If you know me, even casually, you know I'm a 'feeler.'
Not that kind of feeler (tsk-tsk!) but rather, someone who gets a sense about a place based on how it makes them feel. In Japan, the different cities we visited each had a distinct emotion that made the country endlessly enjoyable. From electric to peaceful, historic to modern and friendly to reserved, the islands of Japan have a mood to satisfy every traveler.
Sapporo: Fresh & Friendly
Our first stop on our tour of Japan was the northern island of Hokkaido and city of Sapporo.
I didn't know much about Sapporo before we arrived, just a vague recollection of its eponymous beer and annual snow festival.
It ended up taking top honors for my favorite city.
Maybe it was coming from Seoul, a massive behemoth of a city, but the relatively small population of two million charmed this city-comparing Goldilocks and it was just right.
Not too big and not too small, this relatively new city (by Japanese standards) felt infinitely approachable, even home-like. I could see easily see myself living there.
First, the setting. I'm a northern country girl at heart, and the fresh, open spaces and natural beauty of Hokkaido appealed to my outdoors-y side. This is ski country and the mountains that surround the city are majestic and easily accessible for winter sports, as well as summer hiking.
But far from being a cultural dearth, Sapporo also has a quiet sophistication with a multitude of things to do. In the five days spent there, we saw a professional baseball game (Nippon-Ham Fighters v Fukuoka Soft Bank Hawks), attended a concert at a jazz bar, walked the Ramen and Wine Festival in Odori park and visited three cat cafes.
On top of that, the food was a delight. Sapporo has its own unique food culture, and from Onigiri to Soup Curry to the best Ramen (of the ten different bowls I had the good fortune of eating while in Japan), the city didn't disappoint.
Finally, it was the people I met in Sapporo that clinched it as my favorite spot in Japan. Incredibly hospitable, Sapporo-ans are among the most outgoing of Japanese that we met. When stopping someone on the street for directions, we received a friendly smile along with suggestions for other things to see and do!
I must give a huge shout out to Guest House Yuyu for providing such a personable and memorable experience at incredibly reasonable prices! The staff offered great tips on local restaurants as well as outstanding conversation, including introducing us to another guest, Thaeko, who fast became our friend for outings not just in Sapporo, but also Osaka where she lives.
Hi Thaeko, we miss you!
Tokyo: Frenetic & Catty
Fast paced. High energy. Trend setting. Leading edge.
If you are looking for inspiration in culture, trends, shopping, dining or wacky, consider Tokyo your muse.
As the world's most populous metropolitan area (nearly double that of NYC!!), even this experienced traveler expected Tokyo to be overwhelming, but I had no idea just how much.
Simply choosing where to begin exploring became a case of analysis paralysis. We stayed in the Takadanobaba neighborhood due to its location on the Japan Rail (JR) Yamanote line and proximity to popular neighborhoods Shinjuku, Harajuku, Shibuya and Ikebukuro. But then we discovered Ueno, Akihabara and Tabata. Even with ten days, it wasn't nearly enough.
We did the best we could and managed to visit each of the above neighborhoods, as our goal was to visit all of the cat cafes in Tokyo, hence the 'catty' reference (we managed to make it to 24 out of 26). But even with all that kooky kitty-ness, leave it to Tokyo to put a stroller filled with ten fluffy felines in our path while walking down a random street. You can't make this stuff up.
I did manage to do one non-catty thing- a cooking class, contributing to my other Japanese obsession, Ramen.
Kyoto: Calm & Dreamy
A close second to Sapporo, I loved the tranquility and living history all around Kyoto.
Maybe it was simply a contrast to the chaos of Tokyo, but Kyoto felt like one big sigh of relief. I could think while I walked, absorbing the atmosphere around me.
It turned out to be a walking meditation bonanza. From the historic castles and temples to the natural scenery, there were plenty of opportunities to take in the serene atmosphere, even in 'crowded' places.
For example, we hiked Fushimi Inari shrine one day and while it was busy at the bottom, there were very few people at the top, where it was quiet and a bit spooky! I made it to the popular Bamboo Forest another day for a relatively undisturbed trot through the walking paths and nearby Arashiyama neighborhood, but my favorite peaceful outing was walking the Zen gardens of Nanzen-ji temple and nearby Path of Philosophy at sunset.
The only area I didn't find particularly calm was downtown and the nearby Gion district where Kyoto's famed Geisha are few and far between-- with only tourist Geishas (regular people who pay to dress like one) taking over the scene-- but like all changes, this has now become part of the regular landscape.
Osaka: Edgy & Fun
If the calm of Kyoto begins to bore you, a different mood awaits just twelve minutes down the track via your Japan Rail pass: Osaka.
Osaka is a lot like Tokyo in terms of fast-paced excitement, however it's got a little bit something extra. A little bit raucous and a little less buttoned up, the people of Osaka are known to be the loudest in Japan, in both audible and visual terms. Which, on a spectrum, is nowhere near deafening or vulgar, but stands out in ultra-conservative Japan. Of course, you might not see or hear it in shops and restaurants, but if you pay attention on the street, you will definitely notice the manner is a slightly less refined one.
I found this attitude delightful and refreshing for the two days we spent in Osaka, which gives areas like Dotonbori a euphoric 'over the top' feeling. The huge neon signs that occupy entire buildings and giant plastic octopus' and gyoza perched on top of restaurants are an Instagram-loving tourist's delight. It's a circus-like atmosphere, but all in good fun.
We had a couple of great meals in Osaka, including a fun night of bar/restaurant hopping with our friend Thaeko, underneath Osaka station and a couple of delicious okonomiyakis, (savory Japanese pancakes) including famed Ajinoya.
Even with 24 days, there wasn't enough time to get to the very south to visit Hiroshima, but I'm glad I was able to experience a little bit of the spirit of each city we visited.
Japan is far more diverse than I imagined, and it captivated me. It presently ranks in my top two for favorite countries visited and I'm already dreaming about what moods I will find when I return.
Thanks for reading!
Next time on Gobsmacked: Party in the USA: Thanks Family & Friends for a Great Summer!