Hey! If you’re here because you googled “Aralsk-7” or “Anna Zharkova”, I urge you to NOT read on: there be spoilers ahead!
One of my favourite parts of our trip was the time we spent in Takayama. It’s a small city smack in the middle of Japan, about 4.5 hours by train from Tokyo. It gets a lot of snow, some of which was still visible when we arrived at the beginning of April.
Getting to Takayama was a bit of an ordeal. We misread our train tickets and got to the station late, then got separated from our group. Ed and I were able to exchange our tickets for a later train, but it meant we got into the station almost two hours after everyone else. We were originally only scheduled to be in Takayama for 18 or so hours, so losing some of that time was sad (we fixed it later, though). Still, it gave us time to collect our thoughts and also food before we boarded the train, so we were able to enjoy the ride with delicious treats and destressing, which was really needed after the morning trials.
The train took us along the coast and through the mountains. The ride was beautiful – Japan’s rail system is amazing – and the quick stop to change trains in Nagoya was painless. It was raining when we landed in Takayama, but our hotel was a short walk away.
The main reason we were in Takayama was to stay at a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn. We stayed at Ryokan Asunaro, which was incredible. The staff were amazing, the building was old and cozy and furnished with beautiful things (I fell in love with a lamp. I love lamp.), and our room was as advertised: tatami mats, shikibuton beds, and buckwheat pillows (which my spoiled western head found uncomfortable as hell – I am the worst samurai), and gorgeous yukata for us to wear. Our room didn’t have a bath or shower, which is part of the experience: the inn had an onsen for bathing.
Okay, so, onsens. A traditional Japanese public bath sort of like a hot tub: get publicly naked, wash yourself publicly with soap/shampoo/assorted bathing accoutrements in a public shower, then get into a glorious hot public bath to soak and relax and be quiet. Publicly. Super mega traditional onsens might have co-ed bathing, but that fell out of style years ago. Nowadays, onsens will have separate bathing areas for men and women, or specific “women only” times. Like many things traditional and Japanese, there are a lot of rules associated with public bathing: no phones, no clothes, wash yourself with soap separately beforehand, don’t wash your underwear in the onsen (this is apparently a big problem, because there were signs EVERYWHERE and on every website specifically telling people not to wash their underthings in the springs), and – sadly – no tattoos. Tattoos have a much different meaning in Japan, where they are seen as signs of gang activity. In North America, my “persist/resist” tattoos mean less that I am yakuza and more that I am sick of patriarchal bullshit, but many places in Japan still frown upon them. That being said, Japan enjoys the western dollar. Some places are okay with tattoos in their baths, and others will have relaxed rules and/or be okay with them if they’re covered up. If you’re going to Japan and plan to visit an onsen, I HIGHLY recommend you check the rules before you go.
I hadn’t bothered checking the rules for Ryokan Asunaro, because I assumed I would not bother with the public baths because public nudity. However, getting there was *really* stressful. In addition to missing our train, we found out that a) I had accidentally booked my room at the ryokan for being for one person only, which is a problem when they’re busy and have you booked into a room with a twin bed, and b) our accommodations in Kyoto (our next stop and home for 5 days) had been cancelled less than 24 hours before our arrival, leaving us with nowhere to stay in the middle of cherry blossom season in the business tourist spot in Japan. Our group of 4 were screwed, bigly: the “replacement” accommodations HomeAway offered us had half the amenities we needed, and room for only three people. Nothing else was available in the entire city: two people searching non-stop came up with exactly three available hotels looking for $450+ per couple per night, and one sketchy-looking AirBnB that was even more expensive. Desperate, I started looking outside of Kyoto, and found us some decent (and decently priced) rooms in Osaka, instead. A slight change of plans – we were supposed to be in Kyoto for 5 nights, then Osaka for one night before heading back to Tokyo, and now we would be in Osaka for 6 nights – but we had a place to sleep and shower (and our hotel turned out to be super central and awesome), which that was the important thing.
So. After we checked in (the staff was wonderful and managed to accommodate us even though I had booked our room incorrectly), outfitted ourselves in yukata, huddled with M&S to figure out out housing problem, solving said housing problem, then getting re-dressed, we went out to wander the town. It was eerily quiet and crazy peaceful, and we enjoyed our First Dinner (ramen) and Second Dinner (sushi) and the company. When we returned to the hotel, Ed wanted to turn in for the night but I was still TENSE AS FUCK due to all the things that had happened that day – so I went exploring, and checked out the onsen.
Which was completely, totally, utterly empty.
I stripped down to my nothings, lathered up under the shower, then had myself an amazing non-life-threatening solo soak in the onsen, tattoos and all (Ryokan Asunaro has no rules against tattoos; another reason I highly recommend a visit). It was EXACTLY what I needed after my stressy-fuck day, and probably one of my favourite memories from our entire trip. I would never had dared go into the onsen if there were other people around – nobody wants to see my gross self naked – but being all alone gave me the push I needed to get my ass in that water. And it didn’t kill me! Which was a real concern of mine! See, the last time I was in a hot tub was several months after those pesky Heart Issues, and .. well, those signs that say “don’t get in a hot tub if you have a heart condition” apparently aren’t just for show. I almost passed out and got all ded and also felt super, super horrible for several days afterward. I’ve been extremely leery of hot water since then, but was feeling brave and naked and what’s the worst that could happen when you’re utterly alone on stone tiles and some 7.664 kilometres from home.
A SUPER RELAXING GLORY BATH, that’s what.
I’m glad I got SOME relaxing time in Takayama, because Ed snored all night long and I couldn’t get comfortable on a pillow made of cement so I ended up with very little sleep that night. I skipped breakfast (and apparently missed out on a delightful meal) to get some more zeds, then geared up for exploring. Originally, we were supposed to be on a train to Kyoto at 930 the following morning, but after seeing how awesome Takayama was the night before, we changed our train tickets to give us the day to explore. We bought souvenirs, had amazing honey yogurt, posed for selfies near roaring rivers, found some delicious lunch, and just generally had an excellent time – just what we needed before heading to Osaka.
By this time, we’d settled into a novel routine in Tokyo: wake up between 6 and 7 am to utter chaos (complete with people falling down the stairs – the record was three different falls on one morning), shower, raid the food supply for energy, then get out of the house by 9am. We had big, big plans for our third day in Tokyo, so after a quick stop at 7Eleven for strawberry sandwiches we were on the subway and heading towards the Tokyo Sky Tree.
Ali is a planning wizard and had arranged for us to have lunch at Sky Restaurant 634, the ultra-fancy restaurant some 345 metres from the ground. Our reservation was at 11:30, so we basically ran from the station to the lobby of the Sky Tree. This was difficult, because the Sky Tree is attached to an AMAZING mall, complete with Pokémon Centre. I confess to being utterly distracted by the Pokemon store gashapon machines, and had to be dragged out to make our lunch reservation on time (complete with promises that I could come back after lunch and spend money – yes, I am a petulant 7 year old cosplaying as an adult woman). We met up with our group, and before long we were seated by a window in the middle of the sky:
The view was pretty cool. The food wasn’t too bad, either:
I’m damning with faint praise, here – the meal we had at the Sky Tree was phenomenal, and I highly recommend a visit if you’re in the area. Everything we had was ridiculously good, including the scallops that made me cry tears of deliciousness. The entire experience was a total treat, from the crazy view to the amazing food and service and the excellent company. We’re not foodies by any stretch of the imagination – we’d happily eat strawberry sandwiches all day long – so we (okay, me – I’m the only one in our group who hasn’t experienced dining like this, mostly because Ed won’t take me to Art of the Table in Seattle) almost never get to have Fancy Eatings. I totally loved it. Ali is a genius with excellent ideas.
After we ate, it was time to see the rest of the city from 350 metres up. We explored the observation deck, which is something I will be doing again for Reasons:
- We rushed our way through window-looking because it was hella crowded and I was getting mall rage
- We had to be clear across town by 4:45pm, and we (not just me) really wanted to go shopping in the mall downstairs
- There’s actually another observation deck a little higher up that you can go to, and normally I would – I love city views from High – but see #2
- I neeeeeeeeeed to see Tokyo at night, from super high up
The views were absolutely incredible, but I didn’t get enough time with them. Definitely doing the Sky Tree again, as soon as I can.
Then we shopped. It was fun. Things were purchased.
We hopped the train around 4pm to make our way to Shinjuku – we had a date with some robots:
So, here’s the thing about the Robot Restaurant: I could write a million words about it, but it wouldn’t do a lick of good. You need to see the show for itself. This was another Ali idea, and it was a great one – yes, the show is a total tourist thing, but it’s hilarious and so bizarre and just generally a really good time. And you can drink sake or beer while watching it, which I can only assume makes things even better. A word of caution: calling it a “restaurant” is being extremely generous with the definition of the word. Go for the show, bring money for booze, but skip the food. Trust me. Plus, the area the restaurant is in is wonderful for exploring. Go find Godzilla Road! Look for the guy who grabbed Ed’s crotch! Find the game centre with the sympathetic attendant who rigged a claw machine so I would win a stuffed fox after trying a half dozen times and failing miserably! Shinjuku is awesome.
The following day was Wednesday, and our group diverged a little. Those with kids went to Tokyo Disneyland, but I had a list of things that I needed to see so we split up and tackled different things. First on my list was Shibuya, for the station, Dogenzaka Hill (because of Jet Set Radio Future), Hachikō, and the Scramble (because of The World Ends With You) – I didn’t have enough time to really explore Dogenzaka and the myriad of love hotels, but I definitely recognized it and that made me go eeeeeeeeee. The scramble and all of Shibuya Station was also great, and I could have easily spent an entire afternoon just people watching. It was really fucking hot outside though, so we ducked into the famous 109 for air conditioning, a bathroom, and Sailor Moon-esq socks. We walked around the area for a bit, visiting a Japanese McDonald’s (teriyaki burgers were great. cantaloupe milkshakes were weird as hell.), and just generally enjoyed life and sunshine and the thrill of being on vacation times. From Shibuya we went to Meiji Shrine (which was going through renovations, so most of it was inaccessible – the forest was beautiful though), then into Harajuku for some more exploring. It was an exhausting day, but a great one. I really like Japan. Have I mentioned that? If only they had Diet Coke.
I could have happily spent our entire trip in Tokyo and still not seen everything there is to see. We did a ton of things in the 5 days we had available, and the things we didn’t get to will be waiting for us when we return. We know better now, too: book in advance. Always book in advance.
One of the top items on my list was to visit the National Art Centre in Tokyo, specifically to see the Yayoi Kusama exhibit. The museum was close to our Tokyo base, so we enjoyed a ridiculously beautiful walk through Aoyama Cemetery on a gorgeous spring day to get there. The museum and exhibit were amazing, and I’m so glad we managed to fit it into our schedule. The Infinity Room was hands down my favourite piece, but there was so much to see! Ed and I took so long in the Kasuma exhibit that we didn’t get a chance to check out any of the other exhibits going on, and apparently we missed some equally great ones. There was no time in our trip for a return visit to NAC, so that’s another reason we need to go back.
After the museum, we hopped on a train and headed .. somewhere. We desperately needed to find food, but it was more difficult than anticipated – many restaurants in Japan are open for lunch, then close at 1430 to prepare for dinner. We arrived after 1500, and finding a) a place that was open and b) could accommodate 14 people was nigh impossible. We eventually managed to find an open place, but had to split up into three groups. One lost child and some really good curry later, it was time to explore the Sakura Festival going on a block to our right:
I bought Pink Zima, because I was in Japan goddamnit. Sabrina had some sakura champagne, and we roamed the canal gaping like tourists at the pretty pretty pink trees. We saw hot dog bros, strawberry everything, sexy time girls, pretty little mochi on sticks, and thousands of people. I think it was a Monday, but it was packed with bodies – can’t imagine what it would have been like on a weekend (but I’ll go find out and report back).
That evening, there was an epic thunderstorm over our house. It was incredible, and so cozy. We ate experimental Japanese snacks and candy while listening to the pouring rain and thunder. It was pretty fucking magical.
I have several friends in Japan right now, and the pictures they’re posting are making me sad and wishing I was there too. This in turn is making me feel guilty, like I’m forsaking my beloved London for another country. While I’m fully aware that it’s possible to love TWO (or more) places, you can only really live in one place at a time – so where’s my heart? Is it in London or Japan? I’m living in a Sweet Valley High book, except instead of choosing between handsome, sensitive, steadfast Brody and handsome, hot-headed, impulsive Chad, I have to (hypothetically) decide between beautiful, comforting, elegant London and beautiful, intriguing, inscrutable Osaka. What’s a girl to DO?
Luckily, I woke up this morning homesick for London, so I guess I don’t have to decide right away. Also, all of this is entirely in my head – it’s not like I have an opportunity to relocate to either Japan or the UK, but I can pretend it’ll happen some day. And I do love a good list, so I’m amusing myself by itemizing the pros and cons of each location while I wait for documentation to import. It’s the little things.
We spent the first 5 days of our trip in Tokyo, staying in a house in the Minato district. It was a great location: nestled in a maze of cool houses, two blocks from a magical 7Eleven, around the corner from a train station, and more. Much of our first official day (which was Sunday the 2nd, as we didn’t make it to the house until around 8pm the night before) was spent exploring the area: we found a Tokyo Swallows game about to start, a newly-opened Shake Shack, an enormous cemetery lined with cherry blossoms, an architecture museum, and so much more. In the evening, we went to Akihabara to see the fabled Electric Town for ourselves. I spent many yen trying to win something from the numerous claw games (spoiler: I failed), the kids explored every floor of Animate, and we had our first (and best) bowl of ramen in a tiny joint down a dim side street:
It was an excellent (and exhausting) first day.
Things I Will Miss About Japan (alternative title: things to import from Japan):
- ROBOT. TOILETS.
- .. with taps, for convenient and eco-friendly cleanliness!
- Vending machines EVERYWHERE, with recycling bins attached – so you can always find a drink, and always recycle the empty
- Canned/bottled milk tea
- Vending machines that deliver hot canned coffee and tea
- Ticket restaurants! Pay up front, present ticket, receive food.
- An amazing country-wide rail system that runs with eerie efficiency
- Tokyo Banana! It’s delicious.
- Gashapon! You do not want to know how much money I spent in vending machines in Japan, and not just on water/milk tea/corn
- Tiny 600cc city cars. It’s like a scooter with walls!
- Wet rooms and the art of sitting down in a shower. Makes for good, warm sleeping (even if you shouldn’t).
- Japanese 7Elevens. “7Elevens are universal”, I foolishly thought before our trip. “You’ve seen one rancid hot dog at 3am, and you’ve seen them all.” Oh, how wrong I was. Japanese 7Elevens are EVERYWHERE and they are AMAZING and they are the true epitome of “convenience store”.
- Onsens! More on this later.
- Baby wall seats so you can put your baby down while you pee or wash your hands. It’s genius, and I don’t know why we don’t have them in North America. I don’t even HAVE babies, but I can immediately see how brilliant this idea is. Travelling solo? Don’t have someone to hold the baby while you do your bathroom business? WALL SEAT. Baby is safe, happy, and most importantly, off the bathroom floor while you allow a robot toilet to blast your nethers with warm, pulsating water. It’s like a gentle hug for your anus while you make silly faces for your wall baby.
- In Japan, roaming trucks play jaunty tunes. Is it an ice cream van? A truck that delivers red bean paste and soy sauce? No! It’s the garbage/recycling truck, playing music to announce their approach! Forgot to set the trash out? No problem! When you hear the familiar tune, you can rush outside with your neglected waste. Smart *and* hilarious! Also, ice cream vans aren’t necessary because ice cream vending machines are totally a thing that are wonderful and so much cheaper in Japan.
- Speaking of ice cream, you can buy soft serve waffle cones in the freezer section of convenience stores (including my beloved 7Eleven). They’re delicious, and like ¥130 (just over $1US/$1.50CDN).
- Solar panels everywhere. If a tiny mountain town in the middle of Japan can have solar panels atop almost every damn building, why are we still arguing about them here?
- Whiskey Ice. You can buy bags of crystal clear ice meant for whiskey sippin’ (or in my case, water) everywhere.
- Cream puffs the size of my hand (which is admittedly small, but still large in terms of the mighty cream puff)
- Diet Coke
- Me (don’t be jealous, London – I have so much love to give)
- Every hotel room shower cap in a 4-city radius (sorry Japan, but I need them when I dye my hair)
- The automatic Canadian reflex to apologize when you bump into someone (there are so many people in Japan that being walked into is just a way of life)
- Escalators in most train stations – I have never walked up and down so many goddamn staircases in my life, but damn if my calves don’t look great
Things I Missed from Vancouver:
- Soft beds/pillows
- Being naked all the damn time
Things I Will Miss, Period:
- Being on vacation
- Travelling with friends
- The stillness of Takayama
- The hustle of Tokyo and Osaka
- The jaw-dropping beauty of Japan in full cherry blossom season
- Vending machines
- The amazing lunch with an equally amazing view in the Tokyo Skytree
- The show at the Robot Restaurant
- Stumbling upon a Sakura Festival
- Staying in a ryokan
- Having an onsen completely to myself
- Osaka Castle Park
- The small bit of Kyoto we saw
- Shibuya Station and the Scramble, where I got my Jet Set Radio Future and The World Ends With You fangirl on
- The Yayoi Kusama exhibit at the National Art Centre in Tokyo
- .. especially the Infinity Room
Things I Regret:
- Not having enough time in Kyoto
- Resorting to American food when exhausted
- Not attending Kanamara Matsuri
- Coming home
- Not buying more gashapon items
- Vending machine corn chowder
Things I Drank Instead of Diet Coke:
- All the water (Japanese tap water is delicious)
- Milk Tea
- Canned cream puffs (okay just once)
- Pocari Sweat
- Coke Zero (gross)
- Coke (even grosser)
- Coca-Cola Plus (Coke with fibre. Why?)
- Melon Fanta
- Mango in any form I could find
- So much water
Devastating Life Lessons Learned:
- I will never be a flight attendant.
Hope you’re not tired of photos from Japan, because I’ve only been posting pictures taken with my phone. There are still the camera pictures to go through. #kimlichiwa
As is tradition, when you return from one trip you must immediately book the next. We’re going back to Ireland! More on that later, though – here’s all about London.
I had a great time, even though I was sick and had to work and was very cold and had many internet issues. Still, London. All of those things are minor annoyances when you’re in your favourite place in the world.
That being said, next time I think “hey I should go somewhere in January”, please remind me that most people would go someplace WARM, as opposed to some place colder than the place they left. London was surprisingly frosty, and in my delirium (I was so sick) I kinda forgot to bring a coat. I don’t wear a coat in Vancouver (mostly because I do not go outside), so I should be fiiiiiiine in London. And I wasn’t, at all! The first day I went outside (still sick), I had on 5 layers of cardigans (because that’s all I brought) and I froze my vagina right off. It was cold. Luckily, I had internet and money, so I bought a coat and arranged for it to be delivered the next day. It wasn’t the warmest thing I’d ever put on, but it did the trick and I spent the rest of my time in London delightfully warm-ish and also plaid.
The last time I did London solo, I was gone for over three weeks and found that to be too long a time to spend inside my own head. This time I was gone for just two weeks, and it was perfect – I missed Ed and the cats and general human contact, but I wasn’t despondent in my lonely despair. This is good information to have, because now I know I can be all “lol bored going to Germany now bye” yet retain the majority of my sanity.
So, what’d I do in my two weeks of me time?
- Wandered Brick Lane for hours, taking pictures of graffiti and finding my favourite piece again to test my location memory
- Visited Spitalfields Market
- Watched the sunset from Sky Garden
- Attended the Women’s March on London
- Took a canal boat from Little Venice to Camden Lock, wandered the market, drank SO MUCH orange juice
- Did nothing (was sick)
- Went to the V&A (three times)
- Visited the Saatchi Gallery
- Explored the area around my flat, which included squares Sloane and Duke of York
- Saw many Sloane Rangers (hah!)
- Went to the Natural History Museum and spent a lot of time in the earthquake simulator as practice for Japan
- Met up with Jen of Oxford and had Lobster Rolls!
- Bought every damn pair of leggings from Primark – sorry, everyone else
- Went to the waterfront by the Tower of London and took several thousand photos of Tower Bridge all lit up at night
- The V&A is open late on Friday nights; discovered it turns into a bizarre nightclub with live acts and fancy people going WOOOOOOO
- Got locked in the V&A courtyard and had to literally scratch at the door to be let back in (aka stand and wave at people until someone made eye contact, then played charades until they realized I was trapped) – luckily, that courtyard is one of my favourite places on the planet (albeit much more so when it’s warm and I’m not locked outside) so I didn’t mind all THAT much
- Discovered that eating grilled pieces of halloumi cheese with a spicy-fruity sauce is fucking amazing and that’s all I’m going to eat from here on in
- Had many adventures with the Travelling T-Rex
- Portobello Market! Love this place. Wandered. Did not buy boots, but did buy pearls. I am so fance.
- ASTRONAUTALIS SHOW WOOOOOO I’d been wanting to see Astronautalis in London for some time and it just so happened that he was playing London while I was there so I went to the show and remembered to stand on stage right and it was so awesome and YAY
- Chinese New Year! Went to Chinatown and watched dragons and crowds and got totally soaked in the rain.
- Seven Dials. Accidentally bought four boots.
- Covent Garden! London Transport Museum is awesome! Also, Shake Shack. So good. Missed Ed.
- Finally visited Tate Britain!
- Waterfront, this time by the London Eye. Took many photos of Big Ben, the parliament buildings, and the Eye.
- Science Museum! No cosmonauts this time, though. Still cool.
- Ate fish and chips (but only once, on my last night there)
- Had an amazing fucking time
- Finally shook off my terrible flu/cold thing
- Rekindled my need to live in London for a while
.. I did a lot of things. I walked a terrific amount, so much so that my watch and ring were both very proud of me. Had some fun shopping, which caused issues bringing stuff back even though I tried really very hard to be good. Honestly, I didn’t want to come home: I wanted home to come to me. I missed Ed and the cats and having hot water and water pressure and loads of internet, but dammit .. I want to be in London. Especially now that Vancouver is fucking covered in frozen white bullshit. Yes, the UK gets winter too, but some things are easier to manage when you’re where you need to be.
Half of my pictures can be viewed here. The other half will be uploaded shortly, but I experimented with not hauling a camera around with me and looking like a tourist, but using my phone instead. I have some extremely good iPhone lenses that extend the abilities of the already-amazing iPhone 7 Plus camera, and it was nice to be able to wander around with fewer things to carry. I don’t think I’m going to repeat this in Japan because I’m going to want to capture every damn thing ever, but for a place I know very well, it was nice to have options.
It was a really good trip, yo.