An early flight, a long train journey and a whole new city. Arriving in Osaka was the first stop for our exciting adventure around Japan.
A crystal blue sky, endless winding narrow streets filled with yellow facades, flashing neon signs, sparkling LEDs and huge plastic animals glued to buildings in the shape of crabs and squids to advertise the local delicacies of squid balls! The interior decor of all shops and restaurants are surprisingly lavish for discount emporiums: neon rainbows, birds and animals hang overhead, evoking a pachinko parlour and with the crowded streets filled with tourists to locals, it was overwhelming and enticing.
Part of the pleasure is late at night for more weirdness. Men shuffle along the streets in Crocs and pajamas, and ancient hunched ladies mumble to themselves. The younger girls are almost like porcelain dolls, covered in colourful make up, extremely petite and dressed in flowers and lace.
The restaurants ranged from ramen, to sushi, to raw liver dishes, several beef teppanyaki and BBQ chains, sliced bean curd bowls and varieties of sweet ice cream deserts. We settled on the least tourist spot we could find and squirreled away upstairs and hunched over fried rice dishes while overlooking the river.
Taking to the streets on my own, I delegated my way through thousands of narrow illuminated, crowded streets filled with every shop and delicacy anyone could imagine. A Japanese porn-star advertising a giant red sex toy, Kit Kats of every flavour and I stumbled upon a cos-play convention. Hundreds of adults crowded the streets dressed as cartoon characters, Animes, animals and creatures. Everyone was laughing, snapping photographs and the atmosphere was electric. I later learnt it was the The Nippombashi Street Festa, one of the biggest conventions under the themes of electric, pop culture and craftsmanship. An event representing Osaka where over 200,000 people get together every year! The arcade culture is huge, casino style skyscrapers with hundreds of people lined up on pinball machines, the noise is almost deafening as the music clangs of the metal balls hit the plastic.
A long journey through the winding mountain roads took us to the divine village of Koyasan, a traditional, rural tranquil town and home to the largest collection of temples in Japan, hundreds of Buddhist shrines among the trees, high in the mountains and filled with peace, natural beauty and traditional wooden architecture that takes your breath away. Delicate zen gardens filled with perfectly neat sand and matte grey stones, shared heated hot spring baths and trickling water under red bridges. We visited the main Kongobuji Temple, drank green tea and prayed to the giant gold statues of Buddha. We meditated, learned how to ignore nuisance thoughts, dressed in traditional robes, slept on the floor and dined on a vegetarian meal cooked by the monks, a mixture of rice, tofu and noodle dishes served almost like tapas as we sat cross legged on wooden mats. We fell asleep, warm and cosy to the sounds of the rain falling into the zen garden waters. A cultural experience that I honestly didn’t anticipate enjoying so thoroughly. I was moved almost to tears by their beliefs, their spirituality, their graveyard that housed thousands of graves even from the government who dedicated a rocket memorial for the war weapons that killed so many. Embracing every second was beautiful.
Monks have toilets that sing and heated seats that wash you thoroughly! WiFi and good coffee but they will go through the painstaking process of picking dirt from between the floorboards with a toothpick and after they served us a traditional rice and tofu breakfast, we caught the 450kmph bullet train to Hiroshima. Two trains, two subways, two buses and two trams eventually got us to The Memorial Peace Garden and Museum. A harrowing, moving site filled with artefacts, images, paper cranes for the deceased and powerful technology to fully demonstrate the events of Hiroshima.
The following day, a ferry took is in the pouring rain to the beautiful Miyajima Shrine. A colourful, architectural feast for the eyes, a floating city and gate in the water and temples filled with tiny Buddhas wearing knitted hats! A town of Shinto shrines in dedication to the god of happiness and the sea, believers in the religion say that walking through the gate purifies you. Later in the day we took shelter in the rain in some of the colourful and loud arcades filled with Pokémon and Final Fantasy games.
We spent two glorious days in Kyoto including a visit Nijō Castle with the delightful start of the Blossom festival and then took to the Geisha district to see if we could spot the rare beauties. We explored the stunning Fushimi Inari-taisha Shrine – Inari is the god of rice, but merchants and manufacturers have traditionally worshiped Inari as the patron of business. Each of the bright orange torii at Fushimi Inari Taisha has been donated by a Japanese business, we climbed the treacherous, steep steps to reach the top of the thousands of arches. We then took to the delightful Bamboo forest, walking through the beautiful, dense green foliage and enjoying a tasty picnic by the river.
Another bullet train, underground, cable car, and mountainside tram took us a thousand feet above sea level to the stunning Hakone National Park where we took a boat ride on the beautiful Ashinoko Lake around Mt Fuji and sampled the local black egg delicacy of black boiled eggs in the snow while watching the volcanic smoke bellow out from the volcano on Owakundani Boiling Valley.
Then we had the once in a lifetime experience of staying in a traditional Ryokan. We bathed in the natural hot springs from the volcano, we wore traditional Yukata Kimonos, dined on a Kalesaki meal of 10 miniature dishes. Raw fish, rice, hot pot, pork, miso, tofu and many questionable items! A tapas style experience, beautifully decorated but perhaps not the hearty bowl of warming lasagne we all craved after a long day of walking. We slept in a beautiful wooden, bamboo inspired room high in the mountains filled with running streams, snow and dense woodland outside.
Tokyo-bound on another bullet train and we immediately hit the streets in the beautiful sunshine. The highest point of bloom for the cherry blossom, we saw some of the delicate trees along the rivers and stood in awe at the incredible skyscrapers that towered above the famous Shibuya crossing. Then the craziness of Takeshita street and Harajuku came! Absolute insanity with crowds of teenagers dressed in costume of Little-Bo-Peep style dresses, colourful contact lenses and wild wigs. Souvenirs, quirky waffles and giant French fries! Japanese bands, bubble teas, Pokémon, PowerPuff Girls and cartoon craziness, my childhood was relived and fuelled on bizarre sweets and ice creams, we weaved through the colourful chaos.
We spent the following few days wandering through the city, laughing at the bunny and cat cafes, feeling serious nostalgia at The Pokémon Centre, being in awe at the vast amount of vending machine restaurants and observing the clockwork movements of commuters in the train stations who move as though they are robotically programmed. There is no end of karaoke bars and the isolation of the city surprised me. Meals are ordered on a machine and eaten facing a wall alone or behind a laptop, all tables have one chair and for such a large, popular city, the subways and streets are bizarrely quiet.
We visited the Shinjuku Gyoen National Park, the most famous in the city for viewing the beautiful cherry blossom in its incandescent glory. Families ate picnics, the sun shone on the sand gardens and reflected off the water and the petals of all shades of pink fell around our feet. Two glorious days spent weaving through the Tokyo Disneyland was another treat for me, hundreds of Japanese crowds dressed from clichéd school girls to Donald Duck tucked into giant turkey legs and marvelled at the glorious parades and spectacular firework displays.
The last two days of our Japanese adventure were spent weaving through the Ameyayokocho and Nakamise Markets, Tokyo Character Street which is a collection of pop-up shops dedicated to popular cartoon characters and a visit to the last of the blossom parks to view the stunning trees along the canal at night. However, Kill Bill Vol.1 is one of my favourite films and I wasn’t going to visit Tokyo without visiting Gonpachi, the restaurant that inspired the House of Blue Leaves, the setting for “that” fight scene – the Bride v the Crazy 88s – a truly incredible way to spend my final afternoon. The decor, the Kill Bill garden, the way the chef’s shout and chant when you walk in and the incredible homemade ginger cocktails made for the most traditional, fun and crazy way to spend the last afternoon.
The rumours of Japan are true, it’s efficient, precise to the second, clean and harmonious. A divine blend of culture, tradition, spirituality and then the bizarre, colourful, neon elaborate fun of dress up, gaming and technology. In other cultures, such divides cause rifts and separation, here in Japan they recognise their differences and embrace one another. A country with divine tranquil nature and wild fun and colour. An honest delight I wouldn’t hesitate to return to.