Japan

Japan - Our Route & Numbers

 Alex & Madie’s travel route in Japan.

Alex & Madie’s travel route in Japan.

Numbers from Japan

  • Days in Japan: 13 days
  • Our daily average cost for food per person: ¥4000 ≈ $40.00 (including two very nice meals and daily snacks & dessert) 
  • Cost of a 1.5L water: Free! We drank tap throughout the trip!
  • Cost of a medium coffee: ¥270 ≈ $2.70
  • Cost of a vending machine coffee: ¥100 ≈ $1.00
  • Cost of a 550mL beer: ¥50 ≈ $5.00
  • Cost of a bowl of ramen or soba: ¥800 ≈ $8.00
  • Cost of a matcha ice cream cone: ¥250 ≈ $2.50
     
  • Total matcha ice cream cones eaten: 7
  • Total Hida milk puddings eaten: 4 in two days
     
  • Total time on an airplane: 2 hours and 20 minutes
  • Total time on a train: 11 hours and 5 minutes
     

How We Got Around

 Alex & Madie’s mode of transportation in Japan.

Alex & Madie’s mode of transportation in Japan.

Japan - Takayama to Tokyo

 We couldn’t imagine seeing these beautiful gasshō houses any other way - set in bucolic fields of green; but Shirakawa-go is actually one of the snowiest places in Japan, the reason for thick straw roofs, and its popularity during wintertime.

We couldn’t imagine seeing these beautiful gasshō houses any other way - set in bucolic fields of green; but Shirakawa-go is actually one of the snowiest places in Japan, the reason for thick straw roofs, and its popularity during wintertime.

Gate 문 - Howl’s Moving Castle Theme (Remix)

After realizing the snow monkeys near Nagano will not greet us while bathing lazily in the onsen this time of year, we opt for another magical location of Japan: Takayama, in the Gifu prefecture. It seems we’re attracted to mountains in all countries, perhaps foretelling where we’ll end up.

  Quaint street scenes in Takayama, Japan.

Quaint street scenes in Takayama, Japan.

 Both of us wanted to experience a traditional ryokan (old school Japanese inn), so we were happy to find one in the small mountain town of Takayama. Complete with tatami mats, sliding doors, yukata robes, and slippers, this may have been our most comfortable accommodation yet - even with the public onsen baths.

Both of us wanted to experience a traditional ryokan (old school Japanese inn), so we were happy to find one in the small mountain town of Takayama. Complete with tatami mats, sliding doors, yukata robes, and slippers, this may have been our most comfortable accommodation yet - even with the public onsen baths.

Takayama

It’s another train from Kyoto, on a ride out of a Murakami book, maybe Kafka On The Shore. Rain finally breaks - it’s typhoon season after all - and we pass quiet suburbs that are slowly replaced by forests, rivers, and mountains. We munch on a matcha cake and enter the Japanese Alps, or Nihon Arupusu. (Yes, Arupusu is the phonetic version of Alps in Japanese.)

We arrive in the small town of Takayama and are lucky to stay in a traditional ryokan, a Japanese guest house with an onsen, a public bath for the guests (except if you have a tattoo - to prevent the yakuza from revealing themselves). My name is written on a long black plank at the entrance, alongside those of other tourists. Leaving our shoes at the entrance, we check in and are shown our room, immediately being transported to a different time: Japan in the 70s, with dark brown furniture, leather chairs, and futons on tatami mats. We head shyly to the onsen for a shower, one for men, the other for women, somehow relieved to find it empty.

Less than an hour from Takayama in the heart of the Japanese Alps, is a magical place straight out of a storybook. The village of Shirakawa-go is at the base of a mountain range, along a river, and is a patchwork of thatched roofed farmhouses and rice fields in every shade of green.

A short walk in town takes us to a cozy hole in the wall, famous for its curry. We sit at a low table, my leg falling asleep rapidly; the restaurant is a busy decor of wooden everything, cups and bowls, and a few Domo dolls above the bar for good luck. Jamiroquai plays the beats. Full of curry, we still manage to find room for the yogurt of the day. The Hida province is famous for its cows (almost as much as Kobe), but especially its milk - it’s the first time we are entranced by a milk pudding.

After a simple breakfast at the nearby cafe, we take an hour bus ride to Shirakawa-go, a UNESCO World Heritage site, a place right out of the old RPGs from my youth. We’ll walk aimlessly for a few hours amongst fields and traditional houses called gassho, built specifically to fend off the snow in the winter (合掌 - means “hands together,” as in a prayer). Even the music reminds me of old video games, as if we were resting at an inn for the night. The village is the most fitting illustration of charming and quaint - only the Italian tourist bus made it difficult. We’ll head back after a soba meal, a lip-licking cold noodle in a tart broth, and two soft-serve ice creams, one matcha and one Hida milk. We head back to Takayama and visit its old town, its own “Philosopher’s Path” and endless temples, each one more peaceful than the last. My Pokémon GO score is off the charts.

Tokyo

Another bullet train takes us to Tokyo, our final destination in Japan. After the microcosmos of Osaka, Kyoto, and Takayama, we’re reminded of everything else Japan is, a highly technological place, which used to be a model for the rest of the world in the 70s and 80s. Country of all things automatic, from the fancy robot toilet, the cigarette dispensers on dedicated smoking corners, the elevator parking garage, the many faucets and soap dispensers, and the ticket machine at the small restaurants. We rarely order from waiters, only handing them our tickets in exchange for our food.

  A view of just a section of this vast city from the 52nd floor of the Roppongi Tower.

A view of just a section of this vast city from the 52nd floor of the Roppongi Tower.

But Tokyo excels at hiding its technology, underground, behind a wall, or inside the toilet. The city is all vertical, hiding whatever else on the next floor - dentists, dance studios, and food courts - roads have layers and airplanes reflect off the building windows. Manhole covers are uniquely decorated throughout town. Parks and temples are peaceful, quiet, except for the many signs for Pokémon GO players to get on their way. Here, everyone plays, from the business man to the sweet grandma. The city is amazingly quiet - we didn’t hear a single horn in one of the busiest cities in the world. The only noise pollution comes from the slot machines and arcades spread throughout the city, the pachinkos. We eat a hearty brunch in the Roppongi Tower, at a Gastropub rivaling San Francisco’s.

 Covered colored cones and cars. Tokyo is full of rhythm.

Covered colored cones and cars. Tokyo is full of rhythm.

 Entering the heart of Harajuku.

Entering the heart of Harajuku.

Tokyo also shows us its incredibly rich culture: the groups of old people practicing tai chi in the morning; the business suits running to their subway; the punk kids dressed in cosplay, with pink, blue, or purple hair on the streets of Harajuku; our first concert in a while, a girl DJ at the entrance of a mall; the pick-your-favorite-animal cafes, we choose bunnies and play with them for an hour to the voice of the Japanese girl exclaiming, “Kawaiiiii!” We do not look for the famed adult stores but know they’re around from the stickers taped on traffic light poles.

From the southern part of Japan, Hakata-style ramen is made with a rich pork-bone broth, thin noodles, chashu, garlic, green onions, and an egg (if you want it). The best part is choosing exactly how you want your bowl of soup: depth of broth, firmness of noodles, amount of toppings, and spice level. For anyone going to Tokyo, stop by Ichiran. Such a fun experience and the most comforting bowl of ramen we’ve had in years.

A subway ride to the Mori Art Museum renews my love for space, manga and bande-dessinée, the French/Belgian version of comic books. There is a large crowd there, waiting two hours in line to get to the top of the building and view of the whole city. I hate buildings and crowds, and grow impatient with views. Instead, we rush to what we know best, food, this time looking for tonkotsu, a type of ramen Madie loves. We’re at Ichiran Ramen, seated in single booths divided by a wood panel. A small curtained window is in front of me, where a headless waiter delivers the best ramen I’ve ever had. In three days, we’ll wolf down ramen a few times, soba noodles, sushi, tonkatsu, and as many pastries, matcha ice creams, and yogurts as we can. We will even venture to the Tsukiji Market in the morning, a famous fish market where all the best sushi chefs go. An old man carves a tuna larger than a pig; we explore the market amongst fish heads, octopi, roe, and workers busy cleaning up the place. Ten in the morning is already late for the market, but it’s the best time for a snack of fresh sushi and beer.

 The renowned Tsukiji Fish Market is nothing short of spectacular. It’s amazing that millions of dollars worth of seafood is sold in this warehouse on a daily basis, starting in the wee hours of the morning. Arriving late, we were able to watch a few remaining fish being butchered in peace, away from what would have been a buzzing Saturday auction.

The renowned Tsukiji Fish Market is nothing short of spectacular. It’s amazing that millions of dollars worth of seafood is sold in this warehouse on a daily basis, starting in the wee hours of the morning. Arriving late, we were able to watch a few remaining fish being butchered in peace, away from what would have been a buzzing Saturday auction.

It’s already time to leave Japan, and with it, a bit of our heart. We spent an incredible twelve days, wishing we had a lot more. We both know if there’s a place in Asia we could live, it would be here. But as quiet as things may seem on the outside, Japan is known for a difficult work culture - Karōshi (過労死) means “death by overwork.” But there is also a word seemingly invented for us: Kuidaore (食い倒れ), or “to eat oneself to bankruptcy.” It’s time for the next step. No regrets, only more adventures to come. 


Links

  • Takayama is a few hours away from Kyoto by JR train, and in a most scenic environment. It has much to offer, including a beautiful circuit of temples at the edge of the historic center.
    • Shirakawa-go is a UNESCO protected village near Takayama. It is easily visited in half a day with a local bus.
    • If you can afford it, the ryokan experience is a must-do in Japan, and was particularly fitting in Takayama. We stayed at the excellent Hodakaso Yamanoiori.
  • Need we say more about Tokyo?
    • Absolutely save one lunch or dinner or late night snack for Ichiran Ramen.
    • The Roppongi Tower has an incredible museum, the Mori Art Museum. Wait times for the scenic point are upwards of two hours, however.
    • The city is large but somehow doesn’t have as much to offer as Kyoto in terms of history and sights. Know what you want before planning to stay there too long. Kyoto is around three and half hours away by bullet train, Osaka is around four hours away.
    • If in season, you can catch a sumo match! Ask your hotel. Most of them have the info.
  • Unfortunately, we missed two places we regret most because we had not booked them early enough:
    • The Ghibli Museum requires reservations weeks in advance. We are both big fans of Miyazaki movies.
    • Dosanjin is famed for an incredible (and pretty) soba noodle dish, and also requires advance reservation.

Japan - Kuidaore in Osaka, Ukiyo in Kyoto

 On our first afternoon in Kyoto we climbed the small tree-covered mountain of Inari to pass through its 10,000 torii (gates), some of which date back to 711 AD. 

On our first afternoon in Kyoto we climbed the small tree-covered mountain of Inari to pass through its 10,000 torii (gates), some of which date back to 711 AD. 

Bonobo - 7th Sevens

We’re on a short flight from Shanghai to Osaka, Japan. China has a strong character, and it started to weigh on us. We enjoyed it as much as other countries, especially its food, culture, and grand sights, though it was not always welcoming (not unlike the streets of Paris). As with other border crossings, we try to reset, remove feelings of the last country and preconceptions of the next, but this time it takes a bit more effort; there’s more to erase, past and future. We have high hopes for Japan and its culture, knowing it more than other countries we’ve been to. Me, from my early childhood days watching anime in the morning (Club Dorothée is deeply ingrained in me) to all the Murakami books I’ve devoured the past ten years, and more recently, all the mangas filling the long bus rides of our travels. Madie, studied Japanese for three years in high school (おはよ ございます、 さかはら せんせい!).

 The beautiful Osaka Castle, surrounded and protected by several large moats, gates, and bridges. This landmark played a major role in the unification of Japan during the sixteenth century, and was level one of Alex’s Pokémon Go adventure.

The beautiful Osaka Castle, surrounded and protected by several large moats, gates, and bridges. This landmark played a major role in the unification of Japan during the sixteenth century, and was level one of Alex’s Pokémon Go adventure.

Osaka

It is a common theme that we don’t know anything about anywhere. As soon as we land, we’re hit by the food kingdom that is Osaka. The airport arrival has a flurry of renowned restaurants. We start the day with tonkatsu, to fill Madie’s heart. The Japanese language and deep bows welcome us warmly. The giggles come back to her face - this is a good sign.

It’s a complicated train ride to town, setting the pace for what will be an amazing twelve days in Japan. I feel out of place. My clothes are dirty; I’m stinky, sweaty, and hairy; we’re the only ones with giant backpacks. The train and subway crowds are orderly. Most men are in black or deep blue suits with white shirts. Women are coquettish, pretty and simple. We walk through Osaka’s business district for two kilometers. The hotel is nice, classy even. Kimonos, the smell of cigarettes, and a toilet with too many buttons wait for us in our tiny room. We thank credit card points for letting us visit Japan. At $80 a night for the cheapest place we could find, we could not have afforded it any other way.

 We didn’t know much about Osaka when we booked our tickets, but it has quickly stolen our hearts with its food, its people, its pace, and its scenic river walks. (Alex said it reminded him of Lyon.) Here’s a much busier side of town, albeit still charming at golden hour.

We didn’t know much about Osaka when we booked our tickets, but it has quickly stolen our hearts with its food, its people, its pace, and its scenic river walks. (Alex said it reminded him of Lyon.) Here’s a much busier side of town, albeit still charming at golden hour.

It is a love affair with Osaka, or rather a one-night-stand - a passionate fling of indulgence and decadence. We find a few blog posts for restaurant tips and decide to explore the city following its best plates, bowls, and skewers. The airport started us with delicious tonkatsu, our first traditional meal with all the fixings. Dinner is a variant of ramen we’ll never find again, with a richly flavored paste sitting at the bottom of the bowl. (Close to tsukemen, but not a broth.) Pastries for snacks, one after the other, few rivaling the best bakeries in France. “That’s what a Cronut should taste like,” Madie will boldly exclaim, deeply falling for the Little Mermaid pastry shop. After a mandatory visit to the Osaka Castle, and a first Pokémon GO adventure (it was fitting to start there), we eat sushi at a small hole-in-the-wall recommended by Migrationology, find takoyaki, fried octopus balls, and matcha green tea ice cream to finish off. We take a short break of 90 minutes, strolling in the shopping district, amongst the bright colors of pachinkos and fake food stores. We’re back on okonomiyaki, bonito flakes twisting around, then walk another 15 minutes for yakitori - in a restaurant known for using all parts of the pig (and yes, we had all parts). Our first 36 hours in Japan, we already hit six food stops. The pounds we lost in the past four months are back and then some. But we’re happy. And desperately full. I catch a couple more Pidgeys and fall deeply asleep feeling like a Snorlax.

 Our yakitori chef behind the grill. Loved the feel of this place... Old wood, sake bottles, and smoke permeating the air. 

Our yakitori chef behind the grill. Loved the feel of this place... Old wood, sake bottles, and smoke permeating the air. 

 We made a special trip from Osaka to Kobe to have wagyu beef at La Shomon. This photo doesn’t do it justice, but it was the best meal of our four months on the road so far, and perhaps the best beef we've ever had. As @meandfrenchie would say, it was like butter.

We made a special trip from Osaka to Kobe to have wagyu beef at La Shomon. This photo doesn’t do it justice, but it was the best meal of our four months on the road so far, and perhaps the best beef we've ever had. As @meandfrenchie would say, it was like butter.

 Perfectly marbled Kobe beef.

Perfectly marbled Kobe beef.

Kobe

We head to Kobe, home of the famous wagyu beef, on (what should have been) a 30 minute train ride. After getting lost for 2 hours in the JR train system, we finally make it to La Shomon (焼肉バル) and have the best meal of our trip, and the best beef we’ve ever had, for only $20 each (another gem from Migrationology). Additional pastries bought at the train station, we hop on our ride back, mischievous children in school uniforms accompanying us. For our readers watching anime, the Japanese train rides look just like that: a quiet train passing through suburban Japan, peaceful neighborhoods of single homes, always allowing nature to peek through, most people traveling on bike or trains, and youthful voices creating the soundtrack. Tempura closes our first volume of food adventures.

 Kinkaku-ji’s story is one of rebirth. The original 500+ year old structure was burned in 1950 when a young monk attempted suicide. Five years later it was rebuilt, covered in gold to purify the temple of negative thoughts about death, and crowned with a golden phoenix. No wonder it’s one of Kyoto’s most visited sites.

Kinkaku-ji’s story is one of rebirth. The original 500+ year old structure was burned in 1950 when a young monk attempted suicide. Five years later it was rebuilt, covered in gold to purify the temple of negative thoughts about death, and crowned with a golden phoenix. No wonder it’s one of Kyoto’s most visited sites.

 The stunning bamboo forest in Arashiyama on the west side of Kyoto. Did you know some bamboo species grow one meter a day? Incredible! 

The stunning bamboo forest in Arashiyama on the west side of Kyoto. Did you know some bamboo species grow one meter a day? Incredible! 

Kyoto

We make our way to Kyoto and explore the many gates of Fushimi Inari Daisha after a filling lunch of loco moco, tonkatsu, and my very first fresh tofu - which I now understand I’ve been missing out on this entire time. After performing the water ritual at the crowded entrance, we hike further into the park, hoping to lose the few tourists. We cross path multiple times with a smiling grandpa, helping us find our way. I wonder if he has a side-quest for us, but he is only here for Shinrin-Yoku (森林浴), literally “forest bathing,” a word for a visit to the forest for relaxation and health. The park is a complex of Japanese shrines: thousands of bright orange gates, set in a deep green forest amongst the dark grays of traditional tombs. We learn the word Komorebi (木漏れ日), “sunlight shining through the leaves of trees.” China had a sense for the epic; Japan has a profound one for the aesthetic, the tasteful and subtle beauty, the perfect harmony. Geishas pass by, some are simply locals dressing up, others are the ‘real’ ones, entertainers of the Gion district. Ukiyo (浮世 "floating world") describes the urban lifestyle, especially the pleasure-seeking aspects of this world. 

After a two hour hike through the park, Madie and I cool down with amazake, a cold, sweet, fermented rice drink with ginger, and agree that if we had the opportunity to live here, we’d probably do it. The high-pitched laughter of children echo from a nearby elementary school - the usual trigger for us to think about the future. Our dinner is a bowl of rice and raw fish on which we pour dashi, the tasty Japanese broth. We pick up on a new tradition, eating yogurt (or chocolate pudding) at night in our tiny hotel room. 

 Kyoto, Japan's most beautiful city, home to thousands of Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, and where local and foreign tourists dress in the most vibrant kimonos to tour them. 

Kyoto, Japan's most beautiful city, home to thousands of Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, and where local and foreign tourists dress in the most vibrant kimonos to tour them. 

  Inari is the kami (spirit that is worshipped in Shinto religion) of prosperity, success, and rice. It’s why many companies and businesses donate a vermilion-colored shrine - for thanks and hope for more good fortune.   Here you can see their names engraved on the pillars.

Inari is the kami (spirit that is worshipped in Shinto religion) of prosperity, success, and rice. It’s why many companies and businesses donate a vermilion-colored shrine - for thanks and hope for more good fortune. Here you can see their names engraved on the pillars.

 Taking a break at the temple garden.

Taking a break at the temple garden.

 Young girls dressed as gieshas in Kyoto.

Young girls dressed as gieshas in Kyoto.

 Ending the day and our time in Kyoto at the viewpoint by Kiyomizu-dera. Still so much left to explore here. We will surely be back.

Ending the day and our time in Kyoto at the viewpoint by Kiyomizu-dera. Still so much left to explore here. We will surely be back.

Kyoto, home of Emperors and Japan’s capital for a millennia before Tokyo, is reputed the most beautiful city in the country and carries high hopes for the traveler - it did not disappoint. For the next days, we do our best to explore the city - amongst the tall greens of Arashimaya, the bamboo forest where a Meowth hides; at a sunset at Kiyomizu-dera, a temple in a light drizzle; along the Philosopher’s Path with matcha ice cream; in a peaceful cemetery. We make the obligatory visit to Kinkaku-ji, the golden temple and its proud Phoenix remembering the monk who attempted suicide by fire; we meander through the Imperial Park, finally resting under the red gate of Shishinden, until the next matcha ice cream at Ninen-zaka after dark; we properly learn the water purification ritual at the zen gardens of Ryōan-ji and Higashiyama Jisho-ji. We stroll for kilometers, powered by minced tuna rice bowls, okonomiyaki and, what the heck, the best pizza we’ve had in a long time. My Pokémon score is off the charts. 

We’re love-struck, longing to see Japan in the winter, spring, and fall. The aesthetic is omnipresent, harmony is ingrained in Japan’s culture, and the pursuit of being better in its philosophy. It’s peaceful, easy even, a feeling we haven’t had since we left - a breath of fresh air after four months in Asia.

And as with all refreshing breaths of air, fill it up with soup, ramen, if possible, one for her and tsukemen for me. Kuidaore (食い倒れ) is the Japanese word for “eating yourself to bankruptcy.”  Tomorrow, we wake up early for a ride to a different world, the Japanese Alps. We won’t quite go to sleep before another yogurt and a couple Ratatats, though.


Links

  • Osaka is reputed for the best food in Japan. From what we can tell, it is well deserved. Migrationology has a great post on his favorite spots. It is also a cheap flight from Shanghai, and well-connected by train.
  • Kobe is only a 30 minute train ride away. It’d be a shame to miss the best beef in the world. We chose to go to La Shomon, recommended by Migrationology for its relatively inexpensive prices.
  • Kyoto is 90 minutes away by train from Osaka. The historical sites are endless, and in only 3-4 days there, we missed too many places (including the manga museum!). The golden temple Kinkaku-ji, the bamboo forest Arashimaya, and the Imperial palace are the most touristic spots, but we particularly enjoyed walking in Fushimi Inari-taisha, the Philosopher’s Path, and Ryōan-ji
  • Few websites will recommend a JR Pass for a week or two. While it may seem like a good option, be aware that:
    • It can only be purchased outside of Japan.
    • It only allows travel on JR trains (there are many other local tracks and companies).
    • It is limited in time (one or two weeks). Lots of travel needs to be done in a short time to make it worth it. At our pace, only the two-week pass would have saved us money.