Grace: Japan (Part II).

Grace: Japan (Part II).

Tokyo gets a lot of hype – and it deserves it! It’s a behemoth megatropolis that swallows you alive, challenges your preconceptions, and spits you out feeling somehow different, in a surreal, ghostlike way that you can never quite put your finger on. It is the marriage of chaos and order, of excess and of discipline – and it bestows upon its more intrepid explorers more rewards and experiences than one could ever hope to bear. Put simply, Tokyo delivers. It is, truly, one of the great cities on Earth. But no matter how much you might want to believe it, Tokyo is not the real Japan. 

Tokyo is the culmination of Japan’s accomplishment’s. It’s the irrefutable center of the country’s industry, its efforts, its evolution and its potential for global significance. It’s the country’s calling card – an exclamation of ruthless disregard for compromise. Defiant in its scale, its breakneck growth, and its celebration of excess, Tokyo is without a doubt Japan’s living, beating heart – drumming on into oblivion and buzzing like a time-traveling hornet’s nest, freshly home from a quick romp in the 22nd century.  But Tokyo is not the whole story. Yes, Tokyo is the country’s heart. But it too has a soul.

Kyoto: Zen and the Art of Temple Maintenance

Two hours and fifteen minutes and three easy steps are all it takes to travel to an alternate dimension.

  1. Step out from the dizzying chaos of Tokyo station – the noise, the light, the madness – onto the Nozomi shinkansen bullet train. 
  2. Relax and watch 280 miles of countryside pass by your window over the next 135 minutes
  3. Step off the train and into one of the most sensationally beautiful and blissfully serene sacred cities that ever was and ever will be.

Kyoto has a storied history that spans more than 1,200 years. It tells the story of the illustrious geisha, of ancient teahouses, of centuries of tradition. It’s the epicenter of zen buddhism – a pervading calm and a gentle whisper in response to Tokyo’s unsubtle shout. Today, this one city alone is home to a dizzying 2,000+ temples, shrines, and gardens: the living embodiment of a haiku: graceful, poignant, calm. But make no mistake: over the centuries, Kyoto has borne witness to bloodshed. It is a very special place.

There is a modern, industrial city here – the train station is positively Tokyo-esque, and on its doorstep lies a skyline not unlike any other in the 21st century.

Pay these no mind – for just beyond this initial modern facade lies the old city: an entirely different universe unto itself.

This is the real Kyoto. The very city that was, for more than a millennium, Japan’s capital before Tokyo grew from its humble roots as the tiny fishing village of Edo. Today, just as it was hundreds of years ago, Kyoto is where you’ll spot robed monks contemplatively strolling amongst the myriad temples, where the hypnotic chants of zen meditation reverberate through the streets. The city smells of incense, matcha green tea, and the sweet perfume of its endless gardens – unless of course you’re in the midst of a restaurant-heavy part of the neighborhood, in which case the usual olfactory suspects of ramen, tempura, and fragrant rice apply.

Above all else, Kyoto is the embodiment of a devastating, moving beauty. It would be exhaustive to try and explain each temple and garden in detail – there are thousands of them, each with hundreds or a thousand-plus years of history unto itself – but I think photos tell a pretty detailed story. Many of these are places of worship, and some are merely testaments to beauty and calm or monuments to zen. Kyoto is calm like you’ve never experienced it before. (Well – it’s actually a madhouse of tourist activity, so in some ways it’s a bit hectic – but that’s why I was wiling to wake at or before 5 AM every day to soak in the real tranquil spirit of the place and snap some uncontested photos).

If you know where to look, though, you can get a glimpse into the bloody past that I mentioned at the beginning of the post, even amidst these serene temples. Out of reverence for the past, a few temples in town have repurposed for their ceilings the bloody floorboards that once bore witness to massacres in the time of the samurai, including the notorious mass ritual suicide of the 47 Ronin.

Stressful, huh? (Aside from that last bit, I mean – that’s actually a bit stressful, I’ll give you that). It gets better, though. Arguably my favorite individual place on the entire planet is the Fushimi Inari shrine, an unfathomably sacred place for the Shinto faith. Dating back to the 8th century and originally erected in reverence of the God of rice and sake (where do I sign up?), this tranquil paradise is the site of more than 10,000 orange torii gates, together beckoning you up the face of Mt. Inariyama, all the way to its summit. The mountain is incredibly verdant, lush and teeming with life, and hidden throughout its woods are countless thousands of statues of foxes: a sacred animal and messenger of the Gods. There is no feeling in the world like climbing the hills, silently absorbing the sights and smells of the forest, and passing for an hour+ under these gorgeous gates, all the while under the seemingly infinite watchful eyes of these beautiful stone creatures. It’s a truly haunting feeling that I will never, ever forget.

Near the mountain’s base is one of my favorite coffee shops on Earth, owned by a Japanese-Australian man who grew up in Melbourne and returned to his native Japan with his very Australian reverence for insanely good coffee in tow. Kyoto is where the world’s best green tea is sourced and grown – meaning this modernized matcha latte was the perfect way to celebrate the conclusion of my pilgrammage (it was still before 8 AM, after all).

Pictured with this beautiful beverage is my goshuinchou: a bound book that you purchase blank and take along to any temples or shrines that you visit all throughout Japan. For a small donation, officials at every temple throughout the country will painstakingly commemorate your visit with their gorgeous, meticulous calligraphy and ubiquitous red stamp seals. Each page tells a story: the name of the temple you visited, the date, and a prayer or blessing. Over my month in Japan, I filled every last page of mine, creating a keepsake of unparalleled beauty. This tradition is so evocative of Japanese culture as a whole: beautiful, simple, meticulous, graceful, detailed, reverent. The book is one of my most prized possessions.

While we’re on the topic of green tea, I should mention another experience I enjoyed in Kyoto: I was able to participate in a traditional tea ceremony. These ceremonies are rife with symbolism and slow, intentional movement. It’s an ancient practice that’s been lovingly preserved and practiced to this very day, and one I guarantee is far more complex and nuanced than you’d ever imagine. Generally, these sorts of ceremonies require over 4 hours to serve all of those present and seated, but I was able to attend a fantastic abridged version designed to share the traditional practice with visiting tourists with more to do all day than watch someone brew tea. Many backpackers are often blindly averse to anything they deem ‘touristic’, but sometimes these things are popular for good reason. I’m glad I got to see this firsthand!

This city remains the sole place on Earth where visitors may have the incredible luck of spotting a real Geisha: a mysterious and beautiful dying breed of delicate Japanese women whose purpose was to entertain the aristocracy and whose training is incredibly inclusive, rigid, and onerous. Through art, dance, and singing, a scant few remain today and continue the tradition. To have seen two of them alive and in the flesh was a very special, once-in-a-lifetime privilege. Technically, though, these girls are only maiko – young geisha in training. The process is long and arduous, but to endure is a very honorable pursuit. No one denies the unique beauty of these women who have played a special role in Japanese history.

These next two photos aren’t mine – they’re the stunning work of photographer Robert Van Koesveld – but I thought you should see them to appreciate the mysterious allure of these stunning figures.

More scenes throughout Kyoto:

The Arashiyama bamboo forest is another famous refuge of calm in Kyoto – and yet another example of photos I could only take at the crack of dawn, lest they be full of neverending mobs of people. It was worth the mega-early rise, though the area was a lot smaller than I’d expected. Uniquely beautiful, all the same.

The modern city has its charms, as well – including an incredible thoroughfare of street food, bars that offer sake tastings, and warnings about roving monkeys.

As always, ramen is my Achilles’ heel

Sidenote: Kyoto is no different from the rest of Japan in one regard: it’s a unique paradise for car enthusiasts.

Despite all the earlier food porn, my favorite meal in Kyoto is an easy choice. Remember the Nagomi Visit program I mentioned in my post about Tokyo? The one that allows visitors to meet welcoming locals and dine in their homes? I used this once more in Kyoto, and boy am I glad I did. This is how I met Chise, an absolute gem of a human being. Chise is an unbelievable cook – her parents owned an udon restaurant – and she’s one of the kindest humans I encountered in all my travels. I’ve never felt so welcome in someone’s home.

Joining Chise and I for dinner were her friend Masashi and his adorable daughter Mitsuki. Their story is a sad one: Masahi’s wife recently died very suddenly, leaving him to raise his young daughter on his own. Chise was actually a friend of his late wife’s, but she reached out to Masahi in the wake of her passing to strike up a friendship and help out however she could. Masahi and Mitsuki like to come along when Chise hosts foreign guests via Nagomi Visit (she told me she’d done this more than 20 times!), for the sake of camaraderie and exposing young Mitsuki to people from a variety of different cultures and backgrounds.

Mitsuki’s grandmother lovingly handmade these for her: likenesses of her imaginary friend (as described in great detail by Mitsuki so as to get the details just right) and her late mother. If that doesn’t move you, I’m not entirely sure you have a heart.

Despite their tragic backstory, our time together was nothing short of joyful. We (barely) helped Chise to create this gorgeous and sensationally delicous meal, for one.

Mitsuki folding gyoza -a traditional Japanese dumpling

How’s that for a spread? While Chise’s English is superb, Masahi’s is minimal and Mitsuki speaks virtually none – but this did not stop us from having a fantastic time together throughout hours of laughing, cooking, and playing card games. Here I have some serious shade thrown my way:

Experiences like this one are truly the most valuable part of travel, in my humble opinion. Connecting with people from somewhere radically different than you and realizing that you really aren’t so different is a beautiful and profound experience that you really can’t recreate elsewhere. Connecting with other humans is what life is all about, and folks like Chise really proved that for me. She and I keep up to this very day, and I’m so grateful for her friendship. The meal we shared together is one that I will never forget.

I hope it’s evident by now that visiting Kyoto made a profound impact for me. This is truly a city like no other, and its impact on me is difficult to measure (Eat your heart out, Tokyo). It taught me to slow down, to rise early, to enjoy the silent streets as the sun rose its weary head, and meditate on my travels in the powerful presence of such incredible beauty and history – truly a spiritually rejuvenating stay. It pained me to leave, and yet… I was so excited still for what was to come. 

Deer & Whiskey Interlude (Wait, what?)

Nearby Kyoto is Nara, a popular daytrip destination for what you’ll come to see are pretty obvious reasons. This was actually Japan’s capital before Kyoto took the crown in the 8th century, so there’s lots of interesting history and architecture here

…but that’s not why most people come here. I’d wager to say it’s the deer. “Wait – the DEER?!” Yes, Nara happens to be the home of THOUSANDS of wild deer who have come to peacefully coexist with humans over the years. Now they’re revered as sacred – or at least officially protected, in modern times – and they roam freely through the streets, living predominately on a diet of crackers hand-fed by tourists and locals alike.

These guys are super friendly and have zero fear of humans. It’s truly one of the most surreal things I’ve ever seen – and undoubtedly one of the cutest. All nearby children fell into one of two camps: curiously delighted or absolutely terrified.

In what may have honestly been the single greatest moment of sheer joy that I had throughout the course of all of my travels, I realized delightedly that the deer have learned throughout the years to bow to humans in exchange for food. Bowing is an incredibly important sign of respect and thanks in Japanese culture, and watching this older man bow increasingly deeper to his new animal friend with true reverence in his eyes was enough to nearly make my heart pop.

I don’t think photos come anywhere close to doing this strange place justice, so check this out:

Once again, Japan surprises and confounds. If there’s another place like this in the world, I’m not aware of it. But my next little pit stop brought me perhaps even more joy. Another popular excursion from Kyoto – and one that lies DIRECTLY en route to my next destination of Osaka – is the Yamazaki Distillery, purveyors of some of the best and most sought-after whiskey on the planet. I was in heaven.

For a few bucks a pop, I had the sublime privilege of sampling some incredibly rare whiskies, some of which are aged 20 to 30 years. Some bottles they had on-site are virtually impossible to find in the West, and will set you back THOUSANDS of dollars in the unlikely case that you somehow do – and I got to sample them to my heart’s content without making a dent in my wallet. Needless to say, I got a nice buzz going on the way to Osaka – and it would turn out that this was actually pretty apropos. Boy, I had no idea what I was in for.

Osaka: Ruinous Celebration of Grotesque Excess

Kyoto might be a special place, but it’s not the country’s second largest city – that honor belongs to scrappy, youthful Osaka. Situated around the Dotonbori river, Osaka is a glittering jewel of debauchery – far more soaked in neon and alcohol than the average neighborhood in Tokyo, by a long shot. You’ve got to admit, she’s absolutely striking in a seriously dreamlike way.

Osaka’s reputation derives predominately from its unabashed love for food and drink. Locals in this city have a few famous phrases: ‘Kuidaore (食い倒れ)’, for which the rough literal English translation is ‘to eat oneself into ruin’ – and the expression ‘京の着倒れ、大阪の食い倒れ’, meaning ‘Dress (in kimonos) ’til you drop in Kyoto, eat ’til you drop in Osaka’. All of that is to say that if you’ve been following any part of my journey at all, you know I was pumped to be in town. I’m not one to ignore local customs, so eating ’til I dropped was what’s for dinner… and breakfast and lunch and regular snacks.

I’d start with a longtime bucket list item for me: eating fugu, poisonous pufferfish whose venom can be lethal if not prepared meticulously and knowledgeably by an experienced chef. Sadly, this was the sole letdown meal of my trip – I had it prepared several different ways, but it turns out this simply isn’t a particularly flavorful fish. I’m glad to have tried it, but can confirm firsthand it’s a bit… banal.

Remarkably fresh and flavorful sushi is readily available, though – let’s not get it twisted here.

Hard pass on this one, not nearly drunk enough (yet).

Takoyaki: a famous and beloved local snack that basically breaks down to a fried ball of wheat flour batter, octopus, green onion, bonito flakes, a sweet, rich brown sauce, and sweet Japanese mayonnaise. It’s not for everyone, at least when it comes to Western palates, but I rather liked it.

Michelin-starred duck shoyu ramen. OMG.

Matsusaka beef, widely considered the highest quality and most sought after in the world. Kobe has name recognition for Westerners, but Japan doesn’t even export any of its Matsusaka. These black Japanese cattle live far longer than any other beef cattle, and are fed a luxuriously rich, high-fat diet. It’s common for them to be fed beer and massaged. Seriously. This was the best steak I’d ever had… although (spoiler alert) I’d yet to make it to Argentina by this point 😉

Don’t worry, I had some kobe skewers too. No biggie.

Then there’s my absolute favorite, okonomiyaki: a savory Japanese pancake made with shredded cabbage, flour, egg, pork belly, scallions, and the same delicious sauce and sweet mayo combo that accompanies takoyaki. It sounds weird, but it’s an incredibly delicious and filling treat that’s perfect for soaking up drinking.

Believe it or not, those truly in the know these days have begun circulating sacrilegious murmurs about where to find the world’s best pizza these days. With a wry smile, you might catch one such person conceding that Italy’s been beat at its own game, and the new sheriff in town is a little country called Japan. With modern access to ingredients, materials, and Italian woodburning ovens, plus an artisan class of newschool pizzaiolos (did you know that’s what a pizza maker is called?) who are ruthlessly dedicated to perfection, you’ve got yourself a recipe for a real David and Goliath underdog story.

This pie I enjoyed in Osaka was sublime, but I’d have an even better one soon back in Tokyo – sit tight.

This one’s a head-scratcher

Lest you mistake Osaka for a city merely full of wildly hungry gluttons, let’s clear this up: it’s a city full of wildly hungry drunk gluttons. Nightlife here is notorious and legendary, and the bars are purveyors of many a hazy night. There’s also a massive expat community here, and they love to party. I went on a bar crawl with  some new friends that took some seriously bizarre turns.

…And then came the point in the night when the photos stopped. I happened to stumble into a particular expat bar on a tip from a drunken local who insisted with sheer joy in his eyes that I visit and say the words “Gobble gobble”. That would prove to be a fateful move. It turns out the place was run by a dude from North Carolina, whose signature move was pouring a shot of wild turkey into the mouth of anyone who entered uttered those words. That said, he was leaving Japan to return stateside for a while the very next day, and upon learning I was from the south, this ignited a sadistic smile in him the likes I’ve rarely seen. About half a bottle of Wild Turkey forcefed to me (for free) later, I was done.

I was so done, in fact, that I could barely stay on my own two feet. Drunk like I haven’t been since my freshman year of college, it was time to have a little sit on the sidewalk. Gradually that sit turned into a full on lay and ultimately a hazy nap, as one of my new friends and I fought off a debilitatingly fierce episode of intoxication literally sprawled in front of the blinding neon light of a 7-Eleven. Now, ordinarily, anywhere else in the world, I would have found a way out of that situation at any cost, immediately. But this is Japan, remember, and beyond that, this is Osaka. Not only is the entire country unbelievably and universally safe, but it seems the entire city is constantly blackout drunk – meaning the compromising position I’d found myself in was a normal, everyday occurrence here that absolutely no one batted an eyelid at. Not my proudest moment, perhaps, but it made for one hell of a story.

As much as it’s a feast for the stomach and liver, Osaka too is a feast for the eyes. It’s a city of gorgeous markets, a a select few tranquil shrines, and a blinding array of vivid colors.

An ukiyo-e print, an ancient traditional Japanese woodblock printing method displayed in Osaka’s Ukiyo-e Museum

‘Go’ is the longest continuously-played board game of all time, originating 2,500 years ago in China and enjoyed emphatically to this day, especially in Asia.

Parts of the city have this bizarre neo-retro vibe, where you can witness young Osakans playing pop cap games or patronizing restaurants that allow them to fish for their meals, the staff preparing their fresh catch to each family’s individual whims.

The city’s aquarium is considered one of the world’s best. Unfortunately, my travel buddy of the day and I visited on a day when 6 different schools were visiting. I can’t begin to describe the pandemonium or noise.

And oh yeah – I haven’t mentioned the castle. Osaka’s got one of those too. Why not?

It should come as no surprise that it boasts a pretty good vantage point.

Osaka also pledges an undying love for Jazz, and I had the incredible fortune of stumbling into the Dotonbori Jazz Festival (and simultaneous cosplay event) on my last night in town. It was a magical note to end on.

And yet still Japan had new sides it’d yet to show me. By now already I was awestruck by this incredible nation, but sweeter still it became. It was time to make a pilgrimage to someplace special and worth a difficult journey to reach. I was headed into the countryside, with this spellbinding view outside one train window along the way.

Naoshima & Teshima: Secret Micro-Isles of Art

Naoshima & Teshima: Sleepy, secluded micro-islands in Japan’s Seto Inland Sea that have been taken over by creative geniuses and transformed into world-class open-air contemporary art galleries – yes, the entire islands themselves!

The tremendous effort it requires to get here is well worth the feeling you get when you arrive. It’s as if you’ve found a secret place – devoid of crowds, dripping in boundary-pushing expression and creativity, and absolutely beautiful when explored by bicycle, the preferred way around. 

Sadly (or not), all of the mind-blowing museums and installations on the island have strict no-photo policies, so I can’t show you any of the coolest and most fascinating stuff – you’ll just have to go on your own. It’s better that way anyway, because some of the things I saw really moved me in a way art hasn’t done in quite a while – so I wouldn’t want to spoil the surprise 

Take my word for it though: there’s everything from incredible Monet collections surrounded by actual lush lily pads (to enjoy practically all to yourself) to whole neighborhoods of houses converted into interactive, explorable exhibitions… secret underground passageways, 2-story tall statue of liberty replicas bursting through the floors of local homes, and countless masterpieces by Tadao Ando, one of the world’s greatest architects.

While I can’t show you most of that, what I CAN show you are the beautiful islands themselves and some of the art scattered all around them out in the open!

This is the path you take to get to a stunning collection of Monet’s lilypad paintings. Little touches like this are not accidental.

I even ran dead-on into a tiny little community festival procession, which I had all to myself as a spectator.

I would like you to have an idea of what the architecture looks like, at least. Aforementioned Tadao Ando is an indisputable genius and master of the art, and its his designs that dominate these islands in the middle of nowhere – his gorgeous otherworldly monuments of concrete and light, inexplicably juxtaposed against a stunning natural backdrop. Her are some examples of his work, as captured by folks other than myself. Breathtaking — there is no other word.

The feeling one gets while exploring this place is impossible to describe. It truly feels like you’ve been let in on an incredible secret, in these microscopic little islands far from civilization and covered in lavishly incredible world class modern art. It’s so surreal to have these masterpieces all to yourself, yours to drink in with your senses while peddling your way through the beautiful calm landscape among its tiny villages. I have to reiterate, I didn’t even get to show you seriously 95% of it – and so a secret it shall remain. Some things you’ll just have to take my word for.

Hiroshima & Miyajima: A Friendlier Japan

The final new leg of my time in Japan was finally upon me, and I was headed south to Hiroshima, a city that I came to love far more than I’d anticipated. I was visiting, predominately, for the sobering reality check provided by The Hiroshima Peace Park and Peace Memorial Museum – monuments to the gut-wrenching devastation leveled on this friendly town by American Bombers that claimed the lives of over 100,000 men, women, and children who suffered through horrific deaths. 

These sights were moving, integral parts of my time here – but I thought it best and most respectful to refrain from taking photos, so you won’t see any here. Needless to say, learning about the atrocities of nuclear warfare was an absolute gut-punch – particularly given the connection I’d personally come to form with the beautiful people of Hiroshima. I pray the day never comes again that this kind of hell is unleashed on the world. The scale of the horror and devastation are unimaginable.

Here’s a look at the modern site in Hiroshima. I learned a bit watching this, too, as it was pouring rain when I visited, relegating most of my time here inside the museum’s interior.

While my primary impetus for this stop may have been to subject myself to this immense bummer of an experience (it’s important to learn and reflect occasionally, after all, lest I merely just “Wheeeeee!” my way around the world), Hiroshima would turn out to have so much more to offer me.

First off, it has to be stated: the entire city was absolutely BUZZING about their beloved Hiroshima Carp playing in the Japanese Baseball Playoffs (NPB Climax series). There was a unified fanaticism the likes of which I’d hardly ever seen: Hiroshima is obsessed and fanatical beyond belief, and their sensational passion completely swept me away along with them.I wanted to ‘pick’ a baseball team in Japan, and it was obvious when I made it to Hiroshima, decked in red from top to bottom, that I’d found it.

Since (as an American) I know the game well, it was an awesome way to really connect with locals and break down communication barriers. For the first game of the series that I caught, I did this in a beer bar with a bunch of local fans – but things really cranked up a notch when I decided to extend my stay in town. My hostel was full, so I needed to move to a new spot – and that turned out to be an awesome surprise. My new spot had a bar in the lobby with a giant projection screen, and a staff that were nuts about the Carp – ESPECIALLY Sven, the Dutch bartender who had spent the last few years living and working in Japan.

It turns out Sven is a bonafide local celebrity, because of his tireless devotion to the Carp and his omnipresence at games and in the community, always spotted decked out head-to-toe in their gear. Because he’s a gaijin – a foreigner – Japanese people are amused and fascinated to no end that he’s so passionate about the Japanese league and their team. He’s a tall white dude, so he’s not hard to spot, either. Sven was also just a really fantastic guy, and he and I struck up a quick and effortless friendship. I was glad to have his help clarifying the few distinct nuances of the Japanese game.

The D-class celebrity he enjoys has actually earned Sven a number of local newspaper and television appearances over the years, and because it was playoff time, the media was back to say hello… cue my 5 seconds of Japanese fame.

The Carp would go on to win this series and advance to the Japan Series – the final Championship round and the equivalent of the US World Series – where they would sadly fall to the SoftBank Hawks. But they’ve earned my fandom for life! That’s in part because the people of Hiroshima are unbelievably warm, friendly, and welcoming. The hospitality and cheerful demeanor I experienced here was so special, and really gave me a soft spot for this lovely city and its great people.

Another big draw for me in Hiroshima? It’s the home of Mazda. I’m a bigtime car freak in general, but I have a special soft spot for Mazda because they’re so damn good at making cars that are exceptionally fun. Their offerings aren’t always always the biggest, or fastest, or best – but they never fail to put a big smile on your face, which is why I’ve owned a pair of RX8s and a Miata (and 11 other cars through the years, but that’s another story for another time). The free factory tour was super cool!

My favorite way to start my mornings in Hiroshima was to head to an old-school Japanese coffee shop, called kissaten, which are a hallmark of a lost era. A+++ customer service from sharp waitstaff, 3-inch thick toast, tasty coffee, beautiful interiors, free newspaper, and a calm respite from the outside world make for an incredible way to start the day. Sadly, they’re rapidly dying now that we’re in the Starbucks era, and patronized pretty much exclusively by old-timers. A damn shame, because it was actually one of my favorite unique culinary experiences in Japan.

And since I don’t have anywhere better to put this – check out this INCREDIBLE bowl of spicy, brothless ramen. To die for.

A wildly popular and incredibly worthwhile daytrip from Hiroshima is the nearby island of Miyajima, which is beautiful and offers some great sights. The island’s famous Daishoin Temple was one of my favorite in all of Japan – not just for beautiful sights like this one, but also for its rare sense of humor.

The island is most famous, however, for its beautiful red pagodas and iconic showstopper Itsukushima Shrine – a floating torii gate with an incredible sunset view.

A beautiful note to end on in southern Japan. After saying goodbye to all of my new friends in Hiroshima, I was back on the bullet train and bound for Tokyo, determined to enjoy a few last incredible days before my flight waaaaay across the ocean to Mexico.

Hello, Old Friend.

I’ve already spilled my guts enough about Tokyo, but I think it’s worth sharing some snapshots from my final days. I wandered around in a state of melancholy, sad to be leaving this incredible country that I’d come to fall so deeply in love with, but enjoying every last second of its incredible charms.

And just like that – it was time to leave. But I will be back, many times. Japan made an imprint on me so deep and so personal that I knew at once it would play a special, recurring role in my life. There’s nowhere like it on the planet, and it’s been such a joy to write about and reimmerse myself in the feelings that arose in me during my stay.

People ask me often what my favorite country was during my travels, and up until October, the answer was pretty tightly contested. Spain was on top, but by a fraction of a hair over Italy, New Zealand, Vietnam, and Indonesia. Japan changed everything, though, and sits atop my list with a comfortable mile-long lead. If ever you’ve considered visiting, I implore you – beg you – please go. It’s the trip of a lifetime… and I’ve been around the block.

Hope you’ve enjoyed this installment – I’ll be back soon to tell you about the final legs of my journey through Mexico, Argentina, and Chile – but because I’m gearing up to move from Atlanta to Denver in the next few weeks, I may make you wait a bit for it again. Hardly the first time, eh? Stay tuned…

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