Two weeks in a new country never feels like enough time, but it seems to give you a taste and leaves you wanting more. That’s how I feel after my 2 weeks in Japan.
I had never been to Japan before, and all whilst “Japlanning” I started to feel overwhelmed. How on earth was I going to see all the things I wanted to see? Where do I even start with Japans incredibly long and detailed history? Which areas should I prioritise and where can I do some great but accessible hiking? And how much Japanese should I learn before going? Where should I stay? Too many questions.
In the end, I planned a few days in each of 4 major cities, and searched around for any day trips I could find that looked interesting. This meant we got to visit Osaka, Nara, Kyoto, and Tokyo as our bases, with day trips to Nikko, Matsumoto, and Yokohama. All in all, I walked into Japan naive, without expectation, nervous at my ability to navigate and communicate, and yet excited.
Osaka was the first stop. I had printed out rough maps of each city and all the possible things to see, as well as contacting some Japanese friends for their tips. We decided to use as much public transport as possible, which entailed a small learning curve, but was incredibly easy after that. We explored the mountains, making our way up to Minoo falls where we found an Insectarium (typical of the entomologist, I know) and sampled some famous Maple tempura! It was delicious, probably because it was mostly deep fried sugar with a maple leaf you couldn’t really taste. We also explored the science museum, which was all in Japanese, but was still a complete hoot. It was incredibly interactive and the final floor that looked at energy was probably aimed more at kids, but we got a sweat on running on treadmills and riding bicycles to light up signs.
Moving on to Nara, we definitely tried to pack as much in as we could. Though we visited Osaka Castle, the first real introductions to temples came in Nara, and they did not disappoint. My dear friend Yuri highly recommended seeing the deer, and they were adorable. We hung around the park where the deer chase and bully you for deer cookies, but seeing them all over Nara, outside our place, up the mountain we climbed, in the main street, that was incredible. Yuri also recommended a sake brewery, and with no experience with sake in my log book, we had to give it a go. The brewery was located on a back street, with just a small flag hanging to let us know where they were. Inside was a small round seating area where our host directed us, and in his best English, described the 6 types of sake we were to taste. Needless to say, after starting the tasting at 11am without having had breakfast, we left a little tipsy.
Moving on to Kyoto, I was starting to get my fill of temples. They are everywhere and I felt so ignorant. Japan has such a rich history, and I walked in knowing nothing. Having so many people work hard to communicate in my language whilst I was in their country really made me feel ashamed, but drove me to try and learn as many useful phrases as I could. One upside was feeling like a celebrity at the Golden Pavilion. An absolutely stunning structure, we happened to arrive at the same time as a few school groups. The kids wanted to practice their English, ask a few questions, then wanted a photo and an autograph! I felt famous! Getting out of Kyoto, I found a gorgeous hike up the “fire mountain” that was essentially 4 hours of stair climbing. The scenery was spectacular, and it offered a rare moment to be alone. Though there were others climbing the mountain, it wasn’t as busy as the city. Meeting up with my lovely friend Aya after this climb meant we had a huge appetite and Aya made sure we didn’t go hungry! We wandered the streets of Kyoto and Aya told us all about the history of the area nestled in amongst it all, this night was a definite highlight of the entire trip.
Tokyo was the last port, but not the last city. Using Tokyo as a base and hoping on every Shinkansen (bullet train) we could, we explored Nikko, Matsumoto, and Yokohama (for the fireflies) before coming back to walk the streets of Tokyo and just see what we could find. Riding the sardine trains to Harajuku, before wandering around in search of the Harajuku girls, any interesting looking food we could find (plus some trusty Beard Papa that I fell in love with!), there wasn’t a moment where Tokyo wasn’t exciting a sensation. I discovered that tofu can be made so many different ways whilst out to dinner with a great mate Pip at Tofu Dish Empty Field. I learnt how to fight a fire and escape a smoke filled room at the Fire museum, as well as what a magnitude 7 earthquake feels like. I popped in to the parasitological museum, where someone as crazy about parasites as I am about insects dedicated a building to them. Tokyo was a treasure trove and I barely picked the lock.
I feel like I saw so much but barely saw anything of Japan. I hardly even got to know her and her people, but I have walked away with an incredible impression. I loved the respect everyone had, for the environment and for each other. I loved that cycling was so common and easy, that people were so polite. I loved that Japan lived up to it’s randomness, especially Tokyo and I loved the cleanliness, with so little litter around. I was surprised when I learnt of the suicide rates (which aren’t exceptional when population density is taken into account), the efficiency of food, of transport, of shopping, and I was surprised at the feeling of safety. I don’t know the reasons for it, but I felt incredibly safe wandering around Japan and that’s not to be dismissed.
All in all, Japan captured my heart and my mind. I was constantly learning, experiencing, and definitely needed a holiday from this holiday to sit back and take everything in that I had seen, heard, tasted, tried, climbed. I will be back, but next time I’ll have a better idea of the culture and the language. Thank you Japan.