A Matter of Shrine
We anchored in Osaka for a while, we figured it was a good central area for all the big cities we wanted to hit - Osaka, Kyoto, Nara, Himeji, Kobe. The Kansai region is known for the urban nightlife, architecture, and food, as well as being the historical heart of Japan, so we knew we had a lot to cover in our few weeks here.
We experienced this blend of ancient and modern on our very first day, spending the morning exploring Osaka castle, and the evening at the Dotonbori. It's awesome how one city can contain both a 400-year old castle steeped in history, and an eccentric, urban entertainment area just a short subway ride apart.
I've heard the Dotonbori referred to as the "Time's Square of Osaka", and standing amongst the hustle and bustle of a Friday night, I completely understand that. We strolled through neon lights, illuminated signboards, and huge crowds of tourists, both domestic and international alike. The billboard for the candy company Glico, with the image of a running man crossing a finishing line, is seen as an icon of Osaka within Japan; we joined the multitude of people clamoring for a glimpse of him. We watched street performers on the corner and boats pass under the bridge, walked through endless rows of shops and vendors. There's a Japanese word often associated with the Dotonbori - kuidaore - roughly translated, it means to "eat yourself into ruin". We were definitely embracing this concept as we wandered through the streets, eating grilled crab and takoyaki, lured in by the massive animatronic animals advertising their restaurants.
A couple people recommended that we check out Round1, a sports and video arcade in the Dotonbori. There's something so nostalgic about hanging out at an arcade, it was something I hadn't done since middle school. But now that we're adults, we could spend as much time and money there as we damn well pleased, so you can bet it took up the better part of our day. There are about eight floors of every arcade game and activity you could imagine - bowling, karaoke, basketball, volleyball, rollerblading, golf, and much, much more - so it's easy to see how the hours can slip away. People take their games seriously there, we saw several players with specialized gloves for the arcade, hitting buttons of flashing lights faster than my brain could even process what was going on. We used the purikura (Japanese photo sticker booth), failed miserably at the claw machine, went to the batting cages, and even tried our hand at archery, but mostly, I spent my time proving to Peter that I really am as good at DDR as I've always claimed to be.
Our first trip outside the city was to Mt. Rokko, a mountain range not too far from Osaka. We were in desperate need of a long hike after several days of eating street food, our plan was to climb to the highest summit (about four hours), then dip into the nearby onsen once we got to the top. What was supposed to be a relaxing day didn’t quite go as planned though, the hike isn’t too touristy so all the signposts were in Japanese, and we didn’t see any other hikers to ask for directions even if we wanted to (although there were plenty of wild boar and stray cats). We soon found ourselves lost on the mountain, what was meant to take four hours was creeping up to almost seven, and I was starting to get discouraged. We ran out of water and daylight was fading fast, but we've learned never to go hiking without a portable filter and headlamp, so we filled up at a nearby stream and kept going.
After a couple frantic hours wondering if we were going to end up sleeping on the side of the mountain, we finally, somehow, cleared the summit. It was much later than we'd planned for, but we realized that meant we'd get to watch the sunset. We were dead tired and wanted to get home as quickly as possible, but couldn't help but stand in silence until the sun fell completely below the mountains, watching the city lights illuminate Kobe and Osaka at night.
We took another day trip to Nara, I knew it was famous as being a previous capital of Japan, but mainly, I'd heard about the deer. An old Japanese folk legend describes a god arriving on the back of a white deer, and so they were granted divine status - killing a deer was punishable by death up until 1637. Today there are over one thousand Sika deer roaming throughout the town, walking freely among people. They followed us through shrines, to temples, and hung around outside the restaurants, I unapologetically took some selfies with them.
We took a sushi class in Nara too, I figured since it was making up about 80% of our diet, we might as well learn how to make it ourselves. We learned that when you eat sushi, you're only supposed to dip the fish in the soy sauce, not the rice - a sin I had been committing since I'd arrived in Japan. We also learned that traditionally, women were not allowed to become sushi chefs because their hands are warmer than men's, and because allegedly, their menstrual cycles adversely affect their taste buds. Turns out I wouldn't have had a future in it anyway, my pieces were weird and lopsided but it was a fun activity to do together and we definitely learned a lot.
Peter's a history nerd, and wanted to take a day trip to see Himeji Castle. He's way more into this sort of thing than I am, so it's saying a lot that even I thought this castle was pretty cool. It's the largest castle in Japan, and one of the country's first UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The building itself is said to resemble a white crane, taking flight from atop the hill. We walked through each floor, learning something new about the history or architecture at every turn. We'd taken our shoes off at the door, which is a norm in Japan, and it brought a sense of intimacy amongst the group of strangers. At the top floor, there's a shrine where several people were praying in the traditional manner - first, you make a monetary offering, then you ring the bell, bow twice, clap twice, pray silently, and end with one final, deep bow to the gods.
The most popular day trip from Osaka is Kyoto, and for good reason - it's famous for Buddhist temples, ornate Japanese gardens, tons of Shinto shrines, imperial palaces, traditional wooden houses, and that's just to name a few. It has a reputation as "Japan's most beautiful city", and I think it lived up to that name. We probably could have spent our whole two weeks here, but we settled for three days, luckily it was a direct line on the subway. Things felt older in Kyoto, walking through ancient shrines, among women in kimonos, and deserted bamboo forests.
I find myself almost missing Japan already, and we haven't even left yet. But the reality has finally sunk in that we're wrapping up our time here in just a couple days, then it's on to the next adventure. Six weeks is longer than I've ever spent on vacation, much less in a single country, and we've really grown to appreciate the culture and lifestyle here. I'm excited for what's next, but I think Japan will always have a special place in my heart.