Japan has always been a country that I saw as the definition of mystery and cultural richness. This year, I visited the home of sakura and green tea, and my trip was quite exciting – although a bit shorter than expected.
COVID-19 has hit us all like a storm. Everybody has been affected by this invisible force, and we all have had to adjust our lifestyles accordingly. For me, the spread of COVID-19 resulted in the end of my semester abroad in Japan. One and a half year ago, I had already started preparing for Japan because I knew it would be a totally different world for me. I had never been to Japan before, I didn’t speak the language and I also didn’t know much about Japanese culture (I have never even read a Manga or watched the classic Animes!). I guess everyone has their own goals for their semester abroad, and mine was to experience this totally new culture and come back speaking at least basic level Japanese.
Unfortunately, my Japanese semester started at the same time as something else – the COVID-19 pandemic. Soon it became clear to all of us that it was best to spend this time in the safety of our homes, so after two weeks in Japan I returned back home. It was not the experience I was hoping for, but in the two weeks that I did spend there I could still experience a bit of ‘normal’ Japan.
In this post I want to share my short, but lovely experience of Japan with you. I won’t talk much about my Coronavirus experience here, but more about the beauty of Japan that I could experience before the country went into lockdown.
I started my trip in Osaka, famous for its shopping districts and food markets. It felt like the perfect place to start: a big city with skyscrapers everywhere, but still not too big to feel intimidating. My hotel was only a short walk away from one of the main shopping districts, Dotonbori, which to me was the perfect place to let the vibe of this foreign country sink in. The first two days I simply spent walking among the shopping streets, trying new foods here and there. At the time, the COVID-19 outbreak was not as severe as in Europe and the US yet, so there were almost no governmental measures – in other words, the streets were still filled with people.
Osaka has many different kinds of shopping districts, traditional Japanese shops, but also more Western inspired shopping malls with H&M, Zara and the like. Apart from that, there is one district that is completely dedicated to the Western culture: away from the busiest streets, there is a small, fancy district called the ‘American village’. I didn’t really plan to come here, but as I was walking and walking, I somehow ended up in this place. I felt like I had literally stepped out of Japan for a moment, because not only the shops were ‘Western’, also the streets and even the buildings were Western looking.
On my third day, I took a trip to Osaka Castle. Because it was a bit outside of the city and the weather was perfect, I rented a bike and cycled up to the castle. It turns out that exploring Osaka by bike is one of the best things you can do: in just half an hour, I raced through the busy streets and colourful buildings, through the hectic big city life of Osaka, and it gave me a very different impression of the city than I would have had walking through it by foot.
The cycling to Osaka Castle was along a beautiful road, especially once I reached the parks surrounding the castle. Japan is famous for its incredibly beautiful gardens, so you can imagine that cycling through a Japanese park on a sunny day is like a dream come true. The castle area was surrounded by a water belt and a big stone wall. Along the stone wall, smaller forts sat to protect the castle from every corner.
As I was cycling towards the main castle, I passed by more greenery, and I saw several beautiful shrines where religious followers were praying. I had never been to a Shinto shrine before so I entered the shrine to take a look. Besides the beautiful architecture of the buildings, I noticed small wooden boards that people were writing on and hanging on one side of the shrine. These little boards are called Ema, and they are used to write down your deep wishes and desires, in the hope that the spirits or deities will make them come true.
When I finally arrived at the main castle, the sun was about to go down. The castle was sitting on an impressive stone podest and had golden tips. Together with the sunset backdrop, the scenery looked truly majestic.
Unfortunately, the castle itself was closed due to corona precautionary measures, but I still stood there for almost half an hour, just looking up at this incredibly beautiful building where once aristocracy lived and ruled. Every tree that was placed in the open space in front of the castle seemed like it was placed there for a reason, and the gnarled branches of the trees almost felt like obedient followers bowing down to the royalties residing inside the castle.
Another highlight in Osaka was my visit to Kuromon Market. I actually came here because I watched the Netflix show ‘Street Food’, and one episode was shot in Osaka and explored their food markets. This market was different, but in a way also similar to German or Dutch food markets: I had seen food stands with local delicacies before, advertised by shouting vendors or smiling faces. Because I didn’t look Japanese, most vendors let me stroll around in peace so that I could take my time looking at everything. At Kuromon Market, it was mostly fish and fruit that was sold. What I found most interesting was the octopus: octopus is very popular in Japan and is eaten in many different ways. Osaka is especially famous for Takoyaki, fried balls filled with octopus. It’s not really my type of food, maybe because I see octopus more as a highly intelligent predator rather than food on my plate. I wish I could have pushed that thought away though, because the Takoyaki looked delicious!
On my last evening in Osaka, I cycled through the city at night and ended up in Osaka Shinsekai, a fancy little shopping district with a huge looking tower. At the top of the tower I could see just how big Osaka really is, it seemed to stretch as far as my eyes could see. Normally, I was told, this area is really busy, especially at night. But in this district I could already tell that Coronavirus was keeping people in Japan away from public life.
Verdict: I really loved Osaka! I recommend this city as a good start for any first-time Japan visitor, since the city gives a good impression of a big Japanese city, but is still not too busy – so you can really dig and get to know the different districts. Osaka is considered Japan’s food capital, so for anyone who loves food (which I guess is about everyone), it’s great to get to know Japan’s culinary side as well! Osaka gave off a young and hip vibe, with lots of nightlife and great shopping opportunities. If you are new to Japan and want to experience the Japanese metropole, then Osaka is a great place to start!
Nara was at the top of my Japan list ever since I had first heard of it. This city is just a 15 minutes train ride away from Osaka and is home to many many famous shrines and temples. But what makes this city truly special is this: hundreds of wild deers freely walk around the whole city. The Japanese people believe that the deers are holy protectors of the shrines and temples and therefore reside in Nara in such high numbers.
To take in as many shrines and parks as possible, I rented a bike again and cycled from temples to shrines. As soon as I approached the open space of the temples, the deers were everywhere. They were laying around, sleeping, or chasing food bags from tourists.
I first stopped at a big open space housing the Kofukuji Temple. This temple consists of several buildings and a very tall pagoda (see picture). Centuries ago, Nara used to be Japan’s capital and their most powerful aristocratic clan, the Fujiwara Family, built the Kofukuji as their family temple here. I was immediately convinced that this family must have been wealthy, because the buildings were such a work of art. When I entered one of the buildings, the Eastern Golden Hall, a group of pilgrims were holding a religious ceremony inside. In this building, there was a large statue of the Yakusha Buddha, so I was not surprised to see a religious sermon in front of it.
Afterwards, I cycled to Nara Park, a huge park with hundreds of more deers and some hidden gems, like botanical gardens and museums (the botanical garden was absolutely gorgeous because all the flowers were just coming out!). Here, I found more beautiful shrines that were almost hidden away in the trees but once you found them, they had glorious entrances.
This one for example, had a few hundred lanterns at its entrance.
This is Nara’s most famous shrine, the Kasuga Tasha. Just like the Kofukuji Temple above, the Kasuga Tasha was built by the same powerful Nara family, the Fujiwara. Although this shrine is so famous, its entrance is almost hidden away within the park. One thing that is so special about this shrine, is its many many lanterns. On the photo you can see that the stairs to the main entrance are lined by hundreds of stone lanterns. Each of these lanterns stands for a donation by a company or a person to the shrine, so these lanterns just keep adding up. And FYI, the botanical garden in this park also belongs to this shrine.
Verdict: Nara is great for tourists who don’t have the time to visit several different cities, but who still want to see a lot of Japanese culture in a short time. This city has soo many Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines in a close distance from each other, that it’s really easy to see most of them in one or two days. Just be aware that almost all temples and shrines have an entrance fee (around 10 Euros per building). But if you don’t want to pay the fee, you still get to see the buildings from the outside, which is already enough to make a nice memory. For those who are travelling with kids, the deers make this place an unforgettable experience for the whole family. Be cautious of your belongings though, the deers are quite good at grabbing food from tourists! Rent a bike to loose less time in-between temples and shrines, and if you want to have a nature break, make sure to also to cycle through Nara Park.
While Nara felt like a nature trip mixed with some sightseeing, Kyoto was like a spiritual getaway. I totally felt the vibes of Spirited Away here (which is one of the only Anime I have watched, and has made me thirsty for more). First, I visited the Higashiyama district. This area is filled with shops selling traditional Japanese dishes and accessories. Besides that, most people walking around this area wear traditional Kimonos, so it made this district perfect to experience traditional Japanese atmosphere.
The streets of Higashiyama were full of tourists, and they all seemed to go in the same direction. I followed the busy street without much plan because every corner looked equally interesting to me. The stream of people brought me to one of Kyoto’s most famous Buddhist temples, the Kiyomizudera. This temple (which is a UNESCO world heritage site since 1994) is famous for its huge wooden stage that sticks out above the 13m deep hillside below (this is a super beautiful viewpoint in autumn when all the red maple trees are surrounding the temple area!). It was a really fun walk up to the temple because there was so much to see, including views of the temple from far away. The Kiyomizudera has a really impressive entrance: before you can enter the main temple, you have to go through a big open area that is home to a red-coloured pagoda and several deep-red shrines. Due to the Coronavirus, the main temple was closed down, but walking around the pagoda area alone was totally worth it.
After the visit to the temple, I walked down to Kyoto’s most famous Geisha district Gion. Many people come to this district in the hope to see a Geisha since Gion is the biggest and most famous Geisha area in Kyoto. I took the route from Kiyomizudera towards the Yasaka pagoda, which is one of the symbols of Gion. Apart from that, this district is full of traditional wooden merchant houses. This was one of my favorite experiences of my time in Japan, because the wooden houses made it feel like I was walking through an old Japanese movie.
An absolute highlight was the Starbucks in this street: true to the style of the other houses, the cafe was built like a traditional wooden house as well, even from the inside. The ‘Starbucks’ label and the menu were the only things that gave away that this was Starbucks (you could order sakura muffins here, so this was definitely more Japanese than the average Starbucks). I ended my Gion visit at the pagoda of the Yasaka shrine, another beautiful tower overlooking the streets.
My second day in Kyoto was spent in the beautiful Arashiyama district. I really wanted to visit this district because of the Tenryuji temple which is ranked number one in Kyoto’s five great Zen temples. The landscape garden inside the paid area has still maintained its original structure from when it was built in the 14th century(!) and was one of the most beautiful gardens I have ever seen.
From the north exit of Tenryuji, it was a one-minute walk to the place I wanted to see the most: the Arashiyama bamboo forest. Right next to the temple, there is a small network of alleys that are surrounded by tall, light green bamboo trees. Walking through here is just like walking through an enchanted forest. It is an experience like no other. Everything looks green and mysterious, and you can see the sun rays dancing through the trees when the sun is shining. I was almost expecting to see some fairies flying around! Of course this place was crowded with tourists, but I could sneak in some photos without the crowds.
After this walk, I made my way to a nearby viewpoint of the surrounding Arashiyama mountains and river. I ended my day with a walk by this river, where hundreds of couples were canoeing on. Arashiyama is a beautiful district, no matter which route you walk. This place was definitely one of the highlights for me.
Verdict: I would recommend Kyoto to anyone visiting Japan. I must say that the city centre is not that interesting at all (at least to me it wasn’t) – in that sense I liked the city centre of Osaka much more. But if you are ready to travel to the different districts around Kyoto’s centre, then you can experience some really nice, traditional Japanese atmosphere. This is especially because most people that come here (tourists as well) come dressed in traditional Kimonos, which makes the experience even more real. Also, like I mentioned above, in Gion you have the best chances to spot a Geisha! (But, remember to remain respectful when you see one, in recent years there have been more and more complaints about overly enthousiastic and even rude tourists.)
My trip to Arashiyama was my last one in Kyoto. After this, I headed towards my host university, Kwansei Gakuin University in Nishinomiya. Once I arrived in my student apartment, the situation around COVID-19 worsened in Japan as well and I went into self-quarantine. It was a lonely and scary experience, staying in a small apartment on my own, but that’s a story for another time. I stayed in my student apartment for two weeks, until I got news from the German government to return home.
My last weeks in Japan might not have been what I wanted them to be, but that doesn’t take away my experience before that. Japan is a beautiful country, rich with culture and tradition. My trip to Japan was a bit like one of those music ballads: a really beautiful song that you want to keep listening to, but you can’t because it’s tragic at the same time. Of course I am sad that I could not see more, but I am also so happy that I could see a glimpse of it in the first place. I will come back one day to experience what I could not see yet, and to appreciate the country even more than I do now.
For now, I hope I could give you some helpful insights into the places I visited. At the moment the Coronavirus has most of us staying at home, but let’s hope that we can get back to exploring the world as soon as possible!