Last time in Japan my GoPro decided to die three days into the trip and I managed to make a movie with the little scraps that I had. This time I had two GoPro’s and far too much footage to know what to do with. But this is what I came up with…
It’s interesting how this trip has ended where my last trip to Japan began – Osaka, Tokyo’s odd little brother. Slightly grungier, slightly sleazier, love hotels dotted on every street corner and the first sighting of any litter scattered in the streets. I can’t remember what I found quite so magical about this city last time. Perhaps it was just that it was my first taste of the country? The first time is always special. We struggled to fill our three days here with activities that rivaled those of the previous cities. If anyone has any idea of what I missed out on, please fill me in. Or maybe don’t. #FOMO
We arrived in the middle of day, a short trip from Kyoto, and spent the afternoon walking the streets of Dotonburi, the district I remembered most clearly from my last trip as being the very essence of what you expect, and want, from Japan. Bright lights, bustling streets, loud noises. We couldn’t wait to come back at night.
After extensive research the next morning, we made our way to the Osaka Castle, which looked pretty cool compared to what else was on offer. Tall, white and clear, the Castle shone against the beautiful blue sky we were greeted with. The detail used in the roofs of Japanese buildings continues to astonish me. And he seems to always love capturing beautiful photos of it too – every time I look over and see him leaning all the way back with his camera pointing straight up in the sky I know we’re all in for a treat. We went into the Castle Museum and to the viewpoint at the top, but to be completely honest it wasn’t really worth it. And yes I know how bad that sounds, but we’ve been spoiled.
With afternoon plans to rent bikes and ride around Tennoji Park, the fact that it was the end of a full on trip hit us and instead all the energy we could muster was put towards an afternoon nap. A well deserved one though. Having tried puffer fish (or fugu) for lunch, a local delicacy that if not prepared perfectly becomes lethal, I was convinced that that nap was going to be my last and just let the ‘toxins’ take over.
Overjoyed to have woken up at the other end of it, we all celebrated by taking ourselves to Mizuno, a Michelin starred okonomiyaki restaurant. Huddled around our hotplate, we watched on as our chefs prepared the top three voted okonomiyaki that we had coincidentally ordered. No cameras allowed, but I assure you it was worth the wait.
Fried chicken and giant soft serves for dessert before an early night in, as we were headed for Hiroshima the next day.
A massive change of pace from the weird and wackiness of Japan, my second trip to Hiroshima still felt chilling. And that’s not just because it was the first time we’d been caught in the rain on this trip. Walking out of the station, it all came flowing back to me. Even the city bus we’d taken to get to the main historical sites came back to me. I don’t know whether studying Hiroshima quite extensively at school helped or not, in that I had some idea of what to expect, but I don’t really think anything can prepare you to see and feel what you do when you walk through the Hiroshima Peace Museum. Not even seeing and feeling it before.
To lighten the mood, we made a hop skip and a jump over to the island of Miyajima. Last time I’d only stumbled upon this gem last minute, and so was very limited with my time to explore. Not this time. This time we had time to slurp up some lunch, buy more souvenirs, throw coins at the world’s largest rice spoon, pat the cutest Shiba, watch Miyajima’s famous maple biscuits be made and try some, pat some deer, pat some more deer, and of course visit Itsukushima Shrine – Miyajima’s floating torii. When I was here last, the tide was out and so it wasn’t really floating, but this time the water was lapping up at its base and it was clothed in a fine mist. It felt like exploring a new place.
As our last night in Japan, we knew we had to take it out with a bang. While the party started in our apartment, it went next level with a run through Dotonburi to find an awesome looking ramen shop that was always busy, day and night. I wish I could tell you the name, but I was in no state to remember.
Luckily, considering our condition, we didn’t have to try to order with a person that night, and instead Japan had the answer with their vending machine ordering system. All we had to do was either press the ‘Noodles in Soup’ button, or the ‘Noodles in Soup with extra pork” button. Simple enough, right? I was pretty happy, Michelle was playing catch ups, and Ed couldn’t stop staring at the chef. All was well.
We bought soft serve for dessert, and Romy bought some fried chicken for a stray cat on the street, who promptly ran away before she could feed it. Yes, it was one of those nights. A quick stop off in a photo booth where we produced some truly terrifying images, before a 7Eleven fridge-to-fridge on our way to find a bar. This is where things got interesting. We’d seen a bar close to home that morning that was offering ¥200 drinks, but when we turned up turnt that night, not surprising at all by this point in the trip, we didn’t all fit in the bar. Wait just there, our host told us, as he went back inside to grab his flip phone and a suspicious unmarked bottle of coke. We then proceeded to follow him along the street to another bar that had already rejected us that night, so it was no surprise when they did so again. Never you mind, however, with a quick call on his flip phone, we were off again, this time down the street, over the river, around a corner, across some lights, up an escalator that wasn’t on, down a dark corridor and through a tiny door. With pages and pages of weird and wacky cocktails, all costing ¥200 each, we decided to order for each other. I got Dan ‘Old Pal’ because we were celebrating our one year Facebook friend anniversary that day, Brandon and Michelle both got Romy an ‘Angry Cat’ because…well, she loves cats. He got me ‘The One’ because he is adorable, and anyone who got Ed a drink got him one with milk because DEdward.
All in all, it was an awesome trip, and very different to my last time in Japan. But that’s good, that’s what I wanted. I learned a lot, I saw a lot, I ate a lot, I laughed, I cried, I shivered and I sweat. It was a good holiday, and not even having our flight cancelled a few hours before we were due to leave, having us wait around at the airport for hours hoping to get on the last flight of that night, running through the airport like a scene from Love Actually, and somehow magically scoring two seats next to each other with an extra seat to curl up on. That just doesn’t happen on normal holidays.
Bye for now, and thanks Japan fam.
They may be spelt using the same letters, but Tokyo and Kyoto are very different places. From the second we stepped out of the station, we noticed the change in pace. More space, less people. This was looking good.
After a long day of traveling, and having had our first chance to flash our flashy new JR Rail Passes and ride the Shinkansen, we arrived at the food capital of Japan, ready to get ‘kultured’ (trademarked by Dan). Ever the man with the plan, he had already researched what Kyoto was good for, and off we headed to find burnt miso ramen – a specialty in Kyoto. With a thick caramelized teriyaki taste, it was one of the best meals I’ve had this trip. And that’s saying something because I’ve had a few best meals. But just ask Romy, she thought it was so good she decided to pour it all down her front just to make sure she smelt like burnt miso ramen for the rest of the trip. #dedicated
We opted for an early night that night as our next day was going to be as full as our stomachs were as we stumbled home.
First up, we hit the subway and headed out to Aryashiyama to the Bamboo Forest. Hundreds of meters of thick bamboo groves towering over the path, it was the perfect place to take your photo, or someone else’s if you’re Brandon. I can’t blame tourists coming up to us and asking up to take their photo though. Out of the seven of us, five of us are walking around with enormous SLR cameras around our necks.
After a singalong led by DJ Michelle to the likes of Chris Brown, Kendrick Lamar and some random Japanese boy band while walking the backstreets of Aryashiyama, we made our way out to the temple of the Golden Pavilion. When it comes to popular tourist destinations like this one, we’ve come to really start to appreciate our height difference. Apart from selfie-sticks, there isn’t much that interrupts our view of the landmarks. And I’ve never considered myself tall before.
Chasing the sun, we headed off to the Fushimi Inari-taisha, one of my favourite shrines from the last trip. Considering my favourite colour is orange, it shouldn’t really be a surprise. The shrine is made up of long rows of orange torii, and running through it is something of a spectacle. Even better is watching the sun set over it. And playing with a little kitten we found running around.
But with such a successful day, and with so much achieved, we couldn’t possibly let it end there. Sponsored by 7 Eleven, our night ended with Suntory Highballs, Smirnoff Ice, cup noodles, nuts recommended by a friendly stranger, and a nightclub called Butterfly.With odds lost, the boys faces were caked in makeup – a sight I can’t wait to forget. But the worst thing we lost that night was Ed (or more appropriately DEdward), who hit the road while the rest of us hit the dance floor, and ended up walking an hour and a half in the wrong direction. Good one, DEdward.
A late start for some, and an even later start for others, we woke the next morning and headed off to the Nishiki Markets. Anything and everything pickled and the smell of fresh fish would have been welcomed, had we not all be recovering from our previous night. A short stroll over to Gion, where Ed realised he had ended up the night before, we really found the kulture in Kyoto. Beautifully preserved, the streets got smaller, the gardens became more zen, the houses quaint and traditional. Geisha’s packed the streets and shrines hid in every corner. It was so much fun to just walk around, popping into little stores and just waiting to see what we’d run into.
We did have a mission though, well at least I did. I’d heard that you could do pottery classes in Gion, and was determined to find one. Thankfully the boys were very patient and persevered until we did. After a quick lesson, we considered ourselves masters and hit the clay. He made a beautiful plate, Ed a sake bottle, and I just let the clay do what it wanted. I ended up with a bowl/vase/cup thing that I really liked. The best part about it is that we all got to choose a colour which they will paint for us, fire, and then send home for us. I can’t wait for that little surprise to arrive in the mail when I’m back in the slug of reality.
Even better though, we accomplished another mission when Ed darted into a little side store after spotting a beautiful damascus knife, similar to the one that he had bought. Actually, turns out it was exactly the one that he bought. Just #bffl things.
We saved the best ’til last for our final dinner in Kyoto – flaming ramen. More of a show than simply a meal, it was nothing short of a seamless operation. Clad in aprons and led through strict instructions like “don’t run away, your seats are soiled in oil”, we had our cameras collected and connected to a series of purposely positioned selfie-sticks behind the bar. Leaning back, our chef walked along the bar pouring flames into our ramen like some kind of fire chief. It was mad. And very delicious. Within half an hour we had been wowed and then chowed, and were back on the road again.
Controversial I know, but I think Kyoto has been my favourite so far. Osaka tomorrow.
And we’ve found snow! And not just the pretty snowflake stuff that melts before it touches the ground, but the proper stuff. The kind of snow that piles up on the side of the road, that forms icicles as it falls, that dusts the trees with icing sugar, and that normally results in me falling over. The others weren’t quite as excited, having spent a week in Niseko and all, but I was so excited I couldn’t stop shaking. Maybe that had something to do with the -3 degree temperature, but who knows.
We spent one night in Nagano, in an awesome place called Worldtrek Guesthouse. It looked like a tree-house, with little hidden nooks and crannies hidden everywhere, and a wood fire burning inside. Our room was made up of little bunk-beds hidden behind walls and curtains, which was fun, and the fleeting privacy was well-welcomed after sharing what felt like one mattress between five of us for the previous four nights.
The reason we went to Nagano was to get to the snow monkeys, something that I’d really wanted to do on the last trip but not had time. And as is almost never the case, unbeknownst to us, we happened to stay there the one night of the year that Nagano celebrates a Light Festival at it’s Zenkō-ji Temple. Hundreds of handmade light boxes lined the street leading up to the temple that was lit up in an array of colours. What are the odds?
But the real show happened the next morning when we rushed to the station to catch a bus to the Snow Monkey Park. Next was a half an hour walk through the snow-covered forest. I was busy focusing on not falling over, but couldn’t help but be taken away by the winter wonderland around me. Every surface was dusted in a thick blanket of fluffy white snow. I didn’t think it could get any prettier, until we reached the monkeys. Not quite pretty, more pretty ugly, but so darn cute. There were babies running around everywhere and we couldn’t believe how close to them you could actually get. Some were munching on snow, some were floating in their 42 degree hot pool, picking fleas from each others fur, or posing for pictures. It was almost alarming how human-like they were. I fell in love with one monkey I named George. He was sitting in the snow with his leg stretched out, and when he caught me smiling at him, he quickly tucked it in and had a look across his face like he’d been caught red-handed. Absolutely gorgeous. Or should I say Georgeous? *sigh*
I was worried it would be an overrated experience, and that we would trek all that way and just see a bunch of monkeys sitting in water from a distance, but I was absolutely wrong. It was worth every cent we spent on it and I could have stayed there for hours. It was one of the things I was so excited about doing this trip and I’m so glad I got the chance to come back and do it after my last holiday.
Soba for lunch and a snooze on the bus back.
Kyoto we’re coming for you.
They say there is no rest for the wicked, so then wicked we must be. It was day three already and with a morning up our sleeves we headed out and stumbled upon the Tokyo Skytree. Actually I’m not sure if stumbled is the right word, the thing is 350m high. But with the day (and the queue) being relatively clear, we thought the likelihood of seeing Mount Fuji were pretty good, and finally odds I’d be happy to pay.
Once we reached the top, we opened up to an incredible 360 degree view of Tokyo, a beautiful blue sky, and a view of Mount Fuji as crystal clear as the water that runs off her. We smiled, we selfied, and we were satisfied.
Next up was meeting the crew at Asakusa, which was actually my hood last time I was in Tokyo. As another blast from the past, it was fun showing everyone where I got my ninja license, where I used to eat, and exploring all the incredible Temples and Shrines that were flowing with people. We got food and fortunes at the market, and then hurried off in search of a knife for him. As a keen cook and after seeing the knife that I brought back from the last trip to Japan, he’d looked up where to go and led us directly to the most stunning damascus steel knife shop. It really is more of an art than an appliance when you see it in this form. Worth every cent. Ed wants one now too.
Before he tried to shave his arm with his new blade to prove how sharp it was, we headed to Akihabara to be reunited with the gang again. Affectionately known as Electric City, this is the center of the bright lights and the more unconventional novelties. We found Roman and John outside the technology department store having a vape, Brandon on Level 3 professing his love for a $9000 camera lens, and Romy and Michelle on Level 6 checking out BeyBlades and every other gadget and gizmo you didn’t realise you needed.
Once presents were purchased we headed out into the cold to somewhere Akihabara is famous for – the seven story sex shop, where things really started to heat up. Most things I had no idea what they were, most things I never want to know what they were, but an enlightening experience by the city of lights nonetheless.
With a rumbling in our tummies, Roman nailed the dinner choice for the third night in a row. Or was it Brandon? I forget. We went to a Tempura Tsunahachi, and we went hard. Each of us armed with about ten different bowls, some for touching, some for putting, and some for dipping all of the salts and powders and sauces on our tempura. To wash it all down, we headed to Golden Gai – a shanty-town-esque maze of bars big enough to fit up to four people. Some of them were members only, some of them only had the tiniest window to poke your nose through from the alley, and most of them were full. We managed to find one that we all fit in and made it rain cocktails. John trusted Dan’s advice and ordered a Mint Choc-flavoured cocktail, Brandon looked modish with his Margarita, him and I both had Rosemary-infused Gin & Tonics, and Romy was salty with her Salty Bull that didn’t quite hit the spot.
Well watered and surviving the steep staircase out of the place, we headed for Karaoke. Bumping into some fellow Aussie travelers (one of which he remembered from Uni, and the third person he knows that he has bumped into this trip so far), we were recommended the best Karaoke joint, which also happened to provide incredible costumes free of charge. Dressed as a carrot, I saw everyone’s favourite Drunk Dan turn into a Nek Level Drunk Dan who we ended up losing until 7.30am the next morning, I saw Brandon and John serenade each other with screamo, I saw him in a dress, I saw Romy bust a rhyme or two dressed as a microphone, and Michelle shaking it off to Taylor Swift.
The next morning, after being woken up by Dan at 7.30am on his way home from a spontaneous trip with John to the Tsukiji Fish Markets that morning (it was 5am and they were still out, so why not?), there was no surprise that we all woke a little late that morning. Determined to not let a day go to waste, him, Ed and I got up and headed off on an adventure suggested by the Aussie we’d met the night before – to Shim-Kitazawa. Described as the ‘hipster’ part of Tokyo, it lived up to all expectation. Much quieter than Shibuya, every street corner was dotted with Op Shops and second-hand clothing stores. There were murals all over the walls, and the street lamps were playing smooth jazz. We’d been recommended a few cafes, one of which advertised ‘Melbourne-style Coffee’ and spent most of our time wandering around trying to find it. After introducing the boys to the magic that is Muji, and a quick stop off at one of the many games arcades and a game of Luigi’s Haunted House, which involved a lot of me pointing my gun at the screen and screaming, we headed back to Shibuya for an early night.
An early rise to make the Tsukiji Fish Markets, which we were disappointed to find wouldn’t let us in until 10am, we instead roamed the outer markets and bought jumbo shrimp and freshly grilled scallops, as well as sashimi bowls for breakfast. Disappointing that we didn’t make it far into the actual market before we were stopped by security and escorted out, but understandable with all the trolleys and workers rushing around at full pace.
This afternoon we are off to Nagano to see the Snow Monkeys and maybe a few onsen before we head off on the rest of the trip. Can’t wait to see the snow.
How’s your heatwave going, Sydney?
With Sydney cracking 47 degrees and more heatwaves looming, I made the impulsive decision (albeit six months prior) to jet off to Japan, and with it the depths of winter. Although I’ve been to Japan before, and am going to many of the same places, I’m excited to use this trip as a way of making or breaking my theory that it’s the people you’re with that make the trip, not necessarily where it is in the world that you are. This time the team is almost ten people strong, and by the time I arrived I was already a week behind. And you know what they say about playing catch-ups…
It’s an odd feeling to feel familiar in an foreign environment, but that’s exactly how I felt when I stepped out of the Shibuya Train Station in Tokyo and back into his arms again. We’ve all seen pictures of the famous Scramble Crossing and the bright lights of Tokyo, but it was more than that – I remembered the smell of the 7-Eleven’s on every corner, the rush of people on the streets, the vending machine restaurants, the tiny square cars, the lack of bins anywhere, and how much I absolutely loved this city.
First day back and I felt like I was in Melbourne more than in Tokyo. Lucky enough to have our own personal barista on hand, we could be sure that the city had been scoured and all the best coffee spots noted. Starting the day at About Life Coffee Brewers is not a bad way. So, you’re welcome.
Once the crew was assembled, and matching outfits were planned for the following day as is apparently the fashion in Tokyo, we headed off for our first and arguably most important adventure. Not only does it sound like a level in Candy Crush, but Sunshine City is also the home to the Pokémon Mega Center. Within twenty minutes Romy had spent most of her remaining budget on Pokémon merch, he had bought more cards than he could hold, and Ed, Dan, John and Brandon were battling on the Pokémon arcade machines outside – both against each other and with the machine, I think.
A quick refuel at our first lucky-dip restaurant – lucky-dip in that the menu had absolutely no English, and neither did the staff. But nonetheless always a fun experience, and there was even enough room for all of us which is about as rare as John’s shining legendary Pokémon card.
An afternoon challenge against time-restraints and the Japanese rail system, we made it to Studio Ghibli, which was like being transported into another world. The building itself reminded me of Gaudí, and seeing the work that goes into making the films, plus Romy’s intense obsession made me eager for some Netflix ‘n’ Ghibli when I get home. And to top it all off, we went to the coolest sushi train in the world: sushi served by robots. Need I say more?
We woke up the next morning to Roman’s birthday, *insert something about Taylor Swift and being 22*, and headed off to Yoyogi Park where we found out that most of Japan was celebrating too (for Japanese Federation Day or Roman’s birthday, you pick). Escaping the crowds we ducked into the Meiji Shrine, where he tried his hand at picking up a new bird and the rest of us swapped catching Pokémon for catching coy in the massive pond that surrounded the gardens.
Opting out of the Hedgehog cafe, him and I opted in for the Ramen House with the line out the door and down the street, and were not left disappointed. Feeling full enough that I’d never need to eat again, walking the length of Takeshita Street in Harajuku proved otherwise. Filled with shops of everything you never knew you needed (or wanted) and more, it wasn’t long before my tummy was groaning more than Ed does about me stealing his personal time with him, but boy oh boy did we have something incredible planned for dinner. To celebrate the man of the moment, we headed to Han no Daidokoro Dogenzaka, a Japanese-BBQ where we were served wagyu beef in every way possible and even got to cook it ourselves, not that it really needed cooking. My favourite was the wagyu beef sashimi sushi. Yeah, you heard me right. After that is was a Vape and some VB’s for the birthday boy; the recipe for the very best night.
And that was just two days. I have two more days to catch you up on but don’t have the time to write about them now. What did I tell you about playing catch-ups…it’s a dangerous game.
P.s. All photos are taken by him because I’m too busy GoPro-ing
A video from a while back when Hannah and I ran away to Japan and South Korea for the winter holidays. Unfortunately my GoPro decided to pack it in and die after the third day so this video is only a very short snippet of our adventure. Still brings a tear to my eyes though.
Well I wanted snow, and boy oh boy did I get it. One day and four trains later, we emerged on the top island, Hokkaido, to a white wash. The trees were all sprinkled with a bright white powder, the houses looked squashed under big puffy piles of white, and the large expansive lakes were frozen still.
We were met at Sapporo Station by an icy cool wind, and streets piled high with snow. Caught up in the excitement of it all, and chasing to keep up with Hannah while also taking pictures and dragging my suitcase, I got my first real hands on taste of snow. Face first on the ground. After laughing it off as a very kind and concerned man helped me up, I decided to just focus on walking until we got to our accommodation. Had I not been laughing so much at my own misfortune, Hannah may not have even realised I’d fallen, as she was already colder than she’d planned to be and as a result on a mission to get inside. At least I gave her a reason to smile in what she believed to be the beginning of her idea of a nightmare!
Expecting the worst, we were very pleased with our APA Hotel experience, and passed the time until dark unpacking, defrosting and dancing around in the yukatas (a casual kimono) they’d provided us. Once the time had come to brace the cold again, we cracked open the heat packs Hiroko had told us about and shoved them in our pockets. As we walked down the street, me still slipping and sliding all over the place, we were surprised to find that the heat packs, which had cost us ¥100 (roughly AUD$1) for a pack of nine did in fact work as advertised! They heat to 40 degrees Celsius and stay hot for 16 hours. By the end of our time in Hokkaido I would have surely lost a finger had I not had them.
The Sapporo Snow Festival was very close to our hotel, an easy walk apart from all the slippery ice on the footpath. Nonetheless we persevered and were rewarded with the stunning massive ice sculptures that were lit up with brightly coloured lights and music. Although a subzero temperature, the crowds flocked to see the incredible statues and huddled around the food stores that scattered the park (easy to spot from the steam bellowing out of their tents). My favourite of all the sculptures was the Star Wars installation, whereas Hannah’s architectural eye drew her more towards the castles.
Not lasting for long in the freezing cold we headed off to find some food. Being warned off the highly alluring Ramen Street by some of our new friends we made this trip, we instead opted for a little doorway that had heaps of locals lining up outside and a tripadvisor sticker in the window – two very good signs. And I think we hit the jackpot on this one. Once it was our turn, we were given a booth that we shared with three other couples, all sitting across a huge open fire pit. Unsure of whether it was designed for cooking or heating, we attempted to defrost our hands while perusing the menu, much to the entertainment of the couple sitting across from us. We ended up ordering a huge grilled salmon and miso salad and a few chicken skewers to share, and spent most of the night staring obviously at the couple across from us as they cooked their seafood banquet on the open grill. So much so that after a while the man offered us a piece of his grilled squid. Oops!
The next morning I slept in a bit while Hannah got up to do some uni work. I was only just beginning to feel my fall from the day before. Once we were sure the sun was out as much as it was going to be, we headed back to the Snow Festival and saw a whole heap of sculptures we had missed the night before, as well as slides, and a huge jump with professional skiers doing flips off to the sound of some pretty hardcore heavy metal. I love how the Japanese are so innocent to some western music; often we’ve come across supermarkets playing explicit hip hop or heavy metal songs and no one seems to flinch at some of the harsher content.
After doing the whole circuit of Odori Park, while having to run across the road and stand in a heated convenience store every five-seven minutes so that Hannah could defrost, we managed to see all the sculptures. I much preferred them during the day with the blue sky as a backdrop. But do not be fooled, the temperature was well into the negatives at this point. As an added bonus, we managed to spot some pretty interesting people as well as ice sculptures, including a pram with skies on its wheels and a mother dragging her kids around in a taboggine. Clearly the most efficient way of travel in the snow. Those kids have it sorted. The best thing we could do to keep going was to constantly drink coffee, and I tried something called an almond chocolate latte? When in Rome…?
For lunch we stumbled across a popular looking place that served what we think was soup curry or curry soup? A meal that we were told by our new friends Pat and Vince that we “MUST TRY” because it would “CHANGE OUR LIVES”. Not convinced but up for trying something new we ordered one to share. It came with a bowl of rice, some shredded cabbage, and a bowl that was cooked in front of us which included a meatball, pumpkin, broccoli, potato, bacon and curry sauce. While we pretty much finished it, we both couldn’t really get our heads around it and agreed it is not something we’d order again. Sorry boys.
With a new fire in our belly, we walked back to the hotel to grab our bags. By this stage I had just about mastered walking on ice. But not completely. Sliding to the station we hoped on a train bound for Otaru, a more remote town that which made Sapporo out to be a summer holiday. Wearing every layer we owned, and shoving twenty heat packs in every pocked we had, we trudged through ankle-deep snow to see the Otaru Snow Lights Festival. The lanterns, made of ice, that lined the streets and canal were magical though. Some were arranged around snowmen, or in the shape of owls and flowers. Even some stores along the main street had joined in the festivities.
While we were only able to manage the cold for a short time, we headed back to find some food but we kept getting distracted by every magical little installation we ofound around each corner. Finally though Hannah started displaying early symptoms of hyperthermia so we found a quiet little ramen shop and dug into a bowl about the size of my head. YUM.
The next morning was D-Day. We had planned to make it from Sapporo to Osaka in one day; essentially from one side of the country to the other. We had booked tickets for five trains to get us there, but managed to miss the second one due to a severe snow storm that delayed the trains. But I can now confirm we made it to Osaka in one piece and before midnight. Though throughout the day we both had serious doubts we would manage it. I think we deserve a medal though for our achievement. Needless to say a fair few high fives were shared that day.
Though we found very little comfort in Osaka. By the time we were in bed we had to get up again two hours later to race to the airport headed to Seoul, South Korea. A tight call, but I can now say from the safety of my bed that we made it to Seoul. In one piece. There is a great vibe here and I’m so excited for the next few days.
How’s the weather where you are? Remind me what the sun feels like.
We are beginning to feel much too much like locals here in Tokyo. We were even stopped in the street today and asked for directions, of which we could provide straight away. Probably better than I could for the Sydney CBD. I think it must be time to leave soon…
After being fortunate enough to spot Mount Fuji from the top of the SkyTree on our first day in Tokyo, we decided to try our luck again and see if we could catch a glimpse of it a little closer up by taking a trip to Hakone, a small village about an hour and half trip out of a Tokyo. Rising earlier than we have generally been getting up on this trip (it has been too cold!), we managed to navigate our way to the station and get on the right Shinkansen, headed out of town. Unfortunately for us, the weather was not looking as clear as the train station signs, helping us seamlessly change lines, and as a result when we arrived at the ticket office in Hakone we noticed the live camera showing Mount Fuji was just a bunch of clouds. Determined not to make the trip a waste, however, we took the opportunity to visit an onsen (traditional Japanese public bath) – an absolute must do on a trip in Japan.
If our nerves weren’t already getting the better of us at the start, we almost accidentally walked into the men’s change room before a very sweet staff member came chasing after us. Once pointed in the right direction, and shown a list of the rules, we very awkwardly giggled our way to the baths. Once submerged in the beautifully hot pools, the awkwardness soon washed away and we were able to enjoy the experience and marvel at the steam rising from the water and ourselves as we chilled outside in nothing but our birthday suits. It felt ridiculous putting all our layers back on while we still felt boiling after the baths, and we quickly understood why onsens are still so popular in Japanese culture today. Plus whatever was in the water managed to clean all our silver jewellery and make it really shiny! Added bonus!
As we headed back into the centre of Hakone with red faces and most of our jackets and jumpers in our hands, we decided to give Mount Fuji a shot. A forty minute bus ride through the mountains later, and we arrived to a view of clouds. I was at least pleased to see snow piled up on the side of the road – a small taster of what is to come in Sapporo and a chance to practice making snowballs and snow sculptures. Bring it on Sapporo Snow Festival! After grabbing some food we reluctantly headed for the bus stop, good thing I looked up as we crossed the road, because Mount Fuji had decided to pop out behind some clouds and we quickly snapped a few pictures before it disappeared again! I left feeling much more satisfied than I think my bowl of noodles alone could have made me. Thanks Fuj!
Once arriving back at our hostel, we were informed by the staff, who know us all too well by now, that we were being upgraded to a private room as a treat, and once we dumped our bags in our new ‘penthouse suite’ we decided to hit Shibuya and Harajuku to celebrate. After getting a bit lost at first, we eventually turned the right corner to be hit by an assault of sights, smells and sounds. We’d found Shibuya. *Shibuya yeah yeah, Shibuya!* Overwhelmed and in awe, we watched the famous crossing, the busiest in the world, from the safety of a second storey Starbucks window with our hazelnut and whipped cream frappa-mappa-crappa-chinos. Hyped on a dangerous mixture of excitement and caffeine we hit the streets to explore Shibuya and all it’s craziness, and even got a chance to cross the intersection along with a few hundred others.
A quick subway stop away and we found the colourful and kawaii-ful Harajuku. Full of young Japanese hipsters and shops selling retro 90s getups and some of the wackiest accessories I’ve seen, Harajuku was definitely a fun area to walk through. Famous for its people-watching (dress ups and cosplay are very popular in this district) I’m afraid the cold weather meant we missed seeing some of the crazier outfits. Just another excuse to come back though I guess!
Back on the train, the 30 minute ride from one side of the city to the other flew by as I was busy laughing at the lady sitting next to me whose head kept bouncing around like a bobble-head as she dozed off. Little did I know that would be me the next day, although I wouldn’t be as skilled as her and walk up just before my stop. Thank god I have Hannah.
Another early morning, though not as early as the tuna auctioneers that start at 4.30am, we rose and left for the Tsukiji Fish Markets. Getting off the train it was easy to work out where the markets were – just stepping onto the busy sidewalk was like being picked up by a current and swept away like, well…like a school of fish I guess. How appropriate. Deciding to leave the outer market for later, we hit the serious part, and while a lot was already sold out, we managed to see heaps. Huge tunas being sliced and diced by huge knives or bandsaws, crabs that were still crawling, the biggest prawns I’ve ever seen, sea cucumbers, something I’m not sure what, clams for miles, fish in all shapes, sizes and colours, octopus, squid, and most importantly, some of the freshest, most delicious looking sashimi ever.
Once we couldn’t deny our sashimi craving any longer we hit the outer market where I got a BBQed scallop and Hannah tried a sweet egg roll again (still doesn’t like it, but kudos for trying) before we sat down for some serious sushi. The first for the day but definitely not the last; we ended up having it for breakfast, lunch and dinner that day.
After buying some pretty sick looking handcrafted knives from the fish market, we headed to Roppongi, a district known for it’s partying but also home to 21_21 Design Sight. Paying me back for my mistake at the Imperial Palace, Hannah hadn’t checked to make sure it was open and it wasn’t until we got there that we found out it was closed for three months to set up a new exhibition. She still managed to take some cool photos of the exterior of the building though, so make sure you check her out on Instagram for some awesome spatial designer wank no doubt. Just kidding. Or not. We’ll leave that to the pros, they know who they are. *insert creepy winky face*
After joining the masses and falling asleep on one of the overheated trains, we decided I could probably do with a coffee from our mate Sol. Plus we used the walk there as an opportunity to stock up on some chocolate for the 7-Eleven convenience stores that are on every corner. Literally.
Buzzed and ready for more activities, we headed out to a top secret location where we were put through our ropes in ninja training. With some weird stares and a lot of questions, we basically just ran around a department store in ninja costumes. I can’t tell you much though, or I’ll have to kill you or something ninja like that.
Back at the hostel for our final night we were very generously treated to a hand roll sushi party by the staff. We each got to make our own sushi rolls, eat soba noodles, and drink sake and plum wine. Plus it was a great opportunity to chat to people from all over the world and we got some very helpful insights into both Sapporo (Japan) and Seoul (South Korea) which are our next stops.
I’m very excited about seeing the Snow Festival in Sapporo, and have already promised countless people photos so will try to be on top of that. Hannah is still not convinced about the negative degrees yet, but fingers crossed we survive! If worse comes to worse we might just become ice statues ourselves. Could be worse things!
Bye for now, a long train ride awaits me!
Tokyo, the city of neon signs and Shinto shrines, of skyscrapers and crazy newspapers. The gadgets and gismos, the foods, the kimonos. The vending machines, the trains, the architecture, the rains. The people, the shops, a city that runs by its clocks. The calm and the gentle, the chaos and the mental. A city of contradiction, constantly striving for the latest, while maintaining the traditional greatest. How does it do it, you ask? There is only one answer: It’s Tokyo.
We woke on our second morning in Tokyo to farewell one of the strangest roommates we’ve had to date. We are pretty sure she was fairly intoxicated both when she arrived and left, and while she attempted to make her bed for the first, second and third time (by putting the duvet down first, and sheet on top…), AND while she managed to devour 3 sushi rolls and 2 jellies whilst lying in bed. Once we’d attempted to wrap our heads around what we had just witnessed, we went on a hunt for a little local coffee spot we’d been recommended: Sol’s Coffee. As pros at navigating the city (and with the help of the conveniently colour-coded bridges that line the river) we found the little hole in the wall and treated ourselves to one of the best coffees I’ve had. Ever. Needless to say, Sol knew our names and coffee orders by the end of the week.
Once caffeinated, we decided to wander the streets of Asakusa around our hostel (Khaosan Kabuki). We visited the beautiful but highly touristed Senso-ji, though we later decided we preferred it at night because there were no tourists or crazy markets open. Silently, as Hannah had challenged me to stop talking, we walked around the lantern-lined lanes scouting out the best grub. I was doing well at my silent challenge until we got back to the hostel for a quick pitstop and I jumped at the chance to talk to a fellow traveller while Hannah was out of the room. Unfortunately and fortunately, James was far too interesting to talk to, and I ended up getting busted by Hannah who said she could hear me talking from the corridor. Absolutely worth it though, James was full of information and really helpful regarding things to do in Tokyo, blogging, business, cooking, and life in general really. Coincidentally, he was moving to Australia (from Canada) once he left Japan so hopefully we will meet again in the future!
Near the Senso-ji
That night we met up with four other Australians (Charlie, Harry, Pat and Vince), two Americans (Alex and Eric) and a Canadian (James) at a hostel bar where we were lured by offers of free sake and plum wine. Needless to say with that mix of nationalities, things didn’t stay tame for long and before we knew it we were in a kareoke room with unlimited shots of water and water cocktails until 2am. The strange night that transpired, however, did not stop there, and we ended up in a 24hr MacDonalds talking about politics, religion and sex until 5am. Go figure.
On a side note, amazingly one of the Australian boys is at the same uni as me, doing the same degree but a year ahead, AND happens to run The Brief magazine for the Law Society, resulting in me getting myself a job as an editor for the publication. It will be the first law-related thing added to my resume! Who would have thought traveling would provide the opportunity to progress your career! Woooo!
We woke the next morning with relatively fresh heads (more so than I imagine the multitude of men passed out cold in MacDonalds the night before would have). As the sun was shining, we decided to save some pennies and walk through Omote-sando and Ayosan, which turned out to be Hannah’s heaven. She was a very happy little munchkin after getting to snap away at architecturally famous buildings such as the Prada building, and buy copious amounts of god knows what from the organic health food stores.
One of my favourite things about the train rides home each day is watching the people who are sleeping, which is often most people on the train, and wondering if they have ever missed their stop. But I bet they haven’t. It’s incredible to watch a commuter who looks basically unconscious open their eyes, lift their head and step off the train at their stop as if they weren’t just passed out against the window with their mouth hanging open. HOW DO THEY DO IT?!
The next morning, due to my mistake, we managed to walked the entire loop around the Imperial Palace trying to get in before I decided to actually read the guidebook, and realise that it is only open two days of the year, and that today was not one of those days. Oops. The walk got us sweating for the first time since we’ve been here though, and the joggers who were lapping us made us motivated to go for a run ourselves. When we get home, maybe. Maybe not. We did make it into one of the palace gardens however, and saw a few confused cherry blossom trees which was a welcomed surprise.
To make up for our walk, we treated ourselves to a trip to Muji. The only way I could describe Muji is as a Japanese version of IKEA. It had beautiful furniture, clothes, plants, stationary, beauty products, health foods, and a delicious cafe full of pastries. After we’d done some shopping and some eating, we walked downstairs and that’s when we discovered the rest of the shop. It had valentines gifts, jewellery, gift wrapping stations, luggage, kitchen appliances, bikes, travel ware, watches, wallets….the list goes on. If you have heard about those crazy Japanese department stores, this was one of them.
We finished the night off with dinner with Hiroko at a ninja themed restaurant called Ninja Akasaka. When we arrived we were taken, by a ninja, through secret passageways, over bridges, through small gaps and even got to smash a door down to climb over. The whole restaurant was underground and looked like a scene from a movie. A dark ninja village fit with smoke, flame torches, bridges, swords, and most importantly, heaps of ninjas walking around the place. The food was crazy and we were even treated to a magic ninja show at our table. It was an experience I will not forget. For all the right reasons.
The next morning something bad happened. You can tell you’ve been spending too much time with someone when you start unintentionally dressing the same. I guess it’s good for traveling when you know you’re on the same wave length as each other…but to everyone else we just looked like idiots when we walked into the common room for breakfast both wearing a striped shirt, black jeans and big fluffy socks, like some form of team uniform. To make matters worse we’d been laughing at a couple we spotted the day before who were wearing matching jumpers and shoes. Thankfully it was snowing outside so we were able to quickly cover our fashion faux pas with as many layers as we could. Once we were sufficiently wrapped up so that we could barely move, we braced the weather.
That’s a wrap!
First stop was Akihabara, affectionately known as Electric Town. The streets were lined with department stores selling every gadget and gismo under the sun – electric hairbrushes, selfie-sticks in all shapes and sizes, massage machines, cameras, and things that I think were supposed to be some sort of toy. Scattered amongst the department stores were a few sex shops that contained all kinds of electronic things that I cannot even describe, but needless to say, many many many laughs were shared.
Across the road, market stalls were filled with electrical cord, strips of neon lights, screws, globes, and tiny pieces of what I think are used to make computer hardware but to be completely real with you I have no idea. Looked amazing though. I managed to talk to someone about my GoPro and he declared it dead at 11.24am, and with it all my hopes and dreams. Thankfully we visited Tokyu Hands in Ginza next which was basically an enormous store of Japanese stationary, so I decided I’d make a scrapbook instead of a video for my time in Japan.
After jumping back on the subway, we rode our beloved Ginza line into the sunset all the way home.
I think I’m turning Japanese, I think I’m turning Japanese, I really think so.