The Koreans can only dislike the Japanese for one reason (besides the years of torture and hardship that the Japanese put the Koreans through) the real reason Koreans hate Japan must be jealousy. Japan is amazing. It truly is a country where the past collides head on with the future in a cornucopia of electric, eccentric and eclectic. From the hustle and bustle of the neon lit Shibuya district of Tokyo to the tranquil forests of Nikko or the sweepingly awe-some lakes beneath Mt. Fuji. Japan is a nation of contrast.
We flew to Tokyo at 8:00am on a very cold Wednesday morning. The previous night we had stayed in the Incheon Airport Guesthouse a gargantuanly tall building just outside of the airport, the staff were kind enough to offer us a free shuttle ride to the airport in the ungodly early hours of Wednesday morning. We checked in at the Eastar Jet counter smoothly and we strolled through customs, had a donut (banana shaped) and a coffee and proceeded to our gate. There were no hiccups which was much appreciated. I’ve never been a coffee connoisseur but something about living abroad has turned me onto the brown murky addict ridden substance.
We landed in Tokyo’s Narita airport at around 11am and cleared immigration just as smoothly as we had done on the Korean side. The first hiccup was just around the river bend, or, should I say just along the railway tracks. We hopped on what we thought was a local bound train (70 minutes) to Ueno (close to our hostel), however we jumped on the Narita Sky Express (36 minute all reserved seats) train bound for Ueno. Whilst it would still get us to the same place we had not reserved a seat and we had not paid the premium. However, apparently in Japan they never check your tickets so we got a very cheap express trip into Tokyo, hopped off and passed through the gate with no problem. Perfect, right?
Our hostel was clean, friendly and conveniently located one stop away from Akihabara (Electric Town), after a brief trip to Meiji Shrine and a walk around a hip shopping district recommended by our friend we headed to Akihabara for some dinner, may I add, it was the best duck I have ever tasted! Akihabara is a frightfully busy district of electric supply shops bordering the strangest scantily clad anime school girl comic shops I’ve ever come across and is a delight to walk through at 11pm.
After an early night (11pm is early) we hit Tokyo hard. The next day we crammed so much in that my knee was aching from all of the walking we did. We visited many beautiful shrines dotted around the urban landscape. It’s really fascinating seeing how such contrasting architecture works together across the city. There are more temples and shrines in Japan than I’ve seen anywhere, ever, and they are all uniquely different. We visited the Pokemon Centre for much geekiness and nostalgia of wasted youths spent watching the anime or capturing Pokemon on the Nintendo. Money was spent. We had a Mos Burger for lunch and saw Tokyo Tower, Ueno Park and Ueno Zoo, and then we headed to Shibuya in the evening to take the classic photograph amongst the hustle and bustle of Shibuya crossing and have some dinner. We visited the anime centre and some other choice locations as well and we had an amazing time in Tokyo. It’s a vibrant city, a clean city, a friendly city and a city that is surprisingly tranquil and quiet.
We headed out the next morning to catch the train to Nikko. The Japan Rail Pass made travel around Japan easy and convenient. It doesn’t’ take long to get your head around the system and once we did we nestled into our comfy reserved seats on the shinkansen and off we set. We arrived in a Nikko submerged in snow. The snow was beating down fast. It wasn’t bitterly cold but it wasn’t warm either and we had a 20 minute walk up a hill and through a forest to our mountain lodge accommodation. As we entered the wooden lodge, fireplace roaring, couches centred around an old antique table, candles flicking, the smell of asphalt rising, there was nobody there so we placed our bags down and took a walk through town after eating some choice ramen with wild mountain plants. We checked out the shrines which all looked magnificent underneath the white of the snow and when we decided it was too cold to carry on we headed back to the mountain lodge. We waited around for another hour before a friendly Japanese woman eventually turned up and checked us in. At time of arrival we were the only people staying in the lodge so we were upgraded to a double room. The joy of travelling off-season. We were cooked an amazing dinner (the z on my keyboard is on its way out) and we settled down for the night. Nikko is a beautiful place.
The next morning we caught the bus early and headed out to see some of the waterfalls at the edge of town, these too were magnificent and the snow hadn’t stopped. I’ve never seen so much snow in my life. We couldn’t hang around and had to catch our train for Mt. Fuji at lunch time. We picked up our bags from the station and headed out. When we arrived in Mt. Fuji that night we were convinced we wouldn’t get a chance to see it. It was dark, it was misty, and it had been snowing there as well. We went for some Indian food because that’s what you do when you’re in Japan and we headed in for another early night. Our roommate John from Australia came in early that morning to tell us that he’d just been for a stroll and there was no sign of the mountain. He decided to catch an early train to Kyoto, we thought it might be best to follow suit. Luckily we traveled light enough to be able to comfortably keep all of our stuff with us at all times so we headed to check it out ourselves.
By the time we had walked around the picturesque lake to the main stretch of town we found the mist to be clearing so we checked onto the boat that goes out into the lake and we were awe-struck by the magnificent Mt. Fuji, covered in a thick layer of the white stuff it stood soaring above the lake like a God. It’s an indescribable site of beauty. It’s impressionable, inspiring and insatiable. It’s something you have to see for yourself. If I have enough money on my summer vacation I’m tempted to head back during climbing season and conquer the thing. Japan was winning us over one site at a time. We had some cheesecake and we headed out.
We were in Kyoto that night and checked into our 1000 year old traditional hostel. The walls were all doors and there were little cosy compartments everywhere. The bathroom was outside, something that was quite an annoyance in the middle of the night when you couldn’t hold it in, but it was worth it for the chance to stay in such a pretty little hostel with such friendly people. There were two Koreans crashing at the hostel mundo and they offered us some Soju that night. “No!” we responded, we wanted as far away from soju as we could get. We went for some conveyer belt sushi and went silently to sleep.
Kyoto is a tranquil metropolis, I mean yeah, it’s a city, but it doesn’t feel like one. It’s just so calm. We caught the train out to the bamboo grove early in the morning and strolled around some beautiful gardens that somehow managed to incorporate the surrounding mountains into the pools of carp and lanes of flowers. Back to Kyoto for some lunch and up to the Golden Pavilion for more awe-inspiring sights and great food. Truly Japan has to be one of the greatest countries I’ve ever visited. It’s just so damn nice. So damn cute. We went to the Geisha district that evening and saw some young Maiko’s on their way to their appointments before heading for more sushi and sake at the conveyor sushi bar. I was starting to really get into the swing of Japanese traveler life, and could have stayed for much longer had the country not been so darned expensive.
Sure, you can travel cheaply, you can do that anywhere in the world but Japan makes it difficult for you, even budget accommodation is a little steep and food can be a pricy endeavour too, but it’s all worth it. The people are accommodating, welcoming and friendly. The nature is marvellous, tranquil, and peaceful. The cities are sprawling, encapsulating and full of life. The food is full of zest, spice and flavour.
We headed back to Tokyo from Kyoto via shinkansen to catch one final glimpse of Mt. Fuji before we headed home. The trip reminded me of why I moved away in the first place. As much as I love teaching that’s not the real reason I came to Korea. That’s not why I came to Asia. That’s not why I do anything. It’s to experience what things are like on the flip side. I hope we got to experience a slice of the real Japan, if we didn’t then whatever we tasted it was sweet.
There's this saying: 'in an all-blue world, colour doesn't exist.' If something seems strange, you question it; but if the outside world is too distant to use as a comparison then nothing seems strange.