Friday, May 10, 2013

Japan Farewell Tour

Before leaving Japan, there were a few places I had to go visit and a lot of people I wanted to see one more time. As soon as I finished work at my kindergarten in Tokyo, I caught the bullet train up to Sendai to start my "Farewell Tour" around Japan. 

I spent about a week in Sendai visiting my favorite places there, like Matsushima, and catching up with old friends. A number of us had decided to leave that March and return to our home countries, including my girlfriend and two of our friends who joined me on my farewell tour. The first stop on our trip was Osaka.

Osaka has always been one of my favorite cities in Japan. There is just something really vibrant and fun about it that makes it stand out. The people are famous for being much friendlier and more outgoing than people in other parts of Japan. Plus, Osaka has awesome food, like my favorite okonomiyaki and takoyaki restaurant, Tako Tako King. While we were in Osaka, we went to see a performance of The Count of Monte Cristo by Takarazuka, an all female musical revue. The show was so much fun, and the costumes were as sparkly as ever. We also visited Osaka-jo, the castle in the middle of Osaka city.

Our next stop was Kyoto, just a thirty minute train ride from our hotel in Osaka. Somehow during my three years in Japan, I had never visited Kyoto until this past march. I really wish I had gone there sooner, but in some ways it was nice to save the best for last. Kyoto is the old capital of Japan, where the emperors lived until Emperor Meiji moved to Tokyo in 1869. Even now, it's considered the cultural and historical capital of Japan. 

We were lucky enough to arrive in Kyoto in time for hanami, or cherry blossom viewing parties, which were just getting started all over the city. It felt like every time you turned around you were met by postcard like scenery of ancient temples, beautiful cherry blossoms, perfectly manicured parks, and Japanese people all dressed up in kimono. 

 On the first day we wandered through many of the old temples and neighborhoods in Kyoto and made time for some beer and delicious hanami snacks like grilled squid legs and yakitori. We ate an awesome and internationally eclectic meal at an izakaya and then got our nerd on at a little famicon (Nintendo) bar. 

The next day we visited Kinkaku-ji, better known as the Golden Pavilion. It's a zen Buddhist temple completely covered on the outside with gold leaf and overlooking a beautiful garden. Even on an overcast day like the day we went, the crowds were crazy, but it was worth the visit.

Next we caught an old-fashioned two-car train to Arashi-yama. There are faster ways of getting there via JR, but the old train goes through scenic areas of Kyoto and has great views of the cherry blossoms in the spring. The town of Arashi-yama was amazing. It's one of the most scenic places I've ever visited, with an old bridge crossing a wide river, a bamboo covered mountain dotted with temples and a pagoda, and old fashioned boats and rickshaws taking tourists around the town. 

My girlfriend Anna and I took a rickshaw across town to Arashi-yama's famous Bamboo Grove. It's a forest full of little paths and many different varieties of bamboo. The rickshaw is a little spendy but it was a lot of fun and a good way to learn about the town and the forest.

The last thing we did before leaving Kyoto was visit Kyoto-jo, the castle, which was celebrating hanami with a light-up festival at night. Seeing all the cherry trees lit up against the dark sky, with the white walled castle surrounding them, was stunning.

Finally it was time to head back to Tokyo and say our goodbyes. The farewell tour was amazing and made it all the more difficult to leave. Japan will always feel like a second home to me and I've only been gone a month but I already miss it a lot. It helps knowing that I will definitely go back again one day. 

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