Japan Gap Year: Tokyo, Kyoto, Nara & Osaka
I bought a Suica card which allows travel on the metro, JR Railways and buses until the amount on the card is finished. After struggling with a few street signs, I found my pre-booked accommodation at the International Youth Hostel. I later discovered that prices at some budget Japanese Ryokan inns are only slightly more than a single bed in a YHA dorm.
In the next few days, I visited some of the major sights of Tokyo although the bitterly cold weather meant that I had become quite a regular on the Tokyo cafe scene. Nothing can quite prepare you for the enormous scale of Tokyo with its bright neon lights and hoards of Japanese workers. Just crossing the road felt like going into battle with hundreds of people marching towards you. Japan had always fascinated me from an early age and I knew this would be one of the highlights of my first gap year.
The Japanese people were very friendly, especially in all of my numerous cafe haunts but many are still wary of foreigners and keep a polite distance away. Good food was easy to find as many department stores have food halls near the top floor with a hugh variety of different restaurants. Fortunately all the main dishes are represented by plastic models in the front window and just by pointing at the meal and grunting like some neanderthal, the Japanese waitresses quickly understood my order. I must admit, I did feel a bit queasy after a few days of eating plastic food. It was easy to eat on a budget as there were many cafes, budget restaurants and convenience stores around including the famous Japanese vending machines where you can get anything from a beer to a six course cordon bleu dinner for two (maybe not). Japanese beer is now world famous and the major producers of beer include Asahi, Kirin, Sapporo and Suntory. Beer has become the most popular alcoholic drink in Japan and it is readily available from vending machines, cafes, restauarants and convenient stores or shops which are open 24 hours a day.
Tokyo is split into various areas with each area having its own distinct character and atmosphere. Shibuya is mainly for the young fashionable Japanese teenager where Japanese girls walk in 6 foot platform boots and complain about the thin air. Shinjuku is a major centre for shopping, business and entertainment and even the station itself resembles a small city with its huge scale. The district of Harajuku is where the Goth kids hang out on a Sunday for photographers and tourists to marvel at their unusual fashion and makeup. The Ginza district is mainly a high class shopping area with the usual upmarket designer names such as Chanel & Gucci. I was going to do all my shopping in Ginza until I realised that the numbers on the price tag were in Yen and not some bar code reading. Akihabara was a great district full of all the latest electronic gadgets from flat screen televisions to the latest digital cameras. Most foreigners visit or live in the Roppongi area which has a lively and varied nightlife where some visitors discover that there is an alternative to duvets for keeping them warm in the winter months.
After a cold but great week in Tokyo, I travelled on the overnight coach to Kyoto. Unlike Tokyo, Kyoto was not bombed during World War II and for many people, Kyoto epitomizes old Japan with its beautiful temples, shrines and history. I stayed in a Ryokan (Japanese Inn) not far Tokyo JR Station. The Ryokan was much more comfortable than previous hotels with its futon, tatami mats and Japanese tea. I quickly became accustomed to the communal Japanese baths as I often had the area to myself as most Japanese guests woke up a few days before me.
Kyoto was a very pleasant experience and I visited the usual sights including Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion), Ryoanji, Heian Shrine and many more. To speed up the sightseeing, I requested a goodwill guide for one day to show me sights which were hard to find and to help me navigate the Japanese buses. I also met up with day guides from Servas and visited a variety of temples and also an unusual Japanese tofu restaurant. One of the highlights was visiting the Gion district and Pontocho where Geisha and Maiko still operate to this day. I had just read `Memoirs of a Geisha` a few weeks before and felt I already knew the area. Walking through the streets brought back memories from the book of tea houses, the Minami-za Theater and Geisha and Maiko scuttling down dimly lit narrow streets. The place was very atmospheric but as with most popular places like Pontocho and Gion, tourists soon began to take over.
For the second half of my stay, I moved to new accommodation in a large house for tourists around 20 minutes away from the city centre. I met a Canadian girl and we took a day trip to the historical town of Nara. Nara was just a short train trip from Kyoto JR Station and is full of historical sights such as Todaiji Temple which is the largest wooden building in the world housing the Great Buddha and Golden Buddha statues. After a few hours of wandering around the various sights, I lost the feeling in both lips and could no longer talk due to the extreme cold. Normally a blessing by anyone's standard, we decided to quickly return to Kyoto before children could put a carrot on my face and a scarf around my neck.
The next day was spent in Osaka which is also a short train trip from Kyoto. Osaka is Japan`s third largest city a major business centre for the region. The city was pleasant enough with its` blade runner futuristic neon lit Dotombori area and Osaka castle - a reconstruction dating back to 1931.
After three weeks of bitterly cold weather, I had decided to cut short my Japan trip and flew back to Thailand for a short period of time before heading out to Singapore.