My Seven-Day, Culture-Packed Japan Travel Chronicle

My trip to Japan this year has been an incredible experience. My posts on my personal Facebook page has gotten a lot of attention, with many of my friends asking how I managed to discover and experience the unique culture of Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka in only 7 days. I myself could not imagine how I did it. I could hardly imagine how I would most of the time run around train stations hoping to possibly catch the next train and save precious time. I could hardly imagine how I managed to plan my trip and adjust to last minute changes using a rented pocket Wi-Fi and notepad while on-board a bullet train and be prepared to scurry to the next nowhere-to-be-found platform once the train stops. It was all worth it, though, since my memories of Japan remains clear ’til now and my memories of that stinking, urine-turned-bad smelling thick-brothed ramen and drunk Geishas are staying with me, alright.

I actually never planned to visit Japan this year, but when I chanced upon a Cebu Pacific promo last February that offered a round trip flight from MNL (Manila)-KIX (Osaka) for only P8,700 (around $197) or approximately less 60% off the regular fare, who was I to let that pass? I went to Japan in March when winter is almost done and spring is looming around. That also meant I only had a month to plan my itinerary. Good thing I was also visiting a Pinoy friend living and working in Aioi (near Osaka) who helped me with my planning and offered free accommodation whenever I’m in Aioi, which served as my home base.

This post of mine is long overdue. My friends have long been asking for my itinerary since the day I posted in my “Japan 2015” photo album on Facebook, so here goes my itinerary and a lot of talking on the side. By the way, I’ve also created a Japan trip checklist to help you out in your planning – this includes how to buy and use your JRPass and Pocket Wifi.

Japan Itinerary

My 7-day Itinerary

Day 1: Travel from MNL (NAIA International Airport 3) to KIX (Osaka-Kansai International Airport), and get stranded at Himeji train station near Osaka

My flight from MNL to KIX via flight number 5J828 was 3:20PM, but I went to the airport real early at around 1PM to take advantage of my free access to the Miascor VIP lounge. I decided to just sit back and relax for the more than 2 hour wait for my flight – I really had an enjoyable stay at the lounge because of the free food and drinks, including alcohol (yeah!). Fast forward to 3:20PM, we were supposed to have taken off already, but due to the “air traffic” as told by the pilot, us passengers were still stuck inside the plane constantly glancing at our watches. Fast forward to 5:30PM, the plane’s finally at the runway gaining speed for takeoff.

Estimated time of arrival at KIX would’ve been 7:55PM if we have departed as scheduled but due to the delay, we’re looking at arriving around 10PM. My next train trip after landing would be a total of 2.5 hours. Japan’s train system operates only until 12MN. That would mean I would not be able to make it to my first destination. Shoot! My first itinerary of the day to go to Aioi about 2.5 hours west of KIX to take advantage of the free accommodation at my friend’s place just got messed up. I wanted to panic mid-flight since it was my first time to Japan and I didn’t know a lot of Japanese to talk to strangers and come up with a Plan B haha.

I still managed to calm myself down midflight and just came to a plan: to run right after landing and after the plane door opens. So that’s what I did – I ran through the other passengers, through immigration, customs, pocket wifi rental desk, JRPass claim desk (click here to read my article on how to easily buy and use JRPass/train ticket to roam around Japan) , to the KIX Airport train station. It was really a good thing that I ordered a pocket wifi device – I was able to call my friend for advise and I was also able to browse through Hyperdia.com (train trip planning website) for alternate routes, however there are no other routes that could take me to Aioi that same night. It was a good thing too that the lady at the train station knew enough English to confirm and tell me that I will not be able to make it to Aioi.

That left me with two options: to just sleep at the airport or to travel as far as I can and just look for a cheap hotel somewhere in that area so that I’ll be the near my destination already and save time for the next day’s trip. I chose the latter. I then proceeded to the train station, showed the courteous attendant my JR Pass, and then nervously proceeded to the train platforms for my first train ride in Japan (not to mention alone in that cold winter night). The train station and the coaches were really nice and clean, and the seats have built-in bum warmers. Lots of nervous phone calls and asking around after, I found myself in the grand and huge Osaka train station where I had to transfer and take the next train in a different platform in two minutes. Yes, 2 minutes!!! Brilliant! Imagine yourself feeling lost in a huge train terminal with all those bright Japanese signs and people all in business suits. Luckily, my seatmate knew English and directed me to the next platform. Tell you, I was so lucky and blessed for the whole duration of my trip, I have more ‘luckily…’ stories to come!

45 minutes after departing Osaka station, I finally arrived in Himeji station at around 12:30AM where I had to spend the night and transfer the next day since the train operations halt in midnight. Did I mention that Himeji station is just one station away from my destination (Aioi)? Too bad, but anyway, since I was already there I decided to look around and find some place to spend the rest of the night at. There are only a few people walking by and two taxi men chatting up while waiting for their next passenger. I was really tempted to take a cab ride but given the enormous fee of a single taxi ride in Japan, I just said “Konnichiwa” (“Hello”) and walked away.

Stranded at Himeji Station in Japan

That’s me while stranded near Himeji station and figuring out my next strategy.

Right around the corner of Himeji station was a 24 hour Hawaiian themed McDonalds with lots of other stranded passengers sleeping inside waiting for the first trip out of Himeji. The service staff didn’t mind the people resting inside – I guess it’s part of the sleep deprived Japanese culture. Eureka! I never felt more relieved when I finally found a free place to stay at for the night. I ordered a shrimp burger meal which cost me around P250 ($5.50) and tried to sleep right after eating but couldn’t so I just waited and charged my phone and pocket wifi ‘til the next trip at 5:30AM.

Ebi shrimp burger mcdonald's japan

My dinner for the night – Ebi (shrimp) burger!

Sleeping in public at McDonalds Japan

Yes, you can sleep at McDonald’s stores in Japan while waiting for the next morning trip.

Day 2: Travel from Himeji to Aioi to leave luggage, travel again to Osaka for a day tour, sleep at a 101 year-old ryokan in Amami

I took the first train to Aioi at 5:30 on a chilly morning. Aioi, which only took 10 minutes, was the next stop from Himeji. You could only imagine the frustration having to sleep in a public place knowing that your destination is only 10 minutes away! Ha! I didn’t mind, because that was a funny adventure I can tell my grandchildren.

My friend met me in Aioi station and we walked for another 10 minutes to his apartment which was only a 5 minute bike ride away from his work. He has work that day, so I just dropped my luggage in his apartment, took about 30 minutes to plan my next train ride, and went at it again and left for Osaka (without sleeping). I was really sleepy on my train ride to Osaka but what the heck, I had lots of time to sleep when I return to the Philippines. I arrived in the familiar Osaka station where I almost got lost the night before and I basically had the pleasure to take time and look around and feel the vibe of Osaka.

I headed straight to the hip Dotonbori area which is the number 1 tourist destination in Osaka. This is the place where one will find the famous “Glico running man” and other neon signs and giant moving crabs, and for me this is the first place you should go to when you want a cheap food adventure. The mouthwatering smell of fresh takoyaki, grilled crab, gyoza, and ramen fills the streets of Dotonbori.  It was 12NN and I didn’t have time for breakfast but didn’t want to miss out on the places to see so I ordered 15 pieces of Gyoza for a quick lunch, and it only cost me JPY450 (P170 or $3.50).Giant Octopus Dotonbori Osaka

Glico running man Dotonbori Osaka

The famous Glico ‘Running Man’ in Dotonbori.

Gyoza Dotonbori Osaka

15 pieces of Gyoza for only JPY 400 (PHP 154)!

After touring Dotonbori and after 100 selfies or so, I went to the Namba train station to head to my hotel for the night: a 100 year old traditional Japanese inn (ryokan) situated out of nowhere in a mountainous rural area about 50 minutes west of Osaka. The regular price at this ryokan is around $378 per night, but I was lucky enough to catch it on sale on Expedia for only $72. Staying at a ryokan was on top of my bucket list for my Japan trip, and I must say I felt like a Japanese emperor during my stay there. Click here to read my blog post about my stay at this ryokan.

My room inside a ryokan

My room inside Amami Onsen Nanten-en, a 101 year old traditional Japanese Inn.

Day 3: Head to Tokyo via bullet train, see Mount Fuji from the train, meet Hachikō the loyal Akita dog, cross the legendary Shibuya crossing, eat stinky ramen, meet new friends, try out a public bath (sento), eat more ramen, party the night away at a Shibuya club

After a beautiful and serene breakfast of salmon and tamago at the ryokan, I left around 9AM for Tokyo via the Tokaido shinkansen (bullet train). I made sure that I sat in the window seat on the left side of the train so I can see the majestic Mount Fuji around 50 minutes into the trip (you can ask the train attendant just to be sure that it is Mount Fuji indeed that you’re seeing). Sometimes foggy weather blocks the view of the awe-inspiring mountain, but boy was I so lucky, it was so clear that day I got an unobstructed view of the natural wonder.

My traditional Japanese breakfast

My delicious and delicately prepared breakfast at the ryokan.

Mount Fuji from the Shinkansen

Spectacular view of Mount Fuji from the bullet train.

It was my first time on a bullet train, and it really lives up to its name as you can feel the G force immediately when the journey begins. Inside the coach was different from what you’d expect to see inside local train coaches – the seats were more comfortable, like a business class seat on a plane. You’ll get to interact with polite train attendants, as they sometimes check your ticket (not every time-it’s almost always on a ‘trust’ basis) or sell refreshments. Japanese people take their ‘train’ culture seriously – from the technology and on-timeness to its well-mannered service. It’s also nice how the polished, uniformed conductor gives a respectful slow bow at the front of the coach whenever he checks our tickets.Shinkansen Bullet train

Inside the shinkansen bullet train

Inside a bullet train.

I arrived in Tokyo around 1:30PM. I headed straight for Shibuya station where Hachikō’s statue sits. The loyal Akita dog waited for his owner’s arrival just outside the station every single day for 9 years after his owner’s death – the dog unaware of his owner’s death. Seeing Hachiko’s bronze figure just in front of Shibuya station is both heartbreaking and captivating at the same time, knowing that such an animal can be that loyal to his master.

Hachiko Akita Dog

Hachiko the loyal Akita dog sits proudly in front of Shibuya station, just next to the famous Shibuya crossing.

What I love most about Shibuya is how compact the place is of things to see. Just on the right of Hachikō’s statue is the popular Shibuya crossing or also famously known as ‘The Scramble’, an intersection that, once the traffic signal turns red, turns into a sea of crossing pedestrians lit by a background of neon signs and video ads. It’s a surreal experience crossing the intersection and dodging other people from every direction. This is when you can really tell yourself: “Welcome to Tokyo!”.

Shibuya Crossing

Shibuya Crossing!

Shibuya crossing in action.

Shibuya crossing in action.

After crossing Shibuya a few times I decided to have ramen for dinner at one of the many restaurants surrounding the area. The waiter asked if I wanted thick or mild broth for my pork ramen, and due to my lack of Japanese language skills, I didn’t bother asking the difference between each and I just hastily decided on having one with a thick broth just because it sounded tastier. It turned out to be really tasty, so creamy and tasty it had a pungent urine-ish aroma that reeked with each slurp. Never am I trying that again, but plus points for the experience! I know the difference between think and mild broths when it comes to ordering ramen.

My thick broth Tokyo ramen

This is the ramen I’m talking about. See how thick and creamy the broth is?

My next stop was at Kayabacho train station somewhere in the outskirts of Tokyo to meet a new friend, Ryo (not exactly his real name for ID privacy purposes), a local Couchsurfing host who offered to give me and other lone travelers a tour of Tokyo from a local’s perspective. With Ryo were two other Couchsurfing travelers from the USA and Sweden.  They were all smiles and very friendly as well and we already engaged in meaningful conversations even though we just met there that quarter of an hour. From the station, we walked through narrow, dark streets for around fifteen minutes at a semi-residential area and arrived at our destination – a two-story residential building.

I could tell it was an Izakaya (a Japanese pub) in the ground floor because of the red paper lantern hanging in front of the building, but who would’ve thought that there would be an Izakaya that deep into the quiet neighborhood? Two box-type vans were parked in the garage and the only thing that would separate the building from a regular residential one was the red paper lantern. We went through the door and inside was a mom and pop shop type of Izakaya packed with local salarymen relaxing, drinking, and socializing after a tiring day at work. Everything was self-service except for the Yakitori and Kushiyaki station manned by ‘grandma’ where you had to pay first before you take them to the grill. Vintage vending machines with various kinds of sake, beer, shōchū, and whisky lined the walls of this small establishment. There was an alcoholic beverage sponsored calendar hanging on a wall with pictures of different girls’ butts. There were only three women in the establishment: two ladies accompanied by a group of salarymen and grandma, who manages the pub. I was told by Ryo that women were generally not allowed in that place, and it is only when men invite them in that they can come. It was quite loud inside because of the chit chats. All the clients were very friendly to us, maybe because it seemed that that was the first time they saw a foreigner enter that room. One group invited us to join them around the grill pit and had us taste some of their Kushiyaki and strong sake – it was nice we had Ryo with us as our translator. Ha! They were really excited to talk to us and try some of their simple English words they learned way back, and they were all smiles when they had us try their food, anticipating what our reaction would be when we first taste them. All I could say to them was, “Oishīdesu!” (“Yummy!”). It was indeed such a pleasure having the opportunity to visit such an “underground” like version of an Izakaya deep into the neighborhood flocked by local salarymen, and I couldn’t thank Ryo enough for that experience.Inside Tokyo Izakaya Pub

Yakitori station

There’s grandma manning the Yakitori station.

My new friends asking how the Yakitori was. Thumbs up!

My new friends asking how the Yakitori was. Thumbs up!

Yakitori grill

Oishi desu!

Sake vendo machine beer

One of the Sake vending machines in the Izakaya.

After the Izakaya experience, the group (me, Ryo, and two other couchsurfers from USA and Sweden) went to a sento. Ryo has been pointing out that I should try going to a sento when in Tokyo ever since we talked on Couchsurfing.com, mainly because it was a truly local experience. A sento is similar to an onsen, the two being public (communal) baths – the only difference is that an onsen’s water comes from natural hot spring, while the sento runs only on tap water, hence sentos are more abundant in cities like Tokyo. Inside we had to completely strip down butt naked and bathe ourselves first before submerging ourselves into the pool. One benefit of a public bath in Japan is for people to be able to socialize regardless of social status. You see, Japan is a culture of uniforms where it’s easy to know a person’s societal status just by looking at one’s dress. When in a public bath, one is free from any judgement and can fully relax and engage in a meaningful conversation without any reservation. Unless you have a tattoo, that would be a different story. People with tattoos are generally not allowed in public baths as tattoos are commonly associated with the Yakuza gang or organized crimes. Going back to the story: given the culture of public bath in Japan, I’ve never felt more comfortable being naked in front of complete strangers my whole life. We kind of horsed around, actually, with Ryo showering each one of us with a pail of ice cold water when we weren’t looking.

Famished, we walked to a nearby ramen shop right after changing back to our clothes and finally leaving the bath house. The servings were massive all three of us foreigners weren’t able to finish our bowls, and since its bad for the Japanese to not finish one’s food, Ryo volunteered to finish them all up although he was already too full to eat another noodle strand.

We decided to explore a lot more of Tokyo, however it was already past 12 midnight at the time, and since most shops were already closed, we decided to party the night away at Atom club right at the heart of Shibuya. The entrance fee was around P1,800 ($39) for men which already included two drinks. I can say that the fee was reasonable enough as you pay the almost the same when you enter clubs in the Philippines, too. Inside was pure party and fun, and we met even more locals inside the club. It’s always nice to be able to say that you’ve already experience partying at a club right at the heart of Shibuya in Tokyo, with all those cute girls and flashing Japanese neon signs, right?At Club Atom in Shibuya, Tokyo, Japan party

Atom Club Shibuya Japan

Credits: Atom Club at Shibuya

#awesome #party at #shibuya #tokyo #japan #atom #club #atomclub #clubatom #frustratedbillionairetravels

A video posted by FrustratedBillionaire (@frustratedbillionaire) on

We left the club at around 4AM all satisfied and drunk haha! Anyway, my new American couchsurfer friend offered me a couch for the night in his rented apartment in the outskirts of Tokyo, but due to my packed schedule, I chose to decline and just look for a nearby hotel. Man, I looked at my Tripadvisor and Expedia app for cheap hotels, motels, inns, anything around the area but WTF their prices were way too steep (click here to read my tips and guide to sleeping in Japan)! I decided to walk around the area in the inner narrow streets of Shibuya and I surprisingly found a cheap ‘love’ motel with a vacancy, and guess what, it was just right behind Atom club! This was when I used my Google translate app to just show the translated Japanese characters to the motel attendant and get the comfy bed I longed for. An adventure packed day it was! I slept at 5:30AM and planned to wake up at 8AM.

Day 4: Explore Tsukiji market in Tokyo, leave for Kyoto via Shinkansen, hunt for Geishas at night

I woke up still groggy and tired but feeling excited at 8AM, had breakfast at a 7 eleven store near the motel and immediately left for Tsukiji station, a 5 minute train ride from Shibuya, and headed straight to Tsukiji fish market, the world’s largest seafood market. I learned that this historically and culturally important spot in the city will be demolished and moved to a newer, more technologically advanced structure in Tosoyu, Koto by 2016 in anticipation for the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics, so I made sure that I explore and savor the vibe of the market before it completely relocates.Tsukiji Fish Market

Tsukiji fish market is where you’ll find the freshest seafood in Tokyo, as well as Japanese knives and kitchen tools and specialty restaurants serving the freshest sushi and sashimi. This is indeed an extreme culinary experience for food lovers so for me this market is a ‘must visit’ when you’re in Tokyo. I had an awesome trying all of the free food samples ranging from dried squids and fruits to freshly sliced tuna sashimi just by walking along the market streets. Right around the corner was a restaurant with a thick crowd all waiting and lining up just to get a seat. I also learned from and witnessed a variety of techniques in cutting a whole freshly caught tuna – all of it ceremoniously done in front of restaurants or anywhere in the market and proudly shown to passersby walking along the narrow streets of the market. Most of the happenings in the market occur from 5-8:30AM, so better be early when you visit this place. If you wish to see the famous tuna auction (which I unfortunately did not have the chance to witness because of over partying), line up as early as 3AM (though registration starts at 5AM) to get ahead in the queue at the first floor of the Osakana Fukyu Center (Fish Information Center) at the Kachidoki Gate. I must say I enjoyed exploring Tsukiji market because of all of the colorful sights and the sounds of vendors, buyers and tourists alike, especially the eats! It’s true that if you want a true taste of the local culture of a city or country, go straight to their market.

A crowd eager to sample the freshest catch of the day form a queue outside a Tsukiji market restaurant.

A crowd eager to sample the freshest catch of the day form a queue outside a Tsukiji market restaurant.

A ceremonial tuna cutting demonstration outside a Tsukiji market restaurant.

A ceremonial tuna cutting demonstration outside a Tsukiji market restaurant.

A ceremonial tuna cutting demonstration outside a Tsukiji market restaurant.

A ceremonial tuna cutting demonstration outside a Tsukiji market restaurant.

Fresh seared tuna for only JPY500!

Fresh seared tuna for only JPY500!

Fresh seared tuna for only JPY500!

Fresh seared tuna for only JPY500!

Japanese kitchenware sold at wholesale price at Tsukiji fish market.

Japanese kitchenware sold at wholesale price at Tsukiji fish market.

After buying cheap dried goods and Japanese kitchen stuff for my folks and friends back home and after trying out a few more dried fruit samples I headed to the train station for my scheduled Shinkansen trip to Kyoto. While on the 3 hour 20 minute bullet train bullet train ride from Tokyo to Kyoto I decided to use my idle time to plan, do more research, and finalize my trip to Kyoto. Basically I wanted to experience old Japan complete with its 50’s feel (especially the taxis which seem to have stopped in time) and authentic geishas. I also had picked out my top 3 stops that I need to prioritize and visit and experience first and just wander around and visit other spots once I tick the three off my bucket list and still feel satisfied and fulfilled if I run out of time for other stuff. My top 3: visit the Gion district and see old Japan and the geishas, go to Arashiyama bamboo park, and hike atop the Fushimi Inari Taisha shrine for an unobstructed and less crowded view of the Torii gates.

When I arrived at the bullet train station in Kyoto at around 6PM I started running around again to catch the local train to Gion-Shijo station. Whilst running around I can’t help but to notice how technologically advanced Kyoto station was. It kinda felt like I was running through a set of a sci-fi movie film. This reminded me of how Japan is a country of extremes – the Kyoto station being so technologically advanced and the town just outside the station being so historical and also culturally important.

Right after going up the stairs out of Gion-Shijo station I was immediately transported to the old era, where the iconic taxi cabs passing by the street outside the station looked like they were stuck in old Japan but still shiny and well maintained, with its drivers looking dapper in their suits. Shijo Dori street had an old feel as well, with old Japanese lanterns lighting up the cold night sky as you pass by. I walked through the street leading to the Gion proper, where you’ll find really old Japanese temples and houses which were perfect for scenic photos. I was stopped and amused when I saw a taxi cab with an authentic geisha in it. It looked at me and gently nodded, in which I swiftly nodded back, trying to quickly setup my phone camera. Unfortunately, the taxi was gone even before I was able to set it up for a quick photo. Fortunately, there were lots of geishas in the area, I just needed some research and strategy to find them. Click here to read my article on geisha hunting in Kyoto.

Traditional wooden houses line up the cobblestone streets of Gion

Traditional wooden houses line up the cobblestone streets of Gion.

Three Maikos (apprentice Geisha) spotted! They were a bit shy when I approached them but they gave in when I asked for a photo-op.

Three Maikos (apprentice Geisha) spotted! They were a bit shy when I approached them but they gave in when I asked for a photo-op.

A Geiko (Geisha in Kyoto dialect) walking the streets of Kyoto. She's really looks mysterious; she even hid herself the moment she knew that I was taking photos of her.

A Geiko (Geisha in Kyoto dialect) walking the streets of Kyoto. She’s really looks mysterious; she even hid herself the moment she knew that I was taking photos of her.

A man wearing a traditional Japanese costume plays a flute against the scenic natural beauty of Kyoto.

A man wearing a traditional Japanese costume plays a flute against the scenic natural beauty of Kyoto.

I spotted this poster at a Kabuki theatre in Kyoto.

I spotted this poster at a Kabuki theatre in Kyoto. Notice the before and after transformations?

I stopped for a few quick bites and went ahead to the temples and the old wooden community homes complete with oriental roofing in the picturesque Gion area. There was an event in the area at the time – Hanatoro Higashiyama, a festival wherein the streets of Gion and the temples were filled with lanterns at night and public geisha performances were done the whole week. Nice! I missed the geisha performance but it will still be shown the next day so I made sure that I mark it on my schedule. After wandering around the brightly lit cobblestone streets I encountered a strange procession of a mysterious lady wearing a white mask resembling that of a fox. She was seated on a rickshaw and guided by locals dressed in their traditional procession outfits throughout the area, visiting each and every temple in its way. I wasn’t really sure what the whole event was for, but I really thought at first she was being offered as a sacrifice to the Japanese Gods.

The mysterious fox lady being guided along the cobblestone streets of Gion in Kyoto.

The mysterious fox lady being guided along the cobblestone streets of Gion in Kyoto.

It was already 9:30PM, and after roaming the historic district and after following the whole procession around along with a sea of tourists, I felt really cold, tired and hungry, so I grabbed a meal at a nearby restaurant and researched on the nearest inns/motels around and asked the waitresses their recommendation of a good place to spend the night at, however they had no idea what I was talking about.  I stood up and went outside the warm and cozy restaurant into the really cold winter’s night to walk around and ask each of the hotels I saw on my way. Unfortunately, all of them were packed, with some motels having ‘waiting list’ queues at the lobby, due to the Hanatoro Higashiyama event. I was really beginning to get scared at that moment because it was really freezing cold outside it felt like I was getting “bitten” by a frostbite and I still had no place to stay at. I meandered around some more deep into the dark, narrow streets and finally found another inn (the name’s Kyoto Inn) that I hadn’t walked into before, a creepy one. I went inside and was glad that there were no other clients waiting in the dimly lit lobby – in fact, there were no people in the lobby including the reception area. I was really scared (Okay, I admit, I’m a scaredy cat, alright. Who’s not afraid of ghosts, anyway?) at that time but I gathered enough courage to call out for assistance from anybody from the front desk. After cautiously shouting “sumimasen” (excuse me) a few times I heard a creaking door open and loud footsteps from afar – I was really prepared to run that time – when an old man came out from the end of the dark hall and welcomed me to the place. My heart was pounding so loudly that moment, good thing the old man mentioned they had a vacancy. Whew, I was good for the night! He gave me the keys to my room which was on the third floor and I had to take the elevator at the end of the dark hallway. When I arrived at the fourth floor WTF the hall was even eerily darker with weak red lights. What inn does that? Yeah I know that it’s a love motel but come on, they shouldn’t be scaring their guests like that. Haha! Seriously I’m having goosebumps while I’m writing this right now. I walked through the long dark hallway and finally found my room right around the corner. When I entered my room it was so dark (again – this time pitch black dark) that I literally had to feel the walls for the switch. When I finally turned on the light switches, I was met by an old and rickety room but it was good enough for sleeping in for the night. It was roomy especially the bathroom which had a see through glass window so that you can see inside while you’re trying to sleep. Yeah it had a sexy purpose but it sure creeped me out. Have you already seen a Japanese scary movie, complete with its deafening silence and frightening storyline? It definitely felt like I was in one of them so I just turned on the TV and turned the volume to medium high to drown out the eeriness of the place.

The eerie Kyoto Inn. (Courtesy: Google Maps)

The eerie Kyoto Inn. (Courtesy: Google Maps)

I began researching my plan for the next day and scanned Google maps when I found out where my motel was located (no, it’s not beside a cemetery or whatever) – it was located just a few blocks away (a 5 minute walk) from the famous Hanamikoji street, the street packed with old geisha houses with actual geishas living in it! Sweet! It was already 12:30AM that time but I still decided to go out and see the place for myself. After passing through the disturbing hallways, I went out of the motel and walked a couple of blocks and there I was, the street famous for old Japanese traditional tea houses, geisha homes, and the Ichiriki Chaya, the huge red-walled traditional tea house which is famous as the meeting place of samurai warriors and the 47 Ronin.

This poster was all around Gion when I was there. Maybe there was an event involving Geishas or something.

This poster was all around Gion when I was there. Maybe there was an event involving Geishas or something.

Because it was already past 12 midnight there are no other tourists in the area except me. There were also a few locals emerging out from the traditional Japanese tea houses (Ochaya). Then I saw a familiar silhouette arriving from the unlit part of the streets – it was a geisha! She was walking alone, and seemed a bit dizzy. She braved the cobblestone streets almost tripping at one point. I’m thinking she was a tad too drunk from drinking too much alcohol while entertaining guests from the Ochaya. I tried to follow her and take a clear picture, but it was around that time when she walked briskly, turned in to the corner of the alley, and then vanished into the darkness. As I’ve researched, geishas are shy and do not want too much exposure from ‘tourist-paparazzis’, they’re just there doing their own business tending to their clients. I’ve seen a few more geishas arriving one by one from the Ochayas to their homes, and I saw another one being accompanied by her client from the gathering to her home. Surreal! Click here to read my article on geisha hunting in Kyoto.

After the geisha experience I headed to a nearby pub to grab some beer and eats and went straight back to my creepy motel room to steal some sleep. The next day’s gonna be another long one!

My midnight snack!

My midnight snack!

Midnight snack part two: Shrimp tempura!

Midnight snack part two: Shrimp tempura!

Day 5: Wander through Fushimi Inari Taisha shrine, walk along the Arashiyama bamboo forest, head back to Gion to see the Geisha public performance, and then head back to my home base in Aioi

I woke up again at 8AM to catch the train going to Fushimi-Inari station and head to the Fushimi Inari Taisha shrine dedicated to the foxes (kitsune), which are highly regarded as the ‘messengers’. The marvel starts at the base of the Inari mountain, where hundreds of torii gates (the orange gates – see below picture to find out what I mean) line up and stretch for over 4 kilometers up the mountain. The shrine was regarded as the patron of businesses in Japan, and most businessmen and merchants have donated torii as a form of worship and good luck (the larger the torii gate, the more good luck the business will receive). This explains the hundreds of torii gates lining up the mountain.

One of the several shrines at Fushimi Inari Taisha.

One of the several shrines at Fushimi Inari Taisha.

One of the few eye candies on the way up the mountain.

One of the few eye candies on the way up the mountain.

Hundreds of Torii gates at Fushimi Inari Taisha

Hundreds of fantastic Torii gates line up at Fushimi Inari Taisha. Really worth the hike.

I decided to take the 2 hour uphill hike to get an unobstructed and less crowded scene with the torii gates (it was so crowded at the base, all you’d get when you take photos are countless unidentified faces), which was a perfect opportunity for a photoshoot. There were also countless fox shrines as I ascended the mountain. Somewhere at the top of the mountain I decided to make for a quiet time while looking down at the whole of Kyoto, including the Kyoto tower. It was definitely a breathtaking experience strolling through the countless torii gates.

I decided to have some takoyaki and grilled snow crab legs back at the base and then head straight to Arashiyama bamboo forest. The Arashiyama train station is a tourist spot in its own, with the old 1920-ish feel of the train coaches and the station itself made me feel like I was traveling back in time in Japan. Going to the forest from the Arashiyama station is quite a walk (about 30 minutes) but scenic indeed. Some tourists rent bikes or ride on rickshaws because of the long walk ahead. I decided to walk instead and save up some money and just savor the breathtaking views of the river against the majestic mountain that’s lined with delicately designed Japanese trees. While on my way I met Haruka and a girl friend of hers (forgot her name) – I asked if I was going the right way by showing them the picture of the bamboo park and saying “Doko desu?” (Where is?). Using sign language it seemed that she wanted to say they’re also going there as well so I should just tag along. I obliged. We had a few quick sign language talks while on our way and I volunteered to take their photo to which they politely offered to take my photo as well. When we arrived at the bamboo forest I was in awe of the natural wonder before us – thick bamboo forests on each side of the path. I quickly said to Haruka while pointing at her, “Kirei desu ne” (beautiful). She quickly blushed, smiled, and said, pointing to herself “Happy”! The rest is another story.

A rickshaw carrying tourists pass by the scenic Arashiyama bamboo forest.

A rickshaw carrying tourists pass by the scenic Arashiyama bamboo forest.

After my stint at Arashiyama bamboo park I hurriedly left for Gion to witness the public geisha dance which would start at 6PM. People were starting to gather at the front of the outdoor stage when I arrived, good thing I managed to secure a spot right in the middle front of the stage to get a good view of the performance. There were professional photographers equipped with pro cameras at the immediate front of the stage hoping to get a good coverage of the annual event, and I’m so glad I got a good spot right behind them. The crowd silenced as the two maikos (apprentice geisha) arrived onstage in small, gentle steps and looked onto the crowd. Then, along with the geisha on the shamisen (Japanese string instrument), the two maikos started to perform an intricately choreographed work of art.

Two Maikos (apprentice Geisha) perform during Hanatoro Higashiyama, a weeklong holiday event in Kyoto during March.

Two Maikos (apprentice Geisha) perform during Hanatoro Higashiyama, a weeklong holiday event in Kyoto during March.

It was around 7PM when the show ended and I finally left for Kyoto station to catch the bullet train to Aioi in the Kansai region (near Osaka) which is my home base and my free place to stay at for the next two nights, where my friend has been waiting so we can grab some beer and talk about my travel.

My dinner for that night: Shrimp and Fish tempura!

My dinner for that night: Shrimp and Fish tempura!

Day 6: Explore the small town of Aioi, head to Okayama to buy some Japanese groceries and souvenirs (Omiyage), and sample fresh Aioi oysters

I could say that I already ticket off everything on my bucket list, so I had this day to take some time exploring my home base and bike around the area. Aioi is a small coastal city famous for its famous oysters, and I was so glad I’d get to try it out at a nearby restaurant later that day.

I went to Okayama as per my friend’s advice because that’s where the malls, groceries, and outlet shops were. Outside Okayama station I immediately saw the mall and several outlet shops around a huge park, where I picked up a couple of shirts. At the grocery, I was delighted to find reasonably priced unique Japanese goods like instant ramen, chocolates, dried goods, condiments, and other goods that I didn’t get the chance to find out about while I was busy traveling the past few days. I spent about two hours looking at the products sold in the grocery and I ended up spending around JPY 9,000 (PHP 3,500 / USD 74) on goods that I’d take back home to the Philippines.

I arrived in Aioi so tired from carrying all those full and heavy plastic bags that I managed to carry from platform to platform! I then met with my friend back at his apartment and we went out to get some fresh oyster dinner at a traditional Japanese restaurant just 3 minutes from his place. We were seated in a semi-private room complete with tatami mats and individual coat hangers typical of a normal seat-in dinner, and we were then served ice cold Asahi beer and the star of the night: fresh Aioi oysters cooked in different ways (steamed, baked, and sashimi style). I enjoyed the sumptuous dinner with beer and the discussion I had with my buddy (I felt relieved because I was finally conversing in my native tongue). The beer and food were overflowing, and was enough to cap off the night in preparation for the next day’s flight back home.

Mouthwatering fresh Aioi oysters! Itadakimasu!

Mouthwatering fresh Aioi oysters! Itadakimasu!

Day 7: Pack luggage, explore more of Osaka and Dotonbori, depart for Manila

After packing my stuff I left Aioi at around 12NN for Osaka to get a final glimpse of Dotonbori and its outskirts. My flight from KIX to MNL was departing at 8:40PM so I had some more time to explore, but I needed to be back at the airport by 5PM and catch the post office before it closes so I can send back the pocket wifi I’ve rented.

I went to a mall in Osaka to find out more about what’s normally being sold at Japanese stores, and I immediately noticed that their products are uniquely oriental unlike those sold in other westernized countries. However there are still a lot of options for westernized tourists, like Starbucks, McDonald’s and all that. I was able roam around some more and I did have a lot of time to explore more places in Osaka on my last day. I especially liked how Osaka terminal felt like a modern version of the Grand Central Terminal in New York, with all those countless platforms and of course they also have a grand timepiece at the center of the terminal.

Osaka Terminal station platform

Numerous train platforms at the Osaka Terminal. Don’t get lost in it!

I arrived at KIX at around 4:30PM just to be sure that the post office doesn’t close out on me. After dropping off my parcel containing the Wi-Fi device I immediately proceeded to the check-in area where I saw some familiar faces, the same people who were on the same flight as I was going to KIX 7 days before. We talked about how our travels went, and it’s really nice that everyone had a great time, with some having gone to the same place as I have, too.

Will definitely return to Japan

In the seven days I’ve travelled alone in Japan, all I can say with each day was, “Ahh, this is the life”! I felt like Japan spoiled me with all those incredible food, rich and courteous culture, and breathtaking views that one can only experience in Japan.

All the service I’ve experienced were definitely, and consistently, the highest standard there is. Every time the train conductor would come in to check our tickets, he would say his piece and take a slow and low bow before all of us before proceeding to each one of us. The elevator lady at the mall in Osaka was so courteous, she would gently bow and not straighten up until after the elevator doors close and she’s out of our view. Small things, Japan, but I’ve definitely noticed your outstanding service.

The magnificent view in all of Japan, especially during my train travels, left me stunned. Before going to Japan I thought those traditional wooden houses with oriental roofing tiles belonged only in tourist spots, but man was I wrong. Majority of the homes in Japan are spectacularly traditional, and they looked beautiful against the Japanese Zen gardens and awe-inspiring mountains in the background. The nature in that country is superb, too. I don’t have the words to describe it – let’s just say the scenery is unique, like you would only see that kind of nature in Japan, like what we see in the movies.

We passed through a snowy terrain on our way to Tokyo. Too bad I didn't get to touch the snow!

We passed through a snowy terrain on our way to Tokyo. Too bad I didn’t get to touch the snow!

Food in Japan was always served fresh and gorgeously presented – when I was on a bullet train I noticed that all the Japanese passengers had bento lunch boxes which were all beautifully crafted that if I had the same meal, I could cry in awe before eating.

Japanese bento boxes sold at groceries for around JPY2,400 (PHP900).

Japanese bento boxes sold at groceries for around JPY2,400 (PHP900).

And oh, did I mention that indoor smoking is allowed in most (if not all) restaurants I’ve been to?

Best,

FRUSTRATEDBILLIONAIRE

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FrustratedBillionaire