All My Friends Went To Japan

15 December 2014

In the past three months, no less than eight of my friends have visited Japan. At one point my Instagram and Facebook feed was so jammed up with photos of bento boxes, Shinkansens, green matcha icecreams and Kyoto temples, I thought I’d been transported to Japan. If only. To get to the bottom of what all the Jay-Vay-Cray was about, I asked my friends to share with me their Japan love-affair. It’s pretty self-explanatory: Japan is awesome.
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Japan Case Study 1: Heather and Qing

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Where in Japan did you visit? Tokyo, Hida Takayama, Shirakawago, Kamikochi and Kyoto.

How long did you stay? Two weeks.

When did you visit? Early November.

Best meal was had at... We tasted delicious vegan kaiseki (a traditional multi-course Japanese meal) at Shigetsu, in the gorgeous setting of the Tenryu-ji Temple in Arashiyama, Kyoto. It was a unique experience trying monks’ food, which places ‘balance’ ahead of taste. Regardless, there was PLENTY of taste – tiny portions but many, many dishes that leave you more than satisfied. A highlight was a sort of crispy dumpling stuffed with radish, mushrooms and water chestnut in a light broth.

 Vegan Monk Food in Arashiyama, Kyoto (Photo: Qing Huang)

Best kawaii object purchased was... We stopped by Harajuku’s Pet Paradise and were overwhelmed with the ridiculous kawaii outfits for small dogs, finally settling on a bumble bee harness and leash for our Pomeranian.

Best night’s sleep was had at... New Miyako Hotel in Kyoto, right opposite Kyoto station. It was incredibly convenient, comfortable and a larger than usual room for Japan.

Did you visit any onsens? Our ryokan in Takayama (Takayama Ouan) had private onsen rooms for use with views of the town! Great for the shy and modest to try out an onsen without the public aspect.

 Onsen at Takayama Ouan (Photo: Qing Huang)

Place where you felt most connected to nature? In Kamikochi, located in the Northern Japan Alps, we visited a national park set among snow covered mountains along a gorgeous river. Most of the walks take you along the river and to the two ‘ponds’. It is a favourite among a lot of Japanese photographers for its gorgeous scenery.

 Matcha (green tea) ice cream at Shirakawago World Heritage Site (Photo: Qing Huang)

Most ‘Lost In Translation’ moment experienced? Just about every clothing shop in the Shibuya 101 building has a hilarious “Engrish” name. Some highlights include Sneep Dip, Merry Me!, me Jane, Growze, Rodeo Crowns, PunyUs, Glad News and my personal favourite ReSexxy.

 Akihabara kawaii randomness (Photo: Heather Corkhill)

One thing you loved about Japan? An inspiring early morning walk up the mountain at the most popular shrine in Kyoto, Fushimi Inari shrine. Kitune (fox) sculptures and torii gates are the main features of the shrine. The climb up the mountain takes you through thousands of crimson coloured torii. You can divert off to visit small kitsune alters in the woods, or stop to create a personalised fox offering!

 Sour puss at Temarinoouchi Cat Cafe in Tokyo (Photo: Qing Huang)

One thing you disliked about Japan? Massive crowds of tourists at the temples and shrines in ‘autumn leaves’ season, especially in Kyoto, took away from the experience. Not always feeling the ‘zen’ at those times! We soon learned that arriving as early as possible can mitigate this problem.

 Dreamy Kyoto street scene (Photo: Qing Huang)

Would you go back and where would you visit? We would go back to Japan, perhaps to Hokkaido during ski season.

 Outside Nijo Castle Kyoto (Photo: Qing Huang)

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Japan Case Study 2: Megan and Chris

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Did you fly with Jetstar and did you get a bargain? Nope, we managed to miss out on ALL of the Jetstar sales to Japan. We flew with Singapore Air instead, which was pretty sweet with 30kg luggage! (approx $1170 return per person)

What was the reason for your holiday to Japan? A destination with minimal jet lag, maximum exploration. Japan is a dangerous place for anyone with a taste for supreme street style, adventure and cultural amazement.

 Yayoi Kusama Pumpkin at Benesse House Art Site Naoshima (Photo: Chris Harms)

When did you visit? October, so mid autumn in Japan.

How long did you stay? Only 11 days - too short! But to be honest, we were pretty exhausted by the end of those 11 days!

Where did you visit? Uno: the portside town near Naoshima and Teshima. Plenty of onsens, and a great little guesthouse called Uno Slopehouse which lent us bikes to spin around town and the island on. Naoshima: to visit Chichu museum and the I <3 Naoshima Onsen (that’s the actual name: I Love Yu Bath house). Kyoto: Sky Tower lunch time stop. Hakone: Hakone Open Air Museum. Tokyo: MOT - Museum of Modern Art Tokyo - Michel Gondry exhibition, Sky garden in Meguro, Yoyogi Park, Kiddyland (ultimate toy store) and spent time in the Shinsen, Shibuya, Shinjuku, Sendagaya and Omotesando neighbourhoods.

 Scenery captured on the Shinkansen somewhere between Uno and Tokyo (Photo: Megan Perrier)

You did lots of awesome art stuff. What galleries / museums did you visit? Japan is the place to go see some pretty amazing pieces of modern art and architecture. Naoshima is home to Chichu Art Museum,  which was designed by Japanese design demi god, Tadao Ando. At the right time of day (and believe me you will know it) the Walter De Maria piece inside will make your eyes explode with awe. There are also some Yayoi Kusama pumpkins dotted around the island. The I <3 Naoshima Onsen is worth the $5AU trip inside to strip down and soak around in the erotically tiled tub below a giant elephant sculpture.

 Bling bling bike in Aoyama (Photo: Megan Perrier)

Hakone Open Air Museum is about two hours from Tokyo. You can catch the Romance Car (great name) from Shinjuku station to a tiny mountainside town. From there, you catch a tiny train that zigzags through the mountains to the Hakone Open Air Museum. Regardless of age, YOU WILL feel like you are seven years old again once you set foot on the lush green grounds of the museum. Children and adults alike will walk away twitching with sensory enjoyment from all of the art. There is a loop that you follow from the museum, which will take you up on gondolas and cable cars past sulphur mines and through the mountains to, I kid you not, a massive pirate ship. The ships sails across Lake Ashi, which on a clear day you can see Mt Fuji, to a small town where you jump on a bus and have a harrowing journey back down the mountains to the safety of your Romance Car station.

MOT - Museum of Modern Art Tokyo – check and see what exhibitions are going on. They have some really good ones! We were lucky enough to catch the Michel Gondry exhibition which was way too much fun.

The Ghibli Museum is just WOW. Studio Ghibli is the home to some brilliant Japanese anime films, and the museum builds itself around the mind and life of the director of the studio - Hayao Myiazaki. It is a museum built with the joy of childhood in mind, so be prepared to crawl through tiny arches and squat down to watch some sublime film sequences. There is a strict no photographs inside policy that EVERYBODY respects, which is a nice change and enables everybody to go wild inside and play without the distraction of flashes and group ‘selfies’.

 Fun at The Ghibli Museum (Photo: Megan Perrier)

As avid cyclers, was it easy to ride in Japan and where did you cycle? In Tokyo, the side streets feel like they are basically built for bikes because they can hardly fit a car down them, which is neat! Nearly everybody rides a bike and there is a mutual respect between drivers and cyclist (because nearly all drivers will also own a bike). Bike safety and bike transport are slightly different to here in Australia. Not many bikes are locked to posts or rails, because it's almost illegal and the fines you face for your locking bike in the wrong area are quite steep. Helmets are an option. Taking your bike on the subway is a big NO, and transporting your bikes on the Shinkansen has guidelines, so be mindful of these. In Tokyo, there are some beautifully restored track frames and steel road bikes around on the streets. Riding around Tokyo is perfect for getting lost and exploring without the fatigue you get from walking.

We borrowed the 'Dutch style' commuters from our guesthouse and went for a spin around Uno and discovered their Keirin track (a type of velodrome). We also took the bikes across to Naoshima and rode around to the various art works and beaches. The roads we encountered were well maintained and the signage for cyclists was pretty prolific by Australian standards. I wish I could have taken a road bike further out into the rural areas and mountains like some mates have done. Next time.

 Cycling along Uno harbour (Photo: Chris Harms)

Best meal was had at... A to Z cafe. Yoshitomo Nara's collab cafe. Eating around his 'cubbyhouse' piece is pretty surreal.

Best coffee was had at... Little Nap Coffee Stand (across from Yoyogi Park in Tokyo)

Best souvenir you brought home was... A fairly large Monchhichi doll from Kiddyland.

Best night’s sleep was had at... Uno Slopehouse. The ryokan was kitted out with traditional futon and tatami mats. Also the breakfast in the morning is flippin’ delicious (walnut pancakes with maple syrup made by our host Momoke), as was waking up in the hills to the smell of pines and seaside air.

Your best tip for first-time travellers to Japan... Bring cash! Literally. It's a massively cash based society, so do yourself a favour and pay by cash at most eateries, bars and small shops (their custom of placing money onto coin trays is also pretty fun to engage in). But also bring money to spend, because Tokyo is a beautifully
constructed consumerist heaven, a sneaker/spectacles/vinyl toy delight. Also, on a serious note, don't forget your manners. Japanese people are so overwhelmingly kind and polite. As a visitor into their crazy wow country, the least you can do is bow and say 'arigatou gozaimasu' (thank you), because they WILL thank you.

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Japan Case Study 2: Ricky and Marissa

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Where did you visit? Tokyo, Kyoto, Hiroshima, Naoshima (Benesse Art House), Osaka (with a day trip to Nara) then back to Tokyo.

When did you visit? Mid November.

How long did you stay? 12 days. Enough to have a good Japanese experience.

 Exploring Japan's peaceful outdoors (Photo: Ricky Sullivan)

Best meal was had at… I would have to say, our best meal was at Bird Coffee in Osaka. We shared the appetizer platter and had some extra dishes to follow. The fried garlic dish contained enough garlic to crush a man flu. The marinated octopus in anchovy sauce was salty and amazing. We topped it all off with a doughnut, which they make in-house.

 Tasting platter at Bird Coffee (Photo: Ricky Sullivan)

Best beer sampled was at... Baird Taproom, Harajuku, Tokyo. All the beers are great. They have a good selection of bar snacks too.

 Sampling the brews at Baird Taproom (Photo: Ricky Sullivan)

Best night’s sleep was had at… Benesse House in Naoshima. A top notch, well planned and designer built hotel that is surrounded by art museums and galleries.

 The view from Benesse House (Photo: Ricky Sullivan)

Best coffee was… Omotesando Koffee, Omotesando, Tokyo. This is it. You don’t get better coffee than this in Japan. To order what you would come to expect as a 'flatte' (flat white / latte) you need to ask for a cappuccino. This is a coffee house done right; all they serve is coffee and little baked custard (kashi) treats to accompany the coffee.

 Coffee, Tokyo style (Photo: Ricky Sullivan)

Your best tip for first-time travellers to Japan... Plan your day the night before you go out. Work out your destinations and load them into Google Maps. We spent far too long trying to figure out what we wanted to do when we should have been out seeing things. Learn some simple phrases: please, thank you, hello, goodbye, sorry, I don’t understand, etc.

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While there are almost always bargain flights to Japan to be had through Jetstar, it also helps to know that Qantas have just announced a four times weekly service between Brisbane and Tokyo Narita Airports. The new route will debut in August 2015. The flight complements a new daily flight from Sydney to Tokyo Haneda, and the airline says they have an expansion plan in the pipes to see Qantas fly to Narita “on three alternate days from another Australian port, which will be finalised shortly". The growth means that Qantas will soon add more than 4,000 weekly seats to the Japan route. Big ups for direct access to Tokyo for Queenslanders and likewise, making the Sunshine State more accessible to Japanese visitors too. Sale prices for return flights for Brisbane to Narita will start at around $900.

Rachel Surgeoner

A self-confessed 'food-tourist', I take hunting for the world's greatest sandwich very seriously, my quest has taken me from Berlin to Hoboken. Stopping off only for vintage shopping, craft beers and Mediterranean sunsets.