For as long as I can remember, I have been a planner. In the years (yes, years!) leading up to leaving on this journey, I wiled away countless hours reading, researching and dreaming about all the things Tony & I would see and do when it was finally our time to burst into the world. I don’t doubt that some of my reluctance when the time came to actually transmute dreaming into doing stemmed from the fact that part of me wasn’t ready for the fun of planning to be over! I was also more than a little worried about what would happen when we left Japan, because while that leg of our trip had been hammered out in near exquisite detail, I had not really had any time to devote to planning out a real itinerary for Hong Kong.
Hong Kong is the land of good eating and features many excellent restaurants. For a country so small, I was astounded (and excited!) by the number of Michelin stars it has under its belt – I believe the free tourist map we picked up one day at Victoria Harbour listed approximately 20 places that have earned Michelin approval of some degree. As we hungrily glanced at the list, duly noting Tim Ho Wan’s inclusion, our attention was captured by another restaurant: One Dim Sum.
I’ve never really believed that big cities could be beautiful. Dynamic, electric, inspiring? Sure. But beautiful? Not so much. The essence of beauty seemed far too lofty, too delicate, to allow itself to be captured and entrapped in towering cages forged from steel and concrete.
Japan was the first country we visited on our Big Trip, and what a way to kick off our adventure! While many long-term travelers opt to skip Japan for budgetary reasons, we found the country a perfect place to ease ourselves into Asia and learn to travel without training wheels. Japan is remarkably traveler friendly, irrespective of the number of stamps in your passport; especially for those without a lot of international travel experience, we can’t imagine many other places in Asia that would make one’s first month of travel so stress-free and easy (natural travel growing pains aside!).
If there is one thing you need to know about Osaka (other than the fact that it has an awesome aquarium), it is that it has a reputation for being something of a food town. Unlike nearby Kyoto, Osaka is made up of hoi polloi: people who work hard for their money and then want to enjoy the fruits of their labor. So dedicated are Osakans to living the good life, there is actually a Japanese term to describe their wanton acts of gluttony: kuidaore, which means to ruin oneself through extravagence with food. When Tony & I heard about this, we knew that Osaka would be our kind of town!
You don’t have to know me very well to know that there are few things in life I love more than an aquarium. Back during my early graduate school days, a friend and I made a chart in which we documented various bits of trivia that would be apparent to those who knew us based on how close a friend they were. Yes, it’s exceedingly nerdy, but hey – we were grad students! Is anyone really surprised?
By the time Tony & I reached Kyoto, we had hit our stride when it came to dining out in Japan. Gone were the meltdowns and apprehension about our lack of Japanese producing an insurmountable barrier for us when it came time to meeting our hunger. It may have taken us half our time in Japan to get it right, but after some trial and error, we did get to a point where we were exceedingly comfortable with dining out and our time in Kyoto surely benefited from that.
If you were to rely solely on a guidebook to pinpoint all the must-see spots in Japan, Arashiyama would likely be one of the last places you visited, that is, if you visited at all. A western suburb of Kyoto, the area is not so insignificant that it fails to garner a mention, but most guidebooks simply sweep past it in a cursory paragraph or two, suggesting there is little of consequence in its boundaries. This is utterly baffling to me, because despite Kyoto’s myriad draws, Arashiyama turned out to be one of our favorite parts of the city, if not all of Japan.
There are many legitimate reasons to visit Arashiyama located in Western Kyoto, but I won’t pretend we came for any reason but one: the Iwatayama Monkey Park. If you read our post on Nara and witnessed my glee at feeding deer, then you can only imagine my excitement at the prospect of getting to feed monkeys!
Really, little else would entice me to undertake ANOTHER hike.
It’s funny the things we see on travel blogs that capture our imagination and make us want to visit a place. When our friend L’Ell lived in Japan, she kept a fantastic blog that detailed her many adventures in “the land of the rising fun” (as we referred to it). She saw and did so many incredible things, but one completely random thing stuck in my mind as the thing that I *had* to do when we made it to Japan. That thing was nagashi somen.
If there is one thing that stands out clearest in my mind about our time in Japan, it is just how overwhelmingly kind and helpful the people we met there were. Obviously we had a taste of this when we were lucky enough to CouchSurf, but our positive interactions with the Japanese people certainly weren’t limited to those pre-arranged instances. We consider ourselves extremely lucky that while in Japan, we managed to convey a spirit of openness that seemed to attract good people to us like moths to a flame. Whether it was the guy in the train station who, with cheeks aflame, apologized for not knowing which train we should catch, disappearing only to return having gone out of his way to find out this information for us, or a meeting a man named Shijo, who stopped us on a street corner in Kyoto while we were traveling to our hostel just so he could practice his English and ask us questions about the United States over the course of an hour (!), it would appear that the Japanese people had our backs.
Disclaimer: I am pretty sure I read in a guidebook that Kyoto is the self-professed temple capital of Japan. Whether it actually has 1001 temples and shrines, I don’t know. What I do know is that a common affliction suffered by eager visitors to Kyoto is the insidious “temple burnout”, in which all temples begin to blend together into a ginormous blur (a super holy one, no doubt) and the sufferer is afflicted with utter apathy at the notion of seeing one more sacred spot.
The island of Miyajima has long been considered one of Japan’s holiest islands. It is a place so sacred that for many years women were forbidden from stepping foot on its shores, and the elderly were shipped elsewhere to die so as to prevent the island from being contaminated by their impurities. Lucky for us, in recent years they’ve loosened up on the entry requirements, and now two profane individuals such as ourselves can freely follow in the footsteps of the great monk Kobo Dashi and enjoy Miyajima’s scenic vistas and various iconic shrines. And did we mention that there is also a mountain to climb?
For most visitors, a trip to Japan is not just a voyage through space, but also one through time. Travel to Tokyo and Osaka and you may feel like you have traveled 20 years into the future; visit a place like Nikko or Takayama, and you may easily feel like you have traveled 20 times that but in the other direction, into the past. In the face of all the possible leaps through time you might make in visiting Japan, it’s perhaps understandable that many tourists might bypass Hiroshima in favor of sites in Japan whose history is more epic, or for cities whose views of the future are less imbued with sorrow.
One of the things Tony and I did in preparation for our RTW trip was to sign up for CouchSurfing. At the time, we didn’t know if we would actually ever use the service as we tend to like to do our own thing and weren’t sure how we felt about sleeping on a stranger’s couch, but we decided it wouldn’t hurt to set up a profile “just in case”.