Konnichiwa Japan!

Our world trip would never have been complete without a visit to Japan. When we left Kansas City and began this journey almost a year ago we had a list of our top three countries that we were dying to see and Japan was at the top of that list.  So you can only imagine how excited we were to finally arrive in the land of the rising sun.

We were also very excited to have a housesit where we could relax for a bit and slow our pace down after being on the go, staying in hotels for several weeks in China and South Korea. As much as we live for and thrive in fast-paced travel, it can also be extremely exhausting. Housesits have proven to provide the calm and routine that we need to keep us sane and healthy throughout the constant movement.

After arriving at Kansai Airport, we took an hour-long shuttle to get to Rokko Island, south of Kobe, where we would be staying. We found it very interesting that the entirety of this trip was along a complex network of bridges, elevated over water and many small towns. It seemed that the entire southern coast of the island is made up of high-tech double-decker bridges that span for hundreds of miles. Later we were shocked to learn that there are over 600,000 bridges throughout the country!

When we made it to our housesit, we were greeted by a friendly fellow American who teaches at a nearby international school and her sweet Saluki named Sally who was rescued from Saudi Arabia. Poor Sally had a very difficult upbringing where she was abused and tortured in her first few years of life. Although she still showed some signs of trauma, she really was the sweetest thing and one of our favorite animals we have had the pleasure of taking care of.

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The first couple of days we spent catching up on some much-needed sleep and work before taking a day trip to the nearby city of Osaka, an hour train ride away. We visited the historic Osaka Castle, the most iconic landmark in the city. We walked all around, watching street performers and sampling street food. We were even brave enough to try takoyaki, the octopus balls that are famous in Japan and sold everywhere.

Leaving the castle, we found ourselves amidst a crowd of hundreds of local university students leaving a graduation ceremony, who were all dressed up in traditional, formal Japanese clothing. It was so cool to see all of the girls in their unique, colorful kimonos, and admire them from up close.

Next, we wandered all around the Shinsekai neighborhood where we had an amazing sushi meal for only $7! We learned after spending 10 days in Japan that it is a very expensive country, except for two things… sushi and sake (which happen to be my two favorite things ever!) Needless to say, we indulged in both every single day of our visit.

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Carrying on with our Osaka tour, we found a food market where we discovered our love of mochi! Never having tried it before, we were both a bit skeptical but after that first bite of soft and delicious rice cake, we were hooked.

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Before leaving the city to head back to Rokko Island, we saw our first cherry blossom tree that had just started to bloom. We were ecstatic and took a million pictures of this one tree, not having any idea of the cherry blossom wonderland that we would soon see in Tokyo, on coincidentally what happened to be peak day of the entire year!

Our next day trip took us to the city of Kobe, just 20 minutes away by train. It was a beautiful day to walk the many miles that we did, seeing the Kobe port tower, the Great Buddha and the Ikuta Shrine. We learned some cultural lessons of the rituals involved in paying respect to the shrine. We followed others in bowing twice, clapping and then shaking a rope that sounds a bell connected at the top.

We also learned what NOT to do at the chozubachi, or water basin outside of the shrines. As a means to cleanse and purify your hands and mouth, you are supposed to use a ladle to pour water over each hand and then scoop some into your mouth, spitting it out on the rocks. As a tourist and beginner to this ritual, Daniel mistakenly poured water onto his hands over the basin, rather than outside the basin and then scooped it into his mouth and drank it. We then watched others performing the ritual only to realize, he had done it all wrong! Feeling slightly uncomfortable at our cultural faux pas, we carried on, able to find humor in the awkward mistake.

While in Kobe we, of course, had to try some Kobe beef! Known for its tenderness and well-marbled texture, it is a real delicacy (reflected by the high price). The tajima strain of Japanese Black cattle are given beer and sake to induce appetite, massaged daily and listen to classical music as a relaxation technique. We shared a small skewer of the grilled beef and agreed that it certainly lived up to the hype. It was juicy, fatty and so flavorful!

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Back at our housesit on Rokko Island, we learned many important lessons about Japanese culture. First and foremost, they are all about respect and politeness. They are organized, clean, quiet and hard-working. You will never hear people yelling or speaking loudly in public. They all form orderly lines to get on buses and trains, politely waiting their turn. They love heated seats, whether it is a toilet seat, a train seat or a bench in a food market. Cleanliness is of their utmost concern in bathrooms – toilets everywhere have more buttons and functions than you could possibly imagine! They are very strict when it comes to sidewalk cleanliness. If your dog pees on or near the sidewalk, it is expected that you pour water on it to wash it away. Even more strict are their rules regarding trash and recycling. We were given an entire handbook with specific guidelines about what days you can throw out what and where you must put each classification of recyclables.

There was so much to learn about Japan’s culture in the short time we were there. But what we did learn was that it is truly a unique one and while it can be excessively orderly, strict and expensive, it is also pleasantly beautiful, kind and enjoyable.

Saying goodbye to Rokko Island and our beloved Sally, we headed to the station, bought a couple of overpriced Bento boxes (that were so worth it!)  and took the bullet train to Tokyo. At 224 miles per hour, we crossed through most of the island in just under three hours. Despite being super packed with people, many standing in the aisles for much of the duration, we were able to get seats and enjoyed the smooth ride through the Japanese countryside. We even caught a glimpse of Mt. Fuji!

We arrived in Tokyo and got checked into our cozy little pod hostel where we slept in long, rectangular private pods stacked on one another. Throughout our travels, we have come to love sleeping in pods for the privacy that they provide while still lodging on a budget.

The next day we set out early to explore one of the largest cities in the world. Starting at the Tokyo Dome, we got to see the massive ballpark that is home to the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame. In the background of the Dome we saw a gigantic roller coaster that of course, we had to ride! Then we headed towards the Meiji Shrine located in the middle of a vast forest where we saw once again the Japanese ritual of cleansing and paying respect.

On our way across town, we took in all the sights of flashing lights, 20-story advertisements on the side of buildings and people rushing everywhere. We visited the famous Shibuya crossing, know for being the world’s busiest crosswalk intersection. At every light change, there are as many as 2,500 people crossing in every which direction! It was pure chaos and insanity to witness but also felt exhilarating to walk amongst it.

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We saw tourists dressed up in video game characters and riding in go-carts along the streets, playing a real-life game of Mario cart. It was definitely one of those things you only see in Tokyo!

On our way to dinner, we were stopped by a film crew who asked us if we would be willing to be interviewed for a TV show. Being the shy one, I wanted to politely decline and carry on our way but of course, outgoing Daniel immediately said yes and before I knew it we were in front of a bunch of people, cameras and microphones. First, they had us look at written Japanese characters for 15 seconds and then gave us an old school water brush to see if we could replicate the original Japanese phrase. We were both able to get pretty close to the originals but our work still warranted laughter from the film crew as if our version meant something totally different.

Then we entered the interview phase where we were individually asked different questions about Japanese food, culture and entertainment. Again, our responses were always followed by laughter leading us to believe that the entire purpose of the show was to make fun of tourists on the street. But even if we were made to look like idiots, we still reveled in our 15 minutes of fame on a Japanese TV show and had fun doing it.

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The next day we spent eating more sushi and visiting famous landmarks like the Tokyo Skytree and the Tokyo Tower where we went all the way to the top viewing level where we could see the entire city from above.

That night we experienced one of the most magical moments and to date one of our favorite travel memories ever. Walking several miles along the Meguro River we were enveloped in a canopy of gorgeous, fully bloomed cherry blossoms on the highest peak day of the year. The trees lined both sides of the river for as far as the eye could see, with pink lanterns strung along the pathways to perfectly light the way. We sipped on strawberry champagne and walked hand in hand through the cherry blossom wonderland, in awe of nature’s beauty (and awe of the sheer coincidence of being in Tokyo on this exact day of the year to experience the magic of cherry blossoms). It was a sight and a feeling that we will never forget and the most perfect way to end our stay in beautiful Japan.

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