Family Road-Trippin’ Through the Highlights of Japan

It feels like just yesterday we were planning and mapping our route, anticipating the arrival of Al (Kaya’s dad), Jacob (Kaya’s brother) and Stephen (Jon’s brother) to Japan. We wanted their experience to be one to remember, one of new discoveries, challenges and possibly spark of new interests. We hoped that within the short time they had here in Japan, that they could see as much of the culture as possible and that we could also see things that have been on our list. Beginning in Fukuoka, we continued our travels to Miyajima Island, Hiroshima, Kobe, Osaka, Kyoto, down to Shikoku and back to Kyushu as we made our way back to Nobeoka. Since all the major highlights were on our map, we knew we needed a strategic plan and convenient transportation. Which brings us to the most God-appointed blessings of all: friends who sold us a (more spacious) car and friends who let us borrow their ETC card allowing us to cut down on the expense of tolls. After all the logistics were taken care of, the five of us were on the road, cozy in our new car, ready to for some adventure.

After navigating several airports and customs for the first time, Jacob and Al were safe in Fukuoka and desperate for some comfort. And what’s more comforting than a big bowl of hot ramen? First stop: Fukuoka’s famous Canal City’s Ramen Stadium. Al and Jon tried Fukuoka’s famous tonkatsu ramen while Jacob and Kaya slurped the noodles of spicy miso. First meal- success. Stephen joined us in the evening and we trekked to the renown yatai food stalls along the canal. But after struggling to find seats and charged for extra food, we couldn’t help but feel that these food stalls are a tourist-trap. But we refused to let it ruin our night, and instead, we loaded up on convenient-store dessert and rested out tired bodies at our hostel.

Kaya and Al on the path to the top of Mt. Misen on Miyajima Island

In the morning, we started our road trip with our first stop at Miyajima. But not without some Sukiya for lunch. We were not going to let them come to Japan without trying Sukiya. With full bellies, we took the ferry to Miyajima Island, took pictures with the famous Tori gate during low-tide and hiked to the top of Mt. Misen. The hike, slightly steep, was well worth it and and the view from the top was unbelievable. As we returned to the bottom, we passed the Tori gate once more and this time during high-tide. After taking advantage of this photo-opp, we rode the ferry back to our car and made our way to Hiroshima. And of course we ate the famous okonomiyaki! It was a real crowd-pleaser and one of Al’s favorite foods from the trip.

Jacob and Al love cars so we decided to join the free Mazda Factory tour headquartered in Hiroshima. We were skeptical in the beginning but were pleasantly surprised at how cool it was! Our favorite part was watching the real cars go through the assembly line worked on by teams of humans and robots.

The A-Bomb Domb is one of the only buildings that remains
partially standing

And a trip to Hiroshima wouldn’t be complete without a visit to Peace Park and History Museum. Standing in the midst of it all, the experience left a lasting impact on all of us. And now for us living in Japan as Americans, reflecting on how far we’ve come as allied countries is an even more powerful reflection of how time can mend and heal. The relationship that our countries now have is the reason we have our jobs!

Back in the car, we made our way to Kobe where we spent the night at the kindest couple’s air B&B. Our friend, Sarah Mae, organized the stay for us and we could not have asked for better hospitality. (Of course, Japan.) The couple took us to an amazing Turkish restaurant which was closed but stayed open for our special request. Talk about service. The couple, who spoke great English, went above and beyond to make sure we were comfortable. This was Jacob and Al’s first taste of the Japanese hospitality Kaya had been raving about. And it wasn’t until this night that they could truly understand what she had been talking about.

Next on the map: Osaka. And all things neon. Since the guys weren’t going to see Tokyo, we wanted to make sure they got some city-life experience. But first, we made a stop in Roko Island, Kobe to visit Sarah Mae and David and their adorable little baby girl. They are involved in ministry in their area and it is always encouraging to see God’s work! Jon’s older brother, Daniel, also joined us for lunch.

From left to right: Stephen, Jon, Kaya, Daniel, Al, Jacob

Osaka Castle

Our first stop in Osaka was Osaka Castle, Kaya’s biggest request of the trip. And we were all impressed. It was unfortunately closed for the night but we could still roam around and look at it from the outside, which is more than enough. It was absolutely stunning. In the evening, as the sun went down, we braved Dotonburi for some nightlife. After navigating the streets of endless food options, we settled for okonomiyaki, takoyaki and yakisoba. Why choose just one? And for dessert, ICE CREAM FILLED MELON PAN. These babies have out highest recommendation. Neither ready for bed or ready to party, we finished the night with drinks at a cool, slightly traditional pub that sold drinks for 300 yen.

After a day of crazy city-life, we packed up and headed for historical Kyoto. Or first stop was Kinkokuji, the “Golden Temple.” It was beautiful but very touristy and slightly expensive. Hungry and ready for more sights, we met with some friends near the Nishiki Market, ate soba and udon for lunch, and explored the streets of Gion as we made our way to Kiyomizudera. Spending the whole day walking and navigating through tourists in kimonos and omiage shops, we were tired and hungry. Kaya was told about a great Persian restaurant nearby called Arash’s Kitchen and we didn’t care that it wasn’t Japanese. It was AMAZING. Arash and his wife manned the restaurant alone while their chef was gone, dishing up nan, kebabs and curry to their hungry guests.

Golden Temple

Kaya and Jacob at the Momonga Guest House

We made our way back to Sarah Mae and David’s apartment in Kobe for the night and then we were on the road again, headed for the less-populated Shikoku. On the way, we looked for the Naruto whirlpools and stopped for vending machine-yakionigiri. We were all shocked at how tasty and warm vending machine food could be!  We drove through the beautiful, seemingly untouched Iya Valley, stopping to admire the scenery. We made our way to the Momonga Guest House, which was an overall favorite. It had the feel of a traditional Japanese home on the inside but looked like a tree house from the outside. And the staff was friendly and gave us a recommendation for a great yakiniku restaurant about 10 minutes away by car.

In the morning, we set out for Ehime, where we rented bikes in Imabari in attempt to see how far we could go on the Nishiseto Expressway, or “Shimanami Kaido,” an expressway that links Hiroshima to Shikoku. After cycling 50K, we had made it halfway but had to turn back to be back in time to return our bikes. We decided to take the road less traveled away from Imabari, which allowed us to enjoy the ocean-side views but not without some major, painful inclines.

Picnic break on the ocean

We stopped for a bento picnic on the shore and journeyed back on the recommended route, which still was an impressive climb. Just like any workout, it was painful at some points along the way and a bit discouraging, but we were all happy we did it in the end. (We are already planning to return to do the whole stretch if anyone wants to join!)

The long day ended with a stay at Sen Guesthouse in Matsuyama, where we met the lovely owners who were happy to share their story and give us advice about volunteering, hospitality and opening a hostel. We ate at a local restaurant nearby and attempted to soak at the famous and historic Dogo Onsen but it was way too crowded to be relaxing, so we gave up. Fortunately, Sen had great showers and we were able to get some rest after our long bike ride.

Morning tea after a soak in the onsen

Sadly, this was the end of Stephen’s trip. We sent him off from Matsuyama Airport as he made his way back to school in Arkansas. From there, we took the ferry to Oita. We were finally back on Kyushu! Since we had not yet stayed in a Ryokan, we felt Beppu would be the perfect place to experience real Japanese ryokan-onsen experience. We chose Yamada Bessou Ryokan for one night and it was exactly what we were looking for. It had a private rotenburo (outdoor bath) that we all took advantage of (separately of course…haha). It also had indoor baths for men and women and we each got to choose our own yukata!

Sushi at Kamesho Kurakura

For dinner, we went to Kamesho Kurakura for sushi. An employee at the ryokan recommended it as the best sushi in Beppu and it was incredible. They offered free self serve miso soup and the slices of fish were impressive. And the prices were very reasonable. We were actually surprised at how cheap it was!

The next day, we finally made our journey back to Nobeoka where we showed Al and Jacob around the place we now call home. Kaya’s Japanese mom (her coworker from one of her schools) invited us to her sister’s house where we had tea and were treated to more Japanese hospitality. They even wanted to dress the guys in kimonos but unfortunately we were pressed for time! Al felt that they became instant family and he was moved by their generosity and kindness.

All you can eat Japanese-style!

We finished the night with yakiniku tabehoudai (all you can eat grilled meat plus sushi, salad and dessert!) After a night at the apartment, Kaya took Al and Jacob to work with her in the morning and they experienced what if feels like to be a celebrity gaijin!
The students and teachers were thrilled to see, talk and take photos with them! Kaya enjoyed showing them around the school and having them see where she spends a lot of her time. We finished the day with the famous Masumoto as the grand finale meal. The guys loved it! And the night would not be complete without an attempt to re-create those delicious ice cream-filled melon pans. We sat under the kotatsu (our headed table), ate dessert and enjoyed each other’s company one last time before they headed back to America.

The students loved the guys!

And here’s some more photos!

Jon getting ready for the trip back over the bridge
Yukata love

Beautiful building at Kiyomizudera in Kyoto
We met up with Saki, our friend from college!
Jacob and Kaya exploring Kiyomizudera

Bridge on the Nishiseto Expressway
Cool bar in Osaka

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