Guest post by Avani Miriyala
For American Thanksgiving this year I decided to get a little unconventional and swapped feasting on delicious food and chattering away with my amazing family (who I absolutely love, don’t get me wrong), with the land of rice paddies, Nintendo, and green tea: Japan!
My boyfriend, Tushar, and I planned this trip for months and we anxiously counted down the seconds until November and our Asian adventure! We challenged ourselves to pack light, bringing two 55L backpack for our 14 day trip. As a first time backpacker, it was quite a challenge to fit all my cute travel outfits into only 55 liters!
As it turned out, jamming a lot of stuff into small backpacks was a fitting metaphor for our time in Japan!
I learned one thing very fast — you’ll never be bored in this magnificent place!
The country is divided into 47 beautiful and unique prefectures linked by relaxing and punctual trains. If you’re planning on visiting I highly recommend getting a Japan Rail Pass. It’s by far the best way for foreigners to get around. And plus, just imagine yourself zooming through the beautiful snow-dusted countryside on your way to Tokyo! Talk about picturesque!
But I’m getting ahead of myself, here’s a glimpse of our itinerary:
Austin → Dallas (1 hour) → Tokyo (14 hours) → Odawara (1.5 hours)→ Kyoto (3 hours) → Side trip to Nara (1.25 hours) → Back to Kyoto → Visit to Himeji (2 hours) → Hiroshima (2 hours) → Miyajima (a quick 20 minute ferry ride!) → Kanazawa (5 hours) → Tokyo → (4 hours) → Dallas (11 hours) → Austin (1 hour)
Seems like a lot, right? Well, we spaced it out just enough so that we could go at a leisurely pace!
As soon as we landed in Tokyo, we knew we weren’t in Texas anymore! Walking the streets of Tokyo at night was so fascinating, the colorful lights illuminated the buildings around us and every street corner had sushi, udon, and ramen. The streets are incredibly clean and you will be hard pressed to even see a gum wrapper on the ground. There are few garbage cans which confused me given the country’s cleanliness, but it turns out that the Japanese actually carry trash with them to dispose of later. Amazing, right? If only we were more conscious about our litter at home!
We spent two days in Shinjuku, Tokyo and enjoyed a beautiful morning stroll in Yoyogi Park and visit the Meiji Jingu Shrine which sits right in the center of the park. The autumn colors were just reaching their peak (we’ll talk more about this in a moment) and the fresh air was so delightful!
Our second day in Tokyo, we spent time in East Tokyo in an area called Taito and visited the top of the Tokyo Skytree to see a gorgeous sunset with a 360 degree view of the city. I’ve never seen such a large sprawling city in my life! As an Illinois girl, I’ve always been so proud of the view from the Sears (ahem, Willis) Tower. But I’ve got to say, Chicago’s got nothing on Tokyo’s vastness. We could even see Mount Fuji from the Skytree. It’s amazing that so many skyscrapers and buildings can be crowded into just one part of the island!
After a quick stop in the mountainous Odawara, we made our way to Kyoto. I’ve got to say that hands down, the sightseeing in Kyoto was my favorite part of the trip. I loved wandering through the Bamboo Forest of Arashiyama and marveling at the jaw-dropping fall colors of the Okochi Sanso Villa garden. I could have spent days there. We got really lucky that our stay in Kyoto coincided with the peak season for fall colors. It was spectacular! It’s as if someone took out all the shades of red, yellow, green, and orange paint and splattered them on a sky blue canvas. Everything was so bright and vibrant!
At the top of the garden property, we stopped by the tea house for a bowl of steaming hot matcha green tea. I still remember staring out into the bamboo trees, feeling the brisk cool mountain air and sipping my tea. Heaven!
The day was so clear that I could see the breathtaking view of Kyoto nestled between snow-topped mountains. Now I know why there are so many monks in Japan; you become peaceful and serene just setting foot in this place! I’m going to spend so many afternoons this winter dreaming of this one day Arashiyama. I can’t wait to go back already.
Nara, Hiroshima and Kanazawa
After a few days in Tokyo, we made a day trip to Nara. Unfortunately it was a rainy day, but we got to spend a good amount of time in the famous Nara Deer Park. Yes, there were actual wild deer running around in the park. Some of them would even come up to you nuzzling you for a snack. Not all of them were cute and cuddly though, one of them was super sneaky and tried to steal rice crackers right out of my pocket… rude!
We left Tokyo a day later to travel to Hiroshima. On the way we stopped at Himeji Castle, and it was enormous! It was the biggest castle in Asia when it was built in 1346 and today it is the largest castle in Japan. I still am in awe at how huge it is, the rocks that make up the foundation of the castle walls are as large as me!
After one day in Hiroshima we took a ferry to a nearby island known as Miyajima. This is a must-see in Japan. This tiny little island is mainly made up of mountains but has tons of little shops you can walk through and of course lots of food stands with soft-serve ice cream and fried treats.
A quick side note here, the Japanese are obsessed with soft-serve ice cream. Everywhere you look, there is a large plastic ice cream cone indicating that the restaurant, coffee shop or store has soft-serve. Needless to say, I had ice cream almost daily when I was in Japan. (Ice cream fits my macros, right?!)
During the few hours we spent in Miyajima, we got to see the Daisho-in Temple and all the beautiful sculptures that made up the entryway to the shrine. Although, I think our favorite part of this island was the beginning of the hiking path up the mountains. It was so calming to see the cool water trickling down and over the smooth stones of the mountain. It was hard knowing that we would have to say goodbye to the island so soon!
Next was a 5-hour train ride across the island to Kanazawa to see the Kenrokuen Garden. Although, I think we showed up at the wrong time of the year! The garden had lost most of its fall colors and trees were getting ready for the heavy snowfall. Although we were bummed, we cheered ourselves up with delicious curry in Kanazawa and pigged out on crunchy Japanese snacks from a market near our Airbnb.
The final part of our trip brought us back to Tokyo, and by this time I felt like I was a pro Japan traveler! We had become so good at using the rail system, navigating ourselves through Japanese cities, counting out Japanese yen coins and miming to our waiters what we wanted to order for dinner. We stayed near the Shiodome in central Tokyo and felt the hustle and bustle of the enormous city! Since it was nearing holiday time, there were even Christmas decorations put up and light shows going on, it was a great way to end the trip!
All in all, our adventure was fast-paced, delicious and full of beautiful sights. I thoroughly enjoyed the lively colors, impeccable cleanliness, warm respect, and reverence for heritage that the Japanese culture holds. Being the child to Indian immigrants, it was so eye-opening to compare Japanese culture to my own Indian heritage. They are different in so many ways (Indians are definitely NOT quiet), and yet they seem to still hold a similar value of respect in both cultures; respect for newcomers, a home, a customer or even a meal.
Needless to say, after such a fulfilling trip, I didn’t feel as bad about missing Thanksgiving in Texas. I seriously can’t wait to go back to the amazing country of Japan again in the near future!
BRB just doing stuff for a bit k?
Avani Miriyala is a User Experience Designer at Favor in Austin, Texas. When she’s not off adventuring the world to gather brilliant content for BRBdoingstuff, you can find her wearing a sparkly crown and making UX magic happen at uxqueen.io!