Three trains after Hiroshima, thanks to the miracle that is Japan’s rail network, we were deposited in darkening streets 500m from our hotel in a downtown area of Osaka. It was clear when we arrived that our accommodation used to be one of ‘those’ hotels, but that they were now trying to go for a more backpacker-type international client base rather than folks who only went for very short-term room rentals.
Our room was slightly more traditional than most hostels we’d been to, with tatame mat flooring and futon rolls to sleep on. Each floor had a microwave and kettle, and there was a partially equipped kitchen downstairs, where there was free tea and coffee and cooking oils and spices, which it turns out is pretty standard for Japanese hostels. To Maeve’s delight, we also found that it had a small sauna and onsen on the ground floor, with separate ‘bathing’ times for men and women, and stylish cotton dressing gowns. We settled into our quiet room with a packet of biscuits, some microwave rice and seaweed, for a gentle evening of self-care after the emotional turmoil of the Peace Museum of Hiroshima.
The next morning we were delighted to discover that the hotel had free bike hire, and what a difference that made to our time in Osaka! When we set off on the bikes we took a street that was definitely a road, but that was undercover like a shopping centre, with stalls and shops on either side setting up for the day’s trading ahead. In Japan it’s normal for bikes to use the pavements alongside pedestrians, and it felt completely safe to do so, as everyone took great care to give each other space. Off the main roads the narrow streets were perfect for cycling, with low houses and apartments displaying glorious greenery to the roadway, and tram lines criss-crossing our path with tiny stations looking for all the world like old English country platforms pre-Beecham. The trams and train tracks had barriers that descended before they approached with a noise like the knife coming down in ‘Psycho’, and handy arrows to tell you the direction of approach. It was such a joy to cycle around the city, especially as it was mostly flat, even though it rained constantly all morning.
Our first stop was Sumiyoshi Taisha shrine, one of the oldest in Japan. It was built before Buddhism arrived in the country, and the Shinto architecture is very distinctive. We were soaked after a walk round its quiet grounds, but delighted at the beautiful buildings and at the wedding party that arrived in all their finery, with the kids in traditional Japanese dress.
Feeling hungry, we checked the Happy Cow app and found a vegetarian restaurant nearby that was attached to another Shinto shrine. Although pricey, we decided to go for it and forego any other expenditure that day, and it was worth every yen. The organic vegan lunch set was incredible, so much so that Jay practically begged them to let him come and make lunch with them the next day so he could see how it was made. Sadly they could only offer the following week, when we would have moved on.
We headed North to the castle and cycled around the expansive park and grounds surrounding it. The castle itself sits upon flared stone walls made of enormous blocks, like vast granite bell-bottoms. It has a gilded roof scattered with crows, and green edging. For a splendid moment the sun emerged and the whole building glowed in a blinding golden light, and the Autumn colours on the trees around blazed their firey reds and oranges.
In the dusk, we cycled back under the Hitachi Tower, through streets thronged with people, cluttered with restaurants and bars. They had enormous inflatable and model shapes plastered across their fronts: giant lobsters and blimps, row after row of glowing Japanese paper lanterns. It had a bizarrely cartoon-like feel, an unreality like we’d stepped into the set of Roger Rabbit. We stopped at a sort of Japanese Lidl on the way home and picked up some Swedish gingerbread Christmas biscuits and a few beers, before collapsing exhausted from our 30 kilometres of cycling, but appreciating every little ache that it left us with.
The next day we headed out on the bikes again to explore a bit more of the city. We stumbled across a craft fair in a park which included demonstrations of chainsaw carving. Families crowded the area on picnic blankets, enjoying the atmosphere despite the overcast weather. After a brief picnic ourselves we brought a few supplies from a shopping centre and then returned to retrieve our bags. It felt like we’d barely had any time in Osaka, but it had been a beautiful and memorable stay, and we’d made the most of every second.
Our next destination was Kyoto, or more specifically Kimiyama town on the outskirts, where our next Servas host had kindly agreed to let us stay a few days earlier than expected. We got off our final train at the nearest station and took the hour long walk to their home with ease, stopping to explore a huge second hand shop on the way, where things cost around the same price as new items in the UK. It was a lovely town and great to be very clearly away from the tourist centres we’d mostly been in before. This was also where we started to notice all the excellent drain covers:
When we arrived we were made to feel very welcome. Our two hosts had been members of Servas for decades, and gave us some welcome time to unpack and settle in before dinner. We were joined for a sumptuous feast by an equally friendly German couple who were also visiting through Servas, and we had a lovely evening chatting with everyone before we crawled exhausted upstairs for an early night. At 9:30, the bed began to shake. Just gently, like a train going past, or like a washing machine spinning in the room below us. However neither of those things had happened. We looked at each other, and yes it had happened. We’d just experienced our first earthquake in Japan. Small as it was, it was an unsettling feeling to have the ground beneath your feet, which usually feels so stable, start to take on a life of its own. It was especially interesting for Jay who for a decade has been a trained member of an Urban Search & Rescue team that responds to earthquakes, but who has never actually experienced one! Slightly unnerved after a small aftershock and a brief discussion about what steps to take should a larger quake occur, we drifted off into an empty, comfortable sleep.
The next day we took the advice of our hosts and caught the train to Arashiyama, where there are a number of temples and a bamboo forest. The place was heaving with tourists, and it was a beautiful sunny day. We headed off for the bamboo forest first, where the towering poles loomed high over us, filtering the bright sunshine through a maze of greens and browns. It was impossible to stand there and not be impressed by their scale. A sign warned people not to touch the growing shoots as a simple touch would stop them from continuing to grow, while other signs warned people not to harm the bamboo by carving it. Sadly, there was plenty of evidence that people had felt the need to leave a sign of their presence, scratched initials and dates in the plant’s surface, which someone had then covered with the bamboo equivalent of a plaster.
From the forest we took a long and meandering walk to the Daikaku-ji Temple, where we had heard there was a special type of chrysanthemum. Unfortunately we were too early to view them. However there was a stunning lake adjoining the temple grounds and we sat on a small jetty marvelling at the Autumn changes in the maples and ginko trees peppering the surrounding forests. Enormous carp circled the lake below and amassed once they had realised we were there, and we had a lot of fun feeding them in the warming sunshine. We also went for a little stroll and stumbled across a baseball team practising. Turns out baseball is big in Japan!
In Japan, vending machines are literally everywhere; attached to houses in residential streets, on the tops of mountains, down dingy alleyways. We found one near the lake that sold not only cold drinks, but also hot cans of coffee, so we treated ourselves to a couple. Sadly the exciting rainbow can turned out to have milk in it, but it was an experience nonetheless.
After lunch at the lake and a dream-like stroll around it, we headed back to the temple to explore inside. Interestingly the route to follow was marked out, as opposed to us being able to just wander at random. It took us on a long wander around and inside various buildings, all connected by a walkway. The boards of the walkway squeaked with each step and we realised with absolute delight that this was an uguisubari or Nightingale floor, something we’d only read about before in pseudo-Japanese fiction. The wooden floor was designed in such a way that no attacker could approach without being heard. The rafters of the walkways and verandas were also constructed with low inter-connected beams so that no weapon could be wielded. It was a fascinating walk around the buildings, seeing the original tatame-lined rooms with ornately decorated, fragile paper sliding doorways and walls.
En route to another temple, we passed a tofu factory where you could buy freshly made tofu. We bought long strips of deep fried tofu which were extraordinary, and kept us going for the rest of the day. (Ignore Jay’s face, he really was very happy with his tofu!) We sat under the huge gate of yet another temple to enjoy our snack.
Next we visited a small temple surrounded by a garden of moss. The early evening light that reached it through the trees and bamboo came at an angle, picking out the tips of the mosses, highlighting shafts of sunlight among the green fronds. It was a magical sight.
On our way back, as we changed trains at Kyoto, we heard a brass band playing. Kyoto station is utterly enormous and we took multiple escalators up the side of its gaping vaulted concourse to find what we think was a school battle of the bands. The amphitheatre of the station carried the music into every crevice and it was an amazing sound. At the very top was a rooftop garden affording incredible views of the city.
That night we watched Wales sadly lose in the rugby to South Africa, and commiserated with a couple of beers. Around 18:40 there was a stronger earthquake, which rattled things on the shelf, but nothing fell down. It was another very strange experience.
The next morning Jay got up just after 5am and went for a long run with the German guy also staying at our host’s home. There was a spectacular sunrise over the rice fields, picking out the spider webs that glinted in the early morning mist. Back at the house we ate another enormous and very welcome breakfast, before setting off to explore the area of Uji, another region famous for temples and also for matcha tea.
At the tourist info building we picked up a map and decided to head for Amigase Forest Park, well out of town and next to the impressive Amigase dam. After hours of walking in the morning heat, up winding forestry roads, we eventually concluded that the name of ‘Forest Park’ on the map just meant forest, and that there was no forestry centre or visitor area. Given the potential presence of bears and the like we didn’t feel particularly empowered to just head off into the trees, and we were low on water and food, so we wandered the 7km back along a beautiful tree-dappled road next to the torrential river that crossed the town. After a peek at the stunning Koshoji temple, Uji shrine and Ujikami shrine (another world heritage site), we crossed the bridge over the river, passing a 13 storey stone pagoda, and headed toward lunch.
We found a vegan cafe, and although the lunch plate was expensive, but we weren’t planning to spend any other money that day. As with our Osaka lunch experience, we were extremely glad we treated ourselves. The food was exceptional, and we even had cake and custard at the end! Our exciting food adventures continued after we got back too, as our hosts made takoyaki which are balls of batter and veggies, famous in the region, and usually made with octopus. This was a great opportunity for us to try a local dish which would not usually be vegan, thanks to our hosts kindly adapting it for us.
The next day we felt sadness at leaving our temporary multicultural family. It had been lovely sharing time and food with them all. However Kyoto itself was beckoning so we grabbed lunch for later at a local shop and headed into the city. At the hostel we settled down while we waited to be able to access our room, and caught up on some blog writing. We also had some incredible drip-coffee sachets which our generous hosts had given to us, from a local coffee factory; it did taste truly divine.
Once we’d unloaded our bags into our room we took a walk through the evening of Kyoto. Excitingly, we found a Japanese curry shop that sold pots of curry sauce, which we bought among with some chips and a few cans of beer, and sat by the river to enjoy our unexpected treat! A heron, an egret and a bittern (sounds like the start of a bad joke) kept us entertained as we watched the sky darken and the lights twinkle on around us. After two previous days of more than 15km of walking, we were feeling exhausted, so we headed back to the hostel, catching an incredible murmuration around the sky tower on the way. The birds alighted in the trees next to us with a deafening cacophony of squawks and shrieks, temporarily blotting out the noise of the city traffic. It was a beautiful end to a slow and gentle day.
The next morning we had a relaxed breakfast and went to explore a temple with a 5-storey pagoda. En route we stopped at a shrine, where in glass cabinets around the square hundreds of terrifying and creepy dolls (some with teeth) glared out at us from their opaque prisons.
Our next Servas host was near Nagoya, where she runs an outdoor nursery and sort of support centre for mothers. We arrived at a house on the outskirts of the town, and it emerged that this was the centre. We helped unload some bright purple/red shrubs from a van to dry in the sun, for the children to do crafts with. The bushes were beautiful and caught the evening sunlight as it settled over the peaked roof tops behind the property. That evening there was a private lesson held for one of the children: music, stories, dancing, skipping, all of which we were encouraged to join in with, though of course the songs were in Japanese so we had no idea what we were doing!
Afterwards, we went to visit the outdoor nursery run by our host. In the twilight the temperature plummeted and Jay wished he had put on a jumper and a hat. We shivered our way around the site – an outdoor ‘school’ adjoining some allotments. The staff and children had built a small straw bale shed, fire pit, garden, and playground. They kept bees and grew vegetables, and no one wore shoes, being encouraged to take advantage of all the senses.
We arrived back at the centre, and our host began cooking in the centre kitchen. We had a lovely dinner and made rice balls from the remaining rice for breakfast. We stayed overnight at the nursery, which was definitely unusual, as we expected to be in a spare bedroom as is usual with Servas. But being hosted so frequently in Japan, something we missed was having our own space, so that was a bonus. We wrapped up against the cold of the encroaching autumn and strung up our net to protect against the rampant mosquitoes.
The next day we spent the morning at the outdoor nursery, as the children played and explored. We all walked back to the centre via a ‘fruit park’, which we returned to later on our own to watch a spectacular sunset, and buy some of the produce which is grown there. At dusk, around 5pm, Auld Lang Syne was piped out across the park – apparently as our cue to leave. We tried to make a video to record how weird this was, but it later turned out that Maeve had her phone set to photos, not video!
The following day we had a brilliant cooking lesson from one of the women who works at the nursery. They were planning a big celebration lunch which unfortunately we couldn’t stay for since we had to catch our next train, but she kindly made sure we got to try everything before we left, and sent us away with extra vegan apple cake for later! We learnt lots of exciting things about Japanese cooking, including boiling silken tofu as a short-cut to pressing overnight, and how to make our own miso (if we can get hold of the bacteria back home). Once we’d eaten and said our goodbyes, we set off for the station, stopping on the way to poke our heads into an ancient tomb.
Matsumoto and Azumino
On our way to our next host in the Japanese Alps, we stopped at Matsumoto, where there is a famous castle. But it wasn’t the castle or the Autumn trees which most captured Jay’s imagination: no, it was the 1st of November and there were Christmas trees!
The castle was beautiful though, and the leaves glowed in afternoon light.
We arrived at Azumino in pitch dark, and found our host in the carpark, chatting to a man who had built a wooden hut on the back of a flatbed truck. It was an unusual start! Higher in the mountains the air was icy and we were relieved to get into the car and be on our way to our new host’s home. On the way we stopped at the holistic health centre which he had set up many years ago. It was an impressive place, and we met acupuncturists and other people who worked there in different holistic fields. In the kitchen we were furnished with A LOT of tupperware containing some staggeringly exciting vegan food (including pie, which Jay had been craving for weeks). It turned out that the staff all eat together every day, and they were incredibly generous with sharing their feast with us. We took the food back to his car and a few minutes later arrived at what can best be described as a large cabin in the woods. It was incredible! Inside, we had a lovely tatame room to ourselves and we ate the delicious food from the health centre, before he offered us a deep, hot bath. It was lovely to soothe away the cold and warm up before retreating for an early night.
The next morning was a wonderful surprise. We stepped out of our room early, into the quiet of the cabin, where sunlight streamed through the windows. Outside, we saw we were surrounded by woods and mountains, some of which had a light dusting of snow. We made some porridge and took our breakfast out onto some decking to listen to the forest as it started its day. Although freezing cold, it was an utter delight to sit listening to the birds, and the falling of water in a stream below his cabin.
Later we walked to a new cafe the centre had opened a little up the road. It was wattle and daub, beautifully shaped with incredible wood carvings for the doors, and a troupe of burly, chestnut-fattened monkeys to guard it. Then we headed down to the centre and ate with the staff, the most delicious vegan food, made largely with ingredients grown there. The centre was winding down as it closed in a week for winter. But for now, cold as it was, the afternoon sunshine gave enough heat to enjoy being outside.
For the afternoon, we joined our host on a trip to a nearby camper van festival which the guy from the previous night had told him about. Most of the campers there were huts built on the top of trucks, and we learned that it was a way of avoiding hefty costs and legal requirements associated with caravans or true campers. These huts had gaps for forklift trucks and would be lifted off the trucks before they had their MOT! Some of the designs and the ways the small spaces had been used were amazing, and we got a lot of ideas for our own van, which we will be living in once we’re back in the UK. We sat on a log and sketched out different configurations, feeling excited about the possibilities.
The next morning we got up early so we could see the sunrise touch the mountain peaks around us. It was such an incredibly beautiful place to be, so serene and calming, and we wanted to make the most of our time there. It felt too brief. We hadn’t really had a chance to explore, or to see more of the area, but we fully appreciated the natural beauty of what we had seen and felt so lucky to have had the opportunity to have time to just ‘be’ in this place.
However, the frosty air and chilly nights had given us a yearning for the cold and our next leg was an exciting one. First we’d get the train toward Tokyo, and then join a bullet train heading North. North, to the island of Hokkaido, and hopefully, some snow!