Konnichiwa Japan!

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Asia » Japan
December 11th 2015
Published: May 7th 2016
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Having left the bustling city of Hong Kong behind us, we hopped on our first flight of this leg of our travels and flew for a couple of hours to the southern Japanese city of Fukuoka. On arrival we were immediately struck by how quiet and orderly Japan seemed in comparison to China. We travelled to our hostel in Fukuoka by metro, entering a very strange world full of men in very smart suits with incredibly shiny shoes all speaking in hushed voices in a comfortable and quite plush train carriage with wooden interior. We suddenly felt very scruffy in our backpacker clothes and shoes that have travelled many thousands of miles with us and Ross decided he was definitely in need of a haircut.

Fukuoka is the largest city on Kyushu, Japan’s southern and westernmost island, and is famous throughout the nation for hakata ramen, an egg noodle dish served in a broth made from pork bones. As soon as we had checked into our hostel, we headed out to sample the local cuisine and with a lot of sign language and gesturing, we managed to obtain one bowl of hakata ramen and a plate of what seemed to be honey glazed pork with a side salad in a local yatai, a mobile street food cart. The food was delicious and Ross in particular was pleased that he was not going to have to eat raw fish sushi every night during our time in Japan.

The following day in Fukuoka we unfortunately woke up to torrential rain, so after a relatively short and very wet trip into the centre of the city to pick up our Japan Rail Passes, which would give us unlimited rail travel for 21 days, we used the rest of the day to devise some sort of plan for our time in Japan.

We decided to head south from Fukuoka to explore more of the Kyushu Island, with our first stop being the small city of Kumamoto. Here we had our first experience of a Japanese style room, which is basically an empty room covered in tatami straw mats, on which you roll out individual futons and sleep on the floor, a setup which is surprisingly comfortable but best suited to those who are small and flexible.

Kumamoto is famous for its impressive castle which sits above the city and was apparently where the last samurai made their final 50 day long stand. We spent a rainy afternoon wandering around the castle and its grounds, hopping in and out of the castle buildings to avoid the worst of the downpours. Thankfully, the rain let up the following day so we set off to explore the Aso-san caldera, one of the world's largest volcanic craters. Usually you can get really close to the active crater of this volcano, but unfortunately lately it has been rather too lively, spitting out volcanic bombs at unsuspecting tourists, so we could just visit the volcano museum and have a short walk around a grassy plain and lake.

The following day we jumped on board our first Japanese bullet train to the southern city of Kagoshima, which sits just across the bay from one of Japan's most active volcanoes, Sakurajima. The bullet train was wonderfully quiet and comfortable and we arrived at our destination almost too quickly to fully enjoy it, however, that did leave us with a whole afternoon to enjoy the sun which had finally made an appearance. After admiring Sakurajima across the bay, we jumped on a local train down the coastline to the small town of Ibusuki. Ibusuki is famous for a type of thermal bath that involves having hot volcanic sand shovelled on top of you whilst steam rises through the ground and gently cooks you. The purpose of this treatment is apparently to rid your body of impurities, although as we were already feeling pretty pure ourselves that day, we decided to give it a miss and instead enjoyed an iced coffee and an impure muffin on a pier at sunset before racing to catch the train back to Kagoshima. That night we enjoyed a Japanese curry in a very cosy bar where a group of rather merry locals found it very amusing to try out their few sentences of English on us whilst insisting they treat us to a couple of glasses of the strong, local rice based drink, shochu.

With the good weather set to continue for a day or two we decided to visit the Kirishima National Park, east of Kagoshima. We made our way to the small village of Kirishima Jingu, where we managed to secure the last room in a youth hostel complete with their own hot springs, and then caught a bus straight up to the national park. The park is a spectacular area of active volcanoes, waterfalls and crater lakes, with many trails that kept us occupied for two days. Before visiting we had read that the public transport was limited in the park and it was indeed sketchy, as it turns out that although you can get up to the park on a Sunday morning by bus, you can't return by bus until Monday. As our legs didn't fancy the rather long walk back to our hostel on Sunday evening, we decided to hitchhike and it wasn't long before a friendly, young, Japanese couple took pity on us and gave us a lift back to our hostel, where we could soak our weary legs in the very hot thermal baths.

From Kirishima we continued eastwards to the city of Miyazaki, where we spent a relaxed afternoon walking around the Miyazaki Shrine and watching various wedding processions shuffle by in their traditional dress. The following day we visited the seaside town of Aoshima, which is famous for a small palm-covered island just off shore surrounded by the Devil's Washboard, a strange natural geological feature which looks manmade.

After our stay in Miyazaki we decided we had spent enough time in the south and so we jumped on a series of trains to reach the city of Hiroshima. Having spent so long traveling by train through Russia and China, we had settled in for a long journey and arrived so quickly in Hiroshima we almost missed our stop. We then spent the evening searching out a Hiroshima speciality, okonomiyaki, savoury pancakes with batter, cabbage, noodles, egg and vegetables all cooked in front of you on a griddle and topped with a spicy brown sauce. We found these pancakes being served in three storey building, choked full of individual stalls each selling their own take on the dish. We chose a busy stall, plonked ourselves down at a couple of vacant seats and enjoyed our savoury pancakes huddled next to the hot griddle as the weather was so much colder, albeit sunnier, here than in the milder south.

We spent the next day visiting the sobering Peace Memorial Museum and Atomic Bomb Dome, which was the Industrial Promotion Hall before the bomb exploded almost directly above it in August 1945. The building withstood the blast and the ruins have been left standing as a memorial to those who lost their lives, many of whom were school children and Korean slave labourers. In the afternoon we explored the modern and friendly city that has regrown around the bomb site.

From Hiroshima we could take a day trip to the island of Miyajima, a Unesco heritage site just off the coast. We arrived in the morning with hordes of other tourists, but thankfully they all turned right on arrival so we turned left and were treated to a beautiful walk along the coast and up through the forest to the mountains where we admired the great views of the mainland and other small islands. From the mountains we dropped down into the old town and caught the view of the shrine gate, the main attraction on the island, just before the sun set and after the worst of the hordes had departed back to the mainland.

Our next step on our tour of Japan was the Kansai region, the historical and cultural heart of Japan. We had decided to base ourselves in the ginormous city of Osaka in a compact but comfortable apartment close to the train station, from which we could easily jump on trains to explore the rest of the region. We arrived in Osaka after a detour to visit the city of Kobe and it’s huge, newly built Earthquake and Disaster Museum, which documents the effects of the earthquake that shook the city and caused massive destruction in 1995. We were almost the only visitors at the museum it seemed that afternoon and were greeted in each room by bowing and friendly staff, including one old boy, the designated English speaker, who was determine to give us a detailed description of each display, leaving us just enough time to race back to the station to catch our onwards bullet train to Osaka.

From our base in Osaka we visited Kyoto, which is perhaps the most popular tourist destination in Japan or at least it certainly seemed that way while we were there. We had hit upon the “foliage season”, when the city trees, particularly the acers, turn a wonderful shade of red making the city temples even more picturesque than usual and attracting many tourists. Despite the crowds, we did manage to get a peek at the elaborate temples and shrines and admire the Japanese tourists in their traditional kimono and geisha gear, posing for photos amongst the foliage.

Our second day trip from Osaka was to the beautiful and serene (particularly so after the jostling crowds of Kyoto) city of Nara, Japan’s first permanent capital. We wandered around the park, which is again full of temples and shrines but is also home to hundreds of cheeky deer munching specially made deer biscuits tourists can buy and feed to them. Whilst amusing to watch these fearless deer did prove a bit of a pain whilst trying to eat your sandwich lunch. After fending off the deer, we climbed up through the woods to the top of a hill which overlooked the city.

After a great couple of days in the Kansai region we decided to head to Fuji-Yoshida, a small town at the base of Japan’s most iconic volcano, Mount Fuji. Whilst it was dark by the time we checked into our Fuji-Yoshida hostel, we had already had a fantastic view of the perfectly-formed, conical volcano from the train. The following day we woke up to thick low cloud cover and drizzle, not the best weather for admiring the famous Fuji, but as we only could afford to spend one full day in the region due to the lack of budget accommodation, we set off on the tourist loop bus to try to catch a glimpse. After an hour or so riding around on the heated bus in the drizzle, the rain began to ease off and the cloud dispersed giving us a fantastic view of the volcano from across the lake. After taking many photos, we headed back to our hostel, stopping off for a final view of Fuji looming over the town from a viewing platform at the top of a shopping centre.

From Fuji-Yoshida we travelled up into the Japanese Alps on a very slow local train through light snow to the city of Matsumoto. Winter had definitely caught up with us now, as we finally alighted the train in Matsumoto and were hit with a blast of cool, mountainous air. We immediately took a liking to the city however despite the cold, as the station announced every train’s arrival with a happy “Matsumoto, Matsumoto!” call and the pedestrian crossings played cheerful tunes, although we decided we needed to buy a few more layers to make our stay more comfortable.

We made a small apartment just outside the centre of Matsumoto our home for a four or five days using the city as our base to explore the Japanese Alps on the mountain railway lines. One day we visited the Azumino Valley, a green and productive valley famous for wasabi, climbing up a small hill to reach a cherry tree orchard and another day we went to the ski resort of Hakuba to see the snow-capped mountains, although the ski season had not yet begun so we couldn’t get on the slopes. Each day we returned to our little apartment and thawed out in front of the electric heaters, vowing to head to the southern hemisphere and find summer soon.

One of our most memorable day trips from Matsumoto was to the Kiso Valley, where we walked the old Nakasendo post road from Magome to Tsumago, two very picturesque villages filled with wooden houses, inns and shop fronts. The post road took us through cedar forest, sleepy alpine hamlets and past an old teahouse in which we were given a cup of green tea and sweets in return for signing the guestbook and a small donation. Each kilometre or so there was a bell to ring in order to warn the bears in the forest you were coming, although we debated whether ringing the bells was a good idea or not as the bears would have been hibernating at the time of our visit and probably would be more than a little grouchy if woken up by silly tourists ringing bells. It was also on this walk that we may have made our Japanese television debut, having met a television crew who decided they wanted to film us walking along the trail and then interview us about our experience, despite hardly speaking any English at all and us no Japanese. Ross spoke to the director in the studio on the phone and then we were filmed answering the questions in English (tricky for Liz as she had no idea what the question was), so we assume our answers would be dubbed into Japanese – who knows what they will have us saying!

With our time in Japan almost coming to end, we left Matsumoto and headed down the mountains to Tokyo, via the city of Nagano where we stopped for lunch and quick look at the impressive Buddhist temple Zenko-ji, said to be home to the first Buddhist image to arrive in Japan in AD 552, although not even 37 generations of emperor have actually seen the image. Our last couple of days were spent exploring the neon-lit streets of Tokyo and finally sampling the local sushi, which after a month of avoiding, Ross agreed “wasn’t actually that bad after all”.

Things we’ve learned during our time in Japan:

- The Japanese are some of the most courteous and considerate people we have met on our travels and take customer service very seriously. We loved their custom of bowing although we were worried that one shopkeeper might knock himself out as he bowed so low and fast he almost whacked his head on the counter.

- The train network in Japan is quite astounding. We could travel almost everywhere we wanted by rail and hardly ever waited more than about half an hour for a train. Only one of our trains was delayed during our trip.

- A cheap way to eat in Japan is to look for restaurants where you order your food via a machine. You choose your food by pressing a button, pay the vending machine and then a waiter brings your food out to you just moments later. You can also get a haircut in the same way.

- Domestic Japanese life involves many shoe changes. Outdoor shoes must be taken off as soon as you enter a house or hostel where you then put on indoor slippers, which then must be taken off when entering bedrooms and using the bathroom, where a pair of communal toilet shoes await you.

- Once you’ve figured out which shoes you should be wearing to the bathroom, you have to work out how the toilet works. Japanese toilets are very technical and often involve many buttons, sound effects and heated seats.

- Japan has a reputation for being a very expensive place to travel, however, we found that prices were, although not cheap, quite reasonable for a developed country. Having explored the far south of the country, we would really like to return to see the north, although maybe when it’s a bit warmer. For now though, we’re heading south to find the summer in New Zealand.

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