Gion Matsuri festival, Kyoto

Memoires of a tourist in Japan

I was talking to a friend of mine this week who’s thinking of going to Japan for a holiday; just talking about it reminded me what a fab time I had there and has prompted me to write this post detailing all my exploits, even though it was three years ago!

My old housemate from UK was living in Japan so I decided to escape the heat of Dubai’s summer by paying him a visit, Emirates had started flying direct from Dubai to Nagoya where he lived so I took advantage of that and 11 hours later arrived in the Land of the Rising Sun. Our first port of call was a long weekend in Tokyo, so we got the shinkansen (bullet train), which was amazing in itself, trying ekibento on the way (a wooden lunch box you buy at the train stations with all kinds of food in – you can’t really tell what the food is though!)

We checked in to a very ‘compact’ business hotel in Roppongi (the nightlife area) then unfortunately a typhoon hit the city so we headed indoors to Tokyo National Museum for the afternoon. We headed out for the evening to experience a little of Tokyo’s diverse nightlife, starting with a nice traditional Japanese dinner (lots of fish and sushi, which included raw prawns that you had to suck out of their shells, and other things I couldn’t identify!) after a few drinks and some time checking out the karaoke bars we ended up in the very funky Heartland Bar where art was projected on the walls and bizarrely dressed DJs were mixing an incredibly wide range of music – and successfully!! The next day in Tokyo we visited Asakusa, a district famous for the 7th Century Buddhist  Temple, Senso-ji, and where there was also a whole street of souvenir market stalls. At the temple we were told to waft smoke from the joss sticks over our heads to make us more intelligent (!) and rub the Buddha on whatever part of you needed to be healed. We also had our fortunes told from a can of sticks! (I was due to experience lots of luck apparently!) We checked out Shinjuku (the world’s busiest train station) and the famous crossing outside which was incredible I have never seen so many people moving so fast in all different directions! We also checked out the scenes from Lost in Translation at the New York Bar of the Park Hyatt hotel, where most of the movie was shot, for cocktails, before taking the shinkansen back to Nagoya.

The following day we were woken early in the morning as an earthquake hit Japan, unfortunately it was a serious one, though luckily for us we were a long way away, although it still managed to wake me up to see all the light fittings swinging around! Deciding to stay in Nagoya for the day, we headed out to see Nagoya castle where I tried green tea ice cream which I soon became a big fan of. It was a national holiday for Marine Day so we saw all sorts of activities at the temples on the walk there, as well as several well-known sumo wrestlers. That night we had Yakiniku for dinner – you sit at a low table, (I don’t think we sat up to any normal tables for dinner at all during the trip! And I didn’t see any knives/forks the whole holiday either!) and there was a mini BBQ on the top, then you get given raw strips of meat and cook it yourself, accompanied with salads. We all really enjoyed it, although I was fed strips of stomach and tongue before being told what it was! The other quirky detail were the toilet slippers – you take your shoes off to sit at a table in a restaurant in Japan so the toilets have special ‘toilet slippers’ for you to wear when you need to go to the bathroom!

I had been really looking forward to getting to Kyoto to soak up more culture. The day we visited was their biggest festival of the year – Gion Matsuri – so there were lots of amazing processions in the streets with intricately decorated floats and costumes. Unfortunately this did cause a few problems with the roads being closed and buses therefore taking different routes – nothing is written in English and nobody speaks English so we had no idea where to go, and ended up getting off and consulting the map a few times – thank God for Lonely Planet!) Our first stop of the many sights of Kyoto was the golden temple, Kinkakuji, due to the ongoing festival there were lots of crowds but I still managed to get a clear shot of the temple. Following that, we proceeded to the temple where The Last Samurai was filmed, Kiyomizudera, which is dramatically perched on a cliff edge with stunning views of the forest. On our way back to our hotel, we got caught up in an amazing procession as part of the festival – I have never heard or seen anything like it – and we stumbled upon it  by chance!

That night (when the crowds had finally dispersed), we went to Gion Corner for a traditional show which included koto music and Gagaku (court music and dance) as well as Kyogen (ancient comic plays) and Kyomai (geisha dancing) and concluded with the very atmospheric Bunraku (puppet play) and a traditional green tea making ceremony with geisha. After this we went and tried Yakitori food where you sit at a bar around a big open grill and they cook skewers of food in front of you.

Our final morning in Kyoto was spent at Fushimi Inari, the fox temple, up in the woods, famous for all of the red gates. I am reminded of this temple every time I park at Madinat Jumeirah, thanks to the latest Visa advertising campaign, which features a picture of the gates at the temple.

From here we left for Hiroshima on the bullet train, I would have loved to have had more time in Kyoto as there were so many temples to see but we were on a schedule! In Hiroshima, we saw the A-Bomb Dome and all the peace memorials. The most touching memorial by far was the children’s monument, where children had made a thousand little origami cranes, I still have the tiny ones I was given for entering Memorial Hall on my windowsill. Memorial Hall was interesting but very emotional and graphic as there were witness accounts from survivors and pictures they had drawn, which did tug at the heartstrings, and made me think of the memorials at the Bridge Over the River Kwai in Thailand. We finished the mammoth day’s sightseeing by going to Miyajima which is an island where there are loads of wild deer that seem quite tame, it’s also the location of the famous floating torii, Itsukushima (a big red gate in the middle of the sea and the most photographed sight in Japan). Unfortunately we were there when the tide was out so it wasn’t quite the same image!

It was my friend’s birthday while we wer  visiting so we had a nice lunch in the Marriott Hotel, Nagoya, the restaurant was on the 32nd floor so it had great views, and that night their local bar, MyBar, was holding one of its wine nights, only this one was champagnes, which was perfect timing.

The National Sumo Tournament was also being held in Nagoya that week so we spent a day there and saw the top stars fight. We were lucky enough to be invited to a kind of ‘sumo training camp’ for dinner after, which is apparently very hard to come by. The ‘lads’ were only in their mid teens but were already massive – they cooked and served us dinner on the floor of the hall then they sang at the end to thank us for coming!

There was another festival within the fortnight – Minato Matsuri which was celebrated at Nagoya Port. There were loads of street stalls and fireworks and all the Japanese dress up in their kimonos for it. We explored more of Nagoya, having a go in one of the many massive amusement arcades (winning lots of Hello Kitty toys!) and I even got shown around shops that were designed for an entirely different type of entertainment for behind closed doors (need I say more!) – they were 4 floors high, obviously a high demand!! We also visited Osu Kannon temple and the markets nearby, all while collecting pictures of the cars that people had converted to look like other brands, for example, we saw a Micra that had been worked on to look like a Jaguar – unbelievable!

We tried Kushiyaki cuisine where you have a hole in the table with a deep fat fryer in the middle, you collect all sorts of meat, fish and vegetable skewers (they even have chicken cartilage, but I couldn’t bring myself to try that!) and then you coat them in a bowl of batter and put them in the fryer, cooking them yourself.

As my friend went off for another working week, I was brave and headed out on my own for a couple of days. I went to Kobe where I checked out the earthquake memorial park (lots of people were killed there in the 1995 quake), they left part of the pier as it was after the earthquake – everything was ripped in half and crooked, very scary! I also went up in the cable car and got some great views of the surrounding countryside, then grabbed a quick bite to eat in Chinatown (it doesn’t matter where you are in the world, Chinatown is always a good bet for a refuelling stop!)

I went to Nara in the evening (the second cultural capital after Kyoto) and stayed in a traditional ryokan (guest house), you have to take your shoes off at the entrance and put on their leather slippers. The bathroom was shared (not even separate men’s/women’s) and no lock – you leave your slippers outside and apparently no one will come in! Then you clean yourself in the shower and when you are clean, get into the already-filled shared bath – kept at a sweltering hot temperature. It was a huge square tiled thing, I couldn’t really relax though, I was too worried someone would come in and there were no bubbles to hide under! That night I went for dinner alone and with no one to translate, I just had to point at the picture in the menu that looked normal! Every restaurant had plastic dishes so it was easy to just pick based on appearances with no idea of what the ingredients were! I was brave again and chose the Japanese breakfast at the ryokan in the morning (after sleeping on a tatami mat on the floor with no mattress, and with a solid beanbag as a pillow! All part of the experience!) The breakfast consisted of a piece of salmon, some odd-looking vegetables, miso soup, pickles, black and white rice, fermented soy beans, tofu and soy sauce cooked in soy milk and a pack of fish skin! I was very good and ate almost all of it, but I only managed one of the fish skins (I like fish, but that’s too much, especially in the morning!!) That was washed down by a type of green tea made with stems, stalks and twigs!!

Nara was beautiful (the weather had changed by the second week – the first week it had rained solidly and was very humid, then all of a sudden the rainy season was over and it was really sunny, hot and humid!) I spent a day walking and exploring, starting with the temple of the giant buddha, Todai-ji The walk also took in loads of parks which are full of wild deer and lakes which are full of terrapins, but the next main stop was the lantern temple, Kasuga Taisha and finally the temple with a five-storey pagoda, Kofuku-ji. I had to try Kaiseki – a traditional multi-course lunch of many tiny dishes which I couldn’t identify again apart from the sashimi, tempura, egg custard and a couple of little pots with candles under actually cooking the food, all with a shot glass of a thick type of plum wine. By the end of the day I was sunburnt, tired and had blisters but it was well worth it!

My last few days I spent around Nagoya, I went up the TV Tower and to the Robot Museum, Nagoya Port and the touristy Italian Village, Villaggio Italia, I also visited the gardens and carp ponds and spent a day at the natural mountain hot spring town, Nabana no Sato, to visit the onsen (hot springs). Onsen etiquette was quite strict, you get undressed (tattoos are considered offensive and have to be covered by plasters), and wash yourself from the little bowls in the open shower room, then go outside (obviously there were separate areas for men and women as everyone is naked). There were six different pools to try in order. They are really, really hot naturally and so full of minerals that the water is almost oily; it was really relaxing and is supposed to be really good for the skin. I was a little shy at first though as they were all old Japanese women, no fair-skinned westerners at all, so I definitely stood out, but it was a fantastically liberating and refreshing experience once I had gotten used to it.

Back in Nagoya (and dressed!) we tried amazing tempura where we sat at the bar and they cooked in front of us – all different types of fish, seafood and vegetables, including eel which they took out of the tank in front of us. One of the items on the menu that we chose not to try was prawn legs – no meat or anything, just the legs that you normally peel off, deep-fried! We also tried a fantastic authentic sushi bar where I again was won over by the eel. Another night we tried Shabu Shabu which is a big pot full of boiling water at your table and you add vegetables, seafood, fish, meat, noodles, tofu all at different times and it’s cooked in the water.  My description doesn’t do it justice but it was really nice, and on another occasion I also tried pregnant fish, which I needed a bit of convincing to do, but some nice warm sake helped! I think I hd my most interesting and adventurous culinary journey in Japan for sure!

And that was Japan!! I feel like I’ve written a lot, and mostly a lot about the food, but I had to do it justice as it was easily one of the most amazing places I have ever been to and a fantastic holiday. I would recommend it to anyone – just make sure you have a phrase book as no one really speaks English, and plenty of money if you want to travel around and are limited for time as the shinkansen is expensive, and finally plenty of memory cards for the camera as there is something unusual to see around every corner!