We made it to Fukuoka to see Duncan! Our first night was a typical Avis night, that’s for sure.
We had a bit of a travel hiccup right when we got to Fukuoka. We booked an airbnb last minute to stay in, but once we got to the airbnb we quickly realized that it was an extremely uncomfortable situation and someone had smoked in the room. Chad’s face started to get red and my stomach churned from the stale cigarette smell so we took care of the situation fast. With amazing teamwork between Chad and I, we called airbnb, took photos of the ashtrays, booked the new hotel and were off. It all paid off, within an hour we were in a cab to our new hotel. It ended up being in such a cool location and there was unlimited beer and snacks in the lobby.
We realized right away the vibe of Fukuoka was different than the Eastern cities we were in before. We explored our neighborhood, which was really so hipster. There were co-working innovation spaces and trendy boutiques and restaurants. There was a West Coast vibe compared to what we’ve seen of Japan. People seemed a bit more relaxed, even talking at a normal volume in the street. (OMG!)
We went to meet Duncan, and having not seen him in almost 10 years, we gave each other descriptions of how to find each other. I told him we were the only two blondes walking around aimlessly. He said he was wearing crazy shorts. That was easy. We found Duncan and then explored the city! We had beers overlooking the river while some Japanese people salsa danced. We went to eat delish ramen at at an outdoor stall (that was another thing about Fukuoka, they actually have outdoor street food here). I think Duncan called it Mami Chan’s? All I know is that we met the nicest Japanese woman yet and she called me kuwaii and Chad handsome. After the delicious ramen we walked all the way back to our neighborhood, and stopped at the coolest little bar that Chad and I would never have found hidden away with exposed wood and plants. It’s nice knowing people.
Duncan ended up crashing with us in the city, and the best thing about Japan is that there are roll up futons in every room, and it worked out perfectly. We stayed up in typical Avis fashion all talking until 2am. Time for bed.
We’re sitting next to the water with a beautiful breeze next to a small harbor, and someone is playing the flute on their sail boat. The notes fly in the air to our ears, and my stomach clenches. I just ate about 5 oysters, (I would later find out from Duncan that you must eat oysters in February) because we took a day trip to Miyajima Island and the oysters are everywhere. I was starving, I was light headed after a day of walking and trekking and so I went a bit crazy and now, sitting here, waiting for the ferry, I am paying the true price of eating oysters in September. We were told Ronald Reagan ate oysters at the same shop once they found out we were American. I wonder if he got sick. I can’t wait to be a vegetarian again.
Miyajima is a wondrous little island near Hiroshima city with a beautiful water shrine and the famous torii gate out in the water, Itsukushima Shrine. The torii gate is covered due to construction (our luck) but still beautiful none-the-less. The island is considered a sacred island. It feels magical, we stumbled upon less aggressive deer and calming creeks. We took a ferry right from Peace Park Memorial, around a 30 minute boat trip. It was a last minute decision and we’re glad we did it! We took a cable car to the top of the mountain and saw such a beautiful view on Mount Misen. We probably would have woken up early and hike the route, but we dropped the ball and missed the research on that, so we just took the cable car.
After exploring the island and eating the oysters we did a bit of souvenir shopping at the tourist shops.. My stomach was in so much pain that I waited by the water while Chad went to grab a few last presents. During my time alone, a buck came up to me and tried to eat my plastic bag while around 200 school kids walked past me, some taking photos.. of me. When Chad returned, let me just say, the things Chad came back with are a prime example that I was not there to make a comment on what he was buying, like, “Seriously?” or “You are joking right?” One of the things he bought.. well maybe we’ll reveal it later.. but what an impulse buy for sure.. let’s just say it’s not a typical souvenir.. anywhere..
As we wait for the ferry and the sun sets, even though my stomach is in knots, it’s one of my favorite moments in Japan. The music is calming, water always relaxes me, and the breeze is just perfect. A frozen moment on this little sacred island with it’s touristy out-of-season oysters.
We walked to the Peace Memorial Museum on September 11, after walking over to the remaining A-bomb dome in Hiroshima. Over 200,000 Japanese civilians died from the bombings in Hiroshima and Nagaski.
It’s one of the most moving museums I’ve ever been to. People from all of over the world, shuffling through the dark-lit exhibits, to learn about the destruction nuclear warfare has on humanity. As I walk through, I hear only sniffles. The distance I felt from the Hiroshima and Japanese people lessened, until they were neighbors. There is a tricycle and children’s school uniforms on display.. the day was normal one second and the next it was hell. So many children. The most moving part of the museum, to me, is an exhibit of drawings done by Japanese people who experienced the nuclear blast. They revisited the memories and drew their moments down 25-30 years after the bombing. The harrowing drawings depict memories from that time, and to me, the bravery to return to those thoughts and draw them on paper seems like one of the greatest feats. It also helps show the horror they witnessed, many of the drawings look like living hell. The saddest drawings were those of regretful moments, like a school teacher unable to save a student from under a bus caught on fire. One scene that was drawn over and over again by different people in different places, was a mother on the ground, covering her baby.
My heart ached while thoughts about how good and evil work in the world swirled in my head. What is the definition of good and evil? How do we judge the two? Why do we continuously drown each other in this type of trauma? Will there ever be a time where we’ve progressed far enough that we will stop hurting other people? Doesn’t it take understanding each other, feeling empathy, to start? Can we move forward in that capacity? What makes us all really different, why do we focus on that? Why is taking innocent life the greatest feat?
We stepped into the afternoon sun wiping away tears, again trying to understand the world. We walked down the river, where bodies floated after trying to get cool from their burning skin.
It’s Chad’s first time in a hostel, and I can’t say he’s thrilled about it. I loved it, hidden in a small cove of Onomichi downtown area, we slept on futons on the floor and heard whispers of travelers through the thin walls. There was a magical garden in the back near the outhouse toilet and cats hidden in the trees. There was even a vintage closet full of great Japanese souvenirs you could buy at the front restaurant. We arrived in Onomichi last night, a port city in between Osaka and Hiroshima. We had researched great beachy things to do, and this bike ride is all the rage online.
Japan is a beautiful island with hot, tropical weather, but does that mean that they enjoy the beach and that they have a beach culture? Absolutely - not. Everything I’ve learned about Japanese culture leans conservative, and laying out in a bikini while tanning isn’t the most desirable thing to do despite the fact they have crystal clear waters and sunshine. I did a bit a research, and it turns out they have a few reasons for not beaching it; they work a lot, they follow strict seasonal rules so after summer months beaches close down despite the weather being hot into October, and they don’t love being tan so if they do head to the beach they really cover up.
I decided to see for myself. Shimanami Kaido is a bike path that goes from one Japanese island to another. We planned to bike from Onomichi to Setoda Sunset Beach, considering we’d be hot from biking around 25 miles. From there, we’d take the ferry back to Onomichi and head onto Hiroshima. Sounds like a plan! Beautiful islands, bridges, views, and then jumping into water at the end.
Too good to be true. It was one of the strangest, hottest, bike rides we’ve ever completed. We started off at 8am, getting on a ferry to the first island with a bunch of school kids and their bikes. We ferried through the port, which is industrial to say the least, and I figured once we got into the other islands the industrial vibe would change. That wasn’t the case at all.
As we rode our bike off the ferry onto the Shimanami Kaido path blue line trail, we rode past factories and ship making facilities and strip malls. Large cranes stood overhead as was shifted gears going up inclines. The landscape was pretty, but the industrial vibe threw me off.
The water taunted me the entire way, beautiful crystal clear but no beaches in sight. Barricades more like it, alongside the pretty lapping waves. We climbed a 3% incline up to the first bridge, which was a great view, and hoped the next island would be more nature, less industrial.
Wrong again, we ride through more factories, empty village towns, with overall an extremely lonely vibe. You know that feeling of lonely you get, when human spirit isn’t felt and you’re kind of left with just empty machinery? No? I didn’t know it until this bike ride.
With temperatures reaching 95 degrees I really, truly though the beach would have people on it and in the water swimming. I couldn’t help but think it cannot be empty though only a few weeks into off-season, people must want to cool down. We rode our bikes down a pretty bike lane that had palm trees lining the way and small staircases down to the water, but no people. I compared this to the US or Europe, where people would be down the steps swimming and sun bathing in the crystal clear water to matter what season, as long as it’s hot.
We were just about to the beach when we saw a line of stuffed people. Yes - you heard this right - stuffed people sitting on benches. The beach was deserted.. except for these stuffed people. It felt fitting. It felt like a scary movie, actually a scary movie could easily be filmed on these islands for sure, that sounds like a really good screenplay ready to be written. It looked like beach-goers were there one minute, and the next they all grabbed their things and made a run for it. Leftover cafe chairs were knocked over, flags were ripped and hanging up, a few people walked along the beach. I was determined to swim so I went in and dunked my head but the water was filled with plastic and luke warm. Weird art sculptures are scattered around. Occasionally a biker will pull over and walk out onto the beach to have a look and then quickly get back on their bike to keep on going (you can ride this route all the way through to Imbari). I have a feeling that if we continued onward, the best was yet to come, but we were ill-prepared for a 50 mile bike ride. Oh well. We sat in the shade to cool down and rest, and then showered off to get back to the port much earlier than expected.
The ferry brought us by the islands we just biked, giant industrial ships in the port, a Honda cargo ship, cranes and concrete docks.
Just like that we were on a train to Hiroshima, tired, sore and ready to shower.
I wake up with a pounding headache, take my ear plugs out and look around the room. It’s 12pm on Sunday, the room is dark with afternoon sunlight peaking in the side of the blinds. We just had an epic day and night in Osaka, and now we are paying for it.
We started off the day reasonably early to go visit the Osaka castle in the scorching sunshine, sweating through our clothing. It’s a beautiful castle rebuilt because the original burned (actually mostly everything has burned down at some point in Japanese history, and then was rebuilt again and again, the price of making everything from wood and using so many lanterns).
After the castle climb, we went back for a cold shower for the second time and to change our clothes.. this weather is more intense than I could have imagined. We got ready to go on a night walking tour of Osaka’s retro, forgotten neighborhood, Shinsekai, a more “seedy” area of Japan with graffiti, abandoned houses, a transient population and also of the um.. red light district.
We met a group of travelers at the train station and started our tour. We laughed a bit because the “seedy” areas in Japan seem just like any American city in the not sketchy neighborhoods. We wandered around Shinsekai, and found a vintage arcade with original Mario, and learned about Japanese men’s weird sexual fetishes (there are little toy dispensers you can buy underwear or other strange sexual things promptly located next to the kids section). This was really much more local and our guide let us know that even Osakan’s from other neighborhoods usually don’t come visit this area because of it’s bad reputation for being filled with crime.
Wandering out of the blinking lights and restaurants, the tour took a turn after we walked through a maze of dark back-alleyways and made it to the red light district of Osaka. Our guide told us that he had to meet us on the other side of the red light district because he was told by the Japanese mafia that he was no longer allowed to walk through.
I’m sorry, what? I have to admit, when we signed up for this tour I didn’t fully read the description and I also was aiming to just make some friends. I was completely surprised for what came next. We walked through the streets and it was one of the strangest places I’ve been in Japan. Think Amsterdam, but very clean stalls with no glass windows, pink lights beaming out and girls sitting on pillows perfectly framed by the doorway. Prostitution is illegal in Japan, but there is a loophole. These are ‘tea rooms’ and the men who go to them pay for ‘tea and cookies’. Girls sit in the garage doorway, many dressed like school girls, eyes big. Some didn’t mind a group of foreigners walking through to witness this Japanese red light district, but others were not very happy and showed it by giving us the finger or hiding their faces. The women sit with their ‘mama’s’ - previous sex workers. In typical Japanese fashion, everything is clean and organized, even the streets are organized by age of the woman. This red light district is known for having solely Japanese women and it is only for men. The group was really respectful, though it’s a bit controversial to walk through as a tour, but I haven’t sorted my feelings out about that yet.
There are a lot of lingering questions and feelings about it all, of course, like how these girls got here, how is it so out-in-the-open while being ‘illegal’, thoughts about how strange sex is treated in Japan and what a mix of fetishes it can be, almost a bit childish from manga cartoons depicting porn to kuwaii school girl fetishes to toy dispensers dispensing R-rated items. Either way, this was an eye-opening tour and gave us a glimpse deeper into Japanese life.
The tour ended at a pachinko parlor, where Japanese men go to gamble on little slot machines.
We all made our way to get dinner, okonomiyaki, with the group. We ended up staying out until 5am, making friends (hi new friends!), walking into the more popular neighborhood of Namba, finding small bars, drinking so much Asahi and saying “kanpai!” clinking glasses until it was time to go home when the sun started coming up.
I slowly get up, sip some water, brush my teeth, and lay down again to binge watch Netflix. I don’t think we’ll be doing much sight-seeing today..
We’ve hit the two-week mark of traveling, and I haven’t been really traveling for longer than two weeks internationally since 2013. It’s been a long time since 22.
We planned this trip in between life chapters, moving away from the South and figuring out where to go next. I do know one thing, I’m a lot different than I was in traveling in 2013. 6 years have passed and it’s interesting to take a moment to think about myself now.
I’m always going to love travel and adventure, but right now in life I’m craving the feeling of home. I’ve been away from the Northeast for almost 5 years now. Charlotte never once felt like home to me. I am craving being able to go to family parties on the weekends, being in a reasonable driving distance of long-time friends. I’m craving simpler things than in 2013, when I was jumping into Swiss canyons and getting far too drunk in Florentine alleys.
I’m craving meaningful, purposeful work. I’m craving cuddling my little puppy. I’m craving a solid social life, sharing moments, planning beach and lake trips with friends.
Maybe it’s true and this trip really is bringing some sort of clarity to me. Or maybe I’m just feeling homesick and far away. We’ll find out.
I watched Chad get bucked by a deer in the park in Nara, Japan. He bought some crackers to feed the deer and right away around five new friends came up to him and started harassing him. These Nara deer are not nice like the monkeys in Kyoto, these deer are aggressive and there is one in particular that is really attacking Chad. Soon enough, I feel a deer buck on my leg from behind me! Chad throws the crackers on the ground and starts to run away. We make an escape and cross the street into the other side of the park.
I knew Nara Park was known for it’s deer population, but my expectations were wildly wrong. I thought there would be a few deer, that the park would be small, we’d see a decent sized Buddha statue and it would be a few hours of exploring and then back to the train. That was not the case. This park is filled to the brim with deer. They are at the temples, on the sides of the roads, under trees, in the planters, crossing streets, peaking through shinto shrines. They are nothing like the deer in the US, who are skittish and fast, running away at the site of any movement. These deer are ruthless, they’ll come up close to you, look you up and down with doe eyes, and then move onward when you don’t produce a snack fast enough. They are not in it for the pets, they are there for the food.
Then there is the actual park, a beautiful Buddhist temple with shinto shrines throughout. We explored Tōdai-ji, Kōfuku-ji, and Kasuga Shrine. Toda-ji is the largest wooden building in the world. We make our way through crowds of deer to the temple, and we are offered a free English tour which is great because I really need context for these temples and shrines that we’re seeing. I felt skeptical though because earlier I was approached by a Jehovah’s Witness outside the temple and for some reason I thought there was some sort of catch to our free English tour. Nope, no catch, just Japanese people being the nicest as per usual. We entered the temple and wow, big buddha was beautiful. So far it’s been my favorite temple/shrine experience, and man have there been a lot. The areas to explore seem never ending, and Chad wants to see everything you can possibly see.
It was a full day experience, and by the end we really needed air conditioning. It reached 100 degrees and I became a devil from overheating. We got iced smoothies and sat in air conditioning before catching the train home.
The one question I have is - where are the squirrels? (Mo but actually, there have been no squirrel sightings yet in Japan and I usually like to compare squirrels when I go to new countries.. does Japan have squirrels 🐿 😂 ?)
I hit my head on an iron lantern in the small garden in the back of our airbnb here in Kyoto. Hard. I ran inside with an irrational fear that I would have a concussion right away. A bump swelled up instead. I was putting out our wet laundry out to dry. We’ve done so many loads of laundry mostly because we’re sweating through our clothes within only a couple of hours. The weather is really hot and humid and we’re clocking in an average of 7 miles a day of walking.
Today was a more mellow day, we woke up later, went to a Zen Buddhist temple and shrine and then went shopping at the mall. We found the cutest pet shop and bought Penny a little dog kimono. 😂 I mean, I had to in the capitol of kimono. Chad and I saw a glimpse of a geisha the other day walking with some well-to-do business men. We didn’t realize at the time that it was a lucky sighting, that sometimes you may come to Kyoto and never see a geisha.
Also, don’t confuse geisha with kimono wearing tourists in Kyoto. Our guide from our walking tour told us they are mostly young Chinese tourists. The trend is to dress up for the day, usually as a couple, walk the streets of historic Kyoto, while a photographer follows you and takes your photograph.
So yes, indeed, I bought my dog a little dog kimono as a souvenir from Kyoto.
We’re planning on watching Memoirs of a Geisha tonight while hang out and eat Pocky.
“This would be a great pond for pond hockey.” We’re at a Zen Buddhist Temple and Chad whispers this in my ear as we stare out into the beautiful gardens. We’re on the other side of Kyoto in the Arashyama neighborhood and we’re checking off our local temples and shrines. This one, Tenryū-ji, is a World Heritage Site (there are many in Kyoto) and it’s very peaceful. There is a bamboo forest here that you often see in tourism advertising and it’s included in a scene in Memoirs of a Geisha, though seeing in person was underwhelming and crowded.
We make our way out of the temple, stopped at the cutest (kuwaii!) bakery ever, and then started our hike up the side of a mountain to see Japanese monkeys. I’ve never seen monkeys in the wild before, and I really don’t like going to zoos, so I’m skeptical I’ll feel good about the situation. Up we go, with all the other tourists in Kyoto. We get to the top and I am pleasantly surprised. It’s not too crowded and the monkeys really are free. Yes, we can go into a cage to feed them apples and bananas, which isn’t very natural, but other than that they are wandering around there on the side of the mountain. The babies were obviously my favorite, and we watched them for most of the time we’re there. Every time an adult male monkey starts to get angry, some of the workers will run over and shoo them away to tell them to stop behaving like that. The babies cling onto their mamas backs and run by our feet. They pay really no attention to us as they go about their day, and when they want to get away from humans they climb up into the mountain and find a good tree to hang out in. I approve of this monkey situation.
Being around all the babies makes me miss little Penny so, so, so much it hurts and I have to stop thinking about her because I may end up getting on a plane to go home to her. Don’t. Think. About. Your. Dog.
We head back down the mountain to the train station, clocking in another 8 miles walked for the day. The good news is that we burn off all of the baked goods we ate.. the bad news is.. well is there bad news?
We head back into Kyoto for dinner, wandering around the main strip of restaurants and nightlife. Kyoto is really quiet at night other than this main little area; our guide told us that Kyoto is like old men going to bed early. But this street is filled with people trying to find a bite to eat. We’re feeling sushi so we find a spot on Google, though when we stumble upon it, there is no sign outside. We slide open the door and five Japanese men look up at us from the sushi bar and stare. Okay.. we’re doing this. We walk in, take off our shoes, and slide down at the far end into the bar. The sushi chef smiles along with his wife who is behind the counter. We order a set of sushi and some Asahi beer and my nerves go away a bit. I’m sure they are talking about us as we sit patiently and wait for the food. The sushi chef cuts my sushi in half for me because it was too big(?) but I don’t mind because it takes longer to eat this way and I can savor every moment. The sushi is served by hand, without plates, right in front of us on the bar. Every single bite was pure magic. Soon we’re no longer stared at or talked about, though we are asked if we are famous actors in New York City (we say we’re from close to New York because that’s easier than saying Connecticut). Sadly, I say, no we aren’t.
What a day, sushi, shrines, and snow monkeys.