Blogged by Dave
Japan is a place that both Anne and I have been keen to visit for a long time, but have never had the chance due to its great distance from South Africa. So we were happy when we found really cheap direct tickets leaving from Bali, and so the 2 and half weeks between Bali and the start of our diving liveaboard boat trip were decided.
One of our concerns with traveling to Japan was the potential language barrier, but in the end we have found it really easy to travel around Japan, with enough English around to help you without the whole place losing the feeling that you are definitely in Japan. Quite a few of our friends have also visited Japan recently and gave us some very handy tips which we will share with you, together with some of our own lessons.
Tip 1: Train travel in Japan is fast, comfortable, extensive, incredibly reliable, and incredibly expensive. Unless you are spending all your time in one city, a Japanese Rail Pass (or JR Pass) is essential, with a one week pass costing slightly more than a return ticket to Kyoto from Tokyo. The pass allows you unlimited travel on nearly every JR train across the country, including several of the famous bullet trains (Shinkansen) and the few JR train services in major cities. The JR pass also gives you free travel on the Miyajima ferry and the limited JR bus system. You just need to flash your pass at the entrance gates at the platforms and hop onto the train. For some of the busier trains it is useful to reserve seats in the slightly more luxurious reserved seat cars rather than trying your luck in the more crowded unreserved cars. Reserving seats is free and can be easily done at most JR stations. If you haven’t reserved a seat or are on a train with no reserved seats then it is best to get to the station a bit early and start queuing at the right place on the station so that you can be first to board. For some of the busier trains we saw people queuing 15 minutes before the train was expected to arrive. The most important thing about the JR Pass is that you cannot buy it in Japan – you MUST buy it in advance. If you have a reliable postal service in your country then it can be bought on line and posted to you, taking at least a week. Otherwise there are usually several travel agencies in your country (just do an internet search) that can get one for you, although even this takes at least two days. STA Travel is a reliable source in South Africa. Be careful to check that you get the correct vouchers – some friends of ours only found out when they arrived in Japan that they had been given one voucher instead of the two they had paid for, and were unable to fix it.
For planning your trains, an App called Hyperdia is invaluable. It is available for 30 days free use from the day you first open it, and shows you all the rail options to your chosen destination, including whether seats can be reserved, which platforms your trains leave from and exact times of arrival and departure (very useful when you are not 100% sure of exactly where you are). Best of all you can tell it that you have a JR Pass and it will tell you whether you need to pay in anything extra (for example if you need to catch a non-JR train or a metro line) It only works online, but we just took screenshots of the trains we wanted to catch (which is also really useful for showing the ticket office which trains you want to reserve seats for).
One of the big advantages of the JR Pass is that it becomes easy to do interesting stopovers on long journeys or to do day trips. Every station has reasonably priced coin lockers to leave your baggage in while you wander around.
Tip 2: A 7-Eleven store is your friend. 90% of what you need can be found here. An ATM that accepts foreign credit cards – check. Free wifi – check. Toilets – check. A wide variety of surprisingly good large and small meals, as well as snacks – check. Rubbish bin (there are very few elsewhere) – check. Coffee – check. Photocopy machine – check. They can be found almost everywhere and all reasonably sized train stations have one.
Our first taste of Japan was Osaka, where we stayed at a simple, but conveniently located hostel called Tani9 Backpackers (http://tani9-backpackers.com/). After dropping off our bags we hit the streets to try some of Osaka’s famous foods. First up we headed to the Kuromon Ichiba food market where Anne tried takoyaki, a slightly strange but tasty gooey ball of cooked batter with a piece of octopus in the middle, covered in mayo, bonito shavings and some other type of sauce. Next up was the crazy crowded Dotonbori street with its giant food sculptures where I has a delicious ramen noodle dish, ordered from a machine while waiting in a queue for a table. After a walk through the area around Dotonbori we made our way to interesting Osaka Castle. Our day was completed with a dinner of another Osaka dish, Okonomiyaki, at the excellent Momiji restaurant opposite our hostel. We quickly discovered that Japanese are not shy of queuing for good food, and as many restaurants are tiny, with only seating for 12 – 20 people, you can queue for a long time. Even though we arrived at the restaurant at around 18:30, we still queued for around 45 minutes before getting a seat at the counter facing the chefs. Here you get to see the chefs preparing your meal before it gets put onto a hot plate in front of you. Okonomiyaki is a thick cabbage-based pancake, usually containing slices of bacon-like pork or squid, and sometimes with noodles, egg or occasionally kimchi added as an extra. Ours were amazing and by far the best ones we had on our trip to date. We really enjoyed Osaka, a place that is often ignored by tourists in favour of nearby Kyoto, and found it to be a great introduction to some of the crazier aspects of travelling around Japan. It is much less touristy than many other places and definitely worth spending some time in.
Next up (via our first Shinkansen bullet train) was Miyajima, an island near Hiroshima, famous for its ‘floating’ torii (or shrine gate), apparently ranked as one of the top three views in Japan (everything in Japan is ranked). Although the torii is pretty nice, we far enjoyed walking around the island more and in particular enjoyed the hike to the top of the 550m high peak overlooking the main village. It’s a fairly easy but steepish walk through some lovely forest to the top, taking around an hour if you don’t mess around. The views from the top are amazing and the walk itself is a welcome escape from the crowds of tourists, as most people queue for the rope way (or cable car) to the top. Most people only visit the island as a day trip from Hiroshima, but we were glad we decided to spend a night, as the little village has a completely different atmosphere once the last ferry leaves. Our hotel was a modern Japanese-style inn, complete with complicated toilets (see https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toilets_in_Japan for an excruciatingly detailed description of Japanese toilets), futon beds and a shared bathing area (with separate areas for men and women). The bathing areas were typical Japanese baths (i.e. rather strange), with no privacy, a funny little stool, a basin, hand held shower head and a large, shallow hot pool for when you are done cleaning yourself. I’m pretty sure I broke about 10 bathing etiquette rules but fortunately no-one else was using the bathroom. I’m not sure I enjoyed the whole experience, although I did look rather good in my supplied Japanese robe.
Next up was Hiroshima, the first place in the world to be attacked using a nuclear bomb. There are several grim reminders of this event around the city, such as a grove of trees that survived the bombing, a baseball stadium that was never rebuilt, and the shell of an exhibition hall that was almost directly below ground zero. Almost everything in a two kilometer radius was completely destroyed, and an estimated 200 000 people died either immediately, within a few days as a result of their injuries or later from the impact of radiation. A Peace Park has been established near ground zero with many memorials and a really good but harrowing museum. We had another okonomiyaki for lunch, this time in Okonomi-mura, a slightly bizarre 3 story okonomiyaki mall in the middle of town with about 25 different restaurants all serving the same thing. We chose the one with the most locals, and weren’t disappointed. Before heading to our guesthouse, we hopped on a quick train to Saijo, a well known sake (rice wine) town (aaaah – the joys of the JR Pass). Unfortunately several of the sake houses were closed to clean up after the huge sake festival which had taken place a few days before, but we did get to do a free tasting of several different kinds of sake at one of the breweries (including the sake served to President Obama during his state visit to Japan). After our sake adventures we headed to our accommodation, a lovely budget traditional Japanese house a bit out of Hiroshima called 88house (http://88hiroshima.com/), complete with literal paper thin walls. It sounds like there are some nice walks in the forested hills surrounding Hiroshima, but we didn’t get a chance to try any of them out.
After Hiroshima we took a slightly convoluted series of trains and ferries to get to Naoshima, an island on the Inland Sea. Another place that is a popular day trip, we decided to spend a night there after finding a place whose rooms were permanently parked caravans overlooking the sea (http://www.tsutsujiso.com/). Naoshima is known for its modern art, with various galleries and installations dotted in and around the three main villages. We spent the afternoon at the Art House Project in Honduras, which has several interesting houses which have been allocated to artists to do with what they want. If you do go here make sure you pick up a time ticket for Minami-dera the moment you arrive in town – there are limited time slots and very limited numbers, so best to book your time and then see the other houses in between. It’s a great installation – you are lead into what appears to be a completely dark room, but after 3 or 4 minutes your eyes start to make out a very dimly lit screen hovering an indeterminate distance away. It sounds weird but it’s actually quite cool. After checking in to our caravan we walked along the beach to the impressive modern art gallery Benesse House, enjoying the many sculptures and installations along the way. The gallery is somewhat like the Guggenheim in Bilbao and is well worth a visit.
We were up early the next to catch a train to Himeji, where we had a 2 hour stopover on our way to Kyoto. Himeji is famous for Himeji Castle, a nearly all wooden castle that has stood for over 400 years (with earlier versions dating back to the 14th century). The main castle is the largest castle in Japan and one of the most visited tourist spots in Japan. You can enter the main keep, which appears to have served mainly as a defensive structure, with lots of places to shoot at or throw stones onto attackers, and many warrior hidey-holes all over the place to surprise any intruders. The castle grounds are also quite interesting and it is worth spending a bit of time wandering around – most tourists seem to only head to the main keep, so the grounds are also a lot quieter.
Next stop: Kyoto!