Japan trip 2011 July 3, 2011Posted by ayasawada in Japan, Travel.
Tags: Fukuoka, Japan, Kagoshima, Kobe, Kumamoto, Kyushu, Nagasaki, Osaka, Takarazuka, Travel
A few weeks ago I returned from my fourth trip to Japan. As usual, the time passed quickly and joyfully with just over two weeks passing by in a flash. In some ways, it was the usual whirlwind of a trip, but in many other ways, it was a different change of pace.
(I’ll drop in a few pics throughout the post, but as always there’s a rather extensive set on my Flickr. And just to warn you, this is a long post).
What do I remember from this trip to Japan? As usual it’s a hazy, jet-lagged mix of convenience stores, vending machines, shop assistants shouting “Irashaimaseeeeeee!!”, new friends, old friends, good food, PET-bottled drinks, 100 yen coins and being tired and excited all day every day. It’s the greatest experience of my life (again) and only reinforces how this is, without a doubt, my favourite place on earth.
I started out in Osaka, arriving for the first time in Kansai International Airport rather than Tokyo for a change. This, I must say, was an absolute joy. KIX is much closer to Osaka than Narita is to Tokyo. I got through customs and baggage in less than 30 mins and a very quick hop, skip and jump later and I was at the train station next door. Less than an hour later (including waiting times and my usual staring-out-the-window-vending-machine-tea-in-hand-wide-eyed-O-M-G-I’m-actually-here-phase) and I was at my hotel in Shin-Imamiya. (Part of this convenience was the fact that I stayed in the same ridiculously cheap Hotel Chuo I did two years ago, which is 5 mins from the station – a station that is right on the KIX express line. Nevertheless, even if I had to go further into Osaka, it’s still ridiculously quick. And as far as the accommodation goes, one can’t argue with 2000 yen a night for a tatami room. Ah… tatami….).
We spent a day ‘acclimatising’ in Osaka, though this didn’t really help me get over my jetlag and largely consisted of me window shopping, gorging on my favourite Japanese snacks and introducing my friend to the delights of Tokyu Hands (a.k.a. THE GREATEST STORE IN THE UNIVERSE. The place that sells you things you didn’t even know you needed). We revisited a few of my favourite spots around Osaka station and Dotombori, and enjoyed some haitenzushi for dinner. However, the real trip began the next day.
As I’d mentioned in my preview, the intention this time was to see more of Japan’s nature, due in part to the travelling company I was keeping (the friend I went with is rather outdoorsy to say the least). Kyushu was our destination, and despite the fact that I’d said I probably wouldn’t bother going to Fukuoka and Nagasaki again, this was indeed where we spent our first weekend. The reasons were two-fold: 1) the weather forecast a typhoon over the weekend and I didn’t want to hit the hiking spots in the rain; 2) I really really needed to be in a big city to watch the Champions League Final between Manchester United and Barcelona.
We hit Nagasaki first, getting in almost a full day walking around town before the rain hit. I have to admit, it’s a pleasanter city than I’d thought. When I first visited, it was the last stop on my first ever trip to Japan and I packed my two half days with the biggest tourist traps (Peace park, Atomic Bomb Museum, Glover Gardens). It also rained that time, so I didn’t actually spend too much time walking around the city itself or take in much of the atmosphere. Thankfully, my friend is a bit more relaxed about these things and was happy to forgo the usual money-sapping attractions. We enjoyed a leisurely stroll through the tiny Chinatown, portside and the historical buildings of Dejima. We ate traditional Nagasaki champon (although honestly, it’s just ramen…) and in the evening went up to Mount Inasa for the night view, sadly tainted slightly by the overhanging cloud (but nevertheless, ’twas pretty). (N.B. I pretty much followed DarkMirage’s footsteps, having read his blog posts the month before. He has a much better write up of some of these places).
Accommodation tip: Akari hostel is pretty decently located, cheap, with comfortable surroundings and run by friendly folk. I liked it – despite the fact that we roomed with a 70 year old Japanese cyclist who screams in his sleep >_>
Walking around Nagasaki brought on waves of nostalgia as I remembered my first steps there, all those years ago as a naive non-Japanese speaking backpacker. But while I thought better of Nagasaki second time around, I can’t say the same for Fukuoka.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with Fukuoka per se. I’m sure it’s a really pleasant city. It just hasn’t been the two times I’ve been there! For one thing, it rained cats and dogs again. For another, it just felt slightly soulless and a little distasteful to me. I can’t quite put my finger on why – I normally love Japanese cities, and it’s not like Fukuoka’s seedier areas are any worse than Kabuki-cho in its prime (and I’ve done both on a Saturday night at 2am). And the yatai stalls we ate at should have fitted my Malaysian hawker habits. Yet, I just didn’t take to the place.
To make matters worse, though we found an Irish pub to watch the game in at 4am on a Sunday, my team lost. Who knows, had we won Fukuoka might have held a special place in my heart. As it is, it will probably always be a rainy blackhole to me.
Despite being three days into our trip, the moment we set out on the new Kyushu Shinkansen line, I couldn’t help but feel this was where the real trip began. Completed less than a year before, the new bullet train line extends the reach of Japan’s luxurious high-speed rail link and gets you from Fukuoka (JR Hakata) to Kagoshima in the very south in just two hours. That’s INCREDIBLE considering the distance involved. And it was to Kagoshima that we were headed.
What a difference 321 miles makes. From rainy Fukuoka we must have passed right through the remnants of the typhoon to reveal a bright, blue-skied Kagoshima. This may have something to do with the fact that this little city very quickly became one of my favourites in all of Japan.
Kagoshima is a lovely place. Not huge, but picturesque with its tall hills, pleasant city streets, ports leading to all kinds of new adventures and the great Mount Sakurajima looming in the background. Heck, even the people seemed prettier here.
Maybe it’s the volcanic water. I’d never seen an active volcano before, so the sight of Mount Sakurajima had me in awe. It’s impressive enough as a large rock rising from the sea, but the clouds stuck around its tip make for quite the scene. And though Sakurajima itself didn’t go off while we were there, we were lucky enough to catch two other volcanoes in nearby Kirishima discharge in the distance. Again, for someone who’s never seen anything like this, it was jaw-dropping. Scenes of a thousand natural disaster movies and war manga flashed through my head, but there’s something about the calm quiet of the Kagoshima hills and the matter-of-fact comments of the people around me (“Oh, an eruption. That’s rare.”) that make it all the more poignant.
We walked up the nature trail through Shiroyama, round the back of Kagoshima’s north-western quarter for our view from Shiroyama Observation Point. It takes just 20 minutes or so (depending on your pace) and is completely free, so excellent value! It’s not too far from a couple of interesting-looking shrines and museums (we didn’t go into any of them) and 10 mins or so from the main shopping area of Izumo-dori.
It was in Kagoshima that we stayed in one of the more characterful places of our trip. Little Asia Guest House is a stone’s throw from the main station and as small as its name suggests. It looks and feels like a shack. In fact, part of it is shack. But despite the slightly cramped conditions, odd smelling toilets and an interesting line in staff, it’s actually a very nice place to stay – made even more so by the ridiculously cheap 1500 yen a night price (for dorm beds). Were this any other country, I might worry about the security, but this is Japan. As such, shack door? Fine? Random mix of people wandering in and out? Fine. It even made for quite the homely feeling as each night the tatami-covered common room played host to an interesting collection of foreign travellers, Japanese folk (some travelling, some seeming just trading on eBay…) and staff, variously fixing meals in the kitchen, browsing on the three, ever-so-slightly-dated PCs, or staring at another incomprehensible variety show on the TV. I met some lovely people there, and to top it all off they have a spectacularly good manga library (all in Japanese of course). First impressions aside, I really came to love that little shack.
We spent nearly four days in Kagoshima at various points on our trip, either side of our three-day excursion to Yakushima and with a a little side trip to the nearby Kirishima National Park. I have mind to write separate posts on those two, slightly epic, undertakings, so will save my thoughts for later. But as far as Kagoshima goes, between the last-minute trips to the supermarket (for heavily discounted bento and overpriced fruit!), people watching (*coughladygawpingcough*) in Amu Plaza and hanging out in the shack, Kagoshima more than any other place felt like home on this crazy little holiday. I think part of me stayed behind there, waiting for me to return someday.
After our exertions in Kirishima and Yakushima, we had an overnight rest back in Kagoshima before heading back north for more hiking in Aso. This was also something of an epic undertaking, so well worth another separate post (and sparing you more words in this post that has probably already overstayed its welcome). As in Yakushima, we spent three days enjoying the virtues of one of Japan’s most well-known hiking and hot-spring regions before heading back to Honshu via a brief stop at Kumamoto.
I can’t say Kumamoto was very high on my hit-list, but as my Rough Guide says “most travellers find themselves here at some point or another [on their way somewhere else]”. But as one of Kyushu’s biggest cities with great historical interest, it seemed a shame not to stop by for a day. Our raison d’être was to visit Kumamoto-jo, the city’s famed castle. The castle itself was nice enough for a reconstruction – impressive in its size, but not as big or pretty as, say, Nagoya-jo. I actually found one of the side-turrets and the (very) newly rebuilt grand hall to be much more interesting than the castle building itself. As usual, the main draws for the Japanese crowds seemed to be the view of the city from the top, as well as the various ninja and samurai photo ops outside.
Besides the castle, I found Kumamoto to be a pleasant place, even though it rained. The people seemed friendly and accommodating, the trams easy enough to use and I passed an enjoyable few hours taking shelter in their covered shopping streets.
Moreover, we had a real find with our accomodation – Nakashimaya came highly recommended by our guidebook and personally recommended by our hosts in Aso. I’m glad we took them up on the offer, because it was another one of those places that labels, and prices, itself as a hostel but is practically a hotel. From the plush reception of ornaments and goldfish to the incredible showers, modern kitchen and comfy four-to-a-dorm tatami rooms (we were lucky enough to get one just to ourselves due to the quiet season), it really seemed too good to be true for somewhere so conveniently located in the centre of town. To top that off, they have a state-of-the art common room with some incredibly fast PCs and the biggest fracking Sony TV I have ever seen in my life (and this is in a fricking hostel!).
The staff were also very nice. And they run an interesting side-line in tie-dying workshops that residents can take part in (they seem to sell off people’s designs on Converse trainers – some for the tidy sum of 10,000 yen! Perhaps that’s how they can afford that TV?). In any case, at 2500 yen a night for such luxury, you really can’t complain.
Part of the reason for staying in Kumamoto was to break up our trip back to Osaka. It’s an incredibly easy three hour ride direct from one to the other by shinkansen and by lunchtime we were back where we started, chowing down on Osaka’s finest okonomiyaki and takoyaki (possibly my two favourite Japanese foods EVAH) in Dotombori with an old English friend. We took in the baseball at KOSHIEN(!!) (details in this post) but not before he’d shown us the delights of Osaka’s famous Don Quixote and we’d spent way more time and money than intended on random Japanese novelty crap (but then, that’s what Osaka, and Dotombori in particular, is known for, no?).
One drunken night at the baseball later and we were up again for some more leisurely sightseeing around Kansai. Some friends I’d intended to visit had to cancel, sadly, at the last minute, but that meant I could take a slight detour to Takarazuka. My main reason was to visit the Osamu Tezuka Memorial Museum (full details in this post), but I enjoyed the pleasant walk through Hana-no-michi and was intrigued to pass the famous Takarazuka Grand Theatre. There were the expected hordes of women swarming round to see the latest offering from the famous all-female Takarazuka Revue.
After that, I felt duty-bound to take my friend somewhere he’d like to go, so we pushed on to Kobe for a walk around the always-beautiful harbour and the heady delights of Sannomiya. We stopped short of forking out full price for Kobe beef, but we did enjoy a mouth-watering yakiniku dinner. Even if it’s not the famous one, Kobe’s beef is heaven in a slice.
The next evening, after a full day’s shopping, the friends we had gone to the baseball with had invited us for a ‘farewell’ meal, of sorts, in their town. I always like venturing into the smaller suburbs — it reminds me of happy times visiting various friends around Japan, either foreigners teaching or Japanese friends in their hometowns. We went not far from our base in Osaka to the small town of Yagi, with a brief stop off at a friend’s son’s small but incredibly homely takoyaki bar for snacks and a drink. This was a friend we’d only met two nights before – as always I’m amazed at the Japanese people’s hospitality and willingness to throw open their doors and go out of their way to show visitors a good time. We ate, we drank, we went to another izakaya, for more friends and random nihonryori.
And like that, it was nearly over. I woke up fuzzy that final day, partly from the beer, partly from the late night of stuffing my bags with all the crap I’d bought the day before, but mostly numb from a sense of oncoming dread.
We spent that final day doing what I’d wanted to do for a long time, revisit Harbour City and the amazing Osaka aquarium (yes, another separate post on that coming soon). It was one of the last places I visited in Kansai on my first ever trip to Japan, and it was every bit as enjoyable as it was then. But as I sat gazing out at the Osaka port, boats gliding into port, office ladies gossiping on the table next to me, I felt hopeless and helpless, reality seeping back into my hazy, timezone-confused mind as I tried to fill it with memories of the sight in front of me, the memories of two weeks’ experiences, long-gone before I’d really had a chance to grasp them.
Soon, I found myself back on that train, heading back to KIX, the last of the rush hour passengers tutting at the gaijin with four bags as he alighted. As the train approached KIX I saw a ferris wheel in the distance, lights bright, gleaming its rainbow colours in the black of night. Ferris wheels are a common attraction in Japan – there’s one in practically every city. I thought of that wheel back in Kagoshima, the wheel in Osaka harbour, the wheels of memories past in Osaka city, Odaiba and beyond. And my mind wandered to the line at the end of Chica Umino’s Honey and Clover:
That whole miraculous time in my life is going to keep turning, nostalgically, somewhere far away, deep in my heart, accompanied by a sweet pain, forever….