OK, where was I? Oh yes, I barely scratched the surface of our awesome trip to Japan in September! We covered crazy Tokyo and the beautiful Mt. Fuji/Hakone region. There’s much more to cover!
After our first few days in Tokyo and the day trip to Mt. Fuji, we shipped our luggage to Kyoto (yes, that’s a thing over there and it is BEYOND worth it) and boarded a bullet train and then a bus with just our backpacks to the lovely town in the mountainous western region called Shirakawa-go. Our first stop? Food, of course, at a traditional restaurant. SO good.
Then we spent a few hours walking around the gorgeous UNESCO World Heritage Village. It’s filled with wooden buildings with thatched roofs, patches of swamps with lily pads and small cute cafes and shops sitting next to a rushing river. It was postcard-perfect. There were a few buildings that you could enter, but we didn’t have much time as we had to catch a bus to another town later that afternoon. I just enjoyed being surrounded by lush bright green grasses and trees after the urban jungle.
The nearby town of Kanazawa is where we spent the night because Shirakawa-go didn’t have much in the way of accommodations. And, I wanted to at least for one night experience a traditional ryokan, or bed and breakfast. This was done in Kanazawa.
But first, the ginormous Torii gate modern art at the train station. LOVE!
The ryokan is very traditional, and sadly, I violated like half of their rules. First, it was the Great Slipper War of 2019. You take off your shoes at the entrance (very common in older establishments) and put on slippers. In a culture where everyone is short and petite, all the available slippers were massive. So, I clomped around trying not to kill myself.
Two young ladies in kimonos led us to our room where I proceeded to violate all slipper rules because unbeknownst to me, there are different slippers for different portions of your room. You take off the huge slippers in the teeny entryway and don the fuzzy pink slippers in the bathroom right afterwards. But NO slippers should be worn in the main dining/sleeping area, which is covered in tatami mats. So yeah, I offended the gals by walking in the wrong portions with the wrong footwear on, totally confused and frustrated. Eventually we figured out how to make this stick in our heads: the bathroom is lava, like you imagined when you were a kid, jumping from couch cushion to couch cushion. So, we had to have the magic fuzzy slippers on in that area to not burn our feet. Never thought I’d need that imaginary playtime as a real-world skill!
Anyhoo, then, I tried out the public bath and broke those rules as well. It’s sortof a hot tub with natural water in it, no jets, that you enter naked. You have to strip in the changing room, then go into the hot tub room where there are showers to thoroughly wash first. I didn’t read the long set of directions, just the short set, which resulted in me not washing correctly. Ah well. Not like it mattered because the only other people in there with me were a Japanese mom and her 5-year-old son. So he got traumatized. They spent like 20 minutes washing and 2 minutes in the hot tub. Ahh, all to myself!
But the highlight of that night’s visit was the massive traditional dinner. Check THIS out. Those two petite gals had to trek line 50 plates and bowls of food to our room. The entire table was covered.
Lastly, at breakfast the next morning, being the good culturally immersed tourist that I was trying to be, and thus, putting everything in my mouth to try it, I bit into an entire pickled plum, which does NOT taste as good as it sounds. Imagine eating fermented raccoon carcass. I involuntarily made the most disgusted face of my whole life and Michael goes, “Well you’re not supposed to eat that.”
Anyhoo, we had some time to check out Kanazawa that following day so we walked up to the castle. Not much of the castle itself still exists, just one of the watchtowers and the walls. It’s also built into the side of a hill that once housed an older castle fortress, overlooking a river and a beautiful garden on the other side.
Sadly, the castle and gardens were all we had time for, so we walked back to the train station and took a train down to Kyoto. We used Kyoto as our next base of operations for several days as we explored both Kyoto’s main sights and some of the most amazing things in nearby towns.
The Death March Plague
But first, the bad news about our trip. Three days in, JC got sick. He had a sinus/cold thing. Two days after that, he passed it to Michael. So for days, those two were on high doses of codine drugs. Then, Michael took a turn for the worse during our time in Shirakawa-go and Kanazawa, and on our first morning in Kyoto, he had to go to a clinic. Whatever he had settled in his lungs and he was hacking stuff up, sweating to death at night and not sleeping. So, our samurai museum/kimono wearing/tea ceremony/ninja star throwing experience got cancelled and after breakfast we walked to the nearest walk-in clinic to our hotel.
He saw the doctor pretty quickly and got some meds from the pharmacy that was literally next door, but he was pretty much down for the count for half of our time in Kyoto. He managed to come with us the first night we were in Kyoto to Inari, but then stayed in the hotel room for two whole days. I felt SO bad!
We had some time that night after arriving from Kanazawa, so after checking into our hotel in Kyoto (which was an awesome 3 blocks from the mega train station — and by mega I mean it had a massive underground complex of shops and restaurants; several nights we ate there), we got on a train and went to nearby Inari to see the HUGE Shinto mountain complex called Fushimi Inari.
Dating back to the 8th century, it’s a sprawling maze of shrines and Torii gates. When you first approach, literally across the street from the train station, a massive Torii gate and flanked foxes greet you. Next, you walk up towards the main shrines, large red palaces with carved wooden accents.
Then, you reach the Torii gate pathways and are blown away by gate after gate after gate. 1.3 million of them.
Tall, short, decaying, replaced, orange and black or with writing on them. I wanted to know what all that writing was, because each gate had something different on it, and only a fraction of them did.
Eventually you start seeing shrines interspersed. Some little one-offs, others felt like graveyards filled with grey cement platforms and bright orange gates. Small gates could be purchased for you to write a prayer or a wish on and leave at the shrines.
What I’m still confused about is whether all these shrines — hundreds of them — are for just a handful of gods or thousands of them. But the beauty of this place just blew me away. There also would be small stores along the way selling drinks and offerings. But I cannot express how grueling this climb was. We climbed the ENTIRE THING in the 90-degree heat and 100-percent humidity, and I believe took 2.5 hours. But it was BREATHTAKING and one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen.
Here are some of the sights we saw in Kyoto proper. The town was very similar to Tokyo in that it was huge, filled with fun and beautiful stuff to see and easy to navigate and has a complex but convenient system of trains and metro lines.
Our first stop was Tenryuji Temple, a complex built in the 1300s that contains a huge temple, a serene pond and a winding series of paths through lush gardens and bamboo. The temple itself is pretty vast and plain but the entire area was gorgeous.
If you meander through the gardens away from the temple, you stumble upon the famous Bamboo Forest, which was dark, towering and downright incredible to walk through.
Another area that JC and I explored was Maruyama Park which contained the impressive Yasaka Shrine. This one was great for the looming stage opposite the shrine with rows upon rows of huge paper lanterns.
On our last day in Kyoto, Michael felt well enough to join us on another short day trip to the nearby town of Nara. Nara is famous for two things:
1. The tame, free-roaming deer that literally walk the streets and paths of the town. They are revered and thus, left alone to wander freely for generations. I didn’t see any of them become aggressive, but some did snag tourists’ ice cream here and there!
2. The largest Buddha statue in the world. It’s my favorite moment of the whole trip. Walking into that ancient complex dating back to around 752 is impressive enough, then approaching the gigantic temple that houses the statue is jaw-dropping, and then you come face-to-face with this multi-story Buddha who’s chillin’. Incredible.
Here are a couple more photos of Nara, including one of the temple grounds. Off in the distance to the left is a tall, decorative gold spire. It’s all that is left of the towering pagodas that used to flank the temple.
OK, almost done. 🙂 Our last adventure was trekking north from Kyoto to Sendai through Tokyo the day the city got hit with a typhoon. Luckily our train passed through Tokyo a couple of hours before the storm came. It did a good amount of damage to a section of town called Chiba, but otherwise when we returned to Tokyo the very next day, it was business as usual. It has to be, seeing as they get typhoons all the time.
In Sendai, we basically had to close down Michael’s apartment. He had mostly packed his stuff and got rid of things he didn’t want, but ran out of suitcases. We brought an extra one, so the day we got there, we checked into our hotel and then went to his teeny apartment to repack his stuff. Then, we hit the town, walking through a very busy and lively section that felt like one huge shopping mall. It was full of shops, clubs and restaurants, and we stopped at a small hole in the wall that Michael loved to eat at. It consisted of a U-shaped counter to sit at with the kitchen behind it and one waitress walking back and forth inside the U. We had EXCELLENT ramen bowls, dripping with sweat with each bite.
The following morning, Michael went to wait in his apartment for the water and gas guys to come turn things off, and JC and I went to the infamous Don Quijote store. It’s a chain of huge discount stores filled with literally everything you could ever want. If there were an earthquake while inside one of these, you’d just be buried alive.
In there, we amused ourselves checking everything out and I bought 3 pens.
For lunch, we went to a soup curry shop close to Michael’s apartment. I think hands down it was the BEST meal we had the whole two weeks. The Japanese love Indian curry, but have made it more into a soup consistency. So this is soup curry with a sausage and tons of awesome veggies (and a grape-flavored milky drink). I still dream of that curry.
In the afternoon, we took the metro to Tohoku University, where Michael studied, to see the campus and meet some of his colleagues. He gave them cowboy hats as gifts. 🙂
Our last two adventures in Sendai were closing out his cell phone account, which was surprisingly easy yet weird, and getting his security deposit back from the apartment management company, which also was surprisingly easy yet weird. Then it was back on the bullet train down to Tokyo to close out the trip.
I still have a bunch more ‘miscellaneous’ photos I want to share with you of all sorts of other fun and random things, but since this is SO long already, I’ll leave you waiting until next month once more!