Japan has been on my bucket list since before I even knew this term existed! I knew I had to go and bask in the quirkiness. So, when I booked all of my group tours, I left myself a week at the end for some independent travel. Well, this was my original plan before my travel buddy Jon, signed up. It turned out that he was equally intrigued about Japan.
We actually didn’t have long in Japan, we flew from Hong Kong via Seoul, arriving in Tokyo at around 10pm on Saturday 10th May and our flight home was the morning of Friday 16th. So this only really gave us 5 days.
The one thing I had always always wanted to do in Japan was to visit the Studio Ghibli Museum. I wish I could say I’m a die hard fan of this anime but I only really got into it while studying animation in the third year of my film degree. Nonetheless, I loved it straight away! While researching the museum, I realised you had to book tickets three months in advance. Luckily, we were prepared.
Unfortunately, this is where our forward planning ended.
In hindsight, we made multiple errors:
• It sounds funny, but travelling is tiring.
You’re moving around constantly (often with a heavy backpack), taking in new sights, sounds, smells, and you’re always thinking about where you are right now as well as what is happening next. In hindsight, after the intense month travelling around China, it would have been better to stay in one place for a week, to recuperate, relax, recharge and get ready for the next step. We were pretty tired once we got to Japan.
• We didn’t forward plan enough.
Although I’d read online that you could buy a Japanese rail pass before leaving the UK, we hadn’t planned how much travelling we would be doing, so we weren’t sure it would be worthwhile for such a short amount of time. On reflection, we should have bought these passes.
• We didn’t necessarily make the most of Japan.
Okay, while we were there, we had two solid plans: The Studio Ghibli Museum and going to Nagoya to see one of Jon’s relatives. There were lots of quirky things that we wanted to do, but the tiredness combined with our lack of planning caused us to miss out.
• Budget: This was the last week of my trip and I was running out of money. I spent more in China than I anticipated and whilst I knew Japan would be expensive, I don’t think I was prepared for the cost of travel. For instance, we caught the bullet train one-way and it cost £70 – but we felt like it was one of ‘the things’ to do and it saved us a lot of time.
• Hostels get fully booked in Japan.
Yep, that’s a thing. We arrived, with no plans for a place to stay, which caused an interesting pause when we went through visa control as the form specifically asks for an address. Luckily, we found a place even though it was the middle of the night by the time we arrived in Tokyo.
• Just because you book a night in a hostel does not guarantee that it will be free the next night.
We encounted this issue in Tokyo on more than one occasion. We left our big backpacks in Tokyo at the hostel we found on the first night while we got the train to Kyoto, where we found a place with availability fairly easily. However, once we returned to Tokyo to collect our bags, there was no room at the hostel. Eventually we found another one, and booked a night, however, that was their only availability.
Top tip: Booking accommodation in advance can prevent you missing opportunities, experiences and save you from constantly having to move about.
Japan: A whistle stop tour
After we spent a day travelling to Japan and arriving at midnight, we were pretty tired the next day and rightly or wrongly, we decided to get the bullet train to Kyoto as we’d booked the museum for the Wednesday afternoon. It only took 2 hours 20 to get all the way to Kyoto! The scenery, including Mout Fuji, was beautiful.
Once we arrived in Kyoto, we walked to the hostel and hired bikes. It was really surreal and dazzlingly beautiful. It felt like a small-European-town-meets-a-small-American town. The water was twinkly and sparkly which created this semi-magical feel.
We cycled back and walked in to find a traditional restaurant, where we had our own closed off booth which was an experience in itself because we could hear other people in the restaurant but we couldn’t see anyone. We walked back quite late at night, I felt like there were a few bars and restaurants that were open but they looked closed. It sounded like there were people inside which gave the impression that things were hidden, or out of view, like you only saw a surface level. And I guess it felt like we were only allowed to see things one way – I’m not sure if this is a reflection of Japanese culture or just my perception.
The next day we packed a picnic and headed to Ninjo Castle, which was beautiful and the Imperial Palace and gardens, with the intention of visiting the botanical gardens in the afternoon. Unfortunately, time was ticking by and we’d missed a bus so we decided to get on and loop around the city. We chilled out in the evening and then ventured to the shopping complex to eat because we missed the food market (another example of ‘what-not-to-do’).
The next day we headed back to the bus station and travelled to Nagoya to meet Jon’s relative. We found the hostel fairly easily, however, upon arrival, we were informed that Jon had booked the wrong night, luckily it was fine because they had room.
We headed out to the science museum and planetarium but we only had a few hours before it closed (we continually left things until late in the day). It was fun and well worth a visit. We met Jon’s cousin at a local restaurant with an expat friend she’d met out there. We unexpectedly ended up singing karaoke until 5 am, grabbing a McDonald’s and then sleeping for approximately 30 minutes before we left to get the bus back to Tokyo in time for the Studio Ghibli tour. It was a bit of a rush but we made it!
The museum was one of my highlights from Japan. I loved being surrounded by such beautiful animation, even though I don’t claim to be a fanatic, it was enchanting.
The next day we spent some time exploring Tokyo, we visited a market, the sky tree, a moomin shop – and spent a while puzzling out a route to the Hard Rock Cafe – something of a trip tradition.
Later, we went to a bar and learnt that basically, it’s impolite to not order a drink (I was way tired and really didn’t feel like drinking). Although this was our last night, we knew we had to stay out pretty late because when we tried to re-book the hostel, it was full, so we ended up leaving our bags with a friend of Jon’s that he’d bumped in to (what are the chances?!). We had to stay awake until the metro opened just before 6 to get to the airport. By this time we were absolutely exhausted.
I was sort of dazed and confused and not really thinking about the fact that I was on my way home. That this was my last flight. I remember feeling ready to go though, because I was excited for the next chapter in my life to begin. I had friends tell me they’d cried the whole flight home when their journey ended, but I felt okay with it. The last thing I wrote in my journal sums up why:
‘I feel like I’ve accomplished what I set out to achieve, to see (some of) the world and learn a bit about myself :)’.