Japan Makes Miso Happy

Itinerary:

  • January 10 – Flight from Madison to Tokyo, via Minneapolis
  • January 11 – Arrive in Tokyo and checked into our hotel – Tokyo Marriott
  • January 12 – Tsujiki Market tour, cooking class, and Senso-ji Temple
  • January 13 – Day trip to Mount Fuji and Aokigahara Forest
  • January 14 – Walking tours around Tokyo (Harajuku, Kanda Shrine, Meiji Shrine, Akihabara, Shinjuku)
  • January 15 – Day trip to Nikko
  • January 16 – Hakone
  • January 17 – Kyoto
  • January 18 – Day trip to Hiroshima
  • January 19 – Kyoto, cont. and Osaka
  • January 20 – Fly out to Seoul

Dates: January 10-20, 2018

Our Odyssey:

Picture this – you’re standing on the platform awaiting your train. Everyone is queued up in orderly lines, one for the next train (yours) and one for the following train. Your train arrives to the station and stops with the doors directly in front of the two queues. Passengers disembarking file out one-by-one, and when they’re done, the people in your queue start to board the train in the same fashion. Once on the train, everyone files into the next available seats on either side of them. The whole process takes just a few seconds, and then you’re off, zipping out of the station on one of the fastest and most efficient transportation systems in the world.

Welcome to Japan.

Tim and I kicked off our 20-month round-the-world honeymoon in Tokyo, flying from Madison via Minneapolis. We are lucky enough to have accrued many Delta rewards miles as a result of many years of business travel, so we cashed in some miles for 2 first class (Delta One) tickets. This made our flight an experience in and of itself, featuring our own little cubbies with seats that lay flat, private television screens, and plenty of nooks and crannies for stowing our things. The highlight, however, was the food. Over the course of the 13 hour flight from Minneapolis, flight attendants served us snacks, a multi-course traditional Japanese meal, dessert, and breakfast – and it was all delicious.

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Yummy in-flight appetizers. Blame the blurriness on the turbulence.

Upon arrival in Tokyo at about 3pm in the afternoon on January 11 (note that we left Madison at 6am on January 10 and traveled for about 16 hours – just to give you a sense of how far in the future we are over here relative Central Time in the US), we somehow successfully figured out how to use the subway, despite not knowing initially how much to pay, how to use the ticketing machines (which were all in Japanese) or even where we were really going. A friendly lady helped us out and it wasn’t long before we checked into our hotel, the Tokyo Marriott. Again, we used points accrued from business travel to stay here for 5 nights. Our location was great – right by one of the main train stations, and in a quiet, more residential area of Tokyo. This means we had easy access to everything, without having to deal with the manic crowds and chaos inherent to the largest city in the world.

Though we were exhausted, we wanted to acclimate to the time change in hopes of warding off as much jet lag as possible, so we ventured out on a walk about our neighborhood. If I told you we walked around a 7-11 and a grocery store, you’d probably think we had a pretty boring outing. But you would be mistaken – even the stores here are more organized than back home. All of the shelves are brightly lit, items are lined up on shelves by size and color, and there is not a speck of dirt or trash to be found. We literally spent our first night in Tokyo oo-ing and ahh-ing over shelf displays.

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Sunset in Tokyo

Back at our hotel, we headed to the concierge lounge, where free food and drinks are available for Marriott Rewards members. Being on a budget means you eat all the free food you can to avoid having to buy your own meals, and this meant making a dinner out of the snacks in the lounge. Thankfully, this was easy to do, as they had many Japanese items available – fried balls of octopus (which we thought was actually rice and only learned after we checked out that it was octopus), pork belly bites, wontons, fried fish and Japanese beer (a regular lager called The Premium Malt). And don’t get me started on desserts…

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Concierge lounge noms at the Marriott

That night we fell asleep early in the evening, but woke up a handful of times until awaking for good at 2am (thanks, jet lag). Around 6:30am we headed down to breakfast (another perk of being Marriott Rewards members), which, again, had a number of local options, such as cod fish eggs, natto (fermented soy beans), and noodles. They also had many familiar options as well – fruit smoothies, cheeses, eggs, sausage and various pastries. All of it was delicious. This hotel, thanks to the incredibly warm and friendly staff, as well as the amazing food, quickly climbed its way up to being one of my favorite hotels ever (even though it’s a Marriott – which isn’t on my good side lately due to a number of issues we had back in the US with some recent stays). But I’ll give credit where it’s due and the team at the Tokyo Marriott are outstanding.

After breakfast, we took the train to the meeting point for our tour of the Tsukiji market – and we were so pleased with ourselves for using the subway unassisted this time! Our group of about 10 started at the Hongan-ji Buddist Temple, and then our guides led us through the outer market. We sampled a number of items from stalls along the way – dried fish, whole crabs, and delicious wasabi sesame seeds. Our guides were great at explaining what everything was and encouraging us to try the free samples available – I would not have put that little crab in my mouth without them! It was also nice having them to lead the way through the chaotic alleys and stalls. On hardly any sleep and with no experience navigating around Tokyo, we would have been lost on our own.

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Hongan-ji Temple

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At Hongan-ji temple, this is where visitors wash their hands before entering.

After touring the outer market, our guides led us to the back entrance of the inner market. This is probably the most famous part of Tsukiji as it is the largest fish market in the world. When you think of the fresh sushi associated with Japan, you’re probably thinking of the fish from this market. We were there later in the morning, long after the 5am tuna auction, when all of the vendors were cleaning up. This is not a market where locals or tourists would generally go to buy fish – instead, it’s where chefs and restaurants come to shop. Being in this market was very raw, both literally and figuratively. The ground was covered in rivers red, a mix of blood and water. If we didn’t watch where we were stepping, we could have easily bumped into a stray fish head in our path.

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Tiny whole crabs in the Tsukiji outer market. Actually pretty tasty.

It was a fascinating glimpse into traditional life here, one that will soon be changing. As Tokyo prepares for hosting the 2020 Olympics, they are moving the Tsukiji fish market to another location, ending hundreds of years in its current location. I asked our guide whether this was a good thing, and he said it would be sad to see it go, but that it’s time. The current building is old and falling apart, and the sanitation could be better. It’s bittersweet to lose this iconic market, he explained, but necessary for the city to keep moving forward.

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Exploring the inner market

After the market, our guide brought us to the next part of our tour – a cooking class. We learned how to make an egg omelet roll, miso soup and sushi rolls. It was fun and yummy too. Our instructor said my roll was beautiful (*brushes shoulder off*).

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Look what we made!

After our filling self-prepared lunch, we ventured to the Imperial Palace, in hopes of touring the gardens there. When we arrived, it was closed – this happens often since the emperor Abe lives there. So, we opted to walk along the moat around the palace and eventually stumbled upon a beautiful and serene park by the river. There was a lovely area with a waterfall and a pretty stream, so Tim started to set up our tripod for some photos. Alas, this was not to be, as the tripod fell to its death moments later, a key piece of plastic breaking off. Thankfully his phone was ok!

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At the Imperial Palace

At this point we were pretty exhausted, so we went back to our hotel to rest and figure out our transportation plans for heading to a train station near Mt. Fuji the next morning for our tour of Mt. Fuji’s ice caves and the Aokigahara forest. This rest was short-lived however, as I realized we had to then go back to the train station to activate our JR (Japan Rail) train passes to be able to use them earlier the  next morning. Once we got back to the station, the attendant in the JR Information booth asked for our passports. We didn’t know we would need those to activate our passes, so while I happened to have mine in my purse, Tim’s was back at the hotel. Exhausted and sleepy, he was not thrilled to have to make the trip there and back yet again. He was a trooper, though, and once we finally got back to the hotel after the (relatively minor) ordeal, we stuffed ourselves on food in the concierge lounge and promptly went to bed.

The next morning we had to get up early (convenient, given our jet lag that woke us up at 4am anyway) to catch our train to the station where we would then take a bus to where our guide, Tada, would meet us. Once again, we were successful in navigating transport, despite some confusion over where to catch our bus. We boarded just in time!

Even on the bus ride we started to have amazing views of Mt. Fuji, its white symmetrical peak looming ahead. We later learned how lucky we were to have such clear views of the volcano (which, by the way, is due for its every-300-years eruption), as it is often shrouded in clouds.

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Hello, Mt Fuji!

We got to the station in enough time to grab a quick bite to eat (a mediocre but expensive breakfast hotdog, called a “French Dog” for some reason) before Tada came to meet us. Along the drive into the forest, he explained a bit of what we would be doing – first we’d stop at a rest station to put on jumpsuits, for warmth and to protect our clothes while inside the cave. Then, we would walk about 30 minutes through the forest, followed by a descent into the cave. Of course, we also had to ask about the forest’s notorious reputation as the “suicide forest”. Tada explained that it’s a reputation based on numerous suicides, mostly hangings, that have happened within the forest over the years. He said it all started when an author wrote a novel where the protagonists came to this forest to kill themselves. Finding the notion romantic, others began to act out the suicides from the novel. As a child, Tada said, he came to the forest with this grandfather and found 2 bodies. It was very shocking for him, as a 10 year old boy, to see this. Now, there are fewer suicides here, though they still happen. Tada says it’s sad, both for those who kill themselves, and for the forest itself. It’s such a beautiful place, he explained, that it should be known for its natural beauty and the hiking and caving it offers. Instead, these suicides taint its image.

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Aokigahara Forest

The forest is indeed very beautiful and very unique. The part we walked through had been formed by lava flows coming from Mt. Fuji, and this is why all of the trees’ roots were exposed, in an upheaval of jumbled foliage.

Before long we came to the entrance of the cave, which opened up like a hole in the ground out of nowhere. “Okay, this is where we’re going in!” Tada said.

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Tim at the entrance to the cave

With careful footing, we made our way down the steep incline towards the mouth of the cave. We turned our headlights on and went inside, again taking careful steps as we descended deeper. Once we reached the cave’s floor, we were met with hundreds of icicles coming from both the ceiling and the ground.  Eventually, we were walking over a frozen lake, which, Tada explained, descends 20 meters below our feet. This cave was also formed by an explosion of gas from Mt. Fuji, and because the cave walls are all lava rock, which is porous, there is no echo within this cave – making it very different from most caves I’ve been in.

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Unique ice formations inside the cave

After exploring the cave we went back up into the forest. Tada brought us to a tree that is 500 years old, and explained that people will come to this tree to pray to it. Since it’s so old, its spirit is thought to be very wise. This is a common concept in Shintoism, a religion native to Japan – that all living things have a spirit and deserve respect. It’s a beautiful notion.

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Inside the cave

After our tour, we made our way back to Tokyo, this time opting to take the trains since we weren’t in any hurry and could use our rail passes. We both slept much of the way.

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Enjoying some more Fuji views

Upon returning to Tokyo, we decided to go check out Senso-Ji temple, which is Tokyo’s most visited temple thanks to the compelling legend that surrounds it. The temple holds a golden image of Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy. Allegedly, two fishermen pulled this golden image out of the river in 628 AD, and the relic has remained at this site ever since. That said, since the image is not on public display, no one really knows if it actually exists.

To get to this temple, you must first pass through a large red torii and then down a bustling shopping street called Nakamise-dori, in a funny reversal of the “exit through the gift shop” notion. The street sells anything you can think of – food, tourist knickknacks, authentic handmade crafts, and more. I found one store that only sold bobbling cat figures.

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Senso-ji Temple

The temple complex is also home to a shrine to the two fisherman who found the relic. As an aside, Buddhism and Shintoism are very much intertwined in Japan, so it’s common to see Buddhist temples that have Shinto shrines, and vice versa.

Upon leaving the temple area, a group of people with a camera crew stopped us. They wanted to interview us for a Japanese TV show. They asked why we came to Japan, if we had eaten anything interesting and what our general impressions were. We have no idea what show this was for, when it airs, or whether they’ll even use our footage. But Tim shamelessly promoted our blog and so maybe somewhere out there some Japanese followers will one day read this post. If so, hi! And thank you for reading.

The next day we immersed ourselves in a full day of free walking tours from Tokyo Localized about the city and its history. The first tour illuminated Tokyo’s contrasts – its historic Edo period and its contemporary anime scene; its orderly processes and its chaotic crowds; its proper chastity and its hypersexuality (and more on that later).

We visited Akihabara, which is the epicenter of all things anime and gaming. Animated characters cover billboards and signs on seemingly every available space, and there are countless pachinko casinos. The whole area felt electric – and it may have literally been from the voltages of power pulsing through the streets.

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Akihabara

One of the particularly memorable stops was to the Kanda Myojin, another Shinto shrine dating back to 730 AD. While our guide was explaining the gods enshrined here, a troupe of performers began playing drums and dancing. It was a beautiful performance, and the rhythmic beats reverberated throughout the complex. Our guide explained that this only happens a few times a year, and so we were quite lucky to be there during the brief performance.

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At Kanda Shrine

We then made our way to the Ameyoko shopping arcade, an insanely busy street where locals frequent to buy almost anything. I again found it interesting that shrines and shopping coexist almost on top of each other. Yet another Tokyo contrast.

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One of the large torii gates at the Meiji Shrine

After a quick lunch break, we made our way to Meiji shrine for the start of the next tour. This was the most impressive shrine in all of Japan for me, even though it’s relatively new (originally constructed in 1920, destroyed in WWII air raids, and rebuilt in 1958). To get to the temple, you have to walk through not a shopping district, but a serene wooded path. Along the way, we passed ice sculptures, paper lanterns and barrels of sake, given as gifts to the gods and wrapped in colorfully designed paper.

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Sake barrels at Meiji Shrine

Of course, the reprieve from commercialism couldn’t last long, as upon leaving the shrine, we headed straight to Harajuku, the place to see and be seen in elaborate and whimsical outfits. Our guide explained that this culture of dressing in outlandish fashion has been diluted over the past few years, but it’s still a place to come peacock, especially if you’re a teenage girl.

The tour ended by the Tokyo Olympic village, where our guide explained some of the mixed feelings Japanese people have about the upcoming 2020 Olympics, which will be hosted in Tokyo. Many of the younger generation feel that it will be a waste of their tax money and won’t bring the economic benefits that hosting the Olympics is touted to create. I guess time will tell…

As an aside, our guide on this second tour was actually the founder of Tokyo Localized free walking tours, and he studied for a few years in Virginia in the United States at the College of William and Mary – just a few hours from where I grew up and went to college myself. It’s crazy how small the world is sometimes!

That evening, after a short rest back at our hotel, we joined back up with Tokyo Localized for their nightlife walking tour to learn all about the party culture of the Shinjuko area. Our guide was no-nonsense (he rightfully didn’t wait or go looking when people wandered off from the tour) and very engaging and funny. He told us about the drinking culture among 9-5 workers. Like in the US, it’s common for people to go out for a drink after work in Tokyo, but they take it to a whole other level. Unlike in the US, if your boss asks you to go get a drink after work, you are obligated to say yes, and you are obligated to get drunk. Like, really drunk. Our guide said that at work, employees have to hide their feelings and act very reserved, so in order to let loose, everyone drinks alcohol to lower their inhibitions and say what they really think. Thus, multiple nights per week, people swarm into the tiny little bars (so small your back is almost against the wall when you sit in the stool, and only 5-10 people can be in there at a time), drinking until late at night. It sounds exhausting to me.

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Teeny tiny little bar

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Shinjuku area at night

Now, I promised you some sex talk, so buckle up because here we go. I’ll start with massage parlors. What you think happens there is what happens there (yes, “happy endings”, and more). Like in any big city, there are also escorts and prostitutes (the latter being illegal, but the mafia has created some workarounds). Lastly, there are hosts and hostesses, which, in my experience, are a uniquely Japanese concept. Basically, there are clubs (host or hostess clubs, depending on what you’re looking for), where men and women can go to spend time with beautiful people that they pay to talk to them. They are extravagantly expensive, and nothing sexual actually transpires – just conversation and flattering attention. It is like Hooters, but more expensive and with a more explicit objective of buying someone’s attention.

We also walked by dozens of “love hotels” – which are basically what they sound like. These are rooms you can rent by the hour. Clientele range from customers bringing escorts there, to teenagers who live at home and want a private place to have sex, to couples going on a nicer date. The pictures of the rooms actually seem quite nice – jacuzzi baths, rose petals, romantic lighting… they definitely do not seem as seedy as some of the hourly hotels I’ve driven by in the US.

That day we logged 27,500 steps (about 12 miles), so our hotel was definitely a sleep hotel that night.

The next day, Monday, we ventured out of Tokyo to the small town of Nikko, about an hour away. The town is a most known for its scenic bridge and shrines preserving the glory of the Edo period from 1600 to 1868. It made for an easy day trip from Tokyo, and upon arriving at the Nikko train station, we walked down the main road in town until we arrived at the famed Shin-kyo bridge. The red footbridge spans a river at a sight where a Buddhist priest, Shodo Shonin, was carried on the backs of two giant serpents. Just up the hill from the picturesque bridge is the Tosho-gu shrine in his honor.

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Shin-kyo Bridge

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Toshu-gu shrine

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Jizos at the abyss. The nearest one has glasses 🙂

Leaving the shrine we walked along the river to Kanman-ga-Fuchi Abyss. The path was lined with small stone statues of Jizo, the Buddhist protector of travelers and children, each wearing little red caps and scarves. It was beautiful and serene next to the waterfalls and rushing waters of the river below.

 

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Jizos at the abyss

On Tuesday it was finally time for us to say goodbye to Tokyo as we made our way for Hakone, a small mountain resort town a few hours south. Allegedly, people can visit this town as a day trip from Tokyo, but between navigating the subway and train lines to get there, and then figuring out what bus to take, to finally realizing that Hakone is less a town and more an entire region, I don’t have any idea how anyone could visit Hakone and back in a day from Tokyo. It was 2pm by the time we arrived, too late to take a scenic river cruise, but with enough time to take a quick ride up the ropeway. We had beautiful Mt. Fuji views again, and also stumbled upon an unexpected volcanic area called Owakudani (The Great Boiling Valley), which was created only 3000 years ago when a nearby volcano erupted and collapsed. Today, you can see the hydrogen sulfide steam billowing from the ground (when it’s open – it regularly closes for safety reasons from all the volcanic activity.

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On the Hakone Ropeway

While we didn’t get out to “see and do” much in Hakone, our night in the traditional ryokan (Japanese-style guesthouse) is one of my favorite experiences in all of Japan. Our room was laid out on mats, with a seating area on the floor for tea. Instead of chairs, there were cushions around the low table.

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Our room in Hakone

The hotel offered a multi-course dinner for only $25/person, which included as much sake and beer as we cared for. Our dinner was elaborate and delicious – many appetizers (the shredded chicken and oyster boiled in soy sauce were standouts), a generous hot pot dinner (veggies and meat you boil yourself on a hot plate on your table), a divine piece of fish broiled with cheese on top, and a sorbet dessert. YUM.

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Our dinner in Hakone. Everything on the center plate went in the hotpot.

After dinner, we relaxed for a bit before our private onsen reservation. An onsen is a traditional Japanese hot spring. Bathing is a special ritual in Japan, and hot springs are taken very seriously. Normally, you can go to a public onsen (typically separated by men and women), but since we had access for free to enjoy the hotsprings together by ourselves, this was the obvious choice. Also, people with tattoos are generally not allowed in onsen, because tattoos are associated with the Japanese mafia. So it was going to be our only choice anyway. After all the walking we had done in Tokyo, relaxing our muscles in the rejuvenating waters was exactly what we needed. The beautiful kimono robes they gave us to wear were pretty fun too. We slept hard and long that night.

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At the onsen

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Onsen time!

In the morning our hotel served us breakfast, which was again quite elaborate. We had a whole fish, a soft boiled egg that is meant to be mixed with rice and a special sauce to create a delicious soup-like dish, steamed veggies, and the best miso soup I’ve ever had (I think due to what I later learned are small coils of straight up gluten). Everything about our experience at this hotel was relaxing and indulgent – and surprisingly not particularly expensive. We only spent $100 per person for everything. As it turned out, all the penny-pinching we did while touring Japan saved our budget big time from a major travel mistake…but I’ll get to that later.

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Breakfast in Hakone

Wednesday was another long travel day as we ventured from Hakone to Kyoto, Japan’s first capital and home to the highest concentration of temples and shrines in the world.

We arrived in  the early afternoon and checked into our hotel. Once again we were making use of our points, staying at the amazing Westin Miyako. It’s conveniently located right next to a subway station and our room was upgraded to a suite. This meant we had a living room area in addition to a large bedroom. My first impression as we walked in the door to our room – “They gave us an entire house!”.

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View from the Westin in Kyoto

With a fair amount of daytime left, we ventured out despite the rain to check out Kinkaku-ji, one of Kyoto’s most famous temples, known as the “Golden Pavilion”. The rain ended up working to our advantage, since we’d heard this site is crowded most of the time, but thanks to the weather it was relatively empty. The overcast skies also made the gold leaf-covered main hall stand out even more, with its reflection in the surrounding lake speckled with rain drops. The temple was originally built in 1397 as a retirement home for a shogun (leader). It was later converted into a temple by his son, and stood until 1950 when a monk burned it to the ground (apparently out of love). Five years later, a full reconstruction took place of the ruins, with even more gold leaf added for pizazz.

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Kinkaku-Ji temple

That evening back at our hotel we went to the executive lounge (Westin’s version of a concierge lounge) for “cocktail hour” which is free for rewards members. We expected the normal alcohol and coffee/tea offerings, and so were delightfully surprised when they brought out individual trays of fancy little appetizers (which were enough to make a meal when paired with the nuts, cheese and crackers also available).

When we got back to our room, turn down service had laid out kimono robes for us (again!) and about an hour later, we had a small bottle of sake delivered to our room. We played a few games of cards, sitting on our bed, wearing our kimonos, and it was perfect.

The next day we took the shinkansen bullet train to Hiroshima, less than 2 hours away. This was a great day trip and I highly recommend it for anyone staying in Kyoto or Osaka. Hiroshima was very walkable and you can have a very full and meaningful visit walking to everything from the train station. When we arrived we first walked in the direction of Shukkei-en, a small garden with lakes, hills, picturesque bridges and lots of koi fish. We loved seeing a couple taking wedding photos there – their outfits and the setting were both beautiful.

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The bride and groom

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Tim in the garden in Hiroshima

We also passed by a small memorial to Sadako Sasaki, a young girl who died of leukemia following the atomic bomb the  US dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 at 8:15am. I had learned about Sadako in elementary school when we read Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes, a children’s book about Sadako and the origami paper cranes she and others made in hopes that once she reached a thousand, she could make a wish to live. Stumbling upon this memorial in front of the school she had attended was incredibly moving, as this story affected me very strongly when I was a kid and remained in my memory all this time.

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Sadako Sasaki Memorial in front of her school

We then came to the Hiroshima Castle grounds, a beautiful castle that was originally made in the 1590s, but destroyed by the bomb. A few years later it was rebuilt and now serves as a museum of the city’s pre-WWII history.

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Osaka castle

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Osaka castle

This tension between the city’s pre- and post-bomb history permeated our visit. It’s a city that has recovered immensely and wants to highlight what they offer beyond the bomb. Art museums, gardens, castles and temples abound, but it’s hard to shake the shadow of the atomic bomb, the reason most foreign visitors have heard of the city to begin with.

Leaving the castle grounds we shortly came to the Atomic Bomb Dome. It’s all that was left standing of the Hiroshima Prefectoral Commercial Exhibition Hall after the United States dropped the world’s first atomic bomb. Everyone in this building died instantly.

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Atomic Bomb Dome

150,000 individuals died between that day and the end of the year as a result of injuries and illness caused by the bomb. Many of these were children just starting their school day when the bomb detonated over a hospital in the city’s center.

As we were standing there, an older man came up to us and told us that this had been his family’s neighborhood when the bomb dropped. He asked where we were from and I’ve never been more ashamed to say, “The United States.” He asked what we thought of Japan and we told we loved it and were having a wonderful time exploring the country. He told us about how Japan gets caught in the middle of global conflicts, with North Korea, Russia and China all in their backyard, and their alliance to the US putting them at risk. Japan is a very peace-loving country, and does not want to directly be a part of any conflict, but their position drags them in. Before he left he thanked us for coming to visit and said that all Americans are welcome here, despite (and perhaps because of) the past.

Right next to the building, a local man who is an in-utero survivor of the bombing shared information with tourists. He had several binders laid out on the sidewalk in different languages, each containing page after page of data and stories from WWII and Japan’s involvement. Dozens of people stood or sat around this area poring over each page of the book, Tim and myself included. There was something very powerful in this scene of so many people from so many countries all there in that moment, gripped by the atrocities of the bomb.

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Reading the booklets about the day of the atomic bomb

Today, the A-Dome Building and the surrounding Peace Park are a memorial to the victims and a plea to the world to end all nuclear weapons programs. The Memorial museum was especially poignant. An entire room is devoted to displaying the names and photographs of each of the victims, who are still being identified.

Another room plays videos and readings from a periodic journal that came out shortly after the bomb where parents describe their last moments with their children who died in the attack. The journal served as a way for the community to grieve collectively and memorialize their children who died too young.

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A memorial in the peace park

In light of the recent bombing false alarms in Hawaii and Japan (the latter we didn’t even know about until the next day) and the ongoing tensions with North Korea, I can only wish we’d listen and learn from the past. Frankly, it doesn’t seem our current leader has any regard for this history.

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Paper cranes strung together hang on a memorial in memory of those who died

Visiting Hiroshima was a fascinating experience – far from fun, but incredibly meaningful. Our trip back to Kyoto had us feeling heavy and in a bit of a daze, but we were so glad we went.

The next day, Friday, our last full day in Japan, we spent some more time exploring Kyoto. We first headed to Arashiyama to visit the Bamboo Grove. Tall stalks of bamboo surround either side of a trail, creating the feeling that you are further away from town than you really are. That said, the place is wildly crowded. Our photos that only have us in them are more or less an optical illusion. Remove us from the picture and you’d see dozens of other tourists. The grove is also smaller than I expected. It’s still very much worth seeing, but it’s not quite this magical, other-worldly experience you may read about on other sites.

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In the Bamboo Grove

After the forest we went to the Fushimi Shinto temple, which is known for its seemingly endless red toriis that lead the way up the nearby mountain (considered sacred). In Shintoism, one walks under torii gates to cleanse his or her soul before entering a holy place. If that’s true, you would leave this site with the cleanest soul ever. The gates and the hike around the sprawling area were very fun, but my favorite part was finding the sweetest little kitty who loved getting pettings.

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Red torii gates at Fushimi

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My new best friend

After the temple we headed  back to our hotel to pick up our luggage and then head down to Osaka by train. We stayed at the Moxy Osaka hotel, also on Marriott points. Moxy is a relatively new brand for Marriott, targeted at a younger audience. The place definitely feels more like a hip café or bar at a hostel than a Marriott hotel. We really liked the aesthetic.

We spent the evening walking around Osaka and had dinner at a conveyer belt sushi place. We’d been wanting to do this since we got to Japan, and this was our last night. The whole process is really fun – you sit at a bar in front of a conveyer belt with plates of various sushi rotating around. You grab anything you like and enjoy! Then, when you’re done, you ring a bell and the waiter comes over to count your plates. Each plate is about $1, making it pretty affordable to eat a LOT of sushi. It’s also a great way to try things you normally wouldn’t.

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Conveyor Belt sushi

The next morning we had breakfast at our hotel – a delicious ramen meal (another Japanese meal we’d been wanting to make sure we ate while in Japan). We then left for our flight to Seoul with plenty of time. So we thought.

We got to Osaka International Airport about 2 hours before our flight and went to check in. The only problem was, we couldn’t find our airline. We asked someone working at a currency exchange desk if they knew. They said that airline doesn’t fly out of this airport, but out of Kansai International Airport.

And that’s how we realized we were at the wrong airport. Panicked, we looked up where this other airport was and evaluated our options. There was a bus that would get there about a half hour before our flight, for a total of about $50. We knew that wouldn’t be enough time, so we opted for a taxi. Our driver got us there as fast as he could, but it still took about an hour and cost $150. Ouch.

We had some confusion trying to find our terminal, and when we arrived at the airline counter, they wouldn’t let us check in. We booked a last minute rewards ticket with Delta leaving from that airport with a layover in Beijing, China, and wrote my friend Diane, with whom we’d be staying in Seoul, to let her know we were going to be landing around 11pm instead of the planned 2:45pm. We checked in for our new flight, had lunch in the airport lounge, and thought our problems were over.

Unfortunately, our flight was delayed taking off and had to take a different route while in air, making it much later than scheduled when it landed. We had only 30 minutes to make our connection, but we eventually learned that didn’t matter anyway.

We obviously missed that connection, but when we stopped at the international transfers counter, the woman simply said we needed to go downstairs to get our boarding passes. To get downstairs, you had to leave through immigration. To leave through immigration, you must not only have a visa (which we didn’t), but at least two hours until the flight you’re booked on (another thing we didn’t have). We tried asking for help from staff at the airport, but no one spoke English and for a long time we just stood there helplessly watching people yelling at us, and each other, in Mandarin. Even now I have no idea what was said. I needed to pee but was scared to leave the immigration area in case they wouldn’t let me back in. For a while I thought, “this may be the day I wet myself in Chinese immigration.” I did make it to a bathroom, though, with Tim walking with me just in case.

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My souvenir from our brief visit to China

I then tried to get on the internet to let Diana know we were stuck in China and unsure when we’d be getting to Seoul so she wouldn’t worry or wonder about what happened to us. Unfortunately, the internet service there blocked Facebook, which was how I could reach Diane, as well as Google (including Gmail). I had no idea what to do. Thankfully an American with a T-Mobile international plan (and thus Facebook access) overheard everything and let me borrow his phone to write her.

By this point two China Southern airline employees were with us, calling Delta to try to get us rebooked on one of their later flights to Seoul. Forty-five minutes later, we had a flight, but still no boarding passes. To get our boarding passes, one of the women took our passports, went outside of immigration, and checked in with our boarding passes on our behalf. She came back a little bit later with our boarding passes and passports, and then had another person open up a small security gate for us (and only us). Six security officers came to inspect our baggage, opening up everything and questioning most of our items. Eventually, after this harrowing ordeal, they let us through, and we boarded our flight.

Around 2am we landed safely in Seoul, relieved to be there. So, if you’re considering a trip where you fly from Osaka, Japan to Seoul, Korea, it’s a pretty cheap flight that only takes 2 hours. Unless you go to the wrong airport – and then it takes 14 hours and costs several hundred dollars and a lot of anxiety.

It was not by any means the best note to leave Japan on, but it definitely makes a good story. We still loved our time in Japan, and are excited for what’s ahead in Seoul, where we’ve decided to extended our stay a little bit and skip returning to Beijing altogether (China and I need some space). Stay tuned!

7 thoughts on “Japan Makes Miso Happy

  1. theschneiduks says:

    Hi there. We are loving your blog as we did a round the world trip in 2015 and are starting another in May. But can I ask a question? Why did you need a visa in the Beijing airport? We will be transiting through China in a couple of months and, based on what we read, they now allow visa-free transit — actually for up to 6 days depending on which airport you are passing through. Just wondering if we have screwed up by booking a flight through China….Thanks!

    • our21stcenturyodyssey says:

      Thanks so much for reading our blog!!

      The problem was that we no longer had a valid ticket departing Beijing, I think, since we missed our connection and learned after we arrived at the Beijing Airport that our flight was “illegal” since the airline sold it to us with too short a layover time.

      We just had another layover in China for 8 hours at Guangzhou and that went totally smoothly.

      One thing to note, if you plan on using wifi in China to communicate back home, be aware that you can’t use any Google sites (like Gmail), Facebook, Instagram, or What’s App due to China’s internet censorship laws.

      Hope this helps!!
      Sarah

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