JR

Japan in 12 Photos: a Third Year in Review

At the risk of being repetitive, I still have to say – time has flown. My third year in Japan felt not like another year on an overseas adventure but like another year of life – though still in a beautiful, exciting place. Over time my comfort zone has gotten bigger and bigger – and in the past year I pushed it even more to try new things both in Toyama and beyond. And now in September back in Canada, I have so much to reflect on.

August – Summer Camp

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In the summer, many schools have an English summer camp. Students and their teachers go far away into the mountains to these little buildings (I think they are usually used for company bonding retreats?) and have full days of English lessons and activities. I’ve been to over a dozen in my time in Japan and they never fail to be hilarious, fun, and a great chance to get to know students on another level. Not to mention… so. much. food.

September – Silver Week in Seoul

By good fortune, the elusive 5-day Silver Week holiday fell during my time in Japan. My friends and I took a trip to Seoul where we spent a few days eating, walking, eating, going to museums, and eating.

October – No Face in Toyama

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October came and gave me one of the best experiences I’ve ever had. The previous year I had made a No Face costume to wear to some events. This year, I couldn’t let it go to waste and so my friends and I dressed up and took him on a little trip in Toyama city. It was hilarious to see the reactions to his appearance and it felt great to be a little bit of excitement in peoples’ day. You can watch the video we made here.

November – Kyoto leaves

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In November I went to Kyoto for the long weekend and saw the fall leaves at Kiyomizudera. I had such a wonderful weekend with friends and loved seeing one of my favourite places in colour. A word to the wise, if you want to see the leaves in Kyoto during that weekend make your bookings months in advance… it gets busy!

December – Tokyo

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In December I went down to Tokyo for Christmas! It was magical going to Disney and seeing the illuminations around Roppongi. Mostly it was special spending time with friends in a city with never-ending adventure.

January – Toyama winter fun

久しぶり⛸

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Toyama was COVERED in snow for part of last winter, so much so that the trains were delayed (that’s how you know it’s serious). There were a few weekend days where I didn’t even dare go outside due to wind and snow. The upside was seeing Toyama in this beautiful white blanket and doing some fun things like ice skating!

February – It’s Raining Ramen

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February was the return of the Nyuzen Ramen Festival, an event I can honestly say I waited a full year for in anticipation. I chowed down on some delicious ramen and remembered to bring a bottle of water, because oh man, water sells out fast at this event.

March – Solo to Hiroshima

In March I took a solo trip to Hiroshima, stopping in Kobe, Okayama, Naoshima, and Okunoshima along the way. Going by local train was absolutely the slowest way of travelling but it was a wonderful experience that tested my own travel skills and helped me learn new things.

April – Hanami Forever

Cherry blossoms are one of the most characteristic images of Japan, and a tourist magnet… for good reason. Despite my skepticism of anything with so much hype surrounding it, cherry blossoms are just as magical as their reputation would lead you to believe. I spent the beginning of April seeing as many as I could, whether that be in the beautiful daylight of Takaoka park or on a cold evening huddled under the trees.

May – Yosakoi, Yosakoi

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I joined a Yosakoi team in October, and every week, two nights a week, went to practice. After months of practice, May was when I first performed with my team and fell completely in love with Yosakoi.

June –  No Rice No Life

June was the second annual International Rice Planting competition, the most fun I have ever had standing in mud. We joined teams and planted a field of rice the old school way (they have machines for that stuff now!) and were judged for accuracy, speed, and overall positivity.

July – Toyama and beyond

July (and June too, really) was the month of sad goodbyes, but more on that later. In July my sister came to Japan and we spent a few weeks in Toyama before embarking on a final hurrah around the country.

Adventure 18 Day Four | Hiroshima

Wednesday

Day four of my trip was dedicated to Hiroshima city. The first thing I did in the morning, and the most important of the trip, was going to the Peace Memorial Museum. Going there by myself was a big factor of why I took this trip alone, and I’m glad I did. The museum is currently under renovation (due to be finished this summer) so I was able to see the permanent area but not the other exhibitions. I got an audio guide which I would definitely advise doing if you go.

In a University course I took, we talked about how pictures of tragedies (current or historical) put distance between the viewer and the event. The internal response feels like that’s sad, I’m sad that happened but because it’s a picture the contents are framed as something separate from our own realities. Films, documentaries, and even news reports are similar – they can invoke an emotional response but the story exists on a screen.

Museums can do what pictures and films cannot. As you walk through the Peace Museum you can reach out and touch the texture of roof tiles that were changed by the explosion. You see the burns in the clothing worn by someone who lost their life laid out before you. You see the actual steps of a building where a dark mark was left by someone sitting during the explosion. You listen to stories from survivors who lost their children – their despair and regrets. A woman tells you how she sent her young son into the city on the day of the bombing even though he told her he was sick that day – “I killed him” she says, she blames herself for his death. In their intimacy these stories show the magnitude of what happened that day.

The exhibition also presents the science behind the atomic bomb. It shows long-lasting effects of that day – survivors who lived with debilitating health and psychological problems. It shows the details of the environmental impacts in the city. The reality is straightforward, and it is sobering.

I’m not sure what else can be said. I left the museum into the large park and just sat on a bench for a while. I felt hyper-aware of all my senses – how bright the sunlight was, the sound of the trees, of how people in groups were walking in differently than people alone, the coldness of the bench under me, the sounds of traffic out of sight. I was acutely aware of the humanness of myself and those around me. The thoughts, emotions, feelings, and concerns that comprise my own personal and self-centered universe also exist in every other human. The sheer volume of this is unfathomable and I felt it full force as I was sitting in the park.

I did other things that day – I walked through the peace park, to the castle, to the museum of modern art and then back. Being alone in the bustle of cities always makes me feel connected to other people and the world. And that day the same feeling was there but in a new way – with an overwhelming awareness of the significance in everyday normalcy.

A display of paper cranes sent from schools around the world at the Children’s Peace Monument.

Adventure 18 Day Three | Miyajima Magic

Tuesday

I love hostels but getting up early is always so awkward knowing you’re bothering people. Climbing down from the top bunk on a noisy ladder is going to wake someone up, no matter how hard you try. Luckily I’m a really deep sleeper so this never bothers me, but for others all I can do is be as quiet as possible.

I walked to the station and caught the 7:50 train from that got me to Iwakuni station at 8:43. I didn’t use my Seishun 18 Kippu this day because it the fare to these places was pretty cheap and I needed to save my days on the ticket for later. From there I took a bus and got to the Kintai bridge around 9:15 or so. The bridge is really cool! The big wooden arches look beautiful against the river. It’s actually really hard to walk across, because the steps get bigger and smaller and all blend into each other.

Iwakuni itself was absolutely beautiful! I was there just on the verge of the cherry blossoms opening, so I didn’t get to see them in all their glory. But the half-opened buds were still pretty. The gardens are large and peaceful, particularly so because early in the morning there was hardly anyone there. I walked around for a little, feeling very calm and at ease in my surroundings.

I took the tiny lift up that brought us to a forest walkway and the castle on the top of the mountain. The top of the castle looks out over the bridge, river, and town. I walked around the castle a little bit and ate some breakfast sitting at one of the little stone picnic tables.

Instead of putting effort into figuring out the return buses to Iwakuni station, I just walked about fifteen minutes to a tiny closer station that was oddly positioned on the top of steep hill. I got the 10:50 and arrived in at Miyajimaguchi station at 11:33. I wasn’t sure if I would have to wait long in line for the ferry but since Miyajima is such a popular destination the ferries are huge and run every ten or fifteen minutes. I just bought my ticket and walked on! Easier than catching any bus I’ve ever caught, haha. I got there at the perfect time to see Itsukushima shrine at high tide, around 12:30!

I walked around taking pictures, offering to take pictures of other people, and asking people to take pictures of me. At one point I was taking a picture of something and an older man came up to me and told me I was in the wrong spot to take pictures and that he had a better spot to take pictures from. So he brought me over to another area and took my picture, which is the photo below.

I wandered around a bit up towards the gardens where I found a nice little spot by the river to eat the food I brought. I didn’t realize Miyajima had so many deer, but there were a bunch winding their way around tourists and looking for food. As I was eating a deer came up to me and started nudging me trying to get food, but all I had left was a banana. I wasn’t sure if deer like banana but I broke off a piece and held it out, which the deer picked up and then dropped on the ground. So there was my answer.

I wandered up through the trees and ended up at the lift to the top of Mount Misen. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go all way to the top but I figured it was a good way to spend the afternoon. There’s two lifts, the first is like a ski lift but much smaller and the second was a standing lift with windows all around that lets you see the mountains and sea as it ascends.

At the top of the lift it was a half hour climb to the very top of the mountain. The climb itself wasn’t difficult but a little tricky because of the uneven ground and trying to pass people in tight spaces as they came down the mountain. There’s an observation building at the top that I hung out for in a bit, sitting on big raised platform on the first level contemplating a nap. Afterwards when I made my way back down to the lift I was really tired, partly because of the climb but mostly from not sleeping. I had planned to walk down but I realized that although it was doable it would take almost two hours and I decided to just take the lift back.

When I reached the bottom it was around 5:00 and I searched around to find somewhere to eat. Sadly this is apparently the time when everything is closed, but I found an open Okonomiyaki shop that looked good. I’d like to say I loved the okonomiyaki but it pales in comparison to the night before. But, all in all, a nice restaurant and a nice break from the day.

I took the ferry and then the train back to Hiroshima station, getting back to my hostel around 8:00. I attempted some studying which did not go well, and finally went to bed.

 

Adventure 18 Day Two | Bunny Mania

Monday

Left the hostel in the morning and headed to the station.

9:07 am – Depart from Hayashima -> 9:19 Arrive at Okayama station

9:31  – Depart from Okayama -> 11:09 Arrive Mihara station (Rush out of the station to put my luggage in a locker)

11:21 – Depart Mihara station -> 11:44 Arrive Tadanoumi

12:30 – Take the ferry from Tadanoumi port to Okunoshima

Proceed to live out bunny heaven.

Bunny island is a lot of fun and lived up to my expectations. Do be fair, my expectations were a little lower after experiencing the deer in Nara, which are like aggressive squirrels in larger form. The bunnies on the island looked really healthy and were very gentle when approaching and taking food. They were got a little aggressive with each other, dive-bombing and pushing each other out of the way, but overall pleasant interactions all-around. I walked around the island a bit, ate my lunch outside, and hid under a tree when it rained for a bit.

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Some tips for bunny island

  • There is nowhere on the island to buy rabbit food, but you can buy some at Tadanoumi port.
  • The best thing to bring, however, is fresh cabbage or lettuce. I got some bagged greens at the Family Mart near Tadanoumi station which was good, but I discovered there is a small grocery store a block away that has actual heads of fresh cabbage.
  • There is luggage storage at Tadanoumi port for 500 yen.
  • Get in line early for the ferry. I think everyone in line with me got on the ferry but since the ferry is not so frequent it’s best to be safe.

4:13 pm – Take the ferry back to Tadanoumi

5:15 – Depart Tadanoumi station -> 5:40 arrive Mihara

5:52 – Depart Mihara -> 7:09 pm arrive Hiroshima! (And walk to my hostel)

I checked in and met the owner, a really nice guy named Masa. I wanted to try Hiroshima okonomiyaki, which has lots of cabbage and noodles added. I asked him about okonomi-mura which is a big building full of okonomiyaki restaurants. He told me he had a better place and gave me a recommendation for Koshida (お好み焼き越田).  I made my way over there and waited in line for a bit before I got seated. The staff was great and the food was even better. I get why this style of okonomiyaki is popular, the noodles and cabbage give it a nicer texture and another layer of flavour.

How to use the Seishun 18 Kippu

I’m becoming increasingly aware of how little time left I have in Japan. And while I have done many of the things I want to there are still items on the list that have evaded me so far. Number one on the list was a visit to Hiroshima. While railway transport is very efficient and fast, the frugal me always avoided dishing out the funds it would require (about a $400.00 round trip) to get there. But fate seemed to be calling this March, because I had a lot of nenkyuu (days off) saved up and an urge to travel. So I decided to take the most cost-efficient but time-expensive method of transport there is – the Seishun 18 Kippu (青春18きっぷ)!

How it works (japan-guide.com)

  • 11,850 yen for five days of unlimited train use (the days do not have to be consecutive)
  • You can ride the trains (and leave the station) as much as you like but only local trains.
  • The ticket is valid during the school spring, winter, and fall breaks and valid almost everywhere in the country (one of the places it is not, ironically, is Toyama)seishun-ticket

You can buy the ticket at JR train stations. They’ll give you this ticket (above). Guard this with your life! It is the ticket you will use for your whole five days of travel. When you enter the station you have to show this to station worker at the gate and they will stamp it with the date and station (starting on the bottom right). After that you can exit and enter JR trains as much as you like, just show the ticket to the person working at the gate.

Fukui station

Fukui station

The pros

  • You save a lot of money. The two days it would take to go to Hiroshima and back to Toyama would cost 4,740 yen (at 2,370 per day of use) compared to the 40,000 yen on shinkansen / express trains.
  • It’s very flexible. No reservations or booked seats means you can change your schedule and leave the stations whenever you want.

The cons

  • TIME. It takes a lot of time to go anywhere, of course. Via the fastest trains it would take 5 hours from Toyama to Hiroshima vs the 12 hours on local trains.
  • No guaranteed seats. If you get in line early enough you can usually get a seat, but often at major stops there are a lot of people. It’s not a huge deal but after a day of walking around sitting down on the train is a huge relief.

 

The hyperdia app (free)

General recommendations

  • Great for if you are on a budget but you have flexible time.
  • If you are going to do a long-haul trip like I did, solo is best. Early hours, long waits, long train rides, and sometimes not sitting can make a person cranky. When you’re alone it’s fine but in a group there might be some hair-pulling.
  • Use hyperdia.com/en to plan your route. Make sure to deselect all the options except “Local Train” and “Japan Railway (JR)”. There is also a very useful app!
  • Take really early trains and get in line early to get seats.
  • Stop in different cities along your route! You can see a bit more of Japan and get a chance to stretch your legs.

I took the long solo trip up to Hiroshima using this ticket. As a person who fixates on schedules, prices, and also loves travel stories I’m putting together a bit of a travel log (for lack of a better title) –  I’m going to post a day-by-day description of my trip. I hope you enjoy it!