DAY 1Nov 05 2017
The Journey to the Land of Dreams
Early morning drop off to Heathrow for the 45 minute Amsterdam flight - quite uneventful but surprised they served a cheese sandwich for such a short journey.
3 hour layover at Schipol Amsterdam where I managed to grab an overpriced sandwich and pint of Heineken 'Extra Cold'. Damn marketing gimmicks.
Overnight flight to Tokyo. Worst airline food I've ever had but sat next to the Dutch National Cheerleeding Team who were on their way to the world championships. Easy immigration etc but spent too long faffing around the airport getting rail pass, money, pocket wifi etc.
DAY 2Nov 06 2017
Narita International Airport
The Tokyo subway system is one of the most confusing travel experiences I've had and takes some getting used to. After walking around tokyo station for a good 25 minutes (it's HUGE), I finally managed to haul my luggage onto the right train. Got to the hostel at 2pm and left luggage there with the intent of excursion.
There was a nearby festival at Ootroi Shrine which had lots of street food - octopus, chicken, fish, sweets to name a few, all on a stick. Had a chicken skewer and some noodles. The festival it self was to bring good luck by buying a decorative bamboo based bouquet and performing a clapping ceremony when buying. It's bad luck to haggle on it's price (hmm 🤔).
Super jet-lagged at this point so decided on a power nap, which turned out to be way to long. Woke at 7.45pm and met hostelmates who were going to Golden Gai in Shinjuku. GG is a set of narrow alleyways full of mini Japanese bars snd I'd consider it an undiscoved (well i guess there were still a fair number of tourists roaming around) gem of Tokyo. The problem being that the bars all had cover charges so we decided to head to the local Family Mart for cannies - classy.
Shinjuku Golden Gai
DAY 3Nov 07 2017
Body clock is super messed up. Awoke at 5am and chilled/snoozed till 6.30am. Had breakfast with hostel friends, Megan, Tom and Alanna from the local bakery which gave us free coffee. Left for Tokyo station but missed the train by 30 seconds so got on the next one.
I knew the first thing I wanted to do in Niigata was find the sake vending machine and after 10 minutes of wandering the station (which is also a shopping mall), I found it and it was glorious - a seperate room inside a large classy alcohol shop with some light jazz for background music.
While happily sampling the sake, I asked a local man, simply, which one was his favourite and in typical Japanese fashion for hospitality, he decided to take me out for a meal. He was a 45 year old firefighter who had lived his whole life in Niigata. He spoke the no English but thanks to Google translate, we got by very nicely and I got to eat a healthy amount of Hegisoba - a local noodle dish made from seaweed. Wouldn't let me pay either; what a nice guy.
Wow Hotel Nikko
I was looking forward to this hotel since it was the only non-hostel I'd be staying in during this trip and it delivered. The tallest building in Niigata, with 31 floors, heralded spectacular views of the city not only from the observation deck at the top but from the room as well. The evening was a excursion to grab dinner which was at a random japanese restaurant that looked somewhat busy but also one where people came for a quick meal.
DAY 4Nov 08 2017
A morning scouting the area from above gave sight to a nearby graveyard, which from my time watching Japanese anime, had always fascinated me (maybe because they are usually only shown during the emotional scenes). A quick excursion sated my curiosity - death is another aspect of life that the Japanese do very eligantly.
Hotel Nikko Niigata
今代司酒造（株）- Imayotsukasa Sake Brewery
The previous day, I'd seen Niigata's animate store, a shop for fans for Otaku culture (anime, manga, video games), on the way to get dinner. I wanted to visit as I hadn't had time in Tokyo to go to Akihabara yet and the nerd side of the brain was bemoaning me for it. They didn't have much in the way of English translated material but I bought a couple of yugioh cards which was curbed my hunger for the moment.
It was then off to the Japan famous Sake brewery, Imayo Tsukasa - a 20 minute walk from the station. The tour guide told me there would no English tours today but luckily, there was a set of middle aged Japanese ladies learning to be translation guides on tour with their teacher officially licensed from the tourism board. They translated the tour for me as we went along which again, epitomises the Japanese hospitality culture. After the tour, the attendees get to try the sake. I've learnt my taste buds appreciate sweet sake more than they do spicy.
Next destination was Saitou Villa, a traditional Japanese villa, built around 100 years ago by a rich family as a summer home. With the autumn colours in full flow, it was beautiful. Quick tour in English where I met a Chinese traveller from Honk Kongw who spoke fairly good English so we decided to walk back to the station and grab a meal together with a quick stop at the sake vending machine.
Saito Family Summer Villa
新潟駅 イタリアン ICHIE ～いちえ～ | ランチ 女子会 顔合わせ 結納 二次会 隠れ家 和食
DAY 5Nov 09 2017
Oak Hostel Cabin
After a morning of reading manga comics from the hostel and getting ready to leave, it was a 2 hour bullet (train) ride to Tokyo. The rest of the gang were to arrive today but I got to the hostel earlier so I decided to give in to my craving to visit Akihabara.
Oak Hostel Cabin
The promise land for Otaku culture did not disappoint. Full of life, neon and nerds, it's dubbed 'Electric City' for a reason. There were video game arcades/stores, electronic stores, manga/anime complexes and of course the very well known maid cafes. Trying to not do everything in one visit, I ended up scouting the merch I wanted to bring back home but not lug around for 10 days but did try my hand at the instantly perishable games in the Sega arcade. Time gets away from you when you're finally seeing so many of the culture references that've influenced and taken up much of your time growing up.
After some great pork ramen in Akihabara and some more wandering, I decided to go back to hostel to meet up with the rest of the squad. Tired but hyped up, we found a 'garage' bar nearby. It was a really low kry setting but a great atmosphere. They had a guitar and since Bhavik can play, we decided to have a jam session with the group (and sometimes the whole bar) singing classics from Wonderwall to Buffalo Soldier. It was one of the most surreal and fun experiences that I've had on a holiday - singing without consequence with friends for hours in middle of random bar in Tokyo that we happened upon. There are now quite of few videos flying around showing my 'talent'. The world finally knows about my secret passion for singing.
Japanese efficiency is known throughout the world and capsule hostels epitomise this. Surprisingly, I didn't find them claustrophobic but some do make you feel like you're a stow away in a shipping container on a ship.
DAY 6Nov 10 2017
Morning train to Osaka resulted in a game of President and being a natural king at the game, I quickly established my rule over my subordinates. After your fourth term, you can make a rule and silly random ones are best. My proclamation:
"Every time you play a queen, you touch the nose of the person on your left"
Rule review: stupid, effective and resulted in a few laughs
The group was craving ramen and one of the most famous places to eat it in Osaka is Ichiram, located in Dotonbori. The restaurant had the standard Japanese system of ordering from a machine and then being seated and food was awesome as usual.
For anyone reading this, please, if you have to experience one thing in Japan above all else, let it be an Onsen complex. Why the whole world has not caught on to this genius concept, I do not understand. We decided to go to Spa World, a massive onsen complex in Tsutenkaku. A completely nude spa, with about 8 rooms and 3 saunas. Naturally you're not allowed to take pictures inside so the best way to describe it would be Johannes' analogy:
"If you were in heaven and went to a bath, this is what it would look like"
Bar crawls have been a staple night out during my adult life and have resulted in many great memories. This is was no different but also not the same as any previous ones. Osaka's Dotonbori area has an entire streets with buildings that have 6 floors and a bar on each. The bars are often quite small and some even look like they are in someone's living room. A long fun and memorable night, resulting the squad arriving back at the hotel at 5.30am.
DAY 7Nov 11 2017
The best nights often result in late mornings. In this case, there was no morning. We woke up at 12:40pm and rushed to Namba, an hub for Osaka, for our walking tour at 2pm. The guide led us through Dotonbori - the Times Square equivalent for the city, and then through the local fish / street food market.
We left the tour at this point but not before trying a some of the delicacies on offer. Starting from desert, strawberry mochi, then the main, kobe beef rice bowl, and the starter, Tokoyaki were bought and consumed in that order. Food is a usually a big part of my travelling experience and Japan left my taste buds insanely satisfied.
Since Osaka castle closed at 5pm and much daylight was spent sleeping the alcohol off, we weren't sure what Osaka castle would yield. However, we arrived at the perfect time and enjoyed the castle view in the daylight and after sunset. The autumn colours of the gardens were beautiful and the nearby hotel's view of the lit up castle was both the treat and the cherry on top.
The next destination for the day was the Umeda Sky building - two sky scrapers with an observation deck combining them in the middle. Trip Advisor recommended eating at a restaurant called Kiji inside the building but there was a long queue and an hour's wait for it. We were already very hungry but decided to wait anyway. The restaurant only served a dish called Okonomiyaki - an egg based omlette type dish with a number of vegetables and different meats on top, served with fried noodles. Although already cooked, the food was served on a hotplate in the middle of the table which was a cool concept if not slightly gimmicky.
Stomachs full, a trip up the tower to the observation deck gave a full view of Osaka which is beautiful at night. The pictures don't do it justice but neither will my words.
Being one of two Saturday nights on the trip, it was obvious it had to be a big one and we delivered. After an hour of predrinks at the hostel, which resulted in the funniest joke of the trip (maybe even the year) being told - thank you Johannes, you legend, it was off to Club Ghost. Solid music, fairly inexpensive drinks and a good crowd led another very memorable night 😉
DAY 8Nov 12 2017
Two and a half hours of sleep does not bode well for the human body the next day, especially with alcohol and a consecutive days of walking well over 25000 steps but we powered through surprisingly well the next day and arrived in Hiroshima. After a short ferry to Miyajima Island, the photography session for the famous partially submerged Grand Torii Gate started and lasted well after it got dark. After a dinner of unagi and rice, it was time to call it an early night to catch up on some much needed sleep.
DAY 9Nov 13 2017
Well rested, an early morning start to see the Peace Memorial Park and Museum in Hiroshima. A beautiful well maintained park best seen early to avoid the crowds. The museum though, was my highlight for this city: one of the best I have been to anywhere in the world. Hiroshima suffered a cruel fate at 8:14am on August 6th 1945. A dark day for mankind which to this day, illustrates the need for worldwide nuclear disarmament. A very touching and humanising experience well worth the extra effort it took to get to Hiroshima.
A short bullet train ride (still cool after a few times) landed us in Himeji, a town between Osaka and Hiroshima famous for it's beautiful pearl white castle. It has been called the most beautiful castle in all of Japan and it's not hard to see why but as you'll read in countless other blogs about it, for eyes of most people, it's average. However, while climbing up the inside, I felt like a Pokémon trainer going through a gym - so much so that I reopened Pokémon Go after a year of it lying dormant on my phone and battled the gym at the top of the castle. The city/town is empty apart from this tourist attraction and we were glad we chose not to spend the night there as was penciled in in a prototype plan for the trip. The castle had been under renovation for the past 3 years and only fully reopened this year so we were lucky to be able to see it in all it's magnificence. The ticket includes access to a nearby garden which as with most Japanese gardens in the autumn was extremely picturesque as well. A minor incendent of a forgotten jacket during this stoppage but it only cost an hour overall so no biggie.
After recovering the misplaced jacket at Osaka, it was a surprisingly long (1 hour) train ride to Kyoto and an entertaining taxi ride to the hostel. Ram and I told the driver we were from England and he started laughing (in fact he laughed at everything we said) and then started singing the Beatles to us because they were his favourite band. Some people have the quality of having a funny laugh which is good because laughing should be contagious and this guy, well, he had an infectious one - I'm talking ebola levels.
A small excursion out in the evening to find dinner which ended up being ramen (have I mentioned it's my favourite meal at the time of writing this?).
DAY 10Nov 14 2017
The first day in Kyoto was a rainy one so we adjusted our plans accordingly. Japanese tradition incorporates a formal tea ceremony into their gatherings where the host prepares and serves sweets and tea to her guests. There are a number of specific movements and mannerisms to be followed to adhere to the almost 'ritual'. After a supermarket breakfast of sushi, milk and fruit, we payed to attend one of these tea ceremonies. Of course it was full of only Gajjin (Japanese word for foreigners) but was an insightful experience where we got make our own matcha tea with real Japanese tea making equipment. If you're looking to see the more cultural side of Kyoto and don't mind paying, I'd recommend attending one of these.
After grabbing some food (Japanese of course), we attended an entertainment theatre, again mostly for Gajjin, called Geisha corner. There were performances of traditional Japanese dances, music, artwork and a genuinely funny comedy performance. It also included a tea ceremony performance which was significantly worse than the one we'd attended earlier so we were happy that we'd done so. A popular must do for the culture travel hunter, I guess. Managed to squeeze in a few rounds of (in our case beer driven) card game President before sleeping as well.
DAY 11Nov 15 2017
Everyone knows if you want good photos, whether that be for Instagram, your own collection or even just to show off how much of a broadly cultured jetsetting baller you are to your friends (I think I might be all three), you have to wake up early. That's exactly what we did for the bamboo forest and it was well worth the pain. The bamboo forest itself, in my opinion was over hyped - worth seeing if you're in Kyoto but don't expect to be blown away by it. However, if visiting in the autumn (or probably any time except winter), if you miss the Okochi Sanso Gardens, in the bantering words of the lads on the trip, "you fu**ed it". This was the best garden of the trip by a distance and the others werent bad either. The vibrant colours made for some spectacular pictures and the whole atmosphere was was super relaxing. However, if we hadn't of gone early to beat the crowds, I don't think my review of the garden would have been half as good.
As mentioned before, free walking tours have become a staple in my trips to Europe so why not in Asia as well. They are tip based so the guides try harder and are significantly younger than the paid ones which makes it, for me, more relatable. The Kyoto free walking tour is one of the better ones I've been on and included a wander around the famous Geisha quarter of Kyoto. The tour guide turned out to be very knowledgeable, able to answer any questions without hesitation and in detail with a few personal anecdotes thrown in too to make the experience more relatable - commendations to her. I learnt there are are two major religions in Japan: Shinto and Buddhism. However, unlike most other countries where religion is a cause for conflict and rifts in society, in the Land of Sunshine (also learnt that's what Japan means because the sun rises there first), the two religions compliment each other and often share shrines and temples.
It was then time to visit the Kiyumistu-dera temple for which Ankush wanted to capture the sunset and the lights turning on with a timelapse. Another nice temple but still under some construction I think, it wasn't clear. A few cool clicks though.
Kyoto was the only city in Japan where taxis became the primary mode of transport for us. A couple of reasons for this: 6 seater taxis existed so no need to pay for 2 taxis and the fact that they were somewhat inexpensive. The guys had been to a famous ramen place called Ippudo in London and wanted to try the original Kyoto version. It was ramen, so I didn't complain.
DAY 12Nov 16 2017
Fushimi Inari, the most Instagrammed place in Japan, the highest rated Japanese attraction on Trip Advisor, the most visited tourist attraction in Japan- the list goes on for this place and it not hard to see why. It is spectacularly beautiful. Another very early morning to avoid the crowds was well worth it. If you haven't heard of it, Fushimi Inari is the shrine of shrines which has over a thousand Tori gates going up a hill in Kyoto. Not only some prize winning photos but surprisingly relaxing walking up the hill when there is no one there. We saw the crowds flocking in on our way out so, like the bamboo forest, smashed it in our decision to have an early morning. After trying lots of street food which included grilled baby octopus and a tad more shopping, it was time to ship off to Tokyo but not before completing Kyoto by going to the 'Grandfather of tea shops' where we treated ourselves to sweets and very expensive tea, brewed in a specific type of tea pot for a short 10 seconds.
At this stage of the blog, I've forgotten much of what I have said before so I maybe repeating myself when I say Japanese food in itself is a reason to travel to the country. I mention this in this post because we happened to stumble upon on another great restaurant where they had grills in the middle of the table and you barbequed your own meat and veg. A great social way to have a meal and the meat it self was of amazing quality.
DAY 13Nov 17 2017
When you travel a lot, you start to notice some trends in your holidays. One of these is the difference of pace between days: some of them you smash through five or six key activities between waking up and going to sleep and some days are a transition day where you are recovering or even travelling between destinations. Friday was not the latter.
A 6am start to make the city's famous and biggest fish market in the Chuo district. We had heard good things about it but weren't too sure on the specifics and hadn't planned much for it but as seemed to be recurring theme in the trip (and please excuse my colloquial mannerism) - we freaking smashed it! The fish market itself was great: large, very hectic and freely selling many animals I'd only seen on the BBC's Blue Planet.
Although the same location, I must split this entry into a separate post to explain the world famous sushi restaurant at the market because of the significance it has had on my life and taste buds. I have some positive feedback and some negative. The positive is that I got to try the best sushi in Japan. The negative side being it has ruined sushi for me. I will never get to enjoy sushi again in my life without paying for a £400 plane ticket to Tokyo. I started and ended with the prawn sushi and it was bliss for my mouth. In fact, all of them melted like chocolate but the prawn, for me, stood out especially.
Probably smelling like fish, we made our way to Tokyo's tallest building, the Skytree observation tower. Below the tower, there is a shopping mall. While walking to the entrance of the tower, we stumbled (seemed to be another recurring theme) upon one of two Pokémon Centres in Tokyo. A euphoric feeling came over me and I spent the next 20 minutes with the mentality of a 10 year old kid picking up whatever took my fancy. I only realised what I'd done once I got to the counter to pay but chose to buy it all anyway. Aah, I love being an adult with a steady first world income. There isn't much to say about the Skytree observation deck itself as I think it's quite self explanatory - it gives a nice 360 view of the city.
If you know me or have been paying close attention to this blog, you know I'm somewhat of a nerd (and proud of it) so Akihabara is heaven. The rest of the afternoon was spent showing the lads my previously visited Akihabara. All of us used to collect Pokémon or Yugioh cards as kids so wanting to complete more childhood dreams, we found a trading card shop with both. I'm not too sure what the Yugioh guys' approach was but us Pokemon card lovers were only interested in the original cards and they had thousands in baskets so you had to go through and find the ones you wanted. Some great finds, Mew, Mewtwo, Zapdos, Moltres, Gyaridos among others. I've decided I want to buy a couple more from eBay and frame them in my room. Another part of Japanese cultural we wanted to experience was the Maid Cafes in Akihabara. The concept is similar to American Hooters but with girls dressed as maids, speaking in high pitched voices and being submissive (they even call you master). Everytime they served us a drink, they made us sing 'Delicious... Magic.... Muii!!'. Quite the eye opener for us about the fetishes of the Japanese. The post for this day is no where near complete!?!
Every person I knew who'd been to Tokyo before had recommended I go to the Robot Restaurant in Shinjuku. Boy were they right to say so. I'd purposely asked people not to explain what it is / hadn't ready anything about it so as it go in with no preconceptions. Spoliers ahead if you want to do the same. It was glorious. The concept is a show where hot skimply dressed girls dance, play drums and fight robots. What is there not to love about that. All of this of course with the most over the top neon LED light show I've seen to date. Only someone on some seriously pure LSD could have come up with stuff.
Being in a world famous capital city on Friday night, it was clear we had to out that night and go HAM at that. And that we did. I can't recall a night in the past year, maybe even two where I've had such fun on a night out. Pre-drinks at the hostel consisting of a solid two hour ring of fire (for which I drew the last king 😵). A really good game in which the rules got so complex that we were drinking up to 10 times (each with a pre drink ritual) for the smallest of mistakes. It was so good, we lost Ram at the end of the game but continued the club in Rappongi called V2 anyway. About £24 for entry but well worth it. It included two drinks, for which we went the classic British Jagerbombs. The barman didnt know what it was and emptied a whole Jagermeister bottle between the four us in 8 drinks. The DJ was one of the best I've experienced in a club with the perfect mixes of RnB, Hip Hop, charts, DnB and dubstep. Reminder to self: you wrote down his name so look him up. Got home around 6am so a solid and very enjoyable 24 hour day.
I almost forgot to mention the best part of the club! I was busting some crazy moves, as you do, and suddenly security started moving people out the way creating a clear pathway. We thought there might be an incident or a celebrity had come in (likely since there were pictures of some big names in the entrance). Turned out to be a dude in a dinosaur costume jumping into the raised platform in the middle of the club and going motherfu**ing HAM with his moves and gnawing at people. Amazing. The club went crazy. Scrap what I said earlier. Best night out EVER.
DAY 14Nov 18 2017
After sleeping in and a super hectic previous day, we decided on a more relaxed schedule was in order. We hadn't visited the Pokémon Center Megastore and wanted to get some shopping done so thought we'd kill two birds and do them in the same place. Maybe it's because we'd already been to the other Pokémon Center but I wasn't impressed by this one as much. It was about the same size and had no extra items - why call it a megastore then? We did enjoy the Pokémon Tournament arcade game though which was basically Tekken with Pokémon.
The rest of the time was spent buying famous Japanese stationery and UniClo clothes. Sorry, shopping is a bit boring to blog about. One sorta interesting thing did occur though: whilst standing outside UniClo, three Japanese girls (probably in their early 20s) approached us and introduced themselves. They wanted to hang with us and take us to a good luck temple about 20 minutes away. We decided to get dinner first and added one on Facebook to keep in contact. After seeing she only had 6 friends on there and a brief Facebook chat which involved multiple requests to go to the temple, we decided it seemed too fishy and left it be.
DAY 15Nov 19 2017
The last day in Japan was another mellow one but still loads of fun. After a morning Japanese curry, we headed to Akihabara yet again to play more arcade games like Mario Kart and an awesome Star Wars game in a pod. There was even a dress up section in Hey! Arcade which we had a little of fun with 😛. The plan was to after lunch, go to an Onsen but the five of us wanted to do different things so we split into three groups. I spent my time shopping for more cool stuff in Japan and boy did I find it. My favourite is an umbrella with a samurai sword handle. Looks epic. After reconvening for dinner, a final drink at a pub ended our stay in the wonderful country.
So that was my trip to my new favourite holiday destination, Japan! I had 24 hours in Korea afterwards which I may put in another blog post. I'll probably end up dumping a few more awesome photos at the bottom of this page in no particular order.
I'd like to end by thanking the guys, Ankush, Ram, Bhavik and Johannes, on the trip for helping to make it so awesome. It wouldn't have been the same without you guys. A special mention to thr rapper Roadman/Big Shaq for his lyrics which became banterful anthems for much of this trip (BALANCE). I reckon this has been my most enjoyable, memorable and darn right most successful holiday so far. Everything went like clockwork and I'm definitely visiting again. Thanks for reading. Arigatou and Sayonara Japan.
DAY 17Nov 21 2017