Japan: Blow by Beautiful Blow

We went to Japan. It was incredible. Here’s how it went down, broken down into easy, twenty-four-hour-sized chunks for your reading enjoyment!

Day 1: Landing and Osaka: First Days in a New Land

We boarded our plane with plenty of time to spare. We were more excited than we had been for months. We completed the necessary procedures, flew, and landed. We breathed in our first breath of Japanese air, and our excitement had turned to joy. We were in Japan! We had made it! After the many moths of jumping through the bureaucratic hoops of varying colour and size, we had made it! We promptly hopped onto a train to nearby Osaka to drop our bags at our first accommodation. Once we had done so, we headed out to explore Osaka itself and see the Tenjin Matsuri festival and accompanying fireworks display.

The Tenjin Matsuri festival is a time-honoured Japanese celebration, where the spirit of a god from a nearby temple takes a brief sojourn around the city. The city responds by blowing up several forms of gunpowder and creating over two hours of pretty lights in a staggered fashion. It felt like a neighbourhood fireworks display, with a long line of men pulling up their trucks to a certain point and letting rip their small collection of explodables. The only difference is that each man comes ready with massive, expensive, two-stage fireworks that change colour, and not negligible whizzbangs. Between the night sky lit up with an array of colours and the wide variety of traditional dress worn by the people of Osaka to the celebrations, it was an enchanting start to our time in Japan.

Day 2: Universal Studios: One Big Dose of Fandom Overload

After seeing some traditional Japanese culture on our first evening, we ventured to something completely different – Universal Studios. We queued for tickets, constantly looking around us at the host of references to films that we know and love. The Harry Potter theme played in the background periodically. The Universal Globe spun steadily, looming over the park that lauded the highlights of the company’s contributions to the history of film.

Once inside, we were surrounded by a distinctly Westernized experience, with a unique Asian twist. Many years ago, I was lucky enough to visit DisneyWorld in the United States, and Universal Studios reminded me distinctly of that. The first few buildings were filled with shops selling merchandise for Spider-Man and Harry Potter, but also Hello Kitty and the popular anime, One Piece. We eyed some of the wares, but felt that we should save our money until after we had returned from The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

And that turned out to be a wise decision indeed. We spent almost half of our day in The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, and it was as magical as the protagonist of the books and films. We drank Butterbeer, hung out in Honeydukes, Zonko’s, and Ollivander’s. We bought all that we could reasonably justify buying. No, we did not buy wands. We have accepted the fact that we are Muggles, and do not need commemorative sticks.

What we made sure we did not miss out on were the rides within the Potter-themed area. There were only two of note – The Flight of the Hippogriff and The Forbidden Journey. The Flight of the Hippogriff was little more than a small coaster riding a wicker hippogriff. It was enjoyable, but not something that is going to change the state of rollercoasters in the world. It did succeed in introducing us to how long we would be queuing for rides – we waited over seventy minutes for our thirty seconds of hippogriff-induced happiness. This preparation would greatly assist us in our wait for The Forbidden Journey, which would last over two and a half hours.

We waited patiently, taking in our enchanted surroundings and listening to music, before it came to be our turn for the ride that had won an award for being the best ride of its type in the entire world. We were bursting with excitement. We put on our obligatory 3D glasses, pulled down the lap bar, and were whisked away to a land where all of the characters of the series spoke Japanese, and anything could happen.

About a minute and a half later, we knew exactly why the ride is considered the best – it was indescribable. The combination of characters that we loved, rocking back and forth, and the mesmerising imagery and real-world props made us feel like we were living in Harry’s world for a brief time. To anyone wondering if the wait was worth it, it most certainly was. The Forbidden Journey topped all of the other rides that we went on in the rest of our day in the park by a considerable margin, and memories of its wonder have stayed with us ever since. We walked away from the ride, and Universal Studios in general, feeling like children again, eyes wide with rediscovered joy. Most recommended for anyone planning a trip to Japan.

Day 3: Hiroshim3a: Place of Horror, Place of Hope

The next morning, we packed our bags and left Osaka for a much more sombre and sobering place – Hiroshima. Almost seventy years after the first use of the atomic bomb on humanity, Hiroshima looked like any ordinary city. It had high-rise buildings, both old and new. Trams and buses ported people around their day-to-day existence with no sign of the atrocities that were committed mere decades ago.

It is only when we came very close to the detonation site that the signs of what happened burned themselves across our vision. The first harrowing piece of evidence was the Atomic Bomb Dome. Before the bomb, it was a massive, proud convention centre. It happened to be close enough to the centre of the blast that some of the inner walls managed to stay standing. It has been preserved as a stark, harsh reminder of the bomb and its destructive capability.

Not far from the Atomic Bomb Dome, the Japanese government has constructed a memorial to all of those that lost their lives on that day and every day since. The most affecting part of this memorial was a short video, depicting extracts from ‘Children of Hiroshima’. This book is a compilation of essays written by children who had directly witnessed the bombings on that fateful day. The narratives filled with charred bodies and missing parents and siblings penned by those that should never have had to be exposed to such atrocities made Kristen and I feel physically ill and emotionally drained. They managed more than anything else to put across how monstrous one military decision could be.

We left Hiroshima more quietly than we arrived. What had seemed to be an ordinary city was actually something to be revered, remembered by all. Most notably, all of the museums and memorials cry for peace, that no others may suffer as those in Hiroshima did. There was no anger, no desire for revenge. If only world leaders could take that sentiment to heart.

Day 4: Kyoto: Fushimi Inari and Kyoto International Manga Museum

Coming from Korea, we have seen our fair share of Buddhist temples. We were thus wary to visit similar temples in Japan, because they were highly likely to be similar to those in Korea. The one exception to this rule was Fushimi Inari.

Walking up the slight hill to the first shrine at this sacred site, we see our first torii gate. This is an intimidating structure consisting of two wooden legs holding up a wooden crossbeam, painted bright red and covered on side with intricate carvings. It is essentially a large wooden gateway. And at Fushimi Inari, this is only the first of over ten thousand such gates strewn on the side of a hill on the edges of Kyoto.

The day was humid, but we toiled up as much of the hill as time allowed. We fought through several hundred people wielding selfie sticks and taking cheesy photographs to try and see as many of these ten thousand gates as we could. With each passing gate, my fascination with them grew. Each gate was indistinct from the others as we walked up the hill. However, when time ran out and we had to turn around, they became unique bastions of individual faith. Each inscription was carved deep into the wood of each and every gate. The amount of hours it must have taken to complete even one gate boggled my mind, and filled me with reverence for the dedication to their faith.

Upon leaving Fushimi Inari, we had just enough time to briskly whizz around Kyoto’s International Manga Museum. In an old elementary school building in Kyoto’s city centre stands an old elementary school filled to the brim with shelves and shelves of manga (a Japanese form of comic book). The major feature of the museum is that one can simply take any issue off of the shelves and read at your leisure. Kristen and I could not do so, as we cannot read Japanese. Nevertheless, we enjoyed learning about the history of manga, its influences, and how it has evolved over the years. And we looked at many pretty pictures within random volumes from equally random shelves.

We then left the museum and rushed out of Kyoto to Tokyo. The reason for our rush was that we had to be in time for an Ultimate Frisbee practice in Tokyo. Despite our hurry, we arrived late, introduced ourselves and ran onto the field with fellow lovers of Ultimate from a completely different country. Once again, Ultimate served to unite us with new cultures and people in a way that few other sports can claim to. We even had dinner with some of our new hosts. We ate delicious Japanese omelettes, and headed to check in to our Tokyo home.

This proved to be the most difficult navigation of our trip. We managed to get frightfully lost, to the point that we waltzed into a bar in the area that we thought was close to our home and asked (in a combination of English and gestures) for assistance. A man reeking of alcohol and a kindly waitress from the bar then spent half an hour roaming the streets with us, trying to uncover the location of our lodgings. Japanese hospitality and kindness shone through once more. Luckily for us, Japanese sense of direction shone through as well, as we eventually found our home, thanked our house-hunting compatriots with more bowing than was necessary, and settled in.

Day 5: Tokyo: Akibahara: Streets Filled with Wonders

In the nerd sphere, Akibahara is well-known as the heart of what is known as otaku culture. An otaku is a person that loves a particular series, comic, game, or anything else to the point of obsession and beyond. Otakus build their lives around their own particular poison. And Akibahara caters to pretty much every single one perfectly. Like a well-practised drug dealer, Akiba (as it is affectionately known) knows exactly what you’re looking for and how to give it to you, provided you can pay the price.

Once we alighted from the train at the bustling station, we knew that Akiba would undoubtedly live up to all of our expectations. To our right lay a Gundam Cafe celebrating the beloved mecha series, and to our left lay a multi-storey SEGA arcade. We were exactly where we wanted to be. We roamed the streets for hours, dodging amongst the many Japanese ladies dressed as French maids to gaze upon stores filled with merchandise for everything from anime to Star Wars to video games.

Our particular goal for Akiba was to acquire an original Game Boy Color and several classic games, such as the original Pokemon. We thought that this would be a simple task. We thought that it would involve nothing more than frequenting one of the famed retro gaming stores and parting with our money in exchange for nostalgia and awesomeness. In the end, we had to run around between several stores to find Game Boys that we liked and that we knew functioned. We didn’t mind, however. Looking in each store revealed new wonders, from gaming consoles that would be impossible to find in most other places. Sega Saturns sat next to pristine Famicoms and Super Nintendos. I stared at them in wonder, wishing that I had enough bag space to take one home with us. I gathered all of my self-control and resisted buying all of them. We had a quest, and it was not yet complete!

After realizing that the larger consoles seemed to withstand the test of time better than handheld consoles like the Gameboy, we came to the last of the well-reviewed stores on our list. It had everything. Gameboys. Games, boxed or unboxed, with batteries freshly changed. Even rare games that I had only ever heard whispers of, like the Mother series (apparently brilliant games, but only ever available in Japan). Wisely, we had left a large portion of our money at home, otherwise it would have all slowly disappeared into the hands of the store owner. We simply found the Gameboys that we liked the most, purchased the games, and left Akiba with giddy smiles on our faces and distinctly lighter wallets.

Day 6: Tokyo: Imperial Gardens: Oh look, it’s Green and Brown All Over!

After our late night roaming Akiba, we lazed around for the entire morning. We felt that we had done so much, our bodies needed a rest. And thus, we only left the house briefly, to visit the Gardens of the Imperial Palace, which was rumoured to be remarkably beautiful and a worthwhile excursion for any traveler to Tokyo. So, when we finally gathered the will to put clothes on and leave, we ventured out to see if this was the case.

Sadly, this was arguably the biggest disappointment of our trip. Despite high reviews on Tripadvisor, we found it to be little more than a wide open space with varying colours of green (from grass and trees) and brown (from stone). It was a nice place to spend a little while, but we were certainly not blown away, as we had thought we would be. We sauntered around, enjoying the wide open space, but soon returned to the bustle of the inner city in search of articles emblazoned with Hello Kitty for Kristen. Once we were successful in that, we simply returned to our town, had dinner, and went to bed early, as we would be up early for the next day.

Day 7: Fuji-Q Highland: Japan’s Ridiculous, Remarkable Roller Coaster Resort

Fuji-Q Highland is unlike any theme park that I have ever been to. Whilst most theme parks seem to try to cling around a particular theme (hence the name), Fuji-Q seems only to exist to act as a line of pure adrenaline that addicts can snarf without pretense or distraction. Fuji-Q is all about ridiculous roller coasters. It is home to three different world-record-holding roller coasters. And we rode every single one of them.

Our first ride of the day was Eejanaika, which holds the record for the most number of spins in a roller coaster, with fifteen spins in total. These were your entire seat spinning forward or backward, loops and flips through the air, and horizontal twists. This is the ride that I feared would upset my relatively weak stomach the most, with all of its twisting and turning and flipping. Luckily, the ride passed by too quickly for my stomach to process what was going on. I was left with a feeling of exhilaration and mild terror (but only mild). And that was only the first ride.

The next ride was Fujiyama, the so-called “King of Coasters”. Whilst no longer a world record holder, Fujiyama had once held the records for height, longest drop, and longest ride length. And it was arguably the coaster that I enjoyed the most. The record-holding coasters were focused on excelling in one aspect, and induced feelings of terror as a result. With Fujiyama, I felt no terror, simply enjoyment of the exhilarating experience.

After Fujiyama, we rode the Dodonpa. This coaster hold the record for fastest acceleration, going from a standstill to 172 kilometers per hour in a mere 1.8 seconds. I had never felt anything like that acceleration. One moment, we were in a tunnel, and the next moment, we were distinctly elsewhere. It was insane, like how I imagine riding a bullet would feel like.

After the Dodonpa, we rode Takabisha, the coaster with the steepest vertical drop. While most coasters would be content with dropping their victims straight down (at ninety degrees), Takabisha goes the extra mile, dropping at one hundred and twenty-one degrees after sitting atop the drop for the longest seconds of my life. It gave us time to contemplate our choice to ride Takabisha and regret it a little before whisking us around its incomparably bonkers course. Takabisha was definitely the most terrifying of all of the coasters. It was fast. The course was madness. And it had the gall to drop us at one hundred and twenty-one degrees. Exhilarating, but also genuinely scary.

Aside from the record-breakers, Fuji-Q was filled with an assortment of equally entertaining rides, with everything from water rides to an indoor ‘flight around Fuji’ experience. While the emphasis was clearly on the aptly-named ‘Screamers’, Fuji-Q was filled with unforgettable experiences. It was well worth the two hours it took to reach it, and will feature on any future trips that we take to Japan. Universal Studios was a bloated, cuddly nostalgia trip with rides in it. Fuji-Q Highland was a masterwork katana made of nothing more than a desire to show off world-class roller coasters. They were different, and we enjoyed them differently, but we loved them both.

Day 8: Tokyo: Tsukiji Fish Market and Tokyo Skytree: The Best Sushi Ever

Our last full day in Japan began in the best possible way – sushi brunch! Kris and I traveled to Tsukiji Fish Market, which is known as the place to get the best, freshest sushi in Japan. At Tsukiji, auctions are held each morning for fish that are fresh off of the boats. The owners of the restaurants then use the fish that they buy each morning for the sushi that day. We queued outside the restaurant we thought looked the best, waited our turn, and were finally ushered in.

We sat down in the tiny restaurant (with a capacity of twelve people at a time), mere centimeters away from the two sushi chefs who were calmly preparing any orders put forward to them. We decided to go for one of the various nigiri (raw meat on beds of rice) platters that were on offer. Our particular platter contained all of the nigiri we loved, and others that we were not averse to trying. We eagerly awaited our salmon, salmon eggs, tuna, snow crab, and, to a lesser extent, squid. The sushi was worth every second of waiting.

Served elegantly on bamboo leaves, each piece was perfectly prepared by our sushi chef. Never before had we tasted such flavourful, soft sushi. Even the squid, which we had previously had less-than-positive experiences with, was creamy and light, not chewy and stodgy. As each piece was dished to us, we eyed them eagerly before scoffing them in one go. The flavours rolled gently over our palate, covering our mouths in a soft blanket of delicate deliciousness. We adored the sushi so much, we ordered additional pieces of the salmon and tuna, as well as a recommendation from our sushi chef, snapper.

It was not only the food that made Tsukiji a worthwhile trip – it was the whole sushi-eating experience. The restaurants were small, so it was a more personal experience. We even got to talk at length with our sushi chef (whose name we foolishly neglected to ask) about his life. It turned out that he had trained to be a sushi chef since he was fifteen, and had been dishing out masterful sushi for over twenty-three years. This experience showed in his work – it was flawless, clean, and quick. It is likely that no sushi we ever have will match up to the small pieces that we enjoyed at Tsukiji.

After our incomparable brunch, we explored Tokyo a little more, wandering in the general direction of the Tokyo SkyTree. This aptly-named structure towers over the nearby neighbourhoods of Tokyo. We paid the not-small-but-not-unreasonable price to enter, and were promptly whisked to the 350th floor, and its rather marvelous view of the city. Similar to our experience of seeing the skyline of Seoul from N-Seoul Tower, we were flabbergasted at the sheer size of the city, stretching from one horizon to the other. It was a rather fitting last major activity in Tokyo. We looked fondly upon the neighbourhoods we recognised from our travels and the railways that got us around. We noted prominent buildings for any future trips to Tokyo. Most of all, we took in our last Tokyo sunset. Although it didn’t compare with the sunsets back in South Africa, the emotions brought up by recollecting our escapades tinged the air with its own unique colour.

Day 9: Our Sad Return to Korea

Our return to Korea was not nearly as smooth as our arrival in Japan. We almost missed every part of our return journey – our train, our bullet train transfer, the bus within the airport, even the plane itself. We narrowly caught them all, and ran frantically for our gate, with the polite Japanese announcer declaring the last call for our flight. It’s not that we didn’t have enough time. It was simply our subconscious not wanting us to leave our wondrous holiday behind. We procrastinated at every possible moment without really knowing it. Instead of waking up early, we stayed in bed a little and re-packed some things. Instead of heading early to our gate, we tried to spend our last few yen. That shows just how great the holiday actually was.

As the wheels of the plane left the runway, we looked at each other with downturned faces. We were genuinely saddened by leaving. We had enjoyed one of the best holidays of our lives, and would be working the next day. We smiled only when we spoke about returning, or our future holidays to other special parts of the world. Best of all, we would do it all together.

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