There is so much to see and do in Japan, so it’s a good thing we had almost four weeks to spend there! We bought a Japan Rail 21 day pass, allowing us unlimited train rides around four of Japan’s islands. And we took major advantage of it.
The first night we were here, we walked up to a ramen counter and sat down. The conversation went like this:
Owner: “Hai!”. Meaning, “Yes, please order, I am busy”.
Deah: “Hiiiiii….”. As in, “Hellllooooo!”.
Chris: Dies laughing.
That was in Fukuoka, on the island of Kyushu, (after a ferry ride from South Korea). We sampled the local ramen specialty, saw some old style shrines and temples, and visited a Mongolian Invasion museum and a robot museum (opposite ends of the spectrum!). And then we took a train to Nagasaki, to see two sites: the “Battleship Island”, an old coal mine island that has been abandoned since 1974 (and is the evil lair in 007 Skyfall), and the Nagasaki Peace Park, ground zero for the atomic bomb. What a moving place, especially with the tens of thousands of folded origami cranes, homage to a young girl named Sadako who died after the bombings. From there, we went to Beppu, a hot springs town, to visit the seven different “hells”, or hot springs, as well as get buried in volcanic sand and stay at a traditional ryokan (Japanese style room with futons and tatami mats).
Then we were ready to move on to Honshu. We stopped in Hiroshima, and then Himeji, to visit the White Egret castle, one of the remaining 12 originals from the shogun period. This is where Chris accidentally bought a whole plate of cartilage and liver yakitori. I declined. We also went to the island of Myojima to see the floating Tori shrine- really beautiful. And then we made our way to Kobe, to stay with my college friend Kirsten, and go to sake factories, sing karaoke, and try some Kobe (Wagyu) beef! So good, it melts in your mouth, literally. I was so sad when that last piece was eaten. From Kobe, we also took a day trip to Mt. Koya to visit a very old Buddhist cemetery, which was set in a lovely cypress forest atop a mountain.
From Kobe, we went to Kyoto. We skulked around the Gion area long enough to spot some geishas, and we visited the imperial palace and the Golden Pavilion (a bit overrated). We went to the really beautiful bamboo forest at Arashiyama, and took a quick commuter train to see the fushimi-Inari shrine, which is three kilometers of gorgeous vermillion tori gates, lined up one after another, up a mountain. Just beautiful.
Skipping Tokyo for the time being, we took the super fast Shinkansen trains past Mt Fuji, past Tokyo, and over to our third island, Hokkaido. We spent the weekend at another onsen/ryokan (Japanese style room with a hot springs bathing room) at a lakeside village called Toyako. The tiny town featured a lake, a volcano, a national park for hiking, and nightly fireworks. Also tame deer! It was very relaxing, and got us ready for our time in Tokyo.
Then, to Tokyo, the biggest city in the world! Although I have to say, that with everyone using public transportation, the streets are not as crowded as I thought. We went to watch a sumo wrestling practice, and went to the Palace Grounds (actually you can’t see much). At night, we went up to the 48th floor observation deck of the government building, and also to the 52nd floor bar of the Hyatt hotel (that was in the movie Lost in Translation)- what a view! Chris got up early and went to the fish market tuna auction (I slept in). The Edo-Tokyo History Museum was a really good history of the city since the 1700’s.
Last stop was Osaka. On the way, we went to the home of Hattori Honzo, now a ninja museum and demonstration. Very fun- the whole town has ninja mannequins on top of buses, underneath benches, in the corners of shops. Then we had one more Wagyu beef dinner- so, so good. We went to the ramen museum, where we learned all about Momofuko Ando, the inventor, and we even got to make our own cup and customized noodle and toppings. Too fun. We saw a few more sites around Osaka, such as the Osaka castle and Tennoji Park, and then were ready to prepare for our flight home.