Before Okinawa was part of Japan, it was its own country with its own distinct culture, language, trade relations and king. Although the Satsuma brought it into Japanese hands in 1609, and despite a close encounter with extinction during the height of World War II, indigenous Okinawans (known as Ryukyuans) have fought to survive, thrive, and maintain their cultural identity. One of the symbols of this is Shuri Castle, constantly rising from its own ashes.
On the whole, Japan has a fantastic public transportation system: trains and buses everywhere, and some of the fastest and most comfortable high-speed trains in the world. Although it can sometimes be a little confusing to use if you don’t speak Japanese, I always suggest people give the trains a try. That said, not every place in Japan has the extensive rail coverage of Tokyo or Osaka; some places barely even have buses. Okinawa—tropical paradise and early Japanese colonial holdover—is one of these places. Although you can conceivably get around using nothing but the one monorail, the couple of buses, and your feet, I don’t know why you’d want to. After all, you can drive! You just have to drive on the left.
One of the most iconic destinations near Hiroshima is Miyajima, a holy island best known for its “floating torii’ that stands just inside the intertidal zone. Subject of a thousand travel guide photos, the torii marks the entrance to Ikutsukushima Shrine, where you can be extruded through a shrine hallway and injected with the 11 secret herbs and spices of Japanese cultural understanding take a tour of the important and ancient shrine. Despite the lovely views, however, Ikutsukushima Shrine isn’t the only interesting or beautiful part of the island.
Ever see one of those insane taiko performances at your local Asian cultural fair, where ten or fifteen people are all beating massive drums in complicated, choreographed rhythms while sweating and smiling and being impressive as hell? You might think you’d like to try something like that if you ever travel to Japan, but you’d almost certainly be disappointed. Oh, there are taiko lessons alright! For people who can dedicate months and years to practicing with the troupe.
What if you’re just on vacation and want to dabble a little? That’s where the Taiko Center in Kyoto comes in.
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I may have mentioned that I’m from Portland. Although we’re not quite what Portlandia makes us out to be, there is one rumor that is absolutely true: we love ourselves some craft beer. My husband—his love for beer surpassed only by his love for me—was interested in trying Japanese craft beers on the trip. Unfortunately, the scene in Japan is barely bigger than a grain of rye, big producers like Kirin and Sapporo muscling out the competition and flooding the country with their vapidly malty bubble water. I began to despair of finding a brewer at any of our stops when I ran across Beer Belly in Osaka, one of the few locations for local microbrew Minoh Beer. Perfect!
Lord love a guest house. If you want a homey, affordable place to stay, look no further. Although some can be pretty sketch, the good places are fantastic. Guest House Hennka in Kyoto is one of the latter.
Everybody has to eat, but I can’t think of any human activity outside romance and relationships that’s subject to more byzantine rules and cultural taboos. In your home country you’re perfectly aware of what the rules are—and which you can break, and when—but eating in other cultures takes some research. There’s post after post on the internet about how to eat in Japan without looking like a barbarian, but most of those rules have exceptions that apply in casual dining situations which, if ignored, will make you stand out in more subtle ways.