My recent trip to Japan cemented my love for the country, its people and the culture. Being my second time in the country the nostalgic feelings almost instantly filled my sensors as soon as I stepped off the plane. I was greeted by the ever so strategically placed vending machines selling warm canned coffees and tea, and seeing as I stepped of the plane in near freezing temperatures, I of course indulged.
I had the layover from hell! It was 10pm Tokyo time, and after an already long 10 hour plane journey including one 4 hour layover in Kuala Lumpur I now had to find a comfortable corner of Tokyo airport to curl up and catch a few hours sleep before boarding my connecting flight to Hokkaido the next morning. I eventually settled on the bottom floor of Narita airport where fellow travellers (mostly Japanese) were already occupying the benches. I grabbed a pork bun from the 7/11 and set up camp. At no stage throughout my interrupted yet peaceful sleep did I feel worried about my luggage being stolen or something happening, for me this is the norm in japan, to feel safe wherever I am.
I found myself in the winter wonderland that is Niseko the next day around lunch time. Not remembering the bus routes or how they worked, or even where our apartment was, I set off down the main street with light snow falling onto my unseasonable sneaker shoes and heavy suitcase. After stopping half way down the street to put on gloves and a thicker coat, I asked a man how to find our apartment address. He kindly pointed me in the right direction and sent me on my way with a traditional Japanese bow of respect which made me smile. The apartment was magical…an open living room with high glass windows looking out to the snow covered street not to dissimilar to a winter snow globe. I found myself staring out from this window just observing the snow and the people many times throughout our stay here.
Over the next 6 days, our crew of 6 men enjoyed the fruits of Niseko’s labour. Boarding most days and drinking/dining at the many Izakayas in the evenings. No matter how late we stayed out the night before, there was always an excitement within our apartment the next morning about the days adventure and what it would entail, often starting with somebody cooking 2 dozen eggs or a coffee/breakfast trip to the café. A highlight was our day trip out to rsyutsu resort, which is a different mountain to the one at the base of niseko village. We enjoyed long tree runs with barely anyone else on them, knee deep powder and near perfect conditions this day. Albeit cliffs board being stolen and us getting lost trying to make our way back, the day was defiantly the climax of our boarding days.
One afternoon after coming in from a boarding session, cliff rang the crew and informed us that he had organised a snow mobiliing trip. Cutting laps on a vacant snow covered farm in bright sunny/snow weather is exactly how you picture it. AMAZING!
In-between walking home in blizzards, night caps of warm buttered apple pie whiskys in cosy fridge door bars, waiting with bated breath for someone to fall over in the snow whilst walking home drunk, eating ramen up on the hill then boarding down, eating our weight in karage chicken, late night snacks from the Seiko mart, that one night we had at wild bills bar that ended up actually being wild. We can honestly say that we left no stone unturned in Niseko.
From the snow covered back alleys of Niseko to the bright light districts of Tokyo, we touched down mid-afternoon after slight delays due to bad weather. Split into two groups we converged onto the Tokyo airport scene with its weird stores and ever so efficient maps and systems. It quickly became apparent that it had now become a race to make it to our apartment in Shinjuku. With little knowledge of how the subway worked or even what tickets to buy we managed to find help from the friendly staff stationed at literally every ticket validator in Japan.
Our apartment scattered in tatami mats was the perfect mix of japan of yesteryear and the new age wave which swept over during the late 1800’s, complete with a balcony overlooking the Shinjuku skyline. The freezing inner city chilliness didn’t detract us from venturing out to find some drinks/food and a little explore. With the subway bible in hand we navigated our way down to Shibuya where the busiest intersection crossing is found. Amidst the craziness and sea of people, the colours of billboards and technology engulfed my imagination as I stood and took it all in. Staring blankly at all my surroundings, I followed the group through side streets littered with tiny sushi trains and stairs leading to even smaller hidden bars. We settled on a place in between sake shots and exploring to sit down, only to be greeted with warm towels and friendly over enthusiastic smiles, which is one of the reasons I am drawn to this part of the world. The friendliness and endless efforts of the Japanese to accommodate your every desire and fulfill all your requests with nothing but full respect and smiling faces makes you feel at home. In turn leaving you wanting to do the same to others around you, it is a very endearing ripple effect that I love and admire.
After being surprised by Mel and Simon who dressed up as a geisha and her companion, stalking us throughout the Tokyo streets we swooned in on some sake bars, followed by karaoke overlooking the bright city lights. Tokyo is a pulsating city, especially for tourists visiting from around the world (in particular perth). Everywhere you look you see something new and exciting that you haven’t experienced before, which makes exploring the city not to dissimilar to falling down a rabbit role of fantasy, intrigue and down and right wackiness. In between cat and owl café’s, crazy costumes around the Harajuku area, the buzz and complete wonder surrounding ahkihabra which is known as the technology district and just stumbling across theme parks in the middle of the city, we became accustomed to just going with the flow the next few days. Having no set plans meant we could explore the many different areas of Tokyo, as I experienced one day while setting of on an adventure.
For many years I have been obsessed with Japanese food, feeding my longing appetite weekly with the vast Japanese fast food outlets scattered around Perth. But as I experienced first-hand, nothing compares to the real thing. The westernised touch construed throughout the Japanese food in Australia is almost an insult to the delicate art form and lifestyle Japanese cooks and chefs treat their food. From the moment they wake they dedicate every hour to crafting their skills and it shows in their food. Even the chain restaurants have delicious menu’s which can’t be ignored, especially when they are all open 24 hours. Many nights I found myself sharing a long table with Japanese locals at 2am, sipping our green tea which is briskly placed in front of you as soon as you sit down. The warming feeling of a rice or noodle bowl steaming in front of you whilst looking out the shop windows observing Tokyo life with its brisk pace and elegantly dressed locals is something I am very fond of.
Our days in Tokyo were numbered and we did a good job of squeezing everything we possibly could in. Indoor baseball nets, 7 story arcade centers, shopping outlets, 5 star dining in ginza district, getting lost in the roppongi hills, market and temple viewing in asakusa and the many tiny bars and cute dining izakyas we frequented all contributed to an amazing stay.
The next day I was catching the bullet train to Kyoto, my favourite city in Japan. There is something unique about the trains in japan, especially the shinkansen. Ive been to train stations around the world and nothing compares to the vast city like subway stations around Tokyo. In a way, I look at them at a whole different city beneath the city. Sometimes I would stop while walking the streets of Tokyo and just think about the winding walk ways and restaurants which were alight beneath my feet. In some stations they had entire shopping malls and 5 star dining outlets where many staff spend their entire lives underneath the ground, it is an eye opening experience to say the least. The stalls at the shinkansen stations and most stations come to think of it all have elegantly packed train foods which can be purchased all adding to the experience. I bought my packed lunch and boarding the futuristic looking train ready for the 2 hour ride. I planned to sleep on the train hoping to catch up on a many hours spent enjoying Tokyo night life, but little did I remember how beautiful the Japanese country side really was. Winding through valleys littered with old houses and tiny villages.
The familiar sites and centralised hub of Kyoto train station felt like coming home in a way, I had missed Kyoto very much. Kyoto is not a large city, its rests within a valley surrounded by snow capped mountains in the winter which also causes it to become quite muggy in summer where you will find locals sipping beer and wading through the local rivers in the afternoons. I was excited to see my friend Kieran who works at the lower east 9 hostel just a short walk from the train station. It was late afternoon when I arrived and the sun was setting, it was a brisk walk to my accommodation dragging my suitcase behind me whilst passing an array of locals all riding bikes. Bikes in Kyoto are a way of life, and is one of the main reason which I am drawn to this city. You can ride anywhere and everywhere which makes for great site seeing and also enhances your ability to see the real japan, see where people live and how they live by getting lost down back streets and stumbling upon temples and shrines which are littered throughout Kyoto. Kyoto’s main draw card will always be its combination of modern day architecture and buildings combined with the beautiful temples and shrines which are so elegantly kept and scattered throughout its streets and outskirts. Upon seeing my accommodation with its hipster style bottom floor café/bar from across the street I looked up towards the second floor windows which were lit up among the old Japanese building next to it to see Kieran playing guitar awaiting my arrival. It turned out the night I arrived they were hosting a tatami band, who use tatami mats to construct instruments. We settled in for a few beers whilst sitting back and listening to the bizarre yet fascinating band take us through a journey of Japanese culture (which I didn’t understand one word as it was all In Japanese).
The next day I awoke early to hire a bike and set out for a day of riding, after enjoying what was the best coffee I had in Japan so far and a rice bun from the 7/11 I set out for the Gion district. The Gion district is one of my favourite districts in Kyoto, as the streets are lined with flowing streams and elegant tea houses. If you are lucky, you can catch a glimpse of a traditional geisha who are often found walking the dimly lit sideways on their way to tea ceremonies or entertaining Japanese business men. Cold days often lead to some form of ramen for lunch, and Kyoto does not disappoint in this area, as the many Ramen houses lining the Kamo river which is the heart of Kyoto has both the best views and the best tasting ramen.
The next few days consisted of riding our bikes around visiting the hidden non-touristy locations which could only be known by someone who has lived in Kyoto a very long time. Japanese whisky brewery’s, craft beer houses, hidden temples, glass tea houses, old record librarys, manga mueseums and of course kyoto’s best café’s. I was treated to a personal tour of what Kyoto had to offer on top of the amazing shrines and temples which are worth the visit alone.
One night we were enjoying beer and whiskys at Japonica, a trendy bar along the Kamo river with a cosy fireplace and eccentric vibe. We finished our drinks after they called closing time and were forced out onto the bitterly cold streets to locate our bikes. All of a sudden, we noticed small white flakes or snow slowly falling from the sky onto our jackets. The elation and excitement after realising it was snowing in Kyoto city (which is extremely rare) had us enthusiastically riding our bikes home not worrying about how cold it was.
As a result of the heavy snow fall, the next day became the highlight of my trip. Kieran organised for us to take a trip up the mountains to a Cliffside onsen village, which he thought would be amazing after so much snow, he was right. We started our journey early after having breakfast at LE9, boarding an old 1 carriage train which looked like a novelty cart.
Winding through rural Kyoto landscapes now capped by snow set the scene for what was a beautiful journey up the mountain through dense woods. We reached our destination which was an old village called Kurama. Words cannot express the beauty of this town with the snow covered rooftops and flowing streams mixed with old wooden houses, it felt like I had stepped back in time a few centuries.
We started to climb the magical path up to the temple which sits at the highest point of the village, stopping for photos every 5 minutes. The air was crisp and we were the only people climbing which made it feel somewhat surreal. Finally reaching the summit we were rewarded with the most beautiful temple and cherry blossoms any of us had ever laid eyes on. Whilst walking around in silence it was hard not to feel a sense of peace and enlightenment as the snow started to come down in what seemed like the perfect reward after the climb.
Adding to that reward was the onsen we visited after, which can only be described as mind blowing. To paint a picture, sitting in a steaming hillside onsen overlooking snow-capped mountains whilst sharing the view with a handful of complete strangers all Japanese, appreciating just how lucky we were to be experiencing the same moment is a memory I will never forget.
It becomes apparent each time I return to Australia just how much of a calming influence Japanese people can have on you, and how the culture swallows you up as you dive into their unusual yet perfectly balanced lifestyles. Each city in japan is unique and can offer something different; you just have to know where to look.