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.

Photo credits: Trishla Patel

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.

General

- 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.

JRail

- 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.

You get to ride on these fantastic machines

AirBnb

AirBnb Ecolodge in Ogawa

Misc

  • 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.

Food

- 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.

Small door; big on taste. This ramen will warm your soul on a cold Tokyo day

31 April

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.

Stunning architecture on display at the Tokyo Opera House which was a few minutes away from the apartment

1 April

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.

Meiji Shrine, Tokyo

2 April

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.

3 April

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)

4 April

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.

5 April

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.

6 April

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.

Philosopher’s Path in Kyoto
Sashimi preparation with Fugu. He’s been preparing fugu for so long, he’s begun to look like it a little bit!

7 April

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.

8 April

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.

Deer in Nara under the Sakura
Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto

9 April

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.

Putting Ahmedabad on the map in a hostel in Hiroshima was oddly satisfying.
Photos from the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park

Wabi-Sabi (n.)

A way of living that focuses on finding beauty within the imperfections of life and accepting peacefully the natural cycles of growth and decay.

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Entrepreneur + Travel + Digital

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