Japan: Sakura Explorations
For two weeks in the April of 2016, I set out to explore this small yet enchanting country. This post serves both as a space for reflection, but also hopefully as a helpful resource in planning out your own version of a trip to Japan.
It all started in Ahmedabad. I was booked on an Indigo flight from Ahmedabad to New Delhi. Trishla was separately booked on a flight from Bombay to New Delhi and from there we would get on the direct flight to Tokyo — no hassles.
Or so we thought.
The first hiccup was that my incoming flight from Goa was delayed by 2 hours. I had accounted for a few hours of delay so if they stuck to the rescheduled time, there was no reason for alarm.
The inbound flight did arrive by 7 (as was scheduled after the delay). It was supposed to make a 30 minute turnaround and be in the air again by 730. Didn’t happen and got delayed to 8pm. My flight from New Delhi departed at 0125 Hrs that night. Getting close but nothing to panic about. Yet.
Something had started to feel odd about the speed at which the plane was pushed back after the doors were shut. It was way too slow and I was getting a little uneasy. I had shut my phone: with confirmation sent home and to New Delhi that the doors were shut and the plane was being pushed back. But something was seriously wrong and I had to check what time it was.
830PM and we are still only beginning to taxi to the runway. Anyone who has been to the Ahmedabad airport knows that it isn’t much more than a shed with a runway. It never takes more than 10 minutes between pushback and take-off and yet here it had been well over 45 minutes.
After starting and stopping multiple time, it became clear that the plane was going to turn around and go back. This plane was going nowhere. So my already delayed flight just happened to get another technical snag.
I switch on my phone frantically — which by this point is also low on battery (Murphy’s law had kicked in by now) — and called Trishla to tell her to make her way to the international airport and let the people at ANA know what’s happening. And also to prepare for the very real possibility that she may be traveling to Japan alone. She’s worried but stays calm.
I find that there is only one more flight going from Ahmedabad to New Delhi that day and it happens to be an Indigo one. It’s at 940pm. By this time, it is already 915pm and the plane has still not found its way to a parking bay. The captain is giving no clear indication of what the problem is, whether we are going to fly, flight is cancelled — nothing.
I am really driven to make that 940pm flight. I know there is no other option. Missing the Tokyo flight would effectively ruin the months of tedious planning that went into this trip and getting on this flight was the only salvation.
There was another girl on this flight who also had to make her connection to Germany — same departure time. By now other passengers had also started getting very frustrated — macho uncles to the fore who started yelling. It helped a little, this girl Shivangi and I became the distressed travelers who needed a way out, which we were. Shivangi even nursed a few tears which went a long way on the sympathy meter.
This is when Indigo really came through. They got my bags out from checked-in luggage, new boarding cards issued and back-through security in 15 minutes flat.
Finally felt like something right was happening. Made it onto the flight which took off (I mean actual lift-off from Ahmedabad) at 955pm. It was still going to be touch and go but the ANA counter at New Delhi had said that if I make it there by 12:15, I should be able to make it.
Anyway, all of this happened and I hadn’t even got on the flight for Tokyo. I did make it by 12:15 and went straight through immigration and security to make the flight.
The trip only really began when NH918 left the tarmac for Tokyo but I already felt like the trip was well on its way.
If you’ve made it this far, you deserve a TL;DR version. Following is a quick, dense pack of information about my learnings of traveling in Japan.
If you are more a spreadsheet person, here’s the day-wise itinerary in a Google Doc. Side note: this doc may also come in handy when applying for your Japanese visa because, true to their nature, they ask for a day-wise itinerary of your proposed stay in Japan. You could use this as a template, change your stay reservations and dates, and print this out to give to the consulate as your application.
- Travel in the months of the Sakura — early April or September. A lot will be said of the number of tourists in the country at the time, but it never came across as a hassle or hindrance.
- Carry all of your money in cash. Get a Suica card done on your first day — you can almost use it everywhere. You won’t have the hassle of change and it’ll make life much much easier. It’s accepted almost everywhere — from the metro to different stores. Plus no hassle of having to get rid of the 100’s of ¥ you will no doubt collect if you transact in cash all the time.
- If you have taken a JRail pass (which I highly recommend you do), get it activated from the Narita airport itself to save yourself 20–30 minutes at the main JRail stations in Tokyo.
- Many online advise to reserve your seats on the JRail but in my experience, it isn’t always worth your time. It is advisable to reserve your seat on the Shin-Osaka to Hiroshima sector in Mar-Apr-May but for other trips, the time taken for reserving a seat might not be worth it.
- Send all your hosts a short note a day or two before you are scheduled to stay with them.
- They are very particular about check-in and check-out times. If you need to check-in early, write to them at least 24 hours advance and ask if it’s possible.
- Make sure you get a place near a major station. You might end up paying a little more, but it will considerably make your stay better — especially in the cities: Tokyo, Osaka/Kyoto and Hiroshima.
- We spent 5 nights in Tokyo, 4 nights in Osaka (travel to Kyoto is 15 minutes by the JRail), 2 nights in Hiroshima, 2 nights in Ogawa (small village) and 1 night in Tokyo on the way out.
- I think the itinerary worked really well for us except Hiroshima. In the 2 days that we were there, we went to Miyajima for 1 day which is unmissable. It’s a lovely day trip. But the rest of Hiroshima could have been compressed — 2 days and 1 night is enough. I would add that balance night to Tokyo. In fact, there’s probably scope for a trip just to Tokyo and day trips around for 2 weeks.
- On the tech-front, be sure to get Google Translate installed on your phone before your trip. Sometimes you may be dealing with a device (water heat system in apartments, heaters in remote AirBnbs etc) where taking a photo of the script and getting it translated might be a big help. This is tip is the result of one freezing night in Ogawa where we couldn’t get the heater started.
- Get a data card from the airport. The counters are quite confusing with their numerous plans. Recommend doing what you often do when confused about your options in Japan — turn to a vending machine. You can get a reasonable to 4G data card for 2 GB for 2 weeks for ¥3,000.
- Take a limousine bus to the middle of the city to Shinjuku station from the Airport — it’s easier that taking the subway if you have a lot of luggage and are unfamiliar with the train system. If you are flying in international, you will likely land in Narita which is almost an hour and a half from Tokyo.
- Eat at the local places. Cannot recommend this in stronger words. Most places will have an English menu inside even if nothing on their display has a word in English. You will very quickly able to identify the main dishes from the food models they keep out in the windows.
- My favorites:
*Tempura* (any kinds) — in fact any fried food. The Japanese really know how to deep fry some of their food without it feeling overly greasy.
I actually didn’t have Sushi all trip except for a bite from Trishla’s food. This is also when you come to realize the breadth and depth of the Japanese cuisine and Sushi is really just the most popular food that made it out.
*Gyoza*: it is the mother of dumplings. Usually you’ll get a plate of 6 pieces and it’s out of this world.
*Ramen*: arguably the best Ramen in Tokyo is available at Nagi ramen in Shinjuku. It’s in a blink-and-miss-it hole in the wall place. But what it lacks in space and pomp, it more than makes up in flavour in their ramen. You can’t miss getting a taste of this while here.
Gyu Tataki: Thinly seared beef pieces with a Japanese whisky. Had this on our second night in Tokyo — one of the most understated but best meals of the trip.
Fugu: Had this controversial fish for Trishla’s birthday meal located in a small little alley of Kyoto. Sashimi (thinly cut slices of Fugu). Great meal and definitely worth the experience. It’s not everyday that you eat a fish whose liver is 12-times more poisonous than cyanide and needs a state-approved license for it to be cut, cooked and served.
*Okonomiyaki*: Hiroshima is often visited for the Peace Memorial Park and to remember a low point in humanity for the atrocity committed on innocent civilians as a result of the atomic bomb. But a rather under-appreciated benefit of visiting this city is savouring their delicious okonomiyaki.
This section is dedicated to day-wise highlights for the duration of the itinerary. It will cut across the topics that I have touched upon in the TL;DR version above with a more personal take.
Our Airbnb host was Henry, a Brazilian man who had spent over 20 years living in Japan. Very kind guy who gave us a quick tour around the things close to our shared apartment and told us some of the things to be mindful of during our stay in Japan.
He took special care to let us know of the intricate garbage separation, how you might want to say a friendly ‘Konichiwa’ to anyone passing in the hallway and a few other tips to note while interacting with the locals. Didn’t take much time to realize that system and custom play a big role in Japan and quicker you understand this, the better your trip will be.
This is also something I had observed when reading Master of Go by Yasunari Kawabata in the pre-trip immersion.
Walked to the Meiji Shrine and it’s surrounding complex and gardens. It served as a great first spot to visit in Tokyo because there were enough tourists and eased us into understanding the different customs of interacting with the local Japanese by observing the others.
Spent time in Yoyogi Park. According to the Sakura calender, we were among the first few days of the Sakura season in Tokyo. It’s absolutely beautiful. We lazed around on the grass for a bit and got some food (Takoyaki (Octopus balls)— there will be multiple stalls selling this). I wasn’t the biggest fan, but definitely worth trying.
The Yoyogi Olympic Stadium is very close by and worth a walk-by for it’s interesting architecture.
Sampled some fine Japanese whiskey at a bar in Shinjuku to find that everything one hears about how good Japanese whiskey is true. For dinner, we went to this small, nondescript place called Momo in Shinjuku. The food however was anything but nondescript. I had some Japanese omelette and thinly seared beef (Gyu Tataki).
Walked out to the Imperial Palace ground in Eastern Tokyo. The word ‘palace’ can be a little misleading because the main palace complex does not exist any more. But still go here for the beautiful cherry blossoms on display and the views of the Tokyo skyline. There is also a lot of history hidden in these gardens which is easy to miss unless you have someone to talk you through it.
We had signed up for a guided walking tour that was completely free and definitely worth. Highly recommend making sure you align your visit to the Imperial Palace with their dates. (Link to their Facebook page)
Met some other travelers later that night for a fun evening. Also ended up exchanging some notes on places to go. This is also when we realized that visiting Hakone may not be worth it because “it’s almost like Mahabaleshwar.” Obviously said in jest, but enough to dissuade us from the day we had planned to spend there.
Walked around Roppongi, National Art Museum, Tokyo Design Hub in Midtown and Aoyama Cemetary (tough to beat the irony, but this cemetery has some of the most beautiful views of Sakura in the city)
Walked around Akihabara. The quirky side of Tokyo’s culture is on full display here. Vintage arcade games on every corner, women dressed as anime/video game characters (read mortal combat) with unreal heels and pink hair. For all the zen like qualities this country had shown thus far in the way they go about living, Akibahara represents the other side and is an attack on the senses.
Also visited the Senso-ji shrine which was nice but missable in my opinion. Dinner in Shinjuku at Minache
Next morning, we started the leg of the trip away from Tokyo on which the first stop was Osaka. The Shinkansen was another reflection of how precise the Japanese are. Inter-city travels leaving and arriving right on the minute — not a single thing on any of these trains seemed out out of place.
Had some gyoza (which is truly the mother of all dumplings)and egg-noodles.
Kyoto! It was the capital city of Japan for 1000 years. The Kamo river flows from the North to South of Kyoto and gives a lot of insight into the city.
Went to Kinkuji temple. Very crowded with an average viewing of an undoubtedly beautiful shrine. I am also told that it is a lot more stunning on a sunny day because of the gold on the shrine and we were unfortunate to have caught a cloudy day.
Went to philosophers path from there. Underrated and beautiful place to walk through. Continued walking from there towards the famous Nishiki market. Again did not enjoy it much thought I did pick up my first macha soft serve ice cream.
Highlight of the day had to be Trishla’s birthday dinner of Fugu, or what is better known as Puffer fish, or what ought to be even better known as the fish you want to make sure your chef knows how to prepare damn well. Why? Because this puffer fish is one of the most poisonous fish in the world.
Rained out day. Were supposed to go to Nara but had to change plans. Found the closest Starbucks and caught up on work, pending accounts and bookings. Turned out to be a slow day but a blessing in disguise after 8 days of continuous traveling.
Made an early start and went to Nara. Fun, low-key day trip to stroll around with these unbelievably friendly deer in Nara. Definitely buy some rice puffs (widely available in and around Nara) to feed the deer.
Once back in Kyoto later in the day, we timed the walk to much photographed Fushimi Inari Shrine (below) with the sunset. It’s an enchanting experience with the fading light, tall trees & rivulets and the orange arcs to walk through.
Hiroshima day. Took the Jrail up to Hiroshima and walked on over to our AirBnb for the next 2 nights. We had reached a little before our check-in time so had to stick around. Grabbed a bite to eat.
Take a reserved seat for the line between Shin-Osaka and Hiroshima. It was quite crowded and honestly, we were a little lucky to have gotten an unreserved seat on the first train out today.
Took a bus to Hiroshima Peace Park. Walked through the museum section first and then walked over outside to the memorial. Definitely account for some time to just take in what had happened here all those years back.
Walked around before taking the tram back to our guest house. Ate the “Hiroshima-style okonomoiyaki”. While there are several other dishes made by topping or mixing vegetables and sliced pork with wheat flour batter, such as Kansai-style okonomiyaki and Monja-yaki (from Tokyo), Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki is made with a unique recipe.
A way of living that focuses on finding beauty within the imperfections of life and accepting peacefully the natural cycles of growth and decay.
A casual text message from my mother a few days into the trip about the above concept put Japan in perspective for me. I was looking for words to describe the dichotomy I saw in everything around me: the precision juxtaposed with the rough edges and human touch, the zen minimalism against bright neon greens and pinks of Akihabara.
Japan is an interplay between the past and the future, and the present chasm that connects these two world makes for some inspired travel.
Special thanks to Anirban Datta Gupta, Sahir Patel, Sneha Ramchandran, Arjuna Ravikumar, Nikhita Kishore, Sonali Shah and Paramita Sen for being generous with their itineraries, recommendations and time. This trip would not have been what it was without your collective suggestions and experiences.