Your Country Through My Eyes: Japan Part 2
The thing that I liked most about Japan was how modernity, nature, and life came together singularly. Where the old world met the new, the original beauty was never lost. Where tall skyscrapers had been built, tall trees still stood. When you visit Japan, I don’t think that you can skip Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, and Hiroshima. But, the Japan that exists beyond these cities, is what I remember most fondly.
I ended up here completely by chance, because all of Fukuoka’s hostels had been booked, during the holiday weekend, when I flew back from Okinawa. I arrived during the Gion Drum Festival, which was a real treat. I remember seeing a young girl happily beating on her drum, with the biggest smile on her face. I thought to myself that “The world can be pretty shitty sometimes, but as long as there are kids who still find joy in something as simple as banging a drum, we’re in good shape”.
I stayed at the Tanga Table hostel, and cafe. They hosted weekly social events for locals, and visitors, to practice speaking English. I was invited to hang out with the group, in exchange for a free beer. It was a nice way to meet new people, learn more about Japan, and also give back in a way that was appreciated by the locals.
My main reason for visiting Shimonoseki was to try its famous Puffer Fish (“fugu”). Fugu is a dangerously toxic fish that must be expertly filleted in order to avoid a fatal accident. Homer had a near death experience with eating a dicey serving of it in a Simpsons episode. The Karato Market was an awesome spot to grab all types of fresh sushi and seafood. The fugu was tasty, but in the end, a bit overpriced, all things considered.
I ventured out to the Tsunoshima Bridge, which was actually a pain in the ass to get to by public transit. The iconic bridge is a blend of modern infrastructure and innate natural beauty (photo at the beginning of this article). The bridge was purposely built to curve smoothly around a large rock island, elegantly connecting the mainland to Tsunoshima Island. The island itself was a nice place to visit for a few hours, but there was not much on it. Thankfully, the view, alone, was worth the journey.
As a big fan of Studio Ghibli, I wanted to visit the small fishing town of Tomonoura, because it had supposedly inspired the setting for the movie Ponyo. It was a really pleasant town to explore, especially around the historic harbour. There is a simple charm to Tomonoura that Hayao Miyazaki was able to capture beautifully in his art.
It is said that a Korean envoy once described the view from the Fukuzen-ji Temple as “the most beautiful scenic view in all of Japan”. Though I’m not sure if I agree with that sentiment, when I imagined myself as a guest, hundreds of years ago, sitting at the window, watching the sunset, I could appreciate how Tomonoura could stake that claim.
As I made my way back east, I stopped at Kurashiki. Its historical Bikan district contains well preserved 17th century Japanese wooden architecture, and a picturesque central canal with koi fish, and weeping willow trees. I explored some of the back streets, and stumbled upon a short hike up to a hilltop temple that overlooked the city. It was a great little area to spend time in, and a nice glimpse into an older Japan.
Osaka was the last of the “big cities” on my hit list. It was a fun city, with lots of places to shop, eat, and drink. There were large entertainment complexes, but also smaller restaurants, and bars, nestled within the bustling city. One of the most popular districts, Dotonbori, was a busy, cool area along the river. Further north, in Shinsaibashi, and even further north, in Umeda, there were more good places to spend the evenings. Osaka felt like a big city that was easy to get lost in, but part of the allure was getting lost and finding somewhere interesting to stumble into each night.
I happened to visit Osaka during the Tenjin Matsuri, which was one of its biggest annual festivals. It culminates at night with a boat parade along the Dojimagawa River, and thousands of fireworks. There was good street food, music, and entertainment around the river, but it was also complete mayhem. There was over a million people, and so much going on, all at one time!
Located half way between Osaka and Okayama, is one of the largest, and oldest, surviving Japanese castles. The Himeji Castle has stood for over 400 years, outlasting WW2, the Great Hanshin earthquake, and several typhoons. I had already visited a few castles during my trip, but I wanted to see one of the “great” Japanese castles. The Himeji Castle grounds were extensive, and the structure itself was massive, compared to the others that I had seen. I left feeling pretty impressed. The only disappointing part of the day was when I foolishly followed a group of seemingly enthusiastic tourists to an empty clearing, that was actually just a Pokemon Go Stop.
Nara is a popular traveler destination, known for the Bambi like deer that graze in its park. Being just over an hour from Osaka, it was a tourist zoo. I still thought that it was a worthwhile trip, but other travelers have suggested that it would be nicer to explore outside of the main park, near Mount Wakakusa, where the deer roam freely in a much less crowded area. My favorite part of the park was actually the Todai-ji Temple, which housed a nearly 50 foot tall bronze Buddha statue.
Not to be mistaken for Hakone, which is one of Japan’s most prominent onsen towns, Hikone is located in the Shiga prefecture. I can’t remember what reason brought me there, but it ended up being a very tranquil experience. I stayed at the only guesthouse in town. The building was a traditional Japanese home, with a small add-on for guests. The owner, Hajime, had constructed it in a way that provided added comfort without losing the original aesthetic of the property. Though uneventful, some my favorite memories of Hikone were the afternoons that I spent in the main room, drinking tea, and writing.
Each day, Hajime would give me suggestions for local places to eat at. I tried Omi Beef (the oldest type of Wagyu), ramen, hamburg steak, and a bunch of other succulent local specialties. For one lunch, Hajime wrote down something on a piece of paper, and told me to give it to the woman at the restaurant down the street. Slightly embarrassed, I followed his instructions. When I handed over the piece of paper, I was pleasantly surprised to see the woman’s look of confusion turn into a smile. She served me a tasty lunch set of fried fish, soup, pickled vegetables, and noodles for around $4.
My last stop before returning to Tokyo, was Ito. It was a nice beach town, but it was also a bit of a congested vacation spot. I stayed at the Historical Ryokan Hostel K’s House. Though Hostel K is a chain brand across Japan, the Ito location was a unique 100 year old traditional guesthouse that had been converted into a budget hostel. Staying in that building was a cool experience, and the bottom floor contained a hot spring onsen, that I, of course, took advantage of. Though not as extravagant as the one in Osaka, I also caught a nice summer fireworks show near the beach.
During my second visit to Tokyo, I finally completed my goal of watching a baseball game in Japan. I watched the two city rivals, the Yomiuri Giants, and the Yakult Swallows, play at the Tokyo Dome. The Japanese game was a bit different than the MLB pace, a little less technical, but a little more exciting for the layperson. The fans were extremely passionate, and the atmosphere was the best part about going to a game in Japan.
I spent 7 weeks in Japan, which was the longest trip that I have done in any one country, not including those where I’ve worked. In 2011, I had booked a flight to Japan, but due to the unfortunate Fukushima nuclear disaster, I accepted the airlines offer for a refund, and instead went to South Korea. For whatever reason, in the five years after that, I traveled to other countries, but I never found myself in Japan.
Though I never expected 7 weeks to be long enough, I’m still surprised at how much of the country I’ve not set foot on. However, I like being able to look back, knowing that I had a great experience, while feeling that there are still many more hidden gems for me to discover there. An interesting place, like Japan, should never be completely understood within a few short months.