After a busy day visiting Hiroshima, I was once up again and out of the door of my Osaka hotel in order to make good and proper use of the last day I had on my rail card. I wouldn’t be alone on my travels, though, as Inés and her friend Joob were also coming along for the excursion!
I immediately proceeded to get lost in Namba train station, but once I’d got some phone signal I eventually found the two of them waiting on the right platform. We then hopped on to the train bound for Nara, a city famous amongst other things for being overrun by wild and yet (mostly) friendly deer.
I’d thought that my day trip to Hiroshima had been a warm one, but boy was it hot when we stepped off the train in Nara. We thus hopped on a nice cool bus up to Nara Park, a big open space which was chock-full of deer. We didn’t have much time to stop and gawk, though, as we were quite hungry, and so headed off to a restaurant that Inés had marked on her map.
That place turned out to be closed for a wedding, and so after wandering over a bridge and then yet another disappointment as another restaurant was also closed, we eventually stumbled upon a little café which offered some curry dishes for lunch. Now as sweaty as we were hungry, we took off our shoes and headed inside.
The interior consisted of beautiful wooden rooms with low tables and cushions for us to sit on the floor, something which was doing my back in quite a bit until Inés showed me the proper posture for this kind of seating arrangement. The food was presented as beautifully as the decor, and we soon discovered that it tasted as good as it looked. What a great little find!
From the restaurant, we wandered back over the bridge, stopping to take in the beautiful scenery now that we weren’t just thinking about food. This led us back into the park, where we grabbed some ice cream to cool off and watched the deer pottering around.
From there we headed on to Tōdai-ji, a temple which Inés said was a must-do whilst we were in Nara. Inside the impressive gates we were joined by plenty of tourists and plenty more deer, all milling around as they made there was up to the impressive main temple building.
Inside the temple we were confronted by a huge bronze statue of Buddha, around which we proceeded to make our journey, learning about the history of the various iterations of the temple and the traditions associated with it as we went. They sure were plucky to keep reconstructing this place after fires and earthquakes, with the scale models showing each iteration of the design was an interesting peek back through Japanese architectural history.
Once we’d taken a few photos of ourselves (we look a bit worse for wear thanks to the heat so I’ll save face here), we left the temple in search of a place to sit down and have a drink. Taking refuge in the cool air of a coffee shop, we watched the tourists feeding the deer in the plaza below and decided that that’s what we were going to do just as soon as the air conditioning had cooled us all off a bit.
We picked up some rice crackers as we left the coffee shop and then headed out on to the lawn where a large concentration of the deer had gathered. After observing what people had done, I knew the gestures I should make in a routine that went as follows:
Bow to the deer as a sign of respect
The deer would then bow back to you
Feed the deer one of the rice crackers
Show the deer your empty palms to indicate there was no food left
This last step didn’t work all too well for me, however. I must have had some crumbs left in my bag or on my person, as I soon found myself being chased around by a couple of very insistent characters! It was all good fun, though, and they eventually joined the rest of the pack in sitting down on the grass for a rest after a long day of being fed by the tourists. It was there city, really, and they were just allowing us to visit.
As the afternoon wore on we left the park back for the built-up area of Nara in order to grab some tea in the form of some barbecued eel which was very delicious. Along the way, we were kept entertained by watching the deer do seemingly human activities such as waiting at zebra crossings, following each other in a line, and their cute bows to passers by in the hope of some of those sweet, sweet rice crackers.
Whilst our train zipped through the countryside and back to the centre of Osaka, I was left reflecting on what an amazing place I’d just visited. Despite the heat – a theme punctuating my time in Japan – Nara was like stepping into an alternate reality where humans and nature were of equal standing. It was amazing, with the only downside being the amount of poo that we’d to scrape off our shoes as we left. Nobody ever seems to mention that!
After just a day and a half in Osaka, I was up and out of my hotel early in order to make the most of the remaining two days I had on my Japan Rail Pass, the ticket I was using to travel around the country on its famed bullet trains. Although I was in the train station by 10:30am however, I somehow managed to miss my first train and thus arrived in Hiroshima at around 2pm: the hottest time of day.
I’m sure many images of an old and bomb-torn city come to mind when I mention Hiroshima, but upon leaving the train I noted that it looked very similar to the other Japanese cities that I’d visited so far on my trip. I guess that it’s precisely because of the devastation caused by the bombing of the city that it’s now a modern and sprawling metropolis: everything had to be rebuilt from scratch.
Although intrigued by the other parts of the city, the high temperatures and the limited time I had during my day trip meant that I was focussed on going to see what makes it unique: the Memorial Park. To get there, I quickly discarded the idea of walking through the humid heat and hopped on a bus to take me over the river and to this historical location.
Stepping off the bus, I began walking through the park, located near the epicentre of the blast and where much of the old city centre used to lie. Finding a little structure along the way, I headed inside only to find that it contained an archaeological dig site which had unearthed the scolded floor of a destroyed home. This impacted me much more than the various monuments and informative plaques that dotted the park, amplified even more as I was stood there completely alone. It was my first time being directly confronted with the realities of what happened in Hiroshima in 1945, and made me pause to reflect on the horrors of war.
The next impactful sight was of the infamous Peace Memorial. This consists of the bombed out yet miraculously still standing ruins of an old exhibition hall, a structure which was the only one left standing after the nuclear bomb detonated above the city. It was an eerie sight to behold, but definitely the best way of visualising the destructive power that these kind of weapons carry. Just imagining the landscape with only this shell of a building standing felt rather odd, especially as the modern city now completely encloses the Memorial Park with its towering skyscrapers and busy streets.
I then visited the last few monuments in the Memorial Garden, which included ringing the Peace Bell. I then started wandering over to the next place I wanted to visit, stopping off at a Family Mart in order to recover in their air conditioning and get myself a drink and an ice cream to cool off a little.
This route eventually took me over more water and into the Ninomaru of Hiroshima Castle. This fortification looks as old as time, but is actually a faithful recreation as the original was destroyed during the bombing. Wandering through the gate of this structure and onto an artificial island, I then explored the beautiful gardens. Heading northwards, I eventually wound up arriving at the castle itself, another reconstruction of the original.
As I headed out, I noticed what looked like the remains of a bunker just outside of the Hiroshima Gokoku Shrine. I approached the old concrete walls for a closer look, whereupon I was approached by an old man who began speaking to me in Japanese. Noticing the look of confusion on my face, he repeated the word “bunker” and then gestured for me to follow him. I was then surprised as he squeezed through a little opening and casually wandered into the bunker itself, beckoning for me to follow suit, something I felt obliged to do and so off I went.
Inside, the space had been pretty thoroughly taken back by nature, but there were still openings that the man began to gesture to and explain to me in Japanese. Although I didn’t understand a thing, I was very appreciative of his interest in showing me the bunker: I definitely wouldn’t have ventured inside if he hadn’t come along. After a short while, we headed back out into the light of day, and I recited my best and most polite Japanese phrases in order to thank him with a bow.
From there, I left the Hiroshima Castle complex and made a quick stop at the Great Torii, famous for surviving the blast of the atomic bomb. I then headed eastward and to the pretty Shukkeien Garden, a very tranquil place which was the perfect way to end a busy day on my feet.
The gardens were peppered with a variety of lovely spots, including a pretty stone bridge, pools full of koi fish, all kinds of plants and trees, and even a little wooden structure jetting out over the water. Taking off my shoes as indicated, I sat down in the shade of this little building, resting my body and mind for a while as the afternoon turned into the evening.
Now weary after a long day out, I hauled myself off the floor, out of the gardens, and onto a bus back to Hiroshima train station. There, I grabbed a bite to eat and awaited the next bullet train back to Osaka, where Inés had one little treat left in store before the day came to an end: it was karaoke time!
After a quick shower in my hotel to freshen up, I headed to the south of Osaka and to a karaoke place where she and her friends had booked a room for the evening. I was tired, but I just love karaoke, and there was no way I was going to leave karaoke’s birthplace, Japan, without a good sing-song!
I paid my dues, grabbed myself a strange milky water drink, and headed into room number 19, where Inés introduced me to all of her friends and old housemates. We then sang along to some absolute European classics and listened along as everyone else sang a variety of songs from around the world in a variety of languages. There were songs in Japanese, Chinese, Korean, German, English, and even Spanish. It would have been rude if me and Inés hadn’t treated everyone to a rendition of Aserejé and then the Macarena!
With my energy now fully spent and the threat of the metro closing on us, Inés and I then said our goodbyes and headed back to our respective accommodation. It had been a wild day of somber moments and then absolute hilarity, so it was definitely time to get some rest before the next day would see us head off on yet another little excursion outside of Osaka. More on that coming soon in my next post!
The train from Arima took me and Inés into Osaka, the city that she’d been living in for a good while and where I would spend the last five days of my fortnight in Japan. After switching to the city’s metro system, I waved goodbye to Inés as I hopped off at the stop just outside my hotel.
The room I was allocated was handily on the first floor of rooms just above the reception area, but upon entering it I saw that the window was diffused for what I guess were privacy reasons. This made me feel claustrophobic, so I asked if there was a room on an upper floor with a window I could see out of. There was, and so up to the 13th and top floor I was sent!
Once I’d unpacked, napped, and showered, it was back out to meet Inés once again to look for something to eat and for a little nighttime tour of the city. Inés wanted to take me to a specific restaurant, but for the life of us we couldn’t find it. Our wanderings around looking for it did lead us to discover some gorgeous little side streets and even a tiny shrine in the middle of a square, but our stomachs were rumbling and so finding a place to eat was top priority.
We eventually discovered that we couldn’t find it because it was closed for the summer and was thus missing the bold lighting and menu panels that would normally be found plastered across its facade. Ever prepared, Inés took me to a place she’d identified as an option B, but this second place had quite a queue and it was already pretty late.
In the end we settled for some ramen, which was good but not half as tasty as the otherworldly dish I’d had in Kyoto. It did what it needed to do, though, and had the two of us fed and watered and back on the streets to continue our explorations of the streets of Osaka by night.
Most of our evening was then spent down by the river, a gorgeous area full of lanterns, bars, stalls, shops, and the general buzz of people out for the night. Surprised by how many people were around on a Tuesday night, we eventually found a table and sat down to have a drink of grape pop and a little boogie to the music that the stall owner was playing.
The next morning I grabbed some breakfast at the hotel and then was able to step on to the exact train and carriage of the metro that Inés was already travelling on thanks to the crazily detailed signage and organisation of the Japanese railway systems. We were heading to a different part of the city in order to catch a glimpse of the Tenjin Matsuri, a festival that takes place every July and sees the streets filled with processions which eventually turn into a huge parade of boats which wind their way down the river in the evening.
Once we’d found the area that the parade was going to pass through, we looked for a bar to sit in for a while as we were already tired and thirsty from the oppressive heat of the day. We weren’t very convinced as we wandered in to an old little bar which stunk of cigarette smoke, but we weren’t keen on walking around any longer either so we plonked ourselves down on two of the spinning wooden stools and ordered a drink.
The lady at the bar turned out to be an absolute darling, plying us with freshly made juice mixes and offering us some sandwiches, which we didn’t turn down as we were already getting hungry. She asked us where we were from and then said Inés was very pretty, eventually presenting her with a traditional dress as a gift! It was a lovely gesture and there were smiles all round until the sound of beating drums came in from outside.
It turns out that we’d inadvertently wandered into a bar which sat on the parade route itself, so everyone in the place (the owner included) pottered out onto the street to join the people on the pavement watching the festivities unfold. There was an amazing variety of floats going by, with all sorts of symbolism and groups covering all age ranges.
At one point, a group of young boys came past dancing with lion’s heads, a scene which was quite fun until one of them took it off and threw himself down on the curb. He was clearly suffering with the heat, so throngs of people suddenly showed up out of nowhere with fans, water, sprays… the works. Some medics finally moved him into the bar where we were at, where me and Inés took it in turns helping fan him whilst they unwrapped the seemingly endless winds of sash that he had wrapped around him. It was no wonder he was struggling!
He eventually came to, just as the ambulance crew showed up to take him away. We soon followed, heading off to continue following the crowds as they made their way down to the river and to the parade of boats. We’d to navigate through the throngs of people that were on the streets, passing through street food stalls and the gathered masses until reaching the water’s edge.
We watched a few of the boats go past with their accompanying music and even dancers, but the heat eventually got to us and we headed off to find somewhere a little less crazy to stand. This took us over a very busy bridge, where we were scolded for stopping to take photos. This led us to a metro station and as such to the toilets that we were so desperately seeking, after which we headed back to the riverside as night fell to catch the fireworks which mark the end of the festival.
What followed was a visual spectacle, with a higher density of boats passing by accompanied by music and dancing. This was all framed by an amazing firework display which lit up the sky and created an electric atmosphere which it seemed like the whole city had come out to experience.
Our feet then grew tired from the day’s rambling and so we headed back to the city centre on the metro. There, we plonked ourselves in a bar and had a couple of drinks and a good chat to end a crazy first day in Osaka. It wouldn’t be my last day here by any stretch of the imagination, but as I headed to bed that night I had an excursion in mind for the next day to explore even more of Japan’s amazing cities.
Where was I to go? That’ll have to wait until the next post…
I pick up the tales from my Japan trip on my second bullet train, this time out of Kyoto. After a relatively short journey, I hopped off in Kobe, the city famed for its supposedly delicious beef. I’ve not been eating red meat for a while, so I didn’t go searching for a burger, though. Besides, I had other plans, involving taking a couple of local trains up the mountains and to Arima.
The Kobe metro left me with one last train to catch, or so I thought. As this pretty old train trundled up the mountains, Google Maps informed me that I should switch trains to what looked like the train I was already on. I was surprised, as Google Maps had up until this point been unbelievably accurate in Japan: telling me which entrances to use, how much everything would cost, and even the carriage number to get on in order to get off at a convenient spot on the destination platform.
It turns out I should have paid it heed, as the train I was on forked off in a completely different direction just after leaving the station. It reminded me of the exact same thing I did in New York last year on my way back to the airport.
Even after I had ignored it, Google Maps swooped in to save me, and I rerouted myself back to the line I should have been on and on to Arima Onsen. The clue for my plans for the next 24 hours was in the name, as onsen is the name for thermal baths in Japan. It was time for an evening and morning of relaxation up in the mountains of Japan!
From now on, though, I wouldn’t be alone on my explorations. Inés, my formed colleague who is currently living in Japan, would be coming along for the experience. Inés is the reason I really made the whole trip in the first place: I’d been wanting to visit Japan for a while, so when she announced that she would be moving there for the year, I jumped on the chance to visit her there!
We’d arranged to meet at the hotel, so I opened Google Maps once again and it informed me that my destination was a mere seven minutes away on foot. What it didn’t mention is that this entire journey was up a deceptively steep gradient, a task made even more unbearable by the stifling heat and my heavy suitcase.
I arrived at the entrance to the hotel just to discover that the driveway up to the doors was yet another series of uphill sections. I genuinely tried seeing if someone would stop to give me a lift up, but no cars came by for a while and so I had to decide whether to roast in the sun, find some shade and cry for a while, or power through and drag my case up the hill.
Naturally I went with the latter, but I didn’t have to undertake the entire climb in the end. One of the doormen saw me struggling and came hurdling towards me with a baggage cart, insisting that he’d push the thing for the rest of the journey. Thanking him profusely, I dragged myself inside and into the glorious air conditioning of the lobby.
In one of the bathrooms, I did my best to freshen up with some wet wipes, before sitting down in the rather grand and ostentatious room as I waited for Inés. When she arrived, we had a great laugh about how sweaty we both were after the horrendous climb, as well as how bizarre it was that the two of us were now first seeing each other again after half a year not only in Japan, but up in the mountains in the middle of nowhere.
Whilst we waited for our room to be ready, we sat and enjoyed some sandwiches in the lobby café, looking out to the lawns and the pool area as you can see above. Eventually we were able to check in, whereupon a lady took us up to our snazzy room and used Google Translate to explain the huge list of offerings that the hotel provided. Me and Inés’ priority was cooling off, though, so we grabbed our swimming attire and headed straight for the pool.
The two of us spent a good couple of hours around the pool, having a lovely catch up in the water before moving over to the jacuzzi as the sun set and the air began to cool a little. Just before leaving, we asked the lifeguard if the two of us were too big to go on the waterslide, but she indicated that we could. We ended our time down there with a splash!
We then headed back to the room to get changed before our evening meal, which we’d scouted out a location for in the form of one of the hotel’s fancy little restaurants. Glad rags on, we went exploring the hotel a little more, discovering a lovely lounge area, amazing views over the valley, and a multitude of other little details that dotted the traditional wood-clad interior. We felt like emperor and empress!
We arrived at the restaurant to discover that it was only very small and fully booked, so we made a reservation for an hour later and set about finding something to do to kill the time. Inés suggested we look for their games room, which we found to be full of arcade games, music, and flashing neon lights. As if my yen were Monopoly money, I set about trying out all the games and the two of us had a great laugh. I discovered that my destiny does not lie in playing the drums, however…
Back at the restaurant, we were seated and then treated to an absolutely delicious meal. With the component ingredients being served on small plates, I was shown how to mix meat, stock, vegetables, and egg to create a rich pot of noodles. Inés had something similar, and we shared a bit of everything before paying up and heading back to the hotel room.
This wasn’t the end of our night though – far from it! As the thermal baths on the rooftop of the hotel were open until midnight, Inés had smartly suggested that we head up there to make the very most of our one and only evening in this swanky hotel. To do this, we donned a traditional kind of robe and headed up to the onsen.
On the way, Inés ran me through how I should navigate the baths, which are split by sex due to the fact that you have to use them whilst stark naked. I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about this, but regardless I headed in, disrobed, and moved into the washing area. There, I’d to sit on a little wooden stool and give myself a thorough clean. There was all kinds of soaps, a shower head, and my favourite contraption of all in the form of a wooden bucket. This filled rapidly via a huge tap and I used it to drain all the suds off me with generous splashes of hot water before advancing further.
Feeling very clean, relaxed, and surprisingly not self-conscious at all, I lowered myself into the first of the steaming hot pools and took in the nighttime views over the mountains. I spent the next couple of hours changing between the different baths, the sauna, and a cold plunge pool. When not immersed in the water, I leaned over the balcony and took in the views of the valley, allowing myself to be buffeted by the cool night air.
Now feeling extremely zen and even more tired, I popped my robe back on and headed back down to the room. Inés arrived shortly after, and we finally headed off to sleep at around 1am. What a fabulous day it had been, with the highlight being the tranquil bodily experience of the onsen.
Our alarms went off early as we wanted to once again squeeze every last once out of the morning before we’d to check out. First up was breakfast, which was a huge buffet affair that we had to wait to go in due to the sheer size of the place. This was nothing like your typical European breakfast buffet though; it had all sorts of novel stuff on offer. From fresh omelette balls to noodles and soups, there was a true smorgasbord of delights to try.
Inés and I did just this, managing two rounds of the buffet before giving up and plodding back to the hotel room to be sure to vacate the room on time. In a moment of cheekiness, we then left our bags with the doormen and headed downstairs to spend a couple of hours in the outdoor onsen even after we’d checked out.
This second onsen was equally as delightful as that of the night before, albeit with a different vibe as it was daytime and the pools lay between between tall trees and jagged rocks. I watched a bird taking its own bath in a little water feature within the neighbouring forest and I was at peace with the world for a while.
As the time we’d agreed upon came around, I hauled myself out of the water, got dressed, and met back up with Inés. The two of us sat in a lovely little lounge for a while longer, discussing our thoughts on all kinds of things before we got up and headed back to reception to see if there was any way of heading back down to the train station without having to head down the horrific hill that had tried to kill us just 24 hours previously.
It turns out that there was a shuttle bus from the hotel to Arima and back every twenty minutes, something we wished we had known the day before as we hopped on board. We eventually made it on to our train and onward to my next destination, somewhere Inés knew rather well and would help me to explore as I entered the second week of my Japanese adventure…
After a couple of hours of sudoku on the bullet train from Tokyo, the tannoy announced that we’d be making a brief stop in Kyoto and that anyone alighting should be well prepared. A little stressed by the prospect of missing my stop, I rushed to collect my things and then practically threw myself off the train and into the stifling humidity of Kyoto.
I then proceeded to get somewhat lost in the train station as I searched for a way to get to the metro lines without having to haul my case down some stairs. I eventually gave up and had to do just that, so I was very relieved once the metro came along and whisked me off to my hotel in a cool, air-conditioned cab.
The hotel I’d booked was to be quite the flashback, as we’d worked on the rebranding of the EN Hotel chain a few years back at Erretres. I’d let the EN Hotel team know I was checking into this, the first of their hotels to be renovated with the new brand, and was very touched when I arrived to my room to find a note from them welcoming me to the city.
Tired from my trip, I threw myself down for a nap, after which I headed out into the night to look for some food and explore the centre of Kyoto. On the way, I stumbled across a street party as part of the local festivals, so I stayed a while to take some pictures before heading off to a curry restaurant that had I had been recommended by my contacts at the hotel.
My first experience in a Japanese restaurant didn’t start very well, as I sat down and ordered only to realise that I had no cash on me. I asked if I could pay with card, to which I was told that I could not, and so I asked where the nearest cash machine was. As the guy behind the bar started preparing my curry, I was pacing down the road to a Family Mart to go grab some money. Quite the start!
The drama was worth it though, as my evening meal was absolutely divine, albeit quite spicy. This was nothing that the yoghurt and the delicious pickled vegetables couldn’t sort out, though. As I tucked into the beautifully presented dish, the chef asked me where I was from. After I explained that I was from the north of England and near Manchester, he pottered off and changed the music to The Smiths, a little gesture that had me grinning from ear to ear.
Once I’d finished my meal, I chatted with the owner for a short while, before putting those crisp yen to good use and paying up in order to have a quick snoop around the centre of Kyoto. I came across one of the main thoroughfares, which was resplendently decorated with lanterns and other motifs, but I soon grew tired and so caught a bus a few stops back to my hotel for the night.
The next day I grabbed breakfast at the hotel and then hailed down a bus to take me to a neighbourhood called Gion in the east of the city. This is the area that Kyoto is most famous for as it is chock-full of temples, geishas, and old little streets connecting everything together. Having started the day sweating and perturbed by a foul odour in the air, I was hoping that the first temple I pottered into would raise my spirits and maybe even provide a little bit of shade.
This was the Yasaka Shrine, a gorgeous complex full of structures, lanterns, and pathways through pretty forests peppered with shrines and other symbology. One of my favourite little features was a hand washing station full of flowers, as can be seen in the photo above.
Despite being surrounded by such beauty, I soon found myself floored by the oppressive heat. To combat this I downed an electrolyte drink, left the temple, and sat for a while below a weeping tree in a green space around the back. This was Maruyama Park, a spot which I believe is lovely in spring and is known for its cherry blossoms, but which on this day functioned solely as a respite spot from the unrelenting sun.
Once I’d perked up a bit, I left this admittedly pretty little park and found myself wandering along the ancient streets of Gion. I passed by many gorgeous buildings spanning different eras of Japanese architectural styles, from intricate red wooden shrines to minimal private houses.
A silly little detail I was fascinated by was the way in which water is drained from the roofs. Rather than having a solid pipe leading from the gutter to the ground, most buildings employed what I’ve just discovered are called kusari-doi or “rain chains”. These consist of a chain of ornate and interlinked metal cups which pass rainwater from one to the next, creating a sort of water feature out of the flow. I wish I could have seen one in action, but alas there was no chance of rain with the omnipresent sun…
After a while, I stumbled across a long stairway which led to what looked like the entrance to another shrine. With no plan of action in place, I followed my curiosity and headed upwards, paying a small fee to explore this next temple.
It turns out this temple was called Kōdai-ji, and is one of the more famous of the shrines which make up the Gion district within Kyoto. Through the trees I could catch some cool views over the rest of the city and the mountains beyond, but the real gems were to be found within the complex itself.
I was enchanted by the tranquil outdoor pathways which led me between delicate wooden constructions and the surrounding forest, but the indoor spaces were also a real sight to behold. I took my shoes off and explored the grand hall of the shrine, took respite under the wooden roofs of the walkways, and even walked solo through a pathway flanked by bamboo. It wasn’t the famous bamboo forest of Arashiyama, but being alone as I passed under these immense plants was quite a unique experience, one I think was made possible by the heat that had driven most sensible tourists away.
I then left the shrine and found myself exploring the streets of Gion once again. Now a little tired of temples, I headed to the famous view of the Hōkan-ji pagoda from the quaint little streets flanked by traditional houses. After my bad luck with my passport in Tokyo, I was now having a streak of good luck, and thus came across the area pretty deserted in order to take a good photo.
With my Gion experience more or less over, I stopped off to grab a matcha tea ice cream before leaving back for the centre of Kyoto. Matcha isn’t my favourite flavour, but it sure did hit the spot regardless!
The wander back towards my hotel took me through the gardens of the Kennin-ji temple, so I made a little detour to cool off between its trees and calm down with the relaxing sounds of flowing water.
After grabbing a bus back to the centre, I wandered past my hotel and into the little streets behind it. This took me down some wonderful little alleyways between traditional hotels known as ryokans. I then arrived at my destination, a restaurant I’d been recommended for its obanzai offering. Obanzai is a culinary tradition native to Kyoto, whereby the ingredients uses must be in season and at least half of them must be sourced locally.
Another aspect of obanzai that nobody had mentioned to me is that it’s always a set meal. This I discovered as I sat down at the bar and was immediately served a series of dishes, one right after the other. This was accompanied by some green tea which I technically can’t drink due to its caffeine content, but which I felt semi-obliged to as part of the experience. I’m not complaining, though, for everything was delicious and came to a mere 1000¥, which at the time was about 6.50€ or £5.50.
To digest the lovely food I went back to the hotel, where I napped and then showered before heading back out to visit yet another shrine. This was to be Fushimi Inari Taisha, a place famous the world over for its impressive walkway covered with thousands of torii. According to the internet, the mountain that it sits on may be home to over 10,000 of these red gates, something I can very well believe as I saw countless of them and I only visited one tiny section of the temple complex.
With my legs aching and the heat bearing down on me once again, I hopped on a train back into the centre of the city. Upon arrival, I reckoned I had just enough time to try and see just a bit more of Gion and maybe catch the sunset over the pagoda I had seen earlier. I had a long walk uphill ahead, but paced as best as I could in order to outrun the setting sun.
Although I could have perhaps done with being there half an hour earlier, I reached the area I wanted to be in just in time to watch the sun drop below the mountains in the distance. It was a lovely moment, but as I headed down towards the pagoda, I saw that many people had had the same idea as me and had thus convened on the streets to try and get a look at the evening sky. There wasn’t enough room to swing a cat…
In another stroke of sheer luck, I found a little alcove which offered some brilliant views over Gion, and from there managed to snap what I think is the best photo I took in Kyoto. I leave it below in all its untouched glory.
With the sunset over, I made my way back to the hotel before heading out for something to eat. Inés recommended I visit a ramen restaurant that she’d enjoyed when she was in Kyoto, so I hopped on another bus and joined the queue to order at Ichiaran. With the line moving slowly, I got chatting to a French family who were a little confused by the ordering system as they’d just arrived in Japan.
After I’d explained as best as I could, I was called in to make my order via a machine and then join the second queue for a spot in one of the booths. These are individual eating compartments where you sit between a wooden screen on either side, with the space in front of you being closed off by a bamboo-rod curtain which the chefs can open to pick up your order card and then serve you your food.
Intrigued by the system, I made only one little deviation from the chef’s suggestion as I made my ramen order, asking for the stock to be a little richer: I do love a good strong taste. This I requested by circling a series of options on a paper ticket, which was then whisked away and pretty quickly replaced by my food. This came in the form of a big, steaming bowl of ramen, an egg still in its shell, and a plate of extra meat and seaweed that I could add to the ramen.
After opening the egg and being completely mystified as to how they’d managed to salt it to perfection without opening it, I configured my bowl and tried my first mouthful of noodles. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I then nearly began to cry: I don’t think I’d ever tasted something this delicious before in my entire life. With that said, I don’t think I need to elaborate more, but you can imagine that my long day exploring Kyoto had ended on a particular high: with the best meal I’ve ever eaten.
The next morning I was up at the crack of dawn (well, 9am felt like the crack of dawn to me) in order to check out and grab the second bullet train of my trip. I once again hauled my suitcase down the wonky streets of Kyoto, hopped on the metro, and then found the next train headed southbound…
Kyoto, just like Tokyo, had been absolutely amazing. Although they are both big cities, the time I sent in the Gion neighbourhood meant that Kyoto felt like a chance to leave the urban crawl behind in favour of a more natural and traditional side to Japan. The shrines, the streets, and the amazing ramen will stay with me forever!
Strap yourself in because it’s going to be a long one. I promise it will all be worth it though, as there’s all sorts of unexpected twists and turns along the way…
My trip to the airport began as they usually do when I’ve spent a lot of money on a trip and I’m trying to save myself the 30€ I would have spent on a taxi: with me hauling my suitcase through the streets of my neighbourhood and onto a train bound for Terminal 4. There, I dropped off said case and headed through security to begin the list of things I needed to do before catching the first flight: have something to eat, put on my compression stockings, and work out exactly what documentation I needed to present at immigration upon arrival in Japan.
As you can see, I wasn’t exactly prepared.
I just about managed to get changed and complete the online entry form before hauling myself to the departure gate and giving my aunty a quick ring on the phone. This catch up was then cut short by the tannoy, which called for us all to start boarding as I said my hurried goodbyes.
This was the first of two flights which would take me across the globe and to Japan for my first time ever in the country and in the whole continent of Asia itself. Faced with the daunting prospect of a 17-hour journey, I’d planned my activities on the flight down to a tee and planned to sleep as much as I could on this first leg.
The excitement of the upcoming trip and the stress of the flight transfer didn’t let me sleep all that much in the end. Despite Qatar Airways’ lovely complimentary sleep mask (I kept both from the two flights, thank you very much), I only managed to get a couple of hours worth of kip in, but watching the dawn break in dramatic red and purple colours over the deserts of Saudi Arabia definitely made up for the insomnia.
I then landed in Qatar in order to make the transfer to the next plane. After getting chatting to a Spanish couple next to me, I discovered that they were also bound for Tokyo, and so I was pleased to wind up running back into them in Doha Airport as we all scrambled for the gate. In the end we arrived just in time: we didn’t have to run at any point but nor did we have time to sit around. Next stop: Tokyo!
The next flight was pretty uneventful and before I knew it I was in Tokyo Airport, heading down endless moving walkways as I headed towards immigration. I messaged Inés, my ex colleague who I was going to be spending the second half of my Japan trip with, noting that even the police patrol vehicles in the airport had fun little jingles instead of the intermittent beeping that I’m so used to hearing in Europe.
It was when I hit the immigration line that the fun began. After fishing my passport out of my pocket to present it to the immigration officer, I opened it to the photo page only to discover that – to my abject horror – it had ripped right down the middle.
In what I suppose was a fight-or-flight response, I started giggling to myself. I’d never been so far away from home and so of course the one vital document I was carrying with me was going to break. A combination of resignation to the fact I could do nothing and the delirium brought on by the lack of sleep meant I simply trundled on forwards. Holding my passport in just a way to disguise the tear as best I could, I decided I’d just have to explain the situation and hope that they would take pity on me.
To my relief, nobody batted an eyelid and the passport was scanned through – twice I might add – with no problem at all. Now fully within Japan, I picked up my suitcase and headed out to grab a taxi.
The hot and humid air that hit me as I left the terminal didn’t help matters as I tried to work out the busy mess that was the taxi rank. I eventually gave up, ordered a taxi online, and found myself throwing my case and then myself over some concrete barriers in order to reach the spot where the driver had parked. Looking back, I bet the sight of me jumping over the barrier looked rather suspicious, but I was way too tired and sweaty to care.
I then spent the taxi journey to my hotel pondering the issue at hand. My ripped passport had gotten me in, but I feared that it might not get me out, and I still hadn’t experienced Japan enough to know whether it would be a place I’d be happy being trapped in. I was still agonising over the issue when the taxi driver announced that we’d arrived at the hotel. Neither of us could see the entrance to it though, and so he jumped out and spent a good five minutes wandering around looking for me. I did say I’d get out and look too, but he was having none of it.
Once we’d found the hotel entrance, I eventually got checked in and threw myself down on the bed. By that point I’d made my decision: tomorrow I would have to go to the British Embassy.
I wish I could share some fun anecdotes from my first morning in Tokyo, but it was all rather mechanical as I ticked off a series of things I had to do on my list. I went to get some money from an ATM, picked up a public transport card, loaded some money onto it, and headed off to the embassy to see if I could talk to someone.
I arrived sweating after a mere five minutes of walking from the metro station to the embassy building: the summer humidity in Japan is not to be reckoned with. There, I was told that I couldn’t just show up without an appointment (life lesson learned) and that I should call such-and-such a number. I thus spent a while pacing back and forth in front of the embassy gates as I chatted to a very helpful lady on the phone. She told me to search on the government website for an ‘Emergency Travel Document’, after which I hung up as soon as was politely possible in an attempt to keep the international calling charges at bay.
Back to the hotel it was then. I’d been in Tokyo for half a day and hadn’t seen a thing other than my hotel, the metro, and the bloody British Embassy. I didn’t expect my first photo of the trip to be as such, but I thought I might as well take a photo of the embassy building while I was there, so here it is.
Now very sticky and rather angry that I’d gotten so sticky for no reason, I hopped back on the metro and returned to my hotel room. There, I’d to fill out an online form before engaging a spot of gymnastics in order to get some decent lighting over a plain background for an impromptu passport photo shoot. I then showered and threw myself back into bed for a nap. Despite the excitement of my first taste of Tokyo on the metro, I could think of nothing but sleep.
This nap proved to work out quite well, as I awoke to find a message from 20 minutes prior which informed me that my application had been approved and that I should wait for further instructions on how to go and pick it up. With the situation seemingly resolved, I decided it was time to call my mum and finally tell her about the pickle I had wound up in. We both had a laugh at my misfortune!
Energised from my nap and the knowledge that the main paperwork was done and dusted, I finally headed out into the streets of Shibuya, the area of Tokyo that I was staying in. Now finally taking in all of the sights, sounds, and smells of the city, I wandered down a main road full of shops and restaurants, most of which were closing up for the night. Inés had warned me that things close early in Japan, but for obvious reasons I’d completely forgotten.
Along the way I discovered a shop that would soon become very dear to my heart: Family Mart. This chain of convenience stores is to be found all over, but I was charmed by their extensive selection of food, more specifically their many different kinds of fresh fried chicken. I don’t think any food in the world qualifies as comfort food more than a good piece of fried chicken, so I grabbed one to go and finished it off as I headed further down the road.
Chatting to Inés on WhatsApp, she helped me to find a restaurant for some Japanese curry, but as I arrived it turned out to be closed. This little wander had taken me to a rather cool little district called Ura-Harajuku, where I had a good snoop at the eclectic shops before coming across yet another Family Mart. I grabbed another bite to eat and carried on my explorations, resigned to the fact that I was going to have to snack as I went as it was now way too late to catch any open restaurants.
I then found myself in Omotesandō, an area famous for being rather fancy and having some impressive architecture. I took all of this in whilst munching on my egg and pork sandwich from the Family Mart before heading back to Shibuya station and to one of the most iconic places within Tokyo.
The next spot on my sightseeing tour was the infamous scramble crossing, which I would soon learn is one of just many examples across Japan. This one seems to be the most famous, with its huge diagonal crossing allowing pedestrians to basically traverse the four-way junction in any direction they see fit. Lit by the huge screens and neon lights of the buildings that frame the square, it is quite the sight to behold once the crossing lights turned green.
After sticking around to watch people cross every which way, I then followed the crowds into the street that everyone seemed to be heading down, which is the one in the dead centre of the above photo, just below the IKEA sign. This took me into a maze of bustling streets filled with more bright lights and buzzing with people eating, drinking, and just generally milling around as I was. I grabbed myself a drink from yet another Family Mart and explored the streets for a good while.
My legs then grew tired, the restaurants began closing up, and a fun song and animation on one of the advertising screens announced that it was 10pm. I thought this as good a sign as any to head back to bed, and so I wandered back to the hotel, content that despite a wasted morning I’d managed to see a few places on my admittedly very small to-do list. It was probably for the best that I’d showed up without doing too much research and without having too many expectations of what Tokyo would be like!
The jet lag had me up bright and early the next day, but this was probably a good thing as it meant I could avoid the midday heat. I thus got a move on and grabbed a train just one stop up the line to visit a nearby temple, the first of many that I’d experience during my two weeks in Japan.
The early morning stillness and the natural surroundings of the Meiji Jingu Shrine were in stark contrast to the assault on the senses that the streets of Shibuya had been the night before. I entered under the first torii (the traditional Japanese gates) and followed the wide path through the trees past containers of sake (a clear wine made from rice) and then barrels of French red wine, all of which had been donated by their respective producers as offerings to the shrine.
Passing through a couple more torii, I eventually arrived at the shrine itself, which was still very quiet. I learned how to properly pay my respects within the shrine, took some photos, and then left as the heat had already began to hit and I was ready for another shower before continuing my explorations.
With the heat still rising I decided that my afternoon’s activities should take place indoors. For this, I had a look over the recommendations that Inés had prepared for me a few weeks prior to my arrival. I saw that the National Arts Centre had an exhibition using works from the Tate Collection to explore the use of light in art, and I knew I simply had to go and see it.
The centre and its metro station were works of art in themselves, much like the Guggenheim in Bilbao that I visited a couple of years ago. The exhibition was then absolutely fantastic, with great care and consideration paid to every single aspect of the exhibition route, the works within, and the information explaining their inclusion. I ran into a couple of pieces from figures I admire, such as Dan Flavin and James Turrell, but also fell unexpectedly in love with a some new paintings and artists along the way.
After buying a few postcards in the gift shop, I then sat down for a bite to eat before I braved the outside heat once more. I made a beeline back for the metro station, grabbed a couple of trains, and then resurfaced next to another landmark that I was keen on seeing in the form of the Tokyo Tower.
I was pleasantly surprised to find the tower framed by a series of buildings forming yet another shrine, and so spent a while wandering around trying to get a good photo of everything. The bright sun and spotty cloud cover meant that it was difficult to find an angle from which the tower would be suitably lit, but I did my best. Don’t let the clouds fool you however – it was still unbearably hot.
I took refuge in the gardens of the shrine for a while, finishing off yet another drink I’d bought from one of the countless vending machines that line every single street. After my initial distrust of these machines, I came to see then more of an essential public service, providing cool refreshment whenever one may need it. Also, I found I could pay for the drinks with my metro pass. Odd, but handy.
Despite my cool drink and moment of rest, I still felt a little dizzy, noting the first subtle signs of heatstroke. Not wanting to lose any more time in Tokyo than I already had with the passport fiasco, I headed back to the very intense air conditioning of the metro and then up to my hotel room for a much-needed nap.
I then made the age-old mistake of not putting an alarm on before napping. I thus woke up much later than I wanted to and so had to change my plans, heading off to the Kabukicho neighbourhood instead of down to the water’s edge. This crazy neighbourhood is famous for its bright lights and nightlife, something which I ran into as soon as I alighted the train.
This place felt like Shibuya squared, with an absolutely crazy amount of people, noises, smells, bright lights, and a general buzz that I can’t express with neither words nor images. A little overwhelmed by it all, I buried myself within the multicoloured streets and pottered around for a good while. I grabbed some street food to keep me ticking over as I followed the ebb and flow of the crowds, doing little more than simply taking it all in.
After a time wandering around in a bit of a daze, I was approached by a dodgy character who I couldn’t seem to shake off. I sternly asked him to leave me alone, which he thankfully did, but I took this odd encounter as a sign to head off to the next spot I wanted to visit before the evening was over: Akihabara.
I arrived at Akihabara quite late and then immediately proceeded to get completely lost, which is what happens when I think I know better than our Google Maps overlords. The district is famous for its offer of various anime and video game related products, but it took me so long to work out where I was that everything was pretty much closed when I eventually found its epicentre.
I spent a short time wandering around the area, which for some reason reminded me a bit of Blackpool. It must be all the bright colours and visual pollution created by the open shop fronts with their bright and harsh lighting. Now you know where to go if you want an authentic Japanese experience on a budget – Blackpool, Lancashire.
With a mental note made of this invaluable travel tip, I sought out the nearest train station and made my way back to the hotel to spend an hour watching TV and writing my little travel diary. Said diary notes that I felt “fulfilled and relaxed, although so much fried chicken can’t be doing me much good.” I guess I had wound up visiting Family Mart yet again…
Despite my relaxing evening of TV and fried chicken, I woke up restless the next day as I still hadn’t heard from the embassy. I gave them a ring and wound up on the phone for about twenty minutes – that’ll be costing me a pretty penny. They were really helpful, though, and I discovered that my emergency document had been printed and was on its way from Singapore over to Japan. Content with this update, I got ready and headed out to visit yet another of Tokyo’s seemingly endless offer of different neighbourhoods.
This time I found myself in Ginza, a rather posh area full of fancy shops that I’ll never shop at, both for lack of interest as well as money. There was one that I needed to pay a visit to, however, and I would do that just as soon as I found my way out of the huge shopping centre that the metro exit had spat me out into.
Once I’d located the street I made my way over to Itoya, a huge stationary and crafts shop with nine floors of papers, pens, and all the other goodies that we designers go crazy for. Now I say it, I don’t think it’s just us designers: who doesn’t love a bit of stationary?
As you can imagine, I left this huge shop with my wallet significantly lighter than when I went in. In my bag was a selection of lime green paper and envelopes, a series of pens that I’d selected based on how likely Barbie would be to use them, and stamps that I’ll probably never use but which will look cool on my desk.
From there I moved over to visit Sensō-ji, another buddhist temple which was relatively close to Ginza. This temple has a lovely main building and pagoda, but it was the street leading down to the heart of the complex which I found the most interesting. It was lined with an uninterrupted series of cabins with all kinds of stuff on offer: food, souvenirs, and a lot of local sweets and desserts. It’s no doubt an absolute tourist trap, but I saw it as ideal for a light peruse and a spot of people watching.
I then reached the main temple building and I kid you not that the moment I stepped over the threshold, my phone rang. It was the embassy, and my document had finally arrived for me to pick up. Relieved and endlessly grateful, I said that I’d be there in an hour – a number I had picked out of thin air. I hung up, wondered for a moment if I should convert to Buddhism, and then headed back to the metro.
I wound up arriving at the embassy a little late, but that was mainly because I’d got distracted and taken the photos above of the temple complex’s pagoda and gorgeous little gardens. They didn’t seem to mind, and I was soon chatting to one of the consulate staff through some plexiglass as she presented me with my pretty emergency travel document. I was expecting just a ratty piece of paper, but I was handed a pretty cyan blue passport containing the horrific hotel room selfie I’d taken just 48 hours prior.
I have to say that the embassy staff were absolutely great throughout the entire process, a sentiment I made clear to the woman attending me as I thanked her profusely and we wound up chatting for a while. I forgot her name, but there’s some people doing great work at the British Embassy in Tokyo!
Now clutching my emergency passport as if it were my first-born child, I headed straight back to the hotel to wrap it in swaddling clothes and place it carefully in the safe. This unexpected errand had once again scarpered my evening plans, but I still had a must-do trip to make that I resolved to make that same evening. To get there, I took a series of trains which wound up taking me over the streets and past the famous Rainbow Bridge – which wasn’t lit up in multiple colours to my great disappointment.
This train dropped me off at Team-Lab, an interactive experience that Inés had told me would be right up my street as the principal medium that they use is light. Excited, I bought a ticket, watched the instruction video, took off my shoes as instructed, and headed inside.
The route through the exhibition was then pretty insane. There were water features, tactile rooms, a fully immersive LED hall, huge multicolour balls of light, and even a room where I’d to wade through knee-height water illuminated by an interactive projection of fish and flowers. It was wild!
Upon arriving back at the shoe lockers, I assumed that the experience was over, but I was then shown into the second part. After meandering through a garden full of illuminated bean-shaped things, it was my time to enter another garden, this one much more abstract than the last. This last installation included vertical columns built from real and living plants. These columns moved slowly and rhythmically up and down, creating a gorgeous visual effect of an ocean of flowers.
I then found myself putting my shoes back on and returning to the real world, where I paid yet another visit to the Family Mart for a bite to eat: I still hadn’t aligned my eating schedule with that of the Japanese. Food in hand, I grabbed the train another couple of stops to a spot that I’d found after wanting to recreate my experience in New York City, namely spending the last night by the waterside with views over the city I’d been inhabiting for the last few days.
Tokyo did not disappoint. I headed onto the sand of an unexpected beach and perched myself atop a low wall to take in the sight which lay before me. I looked over a sea of tall buildings topped with flickering red lights for airplanes, but most prominently I took in the views of the Rainbow Bridge as the reflection of its lights danced on the water.
I then went for a wander down the beach, stopping only to read the tsunami warning sign, a stark reminder of where I was. I arrived at the next train station along and hurried onto the platform to grab one of the evening’s last trains back into the urban centre and off to the hotel for my last night in this huge and crazy city.
The next morning my alarm sounded early, signalling for me to get up, packed, and out. I left my suitcase in reception and then left for my one last experience before leaving Tokyo. This would take me to a place that I’d tried twice over the previous days to visit, but my plans had been repeatedly scarpered for one reason or another – usually that pesky passport.
I hopped on one of the musical metro lines and took it until its end, where I was spat out once again into a huge and rather confusing shopping centre. I eventually found the ticket office I was searching for and walked out onto a terrace which dramatically presented me with the landmark I was about to experience: the Tokyo Skytree.
I then grabbed a ticket, headed over to the lifts, and was raised 350m into the air in a mere 50 seconds. My ears popped, the doors opened, and I stepped out to take in the views from the first of two decks that I’d climb to. The panorama over the city was, as you can imagine, absolutely breathtaking: the tall buildings I’d risen from looked like little plastic toys on a perfect grid below.
I then boarded a second lift which took me a further 100m up to a grand total height of 450m. After a few days of shuttling myself around Tokyo on public transport, I was finally able to appreciate the vast expanse of a concrete jungle that the city really is. I didn’t know it at the time – I really did zero research before this trip besides chatting to Inés – but I was atop the world’s tallest tower and looking over the world’s biggest city. As you can appreciate in the photo below, the urban sprawl just doesn’t seem to end as far as the eye can see. Wild.
Once I’d returned to ground level, I headed back the way I’d come and picked up my suitcase in order to leave Tokyo for my next city on my trip around Japan. I’d bought myself a rail pass for unlimited travel across the country for a week, a concept which is still crazy to me. To put it to good use, I worked my way through Shibuya Station and to the Shinkansen platforms: it was time for my first time on a bullet train.
After having to hurriedly change platforms as I realised I was standing on the wrong one, I joined the back of a short queue to board the next bullet train headed south. I must say that I am a fan of the Japanese system of having lines painted on the floor so that people can form and orderly queue to board trains of all types. I would advocate for its introduction here in Spain, but I know that nobody here would pay it any attention.
I then spent a while fighting with the luggage compartment, eventually giving up and resigning to hauling my case onto the overhead rack. This little delay meant that the seats on the right hand side of the train had filled up, which I wanted to sit in to try and catch a glimpse of Mount Fuji as we sped past it. This was nothing that a few quick seat changes as other people left couldn’t fix though, so I eventually settled into my window seat, pulled out my sudoku book, and settled down for the journey.
As I’m sure you can appreciate, my first few days in Japan had been wild. I saw and experienced so much, including my first contact with the British Embassy despite me having lived outside of the UK for a good five years or so now. Tokyo is an insane city and one which I found pleasantly overwhelming. I say this because as I look at the photos and think back on what I got up to, I’m still noticing more details and making new observations about pretty much every aspect of the place.
It’s been a long post, but I’ll be back soon with my next installation from my fortnight spent traversing Japan!
After landing back in Madrid after a wonderful weekend in Vienna, I’d not long until my next holiday came around. Despite this and the increasingly unbearable sun and heat, I wound up doing all sorts before I headed off for my big summer trip.
One afternoon I headed out for a wander around my neighbourhood., something which always leads me to discover new sights. Sure enough, I ran into some abandoned shopfronts down a street I’d never visited. From there, I spent a good half an hour searching for somewhere to buy a notebook, before ending up spending the evening down by the river sketching and having a cheeky drink.
My self-care weekend continued after this with a Saturday spent in the centre of Madrid. I headed off to indulge in something I don’t usually do unless people come to visit: I went to have churros for breakfast! This took me to the infamous churrería named San Ginés, where I grabbed myself a plate of fresh churros and dipping chocolate and watched the tourists come and go for a while.
The next day I was back down by the river by my flat, where I went for a wander both in the morning and then later in the evening, spending the time in between relaxing at home under the air conditioning. July is always a bit of a challenge for me here – I’ll never get used to the summer heat!
That week I then had the chance to meet up with one of my old Spanish teachers – quite the throwback! He was visiting Madrid and so I spent an afternoon catching up over some tapas and beers. It was lovely to see him again after what must have been about ten years at least!
I then had another busy week, between a cocktail evening with Sara, a couple of calls to Cake Club, drinks with some friends from swimming as the course ended for summer, and then finally a reunion with Nacho. I went to visit him in Prague earlier this year but now was his turn to return to his home city of Madrid. We met up and spent a lovely evening drinking cocktails, munching on pizza, and having one of the fabulous chats that we usually do.
The weekend then arrived and I spent most of the Saturday packing until Luis invited me to join him down at his family’s finca, or country house. I did the exact same thing last year before I left for Canada, so a visit down to the finca just before I head off for a big trip seems to becoming somewhat of a tradition!
That’s all for now, as my next post will take us much further away from home than just Luis’ place on the outskirts of the city…
This is a post that I originally wrote and published way back in 2016 after my colleagues at Erretres asked me to reflect on my experience of finding an internship as a design student. Since I relaunched my website in 2019, the post has sat idly as a draft, but I recently reread it and realised that it’s pretty much the same advice I’d give someone today. Things have changed such as the pandemic forcing most things to shift online, but I stand by the main points I make, so here it is in all its untouched glory…
When it comes to looking for a work as a designer, lots of people claim to have a comprehensive guide on exactly how to land that dream position, but as a relatively fresh face in the industry I can’t profess to know all that much just yet! Herein I won’t be trying to convince you that I possess the secrets to the perfect technique, but rather I’ll share what worked for me personally as a design student venturing into the big scary world of professional work.
I should also point out that going to work in a design studio isn’t the only path available, as you might want to work as an in-house designer, start up your own design business, go freelance, or even change fields completely — I have friends who between them have done all of the above, and it’s working out nicely for all of them.
Moving back though to making the jump from study to work, the first and most daunting step is actually managing to land yourself the internship or job that you want, and so to break it down I’ve compiled a list of the things that worked for me. Here we go…
Plan your attack
You probably have an idea regarding the kind of place you’d like to work, but if not then browsing design blogs to find who has produced work that you like is a good place to start, but there’s also directories like Studio Index which list design studios based on location. Try compiling companies of interest into a list from most to least interesting, and then you can easily decide how many applications to send at once, all whilst keeping a record of the responses you’re getting.
Grab their attention
I have seen first hand that companies are inundated with applications, so in order to be considered it’s a good idea to design something which makes you stand out. Whether it be creating a personalised website or sending a printed portfolio packed with goodies, use your creative abilities to ensure that your application isn’t just filed away never to be seen again. One package I created contained a printed portfolio, cover letter and business card, all bound together using neon green card to catch the eye. For more ideas or should you find yourself completely lost, I found the publication Flaunt by UnderConsideration a pretty neat source of inspiration.
Make it personal
There’s nothing more boring than being handed an A4 CV or receiving an email which has clearly been copied, pasted and sent to loads of other design agencies. Designers all still human beings at the end of the day, so I found a good way to start a conversation was to send a personally written letter directly to the director of each company, talking about their work and injecting a little bit of my own personality.
But equally, don’t waste their time
Any good design business will be pretty busy, so do your best to keep everything you do succinct and straight to the point. Applying for a design job isn’t like applying for any other, and there’s no generally accepted application protocol, so if you don’t think something is necessary then don’t include it. Instead of sending a CV for example, I added a small column to my cover letter which outlined a few details with a link to my full CV online should anybody care enough to actually read it.
Try not to irritate
As I said, design companies are often busy and sometimes you’ll definitely have to follow up any applications with an email, phone call or even a knock at the door, but do know when its time to stop. Constant harassment will probably leave a bad taste in the company’s mouth, and can also waste valuable time you could otherwise spend on further applications.
Have luck or have perseverance
If nobody has told you yet then take it from me, you’ll be facing a lot of rejection in the process. Sometimes you’ll have a bit of luck and find a company which is ready to take on an intern or new employee, like I did at Erretres, but otherwise you’ll be needing plenty of perseverance. If a studio doesn’t take you on, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they didn’t think your work was up to scratch, it was probably because your work and theirs just weren’t compatible. Take it as them saving you the trouble of working somewhere where you don’t fit in and carry on full steam ahead — I and everyone I know were rejected countless times, but we all made it in the end. Keep on going and good luck!
It’s been pretty much four years to the day since the last reunion of Cake Club, a silly name that Heidi, Loredana, Megan and I have used to refer to the four of us since we all met in Madrid way back in 2018. The last time saw us all four of us meet up in my little flat here in Madrid, and we’ve never managed to organise for more than two of us to be together at once since then.
I have visited all three in their respective cities at least once over the past few years: I nipped over to Oslo to visit Heidi a couple of times, I spent a weekend in Vienna a couple of years ago to visit Loredana, and then me and Megan spent a couple of weeks together last year as part of my month spent around Canada and the US. You can see why it’s such a challenge to get the four of us together: we’re all so spread out!
However, news came that Megan would be visiting Europe in June this year, and so we set wheels in motion to try and all meet up in Vienna to spend our first weekend all together since 2019. As is typical of us, we left things to the last minute, which meant that sadly Heidi couldn’t make it work.
Regardless, I managed to find some decent flights, me and Megan booked a hotel to get out of Loredana and her partner David’s hair for the two nights we’d be together, and the stage was set for a Vienna reunion!
I’d taken the Friday off work and so left my flat bright and early – although not early enough – to head for the airport. With my extra half hour in bed and the slow morning service of the train, I arrived at my terminal somewhat late, which left me on a mad dash through security. Once at my gate, I realised that I’d actually rushed a bit too much and thus had time to spare, and so I sat down and went to check how to get from the airport in Vienna to the hotel I’d booked for me and Megan.
It was then that I realised that I’d booked the hotel for July instead of June. If I remember rightly, I actually audibly laughed at how stupid I’d managed to be. I guess I could have panicked, but I simply waved goodbye to the deposit I’d paid and found and booked another one in a few minutes. I do dislike how online we all are at all times, but a decent mobile with internet proved to be an absolute godsend…
Then followed a three hour flight and an hour on a bus to the centre of Vienna. I then made the short walk to the hotel and checked in, heading from there over to Loredana’s flat where her and Megan were waiting for me.
With the three of us reunited at Loredana’s lovely apartment, we headed out into the garden and sat for a few hours just chatting away and catching up. Although we try to hold regular video calls between the four of us, it was awesome to sit around the table with a cup of tea and have a good old chinwag.
As the afternoon drew on we got peckish and restless, and so we headed out into the city to grab a drink and some nibbles before David joined us for tea. It wasn’t too hot and so I was waxing lyrical about how great the weather was – but then a storm rolled in and suddenly we were all dashing to squeeze under a parasol as it began to absolutely throw it down!
The worst of the rain hit poor David as he headed to the pizza restaurant that we’d headed to for our evening meal: he arrived pretty soaked. Despite then we all had a good laugh and some good pizza, then headed for a local bar to play some games and sample some of the local beer.
After an early start in the hotel, Megan and I pottered down to a bakery where we met Loredana for breakfast. Once we’d eaten our pastries, Megan bade Loredana goodbye as Lore headed off to Munich for the day to celebrate her friend’s hen do. This meant that Megan and I were now alone in Vienna: just like we had been in New York.
So, with all of the possibilities that the city presented to us, what were we to do? Head back to bed and have a three-hour nap, of course!
In our defence, I think this much-needed nap allowed us to carry on the rest of the day in Vienna uninterrupted. We did wake up very hungry, however, and so the first thing on our agenda was to go and grab some food, and Megan had researched the perfect spot to grab some local grub.
As you can appreciate, we’d wound up with eyes bigger than our bellies and so went a bit crazy ordering schnitzel, sausages, potato salad, and sauerkraut. Realistically we’d no idea that the plates were going to be this big, and to our credit we did finish a good amount of it all off. Despite the overwhelming amount of food, it was all delicious and just what we needed to get us energised and ready for a busy afternoon on our feet.
As Megan had already been in Vienna for a couple of days and I’d already visited back in 2021, neither of us were too fussed about going around all the tourist sites again. We thus indulged in a spot of shopping and then visited a couple of spots that Megan wanted to visit: all I remember was going to see a big door and then touching the naked backside of a bronze man adorning a fountain.
We wound up in the Judenplatz, an area central to Jewish life in the city and the home to a somber Holocaust memorial that we took a look at before sitting down for a cool beer after all this walking around. We hung around in the square until the sun began to go down, whereupon I suggested we head down to the river in order to catch the sunset from there.
Megan hadn’t visited the area down by the river – well technically, the ‘Danube Canal’ or Donaukanal – so it was a nice surprise to see that the area was bustling with activity when we arrived. From cyclists to partygoers to a waterside salsa class, there was much more going on than last time I visited with Loredana.
We headed down to the water’s edge and had a little wander around before settling in a bar for some chips and another drink. Megan and her keen eye for any Spanish speakers noticed that the waiters were Argentinian, so we got chatting away before we took our seats by the water and watched the sun set over the city.
Our idyllic evening drew to a close with Megan wanting to run over and join in the salsa class and me struggling with the local transport app in order to get a ticket for the tram back to the city centre. After my experience in Berlin where I wound up having to pay a 100€+ fine, I’m very cautious about taking foreign public transport without having my ticket sorted in advance!
I eventually got my ticket and persuaded Megan to leave the poor salsa dancers in peace. The two of us hopped on the tram which left us near a spot I wanted to grab some Kaiserschmarrn, the delicious Viennese tradition of shredded pancakes with icing sugar and jam. I’d planned to go to the place Lore took me to last time, but it wound up being very much closed. We did run into a huge rave in front of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, though…
Still hungry and without any sweet treats, Megan said we should go and get some grimy street food from the sausage stall that the tram had dropped us off outside. After her antics at the questionable hotdog trucks in NYC, I shouldn’t have been surprised!
I must admit that the Käsewurst (cheese-filled sausage) that I got shoved inside a hotdog bun really hit the spot, and Megan also very much enjoyed her monster sausage with onions, curry, and sauce! We sat on a bench to finish off a long day in Vienna: it had been fabulous.
Just before heading off on the final tram and in order to digest our greasy street food, we nipped across the road and checked out a nighttime view of the emblematic Hofburg. We then jumped back on another tram and headed off to bed with some pretty serious indigestion…
The next day was Megan’s last in Vienna, so we were up a bit earlier and out to grab some early lunch to make the most of her remaining few hours in the city. After having missed out on our Kaiserschmarrn the night before, I suggested we head to a spot known for making a good one. We had a savoury bite to eat and then shared two huge pans of the shredded pancakes: we’d fallen into the same trap of ordering too much as the day before!
Thankfully the restaurant was happy to send us off with half of the Kaiserschmarrn in doggy bags, so the two of us headed for a wander around the city and one of it’s parks before heading back to the hotel so that Megan could head off on her way and I could check out in order to move into Loredana’s place for my final night in the city.
I eventually had to bid Megan farewell as she headed off to Paris, her last stop on her little tour around Europe, and then threw myself down in the hammock that Loredana and David have installed in their cute little garden. There I rested until Loredana arrived back home from her hen do, which she did looking surprisingly fresh and energised.
We decided that we should probably head out and something for my last afternoon in the city. Heading out into her local neighbourhood, Lore showed me some of her favourite local spots including a huge brewery that left a chunk of the area smelling of yeast. There was a little Bierfestival going on, but it was closed due to it being a Sunday, and so we looked into heading into the centre to see what was going on there.
After missing two trams and not enjoying the sound of waiting for the next infrequent Sunday service, we gave up on our hopes of visiting the centre of Vienna, opting instead to spend the evening at home. We ordered some delicious Korean and Japanese food, had a drink, and threw ourselves down on the sofa to watch “Her”, a film I’d never actually seen.
The next day I said farewell to Loredana and David in the morning as I sat down to work from their living room. I clocked off just before three o’clock in order to head out the door and wander down to Westbahnhof, the bus station where the airport shuttle would whisk me off to the airport for my evening flight back to Madrid.
My flight back was somewhat delayed and then the train from Madrid airport back to my house was broken down, so it wound up being quite a late night in the end. It was all worth it though, as I had an absolutely fabulous few days over in Vienna and seeing Loredana and Megan in person again was absolutely fabulous!
We’re already plotting another reunion as soon as we can, and I’ll definitely be back over to Vienna just as soon as I catch a few days!
After a rather rainy return to Madrid, the weather shook us with its annual sudden change from spring to summer. From one day to another I found myself in upwards of 35° of heat, so it was time to start making some outdoor plans before the temperature creeps up to a crazy 40°…
One weekend me and Sara met up for the monthly Mercado de Motores, a cool market that I last visited about six months ago. This artesanal event takes place in the Museo del Ferrocarril (Railway Museum) near my house and is a fabulous chance to grab some gifts, buy some delicious food, and stop for a drink and some lunch between some antique trains on the outdoor terrace.
Full of sausage and papas al mojo (roast potatoes in a spicy sauce from the Canary Islands), Sara and I then headed out to continue exploring my neighbourhood. We headed down to the Matadero, had a wander around the river, and made a mental note to come back to the Cervantes Theatre to catch a show at some point.
To finish off a busy weekend and after a long Sunday of admin at home, I took myself out for an evening trip around the city on a bike. This took me up to the city’s main train station, Atocha; past its most emblematic museum, El Prado; and then to its most iconic park, Retiro. It was a lovely way to cool off as I zipped around the streets of the capital as fast as the bike would let me.
The Friday after I was back with Sara for another weekend plan, this time in the form of a verbena, the Spanish term for a big summer party. As it was proudly proclaiming itself as the first verbena in Madrid, we’d decided to head over to a festival named San Antonio de la Florida (Spain isn’t great at keeping names short). There we had a drink and danced along to some hits provided by two national artists as the sun went down.
Danced-out and a little dazed by the summer heat, we then plopped ourselves down on a terrace for some much-needed icy drinks and a good rest as the stifling day gave way to a cool night. From there, Sara headed off back home on the bus as I grabbed a bike and cycled back to my flat in another nighttime ride which helped me unwind and cool off after another busy day.
The next day I fancied a bit of time alone but outside of the confines of my flat. After the worst of the heat had passed in the afternoon, I grabbed a book and headed up to the Debod Temple, a lovely spot to throw oneself on the grass and watch the world go by as the sun sets behind the mountains in the distance. That I did, sipping on my can of alcohol-free beer and people watching in between reading a bit of poetry.
To round off a weekend spent enjoying some of the city’s best offerings, I decided to head out for an early Sunday morning wander. As these walks around my neighbourhood often do, this led to the area down by the river, where I was one of the first people inside the municipal greenhouse as it opened at 10am sharp.
Inside the intricate glass structure, I enjoyed the cool respite from the sun and disconnected from the world for a few minutes amongst the tropical flora. I was especially captivated by one of the plants whose bright pink colouring was only accentuated by the sun flooding in through the window.
Once I’d left the greenhouse, I grabbed a seat on a terrace overlooking the riverside and ordered myself a large beer to refresh myself after my walk. I can only imagine what it must have looked like as I sat sipping on a pint at half ten in the morning, but as I’m currently not drinking alcohol the beer in question was, of course, non-alcoholic – and very much needed!
This just about covers the last couple of weeks, with the weather’s change from a winteresque washout to a stifling summer causing a change in all my plans. I was going to joke that I’ve switched from staying inside due to the rain to staying inside due to the heat, but I now see that I’ve actually been up to quite a lot! That’s the beauty of this blog, I guess – it’s a good reminder for when my rubbish memory fails me.