On Saturday January 17th, around 7pm, I went to a bookstore in Seoul to buy the Lonely Planet guide to Japan, later that night, at around 11pm, I booked a hostel room for Sunday. This, along with buying an airplane ticket and exchanging some money one week before was all the planning that went into my two week trip to Japan.
On Sunday January 18th, my friend Greg and I arrived to Japan terrified (well, I was terrified, at least). We were in a foreign country with no planning. All I knew about traveling in Japan I read on the bus to the airport and on the airplane. Because of lousy exchange rates and last minute planning, I knew this trip would be expensive. I also figured it would be pretty bad because we didn’t know what to see. Thankfully, my outlook changed as soon as we got on the metro for Tokyo. I started talking to a Western lady sitting next to me and soon we were talking to a Japanese lady to my left. The Japanese lady helped us with directions and gave us a few good Japanese words to help us. Interestingly, we met with Western couple a few more times over the next few days purely by chance. They were a very nice, well traveled couple heading to Bangkok for a wedding.
Our time in Tokyo, our first stop, was mainly split between visiting the Asakusa area and checking out a real-life sumo match. Imagine that! We just happened to be in the right neighborhood at the right time to see a tournament that happens three times a year! The Asakusa area is really beautiful. There’s a good mix of what you’d expect in a large Japanese city without it being overwhelming. Temples, parks and lakes on one end and neon, markets and high-rises on the other. It’s all there.
After staying in Tokyo for a few nights, we decided to head to Kyoto for a bit. Taking the overnight bus because we didn’t buy a JR pass (passes that allow unlimited rain travel for a set period of time, but we were too last minute and they’re very expensive) and to save on one night’s accommodations. We got in at 6am, tired and disoriented to a drizzly Kyoto. Our original intent was to stay in Kyoto for 2 nights, but we ended up stay for 4. Kyoto is amazing. For a huge city (1.5 million people ), it has somehow kept its charm without compromising its functionality. For me, the best way to explore this city is on bike. Since it’s mainly flat, you can cruise around all day, check out temples and markets, and not be too tired at night. I realize this is starting to sound like a travel book pitch for Kyoto, but I can’t overemphasize how great it is.
After our stay in Kyoto we took the train to Nara. This smaller town 1 hour from Kyoto doesn’t offer as much but it has plenty of charm, nature and historical value. Nara was Japan’s first capital city and is now overrun by deer. Seriously. There are deer everywhere. If you like deer, a relaxed Japanese city and nature, Nara might be your place. We took a free tour of the city for our first day there (there’s really only one day of stuff to see) and on the second, we hung out with our tour guide and her friend. That was one of our main objectives in Japan; to hang out with Japanese people. So that was super cool.
After Nara, we went to Osaka. I’m not really sure why we went. Personally, I wanted to see a friend from University, but that didn’t happen. Instead, we hung out with two guys from Kuwait and their Japanese friend, so it was fun all the same. While Osaka has a really nice castle and is a great place if you want to do some shopping, I doubt I’d go again. I’d recommend spending more time in Kyoto instead, but that’s just me.
Finally, after touring those three cities, we went back to Tokyo for our last 2 nights. Taking the midnight bus again, we got to Tokyo on Friday morning. Our last days were pretty relaxed. Basically hung out with my Japanese friend on Friday and Saturday and then on Sunday, before leaving, we went to see cosplay in Harajuku. Cosplay makes me super uncomfortable. Cosplay is short for costume play and is when people dress up in elaborate/fantastic outfits, hang out and pose while people take pictures of them(that’s how I’d describe what we saw). It was neat and I’ll admit some of the costumes were really good, but for whatever reason, people dressed as sexy goth vampire bopeeps makes me feel a bit strange.
Anyway, that’s essentially what we did for two weeks. It was great.