Having been in Taiwan for almost 3 months, it was time to go for a visa run. Our obvious choice was Japan. Not only was it easy to get to from Taiwan, Joanna and I loved last year's run to Tokyo so much that we couldn't wait to go back to Japan again.
Our main destination this year was Kyoto, an ancient Japanese city filled with temples, gardens, and shrines. It is thought of as the heart of Japan. After all, Kyoto literally means "Capital City", even though pretty much everything related to the Japanese government is based in Tokyo.
After seeing so many beautiful pictures of Kyoto online, we were excited to finally see for ourselves what the hype was all about.
Let's just say we were not disappointed.
tl;dr on Japan
I can't even begin to do the whole experience justice. I am merely trying to offer a brief highlight of our trip.
We spent 8 days and 7 nights in Japan. Our main destination was Kyoto, and we also spent time in Osaka and Nara.
We had some specific destinations in mind - like hanging out with deer - but we also left plenty of time open for spontaneous activities - like hanging out with monkeys.
I also almost got disowned by Joanna while in Kyoto. Details of this incident can be found in Day 2.
Besides that minor hiccup, we explored ancient temples and shrines. We took way too many pictures. We walked over a hundred thousand steps.
And just like many prior trips that had left indelible marks in our travel memory banks, this time in Japan was no exception.
Day 1 - The Osaka Running Man
We landed in Osaka on Monday night without any plans for the night, so we decided to just take an easy stroll around the city.
The heart of Osaka is pretty much a perfect grid. Restaurants, bars, and shops were everywhere, often located in small streets away from the big crowds. I tend to avoid back alleys in the US, especially at night, but it's just so different in Japan, where I look forward to exploring pretty much anywhere and everywhere.
Being in one of the safest countries in the world has its perks.
We walked around Dotonbori, the main tourist area of Osaka. The area was full of neon lights that can be found in plenty of cities around the world, but with a completely different vibe.
For one, cities in Japan are quieter in general. There isn't much noise in terms of honking or screaming. Streets are super clean, free of random litter and trash. And Japanese people are some of the most polite people I've ever met.
No matter where you go, you feel a sense of comfort, safety, and serenity. For someone like me, who now tend to avoid big crowds like the plague these days, even the hustle and bustle of downtown Osaka was a very pleasant experience
We capped off our night at a small bar eating Osaka's famous takoyaki, a ball-shaped snack made of a wheat flour-based batter and octopus. I have to admit that it's one of only a handful of Japanese foods that I don't really care for. But I figured since they're famous in Osaka, why not give it another try.
Meh, no need to do it again. I'll stick to my personal favorite rice and sushi dishes for the rest of the week.
We washed them down with a couple of adult beverages and called it a successful first night.
Day 2 - Osaka Castle and Gion Corner
Day 2 started with nothing but pouring rain. The sky was gloomy and the temperature was cold. Having only packed 11kg into a suitcase with a baggage allowance of 20kg, we were lamenting the fact that we weren't well prepared for cold weather.
For some reason, we brought only thin jackets to Japan and didn't even think about packing something warmer.
But no matter. We weren't going to let some wetness prevent us from having a good time. With umbrellas in hand, we headed straight to Osaka Castle, one of the most famous landmarks in all of Japan.
Off to Kyoto
After exploring the castle and the surrounding gardens, we hopped on a train headed for Kyoto. This is where Joanna almost disowned me.
A quick side note here: The train system in Japan is as intricate as it gets. One look at the subway map already made me dizzy. But once I got used to it, I found it to be a very convenient way to get anywhere in and out of the city.
Our plan was to check out Gion, a historical part of Kyoto with temples and geishas. Apparently, and I learned all this on the fly with help from Memoirs of a Geisha, a young lady starts off as a maiko while living in a geisha house called an okiya. After a few years of strict training, she can then become a geisha.
Since I'm obviously not qualified to talk about geishas in detail, if you want to learn more about them, especially in Kyoto, here's a good article with lots of interesting details about who they are and what they do.
We wanted to attend an hour-long show at Gion Corner, which features traditional Japanese entertainment and had performances by maiko.
For some stupid reason, we weren't able to find the place. We roamed around the little streets of Gion, which we really loved, but we just couldn't find Gion Corner.
Finally, I saw someone get out of a parked car on a dead-end street and walk towards us, so I went up to her and pointed to my phone.
That someone turned out to be a geisha, probably on her way to work
The geisha spoke to me in Japanese, which I didn't understand, but she pointed me in the general direction, and I was like, ok cool, at least we kinda know which way to go.
She signaled me to follow her.
I had read a little bit about geishas prior to our trip. I read that tourists are encouraged not to stop geishas on their tracks and ask for photos.
Nowhere did it say that tourists couldn't ask geishas for directions.
Sure enough, a throng of tourists swarmed her as soon as they saw her on the main streets of Gion. Their eyes lit up like Christmas trees.
No one did actually stop her, but they did get super close, to the point of almost invading her private space as she walked.
She must have been used to it by now.
I followed the geisha closely, but then I realized that Joanna was staying way back. Despite my motioning for her to closer, she was super embarrassed and didn't want anything to do with me.
I guess I did just ask a geisha (the master) for directions to a maiko (the apprentice) performance.
Even with the swarm of tourists surrounding her, the geisha turned around when she got to her destination (I think it was a high-end restaurant) and pointed me to the direction of Gion Corner.
The other tourists were probably wondering who the heck I was and why she was paying attention to me.
She couldn't have been nicer, and once I found the place, I was shocked.
Gion Corner was a huge place. There was no way that I should have missed it.
For the rest of the night, Joanna wouldn't let up on me. She simply couldn't get over the fact that I asked a geisha for directions, especially to a maiko show. What the heck was I thinking?
Well, I was thinking about getting to the show. And I figured the geisha knew where it was.
Day 3 - Kyoto's Charm
The skies cleared up and the rain stopped. The crowds were out in full force, and many of them dressed for the part.
Lots of places around Kyoto rent out kimonos, so men and women alike can walk around the city in traditional Japanese garb. We didn't end up doing it, but I'm sure the people who did had a wonderful experience and plenty of pretty pictures to take home with them.
The pictures here hardly do the Kyoto experience justice, though. There are just so much to see and so much to do, especially if you enjoy seeing ancient, traditional architecture. No wonder people always rave about Kyoto and keep going back for more.
Three days just aren't enough to see everything that the city has to offer.
We made our way to Kiyomizu-dera, one of the recent finalists for the new seven wonders of the world. The main building is currently under renovation, so it's not much to look at. But, I mean, it was completed in the year 778, so the fact that it's still standing is already a feat in itself.
The picture here is from an adjacent building, which had a view of Kyoto Tower and the modern city. The contrast between old and new Japan was wonderful, to say the least.
Day 4 - Kyoto's Incredible Beauty
If there was one place in Kyoto that I really, really wanted to see, it was this: the Fushimi Inari Taisha, otherwise known to tourists as Instagram heaven (I'm probably only half kidding).
This Shinto shrine has been on our radar screen for years, and we were so glad to finally see it with our own eyes.
We got up at 6am and arrived an hour later, trying to beat the crowd, and it was the best decision we could have made. There were only a few other tourists around, and we didn't have to elbow anyone to get around.
I had known about the Torii gates, but I had no idea just how big the place was. We hiked around for a good couple of hours, seeing gate after orange gate, marveling at the beauty of it all.
I keep repeating myself when it comes to Kyoto's beauty, but I just can't help it. Kyoto really is beautiful.
As if that wasn't enough, we then went to Kinkaku-ji, or The Golden Pavilion. It was a nice surprise to see it, since I had no idea it even existed. Not only was the building itself picture-perfect, its surrounding garden area was also great to walk around.
I later found out that it is arguably the most famous tourist attraction in Japan. It just goes to show you just how little I know about the world, and how much there is still to see and learn.
If a picture was ever worth a thousand words, I would say Kinkaku-ji comes pretty close.
We then made a brief stop at the Arashiyama Bamboo Forest, another Instagram favorite. The crowd was massive by that time, and we didn't really feel like dealing with it, so we got the heck out of dodge and went to the Arashiyama Monkey Park Iwatayama, where monkeys roamed freely around the park and hung out with tourists.
By the end of Day 4, our legs were toast. We had walked over 35,000 steps, on top of the 32,000 steps on Day 3.
We finally stopped by a casual 24-hour restaurant, put money into a ticket machine, ordered some food and beer, and relaxed for the rest of the night.
Day 5 - Fresh Sushi at Nishiki Market
As luck would have it, I got a job opportunity right in the middle of our vacation. I sent Joanna to go shopping while I camped out at a coffee shop for a good 4 hours.
More on this later if it all works out!
After that, we spent the last few hours in Kyoto at Nishiki Market, a huge market full of food, shopping, and entertainment. I went straight for the sushi at a fish stall, where there were a few small tables for us to stand and eat the fresh catch right there on the spot.
I was in sushi heaven, and I wanted to eat it all.
After stuffing our tummies, we grabbed our luggage and said goodbye to Kyoto. We would spend our final 3 nights back in Osaka.
Day 6 - Bowing with Polite Deer in Nara
On Day 6, we slept in and slowly made our way from Osaka to Nara. We spent the whole day Nara Park, a huge area filled with more shrines and temples.
By this time, we were admittedly a little less excited about shrines and temples. However, we were very excited to see the semi-wild deer that traipsed around the park, keeping the tourists happy and smiley.
We bought some deer cookies that were sold by pretty much every vendor in the park and put it in our bag. They were smart. They smelled the cookies and followed us around.
The deer bowed to us to ask for the cookies, then happily chomped on them after taking them from our hands. They seemed content to interact with this strange species with two legs that fed them whenever they bowed.
Day 7 - Baseball in Japan
On our final full day in Japan, we decided to take it easy. We had no plans whatsoever, other than to just do whatever spontaneous thing that came to mind.
Joanna opted to go shopping, and I went straight for the Kyocera Dome to catch a baseball game.
Ever since I moved out of LA, I haven't gone to as many baseball games as I would like, so it was nice to be able to catch a game in Osaka, especially since my Tokyo baseball experience wasn't exactly awesome. It was too crowded, and our standing room only ticket was very uncomfortable.
This time, I bought a general admission seat in the bleachers, where there were plenty of seats available. I sat my butt down and just enjoyed the atmosphere while texting with my baseball crazy friends back in the US.
The baseball atmosphere in Japan is completely different from that in the US. The super fan sections on both teams cheered the whole game, and barely anyone left before the game ended.
And the most unreal thing of all was that not only could fans bring their own beers into the stadium, ushers actually poured those beers into plastic cups at the entrance gates, free of charge.
I'd probably be more likely to see pigs fly than seeing this exact scenario play out in America.
Day 8 - The Most Unusual Highway
On our final day in Osaka, we decided to check out a local oddity: a highway that goes through an office building.
Seriously. There is a highway that literally takes up 3 floors of an office building. It was the strangest thing when I saw it online, and it was even more strange seeing it in person.
Apparently, there was a dispute between the owner of the land that this building sits on and the Osaka city government, and they ended up compromising on the dispute. The result was a highway ramp that goes through the building. The bargain they struck was pretty ingenious, I'd say.
This is definitely something you don't see everywhere.
We then wrapped up our trip at Nakanoshima Park, where there was a rose garden, a beer garden, and lots of people just enjoying the scenery.
It was the perfect way to finish up our week-long tour of Japan.
Final Thoughts on Japan
They say all good things must come to an end. In merely 8 days, we had the experience of a lifetime.
But do they really have to come to an end, though?
That's the thing with travel. It opens your eyes to new experiences that you never even knew you were missing. With every trip comes special memories. You always learn something new, and you open up your mind just that much more.
That's why we will never stop traveling.
And the best part about it all is that we don't ever have to.
Goodbye to Japan for now. See you next time.