When you are blessed with the option of extending a layover at no cost in a country you’ve always wanted to visit but thought was prohibitively expensive and far afield, what do you do? Six months ago, while booking our tickets, we were faced with that very quandary. Naturally, we extended that layover! And the place that’s been on my bucket list since watching The Seven Samurai in college: Japan.
Neither Jenna nor I had been to Japan, so it took some getting used to for both of us, in both good ways and bad. On the good side, Japan is a place so steeped in tradition, history, and culture that I knew we’d enjoy it. The temples are ancient, the gardens surrounding them are immaculate and sublime, the history behind it all so legendary. We also found the atmosphere of the place to be one of supreme order and calm, despite the modernity of the place. On the bad end of things, our jet lag was some of the worst I’ve ever experienced and the public transit system, though top-notch, was, like most any foreign country, difficult to navigate and, at times, frustrating. I’d definitely recommend travelling in Japan for any amount of time; even a long layover in Haneda can be flipped into a fun day trip, while we talked to people travelling in country for months who still hadn’t even covered half of this (relative to the US) small country.
We started out in Tokyo, dragging hard after a long-haul flight that left San Francisco at 1:00 pm and arrived in Tokyo at 2:00 pm the following day; international date line, and all, it was an 11 hour flight. Our first full day took us to Tokyo’s historical center, Ueno, to check out its oldest temple, Senso-ji, and the renowned Tokyo National Museum, full of antiquities Samurai, calligraphy, pottery and painting, among others. The next day, we had intended to check out the Japanese alps, in Nagano, home of the 1998 Winter Olympics, but after coming to learn of the distance and logistical difficulties involved, we decided to stay an extra day in Tokyo and head to Kyoto early. Our second day in Tokyo was highlighted by the perfectly manicured Imperial Palace East Gardens, Tsukiji fish and local market, where Jenna was totally in her foodie element, tasting various unidentifiable things, and Akihabara, the epicenter of all things gamer, Jpop and, anime. The next day, we took Japan’s famous bullet train: Shinkansen Nozomi, south to Kyoto, the country’s cultural hub.
The bullet train is basically like flying whilst on the ground. It exceeds 300 km/hr (185+mph), always leaves on time (to the second), and has never had a single accident. The pricey ($130 per person) tickets were worth it to experience that kind of travel and see so much of the countryside whizzing by at incredible speeds. Our first full day in Kyoto was probably my favorite of all in Japan. We went to the Fushimi-Inari Shinto Shrine, which has at least ten thousand red gates leading up to the top of a mountain on the outskirts of Kyoto city. Describing it with words is difficult and pictures can only go so far in explaining the majesty of this place, so I’ll just say that if you come to Japan, this is one thing you must do. Later that day, we went to a cultural show of geisha dancers, a comic play, and a musical performance of traditional instruments. For the next couple days, we wandered through a host of other temples (there are, incredibly, over 1600 temples in Kyoto) and took a cooking class that taught us how to make two types of sushi among other dishes (See Jenna’s forthcoming blog post for more on that experience in mindful and traditional cooking). On the way back to our apartment, which was totally hooked up with a full kitchen and TV in the bathtub (I think we were probably the first people to ever stay in that room as the stickers were still on the appliances.), we passed by a shop selling antique Samurai swords. After Googling “ninja store” and having it be closed, this was a must stop…maybe they would have the throwing stars I was looking for? After telling me that the cheapest sword in his shop costs $25,000 (circa 1805), the owner referred me to a different place across from the castle for less expensive wares. Some of the swords in this other shop were brand new, and, without the historical significance, carried a much lower price tag. We snagged a badass samurai sword along with a handful of throwing stars and called it a day.
The next day, we headed to iconic Mt. Fuji to climb Japan’s highest peak, only to find the climbing route we wanted was closed for another week. After some consternation and numerous bus transfers, we arrived at the other trailhead on the opposite side of the mountain just in time to secure the last available locker for our big packs. Deciding not to spend $130 to stay in a mountain hut for what would have amounted to maybe an hour or two of shut eye, we hung out at the trailhead until 10:00 pm and then started up. There were hundreds, possibly thousands of other hikers on the Yoshida trail, which is only about 7km (4+ miles) but gains almost 1500 meters (5000 feet) in that short span. It is recommended to allot 6-8 hours for the ascent, but by the time we were halfway up, we realized we could have done it in 3 hours…except that our goal was not just to summit, but to summit at sunrise. So, we took our time and reached the 3776 meter (12,300 feet) summit along with throngs of others to enjoy freezing winds as the sun poked up from the sea of clouds below. By the time we got back to Tokyo, it was the afternoon, and I promptly passed out for 15 hours. With our time in Japan winding down, we went to the frenetic Shibuya Crossing and a few more temples before catching our flight to Pohnpei.
All told, we were in Japan for ten days, ate a ton of great food, navigated three supremely difficult transportation systems, rambled through countless temples, castles and gardens, experienced Japanese traditions first hand, bought a few killer souvenirs, and climbed one epic peak. The thing that will stay with me the most about Japan, other than the massive crowds around every turn, was the dignity that the country has. Everyone there is Canadian level polite (and then some) and everything, from buildings to trees to sidewalks is thoughtful and well taken care of. This simple extended layover would have been a pretty excellent vacation in its own right, but we have eleven more countries and miles to go before we sleep. On to Micronesia!
Stay tuned for my next post, which aims to answer the question, “Can you travel in Japan on the cheap?”