Leaving Ryokan Kurashiki was a pretty big letdown to deal with, but fortunately Osaka was there to pick us back up. We found in our brief stay that we really like this city – it’s not as showy and pretty as Tokyo or as culturally rich as Kyoto, but it’s down to earth and serious about enjoying life and food. There’s shopping for anything one can imagine, a bounty of izakaya restaurants (Japanese-style tapas, basically) and a nighttime bustle that’s easy to get swept up in.
We had a slight hiccup when we got off the bullet train and realized that, despite us both being certain to the contrary, we did not in fact have any place booked to stay that night. Nothing a quick stop for some pork buns with the laptop couldn’t handle, and fortunately the hotel we ended up with wasn’t bad. We had dragged our feet that morning, not leaving Kurashiki until we had to, and so it was getting dark by the time we cleaned up and headed downtown for the famed Dōtonbori district.
Dōtonbori is a buzzing canalside area of countless restaurants and bars (and indoor fishing ponds, apparently). We had a good time watching the Japanese tourists take selfies in front of the more famous neon signs and tried out the local specialty takoyaki, fried fish batter balls topped with an assortment of tasty things like bonito flakes and mayo (clip of dancing bonito flakes here).
Our one full day in Osaka was a fun one. We started with an early lunch at a high-end kaiten sushi place. This was set up like the other conveyor-belt places – color coded plates for pricing, hot water taps for green tea, a giant tub of pickled ginger within easy reach – but the quality was much better. It was nearly twice as expensive as the others we had visited but probably four times as tasty, and still pretty reasonable for what was the best “normal” sushi we’ve had. (I’m excluding the exquisite sashimi we had in a few traditional dinners.)
From there we hopped on a train to visit the nearby town of Nara. This famous location is home to the world’s largest bronze Buddha, housed in the Tōdai-ji temple which was until recently the world’s largest wooden building. As if that weren’t enough to attract mobs of tourists, hundreds of tame sacred deer roam the grounds around the temple and beg for treats being sold by enterprising locals. We knew this place would be all about tourists and so we weren’t too excited to go but we didn’t have any better plans. It ended up being worthwhile – not our favorite day trip but still fun. The massive Buddha is impressive and the giant wooden structure over it perhaps more so. It was amusing watching the Japanese tourists all shuffle through to snap the exact same photographs or giggle and shriek nervously next to the anything-but-threatening deer.
After the Tōdai-ji we stopped at a nearby free garden, had a little walk around, and then snacked our way back to the train station and Osaka. Our next item of business was a little shopping – I was interested in getting a decent Japanese-forged kitchen knife and the Osaka area is home to some of Japan’s premier smiths. Elaine had located a promising little shop and we were pleasantly surprised on arrival to find that the selection was a lot more reasonably priced than we expected. They carry a range of knives and shears from tourist-targeting opulent stainless blades to more humble and traditional carbon steel ones – these apparently made in-house. After some deliberating I selected one of the latter – sad I’ll have to wait a while yet before I actually get a chance to try it out!
Our day ended at a nearby izakaya bar run by a gregarious local who, on account of living in New Zealand, Vancouver, and Hawaii, both spoke excellent English and had a lot of great ideas for tasty food. We had some seriously delicious little plates here from snapper sashimi in raw egg yolk to a miso-flavored rice crust ‘pizza’. This was the most contemporary and inventive meal we found in Japan and I would definitely go back there for more!
The next day, with our time in Japan drawing to a close, we took a lengthy train ride back to Tokyo and our lodging for a couple nights in the Akausa district. What was the right way to close out our fantastic tour of this fascinating country? We intended to visit a few big sights we missed at the beginning but a small sign in K’s House Tokyo Oasis reminded us of a rare and unique opportunity: a sumo tournament being held at the nearby Ryōgoku Kokugikanu! We had actually found out about this prior to our arrival in Japan but weren’t able to buy tickets (in fact, they sold out in less than an hour for all 15 days of the tournament) but it turned out it was possible to buy same-day tickets – if you got up early enough to wait in line and beat everyone else.
So of course we got up at quarter to five and were in line by 6am – a bit earlier than necessary, we found for a weekday – but by 8 o’clock we had one of the coveted tickets in hand! Each day of the tournament is an all-day affair with doors opening at 8 and the final big bouts occurring around 5pm. We wanted to make sure we had enough steam to enjoy the big guns so we ran around Tokyo on a few errands first, the most important being returning to the Tsukiji Market area for some super-fresh bowl of sashimi. This meant getting on the Tokyo subway at rush hour and I can now say that is the most sardine-like experience I’ve had. I ended up well off of vertical with nowhere to shift my feet. Meanwhile, Elaine had a comfy ride in a women-only car (I can understand why they have these at busy times).
We returned to Ryōgoku Kokugikanu around 2pm for our sumo experience. Watching this competition was supremely unique in our tour of Japan (and by extension, anywhere). Extensive and elaborate ceremony surrounds every moment; of the five or so minutes set aside for each bout, the actual wrestling only takes between one and twenty seconds with the rest being an orchestrated pageant. This was also the only time that we saw Japanese express really any emotion at all – many spectators were cheering and hollering, and the closing bout – where many thought the standing champion to be unfairly treated – seat cushions were hurled at the ring by the dozens. Nowhere in Japan have we seen social behavior come anywhere close to that!
Each matchup, as mentioned, takes around five minutes. First a sacred chant is sung after the previous bout (everything sumo is deeply rooted in the Shinto religion) and the ring is artfully swept smooth. The massive competitors then climb up onto the elevated platform – for presumably historical reasons the earthen ring is built up half a meter off the ground, which makes the frequent throws off and into the surrounding spectators all the more dramatic and jarring. Bear in mind these guys are approaching 200 kg, some over. Anyway once they’re up there with the judge (who is elaborately costumed) what follows is a sequence of repeated posturing, gut-slapping, and salt-throwing that takes several minutes. Finally all three – sumos and judge – are in position and ready, with the crowd electrified. When the moment comes they both explode forward and collide with the violence of linebackers but lacking any pads for protection. If both engaged solidly they then grapple, push, shove and shift their feet with astonishing speed to attempt different throws or to push their opponent out of the ring. Sometimes it’s over immediately, sometimes a series of remarkable recoveries, but at some point soon one wrestler is down or out and the other victorious. (video of a bout here)
Thus ended our three-week visit to Japan. This was a relatively whirlwind visit – more like a “normal” vacation for us, rather than the relaxed pace we had adopted in affordable Southeast Asia. Japan isn’t the cheapest place to travel in so we did our best to make the most of it, and fortunately we were ready for some busy days after slogging through Indonesia (in retrospect I think we would have been hard-pressed to find a greater dichotomy in efficiency than between these two countries).
Our best days in Japan:
Exploring the spectacular Jogasaki coast before returning to Ito for the most delicious ramen we had in Japan, then soaking in the onsen of one the best value accommodations we’ve found in the world at K’s House.
Teleporting via bullet train from Kyoto to Himeji to visit the spectacular castle and neighboring gardens, then back to the cultural capital for an excellent traditional Japanese dinner.
Hiking between the picturesque towns of Magome and Tsumago through cypress and cedar woods with a picnic lunch next to waterfalls complete with little single-serving cans of sake.
Waking up to a ten-dish breakfast at Ryokan Kurashiki, getting a solid dose of culture and history in Okayama, and returning to Kurashiki for a gorgeous sunset and the best meal of our visit served in our own tatami-mat room.
Random Stats from Japan:
best sashimi: Ryokan Kurashiki
best “regular” sushi: Kantaro Hakodate, Osaka
weirdest meal: stinky feet tonkotsu ramen in Imabari. No, I don’t think that’s the traditional name.
weirdest single bite: sea cucumber roe
prettiest garden: Koko-en, Himeji
fattest carp: Tsuwano
# of train/subway rides: 86 (I’m counting transfers from one line to another here)
best yuru-chara mascot: drinky the raccoon, Shaijo (I’m sure he has a real name)
best noodles: udon in Himeji
best grilled fish: Yanmo, Tokyo
most scenic: Jogasaki coast, Izu penninsula
most surprisingly fun place: Onomichi
# crippling head strikes: 4
strangest social encounters: group bow outside restaurant in Tokyo. Man in robe at a bar asking if we want raw horsemeat.
best 7-Eleven triangle snack: blue (tuna mayo)
best local produce: Satsuma mandarins, Ehime Prefecture
# of imperfectly cooked rice servings: 0
only time Google translate helped: figuring out a laundromat in Matsuyama
best wagyu beef: Ryokan Kurashiki