I feel so lucky I had so much time to see Japan. I explored all four major islands. I went to 20 out of the 47 prefectures. Of course, there are still many places I missed out on, like the rainforests of Yakushima and the sand dunes of Tottori and the tropics of Okinawa and countless beautiful but utterly unaffordable onsens and ryokans, but I recognize I saw more of Japan in a few months than many of her residents see in their lifetimes.
I traveled throughout Kansai, to Kobe and Kyoto and Osaka, feeling the excitement of being somewhere different and exotic with friends old and new, then wandered the endless streets of Tokyo feeling alone and sort of sad and totally overwhelmed. I stayed in a crumbling old onsen set in the autumn foliage of the Tochigi mountains, toured the quaint thatched homes of Shirakawago and crept up to furry Macaques relaxing in hot springs near Nagano. I traversed bridges and islands on a bicycle to Shikoku and later returned to take in the art of Naoshima. I traveled north all the way to Hokkaido, where I staved off the chill of the impending winter at ramen joints with names like “Snow Wind”, and south, down to Kagoshima, where I watched thousands of revellers dance in the shadow of an active volcano, and to Beppu, where steam venting from the earth whirls in the streets.
After the cut is my humble attempt to sum up Japan, including the places I stayed, the karaoke I sang, the onsens in which I reclined, and unedited (possibly) never before published excerpts from my journal. Also, perhaps best of all, the collection of purikura (Japanese photo booths) I did with my new friends all over Japan!
Kobe (Hyōgo Prefecture)
Soon a woman came in, her name was Tomo and she was also there the night before. Her English was better and she was stoked to see the French guys again too. She asked me my name but ALAS Rachel is like the most challenging name ever for Japanese people, don’t even get me started on Rilkoff, all those Rs and Ls are like language inception for Japanese, too many layers of pronunciation. I wrote my name down on a piece of paper and then somehow remembered how to write it in Japanese too, though I mixed katakana (alphabet used to write English words, like my name) and hiragana, whoops, but who cares, they LOVED it. They were all yelling RECHUURU!!! She played me Creep by TLC by my request. The French guys were smoking up a storm and the J guy sitting next to me vanished briefly and returned, bringing us all HOT DOGS!!! I was soooo excited to say HOTTO DOGGU!!
- Kobe Sannomiya R2 Hostel - Friendly staff and a great location.
- Julie and Hiroki’s House – As befitting the two of them, they live in a magical part of Kobe in a magical home with Godard posters on the walls and my own room with a little balcony.
- Taiko-no-yu in Arima Onsen (with Julie and Judith) – A fancy hotel onsen. I loved the tubs big enough for just one person and the steamy room where you laid on the floor while your feet dangled in warm water.
- Agro Garden in Kobe (with Julie) – We sat in a hot pool with a group of older women and watched one of those typical Japanese TV shows where a panel of commentators watched and talked about funny youtube videos. Julie translated our fellow bathers’ comments about the show for me.
- It Begins
- The Ikuta Shrine in Kobe
- Around Kobe, by Bicycle and by Foot
- A Japanese/Canadian Wedding
- Hashigo & Even If We’re Just Hiking in the Dark
- Arima Onsen
- Typhoon Day
Kyoto (Kyoto Prefecture)
Last call came and we settled the bill and hopped in a cab, giggling and drunk. The driver had a little Daruma doll on his dashboard and Julie explained that the doll comes with no eyes– you fill in one eye with a wish and when the wish comes true, you fill in the other. The driver’s doll had both eyes filled in so Julie asked him what his wish was and how it came true. He said that he company gave him the doll but that his wish was to drive all of his customers in a safe and happy manner. Ha ha, JAPAN.
- Tour Club - a sort of dark and somewhat uninviting hostel near Kyoto Station.
- A public bathhouse (alone) – I think it was this one? This was my first onsen experience. It was slightly terrifying but I got over it once I was watching sumo wrestling in the sauna with a bunch of naked old ladies.
- Naked Introspection
- Cafe Bibliotec HELLO
- Temple-hopping by Bicycle in Kyoto
- Menya Itadori, Kyoto
- Fushimi Inari
- A Special Kyoto Day with Masae
Osaka (Osaka Prefecture)
From the pagoda I saw a graveyard, so when I came down I started walking to it but got distracted by a vendor with piles of vintage and used kimonos and yukata. I dug through the pile for a bit and found one that felt like silk but had no sleeves. It had a really pretty pattern of origami cranes and dolls that almost looked like matroyshka. I asked the price and he said “800″ and I was like “No sleeves? 500?” and he kept being like “No sleeves, no sleeves”. Ohhhkay. I put it down like I didn’t want it anymore and finally he was like “500!” Yay! I have no idea what I will do with it. Belt it as a dress? Wear it as a robe? Either way, the material is gorgeous. When I took it home Judy told me it’s the under dress of a kimono and it’s not supposed to have sleeves. Oops, ha ha.
- Josh and Judith‘s House – A cozy apartment in “Gaijin Towers”, in a not exactly central location that I never minded, because the extra travel time was always worth Judith’s home cooking and playing with Henry and Pikachu.
- A big karaoke chain called Round 1 with a bunch of teachers after a night of “ghetto” yakiniku. I gave “Kita no Yado Kara” a whirl for the first time. Someone ordered an ice cream sundae.
- Oh, Osaka!
- Nara (Part I) (a day trip from Osaka)
- Nara (Part II) (a day trip from Osaka)
- A Visit to Wakayama (a day trip from Osaka)
- Super Station Master Tama-Chan (a day trip from Osaka)
- Koyasan (a day trip from Osaka)
Hiroshima (Hiroshima Prefecture)
Gabby was STOKED on purikura, which made me so happy! We were laughing hysterically doing all the poses and decorating. On the second floor there was a wall of costumes and we asked the guy working there, “Ikura desu ka?” and he was like “Zero” and we were like “OMGGGG” and next thing you know, we were on round 3 of purikura dressed as slutty school girls. Like, what more do you need in life? It was glorious.
- K’s Hostel - Clean and well-organized but inevitably this chain is packed with shrieking students. I did meet the lovely Gabby here though!
Shimanami Kaido – Onomichi (Hiroshima Prefecture) to Imabari (Ehime Prefecture on Shikoku)
It was like heaven stripping down and washing my hair and soaping up, especially after sweating on the road for 3 hours that day. When I finally slipped into that big hot pool, I was in sheer bliss. I opened the windows and let the sound of crashing waves fill the room and a cool breeze slipped in and around my shoulders. I put my head back on the rocks and just hoped I would never forget that feeling. Outside the sun was setting behind the islands and it made me think of home so much, the layered silhouettes of the islands and the pink sky and the sound of the sea. Not only that, I had the whole place to myself. Now I am scheming ways to somehow construct an onsen back home, though I am not sure anything could beat this place.
- Setoda Private Hostel - A strange little collection of buildings straight out of the 60s. Can’t beat the beachside location or its spot on the Shimanami cycling route though. The dinner was delicious, even if I ate it alone in a large room while the entire family huddled in a tiny kitchen to eat their meal.
- Setoda Private Hostel (alone) – This hostel had an absolutely gorgeous stone and wood onsen, hand built by the owner. The privacy and ocean view made it one of my favourite spots in Japan.
Himeji (Hyogo Prefecture)
What was going to be a brief spin around Himeji on a bike turned into one of the most special experiences I’ve had in Japan so far. I ended up spending all day walking around with the float, watching the men rush the float over small bridges and squeeze down narrow alleys, visiting businesses ranging from furniture stores to barbershops, to local residences where I saw three generations of men when a great-grandfather came out to greet his son and grandson in the parade, and where a woman with a tiny dog in a pink dress applauded with joy at the float shaking outside her front door. I was handed cans of cold beer and giggled at by children and if at any time someone looked at me in confusion, if I smiled it was returned with an equally warm expression.
- Himeiji588 Guesthouse – A compact but inviting little place in a good location in a covered shopping arcade. I was the only one staying there. I had such bad allergies that the proprietor kept calling out to me, “Rachel-san, daijoubu desu ka?” every time I sneezed.
Tokyo (Tokyo Prefecture)
I was feeling kind of bummed out in Tokyo so the only thing I wrote in my journal was the following: Of all the hostels in Tokyo, I have to stay at the one with the freelance copywriter by day/obscure techno genre producer by night from Vancouver. Also, sometimes he DJs at the Dunlevy Snackbar but ONLY vinyl.
- Toco - A beautiful hostel in a lovely wood and glass heritage building, complete with jangling bell at the shrine next door. My favourite place I stayed at in Japan.
- Erin and Kei’s House – I spent a few nights in Saitama (Dasai-tama), where the cats made love deep into the night and Erin taught me about so many Japanese celebrities.
- An old sento (with an Australian girl from the hostel) – I never caught the name of this public bath house around the corner from Toco, but it was nearly 100 years old, with peeling paint on the ceiling, a mural of Mount Fuji on the wall and not even stools to sit on while you washed up. It was awesome. I brought an Aussie along who had never been to onsen and while at first shy, she ended up loving it.
- A mangakissa (a place where you can sleep in an armchair for the night, read tons of manga and sing karaoke in your own private room) with Erin and Kei. Kei sheepishly admitted he had sung karaoke on his own at the very same place earlier that day. They sang me “Love Letter from Canada” and I finally got to take “Gibbs” for a spin.
Takamatsu (Kagawa Prefecture on Shikoku)
We got off the train at a random stop where Hiroki’s friend Takamaru was going to pick us up. We had some time to kill so we popped into a bookstore and looked at mangas. Takamaru arrived shortly, with his shy girlfriend Satomi in tow, and we piled into his Toyoto minivan and headed off for parts unknown. It was definitely surreal sitting in the back of a minivan, breathing in the smoke pouring from Takamaru’s cigarette, listening to Japanese techno and driving through small streets with nothing but darkness beyond. Shikoku definitely had a different vibe than Honshu.
- A capsule hotel – Hiroki arranged for us to stay at this onsen/capsule hotel in Takamatsu. It was truly a bizarre cultural experience, as the capsule beds were even less weird than the room full of people sleeping in Laz-E-Boy chairs and the room where everyone just slept in rows on the floor.
- The Jambo Ferry – We did an overnight trip on this ferry on our way back to Kobe. I slept surprisingly, probably because I was getting used to sleeping on thin futons on the floor. I saw a man passed out with his pants around his ankles!
- The capsule hotel (with Julie and Judith) – The capsule hotel had its own 24 hour onsen, which included a cheap ramen-smelling pool of brown water that made genitals “stingy”.
- I Love Yu (with Gabby) – An onsen that doubles as a work of art. I went here on a day trip to Naoshima. It was small but beautiful and unique.
- A local sento (with Julie) – A very neighbourhood, somewhat shabby sento in Takamatsu, where we killed time before catching the night ferry. There was a woman with a full back tattoo there, indicating the sento was maybe a bit unsavoury, or, at the very least, lax on their no tattoo rule, usually enforced to avoid a Yakuza presence.
Takayama (Gifu Prefecture)
We started on the road to Shirakawago. Nicolas and I made polite conversation, he was very charming but witty banter wasn’t exactly flying. CHANGING LEAVES!! The women were in an excited frenzy. I yelled SUGOI!! It was nice to be on a small tour because the four of us could act really excited and stupid. It really was a beautiful view though, the first time I had seen any hint of fall colour yet and this was a full out symphony of colour. We went through a bunch of long tunnels, Yamamoto announcing their length with a never wavering level of enthusiasm.
- J-Hoppers Hida Guesthouse - a friendly place; I took a tour to Shirakawago with them and it was pretty funny.
- A local sento (alone) – I was still suffering from really bad allergies, so I went to a pretty unremarkable sento to steam out my sinuses. It worked!
- Gero onsen (alone) – I was bored and obviously addicted to onsen, so I took the train to Gero and sat in an outdoor pool next to the freezing river in a bathing suit (ugh) for as long as I could bear. It was just me and a chatty, very naked old man.
Nagano (Nagano Prefecture)
However, it was time to go, so I hopped in a van with Masae’s coworkers, Takeshi and Chika. They both spoke English well and in the 45 minute drive back to the station, I learned Karuizama was a resort area where many rich people from Tokyo had vacation homes with tennis courts (hence the Shinkansen station in such a podunk town), that the three of us all love red wine and had been to Paris, and that the beautiful drive from Karuizama to Kitakaruizama (Kita means “North”) was called ROMANTIC ROAD, hahaha. They were two super nice people and when we got to the station Takeshi gave me a Haco neck warmer/headband!! It’s super cute and I was so happy to have it, since it’s so cold here.
- 1166b Hostel – I really liked the vibe at this place. It was cute and modern in the front and reminded me of my Baba’s house in the back.
- Shibu-Onsen Station (alone) – My train ticket to Shibu-Onsen, where I saw the hot spring monkeys, included free admission to this pleasant but sparse onsen located in the train station.
- Feel Earth (a day trip from Nagano)
- Retriever Meet!!
- The Japanese Snow Monkeys (a day trip from Nagano)
Nasu (Tochigi Prefecture)
I could barely sleep that night, the wind was blowing so fiercely. Everything was rattling, the window panes, the door to my room and sometimes I could even feel the floor shaking. Suzuki-san kept commenting how it was no longer legal to build a place like Kita Onsen, and sometimes my mind drifted to the idea of my room falling right off the structure or a fire breaking out and me becoming lost in the maze of hallways and strange rooms.
- Kita Onsen - I’m not sure that Kita Onsen was actually anywhere near Nasu, because it took me a few hours to get there and we seemed to go nowhere but into the mountains. Truly one of the most bizarre, surreal, beautiful, fantastic places I stayed in Japan. It was very rough around the edges but had all the weird charm you would expect from an isolated hot spring resort that is hundreds of years old.
- Kita Onsen (alone) – Favourite hot pool moments from Kita Onsen included swimming at night in the big outdoor pool while a storm whipped autumn leaves around me and clouds rushed over the bright face of the moon, and finally managing some naked time in the totally weird Tengu no Yu bath.
- I ALMOST did karaoke at Kita Onsen, but the machine was broken. I can’t even imagine what would have happened. I don’t think I would have ever left.
Sapporo (Hokkaido Prefecture)
I noticed small private karaoke rooms in the back and upon discovering they were FREE, we immediately relocated. I asked Saki, “Do you like karaoke?” and she told me she sometimes goes by herself “just to practice”. Yessss. We probably spent three hours in there, nursing two drinks and singing every Britney Spears song. But 2:30am I was EXHAUSTED but I swear that little minx could have gone all night. My throat was totally hoarse!
- Time Piece Apartment – A funky hostel with character but a cramped female dorm that resembled a ship’s cabin more than anything. I think I trimmed my bangs on my own for the first time here.
- Jozankei Onsen (with Yang) – A fancy hotel in an onsen town near Sapporo. The traffic to get there was brutal and the actual pools were a bit disappointing, but it was a great place to catch up with Yang, whom I had met in Kobe.
- A little room in the back of an izakaya with Saki, a girl I met at the hostel. We had gone for ramen at the hostel recommended Yukikaze, then gone for a drink and when I saw the karaoke rooms, it was destiny.
Hakodate (Hokkaido Prefecture)
I wanted to go up Hakodate Mountain and walked to the cable car station only to find out it was closed. I just ended up walking to the trail head and since the trail was well maintained and seemed pretty easy going, I just hiked up instead. I almost stepped on a slender brown snake winding its way across the trail and freaked out a little, there are deadly pit vipers in the mountains here. The scenery was quite beautiful, glimpses of the grey sea through the trees, autumn foliage and an enormous murder of crows cawing and screaming from the tops of a stand of slender pine trees.
- Hakodateyama Guest House – I really liked this guest house, set in an renovated 1960s restaurant, perched on a hill above the city. Once the proprietor showed me to my room, I didn’t see another soul for the rest of my stay.
Beppu (Oita Prefecture)
There were a few covered shopping streets in the area and a few festivals happened to be going on. These were really small events, I saw two groups of women in matching orange happi bouncing around the streets carrying a small golden shrine. Sometimes they would stop and jump up and down chanting. There were also some women dressed sort of like geisha, but their kimonos looked a bit cheap and polyester. They had on the white pancake makeup and strict looking wigs. They were being trailed by a loud speaker blaring some serious shamisen and were dancing. The strange thing is that there was almost no one else around to watch.
- Beppu Guesthouse - This place had the cheapest private rooms. It was also in the middle of a red light district. Soaplands for everyone!
- Takegawara (alone) – a “Meiji-era classic”, with no showers and scalding hot water. Charming in that falling down sort of way, surrounded by Soaplands and pink salons.
- Hyotan Onsen (alone) – a well equipped onsen in a nicer part of town. Seems to fill up with tourists, but I guess onsen is what one does in Beppu.
Kagoshima (Kagoshima Prefecture)
Needless to say, I really enjoyed the evening, especially when a friendly Japanese girl asked me, “Do you like wainu?” DO I LIKE WINE? And we ended up drinking two very cheap bottles between the three of us, snuggled around the charcoal pit with blankets, listening to the beautiful music. The guitar player got really drunk and was swaying like crazy, trying to chat with me, “I got too drunk” he laughed and started playing songs for me that turned out to be old cheesy commercials. “It’s a joke,” he said, “We say “teppan gaggu”. Ha ha. Teppan gaggu!
- Green Guest House - I felt kind of meh about this hostel until I got drunk drinking Chuheis and bad wine with a Swiss girl while listening to amazing live music and eating takoyaki on the rooftop patio.
Fukuoka (Fukuoka Prefecture)
“You mean Jill Taylor.” I said calmly. “The mom on Home Improvement is Jill Taylor.”
- Tabicolle Guesthouse - Cozy and friendly, though sleeping in a mixed dorm reminded me how bad guys can smell.
- Guesthouse Kaine - I had to stay here one night. It was nicer and in a better location than Tabicolle, but it was so noisy and there was a weird tiny door by my head through which I could hear a cat (?) all night.
- A karaoke place with Mary. Ned walked in, made arrangements for a room, and we did the rest. I even picked up the phone and ordered us fancy drinks.
- A random bathhouse I walked past after visiting the Nagawa Fish Market. It was actually pretty nice, with lots of outdoor pools and some intense massaging jets. Nothing fancy, but a simple and likeable end to my onsen obsession.