Where shall I start? Frankly, I have struggled quite a bit to write this blog post as Japan was simply incredible and words will never do justice to such an amazing place. Yet, let me try to give you an idea of how beautiful a place Japan is.
To be honest, I didn’t have the best start in Japan as my Rail Pass had not been issued correctly by the tourist office in Switzerland. Instead of a voucher for two weeks, they’d given me one for one week only. They’d given me two slips for 7 days each, so I assumed that the days would accumulate to 14 days. Well, it turned out that it doesn’t work that way. Unfortunately, I only noticed when I tried to exchange the voucher with the actual Rail Pass at the Tokyo airport. The girls at the tourist office said that they wouldn’t have the authority to change it. They advised me to go the tourist office at the Tokyo Station the next day. Fortunately, I had the receipt, which showed the price that I’d paid and for how many days the voucher was supposed to be. So I went to the Tokyo Station first thing the next morning to get this sorted. Fortunately, everything went super smooth and within a few minutes, I had the actual Rail Pass for fourteen days and was ready to go. I was so impressed and relieved! That was the first of many great Japanese service experiences!
In Tokyo, I stayed at the Toco Guesthouse, a Japanese-style inn with great staff. I had the best time!
The Toco Guesthouse serves traditional Japanese breakfast, i.e. rice balls, miso soup and green tea. It’s all freshly prepared and definitely worth a try! It was the best breakfast I’ve had during my time in Japan. I also loved the breakfast at the Toco Guesthouse for another reason: The staff eats breakfast with the guests, which resulted in a lot of very interesting discussions and exchanges of personal and cultural experiences. I really loved that kind of interaction.
I spent two full days in Tokyo. The capital of Japan is huge and diverse, so you could easily spend a week there without getting bored. I was discovering different areas in the city and did again a lot of walking (24-26 km/day). My highlights were the Sensō-ji Shrine, Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, from where you’ll get to see Tokyo from the top floor for free, and the two neighbourhoods Ebisu and Hiro-o. Ebisu and Hiro-o are amazing neighbourhoods because there are so many hip cafes and restaurants as well as little shops with unique souvenirs. I loved strolling around in these two areas. My favourite cafe was Bondi Cafe. Make sure you don’t miss it if you love healthy and vegetarian friendly options as much as I do.
Unfortunately, Meiji Shrine was under construction, so it was not as overwhelming as I assumed it’d be; nevertheless impressive though.
Other sights I visited were the Tokyo Tower, which is basically a replica of the Eiffel Tower, Yanaka, an area close to the Toco Guesthouse, the Skytree area, the Imperial Palace and Shibuya Crossing. Tokyo has a lot to offer, so pick and choose what you’re most interested in. I didn’t visit any museums as I wanted to capture the vibe of the city by walking around, but I heard that the National Museum is really nice. When I was there, they had an exhibition about the Japanese tea culture.
I loved Tokyo as it had so much to offer! I loved that every area is unique and has its own character. Another reason why I loved Tokyo was because of Roos, one of the nicest and most sincere people I’ve ever got the chance to meet. Roos also stayed at the Toco Guesthouse and we happened to be in the same room. I felt like we connected immediately. It was almost uncanny how much we had in common. We had studied exactly the same subjects and both of us had just finished our MA degrees. We found out that we loved the same kind of literature and had focused on the same fields of literature during our studies. Furthermore, we share the same values regarding life and all of life’s challenges. It was a mindblowing experience to talk to her. She told me about a book she was reading and that it reminded her of me. When she read one passage, I got goose bumps because it fit my situation so perfectly. The book is about being lost and getting lost, a topic that is a big part of my trip. As elaborated on in my blog post about China, getting lost or letting go and being lost are such big components of my trip as I’m only now becoming fully aware of how lost I was during the eleven years of my anorexia. This journey has taught me to let go of the past and getting lost in the big wild and exciting world with all its miracles and treasures. The passage that she read to me is the following:
“Lost really has two disparate meanings. Losing things is about the familiar falling away, getting lost is about the unfamiliar appearing. There are objects and people that disappear from your sight or knowledge or possession; you lose a bracelet, a friend, the key. You still know where you are. Everything is familiar except that there is one item less, one missing element. Or you get lost, in which case the world has become larger than your knowledge of it. Either way, there is a loss of control. Imagine yourself streaming through time shedding gloves, umbrellas, wrenches, books, friends, homes, names. This is what the view looks like if you take a rear-facing seat on the train. Looking forward you constantly acquire moments of arrival, moments of realization, moments of discovery. The wind blows your hair back and you are greeted by what you have never seen before. The material falls away in onrushing experience. It peels off like skin from a molting snake. Of course to forget the past is to lose the sense of loss that is also memory of an absent richness and a set of clues to navigate the present by; the art is not one of forgetting but letting go. And when everything else is gone, you can be rich in loss.”
I remember that I went to bed that night and I read through this excerpt over and over again while feeling tears running down my cheeks. Rebecca Solnit captured my exact feelings or my experience in such beautiful and thougtful words in her book A Field Guide to Getting Lost. My trip or journey, as Solnit describes it as well, is not about forgetting but about embracing the past with all its ups and downs and letting go; letting go of a past that taught me a lot but that was also extremely painful. As she states, this process involves a loss of control, which used to be one of my biggest fears. A big part of the anorexia was the compulsion to control everything in my life. This trip taught me that it’s okay to not always have control over everthing in life. Spontaneity and open-mindedness open doors that you never know existed and that bear treasures more beautiful than you could ever have anticipated. Thus, I really appreciated Roos sharing this excerpt with me and I will always remember this special and precious moment. It was as if she was able to read my mind and, triggered by this excerpt, I started talking about my past, something I usually never do without having known a person for a long time. Yet, I trusted Roos so deeply that I didn’t hesitate a moment and it felt so right in that moment. She shared other pieces of art with me and I was just so extremely grateful that I’ve got to meet her and share this emotional moment with her. It filled my heart with so much gratitude and hope. I was more sure than ever that I’ve chosen the right path as I am being rewarded with so many amazing encounters, moments and experiences after choosing to change my life and live it to the fullest.
Unfortunately, I already had to leave Tokyo shortly after meeting Roos, so we didn’t have much time together, but I’m sure we’ll see each other again as Roos’ aunt lives in Switzerland and the Netherlands are not that far away either.
In the guesthouse, I met two other amazing women, Saho and Dzesika. Saho is Japanese and even though we haven’t spent that much time together in Tokyo, she invited me to her family home in Kyoto for a tea ceremony. Dzesika is American and already spent her second vacation in Japan within one year. Her story really touched and inspired me and I was grateful to have had the chance to meet her.
Fujiyoshida was my next destination after Tokyo. I took two different bullet trains to get there and was so impressed by how organised the Japanese railway system is. I mean, we’ve got a pretty good railway system in Switzerland, but Japan is definitely a few steps ahead. Overall, getting around in Japan has been so easy and comfortable – a traveller’s dream! If you decide to travel around Japan, you should definitely get a Japan Rail Pass. It’s so handy and a time and money saver if you’re planning to see a lot within a short period of time. The majority of trains and also a few ferries are covered by the Rail Pass. Just make sure you get the Rail Pass before you enter Japan because you can only get it outside of Japan.
Thick clouds were covering Mt Fuji when I arrived in Fujiyoshida and didn’t disappear during my hike in the afternoon. I had already given up hope, but then I stepped out for dinner and faced this stunning beauty.
In retrospect, this was my favourite moment in Japan. It was absolutely mindblowing. For a moment, time stood still. My heart was full and I was drunken with gratefulness. This day, more than ever, I believed in fate and that everything happens for a reason. I was just so incredibly grateful!
I did another hike the next day and was again so impressed and touched by the beauty of Mt Fuji. What an incredible product of nature.
After two days in Fujiyoshida, I continued my Japan trip and made my way to Kyoto. It was a long journey because I had to go back to Tokyo first, but it was totally worth it! I had decided that I would use Kyoto as a base to explore other places so that I didn’t have to change hostels every day and it turned out to be a wise decision. On my first day in Kyoto, I visited beautiful Kiyomizu-dera. I was so impressed by the myriad of rituals the people performed at the temple complex. The rituals seem superstitial on first sight, but they are in fact profound traditions that offer hope, light and inspiration for people that might seek answers or help.
After Kiyomizu-dera, I visited some of the surrounding temples and then followed a hiking trail to enjoy the view over Kyoto. When I reached the top, there was an older Japanese man, probably in his seventies, doing what looked like Tai Chi. I nodded and walked a bit further away as I didn’t want to disturb him, but he stopped his exercises and asked me where I was from. We started talking and he proudly said that he had been to Switzerland and that he had loved it. We continued to chat about our lives and about travelling and living in Japan. It was one of these encounters that I will never forget because it was such a pure, respectful and authentic exchange of cultural values. When I left, he wished me all the best and I was so grateful that I had just made another unforgettable memory.
After I reached the temple complex again, I walked all the way up to the cutest cafe I’ve ever seen, Wife & Husband.
Roos had recommended it to me and she really didn’t exaggerate. It was tiny but that made it only more special. The love, light and warmth with which this cafe has been built by the owners was immediately noticable. The owners, wife & husband, roast their own coffee, and it really was one of the best coffees I’ve ever had. If you’re a coffee lover and happen to be in Kyoto, don’t miss this place!
As if these weren’t already enough highlights, this day had even more in store for me. As aforementioned, Saho had invited me to her family’s home for a tea ceremony. So, in the late afternoon, I met up with Saho and we walked to her family’s house. I was so thankful that not only Saho but also her brother and mother had taken their time to show me the art of a Japanese tea ceremony. And I can tell you, it was amazing! Saho’s brother performed the main tea ceremony, which can be seen as an artistic and devoted act and a big part of Japanese culture. I really enjoyed the spectacle and the subsequent tea tasting. Saho’s family was extremely welcoming and genuinely kind, which made me again feel so grateful.
After the tea ceremony, Saho and I went out for a delicious dinner before we said goodbye to each other. Meeting lovely people and then saying goodbye to them without knowing if or when you will see them again is one of the hardest things about travelling. I do hope that I will see Saho again. It’s been such an honour to meet her and her family and get an insight into Japanese culture in such an authentic way.
On the next day, I had an early start as I went on a day trip to Hiroshima and Miyajima, an island close to Hiroshima, which is also known as Itsukushima. A friend had recommended it to me, and oh boy, I loved it! Miyajima is such a beautiful island. My favourite part was the hike up to Mt Misen, from where I got a stunning view over the Hiroshima Prefecture. It was absolutely breathtaking!
Another thing I liked about the island was the deer. So cute!
I left Miyajima by ferry in the early afternoon to explore Hiroshima. I had mainly two things on my sightseeing list: The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park and the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. The city of Hiroshima has a very sad history and I wanted to learn more about it. In 1945, during World War II, an American bomber dropped the world’s first deployed atomic bomb over Hiroshima. The explosion wiped out 90 percent of the city and immediately killed 80’000 people. Tens of thousands more would later die of radiation exposure. I anticipated that it would be extremely emotional to visit the Memorial Park and Museum, but it was way more overwhelming than I’d thought. The monuments that had been dedicated to the victims as well as the museum were extremely thought-provoking and powerful. I got goose bumps when I read about the facts of the attack, the poetry written as a response to the incident and the witness reports.
“Black, black rain.
People craned their necks
To the sky
With their mouth wide open.
Hot bodies, so very hot,
They wanted water.“
It’s unbelievable that after all the damage and repercussions of this and many other subsequent a-bomb attacks, today, a-bombs are still being produced and promoted in certain countries. It makes me really angry that, for many people, war and violence is still the answer to their problems.
After this very emotional day, I was excited for two days in the mountains to do some hikes and get a change of scenery before coming back to Kyoto for some more sightseeing. From Kyoto, I took a direct train to Takayama where I stayed for two nights. Takayama is a fairly small village but has a really nice old town and a lot of beautiful temples. On my first day, I went to the Hida Folk Village, which basically displays the development of Japanese culture in this area over the last centuries. It was really nice and informative and I enjoyed that the Folk Village was built like a living museum.
Afterwards, I strolled around the city and did the Higashiyama Walking Course, about a 5k trail that covers most of the village’s temples.
On my second day in the Japanese Alps, I took a bus to Kamikōchi, a popular mountain resort in the Northern Japanese Alps. To be honest, I felt as if I was in Switzerland, somewhere in the Bernese Alps. When we finally got to Kamikōchi, the scenery was absolutely stunning!
Kamikōchi is quite a touristic place, but it was not too bad as I soon took off on a hike along the river to soak in the views over these glorious mountains! There were multiple signs about recent bear spottings, but I just couldn’t help myself and had to go deeper into the forest. I am just the happiest when I’m surrounded by mountains and breathtaking scenery. The bus ticket to Kamikōchi is not covered by the Japan Rail Pass, but the hike and the scenery were definitely worth the expensive bus ride!
The Japanese Alps would have been a perfect place to visit an onsen, a Japanese hot spring. The one I wanted to go to didn’t allow any tattoos, so it wasn’t an option. I looked up a few others, but they were either closed, too far away or else it didn’t work out time-wise. Onsens are a big part of Japanese culture and everybody told me that I should visit one, but I was honestly not too sad that it didn’t work out. It just wasn’t meant to be!
After two days in the Japanese Alps I went back to Kyoto for another two days. I had still some things on my list that I wanted to see and do in Kyoto. On my first day back, I went to the Bamboo Forest in Arashiyama. I had seen multiple pictures of the Bamboo Forest before and was really excited. It is a place you should visit when you’re around, but it is not as magical as I’d expected it too be. Also, there were so many tourists around, so I didn’t really get a chance to take nice pictures. After the Bamboo Forest, I went to the Golden Temple. It’s nice to see, but in my view, it’s not a must-do. I definitely preferred Kiyomizu-dera. After the Golden Temple, I made my way to the Fushimi Inari Shrine, my personal highlight in Kyoto. It is famous for its thousands of vermilion torii gates. Walking through these never ending gates is such a beautiful experience!
Like all the other sights, Fushimi Inari was also pretty busy. Yet, the further up the trail you go, the less busy and crowded it gets. I did the whole trail and can only recommend it. So beautiful!
Speaking of beautiful, everything about Japan has been so beautiful, amazing and impressive: The sights, the interaction with locals, the landscape and, last but not least, the food! Japanese cuisine is so delicious and offers such a variety! Those who thought that Japanese people only eat suhsi, sorry guys, but you have been mistaken. My favourite dishes were ramen and negiri in dried tofu skin, also known as Inarizushi. The Japanese cuisine also has so many different rice balls/triangles, which makes it really hard to choose from. Hands up for Japanese food and Japan in general. Japan, you really got me! I’ve totally fallen for you. I really had an amazing time and cannot recall anything negative about my Japan trip. Again, arigatou for the hospitality, Japan! I hope I’ll be back soon to explore more places – there really is so much left to see!
Accommodation: Toco Guesthouse
Sights: Sensō-ji Shrine, Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building (free view over Tokyo from the top floor), Ebisu, Hiro-o, Meiji Shrine, Tokyo Tower, Yanaka, Skytree area, Imperial Palace and Shibuya Crossing
Restaurant: T’s Tantan at Tokyo Station, Bondi Cafe
Accommodation: Hostel & Salon Saruya
Sights: Mt Fuji, there are many hikes around this area
Accommodation: The Lower East Nine Hostel
Sights: Kiyomizu-dera, Bamboo Forest in Arashiyama, Golden Temple, Fushimi Inari Shrine, Gion
Cafe: Wife & Husband
Sights: Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park and Museum, Miyajima (by ferry)
Accommodation: K’s House Takayama Oasis
Sights: Hida Folk Village, Higashiyama Walking Course, old city, morning market