Tokyo, with the newly completed Skytree in the distance. 2012.

Japan, or any Asian country for that matter, is a place I never thought I would make it to. It’s far away. It’s expensive. But I had caught the travel bug again and I happened to know someone who lived there. I originally planned a trip out to visit by myself, but my (ex)boyfriend thought it would be better together so we went (spoiler alert: we broke up not long after this). We were in Japan for just under a month. We started in Tokyo, traveled to Kyoto, Osaka, Nara, Tamba and back to Tokyo. My friend, a former roommate from Australia, lived in Tamba. She was with us for Kyoto, Osaka, Nara and of course Tamba.

Japan is hot in the summer. Like, really hot. Coming from sweaty, humid Boston, I didn’t think Japan would be much different, but when we were there I was convinced I would never again know what it was like to feel cool. There are vending machines everywhere and I was constantly feeding them money. There were two drinks I absolutely loved, Ito En Oi Ocha Green Tea (unsweetened), which you can find here in the US, and Kirin Milk Tea, which you cannot. I believe there are versions available in the US, but the real stuff sold in Japan doesn’t meet some random FDA standard so it can’t be sold. It’s delicious though.

We mostly spent our vacation doing the touristy things. We went to temples, shrines and castles. One place we visited was opening up to the public for the first time in hundreds of years. That was a lucky happenstance. They were doing it as part of an anniversary during the summer festivals. We were in Kyoto for Daimonji, when the mountains get lit on fire. It was an awesome sight to see. We fed the deer in Nara and walked down streets that were so old I couldn’t really comprehend it. Also unplanned, we happened to be in Tokyo the same week the Skytree opened. We waited in line for three hours so we could go to the top and view the sprawl of Tokyo from the tallest radio tower in the world.

Sensō-ji area with the Skytree lit up in the background. 2012.

Having grown up surrounded by European languages, being in Japan was like giving my brain a spa vacation. The sounds around me were so far removed from any sort of comprehension. Rather than attempting to translate random words, like I do with most European languages, I found myself listening to Japanese conversations around me like music. Even though the hustle and bustle of Tokyo is very real, I felt more calm there than I had in years.

Our trip to Tamba was to see rural Japan. We saw rice paddies and strip malls and old temples that weren’t constantly surrounded by tourists, but rather ones that locals used. We got sushi off a conveyor belt. This was a Japan I wanted to experience that I wouldn’t have been able to in any major city. Kyoto was probably my favorite though. While it’s a touristy place, it’s very much real Japan. There was no major train system, we had to figure out public busses. We felt peaceful at the famous Golden Pavilion and Bamboo forest. While Tokyo is a must if you’re visiting Japan, I’d say Kyoto is just as important to see. Kyoto is Tokyo’s older, wiser sister that has her life together. At least, that’s how it felt to me. Nara is not far from Kyoto. We went there on a day trip and did more of the same. Temples, Shrines and food.

A deer looking for biscuits from tourists in Nara. 2012.

I haven’t talked about the food yet. I expected ramen to be my favorite, but udon eclipsed the thinner noodle. Given the choice I would have eaten udon (in soup form) with tempura every day. Sushi was hard to come by for a reasonable price. We were told that most people made sushi at home and didn’t eat it out. There were certainly places around, but it wasn’t what we expected. We did wake up early to go to the Tsukiji fish market one morning. We walked around then waited in a long line at a random restaurant for a brunch of fresh fish. We got sashimi rice bowls and it was incredible. My absolute favorite, which was in Osaka, was Okonomiyaki, a Japanese pancake. You can put a variety of things inside the pancake. I have no idea what I ordered, but I do know it was one of the best meals I’ve ever eaten. I’ve seen it on the menu at a few restaurants in the US, but it’s always disappointing, never having the same texture or flavor as the one I had in Osaka.

Sadly, being across the world and not active facebook users, my friend in Japan and I didn’t stay in touch much long after this vacation. I’d love to have her come visit me. She’s one of those people I could not talk to for years then start right back up again with. I thought Asia was always going to be out of my price range for vacations. But since going to Japan, I want to explore so much more. We attempted to plan a longer stay so we could go to either Okinawa or South Korea, but it didn’t happen. I think about my vacation in Japan quite often and hope to find myself in that area of the world again one day.

Fushimi Inari Shrine, Kyoto. 2012.
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