Returning Home

Whilst I was at my hostel in Tokyo, someone asked me why I had returned to Japan so many times. I was bumbling around trying to explain myself, when I hit upon it – whilst I love traveling (particularly Asia), Japan is different. To me, coming back to Japan feels just like coming home.

And so this past week I’ve been kicking back, living it up in Kurume.  My first day was spent tripping around – we managed to pass through 4 prefectures, stopping in Tara for a delicious kani chanpon (crab noodles) lunch. Our final destination was Unzen Dake, the volcano overlooking Shimabara. To return home, we took the car ferry back to… . But it was the car trip back to Kurume when everything got interesting…

A car ran up the back of us. No need to get freaked – it was only a minor accident, we were stopped at the time, the car behind us thought that the light had changed. The result was a dinged up (brand new) car, a 3 hour police investigation and a hospital visit! The procedure was interesting – for just a small accident, the police outlined the road with chalk and all of our details were taken (and by all, I mean all, including the name of the university I graduated from!). After the investigation, we were sent to the hospital, where we were xrayed, cleared and sent home. Wheww, what a day!

The rest of my week was spent catching up with friends, and eating. Kurume ramen, udon, nabe, yakitori and more – yum! I managed to catch up with nearly everyone, including my new Japanese niece!

Before my flight out to Taipei, I crashed in Osaka for the night, at the First Cabin Hotel. Highly recommended – a hostel/capsule hotel/business hotel – see my separate review for more info.

First Cabin (Osaka, Japan)

This futuristic budget accommodation is a cross between a capsule hotel, a hostel and a business hotel.  Dimly lit corridors are filled with small rooms (almost “pods”), separated by gender (guys don’t have access to the girls floor and vice versa). The rooms themselves don’t have lockable doors, but rather a thick sturdy curtain to block everything out (note that this place isn’t as quiet as a hotel due to the lack of a door but not us it as noisy as a hostel, consider earplugs if you’re a light sleeper). Drawers under the bed (not quite high enough to fit my carry on luggage in, but certainly wide enough to fit plenty of bits and pieces) are lockable. The rooms are small, but have everything you need – a large (comfortable) bed, small side table, mounted tv (with a headphone jack next to the bed), and clock/alarm.


There are small communal “chat rooms” (mobile phones are not to be used in the rooms) with comfy floor seats and vending machines.  Shared toilets (complete with auto hot seats) and a large “make-up” room compete with handcreams, hair dryers and hair straighteners (not sure that the guys floor has this!). There is also a “spa” room – a typical Japanese communal bath room, with a sauna and a onsen bath. Not sure if there were private showers – I didn’t look.

Location is good, above the Namba station complex (but be aware this station is quite large, it’s about a 10 minute walk from the airport line). Plenty of shops in the area, although it took me a while to find somewhere for dinner. Overall a fantastic experience, and much  better than some of the other budget hotels I’ve started at in the Osaka area.

Ace Inn Shinjuku (Tokyo, Japan)

Set it a fantastic location, the hostel is easy to find from the airports and from downtown. There are a couple of eateries in the area (a great cheap tempura restaurant just down the road, near the station). The staff were friendly and helpful (I had lost my luggage and they were helpful in suggesting places to shop). There was a common room with a beer vending machine upstairs. Plenty of computers in the lobby to use the free internet available.

Rooms were a little hot, the air conditioning just couldn’t keep up (I was here in summer, it wasn’t unbearable by any means, just not as cool as it could have been). The beds were unusual – they imitated the capsule hotel style, so even though it was a dorm with loads of beds, the noise was limited, as the wooden “capsules” hid most of the noise (and light). The showers were fantastic (had to pay for hot water, but they were clean and had good pressure).

Update (the above was written in July 2008, I returned to stay at Ace Inn for 3 nights in December 2012): Once again, enjoyed my stay.  Rooms were still a little hot (but it was winter this time) – I think the heaters run a bit high here.  I found the beds to be a little hard this time, but I think it was more because I’m not used to the futon style yet (beds were futons on wooden slats).  I hired a bike from the lobby, 500 yen for a day, which was a great way to explore Tokyo (and get lost!).  Free wifi on most floors, and computers still available in lobby to use.  Showers are still 100 yen for hot water, but I stand by my original statement – clean, good pressure, I’m happy to pay 100 yen for that.  Staff were still very friendly, had umbrellas available to borrow for rainy days.

The Circle Of Life

Once again, I’ve found myself back in Japan – I just can’t seem to stay away! A couple of months ago, I managed to find cheap tickets on Jetstar – only $300 for the Cairns to Tokyo flight. But… wait for it… this was for business class. Done! Flight was booked, I just had to survive exams and find a return flight! Exams were survived, finding a rerun flight was not so easy -the limiting factor was that I had to return for the family Christmas, pushing flights up to over $1500 one way from Japan. And so a plan was born – Melbourne – Cairns – Tokyo – Fukuoka – Osaka – Taipei – Singapore (bus) KL – Melbourne!

The short amount of time that I spent at a Cairns hostel reminded me why I love backpacking in other countries, but not so much in Australia. It certainly was very bare bones, but couldn’t be bet for the location. I had a wonderful short stay in Cairns regardless, spending all my time on the reef – cruise out there, a play at scuba diving, snorkeling and then a helicopter flight back to Cairns. Highly recommended.

Over the years, I’ve been to Tokyo twice – the first time although I had a great night out on the town, I spent the rest of my time hung over, and the second time the airlines had lost my luggage and I was stuck in Tokyo with just the clothes on my back in the middle of a humid, hot summer. Not great memories.

This time, I had a trump card – The Lion King was playing, and I was going. I rocked up to my hostel late at night to find my pre-order SIM card had already arrived. After a few teething issues, I managed to get it going, and the next morning I borrowed a bike and set out for theatre. And went completely the wrong way, ending up near the Emporers Palace and in amongst the embassy’s. What should have taken 1 hour managed to take me closer to 4 hours!  And having not ridden a bike for over 3 years, I’m really feeling it now!  The Lion King was just as good as it was in Melbourne – truly amazing.  The costumes, the set, the singing, all of it was すばらしい.  I managed to sit next to a small girl, who was quite impressed with (or at least not upset by) my humming and the small amount of Japanese songs I was able to partially sing!

Over 10 years ago, Asako came to Australia as an exchange student and stayed with us for some time.  One of my aims on this visit to Japan was to catch up with her – not only has she gotten married, she’s also had a baby!  So we planned to do a day of sightseeing around Tokyo with her husband Hirosuke and baby Seigo.  First stop was the newly restored Tokyo Station.  I arrived before Asako, and was suprised by the amount of Japanese people milling around taking photos of the admittedly beautiful station.  It wasn’t until Asako & Hirosuke arrived and explained that it had only recently been completed that it made sense!

After Tokyo station we headed to Asakusa Sensouji (Asakusa Temple – often referred to as “jinja”, but this isn’t right!).  Hirosuke explained to me that even amongst Japanese people, it can be difficult to differentiate between shrine (Shinto – Jinja) and temple (Buddhist – Otera).  One way of telling is the presence of a smoking barrel (temple) or purifying water (shrine).  He also explained thati red “tori” (gates) are found at shrines, but pagodas are found at temples.  And at shrines you often clap before praying, whilst prayers are silent in temples.  All so confusing!  Basically, when in Japan (or any other country!) I look to see what the locals are doing, and follow their lead!

The road to the temple is lined with lots of little shops selling a wide range of souvineers.  We stopped for some fresh zaiten manju – red been paste inside a small cake, yum!  Seigo is still not sure of me!

After our temple visit, it was time to take a glance at the skyline.  Here is Asako, Hirosuke and Seigo in front of the Asahi beer buildings.  Notice the golden coloured building in the background, with the grey “frothy head” on top?  We so need one of the buildings in Melbourne!  Also pictured is the Asahi flame, said to represent the “burning heart of Asahi beer”, but colloquially referred to as “the golden turd” by many locals.  Hmmm.

Lunch was the famous Asakusa tendons for us, and udon noodles for Seigo – who really got into it!

As it started raining, we jumped in a taxi and headed to the Tokyo Edo Museum.  Perfect for a rainy day (or even for a super hot day I would imagine), the museum is well laid out and quiet.  Plenty to see and learn – so much information about the history of the people and samurai of Japan.  Here are Hirosuke and Seigo doing their best to carry me in the traditional viewing box.

Next stop was a Tokyo cruise, on the Himiko ship.  Designed by Leiji Matsumoto, one of the best renowned Japanese cartoonists (think anime), it’s futuristic and a bit out of this world.  From here we were able to see much of Tokyo from the waterways, including the Tsukiji Fish markets and Rainbow Bridge.  We also saw the theatre that I rode my bike to the day before.  I  also managed to wear Seigo down, and get a bit of a cuddle!

After getting off the boat, we ended up at a shopping centre created mainly for “yummy mummies” and young people.  This is the front of ANA’s “kidzania” – a kids play centre (think Crocs or Lollypops).  It’s a little different however, kids that enter this world will be enrolled into “careers” – they will become firefighters, nurses, shop keepers and more.  It’s basically role play for kids, where kids will even earn a salary that can in turn be used to buy small presents for mum.  Can’t wait till Seigo is old enough to go here and I can tag along!

And finally it was time for yakiniku (Japanese style Korean barbeque) for dinner.  We had a wide range of meats and vegetables, all grilled on the table in front of us.  Poor Asako didn’t get much at all – she was too busy keeping Seigo fed.

After saying goodbye to Asako, Hirosuke and Seigo, I realised that I was only a few stops from “Gyoza World” – a mysterious and magical place said to contain thousands of styles of gyoza (dumplings).  So even though I was absolutely full from our delicious yakiniku dinner, I stopped by to see what it was about.  And I wasn’t disappointed – dumpling shop upon dumpling shop for as far as you can see.  I managed to nibble on some cheese dumplings (yum!) – next time I need to head back with a few people and an empty stomach!!

And that’s the end of my time in Tokyo.  I’m currently sitting in the airport, awaiting my flight to Fukuoka, to visit with my host families from when I was a high school exchange student (12 years ago!!)

Just call me Travel Agent Bobbi!

Asia ~ Japan ~ Fukuoka & Beppu

Once again, blogs have been few and far between, whoops. It’s been a month of accomplishments with my Japanese – I can now do many things in Japanese that I never before had the ability or courage to do: order pizza delivery over the phone, direct a taxi driver to my apartment, make travel arrangements with a travel agent and more. Most of these things are activities I never even had the opportunity to do in English, in Australia – I live in the sticks, so getting a taxi home, or getting pizza delivered has never been an option. I’m finally beginning to really function over here!

Gyoza at the gyoza restaurant in Hakata

Gyoza at the gyoza restaurant in Hakata

My friend Jen from home has been visiting me for the past two weeks, and it’s been a blast. I’ve taken her around to do plenty of things around Kyushu, including clubbing in Fukuoka (stumbling home at 7am after spending all night at “Happy Cock”, all you can drink for 2000 yen, who can go past that?!), horse races in Saga (where you go not to watch the races in Saga, but to bet on the races in Kyoto!), temples in Dazaifu (students are starting to cram, the temple was packed!), a home party drinking cocktails and eating oden in Kurume (and laughing the night away with crazy cousins!), bali style onsens in Chikushi (Jen’s first onsen!), sand onsens, hostels and “hell valley” in Beppu (natural bubbling colourful pits of sulphur water, reminiscent of what hell may look like), souvenir shopping at the many 100-yen shops in Fukuoka (and then finding a post office that will accept the 100-odd kg of souvenirs that Jen bought!) and shopping and watching movies at Canal City in Fukuoka (New Moon has FINALLY come out in Japan!).

Students tying their fortunes up at Dazaifu

Students tying their fortunes up at Dazaifu

Matt’s headed off on his next adventure – he is now in Taiwan looking for a job, leaving me in Japan all on my own… Never fear, with my newfound pizza (and sushi, curry, hotpot, Korean, Indian etc etc) ordering abilities, I think I should survive. Throw in the attention of my host sister and cousin (I have an accessible apartment in the city, a big bonus on a Saturday night when trains stop at 11:30pm! This Saturday night is the first I haven’t been out till 7am, and it was only because Jen was leaving early Sunday that I was excused!) and my other Japanese friends.

At the Moomin cafe in canal city. If you're lucky, Mr Moomin himself will come and sit at your table to help you drink your gingerbread hot chocolate (which is easily the best hot chocolate I've ever had, and so it should be at $8 a cup).

At the Moomin cafe in canal city. If you're lucky, Mr Moomin himself will come and sit at your table to help you drink your gingerbread hot chocolate (which is easily the best hot chocolate I've ever had, and so it should be at $8 a cup).

Now it’s back to work, sorting out my parents itinerary for when they rock up in two weeks time. We’ll be hiring a car (eek!) and traveling a bit of Kyushu before heading to Kyoto & Osaka for a couple a days, and then heading to China on the ferry. Just call me Travel Agent Bobbi!