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Our location as of 10/2/2012

Madison, WI, USA
Last updated 10/2/2012
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Country Recap: Japan

We were looking forward to Japan, and it certainly didn’t disappoint. It was a two week whirlwind of great food, amazing experiences, fun people, and historic sights. Yes, it was very expensive, especially compared to Southeast Asia, but it was worth it. We’re both a little bummed to have to leave so soon and go to China, where things aren’t as convenient, clean, or well-designed. Here’s what we thought of our time in Japan.

Top three experiences?

Nikki:

  1. Our night out for sushi and jazz in Tokyo.
  2. Going to the Tigers game in Osaka.
  3. Eating! Japanese food is the best! When we went out to eat, all we had to worry about was the price, we knew the food was going to be delicious and safe.

Brad:

  1. The night with Yoshiko in Shibuya where we ate delicious yet cheap conveyor belt sushi and went to a wild jazz/funk show.
  2. The baseball game in Osaka. Like in Korea, baseball games have so much more energy than in the US.
  3. Our day in Hiroshima. Even though it was very depressing and sad, the museum was top-notch and the Peace Park was a moving experience.

Bottom three experiences?

Nikki:

  1. Dealing with the public transportation, especially in Tokyo. Different companies run the metro lines and they don’t always show their competitors’ system maps or how to get to their stations. It all gets very, very confusing and expensive.
  2. Smoky bars and restaurants. In some ways, Japan is really far behind the rest of the world, and their smoking culture is one of them. Smoking is allowed pretty much everywhere.
  3. Our overnight bus from Hiroshima to Kyoto. The other overnight buses we took were comfortable, but this one was not. I was exhausted when we arrived in Kyoto and we couldn’t check into our hostel for another two hours.

Brad:

  1. Our route through Japan. We backtracked several times, wasting time in the country–just look at our route. Part of it was we had to make the baseball game at a certain date, and part was we decided to go to Hiroshima just a few days before.
  2. The subways are fragmented and owned by multiple private companies. In Tokyo, there are two companies that run the subway networks, then there’s the JR, and a number of other companies’ networks like Tobu. Here are some annoying consequences of this:
    • The only subway map we could find was for Tokyo Metro and Toei lines, but that map either doesn’t include or has very abbreviated, misleading information about the other networks.
    • The networks’ stations aren’t the same, leading to four different subway stations named Asakusa. If you choose the wrong one, getting to the right one requires a mostly unmarked 10 minute walk.
    • Every time you change lines between the companies, it’s a separate cost.
  3. The overnight bus back to Kyoto from Hiroshima. The seats were just a standard coach bus, and with the miniscule leg room and uncomfortable seat, I only got a couple hours of sleep. The “relax” style Willer Express seats were much better for sleeping.

Best meal?

Nikki: Like I said, Japanese food is the best. I guess the sushi was my favorite, especially the sushi we had in Kanazawa, but really everything was great.

Brad: Back in Wisconsin I was never a fan of sushi, but coming to Japan has really changed my mind! I discovered I just don’t like the maki, but I love nigiri. My favorite place was the cheap sushi Yoshiko took us to in Shibuya, where I discovered this.

Worst meal?

Nikki: At one rest stop, we picked out what we thought was fried chicken, but it turned out to be more like a deep-fried mashed potato. Very strange and not what we were expecting to bite into.

Brad: I liked just about all our Japanese meals. My least favorite was McDonald’s we ate in Fukuoka waiting for our bus to go to Tokyo.

Favorite person we met?

Nikki: We were lucky to meet so many awesome people while we were here. Since I have to pick just one, I’ll say Yoshiko because she was hilarious, warm, and welcoming.

Brad: Yoshiko, who invited us to her home for dinner, took us out to dinner, a jazz club, and karaoke. She helped make our time in Tokyo magical.

Worst disaster?

Nikki: At breakfast one morning, Brad cracked open what he thought was a hard-boiled egg. It turned out to be a raw egg.

Brad: I cracked open what I thought was a hard-boiled egg at a buffet breakfast and it turned out to be a very runny one and made a big mess. Somehow it passed the spin test.

Favorite place we stayed?

Nikki: Khao San Tokyo Ninja. I loved my little cubby. It was like having my own room again. That’s one difficult thing about life on the road, you never really have your own personal space.

Brad: Khaosan Tokyo Ninja hostel. The faux-cubes were very comfortable and convenient.

Worst place we stayed?

Nikki: The Ace Inn Shinjuku. Dirty place filled with obnoxious Westerners. We just crashed there our first night in Tokyo because it was close to the bus station.

Brad: The Ace Inn in Tokyo on our first night. Mostly, I didn’t really like the roommates there.

Best thing we didn’t blog about?

Nikki: In one of the temples in Kyoto, you can enter an area that’s supposed to be like the womb of Mother Earth (or something). You go down a flight of steps and all of the sudden it’s pitch black. Since you can’t see anything, you have to hold on to a railing and walk along totally blind. You go around a few corners and all of the sudden you’re facing a stone bathed in light. You’re supposed to spin the stone for good luck or health (or something), then you go back in the darkness to the outside again. The whole thing is supposed to symbolize rebirth, which doesn’t interest me at all, but it was still a fun experience.

Brad: We looked in a samurai sword shop in Roppongi and the swords were absolutely gorgeous. Many of them were antiques, almost 500 years old, and looked like new. The staff were very helpful and showed us details of how the swords were unique. They also have a good display of samurai armor.

Weirdest thing?

Nikki: Japanese pop culture. Sometimes we would just stare at the TV and say, “What on earth is going on?”

Brad: Akihabara neighborhood in Tokyo. With the maid caf??s, anime stores, and AKB48 mixed with electronics shops and arcades, this was a strange place. It’s probably the stereotypical computer programmer’s heaven.

Statistics for Japan

  • Days in the country: 18
  • Places we stayed: 5
  • Rainy days: 4
  • Blog posts: 4
  • UNESCO World Heritage sites visited: 2
  • Photos taken: 1,587
  • Photos uploaded to SmugMug: 346, 22% of all photos taken
  • Geocaches found: 4
  • Hours traveling overland: 41
  • Overnight buses: 3
  • Tokyo subway stations visited*: 31
  • Osaka subway stations visited*: 13

Statistics for the Trip

  • Countries visited: 13
  • Days on the road: 269
  • Places we stayed: 117
  • Rainy days: 49
  • UNESCO World Heritage sites visited: 22
  • Photos taken: 11,386
  • Photos uploaded to SmugMug: 2,673, 24% of all photos taken
  • Geocaches found: 20
  • Hours traveling overland: 459
  • Overnight buses, trains, ferries, and planes: 12
  • Baseball games’ home team record: 0 for 2
  • Total eclipses we’ve seen: 2 (solar
    and lunar)

* The number of stations at which we entered, exited, or transferred.

Things I Love About Japan

Kyoto is filled with historical sights like castles and temples. Even though we’re pretty sick of temples at this point, the ones in Kyoto are really impressive. (We weren’t allowed to take pictures in some of the best places, so you’ll just have to take my word for it.) The gardens are especially nice to stroll??through or just relax and savor the serenity. But as great as they are, I don’t really feel like writing about temples. Instead, I’m just going to write about the fun, quirky things that make Japan so great.

??? The food! I think I’ve said this in every post, but Japanese food is so yummy! Sushi is, of course, awesome, but so is everything else! We really haven’t had bad food. And it’s been nice not having to worry about food poisoning. Some of the foods I loved were udon noodles (especially with ginger), takoyaki (the ones overflowing with octopus in Osaka were the best), yakitori (fried yummies on a stick), okonimiyaki (at the fun, crowded place in Hiroshima), Japanese curry (which Brad ate almost every day for lunch), grilled chicken bits (especially the heart that we had in the basement hole-in-the-wall with Katie and Terry in Osaka), and beef bowls (rice topped with thinly sliced beef and onion).

??? The vending machines. You can buy pretty much anything from a vending machine here, including beer and sake!

??? The toilets. They are like pimp my ride style, with seat warmers, butt washers, remote control flushing, even music to cover up farting sounds. I got so spoiled, if I sat on a cold toilet seat, I’d be like, “Oh my God, this toilet is horrible!” Also, the rest stops in Japan were the nicest bathrooms I’ve ever been in. Indirect lighting, soft music, automatic everything, powder rooms with full-length mirrors, and all spotlessly clean. Pretty different than peeing on cement floors in Vietnam.

??? The pop culture. I think Americans tend to exaggerate how strange Japan is, but it’s still very weird. We saw the most bizarre music videos and TV shows, not to mention the strange anime and porn.

??? In some restaurants, you push a button to call the staff when you want something. It’s a much better system than waving your arms or constantly getting interrupted before you’re ready. And in many fast food places, you order and pay at a vending machine, then bring your ticket up to the counter.

??? The language. At first it sounded very strange to me, like the women were robots programmed to sound like Mickey Mouse. At least Japanese isn’t a tonal language and the sounds are mostly like they are in English, so people can understand us when we ask a question. In places with tonal languages, like China and Vietnam, people had no idea what we were trying to say.

??? The crazy fashions of the teenagers. We’ve seen many strange color combinations in clothing, hair, shoes, and makeup.

??? Jazz seems to be popular and you’ll hear really good music in unexpected places, like bookstores and bars. (We haven’t heard any of that smooth jazz elevator crap you hear in the States all the time.)

??? Tatami mat flooring. I love how it smells and feels.

??? Polite, helpful people. Overall, the Japanese are super nice and avoid conflict. And they actually wait for people to get off the train before they all rush on!

I could go on and on. Japan is by far my favorite country we’ve seen on this trip. I’m sure I’ll enjoy other places, but I don’t know if anywhere can beat Japan.

Hiroshima

I knew visiting Hiroshima would be difficult and depressing. I never thought it would be fun??as well. It’s been nearly 67 years since the bomb dropped, and today Hiroshima is a big, modern, exciting city with about 2 million people. If it weren’t for all the memorials, you would never know it was once completely destroyed by an atomic bomb.

We spent most of our day in the Peace Memorial Park. First we saw the A-Bomb Dome, the skeleton of the??Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall. Prior to the war, the hall had been a beloved landmark featured on postcards. Since the bomb exploded almost directly over it, everyone inside was killed instantly, but parts of the building remained standing, nearly alone in a wasteland of wreckage and ashes. In the aftermath, nobody disturbed the building because they had the rest of the city to rebuild. Eventually, and with some controversy, the city decided to keep the dome in its ruined state as a memorial. It was designated as a World Heritage Site in 1996 (despite opposition from the US and China). While we were looking at it, I kept thinking of how horrible it would be to see Madison’s capitol destroyed like that.

The area right under the bomb blast was a bustling commercial district called Nakajima. In 1946 the city decided to turn the destroyed neighborhood into a memorial to peace. In addition to the A-Bomb Dome, the Peace Park has over fifty monuments. One particularly moving one, the Children’s Peace Monument, was built after the death of Sadako Sasaki. Sasaki was two when she was exposed to the bomb’s radiation and she died of leukemia ten years later. While she was sick in the hospital she spent her time making paper cranes, believing an old legend that says a wish will come true if you fold 1,000 cranes. She did fold over 1,000 of them, but her wish to get better did not come true. Next to the Children’s Monument there are thousands and thousands of paper cranes on display that have been sent to Hiroshima over the years.

Besides all the statues, the Peace Park is a beautiful park. It was actually a surprisingly pleasant place to walk through. We were there on a beautiful day and there were many people strolling around or eating picnics. There was even a choir group practicing. Everyone was smiling, laughing, and, well, enjoying life. Exactly what a peace park should be used for, I guess.

But don’t think I left Hiroshima without crying. The park was nice, but the museums really got me. The excellent Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum had a ton of information, from the prewar history of Hiroshima, to America’s??involvement??in the war, Einstein’s letter to Roosevelt about the atomic bomb, and the Manhattan Project. They even had a scary section detailing current weapons and how destructive they are. And in case you didn’t know, the effects of a nuclear bomb are horrifying. There were displays of melted lunch boxes, burned school uniforms, and scorched watches that stopped working at 8:15 (the time the bomb was dropped). The pictures of the burn victims with their skin hanging off their bones actually made me nauseous. And that’s not to mention the white walls stained black from the nuclear fallout, the cement walls with nail and glass debris embedded into them from the force of the blast, or the skin lesions and cancers that were a result of the radiation.

And that museum wasn’t even the most depressing one. The??Hiroshima National Peace Memorial Hall??for the Atomic Bomb Victim is the really upsetting one. It houses a collection of all the known bomb victims and displays their name, age, and digital photos in a giant collage on a screen. After each picture is displayed for a few minutes, it fades out and another one takes its place, cycling on and on and on. I just stood there, looking at all these faces. Some looked like grandparents, some looked like nice people, some looked angry, some were just babies. Another area of the hall is dedicated to survivors, who are invited to submit their drawings or record their stories, which are then translated into many languages and available for anyone to listen to. I could only listen to a few: one from a girl who never found her parents, one from a parent who had to leave her daughter in a burning building, one from a boy who found his entire family burned to death.

What really impressed me was how truly dedicated Hiroshima is to peace. All of their displays were honest and accurate. They didn’t ignore the atrocities committed by the Japanese. In fact, there are even memorials dedicated to the enslaved Koreans that died. There was no American name-calling in their??museums, like there always was in Vietnam. Nobody was mean to us when we said we were Americans. They are not interested in spreading propaganda or pointing fingers, they just want everyone to know about all the horrors of the war so that they’re not repeated again. Since 1968, whenever a country does a nuclear test, the mayor of Hiroshima writes a letter of protest. All of these letters, a whopping 599 so far, are displayed in the museum. Most are written to the US or Russia/USSR, but there were a few outliers, like the ones to Kim Jong-il. The four most recent letters? All addressed to “His Excellency Mr. Barack Obama.”

Needless to say, we were quite depressed after visiting the museums, so we just went walking around. We found a really cool area of town and a great place to eat the local??specialty,??okonomiyaki. Okonomiyaki is a??savory??pancake that can be made with all sorts of ingredients, including noodles, cabbage, egg, meat, cheese, and seafood. They cooked it up on a giant grill right in front of us while we enjoyed a beer, watched baseball, and answered a few questions from the curious locals (who were, of course, very nice to us). It was an awesome dinner and a surprisingly fun way to end to our Hiroshima visit.

Kanazawa and Osaka

In Kanazawa we finally got to see some traditional sites. The weather did not cooperate (Kanazawa is famous for rainy weather, kind of like the Seattle of Japan), but we were troopers and went sightseeing anyway. We saw a geisha neighborhood of two-story wooden houses that used to be??tea houses. Then we walked through??Kenroku-en Garden, which is known as one of the best gardens in the country. The Kanazawa Castle is right next to the garden. Finally we made it to the “Ninja Temple,” a temple which was built with all kinds of defenses in case of attack. We weren’t allowed to take photos there, but on our tour we saw trap doors, hidden stairways, one-way walls to see intruders coming, secret passageways, and even a chamber for ritual suicide.

We only had one day in Kanazawa before we moved on to Osaka. Our guesthouse there was a ways out from the center of the city, but it was in a really cool local neighborhood with many shops and restaurants. We did go see the extravagant castle in Osaka, but the main highlight of our stay was going to the Hanshin Tigers baseball game. They play at Koshien Stadium, the oldest ballpark in Japan. There is a plaque commemorating Babe Ruth’s visit to the stadium in 1934. We went to the game with Katie and Terry, a couple we met through couchsurfing. They were very cool and we all had a great time at the game, even though the Tigers lost. The crowd was just as crazy as the Twins fans in Korea and there are beer girls who walk around with a mini-keg on their back and pour out a fresh draft Asahi for you. During the 7th inning stretch, nearly everyone in the stadium blows up a balloon and then they all let them go flying through the air at the same time. Check out the video of it!

Since Katie and Terry are living in Osaka, they were nice enough to show us around the Dotonbori area.??It is a crazy place! This is one of the main areas to go out in Osaka and it’s filled with people, flashing neon lights, bars, and delicious food. I was super impressed with Katie and Terry’s Japanese, even though they were both modest and said they barely knew anything. The little they did know helped us out a lot.??We went around eating a few different things. First we had skewers of grilled chicken, including chicken heart (really yummy, actually) and a more chewy chicken part that we never identified, but also enjoyed. We also tried takoyaki (octopus balls) that were a million times better than the ones we tried in China. And then we rounded out the eating with a little bit of sushi. It was a really good time!

The next morning we took the Shinkansen (bullet train) from Osaka to Hiroshima. It was expensive, but I really wanted to ride on one while we were here.??It’s officially my favorite mode of transportation. I already loved train travel, but these trains are absolutely amazing. They are really modern, clean, and quiet. We were going so fast and the trees and buildings were just flying by us, but the ride was still smooth and comfortable. We got there in an hour and a half; the bus ride back up took six hours. And everything was so easy, we bought our ticket the day before from a ticket machine. There’s no hassle with having to get there two hours before you leave, like there is with flying. If only we could have something so awesome back home!

Weird, Wonderful Tokyo

We’ve had such an amazing time in Tokyo, I don’t even know where to start. Tokyo is gigantic. They say each district is like its own city and there are many, many districts. (Over twenty, I think.) If you include the surrounding metro area, it’s the most populated city in the world with around 35.6 million people. When we first got here, I was completely overwhelmed, so we just started visiting the different districts.

Shibuya is very popular with teenagers and incredibly busy. We had a coffee at one of the world’s highest grossing Starbucks overlooking one of the world’s busiest pedestrian intersections. This Starbucks only serves tall size drinks so patrons don’t stay too long. Shinjuku is where most of the skyscrapers and government buildings are. It’s also where the Japanese mafia, the Yakuza, hang out. Apparently the Yakuza still have a lot of power in Tokyo. ??They also get tattoos, so most capsule hotels and onsens (Japanese baths) don’t allow people with tattoos to enter. Harajuku is big into fashion. Gwen Stefani described it as “a pedestrian paradise where the catwalk got its claws,” which is a great song lyric, but to be honest, I didn’t notice anything that dramatic. To me, it was just another street with expensive clothing stores. Ginza is also a classic upscale shopping area. Asakusa has historical sites and??souvenir??shops. In Akhibara we walked through huge electronics stores, played video games with geeks, and looked at bizarre hentai (anime porn). And that’s just a few of the neighborhoods here!

One morning we got up early to visit the Tsukiji Fish Market, the world’s largest seafood market. (We decided not to attend the tuna auction because it starts before the metro starts running and taxis are very expensive.) When we first arrived, we waited in line to get a fresh sushi breakfast. Needless to say, it was delicious. After filling up on tuna, salmon, shrimp, and other creatures of the sea, we entered the actual market area. I couldn’t believe just how big it was and how much fish is sold there every single day. It was a weird experience for me. As a scuba diver, it kind of made me sad. Better go diving while you still have something to see! But, of course, I am a hypocrite because I love seafood, and from that point of view, it was fascinating to witness how much work goes into putting that sushi on my plate. In any case, the market really is a spectacle, with forklifts zooming around, men in??bandanas??shouting, blood spilling all over, and live eels swimming around in buckets.

We really have Yoshiko to thank for having such a fun time in Tokyo. She sent us a message through couchsurfing and invited us and a couple of other people over for dinner at her house. She served us a ton of delicious food:??sausage for appetizers, then really fresh salad, then a stew with chicken, then fried chicken, then grilled skewered chicken, then some kind of rice dish, then peanuts, then sweets from Lebanon, then green tea! It was crazy. ??Not to mention lots of beer and sake! ??We tried sake made from fugu (poisonous??blow fish, but the sake isn’t poisonous, obviously), then we had yummy plum sake.

The following night she took a group of us out to a delicious, cheap sushi place and then to a jazz bar with one of the best bands I’ve ever seen.??It was five guys–a drummer, guitar, bass, and two saxes. ??The saxes were incredible and the bass player was crazy. It was the first time I’ve seen a bass player steal the show! We had so much fun just hanging out and listening to this great band jam. It was one of the most fun nights of our entire trip. And then we finished our drinks and all the sudden we had to hurry out, because the metro here closes so early! ??It’s so annoying, the last train comes at like 12:30! ??That’s the one bad thing about Tokyo, the public transport is a confusing, irritating mess.

Then on a third night we went out with Yoshiko and friends to our first Asian karaoke experience. Karaoke was invented in Japan and it’s not exactly like karaoke back in America. You’re not singing in a bar full of strangers. You just rent out a small room and sing and drink with your friends in there. I was impressed with the song selection at the place we went. They had every single song I could think of. ??At first I felt stupid, but it ended up being really fun. I’d like to go again, in fact. It helped that there were two microphones, so another person could join in.

Besides going out with our new friends, our other most memorable night was when we went to the observatory on the 40th floor of the World Trade Center. We went right before sunset, so we watched the sun go down behind the Tokyo Tower, a copy of the Eiffel Tower. Once it was dark, Tokyo’s skyline was one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen. I’ve been looking forward to seeing it ever since I saw the movie Babel. For those of you who haven’t seen Babel, all of the tall buildings in Tokyo have red lights on their roofs, so the skyline is punctuated with thousands of lights that look like red fireflies flashing in the sky. You just have to see it to believe it. If the enormity of Tokyo hasn’t hit you yet, it will when you gaze out at the blinking lights surrounding you as far as you can see in every direction.

Tokyo is one of my favorite places. I think it’s my favorite city that I’ve seen so far. It’s just so diverse and fun! It’s completely bizarre, but in a good way. The people are very polite and helpful. The food is incredible. There’s so much to see and do, countless nooks and crannies filled with tiny noodle shops, it would be impossible to see everything, even if you lived here your whole life. If it weren’t so expensive, we would probably have stayed here as long as possible. I’m sure I’ll like other places in Japan, but right now I’m just sad we have to leave.