Travelling with friends and family is fun – provided you choose the right people, of course – but I’ve always had a soft spot for travelling alone. This is probably unsurprising; while I generally dislike labels, most people wouldn’t hesitate to call me an introvert, and I’ve always been good with my own company. However, my appreciation for solo travel goes beyond my need for plenty of quiet time. Travel is a completely different beast when you’re on your own. Things slow down, you have more time to notice the things around you, locals and other travellers are more likely to approach you, and you can set your own pace and prioritise the things that you want to do (i.e. you can throw off the shackles of compromise and be completely selfish!).
Of course, solo travel is perhaps not appropriate for every trip. There are some holidays I wouldn’t consider taking alone for a number of reasons; security, budget concerns, logistics, or the fact that some experiences are best shared. But when the opportunity arises, I do tend to leap upon it, and that was exactly what I did in Japan. My companions needed to be back in Australia because of work and study obligations, but this was not the case for me, so I decided to stay on for an extra 10 days. There were plenty of things I still wanted to see, and Japan is a very easy country in which to travel on your own, so when my fellow travellers booked their tickets back to Tokyo, I dug out my Kansai Wide Area Pass (highly recommended if you’re travelling down to the Kii peninsula) and hopped on a northbound train.
First off, I spent a couple of days in Osaka. While there aren’t as many big/historical attractions in Osaka as there are in Kyoto – and I had already visited several of the more popular tourist destinations on a previous trip – it’s still a big and boisterous city with plenty to do. I spent plenty of time just wandering, though my favourite sight from this trip was easily Minō Kōen.
I’d never heard of it before and it wasn’t in my guidebook; rather, I read about it while researching nice nature walks around Osaka, and thought that I would give it a go. I’m so glad I did. After having visited, I’m amazed that it’s not more popular with tourists. It’s nothing revolutionary; just a really lovely park, where you can take a walk through the forest to a sweet little waterfall, but it’s perfect for when you get tired of high rise buildings and want some quality time with the trees. It’s also very accessible, with a well paved main path, and it’s only about 20 minutes on the train from Umeda/Osaka station, though it certainly doesn’t feel like you’re that close to the middle of the city.
I also spent plenty of time wandering around Osaka Castle Park. The thing I like best about this area is that it always feels like there’s something going on whenever you visit. Sometimes bands are playing, another time there was a craft beer festival, and during my final visit I saw a crowd of people standing around with various birds of prey perched upon their arms. Still not sure of exactly what that was – some sort of hawk and owl fanciers meet-up? – but as I said, there’s apparently never a dull moment in Osaka Castle Park.
After my time in Osaka was up, I hopped on a train bound for Kobe.
Kobe was a very pleasant city that I sadly neglected; I came down with a virus shortly after arriving and spent a lot of my (brief) time there attempting to rest up and recuperate. I did however manage a wander around the port area, and a short hike partway up Mount Rokko to Nunobiki waterfall. I was greatly amused by the fact that the trail to the latter departed from the basement car-park of the shinkansen station. At least it was easy to find!
Once my time in Kobe was up, it was time for another train trip west, this time to Okayama. I’d never visited Okayama before but had always been curious, as I’d taken the shinkansen through a few times and had always wondered what I’d been missing. The city itself was smaller than my last few stops, but quite nice; I loved the little tree-lined canal that ran through it!
My first stop was Korakuen Garden and Okayama Castle. I had high expectations for the garden, as it’s said to be one of the top three in Japan, though upon visiting I have to admit that it perhaps wasn’t as much to my taste as Kenrokuen in Kanazawa. I think I just have a distinct preference for tall trees and moss over manicured lawns and neatly pruned hedges! Nevertheless, it was a very lovely garden, and it was far less crowded than Kenrokuen, so I was able to take my time and wander slowly, enjoying the peace and quiet.
Okayama Castle was also lovely, and came with the standard excursion-full of adorable Japanese children who inevitably wanted to wave at the enormous white tourist. I was, as always, more than happy to play along.
I also managed a day-trip out to Kurashiki, where I spent a lovely few hours getting lost, wandering around the canals, buying fabric, and cooing over the cat sprawled outside of the toy shop.
After departing Okayama, I spent a lovely few days in Hiroshima. I’d visited Hiroshima before, but only as a day-trip from Kyoto, so I had been really looking forward to getting to know the city a little better.
I’m sure that many people think of one thing and one thing only when they hear of Hiroshima, but there’s a lot more to the city than that one event in its history. Hiroshima is a gorgeous city, with beautiful parks and tree-lined avenues, and while obviously there are museums and monuments dedicated to the A-bomb and its aftermath, it’s unfair to write off the city as a dark tourism destination and nothing more. The parts of the city that memorialise its tragic past also serve as centres for anti-nuclear campaigns. When you leave the (admittedly harrowing) Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, you are immediately provided with the opportunity to sign petitions to abolish the use and proliferation of nuclear weapons, and locals were handing out fliers in the area around the A-bomb dome. So while there is an emphasis on the city’s past, there’s also an optimism and a focus on the future that is very endearing.
Aside from the above sights, I also visited Hiroshima Castle and Shukkeien, one of the city’s lovely gardens. If Okayama’s Korakuen had been not so much to my taste, then Shukkeien at least was a very pleasant surprise. It was small but very beautiful, and I spent an entire afternoon just wandering about, pausing often to sit and peek at the sunbathing turtles.
Near the end of my time in Hiroshima, I also took a day to visit the island of Itsukushima (also known as Miyajima), famous for its iconic enormous floating torii.
I’d visited before for a general wander around (and had my map partially eaten by one of the island’s ubiquitous deer) but this time I had a goal: to climb Mount Misen. I took the Daisho-in path, which is apparently the least steep of the three hiking trails, though I had definitely had my fill of stairs by the time I reached the top (for the less energetic/masochistic, there is also a ropeway). Thankfully, there was plenty of gorgeous scenery along the way to keep me distracted from my tired legs, and the view of the inland sea from the top of the mountain was more than worth the hike.
Despite the length of the trip, I was still sad when my time in Japan came to an end. When I was younger I tended more towards homesickness, preferring shorter trips, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve found myself reaching the tail end of holidays thinking “but I’m not quite finished yet”, and the feeling tends to arise completely independent of the state of my to-visit list. Perhaps it’s because you never know what’s going to happen on a day when you’re on holiday, or because as I get older I have more appreciation for the simplicity of my days when I’m travelling (residing in a small room, living out of a single bag, rather than feeling overwhelmed by choice like I often do at home). It’s probably high time that I take note of these feelings, not so much for future trips, but for changes I can make to my day-to-day life. Though it’s not like I’ll ever say no to future trips either!
Pretentious sounding introspection aside, I was sorry to leave Japan, but I had a pretty sweet consolation prize: a ferry ride! There is no good reason for me to love boats as much as I do, given my role as that token character that suffers from seasickness, but love them I do. There’s something about taking a ship that makes you feel intrepid, even when this feeling is completely and utterly unfounded. It’s not just a trip, it’s a voyage. You can all stop laughing at me now.
Anyway. I needed to find my way back from to Tokyo, and it turned out that taking a boat from Hiroshima across the inland sea to Matsuyama in Shikoku, from where I had snagged a dirt-cheap domestic flight back to Tokyo, was way cheaper than taking the train. Plus, you know, this way a boat was involved!
After this point it was all endless airports, a night in a hotel that I barely remember because I literally did nothing but shower and sleep, hasty bowls of udon, and the purchase of a fine selection of plane snacks that left me feeling all smug and organised (it’s easy when the airport has a well stocked and reasonably priced convenience store… and people wonder why I love Japan so much). I was sad to go but frankly, I know myself far too well to believe for a second that I won’t be back again. Let’s face it; where Japan is concerned, I’m completely incorrigible.