“When you're traveling, you are what you are, right there and then. People don't have your past to hold against you. No yesterdays on the road.” ~ William Least Heat-Moon
One of the things I promised myself I would do while I was teaching abroad was to travel around to different countries, So far I have made it to Taiwan. Not exactly the list I was hoping for a year and a half in but I finally brought that number up by one. I spent my actual winter vacation in Japan. I went with a friend, KP, and we stayed for a week. It was glorious.
We went everywhere. It helped a lot that she used to study abroad in Japan, she spoke Japanese, she had some Japanese friends that we visited, she had an international drivers license... yeah, if going to Japan I highly recommend finding a friend like her. I definitely would not have had such a good time without her know-how and suggestions.
First, there are a few general things about Japan that you have to know before you travel there. One: it's expensive, like, really expensive. And when you are carrying around a coin that say 100 around Korea you think 'hey, I've got 10 cents in my hand' and then you go to Japan and you have a coin that says 100 and you're like 'crap, I've got a dollar in my hand'... it makes a big difference. Two: it's crowded, like, really crowded. Walking around the subway felt like a live action Frogger game. It is all you can do not to be creamed by the mass of people walking every which way. Three: They do everything backwards. Okay, not everything, but the walking and driving on the left hand side... it's annoying and ridiculous and they should stop. Four: It's expensive. No, really... it's EXPENSIVE. Five: There is so much food to eat I don't understand how it isn't the most obese country in the universe. Six: It's expensive. I am sensing a trend here... And last, but by no means, least: "Cute" is to Korea like "Anime" is to Japan. Okay in all honesty they both have their fair share of 'cute' and 'anime' but I saw a lot more familiar anime characters gracing the sides of buildings in Japan than in Korea.
As for the rest of my trip I will break it down by day to make life easier. We were in Japan for a total of 8 days but the last day was really nothing but flying back to Korea.
So without any further ado...
Japan: Day 1.
We had an early morning flight for Japan so we could have most of the day in Tokyo. We got in and went straight to exchange some papers for our JR Rail Pass. If you are going to Japan for at least a week or longer I highly recommend forking over the money for a JR Pass. It's a pass that lets you ride any of the JR (Japan Rail) trains for free while the pass is valid. You can buy 1-week, 2-weeks, or a month long pass (I believe). We bought the week and I don't regret the 300 bucks in the least. Thinking about how much money we would have spent... yup, totally worth it.
I know that the Japanese culture is a lot more work oriented that most other countries (as in people can spend so much time at work that they literally cannot make it home because trains aren't running anymore) so you see a lot of bathrooms with changing rooms and showers in them. That was interesting, haha, and it seems like all the convenience stores had underwear or shirts, sometimes even ties, available for purchase.
It was funny listening to all the announcements as we made our way from the airport to Tokyo. All of the English announcements had been recorded with a British accent. I mean, obviously, the American accent is not always going to be the go to accent for English, but neither Taiwan or Korea uses the British accent. it was fun listening to it. One of these days I will make it all the way to Europe and then I can revel in that accent more... mmmmm... I love that accent. Anywho, enough daydreaming about sounds, the main point of going into Tokyo on our first day was dinner with some of KP's friends (they had studied abroad in California). We spent the afternoon at one of the friends' house. She made us some seriously delicious green tea and gave us a goodie bag of candies and snacks. I love Asian hospitality. Plus the snacks were delicious. We also met her baby. He has been named 'Burrito' because his real name, Rito, was too just close not to make that final leap. He's adorable and we managed to only make him cry once. And that was not our fault! I mean, if I were him, I would have cried if I was left alone with two crazy looking foreigners too.
We went to dinner and had Udon Noodles (super ridiculously delicious FYI) and many other yummy yummy things. We had a brown sugar sake drink (that basically tasted like you were drinking a chocolate chipless chocolate chip cookie, which if you know me, you know that is the most amazing kind of cookie in existence). There was also tempura and strawberry milk that tasted like heaven.
This is the Udon Noodles. Just thinking about it again makes my mouth water.
Milk from the heavens. No joke. Milk from the heavens!
I learned my first (and really only) Japanese phrase at dinner. If i knew how to write it out in Japanese I would try but it is just "Nice to meet you" "Hajimay mahshiday" and tried to use it as much as possible. Which meeting five new Japanese friends meant quite a lot. It also ended up being the birthday of one of our group so we got dessert too. Japan really knows how to do dessert.
After dinner we walked around a bit and then went and took sticker pictures. Sticker pictures are a way of life in Japan and Korea so obviously we had to participate. These types of photobooths actually distort your face to make you more "cute" which means you become whiter and your eyes become HUGE. Totally worth it. I then walked around this little arcade looking at the massive amount of claw machines filled with various anime paraphernalia. I am still a little disappointed with myself for not trying to get the dragon ball plush pillow. We started talking about how early our flight was the next day and how we had planned to stay at an internet cafe before heading back to the airport for a quick flight down to Fukuoka but that is where things got hairy. We realized none of the trains would get us to the airport in time for our flight. So we ditched that idea and headed back to the subway to catch a train back to the airport with the idea of just sleeping there.
Thus began our horrendous voyage back to the airport. Once we realized we wouldn't make it in the morning we decided to just catch the last train (a time we had gotten from the JR website from our Japanese friends) when we realized that time was not correct. And by "not correct" what I really mean is pathetically inaccurate. We thought the last train was going to be at 10:25 so we strolled in at 10 to get our ticket. Nope. The last train was 745. Seven-forty-five. Why on the earth the last train to get to the airport was so ridiculously early is beyond me but now we have a problem. We have a flight leaving at 720 in the morning. All the morning trains will get us to the airport at 650. Thirty minutes to get through check-in and security? Yeah... not so much. At this point in swoops in the JR attendant to save the day. I swear she was wearing a cape at one point. She grabs this massive book of train and subway times with print that had to be a size 4 font and starts rummaging through to find us a way to get to the airport. She is furiously typing on her computer and flipping through pages as KP and I are just like... ummm what do we do now? Then another JR attendant starts flipping through a book and typing away on his computer all the while they are jabbering back and forth in rapid Japanese. They both periodically disappear to the back of the building (no idea what they were doing) but finally they sit down defeated. There is no way to get us to the airport tonight.
The closest they can do is the Narita Subway stop and from there we can take a taxi or bus to the airport. She points out all of our subways and transfer points on a map making sure we knew exactly what we were doing. She was so sad that she couldn't get us all the way there but I was so surprised they had both tried so hard I didn't even care. It was amazing.
So we are walking towards the subway and we get on thinking everything has to go perfectly because we only have a few minutes to catch each train because, obviously, each one was the last one for the night. So we get off the first subway and we are looking for the signs for the next train. We don't see it so we ask another attendant. He looks at us and says "oh, it's finished."
Insert groan of disbelief. We had been told the last train was 1047 and it was 1040 but he was adamant that the train had already left. Now one thing about Japan is their subways and trains follow schedules to a T. I still have no idea what happened. But he tells us of another train we can run to that will get us to the same spot. So we run. We leave the station we are in and cross the street to a different station. We get down to buy the next ticket and we ask the next attendant if we are in the correct place and he looks at us and says "oh, that train finished."
Insert groan of disbelief number 5,678 of the evening.
What? Really? How can this be true? Two different instructions and both are completely wrong? Come on universe... what's going on? So we tell him where we need to go and he points us to a different train. We have four minutes. We run to the ticket machine and then literally run to the platform. We made it.
Now it's nearing midnight at this point. When we arrive at the Narita subway stop we are trying to figure out the plan. Should we suck it up and pay for a taxi or take our chances with the bus. Well, we decide bus, cheaper so obviously the best choice. Excellent. Just perfect. The bus doesn't start running until 310.
Now it's January in Japan. It's cold outside. We decide we'll check the million and five hotels that surround the station for a cheap room. We were hoping to find one of the pay by the hour motels since we were only waiting for 3 hours but no such luck. They are all nightly rates of at least 130 bucks. We are not paying 130 bucks for three hours. Option 1: eliminated. Then we decide to try and find an internet cafe. I don't know how much you know about Japan and internet cafes but they have basically been created for people who miss their train and need a cheap convenient place to stay for the night. They have little rooms, sofa type beds, computers (obviously), drink bars, food, bathrooms, showers. And they are cheap. They usually run about 10 dollars for 6 hours. If you put that up against a hotel for the night it is an obvious choice. So we go looking for an internet cafe but this area only has one within walking distance and it is completely full. There are even people just sitting in the lobby waiting with suitcases. Option 2: eliminated. Our next option is to find a 24 hour McDonalds so we can at least sit down inside where it is warm. We follow the signs and get to McDonalds, just in time to be told they are closed for cleaning. Yup, the 24 hour McDonalds is closed. Option 3: eliminated. Our next choice from a list of quickly dwindling options is to find a karaoke room. That will be sort of like the internet cafe but without the conveniences of quiet or showers. We walk and we walk around. We finally found a karaoke room. We walk inside and it is also completely full. The lady working tells us to go two floors down, they may have something open, so we cram our luggage and selves back into this tinier than tiny elevator only to be told that place is also full. It is now nearing 130 and we are out of all options except taking a taxi to the airport.
So we take our stuff and make our way to the bus stop where some taxis are waiting. We ask one taxi how much to get to the airport and he tells us 3000 yen. For those of you conversion-impaired that is roughly 30 US dollars. For a 15 minute taxi ride. At this point we have an hour and forty minutes before the bus will start to run so we grin and bear it. We park ourselves on a bench and decide to wait it out in the cold. We have our big puffy jackets and various other items we can pile around us (thankfully Japan was warmer than Korea). We sit for a bit and notice another guy hovering near the same bus stop we will need to be by to catch a bus to the airport. Some lights click on and we decide to ask him if he is headed to the airport too, because if he is, then we could all share a cab and then it would make the cost 10 dollars each. Still awful but not too awful. So we approach and KP says "I"m pretty sure he's Chinese."
At this point I am glad that English is taught so widely in East Asian countries. Seriously...
So we walk up and ask if he's going to the airport and he's like "yeah, I am." With a face that says "and why do you care?" So we tell him we want to go and ask if he wants to share a cab. He looks confused and says "the airport is closed."
Yup. Apparently the airport closes (I didn't know airports did that) but that is why the bus doesn't come until 310. The airport will start letting people back inside (who are not already there) at 330. At this point we are super glad we didn't fork over the 30 bucks in the first place to go to a closed airport. But now we really have no choice but to sit and wait out the rest of the night until the bus starts running.
So we start chatting with our new Chinese friend and find out he is a student looking for a job. He's fluent in Mandarin, Japanese, and English and currently trying to find a job in Japan. I think he was studying engineering? Maybe? No? I have no idea anymore. But he was cool. His name is... wait for it... nah, I don't do names on here. Haha, sorry. Let's just say it took all of my willpower not to start laughing. He went inside the convenient store to grab some coffees and I busted out laughing. KP told me to stop (but after all the adrenaline getting to where we were now and my lack of sleep I was in no state to keep my laughing at bay. Thankfully I got my self under control before he returned bearing gifts of hot coffee.
The Chinese (and Japanese) people really give Koreans a run for their money in the consideration department. We spent the time waiting for the bus just killing time. I read a book while KP and our new Chinese friend played with a frisbee.
Finally the bus came to pick us up, we boarded, got to the airport, and found a place to crash on some benches until we could check into our flight. I made my way to the bathroom to try and wash my face and brush my teeth and then I fell asleep until it was time to check in.
Thus ended the first day in Japan.
Japan Day 2:
Our flight from Tokyo to Fukuoka was on small plane so we didn't actually board at a terminal. This was fun! We went through the boarding gate and then got put on a bus. The bus took us out to the plane and we climbed up on one of those moving staircases. That was a first for me. New experiences... yay!
Once we got to Fukuoka we rented a car so we could drive down to the Takachiho Gorge. Now, so far we had had some very interesting and culturally specific actual travel situations, like getting used to entering buses from the left instead of the right, but nothing compares to renting a car in Japan. So not only were we driving on the wrong side of the road (because they like to be backwards in Japan) we had to try and figure out road signs, traffic laws, and navigating in Japanese. I may have lost ten years of my life during the first hour of the drive. It's a good thing KP was the one with the international driver's license. I gave up trying to help and just reclined my chair and fell asleep.
And remember when I said Japan was expensive? Instead of toll bridges they have toll freeways (so I guess not technically called a freeway?) anyways you get a ticket when you get on the expressway and then you have to pay the amount owed when you want to get off the expressway. And smart us couldn't figure out the correct lane and entered and exited the expressway three times before finally figuring it out... but the total for our entire drive was close to 100 dollars in tolls. It's ridiculous.
Anywho we drove from Fukuoka down to the northern tip of the Miyazaki provence to see the Takachiho Gorge. It's a beautiful gorge where you can rent rowboats and see this cool waterfall. It was beautiful and I am glad KP saw it in a picture and decided we were going to go on our trip.
The colors of the water were beautiful.
Said waterfall, see isn't it pretty?
This was the shot on all the postcards. It is a lot more special when you take it yourself.
After the gorge we went to a nearby shrine. Shinto shrines in Japan are very different from the Buddhist temples of Korea, I mean, obviously, but still it was cool to see similar things being treated so differently. We chose a few fortunes and then took some pictures. They had some beautiful old trees and the shrines were made of more wood. It felt magical being at the shrine. Like I was part of Spirited Away (even though it wasn't a bath house).
This was at the entrance of the shrine.
See? Just look at that tree.
I can't remember what these are but I think they may have been wishes? Or protectors...
I found this guy just hanging out at the back of the shrine.
After we left the shrine we enjoyed the drive back down the mountain as the sun was setting. We were off to Nagasaki for the night. And because we were in a car we had to take advantage and use the drive-thru at McDonalds. It wasn't until we were at the window ready to order that we realized our mistake. We would have to talk to the people without any use of hand motions or pointing at pictures. Did I mention Japanese is hard? Haha, we definitely made the workers night as we gave up trying to order our fries at the speaker and just drove to the window. It was a good thing we were the only ones in line. They laughed it off as we pointed to the menu and ended up getting our fries. We laughed at our idiotic moment for a few miles.
We ended up in Nagasaki for our second night in Japan. Instead of staying in a hotel KP wanted to try couch-surfing at least once, so she delved into the world that is couch-surfing before we left Korea to try and find us at least one night during our trip. That ended up being with KM in Nagasaki. He had a nice apartment up this huge hill. Let's just say I am super glad we had a car and didn't have to walk that thing. He was a pretty cool guy. From New Jersey and teaching in Nagasaki. He had this little cupboard under his bed and we joked we were going to tell everyone about his bone knife collection that he kept hidden inside. Instead we talked and listened to him play the guitar and laughed a lot before we finally crashed. And considering it was our first "couch-surfing" experience it is funny that there was neither a couch or even a blanket involved. Haha, KM was generous enough to let us stay at his place we weren't exactly complaining. Sleeping on a random mattress pad with my jacket as a blanket was not as bad as you can imagine.
And complete side-note, I just realized that most of my friends that I talk about have a K as their first initial. KM, KB, KL... haha. Anyways, back to Japan.
We fell asleep and thus ended day 2.
Japan Day 3:
When we finally crawled off the floor the next morning we decided to spend the afternoon doing as much as we could in Nagasaki before we had to drive the car back to the airport. Our gracious host, KM, provided us with a list of some things we shouldn't miss.
Some of the first things were actually around his place so we took a walk around his neighborhood. I saw a cool statue of an old samurai that I guess used to be important in history... he did something somewhere and ended up being put on display on the top of this random hill in Nagasaki.
I mean, the poor guy didn't even have a good view! He had this gorgeous expanse of city right behind him. And what is he stuck staring at for eternity? A wall. And not a pretty one.
We walked down to see the Wakamiya Shrine and KM taught us how we are supposed to cleanse ourselves before going into any of the temples. It involves pouring water over your hands in a certain order, then taking a drink of the water, and then putting the ladle back down before you can dry your hands. There were some Japanese women at a later shrine who were very impressed with our skills later in our journey.
This shrine also had a really old tree that KP just had to go and touch, I took a picture but won't upload it here. There is also a line of arches that you can pass through to get up to the shrine. We came down instead of walking up so we didn't go through the arches but it was cool to see them anyways.
There are a lot of little rocks and pebbles from when people have thrown them up on the arch. I'm not sure what the significance is, but I am assuming it has to do with wishes and good fortune. Once it is thrown you should not touch it or move it again (hence them being everywhere still). I'm also going out on a limb and saying it is like us throwing money in a wishing well. Yay culture!
At this point we had to say goodbye to our new found friend. We wanted to start exploring the rest of the city and he had to get to work soon.
By this time in our journey we had developed a very passionate love/hate relationship with the GPS in the car we rented. We dubbed her "Tonya" and Tonya was not a nice person. For one, she couldn't decide if she was going to stay in English or revert to her mother Japanese tongue (and at some of the most inconvenient of times- freeway entrances and exits ring a bell-). And next, she would wait way too long to tell us to do anything. So driving around Nagasaki was going to rely heavily on her cooperating.
We found that many times throughout our drive we would yell at Tonya until the best insult we could think of pretty much summed her up and afterwards she started to cooperate all the time! Apparently all you have to do to make your GPS actually help you is to tell her that "Her mother was a Nokia and her father smelled of Blackberry." If only we had known sooner.
The first stop we made in Nagasaki was the atomic bomb museum. It is hard to explain the feeling of looking at all the pictures and artifacts from right after the bombing. It was really sad and scary all at the same time. We went up to an observation deck and saw pictures from right after the bomb exploded that overlooked the actual spot today.
This is post-bomb.
This is now.
I don't think you can make out the details but the damage was ridiculous. It's crazy to think how much it has changed.
There is a famous cathedral that has a lot to do with the atomic bombing history but I was a bad student and didn't really pay attention. We did end up driving around the new cathedral that replaced it, it was pretty. If we had had more time we might have tried to find a parking spot but as it was we decided the next move was lunch.
We drove to this huge mall and decide lunch and entertainment was going to be our thing. We ended up eating Italian food (I know, I know, we're in Japan and eating Italian? So sue us, it's way cheaper in Japan than Korea for yummy pasta.) plus this place had a drink bar. You pay for a drink and you have an unlimited choices from sodas, coffees, teas, juices, and icees. And you can go back as many times as you want. Yes.
After we ate we rode the Ferris wheel that was on top of the mall. That was pretty awesome for getting great pictures of the city. I am just glad it was sunny so the pictures really turned out. After our spin on the wheel we decided it was time for an arcade.
It's almost inhuman to go to Japan and not play a video game. I mean, really, you have to. So we went to this huge Sega arcade and played Mario Kart
I was Luigi. It was fantastic. We also played this drum game (kind of like rock band but the traditional drum, not gonna lie we played anime theme songs).
Then it was time to get the car back to the rental spot. We dropped the car off (after a very interesting getting gas adventure) and hopped back on the train. This time we were headed to Hiroshima.
We got in pretty late and for once actually had a real bed to sleep in! And it couldn't have come any sooner. We dropped our stuff off at the hostel (J-Hoppers Hostel if you're interested. If you're in Hiroshima: go, stay, it's amazing.)
We finally had ramen!! I was really looking forward to this. But after the first three days being so full of craziness it was time to head back to the hostel for sleep.
Thus ended day 3.
Japan day 4:
And the last day for this post (sorry it's super long already) but I wanted to separate it between non-Tokyo and Tokyo days.
We woke up and took our time getting ready. We were going to head to the Atomic Bomb Museum and A-Dome first. This time at the museum we got the headset audio guide. That may have been one of the worst decisions of the trip. Not because it wasn't worth it but because after an hour and a half of listening to these clips and seeing all the remnants of the bombing my heart literally hurt.
There were pictures of the bombing. There were wax representations of the melting skin. There were clothes that had been on people before the bomb where you could still see the blood. There were pieces of glass, lunch boxes with names etched on them with charred rice still inside. There were countless stories and video interviews. Then came the aftermath. All the people that suffered from the affects of radiation. There were stories of mothers, so happy that their daughters were still alive, that started to comb their daughters hair. But only after three strokes did they realize that they had combed all the hair off of their daughters' heads and it now sat in a pile on the floor. There were preserved body parts that showed the growths and tumors. Then there were the cranes that one girl had made before she died. She tried to make it to 1000 because then you were supposed to get a wish. She died before making it and now origami cranes fill the peace parks and memorial halls.
One of the uniforms of one of the many soldiers.
The father of this young boy was inside his house when the bomb went off. His son was in the front yard. He couldn't bear to part from his son so he buried him along with his tricycle and the helmet in his yard. Years later he unearthed his sons remains and donated the tricycle and helmet to the museum.
This is outside the hall. This is a memorial for all the victims of the Hiroshima bombing.
One of the buildings that actually stood before the bomb fell. It is kept in this state as a reminder.
Yeah. I don't think I will ever be able to forget what I saw at this museum. I can only imagine what it was like at the time. In fact, I don't even think I could try and imagine that.
After I had my heart thoroughly trampled by this museum KP and I planned to go to Miyajima Island. This island has a shrine and gate that if you go during low tide you can walk under and supposedly get good luck. We planned our trip so we would be there at low tide. We hopped on a ferry and made our way to the island. And of course it started to rain.
Whatever we were not going to let that ruin our day. And it did not.
Now Miyajima Island is amazing. There are domesticated deer all over. You can just walk up and touch them and they will follow you around for food.
The first thing we had to do was get to this gate so we could get our good luck! We walked out to the gate but the tide was not quite past the gate. KP walked completely under it anyways but I only went about half way. She would get the good luck and I determined that I would even out. No good luck but no bad luck either.
If you ever find yourself on Miyajima Island you must eat the oysters. They are fantastic and I want one right now. We walked around the island for a bit, ate a lot of food, saw some souvenir shops, bought some pastries, and then got attacked by a hawk.
Yup. Attacked by a hawk. I took out one of my pastries from my bag, it was covered in plastic, and it must have caught the birds eye. The next thing I know is I feel this woosh right by my head and I get hit with a huge wing on the side of my face. I feel the talons on my hand and he even took a chunk of my thumb with him (ok not really it was a tiny scratch that didn't even bleed but still). Then the pastry flies out of my hand. But I was in such a shock I kind of jerked the pastry so the hawk lost its grip and the thing fell back to the ground. A Japanese woman picked it up and just stared at us with her mouth open as KP and I tried to figure out what had just happened. We must have looked pretty funny after our yells and flying pastries.
I got attacked and my pastry stolen... but I got it back. So, really, not good luck but not bad luck either! That gate treated me well.
We took the ferry back to the mainland, went and collected our luggage, and headed for the train that would take us back to Tokyo. When we got into Tokyo we were going to stay at an internet cafe. We make our way there, stow our luggage in a locker at the subway, and then try and find the internet cafe. It took a little bit but we finally made it. We shower, we relax, and then I crashed. Sleep was amazing anytime it happened on this trip.
And thus ended day 4.
I'll post about the last half of my trip to Japan in a different entry. But here's a little tidbit of what's to come. Tokyo! Capsule hotels, Mt. Fuji, Miyazaki museums, Disneyland, and more!
Until the next time!