In December 2016, Jeremy and I took on Japan. His return trip, my first, and a holiday that I’ll always hold dear to my heart. If you haven’t already checked it out, here’s my Tokyo travel diary which captures some of what we got up to in the capital city.
After our time in Tokyo, we descended upon Kyoto, Kobe and Osaka before retreating back home. Airbnb was our accomodation of choice, train (and a lot of walking!) our transportation. And the food – well we made sure we tried our fair share of Japanese dishes to round out the experience.
Kyoto’s Fushimi Inari was the single focus for me in visiting this quaint Japanese town. Arriving to the city by bullet train, we spent our first night there munching on katsu pork steaks (heaven!), drinking steaming cups of green tea and relaxing after the commute.
But then the next morning we were prepared bright and early. I’ll never proclaim to be the fittest person in the world, but determination was high that we make it to the top of the Inari mountain. If you’re not familiar with it, Fushimi Inari is 233 metres up from sea level, and navigating to the pinnacle will take around two hours (funny how down seems to go so much faster).
It’s a pretty stunning walk making your way through vegetation and the orange and black wooden torii, which the site is iconic for. Each of these is donated by a Japanese business, which I think adds to the history and community spirit that is embodied there.
While it was freezing cold, we made sure to keep a brisk pace (while stopping for some photo and snack breaks along the way – hint: there’s a hot food market near the exit when you arrive, but there’s also a convenience store across the road where you can stock up on Japanese treats). I found my mind flashing back to Memoirs of a Geisha, which is where my interest was first piqued in this place.
The earliest structures here date back to the early 700s – and there’s over 32,000 individual shrines/temples on the land. It’s pretty mind-boggling to see and I couldn’t wipe the grin off my face with each step we took. The view at the top made it all worth it, and the walk back down was almost a reward from the previous inclined direction.
There’s plenty of historical sites to visit in Kyoto by day, and great eateries to hit up at night. One of my favourites was exploring UNESCO World Heritage Site – Nijo Castle. Built in 1679, this was the home of the Shogun. Sadly taking photos was prohibited, so believe me when I say that the intricate craftsmanship and detail was breathtaking.
There’s so many different nooks and crannies, with lots of passages to read to learn more about the history. It’s definitely interesting for history buffs, or those who just want to soak up a local attraction of this nature. The gardens are also really lovely to explore, especially at the time of year we went where the trees are blushing fiery hues.
Kobe is the sixth largest city of Japan – but I have to admit when we were planning our trip it wasn’t a place I was really that excited to go to. Jeremy assured me that I would enjoy our time there though, and so we set about for a couple of nights.
Our timing was perfect. Accidentally so, but still perfect.
The first night there was the Kobe Luminarie festival, a light festival held annually to commemorate victims of the Great Hanshin earthquake in 1995. The lights were donated by the Italian government, with over 200,000 individually painted lights assembled and lit each year with electricity generated from biomass in order to stay environmentally friendly.
It is stunning. I can’t even begin to say how incredible this festival is. Thousands of people were in attendance at the same time as us (though apparently 3-5 million attend each year over the two week period) and we walked the streets together in unison, in combined awe. The installations go for a block, and you find yourself walking through them to enjoy the magnificence against the pitch black sky.
It all culminates with the largest installation and then a street market to reward your trek with local delicacies.
I don’t think I’ll ever forget this experience, it really was so special.
When in Kobe… one definitely must eat Kobe beef.
We’d heard a lot about it – and of course with my love of food it was right up my alley. We threw ourselves in with gusto trying it in the traditional teppanyaki style, but then we also thought we’d go new wave and attempt a Kobe beef burger.
It definitely wasn’t friendly on the purse strings but the taste… wow. The beef has intense marbling and melts in your mouth. It has a very decadent and luxurious mouthfeel, with the flavour resonating long after your last bite has gone.
Though we were staying in Kobe, we took a day trip out to Himeji to visit their famous castle. It’s a quick train ride away, and the hoards of people on site proved it was a popular choice.
First built in 1333, Himeji Castle sits atop of a hill. It’s another UNESCO World Heritage site, and supposedly the most frequented of all Japanese castles by tourists. The scale of the site and the building is a drawcard in itself.
It’s a castle designed with advanced defensive systems in place and is regarded as the finest surviving example of prototypical Japanese castle architecture with it’s 83 buildings.
For Jeremy and I, we had quite a few laughs on site because of our height. My five-ten and his six-three stature were no match for the low doorways and short arches. Our knees and necks definitely got a workout that day!
The final stop of our Japan holiday was Osaka aka home of delectable food, shopping AND Universal Studios which has HARRY POTTER WORLD.
Yes, I admit it, I am a Harry Potter nerd. I have all the collector books. All the movies. I’m a Potterphile and I was like a kid in a candy store as we took the train to the studio.
We were there as the doors opened, and I think I literally ran to their version of Hogsmeade. Past the charmed car, around the Hogwarts Express and into my version of heaven. Cups of butterbeer in hand (best served steaming hot) and some great rides on offer – my advice to you is if you’re going here go early. The lines for the rides are easily the worst I’ve ever experienced, and we were there before the majority of the crowds arrived.
But don’t let that deter you. After all, there’s a little kid in all of us who loves theme parks!
Japan has a huge vending machine culture, but my favourite were the ramen machines. There’s no sticky language barrier issues here, simply insert your money, make your selection and it will spit out a ticket. Head through the doors behind the machine and take a seat at the counter – your food will be only minutes away.
Yes maybe it’s a bit kitsch, but for the few we tried – it doesn’t compromise on quality. The ramen in Japan really is exceptional. Deep, heady broths that are accompanied by the chefs interpretation of sauces, noodles and accompaniments. I particularly like the black garlic which was prominent at the ramen spots in Osaka.
And while I long for ramen every day of the week, there’s some other truly worthwhile food ventures to check out in this city. The likes of kushiage (deep fried sticks you dip into a communal sauce – no double dipping allowed!), Pablo’s cheesecake (yes it’s so worth the wait for this creamy goodness) and of course okonomiyaki.
For this dish we went to the most famous location in Doutonbori called Mitsuno. They make the cabbage pancakes right before your eyes on a hot plate, customising it as per your order. The line was long to dine here, but I’m glad we persevered and waited. I can see why they say it’s the best!
At nighttime in Osaka there’s naturally your standard options of drinks, more food, clubbing etc. But if you’re looking for something different there’s pachinko (gambling centres) or arcades. We had so much fun at the latter, spending way too much money trying to win this Harry doll.
Sadly we came up trumps but we did have a blast, and walked away with some candy prizes at least.
There was so much to our Japan trip, and writing this over six months later has meant I know I’ve forgotten some details.
But the main thing remains true: it is a beautiful country, steeped in history and enveloped in culture. The food scene is outrageously good; the people friendly and helpful. It’s a place I know I’ll return to, hopefully next time to explore the likes of Niseko, Hiroshima and Nagoya.
My only regret? Not taking the time to visit Kyoto’s Arashimaya bamboo forrest. But that just gives me an excuse to go back!