I normally wouldn't condense so many different places into a single blog post but my last 2 weeks have been spent traveling Japan via the rail system, in an effort to get my money's worth from the rail pass I went against my usual "stay in a place for a week or so" methodology. So I definitely sided with the "quantity" over "quality" when it came to my stays in Japanese cities that are not Tokyo. Several of them I just stayed at for a single night!
It worked out pretty well though I'd say, many of these places I would get bored if I spent too much more time there, and if anything it is a testament to the quality of the Japanese Rail system (it really is amazing) how easy it is to get place to place.
The first place I headed to from Tokyo is a small town in the mountains somewhat nearby called Takayama. I had my first taste of the Shinkansen (bullet train) taking it an hour or so to a city called Nagoya. From there I transferred to a non-bullet-train that had exceptionally big windows. This proved to be ideal as the 2.5 hour ride from Nagoya to Takayama was one of the most breathtakingly beautiful transits I have ever had in my entire life. We wound our way through forested valleys, following a river and winding between mountains. I was in awe the entire ride.
The actual town of Takayama was pretty unspectacular. It's known for having a re-creation of a "ye-old-time" Japanese village that consisted of buildings brought from all over Japan and re-assembled in a frankenstein-village manner. It was interesting but not THAT interesting. The train ride was definitely the best part about going to this town (that and that my hostel was basically empty so I didn't get awoken by people moving around at 5:30am).
Next I headed to Kyoto (after another beautiful train ride from Takayama) and spent 4 nights here; the longest I spent anywhere in Japan apart from Tokyo. Kyoto was famously the Imperial capital of Japan for about 1000 years and it was totally untouched by WWII so it's very culturally and historically important. It also has parts of it that are extremely beautiful. Unfortunately, because I waited till the last second, and it's cherry blossom season, I stayed in a hotel one night and a hostel the rest of the nights that were in some not-especially-attractive parts of the city. Luckily it's very easy to rent a bike and explore the city so I hardly spent any time at "home". All of the parts of the city that surround the cultural sites are thankfully much more beautiful.
When I arrived that night it was too late to visit anywhere so I decided to get a haircut and a shave instead. I found a barber near my hotel that was run my a man who must have been at least 80. His hands were all mangled from holding a pair of scissors for what I like to assume was every day for the past 65 years. He did an amazing job; the whole process took about 2 hours and while the haircut was a bit old-school emperor-loving Japanese for my taste actual act of getting my hair cut and beard trimmed / shaved was the best I have ever had, it was basically like being at the spa.
The first place I visited the next day is called Fushimi Inari Shrine, known for having thousands of Tori, bright-orange gates. I walked through the gates, and of course, standard for me, I climbed the mountain they lead up to and visited all the shrines. That night I visited my first Kaiten sushi joint, or conveyor belt sushi. Basically there is a conveyor belt that winds its way through the whole restaurant. When you see something you want, you take it off. Different colored plates mean different prices. At the end you add up all your empty plates. Of course, even this kind of sushi here in Japan is better than anything I have had in the US. I stuffed myself for about 12 dollars.
I visited several more shrines and gardens in Kyoto via bike, and climbed several more mountains. I tended to always find the grounds more interesting than the buildings themselves; then again I've seen about a million temples at this point.
I also ate Japanese-style spaghetti for the first time while I was here with tuna, spinach and egg which was a bit weird but surprisingly delicious. I also had Soy-flavored Ramen for the first time, and the last of the 4 main types of Ramen that I've never had before. It was amazing.
I then headed for Osaka, almost entirely to try two types of food: Takoyaki and Okonomiyaki.
Takoyaki is Octopus balls, essentially they are batter with a piece of octopus in the middle, fried into a ball, and covered with brown sauce, mayo and fish flakes. Sounds disgusting, tastes amazing.
Okonomiyaki is sometimes called "Japanese Pizza" or "Japanese Pancakes" but neither is exactly accurate; Okonomiyaki literally translates to "How you like it" which basically just means its a huge pile of shit formed into a vaguely circular shape and cooked on the grill right in front of you, then also covered in more brown sauce, mayo and fish flakes. Yet another thing that sounds disgusting but tastes delicious. It's a very Japanese dish, and I highly recommend you try it if you ever come to Japan.
I only spent one night in Osaka, mostly because I had heard from multiple people that it wasn't worth staying for any more than that, almost entirely just to get the food. Weirdly enough though I found it even more crowded and busy and crazy than I ever found Tokyo...Osaka ended up being a lot more like what I expected Tokyo to be like. I also liked the city from what I saw of it, and wished I had spent a few more nights there. At least I got to eat their goddamned delicious food.
Every person in the world knows Hiroshima as the first city (and second to last) to ever have an atomic bomb dropped on it, so you tend to imagine it's going to be some kind of charred post-apocalyptic wasteland when you arrive; though it looks a bit like every bustling Japanese metropolis, albeit a little less busy than Tokyo or Osaka.
I spent 2 nights in Hiroshima, I didn't see much the first night because it was raining, but I spent the next day exploring the "Peace Park" and "Peace Museum". The park is built on top of what was ground zero and the museum goes into detail about the bomb and it's aftermath. I found the whole thing enthralling, especially learning about why it was that Hiroshima was targeted, and why the bomb was dropped at all. It was especially great compared to most other museums I've seen, it was whatever the opposite of Propaganda is...if anything they were a bit too harsh on themselves. It also was extremely depressing as it graphically goes over the effects of atomic bomb burns and radiation poisoning on the human, but extremely moving; especially Re: the resiliency of the human spirit.
I spent the rest of that afternoon exploring the Peace park as it was a beautiful day. One of the most interesting parts is the "Atomic Bomb Dome" which is the old city hall that was basically directly underneath the bomb...they have left the skeleton of the building standing as a kind of memorial. That night I tried Hiroshima style Okonomiyaki (it has noodles in it) and hung out at an Izakaya (essentially the Japanese version of a pub...heavy on the fried meats).
This should probably be a part of the Hiroshima section; Miyajima is about an hour outside of Hiroshima via local trains. It's a pretty mountainous island that is insanely gorgeous and absolutely worth the effort. I only spent the day there but I could have easily stayed a night or two.
The island is also absolutely crawling with deer, and they are not shy or scared of humans whatsoever. It's pretty surreal.
There's not much to say or do apart from walking around the island, climbing the mountains and taking in the sites and nature. There's a few shrines and a famous "Floating Tori" in the ocean (though it was just kind of a "stuck in the mud on the coast Tori" for me as the tide was out. Either way, I found it so beautiful and peaceful and relaxing that I just loved spending all day walking all over the island.
I then headed down to the Southernmost of the 4 main Japanese Islands, Kyushu. I came to Kyushu almost entirely in search of Tonkotsu, my favorite of the 4 main types of Japanese ramen, where it originated. Fukuoka is the largest city on Kyushu and the easiest to get to so I went there first.
I ate a fair share of Ramen while I was here though none of it was better than anything I had had elsewhere (even in the US); the best meal I had here by far was a chicken caesar salad (possibly the best caesar salad I've ever eaten). I spent most of my time here I spent walking around the city. I discovered a place called "Robot Square" that showcases some of the latest (as of 2010 or so) in robotics technology, and several beautiful parks.
I later found out that Fukuoka is known as having the most attractive women in all of Japan, though to be honest I didn't notice while I was there
My next stop was a single night in the small coastal city of Beppu. Beppu is known for it's "Onsen"s or hot springs; basically every hotel or hostel has it's own bath that you can use, and I did while I was there, though it was insanely hot (109F) it was very relaxing. There are also what are known as the "8 hells of Beppu" which are 8 different hot springs that are much too hot to swim in, but they have something interesting about them. I only visited 2, one that is a bright orange color, and another that is a geyser. The bright orange one, known as "Blood Pond Hell" was definitely the most interesting; the geyser would have been cool, but the placed a rock formation directly above it so the water can't reach it's full height.
My last stop on my JR Journey was to Kagoshima, allllllllll the way at the tip of Kyushu. It's known for two things, the Ramen (Kurobata, or Black Pork is from Kagoshima) and the giant, still active volcano island called Sakurajima that looms over the city from the bay. I wanted to eat some delicious ramen and climb a volcano while I was there, and I did indeed do both.
I went to a few different Ramen joints while I was here but the best one was called Tontoro. I'm not sure if it was the best Ramen I've ever had (it might have been) but it was absolutely, definitely, by far, the single best pork I've ever eaten in my life. It just melted in my mouth with an explosion of flavor. I went here again on my last night in Kagoshima and didn't regret it for a second.
Hiking the volcano on the other hand was much lamer than you'd think hiking a volcano would be. There's no trail to speak of, you just walk up the rode, it's a pretty light grade and it takes about 2 hours. At the top is an observatory, but you're not even close to the top of the volcano. You do get a decent view it of, but I wanted to be peering over the edge of the Caldera, not this lameness. I found I could get a much better view of the volcano from within the city itself anyways.
If I could do it any differently I would probably skip Fukuoka and instead use that time to visit Yakushima which is kind of a pain in the ass to get to but looks super beautiful and also has several amazing overnight hikes (not that I had ANY gear to do overnight hiking, but I would have made it work)
On the last day of my JR pass validity I spent 8 hours on the Shinkansen going 1400km up 3 Japanese islands at 300kph to return to Tokyo for 4 days, my final stop before heading back to the US.