Japan in 33 Days

‘A few friends and I are going to hire a car and travel around Japan in the spring if you want to come?’

Without hesitation it was a yes from me. Travelling alone has many benefits, but I prefer to have someone with whom to share my adventures. In the end, George’s friends made other plans and we were down to two. George, not my actual brother but another brother-like figure in my life, has just completed his second season on Hokkaido, in Kiroro, as the Assistant Resort Manager (ooo, get him!). We met working winters in Saas-Fee, Switzerland.

During a gathering in Kiroro, with the help of Eri and another fount of Japanese knowledge, Cam, we vaguely plotted a route across Japan to tick off both of our bucket lists. A whizz round Daiso (100 yen store – a bit like Poundland but far superior), collecting a cooker, some bowls and chopsticks, a sleeping bag and other necessities for the trip, we left Niseko on 25th April and headed south.

On day 1, I decided to post a photograph or collage on Instagram to form an #Instadiary of what we had done each day. Scrolling back through the feed, it is amazing quite how much we covered. I am taking a while to process it all! Click here for my Facebook page where you can see my Instagram photographs.

Where to start? It’s been the busiest 33 days of my life and there is no way I can do justice to the trip in a short, readable, concise blog post. We just.did.not.stop.

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George with Stella, our rental car, at Hakodate

We travelled over 5000 km in total (the people of Kyushu frequently expressed their surpise when reading the number plate, ‘Sapporo?!‘ – the main city on Hokkaido). We caught the ferry from Hakodate to Aomori; Aomori to Sendai; Sendai to Nagano; the Japanese Alps to Hiroshima; Hiroshima to Kyushu (Beppu, Miyazaki); back to Honshu; Iwakuni, Okayama, Himeji, Osaka, Kyoto, Nara, Hakone, and finally, Tokyo.

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Road barriers were held up with various amusing characters

We spent between 5000-7000 yen on a tank of fuel and filled up roughly 6/7 times. The Hybrid Estelle (we affectionately called her Stella) which we rented, did need a break pad changed in Sendai, and often emitted interesting smells and a few worrying growls, served us brilliantly. We were able to collapse the back seats and had plenty of room to sleep.

As George drove and tried to be as patient as possible with Google Maps (avoiding all tolls), whilst singing along to Disney songs, I did my best to locate Onsens and public Sentos to wash and research a little about where we were going (although we’ve established my memory is like a sieve). Taking the Pocket Wifi I had been using all winter was a lifesaver, and I am amazed (and slightly ashamed of myself)Β by those who can survive without the Internet.

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George admiring the Koi fish wind socks on route. They were everywhere leading up to 5th May, boys or children’s day. They represent the strength and courage a Koi fish needs to swim upstream – characteristics instilled into the Japanese children.

We lived out of convenience stores. These were fantastic for Bento boxes, food and snacks and they all have a toilet. We often slept in their car parks. In cities we would trawl the streets (very time consuming and frustrating) to find 24 hour car park rates (often sending Eri a photograph to see if, what we hoped we had made up, was true – 600yen for 24hrs?!). The awkward question of ‘so, where are you guys staying?’ was always a giggle to answer.

And that left all our remaining yen to spend on adventures!

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Matsumoto Castle

My highlights

Jigokudani Monkey Onsen

I imagine it is far better to visit during the winter, when the monkeys have a reason to soak in the natural hot water. There were still plenty to see in the spring, and we were lucky to see some babies.

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The Tateyama-Kurobe Alpine Route and Murodo Snow Corridor

Sadly the weather wasn’t entirely on our side, but it was still stunning, great fun taking all the different modes of transport up to the snow corridor, and seeing such vast amounts of snow with all the different layers (geek!).

 

Takayama

This is a beautiful town with a lot of Edo period buildings. Cycling to the Hida Folk Village and around the town at sunset, seeing some of the temples and quieter streets, was a lovely way to explore.

 

The island of Miyajima (from Hiroshima)

Although it POURED with rain, it was a great island and I am sure I would have loved it even more had the sun shone. We stayed near the shrine, wandering around some of the sights in the vicinity, but it would have been nice to have explored more of the island.

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Staying on the tea farm on Kyushu

BBQ’s, great company, a shower, the best green tea I’ve ever had, and a few nights out of the car were all warmly welcomed – thank you boys! Oh, and George surfed!

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The weather wasn’t brilliant but made for dramatic scenery

 

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So much tea!

 

Garden, temples, bridges along the way were stunning.

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Kintaikyo Bridge, near Iwakuni

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Korakuen Garden, Okayama Castle

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Himeji Castle ‘White Heron Castle’

 

Oktoberfest in Osaka

Yup. We went to a German beer festival, in May, in Japan. It was completely insane. Drunk Japanese dancing to the Fliegerlied Song will be forever ingrained in my memory.

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George, as would be expected, got very in to it!

 

Kyoto & Nara

There were temples galore, and I loved cycling around to see as many as we could. The bikes were pretty small (expected!) and there are no real road rules, which made for interesting trips. I was in awe of the ladies who cycled around in heels, and holding an umbrella. To me, it looked like an accident waiting to happen, but they were so calm and in control, I was purely envious. The bamboo forest was peaceful, listening to the clunking of the trees, and despite there being crowds of tourists. Feeding the deer was entertaining, insisting they bow at least 3 times before they snaffled the biscuit.

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Fushimi Inari Taisha

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Golden Pavillion – Kinkaku Ji

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Kiyomizu Dera

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Sunset in Kyoto

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Bamboo path at Arashiyama

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Feeding deer in Nara

 

Hakone

A very brief visit for such a beautiful place, but we saw Mt Fuji! I was very excited to see the impressive volcano. It really is a mini Mt Yotei.

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It was easier to see the volcano through my sunglasses.

 

(Tokyo) Disney Sea & (Osaka) Universal World

As a child, I never went to either of these, so I was thrilled to go to both. Completely wild days, made all the more interesting by being in Japan. Having characters talk in Japanese made it fractionally less enjoyable, and at times heightened my fear on rides – not understanding when Harry Potter was telling me to ‘watch out!’ and ‘duck!’ resulted in near death experiences. However, the shows and atmosphere were spectacular.

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Tsujiki Fish Market

It was incredible to see the hustle and bustle of a working market, and of course to taste the delicious fresh sushi afterwards. The market is due to move in November so we were lucky to still see the action.

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Final day of the Grand Sumo Tournament at Ryogoku Kogikan

I, luckily, managed to buy tickets online back in April, as the event was completely sold out on final day. These athletes (and yes, I think they can be considered as such) are enormous, but so very powerful. The fights only lasted a few seconds, but the ‘show’ and traditions surrounding each fight were fantastic to watch.

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The Shubuya Crossing

Ahem, at 5am – a thousand people can cross at one time? Nah …

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I did go back to Shubuya and appreciate the area at a busier hour.

MariCar

This was an unforgettable experience. Whoever thought there would be a market for tourists to dress up as Mario Kart characters and drive around Tokyo to see the sights, is an absolute genius. If you intend to do this when in Tokyo, be sure to get your International Drivers Licence before leaving the UK. Since telling everyone about it, there have been a few crestfallen faces when they realised they don’t have the necessary documents.

George’s kart came to a stop, on Rainbow Bridge, and he claimed he really did feel like he was playing the game as everyone went flying past. However, this wasn’t a game, and to then continue alone, once he had swapped karts with a member of staff, was apparently terrifying.

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The fumes were pretty gross

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Waving to their fans

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Cruising along with the traffic

 

Big city lights in Tokyo

I eventually went up the Tokyo SkyTree. Sadly, it was a little cloudy, but by going up at dusk I caught glimpses of the sunset and watched as the city became a sea of sparkling lights. A nice way to spend my last night in Japan.

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The Tokyo SkyTree

 

Japan is such an interesting country, incredibly diverse with a culture, attitude and way of life that changes so rapidly from one prefecture to the next. One thing I haven’t (surprisingly!) touched upon is the food. Needless to say, you can experience everything from the weird to the wonderful, from the healthy to the heart attack inducing, from snacks, Sake and beer to teas, cakes and ice cream. I can safely say 6 weeks post marathon I am not necessarily heavier or bigger, but somewhat ‘doughier’, and I can feel my heart rate rise far quicker, scuttling about the place, than I’d like – however, it’s been a much needed ‘rest’.

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Soba (buckwheat) noodles with Tempura, in Nagano

 

All I can hope for in recording my adventures in Japan, is that it serves as an inspiration for you to go and explore an exceptional part of the world yourself.

I leave for the Southern Hemisphere today (I hate the travelling part of travelling) and feel a little sad to be leaving Japan after 6 months, but I am very much looking forward to the next adventure.

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If you are interested in doing a season in Japan, a fellow BASI member, who also worked in Niseko this winter, wrote a very informative post for the BASI blog with some tips and adviceΒ  – click here to have a read.