Well I'm headed back, and as I journey on again I thought maybe I'd compile some of my thoughts on traveling and getting the most out of everything. I don't know! Here they are:
Hostels are awesome: when you are traveling alone, hostels are the best way to meet people. Just come back from your day, get your nap in, and sit around from like 6-7. You'll usually find some friends for dinner, or come back for drinks after! Conversely, don't be that group in the hostel that's just there because it's cheap or something, make friends, be accessible. There was a group of 4 in my 12 person hostel that literally came in and we never saw again. No Fun!
Always say Yes / be easy going / convince people Yes: The nights we went out, I just committed to wandering the streets for at least an hour, because I've learned that no group of more than 4 people can ever agree on something. I dealt with this by forcing everyone to stop at 7-11 so I could get drinks while we "headed to that one place." Of course, it took an hour, then people didn't want to go, I suggested Karaoke, and we did that instead. EZ. Sometimes it's fun to re-arrange your plans a bit. Some Scots were heading one place in Tokyo, so I decided having friends would be more fun than whatever I had planned and went with them...or in Miyajima, why not have a random group of college girls guide you around. I moved slower, but it was fun!
One track trains are always a good choice. They just are. I've literally never met one I didn't like.
Related to that: plan variety. You will get tired of whatever it is you are doing. I was in Puerto Rico doing beach days and best choice I ever made was renting a car and taking four friends to hike the jungles. Of course I popped a tire and had to plan an elaborate cover up scheme...but see that never would have happened if I'd stayed on the beach. When I do towns rapidly like in Japan, find the out of the way village worth staying in (Kanazawa, Hallstatt, etc.), the change in feel is great.
Plan, and plan to not plan. This is controversial. Some people like to "show up" to a country and travel. If I'd done that (and I sort of did at the end), I wouldn't have had a place to stay this weekend. Instead, book hostels and hotels, the cancellation fee is nominal or nonexistent, and decide what you don't want to plan (day-to-day activities). If you meet someone, or something strikes your fancy, you can change plans. But if you don't have a place to stay, you'll spend more time trying to find one than exploring the city you are in.
Observe: Watch what people do and you'll fit in better and maybe learn a bit. I picked up how to use the bus systems in Japan, and how to put your shoes so that you are courteous (always flip them facing out). Did a bunch of people get off at the current subway stop? Should you be getting off or are they going somewhere different.
Security: Know where you are. In Japan, I frequently left my pack when I had it on a bench to take pictures of a garden or a park for a few minutes. The theft rate is like negative there. On the other hand, in some places, I sleep with my camera back in my bed, it's great for spooning and I don't have to trust the locker. Regardless, I always keep my passport, phone, and wallet in my pants (mainly so that I don't lose them) and I generally sleep with my pants under my pillow or at least in bed where I have part of my body on it.
Use your time. Every morning I screenshotted the train timetables to my next city. When I got to a mountain at sunset, I often found I wanted to stay for night, and I could easily reference when the last train was. Leave yourself some buffer, sometimes I made things traveling alone that would have been difficult to do in a group. And when you have down time, take another look at things. Has that hostel you really wanted in the next city freed up? What station are you transferring at? Sometimes you catch something you missed, or find something else you want to do that fits just perfectly. And don't make your connections too tight, even Japanese trains can be late, or though you're really good at traveling, sometimes street names look too similar.
Have Fun. Yeah, I spent most of a Saturday in Kyoto hungover and just wandered a shrine for two hours, so what? It often feels like I'm on grueling pace on Oregon Trail. So when opportunities to just chill with people at a hostel present themselves, I take them. Also, every week and a half or so, give yourself a day to do nothing. It happened in Europe a few times...you'll get homesick or extra tired and just want to watch TV and lay in bed. Do it! It's not a waste, it's making the rest of your trip more efficient.
Relax. Things will go wrong...but they almost always make a good story.
Remember the little things: I just needed a reason to fit this tidbit I forgot in. I was in a bathroom day two here, and the urinal had a TV screen above it. Nice ads, I thought. Unzipped and BOOM. Action fighting pee game where I shooting water at an AI. Was it based on my flow? Idk, I like to think so because I won. But that was so freaking Japanese. The little differences really make these trips fun.
Anyways, that's how I like to travel. Sorry about the poor formatting. Wrote this in a hurry because sadly this trip is coming to an end and I'm boarding a 787. Oh wait, nvm, I'm boarding a 787, things are still awesome. See you in SF!
Turns out things were not quite wound down. Got in to Nagasaki and as I wandered looking for some snacks, I stumbled into an English speaking bar. Now at this point in my trip, I thought I'd pretty much covered everything, but turns out at this small bar, most of the regulars are shipbuilders under various contracts building Carnival cruise ships in the port. One Swedish guy was drunk and literally just being "that guy", most annoying person I've ever seen in a bar. Apparently he's nice normally. Some others came in and out too, a Japanese doctor from Tokyo and I talked for a while; it was a very different experience than the hostel ones.
Anyways, I drank with them for a bit, then after the Swaggering Swed left, we went to a "Sports Bar" where there were no sports. There my guys started to head out, but some (ALT?) English teachers came in. So I chatted with them and they took me to a "Standing Bar". It's basically a long bar with standing room only. You just lean on the back wall and the bar is in front of you, literally the smallest of bars. As people leave, you are obligated to move towards the back (down the bar), so you always know who's been there the longest I only got to slide a little before I looked up from my plum wine (or something) and realized it was 3am already. Had to get a few hours of sleep in before my big day!
I didn't actually have anything planned for Nagasaki, so I wandered around the port, where a Saturday market was happening. Then checked out the Peace Museum and monuments. I figured I'd have extra time today, so I loaded up some Geocaches and found a couple. (I'll make a long post about this tomorrow as I don't think I've blogged about geocaching before). One chain cache seemed to have just been hidden (no finds), but as I got to the logbook I was dismayed to find someone had gotten to it just a few hours earlier. First English find
Random sidebar observation: no one wears sunglasses here. Literally no one. Umbrellas aplenty though. Not sure what the deal is there.
After the long geocache, I barely made it onto a cable car up the mountain to catch sunset. I arrived with about 15 minutes to spare and sat up there for something like 2 hours just snapping pics and looking around. It's one of the top 3 night time views! I was already making the comparison in my mind, but on the way down I caught that one of the others was Hong Kong. Unfortunately, Hong Kong is unrivaled in all my travels. This wasn't even close, but it was really gorgeous especially watching the city lights come to life over sunset.
For a day that I wasn't expecting to amount to much, it came together pretty nicely! I got lucky and snuck onto a cable car as the last person (single riders!), I would have had to do a dead sprint otherwise to try and make the last train. Instead I had a light jog and an extra 5 minutes to be unable to find a bento box for dinner Pulling into Kagoshima on my last Shinkansen now, just two days left!
I spent the beginning of the weekend with a brief stop in Hiroshima to visit the A-Bomb memorial and peace park, followed by a trip to Miyajima, a scenic island just off the coast.
There's not a ton to say about Hiroshima, more than anything it was interesting to see the pacifist culture that's arisen out of the bombings. Especially that it persists to this day. Most of the museum doesn't even put the bombings in the context of the war, but rather as a standalone event presented more as a testament to the horrors of nuclear warfare. Really interesting and sobering visit. Part was under construction as it seems so many things are here (just like Europe!), so after my final taste of the fall leaves, I headed out to Miyajima.
I stayed in a small town on the mainland and took the ferry early in the morning. As I was walking in, I ran into a university professor who told me his English students were practicing by giving tours of the island. The information itself wasn't super, nor was their English, but it was a blast as a cultural experience. We sang some Backstreet Boys, shared pastries and so on. Also, five Japanese girls just for me, who knew I had such powers :-P
After, I hiked up to the mountain on the island for some views. Going on Saturday was a questionable choice as the tourists were out in full force. Deer roam the island as well, but weren't quite as dense as in Nara. It was a long walk, but I got tons of practice greeting people as every single person I passed gave a "Konnichiwa". The view from the top was absolutely awesome, tons of islands lying around and each one had dozens of oyster farms surrounding, they are big here!
The coolest thing was that I stayed long enough to see the Tori Gate at both high tide and then low tide on the way back down. The change was way larger than I expected. Most pictures you see are at high tide and it seems to float on the water, but low tide is a good 3-4 feet lower and it turns out you can literally walk out on the sand under it. Really disorienting to see that after my morning expedition.
On the train, I continue to notice rivers we cross tend to have a very large sea wall far larger than is needed for the tide. It's usually two parts, the inner/bottom part is maybe a few feet above high tide, then there's a wide area people picnic on or run through, and finally outside of that there's another 20-30 foot wall. I don't know how bad monsoon season is here, but they must really be prepared for the worst.
On the second leg of my 4-hour train trip, I sat next to a Japanese guy who was clearly interested in my Samurai Champloo screening session. It took 4 years, but I finally got that headphone splitter purchase to pay off. I brought the movies, he bought us some Prangle-like chips and much fun was had. He even showed me some Judo videos. Language barriers be damned! Remember kids, always carry a headphone splitter, you never know when the moment will strike!
Hotels here on out for me, so things should be winding down in Japan!
Well I'm officially overloaded on Shrines and Temples. Luckily, I managed to go an entire day without visiting one today! I think I may have inadvertently glanced at one, but I didn't mean to!
Osaka was sort of the logical next step before moving South. It's just 25 minutes or so from Kyoto, and is actually distinctly different from other places I've been. It seems to have a much more Western or cosmopolitan feel, though that may just be due to the area I'm staying in. There's sort of a central corridor between two stations where most of the shopping seems to be, there's large covered corridors and shops for miles. Just a block away from the covered shops on a large road are the bigger, luxury retailers. I stopped by Rolex after window shopping some Mcclarens.
I checked out an underground shopping mall where apparently everything is closed on Thursdays, as well as the main station with another few hundred shops around it and a skypark with a nice city view before finishing with a simple park at sunset, the best way to end any day!
I think what makes the downtowns of Japanese cities so much more vibrant and centered is that instead of being mixed use, they seem to be entirely retail/office/bars. That means all those 6 story buildings I mentioned earlier? Each floor is literally a different shop or karaoke place or bar or store. In the US, we tend to only have things on the ground floor in many areas, with apartments above or neighboring apartment buildings. But by forming these sort of mega-areas, it means 6x more bar and restaurant density. Imagine the mission in San Francisco stacked on top of the Marina on top of SOMA, that's basically what it's like.
The effect is ultimately a way cooler feel. Instead of wandering blocks between bars in SOMA on a Thursday, Osaka was pretty crowded even at 10pm tonight; it makes the neighborhood feel way more vibrant. The bar I went to last night was literally next to and below the bar I went to tonight. Who knew!?! And obviously with stacked buildings you need stacked signs, and that's where the famous lights and billboards come into play. Definitely feels very alive. Anyways, just a few urban planning thoughts as I depart my last big city. Onwards and southwards!
Cmon...that's a really great title right? As you might have guessed from the awesome title, tonight was my night staying at a Buddhist monastery. I left Kyoto mid-morning to head up a very long, windy mountain. And as people funneled out stop by stop and the air grew chillier, I sort of wondered what my poor hoodie and I had gotten ourselves into.
It turns out the town of Koyasan (Mt. Koya) is actually not as desolate as I was expecting. It's way deep in a cedar forest such that even after taking a cable car, we still had a 15 minute bus ride in. When I arrived at my temple, I discovered I was the only person staying here tonight. My guess is from wandering around that it could easily house 10-20 people or more, but more tranquility for me then!
I wandered another mile out into the forest to visit a temple there, as I understand it, perhaps the center of this particular sect of Buddhism. It was a nice sunset stroll as once again the cloud cover turned completely clear right around 4pm, illuminating the tops of the trees as the lanterns slowly flickered on along the path.
Dinner was vegetarian, but much to my delight largely dominated by mushrooms which were delicious and went well with the half pound of rice they gave me. Afterwards, I decided to use the large communal bathroom, which surprisingly I had all to myself. I figured if they'd heated up the water and poured the bath, it'd be a shame to let it go to waste.
I've already made it through chapter one of "The Teaching of Buddha" after finishing my own books on the train, so I got that going for me. Another short, commute type day for me. Time to turn in early so I can be spritely at morning services/prayers tomorrow at 6:30am!