adventures with riley

After taking a couple days to recover, catch up on sleep, and generally settle back into typical, every day life, I think I am finally ready to write about my recent travels (although grocery shopping, cleaning, and laundry are another story entirely, lol). As I have mentioned in previous posts, my good, old friend Riley came to visit Evan and I! It was the first time we’ve seen him in about a year, and also Riley’s first trip abroad. He arrived in Tokyo and did some traveling about on his own in the city for a couple days. Eventually Evan and I went by shinkansen (bullet train) up to Kamakura Station where we met up with Riley and began our adventuring together.

The last time Evan and I were in Kamakura was four years ago, on Evan’s maiden voyage to Japan. It was winter and the town was quiet. Although the shrines and temples we visited were a bit crowded, there really weren’t all that many people walking the streets. Kamakura felt like a quaint escape from the bustling crowds of Tokyo, a place to settle down with a family and grow old in.

Going to Kamakura at the height of summer Obon season is a totally different animal though. The train to the station nearest our hostel in Kamakura was crowded with tourists and their luggage, and being packed like sardines into those small train cars only intensified the already very hardcore heat. In fact, we were pretty much sweating all over each other, haha.

This same feeling of overcrowding was pretty strong in Enoshima, the nearby small island connected to Kamakura by bridge. The initial street leading up to Enoshima Shrine was filled to capacity with both souvenir shops and prospective shoppers. And I swear almost everyone was playing Pokemon Go! While exploring Enoshima we traveled up and down loads of stairs and through some beautiful caves. We caught a lovely sunset on the rocky side of the island too.

Our hostel was a very short walk away from the beach, and I was rather surprised by the very youthful party atmosphere it had. Bikini-clad sunbathers, people hauling surfboards, young couples canoodling under beach umbrellas, and beers abounded. I admit, it was a lot of fun to splash about in the ocean and enjoy the laid-back atmosphere there, even though the sand was so hot that walking on it felt like fire. A short note about our hostel called Slams: it was Slam Dunk themed! It turns out Kamakura is the setting for Slam Dunk, which I never realized before! Slams is also a restaurant which serves a very delicious burger they call The Dunk, so if you’re ever in Kamakura and looking for a hip spot with a yummy Slam Dunk themed burger, that’s your joint.

My favorite day in Kamakura was our shrine day. We woke up early, rented a set of bikes, and combed Kamakura for its best shrines and temples, of which there are many. Although the sun was oppressive yet again, the breeze from riding felt really great. We were also able to cover way more ground than if we had walked, which meant more shrines and more goshuin-collecting (aka. Evan’s version of Pokemon Go haha; goshuin are unique stamps and calligraphy that you get from each temple or shrine as a way to commemorate your visit). It was so cool going to the same temples that we went to four years ago, and especially seeing how different they felt in summer compared to winter.

Our next stop was Nikko, a mountain town a couple hours north by train and home to a set of shrines and temples that are both Japanese National Treasures and World Heritage Sites. Nikko was a wonderful respite from both the crowds and, more importantly, the heat. The weather in Nikko was cool and dry, which made walking all day throughout the World Heritage area so much more enjoyable and less grueling. It really was a relief not sweating all day! The bright red and elaborately decorated temples and shrines were so beautiful against the background of the misty forests and mountains. Actually, the cool temperatures combined with the mountain scenery and abundant cedar trees (which stand in contrast to Kyushu’s many bamboo forests) really made me nostalgic for the PNW.

The hostel and the neighborhood it was in were all very sweet and quaint. We appreciated our host’s helpfulness and generosity immensely. We also got a pretty good sense of the town itself during our forays to the local music festival, izakaya, snack bars, cafes and karaoke spots. I would really love to go back to Nikko again in the fall, when it is supposed to be at its most beautiful during koyo time (when the leaves turn bright red).

Next we shot down further north to Hakone, where our main goals were to get a good, clear look at Mount Fuji and take loads of onsen hot spring baths. Hakone is also a mountain town, and riding in the trains up the mountain was really interesting. I have never ridden a train that’s needed to go up switchbacks nor climbed to such great heights before. Also, the views from the train windows looking down into the valley below were some of the nicest all trip.

Although the weather was really beautiful the day we did most of our exploring, everyone was abuzz about the incoming typhoon bound to hit that area in the following days. While riding the cable car the clouds were really gorgeous against the bright blue sky, but the view we got of Fuji was only a partial one. Damn you, typhoon! Regardless, the following pirate ship ride was lovely, cool and clear. We also made it to a nice festival with fireworks that night, but the weather turned a bit nasty on us right when it started. They didn’t cancel the show, but we all got soaked through and were pretty cold by the end of it. Luckily we were able to warm up with that onsen bath I mentioned, but I have to say that the hot spring water was by far the hottest I have ever experienced, almost to the point of being unpleasant… though not quite!

Our last big destination was Himeiji Castle, which we hit between shinkansen rides on the way home. We got there just in time to have an hour or two explore the castle, which was conveniently situated a short walk away from the station. I felt like the overall modesty of the city as a whole was a great backdrop for Himeiji-jo and really set off its majesty. I was actually rather surprised by how small the interior was because it looks so immense from the outside. It was Riley’s first castle and another tick off of my Japan World Heritage bucketlist. Very glad we made it out there!

Even though I didn’t take a lot of pictures after returning home, that doesn’t mean the adventures stopped there! Evan and I took Riley to our favorite haunts in Chikugo, and then to Fukuoka city where we enjoyed the Lockup with Kohji, Vicki and her friend Su visiting from London. Karaoke was enjoyed, nomihoudai (all your can drink alcohol buffets) were abused, delicious food was eaten, goshuin and Pokemon were caught… Honestly, I don’t think Riley’s trip could’ve been better. It was truly a great time.