Before going to Japan I purchased a JR rail pass which basically allows you unlimited rides on JR trains all over the country, including many of the “bullet trains” (shinkansen/新幹線). I think two or three rides on a high-speed rail already equals the cost of the rail pass (of course, I did this six years ago, so things may be different now). The pass is available only to foreigners and can only be purchased while outside of Japan, so plan ahead.
Anyway, toward the end of my time in Japan I activated my rail pass and finally ventured away from Tokyo—
Before the Meiji Restoration which put the Emperor of Japan back in power, Kyoto was the capital of Japan. The city’s home of one of the Imperial Palaces (yeah, there’s more than one—the other one’s in Tokyo) as well as a whole bunch of iconic Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples. With my limited time in Kyoto, I did see the Imperial Palace in the rain and also visited a few shrines and temples.
Keeping in mind that this was in the summer and I didn’t bother going to a hot spring (definitely on my to-do list for my winter trip), my favorite place in Kyoto was the Fushimi Inari-taisha—an Inari shrine located up on a mountain (Inari Okami is the Shinto spirit of foxes and, generally, prosperity). This particular shrine requires you to hike up a mountain for about two hours to get to it and, really, it was the hike that made the experience awesome. On the way, you pass through countless orange and black gates, and other notable monuments.
Being awesome, I got lost on the way down and ended up passing by a cemetery where a handful of cats started following me around.
Fukuoka is the capital of of the Kyushu , the western/southern island. The only reason I bothered going down there in the summer was to visit my brother who was stationed at the nearby U.S. Navy base at the time. I wasn’t there for long and didn’t see anything particularly interesting, but a bit after my brother left Fukuoka to go back to base, I tried and failed to find lodgings for the night. There was some sort of holiday going on, and everything was booked.
We ended up staying up the whole night, killing a bit of time at a Yoshinoya (I love gyuudon) and some more time in the lobby of one of the no-vacancy hotels. We caught the earliest train possible out of Kyushu and to Hiroshima.
Our stop here was short. Having had only a few winks of sleep on the train, we took a look at the A-bomb Dome, and basically immediately got on another train to go to Osaka. We wanted to check out Miyajima Island (and the shrine there), but we were just too exhausted.
The first thing we did in Osaka was get a hotel room and pass out.
When we woke, we spent an inordinate amount of time looking for an okonomiyaki place (okonomiyaki is a savory “pancake”). After eating it, I decided it’s not for me. There was a bit too much mayonnaise (I think that’s what it is), and the writhing fish flakes on top was just kind of creepy (I also don’t like takoyaki—octopus balls—for the same reason). Still, I’ll probably try other variations of the dish in the future.
The highlight of Osaka was seeing Osaka Castle. It was night, so we didn’t go inside, but it looked nice with all the exterior lights on. Sadly, I apparently have no pictures of it.
I stopped here on the way up to Hokkaido (the northern island). There was a contrast between the people in the smaller town and the people in Tokyo that I just felt very strongly—not sure why.
The other notable thing in Aomori was the huge amount of garbage I saw floating in the water.
The G8 summit was held in Hakodate just a bit before I got up there. I don’t think I knew that until I arrived.
The first thing that struck me about Hakodate was the weather. Having spent two months or so in heat and insanely high humidity, the northern island of Hokkaido was refreshingly cool (probably at about 75 degrees Fahrenheit/23 degrees Celsius).
The temperature made my hours walking around the star-shaped Fort Goryokaku much more enjoyable. I’m not sure why, but most of the other tourists at the fort (and the tower beside it) were Japanese folks from other parts of Japan rather than out-of-country visitors like me.
I’ll be going back to Japan relatively soon. Looking forward to repeatedly eating ramen, sushi, gyuudon, and katsu-kare.