Asian Adventures: Japan
May 23rd, 2015

Almost 6 months later, I’m trying to get through recounting my Asia trip this past January. I have another adventure in the works, so I gotta finish this up.

I had the pleasure of visiting Japan in January 2015. I went to some new places, and some old ones, but I still haven’t gotten off Honshu unfortunately >.< Never enough time...

The first big hurdle to overcome was to meet up with my travel-companion in Narita Airport, without a phone, as she flew in from California and I was flying in from New York. We had a few failsafe plans in case one of our flights were delayed.

Plan A: meet at designated area by designated time
Plan B: we each had one walkie talkie from a pair on the same frequency; we'd use that if we needed to within the airport
Plan C: if the other party doesn't make it to the designated meeting spot and time, head over to the hostel solo

After my 68 hour travel craziness two years ago, I was trying to prepare for the worst case scenario.

Over the north pole!? Flying over China. Lots and lots of housing developments.

Fortunately we had no problem finding each other – there is some limited WiFi in Narita and both our flights landed at more or less the same time, so we both found ourselves in baggage claim and customs around the same time.

Japan Day 1

Getting into Tokyo pretty late [around 10 PM], we were both physically exhausted, but also pumped with adrenaline for the start of our trip. We stayed at a Khaosan hostel in Asakusa, Tokyo for just one night and had our first meal overseas the next morning at a Kohikan cafe in Asakusa.

Fluffy hot cakes with azuki red bean and honey :)

We headed out early to take a shinkansen bullet train up to meet our mutual college friend up in Niigata, to stay with him for a few days in Tsuruoka. Niigata is famous for koi farming, but January is not the best season to explore too much, so my friends and I just checked out the area.

Meeting up with my friend, was probably the second biggest hurdle we encountered. Before leaving the hostel, I texted him two potential trains that we were going to try to make. There was about one train an hour, so we were planning to try to get the one around noon, but if we missed it we’d get the next one. Unfortunately, we missed the second one by just minutes and found ourselves on the next train, and with no way of letting my friend know we were going to be over an hour later than anticipated. When we got to the Niigata station, it was also a bit bigger than we had anticipated, but by God’s grace, we found some WiFi at the visitor’s center and were able to Line chat my friend and meet up. It was pretty stressful in the moment because the station has multiple exits and we were late, but we met up and had a fun day exploring the area.

Niigata is about a two hour drive from Tsuruoka, where my friend lived, and the drive back was also crazy to say the least. It was hailing and snowing the whole ride back, but those tiny Japanese cars are quite impressive even with all the elements against them.

Japan Day 2

The next day we had a crazy day hiking Mt. Haguro. The mountain was heavily snow-laden with probably around 5 feet or so. There is a path of stone stairs that leads up the mountain to the shrine at the top, but with all the snow and lack of traffic, the path was just some slightly-packed snow. We hiked up in about two hours or so, and the entire trip up was breathtakingly beautiful with just so much snow and giant trees.

Walking around the quiet, I found myself just staring off into the trees as bits of snow shook off the tree branches. It was like a computer screensaver. There was always something moving, but at the same time, it was still.

Although it took some time to go up, we decided to race the sunlight and run down the mountain. We made it down in about 20 minutes. If I wasn’t wearing jeans, I think I would have let myself slide down; but I was wearing jeans, and so I just ran really fast :)

We went to a nearby onsen, and although this was my third time in Japan, I had never gone to an outdoor onsen before. I unfortunately didn’t catch the name of the one we went to, but it was essentially in the middle of nowhere. Props to my friend being able to find it driving there on so many tiny unlabeled roads. The onsen was definitely just what our bodies needed after all the hiking and running around.

We went for conveyor belt kaiten sushi afterwards at a restaurant called Kintaro.

Overall, an incredibly successful day.

Japan Day 3

The next day was pretty chill. We went to a local cafe that my friend frequents, did some grocery shopping, and went to the local Shinto Shrine in Tsuruoka City.

Japan Day 4

Our last day in Tsuruoka, we stayed pretty local as well. We did some more grocery shopping and had Japanese hotpot, nabe at my friend’s apartment. Despite all the fun we were having, it was incredibly cold in Tsuruoka. Houses and apartments generally do not have central heating in Japan, and they rely on gas stoves as space heaters, and then either electric blankets, or heated kotatsu tables, which has a heater underneath the tabletop. So hot pot was much appreciated :) We also went out for some drinks at a classy bar nearby with milk, coffee, and lychee flavored drinks.

Japan Day 5

We started off the day a bit rough, waking up around 5 AM to catch a 7 AM train leaving from Tsuruoka to then transfer to a shinkansen at Niigata to go south to Tokyo.

Once in Tokyo, we went for shoyu ramen in Tokyo Station, and then walked around Ginza for a while. Afterwards, we spent an unfortunate hour trying to locate our luggage, which was being held in a coin locker in the station. Tokyo Station is incredibly [incredibly!] confusing, with multiple north, south, east, and west exits, as well as ticket gates within ticket gates. After an hour of pacing around the station and looping about, we got our stuff and headed to another Khaosan hostel [Khaosan World].

In the evening we hit up Akihabara. I got my friend addicted on my favorite arcade game, Mai Mai and I think we ended up playing 10 rounds or so. Mai Mai is a rhythm game, very similar to Guitar Hero or DDR, but the “notes” ripple out from the center of a circle and you time it when the ripple hits the edge of the circular screen. And then there are different places you can hit either with a mechanical button or the touch screen. I’m be waiting for the day when arcades in the US will be up to par.

Japan Day 6

The next morning we woke up crazy early to go to Tsukiji Fishmarket. By 6 AM we were eating a salmon/tuna sashimi donburi bowl. Fresh fish for sure, but it was a struggle to wake up before even the trains were running.

I had been to Tokyo a few times already, so we didn’t see much else that was new. We were able to visit a few temples I hadn’t been to before though, including Hie Jinja in Akasaka. However, we also visited several familiar places, including Meiji Jingu in Harajuku.

Stairs to Hie Jinja

Later that afternoon we shuffled onto another shinkansen for a 2 hour 20 minute ride to Kyoto. Being back in Kyoto Station felt like home. Sorta. I did get a bit lost, because I never really used the shinkansen in Kyoto [only once], so it was still incredibly nostalgic. I passed through Kyoto Station everyday while I was living in Japan, and I never imagined that in just a couple of years I would be back so soon. We made our way to my host mother’s house in Uji and were welcomed home with homemade tempura. Two years later, and it felt the same. Very little had changed, and my host mother and her white poodle, Azuki, were as genki, energetic, as ever.

Japan Day 7

The next morning we got an early start and went to see Byoudouin, which is a temple near Uji City. When I was last in Kyoto, the temple was closed for renovations, but now it’s been restored and it looks great! There is a lovely museum on the grounds and it’s definitely one of the more colorful temples I have been to. The star attraction point are two small golden phoenixes atop the main hall.

We walked about Uji City for a bit afterwards, grabbing some matcha soft serve on the way to the train, all before lunchtime.

We headed to Nara where I had the great fortune to meet with one of my good study-abroad friends. He is teaching English in the area, so it was great we were able to meet up. We had some awesome Indian food, and then took some selfies with the free-roaming deer on the grounds of Koufukuji. I feel like deer are main attraction in Nara, but beyond that, we wrapped up our time there and headed to Sanjo, one of my favorite areas in Kyoto.

Did some shopping and had some nostalgic moments around the bridge crossing over Kamogawa, we made going to Karefuneya, a parfait dessert place, a priority. I hyped it a lot for my friend, and glad to say that after the experience, she was not disappointed. It lived up to the hype :)

So now for by far one of my craziest experiences, not just on this trip, but in my life, where the line between Day 7 and Day 8 was blurred.

Japan Day 7 / Day 8

We had a flight scheduled to leave Kansai International Airport the next morning at around 8:30 AM. It didn’t seem that outrageously early when I booked it. However, when looking at the details more closely, things were a bit complicated. We needed to check in a minimum one hour before. It was digital check in, and if we checked in later than 7:30 AM, we risked not being permitted on the flight. I realized the day before leaving for Asia that if we stayed over at my host mother’s house caught the earliest train out to the airport, we would only get to the train station at the airport at 7:10 AM, and the station was in a different terminal than our departure gate. So basically, we’d have less than 20 minutes to book it over to the other terminal via a shuttle bus. Didn’t seem like the safest plan. So our plan changed to going to the airport late the night before, and basically sleeping at the airport. Well along with crazy planning, we caught probably the last train from Uji to Kyoto Station, but we missed the last train to the airport for the night. I had a crazy evening of getting to use those rusty Japanese skills to explain to a train ticket agent, train help desk agent, four old taxi drivers, a private taxi driver, two long-distance bus coordinators, a hotel staff, and a noodle shop man, how we had missed the last train to the airport, had a flight early the next morning, and was requesting alternative ways to get to Osaka. All between 11 PM – 1 AM. Osaka and Kyoto are close, but they’re not that close – about an hour’s drive. After explaining my story and getting estimates of $200 – $300 USD to get to the airport, my options were thinning and missing our flight was becoming a realistic problem [it was always a possible issue, but I was in denial and didn't think we'd actually miss it]. Eventually, I remembered that I did read briefly online that there was a bus to the airport that left at 4:30 AM. I asked around for where the station was, couldn’t find it, and was getting pretty worried. My friend and I were two American girls with too much baggage [physically], stranded, homeless in Japan. It was probably around 40 degrees out and we couldn’t stay in the station. We eventually made our way to a 24-hour noodle shop, stayed there for about 3 hours, and around 4 AM I ventured to scout out again where the bus stop might be.

And by God’s grace I found it. At 4:10 AM I found a tiny sign for the airport bus to Kansai International Airport. I had passed it a few hours ago, but at that moment I just randomly stopped and saw the sign. It was a crazy night, but we made it on the bus and at the airport with more than enough time for our flight.

Until next time, Japan.

One Response to Asian Adventures: Japan

  • [...] the chaos that we went through [See Day 8/9 of Japan], I couldn’t be happier to experience HK! I had heard a lot about the food, mountains, and [...]

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    This is my personal site to post some stuff – stuff that is so random I can’t really be any more specific. But if you care for photos of food, panoramas, my day, or just the thoughts that go on in my head, please stay!

    I love to travel, bake, burn time on tumblr, read, cafe questing, and run around pretending to be a photographer. I also have a thing for Japanese, classical music, and food. Wherever I am and whatever I’m doing, I hope to do it with a smile, see new things, do everything, and just experience and take it all in.