By Jeanne Whipple , Team Leader
For my 40th birthday, I tossed the reins to my team and took my husband on a 3 weeks trip across Japan. We made so many extraordinary stops at landmarks all over the country, but this Girl on the Go I’m focusing on islands and animals.
Like many travelers to Japan, we flew in and out of Tokyo. We spent three nights at the onset of the trip to get acclimated, and two on the way out. From Tokyo, we took a brief and inexpensive one-way flight on Vanilla Air. There’s just something so shimmery dream pop about it flying Vanilla Air to Amami Shima, one of the most southern and western islands off the coast of Japan famous for a special soup that you assemble yourself. Soup might be the last dish that comes to mind when considering beach food, but this one is worth it.
Upon arrival to Amami Shima we transferred by taxi from the airport and checked into a cool surfing shack type of accommodation consisting of three containers. The place is called Villa Kazbo and features a pool and incredible views of the ocean surrounded by tropical-looking mountains that resemble what you might imagine seeing in Hawaii. Villa Kazbo is famous for their burgers which are mouth watering (see below!) and worthy of busting your bathing suit. They have snorkeling gear you can borrow, and you should. The snorkeling is as elevated as any Caribbean island or reef. Best of all a SUP (stand up paddle board) instructor will meet you at the hotel to rent equipment and guide you on how to use it. We had a fabulous float around the bay, looking at the coral and tropical reef fish from above. Curious sea turtles buddied up to us and popped their heads out of the water to check us out.
From Amami Shima we took a quick flight to Kagoshima and headed south to Ibusuki to hike a rather remote waterfall, but since we couldn’t rent a car because we forgot to get an international drivers license and have it translated officially into Japanese, we ended up on a bus south and stayed over in a ryokan and get buried in hot sand.
I digress, back to animals and islands. From Ibusuki we took a commemorative train to a bus in order to make it up to Takachiho to hike to Ogawa Falls which features a gorge you can paddle a rowboat through and feed ducks under a waterfall. We only stayed in Takachiho for one night in a great, modern, western style hotel, Solest Takakchiho and wish we had stayed two because there appeared to be some very authentic neighborhood restaurants to enjoy but they were all full. So we enjoyed one of the many delicious and exotic convenience store dinners in our hotel room.
From there, we did some other things on the way to Art Island, including eating delicious kobe steak in Fukoka from where we took a train to Okunoshima and a bus to the ferry to Rabbit Island. This island has a sordid history. The Japanese built facilities here to manufacture Agent Orange, an extremely destructive chemical for warfare. There are ruins of the facilities, and a museum with a message of accountability, sadness, and regret. There is one hotel on the island that was fully booked during our visit by an entire middle school worth of kids staying there on a school trip. The story behind the rabbits is unknown but is believed to either be remnants of the laboratory animals, and/or a symbol of peace, prosperity, and rejuvenation. Either way, there are thousands of these cute little beings. They mostly love people, and you can buy food to feed them at a little souvenir shop at the ferry station. You cannot buy food on the island, so get it before you depart even if it means catching the next boat. Or bring them fresh vegetables. While on the island you can store your bags in coin lockers in the unmanned welcome center that does not have a change machine, so bring coins. Then you can rent e-bikes at the hotel. It’s totally worth it to tool around the island a couple of times and see the ruins. There are some pretty big hills so I don’t recommend regular bikes without an electronic assist. Plus e-bikes are super friggin fun to zoom around on.
Art island is a place known for works of modern art, particularly a giant polka dotted gourd. We stayed at a very cool refurbished warehouse with shared bathrooms and took a ferry to the island. On the island, right off the ferry, you can rent e-bikes. Grab one quick before everyone else because they are in high-demand and not as plentiful as manual bikes. The hills of Art Island are fairly extreme. I don’t think we would have enjoyed our trip as much if we had to use our own legs to pedal our way around. The art is pretty minimalist along the lines of Dia:Beacon. Each museum requires paid admission but there are a lot of outdoor sculptures to enjoy for free. The vistas are gorgeous, the little villages along the island are intriguing. We only spent a day and didn’t feel we needed more time, but there seemed to be more stuff to do than we did.
Next we took a train to Osaka and had the best sushi on the trip and lived through a legitimate typhoon. From there we took a train to the 40th birthday pilgrimage which was staying in a Buddhist monastery in Koyosan with the goal of meditating and participating in some rituals with real Buddhist monks. The mountain is so high there’s a cool vertical train to get up there.
Between there and Osaka, we had to change trains in Nara, home of the world’s largest wooden Buddha, totally worth a visit. To get to Buddha you have to traverse Nara Park which you can also do by e-bike and again, I’ve never turned down a chance to e-bike. Nara Park is home of tame deer, which make crazy calls in their wild and snack on cookies right from your hand, but be careful. They bite.
For the purpose of this Islands and Animals post, I’m going to skip my tales of rain and hiking through Kanazawa and the Japanese Alps, and I’m going right to the snow monkeys. If you visit them in any other season besides the snowy ones, they are just as vivacious in the warm weather as they are in the cold. It’s a bit remote to visit them, but there’s a great restaurant at the train station on the way to the park, and a cab or a shuttle will get you to monkey park pretty quickly. Arrange a pick up ahead of time with the cab driver to take you back from the park to the train. Once at the park, you see these grizzly little monkey guys immediately in all their monkey glory. You could easily spend 2 hours just communing with them literally in their habitat. They’re brushing by you as they gallivant and execute their daily agendas. They’re monitored by some zookeeper-type dudes, but there are no cages, so watch out, they are known to steal your camera phones. From Snow Monkey Park you can stay in Nagano and detour by bus to some extraordinary hikes around there. It’s a very affordable city. We had some of the best western style hotel accommodations on the whole three-week trip for the price.
You really can’t go wrong going anywhere in Japan. The food is good everywhere. The fruit in the grocery stores at the train stations are works of art. The costs are affordable considering you never need a car, or a parking space, and you don’t have to tip. That means every meal is about 20% less than it would be in the states. Japanese people are so graceful, patient, kind and respectful. To litter or pee on a seat would be to the great offense of one’s entire lineage so everything is spick and span. A job is a gift and an asset weather you are a train cleaner, a bus ticket sales person, a chef, or a fish monger, so whomever your dealing with, they are kind and generous with information. Cell phone signals are strong pretty much everywhere, so in a pinch, google translate can say whatever you need.
As a Philly Home Girl, I’m always looking to help my clients and friends with anything. At the moment a few of them are going to Japan, so I wanted to give them a my perspective and these pointers. If you ever need travel tips from us or for your friends’ visits and family trips to Philly, it’s with a Japanese level of detail, kindness and generosity that we’re looking forward to providing our community.