The Rio Olympics are over. Now what? I’ve been going hard on the bike for four years. I had a month off after London, 2012 and then a second month pottering around on my bike, writing my own schedule. Since then I’ve generally had two, two week breaks per year, after each Track and Road World Championship in April and September.
I’ve been looking forward to another decent break for a while now, but the problem is, where to go. We travel around the world for this sport, but we don’t often get the chance to truly explore the countries we visit. You start to create a ‘destination return list’ (or wish list!)
Japan was one of mine and it just so happened to be on the list for one of my best friends, Anneliese. She only managed to get ten days off work, but that was enough for me. We started looking at the priority cities and how we could maximise our experience in a limited time. Thankfully the Japanese rail system is in a league of its own, so we bought a week- long pass and certainly made the most of it!
Day 1 saw us land into Tokyo. After dropping off our bags at a backpacker’s hostel, we were off to Harajuku. When choosing a travel buddy, I certainly recommend finding someone with a similar mindset when it comes to plans. Luckily for me, Anneliese (whilst a lot more organised and structured than me) likes to have a rough plan, a list of priorities and a list of maybes, then decide where and what to do based on how you feel on the day.
Harajuku was a must see as recommended to us by a friend. Whilst it has a crazy, bustling vibe at the famously trendy Takeshita street, it is also home to the brilliantly natural, Meiji shrine, tucked into a dense wood, whose entry is just 500m away from the madness. The juxtaposition of the two attractions is quite refreshing. Whilst Japan surges forward into the future with new gadgets and technology, they still hold onto their culture and heritage with both hands.
An unusually large line at a takeaway store on the street was too intriguing to ignore, so 800yen later and Anneliese and I were sat down in the garden to some local Takoyaki. We soon discovered Takoyaki to mean ‘octopus balls’, but thankfully not in a literal sense. They are the size of an arancini ball, but filled with octopus, cheese and tempura shavings in a batter. The first few were good, but then we’d had enough and were back on the subway headed for Roponggi.
A famous Australian actress, Margot Robbie happened to put a photo up of her in Japan, holding a hedgehog at a hedgehog café. What more tempting did we need?!?!?! We headed there in the evening and had a go. I say ‘had a go’, because it was actually quite stressful! Hedgehogs are spikey – and not cute spikey. If they move quickly in one direction, it actually hurts! The staff also failed to mention we could have borrowed gloves..! Anyway, we had a go, tried to take a photo to make it look like we weren’t sweating, but rather were relaxed and enjoying ourselves, then headed home.
My first experience of a back packers hostel was great. It was clean, organised and cheap. I’m not sure if it’s just Japan, or maybe because we happened to be female, but the staff even carried our bags up the stairs to our rooms. As I’m typing this I’ve suddenly realised it obviously doesn’t take much to impress Nettie!
Kyoto was next on the list so we navigated the Japanese rail system with ease (thank you Navitime Japan travel app!) and jumped on a bullet train. We were there within a couple of hours, checked into our next hostel, then went out to find food.
Kyoto was great. It had a much more relaced feel than Tokyo. We wandered around a local mall (which also happened to have a shrine tucked into the centre) then popped out the other side. We chose a tiny little restaurant which had no English. We were the only ones in there (probably due to it being three in the afternoon) then chose two dishes based on photos in the menu. One was a noodle dish and another was what looked like sukiyaki – a savoury pancaked filled with veggies and pieces of meat. We sat down at a table with a hot plate in the centre. It soon dawned on us that we would be cooking our own meal. Talk about “try something new” biting you in the behind; how are you supposed to cook something you’ve never tried?!
The waitress soon realised and took pity on us, taking over and showing us what to do. It was so beautiful. The Japanese people are so kind and generous. Despite not speaking a word of English, and vice versa, she was kind enough to help. And it was delicious!
We headed out exploring up the main street, meeting up with Nathan Hart – Australia’s first wheel in the team sprint – who was also on holiday after the Olympics. We checked out the Gion district (no luck spotting geishas) then headed to the bright red, Yasaka shrine and its gardens. All of a sudden, there were less and less people. The gardens became dense, and the buildings were few and far between. Nathan had heard of a temple ‘around here somewhere’, so we kept going up.
Over an hour later and we reached the top, covered in sweat. It was eerie. A great, big Buddhist temple, blocked off from the public, with hundreds of crows swirling overhead. It was getting dark and we weren’t really prepared so we breathed a sigh of relief when the narrow path opened up to a carpark at the top. The view of Kyoto was certainly satisfying. The forests are so dense that you often can’t see anything until you reach the top. We took a few photos before continuing down the other side, opting for bitumen and street lights over the steep, dark path we arrived on.
Trip advisor saw us to a well earnt dumpling dinner at Chao Chao Gyoza… they were incredible. Hands down the best dumplings I’ve ever had. Thin pastry with a light, crunchy bottom, wrapped around tasty fillings ranging from pork, to mushroom, to chicken and wasabi.
Day 3 was tourist day. Kyoto is known for its high density of shrines and temples. If you went to a different shrine or temple every day you would be there for over a month. We decided upon Nijo Castle, Kinkaku-ji (Golden Temple) and Fushimi Inari Taisha. We chose well. Nijo castle gave us a great insight into the way the Japanese military government (Tokugawa Shogunate) lived back in the Edo period (1603-1868). The decorations and artwork were beautiful. Kinkaku-ji was great. The golden Buddhist temple (built in 1937) stood out across the pond, amongst such lovely gardens. Fushimi Inari Taisha was super too. Torii gate after torii gate dedicated by successful businesses in gratitude. There are over 32 000 gates at Fushimi Inari; the highest torii density in all of Japan.
We headed back to the hostel to chill out for a bit before heading out for dinner with one of our new roommates – Liz from Melbourne. We had a cook-your-own sukiyaki, in our own private booth in a great little restaurant. After a little confusion (they brought the broth out later) we had a fantastic meal. Sukiyaki has to be my favourite Japanese dish; meat and veggies in a sweet broth, traditionally served with udon noodles (or in my case, rice). YUM.
We met Nathan at his hostel’s bar and soon ended up at karaoke with a couple of brits, two Americans and a girl from Switzerland. I’ve never done karaoke properly before, so where better to give it a go than Japan itself?! It was obviously quite successful as 4:30am suddenly appeared and it was time for bed.
Seedy Day 4
I was determined not to let a big night spoil our fourth day. We were on a roll and had already crammed so much in, but we were ready for more. We hopped on a train for Nara, an older town just one hour away from Kyoto. A place where deer roam free, we checked out a five story pagoda at Kofuku-ji, then headed over to see the world’s largest bronze Buddha statue, Daibutsu (15m high) at Todai-ji temple.
It was a bit more relaxed and the light rain added to the chilled out vibe on the temple steps. It was definitely a nice, soothing day after the night before. We did a bit of touristy souvenir shopping before catching an evening train as the light faded for the day.
Day 5 and we were on the move. We jumped on a bullet train to Hiroshima, jumping off midway, heading up into the hills by train to Arimaonsen. You have to experience an ‘onsen’ if you ever come to Japan. They are a series of baths, at varying temperatures, with varying minerals, which are said to have healing properties. The only catch is that you’re stark naked. With strangers. Once you get over than, it’s really good! There is a big process, scrubbing in the showers before you hop in, scrubbing when you get out, but it definitely leaves you feeling relaxed.
I’d experienced one before when I visited Tokyo on a 2-day trip back in 2013, so I made sure Anneliese got to experience it too. The natural ones are better, so we headed up to Arimaonsen and made a day of it. We had the most incredible bento-box afterwards for lunch, before heading back on the train, bound for Hiroshima.
We were told we had to eat sukiyaki in Hiroshima, but the wait was over an hour, I was craving steak so I was a happy camper when we looked across the road and saw a tiny place specialising in it. They wacked a 400gram piece of wagyu on the hotplate in front of us and covered it in butter and garlic. Ten minutes later, she came back and stated chopping it into small, rare pieces, placing it to the side. With no English, she explained the process of frying these pieces again as we wanted them, cooking them to our liking, then dipping them in a sauce before eating. It was one of the best steaks I’ve ever had. Incredible. It was obviously a popular spot as it soon filled up with businessmen, all sitting around sharing their steak, whilst watching the baseball on the small TV screen. Anneliese didn’t feel like steak, but after eating half of mine she was very glad we went! Sukiyaki will have to wait till next time!