Weeks 19 and 20 (20th June-1st July) – Japan

Getting from Vanuatu to Tokyo was a bit of a jaunt—unsurprisingly, there are no direct flights. After a 4.30am start, our first flight was the unexpectedly pleasant Air Vanuatu to Sydney, where we had the joy of getting the passport stamps we’d missed the first time round, then the disappointment of realising we didn’t have enough time to go into the city—probably the best city in the world—so we admired it from afar. The second flight was to Jakarta on a cosy 2-seat row (planes should do more of those). We arrived in Jakarta on a hot, dusty, and malodourous night, and had to walk from the plane to the airport, where thankfully we found a Starbucks with air con and delicious cinnamon buns. The final flight, making 29 hours of travelling, was to Tokyo, and it seemed like everyone on the plane had a cough or cold, great.

We quickly figured the transport system out, which was a miracle considering everything was written in Japanese, and got the monorail across Tokyo to our “guest house”, a curious name for a building that looked mid-demolition outside and seemed to be a maze made entirely of tiny doors inside (somewhat resemblant of Being John Malkovich). In Tokyo, every bit of space is occupied, and despite opting against a “capsule” hostel (a room full of morgue-like microwave doors where you get a tunnel with a bed to sleep in), our shoe box room was only a little bigger than the bed, with zero storage space aside from nails in the wall. In the kitchen/common room, every wall and surface was covered with something. Despite everything I’ve just said, it was strangely endearing, and the owners were adorable. Plus, it had a nice rooftop garden with a view across the rooftops of Tokyo and the Skytree.

On said rooftop, we quickly learnt that Japan has two seasons—dry season and wet season. We’d arrived in wet season, which meant sweltering heat and intense humidity, not just rain. After a few hours cooking alive up there, we ventured out to find dinner, and not understanding any road signs, we wandered aimlessly for hours until we finally found…you guessed it…an Indian restaurant with, bizarrely, the most English-tasting curry we’ve had so far.

The following day, we started exploring the “cities” of Tokyo. Each area is a small city, which gives you an idea of how sprawling the place is. It’s pretty much essential to get a multi-day subway pass, as it takes a while to walk between areas of the city. The only downside of this is that the toilets on the platforms are often traditional Japanese style. Less said about those, the better. Also, typically I’d picked up a cold from the flights, and in Japan, blowing one’s nose in public is considered not very polite. In fact, I quickly learnt that the masks people wear aren’t to protect the wearer from germs or pollution, but to protect others from their germs when they have a cough or cold. How considerate. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a mask, so my nose blowing didn’t go down so well on the subway.

We saw a traditional festival with geishas at Roppongi Hills, the rich area, complete with the fanciest Starbucks in the world (it’s even decked out with Kindles). We checked out Harajuku—home to the Meiji Jingu Shrine, a tranquil haven that seems a million miles away from the bright lights and noise of the local Takeshita Street (which had Peb in stitches for some time) where people are dressed Pikachu and other characters, and the “Oxford Street” of Tokyo, where Peb’s eyes lit up when he spotted an actual Under Armour shop full of American Football gear. Eventually, Harajuku blends into Shibuya, the “Piccadilly Circus” of Tokyo, buildings adorned with bright lights and advertising, and the best Disney Store ever with a Mickey-shaped door and an Alice in Wonderland staircase. Struggling to find dinner again, we ended up picking something off a menu with no English on. The outcome was…interesting… trying to eat ramen noodle soup with chopsticks while bearing in mind the many Japanese rules of etiquette about the correct usage of chopsticks.

The next day, we seemed to forget we’re on a budget and went shopping as the traditional Japanese gifts are awesome and/or adorable. We started at Ueno and the Ameyoko shopping area, which has an excellent comic memorabilia shop, then Asakusa’s Nakamise, the oldest shopping “street” in Tokyo. The street leads to the beautiful Sensoji Temple, gardens, and five-storied pagoda, which seems to be where all the tourists in Tokyo have amassed (otherwise strangely scarce). Finally, I went a little cute crazy in Skytree Town’s Hello Kitty shop. For dinner, someone suggested we order our food from a vending machine; we didn’t understand the menus anywhere, and at least the vending machines had pictures so we knew vaguely what we were getting. It turned out to be delicious, and as we didn’t know the name of the place, it became known as “the dinner shop”. On the walk home, we got mobbed by a hyperactive Pomeranian. Days are long in Tokyo.

On day three, we went to Tochomae, the government building, which offers free panoramic views over the city from their observatory and lunch with a view (although the SkyTree is the tallest tower in the world, it’s pretty expensive). After Peb had managed to drag me out of the toy shop at the top of the tower, we headed to Shinjuku where I got shut in some lift doors that abruptly decided to close on me. We didn’t get far as it was scorching hot and 80% humidity, and we realised we had no cash and most restaurants for some reason, in a city practically bursting with technology, don’t accept card payments. Thankfully, we found a good old Irish bar that took card and watched the Tokyo Giants baseball game, because strangely, baseball is Japan’s most popular sport. Upon leaving the bar, we discovered that the Tokyo rain we’d been hearing so much about had finally made an appearance. It quickly turned into an epic thunderstorm, so we sat in the rooftop conservatory and watched the lighting around the city.

For our final day in the city, we went to the famous Akihabara “Electric City”, a place of brightly painted buildings, massive signs, and gaming pictures on all of the buildings, Jimbochothe used books area of the city, and the Imperial Palace grounds, which are amazingly spacious considering how crammed the rest of the city is, and have turtles, swans, and huge koi carp in the moats. We headed back up the government building to see the sprawling city lights at night, then back to the dinner shop, apparently called Matsuya.

Earlier in the week, we’d booked JR passes, which provide cheap rail travel around Japan for tourists. Our first destination was Kamakura, “the Kyoto of Eastern Japan”, a town that has a shrine or temple around every corner, some of them dating back 1,200 years. Our feet almost fell off from all the walking, but it was worth it to see some of the spectacular temples, particularly Tsurugaoka and Myohonji. Peb suggested we try a traditional green tea, so we visited a tea house in a bamboo garden in the Hokokuji temple. The setting was stunning, but the tea tasted like hot grass. Not my cuppa tea. We grabbed lunch in Watami, a cool Japanese bar that does particularly good gyoza and sushi, then hotfooted it to the Great Buddha, one of the most iconic images of Japan. The Buddha is far bigger than I’d imagined, and sits outdoors since the temple surrounding it was destroyed by a tsunami in the 15th Century. With aching legs, we got the train back to Tokyo in the rush hour. Big mistake. If you’ve ever got the rush hour tube in London, imagine that times ten.

Our second destination was Nikko via the impressive Shinkansen bullet train. Nikko is north of Tokyo, nestled in the mountains and surrounded by alpine trees. Having learnt our lesson from Kamakura, we got a sightseeing bus pass and hopped on and off at the attractions the Futarasan wedding shrine, the Toshugu five-storied pagoda, and beautiful Shinkyo Bridge. We got the train back via Utsonomiya, where we had dinner at a very traditional Watami. We had to remove our shoes at the entrance and put them in a locker, then were seated at the bar…which about 2 feet high with cushions on the floor, while they flame-grilled our neighbour’s fish using a blowtorch at the table.

The following day, we checked out of the crazy guest house and got the train via Otsuki to Kawaguchiko. We were amazed to see Mount Fuji from the train, and still with some snow on it! Upon arriving, we couldn’t find our ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) so a kind local, who could tell we were lost despite us not speaking the same language, called the owner and he came to collect us from the middle of nowhere. Our room in Akaisha Ryokan was wonderful, traditional woven mats, futon cushions for a bed, a tiny table and seating cushions, and kimonos to wear. The owner’s wife poured us more green tea (yay!) and gave us delicious Mount Fuji biscuits, with the mountain (did I say mountain, I meant volcano) just outside our window. We headed out and got the cable car up to a literally incredible view of Mount Fuji. That thing is huuuge, and picture perfect. I mean literally, I must have taken about a thousand photos!

We experienced a traditional Japanese “onsen”, public baths separated for men and women that stem from natural hot springs. The strange thing about them isn’t that you’re choosing to cook alive, but that you have to be naked in them. It’s the rules.

The following day, we had breakfast in a Japanese diner, then got the sightseeing bus around Lake Kawaguchiko to Oishi Park, a lavender garden with more beautiful views of Mount Fuji across the lake. It was an incredibly hot day so we took a pedalo swan out on the lake. Peb tried a Japanese batting practise, needless to say he’s not going to be signed up by a baseball team any time soon. We ended the experience with another onsen…still not sure about them.

The following day, we got the train from Otsuki to Matsumoto then Nagano then Yudanaka. We’d been recommended to stay in Shimaya Ryokan, and the room was really beautiful and traditional, with Japanese screens and another surprisingly comfortable futon. Peb still hasn’t got the hang of the shoes off/slippers on/slippers off rules. We walked around town, but it was oddly quiet due to it being off-season, so we had dinner in Mikasa, a wonderful little traditional restaurant where we sat on mats on the floor and the owner made me origami. In the evening, me and Peb tried a traditional outdoor onsen, an even stranger experience than the indoor ones! The water is around 45 degrees, then you pour ice cold buckets of water over yourself. They have an interesting idea of relaxing here…

On our final day in Japan, the ryokan’s owner drove us up to the Snow Monkey Park (Jigokudani Yaenkoen), and we were excited like kids on Christmas Eve to see the Japanese “Snow Monkey” Mackaws in their natural environment! In the winter of 1964, some monkeys wandered into the hot springs to warm up, and so the locals built them a bigger pool. Voila, the monkeys made it their home. Now, thousands of tourists head to this tiny town to visit the monkeys. It was incredible! There were some brand new babies, playful kids (one tried to get me to join in…do I look like a monkey?! Don’t answer that!), moody teenagers, and entire families just chilling out. We pretty much only left because we were starving.

The following day, we got the trains back to Narita airport, much sadder to leave Japan than we’d anticipated when we booked it. From an offhand “Let’s go to Japan”, we found a country we both unexpectedly loved, full of tradition, extraordinary architecture, and beautiful natural scenery. We’re so glad we got to experience the bright lights of Tokyo, the serenity of Kamakura and Nikko, and the beautiful snow monkeys of Yudanaka, and we will definitely be back to see the rest of Japan one day.