A Free Trip To Japan
It is fitting that the last country on this long voyage around the world happens to be Japan. Ever since leaving Europe, we have been to several countries that have been inexpensive, relatively unorganized, and some have been more “in-your-face”. Japan is the exact opposite of these. Japan happens to be the most expensive country since leaving Europe, and Japan, in general, is a soothing and relaxing place to be, even in the larger cities. It’s the most technologically advanced, and it has one of the world’ lowest crime rates. Japan is also a country that I have visited the most in terms of number of visits, this time being my fourth visit. And we have family here. Chika’s grandmother, aunts and uncles, cousins, etc., they all live in Japan; so it felt more like a trip to visit family than a trip to go sightseeing.
We last visited Japan just one year ago, when we spent two weeks here over the Thanksgiving holiday. If we weren’t on Semester at Sea this fall, we probably would have taken a trip to Japan around this same time anyway. In that sense, we certainly saved about $2,000 in plane tickets by being on this voyage!
Our ship, the MV World Odyssey, docked in Kobe, a decent-sized city in southwest Japan, located about 500 miles southwest of Tokyo. Kobe Bryant, the former NBA superstar, was named after the city of Kobe when his parents saw Kobe beef on a menu once.
Chika and I visited the city of Kobe once when we were traveling in 2014. We had an Airbnb in between Kobe and Osaka, so we took the short train ride over to Kobe one day to hike up into the mountains behind the city.
Upon arrival in Kobe, the Japanese port authority put on a few spectacles for our arrival. First, they organized the fire department to perform a water volley as it escorted us. The large fountain of water shooting out from the boat changed colors from blue to purple to green as we sailed in. When we arrived, a brass band, situated on the third level of the terminal, played four songs, including the Pirates of the Caribbean theme song and a Christmas song. And finally, an official welcome was given by releasing about 200 balloons into the air. It was certainly an organized affair!
Chika’s Dad (Hi, Hiro!) decided to fly to Japan over this same period in order to celebrate his mother’s 92nd birthday and to meet us at the ship. It was so nice to see a familiar face from the terminal as we got closer. We gave him a tour of the ship, including our cabin, the dining areas, the union, the bookstore, fitness center, and more. It was great to show him our temporary home.
After this, we headed straight to the Shin-Kobe station, the high-speed rail station. The Shinkansen (bullet train) is world famous as one of the best transportation systems in the world. This was my first time riding it in Japan. To go 500 miles from Kobe to Tokyo, it took around just 2.5 hours as we traveled at speeds around 175-200mph. While it was expensive at a cost of ~$120 one-way, it was much easier and quicker than flying (when you add in the extra security, early arrival, etc.). It’s shocking to see the landscapes fly by at such a high speed, especially when the train is so quiet and smooth. I hope that we see something like this in the US in the future.
We spent three nights in Tokyo, mostly visiting with family and friends. It was great to have time to spend with Chika’s family, especially her dad and grandmother. For her grandmother’s 92nd birthday, some of Chika’s first cousins once-removed visited for cake, tea, and champagne. I had never met them before, and it was cool to learn about their former careers (they’re now retired for the most part) when they lived internationally in places like Canada, Indonesia, and China.
Because we usually stay closer to Chika’s grandmother’s house, which is about 30 minutes by train to the main station (Shinjuku), I decided to try to find an onsen (hot springs) close by. I was lucky to find one just a few miles away, so I decided to walk it one morning.
Japanese hot springs are a great cultural experience, something that many Japanese take part in quite frequently. They typically cost about $5-$8 to enter, and one can stay as long as they wish. What makes them unique is that they are split by gender, and it is usually prohibited to wear any piece of clothing. The hot springs are a very clean and pure place, so clothes would compromise that. Tattoos are also prohibited; so anyone with a tattoo is unable to enter (I heard this goes back to days of the Japanese mafia who are known to have had tattoos).
The hot springs are typically made up of at least two or three different small pools, mostly indoors but sometimes outdoors, too. There is always a line of mirrors with little stools and shower heads; with this, people wash themselves with soap and water before stepping into a pool, for sanitary reasons.
After showering, I saw one pool with an opening and jumped right in; little did I know that I would be both shocked and surprised. Right as I positioned myself right between the two jets, I looked up and saw a sign on the wall that specifically says, “Electric Bath”. As soon as I read this, the electric pulses started. Because I was completely surrounded by the pulses, it almost paralyzed me for those three short seconds. The electric shocks it sends through the water feel like the electrical patches that a chiropractor may use on your back and shoulders. However, this wasn’t just a 1”x 1” patch, this was full body. Surprised, I did my best to escape this short burst of torture. Fortunately, the pulse stopped and I got away: I couldn’t believe that this just happened!
This particular hot spring had an outdoor pool with a muddy color, which means that it literally was brought from deep underground before being moderated to be a bit cooler in temperature (but was still at 105-110 degrees). There was also a cold pool with a temperature of about 60-65 degrees. At the very end, I decided to try out the electric bath again, this time with a bit more precaution. I slightly put my back in the range of the shocks, and it really wasn’t bad. Just like the chiropractor but I could control it better this time. I have no idea how people could manage being all the way immersed.
In one of our days in Tokyo, we decided to visit Ueno Park and the Asakusa area. Ueno Park is one of Tokyo’s major green spaces, with temples, museums, ponds, and nice walkways. Asakusa, located just about a mile from Ueno Park, is known for the Senso-Ji Temple, considered to be one of the most important Buddhist Temples in Tokyo. A pedestrian street lined with over 100 souvenir shops leads to the temple.
Later that afternoon, we took the train to Shibuya, the home of the busiest crosswalk in Japan, where over 1,000 people cross the street within about two minutes during rush hour. From there, we walked about 30 minutes and met up with one of Chika’s high school friends, Aya, to have dinner. Aya had hosted us and many others at her house a year ago for a Thanksgiving celebration. She went to high school in New Jersey, where her and Chika met, and we try to meet up with her whenever we are in Japan.
Outside of these activities, we didn’t do much while in Tokyo. It was nice to rest up and not feel the urge to be exploring all day every day.
The night before the ship left Kobe, we took an overnight bus to get back to Kobe. This is much cheaper at a price of about $32 per person, compared to the $120 ticket on the high-speed train. We arrived in Osaka around 6:00AM and then took a train to Kobe and went back to the ship for breakfast and to leave our luggage for the day. Then we both went exploring Kobe.
Kobe definitely feels like a newer city. It was hit hard by an earthquake in the 1990s and much had to be rebuilt. They are known for their beef, Kobe beef. It’s a large port city, with receiving commercial ships and also with entertainment areas along the water. The Maritime Museum is one of the most recognizable buildings with what looks like a net surrounding it. That whole area near the waterfront is the main entertainment, with the “Be Kobe” sign, a modern Starbucks, green space, a memorial to those lost in the earthquake in the 1990s, and it’s the home of, supposedly, the largest Christmas tree in the world. Although it was chilly walking through here, especially with the wind, it was a nice walk through here.
I had seen on the tourism map that there was a statue of Elvis Aaron Pressley a bit further down the water, and, curious to see what it was like, I went on a quest to find it. I walked through an open-air mall, near another huge shopping mall, and then I found it right by the road. It never did say why a statue of Elvis was placed here, but it did list off the donors who made it happen. I never would’ve expected to see this in Kobe.
The rest of the day was spent wandering around the city center, buying some snacks for the ship, and enjoying the good coffee shops in Kobe. With just one day here, I was able to get a little bit of a feel for the city. Just as one might expect with a Japanese city, it is clean, orderly, and calm. It’s a good place to wander!