Well… why not Japan?
I’ve been wanting to go back since my last visit in April 2019. I had been dreaming of going for years, and when we arrived it soon became a place I knew I’d fall in love with. With everything that has happened over the last couple of years the inability to travel only made me want to go more.
The more things start to fall into place for my upcoming trip, the more I find myself reflecting on my past one. The things we did, the places we saw, would it still be as much fun on my own?
Josh and I went for 16 days, with a brief stop-over in Rome on the way there. There is a comfort to having someone with you at every step of a journey like that. Especially once you learn how not to step on each other’s toes and you look out for each other – able to notice the first signs of tiredness or hanger. You develop a rhythm that really allows your travels to turn into an adventure. To spur each other on to get up at the crack of dawn to go see the Fushimi Inari Shrine before it swarms with tourists. To build the confidence to try new foods and order off a menu with no English, only pictures.
The more I recall, the more I wonder – will I still be as brave to try new things when I’m on my own? Will the company of strangers inspire just as much courage? How long will a 12-hour flight feel when you don’t know the person sitting next to you?
But all these worries melt away in the face of one question – is that a reason not to go? Of course not.
What I am hoping to do now (visa allowing) will be an entirely different experience – going for 4/5 weeks instead of 16 days. Those 16 days were spent on the move, continuously exploring, and starting in Tokyo – we had planned our own golden route.
Most of my 4/5 weeks will be spent studying Japanese in Kyoto, and the last week will be a guided tour going Tokyo -> Nikko -> Kyoto. I have booked through Global Work & Travel, with a few things to iron out – flights should be confirmed within the next week and the visa process starts a little closer to my leaving date of October 1st.
Follow along as I reminisce on my past trip, plan my upcoming one, find inspiration and make artwork along the way.
Find me on Instagram @hollymrichards
I read somewhere in all the guidance for the flights and preparing to go home, that I need to be at the airport 3 hours before my flight. Which is at 7:10, so 4am I made sure I was here.
I booked a room for myself, Maria and Joe to stay at the hotel that’s connected to the airport. We explored Osaka as my last day in Japan and chilled out at the hotel we bought snacks and just relaxed watching Japanese TV. And sort of slept at like 1:30am. So I’m running off about 2 hours sleep, but the shower this morning was incredibly helpful in waking me up.
Maria is still in bed but woke up to say goodbye and Joe came across to the airport with me to make sure I got sorted properly. (Isn’t he just amazing) And we arrived to everything being slightly closed. Other than the konbini and McDonald’s (which is where we are now sat as I drink an iced tea). We can’t find any guidance anywhere about when the counters open but there are more passengers slowly arriving. And people already here asleep when we arrived. Definitely in the right terminal and I know what gate my flight is from so as soon as things open I’m raring to go.
Well… Not raring. It still doesn’t feel real that I’m leaving Japan. Which is perhaps what’s allowed me to take all the challenges in stride to get here. In one transfer between moving house one of the wheels on my suitcase case broke, I was fairly certain it wouldn’t be a huge problem but a slight pain. Yesterday late morning Maria came to my shared house and helped me get myself and my luggage to Osaka. This involved a 20 minute walk to Nijo Station. I took my big case, and Maria took my smaller one. Two of the wheels of the big case just deteriorated over the course of that walk.
But we managed to get to Kyoto Station. Where i discovered that my ICOCA card that I had just topped up and used, was missing. Essentially it’s a contactless card to pay for bus and train fare and I’d managed to drop it or lose it within 15 mins. But all in stride, spoke to the staff at the station and got a replacement. No big deal.
Then as we readied ourselves to get on the the train to Osaka, I lifted the case and the handle snapped. I remember thinking to myself ‘so it’s going to be that sort of day is it’ and we managed to manhandle ourselves onto the train. It was a bit more of a challenge but we got to Osaka station and stored all our bags in the lockers there. Ready to go explore. And made the decision that if at all possible I would buy a new suitcase.
I told Joe that he absolutely does not need to wait with me any longer, I’m settled, writing my blog, I’m in place and ready. So he’s gone back to the hotel to sleep. Fortunately for the two of them the check out isn’t until 12. By which time I will be 2 and half hours into my long haul flight to London. So I’ve now said goodbye to all my wonderful new friends with promises to meet in the future, either back in Japan or home in the UK.
Back to yesterday’s adventures. We arrived and Osaka Station is huge. Not as overwhelming as Kyoto Station, but the vibe of the city was noticeably different. Mostly due to all the skyscrapers. Joe came to meet us at the station by which time we’d managed to source a selection of different street food.
We started walking in the general direction of dotonburi, knowing it was ‘the’ place to explore in Osaka when short on time. It also had the added bonus of a recommended luggage shop. Joe has been in Osaka for the last week so we spent our walk catching up with him, what he’s been up to, how we’ve been, what Osaka is like and how it compares to Kyoto. And we came to a main discussion point – there’s not as much to do in Osaka, Kyoto has so much history and so many shrines that I could live there for another 6 weeks and still maybe not see it all. So for Joe, living in Osaka was more relaxed because you’re not always trying to do something or see something, you can just exist and feel a little less like a tourist.
This point was made more obvious as we walked for at least half an hour before getting the subway, maybe more and we didn’t come across a single shrine or temple. Which you just can’t do in Kyoto.
Dotonburi is almost a world away from the other places we’ve been. There’s so much packed into a small place and yet it’s sprawling too. So much street food, shops, neon signs.
We explored and got some takoyaki. Which i still can’t decide if I like it or not, but the others love and I was assured that it was the best takoyaki that Maria’s had. Then we set off to find the luggage shop, so it was one thing not to worry about. The only hard thing was that google maps does not like orienting properly in Osaka, so it was a bit of a challenge actually getting there but we made it!
I managed to find a case for a reasonable price and then it was even cheaper as I didn’t have to pay tax. It seemed to be about the same size as my other case, with four, very sturdy, working wheels and a good handle. All parts attached and where they should be! Then we felt that we had deserved a drink. We had achieved our mission. And a glowing sign down the street opposite us pointed to a Hub. It was fate.
Three Brits Abroad, finally made it together to a British Style pub in Japan. Hub is a fantastic experience because it feels like home while still being uniquely Japanese. And the staff seemed to enjoy that we were from the UK. It was happy hour so we got a drink and a small plate each. Which led to us having roast beef, fish and chips and chicken and chips with chopsticks.
Afterwards we went back into the streets to explore and got ice-cream. Because why not. We were spoiling ourselves. All the time we moved from place to place we had the new suitcase in tow.
After ice-cream we went for a bit of an explore and felt the need for another drink. So headed back into the main concourse of shops trying to find something that would scratch the metaphorical itch.
We found a really cool tempura place (yes that place with the giant tempura on the outside of the shop) and went inside. We got that other drink and a few skewers to try too. The food in Osaka is sooo good.
The ANA check in desk is slowly opening and a small queue for baggage checking has formed. We’re making progress! I’m not going to join the queue until they start actually moving through. There’s going to be a lot of waiting around today and I’m in no rush to wait standing up unnecessarily. It’s been quite fascinating to watch this airport slowly wake up and come to life.
After tempura we decided to finally make our way back to Osaka station, collect our bags and make our way to the hotel. We struggled with that broken case but managed to get the train on time. The airport is quite a way out from the main centre of the city, so I found myself increasingly grateful for the on site hotel.
After checking into the hotel we went back down to grab snacks from the Lawson. And then we got changed into pajamas and I packed everything into my new case. Once settled we broke into the drinks and snacks and did a little eye mask each. It was so nice to be able to spend that time together. It felt a little like being on a school trip as teenagers.
And just like that I’m somehow all caught up.
The plan for today is to eventually check my bags for my flight. Fly from Osaka Kansei Airport to Tokyo Haneda – flight leaves at 7:10am local time and arrives at 8:15. Then a short connection time and fly direct to London Heathrow at 9:25am. The big flight is about 15 hours and I will finally land home in the UK at about 3pm (UK time) (midnight in Japan). So I am in for a long haul of a day. Plenty of time to reflect on my trip and hopefully catch up on some sleep.
First lesson this morning was a test! Which felt quite satisfying actually, I prepared the same way as last time – by drawing/painting the night before and not studying.
The rest of the lessons were great, had wonderful teachers. And then at the beginning of lunch break I headed to the staff room to give the staff the art work I’d drawn for them.
They were all really lovely and couldn’t quite believe that I’d done it. I said that I did enough for them to have one each, but no one could choose, so they mostly stood admiring. Which felt a little strange to watch but also a moment of pride as an artist.
Then we had a little graduation ceremony and my sensei from lessons today gave me my certificate. I had to do a little speech which I mostly made up on the spot and said that I drew for everyone and wanted to give them art pieces. I chatted to them for a bit and they decided that they would put my art on a display in the school because they liked it all so much. Which feels amazing.
Keigo sensei also got me a beautiful brush pen as a present which I am so grateful for. We invited the teachers and staff to a karaoke party after school which is going to be a lot of fun, Keigo-sensei has said he’ll definitely be there. Really looking forward to it!
Will update more later!
I have a matter of days until I go home.
I’m in complete denial, it doesn’t feel real. And I have a test tomorrow at school too, which as I’m leaving doesn’t mean a lot but I still want to study for it, and hopefully pass, as a testament to the time I have spent here.
Tomorrow is also my last day at school, and I may or may not have to do a speech, we will see. But I have drawn a series of art pieces in black and gold brush pen to give to each member of staff.
This morning’s lessons consisted of more kanji characters: 日月火水木金土曜時平分, and a review of everything we’ve done up until now.
After school I stayed, did the homework and studied for the test. After that Maddie and I headed to Maiyoko Kimono and Tea Ceremony as we’d booked in for 5pm. It was so much fun, wearing the kimono, getting our hair done, and the different accessories. And then the tea ceremony itself was fascinating.
Trying the Kimono and Tea Ceremony was one of those things we said we’d do so I am glad I got the chance before I leave. Having studied Japanese for 6 weeks though gives future trips more purpose and probability. So while I am sad about leaving soon, I’m not rushing to fit in all the things I didn’t do. And I’ve been keeping a physical checklist of Things to Do in Kyoto and I think I hit quite a good amount of them.
Now my only things left are more purchase-related – a few things to pick up ahead of going home. Things I want to share with my friends and family etc.
I have to start packing tonight, to make sure I have space for everything I need to pack etc, and I probably won’t have as much time tomorrow if our karaoke plans hold out.
Packing will likely make leaving feel more real, but I’ve moved accommodations so much this trip that it might just feel like tidying up.
A Busy Week and a Covid Test
This week my cold seemed to get the better of me. After saying goodbye to our roommate Ame with one beer at 22:30 Tuesday Evening that turned into chats around the kotatsu until 2:30am, I only had about 4 hours of sleep before lessons. Not necessarily off to a good start.
I managed to get through Wednesday’s morning lessons without much of a struggle and planned to meet Joe at Hokanji Temple / Yasaka Pagoda after lunch.
The walk to Kiyomizu-dera took a little while and was up a hill or two, but Alfred and I quickly found Joe. After a steady climb through the Ninenzaka and Sannenzaka streets, we made it to the entrance of the Temple with plenty of time before it closed. Sadly Alfred didn’t have time to come through the temple with us and still get home in time.
The temple was stunning, especially with all the autumn colours just starting to pop through. Unfortunately, halfway through my exhaustion caught up with me. Joe offered me a little chocolate snack and we found a vending machine to get some fluids down me. Which spurred me on long enough to make it back through the temple and the winding historical streets. (More photos in a later post I promise).
After our little excursion, I got the bus home, too tired to go out for dinner, I planned to have a nap for a couple hours and then go in search of food. What actually happened was I fell asleep on the bus, and miraculously woke up at my stop 40mins later. Got home, collapsed into my futon and woke up about 12 hours later.
Thursday – Culture Day
With Thursday being another national holiday – culture day – we had another school trip this time to Toei Kyoto Studio Park. After a 12-hour sleep, I felt prepared and got ready to get the bus to school with my flatmates.
The park was great fun, a real mixture of old Edo set pieces, with more modern things like the giant Evangelion robot. There were also a bunch of activities we could get involved with like a Trick Art Museum and a Ninja show.
After the trip, we finished off at Kyoto Station, which I thought was a wonderful opportunity to go up Kyoto Tower in the dark. It was amazing, with absolutely stunning views, I went with Joe, Abel and Conner.
But unfortunately, like the day before I crashed. I couldn’t see myself getting a bus home so the guys helped me figure out a taxi instead. Same as the night before I came in, at about 19:20, hit the futon and woke up at about 6am.
A Day Off School
I knew if I allowed myself to go to school and have another day with minimal rest I would just be back in the same position on Saturday. Maybe even worse for wear. And I didn’t feel right. There was no energy left in me. I sent a quick email to the school explaining that I wouldn’t be in and slept for another 4 or so hours.
Friday I rested, slept, watched k-dramas, and spent a little time in the evening studying what I had missed. I fuelled myself with fruit slices, fruit juice and hearty ginger pork rice bowls.
When my roommate Jamie came home from school, he brought home a couple of covid tests for me. If I tested positive, then no matter how I felt – there would be no school on Monday.
Thankfully, I tested negative and continued resting under the kotatsu, watching the Chainsawman anime, and then Crazy Stupid Love (a favourite of mine I don’t have to pay attention to).
Saturday – Feeling Better
This morning I woke up feeling so much better. The cough was still slightly there but no more full-bodied exhaustion. And I didn’t have to rush out anywhere. Joe was coming to mine at about 10 or 11 and from there we were headed for a leisurely trip into Nara.
It was such a perfect day it will get its own post, but have some photos for now.
Tomorrow will be another rest and study day I think, I can’t believe this is my last weekend in Japan. It does not feel real and I have no idea what I will do with myself when I get back.
A wonderful thing about Japan, and particularly Kyoto is that there are so many small businesses. Restaurants and bars tucked away into small places that are also somehow bigger on the inside. And we have yet to find a place that disappoints.
Just wandering around can lead you to fantastic places, just don’t be afraid to go in the small door or to walk down that alley.
The other night after an amazing dinner at an udon restaurant we wanted to go out for just one beer. So we headed to a narrow street filled with traditional Japanese restaurants and bars and found a neon BAR sign that directed us down an even smaller street.
Bar Tonbon (Dragonfly) was a beautiful find. The bartender was incredibly friendly and spoke to us in both Japanese and English, happy to chat about where we were from and what we were doing in Japan. He also showed us magic tricks, gave us free snacks and chocolate and even made us origami. And helped us teach a little English to a couple of Japanese guys at the bar.
It was a really wonderful place and hopefully we will get a chance to go back.
Another “hidden”gem we found is a restaurant called Donguri. The entrance to which is tucked away in the entrance to a shop on a big shipping street. Very unassuming from the outside, very good prices, we were expecting cheap and cheerful but the whole experience was much more.
The place is fantastic and serves many variants of yakisoba and okonomiyaki from as little as ¥788 (£4.70). Safe to say we’ve been a couple of times and it doesn’t fail to deliver.
Another small wonderful tucked away place is the first bar we went to that I’ve mentioned before is a small temple at the end of Nishiki Market. It’s beautifully tucked amongst normal looking shops in a very long street. It’s also not the only one but it’s one of my favourites.
Similarly there is another such temple on a nearby street, about a hundred metres away.
There are so many of these temples/shrines all over Kyoto in various sizes. This is just a small selection of cool places I’ve been in the last week or so.
Struggling to come to terms with the fact I’ll be home in just over a week. It doesn’t feel real and I don’t feel ready. But it will be nice to see my friends and family again.