The last stop of our grand adventure was Japan. I loved Japan and wished we could have spent more time there, but for several reasons (time constraints and budget concerns…) we were there for only three and a half weeks. We didn’t see a lot of the country in that time, and there is still so much more to explore for the next time. We considered trying to fit more in, but were also conscious that we didn’t want to overwhelm ourselves and fly through this last portion of the trip.
Going to Japan last allowed us to indulge a bit more than we might have if we still had months of travel left, which is good because it was certainly one of the most (if not the most) expensive country we visited. After four months around Southeast Asia, Japan felt more similar to home than any of the other countries we visited in that time and I think that helped us prepare to return home. We immensely enjoyed our time around Asia, but I think the reverse culture shock coming home was less severe coming from Japan than if we had come straight from Indonesia.
We arrived in Japan via an overnight layover in Kuala Lumpur (we stayed at a hotel inside the airport!) and kicked off our time in the country with three nights in Osaka. Upon arriving in Osaka, we were immediately struck by the cleanliness of everything, the clear air, and the crosswalks! I never realized how much I had missed crosswalks and crossing signals until we got to Japan.
Our time in Osaka was mostly filled with searching out food and eating. The food highlights include wandering Kuromon Ichiba market and eating takoyaki (dough balls stuffed with octopus and smothered in sauce) and fresh mochi (balls made from a sticky rice paste, often filled with sweet red beans); waiting in line for some of the best okonamiyaki (savory omelette/pancake) in Osaka; indulging in curry-smothered tonkatsu; and slurping down delicious udon in a narrow restaurant with locals.
Among all the eating, we also managed to find time to take in some cultural sights: We spent the better part of a day wandering through and around Osaka Castle (which had some seriously impressive animated dioramas). We enjoyed the more temperate weather after the heat and humidity of Indonesia, and Osaka Castle provided some excellent views over the city on a beautiful clear day.
We also spent a fair amount of time just wandering around the Dotonbori area of Osaka, marveling at the bright lights and the huge signs in the shape of crabs/octopi/food, window-shopping, and people-watching. Dotonbori is one of the main tourist areas in Osaka and it was fun just to wander along either side of the river, cans of Suntory Highballs in hand.
I think Osaka was a good introduction to Japan for me: Primarily an industrial city, it felt pretty quiet outside of the hustle and bustle of the main tourist and business areas; the good food was accessible and easy to find; and the public transit system wasn’t too confusing.
April 28-May 5
From Osaka we headed to Kyoto for a week. Unfortunately, we had another instance of not checking the calendar for local holidays ended up visiting Kyoto during Golden Week, a week at the end of April/beginning of May during which several national holidays fall and when most people take a long vacation. As the former imperial capital of Japan, Kyoto is a popular area for domestic tourism and so we descended on the city along with the throngs of Japanese tourists. It was certainly a slice of life to see what the locals do on vacation!
I really enjoyed Kyoto and was glad that we got to spend a full week there. It’s a beautiful city with well-preserved older buildings (especially in Gion, the former geisha district), mixed with austere post-war architecture, and peaceful shrines and temples sprinkled throughout. We had a tiny Airbnb in a quiet area (and what turned out to be the former red-light district) within walking distance to a lot of sites and a metro stop. It was a little tighter than we are used to but it was actually kind of fun taking advantage of all of the little efficiency hacks for living in a tiny space. And it was an adventure to go shopping at 7-Eleven and Lawson’s and try to cook in the mini kitchen!
We spent our week in Kyoto doing lots of touristy things and eating more wonderful food. Highlights include:
- Countless temples (both very large complexes, and little tiny ones) which were all different and stunning in their own way, including Kinkaku-ji temple with its breathtaking Golden Pavilion.
- Wandering through the rooms of Nijo Castle in our stocking feet and getting to see how the Shoguns lived.
- Visiting the grounds of the Imperial Palace and ending up getting a private tour.
- Feeling minuscule among the giant bamboo of the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove.
- Enjoying our lunch of soba noodles while sitting on tatami mats, and getting shown how to drink the cooking water with the dipping sauce.
- Walking through the mesmerizing orange torii gates of Fushimi Inari Shrine, and trying to snap a photo without any people in it (of course, the Japanese visitors were very kind and would pause and wait for us to get the picture!).
- Sitting for a moment in peaceful contemplation at the rock garden and wandering the verdant grounds of the Ryōan-ji Zen temple.
- Getting tickets to the Kyotographie exhibit from my high school friend who moved back to Kyoto, and because of it getting to explore interesting corners of the city that are usually closed to the public.
- Sampling delicious street foods like red bean paste-filled fish (-shaped) cakes.
Kyoto is also known for the matcha (green tea powder) that is produced in the area, and there is no shortage of matcha-themed and -flavored products for sale all over. I loved it! One thing that stands out is going to get matcha soft-serve ice cream and at the shop you could pick from ice creams made from qualities/grades of matcha, and the highest was quite expensive!
One thing that I was most blown away by in Japan was the detail and craftsmanship that goes into everything: From the architectural finishings on a temple to the perfect arrangement of goods in a window display, everything feels thoughtful and purposeful, and is always done impeccably.
I also loved the care and thought that went into every little experience. We were on the lookout for some special seasonal mochi and popped into a sweets shop to get some. Even though we only spent about $5 on our two little mochi, they had us sit down and gave us tea and small sweets to try. This was certainly most exemplified when we splurged for a traditional kaiseki lunch. For that style of dining, each course is a prescribed dish or style of cooking (i.e., rice course, sashimi course, dish served in a covered bowl, clear soup course, etc.) and is served directly to the diner from a chef, and the whole experience is high on protocol and tradition. Most of the food was really delicious, but some of the dishes stretched my tastebuds (cold whelk, anyone?). We finished the meal and headed to the entrance to get our shoes, and the hostess in her traditional kimono had already placed our shoes by the door and stayed in a low bow until we exited the building.
While it was very crowded in Kyoto because of Golden Week, it was actually kind of fun getting to wander the city with all the other tourists and not feel like we were too out of place. One thing that was especially fun to see was the (mostly) domestic tourists who pay hundreds of dollars to get their hair and make-up done and rent colorful kimonos just to visit the sites and take pictures. I was constantly distracted by the vibrant patterns and bright pops of color, and loved getting to see some of the more beautiful construction up close.
We finished up our week in Kyoto with a long walk along the Kamo river that runs through the city. We enjoyed seeing the locals hanging out and enjoying the outdoors, children hopping along the stones in the river, people running and walking their dogs, couples having picnics, and groups of friends chatting after school.
Check out more photos from Osaka and Kyoto here.
Stay tuned for Japan part two: Takayama, Hirayu Onsen, and Tokyo!