This title may seem a quite obvious fact to anybody, of course everywhere within one country isn’t the same, but since I had only travelled to Tokyo, and for an extended period of time, for me the image given by Tokyo represented Japan. Thanks to a bit of travelling this misconception was fixed.
Anyways, after my adventures after finals week time settled down for me. Basketball club hadn’t started up again yet, school was out and friends were travelling to different places at different times, so I was finally left with some free time to relax. About the only activity I had scheduled for a few weeks was Coco Curry House Challenge!! (see previous blog). We have gone once a week since we started and the last time we both conquered level 7!! The going is starting to get pretty rough but we keep thinking about what lies at the end…Disney Sea.
Despite a minor cold, I managed to stay pretty healthy for the weeks leading up to my first trip, an adventure to Osaka and Kyoto! There are many ways to travel in Japan, for this trip my friend and I took a night bus. Night buses, and buses in general, have become a popular way for travel in Japan and because of this there are many companies and various levels of comfort to choose from when travelling. The buses can be double decker or single, seats can be in two rows or three single rows, the seats themselves have various levels from basic seats to a somewhat equivalent of first class seats on a plane, with the most expensive seats being the most comfortable. If you choose to travel by bus and you are bringing luggage, even if it’s only a backpack or small roller, make sure you check what the bus’s allowance is for luggage. Most of the buses I found allowed some form of luggage with a maximum size, but some buses don’t allow for any stored luggage because there is no trunk space. For our trip to Osaka we bought the tickets on location, but tickets can also be bought online or at convenience stores on ATMs. Unfortunately the only company that currently has an English website available is Willer, so either go in person and they might have an English speaker or brush up on your Japanese.
In Osaka we stayed at a business hotel, meaning that rooms contain beds (sometimes extras like a TV or refrigerator) and that’s that, bathrooms and showers are shared. Our hotel also had a Japanese style group bath, but it had limited hours so we didn’t get to try. We picked up some brochures at the hotel for various events and sites to see in Osaka and the surrounding area, but honestly there really isn’t much site seeing to do in Osaka. There is the largest aquarium in Japan, but we were on a budget here and the entrance fee was pretty high. We did go to a zoo which was pretty exciting. There wasn’t much difference between the zoo we went to and any other zoo in America, a variety of animals, overpriced food, etc. The one major difference was pretty awesome for us, some of the barriers were completely enclosed so the people could get close to the animals, with only the glass separating them. The silliest difference was one of the caged animals that people come to see…was squirrel. Squirrels are animals one can see fairly easy where I live, even on the streets, so the idea of going to a zoo to see a squirrel was pretty silly to me.
Overall it wasn’t the sites in Osaka that amazed me, but the feel of the city. Osaka felt a lot more laid back than Tokyo, for example we saw quite a few people walking and eating, something rarely done in Tokyo unless someone is in a hurry. People were also louder on the train, a few times people talked on their phones in the train, something not done in Tokyo, or done rarely. The city center itself was smaller than Tokyo, though no less lit up and packed with shoppers. Many of the restaurants and cafés were of the same chains found in Tokyo, we even did a Coco Curry Challenge Osaka style. There was an area of the city where one could find electronics, though in no way did the two or three streets rival Akihabara in Tokyo. All in all, for me it was a welcome change.
After Osaka we headed to Kyoto. Osaka and Kyoto are both in the Kansai region (Tokyo is Kanto region) so the trip was about an hour by normal train. In Kyoto we stayed at a hostel that was super close to the “historic” district of Kyoto. There are dozens of temples and shrines in Kyoto though we only we able to visit two because we got rained out the second day. The first temple we went to was Kinkakuji, a Buddhist temple. Enclosed within the grounds are beautiful gardens as well as the Golden Pavilion, name so because it’s covered in gold…literally. This is a very touristy spot so we saw many foreigners. After that we head to the Fushimi Inari Shrine, a Shinto shrine known for having hundreds of tori, or gates. Businesses donate gates of all sizes ever increasing the shrine’s presence on the mountain/hill it’s located on. Once you pass the main pavilion you can follow the gates all over the side of the mountain to smaller areas and if you make it to the top the view is gorgeous. A little advice though, go down the way you came up. My friend and I decided to not do this and we ended up on the opposite side of the mountain with no idea how to get back to the train station. We kept walking towards busier and busier areas and fortunately we eventually found a station, though it was different from the one we arrived at.
As I said earlier, we got rained out the second day so we just watched Japanese television for hours. This was extremely interesting because although we can understand the bulk of Japanese grammar, our vocabulary knowledge is still very much lacking ergo we spent most of our television time making up stories for the murder mysteries we were watching on screen. We found some children’s shows and some anime on later in the day and that was easier to understand, but news shows and epically intense dramas are a little out of our reach.
We took a day bus home from Kyoto. Day buses are similar to night buses, however the one we took stopped about every two hours for people to use bathrooms or buy food (while the night bus made one or two stops after picking up everybody before “shutting down” so people could sleep) plus there was a TV screen with movies and video games. I was so excited when I was looking through the movies and found Top Gun, however the movie was, as I should’ve expected, Japanese dubbed. However the voice actor for Tom Cruise had a great “hero-type” voice so I was able to enjoy the movie. The video games were older-style kind of like arcade games, and they were so difficult!! I tried three or four before I gave up, not that I’m awesome at video games, but usually I can at least get past the first level!!
That about wraps up the first trip we took. After that I had about a week and a half to relax before we set off a second time. Basketball club had started up while I was in Osaka so I didn’t spend all of the between time doing nothing. Plus, not only did I have to pack for our second trip, but I also had to pack all of my winter clothes/stuffs because right from my trip I was leaving to return to America for a few weeks.
The decision on whether or not to come home was a tough one for me. On the one hand I felt that while I was in Japan I should spend my time travelling the country and experiencing Japan, not coming home to America over break, but this wouldn’t have been possible anyway because of the expense of travelling. The flight home would also be expensive but I missed my family so much more than I ever expected to, probably largely because of my hospitalization and other health problems, and the expense to fly my family to Japan would have been much higher. Plus, not only did I miss my family, but I was homesick for the US as well. Not just for American style food or because the country’s language is English, but because the US is where I’ve spent my entire life, where I know, where I’m comfortable and I missed that level of comfort while in Japan. I’m still entirely grateful for the experience to travel abroad and I’m 100% positive that I would make the same choice again, I guess I’m just more attached to my roots than I thought.
Back on topic, my second trip was to visit my friend who is studying abroad in Nagoya. Not only was this the week of her birthday (the most important reason we went) but conveniently this was also the week of Hounen Matsuri, a fertility festival held just north of Nagoya. We took the night bus again, for this seemed the most efficient way to travel. This time the bus was a double decker bus which I was excited for, we were even on the second level! Yay, right? No…for all of the Japanese people as well as my travel buddy it was totally fine, however I had to duck super far over because the ceiling was too low for me. As soon as I was sitting it was fine, but getting on and off the bus was a bit difficult. The first place we went was actually not Nagoya, but Nara. Nara is in the Kansai region, the same as Osaka and Kyoto. We were going to visit Nara while we were in Osaka, but we actually missed our bus the first night… In the US, when a bus ticket says for 10:00, that’s usually the boarding time and the buses run a few minutes late as well. In Japan, everything is on time. That means if the ticket says 10:00, the bus is pulling away from the station at 10:00. Fortunately we were able to exchange our tickets for a bus the next night, but we lost a day in Osaka in the process ergo we had to skip Nara the first trip.
In Nara we stayed in a hostel again, a very cute, homey feeling hostel that was right by the train station, which was very convenient. Nara was very different from anywhere I had been before because the town is fairly small. Most of Nara is a giant park area scattered with temples/shrines and deer. Nara is famous for the deer because they are wild, yet domesticated. Wild because they wander around wherever they please, domesticated because they will come right up to humans to sniff for food and you can pet them. There are also stands that sell deer crackers to feed to the deer, but the deer will eat other food as well so beware when you sit on a bench to eat your sandwich or walking with ice cream.
After exploring the park for hours we went to a café to pass the time while waiting for a friend of ours who was staying in Osaka. The three of us planned to go this Buddhist festival. The festival is a welcome for spring and for two weeks they light giant torches at night and the torch sparks fall on the people who come to watch blessing them for the upcoming spring. The festival has been going on for over a thousand years so we were super excited to be a part of it, plus there was going to be giant torches, awesome right? Unfortunately about three hours before the festival started for the night we got caught at one of the temples in pouring rain. We waited for about an hour and a half getting splashed with rain and blown with cold wind before giving in and leaving for shelter, during which time we become completely soaked from the knees down (we bought umbrellas). Our friend actually decided to go back to the festival in the rain, but my travel buddy and I were tired from walking around all morning, and both already starting to catch a cold so we passed. Afterwards we did meet up with our friend again to do karaoke for a few hours which is always good fun.
After Nara we travelled to Nagoya to meet friends. We wanted to the cheapest route, so the bullet train was out, but we did have a pretty straight shot. The interesting part of this trip was that the train we were on for the longest time was only one car long! In Tokyo most trains are 8 cars, though it can vary from 4-10, so we were so surprised when we were on a one car train. The train traveled through the countryside so the view was spectacular. Some of the stops didn’t have ticket machines or card swipes so you simply paid or put your ticket in a box as you exited. All in all, the 3 hour trip was not as bad as either of us had imagined, and I actually enjoyed it for the most part.
After we reached Nagoya we met up with Nagoya friends for a few hours before we were able to check in to our hostel. That night we met up at this restaurant that was called Mountain, and it was apply named for they served you a mountain of pasta or rice. The interesting thing was outside of the normal pastas/rices they also had dessert meals, like strawberry or chocolate pasta. Someone at a table next to us ordered the strawberry one and the noodles were strawberry flavored, the sauce was strawberry with chunks of strawberry and there was whipped cream on top. Interesting…
The next day was Hounen Matsuri, the fertility festival. I won’t go in to too much detail about the festival because it’s rather difficult to explain and understand if you don’t actually go to the festival yourself.
The next day I took a quick train ride to Chubo International Airport and got on a plane to fly home.
This travel around central Japan has done wonders for my impression of the country. Being in Tokyo is amazing and I’m glad I’m living in Tokyo and studying there, but there is so much more to see outside of the capital. I’ve barely brushed on the possible explorations within Japan. Though school and basketball club will start up once I return to Japan for my second semester I hope I have time to continue to travel and explore.