Japan, we finally meet! I am so excited to be writing this blog, sharing my stories from a trip I have dreamt about for so long.
I was fortunate enough to travel with two of my good nursing friends, Emma and Steph, who I worked with at the Children’s Hospital for 6 months in Melbourne last year. Emma is from England (on an Australian sponsored visa like me) and Steph is Australian. As you can imagine explaining to new friends how three girls from three different countries were traveling together made for several confused people. The three of us made a pact last year to make the trek to Japan for the cherry blossom season, and a year later we did just that!
Our 11 day journey began in the capital, Tokyo. Tokyo was exactly what I had imagined it to be, colourful, animated and busy. Bright and flashy billboard signs framed the streets. Walking the streets we explored the areas of Shinjuku and Shinbuya, the busy business and shopping districts of Tokyo. Here we explored the hidden alleyways full of shops and restaurants. Our goal was to find small restaurants that locals visited rather than busy commercialised ones. Our plan worked out well as we found several extremely delicious meals as a result. With a jam packed first day, we shared many laughs. Some highlights were: visiting a cat cafe (literally a cafe full of freely roaming cats you can play with), our first sighting of a fully bloomed cherry blossom tree, visiting the local bars in the Golden Gai region and singing karaoke at 3 am.
The Golden Gai experience was one recommended to us before arriving in Tokyo.It is a small area of Shinjuku in Tokyo that contains small bars, some with only enough seating for 6 people. The Golden Gai area itself only consists of a few streets but in these streets there are over 200 little bars and eateries. Each bar was only identified by a small sign taped on the outside door stating the entry cost and the price of drinks. Inside were small bars with local bartenders and only a handful of patrons, making for a fun experience talking to others. We spent the night in 4 different bars meeting locals, other tourists, singing, and trying traditional Japanese drinks such as Sake, Sochu, and Japanese whiskey.
After visiting the Golden Gai we were off to karaoke to sing our hearts out as karaoke was a must do for us while in Tokyo. Like in Canada, karaoke consisted of renting a private room for a desired length of time. The small rooms had couches and a big screen with microphones to sing along with. Some of our favourite songs were Hey Jude, Momma Mia and a range of Adele, Backstreet Boys and Taylor Swift songs. To add to the novelty, in Japan people wear costumes while singing. I chose a sparkly gold tuxedo, Steph wore a green Power Puff girl dress, while Emma chose a brown bag costume appearing very similar to a bag of potatoes. We had so much fun!
Our second stop in Japan was in the town of Hakone, a mountainous area west of Tokyo best known for its close proximity to the famous Mt Fuji. This small, quiet town was full of culture. Some highlights from Hakone were eating at a traditional Japanese Zashiki restaurant where you sit on pillows placed on the floor by low lying tables and visiting a traditional Japanese onsen. An onsen is a Japanese bathhouse and public bathing place where guests soak in thermal baths for healing, spirituality and rejuvenation purposes. This tradition stems back to when Buddhism spread to Japan in the 500s. Visiting an onsen in Hakone was a popular tourist attraction due to the abundance of natural hot springs. At a Japanese onsen, nudity is required and guests must follow a strict cleansing process before entering the hot bath waters. While the experience was awkward at first, it was quickly apparent that nobody cared about nakedness in there. The Japanese guests were completely non-selfconscious and their attitude rubbed off on us.
Next we were off to Kyoto, land of the Japanese temples. Kyoto was 3 hrs west of Hakone via a bullet train. We spent two days here, learning more about the Japanese culture and enjoying more and more food. Finally we found some sushi!! Surprisingly enough it was extremely difficult to find sushi that didn’t come out of a 7/11 store (very delicious might I add). Most restaurants in Japan served meals based on rice with miso soup. Dishes consisting of seafood, noodles, beef, dumplings, and ramen were common and tasty. One thing I wanted to master on this trip was using chopsticks while eating. Growing up on Carlow Farms I didn’t use a chopstick let alone try any Japanese food. I came a long way from my first day in Tokyo where I had to ask the owner for a fork to eat my noodles with. Embarrassingly and funny enough the only fork they owned was a baby’s fork which I shyly accepted (see picture below). By the end of the trip I was able to master the chopsticks, picking up noodles and rice with little difficulty.
Some of my favourite activities in Kyoto were visiting the Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine, Gold Pavilion temple, tea houses, markets and shopping. Wandering through the famous Gion district was another highlight where we spotted three geishas getting into a taxi late at night. This was an extremely exciting sighting for us as while the exact number is unknown to outsiders, it is estimated that only under 2,000 remain geishas in all of Japan, with only an estimated one hundred living in Kyoto. These geishas live and work in the traditional teahouses entertaining guests, particularly Ichiriki Chaya which is the most famous Japanese teahouse located in Gion.
Our next stop was Osaka, located a short 30 minute train ride from Kyoto. We immediately fell in love with Osaka, mainly for the abundance of sushi restaurants everywhere. Recommended by other tourists was Endo Sushi – a small 20 person restaurant hidden in a small suburb amongst a fish market. With no signs, we relied on a picture off of a website to find this hidden gem. The sushi was fresh and absolutely delicious. I’m talking about melt in your mouth delicious! While sampling many of their fresh fish, my favourites were the salmon and fatty tuna sushi.The remainder of our time in Osaka was spent exploring the popular Dotonbori and Tsutenkaku shopping areas at night (both filled with bright light billboards and signs), exploring the famous Osaka Castle and walking the quirky streets in the suburb of Namba where we were staying.
My favourite highlight of Osaka and possibly the entire trip was attending the Grand Sumo Championship. These professional competitions are held only six times a year throughout Japan and only one of those competitions is in Osaka. Lucky for us, it aligned with our visit. While general admission tickets had been sold out months ago, each day 200 day tickets were allotted to fans willing to cue the desired day. Knowing how popular the completion was and also with it being a Saturday, we decided to sacrifice sleep and brave the cold, cueing in line from 5 am until the ticket booth opened at 7:45 am. The three of us were the 63rd to 65th fans in line meaning we got our tickets! After a quick nap, we were back to the stadium where we spent the day watching the sumo. Sumo divisions improved as the day progressed with the highest level performing in the evening to a full stadium. Unlike sporting events I’ve attended in Canada, the crowd was extremely quiet with only the odd spectator cheering and clapping occurring once a ’bout’ (match) was over. Sumo wrestling is a Japanese style of wrestling and Japan’s national sport. Many rituals with religious background, such as the symbolic purification of the ring with salt, are still followed today. In line with tradition, only men practice the sport professionally in Japan.The rules are simple: the wrestler who first exits the ring or touches the ground with any part of his body besides the soles of his feet loses. A contest usually lasts only a few seconds, but in rare cases can take a minute or more. There are no weight restrictions, meaning that wrestlers can easily find themselves matched off against someone many times their size. As a result, weight gain is an essential part of sumo training. What a great experience!
Our final leg of the trip brought us back to Tokyo where we stayed in two different suburbs Harajuku and Shibuya. Hariduku is the center of Japan’s most extreme teenage cultures and fashion styles, but also offered shopping for adults and some historic sights. Shibuya is one of Tokyo’s most colourful and busy districts, packed with shopping, dining and nightclubs serving swarms of visitors that come to the district every day. This district is home to the world’s busiest intersection! While back in Tokyo we spent a day reliving our inner childhood at Tokyo Disneyland. Despite rain, freezing weather and wet, cold feet, we managed to go on some rides and walk amongst thousands of other excited visitors. Sharing the same layout as Disney World in Florida, I enjoyed going on rides I had been on during family vacations growing up such as The Haunted Mansion, Buz Lightyear Space Ranger and everyone’s favourite, the teacup ride!
Our final time in Tokyo was spent wandering and shopping the busy Shibuya streets before boarding our flight back to Australia. We said our goodbyes at the airport as I was off to Brisbane while Steph and Emma were off to Melbourne. What a fantastic trip !!
Below is a video with some highlights from our trip https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=13IOQYdxPWY&t=66s.