On our recent journey to New Zealand we had a stop over in Japan. First and foremost because conveniently enough my companion has an uncle who lives there. The thought of going to Japan has never crossed my mind before.
14/11 – Arrival
There we were, at the airport of Tokyo. While we were waiting on the piece of luggage that we were short of, because it missed our flight at the transfer airport, we had plenty of time to get the Japan Rail Pass we organised via our travel agency beforehand, have our first ramen (spoiler: it has been the best ramen we had in Japan) and find out that the toilets there have a bit more functionality than what we’re used to. You’d want to arrange enough time to try all the buttons while being in “privacy mode” that makes your business more obvious than anything else. 😀
As promised, the missing piece of luggage arrived with the next flight a few hours later and we were well on our way into the city. We took the train from the airport to Shibuya and from there to a local train station where we were to be picked up by the mentioned uncle.
Needless to say, finding the right trains was a bit tricky for the first few times. Especially when you’re at a rather big station like Shibuya. But we made it, found our host and slowly settled into what seemed like a quiet neighbourhood called Meguro. The very same evening our host took us for a little walk to get a taste of the city. Even tho it was the middle of November we got to enjoy around 20 degrees celsius and mostly sunshine on our seven night stay there.
The very first thing I noticed walking through the streets at night was the feeling of safety that was surrounding me. I felt a dozen times safer than I would wandering the streets of Cologne at night. Supposedly there’s not a lot of obviously bad things going on. People are having their plant pots out around their houses and do not seem too worried about something being broken or stolen. And the streets are squeaky clean!
Once we observed a truck coming out of a building site, loosing teensy bits of dirt on the street. Some guy came running out with a hand broom, sweeping away after the truck! Never have I seen anyone taking their job so seriously and keeping a street so clean.
Another thing one could not fail to notice was the amount of vending machines popping up. There’s plenty to be found even in the smallest streets. They are filled with cold and hot drinks. Cheaper vending machines starting at 100 yen, which at the time were about 80 cents. We walked toward a rather lively area where some shops were still open regardless of it getting late.
15/11 – Sky Garden, Yoyogi Park & the best donuts on this planet
Since we were happy with exploring by just walking around a bit our host took us to a nearby building structure. He made us guess what it was, but we never would have. In front of us was a stadium-like structure, solidly build from concrete, without any windows. I was baffled.It did not make more sense once we got to see that there’s basically nothing but a playground and a sports area inside. We took the elevator up and got to a park that was on the roof of the building. Apparently, it was an on-ramp for the highway, called Meguro Sky Garden!
To get a little further we took the train for a few stations and got out at Meiji, where you can get to a shinto shrine in the middle of a small forest that makes you forget you’re in a huge city. We did not go all the way there but turned around to stroll through Yoyogi park. You’d expect to see some weird things in Tokyo, right? Like a woman with a lion rabbit and a hedgehog relaxing in the park.
I had my very first automat ordered lunch. You can order and get it served like in a normal restaurant.
Weirdly enough, it has been my birthday that day. I thought about getting a piece of cake for the sake of it, but that seemed quite hard to come by. But what we did was visit a little donut shop called Harittswhich had the absolutely best donuts I’ve had in my entire life. That paired with a cup of coffee is all you need for your birthday really.
16/11 – Nagahama & viewing Mount Ibuki
The night before we took the Shinkansen with our host to visit his family that was way out of the city, in Nagahama. I was in awe of the way people were standing in line for the train. Maybe I’m too easily impressed, but that made me think there might be hope for human kind yet. Anyways.
We visited the outskirts to have a better look at Mount Ibuki and to walk up it a little. Autumn was progressing, the trees were starting to turn a strong red and beautiful yellow. It would have been even more colourful one or two weeks later. Apparently there’s bears up that hill, which people are being warned of by signs. Hikers tends to carry bells that are supposed to scare off bears so they would skip before an encounter.
Back in Nagahama we had another small walk that let us pass the the local temple Daitsu-ji and lead us through town right to the waterfront of lake Biwa.
Probably one of the best things if you stay with someone local is definitely not only seeing the stuff they like there but you get to taste home made dishes. That night, for example, we had some temaki sushi and wagyu marbled meat.
17/11 – Nagahama
Another walk through town in a busier time than the evening concluded our stay in Nagahama. We got to see a gigantic kaleidoscope when browsing through what must have been some kind of flea market. After that we went to the local shrine Hachiman-gū.
18/11 – Himeji
Without the helpful guidance of our host we set out to Himeji, where we wanted to have a look at the biggest castle of Japan. It’s fairly old, has survived wars and earthquakes and has been added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
We purchased a ticket for both the castle and a garden next to it. It’s really amazing how the people working on the gardens and parks must know a lot about what they are doing and doing a really good job. Anyways, that’s what I thought from what I’ve seen throughout our travels.
The castle and the town itself seem to be two very different worlds. Coming back from the castle and the gardens, you can walk through roofed shopping streets. They were giving us strange vibes. Most of the restaurants where closed whereas arcades were filled with people. It was the middle of the day and nobody seemed to have much to do but play games. We tried to hunt down some Omurice, rice inside an omelette, basically. Shortly after settling for some other food we left for Kyoto.
The weather had turned on us so all that was left to do that evening was getting through the downpour of rain to the Hotel where we reserved a room. Up until that day I did not know that there is a thing called one-cup filter coffee which looks much like a spider and sits inside your cup for filter coffee instead of instant coffee.
19/11 – Kyoto
We decided to spent our day in Kyoto roaming through Gion, also known as geisha district. That way we passed the Yasaka shinto shrine, passed through Maruyama Park, onto Otanisobyo Temple only to unexpectedly end up at a big cemetery called Higashi Otani. Really, it was rather beautiful. The grave stones were lining up side by side, going up the hills to the rim of a forest (which tourists were warned is inhabited by vicious little monkeys). Trying not to disturb the peace we headed up the little paths and steps to the very highest point of the cemetery, a great lookout point. I found seeing the city of the dead in contrast to the city of the living in that kind of composition quite interesting.
Further along we got to a bunch of little streets that had traditional looking houses and are a great tourist attraction. Tourists got into the habit of lending Kimonos and walk through the streets.
We missed out on Nara, the town with trusting wild dears because we did not take the time and decided not to stop by Mount Fuji either. Instead we headed back to Tokyo to spend our last day there. The ride back from Kyoto to Tokyo only took us two and a half hours on the Shinkansen from which we caught a glimpse of Mount Fuji nevertheless.
The day was far from over. When we got back our host took us on yet another walk through the neighbourhood. We stopped by a building called the carrot tower. You can go up to the upmost level, where a restaurant and a public area let you have a view over the never ending city. There’s no center of the city that you can look at, but multiple hubs.
20/11 – Tokyo
We decided to have a slow day as our last day (since we’ve been walking non-stop). For our destination we set out to a park half an hour away. Got some breakfast at a bakery. You can find some curry buns and something hot-dog-like also some sweet stuff with custard and, of course, red bean paste. We tried them all, sat in the park and rented a paddle boat for a little tour on the parks lake. Walking through the park and the surrounding area kept us busy for a good while.
On our way back to our host, that was always leading us through Shibuya, we decided to get out at the station and have a look around. The scramble crossing is well visible from the train stations windows, so we did not bother going there.
21/11 – Departure
On the morning of our departure we headed back to the donut shop and got way too many of those for breakfast. Finding our way to the airport seemed easy and straight forward now. I genuinely got a little sad. Japan was a relatively short trip that exceeded my expectations. Yes, it’s definitely a tad weird, with all the cuteness and the opportunities to play games everywhere. Especially seeing a city as big as Tokyo maintain such a sense of order and security was unbelievably impressive!
I think there’s plenty more good food and nice places that we could have explored, but at least that gives me some reason for coming back.