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Two Weeks in Japan – Highlights in retrospect

It has been a year since I returned from a two-week trip to Japan with one of my favourite travel buddies Josh (who met me there from Australia). Life was a bit crazy when I returned from that trip, and I never got around to blogging about our adventure. My facebook memories have been on overdrive in recent weeks reminding me of what Josh and I were up to a year ago, which made me feel like it wasn’t too late to document our Japanese journey, and reflect on my favourite memories of our trip.

So, here is my top 10 highlights from two weeks in Japan (along with some tips which helped make the most of our trip).

1. Went to a Japanese baseball game

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Going to watch a baseball game was so much fun in Japan we did it twice. (We actually tried to go three times but we arrived at the ballpark in Tokyo to find the game sold out). Although Josh is not a baseball fan (as an Aussie he is more into rugby and cricket), I convinced him to ignore his jet lag and let me take him out to the ballgame in Hiroshima. We picked the cheapest seats we could get and I think it was probably the best $20 I spent the whole trip. Japanese baseball fans are committed – it felt like every fan in the place was wearing a Hiroshima Carps jersey. It sounded like there was a unique song for each player when he went up to the plate, the opposing team was heckled, and there was a seventh inning song that involved blowing up red balloons and releasing them all at once. The people-watching was incredible and the snacks were less American baseball peanuts and beer, and more about the bowls of ramen. We were adopted by the home-town fans sitting near us. It was such a blast we did it all again in Sapporo.

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2. A day trip to Miyajima Island

Just last week I saw a photo of the giant Torii gate taken at high tide which makes it look like it is floating on water and thought – I’ve been there. When Josh arrived in Tokyo I met him at the train station with a plan to get down to Hiroshima so we could visit Miyajima Island. He was up for anything and our first full day together in Japan did not disappoint. It was a further 25 minutes on the train followed by a quick ferry ride (which was also included in the Japan Rail Pass). I had timed our arrival for high tide in the morning, setting it up for beautiful shots from the Island of the Gods. After spending the day exploring temples, shrines and walking up to the highest point on the island, we arrived back bay to see the water had receded, and we could walk out to the Torii gate during low tide. A local even let me take a shot at digging up some shellfish. I was so glad we were there for both high and low tide – the island was busy with tourists and still I loved our day there.

3. A detour to Naoshima – Japan’s art island (so I could get a photo in front of a giant pumpkin)

On our way back north from Hiroshima, I somehow convinced Josh to jump off and store our bags in Okayama and take a day-trip detour to Naoshima. The island has become famous for contemporary art, which began when the Benesse Corporation chose Naoshima for the setting of a growing collection of modern art (along with a seriously luxurious looking hotel). We arrived in the rain and after arriving at Chichu Art Museum (which looked like it where Dr. Evil or a James Bond villain lived) to learn that I had read the travel guide wrong, and each museums were individually priced and not just one multi-visit ticket. They must have sensed our budget as they suggested we take a look at the gift shop, see if we like the art, and then decide if we wanted to go in. We took a look, admired the futuristic toilets, said our thank yous, and headed off in the direction of the free public art.

I was so happy when we found Kusama Yayoi’s yellow pumpkin – I have to credit Josh for the umbrella placement in the photo. As he so wisely said, “do you want to take photos of art, or do you want to make art?”

We did take in the Art House Project in Honmura, a village with art installations creatively scattered within natural and man-made structures all within walking distance of each other. By the time we took the train back to Okayama, and then on to Osaka, it was a very long day of travel and sightseeing. But I loved it!

4. Eat fresh seafood at a fish market

The first large market we had a chance to visit was in Kyoto. It blew my mind seeing some of the things that had been pulled out of the ocean, and I loved walking around watching everything from egg omlettes to kobe beef being prepared for hungry patrons at the market. I didn’t love the feel of the super touristy spots, so I settled on a small family run shop in a quiet corner of the Kyoto market to buy some salmon and scallop sashimi. The woman who took my money offered me the one seat she had along with a small card table. Much to her entertainment, I pulled out my own gluten-free tamari, and showed her my – I can’t have gluten/soya sauce card in Japanese. As a Celiac I had challenges eating in Japan, and was often turned away from sushi restaurants as all the fish had been dipped with soya sauce. Even though it was 9 am, I ordered a second helping of the scallop sashimi. I still remember it as the best sushi I had on that trip.

I also ate and enjoyed my time at the Hakodate fish market when we ventured north to Hokaido. I found a spot where you could fish out your own squid, and then have it cut up for you immediately to enjoy. It was the freshest sushi I have ever seen served.

5. Park Golf

Josh and I are interesting travel companions. I am a bit more plan-oriented, and he is way more go with the flow. I am also an old-school traveler, with a special place in my heart for hard-copy Lonely Planet guide books. Josh let me do all the research and planning, and helped choose some of our directions when I presented him with options. There are two exceptions that I can remember where Josh peered at my book and voiced an opinion. Once, asking if we could go to Hokkaido, and the other to play park golf once we got there.

Park golf was invented in Hokkaido in 1983. The game is played with just one club, a resembles a sport somewhere between golf and croquet. We found that the friendly game is mainly played by retired Japanese people, who appeared happy to have two blonde-haired foreigners join in on the fun. We threw our hostel in Sapporo for a loop when we asked where a course was – but we found there were two courses within walking distance and the price for the game and to rent clubs was around $5.

All the other foreigners were on the hunt for cherry blossoms, but for us, Park Golf was so much fun we hit up the second course the next day.

6. A night in a traditional Ryokan (with a piping hot onsen)

When Josh asked if we could go to Hokkaido I started researching options for things to do there. One thing that sounded interesting was a stop in Noboribetsu, a town famous for its piping hot sulphur smelling hot springs and devil like statues.

While most people stay in nice hotels or expensive traditional ryokans, we found hospitality in Shōkōin, a temple with traditional rooms on the second floor. We couldn’t find a phone number or email, so we just showed up, knocked on the door, and were each given our own room fit with tatami mats and a kimono to wear in their private hot-water onsen. It was the best sleep I had the entire trip. 

7. Bought a Kimono

The first photo I took on this trip to Japan was of a woman in a traditional kimono I was walking behind. The next day, I stumbled upon two weddings at the Meiji Shrine and could not stop taking photos and admiring both brides, as well as weddings guests dressed in their elaborate kimonos.

My friend Linda mentioned she wished she had rented a kimono on her recent trip to Japan when she was sightseeing in Kyoto, which is stocked with shops renting kimonos to Japanese women (and the odd tourist), looking to be photographed among the myriad of temples in the former Imperial capital of Japan.

As a collector of clothing, particularly from my trips around the world, I knew I would end up buying one on my trip to Japan. I had looked at a few second hand stores in Tokyo on the day I had in the city before Josh arrived, but couldn’t commit. There were just too many choices.

Instead, I ended up buying one on impulse from a store in Hiroshima that had one rack hung out in the street. I tried a few on for Josh, but settled on one that was an excellent price. The owner wanted to close up, and when I was debating on whether the one obi belt he had matched, he threw out a bargain figure, and I walked away with a very heavy kimono and obi for less than $50 Canadian (and far less than renting in Kyoto would have cost me). That was on day three of my trip. I carried my very beautiful, but very heavy, purchase in my backpack for two weeks, and finally wore it on my last day. Josh kindly took photos of me around our hostel in Asakusa and near the Sensō-ji Buddhist temple, Tokyo’s oldest temple.

8. Watched a Sumo practice

Sadly, our trip to Japan was in between sumo tournaments, so my only opportunity to see a wrestler in the flesh was to get up early and join the tourists hoping to get a peek of a sumo practice. I learned that Arashio-beya practices sumo between 7:30am and 10am on most mornings except in March, July and November, and it is free to those who stand outside on the street.

Josh opted to sleep in, so I went off in search of sumo on my own. When I arrived, I found a trio of wrestlers, sweat and dirt covered, stretching in the street next a  group of tourists snapping photos through large stable windows. The juxtoposition of the nearly naked sumo wrestlers among the modern streets, buildings, and cell-phone cameras made me smile. I happily spent an hour watching the wrestlers fight, stretch, and even redo their hair between battles. The other tourists among me largely respected the request for silence, and all that could be heard in the street was the grunts of the wrestlers and the slapping of their bodies in combat.

9. Riding the rails on a bullet train

Buying a two-week Japan Rail Pass was essential to our trip. Eligible to foreigners who are temporary visitors, the pass allowed us to take bullet trains across the country, traditional trains, city transit, and even a boat to Miyajima Island. Occasionally we booked in advance, but often we just rocked up at a station and jumped on a train to our next location. Japanese trains are always on time, so as long as we were there with one minute prior to departure we were good to go. Armed with pocket wifi, I had loads of time to plan our next steps as the countryside whizzed by. Looking back I am surprised by the ground we covered in two weeks. From Tokyo we went to Hiroshima, Miyajima Island, Naoshima Island, Osaka, Kyoto, Kanazawa, Hakodate, Noboribetsu, Sapporo, and back to Tokyo.

Going anywhere with Josh is entertaining, and my time on the train with him was always filled with laughter. And when I got bored, I could just glance over and look at the elderly man reading porno magazines while sitting next to his wife (true story).

10. Only one day in Kyoto

Everyone I had spoken to about doing a trip to Japan talked about going to Kyoto. The standard itinerary included three days of temple visits (there are a 1000 in Kyoto), Shinto shrines (there are 400 in Kyoto), and a trip out to see a bamboo forest.

I met two Australian girls at my hostel in Tokyo the night before Josh arrived and they gave me their opinions on Kyoto: skip this, this is lame, it takes an hour to get to the forest on a bus, don’t be fooled by that photo, etc.

So instead of the standard three-day trip to Kyoto, we arrived in the morning, stored our bags at the train station (where Josh had his first bowl of ramen in Japan), and then set out walking. We found our way through a number of free temples, but the one temple we made sure to visit was Chion-In, which Josh wanted to see because scenes from The Last Samurai with Tom Cruise were filmed there. I did the obligatory head stand, and we helped some Japanese girls take photos of themselves in their rented Kimonos.

I was glad to spend a day in Koyto, but as we caught a bullet train that afternoon to Kanazawa, I felt satisfied with my taste of the Imperial city.  Although it took longer to get to on the train, I’m glad we spent three days in Hokkaido instead.

Random Thoughts…

So, it doesn’t exactly make my top ten list, but considering how many photos I took, I think it is worth a mention.

Many people talk about being amazed by the buildings and technology in the big cities in Japan, but one of my favourite things to see was at eye level, or below. Across our trip I tried to snap photos of the decorative manhole covers or have our photos taken in scenic cardboard cutouts.  Thankfully Josh is a good sport – I still giggle looking at some of these photos.

Also – the one thing I wish we had done was race go-karts in costumes from Mario Kart through the streets of Tokyo. Sadly, we didn’t have international licenses so we couldn’t partake in the costume street racing. Anyone who asks me for tips for Japan I immediately tell them – get your international drivers license and get your Mario Kart on!

Even though I could barely eat anything (seriously I lost 10 pounds – Japanese people like to put gluten on and in everything), and barely slept (Josh snores and I’m getting too old for hostels), I had an amazing time and our trip was filled with incredible memories. I owe a huge thanks to my friend Josh, who I first met on the Inca Trail in November 0f 2009 and then met up with again in Iceland in 2014. Thank you so much for meeting me for two weeks in Japan; I can’t wait for our next adventure!

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