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Nomads on the Road - Alicia Explores Japan

JAPAN | Tuesday, 10 January 2012 | Views [4605]

Alicia Smith is the Programs Marketing Manager at World Nomads and recently returned from adventures on the road. 

Where did you go? 

I went to Japan. We had 10 days to explore so decided to just pick two cities and spend some time getting to know each. We ended up in Tokyo and Kyoto – two of Japan’s major cities – with two entirely different vibes. In Tokyo, you can almost feel the hum of the bustling and electric city…the senses being indulged, intrigued and constantly surprised with the turn of every corner.

Kyoto, on the other hand, was full of pockets of history and beauty, with ancient temples sitting quietly in the middle of the city, shrines shrouded in lush forests, and architecture that transports you back hundreds of years.

What was your best cultural experience? 

The food!  As a recovering vegetarian of ten years, the world of food has been opened up to me in the last two years. However, in Japan, I think the realm of food is taken one step further…for anyone.  From sushi to a street food culture I didn’t know existed, I think I tried it all – and each was it’s own experience. 

Sushi was a sit down affair; it was a rarity to stumble upon a sushi train, or a roll to go. But in it’s place was the Izikaya, a standing room only bar space for the after work crowd to have a drink and a few skewers of various pieces of meat, rice cakes or veg, grilled on a brick BBQ in front of you. 

We sustained our long days of wandering with piping hot bowls of spicy ramen and a bag of seemingly endless new varieties of fresh rice crackers, apples bigger than baby’s heads, and red bean paste sweets. It might be worth a visit to Japan, just to eat. 

3 Tips for other travellers? 

1.) You can pay to go to the top of the Tokyo Tower and get a spectacular view of Tokyo. However, if you go to the 36th floor of the Metropolitan Government Offices near Shinjuku, it doesn’t cost you a cent and there is even a great little café at the top to grab a coffee. 

2.) Indulge in the weird and wonderful – From “maid cafes” that serve up playful ice cream treats with a generous side of kitsch to cat cuddling centers that allow patrons to pet their furry friends all afternoon, Japan shines. 

3.) The trains are expensive. Tickets are sold in one-week passes regardless of how many days you are using it. Prepare for this expense, then sit back and enjoy the most comfortable and relaxing  form of public transport you will ever take.

What was the highlight of your trip? 

We arrived in Japan, jetlagged, dazed and without a guidebook. We had heard about Roppingi and decided to venture out for dinner.  On the quest for a restaurant we walked by a tiny corner shop that was filled with locals standing at high-top tables inhaling little balls of fried delights by the dozen. Curiosity and empty bellies led the way straight through the front door where, in mere moments, we found ourselves holding a steaming bowl of fresh …octopus balls enveloped in a bready batter – the ultimate in Japanese street snacking. 

With appetites whet, we made our way down the street to a shop that we deciphered was a noodle bar. With no English menu in sight, we found a translator in the man sitting on the corner stool.  He helped us order by punching numbers that correspond to noodle dishes into what looks like an ATM and then handing the tickets we received to the cook behind the counter. Having no idea what we’ve just ordered, we settle into the two seats next to our kind stranger, not knowing that he would become our companion for the rest of the night. 

Over a few amazing bowls of udon, Takehiro shares his life with us in perfect English – he is a Japanese business-owner and avid tango dancer. He recently split from his long-term Italian lover, and dance partner. When he asks us what our plans are for the night, we tell him we wanted to see Golden Gai, a tiny district home to more than 200 bars (in about eight square blocks).

As he has no plans for the night, and himself has never been, we ask him to join us. As soon as we step out of the restaurant, Takehiro becomes our local tour guide and leads us to the heart of the Golden Gai district. We spend the next few hours hopping from one tiny bar (some can only seat five people) to the next, sipping Sapporo and trading travel stories….until he suggests the Karaoke bar. He belts out Japanese love ballads while we choke out ‘Africa’ to lyrics that got lost in translation somewhere over the Serengeti. 

That night will remain one of my most memorable local experiences, reminding me of the wonderful humanity and the connections that can be found around the world…and the universal love of a cold beer and a crack at karaoke. 

What makes you a world Nomad?

All world nomads have an insatiable desire to chase the freedom of the road, discover the new and different, and experience all the world has on offer.  I feel that everyday, I think that qualifies me.

Related articles:

Tea is for Japan

5 things I wish I knew before going to Japan

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Tags: food, japan, kyoto, nomads on the road, tokyo, travel

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