Before I start this week’s recap, an important aside. I just found out that my grandpa reads our blog. I just wanted to give Don a shout out: hey Goong-Goong! Anyways, after a month of living in Tokyo it was time for us to pack our bags and hit the road. The next week was filled with A LOT of travel. We wanted to explore more of Japan before we settled down in Kyoto for the next three weeks. Our line up was: Nagano, Shirakawa, Osaka, and Naoshima. I can tell you this much, I am so glad we chose a slow approach to travel for the year. This fast travel that we did for only a week was exhausting. We stayed in each city for a night (except for Osaka, we stayed there two nights) and then the next day we would leave bright and early to catch a train to our next destination. Here are our top 5 favorite memories of this past week:
Last Days in Tokyo
Do you like the sound of drinking beer in a quaint little bar with a bunch of rowdy friends? Then Golden Gai is the place for you! To celebrate our last night in Tokyo (sad face ☹️) we went to the famous drinking alleyways of Golden Gai where there are 300 different bars to choose from in just 4 or 5 small blocks. All of the bars are super cozy and most can only fit 5-10 people inside. We went early in the night so it was pretty quiet. We wandered around until we ducked into a karaoke bar called One Coin Bar Champion. I’ve heard how hard core the karaoke scene is in Japan but haven’t witnessed it first hand yet. Let me just say it does not disappoint! There was the good, the bad, and the downright terrible singers all ready to belt their hearts out. A great way to start the night. Next bar we went to was equally entertaining. The amount of bars to choose from can be overwhelming and a lot of the ones we wanted to check out weren’t open just yet. We randomly chose a bar called Not Suspicious located up some stairs above another bar. The name of the bar was misleading. Once we entered we saw that the bar only had room for about nine people and was completely full. Turning away we were stopped by the bartender dressed as a monk who ushered us BEHIND the bar to stand and drink. Definitely suspicious. It ended up being a grand ole time and we made friends with other fellow travelers there. We discovered that the bartender dressed as a monk was indeed an actual monk. He said that since most monks come from wealthy families they are able to live off of their families income. Unfortunately he had no family income and had to secretly bartends on the side. Gotta respect a hustling undercover monk.
Fairy Tale Villages
Imagine a picture-perfect fairytale village. Wooden houses, little farms with animals happily frolicking about, beautiful mountains, a babbling river... Shirakawa has all of these things and more. All that is missing is a Disney princess who can talk to forest animals. Known for it’s A-frame thatched roof houses, it takes a whole village to construct one home! Most people come here as a day-trip but staying the night is definitely the way to go. We got to explore the village at night and in the early morning when it was totally empty and we felt like we had it all to ourselves. Definitely not the case at 10AM when approximately a billion tourists roll in on tour buses.
Freezing to Death in Monkey Town
We came for the monkeys that like to soak in hot springs and we left frozen and monkey-less. Located in the center of Japan, the town of Yamanouchi is considered the place to get your onsen on. They have hot springs coming out of the wazoo here and the whole town has some serious Spirited Away vibes. Narrow roads and alleyways reveal little mini onsens scattered throughout the town. Each mini onsen is dedicated to some sort of ailment that can be relieved by soaking in that particular bath. Humans are not the only ones who enjoy the magical qualities of a good soak. The famous onsen loving macaque monkeys also pamper themselves in the hot springs at the nearby Jigokudani Wild Monkey Park. We set off from our hostel on the 40 min hike up the mountain to check out these furry guys. When we left, it was overcast but otherwise a pleasant day. By the time we got to the park’s entrance however, it had started to pour rain. The park workers informed us there were no monkeys that day! All of a sudden the temperature dropped and the rain/wind really began to pick up and being the dummies that we are, we didn’t pack any layers. Soaked to the bone and with no monkeys in sight, we called it quits and called a taxi to take us back down the mountain. It was a huge bummer but maybe one day we will be able to go back and see them!
Deer Here, Deer There, Deer Everywhere
A popular attraction in the city of Nara, just outside of Osaka, are the Nara deer (aka the polite bowing deer). These deer roam freely all over the gigantic Nara Park and were once considered so sacred that you would be put to death if you harmed one. Now they are just seen as one of Japan’s national treasures and visitors come from all over to hang with Bambi. It was super cool to check out, they are literally EVERYWHERE. They have the run of the place and end up in some of the most unusual places (shops, bathrooms, etc). You can purchase specially made deer crackers to feed them and they will gently take it out of your hands. Except for the males, they get aggressive when they find out you have deer treats. I learned this the hard way. I purchased some crackers and started to feed a doe when a bossy stag came over and totally took over. If I didn’t feed him fast enough he would pull at my dress and sweater freaking me out. I was basically cornered by him waiting for a stop light to turn red so I could make a dash to the opposite side. The hangry deer ate almost all of my crackers and made sure that no others could come over. Asshole. Finally, I was able to escape him and from then on, anytime I had crackers, I would be careful to hide from the stags so they wouldn’t bully me. Turns out deer can be jerks too.
Osaka, the Austin of Japan
Put Osaka on your “must travel to” list. Although overshadowed by the modern design of Tokyo and the historical sites in Kyoto, Osaka has a personality all its own. The best analogy that we came up with was that Osaka is the Austin of Japan. Considered to be more nitty-gritty, Osaka is fun, funky, vibrant and is a foodies paradise. Nicknamed “Japan’s kitchen”, the cheap delicious foods found all over the city make it worth the train ride out. The downtown sections of Osaka feel like you’ve been dropped onto the set of the movie Blade Runner. Huge advertisements in LED lights light up every building in the Dotonbori area. It’s jam-packed with people strolling around its canals admiring the lights and taking hundreds of selfies. Not to mention the amazing smell of foods waft through the air from the street vendors selling things like takoyaki (minced octopus in a dough ball). Speaking of food; we met up with a friend of mine from Texas for lunch at a popular sushi place near our apartment. If you blinked, you might miss Harukoma if it weren’t for the long lines that always seem to be outside its doors. The sushi was cheap and so delicious with generous portions of fish. The whole meal came to about $27 for the three of us...I’d eat there every day if I could! Another must-eat spot would be in the Shin Sekai area. Who doesn’t like deep fried skewers of meat/veggies? Also known as Kushikatsu, you’ll find a whole bunch of that here. Even better are the beer vending machines all over the city. Yes, you read that right, beer vending machines. Apparently, they are being phased out in Tokyo, but in Osaka they are still going strong. Thank goodness for us. At about $2.50 per beer, you can take a casual stroll around the neighborhood drinking your Asahi or Strong Zero (aka the Japanese Four Loco). Kampai!!