A Ferry Stressful Chapter In Our Travelling Koreas

Tl;dr – 2 buses, having just enough money to pay ferry fees, signing a form to say it was our fault if we got deported from Korea, last minute flight booked, bumpy boat on stilts, surprisingly easy border control, relaxing coffee, thinking we’d missed the last bus and walking to the metro, seeing another bus after setting off, walking into a ghetto, finding the subway, walking to the hostel, Google Maps getting it in the wrong place, spotting the sign purely by chance.

We had finished our time in Japan (sad face) and it was time to head to our next country – South Korea. We had enjoyed the relative ease of staying at ground level so had booked the boat rather than fly.

We checked once more to make sure our “flight” wasn’t cancelled and it was still ok according to the website of the ferry company. The first of our 2 buses set off from right beneath our hotel so we headed in that direction. There was a bus waiting for us which was handy so we jumped straight on. The bus actually drove past the port but it was an express bus so we needed to get on a non-express to head back to it. At the transfer stop we jumped off and crossed the road and in no time at all we were heading to the port.

When we got to the port we started chatting to a lady from El Salvador who was getting the same boat. She reminded us that there was a terminal tax and a fuel surcharge to pay. I had read about these but had chosen to forget when planning for spending the last of our yen. We had no idea how much each one was going to be but didn’t think we had enough as it looked like it was ¥1500-¥2000 each and we had a measley ¥2200 between us, and that was supposed to be for lunch.

When we got to the desk to check-in this became the least of our worries. We were asked how long we were spending in Korea and if we’d booked an onward flight. We said no and this opened up a can of worms. It turns out an entry requirement to Korea is an exit strategy. With us not having one we had to sign some forms. At first it read as if we had to pay ¥170,000 (£1277.24) each to come straight back once we got to Korea. After some difficult conversation it became clear this was only if we didn’t get let in. El Salvador lady advised that we book a flight through Expedia as they offer free cancellation within 24 hours so we could show border control and then cancel it. So we did. Turned out they don’t offer free cancellation with budget airlines but it didn’t matter, we just booked a flight to the Philippines for a day we thought would work so we wouldn’t be deported.

Then came the taxes. The terminal tax was ¥500 each and we needed to pay that at a vending machine. The fuel came to a very pleasing ¥300 each. We had enough! We even had enough to buy a bottle of pop each, a packet of nuts and a packet of crisps. The perfect lunch.

After hanging round in waiting area #1 for a while we called to go through border control into waiting area #2. Shortly afterwards we realised there was a waiting area #3 we needed to board from so promptly headed there before we were let loose onto our boat.

The Kobee Hydrofoil has a very underwhelming appearance in the port. Once we set off they began to play some safety videos with pictures of the boat from the outside and suddenly I had a newfound respect for little old Kobee.

Considering there was a typhoon approaching the crossing was pretty calm. At one point I fell asleep and woke up with a start on hitting a wave, narrowly missing headbutting Kate in the face, but it was largely very pleasant. It made a nice change to get the boat and it was nice not having to check luggage in but the waiting beforehand and the border at each end was no different to flying, so it wasn’t really any more convenient. More fun though!

We made a stop on the way on a small Japanese island in the straight and eventually got into Busan slightly behind schedule, which was nothing for us oft-delayed Brits. I’m sure the Japanese passengers were hotrified.

Little Kobee docked in Busan

We walked through the terminal with a sense of fear after signing those forms, despite having now booked an exit route. I got to the border control guy firsr and stood on the footprints, looked at the camera and put my 2 index fingers on the scanners. No words were said to me and I was through. Kate did the same. We wondered if we would need to prove our departure to get through customs but we declared we had nothing to declare and we were set forth onto Korean soil. So we didn’t need to book anything! I was so glad we had though, I have seen too many border security programmes to take the whole process lightly!

Once in Korea we needed some money, some info and a sit down. We got the first easily and headed to tourist info. After picking up handfuls of leaflets we asked how to get to our hostel’s nearest subway stop and were told we needed a bus to a subway station on line 1. Before we got the bus we sauntered into a coffee shop in the terminal for hot beverages and some snacks to try and add some calories to our less-than-perfect lunch. After this was all consumed we went to the bus stop.

We arrived at the bus stop at 18:48. A sign on the glass seemed to say the last bus was at 18:45. We hung around to see if it was a little late but we didn’t fancy our chances. It appeared as if we were within easy walking distance of either a small subway station or the main Busan Station with attached subway. We went down to the bottom level of the port and headed towards them. When we looked behind us a bus had just turned up. We found out later they probably ran all evening.

Our walking route took us closer to Busan Station due to the position of the exit from the port and it wasn’t long before we saw the giant glass building we were looking for. As we were coming from the sea and the vast majority of passengers enter from the other side our route into the station was not obvious. We passed a small group of drunk homeless guys and saw nothing but some rickety stairs and a lift. Whilst we decided between the two options a businessman strolled straight past the homeless group and us into the lift and we hastily followed.

Once in the station we needed to find the subway. Turned out it was further still, in a seperate building. We walked through a large square complete with fountains and fancy lights…

…and finally found our subway line. Once we’d found our correct ticket machine, and then a change machine, and then figured out the ticket machine, we got our shiny yellow tickets and pointed ourselves towards our hostel.

It was a long way with one change in the middle, which got us a bit muddled. Subway line 2 in Busan has 2 termini: one is called Yansang, one is called Jansang. Whoever thought that was wise needs a stern telling off. We quadruple checked we were heading for the right ‘ansang and got our final vehicle for the day.

On emerging from the subway we could sense this ordeal of a travel day was drawing to a close. It was a 5 minute walk towards the beach and a 2 minute stroll along the beach road to the hostel. We got to the spot Google Maps said we would be sleeping but there was no hostel. We carried on for a  bit but still nothing. We were going to start looping back on ourselves but thankfully Kate spotted a view of a sign for The View along the next road. I looked at my email and it said “The View Hostel”. This sign said “The View Guesthouse”. We thought our chances were high it was the same thing and headed to floor 5. When we got out of the lift and were greeted by a man asking if I was Mike, I let out the biggest sigh of relief anyone has ever managed to muster. It was done.

The stats

11:34 bus from Hilton Sea Hawk Hotel to Okunodo: ¥460 (£3.46), 21 minutes

11:59 bus to Hakata International Ferry Terminal: ¥380 (£2.85), 16 minutes

14:00 ferry to Busan Port: £104.87 plus ¥600 (£4.51) fuel surcharge and ¥1000 (£7.51) terminal tax (total £116.89), 3 hours 38 minutes (8 minute delay)

18:50 walk to Busan Station: 20 minutes

19:13 subway to Geumnyeonsan: ₩3000 (£2.16), 32 minutes

19:51 walk to The View Hostel: 11 minutes

Arrived 20:02

Total time in transit: 5 hours 18 minutes

Total travel time: 8 hours 28 minutes

Total cost: £125.36 (£62.68 each)

Fukuoka – Pardon My French

Overview

Population: 1,483,052

Currency: Japanese Yen (¥)

¥1 = 0.75p. £1 = ¥133.1

Time Zone: GMT +9 (8 hours ahead of UK summer time)

2nd – 4th Oct

We had come to Fukuoka for the sole purpose of catching the ferry to Korea. But we had decided to pamper ourselves for a couple of days in a hotel with a pool. We found a good deal for a room in the Hilton and our plan was to stay in it and swim for 2 days.

When we arrived with our 2 big backpacks (one bigger than the other) we felt very out of place. Our bags were whisked off us and onto one of those fancy suitcase trolleys and we headed to check-in. We were handed a key with our room number on and wished well. We had to ask what floor it was on and it was the 22nd. We then had to ask where the lifts were because this guy was giving us nothing.

Our room was lovely. Huge windows looking out towards the city and the sea, two big double beds (because it was cheaper than just getting one) and a lovely big bathroom. On looking through the hotel information we discovered the pools that we had booked this hotel for were not open for the one full day we had there. The outdoor pool was closed until next summer and the indoor pool was closed 2 days a month, one of which being the one we wanted. Even if it wasn’t closed we would have had to have paid almost £20 each to use it! We were not impressed. We went down to the lobby to complain and in their defense they gave us a free day in the pool that day and unlimited use of their stone bath for free (which should have been £11 each a day).

So we went to the pool. It was African themed for some reason with big fake baobab trees. There were 3 different saunas at different heats, a steam room, 2 whirlpools, a plunge pool, a 25m pool and an onsen in each changing room. It was incredible. They managed to charge us ¥100 each for a compulsory swimming cap each but we certainly did well out of this deal.

After using huge amounts of every single toiletry on offer (I still don’t know what hair tonic and skin liquid are) we went and got ready for tea. Kate got very hungry very fast and was set on eating in the hotel, despite the heavy prices. But they had an all-you-can-eat and an all-you-can-drink deal. I went for both. Big mistake! So I wolfed down 2 plates and a salad and 2 big beers. After plate number 3 I realised my error. Food needs room, beer needs room and I had run out of it. I switched to Shochu but the damage was done. My second salad bowl and plate of curry remained unfinished and I felt like a balloon about to pop for the rest of the night. Kate had a delicious sea bass and was comfortably nourished.

The next day my digestive system had fully recovered and we slept in mighty late. After paying a full day’s budget on food the previous night we wanted to eat cheap. We discovered there was a Family Mart somewhere near the hotel so we set off round the hotel to find it. Three quarters of the way round there was still no sign. We were about to give up and head back in when we saw it right next to where we set off in the wrong direction. You might think walking round a hotel isn’t so bad but this hotel is enormous. Once at the Family Mart we raided their hot food cabinet. I had eaten a steamed pizza bun in Hiroshima that I was sure was veggie so I asked at the counter if this was the case. The checkout lady went to read the ingredients and informed us “no meat. Chicken skin”. I queried this and she thought a bit and then said “eggs”. I wanted to clarify there was no chicken and she got flustered and asked her colleague. She kept saying chicken and he kept laughing but eventually she said “no meat. Eggs”. I then asked for a pork bun and she got super confused all over again! I explained I eat meat and she went off silently. She then came back with our bags and showed us which one the pork one was and I thought she’d put a stamp on the wrapper. It was only later we realised she had hand drawn a pig!

Customer service at its best

We went to the beach after lunch and chilled out for a bit. It was very quiet despite it being nearly 30 degrees and dry.

The beach with Fukuoka Tower behind

Kate stayed on the beach and I decided I should go for a run to burn off some of the 80,000 calories I’d consumed the previous day. I aimed for Ohori park, a large park with a lake with a designated jogging track around it. Running in Japan was good because I am out of practice and could stop a bunch of times to take photos and cross roads.

After my ever-so-slightly-faster-than-a-walking tour, we went to try out the stone bath. It was a brand new indoor onsen (which in Japanese is 温泉 and explains our bus stop name in Onomichi) and to Kare’s horror this meant full nudity (but gender seperated). But afterwards, after she got over the nudity bit, she had a great time. This one was much slicker than the previous one but less traditional. There was a big fake waterfall at the back and a bubble machine in one half of the hot bath. I even tried the plunge pool this time and, after the initial torture where you feel like your lungs have frozen stiff, it was actually quite nice.

After our refreshing dip we headed somewhere in search of food outside the hotel. We headed towards the station because as we know, Japanese stations are the gastronomic hubs.

Hakata station

Out of the hundreds of choices, we went to Hard Rock cafe. Kate is a big fan anyway but this week they were having a Veggie Awareness week and she was in heaven!

After food (and a souvenir t-shirt) we headed back to the hotel to ask about getting to the port. According to Google it was 2 buses but I wanted to check and also see if we needed one or two tickets. We asked a guy who asked a guy who told us our flight was cancelled. I said we were getting a ferry and he told us that there was a typhoon and all flights are cancellee. I reiterated the boat thing and he ran away and went on his computer. I did some Googling of my own and discovered he was right about the typhoon coming but our boat was ok because the typhoon was coming the day after. I tried to explain this and I was told we wouldn’t be able to come back. I said that was fine and he was happy. I tried once more to ask about buses and he said sorry and shrugged so we went to bed.

The next morning we grabbed some breakfast from Family Mart with the remainder of our coins, leaving enough for the bus and some food at the port. On the way back I thought I’d try and ask about the bus situation again. I did my best 2 bus 1 ticket impression and we were told 2 buses 2 tickets, which satisfied me. So off we set to our private bus stop to get the boat to Korea!

The Hotel

Fukuoka Hilton Sea Hawk is situated right next to the Yahuoku! Dome, the home of Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks (the local baseball team). The Hilton is a gigantic structure and is one of the iconic buildings on the coastline. Although not as tall as the Fukuoka Tower, the top is not far off the level of the observation deck in the tower and gives great views across the city and the coast.

We got a great deal and were helped by the free facility passes but you have to pay extra for a bunch of things that we thought were included: wifi in the room, the pool and the onsen. After staying in a fair few hostels with fantastic service you start to appreciate just how much you get for your money with them.

Off To Fukuoka

Tl;dr – walk, bullet train, bus, done

As the title suggests we were off to Fukuoka (pronounced Foo-quo-ka). The distance we covered was not insignificant (almost 300km) but it was (or should have been) so straightforward, as public transport should be.

We walked the 5 minutes to the shinkansen platform and saw a train to Hakata (the station in Fukuoka) but the boards informed us this was the 14:02 train and we needed the 14:09 one. At 14:07 ours turned up and was ready to board. Exactly 1 hour and 2 minutes after we left, we arrived in Hakata.

We left the station by following the hundreds of identical signs to the bus terminal.

Unfortunately we got distracted by some kind of event at the main entrance and then saw some buses on the street in front of us. Turned out this meant we missed the sign that pointed us in the direction of the bus terminal. I guess with having that many signs we stopped reading them and when the arrow moved we missed it. But 10 minutes later after not finding the 306 bus we asked a bloke who pointed us in the direction of the bus terminal.

Once there we asked the information desk people who pointed us to gate 6. Our bus was ready and waiting for us there so we hopped on.

A short journey later, over the expressway past the harbour, the bus dropped us to the door of our hotel. The stop was even named after our hotel which made things very easy indeed. I guess when your hotel has over 1,000 rooms and is 36 storeys tall it’s easy enough to tell when you’ve arrived anyway.

The stats

13:45 walk from Hana Hostel Hiroshima to Hiroshima Station: 5 minutes

14:09 shinkansen to Hakata Station (Fukuoka): 1 hour 2 minutes, ¥18,300 (£137.49)

15:20 bus to Hilton Fukuoka Sea Hawk:  minutes, ¥460 (£3.46), 23 minutes

Arrived 15:43

Total time in transit: 1 hour 30 minutes

Total travel time: 1 hour 58 minutes

Total cost: £140.95 (£70.48 each)

Hiroshima

Overview

Population: 1,196,274

Currency: Japanese Yen (¥)

¥1 = 0.75p. £1 = ¥133.1

Time Zone: GMT +9 (8 hours ahead of UK summer time)

1st – 2nd Oct

Having arrived prior to check-in we figured we would need to stow our luggage in the hostel and come back later to check-in. But fortunately our room was ready and we could wander straight in.

Once Bertha and Max were deposited we devised a plan of action. Before this trip I knew one thing about Hiroshima and I believe it is the same thing that many others associate with the city. We headed out by tram to get to the Hiroshima Peace Park and National Museum to learn more about the atomic bomb that flattened this city in 1945.

Hiroshima Peace Park

The peace park is centred around the spot underneath where the first ever atomic bomb explosion occured. At the south end there is a large museum dedicated to this event.

Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum

The museum contains a brutal depiction of the events of 6th August 1945, sparing no detail. Not only was this the first time an atomic bomb had ever been dropped but there were a number of factors that made the whole event that much more horrendous. The centre of Hiroshima was susceptible to fires with a large number of buildings being wooden. So to prevent a potential largescale fire, schoolchildren were sent to tear down buildings and create firebreaks. The day the bomb was dropped was no different and this meant the number of children amongst the 140,000 killed were disproportionately high. There had been a couple of air raid sirens that day and just before the explosion the all clear had been given, so people had crawled out of their bunkers and had begun tearing down buildings once more. When the bomb went off the incredible heat and force, caused by the fireball in the sky, flattened all wooden buildings within a 2km radius, including the bridges, thus trapping any survivors on many of Hiroshima’s islands to succumb to huge fires created by the blast.

1:1000 scale model of Hitoshima up to 2km from the blast with the red sphere representing the fireball created by the bomb

The various exhibits had a number of personal stories of loss, some accompanied by very graphic detail and even photos. Later on there were stories of those who succumbed to the after effects of the radiation, including Sadako who became an international celebrity after being diagnosed with leukaemia. She began folding 1000 paper cranes in the belief this would bring her good luck and allow her to defeat her cancer. Unfortunately she did not survive. After her death her classmates wanted to raise money for a memorial. Word spread throughout Japan and eventually worldwide.

Towards the end of the museum there were stories of the ongoing efforts of the Mayor of Hiroshima to eliminate all nuclear weapons from the world. There were pictures of world leaders that had been to visit Hiroshima including a paper crane that had been folded by Barrack Obama with an accompanying letter.

Beyond the museum, the rest of the peace park is filled with monuments dedicated to the event, to survivors and to the quest for world peace.

The last bit of the peace park we saw was on the north side of the park. There is a concrete structure that had been a bank prior to the blast. Despite being only a few hundred metres from the epicentre, the building remained standing but suffered terrible damage. Many residents wanted it torn down due to the horrible memories attached to it, but in the end it was decided it would be kept as it was after the blast as a reminder to the world of the horrible devastation these weapons cause.

After all this we both felt very emotionally drained. It was definitely a must-see and I would imagine there will be a large number of people who have altered their views on nuclear weapons after spending an afternoon there, which is the primary objective of the park.

Once out the other end we headed in the direction of Hiroshima castle. You have to go a long way to get away from any evidence of the destruction caused by the bomb and unfortunately, the 15th century wooden castle was welll within the 2km radius and was therefore flattened. A replica now stands in its place and the grounds have been kept free of modern redevelopment.

The original castle has been rebuilt as a museum to ancient Hiroshima and the castle area.

At the top of the castle you are able to walk out onto the balcony for views across the city. The buildings you can see from the top will have almost entirely been built after 1945.

After our castle experience we went in search of food. We had a tourist map that recommended a place called Nagataya for Okonomiyaki (traditional Japanese noodle pancakes) that had English menus and veggie options. It all sounded too good to be true and on arriving there appeared to be no veggie options, according to the picture menu outside. There was also a bit of a queue and we were very close to walking away but a waitress came out and handed us the full menu and contained within were at least 12 options with varying levels of veggie suitability, from pescatarian to vegan. The queue was short, the prices were good and, most importantly, the food was delicious. Okonomiyaki are cooked in front of you on a big hot plate. They consist of noodles, a pancake and a bunch of different fillings/toppings. I had squid, shrimp and cheese, Kate had veggies, cheese and garlic chips. It was all quite the spectacle sat at the counter watching them get made.

After all that fun it was time to head back to the hostel to get our heads down so we could maximise our sightseeing before our train in the afternoon.

Our destination in the morning was a popular tourist destination a few miles south of Hiroshima called Miyajima. It’s an island famous for its shrine with a gate out in the water, accessible in low tide but that appears to be floating at high tide. We needed a train and a ferry and on the way into the island port we were gifted our first view of the shrine from the deck.

The island was rampacked with tourists. And of course a few deer, one of which nicked a bloke’s iced coffee but couldn’t seem to work the straw, so was about to attempt to gobble the whole thing before Kate prevented a horrible incident.

This is not the naughty deer, this one was well behaved

We had a walk around but we spent most of our available time in and around the shrine. It was a beautiful network of interconnected covered bridges with the piece de resistance being the floating gate out at sea.

We struggled to get any photos without huge throngs of people in the background until we found a small patch of sand. There were two middle-aged ladies there who very kindly agreed to take our photo but after her first apparently sub-par attempt, the other one gave some tips and together they absolutely nailed it

After our fun it was time to head back to the hostel to pick up our best friends, Max and Bertha, and head south to our final stop in Japan.

The Hostel

We stayed in our second Hana Hostel in Hiroshima. We got a last minute deal a couple of nights before that got us a private en-suite traditional Japanese room for less than we’d paid for some dorms. Like the ryokan it was tatami mats, rice paper effect window panes and futons. Unlike our ryokan we got great views, of bullet trains!

We didn’t spend much time in the hostel but, as with the previous Hana Hostel, couldn’t fault the staff or the location and it suited us perfectly for our short time in Hiroshima.

When We Popped Our Heads Up In Hiroshima

Tl;dr – walk, probably the right bus, sitting in the wrong seats, train, train, walk

[youtube https://youtu.be/KLQqTaSg-nI&w=560&h=315]

Kate was in charge of getting us to Hiroshima and we knew we needed local trains from Onimichi Station. Because we got the shinkansen, we had arrived into Shin-Onimichi, which is a seperate station, north of the city. I took charge of the bus part and was sure we needed the same bus that we got going in the other direction but this was mostly based on hope (and Google maps say so).

We walked to the bus stop via the big supermarket en route to get Kate some breakfast she could stomach. It was just as a bus turned up I realised we had no way of knowing whether there were multiple buses that stopped here and if so, if this was the correct bus.

We got on anyway, it was going in the right direction! We both sat in the front half of the bus due to convenience of having the extra room for our bags. Within a few stops we remembered how old the people of Onomichi are and as it got full and a poor old man with 2 walking sticks tried to crawl up to the back we got up and hauled our stuff to the back half.

We got to Shin-Onomichi and stopped at the “buses to Onimichi Station” stop so I was happy we were doing ok. At this stop an elderly couple (probably the village youths in Onomichi) got on and started chatting to Kate. I think he was yet another person who was very excited to use his English.

When we got to the station it was over to Kate to take the reigns. She got us 2 tickets on local trains and the boards in the station said we needed to travel one stop and change. As always with Japanese trains it was incredibly simple and everything worked on time.

Local trains are the older, squarer, much cheaper trains that stop at all the stations en route.

Because the shinkansen take a direct route they often travel through long tunnels. This combined with the speed and the raised barriers beside the track mean you often don’t get to see much out of your window. However our train to Hiroshima took a much more scenic route.

Once in Hiroshima we purchased some shinkansen tickets for the next day, making sure I got a window seat! The views may not have been great but you can see how fast you go, and you get a plug.

We had a comfortably short walk to our hostel and, despite being 5 minutes away at most, the directions were very thorough (unlike our Wise Owl Hostel directions in Tokyo!). We followed it to the letter and arrived no problem, ready to see the sights.

The stats

10:10 walk from Urashima Ryokan to 温泉口: 6 minutes

10:25 bus to Onomichi Station: 23 minutes, ¥600 (£4.51)

11:11 train to Itazaka: 8 minutes, ¥2,980 (£22.39) – combined with subsequent train

11:24 train to Hiroshima: 79 minutes, see previous

12:56 walk to Hana Hostel Hiroshima: 5 minutes

Arrived 13:01

Total time in transit: 2 hours 1 minute

Total travel time: 2 hours 51 minutes

Total cost: £26.90 (£13.45 each)

Only One Onsen On Offer In Onomichi

Overview

Population: 141,811

Currency: Japanese Yen (¥)

¥1 = 0.75p. £1 = ¥133.1

Time Zone: GMT +9 (8 hours ahead of UK summer time)

30th Sep – 1st Oct

We arrived at the ryokan and were greeted by a chap that had clearly studied English but rarely got a chance to use it. But he, as ever, was so nice. Our room was across the small car park in a seperate building and we were given our key with our room name (written in Japanese) and let loose.

The reason for coming to this little ryokan on the outskirts of this small town in the middle of nowhere was threefold:

  1. To stay in a traditional ryokan with yukata (Japanese lounge wear, not as fancy as a kimono), tatami, futon beds and an onsen
  2. To stay somewhere between Kyoto and Hiroshima (this stop actually made it cheaper than a direct Shinkansen to Hiroshima)
  3. To do reason 1 for less than half the price of anywhere else we could find

Part of the reason it was so cheap was that we were not getting the full experience. Ordinarily you get 2 or 3 meals delivered to your room, but we would only get breakfast in a separate breakfast room.

Our room was everything I’d hoped for. We had the mats, fancy window panes, the solo piece of furniture (I don’t think Japanese furniture shops do much business) and, most importantly, the yukata!

After settling in and lounging about on our mats we got hungry. We had seen a sign for a restaurant at the junction we turned off at when walking from the bus. We looked it up using the traditional Japanese free wifi and discovered it was super cheap and had veggie options. We were joyfull at this discovery

At dinner our waitress was, as ever, lovely and again had clearly studied English but had rarely got to use it. She asked where we were from and seemed genuinely shocked we had travelled thousands of miles to come to Onomichi.

After food we stopped by the local supermarket for a bottle of wine to enjoy in our room (our first private room for a week and a half) but not before I tried out the onsen.

An onsen is a traditional Japanese bathing house. Ideally it would be a natural onsen, heated by a hot spring, but there are plenty of artificially heated options that do the same job. The idea is that they cleanse and relax you and it can be a nice way to unwind if there is no karaoke booth nearby.

They have a few rules that are stringently followed across the country:

  • Absolutely no swimwear. Starkers is the only option
  • Due to the first rule, genders are seperated
  • You are encouraged to cover your modesty with a small hand towel when walking around, but this is optional
  • This towel must not touch the onsen water. You can keep it on the side or on your head
  • You must clean yourself thoroughly before entering the onsen, usually on a stool at the side of the onsen

This particular offering was a public onsen attached to the ryokan, that we had free access to. My first attempt I forgot my towel so I went back to the room to get it. When I got back I followed the rules and washed myself thoroughly, used my little towel for modesty and walked into the onsen, making sure it didn’t touch the water and placing it on the side. It was weird but fairly relaxing until I realised I had forgotten a big towel for afterwards. It was at that moment I also realised that I had put my little towel in a small puddle. Any remnants of dryness in the towel were then wiped out by the steam room. Despite this stress, when I went outside and sat in the warm solo onsen tub thing with the water flowing in from a pretty stone effect chute, I did feel very relaxed.

Once everyone had left the changing room I took the opportunity to avoid embarrassment and go to try and dry myself by wringing out as much as I could, patting and wringing some more. There were also some very powerful hair-dryers that really helped me out in this predicament.

Overall I think it was a nice experience that I’m glad I did. I would like to try a natural mountain onsen one day but it was a good start.

The next day we woke up before our 8:30 breakfast slot and then received a phone call from a lady that only spoke Japanese. I think she was telling us breakfast was ready. We went through to the main building in our yukata and breakfast was indeed ready and waiting for us. It was a beautifully laid out selection of salmon, cold scrambled egg, tofu, rice, hot miso soup, seaweed in raw egg and a raw egg in a bowl. Besides the last 2 I scoffed the lot. Kate was less enthused by the meal so I had some of hers too. Not sure what you were supposed to do with the egg in a bowl but it was a bit much, even for me.

After breakfast it was time to check out. The whole family seemed to be there and we were presented with a beautiful handwritten receipt (despite booking through Hotels.com) and thanked multiple times for staying.

We set off with Bertha and Max to our next stop: Hiroshima.

The Ryokan

Urayu Ryokan Urashima is a semi-traditional ryokan situated 3 miles north of Onomichi. It appeared to be family run and seemingly had a fair amount of custom for their attached onsen but we didn’t see many other guests. Unlike our previous stops, this one was solely for the accommodation and it didn’t disappoint. Food was good (for me), room was good, staff were excellent and the onsen was a good experience. I would definitely go again for the price we got.

Kyoto to Onomichi

Tl;dr – underground walk, bullet train bang on time as ever, bullet train number 2 bang on time as ever, had to read Japanese for the bus

Our next destination was a ryokan (a traditional Japanese guesthouse) in a town called Onimichi. Once we had Big Bertha and Max (my bag, because it says “Cabin Max” on the front) we headed down into the station by the hostel. The bullet trains (or Shinkansen to use their proper name) use a completely seperate rail network to the local trains so we had to pass underneath the whole station. So we must have walked the best part of a mile underground before we reached our platform.

Japanese trains are world renowned for being punctual and reliable. We were on the platform maybe 10 minutes and in that time 2 trains turned up and left as they said they would. Then at 14:25 ours arrived.

There are a number of different classes of Shinkansen and we were getting the best and fastest one; the Nozomi. We got on the carriage our seats were in (the trains stop at the correct place everytime so each carriage is signposted) and found our seats. The seats are set up in rows of 5 with an extra wide walkway splitting them into 3 and 2. The leg room is twice that of British trains and the seats all swivel so everyone can always face forward (or backwards if you want). I have a massive amount of respect for the Japanese rail network and it puts the British rail network to shame. I was having a great time!

Just over an hour of smooth, punctual, roomy train later we arrived at our first stop to change onto a second Shinkansen at Fukuyama. We had 8 minutes between arriving and departing which would terrify you in Britain. But no such worries in Japan. Everything just works.

One very short train ride later (with regards to time, not distance. These trains regularly go up to 200mph) we were in Onomichi. I knew we needed to get a bus but Onomichi is not a destination filled with tourists so they didn’t have anything written in English. I had a screenshot of our destination in kanji and I compared it to the writing on the bus that turned up, but it looked different. We walked to the next stop and after a while of searching found the dalek, dismembered hand oreo-headed stick-man, box we were looking for. On the bus I showed the driver the screenshot and he confirmed our hopes with a very exuberant “OK!”.

On Japanese buses the front is largely reserved for anyone with “special needs”, i.e pregnant ladies, handicapped, elderly etc. The bus we got on had one lady in the back half and a completely full front half. The lady in the back must’ve been well into her 70s but she just wasn’t old enough for the elderly seats on this bus!

When we got to dalek, dismembered hand oreo-headed stick-man, box we disembarked. We turned up the road and in no time at all we found our ryokan, ready to live like the Japanese do.

The stats

14:00 (GMT +9) walk from Hana Hostel to Kyoto Station: 15 minutes

14:27 Shinkansen to Fukuyama Station: 1 hour 18 minutes, ¥18,520 (£139.14) – combined with subsequent train

15:53 Shinkansen to Shin-Onomichi Station: 8 minutes, see previous

16:10 bus to 温泉口: ¥280 (£2.10), 9 minutes

16:19 walk to Urashima Ryokan: 7 minutes

Arrived 16:26

Total time in transit: 2 hours 26 minutes

Total travel time: 1 hour 47 minutes

Total cost: £141.24 (£70.62 each)