By Karagh Loring
Have you been thinking about a holiday to somewhere completely different to Australia? Before I tell you about my most recent trip around the Japanese island of Honshu, let me give you some facts that I think are pretty unique about this beautiful country.
1. Japan has one of the lowest crime rates in the world.
2. They also have the most vending machines in the world.
3. Over 2 million people pass through Tokyo’s busiest train station, Shinjuku, every day.
4. Japan has an island filled with bunnies, who were brought there to test the effects of gas in World War II, but just ended up breeding and becoming sacred animals and a tourist spot.
5. You can play music on Japanese toilets to disguise the sound of yourself peeing.
This recent trip was my second visit to Japan. For this girl who grew up playing Pokemon (and still does as a 26-year-old woman, shhh…), who’s family hosted Japanese students and teachers over summer holidays, wore Hello Kitty clothing and watched anime and Studio Ghibli movies religiously, Japan is pretty much my dream holiday destination. Earlier this year I decided to throw caution to the wind and apply to speak about my PhD research at the Japanese Neuroscience Society’s annual conference, and in May I received my acceptance and starting excitedly planning my trip.
The conference I was attending was in the city of Niigata, north of Tokyo. Off the usual tourist track, I was excited to spend some time here and experience more of Japan outside of the usual suspects of Tokyo and Kyoto. Niigata is a busy port city, facing the Sea of Japan. The conference venue, Toki Messe, had a beautiful lookout over the city, out to Sado Island off the coast of Niigata. Niigata is also famous for it’s rice and sake, which I was lucky enough to indulge in over the week of the conference.
This was the first time I’d been to an international conference, and boy, was it tough for this introvert! A building filled with thousands of fellow scientists – networking was a challenge. I appreciated the opportunity to hear from neuroscientists from Japan, China, Australia, the US, Germany, France… and even Argentina! Like Rotary connecting the world, these conferences are crucial to collaboration and teamwork within the research community.
After leaving the city of Niigata when the conference ended, I caught the bullet train (shinkansen, which can travel at up to 320km/hour) back to Tokyo to meet up with my partner and enjoy a two week holiday before going back to the hectic life of a PhD student! Tokyo isn’t really like anywhere else in the world. The hyperstimulation of the city is a bit crazy. Noise, lights, people EVERYWHERE. The go, go, go lifestyle of being squished into trains and trying to find your way though stations with people pushing past while you’re still interpreting signs in Japanese and working out which line to catch. But despite all that, you can find some surprisingly peaceful spots around the place, including temples, gardens, cute coffee spots and gorgeous homemade gift shops.
One of the great things about Japan though, is how easy it is to jump on a train and go to regional cities. We caught the train to the coastal region of Kamakura and Enoshima, just south of Tokyo. I would recommend taking the time to explore outside of the major cities to anyone travelling to Japan. Meeting locals and trying different foods, as well as seeing a different side of Japan without tall buildings and neon lights, is personally my favourite part of this country. Japan is such a small country, that you can travel from beach to mountains to city to rice fields and farmlands so easily. Be sure to get on those shinkansen and don’t forget to look out the window!
Our next spots to visit were Kyoto and Osaka. Kyoto is a must see for anyone wanting to experience more of the traditional side of Japan. Walking around the Gion District, with its traditional buildings, udon restaurants and shrines down hidden alleyways, makes me feel like I’m back in Japan in the Sengoku Period. There’s even a Starbucks in a traditional Japanese home – a must visit for a matcha frappucino during the hot Japanese summer. Jump on the train for 20 minutes and you’re suddenly in Osaka, with it’s bright neon lights and street food, lining the river through the city. We spent a good four hours wandering around Dotonbori, eating gyoza, takoyaki and okonomiyaki and drinking whiskey and shochu highballs until we were about to explode. Japan truly is a diverse place.
Our final stop before heading back to Tokyo was Hiroshima. We spent an evening walking around the Peace Park and were filled with a range of emotions. The Peace Museum brought tears to my eyes. The effects of the bombing of Hiroshima on the 6th of August in 1945 still live on in this modern city today, on the families of victims, on the current population, and on tourists who visit. The story of Hiroshima is a reminder of the evils in the world, but also how hope can come from the most harrowing times. The city of Hiroshima carries the burden of it’s history every day, but as we found out when we visited the memorial service on the 6th of August, the wish for peace is important to this city, and the world, with children simply hoping for a world where we are kind to one another, and where there will no longer be any war.
We made a trip to the island of Miyajima on our second day in Hiroshima. While most people visit to see the “floating” tori gate, this was under reconstruction for the 2020 Olympics. Don’t let this stop you from catching the short ferry trip over though – there is so much more to this island than the tori gate. We saw an entire floating temple, explored a pilgrimage path in the pure darkness underneath a Buddhist temple, hiked a mountain to an eternal flame (the same flame used to light the peace flame in Hiroshima’s Peace Park), drunk craft beer at the Miyajima Brewery and walked the beach alongside the sacred deer that inhabit the island. Pay a visit to Miyajima if you’re ever in Hiroshima – it’s a peaceful spot to recuperate away from the hustle and bustle of the busy cities.
We ended our incredible trip with a few days back in Tokyo. We were lucky enough to make it along to the Pikachu Outbreak Festival in Yokohama, take a trip to the happiest place on Earth, Disneyland, and finish up with some shopping around Shibuya (spending far too much money on Japanese whiskey, green tea and Kit Kats).
One of my favourite parts of travelling though, is coming home. Seeing other countries around the world makes me appreciate how lucky I am to live in Australia – but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been looking up how to get a job teaching English in country Japan ever since I’ve been back! 😊