Our Own Japan: 14 – 15.10.2013

Our only full day in Takayama was another wonderful day in beautiful Japan. Traveling is just so unbelievably awesome; how often in life do you get to say that every day has been filled with adventure, new things and just in general, been pretty spectacular? I feel incredibly lucky.

We woke early and cooked breakfast in the kitchen area, saying goodbye to friends we’d only just met and meeting new ones whilst sipping coffee and eating rice and natto with chopsticks.
It was early and the air was so cold; a group of us got together and headed to the morning market (one of two). The walk through the preserved streets and alley ways was beautiful; the old houses and streets were empty at 7:30am and we were able to walk quietly and peacefully through the clean streets whilst admiring our surroundings.

The morning market, however, was already packed with people – shops and market stalls lined both sides of the road that ran parallel to the flowing river, people were busy buying and selling and making; we hugged our jumpers a little tighter around us as we marveled at everything around us. Having been here in this town exactly a year ago, it all felt still so familiar and fond memories and reminders of my past trip here kept me smiling.
Free tastings of every pickle, rice cracker, green teas, fruits, snack, sweet and Japanese treat kept us all stopping and munching, trying new and strange flavours, and occasionally purchasing something we all loved.

I had been waiting for so long to re-visit the Japanese Marshmallow man and show Jacob the person and the food I’d been talking about and mimiking constantly for the past year. This little man was so gorgeous, smiling the biggest smile as he served up his own concoction of a Japanese sweet made from sake and egg. Our group stopped outside his busy stall and watched as he smiled, laughed and went about turning his cubes of goodness, which he called “Marshi-mallus”. His sweet voice calling out “Hai! Thank you very maach!” and “Paper come back!” (please give me your rubbish) left us smiling and handing over money for packets of the golden yellow deliciousness. I only wish I could give some to my mum, who adores this little man as much as I do.

We spent time wandering through the streets as the sun came out and more shops and cafes began to open their doors. The river was flowing, the air was fresh and tourists were busy exploring; some pushing very stylishly dressed, spoiled dogs around in dog-specific prams.
We wandered down to the second morning market, which was purely dedicated to selling fresh produce, and bought ourselves a 1.5kg bag of Japanese rice that we’ll be able to share with our couch surfing host in Tokyo for the next week; we’re loving this whole ‘rice for breakfast’ thing and are going to enjoy it while we can. Japanese rice is unlike any other rice; it’s perfect and tastes so clean and wonderful – every grain is a joy to eat.

More wandering through the shops and streets, we went back to our hostel to drop off our rice before heading out, but ended up staying for an hour or so for a quick nap; after clocking up a decent sized sleep debt over the last few months, we needed a rest.

Awake again, we wandered down to the bus station and bought ourselves our tickets to Tokyo for tomorrow – I can’t believe we have to leave already! I absolutely do not want to go to Tokyo yet; I love Takayama and want to stay here longer, but more to the point, going to Tokyo means we have just one more week left in Japan. Didn’t we just arrive here? It’s going too fast and I don’t like it one bit.
We paid for our tickets (handing over $140 for two tickets for a 5 hour bus ride hurt our budget a lot more than I can explain…) and then purchased another ticket each to take the bus to a near-by open-air museum, Hida No Sato Folk Village.

Hida No Sato Folk Village was fascinating; set amongst incredibly beautiful scenery in a peaceful, well maintained area, a dozen or more historic buildings stand. We were able to wander about inside the buildings and around them while learning about how life was like in this area of Japan many years ago. It was interesting to see the different architecture, how homes were built to deal with earth quakes and massive dumpings of snow, and the different tools and utensils used in daily life.
The space was really beautiful and very interesting, but also very touristy. Towards the end we started to feel a little like sheep in a big pen and were ready to run free again after an hour and a half or so, away from the crowds and one very loud, complaining American man who we’d actually spent most of our time there trying to avoid.

We caught a bus back to Takayama bus station and spent an hour or so wandering through the different shops, taste-testing the various pickled items, snacks, rice crackers and sweets on offer. Oh Japan, how generous you are, and how shameless we are. Seeing as we’re on such a tight budget and blew way too much money on a bus ticket to Tokyo, we skipped lunch today and relied on free samples to fill our stomachs. We wern’t completely stingy though – we did buy a few different things as gifts… It offset the guilt a little bit.

Late afternoon was spent wandering the streets and through too many cute shops with way too many cute things that were calling out for me to buy them. I resisted, and bought nothing, although the thousands of beautiful baby products made it very difficult – I saw so many things that my baby niece absolutely, most definitely needed.
It was wonderful just having the day to explore and mull about as we pleased; Takayama is an easy place to explore and time seems to pass quickly.

Our last night in Takayama was spent cooking up a storm of rice, natto, cabbage and age tofu, miso soup, a big pot of coffee and countless cups of green tea. We spent the evening in the kitchen chatting until late with a New Zealander and a Pom; I love meeting new people and travelers – the conversation is always so interesting and varied. It’s like there is this unspoken bond between us all, it’s as though you become instant friends
I love being a backpacker. I love being a traveler… and I love being here in Japan.

We went to bed in our spacious bunks and fell asleep laughing at each other. I think we’re both on travel highs at the moment. Tomorrow we head to Tokyo and I think both of us are having too much fun to admit we only have a week left in this country.

On our last morning in Takayama we woke early, enjoyed green tea, coffee and breakfast of natto, rice and miso soup with our new Pommy friend. We planned to re-visit the Morning Market area and take a wander further into the less touristy areas to see what we could find.
After packing our packs and checking out of our hostel, we spent a few hours doing just that. We started wandering, ate more Japanese Marshi-Mallu and a delicious matcha dango stick, and explored the lane ways and preserved streets, the tiny shops, galleries and temples. We headed back to our hostel around 11am, just as it started to rain…and by rain, I mean, a lot of it – bad weather had rolled in due to a typhoon.

We said goodbye to Takayama and boarded our bus at 1:30pm, expecting to arrive into Shinjuku, Tokyo, at 7pm. The bus ride was incredibly comfortable and we spent hours rolling past some absolutely spectacular scenery; mountains, waterfalls, creeks and rivers, greenery and forests – all set amongst grey skies and heavy rains that continued to pour down and down.

The rains slowed the traffic, and it was completely dark outside by the time we arrived into Tokyo, about 40 minutes later than expected. Off the bus and trying to avoid the rain, we headed straight to Shinjuku train station – the world’s biggest and busiest train station – and tried to navigate ourselves two trains and about one hours distance away to where our next and final Japanese couch surfing host, Yuki, lived. T
The torrential rain caused heavy build ups and train delays, and a strange encounter with an overly helpful man who bought our tickets for us (with our money) then asked for a 300 yen tip (for something we were in the process of doing quite capably before he came along and snatched the 1000 yen note from Jake’s hand and shoved it into the ticket machine we were standing in front of) – I said no and removed the coins from his grasp, and he thanked me – how’s that for unbelieveable?! Someone just tried to scam us in Japan!… I didn’t think it was possible. At least he was polite about it.

Around 9pm Yuki greeted us warmly at the station near by her home and together we walked in the rain, crouching under shared umbrellas.
Yuki generously prepared us dinner, and it was lovely to once again be welcomed into the home of a stranger who instantly felt like an old friend.

The plan was to visit Kamakura or Yokohama or even Disney Land tomorrow, but the incessant rain this evening and the forecast for tomorrow that spells the same wet weather due to a typhoon means we probably will opt for a quieter option. Either way, we’re in Japan and that is just so amazing. On our tiny futon in this little house, we already feel at home.

Miso Katsu, Salmon Sushi, Green Tea and Cup Noodles: 13.10.2013

Today has been amazing, simply put. We woke in Nagoya and fall asleep tonight with new friends in beautiful Hida-Takayama.

Yuko, our couch surfing host in Nagoya, had arranged with one of her friends for us to learn how to cook miso katsu (pork) at their home this morning. It had turned into a full scale cooking school experience, with Yuko’s friend inviting her friend and cooking teacher, along with his wife, to teach us how to cook salmon sushi. This was pretty much a dream come true for us.

We arrived around 10am and were greeted as if we were family friends; the warm welcome was so lovely and we were served beautiful Japanese sweets and green tea. Then the cooking began…
Yuko’s two friends, along with one of the friend’s husband – who we called “Sense” – are all amazing cooks and they were straight into the cooking action. Sense is a Japanese chef who apparently trained at Kyoto’s most famous restaurant; now retired, he teaches cooking.

We watched as the women seamlessly prepared the various ingredients and dishes, slicing so beautifully with incredible knife skills and Japanese knives, which Jacob was thrilled by.
Once the sushi rice was washed, cooked and seasoned perfectly with seasoning, sugar, salt and water-soaked ginger, sense began his lesson: using chopsticks with the right hand and the left hand to adjust, he showed us how to place the salmon into the sushi making device so that it looked perfect. I definitely did not master this technique. Pushing exactly 200g of beautiful rice into the device and then applying the lid and lots of pressure, out came a rectangular shaped piece of pure, perfectly seasoned deliciousness. Sense showed me how to cut the sushi and clean the knife each time before placing it beautifully onto long leaves and adding pickle for both presentation and taste.

Whilst I was making sushi, the women were preparing the katsu and various delicate and beautiful dishes – both in terms of presentation and taste.

The meal was an absolute feast; we were served an array of vegetable and pickled vegetables, a beautiful pork katsu with a thick, sweet miso sauce and a cabbage salad, a delicate egg soup and the beautiful salmon sushi. We were overwhelmed by the generosity of these people and were just so thankful and excited to be able to experience this. This is an opportunity we would’ve never expected and imagined; we can’t thank our couch surfing hosts or our lunch hosts enough.

After lunch and saying countless” thank yous” and “goodbyes”, Keiji and Yuko went generously out of their way to drive us almost an hour away to a JR train station near-by Inuyama, and we said goodbye; again – it’s always saddening when we have to say goodbye to people who have been so generous and kind. We feel like we are saying goodbye to old friends.

We took the local JR train bound for Hida-Takayama directly, which was a beautiful ride through amazing scenery, mountains and rivers. I love the train journeys in Japan and for the first time in a long time, I was able to sit back, put my ipod in and just enjoy.

Arriving into Takayama after 6pm, it was dark already and the air was cold – a shock to our system after months of heat. The air smelled beautiful and fresh and it felt so incredible to be back here. Too late to explore and on too tight of a budget to afford premium Hida beef for dinner, we checked into our first and only Japanese hostel – J Hoppers – which is honestly the best hostel I’ve ever stayed in. It has awesome communal kitchen, a great living area, big spacious rooms and large, private and comfortable bunk beds with lots of bedding and space. Their facilities are really good and the location is awesome too.

Instantly we made friends with a Taiwanese and Japanese guy in our dorm room and together the four of us walked down to the local supermarket to get our selves some cheap backpacker food: 98 Yen instant cup noodle ramen. Another guy from China joined our little backpacking posse and soon, back in our communal kitchen, there was an even bigger group of us all coming together to cook and eat and drink the free filtered coffee and green tea. It was a lot of fun, and we spent the rest of our evening in the kitchen chatting and laughing.

I’m really happy to be staying here in this hostel; it’s such a different atmosphere and experience to couch surfing. I’m incredibly grateful and having so much fun couch surfing but in a way I’m really grateful we now have the opportunity for two days to simply relax and just be by ourselves, do as we please, sleep/shower/eat when we want and, even though we’re in a hostel in a shared room, have our own space… Couch surfing is fantastic but we’ve been staying with locals for almost a month straight already (with a two day break in Nepal), so a hostel offers another different experience and it’s wonderful to be able to meet such a diverse group of travelers. This place seems great and I already can’t wait for tomorrow morning to arrive.

Em’s Top 10 Picks: 2 Weeks in Japan

Last year in September/October, I spent two glorious weeks in Japan, travelling with my amazing mother.
We arrived into Tokyo with eyes wide open, so excited to embark on the next two weeks of travelling together in this inviting country.

There were a couple of things we noticed instantly about Japan: the friendliness of the people, and the amazing public transportation… these two wonderful characteristics of Japan were constants throughout our short-lived travels there.

Stepping out into the fresh air of Tokyo, it felt spectacular to finally be there. Japan is a country I’ve been dreaming about for many years, and to set foot in it felt similar to coming ‘home.’ This trip had, within a matter of minutes, confirmed that Japan is my ‘spiritual homeland,’ and I was instantly, madly, head over heels in love.

The next two weeks were spent filling every possible minute with new experiences and different places, and my mum and I had such an amazing time travelling together – we can not wait to go back to Japan.

Months on since returning, Japan has never really left my mind. It’s one of those ‘dream countries’ for me, and I know it’s somewhere I’ll return to over and over again
I’m always re-living memories and looking back over photographs of the trip time and time again, and so decided I should do a ‘Top 10 Picks’ about my Japan trip… So, here it goes: Em’s Top 10 Picks: 2 Weeks in Japan!

1. Food! – What more can I say; it’ absolutely takes the number one spot. Everywhere we went, from street vendors and market stalls, to sushi trains, tempura bars and ramen shops, train station bento boxes and stand-and-eat curry shops, food courts and supermarkets… The food was always incredible; served like it was a piece of art. The tempura was melt-in-your-mouth, the Hida Beef steam buns were to-die-for, and salmon and tuna sashimi skewers with soy, lemon and sesame seeds has left me dreaming for more… Food was one of our biggest experiences in Japan – we tried the local specialties wherever we went, and always without ever breaking the budget!

2. The People! – The people in Japan are unforgettable. From locals in the street, commuters on the trains, shop assistants, information assistants, train station assistants… everyone was so helpful. People went out of their way to make sure you were okay. I once asked a lady on the train if this train was going to a certain destination. She got off the train, found a train station attendant, asked him, and then got back on and told us where to go instead, meanwhile, her own train was just about to depart!… I remember another time I dropped my train ticket on the ground, and another commuter way down the carriage saw. He walked all the way down the carriage, picked it up and gave it back to me. I recall thinking “I don’t think this would happen back home.” The politeness of people, and the absolute respect they showed not just to us but to everyone else was astounding. People respected one another – Tokyo station at peak hour, with millions of commuters trying to get home, was a peaceful flow of people, unlike back home with people racing and pushing and darting and cutting-off one another. People watching was a great activity to undertake whilst in Japan; they are inspiring.

3. The Culture! – Japan’s culture is rich, ancient, traditional, modern, new, old, exquisite, an art form, precise, a little bit odd at times but always interesting, and absolutely inspiring. The food, the music, the clothing, the sports, the festivals, the traditions, the way-of-life, the oh-so-mystical geishas, tea ceremonies, sugar cakes, gift giving, comics and characters, neon signs, shopping…and then everything else and more. Impossible to experience it all in just two weeks, but we scratched the surface.

4. Takayama! – Words can not express my love for Takayama. It is simple; you MUST visit this incredible small city, and fall in love with it just as I have. The people, the markets, the river, the preserved lane ways, the food, the shops, the scenery, the guest houses, the strange ice-cream flavours, the Hida beef steam buns, the sarubobo dolls (go there, and you’ll know what I am talking about), the art and crafts, sake brewers, the exquisite chop sticks and hand-made items… I could continue, but it’s making me homesick.

5. Tokyo! – Tokyo is so much fun; it really is a paradise for children and adults alike (and for people like me who are children in adult bodies). The noise, the colour, the hustle and bustle of a busy but gentle city. The trains that take you wherever you want to go, and send you to new and interesting places. You could spend weeks just finding new neighbourhoods and exploring… meeting and watching the locals, the sub-cultures, the groups of girls in strange costumes, and the dogs paraded around in prams, dressed in the latest upmarket fashions…
Go early for the markets, explore local supermarkets, if shopping is your thing visit the many mega malls, or go at night to see a skyline of neon flashing and moving signs…Get lost, explore, eat, listen, see, smile, share… wherever you go, you’ll find history and modern life merging, and it is never ever boring.

6. Kyoto! – Kyoto is famous, of course, and we along with probably every other tourist fell in love. But the highlight for us was found in wandering about with no time-table, no schedule, watching people; tourists and locals. It seemed, for us, you didn’t have to really do much in Kyoto to be surrounded by culture and life, and to be able to enjoy yourself. There is a beauty and magic that can be found wherever you look…
Oh! and those sashimi skewers at Nishiki Market are still making me drool!…

7. Nara! – Who doesn’t love incredible scenery, delicious food, friendly people, and petting deer after deer after deer! I do! I do! Nara is a whole lot of fun, combined with ancient tradition, temples, stone lanterns, culture, religion, beliefs, practices…, yummy food, great guest houses, and a whole lot of cracker-loving deer!!! Nara was a highlight all round, but the walking tour we took gave us insight into temples and religion in Japan that we would’ve otherwise been blind to.
Tip: Get some deer crackers and get snap-happy with your camera!

8. Mt. Koya San! – High up on the mountains, you can instantly feel the spirit of the place deep within. Steeped in ancient tradition and spiritual practice and beliefs, this is a place I highly recommend to anyone. You can stay in temple lodging like most tourists will, and experience amazing vegetarian food, tatami mats, onsens and a 5am wake up call to watch traditional ceremonies taking place. Walk amongst Mt. Koya Sans incredible cemetary, and feel the energy around you. In that sort of incredible environment, it’s hard not to…
Tip: There is a cafe on the main street; a hippie looking Japanese guy makes the best Chai Latte I’ve ever had… we had 4 or 5 – indulgence at its finest, I know, but oh so worth it.

9. Osaka, Dotombori! – Get ready for a feast of Okonomiyaki served to you on a grill, and Takoyaki balls like you’ve never eaten before. A foodies paradise, we did not have enough time here. The people are trendy, the cars are flashy, the hair-styles are high, and the fashion is the latest. The starbucks was never empty, and as the sun set on Dotombori Street, the neon lights and mechanical crabs came alive. People are everywhere, and you can hear the pachinco machines loud and clear as they ring out whenever the doors open. There are dog clothing shops, and you’ll find the weird and whacky. Grab yourself some pumpkin flavoured ice cream, and enjoy your time there into the night…
Tip: If you’re interested, or even if you’re not…head to Osaka Aquarium. Children and Adults (and me, the child-adult) will love the amazing displays. Who can say no to a smiling puffer fish?

10. Public Transport! – It’s pretty much a guarantee that if I’m using public transport at home, I’ll experience delays or cancellations. People graffiti the walls of the train, people are loud, rude, put their feet up, curse and carry on, and are just generally not so considerate of anyone other than themselves. Come to Japan, take a train, and for me, it was like entering a whole new world. Pristine trains that arrive to the second, conductors who bow and take their hat off as they leave each carriage, polite and respectful commuters, and travel that is incredibly fast! Japan trains are like a dream.

What did you love about Japan?