Way back when I was first putting the plans for this trip together, my sister Julie (an accomplished world traveler in her own right, and who has always been an inspiration to me) told me that she had applied to present a paper at an academic conference in Japan and wouldn’t it be great if we could meet up there during my travels? I have always wanted to go to Japan, but didn’t include it on my original itinerary because it was way too expensive for my meager budget to absorb. However, by joining up with Julie, I’d be able to save on lodging costs and, what’s more, if there is anyone who knows how to stretch a travel dollar, it is my sister. Her paper ended up getting selected for the conference and so a jaunt to Japan was squeezed in between South Africa and Southeast Asia, and what a trip it was!
Another welcome development was that our cousin Jason decided to join us, and so he and I met up in Tokyo for a night before traveling south to Yamaguchi to join Julie after her conference ended. An unforseen delay in my departure from Cape Town led to juuuuuust missing my connection in Dubai, where I then had to spend the wee hours wandering around Dubai’s Vegas-like airport waiting for my replacement flight. I finally arrived at Haneda Airport around midnight after 30+ hours of traveling and sweet Jason came out to collect me at the airport. We spent one night in the tiny LiveMax hotel (which reminded me a lot of my cabin aboard the cruise ship, only smaller) and in the morning headed to the train station. We had all taken advantage of an amazing deal called the JapanRail pass, which gave us unlimited access to all Japan Rail trains (including the Shinkansen bullet trains). The passes are only available to foreigners, and can only be purchased outside of Japan. I tried to pick one up in Buenos Aires, but due to the continued instability of the economy there, it was just too difficult and prohibitively expensive. Luckily, Jason was able to get one for each of us before he came, and so we were all set. The cost of the pass was relatively cheap compared to the cost of purchasing individual tickets, and the passes paid for themselves several times over during the trip, as we had quite an ambitious itinerary!
Julie’s conference was held in Yudaonsen, a little town in Yamaguchi Prefecture in the south of Honshu island, and so J and I hopped on the Shinkansen for the first of our (many, many) train journeys. I had heard of Japanese bullet trains, of course, but riding the Shinkansen still totally blew me away! It’s so fast! Jason has an app on his phone that was able to tell us how fast we were going, and there were times the train was traveling in excess of 165 mph, but you don’t feel a thing! It’s really incredible. After a couple of transfers, we finally arrived in Yudaonsen and had some time to kill before Julie was to meet us there, and so set off in search of food. All the restaurants near the train station were inexplicably closed, so we put our bags in lockers at the station and set out for a wander. We eventually came upon a random noodle shop and decided to give it a try! It was a traditional setup, we had to take off our shoes and sit on the floor at low tables. We couldn’t decipher the menu at all, but were lucky that there was a photo of a ramen, fried rice and gyoza combo, so we just pointed and went with that, and it was amazingly delicious! The staff seemed pretty tickled that we were even there, Yudaonsen doesn’t seem like the kind of place that attracts much tourist trade. Jason is also almost 6’5″, and so was a bit of a spectacle everywhere we went.
We collected Julie (and our bags) back at the station and set off for the tiny town of Tsuwano, where we’d managed to find a room at a ryokan (Japanese guesthouse). It just so happened that our visit to Japan coincided with the nationwide sakura (cherry blossom) festival, and finding lodgings at any price was almost impossible. In the end, it turned out to be a gift for us, as we ended up staying in these little out-of-the-way places that we likely never would have found otherwise, and they were fabulous! Inn Miyake in Tsuwano was a small place and the hosts spoke virtually no English, but we managed to work out what we needed. We had two large connected rooms floored in tatami mats and we built our beds on the floor out of futons and blankets. It was like a big slumber party, really. We hadn’t pre-booked dinner at the ryokan for that night, so we ventured out into the town for a sushi feast! Tsuwano also doesn’t seem to attract many gaijin and the restaurant menus reflect that, so thank goodness for the Japanese practice of putting plastic replicas of their food in the window! Our waitress accompanied us outside and we indicated various dishes we thought looked good and the feast was on! Naturally, we ordered way too much food, but our first authentic Japanese sushi dinner was a huge success.
We were up early to catch the train back to Yudaonsen to meet up with some of the other conference attendees for a day trip to Hagi, a seaside town known for its pottery and samurai training houses. Our ryokan hostess prepared us great little bento boxes for breakfast and we let her know we definitely wanted to pre-order dinner for that night. Hagi is on the north side of Honshu, fronting the Sea of Japan and drive there took us winding through gorgeous forested mountains. We stopped off along the way at Kita Nagato Coast Quasi-Nat’l Park where there is a great lookout and a short hike down to an old volcanic crater. We spent the rest of the day exploring the town, visiting an old graveyard, touring a samurai house and browsing the pottery shops. And ogling the cherry blossoms, of course, which were in full riot.
Back at the ryokan in Tsuwano, we arrived downstairs for dinner and found that our hostess had prepared us an unbelievable feast! I lost count of the courses, but we had tons of different types of sashimi, rice, miso soup, pickled vegetables, giant prawns (or tiny lobsters, it was tough to tell) and I can’t even remember all what else. By the end of it, it was actually a relief when the courses stopped coming out. Our breakfast the next morning was equally epic, a huge variety of hot and cold dishes: spicy roe, sashimi, veggies, fried eggs, and so much more! After our feast, we had a little time before our next train to explore Tswano a bit. It’s a tiny little speck of a town, and the streets are lined with canals full of koi fish. Coming in and out over the past few days, we’d noticed a Shinto temple perched up on the mountainside and this morning we stumbled upon a staircase that led right to it. Many, many stairs later, we made it to the top and got to explore a lovely temple courtyard and enjoy great views of the town. We made our way back down and then it was off to the train station and on to Hiroshima for the afternoon.
A couple of tiny trains, then another blazing fast journey on the Shinkansen and we were there! A few minutes after disembarking, Jason discovered that he’d left his JapanRail pass in the seat pocket and he ran to see if the train was still there, but Japan Rail’s precision timing didn’t fail this time either, and the train was long gone. Luckily, after a bit of wrangling with the information desk, we were able to establish that the conductor had found the pass and it would be waiting for us when we got to Osaka. The bad news, however, was that Jason would have to pay for the one-way ticket from Hiroshima to Osaka and those tickets are not cheap. Paying face value for just that one leg of our journey amounted to about $100, which is more than a third of the total cost of the pass. An expensive learning experience, indeed.
Once the railpass situation was dealt with, we went out to spend a few hours in Hiroshima before our next train. Being there is a pretty sobering experience, it’s hard to fathom the devastation we inflicted on the city at the end of the war. There is a lovely peace memorial there, and we also paid a visit to the Peace Museum. Many of the exhibits in the museum consist of small groupings of personal items found in the rubble, sometimes that was all that was left of the people who were closest to the blast. I’d never known, but learned that many of the initial casualties of the bomb were kids, middle and junior high-schoolers out working on building demolitions to create fire lanes. It is really affecting and I definitely teared up a few times. The overall message being conveyed by the memorial and the museum is that we never forget the horrible consequences of the war and by keeping that memory alive, we are motivated to help ensure it never happens again. Overall, a very moving experience and I recommend a visit to anyone that visits the city.
From there, it was another 5 trains or so to get to our next destination, another little speck of a town called Uda. We stayed in another little ryokan called B&B Nishimine. As was the case with our place in Tsuwano, we ended up staying here because there was virtually nothing else available, and once again, it was such a happy accident! The house was absolutely beautiful and our host, Keiko, was totally adorable. She spoke almost no English, but somehow we all managed to communicate just fine. Our meals there were no match for the epic feasts at Inn Miyake, but still delicious and satisfying (if a bit heavy on the octopus, which apparently goes in anything).
A little bit of online research revealed that nearby was an attraction called Akame 48 waterfalls. In actuality, there were only about 23 waterfalls, but we learned that in Japanese, “48” can be a catch-all description for “many.” We got there right when the park opened, and so for most of the time, we had the place to ourselves. It was a beautiful morning and not too warm. The trail is mostly paved, and we took our time wandering through the forest and along the river. There was one small stretch were we got caught up and overtaken by a couple of tiny Japanese women who were unbelievably fast, otherwise we didn’t meet another soul the entire hike up. It was our own private wonderland! Later, we would all agree that our morning at Akame 48 was the highlight of the whole trip.
After the falls, we headed over to Nara, the closest city. We visited Nara’s famous deer park, which is basically a whole section of town filled with free-roaming, mangy deer. The deer all looked pretty miserable, to be honest, and a lot of the young bucks had their antlers clipped down to raw stumps. We fought through crowds of tourists and paid a visit to the city’s claim to fame, an enormous Buddhist temple. Probably the most interesting thing about it was the fact that the Buddhas were placed there first and then the temple was constructed around them. Coming right on the heels of our favorite place on the trip, Nara was universally agreed to be our least favorite. Far too many westerners (or crackers, as Jason insisted on calling them/us) for our liking. The goal for each destination was always to try and keep the “cracker quotient” as low as possible, so Nara was a fail in that regard.
In the morning, we bid farewell to Keiko and took another complicated series of tight-connecting trains to reach Matsumoto, near Nagano (site of the 1998 Winter Olympics). The main attraction there is the Matsumoto Castle, one of the oldest original wooden castles in the whole country. The castle was fantastic, complete with a surrounding moat! We were also greeted by a friendly ninja at the entrance, though he soon vanished (like a ninja!). Afterward, we had just enough time to visit the City Museum to check out the history of Matsumoto and then it was out in search of food! Yelp promised us there was a great curry place nearby, but after quite a while searching for it in a steadily increasing downpour, we finally found it — and it was closed. After a few more false starts — and some free umbrellas given to us by an adorable restaurant hostess at a place we didn’t even decided to eat at — we finally threw in the proverbial towel and ended up eating burgers at a “Hawaiian” place called HuLaLa. And you know what? They were the perfect thing and we didn’t feel a bit bad about eating non-Japanese food for one meal. After dinner, we paid a visit to the most magical whiskey bar I’ve ever had the pleasure of patronizing, the rather bizarrely named Main Bar Coat. It was one of those places where the staff clearly takes great pride in their craft, going so far as to shape each ice sphere by hand with a paring knife.
Matsumoto was one of my favorite places we stayed, but in the morning it was back on the road for our triumphant return to Tokyo where we were ending up our trip. Tokyo was the one place where none of us had managed to find a single hotel room at any price and we came very close to ending up with nowhere to stay. Luckily, at the last minute, Jason’s dad was able to call in a favor and we ended up with an amazing suite on the top floor of the Tokyo Marriott. It would not be an exaggeration to say that this is the nicest hotel room I’ve ever had the pleasure of staying in and I’m eternally grateful to my uncle for making it happen.
We took a breather to enjoy the room’s amazing views (and fabulous welcome package of delicious snackies) and then it was back out into the world. Our first stop was the Imperial Gardens, but we got there just as they were closing down, so it had to be put off for another day. With a few hours to kill before our dinner reservations, we had some time to kill and Julie came up with the idea to visit one of the city’s famous Cat Cafes. This mission took us into the over-the-top Akibahara District, full of neon lights, electronics shops, and all manner of strange venues to patronize (Maid Cafe, anyone?). The Cat Cafe itself was a very strange place, patronized exclusively by crackers like us, looking for a laugh, and by single Japanese men who come there alone to just hang out and play with cats. The cats didn’t have a whole lot of interest in us, and if we hadn’t bought some snacks from the cafe to feed them, they likely would have ignored us entirely. Still, a good random adventure to add to the log books.
Our dinner plans that night were Jason’s big treat, an incredible omakase-style feast at a tiny little sushi restaurant called Arisugawa. Despite being dropped off by the taxi only a few yards from the entrance, we were still almost not able to find it, finally managing to locate a sign and comparing the characters on it to the business card we got from the hotel concierge who made the reservation. We were dining fairly early and were the only patrons in the main section of the restaurant. This meant we had the exclusive services of the sushi chef, Matsuda, who was quite the entertainer. Each course was a work of art in and of itself, and everything was phenomenal. The universal favorite in our group was the fatty toro, seared with a torch and which literally melted in the mouth. All throughout the meal, Matsuda would rope the junior chef into playing along in variety of silly comic performances, so it was essentially dinner and a show. Easily one of the top 5 greatest meals of my entire life, even though I was full to bursting, I was very sad when the whole experience had to come to an end.
The next morning we were up before dawn for a trip to the Tsujiki Fish Market, hoping to catch a glimpse of the daily tuna auction in progress. We were later to learn that our plan was folly from the start, as the market has become such an attraction you now have to arrive at 3 am and queue up in the hopes of getting a spot on the daily tour. We missed that by a mile, but still managed to sneak into the main marketplace and watch the men at work carving up massive fish carcasses with a giant sword. Security threw us out of the building in short order, but we were fairly satisfied with what we did manage to see. After briefly contemplating the 2+ hour wait for the famous market sushi restaurant, we opted out and instead went back to the room for breakfast and a quick nap. Post-nap, it was still quite early, so we went to check out one of the sumo stables, hoping to catch a practice in session. There was no such luck, but we did catch a glimpse of a few of the wrestlers out and about in their robes. Just behind the stable is the Edo-Tokyo museum, where we spent a few hours learning about ancient Edo (the precursor to the city being renamed Tokyo). This place has so much incredible history and it is so different from all the places I’ve been before, in that it’s entirely devoid of any taint of western colonialism. The exhibits span from the ancient Shogun-ruled society all the way up to the present day and it’s fascinating to see the evolution of the culture on display. There are also a lot of fun, interactive displays. I’m not the hugest museum fan in general, but this one is a definite winner.
We moved on to Asakusa, a massively crowded tourist area centered around the Senso-ji temple and Asakusa shrine. The cracker quotient here was off the charts, so after a quick udon lunch and a little sightseeing, we made tracks out of there for Ueno Park, one of the top cherry blossom spots in the city. We were mostly there to watch the watchers, as Ueno Park attracts a huge local after-work crowd. They set up tarps and tables and the whole place has a fun, festive atmosphere. From there, we made our way through Harajuku and over to Shibuya to do a little shopping. At some point during one of our mad dashes through a train station, my trusty little red suitcase threw a wheel. By the time I noticed, the wheel was long gone, and so I had to drag around a gimpy suitcase for several days. It’s under warranty, but of course, there was nowhere in Tokyo to have the repair done, and so I was forced to send it back to the states with Julie and buy a replacement to get me through the rest of my trip. The internet hive-mind all suggested a visit to Tokyu Hands in Shibuya, a store which defies description. Short story, they sell everything, including reasonably priced luggage. After a lot of indecision, I settled on a Bermas hard-shell case. Hopefully this one will see me through the next many months! I also searched in vain for a replacement keyboard case for my iPad, as these months of travel blogging have caused the hinge to break on my current model, but it appears this old thing is a dinosaur and stores don’t stock cases for an iPad 3 anymore. A little string and duct tape has solved the problem for now and so I press on!
Before I knew it, it was our last day in Tokyo. We made the Imperial Gardens our first stop this time to make sure we got in. The gardens were lovely, but a little too polished for my taste. It was a cold, blustery day and the cherry blossoms had already peaked there, so we didn’t hang around for too long. The food mission for the day was to find proper Tokyo ramen and my googling located a local branch of Ippudo, which is my absolute favorite ramen place in New York. Naturally, I had to go there to taste the original! It was a bit of a struggle to find, but once there it was totally worth the journey. The operation is a lot more casual in Tokyo than in New York, but the quality was spot on and it was the perfect meal for the weather.
Julie and Jason ventured out back to Shibuya so Jason could indulge is geekery in visiting a bunch of synthesizer shops and I decided to go and lounge in our lovely suite and soak it all in before my early morning flight to Thailand and return to backpacker-level accommodation. For our final meal, we found a nearby conveyer-belt sushi restaurant, the perfect note to go out on. The wait for a table was incredibly long and the announcements were all made in Japanese, so we were worried that we’d miss our window. As we waited, we got to talking to a family of three also waiting for a table. The dad was English and the mother Japanese, so she helped us out by listening to the announcements as tables were called. When our number came up, we were given a booth with plenty of space, so we invited the family to join us, as they still had quite a wait for another big table to open up. We ended up having a great meal together, the couple (who’s names escape me, unfortunately) had a lot of great stories, and their little girl, Emily, was absolutely adorable and really warmed up to us after her initial shyness wore off. The restaurant charges by the plate and there is a little slot to deposit the empty plates that keeps a count of how many you’ve gone through. Every 5 plates, a cartoon video would come up on ordering screen and you’d get a chance to win a little toy from a dispenser above. Emily, naturally, was wild about this game and hovered over all of us waiting for empty plates to dispose of in the slot. She ended up winning two little prizes, the last of which came with the deposit of our final plates, so it was a very exciting end to the meal, with much celebration all around. Then, as we were going to leave, the couple insisted on paying for the whole meal! It was a super sweet gesture and a nice way to end up our trip.
Way too early the next morning, it was time to trek back to the train station and the Narita Express to the airport for my flight to Bangkok. 10 days in Japan went by in a flash and I had such a fantastic time! Julie and Jason are the best travel companions I could have asked for and thanks to Julie’s fabulous organization skills, I didn’t have to plan a thing and could just come along for the ride! Her motivation to get out and see everything helps to counteract my natural laziness, so we packed in a lot more than I ever would have managed to do if I’d visited on my own. Getting this chance to travel with my sister and my cousin is such a rare gift and I’m so glad we were able to make it happen. I would go with them again anywhere, so J & J let me know where to next and I’ll be there!
(Don’t forget to check out — and Like! — my Facebook page for full photo albums from every destination and follow me on Instagram @itskimonawhim for the most up to date info on where I am at any given moment)