04.10.2017 - 24.10.2017 18 °C
Welcome friends, to yet another edition of Gekkies on Tour. Get a nice hot coffee or Glühwein, sit back and relax because in this episode we take a good look at… Japan!
Oh, Japan… Where to begin. Japan is different - in many ways. Before we begin our tale we would like to describe a few moments that for us defined the experience here.
Just Japanese Things:
1. When you want to pee and have to change slippers three times in order to get to the toilet
2. When you want to boil instant noodles and the stove starts talking to you
3. When a monk Moves like Jagger™ through the temple to get you a pot of tea and almost trips over his robe twice
4. When you bump your head on the ridiculously low door holes every day (note: applies to Michael only)
5. When you eat French fries with chopsticks
6. When you try to flush the toilet and accidentally hit the ass-blow-dryer
7. When you try to flush again with a different button and spray half your back with water
8. When you get into a never ending loop of saying “thank you” and “you’re welcome” with a convenience store employee
9. When a train attendant leaves your wagon and turns around to bow, then does the same when arriving in the next wagon
10. When you leave your phone on the table in a bar, go away for five minutes and everything is still there when you return
11. When you accidentally walk into the hentai (i.e. adult) section of a manga store and go blind for two minutes
12. When your bus is a bit late because of a traffic jam and the driver comes over to apologize to you in person for the delay
Does that sound weird yet? We flew from Vietnam to Osaka, which has a brand spanking new airport built on a man-made island out at sea. The Japanese definitely know how to build stuff, very impressive. Our hostel had a bunch of tiny rooms where a lot of locals seemed to be permanently “living” as well. Housing is expensive. Another funky thing we noticed here and all over the country is the bathing area, which is almost always separated between men and women. In this case men could use it in the morning between 8:00 and 12:00, while women were allowed from 17:00 to 21:00. Osaka itself is a busy city and one of the economic centers of Japan. We got our first taste of ramen noodles and visited the beautiful Osaka castle. As it should be with true budget travellers, we admired the gardens and outside of the building for free, peeked into the door just until the line for the admission fee and then went on our way again.
Japan has a legendary train system, where delays are not measured in minutes, but in seconds. We are also pretty sure that if a train is more than one minute too late, the driver is contractually required to commit “seppuku”. Are you paying attention, NS and Deutsche Bahn? Our first train ride went up into the mountains to the Buddhist center of Koyasan. Up here the temperature drops under 10 degrees at night, which is quite cold after half a year in the tropics!
This holy mountain has no less than 117 Buddhist temples and we have come here to stay overnight in one of them. What an experience this proved to be. After finding the right temple we followed a non-English speaking monk through long corridors with creaky wooden floors. The wood-and-paper doors to our room slid open and we found bamboo mats on the floor, a small table with pillows to sit on and a beautiful view of the inner temple garden. Everything we imagined about what traditional Japan would look like came together in this place. Putting on our traditional Yukata’s we drank tea and enjoyed the scene… pure magic.
In the early morning we were allowed to join the Buddhist ceremony, even singing one of the chants with the monks called the “Heart chakra”. Our main question afterwards was when do they find time to breathe between all the chanting? Outside it was sort of refreshing to see autumn again. Beautiful wooden buildings and shrines carved with signs stood between big trees with leaves turning yellow and red.
After dark and in the rain we visited Okunoin, the largest cemetery in Japan and resting place of Kobo Daishi, founder of Shingon Buddhism. Thousands of graves and shrines lighted by candles along the path were a very impressive and spooky sight. We witnessed a true miracle as well that night when our faithful camera died from too much rain, then resurrected itself two days later! We are believers now. <3
Our journey took us further down the mountain and on to the old capital of Nara. Beautiful temples and gardens continued to amaze us with one big difference. Nara has an entire colony of over 1200 wild deer that sort of… live freely in the city. You see them everywhere and the whole city is adjusted to them, including traffic signs saying “watch out for deer”. The weather continued to be beautiful and we enjoyed relaxed days out with loads of Bambi’s at our side.
Next up was Kyoto, only a 30-minute train ride away. This city is huge and we took our pick of the many many temples to visit. This included a shiny golden pavilion and Inari mountain, where thousands of so-called “torii” gates are placed over a path that goes all the way around. The sunset over the city was beautiful here, even more so because it was weekend and many people came over dressed up in Kimono’s to take pictures - seems to be the perfect getaway with friends or family for many locals. Our hostel had a very nice mixed group of people from all over and we had long evenings talking at the common room table.
We spent a lot of time in the local pet store too, with real puppies and kittens for sale! Ferrets and even sugar gliders (!) were also available. Not that we agree with keeping wild animals as pets though. The real highlight of our visit to Kyoto however was meeting the most beautiful Geisha in the Gion district. Putting on the make-up and kimono took around an hour, while picking out the right Kimono took even longer of course. But this was all worth it as the result was stunning!
Michael’s love for large men with hanging moobs then took us North to Kanazawa, where the Sumo wrestlers would have their next tournament. Many of the rituals were difficult to understand for us without any knowledge of Japanese, but it did become clear that the Sumo fighters are real superstars in Japan. Hysterical fans were busy all day getting autographs and pictures with their favorites holding their babies or posing with the fighters themselves. Fights usually last for only a few seconds but can be really intense. Slaps to the face, pinching and grabbing diapers are all permitted as the giants try to work their opponent out of the ring! Curious if all the salt thrown over the shoulder was used to make dinner later?
After enjoying the beautiful gardens and different kinds of Shochu (Japanese rice wine) we took a Shinkansen bullet train towards Nagano. These trains are way too quick according to Isabella, as you don’t even have enough time to take a nice nap underway! Nagano you might remember from the Winter Olympics that were held here back in 1998. Not much is left to see of that but the mountainous area around is very impressive. The weather took a turn for the worse, which was fine with us because we booked a stay in a traditional Ryokan (Japanese Inn), which conveniently had a private hot spring bath.
The little village we stayed in is called Shibu Onsen, which is famous for the hot springs and bathhouses. Our Ryokan gave us a key with access to all nine of the public bathhouses, so we hopped around in our Yukata’s and wooden slippers from place to place feeling quite silly - click clack click clack! Most of the baths were actually scolding hot and we are not sure how the Japanese people get so fireproof. We did manage to get into one or two however. Apart from relaxing in hot water we took a hike up the mountain to a famous hot spring that monkeys have decided to make their own. Usually pictured in the snow, the monkeys were just as relaxed now chilling in the bath between the autumn leaves.
Time was flying in our short three weeks in this country, and Tokyo was up next. What a whirlwind of neon lights, people in suits, real-life Mario kart, people in maid outfits, hedgehogs and glorious food it was. Cat café’s are pretty well known by now around the world, so naturally Tokyo had to take it a step further. Options for your café needs include robot, maid (where the girls call you “master” while serving food), horror and owl. We took the relatively innocent option of visiting the city’s first Hedgehog café, where you can cuddle spiky friends with a drink on the side.
We visited manga, anime and videogame heaven at Akihabara and tried our hands at some old fashioned Street Fighter II arcade. (Michael sucks by the way and needs to dust off the old Super Nintendo) The freaky nature of the Japanese underneath their super civilized appearance is very apparent here with lots of obsessive collecting of things and of course fascination with manga cartoon characters doing eeehm… “adulty things”.
Between getting lost in the crowd at Shibuya crossing and singing our lungs out at Karaoke (thanks everyone for contributing to our playlist!) we found our own Sushi heaven. Not only was this place affordable, it also had the coolest delivery system. Sitting at a long table with a tablet in front of you, your order is literally launched from the kitchen to you on a little high-speed train! All to soon it was time to go, as our flight from Nagoya was coming up fast… Last stop before that: Mount Fuji.
As has become normal, the weather turned windy and rainy and at some point we figure out that a typhoon is heading our way. This has literally happened for the fourth time this year! Anyway, there was no Fuji-san in sight when we arrived. Come out, come out wherever you are! And sure enough, after hiding out in our nice mountain lodge for two days, the typhoon had passed and blue skies surrounded the impressive volcano, which had actually been right beside us the whole time - a beautiful day and fitting goodbye to this fantastic country.
Bussing our way to Nagoya we got ready for an early triple-flight that is going to be the wrong direction twice before turning the right way. Bye-bye Japan, Hello China, again China and finally the United States!
Thanks for listening and talk to you all soon.
Michael & Isabella