Coming up on about a month and a half left in Japan, I have found myself recalling more and more the really unique and special things I have done and encountered while abroad so far, and I always end up thinking about my adventures with my friends during Golden Week. I had actually never heard of Golden Week until the beginning of April, when a friend asked me if I wanted to be part of a group that would be visiting Osaka and Hiroshima. Golden Week is a week-long national break at the beginning of May in which a number of holidays (e.g. the Emperor’s birthday) are celebrated, and company employees and schoolchildren alike are given time off to relax.
After a midnight bus ride from Tokyo that was a bit extended by holiday traffic, we arrived in Osaka, and checked in at a local capsule hotel. Unlike conventional hotels that consist of rooms with enough space to fit a bed, bathroom, and a place to put your luggage, a capsule hotel is made up of capsules with enough space to lie down and watch a mini television. Predominantly occupied by salarymen and tourists, you start feeling especially sympathetic to the residents at your local animal shelter.
The purpose of a capsule hotel is simple: it is just a place to crash. So instead of hanging around, we went out to explore Osaka.
One way my friends and I came to describe Osaka was by comparing the city to Tokyo: though somewhat dirtier than Tokyo, Osaka felt much more relaxed and less overwhelming. You still had the same deal of blocks and blocks of restaurants and shops lined up and not having a clue which one to walk into, but something about the city just felt like you had much more room to breathe.
As Osaka is especially known for takoyaki (octopus balls) and skewers, we tried a few restaurants serving the specialties, and they were delicious. On one occasion, we were sampling the different skewers at a restaurant when one of my friends from China struck up a conversation with the server about Osaka, only to find out that the majority of the servers were also Chinese. Something about this discovery interested me, for I had not truly realized during my time spent so far in Tokyo that indeed, many people from other countries live and work in Japan, are Japanese citizens, that diversity does exist. It was refreshing in a way, showing a deeper level of what Japan is and what being Japanese means.
The next day, we visited Osaka Castle and climbed to the top to look out upon a breathtaking view of the city. With a well-preserved traditional exterior and grounds, the castle interior had been renovated into a museum, making it oddly enough one of the more tourist-feeling places of the trip. Learning about historical battles inside the castle, walking around the castle grounds, watching a taiko drum performance, and eating okonomiyaki (Japanese savory pancakes) and green tea ice cream--these all made the visit one of my favorite experiences in Japan. We ended the day with a trip to an indoor onsen (public bath), which was extremely relaxing after all of the walking around.
After an evening bus to Hiroshima, with only a day left on our trip, we decided to visit Miyajima Island and the Peace Memorial. I had heard that Nara (near Kyoto) was famous for its docile deer, but did not know that Miyajima also shared this attraction. Domesticated deer roamed the entire island, walking up to people and bumping into them until they were fed food. We really lucked out on the weather that day, as the ocean was a very light blue and the hills flowed with bright green forests.
We hiked around the area, exploring local shops and buying gifts for our friends, visited a small temple, and admired the very traditional Japanese architecture.
After a lunch of fresh tempura udon, we took the ferry back to the mainland and visited the Peace Memorial. The first thing you notice is the decrepit and weathered skeleton of a building, renovated to serve as a reminder of the devastation caused by the first atomic bomb. It was extremely eerie and uncomfortable to stand at almost the exact spot where the bomb was dropped some seventy years prior. What I appreciated most about the Memorial was how it focused its recognition on the victims as individuals and not simply as numbers of casualties. We heard stories of survivors, where people were at the time of the bomb being dropped, the horrific aftermath and effect of radiation even to the present day, and I found myself discovering things I had never learned about in textbooks or history books.
The museum tour concluded with blank books where visitors could write their signatures to advocate for the complete abolishment of nuclear weapons in the world and express their feelings after their visit. It was truly an unforgettable experience.
After the Memorial, we packed our things and headed to the train station. We ate our last Golden Week dinner at a small restaurant at the station where the waitress confused my bibimbap order with my friend’s order of a sautéed beef set. It turned out to be a really good mistake (at least for me), as it was one of the best meals I have had in Japan, the beef cooked so perfectly...My friend wasn’t too happy when he found out. We took the bus back to Tokyo, jumped onto the metro back to Sophia University, and I got to class just in time to perform my skit for Japanese class.
In reflection, the trip was exactly what Golden Week should be: a time for relaxation, discovery, learning, eating good food, and having fun with your friends. It is hard to set aside time for those things during our regular busy schedules, which is why I am glad that Japan sets aside a whole week to have fun.