the tram for around 5 Euros for up to 5 people (children 3 and under are free) and use it for a 24 hour period- very good value.

Beaches
Before we came to Montpellier, people who had been there reported the easy access to the beaches. We tried to find the beaches by car and got completely lost, make sure you go by bus or bicycle even (clear, traffic free routes to follow) but don’t attempt to drive unless you are familliar with the area.
All the main beaches can be easily accessed by tram and bus (transfer from the tram to a bus at the Place De L’Europe Buses are a bit hard to find for the first time as they are around the corner. Follow the people carrying beach gear or ask a driver.

We went to Palavas which seems to be one of the main beach resort areas. There are many restaurants, bars, hotels and parking around this beach area; easy to access by bus (then parking or finding it is not a problem), it was a bit difficult to figure out how to get there by car- we got lost and confused with all the different residential and beach areas around the lagoon areas which is separated from the beach.

In the summer months, miniature golf, trampolines, a mini-water park and other beachside activities were also set up. The beach was a long stretch of white sand with good facilities nearby. Public showers only operate until 6pm at night (look for notice). The summer months on the beach are a very hot experience and the water temperature was quite frigid. If you want shade, you should plan on bringing your own pop-up tent or similar.

Swimming facilities in the city seem quite good, but only the European standard speedo type swimsuits are allowed for all male bathers, no shorts style for any bathers. This was a problem for us as we don’t have swimsuits like this for indoor pools and if it is an outdoor pool, we want the longer trunks or legging types of suits for our kids to be protected from the sun.

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