From Busan in South Korea we took another overnight ferry – the final one on this trip! – to Shimonoseki in Japan. This was my second visit to Japan and Alex’s third. The last time we visited was in 2007 and it was the first time I’d ever travelled outside of Australia. It’s a wonderful country to travel in: efficient transport, great food, clean, safe, and the people are honest, helpful and kind. The only downside is it is a bit on the expensive side, but you can minimise costs by staying in hostels (which are some of the cleanest in the world) and enjoying cup noodles and supermarket sushi (both quite decent in Japan) for some meals.
We spent significantly longer in Japan than any other country on this trip – a little over three weeks (27 Oct – 18 Nov). Three weeks is a good amount because it ties in nicely with the longest Japan Rail pass you can get, but even so it still didn’t feel like enough time. All up we visited Hiroshima, Miyajima Island, Okayama, Naoshima Island, Kyoto, Osaka, Shibu Onsen, Nagano, Sapporo, Sendai and Tokyo. I’ve already mentioned some of these places in a previous post so I thought I’d just highlight some of the new ones this time round which really stood out.
Miyajima is an easy day trip from Hiroshima and famous for the “floating” red torii marking the entrance to Itsukushima Shrine. It’s the most famous of the three most beautiful views in Japan. It’s worth staying to observe the torii at both high and low tide: at high tide you get the floating effect and at low tide you can walk right up to it across the sand. Other things you can also do while visiting the island are to hike or take the cable car up to the top of Mount Misen, eat local delicacies (including grilled oysters), and befriend the wild deer that roam around freely.
Naoshima is a cool and arty place. You can visit as a day trip, which is what we did, but it would be even better to stay at least one night to give yourself more time to explore everything it has to offer. We hired bikes to get around and visited the bizarre 007 Museum as well as the modern art museum section of Benesse House. There’s a cute cafe near the entrance to Benesse House which serves delicious and somewhat unique Japanese food and is run by a nice girl who took orders, cooked and served all by herself. If we’d had more time we could have checked out the Art House Project, Chichu Art Museum and Lee Ufan Museum. We almost visited the surreal I Love Yu bath house but hadn’t brought soap and towels with us and we didn’t want to pay extra for new ones.
Momofuku Ando Instant Ramen museum, Osaka
This museum gets a special mention all of its own just because it was so much fun! Maybe it’s not for everyone, but if you’re as much a fan of authentic Japanese Nissin Cup Noodles as we are this is a must visit. For those that don’t know the humble Nissin Cup Noodle, is is quite simply, the best cup noodle you will ever eat. But! Only the Japanese ones are worthy of this qualification. You can get Nissin Cup Noodles in other parts of Asia, even in Australia, but they’re not nearly as amazing as the original Japanese ones. Truly.
Momofuku Ando was the inventor of instant ramen (ie 2 minute noodles) and part of the team that later perfected the cup variety. The museum is on the outskirts of Osaka and dedicated to the development of these products but the best part is the My Cup Noodle Factory. Here you get to create your very own one of a kind cup noodle, from designing the cup itself to choosing which ingredients are added. The museum is free but it’s ¥300 to participate in My Cup Noodle Factory. (Well worth it in my opinion!) The factory section is very popular so head there first to make sure you get to do it before the museum closes.
(Credit goes to our friend Hamish for mentioning this place to us. Catching up with Hamish was a another highlight of our brief time in Osaka!)
Shibu Onsen and the Jigokudani Monkey Park
We knew we wanted to visit the famous monkey park and picked Shibu Onsen as a base because it is the nearest town. Staying in Shibu Onsen turned out to be even better than the park we’d come to visit and is quite simply one of the loveliest experiences we’ve ever had in Japan! It’s a small hot spring town with 9 public baths which are free to use if you’re staying in local accommodation. It’s perfectly acceptable, in fact actively encouraged, to walk around Shibu Onsen wearing your yukata – you can even wear it to visit the local restaurants in between baths. Our favourite of those restaurants was the soba house Yariya where the food was delicious and staff lovely – they even gave us a small piece of art as a gift. We stayed at Senshinkan Matsuya and it’s quite possibly the nicest ryokan we’ve ever been to: super nice owners, beautiful room, excellent breakfast, right in the centre of town, free lifts – and it was actually the cheapest option we could find! Amazing, and highly recommended.
The monkey park was great fun too. It’s better to visit when the weather is cooler as the monkeys are more likely to be bathing in their personal hot spring: winter would be a particularly enchanting time to go. But even when they’re not bathing they’re great fun to observe. There are so many of them and they have lots of character!
The last time we visited Japan we went south to Okinawa, this time we went north to visit Hokkaido. We based ourselves in Sapporo at Jimmyz Backpackers, a great little hostel run by one super cool dude. We wandered around town and visited some of its unusually western buildings, admired the stunning autumn leaves at Nakajimakoen, devoured super tasty soup curry, and maybe tested a little bit too much beer at the Sapporo Beer Museum. Nothing particularly fancy, but we had a really enjoyable time because Sapporo is just a really nice and laid back town. (The people seem to have particularly cool fashion sense too.) I’d like to go back to Hokkaido one day and spend some time exploring the rest of what it has to offer as it feels quite unique and distinct from the rest of Japan.