I had long been dreaming of visiting Japan, a dream that came true in 2015. It was short, but it was a trip of lifetime. We saw bits and pieces of Kyoto, Osaka, Himeji, Hiroshima and Miyajima. I tried to cram in as much as I could because I never thought I would be able to go back. I was wrong. All it took was a flight sale from Jetstar, another budget airline in Asia, where I got our tickets for around 8000 pesos. My brother, who resides in the UK, joined us on this trip (it was his first time in Japan), and it was another memorable trip with the family.
The entire trip was not too long — a little more than a week — but it allowed us to explore the Kansai region in greater detail and to discover some more parts of Japan. Never in my life did I think I could be back, but I was there, and I fell more deeply in love with the country than ever before. Amazing memories quickly piled up, among which were the following.
Strolling around old town Kyoto
Since it was an off-season trip, there were far fewer people in the neighborhood of Higashiyama. Our morning stroll in the pedestrian alleys of Sannenzaka and Ninenzaka was indeed picturesque and truly pleasant without the crowds. Our evening walk in Gion was a little bit busier, but we were rewarded with a sighting of a geisha (at least my family was, as I was busy looking at the architecture instead of the people around. I did catch a glimpse of her robe as she entered one of the teahouses).
Climbing inside Himeji Castle
Though the castle was sparsely decorated, the wooden floors and the massive posts still amazed me. The views from the top were spectacular, too. What made me extra happy was my parents’ ability to climb the steep ladders in the castle. I’m sure they were exhausted, but I was grateful that they managed to do it in spite of their age. Health is wealth indeed.
Admiring Japanese Gardens
We had the chance to see Kenrokuen in Kanazawa, regarded as the one of the great gardens of Japan. While it was beautiful, it was less than its best in the summer, since there was little color apart from green. I was surprised by the beauty of Tenryu-ji’s garden in Kyoto, with its hydrangeas in bloom. My heart was full of joy in Takayama’s Sanmachi Suji, not only because of the old architecture, but also because of the little pockets of gardens in front of the shops. They were mostly potted plants, but they were arranged adorably, complementing its environment.
Walking around Shirakawa-go
These famous old houses were truly deserving of their fame, with their unique architecture set within such natural beauty. It was one of the most breathtaking vistas I’d seen in Japan, and I can’t wait to see more rustic landscapes in the country.
We had the opportunity to visit four markets: one in Kyoto, one in Osaka, another in Kanazawa and a morning market in Takayama. Each one was a unique experience, but our excursion to Omicho Market in Kanazawa was the best for me, especially with the range of food on sale and the relatively lower prices than the more famous markets of Kyoto and Osaka.
Trying Kaiseki Ryori
For our final night, we had a fabulous meal at Giro-giro Hitoshina, a modern kaiseki restaurant. This was my first kaiseki meal, and we were lucky to be seated at the counter. The delicious food and the interactions with the chef (thank God for the Japanese lessons) was something truly memorable. I am looking forward to more of these meals in the future.
A big highlight on this trip was eating wagyu, or Japanese beef. We were fortunate enough to try it thrice, a yakiniku-style Hida in Takayama and a teppanyaki-style Kobe beef. The lesser-known Hida beef captured our hearts, although it might have been an unfair comparison since it was A5, while the Kobe beef was a bit lower at A4. The third one was in the form of sushi, a Hida beef gunkan which was extremely memorable.
Prior to our trip, I took it upon myself to study a few Japanese lessons. Although many Japanese in Kyoto understood English, they instantly got friendlier when you attempt to speak their language. One taxi driver mistook that I speak fluent Japanese, bombarding me with questions until I managed to tell him that I couldn’t understand. He didn’t seem to take offense as he said, ‘Bambi, Bambi’, and we all had a hearty laugh as we realize that he referred to the abundant presence of deer in Todaiji.
It was truly a remarkable trip. I can’t wait to be back, hopefully with better Japanese skills. More stories next time. Until then, happy (virtual) travels!