MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan --
Since my early teens, the word, “Japan,” escaped my mouth hundreds of times. TI was infatuated with the country's unapologetic uniqueness.
When I was 15, I owned my first Japanese car…a short-lived Honda Prelude, replaced by a Nissan 240SX, and declared to my parents I would someday live in Japan and own a right-hand drive vehicle.
It was my life dream. I watched The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift over and over to immerse myself in the over-stereotyped Japanese lifestyle (I still wish they didn't kill off Han…I would say spoiler alert but the movie is more than 10 years old now). I loved everything about Japan; the lights, cars, people, traditions, and the way kanji, katakana and hiragana looked. I still can't read most of it, but I love the appearance of their written language.
I received orders to Misawa Air Base in fall 2014, and almost cried. My dream finally came true! My wife and I arrived mid-2015 and we wasted no time starting a family. We had our son, Beauregarde, in early 2016 and our daughter, Laurel, earlier this year.
With children comes greater responsibility...and all of the expenses associated with supporting our tiny humans. Jessica and I were so busy living our lives in Misawa, we never had a chance to travel much in Japan. But, a few weekends ago, my wife and I took a 10-day journey to Hakone, Osaka and Kyoto.
Southern Japan is completely different from our neck of the woods. The culture, people and food are all different in some way or another and Jess and I wanted to have that experience before finishing this assignment.
We cut costs on the trip by using an immensely popular bed and breakfast website, which I can’t endorse officially, although I'm sure you could put two and two together. We used the Misawa auto complex rental vans to safely and comfortably get us down and back. You can travel cheaper by air or rail if you have fewer people, but with the four of us and my mom, a van was the best option.
Once we left, we heavily relied on navigation apps to get around. We didn't have data on our devices, but used convenience store Wi-Fi or pocket Wi-Fis provided by the bed and breakfasts. Once we had information about our destinations, we entered that information into the rental van's navigation and embarked on that day's journey!
Enough about the how-to. Our first real stop on the trip was Hakone, a beautiful mountain town nestled in a valley on the shore of Lake Ashi. It's about an hour and a half south of Tokyo by car. The town features several shrines and a couple of giant torii gates marking the beginning and end of the “downtown” area. We managed to visit right as the leaves changed and stayed several hundred feet over the city on the side of Mt. Byobu.
After our two days in Hakone were up, we arrived in Osaka and settled into our three-story home with a walk-out patio on the roof. The neighborhood was right in the city – a complete shift from the isolated cabin we'd just come from. We rode bikes to convenience stores and restaurants or walked just about everywhere. Bicyclists and pedestrians filled Osaka’s streets, making driving incredibly impractical, but again, worthwhile after seeing the city lights and the seasonal “Festival of Light” celebrated during our stay. It seemed like an endless city and each street featured new shopping malls and restaurants.
We took a quick day-trip to Kyoto to see the “thousand torii gates,” or Fushimi Inari Taisha as it's formally referred to. It features, as I'm sure you guessed, a lot of torii gates all laid out in a line to where it feels like a tunnel of red and black.
The city of Kyoto holds a substantially different stature than Osaka. Where Osaka is energetic and bustling around the clock, Kyoto seemed more serene and composed even in the middle of the day. No bikes or pedestrians darted out in traffic. It was a sister city with a completely different demeanor. In short, I recommend people go to Osaka for night life and shopping; Kyoto for history and culture...or both since they're only an hour from each other.
I should note, we planned the entire trip around going at our own pace and just enjoying what Japan has to offer. We didn't plan anything extravagant. We tried new food, experienced a change in scenery and took our kids to some different playgrounds.
Although the city life was immersive and stimulating, there's something to be said about the quiet life up north. Yes, cool shops and interesting restaurants are fewer and further between, but the kindness and familiarity of those in our community cannot be replaced. Nature is at our doorstep and the views of the Tohoku region can't be replicated anywhere else in Japan.
I had neon Tokyo dreams 12 years ago. I imagined myself living in the heart of the city, embracing its fast tempo. I never saw myself living in rural Misawa, nor enjoying it as much as I do. The people are friendly, I can get to a mountain or beach both within an hour or drift cars at the track any day of the week. I consider Misawa home and now I can share Japan with my family as well.