I’m sitting on the grass in the park around the Imperial Palace in Kyoto. I have a lemon tea to one side of me, and my laptop on my lap. To the left, I hear the ubiquitous sound of crows, calling and bickering. To my right, in the distance, the sound of children playing. It’s a cool, cloudy day here although the air is still pleasantly warm compared to back home in the UK.
I arrived in Japan on February 1st of this year. As I sit and type, it is now the 30th April. I’ve been here in Nihong for a full three months. One quarter of a year in the Land of the Rising Sun. It’s been good.
HAS IT LIVED UP TO WHAT I IMAGINED?
For the most part, yes. The architecture and history are incredible. The people are wonderful. The food is unbelievable. The things I love – Pokemon, Godzilla, Monster Hunter, Nintendo – are everywhere here, beloved and respected, never feeling like obscure, niche, weird things in the way they do at home. I’ve visited the Nintendo building, the mountain and forest where Miyamoto played, and it all makes sense. This is a place where magic happens.
HAVE I LEARNED JAPANESE?
Haha. Yeah. About that. I’ve been chipping away, through apps and podcasts, and I have had some opportunity to bust it out in restaurants and shops, or making small talk at a bar. For the most part, though, I’ve not had much opportunity to really practice. In the circles I’ve been travelling, I’ve met mostly with people happy to practice their English on me, and with wanting to squeeze as much as possible into my days, I’ve scarcely had time to sit at home and revise. Once I settle somewhere, that will become more of a priority.
HAVE I SPENT ALL MY MONEY?
Not quite! I’ve managed to resist the urge to splurge on classic videogames, toy robots and so on, but travelling around so much and subsequently eating out, paying for museums and so on has been burning through the savings pretty quick. On the other hand, since settling down and taking things more slowly, I’ve proven that it is possible to make the cash last a little longer while still enjoying life and eating deliciously.
WHAT HAVE I DONE SO FAR?
I started in Tokyo, the biggest city in the world. It feels like it, too: the metropolis stretches as far as the eye can see in every direction, the buildings loom overhead so tall they seem to go on forever. It’s loud and busy and, despite being surrounded by people at all times, it felt lonely.
I made some friends in Tokyo, and had a few good nights out, but I never really got to experience the full extent of that cool Tokyo nightlife. I did get to see huge amounts of rich history, in museums and temples and palaces. I saw cool technology, arcade scenes and geek culture as the mainstream.
After Tokyo was Kyoto. Nestled in a ring of mountains, filled to bursting with millennia of history and culture, perfectly blending endless rolling green and happening downtown city. Kyoto quickly became my favourite place in the world, helped immeasurably by the fact I met almost exclusively the loveliest people.
As I pushed into my second month, I moved onto Hiroshima. The sun beat down, the sea was gorgeous and clear, and the history of the place was palpable. I felt the weight of it on top of me, but still I met wonderful people and enjoyed good food, great scenery and a brilliant culture. Before moving on, I spent a night at Miyajima, the most beautiful island I’ve ever seen. I climbed the mountains and experienced for real the kind of adventure which, for most of my life, I’d only been able to find with a Nintendo controller in my hands and a screen in front of my eyes.
After Hiroshima I kept pushing towards the south coast. Fukuoaka was a cool place, with food and bars, cityscapes, parks and coast, but I didn’t get much out of it from a flying visit. With friends in town and some time to get to know life there, I think it could be something very special.
From Fukuoka I travelled to Nagasaki. I stayed in Mogi, a village by the coast, and walking along the sea in that sun was phenomenal. Picturesque beyond belief, every morning I awoke to a sunrise in front of a window which made up my entire wall, a view that would put postcards to shame. The history again was rich, and this time I befriended enough locals to experience the outrageous nightlife.
The word from people I spoke to, be they foreigners or Japanese, was that Nagasaki was an insular, unaccepting place. Perhaps I did receive more unusual looks on the bus than in other parts of Japan, but everyone I spoke to was welcoming and lovely. My friend visited more recently, and she experienced the same acts of random kindness that characterise the whole of Japan.
After Nagasaki, I returned to Kyoto for a few days to enjoy the annual flowering of the Cherry Blossoms. The spring festival gave the whole city a party atmosphere, and the flowers really are as beautiful as advertised. There’s a very good reason this time of year is so beloved.
The last part of my initial adventure was a trip to Osaka, where I stayed in a wonderful homely hostel, saw the seas and the tourism, the history and the modernity. Osaka is an up-and-coming city, the bleeding edge of cool and new. The feeling of a place with a bright future ahead of it was in the air, and many of the subcultures of Tokyo felt like they were drifting to this new, less prohibitively expensive locale.
It’s been just over two weeks since I left Osaka. In that time I’ve been staying in hostels, living as inexpensively as possible, and preparing for the next chapter of my Japan story.