Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Japan 1: meet the parents

And so I said goodbye to the beautiful and endearing Myanmar and welcomed a whole new and interesting world of Japan that I was about to enter. After 20 hours in transit including two flights and a 12 hour stop over I had arrived in Osaka tired, but very excited especially as I was to be welcomed by my parents who I hadn’t seen in over 7 months!
Stepping out of Myanmar and entering Japan was like jumping into the future. Japan is so much different from the rest of South East Asia. It is a culture shock when you first arrive. For me it became a reminder of how lucky we are in the western world compared to those countries that aren’t as fortunate as ours. It was the little things that made it obvious to me. Cushions on the seat of the trains, phones in everyone's hands, headphones hanging from everyone’s ears.

The trains are spotless. You could eat off the floor of one if you wanted. No graffiti, no chewing gum squished in between the cracks of the seats, no tears in the fabric of the cushions, no half eaten hamburger squished on the floor or noisy school children holding up the train by sticking lemons in the doors as they were trying to close (true story). Urban paradise. Most of the time wherever you want to visit is only a short walk away from any form of public transport whether it be the underground subway, the train line or the bus service. No wonder many people don’t have cars, it is more of an inconvenience to own one then to catch public transport right to the front door of your office.

On my first night I was lucky enough to be shown around Osaka by our good friends (and Osaka locals) Shige and Veronica where they introduced me to the amazing Okonomiyaki, a cabbage noodle savoury pancake. Delicious! 
Okonomiyaki- a savoury pancake made with noodles.
The next day we left for Kyoto where I was lucky enough to travel by Shinkansen. Shinkansen are also known as bullet trains and can reach speeds up to 300km per hour! This is a fantastic way to travel the large distances between the major cities in Japan.  The train ride took so little time and it was so smooth. The amazing rail system in Japan is said to be the best in the world with metro lines underground subways and shinkansens and I'd have to agree. The trains are always prompt, the maps are easy to follow and there is always a station 10 mins away. The rail system helps 18.5 million people each day with peak hour trains carrying up to 3,000 people in a ten carriage train per hour!

The train journeys are very costly, but the more economical way to travel throughout Japan is the Japan rail pass. There are different deals ranging from 7-day, 14-day and 21-day passes from $360 for a 7 day pass, where you can travel most Skinkansens and local trains free with the pass. This pass is well worth the money especially if you are wanting to travel huge distances in a short travel time. There is more information here. The problem with the pass is that you must get it before arriving in Japan, as it is restricted only for foreigners. Unfortunately, as I was in Myanmar I was not able to get my Japan rail pass before arriving in Japan as there were no tourist shops providing that service in the country.  Instead I enjoyed hours and hours of travel on various forms of transport including overnight buses, local trains, hitch hiking, ferries, trams and cycling.

The colourful markets of Japan selling fresh produce

Fushimi-Inari Taisha. Shrine complex dedicated to the Gods of Rice and Sake. The thousands of tori line up for 4 kms.
I was lucky enough to spend the next week with my parents sightseeing in Kyoto, Tokyo and Mt Fuji hosted by our good friend Kazue and her gorgeous family. They kindly cleared out a room in their cosy Japanese style apartment in the outskirts of Tokyo and put their lives on hold (literally) for the next few days to show us around town. With the two little ones in tow we managed to see the imperial palace, Tokyo Zoo, Akasura Temple, Lake Ashi, Hakone and the highlight Mt Fuji.

Temple in the rain
Waking up nice an early we loaded the kids in the car and set off for the little town Hakone eager to catch a glimpse of the famous Mt Fuji. We arrived slightly disappointed at the cloud cover that obscured our view of Mt Fuji, but still impressed by the amazing calm, green scenery Hakone had to offer and were more than happy to relax beside Hakone's beautiful lake overlooking the city nearby. And good thing we did as after an hour had passed the clouds surrounding Mt Fuji parted as though curtains were opening to unveil the beautiful mountain behind it. Certainly a sight to remember.

After a sad goodbye with Kazue and her family our next stop was the little town of Shirakawa-go. This little town charms you at first glance. It is nestled nicely in a little valley surrounded by mountains shaking off the last snow from the winter. It is famous for its old A-frame houses called gasshō-zukuri and has turned this little town of a population of almost 1,800 people into a popular tourist destination, and from the photos you can certainly see why. Here is more information. 

Whilst this little town is mainly a day-trip tourist stop, we were lucky enough to stay at a very nice ryokan for the night. Ryokans are accommodation in Japan and usually come with traditional style tatami mat rooms where you make your own bed from the comfy mattresses provided, then once finished sleeping you roll it up and have space for your breakfast. Quite often yukata, traditional Japanese robes, are provided and you bathe in communal bathes with the other guests from the ryokan.

Ryokans can also provide you with traditional meals, which is a great way to try the local cuisine, enjoying the food with some locals, the traditional way. Here is more information. 


Before and after the feast

After a relaxing time in Shirakawago and the nearby town of Takayama it was time to say goodbye to the parents, not knowing where or when I would see them next, and time to explore Japan as a cheap solo backpacker once again. 

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