In Sydney, we boarded our plane to Japan on time but were sat there for about an hour as engineers inspected serviced one of the engines. The flight itself was pleasant, and knew food and entertainment were being provided as part the normal Qantas service. However, as we selected seats further back of the plane, we found that we were left with not much meal selection once they eventually made it to us. Sometimes, they would run out – we missed out on a couple fruit runs. So make sure to sit further up the plane if you get the option.
We touched down in Osaka after 8pm local time (Japan is 1hr behind AEST). Customs was simple: they took our fingerprints and a photograph and let us right through. Once out, we proceeded to obtain our JR Pass within the airport complex. These passes allow unlimited use on most JR managed transport systems across Japan and are only available for purchase to foreigners before you fly to Japan. We ended up using these passes for the majority of our trip.
Make sure you obtain an IC card (eg Icoca, Suica, Pasmo, etc) and charge it up with some money. It is like a debit card and is used to give you much easier access through gates to other non-JR transportation networks. It’s a swipe on, swipe off sorta thing similar to Canberra’s MyWay, Sydney’s Opal and Melbourne’s Myki. In addition, you can use the IC card at most places to purchase goods or services, eg at shopping areas, vending machines, to obtain food and beverages. That said, Japan is still a cash society – most evident as you move outside of the main cities – so make sure you have some of those Yens too. We purchased our IC card right next to the JR office at the terminal but they are available at most entrances to the JR train stations and at convenience stores.
We also attempted to locate a rentable pocket wifi device from Lawson but failed. We soon discovered that Lawson is just another convenience store chain (similar to 7 Eleven) that doesn’t stock items of that nature – unless you previously ordered the device from an online website and instructed them to ship to one of the Lawsons for pickup. Not to fear, we went back to the airport terminal and chatted to other providers but didn’t end up renting one of the various options due to cost. It would have come to around $200/mth which was far greater than what we were anticipating. If you’re looking for a portable wifi device at a reasonable price, see this article from Tokyo Cheapo. We connected up to the free Osaka wifi and made our way to to our accomodation arriving close to midnight. Luckily, all of our Airbnb stops have provided free pocket wifi for us to use while out and about during our stay.
Osaka (24-25 April)
Our first day in Japan was wet but that didn’t hold us back. We took our Airbnb provided clear brollies and went out to town hitting the famous Dotonbori food district. After all, I think that’s why we went to Osaka.
The two must have food items were Okonomiyaki (pancake) and Takoyaki (octopus balls). We selected a reputable restaurant on Tripadvisor and gave them a whirl. For both of us, it didn’t really float our boats. Okonomiyaki was still oozy in the middle so we weren’t sure if they were ready but the chef made a gesture for us to start. After sinking my teeth into Takoyaki, a hot sensation went into my mouth (this is the normal reaction for the impatient). Again, I wasn’t expecting for it to be gooey on the inside but it was. And did I say it was hot (temperature wise)?
With the night’s food excursion over, we headed home. Unfortunately for Luce, she ended up getting a case of food poisoning. We’re not sure what caused it as Michael had everything that she had. The next morning, Michael went out in search of coconut water for Luce to rehydrate with electrolytes but soon discovered that coconut water is not common in Japan. Neither was normal lemonade. Luckily, an assistant suggested to try one of the larger Life supermarkets. Once at a Life supermarket and armed with my trusty Google Translate app with “coconut water” pre-translated, presented it to the first helper I could find. The helper looked perplexed and started talking in Japanese (I think to herself). After some time, she indicated for me to stay and proceeded to head into the aisles and came back with a small container (perhaps around 300ml) of coconut water. I quickly cleared the shelves of all remaining bottles (there were about 5 or so), gathered some bread, bananas and a few other things and off I headed back.
The rest of the day was about recovery, however, we did manage to go for a short walk to see Tsutenkaku – a tower that resembles the Eifel Tower with large Hitachi written down the side.
Kyoto (26-27 April)
Luce recovered quite well so we boarded our first Shinkansen (bullet train) ride to Kyoto which only took around 30 minutes.
We arrived early for our walking tour so we headed to the nearby famous Nishiki Markets where we weren’t expecting to find a store fully dedicated to Snoopy. Michael had an ice cream (surprise surprise) and Luce tried to avoid the smells of any food that reminded her of Dotonbori.
Walking tour of Gion
We had booked into a well reviewed free walking tour in Kyoto. Our guide, Mayu, spoke very good English and we formed part of a group of about 20-25 from all over the world, visiting famous sights around Gion – the Geisha district.
The tour started by crossing the road where Mayu mentioned we were passing a Geisha walking in the opposite way on the crossing – not the best place for a photo. We then proceeded passed the tea houses of Meikas (Geisha’s in training – 15-21 years old) where Mayu explained the difference between Meikas and Geikas (the later as Geishas prefer to be called). She also explained how to spot the real deal as opposed to all the tourists who rent Kimonos and wonder around.
Mayu explained that the main religions were Shinto and Buddism, with Buddism brought over from China and accepted by the Japanese as it had a more positive approach to death, and most Japanese celebrate/worship both. We passed Buddist templates and Shinto Shrines – you will generally find a Shinto shrine with the temples as Shinto used to be connected to the government.
Overall it was a really good tour, and we may have tipped our tour guide more than we should have as Luce was still getting used to the currency conversion rate. To make up for that, Michael had another ice cream, this time matcha green tea flavoured, before we moved to our next tourist attraction.
Fushimi Inari Shrine
Michael, who had thought at this stage he was invincible to sickness with his iron stomach, started to develop a runny nose. It would stick with him for the next couple of days. We carried on and went to the Shrine with more than a 1,000 Tori gates, which coincidentally is voted as #1 in Tripadviser. The Shrine is dedicated to Inari, the Shinto god of rice. In Shintoism, there are many gods. It takes around 2-3 hours to do the full loop to the top of the mountain and back and there were many stairs. There are a lot of people at the start but many turn around about mid-way. The majority of the Toris were donated by companies, organisations, households or individuals and their contribution appears in writing on the Tori.
We had dinner back in Osaka where Luce tried a rice, mince meat and egg meal – the plainest she could find for her delicate tummy. This turned out to be a similar dish that Michael’s mum made for him.
The following day we headed back to Kyoto and searched for a chemist near the station for Michael’s cold which continued to wear him down. Armed with Google Translate, we were able to have a full conversation including:
- runny nose / cold
- strongest version
- taken with meal
First up at Arashiyama, we went to the bridge which had much more significance than what two tourists thought at the time. It was built during the Heian Period between 794-1185. Across the bridge on the otherside was the entrance to the monkey park at Iwatayama but we didn’t go there. Instead we turned back and headed up to Tenryuji Temple, the gardens of which has UNESCO World Heritage Site status. After some time exploring the wonderful garden, we headed through the bamboo grove and into Okochi Sanso Villa which contained a large area of gardens and building structures. This place is an area dedicated to the famous Japanese actor Okochi Denjiro (1896-1962). The actor would come here to relax, replenish and draw to inspiration.
We decided to have dinner at Kyoto Station as it was getting late so headed up to Kyoto Ramen Koji which contains a collection of 7 ramen restaurants. We tried our first dipping ramen which is where you get a bowl with the broth with toppings (eg meaty) and a plate with your noodles. With your chopsticks you then take a mouthful of noodles, dunk it into the broth and then eat it. If you didn’t ask, then your noodles would be cold much like ours were. So if you’re going to give dipping noodles a try, we recommend you ask for hot noodles so it keeps the broth hotter for longer.
Hiroshima (28-29 April)
We arrived at Hiroshima in the train terminal and quickly noted the city’s similarities to Melbourne. From what we could see, Hiroshima’s public transport consisted of above ground trams, buses and taxis.
At the train terminal, we boarded the around-the-city sightseeing bus, free if you had a JR Pass. It’s a bus that takes you in a loop to all of the main attractions in Hiroshima where you can hop on and off at your preferred places. If you’re towing luggage, we probably wouldn’t recommend this means of transportation as it can be tight for others to move past. Try the trams, you’ll be in more comfort.
We stopped at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum as it was too early for us to check into our accomodation. Michael had researched previously that they had coin lockers so we stowed away our luggage and visited the Museum. We learned the history of Hiroshima through murals, photos, models, videos of survivors recounting where they were and what they were doing. You can’t help but feel saddened about the events that occurred here but humbled about the people’s yearning for a peaceful future and the important message they were trying to share.
It looked like they were setting up for something big at Gokoku Shrine within the Hiroshima Castle complex.
With the day over, we went back to Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park Museum at 6.30pm to retrieve our suitcases but soon discovered that the centre had closed 30 minutes earlier. While contemplating what to do without access to our things overnight, we noticed a security guard in the Museum. Luce showed our key through the glass and were kindly directed to an open door and able to retrieve our suitcases from the only locker still in use. Michael shared how to say our deepest apologies in Japanese (gomenasai) and we went on slightly embarrassed but relieved to find our accommodation for the night.
Dinner that night was Indian curry. We couldn’t believe our luck that we were able to order our favourite curries – lamb saag and palek paneer – however it really didn’t live up to what we could get at home except for the Naan bread. Luce’s large was bigger than both our heads combined!
The next day we took a tram ride to the Hiroshima station to head to Miyajima, an island close to Hiroshima containing the Itsukushima Shrine (aka famous floating Tori gate). While waiting at the platform for the train to take us to the ferry terminal, a passing train suddenly started honking it’s horn (which was not the usual behaviour for Japanese trains) and came to a grinding hold well before the platform. We worked out from people’s reactions that someone had fallen onto the tracks and was either hit by the train or pinned between it and the platform. We moved to another platform with a train soon to come, while avoiding looking in the direction of the accident. Unfortunately all trains were delayed and we got to watch as medical and official personnel all rushed to free the person and stretcher them away.
The human accident delayed trains by over an hour and a half. At 12.30 we finally boarded a very full train and headed to the ferry terminal. Once on the ferry we were able to take photos of the famous shrine. Unfortunately it was low tide, so the photos show the masses of people right up to the shrine. We exited the ferry with the masses and battled our way to the shrine in the heat, all the while Michael with his heavy cold, was getting more and more unimpressed. We took our obligatory photo of the shrine and with the shrine, and then headed to the ropeway to try and make the most of the so far lacklustre trip. After waiting 30 minutes (and an ice cream later), we boarded the ropeway. Luce remembered she didn’t like heights and sat like a statue the entire trip to the half way point. At the half way point, Michael pointed out that we didn’t have enough time to walk around the top of the mountain and get down (there was now a 30 minute wait to descend from the top) and get back to Hiroshima without being in peak travel time, so we decided to head back down the mountain at that point.
We made sure to consume a famous pastry (supposedly shaped like a girls hand, but really more like a maple leaf) before happily boarding the ferry to leave the whole place behind.
Best. Mazemen. Noodles. Ever.
Yes, the Okkundo Mazemen restaurant deserves its own heading.
Firstly, there was a bit of discussion on where to eat dinner that night, with Luce finding this noodle place with great reviews, however it was not to Michael’s liking as it didn’t come in a broth. But never fear Michael found a ‘different’ place for us to eat. Strangely it had the same name as the place Luce had found and was in the same location, but came with broth.
The restaurant was tiny and cozy, seating around 12 people at a time. We entered and were seated without any issues with only locals already dining and a family joining later. In total, it was a comfortable and happy scene with interacting chefs and laughter coming from all around. To order, you were asked the portion size, level of spicyness, and any other additions. We highly recommend you get extra slices of pork, and the bowl of rice to throw into the larger noodle bowl after finishing the noodles to finish off (as opposed to us foreigners slurping the last bit of the amazingly tasty sauce). When you receive your bowl of noodles, you break open the perfectly cooked soft boiled egg and swirl it around into the rest of the noodles before forgetting about all decent etiquette and downing it all. And strangely, there was no broth in sight!
Not only was it the best noodles we’ve had, it was very cheap with two regular sized bowls, four pieces of fried chicken entrees and a drink for just over 1800 Yen (~$22AUD).
It was the authentic Japanese experience we were after.