At last, I arrived at the final country of my year-long round the world trip, and it was the best choice I could’ve made for my last stop. I’ve been to Japan once, but that was back in 2004, the first time my parents brought my sister and me overseas. My mom had taught English in Japan previously and made wonderful friends whom we visited. In the intervening years, my interest in Japan and its culture gradually increased, and I was hearing Japanese at home without realizing it. Whenever I tried hurrying my mom anywhere I usually got shooed away with a “chotto matte kudasai!” In university, I finally discovered a love for anime and found myself in the right place to take Japanese courses, (I have a certificate, but the road to fluency is a long one I think).
Before embarking on this year long adventure, I invited many friends to join me if they could, but school and careers don’t allow people to get away so easily. To my surprise, I got a commitment pretty early on from my friend Holly, and it ended up being a pretty important one.
I’m lucky enough to have several close friends whom I have known since kindergarten, which at this time was about 18 years ago. I think the best part about growing up in a small town is that you get to go through the formative years with the same people. Holly is one of those people, and it was only a few years ago that we realized our love of anime and Japan in general was shared. Still, Japan was on the other side of the globe, and I knew Holly well enough to know that she much prefers her own home and being near her family to a 12 hour flight over the Pacific Ocean. I was therefore a little surprised when before I even began travelling, I had a friend who would be joining me a year later in Japan.
If I’m being perfectly honest, Holly’s decision played a part in helping me finish my trip. There were certainly times throughout the year, *cough* India, where I thought to myself, “I could just leave, go home, have my own coffee, my own bed, have my own coffee while lying in bed, and be happy,” but then remembered that I had to keep going because Holly had booked her ticket and one way or another I needed to be in Osaka on December 1st.
I had originally planned to travel for longer, but at some point made the decision that I’d rather be home with family for Christmas, and Japan with Holly was the ideal way to end. I therefore landed in Japan on the 1st absolutely excited to see my friends in Japan with one of my oldest friends.
I flew from Busan to Osaka and was met at the Kansai airport by Kaori and Hisako, my mom’s good friends from the time she spent here. We got in Kaori’s car and they handed me a bag with onigiri and an iced coffee, and I was already thinking my day couldn’t have been any better. We then drove across Osaka to the Itami airport where Holly was arriving. This was the first time Holly had ever left North America, let alone travelled by herself, so it was a pretty big deal. I was so excited to see her as she came out of the gate, and I’m going to assume she was excited too because she immediately burst into tears.
An hour later we arrived at Kaori’s home in Kishiwada, just outside of Osaka (city), where we were greeted by her mother Nobuko. Here’s a picture of me with 4 people I’ve known pretty much my whole life.
The night we arrived, as we were being shown around the house, I realized that I remembered much of it from 13 years ago. We sat down in the living room where they had put together two bulletin boards of pictures from when I was there with my family originally, and from when they visited Canada to attend my parent’s wedding. I was not expecting to see 10 year-old me or all these pictures of my family, it was awesome.
Here begins the grand adventure that is Japanese food. For a snack/something new to try, Holly and I were provided with this flavoured bean paste which, while confusing, was pretty good.
Holly went to bed pretty soon, as she was doing battle with jet lag. I took the opportunity to do a lot of catching up, and trying to improve my Japanese. Hisako was staying the first night at Kaori’s with us which was awesome because it felt like we were all together again. Hisako speaks English very well and acted as an interpreter for much of the first day. Kaori spoke English as well as I spoke Japanese, so we were able to communicate with only a little difficulty and I was forced to start learning fast.
If you are ever fortunate enough to enjoy Japanese hospitality you will find, as Holly and I quickly did, that the word “ippai” meaning “full” is very useful.
In the morning the five of us went out for breakfast together at a nearby cafe.
I don’t know how it’s done, but food in Japan just tastes better. In Canada, if I saw mismatched pieces of toast and a salad for breakfast, I would assume that I’m about to eat some sad, soggy bread and some mayonnaise with lettuce in it. There were so many times that Holly and I gave our food dubious looks only to be completely surprised that, wow, it actually tastes great!
For these Japan posts I didn’t take all of the pictures, so thank you Holly for letting me use yours!
Holly quickly became friends with Nobuko’s cat “Mimi-chan.”
After breakfast we walked to the train station so Hisako could return to Nara. We will be seeing her again though!
At the bakery in the station Kaori bought Holly and me some Japanese pastries to take home for breakfast the next day. On the walk back home she also treated us to takoyaki, which is a breaded ball-shaped snack filled with octopus. It was really good.
Every day we would wake up and Nobuko had something ready for us to eat. I didn’t know that breakfast could have multiple courses.
On day 3 I got to see some more old friends, Kaori’s niece Nao and her parents took us into Osaka for the day.
They took us to a manga store where we were happy to look for the titles we recognized. For lunch we went to a conveyor belt sushi place, and as we explored Osaka we stopped for dessert.
My most vivid memory of Japan from my previous visit is of Osaka castle, where we were taken next. The walk through the park leading to the castle was beautiful.
We arrived at the castle as the sun was setting. The view of the city and the lighting of the castle at night was nice. We then went to an outdoor lights exhibit nearby before calling it a night and heading home. Holly and I felt very fortunate to be shown around Osaka like this, and luckily we would be seeing them again before leaving.
I like this next picture because I took it and thought it was kinda cool until I showed it to Holly who declared “that’s the worst picture I’ve ever seen.” So it made the blog.
Jet lag hit Holly pretty hard, and I was thankful that I had so many years of friendship to lean on because there were a few times when I suggested we go out and do things where I could tell she was thinking of places to hide my body. With some coaxing, and the promise that we wouldn’t have to go on a train, Holly and I spent the next day walking around exploring Kishiwada.
We first went to Kishiki Shrine. If you like Naruto, then the names Amaterasu and Susanoo are probably familiar (or you need to keep watching). The deities in the shrine are Homudawake, the 15th emperor of Japan, Amaterasu, the Shinto goddess of the sun, and Susanoo, the Shinto god of the sea and storms.
The shrine is so old that its grounds were being remodelled when Kishiwada Castle was built in 1597. From the shrine we only had to cross the street to get to the castle.
After the castle we went to a cafe in town, which brings me to my one glaring criticism of Japan: the general quality of their coffee. There were certainly places during the 22 days I was there where I found good coffee, but they were not the majority. I don’t know if something about Japan threw off my instincts for finding good places, but I frequently went into cafes that looked safe yet served terrible coffee. Japan should get talking with Indonesia and work out a coffee trade deal, it’s important.
Holly took a picture comparing our passports, which was a bit shocking because by this time I had forgotten what they usually looked like. My passport was my constant object of paranoia throughout the year, as I was determined I wouldn’t lose it or let it be stolen. It seems that keeping it on me full time wore it down a little. Since getting home I have retired it.
That night, Holly made the wise decision to just go to bed and enjoy some down time while I accompanied Kaori to a get together with her work friends at a nearby kushikatsu restaurant. Kushikatsu is deep fried skewered meat and vegetables and it’s amazing. You sit at the bar and the skewers just keep coming until you have lost the will to move.
Kaori’s friends were so nice, and exceedingly complimentary. I was taken out to a Japanese dinner where I met nice people who all called me handsome – it was a fun night. I managed to get through the night speaking only Japanese, trying to figure out what was in each of the skewers before trying them. I think everyone got on board with pushing me out of my comfort zone, because I was persuaded to have a “dessert” that consisted of rice and a bunch of tiny fish that you then pour tea over. I don’t feel the need to try that one again.
We took it easy the next day and went to another cafe in my ongoing quest to find a good coffee. This is Holly being happy, or unimpressed, or tired… interpret her eyebrows as you wish.
Kaori had a day off the next day and was so kind as to drive us to Kyoto for a day trip. The first stop was the truly incredible shrine Fushimi Inari.
Dedicated to the Shinto deity Inari, the shrine was founded in 711 and has been in use ever since. It is known for having over 10,000 “torii” gates, which are traditional Japanese gates that represent the transition from the mundane to the sacred. They are usually found at the entrance to Shinto shrines.
We arrived in the morning before it was too busy. It was a good call, because crowds had begun appearing by the time we left.
The gates are donated either by people who are thankful for having a wish come true, or by those who wish for something to come true.
There is a hand washing custom as you enter a Shinto shrine that Holly and I quickly became familiar with. If you visit multiple shrines on a cold morning, you might find your hands freezing before long.
The deity Inari’s messengers are white foxes, explaining the many statues throughout the shrine.
For me, Fushimi Inari was the highlight of Kyoto, but there were still some amazing places to visit.
Next we arrived at Kiyomizu-dera, a temple perched above the city with a great view.
The main part was under construction while we were there, though we were still able to walk through. It was very impressive nonetheless. Before going in though, we went on a brief walk underground where there is no light and you have to navigate your way around by touching a rope on the wall at your side. Halfway through is a wishing stone with a little light before you return to utter darkness.
The temple’s name means ‘pure water,’ and gets its name from the waterfall located on its grounds. Many people used the wooden cups to catch the falling water so they could drink it from their hands.
After the Shinto shrine Fushimi Inari and the Buddhist Kiyomizu-dera, we visited the Zen Buddhist temple Kinkaku-ji – The Golden Temple.
The two upper stories are covered with pure gold-leaf, giving the temple its name, with a phoenix adorning the very top.
Formerly the imperial capital of Japan, it makes sense that Kyoto is rich in historical and religiously important sites. Any one of the day’s sites would have left me with a sense of wonder, yet they can all be found in Kyoto.
We were pretty hungry at this point and went to a nearby restaurant where I got one of my favourite Japanese things: tonkatsu. I ordered it at every opportunity; it is a breaded, deep-fried pork cutlet, and if anybody is aware of its existence in Canada please let me know.
Before heading home, we visited To-ji temple. Built in 796, it was originally one of a pair with Sai-ji (East Temple and West Temple). The original 5 storey pagoda was completed in 883, but burned down in 1055 when it was struck by lightning. It was rebuilt in 1603.
Photography wasn’t allowed inside, which was unfortunate because there are some truly impressive statues in there (and I’ve seen my fair share of Buddhist statues by now).
After a truly amazing day exploring some of the wonders of Kyoto, we arrived home fairly exhausted. I realized afterwards given the distance of the various sites how difficult it would have been to see the city backpacking-style and how fortunate we were that Kaori treated us to her guided tour.
Japan was already fulfilling my high expectations, and this only covers the first 6 days!