In no particular order, here are some of the moments in Japan that have stuck with us the most.
During our stay in Hiroshima we decided to change all our plans one day and head to the island of Miyajima instead. A tram-ride and boat trip away is the emerald green island, dotted with small, intricate temples and a maple-forest walk up to the top of the mountain. We sat eating our packed lunch in the sunshine, watching the crowds gather around the floating Torii gate and the deer who wander freely and unafraid. It was the perfect unplanned day.
Hundreds of red Torii gates line a winding path from Fushimi-Inari Temple up to the peak of Mount Inari. The gates are arranged in three stages – at the beginning they form a glowing tunnel, small and tightly packed, before they open out into increasingly towering structures. Light rain and low cloud only added to the atmosphere as we climbed each step, surrounded by forest and gurgling streams.
Peace Museum, Hiroshima
Harrowing, heart-breaking, filled with hope. Although we knew the story and had read the history books, nothing could prepare us for the stories told in the Peace Museum. A particularly memorable moment was an elderly local Hiroshima man who, on hearing we were English, asked if he could tell us more of his city’s history and share his own story.
Arashiyama bamboo groves
More stunning than we could have imagined, more vivid than any picture can capture. Although the Golden Week crowds meant the groves were busy, the groves seemed to absorb all the bustle. All we could hear was the wind blowing through the tops of the bamboo and the occasional hollow knock of something unseen against the trunks. We felt no rush to move on, but trailed back and forth or stood a while. Serene, gentle, lovely.
You’re either going to get a hole in the floor or a light show as you open the door, complete with a self-raising toilet cover, heated toilet seats, birdsong music and an array of buttons. Press one if you dare, you might get a… refreshing… burst of water somewhere you didn’t expect, change the track to waterfall sounds or set off the dryers.
Amongst the super cheap meals and packed lunches were a few fantastic meals, made all the better when compared to what we usually ate.
Daiichi Asahi, Kyoto
After walking past a long queue of people outside a restaurant near our hostel three times, we decided we needed to pay the place a visit on our second night in Kyoto. We’ve realised from our travels that there are certain queues outside restaurants that are worth joining, and certain ones that aren’t. If all 50 people in line are travellers, you can be sure it’s one of five eateries mentioned by Lonely Planet in their latest book and it’s okay if you miss out on it. If, however, you’re in Japan and the queue is 95% people from Japan, you’re on to something good. There was no English menu so we had no idea what they served, but the price was right so we waited in line. Whilst patiently shuffling forward, we realised we’d managed to queue behind the only other two Westerners, two guys from Germany. After pulling some expert level GCSE German out of the bag, Ryan managed to introduce us and Karim and Yacine managed to figure out we were English. They told us that Daiichi Asahi was rated one of the top ramen restaurants in Kyoto, hence why it was so busy. What followed was an evening of excellent food, beautifully rich and not too salty ramen with juicy, crisped pork, and a lot of laughs with Karim and Yacine who sat with us.
Okonomiyaki is a traditional light dish from the Kansai region. This quick snack became a staple cheap meal in Hiroshima after the A-bomb landed and food was scarce, and is made differently to the rest of Japan. Hiroshima Okonomiyaki is made with layers of wheat batter mix, a huge amount of cabbage, bacon, soba noodles, a fried egg, plenty of Okonomiyaki sauce, spring onions and then any extras you choose. We had scallops. The mix is grilled in front of you and served steaming hot; the ultimate comfort food. In Hiroshima, Okonomi-mura is a three story high Okonomiyaki haven, filled with tens of stalls selling it on each floor. Choose whichever stall has a decent but bearable queue outside and enjoy.
Cheap beer in Matsuya
Matsuya became our go-to for cheap food in every city we visited in Japan. Essentially a Japanese McDonald’s, you can get a large bowl of rice, a meat dish, miso soup, salad and unlimited water for around 650 yen, or £4. The real revelation came, however, when we realised that if you buy a meal, you can also get beer for 150 yen. Now don’t get me wrong, going to Matsuya and ordering one meal and 7 beers wouldn’t work and would be pretty sad. But there are some days when you’ve been walking around for 10 straight hours, it’s 27 degrees out and a cold beer is just the thing you’d like without breaking the bank. In these times, a meal at Matsuya is the one.
Wagyu steak in Nara
Together we spent £200 less than we’d budgeted for our time in Japan, so on our last we decided to treat ourselves. Everything in Nara seemed to be closed by 8pm except a Japanese barbeque house that was filled with a simultaneously raucous and awkward office party. Having no choice and each delighted to be able to try wagyu, we hunkered down around our barbeque grill, in a prime spot to observe the office politics. We ordered a set menu of various prime cuts of meat and vegetables, which you are then left to grill to your personal perfection and season with various local vinegars and spices. The wagyu was every bit as tasty as we’d imagined it might be when we’d walked past similar restaurants, tummies not quite satisfied with our homemade egg butties, countless times in the previous two weeks.
Have you travelled Japan? What were your highlights?