It was with both great excitement and a slightly heavy heart that I pulled out my map of Japan as the New Year dawned this week and plotted my options for exploration in 2014.
The great excitement part is easy to understand. I have another whole year to explore Japan! After three years of being … shall we say, stuck? … on Okinawa with a job and a new baby, our move to Kyushu in mid-2012 coincided with the opportunity to finally see more of our adopted home. There was a train! And an airport nearby! And you could drive more than 20 miles without hitting the ocean! (In case it’s not clear, I never quite took to island life. 🙂 ) Though it took a few months to get settled in, the year 2013 saw us crisscrossing the archipelago – we covered Hokkaido in the summer, central Japan in the fall, Okinawa in the winter (yes, we did go back!) and ventured around Kyushu all the year round. It was amazing and I will forever feel blessed to have seen so much.
Looking back, it seems hard to top our adventures from last year. But as my daughter grows older (as of this month, I’ll have a three-year-old in the house … how crazy is that?!), it gets easier to bring her along on trips. I don’t have to drag porta-cribs or packs of diapers in my suitcase anymore and my back is getting a bit of a break as she is much more inclined to walk places on her own now. Sure, the magical age of 3 will see the end of free airline seats for her and the beginning of having to pay for her at some ryokan, but the plus side is my pint-sized travel companion is more fun than ever. This is a kid who likes onsen and eating rice for every meal and playing with rocks outside temple gardens and hiking up mountains. There will always be a part of me that misses my carefree travel days as a singleton (or at least as a non-parent .. though thanks to my wonderful hubby, I do get a few weekends away 😉 ) but that’s not my reality anymore and I’m just thrilled to have a kid who loves being along for the ride.
So why a heavy heart? Well, if all goes to plan, this will be our last full year in Japan. My husband’s job is scheduled to wrap up in mid 2015 so technically we have a good 18 months left, but 2014 will be our last full calendar year. It’s hard to believe that after half a decade here, I will soon have to contemplate a life somewhere else …
… but I’m not quite ready to do that just yet! 2014 is calling and here’s what I’ve got on my wish-list:
Matsue – Poor Matsue. This city up on the Sea of Japan coast was on my wish list last year, and I never quite got around to it. But a castle, a famed modern garden (with attached museum), some lovely waterways and an incredibly important shrine not too far away mean this is still tops on my list to get to this year.
Kagoshima – For all the Kyushu exploration I’ve done this year, hardly any of it has been south of my home in Kumamoto. I’m coming, Kagoshima, I promise! With a smoking volcano, sand baths, a unique museum dedicated to kamikaze pilots and the rainforest-like island of Yakushima not too far offshore, I really need to spend some more time in the southernmost prefecture of my own island.
Tohoku – I’m being vague on this one because I just can’t seem to narrow down what I want to see in northern Japan. If all goes well, we’ll take our week-long family vacation somewhere in northern Honshu this August. But should we hike to the mountain temples of Yamadera or Dewa Sanzan? Spend time in Sendai for the Star Festival (Tanabata)? Head north to Aomori for the massive floats of the Nebuta Matsuri? Build in some hot springs time at Zao Onsen? And is there something we can do to help out those communities so affected by the tsunami of 2011? Lots to decide over the next few months!
Having three goals seems pretty reachable so I’ll stop there. I know I have yet to see ANY of Shikoku and that really should be remedied at some point but maybe that can be our close-out trip next year. So what do YOU all think I’ve missed? Any suggestions? Big sights or small, it doesn’t really matter. Restaurant tips always welcome as well. I realize I’ll never be able to see all of Japan before we leave, but I sure would like to try!