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Utsukushigahara sculpture park on the outskirts of Matsumoto

I’ve always been interested in Japan, but a little dissapointed I hadn’t been able to go there for work. I made peace with that fact and went around Europe, Australasia and North America for work and sometimes pleasure.

In 2014, my then boyfriend suggested we go for a long weekend on the flight back from a trip to see his family in Sydney. After 4 days of walking across a city we hardly comprehended, we spotted Mt. Fuji from the monorail back to the airport. I knew I’d be back.

I booked my plane tickets in January 2016, two weeks after my father died, not sure where I was going to go but sure I wanted to find strength and tranquility. I spent a lot of time in airplanes last year (75 in total), immobile in the sky, staring out the window, eating badly. I had dreams of going to Japan to walk, bathe and eat seafood, little else.

Over the course of an 18 day stay, I would visit 23 cities on my own. That trip forced me to hone in on those travel skills and has shaped what I now pack for long-haul.

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23 cities in 18 days.

Everything in a carry-on

This feels counterintuitive, but if you are leaving for a long time (say 3 weeks) chances are you’re moving your lugagge around a lot and I really resent having to carry or drag a super heavy suitcase around. It’s hard on my already dodgy knees and I’m taking up more space than I’d like. So I put everything in a carry-on suitcase and check it in. I only pack for 4–5 days worth of underwear and do a wash at a laundromat when I’ve run out of options.

I spent 3 weeks in Japan with my trusty laptop backpack from Ally Cappelino and a carry on from also tried and tested Caprisa. As I bought trinkets I added them to a paper bag which was light enough i carried it on top of the carry-on. The other hand was free to hold my transport card, a pole or my phone. Job done.

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Ally Cappelino AO superlight (now discontinued)
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Carpisa carry-on ABS trolley (£79.90)

The right tools

Japan has to deal with the fact that most foreigners my age come here because they watched ‘Lost in Translation’ too many times. That movie helped construct a myth of the big city, the shrines, the geishas. The only people who wore kimonos in Kyoto (the only place I saw them in the street) were either locals going to a wedding or foreigners who had rented them for fun. As I found out, the myths always disappoint but the mundane can be extraordinary.

There are slight differences of course: no bins anywhere, strange rules about when it’s ok to eat/drink/talk on the phone and when it’s not, vending machines everywhere with both hot and cold drinks, unpretentious neighbourhood onsens run by 80 year old women. But all that is kindof ok, you get it and it becomes quickly mundane.

But first, for those considering a trip there on their own, here are the things that really came in handy:

  • The Lonely Planet (the thickest edition) was the most surprisingly useful tool. Online advice and tripadvisor were basically the worse and very ‘middle of the road’ in recommendations

Things I shouldn’t have brought and left behind:

  • toiletries (just a razor and soap will do, they have shampoos and conditioners everywhere)

Every morning, I would wake up at around 8am and head to the train station so that by mid-morning I had reached my day’s destination, stash my suitcase at the train station’s handy 100 Yen storage units and walk around. By early evening I’d be beat, have an early dinner, pick up my suitcase, check-in at my dorm or hotel and pass out at around 10pm after reading up on where to go the next day. I walked between 15–25km every day. Bliss.

So where did I go?

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Yokohama harbour as seen from the International Ferry Terminal.

I landed at Narita and got the train to the harbour town of Yokohama, south west of Tokyo. Home of Akai Kutsu or ‘Red Shoes’ poem it has the oldest China town in Japan and had a relaxed ambiance, the perfect landing place after a 12 hour flight. You can roam the Yokohama Bay Quarter, swing by BankArt1929 studio, visit the very small but sweet Ramen museum which has a replica quarter of a 1950s Yokohama in the basement, and have a sukiyaki for dinner, a speciality of the area.

A young girl with red shoes
was taken away by a foreigner.

She rode on a ship from Yokohama pier
taken away by a foreigner

I imagine right now she has become blue-eyed
living in that foreigner’s land.

Every time I see red shoes, I think of her
And every time I meet a foreigner, I think of her.

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I took a bus or two to go to see Sankeien gardens, one of two traditional gardens I would visit. Its founder had brought over different styles of home structures from around Japan to the garden, from a farmer’s home to the richest landowner’s. I had my first of many Zaru (cold) soba lunches there in a tiny little restaurant in the park.

As I walked out, I met the first of my many japanese angels, Yuri. I found that the japanese engaged with me and helped me in ways I could never have expected in ‘The West’. I guess it was due to the fact that I was a western woman on my own in rural or unusual areas, something of a rarity and a cause for concern and pity. I accepted it gratefully as it allowed me to get more out of my trip and meet and speak to people. Yuri was spending the afternoon in the gardens but lived in Tokyo. We would end up seeing each other on the last day of my trip with her interpreter even if her english was fantastic as she’d previously studied in Lancaster. She had two kids and a husband and was petite with lace gloves and a lovely umbrella to keep her away from the sun. She got me to download the Line app, the social media app of choice for the Japanese.

It was boiling that day and really still quite green for the supposed ‘autumn’ period. The leaves would only start to turn 2 days before my departure.

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On day 3 I woke up very early and by 8:30am was in Kamakura station, by the seaside. I dropped off my suitcase at the station and took the electric railway to Enoshima an island circled by hawks with ancient caves and temples that was still very sleepy. Not much was opened, but I got to pray to a dragon hidden in an underground cave. I walked past some pretty temples for lovers and took a taxi boat back on the other side of the island all before 10am when things were starting to liven up and the tourists were arriving.

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Bridge leading up to the island of Enoshima
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Don’t feed the hawks.
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The entrance to a series of temples at the top of Enoshima island.
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The cliffs at the back of Enoshima island.
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People fishing early in the morning at the back of Enoshima island.

I made my way back to Kamakura an had lunch at Latteria Bebe , a pizzeria where I had a little conversation with the chef who had lived in Italy. I subsequently learnt why italian cuisine was so predominent in Japan. When a couple wants their family to meet in a socially-neutral space where noone will be judged on the basis of their class, they go have a pizza! When young people want to catch up with their friends, they go to a french café. I saw very little of any other type of cuisine.

I hopped back on the trainline stopping at Hase to see the largest sculpture of Buddah in Japan. This was the most touristy thing I did and the crowd annoyed me, so I stopped by Inamuragasaki with its black sandy beach and the location of my first onsen.

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This is where reading about an experience and actually living it are two different things. Online, blogs on japan makes you feel like going to an onsen is going to be the most nerve-racking experience ever. The truth is it’s the most mundane thing for japanese people to do, and for many older ladies it seems, an opportunity for a good scrub and a very warm dip that they can’t manage at home. I would end my more physically demanding days at a local onsen during the rest of my trip.

For dinner, my dorm recommended a small local restaurant where I met an electronics engineer who had worked in California and met Clint Eastwood in a bar. I bought him a drink and he helped me pick the seasonal delicacy of sanma, a makerel that was grilled and served with rice and pickles. I’m old enough to know an old scoundrel when I meet one and left just as he threatened to kiss me on the cheek (because it made japanese women blush apparently). Ha!

Day 4–8

I left very early the next morning to cross by ferry into the Chiba prefecture south of Tokyo. I spent the next few days in the middle of a man-made forest with a group of japanese people from all walks of life looking to reconnect to nature and learn how to build tree-houses. I cannot recommend the Gankoyama workshops more to people looking to get an insight into the recent nature in Japan and people’s connection to shintoism, nature, food and resources. I was the only foreigner there, a cause for much ‘kawaii’ and engagement from my peers there. I now know how to cut bamboo, so there. I also learnt the joys of ume boshi, this super sour beautiful pickled plum which I made an onigiri out of (triangle rice cake). I’ve since continued to buy and order them in London.

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We slept in tree houses that had been built more safely than the one we learnt to build, bathed communally in a square japanese wooden tub and made food as a group by an open fire. It took 2 washes for my clothes to stop smelling of smoke but I can still recall the smell . I was driven back to a nearby train station by a lovely japanese man who owns a music production company and introduced me to Ikue Asazaki, a well known japanese folk singer with a haunting voice. The perfect end to a weekend in the forest.

I took the train up to sleep in a more western hotel in Nagoya that day and the next day went up to Obuse. It’s a tiny little town that’s really worth the trip. I was the only western visitor that day amongst bus loads of asian tourists. Host to a yearly chestnut festival, Obuse has a light museum, the Hokusai foundation museum and a bonsai garden you can visit. The Masuichi Ichimura Sake Brewery is run by an American woman who has helped transform this sleepy town into a tourist destination. There are three restaurants on site (a western-style one, an informal café and a traditional japanese one where you kneel and are sat low on tatamis) and I lunched at the first. The service and food were exquisite, one of my best meals in the country.

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Bonsai garden in Obuse.

I went back to the station and made my way to the next stop Matsumoto. I stayed at the absolutely terrific youth hostel run by a couple of young guys. They introduced me to umeshu which is plum wine, a sweet wine which is terrific with some tonic and icecubes. Beautiful and refreshing. I was in Matsumoto because I had my eye on Utsukuchi-ga-hara open air museum, a sculpture park at the top of a nearby mountain. Matsumoto is in the middle of a mountain range with rivers everywhere, an environment that is etched in my mind as the highlight of the trip. I fell in love with Japan’s nature in Matsumoto. But getting up to the sculpture park was my biggest expense of the trip. As there were no buses going up at that time of the year, I took a cab. A £300 return cab. Ouch. But this is what I saw on a sunny and windy day.

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With over 300 sculptures, it is a feast for any art buff. I started my visit at midday and left at 4pm. It is twined with Hakone Open Air Museum which many people do and I didn’t. In a way, I wanted to make sure I’d have plenty left for the next trip. Matsumoto in itself is a mid-sized town with a river running through it. It is beautiful and filled with independant shops and cafés. I met Isabelle in the streets of Matsumoto the next day. I was walking back from the modern art museum when I spotted a western looking woman unfolding a map with great gestures. I told her in English that the museum was further along and she replied back in broken English that she was looking for the castle. She was french. I responded in french and walked her there, we talked and eventually had coffee together. This was my only non-japanese connection and we would eventually dine again together in Kyoto a few days later.

Next article: Takayama, Tokoname, Kita & Kobe!

Author of 'Smarter Homes: how technology has changed your home life' (Apress, 2018) Writing a book on corporate innovation culture out in 2020. Designer. UK.

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