Japan was the first country we visited on our Big Trip, and what a way to kick off our adventure! While many long-term travelers opt to skip Japan for budgetary reasons, we found the country a perfect place to ease ourselves into Asia and learn to travel without training wheels. Japan is remarkably traveler friendly, irrespective of the number of stamps in your passport; especially for those without a lot of international travel experience, we can’t imagine many other places in Asia that would make one’s first month of travel so stress-free and easy (natural travel growing pains aside!).
If there is one thing you need to know about Osaka (other than the fact that it has an awesome aquarium), it is that it has a reputation for being something of a food town. Unlike nearby Kyoto, Osaka is made up of hoi polloi: people who work hard for their money and then want to enjoy the fruits of their labor. So dedicated are Osakans to living the good life, there is actually a Japanese term to describe their wanton acts of gluttony: kuidaore, which means to ruin oneself through extravagence with food. When Tony & I heard about this, we knew that Osaka would be our kind of town!
You don’t have to know me very well to know that there are few things in life I love more than an aquarium. Back during my early graduate school days, a friend and I made a chart in which we documented various bits of trivia that would be apparent to those who knew us based on how close a friend they were. Yes, it’s exceedingly nerdy, but hey – we were grad students! Is anyone really surprised?
In a country full of holy sites, Mount Koya is one of the most sacred. This is no small feat considering the tremendous religious heritage permeating nearly every corner of Japan. Nearly 1200 years ago the monk Kukai settled among Koya’s eight peaks and founded Koyasan, which is now the world headquarters for the Shingon sect of Buddhism. In addition to Koyasan’s sacrosanct stature in the world of Buddhism, many of the temples in the mountain city offer room and board to pilgrims, a nice boon considering how relatively inaccessible the city is – by Japanese standards anyway – and a large part of what drew us to the tiny mountain hamlet.
By the time Tony & I reached Kyoto, we had hit our stride when it came to dining out in Japan. Gone were the meltdowns and apprehension about our lack of Japanese producing an insurmountable barrier for us when it came time to meeting our hunger. It may have taken us half our time in Japan to get it right, but after some trial and error, we did get to a point where we were exceedingly comfortable with dining out and our time in Kyoto surely benefited from that.
If you were to rely solely on a guidebook to pinpoint all the must-see spots in Japan, Arashiyama would likely be one of the last places you visited, that is, if you visited at all. A western suburb of Kyoto, the area is not so insignificant that it fails to garner a mention, but most guidebooks simply sweep past it in a cursory paragraph or two, suggesting there is little of consequence in its boundaries. This is utterly baffling to me, because despite Kyoto’s myriad draws, Arashiyama turned out to be one of our favorite parts of the city, if not all of Japan.
There are many legitimate reasons to visit Arashiyama located in Western Kyoto, but I won’t pretend we came for any reason but one: the Iwatayama Monkey Park. If you read our post on Nara and witnessed my glee at feeding deer, then you can only imagine my excitement at the prospect of getting to feed monkeys!
Really, little else would entice me to undertake ANOTHER hike.
It’s funny the things we see on travel blogs that capture our imagination and make us want to visit a place. When our friend L’Ell lived in Japan, she kept a fantastic blog that detailed her many adventures in “the land of the rising fun” (as we referred to it). She saw and did so many incredible things, but one completely random thing stuck in my mind as the thing that I *had* to do when we made it to Japan. That thing was nagashi somen.
If there is one thing that stands out clearest in my mind about our time in Japan, it is just how overwhelmingly kind and helpful the people we met there were. Obviously we had a taste of this when we were lucky enough to CouchSurf, but our positive interactions with the Japanese people certainly weren’t limited to those pre-arranged instances. We consider ourselves extremely lucky that while in Japan, we managed to convey a spirit of openness that seemed to attract good people to us like moths to a flame. Whether it was the guy in the train station who, with cheeks aflame, apologized for not knowing which train we should catch, disappearing only to return having gone out of his way to find out this information for us, or a meeting a man named Shijo, who stopped us on a street corner in Kyoto while we were traveling to our hostel just so he could practice his English and ask us questions about the United States over the course of an hour (!), it would appear that the Japanese people had our backs.
Disclaimer: I am pretty sure I read in a guidebook that Kyoto is the self-professed temple capital of Japan. Whether it actually has 1001 temples and shrines, I don’t know. What I do know is that a common affliction suffered by eager visitors to Kyoto is the insidious “temple burnout”, in which all temples begin to blend together into a ginormous blur (a super holy one, no doubt) and the sufferer is afflicted with utter apathy at the notion of seeing one more sacred spot.
Over 1300 years old, Nara is steeped in history. An easy day trip from Kyoto, it seemed a foolish mistake to miss visiting the city when we would be in Kyoto for nearly a week. Armed with the knowledge that Nara park (Nara-kōen) was the real showpiece of the city, we set off in the morning to see what we could discover.
The island of Miyajima has long been considered one of Japan’s holiest islands. It is a place so sacred that for many years women were forbidden from stepping foot on its shores, and the elderly were shipped elsewhere to die so as to prevent the island from being contaminated by their impurities. Lucky for us, in recent years they’ve loosened up on the entry requirements, and now two profane individuals such as ourselves can freely follow in the footsteps of the great monk Kobo Dashi and enjoy Miyajima’s scenic vistas and various iconic shrines. And did we mention that there is also a mountain to climb?
For most visitors, a trip to Japan is not just a voyage through space, but also one through time. Travel to Tokyo and Osaka and you may feel like you have traveled 20 years into the future; visit a place like Nikko or Takayama, and you may easily feel like you have traveled 20 times that but in the other direction, into the past. In the face of all the possible leaps through time you might make in visiting Japan, it’s perhaps understandable that many tourists might bypass Hiroshima in favor of sites in Japan whose history is more epic, or for cities whose views of the future are less imbued with sorrow.
In our early research into Japan, we devoured pretty much any information we could find that we thought would give us a sense of what cities we might like to visit. As we were reading about Kanazawa and Takayama several sources gave us the impression that these two cities are essentially interchangeable, and a visit to one obviates a visit to the other. This seemed like a reasonable thing to say, having never visited the cities, but as our luck would have it our CouchSurfing journey took us through both, allowing us to judge for ourselves.
One of the things Tony and I did in preparation for our RTW trip was to sign up for CouchSurfing. At the time, we didn’t know if we would actually ever use the service as we tend to like to do our own thing and weren’t sure how we felt about sleeping on a stranger’s couch, but we decided it wouldn’t hurt to set up a profile “just in case”.