In September 2015, we extended a conference visit to Osaka into a 4-week trip to discover new (and rediscover some old) corners of Japan.
We started with a few days in Kobe, in the Kansai region, and immediately fell in love with this attractive city between the sea and the Rokko mountains, its open-minded, international history and easy-going, friendly people. The ropeway takes you from the very walkable outskirts of the centre up the lush hill to the Herb Gardens. From there it’s a lovely walk down through the gardens, past a scenic waterfall and dam. And then there are of course all the sake breweries . . . I could live here, no problem!
Our first visit to Osaka confirmed all we expected, and then some. It is a HUGE metropolis (19 million people; Japan’s 2nd biggest metropolis after Tokyo), its architecture is indeed stunning . . .
and its food – even by Japanese standards – sublime. I spent two blissful late mornings at this hole-in-the -wall sushi-ya at Osaka wholesale market and finally discovered the sublime taste of fresh uni or sea urchin.
Once again, we were travelling with a JR Railpass, which allowed us to travel on almost any shinkansen as well as all of the thousands of Express and local trains.
Travelling by train gives you a great glimpse into Japanese everyday life – from train aficionados and business men to hikers, local commuters of all ages and the odd gaijin. Our journey took us from Kyushu north to Nagoya, Nagano and Niigata prefectures and along the Western coast of Honshu to Yamagata and Akita.
On the latter we got off on a whim at Echigo-Sakigawa, a delightful little village with incredibly friendly locals and a lovely, un-touristy onsen on the edge of the village. The fact that they had put up a yaki-sakana stall right outside the onset near the river (best grilled fish I have ever had – or rather best two, as I simply had to buy and eat a second one) was the icing on this serendipitous excursion.
Facing the Sea of Japan and intersected by the majestic and Shinano and Agano rivers, the port city of Niigata was a delightful surprise. “The Dream of Niigata”, a huge and compelling public art installation and the fish market were highlights of our all too short visit here.