Japanorama: Two Weeks in the Land of the Rising Sun

So, it’s been a while. Between the Great Firewall in China, some shoddy internet connections in Japan and Singapore, a crashing computer, and a general pull to live in the moment… it’s been hard to get a post up 🙂 I’m in a cafe in Bali now, sweating my face off even at 10pm! Not complaining for a minute though, no way. Here we go recapping all the fond memories from my two weeks in Japan.

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I started in Tokyo, then activated my Japan Rail Pass and started my tour through Kyoto, Hiroshima, Miyajima, and Iwakuni, ending up in Osaka. This ended up being an almost perfect assortment of cities- plenty of cultural experiences, history, cosmopolitan thrills, in small towns and big cities. Apologies in advance if not all of these images are showing right-side up, they will eventually 🙂

Some highlights from each:


TOKYO

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Kicked off by the fabulous Naritasan Temple afternoon, Tokyo gave me a cool few days. On my first night in town, I got dinner in Shinjuku (sort of like Tokyo’s equivalent of Times Square) at a highly recommended hole-in-the-wall ramen bar called Nagi, where you order from a vending machine. Feel free to use your imagination to picture a jet-lagged, English-speaking me ordering from this thing.

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I then grabbed a quick drink at the New York Bar Hotel, where Lost in Translation has a few scenes. Super cool experience. The next morning, I walked around Shibuya and Shinjuku, and went over to Tsukiji fish market, the largest in the world. Each morning at around 4am there is a live auction for tuna- some fish go for up to $10,000. Aside from the chaotic fish market, there are also some of the best sushi spots in the world along the periphery. Some of the “top” ones had lines of up to 4 hours, so I chose one with a more modest 30 minute wait: Yamizaki. The staff were fantastic, giving us green tea while we waited in line, then impeccable and fun service once we were inside at the tiny 10-seat counter. Gonna go ahead and shout it from the rooftops: best sushi I’ve ever had!

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I couldn’t leave Japan without checking out the famed stationery shops- so, Muji was a must, followed by ITOYA which was completely new to me! ITOYA is located in the ritzy Ginza district, and has 8 full floors of paper goods and pretty much everything you could think of related to having an organized life. They can emboss leather planners in-store (might just have to switch from my beloved Erin Condren this year…) There’s even a mini organic farm (!?) on the 7th floor that supplies produce for the restaurant on the 8th. Let’s just say… It took every ounce of self control within me to walk out of there with just a few postcards and prints.

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After a bunch more sightseeing, I boarded the shinkansen (bullet train) to Kyoto! This trip was a highlight in itself- gorgeous scenery, kind stewardesses carting around healthy foods, clean and stylish cars… I was almost made that it was over in just 2 hours 15 minutes!
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**A tip for anyone using Japan Rail Pass- you choose either 7 or 14 days, and need to buy it from outside of Japan and have the voucher shipped to you. Then, you bring the voucher to the JR office at the airport and exchange it for the pass. Easy to use, and saves you a lot of money if you’ll be zipping around the country considering it’s the price of one round trip ticket between Tokyo and Kyoto. Use the website Hyperdia to check timetables- only JR trains (not private subway liens) and certain shinkansen (Hikari and Nozomi I believe) are included in the JR pass. Japanese trains are AMAZING and very easy to navigate. I want to live on them.


KYOTO

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img_7420So, the second I booked this leg of the trip, I knew I wanted to stay in a Japanese ryokan. The real-deal ryokans date back to the Edo period, when they served highway travelers. A far cry from a Motel 6 if I do say so myself. They’re likely what you picture as being a typical Japanese home. I mostly loved that tatami mats cover the floors, making ryokans perfect for sleeping (on the traditional Futon mattress), eating, or doing yoga. Most ryokans are pricey and quite upmarket, so I found one in Kyoto that would give me the ryokan experience without blowing my budget. I spent 5 nights at Capsule Ryokan, right by the Kyoto train station, and loved it! For about $25 a night, I had a private room with a fancy shower, cute bathroom, TV that I never turned on, and gorgeous tatami mats. I started and ended each day here with some yoga on the mats using the Down Dog Yoga app on my phone. The Spotify playlist that I put together from these practices is up in The Playlists section if you’re inclined to check it out.

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I already blogged about the meditation retreat I did one morning in Kyoto, which was great. A ramen lunch at Ippudo was also quite memorable- the gyoza dumplings they make in-house were yummy as well. Downtown Kyoto is funny- feels like it was cool maybe 15-20 years ago, but the architecture is very dated and drab. The river running through it is stunning though- and the major sights around the city are second to none. I especially loved the Arashiyama bamboo forest (thanks to jet lag I had no problem getting there by 7am with no crowds- highly recommend!), a walk around Okochi Sanso (located behind the bamboo forest, it’s the old estate from a Japanese silent film actor, Denjiro Okochi. Stunning grounds and tasty cup of matcha at the end is included in admission. Tea Ceremony En in downtown Kyoto was a nice experience as well, as it walked us through the making of the tea and the intricate ancient ceremony that accompanies it.

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Talk about a cultural experience… I opted to bathe in a traditional japanese onsen (outdoor hot spring bath) in Kurama, outside Kyoto. The one stipulation- no clothes. Surprisingly not as awkward as I thought it’d be, it’s gender separated and everyone kinda keeps to themselves… helps to have a stunning view to look at?

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Loved my dinner at Shisin Samurai Cafe in Kyoto! Ended up staying almost three hours, talking with the owner and staff about everything from travel to diplomacy and soft power to corporate social responsibility to the art of good food. The restaurant is a social enterprise meaning that a portion of its profits go back into the community- Tomo, the owner, is passionate about connecting like-minded people in conversations about peace-building. The staff made me this paper crane as a parting gift- so so sweet.

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img_7155Japan is hilarious… there were many occasions where I unwittingly became the tourist attraction. Was literally just sitting on this bridge reading and a woman and her daughter asked to take photos with me! So funny.

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HIROSHIMA/MIYAJIMA/IWAKUNI

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On a more somber note… Hiroshima was hard. Really, really hard. I found myself sick to my stomach walking through the city, thinking about what happened at 8:16am on August 6th, 1945. I toured the Peace Park, the A-bomb dome, and the memorial for the victims. I ended up walking into the museum behind a group of Japanese students. As happened several other times during my trip, I got caught up in giggly back and forth banter with two young girls while standing in line for tickets. As we entered the exhibits, I started to lose it- these girls that I now had this relationship with happened to be the exact same size as the garments in the display cases, from the students that were incinerated during the bombing. Cases with lunch boxes, their contents charred before they could be eaten at school. So upsetting. At the end, there was a nice room with hundreds of notebooks where people could record their emotional responses to the exhibit. I must have counted 30+ languages, all likely expressing similar sentiments of horror and resolve for peace.

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After my morning in Hiroshima, I boarded a train then a ferry to Miyajima (included in the JR pass). I spent the afternoon eating their famous grilled oysters (at Yakigaki-no-Hayashi) and going up Mt. Misen. Spectacular views from up there, and a sunset met me when I arrived back down on the beach.
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I pressed onwards to a small town called Iwakuni, that my sorority sister had recommended as a great example of a small Japanese town. She had lived there with her family on the USMC base. This was probably my favorite part of the trip, but to be honest, I kinda hated it initially. I checked in to a dark, drafty Airbnb, and felt really alone for the first time in the trip. But, the next morning, I dragged myself out of bed, made a nice breakfast, and explored Iwakuni Castle and the iconic Kintai Bridge. Even made some friends and went on one of the cooler dates I’ve been on, sitting by the up-lit Kintai Bridge at night drinking Chu-hi’s for a couple hours. Beautiful people and scenery… Iwakuni will always have such a special place in my heart!

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After Iwakuni, I took a train to Osaka to meet up with Courtney and Steph, two of my best friends from living in New Zealand in 7th grade! It was the first time we had reunited since we were 13- but you’d never know. So good catching up with these girls! Especially grateful for their support and understanding during such a hard week with the election results. We managed to have a great week, catching up and celebrating my 23rd birthday!

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Love, love, LOVE the trains in Japan. Did I mention that? The Osaka subway has green velvet seats and fall decor in some cars… I’m sorry what?

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Steph and I got to tag along to Courtney’s high school English class to watch her teach! Was such a hilarious experience, they were talking about the lives of celebrities like Michael Jordan and Taylor Swift.

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Touring Japanese farmhouses at the outdoor museum. Steph jokes that she toured them, I followed behind her on my phone. The election results were breaking and I was in absolute shock.

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A beautiful church in Osaka that I was grateful to find in the hard days after the election.

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Autumn colors at Minoo Park, outside Osaka.

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Thanks for hosting me during such an emotional week, Courtney! <3

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So, phewf. There’s a marathon post for you 🙂

Japan, you were so, so good to me. Can’t wait to come back some day. China post is on deck! Look out for that this week. Have a happy Monday!

XO,

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2 thoughts on “Japanorama: Two Weeks in the Land of the Rising Sun

  1. Hannah–this blog is great and everything someone with wanderlust would love. Your time in Japan looked incredible. It’s great to see the person you’ve grown to be. Thank you for sharing.

    1. Marissa, your comment made my week! So good to hear from you 🙂 I’m glad you’re enjoying the posts, hope everything is good with you (I’m sure you’re low key saving the world) and that we’ll see each other at an SR reunion event sometime soon!! <3

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