I headed to Japan in the beginning of 2016, so this post is more than a year old. I went from the UK and met up with my bestie Maggie who was coming from Oz. It was cold when we travelled. Japan was incredible. I don’t feel like I captured the adventures as well in this. But I will definitely be visiting this amazing country again, and hopefully have better pictures and be prepared for blog writing this time.
We stayed at Sakura Asakusa Hostel in Tokyo. It was my first ever international hostel stay and I was very anxious. It was a small room with bunk beds. The bed was a neat little space, just enough for me to sit upright and sleep straight. Yellow curtains hung from the edge, for a hint of privacy.
Off to wander
Red temple doors, golden markings and decorations pink and red and other colourful collectibles greeted me outdoors. The air was filled with the smell of freshly made street food. Okonomiyaki, Watames, Yaki Imo, Tayiaki, Yakisoba and ChocoBanas. Young girls walked around adorned in their kimonos. They looked stunning. I stopped to take a few pictures, and was surprised when someone asked if they could take a picture with me.
Fresh fish don’t smell
Everyone had talked about it, the famous Tsukiji Fish Market. I was curious, because I had heard fresh fish don’t smell. Could it really be? I would be standing in the middle of a market filled with all these ocean catch, and it wouldn’t smell fishy at all? Maggie was into photography. I would have perhaps bought some fish too, tried them raw, I was up for anything new. Maggie did not like sashimi. Unfortunately, we walked for ages, only to find the market closed until the summer. A bit disappointed, we walked into the side streets, nearby. Not the fish market we were expecting, but we stumbled upon a market of a kind.
The national sport! And such luck we had, we got tickets to the Grand Tournament. Although it was balcony seats, we were glad it wasn’t ring side seats. Beware, risk of injury, it said, and true to the words, we saw wrestlers flying into their spectators during the match.
The rules of the sport were simple. It started off with rituals and prayers. Purifying the ring with salt, sumo wrestlers in their prayer stance. When given the signal, they pounced. The aim of the game, to push the opponent off the ring, or pin him to the ground. A match between two Sumos lasted only a few seconds. There we were, two ‘foreign girls’ in the country, and we kept thinking “Oh the one before is back now,” “Oh yeah, remember that guy from the other match”, only to find out from a kind gentleman , who explained to us that each sumo only played one match, and that was it.
We had wondered around Shibuya for a while and we came upon something quite curious. A tiny door! And people were queuing to enter. We waited as well, getting curiouser and curioser, and what do you know, it was a small Wonderland themed shop. After checking out all the cutesy, kitschy stuff, we headed to the famous Shibuya crossing.
The dog that waited
Tokyo’s most popular rendezvous point, The Shibuya Crossing! It was a buzz. Maggie wanted some good pictures. I was looking for Hachiko. After helping Maggie climb up walls and barriers so she could get the perfect picture, we went looking for Hachiko. Hachiko! The dog that waited, my uncle has a dog by the same name. If you don’t know the story, Google it. I took a picture with the figure and notified my Granddad about it.
Mecca for ‘geeks’
Geek culture is different for many I suppose, for me it’s the interest in all things gadget-ey and gaming. We were in Akhihabara, gawking at the wonder of it all. A full 360 degree turn and still I didn’t seem to have taken it all in. It was unlike any other place I have ever been to. The whole area is full of shops of various sizes, selling everything and anything gadget-ey and anime/manga related. There is probably more manga and anime stuff in this place than anywhere in the world. It was heaven for manga and anime fans. The buildings were full of colourful billboards and adverts, which I just kept gawking at and trying to get good pictures of. Sometime I wish I really had great photography skills! One thing that caught our eye here was an advert for Maid cafes. This deserves a separate post of its own. Watch this space!
Taking the fast bullet train from central Tokyo, and a taxi ride into the country, we arrived at our local Ryokan, late at night. A man came out to help us with our bags. As we entered, we were told politely to remove our shoes and place it on the shelf that was allocated for all guests. Shoes off, we are ready for our Ryokan experience!
In our room, the floor was covered with tatami mats. There was a small table in the centre, with cushions on either side. There were two mattresses laid out on either side of the tables as well. I was used to sleeping on floors and mattresses, so this wasn’t really a new experience for me. The low furnishings and the environment of the whole place, however was.
On the other end of the room was a sliding door, through which was a small ‘living room’ space. Two chairs and a small table both placed facing a typical Japanese garden. Had it been a beautiful summer’s day, we would have frolicked around. But we enjoyed the view from inside as it was a cold, cold winter’s day.
This Ryokan had a communal dining area. We enjoyed it very much! The first night we had a nice hot steaming pot of miso and fresh vegetables. Every night we had a self cooking, small stove hotpot for dinner. The breakfast was also kind of similar to dinner. There were several small dishes of different vegetables, soup, fish, eggs and tofu and rice.
Rural vending Machine
As we walked through the countryside, middle of nowhere, I craved something sweet. The Ryokan didn’t serve anything ‘western’ as in chocolates, cake or sugary stuff as such. I was feeling a bit dejected when all of a sudden, we came across a vending machine. Right there, in the middle of the country road. It was surreal. I managed to get what I thought was hot chocolate out. And after whirring around for a bit, a tin rolled out of the machine. A hot drink in a can Yes, I burned my hand, but it was so amusing.
Beware of Bears
As we carried on walking through the country, we came across an entrance to a forest. Giant trees everywhere, it looked magnificent. We walked in a little bit, and then were surprised to see signs that said, Beware of bears. It seemed silly, so close to the road, bears! Surely not. But since hardly anyone spoke English here, we felt a bit uncomfortable to venture out further, in case you know we were attacked and we needed help and had to communicate.
Back at the Ryokan, I was getting excited for my first skinny dip. We put on our yukata (kimonos) and walked down to the common bath area. The place we were staying at had a separate onsen for females and males. Onsens are hot spring baths and a great part of the Japanese culture. I had read that tattoos are strictly forbidden in Onsens. The reason is that in Japan tattoos are associated with the Japanese mafia. Eek, it was a little bit of a deal for us.
Anyway, as I entered the changing area, there was a basket for my belongings. I stripped down naked and put my yukata and slippers in the basket. The next step was to enter the bathing area. There were small wooden stool along the walls and shower hose and buckets. After scrubbing myself clean, I walked into the hot spring. It’s definitely not a good idea to jump in the water. The hot springs as the name suggests are hot, so I climbed down slowly into the water, and relaxed away.
After a few days at Ryokan relaxing and doing absolutely nothing. We headed to Kyoto. Not far from our hostel was the Manga museum. I am not really into Manga, but felt that since it was part of the Japanese culture, I should visit. Manga Museum had exhibitions of books, magazines, comic books, art works, and the history of Manga. It was interesting to see people so into it and engaged with everything in the museum. There was even a live theater show.
In Search of Geisha
No trip to Kyoto is complete without a visit to Gion. It is said to be Japan’s most famous geisha district. We visited Gion in the evening as advised by travel blogs and sites, There were lots of little restaurants and tea houses, but it wasn’t buzzing as I would have expected it to be, probably because it was winter. We were lucky enough to catch a glimpse of a geisha. There were also a few groups of people, dressed out for a night out.
We headed to Arashiyama, on the outskirts of Kyoto City; it was a bus ride away. We wanted to visit the Bamboo Forests that was listed as something you must do in Japan. We walked into a small path that had bamboos growing on either side. Trying to look up at the sky and all I saw was thick green bamboo stalks, going all the way up. The sun can barely peek through the tall bamboos, and it gives it an eerie feel. A good kind of eerie. Although I was expecting the place to be more quiet and serene, there were lots of tourists and vehicles which disrupted the calmness. I suppose I can’t hate, just like me everyone else was a tourist trying to catch a glimpse of this magnificent forest.
Temples and Shrines
There were many temples and shrines and museums in Japan, once such temple was the UNESCO World Heritage Site Tenryu-ji temple, which was located right outside the bamboo forest. I learnt that this temple was one of five major temples of Kyoto. Check out pictures of us exploring the temples and its gardens. The exhibitions in museums were awesome too. I love little models of old towns and villages and the museums offered loads of those.
Nikko Narita again
It was the last day of the trip. We headed back to Tokyo, and this time we were at different accommodations. My flight was early morning, so I decided to stay at the airport hotel. It was such a coincidence actually, 11 years ago on that same date; I had been there, Nikko Narita. As a family, we had traveled from Australia, to start a new life in the UK. And now, here I was again, on my last night in this incredible city. Except this time, I wasn’t going to start a new life. I was going back home.