When I arrived in Japan, I was immediately selected for “extra screening.” Maybe it was because I was the only one with a backpack, or because of my bloodshot eyes from having had no sleep the night before, or because of the eight (yea!) recent stamps on my passport. Or maybe it was completely random. In any case, I was groped and interrogated, and my bag was searched. But they were very sweet and polite about it, of course. Eventually, they released me. My father was waiting at the gate, with a coat and bagel in hand. So nice to have a travel buddy!
Tokyo was windy and rainy for most of our visit, but luckily there were many things to do inside. Visiting a cat cafe was at the top of my to-do list for the city, and we went to one in the Ikebukuro area. I was in cat heaven! It was purrfect! You pay a cover, drink coffee (or soup for me) and pet cats to your heart’s content. It’s very relaxing, especially when the weather is miserable.
We came at the very end of the cherry blossom time in Tokyo, but there were still some nice sakura left in the Ueno area, so we enjoyed walking through the park. Our hostel was in the Asakusa area, where there are famous temples and shrines. Getting from the subway to our hostel involved navigating through hordes of tourists (blah) and sampling the delicious treats on the shopping street (yum!) One night, Dad and I went on a “Japanese restaurant crawl.” We went to three places, a yaki niku restaurant, a sushi bar and a robata yaki joint. At the last place, there was no English to be seen. It is very useful having a father who can read and speak Japanese, let me tell you! I would be so lost without him!
We took a day trip out to Nikko, best known for its temples and shrines, and for its depiction of the three monkeys. I liked it, but I have to say that after Southeast Asia, I’m a bit templed-out. The region was gorgeous though!
We met up with the mother and sister of a Japanese exchange student who had lived with my parents for six months a few years ago. They took us to the aquarium at the Skytree (penguins!) and up the Skytree itself. Unfortunately, we were completely engulfed in a cloud. It was positively opaque! Ah well. They treated us to an incredible dinner at a restaurant next door to the Skytree, thirty stories up. It was AMAZING! Course after course of Japanese delicacies. I didn’t even know what I was eating half the time, but I loved it all!
A highlight of my time in Tokyo was meeting up with my friend Emi from my Contiki Italy 2010 tour. We had a lovely lunch in the Shinjuku area, and it was so good to see her again and hear her news! It’s wonderful to see a familiar face when visiting a foreign country.
We headed next to Kyoto, and I had my first ride on a bullet train. It’s incredible to watch the world go by at 300 km/hr, and it’s so smooth! Unlike in Tokyo, the cherry blossoms in Kyoto were in full bloom, and the city was absolutely packed. As such, we visited the sites (Kiyomizudera, Ginkakuji, Kinkakuji, Gion and Nijojo) with about eighty bajillion of our nearest and dearest friends. We did not so much “walk” as “shuffle” through temples, onto buses, and down the streets. The weather was fantastic, much warmer than in Tokyo! On our second day, we were joined by my friend Victoria from my Bell High School days. She has spent a total of three years living in Japan, and she was an excellent guide and a wealth of information. Again, it was so lovely to see a familiar face!
In Hiroshima, I visited the museum and peace park. The museum was fascinating, but highly disturbing. The first building contains exhibits that describe what happened in chronological order. The second building features gruesome photos of the aftermath of the bomb, the clothes people (mostly kids) were wearing the day they died, and even hair and nails from people’s bodies. Outside, in the peace park, there are many memorials and one single structure that was left surprisingly intact when the bomb dropped (the dome).
We took the ferry to Miyajima, near Hiroshima, to see the Itsukushima shrine in the middle of the water. The highlight of that place was the deer. They were so friendly and chubby! They must be spoiled rotten by the tourists, despite numerous signs telling people not to feed or touch them.
I tried the Hiroshima okonomiyaki, and it was great! Sometimes, I have trouble feeling full after eating Japanese food, but never after feasting on okonomiyaki (noodles, meat and a bunch of other stuff mixed and fried together into what looks like a thick omelette).
Since we are both hiking enthusiasts, Dad and I decided to visit Yakushima Island. When we arrived at the port city of Kagoshima, we discovered that the ferries weren’t running that day because of high winds, so we booked a flight instead. Since we had time to kill in Kagoshima before the flight, we headed to an onsen (hot spring bath) at the Shiroyama Kanko Hotel. There was a slight misunderstanding as regards the nature of the hot pool. I was led into the change room by the kindly attendant, I undressed, and I whipped on my one-piece bathing suit. I went out to the pool area and was immediately confronted by the sight of little old ladies, all in the buff. (“Oh. It’s that type of pool! I see. Well, this is awkward.”) So, I went back into the change room and stripped down to my birthday suit. “When in Rome,” as they say, or in this case “when in Japan.” It’s one of those things where it’s only weird if you make it weird. The baths were lovely, and there was even an outdoor bath that overlooked the city and the Sakurajima volcano. I chatted for some time with another nekked lady. The baths are quite sociable places!
We flew to Yakushima Island that afternoon, or shall I say we bumped down onto the island. I could see why they cancelled the ferry. The winds were ridiculous. We stayed at a minshuku, where the walls were paper-thin and where we slept on mats on the floor. Luxury, really, compared to some of my lodgings on this trip. The next day, we hiked through the beautiful and mossy Shiratani Unsuikyo Forest. Apparently it rains almost every day on the island, but we had clear blue skies all day. Even the locals were out on the trails!
Our last stop before heading back to Tokyo was Beppu, a city alive with volcanic activity. There was steam rising everywhere. Even our hostel had its own little onsen! We hiked up to the top of Mt. Tsurumi for a view of the city. Some parts I was practically rock climbing, it was so steep!
Afterward, to soothe our aching muscles, we headed to the Takegawara onsen, where the water temperature was 43 degrees. Yowza! I came out of that one looking like a giant sunburn. The next day, we visited three of the eight “hells” (hot springs that are too hot to be used as onsen), the red pool, the blue pool and the geyser. So pretty! Our final onsen was the Hoyoland mud bath. That one was awesome, and not too hot. The mud felt wonderful, and there was even a giant outdoor bath.
That night, we treated ourselves to sushi. There was every kind of raw fish imaginable, even octopus, which was chewy but tasty. And I absolutely LOVED the sushi clock on the wall!
Tokyo Take Two
When we got back to Tokyo, I felt the urge to give a capsule hotel a try. Most of the hotels are men only, but we found one that had a floor for women. I loved it! The capsule was actually surprisingly roomy and comfortable. I slept reasonably well, much better than in a regular dorm. The next day, we walked around the Imperial Gardens, explored Shibuya, and visited the Meiji Shrine. We moved to a hotel in Akihabara, which is famous for anime and video games. We found a conveyor belt sushi restaurant, where the sushi travels by and you grab the one you want. So neat!
Japanese toilets are fan-frickin-tastic! After suffering through the horror of squat toilets and “jungle” toilets (BYOTP – Bring Your Own Toilet Paper) in Southeast Asia, I was ready for some luxury. I was not disappointed. The toilets in Japan have so many features! The bidet, the arse-warmer, and even a button to play rushing water sounds! It takes me twice as long to go as I amuse myself with all the buttons. I am totally submitting a proposal (in French and English of course!) to have Japanese toilets installed in all Government of Canada buildings. I honestly can’t think of a better way to spend taxpayer money.
Dramatic incident on the bullet train. My Dad misheard an instruction and thought we had to get off the train immediately. We rushed off with our stuff, then he realized that in fact we had been on the right train, so he jumped back on. I was still on the platform with the doors about to close (and he had our tickets!) I got back on just in time. I have no idea what I would have done if I had been stranded. Yikes!
Dad was getting people out of fixes left, right and centre with his knowledge of Japanese. On one notable occasion, a French couple asked a question, which I translated into English for Dad, and which he translated into Japanese for the lady at the counter. The lady at the counter answered in Japanese, which Dad translated into English, and which I translated back to French. Nothing got lost in translation 😉
Chopsticks. Still can’t handle them. They give me hand cramps. I ask for a “forku” at every restaurant. Otherwise, all my food would end up on the ground (more so than usual :p).