Hello! We hope all our family, friends and readers had a wonderful holiday! 🙂 Kyle and I used our vacation time and headed to Japan! We spent 13 days touring six cities throughout Japan. While it seems like we ventured to a lot of places in a short time, we still had a great trip and never felt too rushed or overwhelmed seeing all the sites. Japan by and far exceeded our expectations. Having already lived in Asia, Korea specifically, for 11 months we thought we knew what to expect of Japan. How naive of us to think so generally when it comes to Asia – lessoned learned! We were blown away by Japan’s beauty, culture, and charm. Kyle put it really well when describing the cities, “It’s like a mix of Asia and Europe.”
A short 1-hour flight from Busan and we safely arrived in the “Land of the Rising Sun.” The airport we arrived at was Kansai International Airport (KIX). The reason we mention this airport is because it’s unlike any other we’ve flown in/out of.
Kansai was constructed out of nothing. Literally, nothing was there, not even the land. In the late 80’s and early 90’s Japan began constructing KIX in the middle of Osaka Bay due to overcrowding at Osaka International Airport. They had to excavate three mountains to build the artificial island for which the airport would stand. In case you can’t tell, this is Kyle speaking…I’ll turn my geek-o-meter down a bit. Anyway, the airport was the first to be built on water, and many lessons were learned (Ha! Ironic.) in its construction that have been utilized in other water construction projects. I’ve read many things and watched numerous documentaries about the airport and its construction when I was younger. I just couldn’t imagine I would be landing there some day.
After we landed, went through customs, and took a train off the island, we were tasked with finding our AirBnB home for the next couple of nights. It wasn’t as easy as we thought it would be to find the house. First, it was dark by this time. Second, it was tucked away on a small street in a small corner of Osaka. Ironically, it was located in Korea Town (we were starting to feel at home already). The house was humble and quaint, and so was the owner. She was a lovely Korean woman who had been living in Japan for the past 30 years. She showed us around her home and the neighborhood, which was great since Sam and I were starving by this point and we needed to find a place to eat.
It only seemed appropriate that our first full day in Osaka, we visit the symbol of the city, Osaka Castle. Surrounded by a moat and a maze of gates, it was a little bit of a trek to get to. We learned that the castle had been burned down a few times in battles in the 16th and 17th century, with reconstructions each time. It holds a lot of history and we were impressed with how large the internal grounds were. It was free to enter the grounds area and we enjoyed spending a couple hours taking pictures and eating snacks from the vendors set up around the main courtyard.
Later in the evening, we made our way to the Dotonbori neighborhood. It’s a popular tourist destination with bright lights, shops, restaurants, and a vibrant nightlife. One of the most notorious features of the neighborhood is along the canal. It’s a digital billboard from the Glico candy company of a running man. We’re not 100% sure why it’s so famous, but you can bet we snapped a couple photos! We ended up having dinner at a ramen restaurant. Yes, a ramen restaurant. This place was cool, because to order we had to choose which ramen we wanted by selecting a picture on a vending machine. Then, we received a ticket with our order. A couple minutes later, they called our number and Kyle picked up our food. Everything was self-serve. Water was in a large stainless steel cooler and you could buy beer out of the vending machine in the eating area. Beer in vending machines, the best thing ever. For as strange as it was to us, the ramen was great and we enjoyed doing some people watching.
The following day, we headed to Nara for a day trip before heading to Kyoto. Nara is known for its five-story pagoda, temples and deer park. One of the most fun experiences was definitely the deer park. These were ‘wild’ deer, free to roam where they may. We were also allowed to feed them from a “deer cracker” vendor. Check out the pictures below!
Next up on the list after Nara was Kyoto, where we’d be spending the next 4 days. This was our second AirBnB experience and it was quite different than the first place. It was a little further out than we expected from all the sites, but it was cheap and available considering we’d be spending New Year’s here as well. After a good night’s rest, we spent the following day on the western side of the city visiting the Arashiyama Monkey Park and the Bamboo Forest.
The monkey park was located on a mountainside and had breathtaking panoramic views of the city. We had to endure a little hike, but we managed to get to the top. The monkeys were all around us, and among us. We were able to feed the monkeys by entering a caged off building (it felt as if the monkeys were coming to see the humans) and buying a bag of peanuts or apple slices. The monkeys would climb on the sides of the building and stick their little arms through the cages patiently waiting for their treats. They didn’t seem to enjoy the peanuts as much as the apples.
The bamboo forest was a check off the bucket list! It wasn’t as spectacular as we had imagined, but it was still great to see giant bamboo trees swaying in the wind. Especially, if you’re from Minnesota and the only time you see any sort of bamboo is in the movies.
The next few days we checked out temples and famous neighborhoods around Kyoto. Two worth mentioning were The Golden Pavilion and Fushimi Inari. The Golden Pavilion is well known because, well you guessed it! It’s gold! It’s a three-story Zen Buddhist temple with the top two stories painted entirely in gold leaf.
The second notable place we visited (Fushimi Inari) is a famous shrine, worshiping Inari, the patron of business & rice. All of the torii’s have been donated by Japanese businesses. These torii’s ran up and down a mountain for what seemed like miles. It was a great experience, and it was free!
As mentioned earlier, we spent New Year’s in Kyoto. A major tradition in Japan on New Year’s are ringing bells. At midnight on New Year’s Eve, Buddhist temples all over Japan ring bells a total of 108 times to symbolize the 108 human sins in the Buddhist belief.
Another Japanese New Year’s custom is to display a knitted rope made from rice straws, called a Shimakezari, on the front door of the house to chase away the evil spirits. The owner’s father of the second AirBnB place came by to hang a Shimakezari on our front door.
After Kyoto, we made our way to the most populous metropolitan area in the world, Tokyo. We arrived in the evening on New Year’s day and the nightlife was almost non-existent. Coming from the US, the parties and celebrations of New Year’s eve would still be spilling over into the following days; especially in a major metropolitan city. However, Tokyo was calm and modest much like its Japanese inhabitants. It was actually relieving after a long trip not to deal with the hustle and bustle of a major city.
We had many locations we wanted to visit, but we also didn’t want to rush to see every proposed location…we were on vacation after all. We wandered towards the Sumida, Tokyo area to visit the famous Tokyo Skytree. However, the wait and price to go to the top was too much. So, we just observed the Skytree from its base; still a magnificent view!
Although we never got that overhead shot of Tokyo from the Skytree, we did find a location where we could still get a great view; without the wait or the price. Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building has two observatories overlooking the Odaiba entertainment district, and you can also see Mount Fuji in the distance!
Some other places we visited during our stay in Tokyo were Yoyogi Park, Shibuya crossing, and Meiji Shrine; just to name a few.
Yoyogi Park reminded us of Central Park in New York…even though neither of us have been to Central Park… Anyway, it had beautiful views, activities, and the largest crow population we’ve ever seen! The most notable feature of the park, if you’re a dog lover, was the dog park. It was great! They had separate areas for large, medium, small, and even tiny dogs. Sam and I were in love…we’re in love with each other, but mostly with all the dogs.
On our way towards Hiroshima, we made a quick stop in Himeji to visit Himeji Castle, which dates back to the 1300’s. The castle is known as the White Egret Castle, due to its bright white exterior. Out of all the temples, castles, and shrines we visited in Japan, Himeji castle definitely ranked at the top of our “wow” factor list. It’s a must stop, especially if you’re traveling south from Tokyo; it’s right on the way!
Once we arrived in Hiroshima, our first stop was off the coast at one of the top scenic spots in Japan; Miyajima Island. The island is famous for the Great Torii, which is a floating torii off the island’s shore. It serves as a gateway between the spirit and the human worlds. It was a perfect scenic view (as you can tell from all the pictures of it…we have more).
A bit further inland from the Great Torii is Itsukushima Shrine, which also floats on water. The shrine has more than 1400 years of history, and is a registered World Heritage Site. Although we visited both the Itsukushima Shrine and the Great Torii at low tide, they are still surreal to see; sights that represent Japan well.
We hiked all over the port area of the island and grabbed some snacks along the way, which we had to keep away from some friendly deer. Yes, more deer. It felt as if we stepped back in time. The simlicity of everyday life in the town and the structure of the buildings created such a peaceful atmosphere.
The next day, after Miyajima Island, we began to meander through the downtown area of Hiroshima. Both Sam and I were met with the beauty of the city and the heartbreak of the past. It was hard not to think about what happened there 70 years ago. Although, it was hard to tell that the city was completely wiped out. It was larger and more pleasant than ever. We met some great new friends at a couple of restaurants we visited, and ate the legendary Hiroshima Okonomiyaki.
There were still distant reminders of the past; the A-Bomb Dome being one. The atomic bomb, Little Boy, detonated almost directly over the dome at a height of 600 meters. It’s incredible that the building was not completely leveled. The city of Hiroshima has preserved the look of the building to how it was on that August morning in 1945. So, as you can imagine, visiting it was eerie and remarkable at the same time.
Our time in Hiroshima was short, but the experiences we had were some of the best we had the entire trip.
Our trip was starting to come to a close after we departed Hiroshima, but one more…interesting experience was in store when we arrived back in Osaka. A stay in a capsule hotel; which, looks like something straight out of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Think of the capsules like bunk beds, but with walls and a ceiling. Or, like an oversized coffin, except with a TV. Anyway, the stay was fun and unique for the both of us and a perfect end to the trip.
Don’t forget to check out our video!