Me and two friends are spending the next 12 days traveling Japan. Follow along as I post each day, starting here with the first. P.S. – For you fellow photographers who are wondering, everything is shot on a 5D4 with the Canon 40mm pancake lens. So far this mighty little lens has been perfect for traveling. Much recommend.
The trip started – as most do – in an airport. After flying 10 hours to Seoul and then another couple more to Tokyo, we hopped on the train that swept us into Shibuya station, right into one of the main downtown areas of Tokyo. We had a few hours before checking into the airbnb, so we sought out a little coffee shop and hung out there for a bit.
One of the things I was very much looking forward to was the coffee and food of Japan. It’s not widely known that Japan is responsible for bringing us most of the commonplace coffee making methods we see everywhere in America. Pour overs, Chemex, all those fancy ways of making coffee are imports from here. The coffee did not disappoint.
We’re heading out to the countryside for a week, leaving the crowds of the city and the omnipresent glow of lights behind.
The morning began somewhere around 5AM. We left the Airbnb behind and sought out a temple in the middle of the city, tucked away in a huge forest right in the middle of Tokyo. It’s pretty incredible to see how big cities around the world have managed to carve out huge chunks and devote them to open space. I hope that never changes.
Jet-lag is still very real. 16 hours is no small time difference, but since it’s in the direction that causes us to wake up super early, it’s been pretty great getting an early start to the day and witnessing the city wake up along with us.
After a late breakfast, we journeyed west from Tokyo to the teeny-tiny town of Hida-Furukawa. Most of the day was spent on a train, several actually, starting with a bullet train and slowly paring down to smaller and smaller trains the farther from Tokyo we went.
We didn’t arrive in Hida until well after dark. We found our little Airbnb though and the difference between ours here in Hida and the one we left in Tokyo couldn’t be more stark – from the most miniaturized, dorm-like apartment to this very traditional and architecturally incredible home.
The day ended with dinner and a bunch of traveling Aussies. Photo cred for the last one of the day goes to them.
We knew there would be a day or two spent roaming in the rain, and today was that day. The town we arrived at last night, Hida, is a much higher elevation than Tokyo. Much colder, less traveled. The airbnb we stayed at was a traditional Japanese home, paper walls, sleeping mats and all.
Traveling in the countryside has always been my preference. Tourists are rare in parts like these. The town hums along in it’s day-to-day unimpeded by the needs of travelers. My concern for the future of travel is that the world, already so connected, will grow even more closer together culturally, culinarily, and even linguistically. That in order to find the truest representation of a culture, the farther one must range out from cities to find the places English and Starbucks fail to reach.
Today was one of those days. We left the airbnb and walked a few miles to the train station. A small platform with one tiny room crammed with chairs. Nothing like the airport-scale train stations of Tokyo. We caught a small commuter train to a larger station 30 minutes away, transferred to a bus, and headed up into the alps. (This is the point I realized there are many “alps” beyond the most familiar Swiss variety.) Our destination was the village of Shirakawa.
This little village is tucked into a quaint mountain valley; it’s houses, little vessels of a time before modernity. Thatch roofs and plank siding were all that stood between the warmth inside and the snow outside.
After roaming around the village, socks soaking wet and shoes weighed down with mud, we ended the night back in Hida in a little whiskey bar Thomas found. We read and warmed up while the rain continued it’s rhythmic beat on the tourist-free streets outside.
Today was a travel day and will probably be the smallest post for the trip. We woke up to a Hida soaked from the overnight rains and walked over to the train station; we took a longer route on the way to check out a few of the cherry blossoms that were blooming in town.
The cherry blossom season in Japan stretches from mid-March through the first week or two of April. The blooming moves south to north, and most of the places we’ve been so far have already had their season pass. It was pretty great catching a few of them before leaving and heading toward Kyoto where the blooms already happened.
We spent hours on the train, enough to make pretty decent dents in the books we were reading. I picked up a copy of Ready Player One for the trip and couldn’t be more hooked. This book is incredible.
We got to Kyoto later in the evening, with just enough time to get settled in to the new airbnb and find a place to eat in the geisha district.
Early bedtime tonight. Rising early tomorrow.
We started the day around 6AM, having been told by a fellow traveler the day before to arrive in Nara before the crowds. And oh my… they were right. We caught the 7AM train from Kyoto station and arrived at the Fushimi Inari Shrine a few minutes later. To all you thinking about traveling around Japan, get the JR Rail Pass. You basically pay one lump sum before arriving in Japan and then you can take the trains as often as you want while you’re here for free. It pays for itself in the first few days.
Back to the shrine… We made the hike through the iconic gates, about an hour or so, to a lookout above the city. The main theme of traveling in Japan is: Get places early. This country is beautiful and so worth visiting, and thankfully travelers of the world agree, but wow, there are so many people at spots like these. So get there early. Traveling from the west makes it easy since the jet lag (16 hours…) is working for us in that direction.
After the shrine, we made our way down the hill toward the train station, found an awesome little street full of vendors. One guy was making sweet potatoes. They were delicious.
We hopped back on the train and head over to Nara. Free-roaming deer welcomed us, especially Thomas, and begged for food. The most they got out of us was Thomas’ dropped ice cream.
We finished the day in Nara by visiting a centuries-old shrine with a copper Buddha the size of a five-story building. They built all of it without power tools. Mind. Blown.
Tomorrow, more Kyoto and a reading day.
Day three traveling around Kyoto started with the now ritualistic walk to the station. The city felt fresh, new, warm even, with the sun cracking between skyscrapers. Commuters milled about making their way to work while we made our way to the forest. A bus took us about 30 minutes northeast to a small corner of Kyoto, near the outskirts where city transitions to wilderness.
We found good coffee (not difficult), roamed through a bamboo forest, and attempted to bring home a live souvenir (difficult). This country is incredible and continues to offer up some incredible landscapes.
The day ended with reading, a smidgen of work, more coffee, and rest.
Tomorrow, Hiroshima and our last day in Kyoto.
Day 7 was a heavy day.
I think it hit me more than Tom and Zach; I couldn’t help thinking about what it would’ve been like on August at 8:14 AM. One minute before the first nuclear bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, vaporizing everything within miles. A husband having just bought flowers for his wife and rushing home from a nightshift to surprise her. A group of kids headed to class. Bakers pulling their first batches from the oven. Businessmen running to catch a train. A woman who just gave birth experiencing the first and only minute of being a mother. All gone in a flash.
To this ISFJ, day 7 was a heavy day.
We set out early and caught the morning train from Kyoto to Hiroshima, arriving about an hour later. We took a bus downtown to the “A-bomb dome”, which was essentially the chamber of commerce building for the city that ended up being the center of the bomb blast. It’s existence and ability to withstand a hit of that magnitude is a testament to the engineering of buildings back then, necessitated by Japan’s existence on one of the most active earthquake zones in the world. It was one of only a few dozen buildings that remained somewhat recognizable after the bomb went off and was left as a reminder to the world about the terror of weapons like these.
After spending a couple hours roaming around the Peace Memorial Park and A-Bomb Museum, we caught the train another hour farther to catch sunset on a small island with a particularly interesting temple and shrine. Between the train and ferry, Tom and I found a little coffee shop that was both a much needed cup of coffee, and a little reminder of the kind of coffee I crave back home.
The night ended with the boat ride to the island, a few quick photos and watching one of the first actual sunsets we’ve been able to see on this trip. No skyscrapers or clouds stood between us and the horizon.
Tomorrow, back to Tokyo and the Shinjuku neighborhood.
Today was a travel day back to Tokyo. There’s a lovely little coffee shop just down the street from our Kyoto airbnb that Tom and I stopped at on the way to the train station. Oh it shall be missed. If you’re even in Kyoto, Kurasu is the name of it.
I love so so so many things about this country, but if I could only take one thing back home and install it into America, it would hands down be the bullet trains. During this entire trip, they’ve allowed us to freely and quickly go the all over Japan, covering distances like LA to San Francisco in under 3 hours. We need them.
The rest of the day was spend doing pretty much nothing for a few hours. Reading, catching up on emails, reading. Finally we ventured out into the glow of the city and found a teeny tiny alleyway reminiscent of how Japan pre-war would’ve been like. Food stalls crowded together with entryways so low we had to duck. Menu? Meat and whiskey. All of them. Meat. Whiskey.
Heart thee, Japan.