5 Day Tokyo: 16 – 20.10.2013

Our time in Tokyo became a blur; the days were spent too quickly and we became good friends with our couch surfing host Yuki. We spent a lot of time just chatting and hanging out, cooking, eating, laughing and generally just enjoying ourselves.

Our first full day in Tokyo was spent indoors – the typhoon rains were so heavy we were pretty much forced to stay inside; the ten minute walk down the road to the local supermarket left us drenched and cold, but at least we had a heap of ingredients to cook ourselves an awesome lunch, dinner, and for Jacob to attempt to make bread!

We stopped off at Daiso, the 100 yen shop near by ‘home;’ whilst Jacob worked on and succeeded to bake bread in the rice cooker (how amazing is that!?), I attempted to teach Yuki how to crochet. Craft in Japan… who would’ve thought?

Our dinner consisted of Japanese rice and mouth-watering Japanese curry, vegetables and freshly-baked bread. The rain might have stopped us exploring Tokyo, but we’d had an incredible first day.

On our second day in Tokyo the rain had subsided and the sun came out to shine. We headed by train into Tokyo and spent the day wandering through a few different suburbs, eating Yoshinoya and generally hanging out. Yuki had generously hand-drawn us a little map and given us some great directions, so we knew exactly where we were going and what we were doing.

Our first destination was Ryogoku – an area of Tokyo well known for its large Sumo Stadium, sumo attractions, sumo stables (aka “sumo homes”) chanko (aka “sumo food”) restaurants and a heap of shops selling awesome sumo stuff that I wanted to buy, purely because they had awesome sumo pictures on them… I mean, who doesn’t want a set of shot glasses with little images of obese, almost naked men with giant wedgies fighting each other!?

As it so happened, within about two seconds of actually being in Ryogoku district we’d seen a sumo and I was almost wetting myself with unexplainable delight. Within about ten minutes we’d seen several. Jacob had to put up with my constant “Jake, Jake, JAKE! I just saw a sumo! An actual SUMO!”… There was a lot of skipping involved as well.
We saw several sumos actually, they were usually just riding around town on tiny bicycles. Or, perhaps, now that I think about it, the bikes were actually just normal size… maybe it was just more so the fact that the sumos were massive in comparison… Still, pretty awesome. There we were in Ryogoku, totally and unintentionally “sumo spotting…” I’d completely forgotten about the Sumo Museum and was more interested in seeking out these big guys.

Of course, being in a new place in Japan, one of the first things we needed to do was find the local Yoshinoya for 280 yen gyu-don breakfast. And find it we did – we’re experts at this now; we can almost sniff that gyu don out! Japan on the cheap? Yeah, we’ve got this down.

We visited the Sumo Stadium and a very small museum which was interesting but way less exciting than actually seeing them in the fluffy flesh. There was some sort of event happening and by around mid-day we were ready to move on to Asakusa, where we spent the afternoon strolling through the streets, shops, market stalls and temples.

Back at Yuki’s home in the evening, we cooked beautiful soba noodles with mushrooms, spring onion and a light soy dipping sauce then filled up even more on Japanese sweets and royal milk tea. We are so Japanese right now…

Our third day in Japan was pretty chilled; we went out and strutted about for a while, cooked our selves a Japanese style lunch, explored some supermarkets, shops and areas around where we were staying, bought some sushi and ingredients for tea, surfed the internet and didn’t do a whole lot else. Jake was feeling a little unwell so most of our afternoon was quiet. Yuki had school all day and we were happy to entertain ourselves… and drink a lot of macha green tea and royal milk tea in the process.

We’re learning that traveling long-term means that not every day can be filled with all day sight-seeing, exploration and new adventures. Instead, having a day off and just doing one or two little things, taking in your surroundings and processing all the information and amazing experiences is a normal and necessary part of this long adventure – sometimes sitting back and appreciating what you have done whilst not doing too much is the best way to spend a day. Looking through photographs and reminiscing about previous travel experiences can feel like you’re traveling to that certain place all over again. I often feel really “guilty” when we’re not out and doing something – I’m always conscious of the fact that where ever we are right now, it’s not for long… but, at the same time, it’s really nice to just be somewhere..

We cooked dinner for Yuki, loving the opportunity to shop like a local and cook at home, Japanese style. Whilst at the supermarket a Japanese man stopped us for a chat – I think he was just so excited to practice his English and didn’t want to say goodbye to us. It was lovely.Poor Yuki had to put up with our cooking – we cooked the exact same thing as the previous night, although this time we added grilled chicken and egg. I’m drooling at the thought of it, it was so delicious… Jake bought ingredients to make chai, and our evening was spent eating, talking, laughing and drinking chai… and, of course, more royal milk tea.

We’re loving this experience and adore couch surfing with Yuki – as we have with every other host. Couch surfing changes you experience completely and offers you a style of travel that is not possible when staying in hotels and hostels. It’s a lot of fun and we have made some very precious memories.

Our fourth day in Tokyo was just so wonderful, it’s hard to put it into words. Yuki had to unfortunately work all day today, but we did get to enjoy watching her “before work routine” where she sat in front of her fridge eating a piece of chocolate. Her little pre-work reward. Cute.

We traveled to Shibuya, where the coolest sight can be seen from the window of the world’s busiest Starbucks on the first floor – the massive and very famous scramble crossing that is also the busiest in the world. It was there we met my dear old friend Akane, a Japanese girl who had come to live with my family as an exchange student some seven years ago. When we saw each other we were so excited, we hugged and squealed and the first thing I thought – and said – was “you look the same!”

We spent the day with Akane and it was truly wonderful. We ended up in Harujuku, where we took a stroll through my favourite Japanese street, Takeshita Dori. I bought some cute socks – it’s a must when in Japan, I feel – they’re just so nice. I resisted most of the other shops and unfortunately we didn’t get to see any Harujuku girls dressed up, but Akane and I did eat a crepe which was pretty awesome. Another “must” when here… or maybe I’m just telling myself that to rid myself of any guilt.

Akane took us walking through famous areas and streets surrounding Harujuku and Shibuya, and we ended up in the greatest shop – Kiddy Land. 5 floors of toys, games, cute characters, stuffed things, stationary and staff dressed as bears and rabbits, complete with tails and ears. I want/need a job here, purely so I can go to work dressed as a bear with a pom pom stuck to my ass. The Miffy and Hello Kitty sections were my personal favourites.
Jake went straight to the Manga section whilst Akane and I swooned over every cute thing we saw… in other words, we spent a good hour or more in that store.

Moving back to Shibuya, we needed some food… and not just any food, we needed sushi from a sushi train. Akane navigated us towards a little place tucked down some stairs just nearby to Shibuya station – also, just next door to Yuki’s workplace. We spent a good hour or more watching deliciously fresh fish become little pieces of edible art and then rotate around the large table whilst hungry customers picked out what they liked. The little sushi chef man took a liking to Jake and I, and kept giving us the expensive stuff on cheap plates as a “presentu.” What a guy! He was awesome. Even more awesome when we were all taking photos of ourselves and he kept photo bombing and pulling hilarious faces. Absolute gold. Love it.

Our afternoon was spent flitting about and strolling through the streets and my favourite Japanese department store, Loft. In particular, we were in the stationary section which is an incredibly difficult place to be when traveling on a tight budget. I would consider it almost torture, actually, to not be able to buy anything. Anyone who knows me knows my absolute endless love for beautiful stationary. To walk out of that store without half of the entire shop contents in bags in my hands was a hard pill for me to swallow. I really needed those candy shaped push-pins, those do-it-yourself flash cards with a cute character on the front, the design-your-own 4 coloured ink pen, the flash disk shaped like a scuba diver, the fun shaped paper clips, those 3D sticker letter seals, the musical note writing pad, the leather bound journal in a large range of colours, a webcam shaped like a cat, those rainbow coloured set of gel pens, the camera case with the amazing design, the lime green coloured EVERYTHING…Ok, I’ll stop there…

More wandering about and I guess our visit to Kiddy Land didn’t quell our need to fluff about in stores made for children. What I mean to say is, our visit to Kiddy Land didn’t quell my need to fluff about in stores made for children. But who am I kidding, I still feel like a child and the Disney Store was like a little bit of paradise… so, yes, what I’m saying is another happy hour was spent skipping (almost) about the isles and cute character displays of the Tokyo Disney Store. If Kiddy Land isn’t looking to hire staff, maybe the Disney Store is…I’d love to work here – all the staff get to walk around with cute stuffed Disney characters on their shoulders. That’s as good as a set of fluffy ears and pom pom on the bum in my opinion. I’m not ashamed to say I bought something there. “It’s for my niece.” That’s the excuse I used and that’s the excuse I’m sticking to.

Late afternoon Akane, Jacob and I headed to Yuki’s work for an early dinner – Yuki works at a really cool authentic Japanese grill restaurant and sake bar, so she finished her shift and the four of us had dinner together. As if we needed more food after all the feasting we’d done today – but it didn’t matter; it was so delicious and a lot of fun. Akane and I reminisced and it was quite funny to look back all those years to when we were in high school.

Saying goodbye to Akane near by the famous Hatchiko Exit at Shibuya Station, I felt sad to say goodbye again so soon but so grateful I’d been able to meet her again.
Together Jake, Yuki and I took the train back ‘home’ where we spent the rest of the evening drinking home made chai and not doing all that much else. It was fantastic.

Our fifth day in Tokyo was spent just chilling out again – Yuki had the day off and it again poured with rain, but none of us were bothered. We were all happy lounging around, cooking, eating, drinking tea, watching Youtube clips, singing, laughing, washing our clothing in the apartment buildings communal washing machine that seems to be ALWAYS being used – we were sneaky and managed to find it briefly empty!…Yesss! We walked down to the shops and bought ourselves some lunch and ingredients for dinner, getting drenched again in the process. It was an awesome day just hanging out with our new friend, and I couldn’t think of a better way to spend our Sunday in Tokyo. In my opinion, Sundays were created to be enjoyed in a leisurely way; rain against the windows, blankets, good friends, good conversation, fresh rice cooker bread with butter, chai, royal milk tea, daifuku ice creams, matcha green tea, dango and red bean and Japanese curry and rice for dinner was the perfect way to spend today…

Tomorrow is our final day in Japan. I can’t actually believe how quickly these three weeks have passed. It feels too quick, yet looking back on what we’ve done and what we’ve seen, I’m just so happy. We’ve met some incredible people and done some incredible things. I feel so sad to leave – I don’t want to leave, but I know we’re going out tomorrow with a bang. We don’t fly out until almost midnight which means…

…tomorrow, I’m going to Disney Land!

Memorable Kyoto: 8.10.2013

Today has been incredible, and I’m so excited about the fact that it was all possible because of couch surfing. It was a wonderful chance to spend time with new friends and end our time in Kyoto on a high.

Karim, Jacob and I all woke up feeling pretty gnarly after last nights mammoth ramen; all that oil, fat and salt left us dehydrated and with grumbling stomachs – even Yudai and Hiroki felt a bit rough around the edges. We attempted to remove the garlic taste from our mouths with copious amounts of toothpaste and breath mints and empty our stomachs of those ramen demons; that noodly beast left us feeling as though we’d had a big night out on the booze… in reality, it had been a big night out on noodles, bean shoots, garlic, stock and chunky fat. I’m still not sure what’s worse for the body….

It’s Yudai’s day off today so the four of us are spending it together exploring this amazing city and it’s surrounds. First stop was Doshisha Univeristy – Yudai’s University – where we had the opportunity to see what a Japanese university looks like; in particular, how amazing a Japanese university food hall is. With all of us still suffering as a result of last night’s ramen explosion, we passed on the food and took advantage of the free water.

Semi-hydrated, we moved on from Doshisha and took a bus to Nijo Castle – a UNESCO World Heritage castle that is famous here in Kyoto… and probably in Japan now that I think of it. The castle was very beautiful and pretty spectacular, really. I was certainly impressed, but then again, I’m always impressed by Japanese architecture. It’s pretty awesome.
We spent a while wondering through the castle and the surrounding gardens; it was beautiful and we had a lot of fun taking photographs and strutting about in our little group, even if it did start to rain a little.

Following on from Nijo Castle, we headed by bus to Shijo Street again where we had lunch – wait for it… not at Yoshinoya!… Instead we went to Karim’s budget Japanese food chain of choice, Sukiya, where meals are similar in both price and content to that of Yoshinoya. I ordered the usual beef bowl but was evidently still too full from the ramen to eat it.

Another bus ride took us out of Kyoto to  the suburb of Arashiyama, which is a pretty spectacular place and probably good for at least a half-day visit, if not a full day. Unfortunately we’d arrived pretty late in the afternoon and had just enough time to visit the beautiful bamboo forest area and take a short stroll around the area. Judging from the number of temples and sights to see on the tourist map, the many cute shops and the countless beautiful looking food stalls and eateries, you could really go to town here. If I wasn’t dying as a result of ramen poisoning or on a tight-ass budget, I may have treated myself to some hand-made yuba tofu… or a green tea ice cream… or maybe even a mix of the two – who’s to say?

As a group, the four of us had a lot of fun. There was always something to talk about or laugh about, a stupid pose to be made in front of someone’s camera and a lesson to be learned. We had great conversation and it was brilliant to explore Kyoto with new found friends. It’s fantastic being able to spend time with locals – it opens up this country to us in a completely different way, and I really am grateful for this opportunity.

As the sky turned to dark the four of us hopped onto another bus and traveled back to Kyoto, back to Shijo street, where we visited a traditional Kyoto sweet house and enjoyed more free tastings of yatsuhashi as well as bought a few as gifts.
Yudai took us a few doors down to visit a “plum shop” where we tried sour and sweet plums and plum juice that was oh so delicious!!! Again… if I wasn’t on a budget… Oh Japan, why must you always tempt me?

We walked through Pontocho street – the famous street in Gion – which was lit up and busy with people; the street lined with spectacular houses and traditional buildings, as well as many bars and restaurants with high, high prices. Looking out from Pontocho street over Kyoto’s Kamo River, we watched as couples sat along the banks – somehow leaving the same distance between each of the couples, making it quite a sight to see. It’s quite romantic really, and the sound of the river is beautiful at night…

Eventually night time got the better of us and we headed back to Yudai’s by bus, once again stopping by the supermarket for discounted sushi and instant cup noodle soups. We spent our last evening in Kyoto chatting and laughing; this couch surfing experience has been absolutely wonderful and we have really loved every moment of being here. Yudai has been such a wonderful, generous host and we couldn’t have had a better experience. As well as also having Karim to share it with, making a new friend whilst traveling is always a wonderful experience. It feels as though our travels have been made all the more richer through couch surfing and spending time with locals; whilst I’m sad we have to say goodbye to Yudai, Karim and Kyoto tomorrow, I’m so happy there’s more of this to come!

Ramen Kyoto: 7.10.2013

After too many late nights we were in need of a sleep in, and woke well after 11am. We cooked rice for breakfast/lunch and doused it in soy sauce and kewpie mayonaise – what I would consider a gourmet meal for us cheapskate backpackers.

It wasn’t until around 1pm that the three of us decided we should get a move on and actually do something today! Our plan was to go to the Golden Pavilion – Kinkaku-ji – which is meant to be the most spectacular temple complex in all of Kyoto (and Kyoto has a LOT of temples, so it had to be pretty bloody impressive!)…
Eventually leaving the house, we headed straight for the convenience store to get a coffee, and somehow ended up lost and in front of a supermarket; even better! Supermarkets are cheaper and have a much bigger, better andmore interesting range of foods. [Another “Japan on a budget” tip – buy your food stuff and drinks, if you can, at supermarkets; most of the time they have a hot and fresh made selection of things like sushi, tempura and fried goods at super cheap prices.] I love Japanese supermarkets – they are so interesting and every time I go into one it’s like I’m going in for the first time; I’m always discovering something new.
We walked out with sushi, onigiri, a massive bottle of water, juice, milk tea and cold coffee; the three of us were ready to start our day.

Nearby the supermarket we stopped to eat our food; as it so happened we managed to park ourselves right next to a large public tourist map of the area, and quickly discovered that we were surrounded by temples galore. The area surrounding Yudai’s home is really beautiful; full of lane ways and small streets, beautiful old traditional houses, little shrines and statues, quaint outdoor gardens and old bikes parked next to modern cube cars. Just walking through the streets was a joy, but to discover this area offered so much in terms of beautiful temples, shrines and parks was exciting. The Golden Pavilion was momentarily put on hold.

Finishing our sushi and onigiri, we turned a corner and entered a very large and beautiful temple complex that is the incredibly majestic Ryoan-ji. We spent a long time wandering through the area and enjoying the stunning ancient, intricate buildings and temples, the scenery, a bamboo forest area and silent, perfectly manicured gardens. Lots of sections of the complex were no access areas, but never the less we enjoyed ourselves thoroughly, getting lost amongst the massive structures and trees surrounding us.

Moving on from Ryoan-ji, we wandered through the streets and laneways, attempting to navigate our way towards the Golden Pavillion – Kinkaku-ji, admiring the little houses and shops, the streets and the buildings. We stumbled upon tiny temples and historic landmarks and buildings, and almost walked straight past a little home with a very open shop front, before backtracking to take a closer look.

Amongst piles of wood, scraps of materials, work benches and tools, a little man was hard at work building traditional tatami mats. We stood at a distance for a minute or two simply admiring his work space, when suddenly I heard “please come in!”… Stepping into his work shop, the little man was busily measuring up – with beautiful, old looking tools – a tatami mat that looked and smelled so beautiful; it smelled just like Japan to me.
He stopped his work to show us various parts of the tatami – the older style ones and the newer versions, how they are made and what from, the materials used and some of the ways tatamis are layed out in a room – for example, a six, eight or twelve tatami room layout. At one point, we asked a question and he apologized to us whilst he tried to find the answer in his work shop; we had interrupted his work and yet, he was saying sorry to us! Japanese people are so incredibly polite, we were all standing there marveling at the generosity of this man. He was so kind, obliging and welcoming.
When we were leaving, we asked if it was okay to take a photograph of him in his work shop. He insisted we go to the front of his shop, where he untied and pulled down a large material sign hanging outside, offered to take our photographs and posed obligingly for our touristy photos. Amazing – a little experience that I will remember so fondly.

Moving on from Mr. Tatami, we got a little lost amongst the streets and lane ways whilst trying to find our way to Kinkaku-ji. We stopped at an old camera shop where two more very kind and obliging Japanese people assisted us with directions. It was already after 4pm, and Kinkaku-ji was closing at 5pm. We decided to walk there anyway and hope we’d get there in time.

The walk there was nice, and we found our way past more interesting streets and shops, walking up a hill to the entrance of Kinkaku-ji at exactly 4:50pm. We’d made it just in time.
We purchased our tickets and walked straight in; I think maybe we went exactly at the right time because as soon as we walked through the gates and were blown away by the indescribable beauty that is Kikaku-ji, only sharing the view with just a few other tourists. The Golden Pavillion reflected onto the lake, surrounded by such beauty that is so unique to Japanese gardens. We stood marveling at the shining gold structure, awe struck. We took photographs and spent time just standing and admiring the beauty before us. It was truly magical.
It didn’t take too long to walk throughout the complex and gardens; the pavilion being the highlight – it was one of the best temple complexes I’ve seen.

We eventually headed back to Yudai’s home; despite the fact that it had taken a long time to get to the Golden Pavilion originally, it was really quick to get back (we must’ve gone the right way this time…).
Yudai had been telling us about a local ramen restaurant he loved so much, that served a very Japanese, very local, very delicious and very large servings of ramen. Together with his house mate Hiroki, the five of us walked down to the ramen restaurant. My first impression was that this place must be bloody good – we had to queue for around 30 minutes or more to get a seat at this very small suburban eatery. Placing our order and paying 650Y at a vending machine, we took a white ticket each and sat down at the communal table. The place was tiny: the long narrow table surrounded the cooking space in a square shape, in the middle one hard-working man worked as the chef, the cook, the server and the cleaner. All the other men -and there were only men – were eating MASSIVE bowls of overflowing ramen; the amount of food was almost sickening! We ordered “the normal” – deciding to accept the challenge – and Yudai placed our orders with the man who was so busy doing so many things at once. We watched as he added stock, water, sauces and spices, boiled the noodles and added them to the stock, piled on steamed bean shoots and a massive dollop of crushed garlic, and  then… a massive ladle of pure, solid chunks of fat… Oh, good god.

When my normal sized bowl of ramen was served, I instantly thought “this could feed all five of us.” It took a lot of time and effort to get through even the smallest amount of that ramen, and pretty soon we were all struggling. I think the amount of pure fat was the most challenging, but we were all determined to taken on this “challenge…”
In the end though it was just too much; we all (besides Jake) left our ramen bowls full still; we’d eaten so much and barely made a dent in our regular sized bowls. It made me feel sick just thinking about the amount of food other men at the table were consuming…or maybe that sick feeling was due to the influx of fat pumping through my digestive tract. We left the restaurant feeling overly full, heavy, a little bit sick and at the same time, content with this awesome, once-in-a-lifetime (for us) foodie experience. Yudai told us proudly he eats here twice a week; I laughed whilst my stomach cried a little.

Heading back towards home, I think all of us were silent as our digestive systems tried to cope with the onslaught of food and fat we’d just consumed. Whilst waddling and struggling home, we came across a group of people playing with what looked like material hackey sacks – one person standing in the middle holding up a huge pole with a bucket on the top, similar to a basketball hoop. They were all going wild racing to throw these material sacks into the bucket, and I was eager to join in. Yudai asked the group if we could participate and very quickly we found ourselves bracing, ready for a count down from three so we could all go wild, racing to try and get as many balls into the bucket high above our heads. It was difficult to concentrate due to the fact that I was laughing so hard – It was such a random situation but so much fun! I managed to get one in the bucket and spent the rest of my time flailing about with pride and laughing too much. There we all were, late in the night, throwing material balls wildly around with a bunch of very welcoming Japanese people. Fuck Japan is awesome!

Stopping at Family Mart to buy litres of water and cold tea in order to fight the dehydration that was fast consuming us as a result of sudden high salt intake, as well as a good stock of breath mints – considering the amount of garlic we’d just consumed – we were all starting to feel the effects of that mammoth ramen. Bloated and heavy, all five of us flopped onto the couch at home and lolled about, sleepily, occasionally rubbing our disgruntled somachs with sympathy.

Today has been an amazing day, one I will remember fondly. I am so happy to be here.

Golden Kyoto: 6.10.2013

Our next few days in Kyoto were spent in a wonderful blur; we were never in a rush or following a strict agenda and had a wonderful time with Yudai, Karim and Yudai’s house mates, whenever they were around.

On our first full day in Kyoto, Karim, Jacob and myself took the bus to Shijo street and headed back to Nishiki market; Karim had not yet been there and Jacob and I wanted to buy a bag of rice; being able to cook rice for breakfast along with our supermarket-bought instant miso soups would help to keep our budget low. A one kilogram bag of rice cost us 400Y and should see us through a few breakfasts. There’s another little “Japan on a budget” tip for you…The three of us explored the market area a little more and I took one for the team and bought a baby octopus with a quail egg stuffed head to eat. A little too chewy for my liking.

Lunch was, of course at Yoshinoya, at the Hanumaru Udon chain where instead of our usual beef bowl we enjoyed udon noodle soup and age tofu instead. Karim is a fellow budget long-term traveler so it works well.

The three of us walked from Nishiki market area up to Kiyomizu temple area – one of the very well known and touristic areas and of course, where the beautiful Kiyomizu temple is… We easily spent a few hours wandering the little cobbled streets and exploring the many shops, eating so much food and so many – too many – free samples of various Kyoto Sweets, yatsuhashi and green tea drinks. We got lost amongst the tourists dressed in rental kimonos and the crowds of people as we walked up and up towards the temple complex.
Being budget travelers, we were too stingy to pay to go inside and instead took in the temple, surrounding buildings and structures from the outside and enjoyed the magnificent view over Kyoto that can be seen from just outside the Kiyomizu temple. It was pretty impressive and stunningly beautiful, but I think too many free samples of yatsuhashi left us feeling a bit tired and the rest of our afternoon was spent lazily as we headed back to explore more of Shijo Street.

We wandered into a Pachinko Slot Room – similar to a pokies room I guess – where Karim gave us a whirl wind lesson on how the game works. We’re not into gambling but Pachinko is everywhere in Japan and I guess part of the Japanese culture as it seems, so it was fascinating – and a little depressing – to watch all these people playing these machines. After so many months in developing countries and seeing how far even just $1 can stretch, it’s hard to watch SO much money being squandered away so easily…

Discovering that Karim had not yet experienced a Japanese department store food hall, we wandered into the basement level of Takashimaya and spent more than an hour wandering through the different food sections looking at all that exquisite food, watching various foods being made and prepared, marveling at the high price of plastic foods, tasting free samples of various miso pastes and foods we could not identify… We were amazed by the desserts that looked more like art forms and managed to embarrass a worker making some sort of delicious cake, who was too shy to face us as we watched him baking.

Exhausted by 7pm, we took refuge in a coffee shop that sold cheap, bad coffee but had free wifi – we’re budget travelers; this basically translates to “our wifi sensors are well developed.” We spent an hour or so using the wifi and chatting. It’s really nice traveling as a group – it changes up our “couple travelers dynamic” and is a lot of fun. It’s also great to hear a different perspective and have the opportunity to talk all things travel!

Late evening we caught the bus back to Yudai’s home; in the dark streets of beautiful homes we got a little disorientated and were forced to head to the local Family Mart convenience store to use the free wifi for google maps and pick up some quick, cheap dinner. Another “Japan on a budget tip”: convenience store food (instant cup noodles, sushi, onigiri) is pretty affordable.

Finding our ‘home’ again thanks to google maps, we spent our evening chatting with Yudai, Yudai’s housemate and another friend of theirs… we ended up going to sleep really late again – well after 3am. Not setting the alarm tomorrow morning, that’s for sure.

Welcome Kyoto: 5.10.2013

On the morning of the 5th we waved goodbye to our hosts Saki and Tomoki in Osaka and boarded a train: we were Kyoto bound.

A very quick (just over an hour) train ride left us feeling a world away from Osaka as we arrived into Kyoto. During our train trip a Korean couple currently living in Japan had chatted with us and kindly invited us to stay at their home in Kobe anytime – it continues to amaze me how generous people in this world are.

Dumping our bags into the coin lockers once again – something we’ve gotten very used to very quickly – we headed for tourist information to get ourselves a decent map and then went straight to Nishiki Market area, stopping for lunch at Gogyu along the way for delicious gyozas and one very unique bowl of burnt miso ramen. Sharing the enormous bowl of ramen between the two of us meant “Japan on a budget” wins again…

Nishiki Market and the surrounding area is a great place to spend a few hours (or more!) exploring. The market offers a wealth of different Japanese foods (fruits, vegetables, pickles, meats, sea foods, sweets, rice, sushi and sashimi, snacks, crackers, candies, ice-creams, desserts, green tea, traditional Japanese foods and more!) as well as handicraft, clothing, accessories and souvenir shops, generations-old knife shops, cooking shops and more. There are foods to taste and try, cheap snacks and incredible, mouth-watering sashimi skewers for 180Y!
Nishiki Market is fantastic for wandering around, sight-seeing, exploring, tasting, eating, photographing and buying (if you’re not on a tight budget like us)!

The near-by shopping streets are also really interesting to look through; they offer an insight into the various Japanese fashion trends which are sometimes cute and sometimes just… well, strange. The shops are filled with interesting, unique, cute and sometimes weird items (like giant stuffed cartoon poos) and we had some fun walking through the mall area – Jacob darting in and out of a few very busy manga stores.

From Nishiki we headed to the famous Gion district of Kyoto and through Pontocho street. We were lucky to see three real geishas, which was exciting. The Gion district is simply stunning; so beautiful and traditional-looking. The laneways are filled with tiny restaraunts and bars, many hidden behind material curtains. If we wern’t on a budget (in fact, if we were more likely on a spending spree) perhaps we could’ve afforded some of the delicious looking meals at the many restaurants on offer.
As we walked through the quiet streets I couldn’t help but imagining what must have gone on – and still goes on – behind some of the closed doors of these exquisite buildings. It’s a fascinating culture.

This evening we collected our bags and headed to the train station near by couch surfing host number three – Yudai’s home.

Yudai is a university student in his early twenties with a passion for music and in no way “shy” like the stereotypical Japanese boy. He instantly welcomed us into his home which he shares with two other university student boys. This is a real bachelor pad home, and a real university student home. I love it already and feel very at home here.
Soon after we arrived two of Yudai’s friends came around to meet us, and it was not long after that, that Karim – another couch surfer from Argentina – arrived. The six of us spent the evening chatting, sharing stories, sharing our cultures and forming new friendships. I stayed up until the early hours of the morning chatting with Karim; it was nice to have a fellow traveler to talk with.

We fell asleep on our futons, on top of beautiful smelling tatami mats, and I felt so excited to be here in Kyoto once again.

Osaka to Kobe and back again: 3 – 4.10.2013

This morning – our third day in Japan – we were up too early and madly shoving our belongings into our bags and heading out the door before 8am. We were exhausted after late nights, jet lag and little sleep.
We said goodbye to Keiichi – our first couch surfing host – and headed back to Umeda station where we once again dumped our heavy packs in a coin locker.

We took the train to Shinsabashi where we thought we’d try and find some clothing that…
a) didn’t look like we’d just rolled around in 2 months of Indian dust and dirt
b) didn’t spell “tourist”
c) wasn’t some form of travel/adventure/trekking gear brand!
Of course, before we could go shopping we had to get breakfast at none other than Yoshinoya. We’ve got this “cheap eating in Japan” thing down-pat already, although… maybe we should start being a little more adventurous with where and what we eat…? Then again, copious cups of free green tea and all that delicious pickled ginger is quite difficult to resist.

Shinsabashi is well known for its big shopping area; we looked through the streets and bought a couple of items of clothing that didn’t scream “filthy backpacker.” We went to UNIQLO – a chain shop that has some cool fashion at really cheap prices.

In the early afternoon we headed back to Umeda, collected our backpacks and took the train to Noda station where we met Saki, our second couch surfing host.
Saki greeted us at the station and walked us back to her lovely home where we felt instantly welcomed. We soon learned she is moving to Melbourne – our home city – at the end of this month and it was a lot of fun and a pleasure for us to spend our afternoon making lists of “must do/see/visit/watch/eat in Melbourne town” and drawing out maps with hidden lane ways and cool cafes. It was interesting to try and think of our home as a place to visit rather than live; a different perspective which filled us with pride and love for our beautiful Melbourne.

Seeing as we are in Osaka, and Osakan people love takoyaki, it was fitting that we cooked takoyaki for dinner. Together Saki, Jacob and I prepared the takoyaki mix and cut up the ingredients (including one mean looking octopus tentacle!) before Tomoki, Saki’s husband, arrived home from work.

Together the four of us walked down to the local supermarket and bought a few different Japanese beers to have with dinner, and then the rest of our evening was spent cooking and eating takoyaki, sharing good food and conversation. The boys had a wonderful time drinking sake and sharing their love of Manga – even though Tomoki’s English was very limited Jacob and him got along so well. We’re learning language is absolutely not a barrier – just an obstacle that can absolutely be overcome…

The next morning Saki greeted us with instructions for taking the train to Kobe, and a hand-drawn map of Kobe complete with the best coffee shops, cafes and restaurants to visit, places to see and landmarks to look out for. Amazing. Seeing as we don’t have a guide book, I love that she was so generous to help us like this. This sort of map can never be bought…

It took around 35 minutes to get to Kobe from Osaka, and cost us just 290Y each! See, see! We’re doing Japan on a budget! Yay!
We arrived into Sunnomiya Station and were instantly drawn into Loft Department store – the shiny lime green bento box in the window display lured me in like a moth to a flame. We spent the next hour wanting to buy everything in sight – from the exquisite range of beautifully coloured and decorated bento boxes to the enormous range of high-quality coffee equipment to the cute kitchen sponges, it was so hard to resist. In fact, it was impossible, and I walked out with my shiny green bento box and matching choppu stikkus. “Japan on a tight budget” failed to win this round; instead I told myself that “this is my belated birthday present to myself.”
From Loft we passed through SOGO Department Store where we spent way too long oooohing and ahhhhing over the exquisite foods being prepared and sold: we were drooling at everything that looked too good to eat. In the end, everything just looked too good and we couldn’t actually decide what we wanted… I ended up getting a sushi roll and Jake’s stomach stayed empty for the time being… that was until he saw a Yoshinoya. Japan on a budget wins this round.

We spent some time wandering around exploring before walking half-an-hour or so down the road to the Disaster Prevention and Human Renovation Museum to learn about the 1995 earth quake that devastated Kobe and still, to this day, is effecting people. In my opinion this is a must-visit museum if in Kobe; it offers a wealth of information, facts and insight into this natural disaster and its devastating effects, as well as illustrates how strong people are and how they can re-build and learn to adapt to the conditions.
We learned about the earth quake through several high-tech. sources including movies, a type of earth quake simulator, computers and touch screens with so much information, videos, survivor stories, dioramas, items uncovered from the quake and tour guides who spoke English and walked us through the exhibits. There was also an entire level dedicated to educating children through various interactive games and videos.

From the museum we took a train to Motomatchi St. where we walked through the lengthy shopping strip and found more beautiful Japanese things that we did not buy. We ended up in Kobe’s tiny “China town” (a small street) where we discovered supposedly “Kobe beef” buns (doubtful) and tacky souvenirs. Kobe China Town was not so memorable.

From Chinatown it was a small walk to Merikan Park – the Kobe Port area that is famous. Saki told us we should stay there until dark to see the lights and everything looking beautiful, reflected on the ocean. I’m so glad we got to experience this. We walked through the port area and saw the amazing buildings surrounding the ports, the boats on the water and a lot of outdoor art and sculpture. By one section of the port there is the Kobe Earthquake Memorial which is pretty moving; close by is an area of port destroyed by the quake that still remains as it was when destroyed in 1995. It was quite shocking to see this and hard to imagine what this entire city must’ve looked like after such a massive quake.

Our evening was spent walking through the park and port area watching near by boats move about, cyclists and skaters doing their thing, couples sitting with legs dangling out towards the ocean below, the bright lights of the ferris wheel reflect onto the water and the massive port tower standing tall. Near by a large art biennale was being set up; large outdoor sculptures and installations were dotted around us and it was a lot of fun to enjoy the more interactive ones. It all felt a bit magical and it was so quiet with perfect weather; it was a really wonderful way and the perfect time of day to explore the area. We took lots of photographs and simply enjoyed being there.

Oh, and of course, we had dinner at Yoshinoya before heading back ‘home’ to Saki and Tomoki’s house. What else would you expect?

We did a load of washing this evening in an actual washing machine – an absolute luxury – and then spent our evening talking and chatting with Saki, teaching her about Australian culture, some Australian slang and a few choice words. She had so generously spent her afternoon making us a series of detailed hand-written maps for Osaka, Kyoto and Nagoya, complete with all her recommendations of where to go, what to eat, what is famous in certain areas, transportation information and more… She was so generous and so helpful; she was amazing to do this for us and it will no doubt be a big help for us.

Couch surfing at Saki and Tomoki’s has been so lovely and we so look forward to meeting her and Tomoki in Melbourne next year. We are thoroughly enjoying staying with locals through couch surfing; it offers us a completely different traveling experience and gives us an opportunity to learn so much more about the culture, the people and the lifestyle in this country – as well as form wonderful new friendships! We’re only into our fourth night in this incredible country but we’ve spent each one of them making new friends, sharing stories and cultures, laughter and learning. We’re sleeping on futons on tatami mats and falling asleep so happy and comfortable where we are. There is no where else I’d rather be right now, than where I am.

Tomorrow we are Kyoto bound and I can’t wait – a new place with new adventures to be found.

Sayonara Nepal, Konnichiwa Japan: 30.09 – 1.10.2013

Our final morning in Nepal was a blur of goodbyes, packing (suddenly my pack felt incredibly heavy… does my Nepali sari really weigh that much!?), and finding a taxi driver who would agree to drive us to the airport at a reasonable price.
As we weaved and darted through the noisy, dusty and built-up traffic and I covered my mouth and nose with my scarf, I felt grateful that my lungs would have some respite in Japan from the chaos and pollution we’ve been breathing in ever since we arrived in Asia.

The airport was a breeze, we filled out the departure form – which was actually just the arrival form (I think they had run out of departure forms so anything was sort of going…) – queued up with a thousand other people and eventually had a departure stamp signed and put into our passports; we were no longer officially in Nepal.

Japan bound, via Malaysia on a 3 hour stop over (where we spent the entire time using free wifi and drinking delicious teh tarik in Old Town White Coffee – we’ve got this whole backpacker thing down-pat!), it took a total of 16 or so hours before we touched down early-morning in Osaka, Japan. I felt suddenly, overwhelmingly at home.  

Customs was easy and soon enough we had another stamp in our passport and officially entered Japan. It may have been my second time here, but walking through the gates felt like I was both coming home and arriving here for the first time ever; I was so excited. So very, very excited.

With bags under our eyes, we were feeling tired but elated as we skipped through the airport to immediately get some Royal Milk Tea from one of the many vending machines. Royal Milk Tea…mmmmm.
We spent some time at the airport using the ATM machine, obtaining some maps and information at the tourist information counter, and – dare I say it – enjoying the luxury that is... a Japanese toilet. Anyone else who has had the joy of experiencing a Japanese toilet knows what I’m talking about, and after almost four months of scary squat toilets that often left me dry retching, these electronic wonders were a welcome change. The toilets even had a little TV in each of them. Winning.

Heading to the train station outside the airport, we were instantly greeted by some friendly people offering us free drinks; so accustomed to declining anything and everything from strangers, I said no thanks… Then almost immediately changed my mind. Starbucks has just introduced here something called “Origami Filters” for their coffee, and staff were giving out cups of free coffee as a promotion. Oh Japan, how I love you so SO much – you came to our rescue when we were both so exhausted and gave us wonderful customer service, friendly smiling people and delicious, delicious strong coffee.

Welcome to Japan.

We took the train from the airport to Namba station and dumped our backpacks into one of the coin lockers for the day before heading to Dotonbori Street – one of the famous streets in Osaka – to meet up with Hide; a Japanese man we met on the train in Agra. We’d arranged to meet him at 11:30am to go for lunch, but we got a little lost trying to find our way to Dotonbori and were a little late. Along the way we continually stopped people to ask for directions; it always amazes me how friendly people are – even those who speak little or no English are willing to assist. I love it.

Meeting Hide, together we walked through a side of Dotonbori we would’ve otherwise completely missed, amongst all the sounds and smells of busy Oskaka, surrounded by pachinko slot machine shops, cafes, takoyaki stands, dogs in fashionable outfits and people dressed up in mascot costumes, trying to get you to eat at their restaurant.

Hide took us to an okonomiyaki place that he said his friends and him used to visit during their years at university; a place we would’ve never known about or found otherwise. It was amazing; we were given our own room and sat on cushions on the floor. Hide ordered for us using a phone on the wall in our room and soon enough all the ingredients we could possibly think of were bought out to us on a big tray and the grill plate in front of us was lit and heated; we were going to cook these ourselves. Oh yeah!

Looks like delicious fun!

Looks like delicious fun!

Cooking the okonomiyaki was so much fun! We loved it, and Hide was such a good host to show us how it was done; he flipped those okonomiyakis like a true professional. We ate a mix of beef strips, vegetables, egg and stewed beef okonomiyaki, and a seafood one with calamari, prawns and vegetables on a bed of hokkien-like noodles; all doused in delicious okonomiyaki sauce and kewpie mayonnaise, nori flakes and smoked salmon flakes. So oishi (delicious)! We had such a great time cooking, such a wonderful welcome to Japan, and Hide was a lovely host.

We spent some more time walking and chatting with Hide; he took us to a big book shop with one very large manga selection, and along a strip of shops filled with cooking materials and goods, knives and anything else kitchen related, which we both really enjoyed (especially Jacob, who loved the manga and Japanese knives). Eventually, we said goodbye to Hide and spent the rest of our time wandering through the Dontonbori area and surrounds, taking in more of the shops and sights, the people and our surroundings.

We had some food at Yoshinoya, a chain restaurant that is famous in Japan for very cheap, quick and good Japanese food. It is very cheap – I paid a whopping 130Y – a whole $1.40AU – for a bowl of delicious Udon noodle soup and Jake had the specialty: 280Y gyu don (beef on rice.) Yep; this place is a winner, and the first of many to come lessons on “How to travel Japan on a super tight budget.” Yoshinoya, I can already tell, is going to be a staple during our three weeks here.

We walked through the malls and through Dotonbori, watching the people and the mechanical shop fronts with moving images and sculptures; the famous mechanical crab in full swing. We saw Osaka turn from day light to dusk, where the neon signs and thousands of lights began to turn on and flash and move and dart and make this whole area look even more magical and more exciting than in the day. Finishing off our day, we bought a “daifuku ice-cream” from a convenience store, and enjoyed the deliciousness that is Japan.

Taking a train from Namba Station, we collected our luggage that weighed so heavily on our backs, and headed for Umeda Osaka station, changing to the JR line once there. The railway map above the JR ticketing system had no English, and we couldn’t see anyone to ask. Standing there, pretending to understand what we were actually reading, a kind gentleman came and assited us with getting a ticket to the right place, on the right line. He was so helpful, and another example already – on just our first day in Japan – of how kind and polite the people here seem to be.

We met Keiichi – our host for the next two nights – at the “vending machines by the exit,” as I explained to him, and together we walked to his house, quite close by. Our first couch surfing experience in Japan – I’m excited!

Keiichi’s house is how I imagined Japanese houses to look inside; small but incredibly efficient. Keiichi offered us a Japanese beer and prepared for us a delicious, very simple dinner: cold noodles in a soy based sauce. It was really delicious, and I want to make it again! [Quite easy to make: boil Japanese-style thin noodles or soba noodles until cooked, then place in a bowl of cold water and ice. In a separate bowl, add some very light soy sauce, spring onion and a pinch of sugar, along with more ice cubes. Eat by adding a few noodles at a time to the sauce, immersing them in it then eating with choppu-stikku.]
It’s so nice to be welcomed into someone’s home and treated so well, and Keiichi seems like a lovely guy!

I can’t express how excited and happy I am to be here, and look forward to every moment I have here in Japan. I love this country, and it feels so incredible to be back.