Kyoto in the Spring

I took my parents to Kyoto because they came to Japan in the spring and where else would you rather be?

The first thing I will admit about the gateway to old Japan is that, yes, it is crowded during cherry blossom season. But if you are willing to step off the beaten track you can still find those hushed moments of zen like calm that the ancient capital promises.

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Dinner served to our room in the ryokan

I wanted my parents to stay in a traditional Japanese ryokan (hostel) and booking was a  nightmare even though I started the process early. Many ryokans aren’t on the internet yet so I searched for a place and booked through Japanese Guest Houses. To be honest their system isn’t super convenient but it may well be your best bet, especially if you don’t speak Japanese. We ended up staying in the Ischicho Shogikuen which wasn’t my first choice but was still lovely. I really recommend going for the full ryokan experience if you can – futons, tatami mats, sliding doors and Japanese cuisine served to your room. My parents had a couple of reservations about the food and my Dad sleeping on a futon with a bad back but they loved every minute.

I recommend walking between your destinations as much as you can because Kyoto is the kind of place where interesting things happen in between. There’s a small art gallery or a charming independent coffee shop on every corner.

The Famous Rock Garden at Ryoanji Temple.

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Ginkakuji (which I prefer to its more famous brother, Kinkakuji)
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Definitely walk along the Philosopher’s Path to get from Ginkakuji to Nazenji

 

It’s lovely walking around town as it starts to get dark. Oh and we did see a geisha- she was actually locked out of the building she was trying to get into, desperately ringing the bell and trying to remain graceful as the tourists crowded around her. I didn’t take a photo as it was actually quite alarming to watch the cameras swarm like flies and I felt sorry for her, so you’ll have to take my word for it that she was really, incredibly beautiful. Unfortunately I think hoardes of tourists goes with the Kyoto territory at this point but Kyoto was still able to capture my imagination.

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Hokkaido Part 2

In part 1 of my Hokkaido blog post I wrote about traveling to Sapporo and sung the praises of flowers and mountains. Here’s a post about our adventures in canal towns, onsens and Sapporo itself.

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Photo credit http://www.houheikyo.co.jp. I could not take my own photos for nakedness reasons

Houheikyo Onsen
It was my friend’s first time in Japan so she wanted to have the onsen experience. We originally planned to go to the more well known Jozankei Onsen town but on the recommendation of our guest house owner we decided to opt for Houkeikyo Onsen instead. From Sapporo station, the Kappa bus will take you directly to Jozankei, which takes about an hour. After that, Houkeikyo is the last stop on the bus, just outside the town. We were really glad we chose to go to the more rural onsen! The outdoor bath in Houheikyo is in a charming traditional Japanese garden with a beautiful view of the mountains. After bathing we enjoyed Indian curry at the onsen’s restaurant. Although Indian might seem a strange choice for an otherwise very traditional, old school onsen, actually it was what we were just in the mood for after our soak.

2016-07-09-11-42-41Otaru
I’ll be honest, Otaru was the only part of our trip that was in danger of mediocrity. It’s a canal town about 40 minutes from Sapporo by train (the line goes along the coast for much of the way with some nice views) with glowing reviews in the guide books. Maybe it’s because the day we went was grey but I didn’t think it was all that, although our morning there was perfectly pleasant. I think part of the problem was the town’s main attraction is its canal. It’s a nice canal. Maybe to the Japanese or people from other parts of the world it would be more impressive but my friend and I are European. We’re used to going on holiday in France and Italy and, to be honest, the canals there are nicer and often less crowded with tourists. That being said, Italy doesn’t have the excellent sushi we enjoyed for our lunch in Otaru. The town also has a great reputation for glassware and my friend bought some lovely ornaments in a cute little glass shop.

Sapporo Town
Our flight back to Tokyo was at 7pm to fit in as much as possible, but obviously we didn’t want to stray too far so we decided to spend our final day exploring Sapporo town. There’s a lot to see.
2016-07-11-11-20-52The Clock tower is a symbol of Sapporo so you basically have to visit. It’s an attractive structure and inside there’s an interesting museum about the history of the building which gives an insight into Sapporo’s history as an international city.

2016-07-11-14-26-44Odori park is where Sapporo’s famous snow festival takes place but it’s also beautiful in the summer with lovely flowers, fountains and a great view of the Sapporo TV tower (which we didn’t have time to go up).

If someone hasn’t already written a post-apocalyptic novel of survivors retreating to the subways of Sapporo and building a new life underground they should. The subways are expansive; we realised we could have walked 90% of the 25 minute walk to our hostel entirely underground. I admit it took us a while to find it, but there is a lot of really cool quirky art hidden underground that you can see for free.

15403153_10155572164693327_277762373_nWe had passed the Former Hokkaido Government Building on our walks and enjoyed the gardens so we decided to check out the inside too. It’s free entry and as well as looking at the pretty old architecture, you can check out various exhibits about the history of Hokkaido. Most interestingly there was an exhibition on the Kuril Islands/Northern territories dispute, which I had been completely ignorant about beforehand. This was all the more interesting because it was extremely politically charged, going as far as to have a petition at the end of the exhibition demanding that the ‘northern territories should be returned to Japan.’

Hokkaido shrine has a serene atmosphere not always found at the famous Tokyo shrines. This could be because it’s situated a bit apart from the city, clothed by Maruyama park. The forested approach to the shrine with the sunlight shining through the trees was really atmospheric for us. The shrine was the final place we visited before getting on the plane, a peaceful ending to a trip we’ll remember for a long time.
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Even though it was only 5 days long my trip to Hokkaido was one of the best holidays in my life. A literal breath of fresh air from the stress and humidity of Tokyo, one of those trips that gives you a new appetite for life. Snow festival this time next year?

Visiting a rural JET friend in Noto

I quit my English teaching job to teach music but when I was an English teacher it struck me how different the ‘English teaching in Japan’ gig can be depending on the situation. I’m glad I live in Tokyo because it would be difficult to do my new job elsewhere and I like being in a place where there are lot’s of opportunities and lots going on, but to be honest sometimes it feels very similar to my lifestyle when I lived in London. Huge capital cities are kind of the same in a way.

I sometimes envy my friends who are living in remote areas of Japan, for having a more unique experience than mine. The way they can become truly immersed and how participate in their area’s local culture is really quite special. A friend on the JET Programme lives in a tiny village on the Noto peninsula in Ishikawa prefecture. No I didn’t know where that is either, but when he invited me to visit him I thought it was best to find out.

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A kotatsu is a heater you curl up under in the winter and it’s great. Unfortunately my friend didn’t provide the cats. Photocredit: buzz net news

It turns out the Noto peninsula is vaguely near Kanazawa. Well, Kanazawa was where we took the night bus to, then it was another two hours to my friend’s house. There are several differences between the life of a country JET and mine. Firstly, while my boyfriend and I share in a perfectly nice but boring and small apartment my friend has a gorgeous traditional Japanese house to himself. I particularly enjoyed experiencing his built in kotatsu for the first time. Honestly, if I had had one of those I probably wouldn’t move so maybe it’s for the best. What also really struck me was the warmth and friendliness of the local community. Everywhere we went people knew who my friend was and greeted him warmly. Their generosity extended to us to – we were even given a bottle of Noto sake for free! Some people have the stereotype that Japanese people are insular and unfriendly but honestly I think this speaks more for Tokyo than anywhere else.

It rained the whole weekend we were there, proof that traveling can not always go your way, but we still had a great time. I spent a lot of my childhood holidays climbing wet hills in Wales so I’m pretty much steeled against rain by now. The countryside in Noto was  beautiful and the sushi was absolutely fantastic. My favourite part of the weekend was attending a late night festival on the waterfront. I’ve no idea what the symbolism of it was but there were these huge floats and they were not only paraded but also crashed into each other, while the bearers where chanting at the top of their voices (the video should give you some idea). I love finding these pockets of Japanese culture.

 

Sometimes you just to unplug yourself from the city a bit. I enjoyed experiencing Noto and fully intend to go back there for its famous Fire and Violence festival in 2017!

 

Rikugien Gardens in 2016

I love Japanese gardens. In my first few days in Japan when I was jet lagged and frantically house hunting I found refuge in Kiyosumi Gardens near the hotel where I was staying. I’d recommend nearly all of the traditional landscape gardens in Tokyo – for a few hundred yen you can have a respite from city life and breathe in hundreds of years of Japanese culture and appreciation for nature.

My favourite garden has to be Rikugien. I first went on the recommendation of a school friend in February and loved it so much I’ve been back several times this year. It’s been a pleasure to see it in different seasons. The gardens were built around 1700 and Rikugien literally mean ‘six poem gardens.’ Accordingly, 88 spots in the garden reference Chinese history and famous Japanese waka poems. Of course I don’t get any of the references, but the idea is so charming.

2016-02-18 12.16.10.jpgIn February one of my oldest friends was kind enough to come to Tokyo for me. Proactive as ever, she came with a list of things she wanted to do and as Rikugien was relatively easy to get to it was one of the first places we went to. As a Brit, it still surprises me how dry and sunny Tokyo winters are despite being almost as cold as London. This day was typical and the garden felt a little barren but somehow serene and tasteful.

 

 

 

 

2016-03-26-11-57-23The next time I went to Rikugien was when my family came to visit in the spring. We’d just had some bad news that had really shaken us so it was nice to be together. We went to Rikugien just as the cherry blossoms were starting to bloom so everything was a lot greener and more fresh than in February. I seem to remember that I took them there just before we left to go to Kyoto and they got more excited after having a taste of Japanese culture.

 

 

 

Along came May and I thought Rikugien was the perfect place to drag yet another group of visiting Brits. The gardens were a lot more colourful and vibrant this time around and I really enjoyed the flowers. One of my favourite things about Rikugien is that there is a traditional tea house by the pond where you can really drink up the essence of the garden and I have happy memories of sitting there with my friends in May.

 

After taking yet another group of visiting friends in early Autumn my poor boyfriend was a bit fed up. “You go to this garden with literally everyone except me!” So on a sunny day in November we went to enjoy the beginnings of the autumn leaves together. This was a few days before I left Tokyo to go for medical treatment in London and I was filled with a lot of complicated feelings about leaving the city I love during this beautiful season.

 

 

Izu without onsens

On the last day of my friends Megan Valentine and Tomas Eduardo‘s visit to Japan we wanted to do the token ‘day in the Japanese countryside’ with them. My boyfriend and I had already done Okutama, Tochigi and Gunma on our hirecar adventures so Izu was next on our list.

Problem: Izu is a byword for onsen and my illness has made that a no-go for now. Varying levels of fitness in the group also made serious walks potentially tricky. So if you only have a day in Izu and you can’t do onsens and climb mountains, what can you do? A lot it turns out.

After a beautiful drive, first stop was Izu Panorama Park, where you can get a cable car up a mountain to enjoy breathtaking views. I’ve been told my spirit animal is a cat and I certainly love being in high places, so this is pure pleasure for me. We were lucky with the weather and had a clear view of Mt Fuji! There’s a buffet deal at the bottom cable car station but I would recommend forgoing that in favour of the simple but tasty noodle restaurant at the top. Definitely food with a view.

 

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Yes that’s Mt Fuji poking it’s head over the mountains.

Once you’re done slurping soba or sipping tea, there are paths with various routes you can take depending on how much time you have, with a shrine, an orange farm and several other points of interest. We needed to get to our next stop so unfortunately we had to get the cable car down after a quick wander. I slightly regretted that we didn’t come a few weeks later when the autumn leaves were in full swing in the mountain paths, but they were still lovely. If memory serves, a return trip up the cable car will cost you around 1200 yen.

 

2016-11-05-15-06-37Next stop was the lovely town of Shuzenji. The main attraction here is the gorgeous Shuzenji temple, founded by Kobo Daishi 1200 years ago. As well as founding the Shingon school of Buddhism, Kobo Daishi was has also been attributed as being an important figure in the creation of kana, which I thought was interesting. We were lucky in that the temple’s stunning chrysanthemum flowers were in full bloom. As well as the temple there is a shrine, traditional houses and charming shops and cafes on the town high street. We had matcha and mochi in a delightful little tea room with a lovely view of the river. And it turns out we didn’t have to miss out on the onsen experience after all! Shuzenji has an ashiyu or foot bath where you can enjoy putting your legs in the onsen without fully submerging yourself, which was fine for my health condition. The bath’s name is Tokko no Yu and it’s apparently the oldest hot spring in Izu.  You can relax with your feet in the warm, health giving water on the banks of the river, and it’s completely free.

The only downside to our trip was that we were limited in how much we could do and how long we could stay at places because we needed to get the car back by 8.30. Life is busy for everyone all the time and sometimes it’s hard to spare more than a day to get away, but I’m glad I made the time for this sublime adventure in Izu.

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Arriving in Japan

It’s raining. As if to welcome me, the forecast in Tokyo for the next couple of days is thunderstorms.

Apart from that though, everything has gone very smoothly and I’m feeling pretty good 🙂 My dad drove me to Heathrow and I flew at 7.30pm. It’s a 12 hour flight and Japan is 8 hours ahead of British summertime so for someone like me who can’t sleep on planes this seems to be working well jet lag wise. I lost a day, as you do when traveling east, and arrived at 3.15pm local time by which time I had been awake for 24 hours. I managed to stay awake for 7 more hours and then I was tired enough to actually fall asleep at the right time and only wake up a couple of times in the night.

I have to say, the offering of films on the flight was pretty poor. After I couldn’t take any more Big Bang Theory, I was reduced to watching The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2 and I must be more emotional about this whole ‘not coming home for a year thing’ than I realised because I actually teared up at one point. At the other end, I was anxious about customs. A part of me was convinced that they were going to say that there’s been a mistake and I wasn’t going to be allowed into the country after all. Some stern faced customs official was going to yell at me in Japanese I didn’t understand and order me back where I came from. Unsurprisingly, this didn’t happen. Actually the process was pretty efficient, though my broken finger held up taking my fingerprints a bit.

My boyfriend was waiting for me at arrivals, he’s been staying with his family in Saitama for a week trying to find us somewhere to live. Our romantic greeting was hindered somewhat by a boy band that I had managed not to notice were on my flight and their entourage. I have no idea who they are, but they must be fairly famous as they had quite a crowd of Japanese girls waiting for them, blocking me and my luggage trolley.

Thankfully we could get a coach from the airport to the hotel my company have put me in, as taking my two massive suitcases on the metro would have been a nightmare. It seems to be very much a ‘business hotel,’ the room is small and my luggage pretty much takes up all of the floor but it’s comfy and everything works so I’m happy. It was yummy but a bit strange eating fish and rice for breakfast, I also felt very female and gaijin amongst all the salary men having their morning coffee.

Fish, rice and soup seems to be a standard breakfast in Japan - no cereal for me
Fish, rice and soup seems to be a standard breakfast in Japan – no cereal for me

I’m chilling in my hotel now, later on I have to go into work for a meeting & then apartment hunting!

It’s real: I’m moving to Japan in August

Last week, I sent off my application for Visa pre-approval. As long as everything goes smoothly, I will move to Tokyo in August.

I have known this was the plan for a while, having received a job offer to teach English in January. However, I have been insanely busy with my dissertation, working and performing and so I haven’t had the time to either proactively chase the paperwork or think about what ‘moving to Japan’ really meant.

I’ve always been interested in Japan. As you could tell from my performance at London Anime Gaming Con, I’ve always been a bit of an anime fan. Sorry. I was lucky enough to go to one of the only comprehensives in the country which offers Japanese at GCSE so I got to study the language at school and go on a homestay with Keio Chutobu, a middle school in Tokyo. I loved learning the language and picked it up again whilst at University.

And now I arrive at the end of a four year degree and I’m not quite ready to enter the ‘real world’ just yet. For my year in industry (I did a four year sandwich course) I worked in classical music PR and I work part time in Marketing now so it’s not that I have no office experience, or that (if I’m honest) I doubt my ability to get some kind of graduate job. It’s just that, before I get serious about the rest of my career, I want to take some time to travel. I don’t want to ‘see the world’ if that means spending a year lying on beaches and getting trashed at ‘Moon Parties’ gap yah style. I couldn’t afford to do that regardless, and it seems a bit meaningless really; I went interrailing for a month almost two years ago and although I enjoyed it very much, by the end I was yearning to be productive, as lame as it sounds. To be sure, there are far worse ways to blow your money and I don’t hold those people who want to travel around forever in contempt, I just wouldn’t want to feel like ‘just’ a consumer, producing nothing. In this way, teaching English for a year is perfect. I can work in a job that is neither extremely boring nor as stressful and time consuming as the kind of graduate job I aspire to. I can stay long enough to make Japanese friends and learn something meaningful about the biggest city in the world. And while I’m there, I can see more of Japan and South East Asia. Hopefully, when I get back in I won’t be in a worse position to get a graduate job, maybe even better.

Saying hello to one of Nara's sacred deer when I visited my boyfriend during his year abroad, March 2013
Saying hello to one of Nara’s sacred deer when I visited my boyfriend during his year abroad, March 2013

I’ll admit, there is another push factor. My boyfriend of 3 years studied BA Japanese and wants to be a translator. To do this, he needs to spend some time living and working in Japan after he finishes his degree, to get his Japanese up to scratch and also get the cultural knowledge he needs to translate effectively. We did long distance when he was in Japan for his year abroad and though we survived it and I genuinely do think it made us stronger, it wasn’t easy. Fitting my own career plans around my boyfriend’s does offend my feminist sensibilities and is a significant blight on my record of being ambitious and self-interested. I am aware that moving across the world to be with your boyfriend is not ‘what sensible girls do’ and I probably wouldn’t be doing it if I didn’t also have the aforementioned interest in Japan and desire to travel. From a practical point of view, it will be great to be able to rely on my boyfriend’s excellent Japanese and experience living in the country (though of course I tend to work hard on my Japanese so as not to be dependent on him). From an emotional point of view, I don’t want to be without him. N’aaawww.

The more I’m thinking about it, the more I think this is the right decision for me but I am unashamed to admit that I am scared. It might not be a big deal for some people to live abroad for a year, but it is for me. I am happy to say that I have gotten closer to my family over the last couple of years and it will be difficult to be so far away from them. I hugely value my friendships and it was hard enough to be without a close knit circle to begin with when I moved to London for a year; there are individuals who I will miss tremendously when I am in Japan. However, it is undeniable that my feet are itching. I have enjoyed my three years in Leeds and my year in London but it’s time to experience something different. Hopefully, this blog can be a way for me to share my Japan adventures.

I was lucky enough to see some Sakura on my visit two years ago
I was lucky enough to see some Sakura on my visit two years ago