Happy New Year everyone!! Hope you all had a wonderful holiday, and hope this year is a great year for us all!
What did everyone get up to over the holidays? My original plan for Christmas Day was to stay at home and make a huge meal for myself since the majority of my friends had gone home for the holidays. On Christmas Eve, I was suddenly asked to go to an onsen hotel right up in the mountains of Nasu. Of course I couldn’t say no to an onsen, plus it included a huge buffet! The onsen was beautiful, with outdoor sulphur baths. I ended up smelling like a boiled egg for a couple of days due to the strong smell of sulphur. But I felt so relaxed afterwards, and my skin felt amazing! It was just pretty bizarre lying in a steamy outdoor onsen up in the mountains of Japan on Christmas Day, definitely a huge change to my usual Christmases. I remember lying in the onsen thinking to myself, how life has changed!
After Christmas, I was counting down the days for my girlfriend to arrive in Japan. I couldn’t believe she was visiting again, and I had planned a trip around Kansai area. That meant visiting Kyoto again, which I was excited about because it’s probably one of the most beautiful cities I’ve been to. I crammed quite a lot in our travel plan, because I wanted to make sure that my girlfriend could visit as many places possible as she was only going to be in Japan for a week. We planned on visiting Kawaguchiko, Kyoto, Osaka and Nara. My only worry was that we were travelling during the most busiest period of the year. New Year is pretty chaotic in terms of travel, as many Japanese people travel back to their hometowns to visit friends and family. Japanese people also visit temples and shrines to pray and make wishes for the New Year. That meant that the trains and shinkansen would be bombarded with people, so I was dreading the travelling.
Travelling is really fun though, I always get super excited when I’m about to embark on a mini adventure. I’m getting better at travelling light too, and above are my must need items when travelling.
I woke up really early to take the 7am train to Ueno to meet my girlfriend. The train journey was around two and a half hours, so I was really hoping I would be able to get a seat. I spent the first 45 minutes standing until we reached Utsunomiya where I was lucky enough to find a seat. The train eventually got more and more crammed, to the point where people were wedging themselves through the door. I have never been so thankful for a train seat before! Haha!
After arriving in Ueno, I took the train to Nippori to meet my girlfriend. We checked into our hotel and then made our way to Tokyo station to take a bus to Lake Kawaguchiko. After living in Japan for more than 10 months, I still hadn’t seen Mount Fuji, so I was really excited to visit Kawaguchiko to get an amazing view. Kawaguchiko is one of the five famous lakes known for viewing Mount Fuji. It’s also well known for the famous painting of Mount Fuji by Hokusai. It was a 2 hour bus journey from Tokyo station. I fell asleep for most of the bus journey, but towards the end I could see Mount Fuji in the distance and it was awe strikingly beautiful.
When we arrived at Kawaguchiko station, even the view from the station was incredible as Mount Fuji was in perfect view in the background. We made our way down to Lake Kawaguchiko, but from there we couldn’t get a view of Mount Fuji. After doing a little bit of walking, we found a trail and decided to follow it uphill. It was really tiring, but we managed to make it to the observatory deck, and the view was stunning!
Unfortunately, we had arrived at Kawaguchiko quite late in the afternoon, so we didn’t really have much time before sunset. Thankfully I managed to get some nice shots from the observatory deck, and it was one of those scenes which I needed a moment to take in. After taking photos, we made our way back to the station. I was slightly disappointed that we weren’t able to explore Kawaguchiko more, and we weren’t able to see Mount Fuji from the lake view. But the view from the observatory deck still made it worthwhile. For those who are planning on visiting Kawaguchiko over the winter, I suggest taking the morning bus to allow yourself time to see everything before the sunsets.
We soon took the bus back to Tokyo, and headed to Shibuya to have dinner. We were ready to call it a night. A pretty exhausting first day, but I could finally say that I had seen Mount Fuji! Another thing to tick off my bucket list.
The second day we were ready to head to Kyoto! I was ready for the shinkansen chaos. We checked out of our hotel very early and headed straight to Tokyo station. The station was packed with people, with long queues at the ticket offices. As we were boarding the shinkansen, the queues were insanely long. I was pretty sure that we would have to stand for the duration of the journey as we had booked non-reserved seats. I told my girlfriend to go in front of me and to go straight to a seat if she found one. Luckily, we managed to find two seats together. It was seriously a dream come true! We managed to sleep most of the two and a half hour journey to Kyoto. It felt really nice to be back in Kyoto!
The first thing we did was check into our Air bnb which was located in Arashiyama. I didn’t have enough time to visit Arashiyama on my last visit, so I was really looking forward to it. The walk to central Arashiyama was really nice, and we had a luscious view of the river as we crossed Togetsukyo bridge. We were lucky enough to spot a few geishas walking along the river. I was so excited as I wasn’t lucky enough to see any on my last visit to Kyoto. I’ve heard that spotting geishas in Kyoto is very rare, and Kyoto is the only place in Japan where geishas still remain. Their kimonos were so beautiful!
Central Arashiyama was filled with tiny stores, cafes and restaurants bustling with people. Arashiyama is most famous for its bamboo grove and Tenryuji Temple, but because it was already getting quite late, we decided to come again on a different day. Walking through the streets of Arashiyama was enough to keep us occupied. The souvenir shops were really worth going into, and there were plenty matcha cafes and food stalls to try out!
New Year’s Eve, I made sure that we were not doing any travelling on the train or shinkansen. I could only imagine it to be absolute mayhem! Instead, we started the day off by visiting Kinkakuji, probably the most famous and well known historical site in Kyoto. I visited this place on my last visit to Kyoto in October, and it was interesting to visit again during winter as the autumn leaves had all disappeared. The amount of tourists who visit Kinkakuji is insane, which can get quite frustrating when you are wanting to take a photo. You literally have to fight for a spot to squeeze into, and even when you manage to find one, some people will push you out of the way.
After we visited Kinkakuji, we made our way to Kiyomizu dera. I love this place. The cobbled streets surrounding Kiyomizu dera have a very traditional Japanese feel to it. It’s this charm which makes me love Kyoto. We made sure to try out the matcha ice cream there, and also the famously known dango!
We spent most of the afternoon walking through the streets of Higashiyama. We then visited Kiyomizu dera as the sun was setting, and I managed to get some really nice shots of the skyline.
With it being New Year’s Eve, we decided to visit Yasaka shrine which is just a few minutes walk from Kiyomizu dera. The place was filled with people, and there were many festival stalls! I love festival food, and my girlfriend has been wanting to try it for a long time, so the timing was perfect! We spent so much money on festival food alone. Yakitori, grilled squid, karaage, daifuku, taiyaki etc. But it was worth it!
I also noticed a lot of people buying some rope and setting the ends on fire.
We didn’t really have much planned for the countdown, as I read that the Japanese usually queue up at shrines and temples to pray rather than holding firework displays. At around 9pm, massive queues were already forming outside of temples. I had never seen anything like it!
It was still around 9pm, and I couldn’t really imagine waiting around at Yasaka shrine until midnight. So we decided to head back to our air bnb near Arashiyama. When we got off at our station, Matsuotaisha, there was a huge crowd outside the shrine by the station. We decided to follow the crowd into the shrine, and again there were many festival stalls! The atmosphere was great, with crowds queueing up to enter the temple for midnight, and also food stalls as far as the eye could see. With it being quite a local shrine, there were hardly any foreigners around, so we really got the local experience. We tried chicken skin gyoza which was delicious, and also castella cake balls. We also bought roasted satsuma-imo (Japanese sweet potato), which was even more enjoyable on such a cold night. We managed to stay at the shrine for the countdown. As we were queueing up for food, we could just about make out people shouting the countdown in the distance followed by a few cheers.
First day of 2017, we made a visit back to Arashiyama to visit the bamboo grove and Tenryuji temple. I wasn’t expecting the entrance to the bamboo grove to literally be through a side street. We followed the signs and made our way up. It was a really nice walk, and the tall bamboo put me in total zen mode.
After strolling around Arashiyama, we took the bus to Ginkakuji. It was still pretty early in the day, but the bus journey from Arashiyama to Ginkakuji seemed to take forever. When we arrived at the stop, the roads soon became familiar to me and we made our way up to Ginkakuji. The path leading up to Ginkakuji is filled with tiny food stalls selling matcha desserts, steamed buns, dango etc. I had visited Ginkakuji on my previous trip to Kyoto, and it’s also a very famous must see attraction if you plan on visiting Kyoto. You can read about it in my previous post on Kyoto.
After visiting Ginkakuji we spent our evening in Sanjo. Sanjo is the shopping district of Kyoto, and I stayed at this place on my last trip. For those who are planning a trip to Kyoto, I recommend staying in Sanjo as the location is convenient. It has a huge selection of shops and restaurants, and it is literally in the centre of Kyoto. Arashiyama was a nice location to stay in, as it was close to the bamboo grove and also the small quirky stores around the station. However it was quite a distance from a lot of the attractions.
The thing with Kyoto is that most of the attractions are very spaced out, so quite a bit of time is needed to travel from location to location. I was really surprised that bus services and train services were running until quite late over the New Year, I think some buses and trains were operating until 3am. With the number of people heading to shrines and temples, it made sense! I was worried prior to my trip that a lot of places would be closed over the New Year and transportation would be really inconvenient, but it was completely wrong. I was really impressed at how efficient the services were everywhere. You would never have thought that it was the holidays. There were many local stores and restaurants which had closed over the New Year, but finding a place to eat did not seem like too much of a problem.
We were due to head to Osaka in the morning but we decided to make another visit to Hirashiyama to rent yukatas! I didn’t originally plan on doing this, but my girlfriend really wanted to try so I thought why not!
Admittedly, the service we received at the rental store was pretty bad. I was quite appalled at how rude the staff were to me. They just assumed that I spoke Chinese, so spoke to me using Mandarin Chinese. When I told them that I didn’t understand, they were very blunt and rude to me in English. Also upon entering the store, we wanted to check the yukatas before renting them. But the staff took us in to get changed first before choosing our yukatas, which gave us no option but to rent them from their store. It was like a trap! And there was a lot of sitting and waiting around, and altogether it took 2 hours for us to choose and get changed into our yukatas when we were told it would take 30 minutes.
With all the negatives aside, I was quite happy overall with how the yukatas looked. It was an experience getting dressed, and it took a lot longer than I thought. I was surprised at the number of layers needed, and also the number of pins. The lady who was dressing me warned me that it would be very tight around the stomach, and boy was she right! She pulled the fabric so tight that I had to take a deep breath! My girlfriend’s yukata had even more layers, and we both left the store hobbling and struggling to breathe, haha!
Higashiyama seemed like the perfect spot to rent our yukatas from as the streets have a very picturesque, traditional Japanese style to it. It was probably my favourite part of the entire trip, walking along the narrow cobbled streets wearing a yukata. We got stares from a lot of people, and tourists were taking photos of us. The yukatas were so tight that I joked to my girlfriend saying it was probably best for us to skip lunch! We ended up going to a tiny soba restaurant, and it was a restaurant which had Japanese style seating. It was a challenge having to take off our clogs (getas) and step on to the platform where the seating was. Then we had to bend down and kneel for the duration of the meal. I’m still not use to the whole kneeling position, but I’ve found that I can endure a lot longer than when I first came to Japan!
We were also super lucky to spot more geishas!
After spending the whole day with our yukatas on and taking as many photos as we could, we returned them to the rental store and made our way back to Arashiyama to collect our things from the air bnb. We were setting off to Osaka later than planned, but the good thing about staying in Arashiyama was that we could take the train straight from our station. It was an hour train journey with one change in between, so we ended up arriving in Osaka at around 8pm. I was pretty excited, as I’ve never been to Osaka before and I was excited to try the takoyaki there!
Once we arrived at Osaka, we made our way to our air bnb apartment. We had trouble with accessing the apartment as there was some miscommunication regarding the key. This meant that by the time we entered the apartment, it was already too late to head out to the city centre to get dinner. We decided to eat local and have an early night, ready for a busy day!
We were contemplating whether to head to Nara for a day trip, since we wouldn’t have much time to see Osaka. In the end we decided to go, as we thought it would be best to see as many places as we could and Nara is so close to Osaka (an hour train journey). We woke up early and took the train to Nara. Nara is famous for its wild deer, and they’re not shy when approaching humans. I was told by a lot of my colleagues at work to be careful when approaching them as there is a chance they could attack you. I was told stories of people being bitten, and one of my teachers at school recalled being charged at by one.
Arriving at Nara, we took the bus to Todaiji Temple. This is the most famous temple in Nara, and it holds the world’s biggest bronze Buddha statue known as Daibutsu. It served as one of the seven great temples of Japan. It’s a must see if you visit Nara! The area surrounding the temple was incredibly busy, and we had to cross Ueno Park in order to reach Todaiji. There were so many deer roaming the grounds freely. I made sure to keep a distance from them! Many people were still queuing up to visit the temples in the area to pray. There were plenty festival stalls for us to try as well.
As we approached the entrance gate to Todaiji Temple, I was really impressed by the two structures on each side of the gate resembling the Nio Guardian Kings. They were huge, and the detail on each statue was unbelievable. The gate itself was a beautiful, faded wooden structure, a complete contrast to some of the brightly painted shrines and pagodas in Kyoto.
Nara really gives a feeling of nature, which makes it a place worth visiting. I was pleasantly surprised by Todaiji Temple. I honestly did not know what to expect, as I have visited many shrines and temples during my time in Japan. In all honesty, shrines and temples all seem very similar to me, so admittedly there are times when I’m not entirely sure how to appreciate them. But Todaiji Temple was enchanting, and I did not expect it to be so big! The air was filled the smell of burning incense sticks, and I was stood there gaping at how beautiful the temple was. We made our way inside, and saw the huge bronze Buddha statue inside.
We spent a total of around 3 hours in Nara, then decided to head back to Osaka. There really isn’t much to do in Nara besides visiting the park and its famous temples, so if anyone is planning a trip to Nara I recommend making it an afternoon trip.
Arriving back in Osaka, we took the train to the famous Dontonbori. This street is famous for its food! It reminded me a lot of Tokyo, but a lot busier. There were many restaurants along this street, and also many takoyaki restaurants! Some with insane queues. We decided to have lunch at a sushi restaurant, the sushi was so good!
We spent the rest of the day wondering around Nanba and doing some shopping. I managed to find the famous Glico man! It’s seen as the icon of Osaka, and the display was installed in 1935 and advertises Glico candy, a Japanese confectionary company.
We ate a lot of ramen during our trip, but the best ramen were the ones we ate at local ramen bars. There was one particular ramen bar on the main street of Dontonbori which we queued up for a while to try. The tonkotsu ramen was delicious! I’m really going to miss this when I go back home!
This was the day I was dreading the most. Our task was to travel back to Tochigi from Osaka. I was not looking forward to carrying our heavy suitcase from station to station, and also fighting for a shinkansen seat! We visited Osaka Castle before starting our journey back home. There was no way we could leave Osaka without seeing the castle!
Since we had very little time, we didn’t spend much time at the castle. We literally went there, took a few photos then went straight back to the station to take the shinkansen to Tokyo. We didn’t have time to go inside the castle, but seeing it from outside was already impressive.
We then made our way to Osaka station to take the shinkansen to Tokyo. We were lucky enough to get a seat again, and we bought bento to eat! Again, I felt like we were very lucky being able to sit for the duration of the journey as the shinkansen started to fill up quick. A lot of people were standing with their suitcases. After arriving at Tokyo station, we took the next shinkansen back to Tochigi. Altogether, it took us around 4 hours to head back home.
As soon as we arrived back in my town, we went to a yakiniku restaurant with my Japanese friend. The food was great, yakiniku has to be one of my favourite Japanese foods ever! I mentioned to my friend that I like to eat melon pan, so she ordered melon pan ice cream. I had no idea that they served it at the restaurant, and it was so cool placing the melon pan on the yakiniku grill to heat it up. Not only that, but it tasted amazing!
1/5 Tochigi One thing I wasn’t able to do with my girlfriend the last time she visited Japan was to take her to an onsen. I love onsens, and after such a busy trip I felt that it would be perfect to spend the last day relaxing in an onsen pool. We ended up going to an onsen hotel up in Nasu. We took the morning shuttle bus up to the hotel, and it was snowing on the way there. It was the same onsen I went to on Christmas Day. It was nice to have a change in scene and spend time in the countryside. Japan has a lot more to offer than just the big cities like Tokyo, Osaka etc. The countryside is beautiful, and for those travelling to Tochigi, I really recommend visiting Nikko or Nasu.
We really couldn’t have planned our trip any better, as we were feeling fresh and fully recharged after the onsen. My whole body was aching from all the travelling and carrying our luggage, but the onsen really does wonders in relaxing your muscles and helping your skin. We took it easy for the rest of the day, and then I took my girlfriend to the train station for her to head to Haneda airport. The trip went by so fast, but I had a lot of fun. It was fun cramming as much stuff as we could into one week, and travelling and seeing so many different places. I have to say that we were incredibly lucky with travelling. I mentioned that I was dreading travelling during winter break, but all in all it wasn’t bad at all.
I honestly never thought that I would be able to spend 2017 travelling Japan with my girlfriend. It is such a big difference to my usual New Year celebrations at home. Every year I would spend my New Year working at my parent’s takeaway, and then hurrying home to catch the countdown on TV before heading to bed. All I can say is that I feel so blessed to have this opportunity to live and work in Japan. It took a lot of courage to make the decision to come here, but taking that first step can really change your life completely. I really hope that 2017 is a great year for you all. Don’t be afraid of taking chances and going for opportunities which may never arise again. Life is too short, so we need to make the most of it! All the best guys!