Japan is a fascinating country. I went curiously, having always had a desire to see what it was like there, but also unexpectedly. Along with the fact that I didn’t know I was going to be there until a month before I went, all I knew once I arrived was that I’d be there for at least two weeks with Matt, but I had no idea what we’d see or where we’d go. I ended up staying for a month and seeing more than just the normal Tokyo – Kyoto – Osaka highlight reel. I can only thank Matt for convincing me to go to that wonderful place. Looking back now, Japan has become one of my favorite countries of the trip.
When people ask me what I thought of Japan I describe it as so forward and so backward at the same time, 2080 and 1880 living simultaneously. Parts of the country are so modern, from 9-story glowing signs adorning the sides of glass towers to the most time-accurate trains running up to 200 mph. These parts live in harmony next to historic buildings and a rich cultural history and appreciation that permeates the entire experience of being there. People dressed in traditional clothes wander past a temple into a covered shopping arcade, literally crossing the boundaries of time. At times I was surprised by some of the cultural differences, like the inequality of gender when I was at an after-work bar surrounded by only men in suits. And then there’s the overall quirkiness of Japan, like the obsession with video game centers and toy stores.
The people are incredible, even though most don’t speak English. Despite the language barrier they still went out of their way in friendless and helpfulness, like the woman from our ryokan who drove us to and made sure we got on the right bus or the woman at my hostel in Fukuoka who made fresh miso soup and onigiri every morning for all the guests staying there, even though she was a guest herself.
The language was also interesting. Remember that scene in Lost in Translation where the commercial director says 30 seconds worth of Japanese and the translator says, “He said ‘turn to camera'” and Bill Murray responds, “That’s all he said?” It’s so true. Every time I walked into a restaurant or out everyone there said a long string of Japanese that I think was just “hi how many people” upon entering and “thank you bye” when leaving. And it wasn’t until my last night that someone finally explained to me the difference between “arigatou ” and “arigatou gozaimasu,” thank you and the formal version of thank you that I should have been saying all along. They love to throw “gozaimasu” around attached to other phrases too.
Unfortunately Japan is not really a backpacker-friendly country, especially during cherry blossom season. If I do return one day I’ll make sure to plan ahead: get a train pass and book accommodation. It did work out in the end, but it would have saved us from a lot of stress to have had a plan. For this reason I’d probably avoid it on another low-budget-spontaneous-type trip.
Bus rides though were a breath of fresh air. After my frustration traveling around the rest of Asia, having a reliable timetable and functioning bus stations was a relief. This was my main form of transportation around Japan and honestly pretty pleasant, and much more affordable than the train. Plus the cleanest rest stops I’ve ever been in and, of course, genial, helpful drivers.
The food is also probably my favorite on the trip. Vietnam would be tied, and definitely wins in the affordability category, but the sheer variety of Japanese food – donburi, sushi, tempura, noodles, tonkatsu, onigiri, hot pot, skewers – and the fact that all of it is delicious tips the win in Japan’s direction. It also wins worst dish of my trip for the intestine yakitori. I would even eat tarantula again if I had to pick between that and intestine.
All of this combined with the beauty of the country and the energy of the cities hopefully conveys why I found Japan to be not simply great but also captivating. I definitely will return one day.
It was April 16th and I was checking into my final hostel in Fukuoka. In the “Previous Destination” line on the check-in form I casually wrote “Aso.” I moved on to the next line, “Next Destination” and quickly wrote in “USA.” Then I had a minor panic attack.
There it was, the permanent written evidence of this decision I had made. Next Destination: USA. I was going back.
I had spent the weeks leading up to and since this decision constantly wavering on whether or not I was ready for this moment. I knew I was or I wouldn’t have gotten the ticket to go, but seeing it there in writing made the prospect of returning to my native country suddenly real, and really terrifying.
300 days around the world. That sounded pretty damn good. But once I decided this nomadic life was the right life for me, no day of returning would probably ever feel comfortable, even if it was a nice round number and I had the best possible coming back scenario. I was still terrified of going back, of ending this incredible adventure, of giving in to going home.
But it wasn’t giving in. It was a conscious decision so different from anything I expected returning to the United States would be. It was a decision to continue being nomadic for longer than I originally envisioned. This return home was not the go home and find a job mindset, but the recharge and set out on a new adventure mindset. This was a huge change in my life plans and perspective. In this way, returning to the US was actually the beginning of a new adventure as much as it was the end of this one. End of a chapter to start a new one.
So it may have said Next Destination: USA, but it did not say Final Destination. That was still a question mark.
After I checked into my hostel I set up my laptop in the common space to take care of some business like writing down the details of my flights and attempting to blog, which horribly failed in my distracted mental state. Two guys were at the table next to me talking to the hostel receptionist about choosing to go out for ramen instead of partaking in the cheap hostel Thai dinner (which did sound like a great deal) and I casually commented that I was going the same route. My last night in Japan could not be spent eating Thai food; I needed one last Japanese meal.
We got to talking and I ended up hanging out all night with Loïc and Nicolas. We went for tonkotsu ramen and a large Asahi at the riverside yatai – a local tradition – and then picked up a bottle of sake to enjoy on the rooftop of our hostel. It was my last night, we had to celebrate.
When the bottle was empty we ventured back downstairs and were joined by Tom for whiskey and whiskay (a whiskey sake combination that I steered clear of due to my early flight). It was one last accidental late drinking night with new friends from different parts of the world, and it was exactly how this trip should have ended. It’s those moments with the people I’ve encountered that I cherish most. Thanks guys for sending me off right.
Waiting for the train in Hospet, my former Japan resident current travel companion told me to try to hike “Mount Ahhso” if I had time. I felt younger than my 27 years when I laughed at what sounded like Mount Asshole and made him repeat the name a few times before he finally spelled it out for me. A-S-O. Mount Aso. Got it.
Fast forward to Fukuoka and me planning my final jaunt around Kyushu. I knew I wanted to get in one more mountain stop – a small village and a good hike, like all the places I’d loved so much in the past year – so I looked up his recommendation and happily discovered that Aso was located on the north part of the island in a place that would logically complete my Kyushu loop. Perfect.
I took a local train between Kumamoto and Aso. I remembered the train ride from Inle Lake to Kalaw and how I’d fallen for that town, and even though this train ran much smoother than that one did the romantic feeling and pretty scenery assured me that I had made the right decision in going to Aso. This was confirmed when we pulled into a small station and upon exiting I could see what looked like the whole town in front of me with the volcano billowing smoke in the not-so-far distance. I forgot to mention – Mount Aso, or Asosan, is the largest active volcano in Japan. Unfortunately this billowing smoke was not a good omen for my hike; it meant that I couldn’t go to the crater, the main attraction. There were still other hiking routes though up and around the mountain so I was not deterred.
I walked the block and a half to Aso Base Backpackers, which quickly became one of my favorite hostels of the trip. It felt like a modern lodge, with a wood-burning fireplace, a fully stocked and beautiful kitchen with an assortment of teas and coffees (my favorite was the apple tea), and a variety of seating options from a large tree-trunk table to the distinctly Japanese raised section with a leg-oven table (you sit with your legs underneath a table that is covered by a blanket and has a heater hanging from the top – it keeps you really warm). I went over the trail map with the receptionist and mapped out a plan for the next day. Even though the crater was closed I could hike from the hostel up the mountain, around a loop trail to see other inactive craters, and back down in about seven hours he estimated.
It only took me 4.5. That is, once I got going. I woke up the next morning to slanting, cold rain. I waited an hour with my Japanese breakfast sandwich (a soft-boiled egg inside an onigiri, delicious) and coffee until I gave up and went for it anyway, as bundled up as possible.
The hike up was eerie and mystical in a way, since I was walking entirely in cloud cover. Once in a while it would part and I would see a cow standing nearby in a field or a green grass-covered cone of a former volcano or a glimpse of the valley down below. Because I could barely see 10 feet in front of me I missed the turn for the path I meant to be hiking and ended up walking on road all the way up, but I chose to look at this mistake as a good mistake – I got to see a larger variety of scenery and hike up a different side of the mountain than I would hike down.
When I reached the top the weather was at its worst. I was actually in a cloud and it was seriously windy. I stopped by the visitors center and the woman said it would be that way all day. I asked about the loop hike and she said, “No, dangerous!” I went anyway. I didn’t climb up a mountain for nothing, I wanted to see some craters.
I couldn’t see anything. The path was a series of steep staircases that led to nothing but mist. The wind was so strong at one point that I had to sit down so I didn’t get blown off the side. I had no idea how far I would have fallen since I couldn’t see more than a couple of feet around me, if that. I had to admit defeat and climb back down. This actually was dangerous.
Once I got back to level ground the clouds parted, which at first was a frustrating tease now that I could have completed the loop, but then I got to see what I really came for: a huge puff of dark gray smoke rose out of the active crater. At least Asosan gave me this incredible sight as a reward for my trek. I had never been so close to an active volcano before; there’s something really mesmerizing about watching smoke pour out of a mountain, like watching fire burn.
I cheerily walked back down the path I had meant to take up, singing songs to myself and sometimes running to change it up a bit. The sun came out and I could see Aso town down below. The landscape was gorgeous.
The rest of my time in Aso was exactly the relaxing experience I wanted it to be. I went to the onsen (and luckily did not get kicked out for my tattoos), wrote at the cozy leg-oven table in my alpaca gear, and had my two final vending-machine-ordered meals at a local restaurant slash market (udon and katsu don).
I knew that the next day I would go back to Fukuoka and the day after that I would fly back to the United States. I looked back at my last week in Kyushu and was proud of myself for arranging the perfect assortment of locations. I was going out the right way.
Before I left Japan I wanted to get in one more architectural site. Kumamoto city was a necessary junction between Nagasaki and Mt. Aso, and it happened to be home to one of the most impressive castles in the country, so I planned a one day stopover to see it.
It is a pretty incredible thing to see an early 17th century castle in the center of a modern city. Kumamoto city looks pretty much like any other city in Japan: clean streets, an efficient network of bus and tram transportation, temples interspersed amongst low- and mid-rise blocks, and a pedestrian-only covered center of town. But then, peering above or around these modern conveniences, is a monument from a time long ago.
I walked from my hostel through this 21st century scene and up a gentle slope to the entrance of the castle. Crossing the gate into the castle grounds felt like stepping back in time. The foundations rose around me like giant stone waves, arcing at first gently and then steeply to ward off potential intruders and protect the wonderfully crafted wood structure perched above. The castle itself is rightfully renowned; its tiered construction and sweeping rooftops are the archetypal Japanese style. They portray beauty and stability, pleasing in arrangement and visual character.
Inside the castle felt very much like the Hiroshima castle experience. The first floor had a well thought out exhibit about the castle’s history and construction, but as I climbed up the exhibits drastically dropped in interest and content. By the third floor it was just pictures of other castles around Japan. The top again became the main attraction with its sweeping views out over Kumamoto to the mountains beyond. Unfortunately it was an overcast, drizzling day so I couldn’t see my next stop, Mt. Aso, in the distance, as you usually could.
I ventured up the second, lower tower and actually had a few minutes up top by myself. Not as many people seem to climb this side. The view of the surroundings were not as good but the draw here was the ability to look at the main tower from a halfway up point.
Aside from the main castle tower I went into the Honmaru Goten Palace building, where I saw a unique kitchen set up and a pristine long hall where the daimyo would receive visitors, which culminated in a gorgeously decorated room for the most important guests. The gold panels and colorful paintings made my jaw drop. I exited the palace the long way, walking down and around the stone walls and remaining turrets, until I reached the bottom and got one last good look at the impressive castle up above.
I wouldn’t go out of my way to get to Kumamoto, but if it works in your route it’s worth a day to see this beautiful piece of Japanese architectural history.
I wound up in Nagaski more by coincidence than desire to see the city, and now I view my short visit there as a testament to why I should follow even the smallest of signs from the universe.
It was the night after Matt left. I was alone in my hostel in Tokyo and unsure what my next steps would be. Should I stay in Japan and go south to Fukuoka? Or maybe hop over to South Korea or Hong Kong? Or go to the airport and find the next reasonably priced flight to somewhere random? (I still want to do this third option one day. Movies and TV shows always have people buying tickets at airports, who really does that? Hopefully me one day. I want to go to a major airport, look at the departure board, and pick a flight that sounds good. Maybe next trip.) Then I met my bottom bunk mate Franka who had just arrived in Japan and already discovered the frustration of accommodation. She had had to book a double room in Nagasaki, her next stop, for just herself because it was all that was left. So, she said, if I did end up going south to Fukuoka and wanted to come by Nagasaki for the weekend, she had an open bed in her room.
Once I decided to explore Kyushu after Tokyo, Franka’s Saturday arrival in Nagasaki – the day that I would leave Fukuoka – turned out to be perfect timing. Nagasaki made sense for my route and was supposedly a highlight of Kyushu, and with the option to share a room that would help cut costs for both of us it seemed like a logical next stop. So I messaged her to see if she still wanted a roommate. She did.
Nagasaki is a charming city. It has a mixture of cultural influences: it has Japan’s oldest Chinatown and was at one point in history a major Dutch trading post (hence Franka’s interest in going there, she’s from Amsterdam). It is a pleasant city to walk around, with enough activity to feel alive but not too much to overwhelm the small streets. There’s plenty to explore, from the picturesque Nagasaki River spanned by stone bridges to the covered arcade and surrounding streets lined with local shops and restaurants to the numerous temples and shrines. And for further excursions the streetcars are easy to navigate while adding to the delight of the city.
I had one of my favorite mornings in Japan in Nagasaki. Our fantastic hostel, Nagasaki International Hostel Akari, has a program where locals volunteer to take around visitors for an hour. Franka and I spent the morning with Ayumi, a sweet 29-year-old teacher who grew up in Nagasaki and is teaching herself English. She volunteered so she can practice the language. She took us first up to the Suwa Shrine – a great place to look out at the hills of the city – where she taught us the ritual of throwing a coin into the trough, bowing twice, clapping twice, and bowing once more, for good luck. This luck seemed to work when we visited the small zoo next door, home to many birds and monkeys, including one peacock who showed off his gorgeous feathers during a mating attempt with the females sharing his enclosure. Ayumi proclaimed us very lucky for getting to see this rare show. Next up was the Nagasaki Museum of History and Culture, which was meant to be just an exterior look but again luck took over and we were invited inside to see a samurai play about the kite festivals, and a lesson about not trespassing on a farmer’s land in order to win. We made our way to the Meganebashi Bridge (Spectacles Bridge), known to be the most beautiful of the stone bridges due to its pair of arches, where we jumped out onto the stones below for a picture. What was supposed to be an hour tour turned into a whole morning, and we were having such a good time that we asked Ayumi to join us for lunch. She took us to Bunjiro, a lunch spot that specializes in tonkatsu (fried pork cutlet) and is clearly a local favorite. I don’t ever eat fried food at home but found this meal delicious. And the best food award goes to Japan.
While the sites and the lunch were amazing, the best part was seeing them all with Ayumi. I always value time spent with locals, getting to talk about what life is really like in the place I’m visiting, so I really appreciated that she took so much time out of her day to show us her city.
I could go on about other parts of Nagasaki – the peaceful Kofukuji Temple, the wonderful handmade ceramics shop where I got a sake set for a wedding gift, and the accidental but fun night of drinking games in the hostel with more new international friends – but that would make this already long blog post inordinate. There is one more thing though that I feel I have to relay.
After we said goodbye to Ayumi, Franka and I went to Nagasaki Peace Park. Nagasaki was the second and last city on which the United States dropped an atomic bomb at the end of World War II. I felt a need to see the site where this happened, like I felt the need to go to the museum in Hiroshima, to acknowledge and mourn this horrific event. Just like Hiroshima, Nagasaki has turned this event into a call for more peaceful relations across the world. The Peace Statue points one hand up to the sky, signaling the threat of nuclear attack, one hand to the left symbolizing peace, and has closed eyes in prayer for those who lost their lives. Nearby is a stone pillar marking the hypocenter of the explosion and preserved areas of land where debris is visible embedded in the dirt. There is another museum here but we chose not to go in; the park was enough for me, causing contemplation and reflection through its simple yet powerful monuments. It was an echo of how I felt in Hiroshima.
Just like the morning with the city and Ayumi, I valued the conversation with Franka even more than seeing the sites of Peace Park. As we explored we talked, an American and a Dutch, about the dropping of the atomic bomb, war, the attacks on 9/11, and other world conflicts. It was a candid conversation, serious yet still light, between two new friends from different parts of the world, and one of those moments that just happens in a trip like this. I really appreciate those moments.
Nagasaki was unexpected and maybe that’s part of the reason it was so great to me. So thank you Franka for leading me to this wonderful experience.
My mental state during my last 10 days in Japan is hard to describe. I had suddenly booked a flight back to the United States so I knew this was it – the end of my trip abroad, the big trip I’d dreamt about, worked towards, and lived for for most of my recent past – and that affected my experience in a couple different ways. On one hand, I knew I had to go out well, finish strong with adventures in cities and nature, and stay true to how I had lived for the past year. On the other hand, I was distracted. Soon I would be reunited with some of the most important people in my life back in the country I called home. My mind constantly wandered to how I would carry out surprising my friends in Arizona and what food I would stock in my parents’ kitchen in Vermont. But I still had the island of Kyushu to explore so I pushed those thoughts to the back of my mind and forged forward. I wasn’t done just yet.
Two days after I made the decision to go Stateside I flew from Tokyo to Fukuoka, the largest city on Kyushu. First brought to my attention by my train companions in India, all I really knew was that it was the birthplace of tonkotsu ramen, which I was supposed to eat near a river, and a good launching point for nearby excursions. At first Fukuoka seemed to me like a big personality-less city. Sure there were a few pretty temples, as always, but for the most part it seemed to me like a city of sterile streets lined with nondescript buildings. I didn’t have an immediate connection with it. But as I continued exploring the city grew on me. It was more relaxed than its neighbors to the northeast but still had enough things to do.
Looking back, the parts of my visit that stand out in my mind are a stroll through Ohori Park and a leisurely rainy day at the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum. Also the yatai, I can’t leave out the yatai.
Ohori Park is on the outskirts of the tourist center of Fukuoka, which is actually a very walkable 20 minutes. When I went I expected to find a lawn to sit and read in, but when I arrived I discovered there was a lot more to this park. I entered at the site of the Fukuoka Castle Ruins. All that’s left of the castle is the stone foundations but in and around them is more parkland, quirky trees, the end of the cherry blossoms, and a fantastic view of the city. Well worth a stroll. I continued to the lake, which is actually huge and a hub of activity. On the path surrounding it people were jogging, pushing strollers, doing calisthenics, or simply passing the time on park benches. In the center of the lake there is a strip of land connected by a few picturesque arching bridges. It was a lovely walk with water on either side and places to stop and contemplate the scene. I chose a bench on the far side, after walking the center island, to sit down and read for a bit. It is so nice that Fukuoka has a large, welcoming park so easily accessible.
The day I went to the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum it was raining. Luckily Fukuoka has some good covered options for rainy days – the underground mall in Tenjin is right next to this small museum. Located on the 7th floor of an office building FAAM could be hard to find, but it would be a shame to miss it. It is just a few galleries housing rotating exhibitions but it only features contemporary Asian artists. Two of the galleries are free and one is a small charge (I stuck to the free ones, Japan was brutal on a budget traveler). The first exhibit was all quilts. I did not expect such a traditional medium to be on display at a modern art museum but I am happy it was. The quilts were modern patterns expertly executed and I found their placement in this gallery intriguing. Leave it to the Japanese to still consider quilts as part of the contemporary art scene.
The second exhibit though is what captivated me. A collection of contemporary artists from around Fukuoka, the paintings in this gallery made me pause, appreciate, and smile at their beauty, complexity, and talent. There were multiple pieces on display that I wish I could have taken with me. And in the most interesting twist of all, an artist was also in the gallery creating a new piece. I wondered when I walked into the room why there was music playing – a change from the typically silent museum experience that I thoroughly enjoyed – but when I turned the corner I discovered it was for the artist Miyamoto Daisuke who was right there, painting, adjacent to a work of his that was a part of the show. I must have sat on a bench for half an hour and watched him decide where to make quick calligraphic lines or blot on thick paint until it dripped, all in hot pink. I revisited the gallery before I left to see he had turned the canvas so what were previously drips were now strong horizontal lines and he had started to add yellow.
In between my sessions watching Daisuke I sipped on a mocha in the cafe overlooking the city. I wrote a little, read a little, and reflected on where I was and what I was doing. It was one of those quiet moments that I have enjoyed in cities across the world over the past year. It was 3:00 in the afternoon and there I was, after seeing a stunning exhibit, relaxing with a mocha, looking down at the bustling city and across at the tall office building housing floors of desks stacked like pancakes, scenes in which I used to belong, just another one of those people rushing through life, and now found myself detached from, a quiet observer happy to have liberated myself from all that came with the nine-to-five existence. I was content. I never wanted it to end. But I felt at peace with the decision to go back to the US, knowing full well that instead of rejoining the rat race I would continue to run the opposite direction, towards what I had no idea, and that was the point.
My final highlight of Fukuoka is probably what it is most known for: yatai. These small street stalls seat maybe seven guests and serve a variety of skewers, gyoza, seafood, and the famous tonkotsu ramen, which has a very rich broth made with pork bone. The first night I went to one of these alone, on a street by the fishing docks, but it was apparently still too cold; there were just three options instead of the typical back-to-back row of stalls and they had their walls up, making them into tiny dining rooms. I slurped my ramen in between two men chatting up the chef. If only I spoke Japanese; they were friendly dining companions with whom I would have loved to be able to communicate more. The second time (my last night in Japan) I was with two new friends at the location on the canal where there was a line of stalls. It was picturesque and busy. Both times I had the ramen and while it was a good treat it’s just too rich for me. But it’s a right of Fukuoka passage so I had to try it.
I departed Fukuoka pleased with my time there. What started as a potentially hard situation with my distracted mind and unsure feelings on the city ended as a relaxed urban experience attesting to the things I have realized I love most in cities around the world: parks and small galleries. I also had decided on, and booked, a plan of how I would spend my final days in Japan: Nagasaki, Kumamoto, Mount Aso, then back to Fukuoka to fly out. With a mixture of city, castle and volcano, it seemed to me like a good overview of Kyushu. And it was.
As I mentioned before, accommodation in Japan was a constant issue my first couple of weeks there – the time I think of as the Honshu portion of my Japan month – resulting in a lot of short term hotel stays or manga cafes. So when I decided I would go to Fukuoka next and spend 10 days exploring the island of Kyushu I booked all of my hostels up front. That’s when I discovered the joy of Japanese hostels; friendly, clean, amenity-filled places where I easily met new people and had a home to hang out in any time of day. But before that happened I found myself in two very different situations that both seemed to fittingly describe the adventure of finding accommodation in Tokyo, or not finding any at all.
After roaming around Honshu we returned to Tokyo in a whirlwind. It was Matt’s final days not just in Japan but in traveling – he had to return to France – and we had a few things we still needed to check off. First the Tsukiji Fish Market, which we would try to go to around 4 am for the tuna auction, and sumo wrestling practice, which started around 7 am. We already knew that finding a place to sleep for a Friday night would be difficult, so when we realized that we had a few really early morning activities planned and had already experienced the late night bar scene of Tokyo, we decided to forgo any attempt at accommodation our first night back and only booked a place for Saturday. Why waste money on and time searching for somewhere we didn’t plan to spend more than a couple of hours anyway?
We got to Tokyo Friday at 8 pm and put our backpacks in luggage storage at the train station. That’s it, we were committed. All night out in Tokyo. Let’s do this.
We went straight to the Shinjuku neighborhood, knowing we could find a lively scene there. We bar and restaurant hopped, returning to our favorite haunt of Golden Gai for its compact variety of bars and congenial drinking companions, until it was time for the fish market. We wandered around the wholesale market while they prepared for the day’s sales until a guard discovered us – technically we weren’t allowed in that part until 9 am but had explored unnoticed for almost an hour – and had a 5:30 am breakfast of fresh sushi, then hopped on the subway to see the sumo wrestlers. We lucked out by asking a man on the street (through a charades act of a man stomping) where we could find such a practice, and he helpfully led us to a sumo stable, which would have been impossible to find on our own. We watched alone for a quite a while before a tourist group showed up. From there we still had time to kill before we could check in to our next hotel, so we wandered the shopping district of Harajuku looking for gifts before returning to get our bags and making our way to our destination. We checked in at the hotel at 12:30 pm on Saturday; we slept till 5 pm.
Tokyo made it way too easy to not worry about finding somewhere to sleep. There’s always something going on there. So we turned what could have been a stressful mess resulting in a strange sleeping arrangement into an activity-filled night and morning out in the action-packed city.
My second accommodation story in Tokyo was after Matt left and I was left to find solo options. This is how I ended up staying in a capsule hotel.
Capsule hotels are known to be something you should experience when visiting Japan. I’ve never seen anything like them anywhere else. For starters, I was lucky to even get into one since most are men only. I found one in the center of Shinjuku that had a female floor and was able to book Capsule 8136 for one night. Check in was at 4 pm and check out at 11 am for everyone; no one is allowed in the capsules during the day. The floor was filled with two levels of capsules stacked tightly in a U formation. The capsule itself had enough room for me and a few important things, plus a built-in outdated TV and radio and an overhead light. Everything was controlled by dials and buttons on a panel straight out of a 1980’s movie space shuttle. A shade rolled down in the opening for privacy. I sent a picture to my friends who said it looked like I was sleeping in a microwave. That was a pretty accurate description.
Each capsule had a corresponding locker for safe storage (although it did not fit luggage, which was relegated to an overflowing shelf in the hallway) and had inside it some highly fashionable tan pajamas, slippers, and a towel. The attached bathroom was a room of Japanese wonder: toilets whose lids opened when you entered the stall and started playing sounds to drown out the natural sounds of someone using the bathroom, showers with all hair and skin cleansing products ready for use, and a room full of sinks and beauty products as big as my first NYC apartment. In the morning I learned why it had to be so large and well-stocked: all the capsules had emptied out and it was full of women primping for their day. Since everyone was required to check out, the common spaces were overflowing with people all getting ready to go at the same time.
The capsule hotel was a good option for a night when I knew I was just going to check out the next day anyway to go to the airport, but I wouldn’t do a long-term stay there. I heard of other ones that include spas but they seem to be the men only ones. My only option would have been a sauna for an extra $15. Plus they all have a no tattoo policy in those types of spaces, and given my previous two new tattoo posts you know how well that would have gone over for me.
Oh Tokyo, you never fail to disappoint in your unique, quirky, lively, fascinating offerings.
Our second day trip from Kyoto was to Nara.
Nara is known for two things: temples and deer. I’ll start with the deer. The deer in Nara are described as freely roaming in the town’s parks, which initially brought to mind images of dozens of Bambi’s happily coexisting with people and nature. But the first thing we saw when we got to Nara Park was a sign warning that the deer are wild animals and they may attack you in a variety of ways, such as kick, bite, knock down, or headbutt. Bambi would never headbutt me. Bambi also didn’t have stunted devil horns coming out of its head. These were a different breed of deer, more beast than Disney character. I also would not call their presence happily coexisting in nature as much as benefiting from tourists buying deer crackers to feed them. They actually stood in the way just hoping to get fed. It felt like a petting zoo we couldn’t escape.
The temples though were different. If they were not like I imagined it’s because I underestimated them. At first glance the Kofukuji Temple appeared as impressive as Ninna-ji in Kyoto had, with another five-story pagoda and one-story temple, but once we got entry into the Eastern Golden Hall and the neighboring National Treasure Museum it went beyond previous temple-going experiences. The Hall was filled with statues of Buddha and his allies and protectors. We were given a sheet in English that explained each figure’s importance, which I greatly appreciated. Inside the museum were more statues important to the temple, including the three-faced six-armed Ashura Statute, a highly important Buddhist sculpture in Japanese culture and history. It was spectacular. The entire collection was well worth seeing.
The Todaji Temple had the same result as the Kofukuji Temple. The approach, entry gate, and building at first seemed familiarly impressive, but once I stepped inside and saw the towering Buddha and his guards I was taken back. That was one big Buddha. The wooden sculptures, as well as the building interior, dwarfed everyone and seemed to assert their importance in their stature. Even with another large crowd, they were able to steal all the attention.
Our Nara day ended with a Japanese must-do: sake tasting. There is a neighborhood in Nara that was known for its merchants and still maintains an old school charm. We found it and one of the local shops that sells an abundance of alcohol, so we asked if it was possible to do a tasting there and sure enough it was. 3 big pours of sake for Y500 was a great deal and I learned that I like the most high quality one the best, of course. There’s no better way to wash down a full day of deer, parks, and temples than with some locally produced sake.
We did two day trips from Kyoto. The first was a spur-of-the-moment trip to Osaka.
Originally we thought we’d spend a night in Osaka after Kyoto, but when we stepped outside on our third day in Kyoto to discover that it was miserably rainy our outside-focused plan for the day wasn’t so appealing anymore. So instead we decided to jump on a train and spend the day in Osaka. This is the great thing about flexible travel with another backpacker – so what if this wasn’t the plan, sounds good to us right now, let’s go for it.
Cities are better places to explore in the rain than temples, plus our main attraction for Osaka was an indoor activity: the aquarium. Yes we are just big kids. But they have a whale shark! Who doesn’t want to see a five-meter-long shark without fear of being attacked? Not like whale sharks attack humans, but you know what I mean. Anyway, a quick thirty minute train ride later and we were in Osaka Station trying to figure out how to get to the aquarium. Again tourist information pointed us in the right direction (so helpful all over Japan) and no more than an hour after we’d decided to go to Osaka we were entering the Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan.
It, like everywhere else, was packed. Does Japan ever work? I’ve heard they actually do more than anyone, but everywhere we went it seemed like everyone else was there too. The aquarium wasn’t too bad once we got past the first animals – Japanese river otters – and into the tanks, which had plenty of viewing space. Kaiyukan has an interesting layout: we moved in a circle, constantly descending, around the Pacific Ocean tank and past other global zones on the outside. They split up each tank according to location, an approach I actually really liked, and even had Monterey Bay! I got to watch some familiar sea lions play around for a bit.
The main attraction was the whale shark, and it was smaller than I expected. I actually enjoyed watching the other sharks and sting rays swim around more than the whale shark. I felt bad for it; it looked too big to be in that tank, and just slowly swam in the same circle over and over again. It reminded me that I never really like places that keep animals in captivity.
Upon leaving I had a weird feeling. This was the first time I’d been to an aquarium since all the snorkeling and scuba diving I’ve done in the past year. The last time I saw sea creatures they were freely swimming around in their natural environment. Seeing them in an aquarium felt anticlimactic, and a little wrong. Nothing against the aquarium, if you like them it’s a nice one, it just felt strange being inside walls with these beautiful creatures.
After the aquarium we just wandered through the shopping center of Osaka – a rainy day was the perfect time for one of those arcade shopping streets – and had a delicious sushi lunch. For some reason I hadn’t had nearly as much sushi as I thought I would when I came to Japan – we kept coming across noodle or donburi places instead – and since it’s one of my favorite foods I was seriously craving it, so even a simple sushi bar lunch was a big highlight for me.
It was a quick day in Osaka so I can’t say I got a great feel for the city as a whole. It seemed like another metropolis with similarities to Tokyo and Kyoto, but more toned down. I’ve heard mixed reviews so I’ll leave my final analysis ambiguous.