No bones about it—Japan is the most enchanting country I have ever visited. No other way to describe it. It is the only country, so far, that I yearn to come back to—YEARN! While I do go back to Hong Kong and Singapore from time to time, it’s usually to either shop, watch a concert/musical or visit friends who’ve relocated there. But Japan…I just want to explore every nook and cranny of that country, and then come back again every time the seasons change.
Every moment spent in that amazing place was just priceless. I remember an interview with an industrial designer a few years ago, and he said that what separates the third/developing world from the first is in the way the country is designed. Design is all-encompassing—you see it in their transit system, architecture, the brands associated with the country, how they style their food, and even in the way the people dress themselves. Never have I experienced what he said more clearly than in Japan. Their identity as a nation is more pronounced compared to the other countries I’ve been to in Asia. They are in a league of their own.
One of the first things my friends and I noticed off the bat (apart from the fuh-reezing winter cold) was that the Japanese are a subdued bunch. We took the airport limousine bus from Kansai Airport to Herbis Osaka, and the entire trip we were the only people talking. We weren’t talking loudly, per se, but it seemed that way because the others were whispering! Yup, day one and already we stuck out like sore thumbs. :D
Day two was no different. We went to have coffee in the Starbucks beside Hotel Monterey Umeda—we stayed in probably the only Venetian-themed hotel in the city—and again, we were quite the commotion. We were the only people talking in the cafe. The only other sound was a piano concerto playing in the background, which reminded me of Haruki Murakami because his characters would always discuss, at one point, a love for classical music. The three of us chose that day to wear color, too, and we soon found out that the people here love their neutrals. We were surrounded by a sea of black, grey and beige.
Because our flight arrived past nine in the evening Japan time (they’re an hour ahead), we just spent the evening exploring the Umeda area where our Hotel was. Our main agenda was really to curb our growling stomachs so we ended up in a small restaurant, where we had our first taste of authentic Japanese soba.
The latter part of the evening was spent walking around Umeda, which was pretty quiet because almost all the establishments were already closed for the night. In a way, it was a welcome start to our Japanese adventure. The cold weather alone took a lot of getting used to—I was shivering the moment I stepped out of the bus—and I guess we needed a quiet night to take it all in. :)
To cut this entry short (because I know I can go on and on and on when I’m super excited), I’ve decided to list down my favorite Japan moments. Here they are in no particular order…
1. Stalking Geishas in Gion, Kyoto. I swear, they are like ninjas. Don’t let the dainty slippers fool you—they walk pretty fast. :D
It was drizzling by the time we arrived in Gion, but the rain only enhanced the charm of the place.
2. Seeing the Kinkaku-ji, Kyoto’s famed Golden Pavilion. It’s a World Heritage monument and is a must for a first-time visit to Kyoto :)
Make sure you explore the entire compound. The temple may be the highlight, but the place has traditional Japanese buildings that are a sight for sore eyes :D
3. Making our own okonomiyaki. Also known as the Japanese Pizza. We were pretty hungry after walking around Kinkaku-ji so we decided to park in one of the restaurants near the area and we got to make our own okonomiyaki.
Check out our masterpieces:
4. Navigating Japan’s subway and JR transit systems. Turns out I’m a geek when it comes to navigating around new places—I was the designated navigator of our trip (we each had our respective roles—Bea was the interpreter and Marlon was the gadgets-slash-entertainment guy), and it was really fun planning out our routes and itinerary, and actually getting our touristy asses where we needed to be without getting lost…so yay me! :D
I loved how efficient their transit system is. Wish we can have something like this someday in the Philippines. That would be really awesome.
5. Ordering food in an izakaya (Japanese pub) in Dotombori. The menu was in Japanese, had no pictures, and the waiters spoke not a word of English. We had the most delicious meal anyway. And this was my favorite restaurant experience because the waiters were so nice and they probably found us as funny as we found them :P
Turns out this place specialized in yakitori, which is not so much a full meal as an accompaniment to beer and sake. This pork-and-something-else dish was sooo frickin’ good!
Because of this particular night out, we became sake converts, too. It sure beats the hell out of vodka. We also found out that the locals like it with Oolong tea, but that night we decided to drink it pure.
6. Experiencing the nightlife in Dotombori. This is probably the most vibrant part of Osaka. Everybody here is dressed to the nines—it was survival of the flashiest!
Walking around the place was fun—especially if you love to people-watch—and it had less busy side streets that were quite charming, too :D
7. Discovering Nara-koen. Nara really just blew me away. The place merits an entire post so I will just post a few photos..
8. Experiencing the deers. One thing about Nara-Koen is that there are more deers than people in this neck of the woods. I know deers are gentle creatures, but the sight of so many in one place freaked me out a little. But only for about a second because they were too cute. Haha.
9. Shopping. Retail therapy is best experienced in Japan. :P
10. Last, but definitely not the least—seeing sakura and plum blossoms for the first time.
Our flight from Osaka wasn’t until eight in the evening so we decided to check out Osaka Castle.
We didn’t even make it inside the place because we saw a park where cherry and plum trees were beginning to bloom. This was totally unexpected because they weren’t supposed to bloom until March, but they made an early appearance anyway. :)
We were so lucky to have been there when we did. It was the best way to end a really good first trip to the land of the rising sun :D