Hiroshima

We had a 5:45 AM wake up time this morning to go watch the monks during their morning prayer at Koyasan Onsen Fuchin. We were taken into the main hall and sat Indian style in lines behind this very ornate, golden wall. We faced the central area where the monks worked. There were 4 of them that vocalized a mix of chant-singing for about 50 minutes. It was so cold in the temple that we could see our breath as we sat and watched, but it was immensely tranquil. I tried to meditate a little as I listened to their soothing voices. Again, our stay in Mt. Koya was very unique and special experience that won’t be found anywhere else.

After the prayer, we went back to our meal room for our vegetarian, monk-style breakfast. It was… different. Again, we were not a big fan of the gelatin like consistency of some of the food, but the flavors were well put together and it felt good to eat veggies after so many carbs.

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Once we finished up breakfast, grabbed our bags, and headed down the street to hop on the bus, then the rail car, then to the train, pit stopped for lunch in one of the interim stations. We tried to book seat reservations on the next JR train but it was sold out so, instead of trying to rush to the unreserved section and pray for a seat on the 1.5 hour trip, we opted for the later train and took a longer lunch in between to relax. It gave us all a sense of relief since we had plenty of time to enjoy and then get to the front of the unreserved line.

Overall, Ryan, my sister, and I have had plenty of luck getting 3 seats together in the unreserved areas, but my parents bought the upgraded passes and their cars have been harder to get seats together in advance. If you get to the train station 15 to 20 minutes prior to the train, you should not have a problem getting an unreserved seat on the JR lines. Just book in advance if you have the priority train car tickets.

Finally, we arrived at Hiroshima station. Hiroshima was bustling but not nearly as crowded as the other cities we visited. Our JR passes covered the quick bus ride to our hotel stop and we were checked into the Hiroshima Washington Hotel quickly and easily. The hotel was quite nice and my sister Julia had her own room this time since I couldn’t find a 3 person room. Ryan and I got some much needed alone time. It is amazing how valuable alone time gets for decompression when you are traveling in a group for a long period of time!

We decided to spend the day at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. We walked through a very cool shopping area and into the Memorial park. Being in Hiroshima brought on some weird feelings, especially as the sky was full of sunlight but it was raining lightly.

We found our way to the entrance of the Museum and headed in. Watching videos of the Hiroshima nuclear bombing survivors talk about that day and the impacts of the radiation on their bodies or those of their friends was so incredibly sad. For context, after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, the US dropped a nuclear bomb on Hiroshima on Aug. 5th 1945 and then another one on Nagasaki three days later in the hopes of ending the war. Japan did surrender, but the impact of those bombs lasted long after the war was over. The bombs wiped out both cities with only a few buildings remaining. One of those buildings is called the Atomic Bomb Dome, and you can see it within the park.

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Outside of the building destruction, the bombs killed hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children. Entire family lineages were gone in an instant. Those who survives were badly hurt and the radiation from the bombs had a whole host of terrible side effects including cancer later on in life. Overall, it was a very humbling museum and greatly reinforced that nuclear war cannot occur moving forward.

Our moods were solemn as we exited the museum and walked through the rest of the park to the Children’s Memorial. While the bombings were done in the name of war to end even more potential loss of life, it was hard to rationalize why two bombs were needed and how they was justified.

It was getting late, so we opted to find some food through the long streets of the shopping area. My sister, Ryan, and I split off from my parents and got Okonomiyaki seafood pancakes. After enjoying them so much in Tokyo with our guide Misa, we wanted to have them one more time before the end of the trip. They were OK at the place we chose but helped us end our craving for them in future.

After dinner, we walked through some shops and then got some crapes for desert. Mine was strawberry ice cream with bananas and strawberries. Sooo good!

Ice cream crepe in Hiroshima, Japan

We met some Marines from the US while we were eating the crapes and they told us they had been turned away from some restaurants that were pretty empty. After seeing what we did at the museums, it makes sense that there would still be some animosity towards Americans in Hiroshima. You really can’t blame them for it.

It was pretty cold out so we found a café over looking the street and had some tea to wind down the night. I got traditional tea, but Julia and Ryan opted for this orange marmalade tea which was scrumptious!

After our tea, it was back to the hotel for some much needed sleep.


Mt. Koya

Today marked our travel day from Osaka to Mt. Koya to stay in a Buddhist temple. We decided to visit Mt. Koya at the recommendation of one of my dearest, Japanese culture-loving friends, Lauren. Boy was she spot on with this recommendation!

We met my parents in the hotel lobby for breakfast and walked about a mile to find a place suitable for my mom for breakfast. After poo-pooing on 3 options, she finally settled on Tullys – again. I mean, don’t get me wrong, Tully’s is good, but we need to add some diversity to our breakfast routine. We told my mom it was the last “Tully’s breakfast” of the trip and she said “we will see”. Of course, that means “no”. Haha! If mom’s not happy, no one is happy, right?

We grabbed some snacks for the 2 hour train ride to Mt. Koya and hit the train station. We ended up missing the express train but the extra 30-minutes on the regular train was not bad. We had great views, some snacks, and all got time to decompress.

Once we arrived at the station, we hopped onto the cable car which took us up this insanely steep slope to the top of the mountain. It was packed with people and I cannot even begin to fathom how they installed the cable car on just a steep incline.

It took about 10 minutes to get to the top and then we hopped on a short bus ride which dropped us off right in front of the Koyasan Onsen Fuchin. The lodging was part temple, part onsen (Japanese baths), with Japanese style rooms. We were not able to check in yet so layered up in jackets and scarves before heading out to explore. It was pretty darn cold in comparison to the 60 degree weather in Osaka!

We decided to find a spot for lunch and ended up at this little place at a traditional style table where you sit on a high platform, on a pillow, around a short table. Ryan almost wouldn’t fit!

My sister and I split some sushi and I had a delicious tempura udon. The food was so filling and warm on such a cold day!

After paying, we took off to find the temples and renowned cemetery. There is a grouping of temples on one side of town which were all different styles and pretty amazing to look at and explore.

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Photos are not allowed inside the temples but there are a ton of gold ornaments and sculptures very similar to those in Thailand. They were quite stunning.

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We then took off to the other side of the town for the Okunoin Cemetery. You can do cemetery tours at night but we opted to walk it during the day so we could see it more clearly, not freeze completely, and be back to the onsen in time for our 5:30 dinner.

The cemetery was awe inspiring. The faded light coming through the trees, slight fog in the air, moss that covered the monoliths and huge trees that went up 100’s of feet in the air gave the whole place such and ancient, eerie and sacred feeling.

I could have stayed in there taking it all in for hours but my mom was on a mission. She was speed walking ahead of us so fast that we lost her for a good 20 minutes! When we finally caught up, we had arrived at the Okunoin temple. It has over ten thousand lanterns inside and is absolutely magical. We were able to go inside and take it all in and then we went to a side building that had even more yellow lit, golden lanterns. It was well worth taking our shoes on and off to go inside.

The whole walk was well worth the hour or so trek. We spotted a sweets shop on the way back and grabbed a few to sample. A lot of the sweets in Japan have red bean inside and have a gluggy consistency with pastry on the outside. Super good and filling though.

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We got back to the Fuchin and checked in. We had to leave our shoes at the door and wear special red shoes within the buildings. We were brought up to our small room that kind of smelt like straw. There was a small table in the middle and we settled in with some tea. We also had to wear robes around the building and to our meals!

Once 5:30 hit, we went to room 23 for our multi-course Royal dinner. The dinner we had was monks’ cuisine (shojin ryori) and completely vegetarian!

There were so many things to try and they kept bringing in more dishes. Quite a bit of the food had a gelatin consistency which we weren’t too keen on but, overall, the food was delicious. Ryan tried this one piece of spongy white tofu (or something related to it) and , when he bit into it, all of this liquid came out. He flipped and couldn’t stop laughing at how strangely foreign it was! The rest of us tried it but didn’t get very far into it… It barely touched my lips before going straight back into the bowl. Amazing how new food textures can create such a different dining experience.

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After dinner, my sister and I decided to try out the onsen. Japanese baths are separated by men and women because you get completely naked and are not allowed to wear swim suits. We walked down in our robes and took our shoes off to be pleasantly surprised that the floors were heated! Thank goodness because it was only 30 degrees or so in the temple’s halls!

Once disrobed, we had to wash ourselves off in a shower station in the central bath room. There was a big shallow bath pool inside, which was too hot for us, and then a outdoor rock pool. We were the only ones there and chatted for a good 30 minutes before anyone else joined. It seemed like everyone finished their dinner around 7 and had the same idea as us because a huge group came and it was far too crowded to stay in the onsen so we headed back to the room. Totally refreshed, we hopped in our Japanese style beds and passed out.

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Sumo wrestling in Osaka, Japan

Osaka, Day 2

Since we did not go to the fish market in Tokyo, we decided to check out the one in Osaka. The Osaka Municipal Central Market is supposed to rival the one in Tokyo but is less touristy. The tuna auctions start at 4:15 AM and then the market is typically open until 2 in the afternoon. There are some famous sushi restaurants there that get the freshest fish, so we decided to hit one up for breakfast. We took a quick coffee and pancake break along the way for Ryan (sushi is not enough calories for a growing man), took a train and walked for around 30-minutes before arriving.

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Along our walk, we noticed a lot of shops and restaurants were closed and, unfortunately when we got the the market, it was closed as well. Apparently it was Vernal Equinox Day, a national holiday where most businesses, including markets, are closed. What a bummer! I was pretty upset since we had already had a few snafoos along our trip so far, but Ryan perked me up. On the way, out he noticed some stacks of fish and was like “Look! We saw fish at the fish market!”. It made me laugh. I am so lucky to have him. It really knows how to pick up my spirits.

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We walked back to the train station and found a grocery store to grab a bite to eat since the market sushi didn’t work out. We all got sushi and shared some goyza. It was pretty fresh and good but I don’t think sushi for breakfast is “my thing”. After checking multiple times that it was open, we headed towards the Osaka Aquarium. Apparently, half of Osaka also had the same idea and it was super packed! The line for tickets went quickly though and we were walking into the Power Ranger looking building in no time.

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The aquarium starts at the very top of the building and descends in a downward spiral along the main tank. You seeing 3-4 layers (top, middle, and bottom) of each tank to get the full experience and see as much of each animal as possible. It was pretty crowded in the entrance but we found that, if we walked to the end of each tank, there were fewer people than at the start and we could see better. There was a large exhibit with dolphins that I totally loved. They were racing around and jumping out of the water. So cute!

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We found ourselves at the top of the main tank and it was pretty cool with huge stingrays, hammerhead sharks, and a school of fish circulating in the middle. I was about to walk away when something caught my eye. A huge whale shark swam right in front of me! It was glorious! I had never seen one up close and it was awe inspiring. There were two of them in the main tank and we speculated that they were younger sharks as they were not as large as ones in the ocean.

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We continued down the spiral and were very impressed but the aquarium overall. There was even an area where you could pet stingrays and small sharks. Their skin felt like sandpaper.

After about 2 hours, we completed the journey and were ready for the next item on the agenda – SUMO! But first, lunch. Ryan and I broke off to find some Japanese curry and landed on a place a block from our hotel right on the water. We waited about 20 minutes for a table that overlooked the water and enjoyed some Japanese curry udon with pork and soba dipping noodles with tempura. The tempura was so delicious!

We met back up with my family and walked through the crowded streets, a mall, and down some alleyways to get to the Sumo arena. We knew were getting close when we saw a few sumo wrestlers walking sweatily away in their robes from the arena. It was packed with people out front as they lined up to watch the best wrestlers enter right before the 3:45 PM match.

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We found our seats on the second floor. There are a few ways to watch the tournament. While we were in actual seats, the rows in front of us were actually 4 person boxes with floor pillows. We would have had to buy 2 boxes for all of us to fit and they were pretty pricey so I got the actual seats instead. We still had a great view.

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I have to say, buying the tickets was a process! I had the seats were available on Feb 3rd at 10 AM and I set calendar reminders / alarms for that day and time in October when I began planning. I checked the day before and then the day they were released right as they went on sale and they sold out before I could get them on the official site. I then had to go to the licensed reseller and had to pay about $150 a person for the tickets. The tickets were then sent to our hotel in Osaka as the tickets were not released in time for them to ship to Texas. Thankfully, we got them and I am so glad we did. The tournament was awesome to watch.

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The sumo wrestlers were massive, averaging 366 lbs per, and the further in the day we got, the bigger and better the wrestlers were. It was pretty hot in the stadium, so we got some ice cream to cool us down as we watched. By the last 4 bouts, the crowd was cheering and the atmosphere rivaled any sports game in the US. It was definitely a fun experience and one I would do again and recommend!

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Leaving the stadium was so crowded. We walked back through the districts and tried to find a Tempura place for my mom. She is super picky about restaurants so it took some time to find one she wanted. Along the way, we decided to try Takoyaki, a fired octopus ball that is specific to Osaka. It was lava hot and was not the best thing we have had but still good to try the local favorites.

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We got closer to the hotel and I recommended our lunch spot to my parents since the tempura I had was delish. We dropped my parents and sister off there, set our game plan for the morning, and Ryan and I set off to explore. We went down the crowded roads and tried out Melon Pan bread with vanilla ice cream. It was delicious and we sat on the bridge looking a all of the city lights while enjoying it. Finally, some time to relax.

We continued walking and exploring and stumbled upon a shopping area with a Forever 21, Starbucks, and 2 massive H&M buildings. Looking down the street, all you could see was people in every direction. It was SO packed! We opted to walk down a side alley instead for some breathing room and found a tiny 9 person chicken skewer place to grab a bite and have some sake. The chicken was cooked right in front of us and we left a little memento of our time there on their picture wall. After that, we went back to the hotel for much needed sleep.


La Jolla Cove, San Diego

San Diego

Between visiting my sister when she lived in La Jolla, dog sitting with my friend at her dad’s house in Rancho Santa Fe, and exploring the San Diego Zoo for a bachelorette party, I’ve done a few long weekends in San Diego! With that said, I’ve got a few favorite places to check out if your journey takes you there!

Beaches: 

  • Ocean Beach – Only a few minutes away from the airport, Ocean Beach is a really cute area with great shops and restaurants leading up to the beach. Don’t miss Hodad’s burgers for a huge burger and yummy shakes!
  • La Jolla – This beach is huge and has a beautiful park along side it as well. If you are into kayaking, snorkeling, or scuba diving, there are some amazing caves and reefs to explore right off the beach. You can rent the gear or go out in a kayak tour to check out the caves for a really cool experience!

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  • Black’s Beach – When I went to La Jolla with my parents and little sister, we decided to hike down from Torrey Pines to the beach and then walk all the way back down the beach to our hotel. Little did we know that Black’s Beach, a large nudist beach, was in between! Not only did we walk through the nudest beach with my semi-conservative parents making the funniest / embarrassing comments along the way, we did so during the 3rd largest gay pride weekend in America – the beach was PACKED! I tell you, it was the funniest hike I have ever been on! Just be aware that it is there and that there is no way out once you start walking since there are 100 foot cliffs on the land-side of the beach. Needless to say, I do not have any pictures of this particular beach!

Hikes:

  • Torrey Pines – Torrey Pines is a beautiful national park right on the coast line. The parking lost starts at sea level and then you have to walk up the side of the road to the top of the cliffs. The views from the trail are stunning! There are quite a few trail options of different lengths and intensities. Bring a hat, water bottle, and some sun screen and you will have a perfect day with Torrey Pines on the itinerary!
  • Annie’s Canyon Trail – Annie’s is a short hike across the highway from Torrey Pines. It has a really cool slot canyon that you can walk through and then climb up. If you are claustrophobic, you may want to skip this but if you can handle a narrow pass, this is a really cool hike to check out.

Things To Do:

  • San Diego Zoo – The San Diego Zoo is huge! It feels like you are walking through a jungle to get from exhibit to exhibit. There is even a huge bridge hundreds of feet above the road that feels like a canopy walk. The animals have huge areas to roam and all seemed very happy (especially the polar bear that was playing with a ball for a good hour). Outside of the Sydney Zoo , the San Diego Zoo was the best I’ve ever been to.
  • La Jolla Cove (Seals!) – Only a few miles up the road from La Jolla beach is the cove. There is a wonderful park and small beach. On the beach and rocks around the cove are hundreds of seals! Big ones, baby ones, brown ones, and black ones, you can get up close and personal. So personal that one started barking at my friend that got a little too close! On top of hanging with the seals, there are some great boutiques and sea-side restaurants right by the park if you have the time to walk around.

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  • Seaport Village & The Gaslamp  – Seaport Village is a really cute little shopping area right by the wharfs with great shops and restaurants with water front views. You can walk from their down the coastline and there are cute little parks and bars along the path to sit at, enjoy the view, and soak up the sun! Once the sun sets, head over to the Gaslamp district for great restaurants and bars for some night life.

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Osaka, Japan

Osaka, Day 1

Today was our trek from Tokyo to Osaka. We checked out of our hotel in Tokyo hotel and walked to the train station to hop a few lines over to Tokyo Station and grab a bite to eat at a market. I had this delicious sandwich with cheese and a coffee. Once we filled up, we headed to the train. We had spent a little too much time at the station and were in quite a rush to get to the correct platform. Thankfully, we reserved seats on the JR Line to Osaka in advance to ensure we were able to sit together, so that reduced some of the stress, but navigating the thousands of people in the station  with our luggage during rush hour to catch a train was crazy!

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Finally, we made it to the platform with a few minutes to spare. Ryan decided to grab “train beers” for the 9:03 AM train ride to to relax and my sister and I had one as well. It definitely did the relax-trick! We were able to see Mt. Fuji from the other side of the train’s windows for about 15 minutes as we sped by at 200+ MPH! I spent the rest of the 2 hour ride journaling. I have to say, the train rides in Japan seem to go by quickly!

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Once we hit Osaka, we hopped off the train and navigated the streets to the Candeo Hotel. It was centrally located in the Namba District which was filled with restaurants and bars. We could not check upon arrival, so we dropped of our luggage and took of to head towards to Castle Park. There were some restaurants at the park entrance and we stopped for lunch at R Baker Osaka-jo. It had a bunch of baked goods and Ryan and I shared 4 pastries: a potato pizza, Japanese curry fried pocket, sweet rolls, and a hot dog looking thing. They were delicious and it was so nice to sit in some green space while enjoying lunch after being in the busy cities for so long.

After lunch, we continued our walk through the park. It was a beautiful day and the first one warm enough to leave our jackets at home. Once we got through the giant stone walls to the center of the park, the main castle was visible and totally stunning. It was totally massive and we sat for a while taking in the view on some jade looking rocks. There was a Spanish performer playing loud music starting his act right in front of the palace and we were so curious how his life could have led him to performing street art in Osaka.

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We continued our walk through the gardens, passing some shrines and statues of Shogun and then it was back to the hotel to check in. The room was small and view was lousy, but the hotel was so central to the main areas it worked perfectly. The Dotonbori district with tons of shopping and restaurants was only a few blocks from us and we took of to explore and find something to eat.

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Being so close to Kobe, Yakiniku is very popular in Osaka so we found a restaurant with good reviews to try it out. We sat at a table with a grill pot in the middle of us and, for $29 per person, we had 1 hour and 30 minutes to cook and eat as much as we wanted.

The meat quality was excellent and we used a table next to the table to order plate upon plate of different meats, seafood, and veggies. It was delicious, though picking who was going to cook what was a little stressful as people like different cooks of meat. We opted to each cook our own food to our desired doneness which helped with the stress. The clock countdown also made out meal tricky. If you had too much food left over, you would get charged extra for wasting. Ryan was super hungry and took down at least a pound of steak and pork belly within the last 7 minutes to finish everything off.

My parents never really understood why Ryan thought sushi was not enough food until tonight when they saw how much he can eat! What can I say, he is a growing boy (man haha).

After dinner, we walked through the crowded streets of Namba, checking out all of the food vendors and shops along the way. The number of lights and signs were overwhelming but so cool; nothing like we have seen before. There were all of these fake food displays outside of the restaurants too that looks so realistic! It was pretty incredible but we were so stuffed we couldn’t even think about more food!  After about an hour walking off all of the meat we had eaten, we headed back to the hotel for much needed sleep.

Overall, Japan has been a bit stressful so far. I think it is a combination of the sheer number of people in the city, unlimited number of options for things to do, and how many opinions there are with the 5 of us. It makes it tough to make everyone happy for everything unfortunately. I think getting out of the hustle and bustle of the cities for a few days will do us some good. I am just very glad we have the technology we do because trying to navigate Japan without GPS and our phones would be next to impossible.

Continue on this adventure….