I took this trip to Japan nearly four years ago, but it was so awesome that it really needs a place here on this blog.
At that time, I had already been to Japan about five times, but only to Tokyo and my friend's hometown of Tsukuba (one hour away from Tokyo). At some point, when I was back in American, I noticed myself saying things like, "Oh I love Japan", "Japan is so....," "Japanese people are so...," BUT I hadn't even seen Japan outside of Tokyo!
That's like someone outside the U.S. only visiting New York City and then returning home saying, "I love America," "Americans are so..."
The rest of the US is vastly different from NYC. The culture, climate, and the food can change dramatically from one state to another. To get a good sense of America you've got to travel coast to coast, with some time in the Midwest and definitely the South.
So that is just what I did. I decided to explore as much of Japan as I could with a 30-day JR rail pass (back then it was about 100 yen to the dollar, so it was somewhat affordable). Traveling trough Japan is so much more feasible than trying to cross the U.S. by rail. Japan is a tiny country and the bullet trains are so fast, I hardly felt like I spent much time on the train at all. Another benefit of traveling by train in Japan is the ability to sample delicious cuisine at each station, known as ekiben. Let me also just say that this journey was made ten-thousand time easier by Hyperdia, the online timetable for all trains in Japan. Without this website, my spontaneously-planned trip would not have been possible.
I was already very familiar with Tokyo by the time I made this trip, having been there several times. I spent over a week and a half in Tokyo when I arrived. Mostly, I wanted a chance to visit all of my friends and plan my journey. This is an image of the famous Shibuya Crossing. It never fails to impress tourists with thousands of pedestrians crossing every few minutes.
My next trip was a mere three hours south of Toyko, to the city of Osaka. I had been there once before, but only for a few days. My only memory of Osaka from that first trip was that it rained the entire time, so I never left the home of the family with whom I was staying. This time, I decided to give the city another shot, and really check it out. I stayed with a friend in a sleepy suburn about fourty minutes from the city center by local train.We visted all the typical sites like Amemura and Osaka castle.
My first impression after a week in the city was that, despite being the second largest city in Japan, it is no where near as urban as Tokyo. Writing this entry now, having been to Osaka several times, I have come to have many wonderful memories in this city, mostly because of the great friends I have made.
I fell in love with Hiroshima from the moment I arrived. I thought this would be a dreary little town with a bomb museum, but oh I was so wrong. Everything wonderful is in Hiroshima. Only a week before I arrived I discovered I had a friend there. She was a former roommate of mine in Los Angeles, but she had since moved back to her hometown of Hiroshima, and was very keen to show me around. We attended a festival at Hiroshima castle, went to Miyajima, ate maple leaves and Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki.
I was so smitten with this city that I think one day I will have to write about it in more detail. It has the charm of a small town, but all the amenities of a big city. This has became my new favorite place in Japan.
Fukuoka is the largest city on the main island of Kyushu, which is the most southern of the four main islands of Japan. Upon first impression, I felt that Fukuoka was a lot like southern California. Despite being October, it was hot and tropical. Palm trees lined both sides of the wide streets, and high rise condominiums looked out over white sandy beaches.
In Fukuoka, I ended up meeting my best friend and travel partner, Danny, from Australia. I will tell that story in another post someday, but the two of us shared many good memories in Fukuoka.
Imabari is small town located on the northers edge of Shikoku, the second most southern of Japan's four main islands. Although large in size, Shikoku is sparsely populated and very rural. Japanese consider this whole island to be inaka (countryside). When I told my Japanese friends I was going to Shikoku the first question they ask is "why???" which is also accompanied by a look of confusion. I did't bother to tell them I was going to Imabari, because that would have elicited the response, "where's that?"
Well, this was my first real experience in the Japanese countryside. I had a good friend from Tokyo who moved to back to her hometown of Imabari to have a family. Imabari was a charming town, but there was no train or bus (at least that I saw), so we often had to take a taxi, which was inconvenient. Also, I had a difficult time understanding local residents (in Japanese - mind you), especially elderly ones, because they had strong accents.
Only a few minutes away from the city of Kyoto, Maizuru is probably also considered inaka by most Japanese. This is a small coastal town with a large port and many fish markets. Again, I would have probably never gone if it were not for a very good friend who lived there. I am truly lucky to have met Japanese people all over the world, and now I can visit them in their hometowns, and experience things many tourists don't get to experience.
Speaking of tourists, Kyoto was my second to last stop on this trip, and at this point I was getting really tired of traveling. Packing up my bulging suitcase every few days and moving to the next hostel got old quickly, and I was just not ready for the chaos that ensued in Kyoto.
This is the city that every foreigner imagines when they think of Japan. The temples, the shrines, the geisha, they are all here in Kyoto, along with the thousands of tourists that flock to see them. Seriously, there were more white people in Kyoto than at a suburban mall in Minnesota. Too many white people, if I may say so myself. I was so annoyed by these masses of tourists and their large, clumsy backpacks that I gave up walking on the main streets entirely, and took back roads as often as I could.
Also, the bus system was lousy and expensive in Kyoto. The sites are not very walkable, and I was in no mood to stand on a sweaty bus squeezed in between half the citizens of New Jersey just to take some cheesy photos near a temple. (Can you tell I was in a sour mood?) So I didn't end up seeing much in Kyoto. I mostly slept in the hostel during the day, and headed out a night. I did manage to see the Inari and an awesome cemetery though.
This was the last stop of my journey before heading back to Tokyo to catch my flight home. Nagoya is right in the middle of Osaka and Tokyo, so it makes for a great stop if you really can't sit still on a train for 3 hours. I also had a friend in Nagoya, but at the time I was visiting, he was studying in the U.S., so I ended up hanging out with his mom. I was pretty nervous, because she does not speak English, and my Japanese is nothing to brag about. Somehow, we managed to have a great time. I ate the famous eel dish, and we visited many of the main attractions in Nagoya.
In all, this whole trip was one of the most memorable I have had in Japan. I checked off three of the four major islands (Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu), and most of the major cities on each island.
Next stop, Hokkaido! (coming soon in 2013?)