Hey there, welcome back!
In the last blog post, Jack and I were taking a yakatori exam in Tokyo, Japan.
After multiple excursions with our Kyoto posse, and a really fun day with some of Jack’s family (Bob, Linda & Kim), we sadly all went our separate ways.
Some people booked flights for home while others were off to new countries. Jack and I had our backpacks ready and planned to remain in Japan.
We were preparing for an escape from the grandeur of a city with over thirty million inhabitants. The feeling wasn’t somber as the farewell was temporary. In about three weeks we’d be crashing at an airbnb in Shibuya for one final weekend before flying to Seoul, South Korea.
With sixteen days to see as much of Japan as possible, we first went to the nearest Japan Rail station (located at the Tokyo Shinkansen station) and purchased a seven ride JR West rail pass. Train officials told us that buying regional passes were a better deal than national passes. A seven ride West pass was $172 whereas a national pass was $261. We elected a JR West pass because our next stop was:
Located almost four hours southwest of Tokyo, Osaka is Japan’s second largest city. We made Osaka our temporary hub for five days thanks to its close proximity to smaller cities that seemed worth visiting. We stayed near the Namba ward which is popular for its nightlife.
We hovered around Dotomori Street, a walking street that sits along a long canal. It’s similar to Amsterdam but without the coffeeshops and fewer trees. We also enjoyed walking around the Osaka Castle and made friends at the Mahi Mahi bar. Osaka is a charming city.
We took a forty minute train from Osaka to neighboring Kobe during an essential part of the day: dinner time. Upon arrival, the sun had already dipped below the skyline and we were greeted with drizzling rain. It was the dead of night, wet, and we were starving. To our fortune, the vast majority of restaurants offered the sole reason why we came to Kobe in the first place: Steak. Kobe is a kind of Wagyu beef that’s exported all over the world and some of the highest quality cattle are raised near the city that bares the same name. A glass of red wine and a fabulous steak dinner was our lone yet highly memorable moment in the city.
A miniature bohemian oasis tucked away in the Seto Inland Sea, Jack and I visit the island of Naoshima. Scattered around the island are contemporary art installations, art museums, and random sculptures. Only a handful of hours from Osaka, we took three trains and one ferry to get there. The recommended means of navigating around the island is by renting bicycles.
We visited one of the famous pumpkin sculptures by Yayoi Kusami and the Benesse House Museum before our visit was interrupted by the disappearance of blue skies. Evening snuck up on us and in the darkness we luckily made it in time for the last ferry to the mainland.
Located two hours southwest of Osaka is Hiroshima. Jack and I didn’t have much knowledge of this city except for what we learned in school. An atomic bomb was dropped there. World War II ended nine days after the Enola Gaye flew over this city on August 6th, 1945.
Back in school, reading about Hiroshima only felt like a multiple choice question in a written exam. It was just a name on a page. It didn’t seem that a real event that took place until experiencing Hiroshima in person. Seeing this city, walking on its streets, and wandering through its parks gave a sense of tranquility. It was eye opening because in the blink of an eye everything around us had been erased from existence during one point in time. It was a sad reminder of the horrors of war, no matter which side you’re with.
The bomb was dropped to “prevent” further casualties. It made me question whether it was an honorable decision because thousands of innocent people died without warning. The dance with somberness was also led radiant beauty. Modern day Hiroshima is lush, vibrant, and full of life.
We strolled down a path towards the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, a building that survived the blast. The Shukkeien Garden was peaceful and we did some hunami. Before heading back to Osaka we went to the top floor of the Orizuru Tower for a beer in its sky garden. Overall, Hiroshima reminded me that we’re all just human beings on this planet. I highly recommend this city to anyone.
After Hiroshima, Jack and I bid adieu to Osaka and to the south of Japan. We hopped a plane and flew north to Sapporo. Sapporo is Japan’s fifth largest city, situated near the western coast of Hokkaido Island. We came here with one goal in mind: to take a tour of the Sapporo Beer Museum and try samples of Japan’s most iconic brewing label.
In the end, we skipped the tour because it was offered only in Japanese but this didn’t stop us from having a good time. The museum was just one fragment of a campus like setting, with numerous restaurants and buildings that all belonged to the Sapporo beer company.
The city is located in a mountainous valley. The winter months are chilly and normally greeted with lots of snow. During our stay we checked out a Couchsurfing meet-up and met some interesting folks from distinct places. Nice people, beer, and the mountains. I got attacked by a case of nostalgia because Sapporo reminded me a lot of Missoula, Montana except it was larger and filled with ramen shops.
Speaking of ramen, Jack and I frequented the Ganso Ramen Yokocho. Another title for this landmark is Ramen Alley. This narrow corridor is crammed with dozens of world-class ramen establishments. We’d been off the Anthony Bourdain track but coincidentally one of the places we ate at was featured in No Reservations in 2011.
We left Sapporo, after buying JR East rail pass, very full and pleasantly surprised by how cool of a place it was.
We trained from Sapporo to the southern coast of Hokkaido island to a town named Noboribetsu. At first glance this is a sleepy coastal town with very few options for leisure. People come to Noboribetsu for two reasons: The first reason is because they’re in the Japanese witness protection program and the Yakuza have a hit on them. Another, and probably more common, reason is to enjoy the bountiful selection of onsens. Jack and I were here for a mix of both…
What’s an onsen?
An onsen is a Japanese hot spring and typically refers to bath houses or hotels that are built adjacent to one. We stayed in Naboribetsu which neighbors a resort town called Naboribestu Onsen. This town is at the base of a volcanic crater called Jigokudani with a large geyser and numerous natural hot springs.
Dozens of resort hotels have been constructed in Naboribestu Onsen, each offering bath houses that are open to the public. Jack and I spent all our time in the Daiichi Takimotokan onsen because it was the biggest, highest rated, and offered both outdoor and indoor pools. Views were of the Jigokudani valley and it was a great way to recharge some travel batteries.
The one aspect of onsens that took some getting used to was that everyone was supposed to enter the thermal baths in the nude. Additionally, and logically, they were all separated by gender. It was awkward at first but quickly you realize that this is part of the culture.
After a few days in Naboribetsu Jack and I trained back down to Honshu, Japan’s largest island. Ten hours and five trains later we arrived at midnight to a village called Fujiyoshida. We booked a hostel for three nights here because of its close proximity to Mt. Fuji. Mt. Fuji is an active volcano, is an iconic symbol for Japan, and we wanted to see if it was climbable.
Standing roughly twelve thousand feet above sea level, this wasn’t an easy task. Our first attempt was a lot of fun but also a challenge. We started walking up from our hostel to the Yoshida trail head, passing a Kitaguchi-hongu Fuji Sengen shrine, and walking through endless forest. Elevation gained for hours and eventually we were forced to withdraw because the sun was setting.
It was raining during our second day, so we decided on a hike through the Aokigahara Forest. Serene, lush, and mystical was this place. This is a popular destination for hiking and draws thousands of visitors a year. Ninety-nine percent of the forest’s visitors are people who simply just want to hike in the woods. I was a slightly on edge the entire time because Aokigahara has a nickname: The Suicide Forest. With soil created from hardened lava, Aokigahara is said to have spiritual powers.
For this reason, its become the world’s third most popular destination for suicide. I was hesitant to search deep into the woods, for fear of witnessing someone in the act. Fortunately, we were completely solo during our hike and it was quite a beautiful place. We did however, pass by trees with red ribbons tied to their trunks. A ribbon signified that a body had been discovered nearby and recently extracted from the forest. I walked out of the forest grateful to be alive and to have loving friends and family.
During our final day, Jack attempted a second trip to summit Mt. Fuji. I was feeling less motivated and opted for a visit of the Chureito Pagoda instead. Jack took a bus to Station Four of the mountain and ended up catching some wonderful views. The sun was shrining that day so he captured some amazing photos. It was still the hiking off-season and we learned that hikes to the summit were closed due to the danger of ice and snow.
Honorable Mention: Nara
Also, when we were still in Kyoto, we went to a small town called Nara with Kristen! This is a famous for Nara Park, where the deer are tame and like to receive snacks from humans.
We ended our odyssey in Japan with a fun weekend in Tokyo. Jack’s good buddy Jae flew in from Seoul, making it even better.
It was icing on our Japan cake and it tasted like Ichiran ramen fused with French electro thumping in the background.
In what seemed like a flash, our straight to DVD movie through this interesting country reached its credits. It was a wonderful journey and only took five weeks to learn two phrases in Japanese (Thanks and hello).
South Korea was in our sights and floating on our minds.
Inside, I was intrigued because a new culture was waiting for us.
Swirls of melancholy circled my consciousness because after South Korea a final plane would eventually be boarded.
Soon we’d be going to perhaps the strangest and least familiar destination of our entire trip…
This was an epically long blog post, so thanks for your time and for reading.
If you have any questions about places we visited in Japan, please feel free to contact me!
If you have any positive or constructive feedback for this post, I’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas 🙂
Have a wonderful day, I appreciate you a lot. Thanks for being you.
Love and bye for now,