We entered the station, JR passes in hand and a traveling spirit—one that compels us to do things like go to Japan on our honeymoon with nothing but a full back pack, a rail pass, and a homemade itinerary. Let the fun begin.
We were so tired the night before from traveling. We were lights out before 11:00, planning on sleeping in at least a little in the morning. A few hours later, however, our minds had different plans. We were wide awake by 1:30. But this made sense. Why wouldn’t we be awake? Our bodies thought it was around noon. Very confusing. A 14-hour difference is not the easiest thing to get over. We weren’t surprised by this. We tried to prepare by sleeping when Japan was asleep and forcing ourselves to be awake when Japan was awake, and also by drinking plenty of water (very helpful). But, there is only so much you can do. So 1:30 a.m. we are both just lying there in bed. We knew that if we follow our bodies and get up, we will be miserable later that day. So we force ourselves to fall back asleep and, eventually, we did. My muscles begin to relax, and I gently drift off to sleep and into dreams about our next day.
I wake back up feeling pretty well rested. It’s still dark in the room but those thick hotel curtains are probably just doing their job and blocking out the sunlight. I love hotel curtains. It can be nighttime whenever you want it to be!
I look over at the clock.
Amelia is awake. Jet lag. Desperate to go back to sleep and fighting the urge to get up, Amelia gets her bag and pulls out an essential oil called Valerian. Oh Valerian, how you are loved. Nature’s valium as it is sometimes called. We had never used it but we knew it supposedly helps you sleep. You can take it in a capsule or rub in on your feet and neck. We figured we’d try it, it might help us relax a little. I rub some on the bottoms of my feet where it can be absorbed the quickest, put some on my neck, and then took a big whiff of what was left in my hand. Not a bad smell, just distinct. We laid back down, held each other’s hands, and all of the sudden it was morning. Seriously, we couldn’t believe how well that stuff worked! It was almost (and I mean this in a good way) paralyzing. We couldn’t help but to fall asleep, and good sleep it was. We still got up around 6:30, but nevertheless we got our rest.
We spent a couple hours getting our stuff ready. We pretty much came to the hotel and let everything fall where it dropped. We were traveling to Osaka that day which was about a two and a half to four-hour train ride (it ended up being a little under four hours but we didn’t know that at the time). We pack up our stuff—I have my 70 L hiking backpack, she has her 50 L hiking backpack and a book bag that we took turns carrying—and headed to check out. We saw on the schedule that the hotel had a shuttle going to the Japan Rail train station at 8:20.
We arrive at the Narita train station. It was a fairly good sized metropolitan area so we decided to explore a bit. Even though we had all of our stuff on our persons, our hiking packs made it so much easier to take these side adventures.
Each of our bags weighed about 23 pounds and the way they are designed makes it a lot easier on your back to carry the weight. The city was familiar yet slightly different. There was a secret thread here running through all of Japanese culture that we were still trying to figure out. We walk around the block and find a little local café. We hadn’t eaten yet so the menu seemed attractive. It had Wi-Fi and a great vibe so we ordered some scones, drip coffee (which was amazing) and sat down. I opened my computer and gathered my thoughts and plans for the day to make sure we at least had an idea of how to make this trek to Osaka. We were excited to have this adventure together. There was no worry or panic; though making these long train journeys was the only thing I knew might stump us a bit. But, we were eager to get on the road (or the track). After paying, we gathered our packs and headed back to where we were dropped off. We entered the station, JR passes in hand and a traveling spirit—one that compels us to do things like go to Japan on our honeymoon with nothing but a full back pack, a rail pass, and a homemade itinerary. Let the fun begin.
We enter the Narita Station. Japanese kanji everywhere with some English translations. We had exhaustive information on our JR pass booklet and how to use them, but as we all know what you read in a book does not always translate to real life. We show our passes to the attendant and walk through the ticket checkpoint. Now we are confronted with several options and platform choices. Signs highlighting various Japanese places, cities, different railways and types of trains make it easy for locals and those who know their way around a Japanese rail station know where they need to go. Unfortunately, this was our first time. Also, neither of us live in a big metropolis so the whole concept of traveling by train/subway is something we have only done on occasion when traveling to cities. But no problem, what a grand new experience! We can still, even in this moment, feel this invisible thread, almost like a current, that flows through Japan. We just have to find it and ride it.
I open up google maps on my phone. Google maps has saved us this trip. Although it is not perfect, it is an extremely useful resource and very effective when traveling via transit. We look up where we need to go and it maps out possible trains, railways, and stations we need to take. In order to reach Osaka, we see that we need to take a few trains using several railways to eventually land in central Tokyo where we can hop on a bullet train to take us three hours to Osaka. After spending about 20 minutes in this station studying the signs and getting our barrens, we decide to just go with the train we felt most confident in. Learn through experience I guess. We hop on the next train that comes through and ride it to Chiba Station—our first destination as indicated by google maps. So far everything was working out. We managed one night in Japan, got ourselves to the correct JR station in Narita, found the right train and rode it to the station we needed. At Chiba, however, our situation got a little complicated.
The train ride to Chiba from Narita was pretty cool. I gazed out the window the entire time, soaking up the first real part of Japan we have seen. We went through about six stops. Each stop was situated in a small town while, in between each town, there were rice fields. It was like clockwork: Each town had a train stop and when the town ended, rice fields began for a few miles, and then another town.
A few complications trying to get to Chiba. What I knew: we needed to get to a station labeled Chiba with connecting trains to Tokyo. According to a map I was looking at, I was sitting at the stop directly before Chiba. We’re on the train, we begin moving again towards what I thought would be Chiba. However, when we arrive at the next stop, it read “Haisha-chiba”. Okay. I mean, Chiba is in the name. For all I know Haisha could just be a surname or something for Chiba. Hesitant, Amelia and I get off. We scoot and squeeze through the people standing between us and the open door. None of them realizing we were trying to get off. I dropped my sunglasses and they break on impact. I gather the two pieces and we finally make it off the train. Maybe it was the fact that the station was pretty much just a glorified bus stop—much less acting as a hub for connecting trains—or maybe it was the fact that not a single person got off with us, but this was clearly not our stop (which is probably why no one realized we were trying to get through to exit the train earlier. No one ever exits at this stop). I looked at the map actually on site at the stop and it read that the next stop was Chiba—nothing more and nothing less, just Chiba. This is fine, we are allowed to make rookie mistakes here in the beginning. We sit down and wait about 15 minutes for the next train. In the meantime, I am reading up on the Japan railway system. At Chiba—the right Chiba— we are supposed to transfer from a local yellow line to a rapid transit blue line called Sobu as shown in my google maps directions. BUT—google maps also notes on my phone under the step where it tells us the line changes to “remain on board”. I don’t know what else that could mean but to remain on board the train. We get on the next train at wrong-Chiba and take it to right-Chiba. Now this looks more like a station, which is good. We are in the right place. But now we have to decide to follow our gut and get off to see if the Sobu line is located elsewhere in the station or to follow the “remain on board” command. Google maps has got us this far so I say we stay on board. The train we are on has both a yellow and blue strip painted on the side. We also spot a sign in the same place we stop at the station that reads “Sobu Line (rapid)”. This seems right, let’s just remain on board then. The train makes it to Chiba. When we pull up, the train stops and the doors fly open and the train cars completely clean out. Not a soul remains on board with us. Now what do we do? We double down, find a now open seat (which are heated by the way—these were just local train cars and they had heated seats). The train parks at this stop significantly longer than the rest, but we don’t care our bums are warm and Google is telling us to remain on board.
The doors finally close, we are finally off to the Tokyo station; except for the fact that when the train began to move, it didn’t continue in the same direction—it began heading back where we came from! It was a hilarious, had-to-be-there moment for Amelia and I when that train started moving backwards, returning us to where we had just been. We learned something in that moment: when in doubt (and in Japan), follow the crowd. It’s that invisible current we keep trying to see and figure out. No one got off at the Haisha-chiba stop and everyone got off now at this station. We went against the grain both times and both times failed to get where we needed to go. This advice pretty much only works for situations like this. Typically going with the crowd is not our style J.
The train takes us back to our favorite stop at fake-chiba, where we get off and wait another 15 minutes for the next train to take us back to real-chiba. We make it back to Chiba and get off that train. About an hour has gone by and we have managed to travel the same half a mile several times. But, we’re okay. Believe it or not we were having a blast. Between our love for travel and love for each other this wasn’t a setback but just a new experience we get to share together. We stand at the stop with two options: Get on the train on the other side of the platform (a sign above the track reads “Sabu line”) or go up the stairs to the main station and see what else we got up there. At this point, we know we just need to get to the Tokyo JR station. We decide to ask one of the attendants working this bottom platform. Well, Amelia decides to ask. I still feel like I could have gotten it. In the little English he knew and the little Japanese we knew, he points up the stairs and tells us that to go to Tokyo, find platform number 5. We have our doubts, because on the sign above us it clearly labels this other track as the Sabu Line and the trains coming through have a blue stripe and have Sabu Line markers. Slowly and obviously confused, we walk upstairs, look around, rediscover the confidence in our original belief, and head back downstairs to the same platform we just came from to wait for the other train. After a few minutes, that same attendant comes back up to us with a confused look on his face wondering why we were back if we wanted to get to Tokyo. We try to explain to him again where we needed to go just in case there was a misunderstanding. I mean, we obviously know where we need to be because we can read signs and stuff and google maps and things. He looks at us and, more clearly, assures us that if we want to go to Tokyo, we can’t do it from here. He crossed his arms in the shape of an X and says “Tokyo here no. No train here Tokyo no.” He was very polite. Every Japanese person we have come in contact with so far was polite. We consent and again walk up these stairs again, still with all our belongings, and head directly for platform 5 and, wouldn’t you believe it, see a sign there that also reads “Sabu line” but also says “to Tokyo”. Wow! The Japanese attendant who grew up in Japan and works at a train station knew what he was talking about! What a crazy world we live in.
We catch the right train and ride it a few stops to Tokyo. We get off at the bustling Tokyo station and find a nice little store that sells snacks and meals-to-go. Amelia immediately recognizes familiar items from growing up with her Japanese grandmother. She was elated to find a selection of rice balls and other nostalgic snacks such as shinagawa maki, which is basically a bag of rice crackers wrapped in seaweed, and another type of assorted spicy crackers and nuts. We grab those snacks, a couple of rice balls with some type of meat inside, and head to our platform. We quickly eat the rice balls in part due to our hunger but also because they were freaking delicious. At this point we had to transfer to a different part of the station as we are transferring to the Shenkansen rail line (the line for long distance trips). The train network in Japan consists of many types of rails serviced by many types of trains run by many different rail companies. Despite how this sounds, it is actually quite organized. An invisible current. Fun Fact: the Shenkansen line, which is the major line that carries passengers quickly between major cities via bullet trains, is the most heavily used railway in the world by far.
We arrive on our platform. At this point it is a little after 1:00 p.m. We left our hotel this morning at 8:20 a.m. on the shuttle. Not terrible considering the stops we’ve made and the infamous Chiba incident that threw us off about an hour and a half. This platform is noticeably larger than the previous platforms we have used thus far. The trains coming through are much longer and nicer as well. We have to take another moment to get our barrens again. I am studying the signs, looking at google maps, and reading Wikipedia to gather more information on how to navigate these tracks. After researching online, we know that there are three types of trains that service this major Shenkansen line. It is actually even more complex than this. This Shenkansen line is actually a network of railways and, within this network, there are really seven different lines run by five Japan Railway Group companies; but I won’t get into all of that. The three types of trains all travel at different speeds not in terms of both velocity but the amount of stops it takes between cities. They can all easily break 200 miles per hour. Our JR pass does not cover the fastest, so we take the Hikari—the second fastest train. Our ride pulls up, we get on the car and realize it is one of those “reserved only” cars. No big deal at least we are inside. The train starts rolling and we trek 6 cars up, each with about 30 or more rows of seats, to an un-reserved car. We find an empty row of three, plop down our stuff, I sit by the window while Amelia settles in the middle, and we breathe.
We arrive in Osaka a few hours later. The train ride was very comfortable and the views outside the large windows were almost tempting enough to keep us awake. We get off in Osaka, navigate through the large station, find the train towards our hotel and get on. Bentencho station was where we got off. Conveniently enough, our hotel was connected to the station, along with shops and little breakfast bakeries that we enjoyed several mornings. Our hotel was part of a larger bay tower. The rooms started on floor 31 and went up to 51—ours was on 33.
The room was a little but tighter than maybe the average room in the States but that didn’t take away from the comfort. This was pretty standard in Japan—space was limited, especially in bigger cities. We never felt cramped even in the city itself. We unpacked, settled in a bit, and began looking for places to eat. We hop back on the train and take it a few stations down. We get let off in a place called Lucia—a multi purpose, multi-leveled shopping complex. By now it is dark and getting chilly, but the place was full of people and felt very open. There was also a Christmas tree at one of the main entrances complimented by decorations in the surrounding area. Almost everywhere we went had Christams trees and decorations. It was also not uncommon to hear Christmas music playing in cafes, restaurants, train stations, and even just on public city speakers. We approach a map of the complex and see that there are restaurants on the 10th floor. We ended up eating at an Italian place. We ordered a three-course meal which was delicious and headed back to Hotel Osaka Bay Tower for the night.
After grabbing some pastries and breakfast sandwiches at a French Bakery near our hotel, we were finally headed to our first real touristy destination: The Osaka Castle. At this point it had felt so long since we left home but we haven’t really seen Japan yet. We get our barrens, get on a train, and get off at Tennoji station. Before entering the castle grounds, we decide to do some exploring. We actually find an Apple Store on the map that was situated in a bustling shopping district in the inner city so we head there (we needed an adaptor to charge my computer). We spend about an hour or so immersing ourselves in downtown Osaka, passing various markets, shops, and restaurants. Amelia bought herself a pair of footie socks that have little foxes knitted on them sold at a flea market style shop on the side of the road. We aren’t really big shoppers, we just wanted to explore Osaka city culture.
Osaka Castle is nestled at the center of a large park filled with shops, food trucks, and other attractions.
The walk to the Castle through the park was worth the trip itself. The Autumn colors that take over the landscape all over Japan this time of year adds even more to the already breathtaking sights. We take our time, absorbing the landscape that included a historic, man-made moat about 80-120 yards wide in some parts. We walked up several sets of large stairs winding through the outer gardens to reach the
story castle Within the castle was a museum telling the history of the castle since the first version was constructed over 500 years ago. The top floor was a panoramic observatory deck that boasted a marvelous view of Osaka. Japan is great because ancient history beautifully clashes with modern innovation. 21st century cities meet ageless tradition with epic origins.
We descended the tower to one of the food trucks we saw earlier. I got beef on a stick while Amelia enjoyed some ramen and fried chicken. We also got some green tea ice cream which is extremely popular in Japan. While eating our ice cream we were approached by an older Japanese man, probably in his late 60s. He spoke very broken English with a heavy Asian accent. He said he worked for the park…maybe? and he wanted to talk to us. He sat down and just began talking, and talking. We understood about 70 percent of it. We showed him where we were from on a map he had, we talked about many things from the history of Japan to the Cubs winning the world series. He told us about how president Obama came to Peace Park in Hiroshima. We told him that we were on our honeymoon and he was very happy for us, and we explained how Amelia’s grandmother is from Japan. My American in me kept waiting for him to like ask us for money or try to sell us something; but after about 20-30 minutes of conversation he just thanked us and left. It was a pleasant interaction with an elderly native.
At this point we had planned on going to Shitennoji Temple—the oldest temple in Japan; but we went back to the hotel instead. Our plan was to rest up and paint the town later that night for dinner and maybe some more exploring.
Back at the hotel, something bad happened.
I regret to say, we relapsed. We relapsed hard. We had been doing so well in fighting jet lag—ignoring the urge to go to sleep at 5:00 in the evening (3:00am Charlotte time) and trying to sleep till at least 7:00am (5:00pm Charlotte time). Plenty of water and not taking naps during when you would normally be asleep are some of the best ways to overcome jet lag, and overcome it we had. Or so we thought.
So we are in the hotel. We begin to unwind and settle in for a little rest. I grab my computer to do some writing while Amelia rolls over in the bed for some shut eye. Within minutes she was out. I figured I’d let her sleep and wake her up in an hour or so and we can get ready to go get some dinner. At this point it was around 5:00pm. I felt my body relaxing as I was writing. After about an hour—Amelia probably just entering REM—I decide to catch some rest as well… and we slept. And slept. And slept some more. Jet lag clearly winning the battle. Relapse.
I finally woke up at 11:06pm. I know that exactly because I remember being shocked looking at the clock. Amelia still dreaming. Light still on. Teeth still unbrushed. I hazily get up, still half dreaming, run through the express route for getting ready for bed, lay back down—our biological clock telling us to get up, manipulated by travel and jet lag still trying to control our rhythm—and we sleep. We sleep all the way till morning. Glorious, uninterrupted sleep. Jet lag, you thought you had us but this a marathon, and we just finished. We wake up on Japan’s watch, 14 hours removed from Charlotte’s time, and prepare for day two in Osaka.