Actually, I felt pretty small in Japan. It is massive and there is so much to see. We concentrated on Kyoto, Mount Fuji and Tokyo. Each place gave us a very different little taste of life in Japan.
Living like a local
One great thing about going to Japan was getting to see my good friend Anna, who had been living there for a couple of months. She provided the best accommodation possible for our rainy week in Kyoto – a traditional house with paper walls and tatami flooring. It was a wonderful little place with the strangest layout ever; I kept getting lost trying to find the bathroom, even though there were only really four rooms in the place.
The highlight of this little house was the bath. A traditional Japanese bath is small, square and really deep, so although you have to sit up in it rather than lie down, your body is totally submerged in water. Even better was the element that kept the water hot – press a couple of buttons beside the tub and you could rack up the temperature in the bath to 43 degrees Celsius. It kept speaking in Japanese and could have been saying “you are going to boil yourself like a lobster if you keep heating your bath this way” but I didn’t care.
Then you get out and put on a yukata and chill out listening to the rain pattering on the roof and drink some Japanese tea, or a wee dram of whisky. Heaven.
All you can eat…but be quick about it!
Oh the food! Japanese food is quite something. I’d never really had ramen before but boy, did I make up for it while we were in Japan. Rather than taking your order at your table, before you go into the restaurant, you choose and pay for your food at a vending machine at the door, then give the slip to the servers behind the bar.
We also had a lot of gyoza (like dumplings) and okonomyaki, which is basically a japanese omlette. Sometimes, they even let you make it yourself on a flatplate in the middle of the table.
I am embarrassed to say that while I did enjoy the sushi, I actually preferred Vancouver sushi(!). Gone where the cucumber and avocado rolls and tempura, instead there was just fish, fish and more fish with increasingly bizarre textures. I wonder if the Japanese go to Italy and are disappointed by the pizzas? Nevertheless, there were some cool places to eat it: Anna took us to a 100Yen Sushi place where you paid by the plate and got to play a video game for every five plates you ate. Winners got little toys like you get at Burger King. It was ace.
They are not into long, slow, amicable meals in Japan though. It was in and out, sometimes without even being able to sit with those you came with if you were more than two people. Lots of people eat alone, particularly in Tokyo; everyone concentrating heavily on slurping their ramen up as quickly as possible.
Entertainment in Japan is not difficult to find. A six hour session of Karaoke for Anna’s birthday left us hoarse and exhausted but it was absolutely hilarious. Unlike in the UK, where karaoke is a terrifying affair where you have to sing to a bar full of people, in Japan you just get a sweaty little room to yourself with unlimited soft drinks, including hot chocolate. You can sit there and belt out whatever you like to your heart’s content, without judgement.
There are also arcades are on every corner, particularly in Tokyo. Businessmen in suits the same age as my dad go in there after work and get high scores on guitar hero. I had a shot on a couple of games, which were fun. Call me a cranky old lady but the lights and noise in the arcade were enough to bring on a migraine and I could never stay in there long.
Gateway to enlightenment
Our one rain-free day in Kyoto saw us get up early, grab a pair of bicycles and do some intense temple tramping. We visited the Golden Pavilion, arriving before the place had even opened. We waited with a crowd of fellow visitors outside and the scraping of the wooden lock behind the massive gates heralded the beginning of a busy but zen-like day.
We followed this with a visit to the Ryoanji temple rock garden, very zen.
Then we went to Kyoto’s crown jewel, the Fashimi-Inari Shrine, with its millions of vermillion gates snaking up a forested mountain. It was much MUCH bigger than we expected and, not a couple that gives up on anything once we have begun, ended up walking for hours to the top of the mountain. The crowds soon thinned out and we were tramping up endless uneven stone stairs, marveling at all the shrines we walked past, that were all guarded by stone foxes, the Fushimi diety.
A shy Fuji-san
Unfortunately, Mount Fuji was shrouded in rain clouds the entire time we were in the little town of Kawaguchico, so all we saw was a tiny patch of the volcano peeping out from time to time.
Rather than mope about in the rain, we spent a large part of our “hiking day” in a local onsen. I basically had the female pools to myself, much to my relief, as Japanese tradition dictates that you must be completely naked throughout your spa experience. I spent a good two hours alternating between hot and cold pools, letting the rain patter on my head in one of the rocky pool outside.
Walking until your legs fall off
Tokyo was so massive. I walked around it for days and days while Hugo was doing a little bit of work-related things an internet cafe where he got all-you-can-eat ice cream.
I walked all over some of the major districts. Shinjuku for a sushi-on-a-conveyor-belt lunch. Then walking, walking, walking all the way down to the Meiji Jingu Shrine, which is surrounded by a massive, lush, old forest. It felt like walking into the Forbidden Forest. The streets are busy but SO quiet. It is a bit weird, no bustle like in London with conversations going on everywhere. Most people are alone or if they are talking together, they keep their voices down. Then I went to Harajuku – a huge contrast to the forest, with busy alleyways full of kiosks selling gigantic ice cream covered crepes that everyone was eating.
Once Hugo was free, we walked over to the shrine where his karate master was buried. It was a nice moment, standing there surrounded by marble tombs and stray cats.
Two weeks in Japan passed really fast. I felt a little preoccupied by the last few days in Tokyo – our next stop was going to be so far east, it would be west. Time to leave Asia and move to Canada!