After working some very fulfilling jobs in Ljubljana (right?) over the winter, and with Australia in the cross hairs, Lindy made the wonderful suggestion to stop in Japan for a two weeks prior to going down under on some working holiday visas.
Japan’s major cities are rather bland looking, and it’s difficult to find a garbage receptacle most places you go.
And those are the only bad things I have to say about Japan. This place is fantastic.
We were expecting Japan to be a lot of fun. It has beautiful landscapes for any outdoors enthusiast, a rich cultural history, and cuisine options to satisfy both the budgeteer and Michelin star seeker.
What we didn’t expect is how welcome we would feel while visiting the farthest from home we’ve ever been, and how affordable it would be. The respectful, gracious Japanese people we’re among the highest caliber we’ve met, and were a cornerstone to a great two weeks in Japan.
This YouTube video was our culture/history brush up to Japan, if you have nine minutes and like learning without realizing it, check it out below.
Three days in Tokyo
We had a nice, albeit one day late 30 hour journey from Halifax to Tokyo which went smoothly. Our first greeting to Japan was with a blast of humidity and warmth (on March 19th, it was like 22°C).
Lindy basically went straight to bed (9:00PM or so), but I needed to eat. Not something you generally need to gather courage for, but nonetheless I found myself needing to, prior to venturing out. I walked around, found a suitable enough looking glass restaurant store front and decided to pull the door handle, no go.
Depending on where you define the city’s borders, it has a population of about 15-30 MILLION PEOPLE. IT’S HUUUUGE. But let me tell you, if you’re comfortable visiting busy parts of cities like Toronto or New York, then you will be just as comfortable in Tokyo; somehow we never really felt too crowded.
Contrary to our other travels, we didn’t do any free walking tours. I think because Tokyo is so huge it just isn’t practical, so we just set out walking ourselves, utilizing our JR passes when we felt like it. We loved our short time spent in Tokyo, but I can’t go into every detail, so here are two that are unique to Japan.
Cat Cafes. Sounds like a great idea? No, it’s not.
Some genius was sitting with his cat, enjoying a scone and tea in his windowless apartment and thought, “you know what would make this way nicer? 25 more cats, 25 more people, and a higher temperature!” and somehow it’s catching on. Nonetheless, we succumbed to curiosity and had to check out the birthplace of cat cafes.
Any big city has inappropriate services you can solicit after hours, and in many of these cities people approach you looking for interest. I’ve been offered some type of service in Rio de Janiero, Amsterdam, and now Tokyo (all politely refused of course), but my goodness Tokyo would have to be the most pleasant of these encounters.
A representative from a “massage parlour” who was about 78 years old, and looked like she just finished baking cookies for her grandchildren, sweetly hobbled up to me with dialogue like this, “hi, would you like special massage? I have nice girl available, No? That’s ok, have good night and please enjoy rest of trip!”
In Japan even the people who solicit special massages can’t help but be exceedingly respectful and welcoming. What a great people.
Hakone hikes and naked onsens
After the hustle and bustle of Tokyo, we had the huge national park of Hakone to visit. Hakone, like much of Japan, sits on seismic faults, lending themselves to an environment filled with natural Onsens, or hot springs. Except in Japan, you have to enter these hot springs naked.
Now this isn’t something I’ve done before, nor would I generally seek out nude bathing in the company of a bunch of dudes, but the experience came highly recommended to me by a very trusted and knowledgeable source. And I’m not one to come all this way and chicken out for such juvenile anatomical awkwardness
So I head down to the locker room, drop the drawers, am greeted by two people just on their way out, and round the corner to find an empty Onsen, with surprising shallow and remarkably clear water.
I sit in the water admiring the tree above me and enjoying the night air, but after about 20 minutes I couldn’t take the high temperatures any longer. Just as I’m leaving the two guys we were drinking with earlier, along with some others make their way in.
So I leave… disappointed? I dunno. I had got all mentally prepared for some good nude conversation and I was just by myself the whole time. Life’s a journey I guess.
For the record, the unclothed nature of the Onsen stems back to times of a more rigid class structure. All individuals entering were stripped of any indication of rank and status, creating an equal environment everyone could enjoy without prejudice.
BUT, Lindy and I don’t know any Japanese people, especially ones willing to take us into their home and prepare tea for us. So we, like thousands of other tourists, pay to experience it. The ceremony itself was OK, it probably would have been better from an actual host.
Maori, our guide and practitioner for the ceremony made the whole thing worth it with her great knowledge of the ritual, the historic Japanese house we were in, and also she was super cute.
We also saw some monkeys in Kyoto, and they were great source of entertainment. We actually had low expectations but really enjoyed hiking up this hill and feeding some monkeys; it was cheap too. But do you know what isn’t cheap? Geishas. A dinner with geisha entertainment may run you around $500, or if you prefer, 100 times the cost of seeing the monkeys.
Right now there’s a little over 200 practicing geishas in Kyoto, a dwindling number partially due to the huge cost to become a geisha. The five year apprenticeship costs around $500,000 USD. Geishas operate primarily in the Gion district of Kyoto, and are a rare sight. If you’re not looking to pay to have the company of one, you can see them in one of two types of encounter.
1)Wander the side streets of Gion, and hope to happen upon one away from the crowds
2)Hang out on the main street, and wait until you see tourists flocking like paparazzi around a briskly walking, slightly bowed figure. We happened to see both, and it was pretty neat. They are so different looking and acting from you and I, it is quite the alien encounter.
Hiroshima Carp vs Yokohama baystars
Just outside of Hiroshima was Miyajima, a small island famous for having one of the “three views of Japan" (Orange Torii gate in the water). We stayed here two nights. One afternoon for the island, and the next day for the close by city, Hiroshima. The island was very busy, but had a short, steep, and great hike up to a fantastic view. It also had hundreds of deer walking around, snatching maps and brochures out of people’s hands.
Hiroshima is not a visually appealing city, similar to Kyoto and Tokyo. It does hold tremendous historic significance, commemorated by the Peace Park.
While walking around the city, I noticed many people wearing baseball jerseys, mostly walking in the same direction, so we followed them to see where they were going. Surprise! It was a baseball game.
So we bought tickets and watched some competitive, high level baseball. It was a great time, very similar to a North American baseball experience, except Japanese. So by that I mean fans are very orderly, respectful, clean, and passionate. It was one of the cleanest, best organized sporting events of that scale that I’ve ever seen.
We headed to the Peace Park from the ball park. It is loaded with memorials, reminders, statements about the first ever (and second most recent) atomic device used in war. It was a good place to reflect and consider the bystanders, historic and current, that war affects. Even walking through the area and combining your imagination with photos of the devastation, it is still difficult to grasp the scope of destruction that the single bomb had.
To sum it up, on August 6th, 1945, the U.S. dropped an atomic bomb named Little Boy on Hiroshima after the Japanese government ignored a demand for surrender. The bomb weighed just shy of 10,000 lbs and was a 15 kiloton blast, or about 5 Halifax Explosions at once. The worst of these figures, 90-146,000 people were killed either in the initial blast or during the following months due to radiation.
It’s estimated that there are more than 15,000 nuclear bombs existing today in different country’s arsenals, all of them more powerful than Hiroshima’s.
Dreamin' in Nara
Another former capital of Japan, Nara, home to the famous deer park and some great souvenir shopping. We had a very nice time in Nara, and spent more time there than I had anticipated. Not due to the lovely and massive Buddha temple, nor the numerous deer, but due to Dreamland.
DREAMLAND is a wonderful place. An amusement park that was built in the 60’s and closed in the 00’s. I love going to amusement parks, and it turns out it doesn’t matter whether or the park is actually open for business for it to be fun.
We went to this defunct land of whimsy with two other Canadians we met at our hostel, Steven and Ari. Let me tell you, we had a blast at this place. If you have a chance to check out an abandoned theme park, check it out. It is so strange to wander the park, walk around on the rides, rummage through the old gift shops and restaurants, and so on. It’s kind of hard to describe because it was so unexpected, but was actually a highlight of our trip.
There’s just something about going through a place that was once teeming with people. Especially the gift shops and restaurants. It was very peculiar to walk in through the entrance to “burger shack”, then walk straight inside and have a look around the kitchen. It sounds mundane, but is very exhilarating!
I would recommend a trip to Japan for anyone looking to take a step or two outside their comfort zone, but not wanting a giant leap.
On average, Japan was less expensive than Europe, it has GREAT whisky like Scotland, beautiful hikes like Lichtenstein, just an overall great destination that should be higher up on your tour list.
We're in Australia now, and it is very different from Japan, but pretty similar to Canada. Hopefully we're working before I post the next blog!