Category Archives: Japan

11 lessons I’ve learnt whilst travelling

We’re coming towards the end of our trip (NOOOOOO) with only seven weeks left until we fly from Bangkok to Gatwick. I’ve recently become reflective and I was thinking about the things I’ve learnt and decided to write a post about it before I’m sat at home on the sofa and I’ve forgotten everything. So here it is… Eleven lessons I’ve learnt whilst travelling.

1) Trust people

99% of people are kind and helpful. As I’m writing this, nothing bad has happened to us, so TOUCH WOOD… But we’ve had so many situations where people have been like “You’re going to Hiroshima? You’re on the wrong train! Get off quick!”
There was that time where we hitch-hiked in New Zealand and we’ve stayed in people’s houses we’ve never met before. When somebody says “I need to take your passport down to road to get your boat ticket,” just give them the passport!

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2) At the same time, be sensible and look after yourself

It’s important to look after your valuables, keep your wits about you and if you end up wandering around somewhere dodgy-looking at 3am, just get a taxi!

3) If someone invites you to do something, say yes

When someone I’ve just met asks me “do you want to play a drinking game?” Or “would you like to have dinner with me and my family?” My inner introvert panics at the thought of an impeding awkward situation and my instinct is always to make some kind of excuse. But I’ve learnt that you should always say yes, and good experiences always come out of it.

You’ll meet some amazing people who are equally as poor as you, and you’ll end up having a Box/chicken party It’s cheap!

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4) You’ll have crazy highs and a couple of crazy lows
Sometimes travelling feels like you’re in a happy musical. (No really, I literally twirled around and cried with happiness in New York and screamed when we saw the Hollywood sign.) And to balance life out, you’ll spend a few hours crying on the toilet because you’re so ill, and you’ll scream “what am I doing with my life??!!” in torrential downpour wondering why you’ve found yourself at the top of a slippy ladder in a pear tree.

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5) A smile goes a long way
There are places in the world where you’ll get hassled a lot. When it’s hot and you’ve got your backpack on it’s easy to get your feathers ruffled and want to yell “bugger off, I’ve been walking for half an hour and I can’t find my hostel!!!!!!” But I’ve learnt that to smile and say “no thank you” is the best way around it, and you won’t feel as stressed.

5) Living out of a bag gives you perspective about things
I’ve never been particularly materialistic and I’ve always preferred a good book over shoes, but living out of a 65litre rucksack for ten months gives you a good perspective on the stuff you don’t need. It took me a month or so to relearn what my face looks like without make up, but think I’m actually happier with less stuff. I feel calmer and less cluttered. Okay, so I totally didn’t have a meltdown when my favourite dress got a stain on it…. But yeah. Less is more when it comes to backpacking. Oh, and Kindles are one of the BEST things in the entire world. (That’s a sentence I never thought I’d say)

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6) You’ll also get perspective on stress an it’s effect on the body
Of all the places I’ve been, the ones with the fastest pace of life and visibly stressed people are America, Japan, and the good old United Kingdom. I honestly think we all work far too hard to save money for holidays and stuff we don’t need so we can forget about the rubbish climate. (Massive generalisation…I know. Maybe I’m just a summer person.)
When we’d been travelling for around a month, I felt the muscles in my jaw loosening. My eczema that I’ve had nearly all my life has completely disappeared and those paralysing migraines I get about once every six weeks? Well guess how many I’ve had in eight months?… One.
I’m not writing this to make anyone jealous, but as a reminder to my future self that stress is terrible for me, and I need to work on staying chilled. When I’ve figured out how to do that one I’ll let you know!

7) Travelling will change you in ways you don’t expect

Those of you who know me will know that I’m fairly easy-going but I am also a big worrier. I’m a little bit more relaxed now, mainly about travel situations. For example, I no longer check my passport a million times before boarding a plane. And if someone doesn’t give me my change straight away, I can just wait, knowing they’ll get it to me. I’m a more patient now, and less easily flustered.

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8) But mostly, you’ll stay the same.
I have chronic insomnia. I thought travelling would cure me, and dorm rooms would be a kind of therapy and I’d come home with the ability to sleep anywhere. Well, the truth is I still can’t sleep anywhere! I thoroughly believe there is a special place in hell reserved for people who snore and have sex in dorm rooms. Dorm rooms are my own kind of personal hell actually. One of the main things I miss about home is that I can get up and roam the house and play with my cats and make a cup of tea at anytime any hour of the night. Plus there’s always a comfy spot for me to go with my book. Whilst we’ve been away I’ve done a lot of reading on the toilet in the early hours so that I don’t wake Tom up!

9) Always go with your gut
If a person, or a situation gives you a bad feeling in your tummy, or if you find your trying to talk yourself into doing something… DON’T DO IT.

10) You will adapt to anything
When we arrived in Asia there weren’t any knives and forks. I’d used chopsticks before but found them fiddly and they made me eat incredibly slowly. Fast forward a week and I finished a plate of food and say “Oh! I didn’t even think about the chopsticks!” When we first went to Japan, the whole nude bathing thing terrified me. A week later I was strolling around naked happy as Larry.

11) push yourself, but also know your limits.
I can jump out of a plane at 15000ft

I can bungee jump off a bridge .
I will never drive a scooter/motorbike in Asia.
I will never go scuba diving.

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Never say never though. The scary things are the best challenges.

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Japan part 2

Next on our route in Japan was Kyoto.

Prepared for the usual faffing and flapping in the subway stations, we left ridiculously early and thus spent a good 90 minutes sat on our bags and waiting for the train to arrive.
The Japanese bullet trains are really lovely and big and spacious. Plus they have a huge long nose at the front so they look pretty cool. They’re fast, and they arrive exactly on time every time. Very refreshing!

Kyoto is an historic town full of temples, gardens, and at occasional times in the year, geisha dances.
On arrival we found our hotel and were offered the choice of a tatami room or bed. (Tatami are the traditional Japanese mats on the floor that we stayed on for four nights in Tokyo.) We opted for the beds and were lead to our room, that had not one, not two, but THREE DOUBLE BEDS in it! All lined up in a big row to create one massive bed. Once assured we weren’t sharing we got a bit giddy jumping around. Certainly makes a change to bunk beds!

We then walked to the only theatre with shows on, which said the tickets were sold out online. We managed to secure tickets for the following day so we were really chuffed. As I mentioned, the geisha dances only happen a few times a year, so we were really lucky. And pleased, as we’d missed the sumo wrestling in Tokyo due to the season.
The rest of the day was spent eating (standard) and wandering around temples. We saw real geisha walking around. They are so incredibly elegant. Their rank is shown by the back of their neck, where an apprentice will have two triangles of bare skin, and a geisha will have one. In Kyoto they are called Geiko (geisha) and Maiko (apprentice.) Having read and been completely fascinated by Golden’s “Memoirs of a Geisha” as a teenager, I had a bit of insight into the gruelling regime and practice that is necessary to become a geisha. So I was extra excited for the following days performance.

 

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The performance
We were ushered into a large theatre, told not to take photos and waited for the curtain to rise.
We were up in the gods but we still had a good view. At first curtains to the sides of the audience rose to reveal ten musicians on either side. They were all oldish, and one side held traditional guitars, the other drums, and one musician had a wooden flute. I was very impressed when they began to play and the flautist didn’t struggle at all whilst wearing a wide belt to hold the kimono together. Impressive!

The music began, the guitarists playing and singing and the Geiko began to slowly walk towards the stage. There were around twenty of them, dressed in stunning peacock blue kimonos covered in embroidery. (I later learnt that the costumes take six months to make in the run up to the twice yearly shows. They have new costumes each year) Their bodies were painted white, they had their black hair up in elaborate hair dos and they moved entirely as one. I’ve never seen anything like it, they were incredibly coordinated and elegant. They seamlessly pulled fans out from their sleeves which were included in the dance. It lasted for an hour, and portrayed the four seasons. It’s a shame I could take any photos to show you, but it was a privilege to see such a high art form, and I’ll never forget it.

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Next on our agenda was a 24 hour visit to Hiroshima. The city was pretty much flattened by the atomic bomb in 1945, and so most of the buildings are fairly new. We found our hotel, thanks to booking.com’s photo. There was no English on the building so we couldn’t find it by name! The owner spoke no English, so we spent a good ten minutes trying to communicate before realising that we couldn’t check in until 4pm. Not too much of an issue as we left our big bags in the foyer, but we had to lug our small bags around with us for the day. We somehow discovered a sight seeing bus that we could use for free with our rail passes. We sighed a sigh of relief. A day off the subway! Thank fuck!!

We made our way to the Hiroshima peace memorial park. Outside is the Atomic Dome – a building that was directly below the bomb when it was dropped and so was one of the only buildings that survived the blast. No one inside survived however. It’s a very poignant reminder of the city that once was.

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The park surrounding the dome is full of memorials and statues. It has a very peaceful air to it, but at the same time it’s impossible to not dwell on what happened in Hiroshima. We headed into the museum, which told the story of the bomb. It was full of relics left over from the survivor: Scorched items of clothing, a child’s tiny bike, and very disturbingly.. Fingernails. I was left scratching my head at one point thinking “what is gained by displaying these!?” But for many of the items, they were literally all that was left of someone’s son, daughter, mother or father. Similarly like when we visited ground zero, and when I went to a German concentration camp, it was a day I’ll never forget, but there came a point when enough was enough and I found myself covered in goosebumps and feeling like I was on the brink of a migraine. We fast peddled it out of the park. On the way out there was a huge bell that you could ring to signal your desire for peace in the world and giving it a good clang felt like I was exorcising the demons.

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Above is a statue in tribute to Sadako Sasaki who survived the blast aged two, but when she was eleven developed leukaemia as a result of the radiation poisoning. She decided to make 1000 origami paper cranes to demonstrate her desire for peace, but tragically died before she could complete the project. Her classmates finished the task. To this day there are millions and millions of paper cranes at the children’s memorial in Hiroshima.

I’m really glad to have visited Hiroshima. I still can’t understand….I don’t think anyone can EVER understand how politicians can use human life as pawns in their games.

Anyway, after Hiroshima, we were back on the train headed for Osaka. Osaka was a good stop off point on our way to Koyasan, and we were excited and dubious to be staying in a capsule hotel, something the Japanese are famous for!
The main worry on my part was that I was alone with the women and not with Tom. Pathetic, I know, but we’ve been together 24hours a day for the past seven months and it’s taken its toll!
We went to our separate floors to check out our capsules before bed.

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You’re handed a locker key that corresponds with your bed number. In the locker is a towel and some beige pajamas, which everyone wears and makes you feel a bit like you’ve been institutionalised/ joined a cult. The main thing about the capsule is that it doesn’t have a door on the end, just a roll blind so it’s not too claustrophobic, but it does feel a little like you’re in a hostel dorm, I.e. You can hear everyone’s snores and splutters but with more privacy.

The hardest bit for me was actually getting in the pod. I was on the top shelf and it was really hard to get in and out, I constantly felt like I was on the brink of falling flat on my face when I was on the ladder. But luckily, no disasters there. The bathroom was another communal bathing job – so another naked sauna and spa pool before bed. It’s weird how quickly it becomes normal!
All in all, it was a fairly uneventful night. It felt very bizarre to be alone and to agree a meeting time in the morning. In the morning, I climbed up the stairs to the reception feeling immensely relived to see daylight. The women’s capsules were in the basement, and they did feel a little claustrophobic. The capsule hotel goes down as one of the weirdest places we’ve stayed.

The next day we were off to Koyosan, a sacred mountain. We got on the train, got chucked off the train and then had to leg it onto a different train… Lots of fun with your backpack on. Seriously. I love Japan, but understanding the trains is bloody stressful. I can totally see the appeal of a tour group holiday. Japan has been the first place on this trip where I’ve lost sleep over stress. Anyway….

After the first train, we changed onto another train and then onto a “cable car.” It was not a cable car, it was a funicular railway. This has happened so many times on this trip! I get excited to go on a gondola, but it’s not a gondola!
We finally arrived at the top of Mount Koya, and then hopped onto another bus in the centre of town. Koyasan is a good 5 degrees colder than the rest of Japan, which we were already finding cold compared to the rest of our travels. We headed to our accommodation : inside a Buddhist temple. I was really excited!

I’d read in the lonely planet that women shouldn’t touch monks, or be near them in case you accidentally brush them etc. so I was a little apprehensive that I’d make some kind of faux pas but I needn’t have worried. The monks were really friendly and welcoming. We were shown to our room and given some green tea. We felt incredibly lucky and excited to be staying in the temple. It was the most expensive night of the whole trip : £90 for the night, no food included. But it was so worth it, for such a wonderful experience.

We headed out into Koyosan, a tiny town that is crammed full of temples. We went to a huge Buddhist graveyard that feels like it’s in the middle of the jungle. It was freezing and beautiful. We watched lots of people praying. I walked into a small place of worship whilst Tom was at the loo, and was ushered through to a back room and given more green tea by another smiling monk. They seem to love plying us with tea!

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Next we visited a few more temples, and then headed back to where we were staying. They had more communal bathing pools here and more funny Jedi outfits to wear to bed. I had my hot pool to myself which was really nice, and I was amused to hear that Tom had shared his pool with a naked monk! We had an early night because we were due to be awake very early to watch the monks ceremony in the morning.
We set our alarms for 6am and then headed to the temple for 6.30am. It was very cold. We could see our breath and had to take our shoes off inside, but in a way it added to the magic.

Inside the temple, it was a small room full of ornate decorations… Lots of gold. We were ushered in, where we sat down. We could see a monk in metallic robes sat cross legged at the alter with his back to us. He was moving herbs around and burning incense. I realise I sound completely ignorant here, but the explanations were in Japanese so I can only write what I saw. After a while another monk started banging a big gong just outside the room. He did it around 100 times and it was so loud that every strike made me blink! Not exactly the calm morning rituals I’d expected. The monks then began to chant. They all said the same words in a monotone, reading from scriptures and barely seeming to breathe. The effect was completely hypnotic. One monk stopped and started smacking some big cymbals together. Part of me thinks they enjoyed making a big racket to wake everyone up! One of the monks then came to invite everyone to take part in the ceremony. The explanation was in Japanese, and as Tom and I aren’t religious or Buddhist we decided to just observe…. We didn’t want to do anything wrong or cause offence. But we realised everyone else in the room had gone up to the alter and done something with some spices and holy water apart from us. Whoopsie. I honestly think it was best to just observe though. We were then taken on a brief tour of the temple then headed back to our room for some breakfast.

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Our time in Koyasan felt like an enormous privilege, and a wonderful way to end our time in Japan. There have been many many moments in this trip that I’ll always think about for the rest of my life. When I’m stressed out, and not sleeping, and covered in eczema, I’ll think of those beautiful smiling and welcoming monks on top of a mountain in Japan.

We headed back to Osaka and then onwards to Thailand.

In summary, Japan has been truly awesome! It was one of the places I was most excited to visit and it lived up to expectations. Around every corner is something delightful, like a vending machine full of cold beer, or a person pushing their ten chihuahuas around in a buggy. There’s a wonderful sense of community here. The mundane is exciting to me, from the ridiculous music that played when you enter supermarket, or the fact that you can expect your toilet seat to be warm. It’s a place of contrast. People literally live on top of eachother and I’ve never seen more people in one place than in Tokyo. But then there’s the beautiful countryside, huge mountains covered in trees.

I’m already excited to go back one day.

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Tokyo!

Disclaimer: this post contains a lot of toilet talk, and public nudity.

Next on the agenda: Tokyo. Japan has always been on my bucket list so I was ridiculously excited when we touched down in Tokyo. We also managed to arrive at the most popular time of year: the two weeks where the cherry blossom is in bloom.

We were tired after our flight from Hong Kong, but we both emerged from the airport bogs with a smile on our faces. The toilets from the future didn’t disappoint! I’ll let the photo do the talking. Unfortunately the music button didn’t play music, just a very deafening flushing sound. Amusingly, this stopped very abruptly when you pressed stop, so it was pretty pointless because everyone would know what you were up to because it didn’t sound like water. The toilet seat was heated too.

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Anyway, I digress. We got off the plane at 7pm and didn’t get to our Airbnb for 3.5hours due to wandering around, trying to get the shuttle bus to the subway, trying to understand the subway signs, queuing for tickets then realising we were in the wrong queue and then queuing up for a machine that was entirely Japanese then finally just asking an assistant to get the tickets for us. The first train was about 90 minutes then we had to go through a load of palava trying to get the subway to the station near our accommodation. Nightmare. Finally we were queuing for a train when a friendly local stepped in to help and said he was going to the same stop. It was around 10pm at this point and the trains were still rammed with commuters. We were like “why isn’t everyone home yet?!” Our new friend explained that it’s perfectly normal to work from 8am to 10pm in Japan, and usually 6 days a week. That was fairly mind blowing. There’s even a word in Japanese -Kagoshima- For working yourself to death. How awful. The workers aren’t joyless as you’d imagine though! Many of them stand in big groups, chatting and laughing.

We got to our stop and then walked until we found our airbnb. We were like “that was NOT close to the airport as advertised!!” We later realised there are two airports in Tokyo. Whoopsie. We got our key out of the safe and let ourselves in. We carefully opened each door and discovered we had the place to ourselves. Our room was a traditional Japanese… The walls were lined with paper and we slept on mats on the floor. It was surprisingly comfortable though!
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We needed food so we wandered out and found a local supermarket. On our way we had our first run in with what we’ve now named “the silent killers.” The silent killers are people on bikes who cycle really quickly on the pavements. They’re extra terrifying because they appear out of nowhere, usually wearing a surgical mask. They will also cycle behind you whilst you walk silently saying nothing until you notice them. Anyway, we soon learnt to check both ways before stepping onto the pavement. The supermarket was basically fascinating. I loved seeing the magazines that appeared to be in the racks with the spines on the wrong side, but really it’s because the Japanese read right to left. All the little snacks were really interesting too. There was a fridge full of bottles of tea and coffee that were hot! Tom enjoyed discovering the Japanese whisky was cheap.
Day 1:

After a really good sleep we woke up and had a Japanese pot noodle for breakfast, complete with chopsticks. They were delicious and put the British ones to shame! We headed out towards town. The architecture on the outskirts of Tokyo could only be described as… Grim. If someone had dropped me into the town and I had no idea where we were, I’d have suggested Russia or North Korea. Grey buildings. Children playing in concrete playgrounds. Electricity wires everywhere.
But then we saw a beautiful shrine surrounded by cherry blossom, and then began to follow the blossom along the canal and it was just BEAUTIFUL!

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In Japan, the blossom is hugely celebrated. (The locals call it Sakura.) there was a lovely atmosphere, people smiling, slowly strolling under the trees and taking photos. As we got closer to town, it got busier and the blossom got thicker. There were sight seeing boats going along the river. We walked for about an hour and a half, eventually reaching an area full of food and alcohol stores put on by the local cafes and bars. Tokyo was in full Sakura festival swing! We bought a bento box (Japanese lunch box) for lunch and I entertained a local by applying soy sauce to everything… Apparently I was only meant to put it on the fish and putting it on everything was absolutely hilarious!

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We were in a more urban area by that point so we decided to head towards the world famous Shibuya crossing. This is the crossing that you’ve probably seen photos or videos of : everyone crossing from everywhere in every direction. Personally, I can’t cross the road in Kendal without doing a silly dance with the person opposite so I was slightly intimidated. We watched a few crossings, took some photos and then head across. I discovered the best technique was to pick someone who looked local and just follow directly behind them. I managed it without falling over or making a tit of myself so I was quite pleased!

Next we wandered around a few shops, and then headed towards a shrine. We were crossing the road, and I was looking at a tall building opposite. On one of the floors I sighted some rare English writing which read…… “Cat cafe.”

I was so excited! I refused to go in the shrine until we’d been in the cat cafe. We excitedly headed up the lift to the fourth floor, where we were handed a pair of slippers.
(In Japan, everyone insists on you taking off your shoes and wearing the offered slippers, which I find absolutely hilarious because they’re all one size, too small for my size 7s, and absolutely RIDICULOUS hanging off the front of Tom’s size 13s! I get an immense pleasure out of watching him politely shuffling about. HA)

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In we went to see the cats. They were all beautiful pedigrees, including a cat with teeny tiny legs, and a sloping spine to compensate, so I felt a bit sorry for him. The cats were acting exactly how you’d imagine cats who’d had enough of humans would… Sitting on high platforms, being entirely uninterested in any strokes or cat toys and purely interested in food. It was fun none the less, and I especially enjoyed watching a Birman cat sat on a platform watching the door and then leaping out as soon as it opened. Maybe they’re not so stupid after all.
All this cat cafe business made me come up with my ultimate business plan. Open a cat cafe in Leeds, where all the cats are stray, or unwanted, and then people can meet them at the cafe and adopt them!!! How awesome would that be?!

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After the cafe we went to have a look at the shrine, but unfortunately it’d closed, so we went to see the teen street instead. It was interesting to see lots of people dressed up. We’d been walking for well over eight hours, and had put off taking the subway, but decided to risk it on the way home because we were knackered.

A note about the Japanese railways
The subway in Japan is basically a nightmare for tourists. In the station there are locals sprinting around, and bewildered travellers getting in the way. You’ll look round for a good five minutes before you find an English map, and then you won’t be able to find your stop on the map. This is because each railway company has their own map and their own train timetable. It’s a bit like wanting to get a train from Leeds to Kendal, but needing looking at separate departure boards and maps for east coat, virgin trains, transpenine etc all separately, with each one having their own separate entrances to the subway. To buy a ticket, you can put the machine in English, but the tickets are sold by distance, not by station name….
It’s just a pain in the arse basically. It’s fine if you try to stay patient, but I found it really frustrating because we’re on such a tight schedule in Japan that I felt like we were wasting precious time figuring out the subway when we could be sight seeing. On top of this, some of the stations were so full of people!! One of which, around rush hour I had never seen so many people in one place. We had to go up some stairs and we were packed in like sardines. I literally thought to myself “if I fall up these stairs, I am going to be trampled to death.” It’s terrifying. I’m not good at crowds as it is.
We don’t have data on our phones and the wifi is rubbish, so we were pretty stuck. Taxis are very posh and according to the lonely planet, they can cost 200 quid for a short journey. If you walk you just waste hours and hours of valuable time.

RANT OVER. sorry.

We headed back to our Airbnb, and got into bed. I was taking a while to fall asleep when the doorbell started to ring and I could hear men talking and banging loudly on the door. I decided to wake Tom up who was snoring with his earplugs in and eye mask on.

We were terrified. This seems ridiculous in hindsight, but to put it into context…. We weren’t expecting anyone. We had the only guest room in the Airbnb. We were aware that someone else lived there, but why wouldn’t they have their key? We couldn’t get on the wifi to contact the owner.
We assumed there had been some kind of double booking, but we don’t speak Japanese, so what could we do? We couldn’t exactly let anyone in because we didn’t know who the hell they were. We hoped they’d got the wrong address and waited. Then we heard a van pull up. I’d heard horror stories about people who pull up in a van, knock on the door and then rob you and drive away in the van…. This all sounds so ridiculous now, but we had no idea what to do, we didn’t know if we were in danger, and we were in such an unfamiliar place and so scared! We were just praying they’d go away and leave us alone. We didn’t dare leave our room because all the lights were automatic and they’d know we were in.
Tom made me put “112” into my phone and we crept together downstairs. Tom told me to stay upstairs and I was like “hello! I’ve seen far too many horror films for that!” My legs were shaking like jelly.
Turns out it was the two people who live in the other room. The place had only one key that we were meant to return to the key safe. The van was the locksmith, they were about to change the locks!! We felt very silly and very relived and very apologetic.

Day 2:
We spent the next morning arsing around trying to activate our rail passes for the rest of our time in Japan. Took ages. We then headed to Akihabara, a street famous for manga and anime ( Japanese cartoons and animations) this was pretty much nerd heaven and was great for people watching. We found a crazy photo booth that made your face look like a cartoon. It was absolutely hilarious and we edited the pictures afterwards.

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We then headed back along the canal where all the blossom is, the Sakura festival. It was packed with people, and such a good atmosphere. I love that Japan celebrates the arrival of spring. This is something I think we should do at home. I hate winter! It’s only good bits are Christmas and new year.
We wandered around trying different foods. We drank a few cans (everyone was drinking) and then we invented a game which we call “the Japanese breathalyser” it determines your level of inebriation. If you can still eat chips using chopsticks then you pass. If you can’t you fail. This carried on for a few hours until we got back to our Airbnb and then the people we’d locked out the previous night arrived. We went to buy a huge bottle of sake (Japanese rice wine) to apologise and the guys heated it up in a small pink sake kettle which I found hilarious. The evening was spent mostly shouting at eachother. Their English was limited but miles better than our Japanese and we had a really good time!

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Day 3:
This day took the title of one of the worst hangovers I’ve ever had. Tom was in a similar state… We weren’t sick but just felt like absolute DEATH. Sake is a killer!!!! The morning was spent moaning, then we dragged ourselves out of bed and headed towards a big onsen we’d read about in the travel guide. An onsen is a big Japanese spa. They’re a massive part of Japanese culture, and a top recommended thing to see when you’re visiting the country.

The journey there involved yet another confusing subway trip and then a stomach churning monorail. Then finally we arrived. We knew that we would be using huge communal bathing pools that are split by gender, and you have to go in NAKED. In the manner of “do one thing each day that scares you’ we decided to go for it. It helped that we were so hungover that we didn’t really care.

We were ushered into changing rooms and handed a big yukata: Basically a cotton kimono dressing gown and a sash that went round the waist. I read the instructions carefully and I’m so glad I did because it said “keep your underwear on.” Thank god I read that one! We emerged out of our separate changing rooms and found each other in a big kind of indoor shopping street. I later learnt this is modelled on an old Japanese town.
We wandered, then went outside to the foot spa, which was really lovely. Hot water looks with steam coming off them. They looked so atmospheric. It was really cool that everyone wanders around barefoot in the big kimono.

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Then we bit the bullet, said goodbye, arranging to meet eachother in half an hours time and went into our separate onsens. I’d read the etiquette carefully in the lonely planet beforehand because I was terrified of making some kind of social faux pas. In the changing rooms I went and peered into the pool to check everyone was naked. I had this nightmare scenario in my head that I’d stroll out naked, head in the air to find everyone sat in their bikinis staring at me. But no… they were definitely naked!

On the way in I was handed two towels, one big one small. I took everything off and wrapped myself in the big towel and tried to go into the pool, then I was like, oh wait, no one else has this big towel with them. So I put it in my locker and headed out. So brave, yet so hungover.

The first thing I reached was a big tub of steaming water. I knew from the travel guide to wash myself here – not doing so would be very offensive so I’m glad I realised! There were buckets in the water so I started sheepishly scooping some and throwing it at myself. Then two Japanese women came over and threw the whole buckets over themselves so I did likewise. The onsen was made up of about eight indoor shallow hot pools. I quickly chose the closest one and slid in, realising I was still holding the small towel I’d been given. I saw a sign that said “do not put towels in the water.” I looked round and saw that everyone else had balanced them on their heads. This was one of those surreal moments where I was thinking “why am I alone and naked in Japan with loads of strangers and trying to balance a towel on my head!?”
I eventually relaxed and enjoyed the hot water. I went into another pool, trying to build up confidence to go to the outdoor pools. I went for it. There was a moment when I had a feeling of “oooh! I’m naked outside!” Haha!

It was a real privilege to experience the bathing culture. There weren’t many travellers there, it was mainly locals. They gathered in groups of friends, chatting and laughing like we would over a cup of coffee. It was fascinating to me because I just cannot imagine sitting around naked with my friends and it being totally normal and not hysterically embarrassing. It was getting close to 5pm, our meeting time so I found the showers. These were bizarre because it was like a dressing table – a little seated booth with a mirror where you shower off.

I came out and found Tom. We compared notes whilst we had some noodles. We decided to head back to the Airbnb. Easier said than done. We’d spent our last cash at the onsen, (no card reader) and couldn’t find a cash machine that would accept our cards so we couldn’t get home. A few hours of wandering then we found a free shuttle bus and sighed a sigh of relief when we found a cash machine in central Tokyo. Then back to the Airbnb and to bed.

All in all, Tokyo has been one of the most fun and fascinating we’ve been so far. Even just going to the toilet is fun! It’s also been one of the first times when English hasn’t gone very far and we’ve begun to find travelling more taxing. But it’s all part of the learning curve. It’s important to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

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