Japanese Holiday 2013

In times like these when almost all trips and journeys are restricted, people easily get lost in memories of adventures long gone. Being no exception, I’d like to tell you about my trip around Honshū in 2013. Back then, I was an exchange student at Kanazawa University, but hadn’t seen much of Japan apart from the usual tourist attractions nearby.

For some reason unknown to me, my parents came up with the idea to grab my older brother, enter an airplane, flight around the world and come to stay with me in Japan for some time. Since they’ve never really stuck out as overly adventurous, my first reaction was surprise followed by vague worries. They are more the kind of people who feel comfy and at ease in their little village and would not miss much if they’d be trapped there forever. So, I wasn’t sure at all if they would stand the cultural shock, the climate (humid summer) and if we would be able to spend lovely holidays together. Last time the four of us went on holiday must have been when I was four years old – before my sisters came into existence, anyway. Sure enough, this would be a challenge for everyone involved in one way or the other.

But let’s start at the beginning. One hot very humid summer day in Ōsaka, I met my family at the Kansai airport. Rather jetlagged and exhausted, they asked for a taxi to the hotel. Here, I should have known better, because taxi fees in Japan are very high. But a taxi they wanted, so a taxi they got. It was the taxi driver’s lucky day, I guess.

Ōsaka was the first stop of our trip. Since it is a very big, loud and lively city, and as different from my little hometown as can be, it may have been intimidating for my guests. At the end of the first day, I was just happy to not have lost any of my family members in some train or the downtown streets of Ōsaka at night.

Next stop was Kyōto, where we were able to visit the beautiful Kiyomizudera temple with almost no other tourists around. The best part of the day, however, was ending up in a small corner pub. Except for the down-to-earth fellows who seemed to belong to the place like the scratches on the bar, only the four of us were there. After a short time the man next table realized I could speak Japanese, and started to provide us with sake. Needlessly to say, this led to an increase in good spirits and to the fact that we were no longer able to walk to the hostel, but had ourselves brought home by another of these white-gloved taxi drivers beyond the age of 60. Apart from the Kiyomizudera mentioned above, the bamboo forest outside Kyōto is also worth a visit. We lend some bikes, cycled through a village and the forest, when suddenly my brother shouted something and added up speed. „Monkeys!” I’ve never been able to share his fascination for monkeys, but what don’t you do to keep your guests satisfied? We had no choice but to follow him climbing up the monkey mountain in the summer heat. And really, there was a whole bunch of monkeys, that could not be disturbed by the humans around them. While my thrilled brother started taking pictures of the monkeys, my mother and I preferred to keep a little distance.

After visiting the big cities of Ōsaka and Kyōto, we took the express train to Kanazawa, the city where I was located as exchange student. Now the rather unplanned part of the journey was about to begin. In Ōsaka, Kyōto and Kanazawa we had always booked accommodations and planned the sightseeing points beforehand. But now we wanted to set out independently with our rented Subaru to explore the more rural regions in northeastern direction.

Driving in Japan actually works quite well. The roads are in a very good condition and there are plenty of gas stations. It is important to remember that Japan has left-hand traffic and it can take a while to get used to it. Fees must be paid for using the highway. In order to be allowed to drive, you need your foreign driving license affirmed by a Japanese traffic office. The first time we headed for the highway, we all were startled when the navigation system started to beep. Everyone got excited, and my brother, who was driving, shouted at me, asking whether we were about to enter the highway the wrong way. I had to shout back asking them all to shut up, because I couldn’t understand what the Japanese women’s voice was saying. But the nice lady only wanted us to remember inserting the tax fee card into the respective slot. After that incident we all took a deep breath, looking forward to our northeastern adventure.

Not knowing where we would spend the next night, the journey by car was really fun. We were free to spontaneously change, stop or reverse destinations. In addition, I could always use the smartphone we’d rented at the airport and try to find accommodation for the night. We never were exactly sure what lay ahead of us. For example, one day we found a hidden waterfall and my brother and my father didn’t want to miss the chance to jump into the ice-cold water. Another day, we walked through a forest near our traditional hotel and reached a shrine site from the back. There, I explained to my family that people came here to pray for different things, even some profane things like the growth of one’s hair. Hearing this, my mother shook her head in astonishment.

In any case, it had been a great idea to drive to the countryside after the big cities. Not only were we more independent, but also more relaxed than before. Even my mother, who had struggled with homesickness the days before, became cheerful again and especially took a liking to Japanese bath culture. Every evening the two of us entered the bath together. In Japan, the lodgings very often don’t have a shower but a group bath, men and women divided. Before enjoying the very hot and clear water for a few minutes, one is supposed to sit down on a little stool in front of a mirror and use soap, shampoo and the like. Don’t forget to get rid of the remaining soap and shampoo before climbing into the pool. Then just enjoy the hot water for a few minutes. My father, as I learned, had a little more trouble to adjust to this bathing culture thing, because one evening he complaint about the much too low “showers”.

Another highlight of this trip was the town of Matsumoto in Nagano Prefecture. In contrast to the southern part of Honshū, it was pleasantly fresh and less humid up there. The city of Matsumoto has an impressive and very interesting castle, which – I have to agree with my brother – is actually much cooler than the highly overrated castle of Ōsaka; because this castle – still being beautiful – had been built only for defensive reasons and even included a secret floor which could not be seen from the outside. Hidden in that way, the samurai could target their enemies and shoot arrows at them.

I also highly recommend a visit to Kamikochi. This is a travel region on the margins of the Japanese Alps, perfect for hiking and camping. The crystal-clear stream, an impressive mountain panorama, and wonderfully fresh air will make you want to stay out all day. Only the other tourists can be a little annoying sometimes, so it is best to try not to go there during the main season. Or, if you are as courageous as we were, leave the heavy used paths and try to find your own way following the river.

From Nagano we drove back west to Kanazawa and spend the last day together at the Japanese Sea. Same day that evening, we were just about to drop the car off at the car rental company, when a police car popped up behind us. As it turned out, we had ignored the stop sign at the corner. The grumpy looking police man was not amused, but fortunately his heart could be melted this time by my skillful rhetoric and exuberant apologies – well, maybe he just had no desire to spend his time on making him be understood by foreigners, and we just got lucky.

After that, we parted at the train station. My family went back to Ōsaka and would take the flight home the following day. On the one hand, I was glad that everything had been fine and there was now some time for me to rest. But on the other hand, I felt a little sorry that the journey was over and I had to say goodbye.

I really hope that my family enjoyed the stay – and you this little report.

Let me finish by sharing one thing I learned during this trip. Sometimes, an adventure, a journey or just a change of surroundings can function as a mirror. This is a great opportunity to learn something about yourself and the ones close to you, and in order to not let it pass by, take your time! Feel free to take in the things you like and the ones you don’t like. Share your view with the ones around you, be it your family or friends or whoever. This is the way to create real treasures and memories.