Grapeshot Travel Story: Laura goes to Japan

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Japan

Name: Laura Masia

Place Travelled: Japan

What was your favourite city in Japan and why?

I know Tokyo gets all the praise, but my favourite city was Kyoto for three pretty solid reasons.

Firstly, they played jazz music on the street. I felt like a cool jazz-cat strutting to my own sound track.
Secondly, I’ve always been a huge fan of the book Memoirs of a Geisha and it made my experience in Kyoto more personal. It made me feel so validated that I could spout out little fun facts to Ben about geishas and Gion as we strolled along the tiny streets. I remember when we saw a geisha for the first time in a back street. She was so exquisitely delicate and gorgeous that it was hard not to stare in awe of her beauty, even though we knew we were being rude.
Thirdly, Kyoto is the most breathtaking city in Japan. I’m not just talking about the famous sights like Kinkakuji (The Golden Pavillion) and the Fushimi Inari Shrine. Even just the busy street was enough to make me pull out my camera.

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Five items that were absolute must have on your trip to Japan?

Thick, Warm Socks – I went to japan in the coldest month of the year, and even though we weren’t in the snow most of the time, the climate was way too cold for my Australian feet.

A Shinkansen Travel Pass – The Shinkansen (or bullet train) is by far the most efficient way to travel around Japan. Luckily, to encourage tourism, foreigners can buy a pass that allows them unlimited Shinkansen trips during a time period. This saved us hundreds of dollars and can only be bought in your home country.

A popular, western song – this may not be a physical item, but it is very important that you have a song prepared for karaoke. Karaoke for the Japanese is the equivalent of a kebab from that place in the middle of Kings Cross after a night out.

Cash – It is very rare to find a shop or restaurant that takes card, so it’s very important to have cash on hand. The best way to get cash out if you have a travel card, is find a Seven-Eleven.

Hot Coffee in a Can – The vending machine situation in Japan is insane, and something I really, really miss. From the tiniest towns up north to the middle of Tokyo, there are always fully stocked vending machines. The most mind-boggling thing is that most of them offer hot and cold drinks, including a variety of coffee, tea and soup.

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Did you find any sights or activities down the road less travelled?

Our fondest memories were made doing things suggested by the locals. We went to an Onsen (hot spring) in a tiny town called Arima where we bathed totally naked, surrounded by strangers, in glittering golden water. I’m telling you, Ladies, bush is back.

Another was Ōkunoshima, an island off the coast of Hiroshima famous for its rabbit population. It was a secret island during World War Two used for poison gas testing, but these days, it’s a destination for rabbit enthusiasts and cute first dates. Now, if you really want to take the road less travelled, I suggest you find Kyoto’s secret bar.

It has no name, no website, no Facebook. The only way to know about its existence is by word of mouth. It’s located near the main strip of restaurants, bars and clubs in Gion. Look for the sign that says Elephant Club Coffee, then climb up a tiny set of stairs. If you find a door covered in tape that looks like a meth lab, you’ve hit the jackpot. From 9pm to 5am, Akihiro, the incredibly talented bar-tender and pairing rapper will be waiting to chat, with a bowl of free soy and butter flavoured popcorn ready to go.

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#TBT to the weirdest thing to happen to you in Japan?

#TBT the time Ben and I went to Kyoto’s ‘World Peace Love’ club on a Tuesday night. We were having a great time dancing and laughing with a group of lovely Japanese girls. Our night became drastically more remarkable when Ben went to the bathroom. Without expecting a response he turned to the guy to his right at the urinal and said ‘Hey man, how’s your night going?’ and the guy responded. He proceeded to invite us and the girls into the VIP section, and buy us copious amounts of Moet and jelly shots. Through conversation, it became clear that he was a high powered drug trafficker. The night ended with him saying, “If you need any drugs, anywhere in the country. Call me, I will get them to you in the hour” I still have his card. I think the lesson we learnt is that it’s never a bad idea to make friends in the bathroom.

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Mandatory student austerity question: What was the budget like for travelling Japan?

Japan is not the cheapest country to travel to as a student. By the end of the month, money for me was tight, while Ben, who worked full time, ended up buying a guitar. I’ll break it down for you:

Flights: $900 – thanks to an amazing travel agent and going during an off-peak time! Accomodation: $2000 – We decided to treat ourselves and stay in a hotel for the two weeks we were in Tokyo. I would recommend sticking to hostels because they’re cheaper, and also the cleanest, friendliest hostels I’ve ever been to.

Food: Food in japan is super cheap and it’s all amazing quality. If you’re doing it on the cheap, you’ll be surprised at what you can get for your yen. Also, trust me on this one, don’t say no to seven-elevens food options. There’s a range of options, it’s all fresh that day and it’s cheap as chips.

Travel Pass: $700 – Like I said, Shinkansen travel passes are well worth the money, however I still remember thinking how many hours it took to earn that money and that was a very depressing thought.

Winter Gear: $300 – This trip was the first time I had been to the snow, so I had to spend quite a bit of money buying appropriate attire. I bought a couple of jumpers, a UNIQLO down jacket and a pair of black doc martens. Unfortunately, this all adds up.

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#Foodbucketlist: Best eats?

Sushi is over rated. That’s something i never thought I’d say, but while you’re in Japan, there are so many incredibly tasty things to try. It makes sushi seem boring in comparison.

All ramen in Japan is incredible. However, Ichiran is a dining experience like no other. This chain store is located in all major cities, open 24 hours and always has a waiting line down the street. It’s only main course item is a pork-based ramen, but they give you a sheet where you circle how much chilli you would like and how firm you want your noodles. The huge bowl is often served with a perfectly soft boiled egg for only 160 yen more. 10/10

Taiyaki is like a waffle shaped like a fish, stuffed with a delicious sweet filling. This was usually red bean paste or sweet potato, but it also came in custard varieties. It is usually found sold by street vendors or at markets. The best thing about Taiyaki is that it’s always made fresh and served steaming hot.

Okonomiyaki is pretty much a giant omelet cooked on a hot plate in front of you stuffed with cabbage and anything else you could ever want. It is also covered in a spicy BBQ sauce and Japanese mayonnaise.

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What advice would you give to other people who are traveling to Japan?

Eat everything – Outside of Tokyo, most restaurants don’t have an English menu, but luckily there are usually pictures, so just choose something that looks tasty and give it a whirl! Who cares if you’re eating pigs face, or turkey liver if it’s delicious and you have no idea?

Always chat to locals and people in your hostel – If we hadn’t drunkenly insisted to another couple that they just HAD to try Taiyaki, we never would’ve discovered Kyoto’s secret bar and stayed out to see the icy sunrise the next morning.

Learn basic phrases – This is especially important in japan. It’s a culture built on manners and respect. They will always be polite, but the Japanese will bend over backwards to help you if you say please (onegai shimasu), thank you (Arigato gozaimasu) and excuse me (sumimasen).

Don’t be scared of squat toilets – This may be an unpopular opinion in the western world, but I am a big fan of squat toilets. They make it so quick and easy to do your business. Best shit of my life, I swear.

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My travel mantra is…

Take things as they come; try everything, smile at everyone and always be kind. People can spot a kind person no matter what language they speak.