Gray-blue sea surrounds us now that Japan has faded off the ship’s stern. We’re alone, walking the windy port-side deck while awaiting the first glimpse of South Korea. A uniformed sailor appears in the windowed passageway above us. His stance — legs wide, hands clasped, eyes locked on us through sunglasses — signals we’re a bit too close to the lifeboats.
We’re about to enter a new country from the sea, which I love, because it offers a slow, anticipatory view of the travels ahead. I’m also fresh off what may have been the best nap of my adult life, lulled to sleep by calm seas and lapping waves, while resting on a sunlight-warmed lounging mat.
Once again, Japan doesn’t disappoint the budget traveler.
Thanks to a broken gondola that doubled our hiking time (and distance!), we were given a beautiful sunset as the ocean hit high tide and surrounded the Itsukushima Floating Torii Gate.
The oft-photographed gate is just off Miyajima Island in Japan. The island is accessible by ferry after about an hour’s train ride southwest of Hiroshima, and it’s a must-do trip if you’re in the Hiroshima area. The island offers steep hikes to stunning mountain views, with a series of fantastic temples and shrines along the way — including maybe my favorite temple in Japan.
We got to see a lot of Japan, but I think we saved the best for last. I loved Hiroshima. The main draw for tourists like us is undoubtably the Atomic Bomb Dome and the Peace Memorial Park. And rightfully so. They are somber but necessary places to experience.
But the city is also eclectic coffee shops and intimate sake bars with incredibly friendly staff. It’s home to a baseball team with avid fans. Hiroshima’s okonomiyaki (fried-noodle pancake), unique even in Japan, can’t be beat. And at least one Thomas the Tank Engine bus ferries young students wearing matching hats.
Hiroshima is definitely the city we’d most want to visit again in Japan despite seeing its primary tourists spots.
One of the coolest experiences we’ve had so far was taking a meditation class and staying overnight at the Shunkoin Temple, a Zen Buddhist temple in the hills of Kyoto. We wanted a break from the nonstop touring of the city’s temples and shrines (more on that later ) to learn more about the history and beliefs behind them.
The deputy head priest, Takafumi Kawakami, offers meditation classes and opened the temple to overnight stays as a way to introduce Zen meditation to anyone who’s curious. He does a great job bridging the gap between cultures for us Westerners, in part because he lived in the U.S. for a few years and speaks fluent English.
Lesson: If you’re heading to a massive, internationally known city that people rave about, plan! We decided to wait until we arrived in Tokyo to do any serious planning, which wasn’t the best strategy. The city has a ton to offer, and knowing what you want to do and what areas of the city you’d like to visit can save you a ton of time (and money).
That said, we had a great time in Tokyo. We drove go-karts through traffic to see the city above ground; kind of figured out the sprawling train system below ground; ate everything, all the time; and were mesmerized by robots and futuristic technology.
All this while being awed by the efficiency, cleanliness and quiet of a city that’s home to nearly 14 million people. That’s almost twice the size of New York City.
Imagine a Las Vegas casino meeting Pokemon on steroids in an IMAX theater. Then crowds of people, seemingly oblivious to the aural abuse, quietly weaving around each other and occasionally stopping to look at frying, fragrant seafood. Or maybe a purse or socks.
This goes on for blocks, in all directions, in one of the open-air street markets in Osaka, a port city of nearly 2 million people on Japan’s Pacific coast. But then, suddenly, a tourist’s reprieve.