I think Japan was the first country I ever wanted to travel to. While I was in San Fransisco I accidentally stumbled across a beautiful Japanese tea garden in the Golden Gate Park. It reminded me how much I wanted to visit the country and there and then I made the decision that my next holiday would be Japan. A month later the flights were booked!
Acclimatising in Tokyo
I’m terrible with jet lag so the first 2 days were a bit of a blur as I tried to adjust to Tokyo while walking round like a zombie. My initial impression was of face masks and just how many people there were – even quieter areas were comparable to Oxford Street on a Saturday. But unlike Oxford Street, everywhere was quiet and calm despite the crowds.
I fell in love with the people straight away. Reserved, considerate, respectful and unbelievably polite. Even a short exchange buying a coffee involves endless smiles, bowing and at least 5 “arigato gozaimasu” (thank you very much).
It’s impossible not to love the locals’ gentle nature and the extent they go out of their way to help. We had one lady run to another platform to check with an information desk when we asked if she knew when the next train was…almost causing her to miss her own train! Tipping is not common, in fact it is often considered rude, so all the amazing customer service you receive stems from nothing but pride and genuine helpfulness.
On the first day we visited the famous Shibuya crossing, followed by a wander in the nearby shopping district ending up in Yoyogi Park where the cherry blossom were just beginning to show.
I accidentally fell asleep on the bench while watching the fountains in the park.
Our first 2 nights were spent in a Capsule hotel – a popular and cheap form of accommodation in Japan that involves sleeping in separate pods that are packed on top of each other. We had booked with Tokyo Kiba and I wasn’t sure what to expect but actually it was comparable to staying in a hostel, only with more privacy. After clambering into my top capsule, I found it surprisingly cosy and well equipped with a reading light, fresh pyjamas, air-con and a mini TV. The capsules were all fully booked on both nights, mostly with business men and women, but also with the occasional family.
This is definitely not an option for the claustrophobic!
On our second sunny day in Tokyo we had a stroll through Uneo Park while enjoying (or not in my case) some green tea ice cream, before heading to the Asakusa district where we jumped on a boat that took us back into central Tokyo.
We caught the metro to Shinjuku station – the worlds busiest railway station with more than 2 million passengers a day. Just west of the station is the skyscrapper district. I couldn’t believe the amount of adverts and lights were crammed onto every available space. This was just how I had imagined Tokyo would look like.
We had tickets to see the Robot Restaurant (it’s not really a restaurant but a robot show). It was pretty weird! I had no idea what the characters were yelling most of the time as they fought battles on giant robots, swinging laser guns and dazzling outfits. There actually weren’t that many robots in the show but it was visually very impressive and also quite funny, although I’m not sure it was meant to be.
Sumo and Harry Potter in Osaka
Japans 300kmph bullet trains along with a Japan Rail Pass (allowing unlimited train travel for tourists) make traveling in Japan very easy. Within 3 hours we were in Osaka.
Before coming to Japan I had arranged tickets to see Sumo wrestling, something I was really excited about. I literally can’t believe this is a sport! I just couldn’t take my eyes of the gigantic wrestlers as they slapped their bellies, stomped their feet and charged at each other like giant walruses, with the aim of pushing their opponent out of the ring. I read afterwards that they all live in the same training house and, as part of their routine to maintain their size, they skip breakfast, have a pint of beer along with a massive lunch and then sleep straight afterwards for a couple of hours.
The must visit evening destination for Osaka is Dotonbori. This bustling restaurant and shop district is even busier, brighter and more modern than Tokyo.
As a massive Harry Potter fan I couldn’t visit Osaka without stopping at Universal Studios with it’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter. It didn’t disappoint and the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride, with its giant robotic hands, high tech simulators and impressive sets, has to, hands down, be the best ride I have ever done. It was also really fun watching the excited Japanese visitors enjoying the park, most of whom were dressed up in matching outfits and owned annual passes.
A welcome zen break in Koya San
After 2 big cities, it was a welcome break to go to the mountain of Koya San, considered one of Japans most sacred places. Walking through the quite green town hearing the chant of the monks prayer from the monasteries, it is impossible not to feel relaxed and charmed by the place. Like many people who visit Koya San, we stayed in one of the monasteries. We were looked after by the monks, ate amazing traditional vegan Monk cuisine and were able to observe their morning prayer.
Another highlight was visiting Okunoin Cemetery, both in the day and at night, with it’s 200,000 odd tombstones which lead to Torodo Hall – a huge temple housing over 10,000 donated lanterns and 50,000 tiny statues…..a seriously impressive site (and one that you will have to go see your self as photography is strictly forbidden).
Continue with my journey – Japan: Part 2