Travel Tuesday: “Travel Yourself Interesting” - My Journey to Japan
Article and Photography by Megan Auld
The museum throbbed with the steady weight of thousands upon thousands of visitors who wandered slowly passed its exhibits. There was an oppressive silence as the meaning of the displays took hold. On one of its busiest days of the year, the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum groaned at the seams as people explored the A-bomb and its effects on the day before the anniversary of the bombing. Despite being one of the hardest and most emotionally draining days that I spent in Japan with my family last summer, it was also one of my favourites. The feeling will stay with me for the rest of my life. The power of witnessing something like that is one of the reasons I love to travel: to see the world through the eyes of others from around the world, to experience the things they find important and to challenge myself, whether physically, mentally, or emotionally.
We walked through the park while the rehearsals for the ceremony the next morning went on. The park was filled with visitors decorating the memorials with chains of thousands of colourful origami peace cranes, the Japanese equivalent of the red poppy we wear in the UK in November. The cranes have special meaning in the Japanese culture: folding a thousand peace cranes is said to grant a wish, such as that something so devastating should never happen again.
As a young child, I saw an advert for a travel company that read: “Travel yourself interesting”. This phrase stuck in my head and resonated with the travel I had already experienced in my life. My family has always impressed on me the importance of seeing the world. Earlier this year, I received a text from my mum, simply reading ‘Japan?’, so off to Japan we went. We spent two weeks touring the country, but six months anticipating the trip. To visit a country so far from us, not only in distance, but cultural history, was intriguing and exciting, to say the least. Several things to me seemed foreign, though I was interested to observe many similarities too.
One of the most significant observations I made about Japan was the extreme juxtaposition of the old and the new, the historical way of life contrasted with the rise of commercialism in the 80s. Japan was like a study in contrasts. You could take a train that travels 200 mph to reach a shrine built 500 years ago. You could be swarmed by thousands of business workers commuting home or stand in the perfectly peaceful Japanese gardens at the old Imperial Palace. Our days were so packed, it might take a whole book to write it all down. We visited Tokyo, Kyoto, Hiroshima, Osaka, and a collection of towns in between them all. Travelling around Japan was incredible and exceptionally easy. With a light bag, you could catch trains, buses or the ‘Shinkansen’ bullet train.
Starting in Tokyo, our first day was to the world-famous Nikko Shrine, which is used as a pilgrimage site in Japanese Shinto beliefs. The site was incredibly beautiful, intricately detailed and carved. We explored for hours, taking off our shoes to enter The Hall of a Hundred Dragons, the main temple building. All the while, it was pouring with warm rain (a novelty for this Scot) and thousands of umbrellas bobbed around the site, something that would become a common sight by the end of our trip.
The next day was spent exploring Tokyo, Japan and the world’s biggest city by population. It certainly felt it as we toured the main sites, including the busiest marketplace I had ever seen. While the subway made getting around easy, it’s best to avoid travelling at rush hour, when people are on their commute home. The stories of train staff shoving people into the carriages are true.
One of my favourite days, having left the city behind us, was to a tiny place called Yudanaka. Our bed (or should I say futon) for the night was in a traditional style Ryokan (Japanese inn) with Onsen spa. While they made up our rooms, we headed to the Snow Monkey park, where we got up close to wild Macaque monkeys that bathe in the natural hot springs of this region. Used to tourists, these monkeys leapt around us without a care, allowing the amateur photographer in me to snap some incredible pictures. Returning to our inn, we visited the traditional Onsen hot spring spa, before getting ready for our traditional Japanese dinner, comprised of about 40 tiny dishes; I could not identify everything we ate, but it was all delicious, particularly the beef we steamed at the table.
Some other highlights of the trip included the UNESCO World Heritage site of Shirakawa-go, a tiny village of traditional thatch-roofed buildings in the mountains. The houses have incredible steep A-shaped roofs to allow the heavy snowfall in winter months to slide right off. Unlike many British and American homes, the gardens of these houses were used for growing rice and other foods to eat, something that is common throughout Japan.
Another highlight was our days spent exploring Kyoto. The traditional capital city of Japan, Kyoto has more World Heritage sites than any other city except Rome. With more than 2000 temples or shrines, the city is the epicentre of traditional Japan. These photos show the Golden Pavilion, a temple covered in 20kg of gold leaf, as well as some girls in traditional style Kimono walking around the Thousand Torii at the Fushimi Inari Taisha shrine. These orange gates stretch all the way up the hill to a spectacular view over Kyoto.
These last few images I use to display the great variety in Japan. Here, we see the traditional style of Himeji’s Crane Castle, contrasted to the stunningly landscaped Koko-en Gardens, again contrasted to the bright neon lights of a rainy evening in Dotonbori district of Osaka. What I wish to show here is that there are many sides to Japan, just as there are to any country in the world, and it is visiting there that allowed me to see them.
It would be nearly impossible to travel to Japan and not dedicate a whole paragraph to the food, and yet also impossible to do justice to it in words. Anyone who has visited Asia will be able to effuse of the fantastic food. From tempura to sushi, you could spend a year eating your way around Japan. There is something for everyone, and at all price ranges. In fact, some of the best food we had was also the cheapest. In the rain, we stumbled into a restaurant, which only had three items on its menu, ate ourselves silly, had a beer each, and the cost was still less than £8 each. The food in Japan, while unfamiliar at times, is one of the country’s countless gems.
It is the great privilege of my 20 years to have travelled as widely as I have. From Vietnam to Mexico, Peru to Morocco, New Zealand to Botswana and now to Japan, I have crossed the continents and loved every minute. My childhood was marked and counted by which country we visited that year; as soon as we come home from our last holiday, the question became, ‘Where to next?’. This year’s trip to Japan, like all the others, will sit in my memory as an experience filled with history, culture and beauty. It is certainly a place I will return to, perhaps to see its cherry blossom festivals or the stunning autumnal colours as the leaves change. So, if you are looking to experience a place unlike anything you might find at home, I cannot recommend enough the worth of exploring Japan.