As with Europe one of the great things about being in East Asia, especially South Korea is the multitude of other countries that are within just a few hours of travel time away. Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, much of mainland China and even many South East Asian countries will likely take no more than four hours in a plane to reach. This is less time than the average bus ride between Toronto and Ottawa. What’s more is that these flights will likely not deplete your finances either, hence, my American friend, who I met in the international student’s dorm at Yonsei and I took it upon ourselves to head over to visit Japan and then the Philippines. The result? An affordable and exciting trip!
To get to Japan we used a discount airline called Peach Travel which specializes in flights to and from Japan and neighboring countries, South Korea being one of them. The flight from Incheon international airport to Osaka’s Kansai Airport took less than two hours, cost a mere $126 and was very comfortable. We touched down in Osaka at around 11:30pm and were forced to take a limousine bus from the airport because the public transit was closed. Fortunately on the bus with us were a small group of South Korean students whom had been to Osaka before and they were able to provide us with some useful info. From where the bus let us off I was able, albeit with some difficulty due to my very limited Japanese vocabulary, to communicate to a taxi driver where our hotel was.
The hotel we chose was a capsule hotel in which you sleep in tiny enclosures which house a furnished bed, a TV, cellphone charger, radio and alarm, the hotel also had a free bath house. It was like being in science fiction novel and was surprisingly comfortable. The next day we had breakfast and headed to Kyoto. The Korean students we talked to the night before, informed us that you could get from Osaka to Kyoto for under $4 which sounded too good to be true, yet lo’ and behold we hopped on a local train for around $3.50 and rode the 40 minutes to the famous city of Kyoto, famous for all manner of traditional Japanese things, temples, shrines, geishas, etc.
We arrived in Kyoto and haphazardly mapped out the bus route to our hostel, Haruya Aqua, which we eventually found after getting rather disoriented, and found it to be in a beautiful, traditional Japanese house that was over a century old. The room we got was a traditional “tatami” room complete with traditional Japanese futons and a backyard garden. It was beautiful! The hostel also had very reasonable bike rentals (about $5 for the entire day) but because on our arrival we were the only guests the manager let us ride them for free for the first day!
We biked around Kyoto, which it turns out is a perfect size for biking as you can get just about anywhere in the city by bike within an hour or two if you have the energy. We visited Kyoto station to get our overnight bus tickets for Tokyo (which turned out to be a 7 hour ride!) checked out a few restaurants and then in the evening went to Gion, which was the “pleasure district” in times past. I had read that it was still possible to see geisha in Gion (contrary to popular belief, classically trained geisha do still exist but are quite rare, very expensive to hire and are not the same thing as prostitutes) and we did actually get to see one strolling down the street, powdered face and all! It seemed that much of Gion was still a pleasure district in the present day as we soon noticed a number of “red light” establishments and their respective solicitors, however we opted for a more wholesome pub experience which we found in the restaurant area some ways away from the red light district. We found a Karaoke pub, had a few drinks there and went back to our hostel to prepare for the bike trip the next day.
The following morning we woke up early, hopped on our bikes, had breakfast at a famous Ramen shop and then biked to the first of three temples that we were going to visit. This was Kinkaku-ji also known as the Temple of the Golden Pavilion for quite literally having a golden pavilion (not made out of gold but gold coloured) surrounded by a beautiful pond with ducks, koi and all. It was quite a sight to see. The next was Ryoku-ji which was a famous Zen temple that housed a well-known rock garden which was very tranquil. The last place we visited was a massive temple complex which had a bamboo forest and was nearly in the countryside, also quite spectacular. By then it was getting dark and we proceeded to bike back downtown for some dinner, getting lost on the way but eventually figuring it out. The bike trip to and from these various temples was also very interesting as we essentially started downtown but ended up in the countryside and were thus treated to a number of interesting sights.
That night we checked out of our hostel, the manager of which was kind enough to hold on to our bags while we biked around, and hopped on the bus to Tokyo on which we slept for the night. The next morning we arrived in Tokyo, stored our baggage in a coin locker and proceeded to wander around Tokyo’s famous Shinjuku district. By day Shinjuku is a large shopping area and there we found department stores, street performers and restaurants. It was all very lively. Since we were on a fairly limited budget we didn’t end up doing much shopping and instead headed to Akihabara, Tokyo’s “electric city” which has been referred to as a “geek’s paradise”.
Akihabara was a strange place to say the least and there we found all sorts of shops selling video games, Japanese animation paraphernalia, giant video arcades, people dressed up as animated characters, maid cafes and all manner of oddities, some of which I feel would be inappropriate to name here. My friend and I decided that we had to experience a maid café because, well… we were in Akihabara, the place where maid cafes were born. It turned out to be a fairly bizarre experience and consisted of my friend and I drinking a massive mug of beer each while a young women dressed as a maid tended to us and referred to us as “master” (a tad unnerving). There were other maids too who talked in extremely high voices and energetically danced and sang along with Anime theme songs. It was all fairly harmless but pretty darn weird. Still it makes for a good story.
After Akihabara we went to meet one of my old Japanese friends that I had met in Toronto while she was on a working holiday, whose house we were staying at in Tokyo for two nights. After we met up with her we changed into more formal wear and headed to a club in Ropongi of which we were on the guest list. Ropongi is one of Tokyo’s swanky clubbing and dining districts. There we ate at a Japanese style pub or “izakaya” had some drinks and went to the club. The club was, well… a club! If you’ve been to a club before you know what to expect, clubs are fairly universal it seems. Big, dark, sometimes elegant places with lots of people, booze, base heavy music, lots of fun if you’re in the right mood etc. Despite having only slept about four hours or less on the bus to Tokyo we still managed to have some fun and danced until 5 am in the morning when we headed back to my friend’s house.