Hello BellaNaija readers, my name is Zainob Fashola (no, Babatunde Raji Fashola is not my father) a.k.a the person behind travel blog, ZeeGoes.com. Earlier this year I finally got to visit Japan, a country of language, culture, and food that has always fascinated me. Before jumping on the plane from Lagos to go discover Japan, I did tons and tons of research about 8 months before my trip (years of reading mangas and watching animes also helped with the language bit). I also spent a month learning the basics of the Japanese language using my favourite audio guide, Michel Thomas.
I had only 32 days to spare for the large country and everyday had to count. With a compilation of research on what each town had to offer using trip advisor, the helpful advises from the folks on couchsurfing.com’s forum, and japan-guide.com, I was able to narrow down my search to 14 places for my nightly accommodations. My travel time in Japan was during the peak season, so in order to cut my spending down to a minimum, I booked all of my accommodations at least 6 months ahead via airbnb and booking.com. With my JR Pass – a train/bus pass that gives access to almost every hub in Japan at no extra cost – in hand, I could afford to be spontaneous and easily do day trips to other parts of the country. The ability to travel a great distance in less than 1 hour made a huge difference. The entire cost of the trip was slightly under $7,000.
It has been a few months since my travel and here are the places that still get me in the grateful mode when I think of Japan.
Ishigaki, Yaeyama Islands: A beautiful haven for those who appreciate the outdoors. From snorkeling with Mantas, to diving deep into the ocean to find Nemo look-a-likes, or hiking in the beautiful jungles on the neighboring Island of Iriomote, my time here was way too short. The food culture here was a good fusion of Hawaiian + Japanese, I absolutely loved it and people were so welcoming.
Koyasan – Up in the mountain of Japan with snow still falling despite the spring season, Koyasan aka Mount Koya, is the center of Shingon Buddhism and is a place where many Buddhists around the world come for pilgrimage. Bundled with the religious experience of it, everything here was amazingly beautiful. I rented a room at a temple for the night, Eko-in, and the view alone from my window made me keep pinching myself out of disbelief. From praying with the monks, to the fire ritual ceremony, to hiking the path through Okunoin, my Koyasan experience was definitely one that would forever keep me in love with Japan.
Kyoto – Of course Kyoto made the cut! I am not a big fan of visiting temples or archeological sites, so while Kyoto is home to some a great number of such beauties, it was the night art showcase in the parks and the street food that made me fall in love with the city. For those who love riding bicycles through cities, Kyoto fits the bill to do just that. I’m not gonna lie, my legs hurt a bit after a day of cycling through the city.
Nanto – Ainokura village: I wanted to experience an old school lifestyle of the Japanese people, and find a serene spot to be lazy at. This was the perfect place for it. There are 2 other similar villages that have the old Gassho zukuri houses (traditional Japanese farm houses), but this was the least touristy option. The others have way too many tour buses driving through them with walking tours every day, and I was not keen on that. I spent two nights here curled around a good book and getting centered within myself. When I felt the need to do more, I went hiking through a path in the surrounding mountains, but mostly, it was all about finding peace in a serene environment.
Sapporo – The red light district of Japan. Many rush to Tokyo to experience the insane night life, but in reality, you will find yourself lost in a swarm of way too many English speaking people. Instead, Sapporo has pretty much everything Tokyo could offer without the ridiculous distance one has to deal with when club hopping. Almost everything is within a short walking distance and I could not believe how alive Sapporo becomes when the light goes dark. Like Lagos, do not expect the clubs to be popping till around 12am, the party crowd starts at the bars before flocking off to go club hopping. Because Sapporo is the main city hub of the whole Hokkaido region, a lot of young Japanese locals that live in surrounding villages flock to Sapporo’s night scene. So, unlike Tokyo where the nightlife is filled with way too many tourist (mostly Americans), Sapporo is the place to visit if partying like and with the locals is much preferred.
Besides the insane night life in Sapporo, the food culture here went beyond my expectations. Many point at Tokyo as the city to find good sushi. Wrong. Sapporo has the best fresh food in Japan, in my honest opinion. The seafood’s level of freshness, for me, was unparalleled, and I should note that I woke up way too early in Kanazawa and Tokyo just to try out their freshly served seafood. I may have over indulged in the food scene here, but it was so worth it. I fell in love with uni (fresh sea urchin) while I was in Kanazawa, and Sapporo cemented our relationship when I had a bowl of uni and rice with a side of uni gratin at Uni Murakami.
Using Sapporo as a base for the night is also most advisable if keen on going to Otaru and Yoichi. Otaru is known for its seafood culture, but I found myself the best fried chicken I have ever had in Naruto restaurant before hopping on the train to Yoichi to experience the free whisky tour and tasting at the Nikka distillery. There are even vineyards here for those keen on Japanese wine tasting.
Niseko: Truthfully, this town may as well be classified as Australian land within Japan. It was astounding how almost everybody here was Australian, and they brought their culture of over pricing everything too…*side eye*. The beauty of Niseko are the slopes for skiing and snowboarding. I barely saw any Japanese person here, but my focus was to conquer a biggie on my bucket list; snowboarding. It took 2 days of lessons from 10 am – 4 pm to master the skill of snowboarding with the most patient teacher ever. I am still a beginner, but now I can go down a slope in less than 15 minutes, instead of the initial 3 hours it took on the first try. Growth abi? Snowboarding is definitely something I will keep doing for as long as my pocket and body allows me.
Above are the top stand outs of my travel through Japan. Besides the ones listed above, I also got to experience a full day of sumo wrestling in Osaka, visited the atomic bomb site in Hiroshima, and jumped on a ferry to see the deers and the floating Torii on Miyajima Island. Indulged my nerdiness at an anime cosplay in Tokyo, ate way too many bowls of hakata ramen in Fukuoka, almost passed out from eating way too many plates of uni and unagi in Kanazawa, ate the best burger I have ever tasted in Takayama. Trecked through the snowy mountain of Hotaka, then gifted myself with a relaxing onsen experience at the base of the mountain plus a tender serving of hida beef. Experienced probably the best onsen around Nyuto onsen region, then drove off with my airbnb host to try out some farm fresh ice cream in Morioka. Yup, I kinda ate my way through Japan.
Japan is a beautiful country, the people are overwhelmingly nice, the food culture was different and good in each region, and some day, I will speak the language fluently.
Watch a short clip here: