(or ‘My Adventure in Japan’, for non-Japanese speakers)
In March and April of this year, Mr Mauro and I went to Japan. It wasn’t our first visit – we’d been before, in 2013, but this was – we hoped – going to be a much bigger, much more adventurous trip. This time, we were to forego Tokyo entirely – much as we both loved Tokyo, we had our sights set on the Kansai region, home of Kyoto and Osaka, and the region we both fell in love with on our first trip to Japan.
We arrived at Kansai airport without our luggage, which, it turns out, was lagging behind us in Amsterdam. Luckily, we had all of our essentials in our hand luggage, but clothes? Toiletries? Nope, they were off gallivanting in Europe while the two of us dragged our jetlagged carcasses through Kansai airport, out into Osaka and on to Kyoto, where we finally made it to the apartment we would be staying in for the first five days of the trip.
In hindsight, it wasn’t so bad dealing with delayed luggage. We went out into the wilds of Kyoto to buy a few bits and pieces to tide us over until our bags arrived. By this point – around mid-afternoon – I was so jetlagged that I actually caught myself almost dropping off while walking, which was unnerving to say the least. Anyway, we located GU, the Japanese equivalent of Primark (but slightly better) and I managed to grab myself the kind of t-shirt you should always endeavour to wear in Japan:
Extra sparkly indeed.
After crashing at a respectable 7.30pm, we woke the next day ready to explore Kyoto. As I mentioned, we’d already been to Kyoto before, and I think we both fell completely in love with it. Being in Kyoto again was almost a homecoming of sorts – it took no time at all to get our bearings and reacclimate to the calm atmosphere, the busy streets and, yes, the constant rain. It rained almost constantly in Kyoto, and the weather verged on chilly – the apartment, which was a gorgeous Japanese style place above a cafe, on a quiet street, was freezing much of the time, since Japanese apartments don’t typically have central heating. Not that I minded – futons are incredibly cosy, and a little chilliness is a perfectly acceptable trade-off for the chance to experience Kyoto apartment life:
(modelled here by Mr Mauro)
While in Kyoto, we visited the Fushimi Inari shrine – a Shinto shrine in honour of the god Inari, who presides over agriculture and the harvest, rice, and of course, foxes:
Foxes are my favourite animal, so even though we’d been before it felt necessary to go again. And it’s such a remarkable place, anyway: innumerable vermillion torii gates stretching up the mountain, with places to pause and admire the view over Kyoto. As well as the Fushimi Inari shrine, we made a return visit to Kiyomizu-dera, a beautiful mountainside Buddhist temple in east Kyoto (and walking distance to our apartment) and to Arashiyama, which, despite being a little bit crowded, was as beautiful as I remember it being the first time around.
I had plenty of opportunity to practice my Japanese speaking skills, which didn’t always work out as well as I’d hoped. One morning Mr Mauro woke up feeling terrible, so I left him sleeping in the apartment while I went in search of a pharmacy. The pharmacy trip was a great success – I managed to ask for and locate cold medicine, ask a few questions and understand the answers. I felt like a language god! I had to go and spoil it by stopping by the local Starbucks, intending to pick Mr M up a hot cocoa to soothe his cold. Unfortunately, I must have used up all of my day’s allocation of Japanese language skill because I made an absolute tit of myself – I managed to forget the word for ‘soy milk’ – 豆乳 , a word I’ve practised over and over because I’m lactose intolerant and I knew I’d need it. Such was my flustered embarrassment that every last scrap of Japanese ability left me, and after much tolerant politeness on the barista’s part I ran away from the Starbucks with only one hot chocolate, too embarrassed to attempt to order another. Mr M got his hot chocolate, and I never set foot in that Starbucks again.
From Kyoto, we travelled through Osaka and on to Koyasan. Mount Koya is a huge Buddhist temple complex, the centre of Shingon Buddhism, and to get there involves a train ride south of Osaka and, in our case, a coach trip up some very narrow mountain roads to the top, where the small town of Koya and all its attendant temples are nestled among the woodland.
The majority of lodgings here are Buddhist temples, and we stayed overnight at Fudo-in, where we were able to attend the morning prayers. Koyasan is peaceful and atmospheric, and I wish we’d had more than one night there – not least because Fudo-in had the most comfortable futons of the whole trip (and delicious vegan food):
From Koyasan, we went to Osaka for a few days, ostensibly to recharge our batteries before we set off travelling again. Osaka is not an easy place to recharge one’s batteries, mind you – it’s manic and busy and noisy and colourful, which I love as it reminds me of London, only much more interesting. Osaka is also the home of delicious food, including amazing steamed buns and gyoza from 551 Horai – which we must have eaten at a ridiculous number of times. It was just so good, and so cheap:
Food in Japan is rarely bad. So much so that, to keep our budget down, we mostly ate Seven-Eleven ‘konbini’ food, 551 Horai and my other favourite, curry establishment CoCo Ichiban, which serves up giant plates of curry and rice. And it was all delicious. We did occasionally go elsewhere, though – when in Kansai, you can’t not have okonomiyaki, and the tonkatsu is pretty amazing too. Ramen is another comfort food, and something you can get reasonably cheap from most places. Although, for the love of god, don’t be tempted by the hot sweetcorn drink in the Kyoto vending machines. It is Satan’s own beverage:
Just say no.
Our first stint in Osaka was in preparation for the next leg – to Hiroshima and beyond. Hiroshima is another place I wish we’d spent more time in – we were there only one night, but we both agreed that there as something incredibly special about the place. We hadn’t been sure what to expect, but Hiroshima is the furthest thing from morbid. Rather, it is a vibrant and positive place, a city which has rebuilt from literal ashes and which carries in its new incarnation the promise of peace. The Peace Park, situated beside the skeletal bomb dome (a truly eerie and humbling sight) feels like an optimistic monument rather than a sombre one: it seems as though the people of Hiroshima have faith in a better future, and, walking down the riverside path awash with cherry blossom, it’s easy to let yourself believe it.
We both resolved to come back to Hiroshima next time, and to spend more time there. I think we were both surprised at how strong an impression the place left on us – more laid-back than Kyoto, but not quite as manic as Osaka, a perfect blend of the two. And Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki is pretty amazing to boot. (Though – whisper it – I still prefer Osaka style okonomiyaki).
The next morning we took the ferry across to Miyajima, a small island famous for its offshore torii gate, which seems to float in the water at high tide. Being the eminently sensible human beings that we are, we decided – on the hottest, sunniest day of our trip – to climb Mount Misen, the highest mountain on Miyajima. Admittedly a large proportion of the trip is covered by a cable car ride, but when you’re as white as I am, climbing a mountain in bright sunshine as midday approaches is probably not the cleverest of choices.
The view was spectacular, though.
Back down to ground level, and we strolled about for the day, enjoying the seaside vibe and the deer, who trail around everywhere in the hope of a snack – not quite as persistent as the Nara deer, but not quite as polite either. In Miyajima, we splashed out for one night in a seafront ryokan, which was well worth the cost just to sit on the balcony in the afternoon, reading in the sunshine with the sound of the sea just beyond. And at sunset, we (along with half the island) set out to see the torii gate at high tide:
Well worth the detour.
Our last few days were spent back in Osaka, though we did take one very special day trip to Nara. Another place we loved on our first visit, we decided to spend our ten year wedding anniversary wandering around the park in the sunshine, dodging hungry deer and gawking at cherry blossom, which by this point was in full bloom.
I also took a tip from the Japanese women I saw walking around and bought a parasol – the best decision my pasty skin and I have ever made, since I was able to enjoy the outdoors without fear of crisping up. Why didn’t I think of that before….?
In Osaka, we wandered off the beaten track, discovered quiet residential areas, cooked plans to come back, maybe rent an apartment, maybe get a job, maybe stay a while…? I can dream; I married a very cautious, very risk-averse man, so I’ll have a job on my hands to convince him it can be done. But as we spent our last night relaxing at a pro-wrestling bar, watching Japanese wrestling and conversing in bad Japanese (well, my Japanese was bad) with the barman, it seemed to me that it would at the very least be worth a try.
It’s been over a month since we returned, and part of me is still pining. Maybe, in a few years. Maybe…