My heart was heavy when I boarded the plane to Kansai International Airport. Personal matters prevailed during this first venture outside of Korea, but thankfully my actual baggage was light, the weather was bright and the length of my stay was just right. I spent 4 days in mid-July exploring the Kansai region of Japan — one day and one night each in Osaka, Nara, Kyoto and the Arima resort area above Kobe. Immediately upon arriving at the airport, I stiffened my upper lip, strapped on my backpack and shifted into globetrotter mode. With a stop at the tourist information bureau and the exchange of my voucher for a Japan Rail Pass, I hit the streets of Osaka in search of my hotel.
Trying to find a specific address in Japan is much like it is in Korea — nearly impossible! However, even with very few street signs and absolutely no building or house numbers, I managed to locate and check off the first “must do” on my list: stay in a capsule hotel. Just slightly bigger than the locker they issued to me, this tiny room was big on being cool and convenient, and was the perfect fit for one little person to get a little shut-eye.
After a quick bath and a brief respite, I headed for Kyoto to spend a few hours with a friend from college and check off the second “must do” in Japan: the Gion Festival. I boarded the “ladies only” car of the express train, which was busting at the seams with women making their way home from work and elsewhere. I wondered why there was such a public segregation of the sexes, but quickly shrugged it off as I was sucked into a car packed so full of females there was no need to hang onto any pole, rail or strap in order to stay standing. Butts, bags and bodies were the support system on this train. I later learned that this unavoidable contact and mandatory tight squeeze is exactly why they have several cars reserved for “ladies only”.
When the train coughed me out into the immaculate and majestic Kyoto Station, the last night of the Gion Festival was well underway. Just outside the station, the main road was closed to automobiles, lined with food vendors and filled with nearly 250,000 festival goers, and nearly every one with a flash camera — there was no doubt I was in Japan! My friends and I walked like wind-up toys for a few feet in order to get a glimpse of the ancient Japanese vehicle that would be featured in the parade tomorrow. I whipped out my Sony Cyber-shot, clicked off a few photos and we pushed ourselves into the street through a fortuitous opening in the crowd created by a child who had been picked up by his mother. I came, I saw and then I was “Gion”.
My second day, I spent in the second largest metropolis in Japan — Osaka. Only one long day is surely not enough to do it justice, but I managed to make up for my short coming by taking in the essence of Osaka: Omnipresent shopping, Osaka Castle, and Octopus balls. Oh boy! Oh well. I’m sure there are more posts to come.
Next stop: Nara. My original plan was to spend a whole day in Nara, and check off another “must do” item on my list: “Todai-ji Temple”. However, that went awry and I spent a mere 12 hours in Nara. Two hours at dusk desperately searching for my reserved ryokan (Japanese guesthouse), 2 hours devising a plan for tomorrow’s destination – Kyoto, 2 hours on the guesthouse computer writing my heart out, 5 hours of fitful sleep and 1 hour at Todai-ji temple the next morning. Because of my short go there, I long to return. There is “nary a thing” bad to say about Nara. I was hoping that my brief visit to the temple would soothe my spirit and put me at peace for the upcoming day in Kyoto.
On the train I tried to clear my mind and breathe in the beauty of the passing countryside. While it would be a long day with constant companionship, I was looking forward to experiencing a few more of my “must do” items — things that I had planned just for me: Japanese tea ceremony, kimono rental, sushi & sake. Upon my second arrival in Kyoto, my friend and I headed straight for the Kimono shop where we each chose a garment and were dressed by several Japanese women (one for each of the 7 layers!). They swaddled and cinched, wrapped and wound, draped and tied until we were beautifully bound into perfect and precise flat lines with feet. As we shuffled out of the shop, I wondered how I would be able to sit for lunch or use the loo, both of which I needed to do soon. As the day wore on I became more adept at wearing this traditional attire and looked at it as a gorgeous way to sweat off a few pounds. In the 9 hours of wearing the Kimono, I consumed a 6 course sushi lunch, drank and made tea with a Japanese tea master, hiked up hills and toured the Kiyomizudera Temple, walked the “love stones” line, strolled through shrines and gardens and sidewalk-shopped for souvenirs. Finally we returned to the Kimono shop where the same 7 women quickly freed us from the mummy-like fabrics and we headed for true refreshment — sushi and sake!
It was there, sitting in the restaurant across the table from my friends, sipping on sake and snacking on sushi that I had the first real sense of relaxation. I held fast to that feeling, said good night to my friends and set my sights on tomorrow, my last day in Japan and my first visit to a full-fledged, fancy onsen resort & spa. A much needed vacation from my vacation.
Ah, Arima Grand Hotel Onsen Resort! The last “must do” on my list. I couldn’t get there fast enough, and so I arrived way too early to get into my room. No problem. I would just plunk myself down at the pool, and dive into peace and tranquility. Up in the mountains, under the warm sun, with a cold beer in my hand, my personal matters began to melt, but my person (I) got totally burned — sunburned that is. I didn’t mind. It actually felt good, and I have a long-lasting souvenir from Japan now — tan lines :>).
Once checked into my luxurious room, I took advantage of the essence of an onsen resort — the baths! There were 3 different baths on the ninth floor (a mud bath, a mineral bath and a green tea bath), and a very special bath exclusively for ladies only to enjoy on the first floor — a rose bath. Needing the pampering and pleasure, I first sampled all 3 on the ninth floor and then savored the special rose bath as a grand finale. Sinking into the water, my spirits were lifted and my senses awakened. I felt like I was finally on vacation, so I shut my mind down for a time and turned my attention to sensual matters and self-care.With the final hours in Japan approaching, I was clean and fresh and feeling like a new person. So, acting accordingly, I donned a dress and the only souvenir I bought for myself (a wig) and dined and wined in the hotel lobby bar. A perfect ending to a decidedly decent day of my jaunt to Japan.