Anthony Bourdain said it best: “Japan. Any excuse to visit will suffice.”
The first time I visited Japan was 2009. This was the first country that I’ve visited where I could see myself leaving the US to immerse myself in a new culture for several years.
The food. The geography. The people. The visitor to Japan will find all of these things utterly wonderful and bizarre.
After a fun few days in the Arctic Circle, my wife and I crossed the Pacific Ocean to kick off our 2.5 month Asia trip, starting with a week in Japan with some of our closest friends. We focused on traveling the Southern half of Japan, visiting many cool spots between Tokyo and Kagoshima.
Below are some of the highlights of our Japan trip.
One of the most unexpected highlights of this Japan trip was commuting between our locations. We had two full travel days during our week-long trip to Japan, but both days were still a lot of fun.
The Japanese railway system is incredible. One of the fastest ways to go up and down the country is via the Shinkansen, which is a Japanese bullet rail system.
It’s very fast, very smooth, and very comfortable. As a foreigner visiting Japan, be sure to get a JR Pass (Japan Rail Pass) prior to coming to the country. This pass will save you a lot of money, versus buying individual rail passes for multiple city visits in the country.
Convenience store bento boxes
When I was teenager growing up in Michigan, 7-11 was the convenience store I would go to for a shitty bean burrito at 1:30am with my buddies. In Asia, 7-11 and other convenience stores offer amazing food options.
For about $10, you can buy a world-class bento box (by American standards) at any random convenience store in Japan.
These things were freaking delicious, but I had no idea what I was eating (uh, is this some sort of pickle?). On our first major train travel day, I’m ashamed to admit that I ate probably four of these boxes above in a single day.
[EDIT, April 13, 2014 – My travel buddy Jess Lee kindly informed me that my facts were wrong in the description above. In her words: “Technically all the bentos we got are actually ekiben (eki + bento = train station lunch boxes), not convenience store bento.” Thanks Jess!]
Ohkunoshima: a random island of bunnies
As the story goes, in 1978 a Japanese school kid brought eight class bunnies to the island of Ohkunoshima. The kid left the bunnies there, and today there are 700 really cute descendents hopping around the island. Ohkunoshima is now a tourist destination mainly for Japanese people, and from what I understand, this place isn’t that well known by foreigners yet.
For a few bucks, you can buy a cup of bunny feed from a hotel and walk around hand feeding the laziest and fattest rabbits in the world.
Yakushima National Park
Two hours by ferry from the southern coast of Kyushu is the Yakushima National Park, which is an amazing semi-rainforest island. Our group was fortunate to spend a full day hiking around this place.
It’s a pain in the ass to get this island, but completely worth the trip. This island supposedly inspired the famous Japanese animator, Hayao Miyazaki, in setting the stage for some of his trippy films. The terrain also reminded me of scenes I’ve seen from the Lord of the Rings movies: lush, with lots of snarling plants and trees.
We saw some odd-looking deer and some very cute monkeys while in the forest. The trail was a bit treacherous, with one of us slipping into the river during a crossing. But Yakushima was a major highlight of our Japan trip.
Takefue onsen: the closest thing the heaven on earth
If you do one thing in Japan, you must visit a Ryokan, which is a traditional Japanese spa/resort. It’s a truly unique experience. When you check into the Ryokan, you are handed a yukata, a type of kimono robe, which you wear every day/all day during your stay. You basically then spend your time going to hot spring baths and eating incredible Japanese food.
I’ve been to three Ryokans, but the Takefue onsen (aka, hot spring spa) was one of the best travel experiences I’ve ever had.
Be prepared to lose some serious coin: Takefue cost $400 per person, per night. Worth every penny.
The timing of our Japan trip was really fortunate in that it aligned with Sakura season, which is the week where cherry blossoms are in bloom throughout Japan.
It’s very rare for a foreigner to witness Sakura since the flowers only bloom for four days. We were probably a few days late from the peak bloom, but the flowers were still impressive nonetheless. Japanese people take Sakura very seriously and there are websites/songs dedicated to the phenomenon.
Awesome to travel with friends.
What a way to kick off the Asia leg of our trip! My wife and I were so lucky to experience all these new things surrounded by our closest friends. I wish we could take them along for the rest of our journey—we asked, but for some reason they didn’t want to quit their jobs on the spot.
A huge thank you goes out to Eddy Wu, a friend of 14 years, who planned the entire itinerary for our group of friends! My wife and I loved traveling with our awesome crew: Jess Lee, Bryan Tsao, Audrey Yang, Cathy Kim, and Fred Akalin.
Next up is Korea.