One thing that Japan’s become fairly famous for is animal cafes, cat cafes being the most common iteration. Basically, you get to hang out in a room with a bunch of animals and usually get some kind of snack. You may be able to consume your snack around the animals, you may be encouraged to have it later — it all depends on the cafe.
Now, things really started out with the cat cafe, and I’ve been to a few of those during my time in Japan. It can be really soothing to just hang out and have a snack while you play with kitties. That said, I wanted to branch out a little bit during this visit and see what else there was to see.
Unfortunately, as animal cafes become more popular in Japan, ones that aren’t exactly high quality are cropping up in greater frequency. I’ve seen cafes that look dirty and cramped inside, or that don’t seem to have particularly happy animals. I try to avoid establishments like that, especially if they don’t seem to have the animals’ welfare in mind.
One that I went to during this trip that really seemed to genuinely care about the animals’ health and happiness is Akiba Fukurou in Akihabara, Tokyo. It’s different from your typical cat cafe in a few key ways: you need to have a reservation and people are only allowed in small groups, there is no food or drink allowed, and best of all — they’re owls!
I was really impressed with the ambiance of this little owl cafe. It’s light and cheerful inside with a good thirty owls for you to hang out with. The owls themselves are cycled; they’re given days off and quiet breaks so they don’t get too overwhelmed. (If you go, make sure to look at the labels beside each owl — they’ll have their name and whether or not they’re on break.)
When you’re first allowed in, you’re informed of the basic rules and taught how to safely handle the owls. Yes, you’re allowed to pet them — gently. Yes, you’re allowed to talk to them — quietly. And yes, if you ask nicely and follow the keepers’ instructions, you will be allowed to hold one or two owls during your visit.
The first owl I made friends with was named Shirasu, or Whitebait. (It’s a type of tiny white fish.) I was asked which owl I’d like to hold and I pointed out this beautiful barn owl. Then I was really surprised when I was informed that Shirasu didn’t like to sit on arms, but was more of a shoulder kind of owl. I was a little wary at first (that’s just… really close to your face) but Shirasu was such a nice, friendly owl that we quickly got used to each other.
After a while, I finally got up the heart to wake Shirasu up and trade it in for another owl. This time I chose Risu (Squirrel), a very tiny little owl that made great faces. This one perched on my arm, but it was so small that I didn’t need a glove like some other owls there required.
The owls all had their own personalities; some were very friendly, some were very curious about all newcomers, some just wanted to sleep. I felt really lucky with the two owls I’d chosen, and it was just a really special experience. They say that the cafe is designed to be quiet, calm, and soothing and it really did deliver. Special care was taken not to alarm the owls and they were not caged. It really was such a cool thing to get to experience, and I won’t likely forget it any time soon.
A very different animal cafe that I went to, this time in Kyoto’s Teramachi area, was a little otter cafe. This one had a very different vibe than the owl cafe. No one here was sedate. Otters, I quickly discovered, are kind of like a caffeinated, sugared-up child who’d then been given cocaine. They are hyper.
The cafe itself had a lot of toys for the otters to play with (including an aquarium we could watch them swim around in) as well as a large enclosure where they were held together and could play with each other. They’d bring one or two otters out for guests to play with while the others stayed in their plexiglas room. We could watch them, but they had some degree of privacy. Still, this was a much smaller cafe than many (probably because so much room was dedicated to the otters’ enclosure and aquarium), so I wouldn’t go with large groups. Also? Watch your fingers, those little guys nip.
There’s something almost surreal about holding an otter, an animal I’ve only ever seen at zoos, at least until it starts squirming. There are a variety of toys you can use to play with them, and you’ll likely be given some treats to give them. (I’m reasonably sure it was cat food.) What was even cooler, though, was the babies.
Yes. They had baby otters.
These were held in a smaller enclosure (think like a playpen) because oh boy, they wanted to explore the entire universe. It was a lot of fun to get to hold them and bottle-feed them (as in a gerbil-esque water bottle, not a milk bottle) and they were about the cutest thing I’ve ever seen. Very, very difficult to photograph, as they literally never stopped moving, but so freaking cute.
While I generally enjoyed the experience, I think I’d recommend the owl cafe more readily than the otter one. Not only were the owls a lot less disposed towards nipping, but I felt like they had an appropriate amount of space. The amount of space the otters had wasn’t bad (and I’ve seen zoo enclosures not much bigger) and the otters didn’t seem unhappy, but I felt like they probably needed more space to move around and swim. They definitely had, y’know, toys, cat trees, jungle gyms, etc. to play with, but watching an otter do repeated laps in a small aquarium had me questioning whether it was an ideal environment. (Though, to be fair, I think it’s probably better than some other otter cafes in Japan and they were clearly doing their best. There isn’t a lot of space anywhere in major cities in Japan, even for people.) I’m not sure that I’m enough of an expert to really know for sure, though. This isn’t an anti-rec, just not a recommendation as wholehearted as the one for Akiba Fukurou.
If you’re interested in trying out an animal cafe in Japan, you have so many options. There are cat cafes, reptile cafes, owl cafes, just about any small animal you could think of. Just do some research first to make sure the cafes you frequent are right for you and kind to the animals.
Kamakura is a city about 50 km from Tokyo and was the location of the nation’s capital during the Kamakura period, or around 1185-1333 CE. These days, it’s most famous for its daibutsu, or great Buddha statue. Daibutsu are fairly common throughout Japan, but the one in Kamakura is one of the most famous. It’s almost 800 years old and is an iconic sight in Japan.
My mother actually made a special request to come out to Kamakura and see this daibutsu. Her father had visited Japan before she was born, and she’d grown up with slides from his travels. My grandfather recently passed away, and I think she really wanted to feel closer to him by visiting the places he’d been. (We still have his walking stick from Mt. Fuji hanging up in our house.) She vaguely remembered seeing a huge Buddha statue in his slides — seated, outdoor. And I figured this was our best bet.
So we all set out on the train to Kamakura to go to Kotokuin, the home of Kamakura’s famous daibutsu. It’s not hard to find once you get to the train station. There are signs all over the city pointing to this single temple, and there were crowds to match. That said, it really is an overwhelming site. We spent a long, long time just sitting on the bench and watching him. There’s such a gentle feeling suffusing the statue, even with the crowds. It’s a definite must-visit.
After visiting Kotokuin, my mother went off to find a knitting store and my father and I decided to walk to Hasedera. I didn’t know an awful lot about Hasedera, but I’d heard it was a really neat place to visit.
Y’all. I’m here to tell you. Nothing against the daibutsu, but Hasedera is freaking amazing and if you go to Kamakura, you have got to hit that place up — and leave quite a bit of time to visit it. The grounds themselves are beautiful, but there’s also a museum, a cave, and an absolutely incredible golden Kannon statue that, quite frankly, took my breath away. (Kannon is one of the most popular and prominent bodhisattvas that you’ll find in Japan. She is the goddess of mercy, and the Japanese version of the Chinese Guanyin.)
Hasedera isn’t that far away from Kotokuin, but it was just long enough to walk past a bunch of snack stands that of course we had to test out. I got myself a purple sweet potato croquette and yes, please.
Once we got there, I dropped off my stamp book and then we started taking a look around. There are quite a few smaller temples and neat statues around the complex, but I’m going to focus on a few of the places that I loved most.
First of all, the cave. THE CAVE. There is a small cave on the grounds that’s dedicated to Benzaiten, the Buddhist goddess of music, beauty, wealth, and wisdom. (She is in fact the Japanese import of the Hindu goddess Sarasvati.) She can usually be identified by the biwa (a type of Japanese lute) that she holds. The cave at Hasedera has statues of Benzaiten and her attendants carved into the walls, and as you venture deeper into the cave, has multiple altars and statues dedicated to the goddess. It is just so, so beautiful inside. I could have stayed there for hours.
Unfortunately, the museum was closing shortly and we had a lot of stairs to climb to get to it. The museum itself features a human-sized golden statue of Kannon as well as statues of her thirty-three avatars. There are also several ancient artifacts such as the old temple bell and assorted kakebotoke (hanging plaques). It’s a small but lovely little museum and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Next to the museum, though. Next to it! I’d heard about a Kannon statue at Hasedera, and while the one inside the museum was very nice, I’ll admit to being a little disappointed. I was so wrong. We walked out of the museum and into an adjacent room with one of the most beautiful statues I’d ever seen. The golden Kannon is enormous, 9.18 m (30.1 feet) tall, and splendidly regal. I did not take pictures in the museum or of the golden Kannon itself as we were instructed not to out of respect. That said, I’m sure you can find photos if you look — and I’m sure they won’t do the magnitude of it the least little bit of justice. It was yet another part of Hasedera that I could have spent an hour in, just staring.
Outside of the museum area, there’s a viewing/picnic area that has a gorgeous view of Kamakura. After sitting down and taking a break after going up all those stairs (a mad dash that my body did not thank me for later), and after exploring the statues in this area, we started back down.
The light started to get bad as we made our way back down, but there’s one more part of Hasedera I’d really love to talk about. There’s a stunning little section of the temple complex dedicated to the bodhisattva Jizo in his role as guide to deceased children. There is a ritual known as mizuko kuyo in Japan that’s sometimes undertaken after an infant dies. (Stillbirths, miscarriages, and abortions are included in this; it’s a somewhat controversial practice for many reasons.) One of the reasons why Jizo is so popular is that he watches over children, particularly as they navigate the afterlife. He’s said to hide children under his robes and secret them across the riverbanks of the dead. That’s why you will find thousands of tiny Jizo statues in this little garden at Hasedera. These are statues used in mizuko kuyo, and as such, the area should be treated with respect. Regardless of one’s personal feelings about the rite, these statues are proof of an awful lot of grief and terrible human experiences. It’s not unlike a graveyard.
Still, there are joyful Jizo to be found on Hasedera’s grounds as well. The happy Nagomi Jizo greets guests as they arrive, and we passed Ryoen Jizo on our way out. Jizo, like all of us, contains multitudes.
After we left Hasedera, we got dinner near the train station before heading back to Tokyo.
All in all, Kamakura is a perfectly lovely day trip, and you could easily spend several days there exploring the temples and beaches there. We had a really nice day!
Japan, for all its beauty, history, and fun little quirks, is not an inexpensive country. Travelers have long sought out souvenirs from their trip that wouldn’t break the bank, and an unlikely contender has appeared. A relatively cheap and interesting souvenir that’s become very popular in recent years is the goshuinchō, or stamp/seal book. Originally reserved for the devout, goshuinchō have been enjoying widespread popularity, and these days, you’ll probably have a bit of a line for your stamp.
Goshuin (or shuin), to put it simply, are special stamps that you get at temples and shrines in Japan. The goshuinchō is the book that you keep these stamps in. “Stamp” is a little bit of a misnomer, though. What actually happens is that you take your book to the goshuinchō office at the temple/shrine and the clergy working there will sign and stamp your book. Elaborate calligraphy is used as they write information such as the name of the temple and the date of your visit, and then location-specific stamps are stamped over the writing. Most shrines and temples will perform this service for you for about 200-500 yen. In other words, your goshuinchō may add up in value, but on an individual basis, it’s a neat and inexpensive way to remember your trip.
Goshuin started out hundreds of years ago as a way to track a pilgrimage. There are many set pilgrimages in Buddhism and Shinto — in other words, you go on a journey to specific temples and/or shrines as a religious ritual. This was popular amongst religious clergy, but also individuals who wanted to find enlightenment or perhaps cure an illness. It doesn’t hurt that religious pilgrimage was one of the only allowed forms of travel during certain eras of Japanese history. These travelers would carry these books with them and get them stamped at each location they visited as proof of their pilgrimage.
Personally speaking, I’m a religious studies scholar, so my goshuinchō are a little more pilgrimage than souvenir. I visited an awful lot of temples and shrines while in Japan, and I had fun getting my books signed wherever we went.
The books themselves range from simple to ornate and can usually be purchased at any shrine or temple that also has a stamping office. (This will be almost all temples and most permanently-manned shrines.) They’re so fun to look at that there are some people who just collect the books and don’t bother filling them with stamps.
A lot of people keep separate books for Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples, but it’s not strictly necessary. (And once I accidentally handed the wrong book to the miko at a shrine and so my temple book does have one shrine stamp in it. It’s not a huge deal.) As long as you have a dedicated book for goshuin, you pay the fee, and you have it opened to the page you want stamped, they’re happy to do it for you.
Some locations will have special paper that can be signed and tucked into your goshuinchō later, but they most likely will not sign sketchbooks, notebooks, etc. that are not specifically designed for the task. It’s important to keep in mind that, though goshuin have become a popular souvenir, it’s still a religious rite. You should be respectful towards your books; to some people, they’re still considered holy.
Whether you’re a pilgrim, a tourist, a collector, or you just like watching them do calligraphy, goshuinchō is a fun activity in Japan if you plan on visiting temples and/or shrines. If you’d like to start your own book, you just have to look for a sign (look for “seal/stamp book”, “goshuin”, “shuin”, 御朱印, or 朱印), buy a book, and take it to the window. You may have to wait in line if there are a lot of people, and sometimes they might even give you a number and ask you to come back later. It’s a lot easier than it sounds, though, and a very rewarding memory to take home with you from Japan.
When it comes to vacation, I’m very much the kind of person who likes to run everywhere, see everything, and taste every dish that comes my way. That breakneck speed can get exhausting, though, and there’s something to be said about some hardcore relaxation.
When it comes to taking a nice long break during your vacation, hardly anything can beat a trip to a Japanese onsen. Onsen are ubiquitous all over Japan, and a quintessential Japanese experience. On its most basic level, an onsen is a place where you take a nice, long bath. In fancy natural mineral water. With a bunch of strangers. While naked.
If you’re from a country where communal bathing isn’t common, then that last point may take this from a relaxing outing to absolute nightmare material. I was nervous myself the first time I went to an onsen. That said, it’s amazing how quickly you get used to doing something when everyone around you treats it like it’s nothing. You might get a second look or two if you’re very clearly western, but no one’s going to be staring at your body while you’re trying to bathe. (That said, you might have to field some questions from extremely friendly grandmas.)
There are several specific rules for onsen, but they’re pretty easy to remember. Clean your body with soap at the provided showers before you get in the communal bath, don’t let long hair get in the water, take your tiny towel with you (but don’t put it in the water!) and leave your big towel in the dressing room, don’t splash or shout while in the water, make sure you go to the bathing room assigned to your gender… basically, just follow those around you. There are usually signs that explain what to do, and people are usually pretty patient with confused tourists.
Onsen are common all over Japan, and the onsen town takes that a step further. Onsen towns are entire towns that are devoted to the art of bathing. It could be a place where there’s a huge amount of natural hot springs, or it could be a place where those springs are reputed to have particular healing properties. Or, like Kusatsu Onsen, it could be both.
Kusatsu Onsen is one of the most famous onsen towns in Japan. A mind-boggling 32,000 liters of hot water bubbles up out of the earth every single minute and its high mineral content is supposed to be incredible for your health — though, admittedly, it does leave the entire town smelling a little like rotten eggs. There are several public baths that are open to tourists (as well as some that are reserved for residents) and a bustling little town has cropped up around them.
The main feature of Kusatsu Onsen is the yubatake, or hot water fields. Kusatsu’s hot spring water is so incredibly hot that it would severely burn anyone who tried to hop right in. The yubatake is an elegant solution to this problem. The water is channeled along a series of above-ground fields to expose it to the air and cool it down before it heads to the baths. The effect is very striking, especially at night when the fields are lit up by lanterns and colorful lights, and you’ll probably have to wait your turn for the requisite selfie. One of my favorite memories from Kusatsu Onsen was just strolling down the street at night, taking in the ambiance.
Another way that Kusatsu cools off its water is via yumomi, a special dance performed in a little theater next to the yubatake. Women wielding enormous paddles perform an elaborate dance and sing songs while agitating the spring water to cool it, and audience members are often encouraged to pick up a paddle and help them out. It’s a really cool experience, but also a very popular one; you’ll probably want to show up early if you want a good spot. Don’t make the same mistake I did, of accidentally standing in front of an elderly woman. People are super here for this show, and like I did, you might get forcefully moved aside.
(Please learn from my mistake: don’t mess with elderly women in Japan.)
Once you’ve walked through the picturesque old town and seen the water cool down, it’s time to try it out for yourself. There are several bathhouses to choose from throughout the town, and you can find guides there to help you choose which one you’d like to try first. You could try Otaki-no-yu, a large, fancy bathhouse that’s known for its pools that get increasingly hotter. I had more than one person ask me if I’d made it to the last one! There’s also Goza-no-yu, which has an elegant wooden interior and a community feeling inside. (This one was my favorite.) Or you could try something totally different and attempt the timed baths at Jizo-no-yu. The water here is extremely hot and you’re meant to stay in the healing water for exactly three minutes. Maybe it’s just me, but the timed baths feel sort of like you’re being microwaved…
After you’ve had a nice bath (or two, or three) it’s time for a snack. There are certain foods that are famous in onsen towns, and I was happy to try them out for myself. As you walk down the main street to the yubatake, you’ll run the gamut through vendors selling onsen manjuu, or steamed buns. These bready dumplings are generally filled with red bean paste, though you’ll find them in several flavors. Free samples are often pushed on tourists, generally paired with green tea.
I fell prey to these friendly hawkers my first time down the street, but I could hardly complain about the experience. A little brown manjuu was shoved into my hands and I was shepherded into their shop, where I was presented with a small cup of green tea.
I had no intention of buying a commemorative box of manjuu to take home as a present for my friends and family, but they didn’t seem to mind. Instead, as soon as they realized that I was an American tourist who had a reasonably good handle on Japanese, they immediately wanted to talk American baseball. Unfortunately, I understand foreign languages a lot better than I do sports. I just kind of nodded my head and drank my tea, and though I didn’t end up buying anything, I still got a friendly wave every time I walked by.
The other food onsen towns all seem to be known for is onsen tamago, or onsen eggs. These are soft-boiled eggs that are cooked directly in the hot spring water that the towns are known for. Eggs are often just put in baskets and left in a small hot spring to cook. Once you buy them, you’re given a little bowl and a packet of broth you can pour over your egg once you get it out of its shell. It’s a little awkward to get the hang of, but it’s truly delicious.
At the end of my first day in Kusatsu, I went back to my hotel, which was actually a ryokan. Ryokan are kind of like extremely fancy bed & breakfasts that are found across Japan. They are especially common around traditional areas and onsen towns. Many of these ryokan are family-owned and have been in the same hands for hundreds of years. Your typical ryokan will have you sleep in a small, traditional Japanese room (i.e. sleeping on a futon on tatami rather than a western bed), where you will also be served meals. These meals are generally included in the cost of your stay and will often be absolutely extravagant.
Kaiseki meals are very traditional in Japan and can be found in ryokan and fancy restaurants all over the country. (Especially Kyoto, a deeply historical town.) The meals include dozens of small dishes brought out to you in courses over the course of your evening. If you indulge in a kaiseki meal, expect to be eating it for at least a couple hours. (Note: this is one reason why you might be expected to check in at your ryokan relatively early in the evening.) If you’re foreign — or frankly, even if you’re Japanese — there’s a strong likelihood that a lot of what you will be served will be a complete mystery to you. We are not talking typical Japanese cuisine here, but instead haute cuisine fueled by seasonal foods, tradition, and the chef’s own ingenuity. Still, sometimes it’s a little fun to have no idea what you’re eating.
Most ryokan will have dinner and breakfast included, and will ask you about your dietary needs when you make your reservation. At the ryokan I stayed at in Kusatsu Onsen, breakfast was served in a separate dining room, but was no less extravagant.
After you’ve eaten so much food that you feel like you’re going to pass out, take a little rest in your traditional room, then head out to take, what else, yet another bath. Most ryokan in onsen towns also have their own private baths that you can use while staying there. This might be a little less overwhelming if you’re not used to communal bathing, as I’ve found them to be a little less crowded than public baths most of the time. You still go through all the same motions but get a somewhat quieter experience.
Or, you could go the exact opposite route, like I did, and take a visit to Sai no Kawara on the far side of Kusatsu Onsen. This is how I spent my second day there, and I believe that just this park is worth the trip up there. Sai no Kawara is a beautiful little park that’s full of hot springs releasing steam up into the air. The scenery is nothing short of gorgeous.
You’ll also find plenty to explore while you’re there. You can see the devil’s kettle, a hot spring that bubbles up like a kettle and mysteriously goes quiet as you approach, or maybe take a little trip up to the tiny Shinto shrine up on the hill. You can sit along the rocks and put your feet in a large communal foot bath under the watchful eye of Jizo. Or, you could climb all the way to the top and visit Kusatsu Onsen’s largest and most beautiful rotenburo.
Most onsen are indoors in a lovely bathhouse that pipes hot spring water into a wooden or rock-lined bath for you to soak in. However, rotenburo are something a little different and are not to be missed. These are outdoor baths that allow you to enjoy the famous mineral water of Kusatsu Onsen while surrounded with the beauty of nature. In my opinion, these are best enjoyed while it’s pretty chilly outside. The combination of cold air and hot water is one of the most relaxing things on earth, and a little bite in the air will keep you from getting too dizzy in the hot water.
Like indoor onsen, the rotenburo is split into two sides, one for men and one for women, and like most onsen, the sides are switched on a set schedule so you can try out both sides. You can hear the people on both sides, and paired with the sounds of nature and that of the rest of the park’s inhabitants, it can make for a louder experience. Still, there’s something really soothing about relaxing against the rotenburo’s rocks and maybe chatting with a friend. The water’s high mineral content feels almost fizzy against your skin, and you can see why doctors have praised its effects for decades.
Now, I have several chronic illnesses. I’ve heard about all number of quack therapies over the course of my life. People like to say that the water at Kusatsu can heal any ailment except heartbreak. Can bathing in an onsen’s mineral waters actually cure all of life’s ills? I’m leaning towards probably not — I’ve even seen people saying it can cure cancer, and that’s gonna be a big no from me. That said, I felt really good after bathing at Kusatsu Onsen. It gives you all of the benefits of taking a nice, long soak at home, but with hotter water and clear air. The entire town is devoted to relaxation and self-care, and that atmosphere really gets to you. And hey? What do I know? Maybe some of those minerals really helped out my skin.
If you want to try out the healing waters of Kusatsu Onsen, it is a bit of a hike. You’ll need to take a train out of Tokyo and then a connecting bus to Kusatsu Onsen station. If you’re staying at a ryokan, they will often be willing to pick you up here. If you’re only staying for the day (not recommended if you’re coming all the way from Tokyo) or you’re staying at a normal hotel/airbnb, you’re probably better off walking or taking the local bus. It’s not a very large town, and getting around it is pretty easy, but getting out there? Yeah, I’d set aside at least three hours for the trek from Tokyo.
There’s not a lot to do, exactly, in Kusatsu Onsen, but there’s something to be said for going out to a spa town to give yourself a break. If you’re going to be in Japan for quite a while, I wholeheartedly recommend taking some time to visit an onsen, whether in a fancy onsen town or just in the city. It’ll let you decompress after all of your frantic travels, and the hot water will soothe away your stress.