Around this time last year I was visiting my friend Liam in Japan. This was my first real trip to anywhere in Asia and I don’t know if it was just because your first is supposed to be special but I’ll be damned if this wasn’t the best trip I’ve ever taken.
Now that’s a weird thing to say – I DID just come back from a month in Thailand, after all – but somehow 3 short weeks travelling around Japan was exactly right.
My trip ran the gamut from drunkenly eating anchovy ramen at 6am at a tiny ramen shop in Golden Gai to spending the night at a 1200 year old buddhist temple. And I think that right there is the crux of why I loved my trip to Japan. Besides the fact that I got to visit one of my favourite people on the planet, I also got to explore the wide range of experiences that Japan offers. It’s not all anime and Hello Kitty, or drunken Robot Burlesque, or sushi, or temples, or samurai, or any other of the many tags that are attributed to Japan.
Though, of course, it is also ALL of those things too. A sum of its many, many parts. I loved every minute of my trip. Well, not every minute, but I’ll get to that another day.
A Few of My Favourite Things
A seemingly impossible task to narrow down, but here are a few of my favourite things.
Staying at a buddhist temple at the top of Mount Koya.
When I think back to my trip, I know that this is one of the memories that will stay with me forever. This is one of the few things that I booked in advance. Koya was first settled in 819, and is the headquarters for the Kōyasan Shingon sect of Japanese Buddhism, which means that the town is made up of nearly 120 different temples, many that you can stay at. We chose to stay at Eko-In which cost about 1000 yen a night, including breakfast. We only stayed the one night but it was worth it, even with the incredible journey it is to actually get TO Koya.
So what is that journey?
First, you take a train from Osaka – the Koya train. There’s only one and it looks like something out of a dream somebody in the 50s had about what the future of trains would be. This train is about 1hr 30 mins long, with the first hour being through very nice farmland. But the last half hour is the real star – you criss cross through the mountains and catch some breathtaking views of the valleys and villages below.
After the train it’s time to hop on a cable car that takes you up to the top of the mountain – another 15 minute ride.
At the top of the mountain, you desperately try to figure out which bus you’re supposed to take, because there are many signs and it seems like the next bus is hours away, but then a very nice Japanese woman will see how confused and lost you are and will help you onto your bus and then tell you about all these incredible things you can do at Koya. The bus driver will be surprisingly patient as you try to figure out how to get a ticket, validate it and then also pay for it.
Or maybe that’s just us.
Our room at Eko-in was incredible, with a little sitting area, access to the gardens and beautiful traditional panelling. The entire temple smelled of pine and incense and was incredibly relaxing after the hustle and bustle of Tokyo & Kyoto.
My favourite part of Koya was the beautiful (and spooky!) cemetery Okunoin which is the largest cemetery in Japan, one that is over 1000 years old. It is intensely intimate, hugely sprawling, creepy at night and impossible to resist exploring.
Eko-in provides incredible meals (breakfast and dinner) as well as a wonderful meditation class taught in Japanese and English. We were all sitting quietly in the class doing the meditation when suddenly I heard a very loud, very clearly Canadian voice echoing up through the gardens and in through the open doors of the meditation room. My dear friend Liam, back from his walk, was leaving a Skype message for his mum. I could hear all the english speakers in the class suddenly pulled out of their meditation as Liam sang his mum a little song and talked about what a great time he was having. I thought I was going to pass out from holding in my laughter.
Overall Koya was probably one of the most incredible experiences of my life, up there with hanging with baby elephants in Chiang-Mai, and I recommend it to everyone.
I am generally one of the last people to recommend that someone do anything that is so obviously a tourist trap. I think that often you pay for something stupid and exorbitant just to say that you got to do it, and it feeds into a gritty world that mass produces experiences for tourists eager to check things off a list.
Now I am going to eat all my words because god damned was this a fun night.
It started with a nice little dinner of miso-glazed cod at a hole-in-the-wall restaurant that Liam knew of. Pouring rain, I was a bit hangry and was really sort of feeling blah about Robot Burlesque. How good could it possibly be? It’s just some dumb tourist trap.
Let me tell you what really helps with thoughts like that – lots and lots of alcohol.
Several drinks later, and significantly pumped up, we approached the sketchy-as-hell entrance to Robot burlesque. We were the last people to arrive and didn’t get a chance to have more drinks, which is probably for the best because this place is fucking crazy.
I didn’t get as many pictures as I liked on my way down the many many steps to the “theatre” as I was already buzzed, the black lights were crazy, and the entire hallway/stairway looked like something that Gaudi had wet-dreams about. We went to the late show (the “adult” show) and so it was mostly other tourists around our age, and close to our level of inebriation.
You know what? I’m not even going to write anymore, I’ll let my pictures speak for themselves.
(Note: I can see someone hating this experience, especially if they do not drink copious amounts of beer beforehand. Or if they hate bright lights and loud music. And ladies in bikinis. And robots fighting robots. You know what? I don’t think I would want to spend time with that person.)
Of course. How could I not write about the food? When I was originally planning this trip I told Liam that I wanted to eat everything. He asked if there was anything else I really wanted to do and I said that eating was my priority.
Want to know a secret?
I didn’t even eat sushi.
Nope. Not once. I know, I’m terrible. Instead I stuffed myself to bursting with noodles, sashimi, desserts, pastries, yakitori, okonomiyaki – anything that I could feasibly stuff into my mouth.
I walked for 20 minutes in the pouring rain in Hiroshima to get to a tiny restaurant that was above a garage. Sarii-chan had been recommended to me so I could try some Hiroshima style Okonomiyaki and I was anxious to check it out, even if it meant sacrificing my shoes.
Pro-tip: when it rains in Japan, it pours. Umbrellas are your friends.
Upstairs it was me and a group of crazy stylish Japanese girls my age, this kid (“kid” he looked like he was about 20) doing his homework, a very drunk Japanese businessman, a girl sitting in the corner reading a manga, and one very old Japanese lady who sat in a corner and looked like she wanted to murder us all. The staff (one guy cooking okonomiyaki) were crazy friendly and helped me order, the patrons were crazy friendly and helped me order, and they all cheered as I managed to take my first bite of that crack-addictive pancake with my chopsticks.
It was eating with an audience. I got a second cheer and a free beer when I finished my entire okonomiyaki and cleared my plate. I can not recommend this restaurant enough.
We had an incredible feast of Kaeseki-Ryori in Kyoto, as well as some unbelievable sashimi from Nishiki (also in Kyoto)
Probably one of the best things I ate was this incredible bowl of shrimp-ginger Tsukemen Soba from Gotsubu in Shinjuku. This tiny (and I do mean tiny. It fits maybe 6 people at a bar) little restaurant took me ages to find and was worth every yen. You order from a vending maching (all in Japanese, so you may have to try and ask or just hope for the best) and then sit down and enjoy watching them make everything in front of you.
What sets Gotsubu apart from other soba places in Tokyo is their insistence on using fresh, local ingredients and homemade soba noodles.
I don’t think I’ve ever eaten anything as delicious and fresh.
I still dream about this place.
And where would I be without the restorative properties of anchovy ramen from Nagi in Golden Gai?
Golden Gai is a warren of tiny bars all piled on top of each other. The drinks are cheap, the conversation is insane and they are a bit like opium dens from the last century – somehow you spend 6 hours there and when you come out you’re a different person.
We hit the bars in Golden Gai AFTER Robot Restaurant, so you can imagine the shit-show that must have been. After the karaoke bar where I had to leave a bit too quickly because some guy was taking the lyrics of “Get Lucky” too seriously, and after the many long hours lost at the tiny bar we ended up in, we finally made our way to Nagi for some Anchovy Ramen.
At 6 am.
The sun was rising as we waited in line on the tiny street. We had to place our order into a strange sort of tube? Maybe? I don’t know – this part was a bit of a blur.
But you know what I do remember very clearly? This.
Creamy, delicious, so strong it will kick you in the face: Anchovy Ramen
It’s been a year and I can still taste it.
I ate so much delicious food it’s impossible to talk about all of it, but these are the meals that definitely stayed with me.
Go to Japan. Go right now. Go explore it alone, or with a friend, or with family. Try new things. Play arcade games, wander the streets of Osaka, go to the mountains, visit a temple, eat ramen, watch robots fight, watch monks fight, sing karaoke: just GO.