This is a list of personal recommendations, based on my own travel experiences and the advice of others (professional and otherwise). Many of them apply to travel in general. Following these tips will help you experience life-changing journeys and discover not only more about the world, but about yourself.
- Travel cheap: This is not just a budgeting tip. Traveling cheap lets you see the things normal people see, and following more conventional routes reveals the “real” Japan that you might otherwise miss. I personally do not recommend bus tours and the like run by the big companies, unless you want to relive elementary-school field trips. In fact, packaged tours are usually more expensive and less fun than tours you can plan yourself by doing a little research.
- …but don’t plan everything: In other words, leave room for the unexpected. A trip where everything goes as planned is like visiting Chinatown and saying you went to China. Research travel times, locations, and create a reasonable schedule of things you want to see each day, as well as a list of other things you may want to see. Most importantly, do not feel the need to stick to that schedule. If something down a side street catches your eye as you walk, go take a look. If you want to linger at the zen garden and ponder your thoughts an hour longer, do it. Trying to orchestrate an experience too closely causes it to become shallow.
- Try things you wouldn’t otherwise do: Especially if you are an introvert, this is a perfect chance to try things you wouldn’t otherwise. Nobody knows you there, and you do not live there, so try coming out of your shell and let the experience change you. Travel is not just about seeing something new, but about letting yourself grow. Note that I am not recommending doing anything indecent, illegal, obnoxious, rude, etc.–don’t forget to use common sense. And don’t forget that you are a guest in Japan.
- Forget what’s going on at home: You will get the most out of your experience if you leave your worries and daily concerns behind as much as possible (this includes checking e-mail, updating blogs, etc.). Use the chance to not only relax, but immerse yourself fully in a fascinating new world.
- Stay awake on trains: Some of the most beautiful and interesting sights you see will be from the train window. Get enough sleep in the hotel, and stay awake on the train (or bus).
- Rent a bicycle: Particularly in rural areas, getting around by bicycle lets you see hidden-away things you would otherwise never have the chance to see otherwise. It also gives you more opportunities to meet interesting people. Not to mention exercise never hurts. Bicycle rental is cheap, and shops are generally easy to find.
- Don’t just hit tourist traps: I recommend going to small attractions or simply roaming around without a purpose every once and a while. Going to Kansai and just visiting Kyoto and Himeji Castle, for example, is like going to Paris and only seeing only the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre. The best experiences I’ve had came from walking down random streets, taking small side paths, and visiting small, family-run restaurants and shops.
- Try to speak Japanese: The ability to speak the language of the country you are visiting enhances the experience by a huge degree. By speaking only English, you are limiting yourself to what has been translated and people who can speak English, which means you are not really seeing Japan for Japan. Take a few weeks to study if you have time, or try out a few guidebook phrases when you have the opportunity–Japanese people love to praise foreigners with terrible Japanese in particular. And at the risk of sounding too preachy: disillusion yourself of the belief that everyone in the world knows English and nobody minds having to use it. It’s more consider to at least try to speak the country’s langauge and respect its culture, as opposed to expecting them to accomodate you–even if you can only say “konnichiwa” and “arigato,” you will be respected for trying.
- Eat local specialty foods: Every region of Japan and most cities and towns have their own specialty foods. You will not only get a wide sampling of Japanese cuisine, but have a richer travel experience, if you try local specialties along the way. It also makes picking a menu item simple!
- Go out drinking: There are few better ways to meet and talk to locals than getting drunk with them. Research local bars if possible before setting out on your journey, and follow the recommendations of other expatriates in Japan.
- Stay at an onsen (hot spring): I know it’s probably scary to think of getting naked around other people, but hot spring baths are one of the most wonderful parts of Japan, and they are pretty much everywhere. Schedule one night at a hotel, ryokan, or resort with hot spring baths (or even just regular shared baths) and enjoy yourself–outdoor baths in the fall and winter are particularly lovely. Some hotels have the option of using kashikiri-buro, which are reserved baths you can use privately with family, friends or loved ones for a set amount of time. Just remember: wash yourself thoroughly before entering bath, as the bath is for soaking only.
Makino was the turning point in my journey, the non-climactic climax of my loop around Lake Biwa. The pedals moved smoothly on the bike I had borrowed from the hotel, and I glided effortlessly down the narrow lakeshore road, dodging cars and pedestrians on a lane too narrow for either. I passed ancient wooden gates protecting majestic temples, mixed in with old wooden houses belonging to anglers, farmers, and wealthy individuals lucky enough to have summer homes. There were bright green paddy fields and dull gray boat ramps, small shrines and old tea shops. There were also staring eyes, especially when I stopped to take a picture of something that seemed perfectly normal to local residents, such as a beautiful field or the sunset dipping over the lake.
Why was Makino a climax, a turning point in my journey? Well, in the physical sense, it was the halfway point of the loop I was taking around the lake, and the point from which I started heading back toward Osaka rather than away from it. It was the place where I experienced my first and only disappointing hotel of the trip. It was also the least urban, most rural place I had been so far. But more than that, it was the people who were different: the scenery of Makino was friendly, but unfortunately, the people were not. This was a different Shiga than I was used to.
Speaking of the hotel–I won’t mention the name out of courtesy–it was a giant disappointment. This was the only luxury hotel I was to stay in, right on the lakeshore and at twice the cost of the other business hotels I had stayed in thus far. However, its location was bad (15 minutes walk from the station through the middle of nothing with no pickup service, which is unheard of in Japan); its carpets were stained everywhere; its bathroom had random hairs stuck all over it; the swimming pool was much smaller than its picture made it look, filled with dirt and spots, and not open for use once the whole time I was there; the “private beach” smelled like garbage and dead fish; the “bar” and “restaurant” were identically plain (cheap folding chairs and cheap plastic tables in front of a large window looking out at said smelly beach); the staff were unfriendly, unhelpful, and uninterested; and my view was of a pile of concrete slabs, pipes, and tools strewn about.
But I was thankful for the bikes.
Because of delays arriving to Makino I had to change my schedule around a bit, but after checking out from my hotel (good riddance) and trudging back to the station, I was on the train for Katata. After calling the Katata tourist information center and conforming that there were in fact lockers at the station, of course. I felt a tinge of sadness as I rode the nearly empty train southward, near the west shore of the lake. Tomorrow I would be heading back to Osaka. While my feet hurt and the prospect of my own bed seemed nice, the idea of my vacation ending and “real life” starting again made me a little blue. On the other hand, I was looking forward to the day’s sites and also to a scalding hot spring bath that night.
The first thing I noticed about Katata was the people were different from those of northern Shiga. They were much more friendly. The bus driver really helped me out, stopping the bus as the stop where I got off and coming down to the street to point the way to the place I was looking for. He was a really friendly guy overall, and without him I would have been lost in Katata. The main site I visited was Ukimido (can be translated to something like “floating Buddha hall”), which is a structure that is built on stilts out in the middle of the water, and is part of Mangetsuji Temple. The structure was built by a monk from Enryakuji Temple (a temple on Mt. Hiei) about 1000 years ago, and the current structure is from 1937. It is probably the most celebrated spot in Katata, and it’s easy to understand why–it floats perfectly on the surface of the lake, surrounded by beautiful pine trees, providing a truly calming sight that brings one’s thoughts to things spiritual. I also dropped in at nearby Honpukuji Temple and walked around the surrounding neighborhoods, which were charming.
My next destination was Ishiyama-dera, one of the most famous temples in the Otsu areas. I took the train to Yamashina and from there rode the Keihan line through the mountains and along its steep, winding course into Otsu, where I transferred for another local line that led me to the bottom of a hill near Ishiyama-dera. This is one of the temples of the Saigoku Piligrimage route, buried in a forest on the side of a steep, craggy hill. The gurgling of water over moss-covered rocks, quiet stillness of the forest, and chirping of birds complemented old buildings that seemed as if they had been there since the beginning of time. A truly magical and mysterious aura floated through the grounds of Ishiyama-dera, one that transported me as a visitor to another world until I reached the top of the hill, looked out over the city, and remembered that Iwas, in fact, in modern Japan. There are buildings here that are more than 800 years old, and one of the rooms there was used by Lady Murasaki when she was writing The Tale of Genji. As I was sitting on a bench near the summit, a couple of people came over and talked to me, and two older ladies even asked to have their picture taken with me. One of them was from Osaka, the other from Okinawa, and the latter said she was planning to visit the American west coast later that year.
After I took the long way around the vast temple grounds, I finally made it back to the entrance and caught a bus back to a Keihan Line station, continuing from there back to Yamashina where my luggage was stored. I spotted a Starbucks near the station, something I had not seen for days, and decided it was time for a cup. After resting there and reading my book for a while (I was currently reading Itoyama Akiko‘s Fukurokoji no Otoko), I headed back to the station, only to have yet another lady I didn’t know come up and talk to me. Apparently she talked to me without taking a good look at my face first, because partway through she stopped when she realized I was a foreigner, assuming I wouldn’t understand. I assured her in Japanese I had no trouble speaking the language, and we actually stood there and talked for about an hour in front of the train station ticket machines. She was apparently studying English, but she was glad to talk for the first time to a foreigner in Japanese (beyond the level of “konnichiwa,” “I’m 26 years old” or “where’s the bathroom?”), something that is rare in Japan. It turned out she was a Jehovah’s Witness, and I politely declined her offer to come to her church, she was one of the most interesting people I encountered during my trip.
That night I stayed at Ogoto Onsen in a nice hotel with indoor and outdoor hot spring baths built in. In contrast to my last hotel, the staff were waiting with a bus when I arrived, and we followed winding, woody road up to the top of a hill where the hotel was located. The staff were courteous, and the baths felt wonderful after four straight days of traveling and walking through mountains and towns. It was at this hotel that I met the dreaded “slipper obaasan” (“slipper granny”),as I have decided to name her. What is the slipper obaasan? Well, she is an old lady who wears a yukata and works in the hot spring public bath section of the hotel, and her job is apparently to make sure people wear their hotel slippers when they walk down the corridor leading to the bath. During check-in, they had mentioned that I needed to wear the hotel slippers when going to the bath, but when I got to the room, I found that the slippers were about 2-3 inches shorter than my foot. I called the front desk, but they had no other size. Nice. In the end, I put on the yukata and walked to the bath sans slippers, only to encounter the slipper obaasan along the way. When she saw that I didn’t have my slippers, she flashed the giant X-shaped dame sign with her arms and started freaking out at me–I kind of thought she was going to rip my head off. With impeccable timing, the young girl from reception saw us and intervened, saying I could go for now and she would find a pair of soft room slippers for me to use and put them outside the bath. When I had finished bathing and was in the changing area, still not clothed, the slipper obaasan walked nonchalantly into the room full of naked men, stood in front of me, and told me my slippers were waiting–I think she had been worrying terribly about this, which I suppose was her job. She even stood outside to make sure I actually wore them, and followed me all the way down the hall as I left.
Refreshed after a nice bath–there was even one bath outside that had water falling at close intervals from above, so it hits your shoulders and feels like a massage–I returned to my room and took in the gorgeous view of the lake from my window. As the sun set, the lights of the cities clinging to the shores of Lake Biwa and the few fishing boats still out in the water became the only things that were visible. After breakfast the following day I would return to Osaka. My trip around the lake was finished, yet I still felt there was so much to see. I never had the chance to spend time in Takashima or Imazu thanks to JR delays, I still wanted to visit the ninja town of Koga on the east side of the lake, and I had never been up to Mt. Hiei or to Mii-dera in Otsu. But I suppose that’s be best part about Shiga Prefecture: there’s always something new to discover.
As I rode the train northward through paddy fields and old wooden houses, the shore of Lake Biwa drew closer and closer as the I entered Nagahama City. This would be one of the two real sightseeing hotspots I would spend time in during the trip–the other being Otsu–and I was looking forward to what Nagahama had to offer.
After detraining, I headed out toward Nagahama Castle, which is about 10 minutes or so on foot from the station, near the lakeshore. Nagahama Castle is not the most impressive structure I’ve ever seen, and even though it’s a modern reconstruction, it has a certain charm to it. Upon looking through the museum inside, I learned that it was at located at a vital location near Sekigahara, a mountain location where the decisive battle between the Tokugawa and Hideyoshi alliances was fought in 1600 to determine the future path of Japan, which ended up being one of long-awaited prosperity and peace for more than 250 years. The castle is small, but the view from the top is impressive, as you can look out over Lake Biwa as well as out toward the rolling hills around Sekigahara. Gazing at the illuminated castle keep that night, I had to admit the odd-shaped structure was not overly impressive, but in my mind its historical significance has left an imprint in my memory that is far bigger than the fortress’ physical stature.
Next I went to Kurokabe Square. This is considered the center of Nagahama, and its name comes from the stately old black-walled (“kurokabe”) building that acts as its centerpiece and gives the district its name. The two-storey building was built in 1899 and served originally as the Daihyaku Sanju Bank building, but today it is a well-known shop selling the famous glassware of Nagahama on the first floor and imported glassware and jewelry on the second floor. The shop’s goods were absolutely amazing, and since I had come all the way to Nagahama, I couldn’t resist buying a few glass animal figurines (which somehow made it home undamaged). The surrounding area also has a number of wooden Edo- and Meiji-Period buildings. I splurged at a restaurant nearby and bought sukiyaki with Omi beef, a regional specialty. Though expensive, this tender, delicious, high-quality beef is worth it. Afterward, I visited a couple of temples in town.
In the morning I got up early to catch the ferry to Chikubushima, an island in the middle of the lake where a temple and a shrine are located. I threw my things in a locker and walked to the ferry pier, only to find that (1) the time schedule in my guidebook was out of date and I had just missed the boat I planned to take, and (2) even though I thought I was clever enough to arrive early in the morning to avoid crowds, so had everyone else in Shiga Prefecture. Thankfully, I got a window seat on the ferry and we set sail across the placid waters of Lake Biwa.
As the boat closed in on Chikubushima, everyone went out onto the deck to take pictures, but I decided to wait until the return trip–which was a smart move, since it wasn’t nearly as crowded on deck during the return trip. The approach reminded me a bit of the time I visited Alcatraz in San Francisco, sans the chill running up my spine. Chikubushima itself was not as good as I had expected, although the imposing old gate of Tsubusuma Shrine and the beautifully carved Buddha statue inside were impressive, and the bright orange pagoda of Hoganji Temple surrounded by vibrant tropical greenery was refreshing. The shrine boasts a unique way of praying: you buy a pair of round ceramic fragments, write your name on one and your prayer on the other using a brush, and then try to throw them both through a Shinto gate (torii) perched below on a rock in the water.
After boarding the ferry back to Nagahama, snapping said photograph, and relaxing in the air-conditioned cabin after a lot of stair-climbing, I started to mentally plan the afternoon. I would ride the JR line around the north edge of the lake and down to Makino on the west side, put my things in a locker there, go sightseeing further south in Katata and Imazu, then return and catch a shuttle to the hotel and find a restaurant to eat dinner at. Little did I know that a combination of incorrect information, misleading information, the reality of the countryside would nullify my plan.
I went to Nagahama Station and saw that the next train would be leaving in a half hour. As the departure time approached, an announcement from the platform speakers informed us that the trains were now delayed a couple of minutes, followed by another that they were delayed by 30 minutes, meaning I would be waiting an hour just to get on the train. The train finally arrived, 40 minutes late, which just goes to show how dangerous it is to rely on JR (in West Japan, JR seems to have trouble handling busy travel weekends). I had to switch at Imazu-Shiotsu station for the Kosei Line, but thanks to that lovely delay, my train had left one minute before and I now needed to wait another hour until the next one came. After about 35 minutes I got impatient and decided to go call a taxi, so I went down the longest station staircase I have ever seen inside a train station and asked the station attendant for the nearest taxi company’s phone number. As luck would have it, the train arrived at that very moment (apparently the Kosei Line was delayed, too), so I ran up the longest staircase ever with my bags in hand and barely slipped through the door and into a vacant seat before it departed. We soon cut through a tunnel and rushed out into the breathtaking, verdant scenery of northern Biwa.
Despite the information on JR’s website, when I asked the station attendant where the coin lockers were, he gave me the “are you insane?” look and told me there were none. I couldn’t very well go sightseeing with my bags in tow, so I called the hotel, but despite their claim to be a lakeside resort, they didn’t even have a pickup service from the station. This meant I would have to haul my stuff 15 minutes to the place. Furthermore, there was nothing resembling a restaurant near the station–mostly just old houses and paddy fields. With a groan, I put one foot in front of the other. With trains that arrived only once and hour (and unpredictably delayed), my arrival at Makino several hours later than planned, and my legs worn out by the time I walked through the hotel’s front entrance, it seemed as if things that day would not go as planned.
Fortunately for me, when it comes to trips, I thrive on unpredictability. Stay tuned for part 3.
I wrestled with the other travelers boarding at Osaka Station, knowing as they did that if I didn’t get a seat now I would be standing for the next hour and a half. It was a rare five-day weekend, and everybody in Japan was off to their own destination, mad with travel fever. As the train rushed out of Osaka, through Kyoto, and into the mountain tunnel leading to Shiga Prefecture, I felt the tension built up over a week of overtime work go out of my body and a smile float to my lips. I had this trip all planned out–or so I thought.
This was not my first time in the Lake Biwa area. I had previously spent a night in Omi-Hachiman and toured the area, including the beautiful canal district, and the mountaintop temple called Chomeiji (lit. long life temple). These are two truly wonderful places–the canal district for its beautiful old townscape that puts Kyoto’s Gion district to shame, and Chomeiji for its grand old buildings dotting the slopes surrounding serene Lake Biwa. Omi-Hachiman was truly an amazing experience, and I ended up spending the whole day there rather than continuing on to Azuchi as I had originally planned. My pleasant surprise at Omi-Hachiman and my unfulfilled goal of visiting Nobunaga’s former stronghold in Azuchi was my inspiration to spend the long holiday making a full loop around Lake Biwa.
Azuchi is the place where Oda Nobunaga, one of the three great unifiers of medieval Japan, built his lavish castle to display his power and wealth. It was covered in gold and the paintings inside were done by the best artists of the day. Unfortunately, it was mysteriously burnt down just three years after its completion, but it still remains in people’s memories as the symbol of over-the-top, luxurious Momoyama-Azuchi culture. Not much remains of the castle (mostly just some old walls), but the surrounding area and the view of Lake Biwa the site commands are still impressive. I rented a bike near Azuchi station, rode out to the mountain, and proceeded to make the steep climb to the top. Biking around is the best way to see the sights of Azuchi, and after going about five minutes from the train station, I found myself riding through crisp, clean air among bright green rice fields almost ready for harvest. The climb to the castle ruins is quite beautiful, and you can see Nobunaga’s (uncharacteristically) humble mausoleum along the way. Afterward, I swung by a few museums, including the Nobunaga no Yakata museum which has a recreation of the castle itself that was formerly displayed at the 1992 World Expo in Seville, Spain.
The woman working at the tourist information center was a great help when I first arrived in Azuchi, and on the way back, I stopped again at the information center for ice cream and a rest. The two of us chatted for a while in the (mercifully) air-conditioned room, and I learned that they are currently showing a film about Nobunaga’s Azuchi Castle, which explained why television crew had been filming live at the museums I visited.
I stayed the night in nearby Omi-Hachiman, in a business hotel run by an elderly couple that was located between the station and the historic district. Having just come from Osaka, I was shocked at how quiet the city was at night. After taking a short nap, I headed out to find something to eat, but couldn’t find any restaurants except for McDonald’s, Lotteria, a really depressing food court with one restaurant that was closed, and a couple of izakaya. I finally came across as small bar located on a side street, and went in to take a look. It was a reggae bar not unlike something one would encounter in Namba, and there were only two staff members. The food was good and the drinks were standard fare, but unfortunately nobody else was in the place the whole time I was there. Even more odd, the staff never even struck up a conversation with me, but silently watched me eat, which made me more than a little uncomfortable. I have been in empty bars in Osaka, and it’s always been a great chance to get to know the staff better, but this was just awkward. Despite this experience, I had met mostly friendly people that day–something that would change as I moved north into the more rural parts of Lake Biwa.
But I was already thinking about tomorrow and my next destination, the coastal castle town of Nagahama. This was the first moderaly long trip I had taken almost entirely alone, and I was ready to see all that I could see.
Today I thought I would write a little about Japanese food. I found another interesting blog with a good description of okonomiyaki, one of my favorite foods and also one of the most famous foods of Osaka. As described in the page I linked to above, onokomiyaki (which can be literally translated as “cook what you like”) is shaped liked a large pancake and contains eggs, dashi, cabbage and other vegetables, and usually pork or seafood of some sort. It is topped with mayonnaise, sauce, aonori (dried seaweed flakes), and katsuo dashi (bonito flakes), and sometimes cheese. This is Osaka-style okonomiyaki.
The two places that are known for their okonomiyaki are Osaka and Hiroshima (sometimes Tokyo, but I don’t think Tokyo’s monjayaki can compare to these other two). Hiroshima is also quite good, and debates can become intense when comparing the merits of Osaka- and Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki (personally, I go with the former).
If you are in Osaka, I personally recommend eating at Bonhan (ぼん繁), which has shops in Tenmabashi and Kitahama. Bonhan also does take-out orders.
Recently, I have been spending a lot of time going around Osaka Prefecture to places I haven’t visited in order to evaluate and collect information for my upcoming website, Osaka Insider. One of the places I visited was Tondabayashi City’s jinaimachi (寺内町). For you non-Japanese-speakers out there, that means “temple town,” and that describes the historical origins of this site. Its development centered on Koshoji Betsuin, the temple partially pictured above, which was established in the 16th century. From the 17th century (the Edo Period) onward, it developed into a rural trade town and lost much of its religious character, instead taking on the merchant culture seen most clearly in Osaka at the time. Many of the mansions are preserved today, and the jinaimachi’s urban landscape has changed little since that time, making it a truly valuable cultural asset to Osaka Prefecture.
While there, I was able to tour two merchant residences, the huge Sugiyama residence and the somewhat more modest Katsuma residence. The Katsuma residence was actually my favorite, as it still had people living inside and retained a more homey atmosphere–sitting in the guest room drinking tea while looking out at the garden on a hot summer day was quite pleasant. The impressive Sugiyama residence, on the other hand, was set up more like a museum (and rightly so). Both residences are very close to each other, and both deserve a visit.
Very few people were interested in visiting Tondabayashi, despite it being relatively good weather and a Saturday. It is one of my goals to provide tourist information for truly unique places like this, with its Edo-period cityscape and feel, and its friendly little shops scattered here and there amongst the old wooden buildings. I want to promote Osaka, which until recently has received very little attention as a tourism destination (even now, most focus lies on Osaka City itself, rather than the relatively poorer prefectural towns like Tondabayashi). However, I am a bit worried that, someday, peaceful little places like this may become stifled by tourists as is often the case in destinations such as nearby Kyoto and Nara. I suppose the selfish part of me wants to have the streets of this charming little temple town all to myself. 😀
At any rate, I hope all readers will visit Tondabayashi once. While you are there, I also recommend (especially for the ladies) you visit “Jinaimachi terra,” a little family-run shop near the jinaimachi’s information center.