Travelling abroad is something I once cited on my CV as a hobby of mine. You know, exploring new cultures and practicing languages and all that. With two children under five, it's now a hobby right up there with my other previously-beloved pastimes- snowboarding and surfing - consigned to the box labelled 'The Old You' until such time as it becomes the box labelled 'The You You're Too Old For'.
In a break with recent tradition, however, I found myself spending a week in Tokyo for Fashion Week. Yes, I know! Twelve whole hours on a plane completely on my own, with a whole series of Mad Men to catch up with and only requiring attention to my own toileting needs. Tyler Brule, eat your heart out.
Travel is of course all about navigating your way through both streets and cultures. In Japan, there's plenty navigating of both kinds required to keep you on your toes.
As I made my way from press meetings to stores through the streets of Tokyo, map in hand (English place names on the map; Japanese on the road signs), it was a physically alienating experience. Much time was spent turning said maps upside down, resorting to the iPad, data allowance burning down faster than BP's share value. But despite being lost for up to two hours at a time, locals were simply so friendly and helpful, and the streets so clean and so safe, that the only real fear I had was being stuck all day in a vortex of luxury goods shops without a functioning credit card.
When you’re away from your children that long a funny thing happens. I found myself seeking out friendly families and smiling at children in a way I never would have felt necessary when travelling on business pre-kids. It’s like without my own children in tow I was feeding vicariously off other people’s family lives. VERY POLITE family lives I might add. This was not in the script: surely I was supposed to be swanning around like some latter-day Isabella Blow, soaking up fashion and frivolity, not wondering what parenting tips I could pick up from watching Japanese families in the park?
But watch them for tips I did; Japanese children’s patience knows no bounds, queuing up patiently sometimes for hours (there was a queue of over 150 people, many of them children, outside Ben&Jerry’s. For ice cream. Not Disneyland. Ice cream.) The parents are most definitely in charge but have developed a sort of ‘whisper threat’ voice – no doubt more effective than the shrill shouty exchanges you hear on high streets in the UK and considerably less annoying. And most importantly for the shallow amongst us of course, the clothes. These kids put the ‘pep’ into preppy, without a hair out of place. I deeply suspect they didn’t spend two hours wrestling a wet comb through a bird’s nest hair and holding a UN Treaty over the wearing of a tank top either.
Sure, there are some brilliantly bonkers things to see in Tokyo: from the toilet that makes the sound of the sea to disguise your tinkling, to the hip new market that's developed for cool hankies (Celine kerchief anyone?), so much arises from concern for how one’s actions might affect one’s fellow man. I spent a whole meeting with a senior fashion buyer with a sniffle who wore his face mask throughout, like a 90s encounter with Altern-8. Disconcerting perhaps, but thoughtful.
Ok, so the trend for dog buggies (loads of them- twin buggies for two dogs, frilly pink ones that recline with umbrellas to protect Fido from the sun) is on another level and worthy of note. But – like their ordered, civic-minded response to their natural disasters of late - there’s a calm, kindly, efficient community feeling in almost any encounter one has walking the streets of Tokyo; something which – parents or not – we can surely learn from. I just hope they - occasionally at least - receive the same reception when they come to London.
And what did I spend most of my week without the children thinking? 'Look at that - the kids would love it. ' Doh!