Hiroshima After Dark

Japan Day 17 (Part II) - Hiroshima

This is a short one, but it didn't belong in the same post as the roller coasters. The two experiences were as different as night and durian. 

Halfway dazed from hours of fun and adrenalin, we rode the train back to Osaka, picked up our bags from the lockers, rode the local train to Shin-Osaka Station, and finally the bullet train to Hiroshima. What a day. Luckily our hotel was practically connected to the train station, and so we hardly had to walk outside.

The Hotel Granvia Hiroshima was a hotel that had been the picture of luxury back in the day, but now was slightly outdated. That had meant good prices for us; the same price that a cramped business hotel would have cost for the two nights. We entered a grand lobby, and upon checking in, the receptionist presented us with a traditional, folding, hand fan each as a gift. I had forgotten about these fans. They used to be used by everyone, especially in these hot summer months, every person had a little fan they would pull out to use. They used to be popular items in souvenir shops too, a symbol of Japanese culture. Now in two and a half weeks of traveling, this was the first one I had seen. Perhaps parts of Japan’s tradition and history were starting to fade away.

Whatever happened to these fans everyone used to carry?

The room was spacious and nice, even if outdated. A smart phone was provided to use during our stay, just like the one our first hotel in Tokyo had provided. The phone was a nice touch, with helpful apps and articles on Japan already preloaded. I started opening and closing drawers, just out of curiosity. I found the bible drawer with an entire selection of books inside, including the Teachings of Buddha, the New Testament, a religious text in Japanese I could not read, and a book called Hiroshima’s Revival. Hiroshima’s Revival looked like some sort of weird cult propaganda from the cover (and the fact that it was next to the other religious books), but when I flipped through the pages, I realized that it was an entire manga on Hiroshima’s history, or more specifically, Hiroshima’s revival after that fateful day during WWII.

Historical manga, not cult propaganda.

I sat down and read the entire manga. It was full of beautiful stories about the people who rebuilt Hiroshima after the bomb, or the pikadon (pika = flash; don = bang). Fletch and I were here in Hiroshima for the history lesson, and had been discussing the atrocity just days before. He had startled me by saying that the bomb was the bravest act of war ever accomplished, and I had though he was crazy. How could something so catastrophically devastating be seen as anything but that? Here was this beautiful little manga from the Japanese perspective though, that was basically saying the same thing. So many people realized that Hiroshima was a sacrifice that had to be made in order to end the war, and to save countless other cities. What a selfless outlook. I never thought I’d be so humbled after reading a comic book.

For dinner we decided to go find some Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki, the specialty for the city. Lonely Planet recommended a little restaurant on the other side of the train station only a 5 minute walk away, and so we set out in the dark to find it. Crossing the train tracks in a strange city at night time was a little dodgy, but at the same time fitting. One of the stories in the manga had been about a sweets shop that opened up after the war, in a rough part of town next to this very train station, but had managed to persevere. We found the little yellow storefront that was already closed for the night. Unsure that we were going to find anything else in this dark corner of town, we crossed the tracks again and stopped at a conbini for drinks while we decided what to do. The train stations always had plenty of food options. We decided to just browse the selection that was undoubtably waiting in the basement.

Along the way we walked past a little hole-in-the-wall shop with an orange awning. During the daytime, we probably wouldn't have even noticed it; the only thing that made it stand out now was that it was the only light emanating from this dark street. It looked as though a couple of patrons were sitting at a lady’s kitchen counter. Something clicked in my brain as we walked past and I realized that the characters on the awning said okonomiyaki. I said as much to Fletch and we both stood outside in the dark, awkwardly for a few moments, trying to decide how to proceed. We were far away from tourist town now. Nothing had been in English since we had arrived. Was it acceptable for a couple of gaijin to walk into what looked like someone’s home this late at night? We decided to try it.

We walked into a small, homey area, with enough furnishings and odds and ends to convince us that someone lived here. The little old lady working in the kitchen couldn’t speak a lick of English. We couldn’t speak Japanese save for enough words to order seafood okonomiyaki. She made an “X” with her index fingers at the word “seafood” to convey that she was out. The two patrons at the bar turned around and spoke enough broken English to help us out. We were able to convey through them that egg and soba were ok, but no meat. The little old lady set to work, and the couple at the bar got up and helped themselves to the beer in the fridge, then gave it to us. We couldn’t figure out if they were regulars, or family here for the night to help. It definitely felt more like we were hanging out in someone’s home than at a restaurant.

Unnamed, Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki shop.

Everyone was watching the same doctor drama that we had watched back in Hakone, the one with the cocky kid doctor. It was apparent that a new episode was airing tonight, and this was some sort of weekly ritual to get together and watch it over beers and okonomiyaki. We joined right in. The dramatic music and the reactions from the locals were enough to figure out the gist of the plot. Meanwhile the little old lady pulled an entire head of fresh cabbage out of the fridge and set about making our meal completely from scratch. We were in for a treat.

The couple would say a few words in English every now and again. I would say a few words in Japanese. The lady made our food while watching the drama like it was something she could do in her sleep. Eventually we were served two steaming hot plates of Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki, different from the Osaka-style in that it had only a thin layer of batter, and a generous layer of noodles. The food was so good. These people were complete strangers of course, but it felt as though they had invited us into their home and treated us to a homemade meal. Fletch and I walked back to the hotel happy that we had pushed ourselves out of our comfort zone. It had given us an experience and a meal that we would never forget.

Homemade, Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki.

Universal Studios, Take Two

Japan Day 17 (Part I) - Osaka

I liked the Hotel Mystays Dojima. They had given us different sized pillows, some foam, some normal stuffing, some rollers, and none of them felt like newspapers. We also had plenty of space to spread out, and plenty of outlets scattered everywhere, some of which were just USB ports which made them even more convenient. The mirror in the bathroom even had a square patch at eye-height that didn’t fog up when the bathroom got all steamy from the shower. I had always wondered how they managed that, and discovered that the square on the mirror was simply heated from behind. What a great idea.

It was a beautiful, sunny day and we made up our minds to give Universal Studios another go. We checked out of the hotel room, walked to Osaka station, found lockers to store our backpacks in, and rode the train for the second time over to Universal City. We agreed that we should leave by 3:00, to give ourselves enough time to reclaim our luggage, ride the two trains over to Hiroshima, and checkin before sunset. It would be a jam packed day, but we were so ready to have some amusement park fun after having to walk away the day before.

Since we only had a limited amount of time, Fletch splurged for the Express Passes. I would normally never even consider something so extravagant, but Fletch always knows how to have a good time. We knew he had made the right call when we effortlessly zipped to the front of the line for the Hollywood Dream roller coaster. One of the biggest rides at the park, and we didn’t have to spend a minute in line. That was almost as much fun as the ride itself.

After a metal detector pat down (Really? Is that a thing now? Or just a Japan thing?), the attendants strapped us into the harnesses, and we were off, creeping our way upwards. We reached the peak of the track and admired the view of Universal Studios, and Osaka off in the distance, from the top. I hadn’t been on a roller coaster in years. This was about to get interesting. And then we were falling, plummeting downwards. That first drop sent my stomach slingshotting out of place like a punch to the gut. Loud J-pop music was blasting into my ears through the speakers on the seat. The buttons to change the station didn’t work. Upwards and downwards again we hurled, leaving me whooping and hollering until what felt like a moment later, the ride was over. I was all smiles. We had made the right choice coming back here today.

A couple of the more popular rides had small time slots for which we could use the Express Pass, and the Flying Dinosaur ride’s time slot was coming up, so we meandered our way out of Hollywood and over to Jurassic Park. The detail that went into all the rides and the restaurants in any given area really was impressive. I felt like we had actually entered Jurassic park, with the large rock walls surrounding us everywhere. We had just enough time to go on the Jurassic Park ride before our other time slot was due, and so once again, zoomed to the front of the line. I almost felt guilty watching everyone else wait. The Jurassic Park ride was a water raft, and as soon as we boarded our raft, all the Asian guests began pulling rain ponchos out of their bags and donning them. Uh oh. Apparently they knew something that we didn’t. The raft brought us on a relaxing journey past a stegosaurus, past a duck-billed-saurus (my dino names are a little rusty) playing in the water and then through a gate marked “Prohibited Area.” Now things weren’t so tranquil. Electric fences were down, “High Voltage” signs were dangling off their posts, and two little chicken dinosaurs (I’m just going to name them) were tugging at the remains of a torn up uniform. A metal holding container nearly fell on our heads as we entered the concrete receiving area. The float brought us up and up and up in the dark, until we reached the top, where a t-rex jumped out at us and sent us hurling back down with a final splash. I was sitting on the end but the rain ponchos really weren’t necessary.

Floating through Jurassic Park. 

The dinosaurs are escaping! 

Next was the Flying Dinosaur. A crazy maze of a line wrapped its way through endless boundary ropes, and we got to wave at all the hundreds or maybe even thousands of people as we skipped the better part of the line. The Express line was even impressive. It was finally our turn and we got harnessed into our seats. When everyone was ready to go, the seats all flipped forward at once, leaving us face-down in a flying position. Then away we flew. It really did feel like being caught in the clutches of an escaped pterodactyl. Up and down and around in spirals we soared. And then I caught a glimpse of Hogwarts off in the distance, that beautiful castle I had dreamed of since my book worm days. I had a moment of nostalgia before I was sent twirling downwards and upside down. Hogwarts was here. I was flying like a dinosaur in my favorite movie, and looking at the world I had dreamed of visiting from my favorite book. My day was made.

Do I look like a pterodactyl just dropped me off? 

The ride was so much fun that we tried to race back over to the line and go again, but unfortunately the Express Passes were only good to skip the line once. Our disappointment faded after a moment, and we made our way over to Amity Village (they really did put all my favorite movies in one spot) for lunch. Most of the food was a weird combo between seafood and fast food. I ended up with a tuna and corn pizza that wasn’t half bad for amusement park food. Plus the food helped to settle my stomach which was doing funny things after being shaken around so many times. I refused to acknowledge any queasiness though.

Our next time slot was at Minion Park for the Minion Mayhem ride. This was by far the busiest area yet, because Asians absolutely love minions. Of everyone dressed up that day, a good 75% of them were minions. Couples in matching minion t-shirts, kids in minion costumes, girls with minion overalls and bright yellow t-shirts, guys with minion hats… there was no question as to what the popular vote fore favorite movie would have been.

Time to get turned into a minion!

We entered Gru’s house and had to go through three separate waiting areas before we made it to the ride. Luckily each of the waiting areas had videos playing, tutorials on what to expect when we were all turned into minions in a few minutes. Then we were loaded into cars and lifted into a huge, domed area like a planetarium, where the screen sent us on an animated adventure. It was a virtual reality roller coaster. At the end, Gru had a change of heart and turned us back into humans again. Some of the guests still looked like minions coming out though.

Unfortunately our time slots for the two rides in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter were at the end of the day, long after we would have to depart. I still had to see the area though. We were so close, and I had wanted to see it for so long.

The entry way was a long path that led through a pine tree forest. We saw fewer people here than we had seen at the bamboo forest. If I had known that, I’d have skipped the bamboo and come straight to Hogwarts. We eventually emerged into Hogsmead Village. Steep roofs covered in snow looked exactly like the movie. The attention to detail was amazing. To my right was the Hogwarts Express. Oh how I used to dream of being on that train. Yes, I was one of those nerds.

The Hogwarts Express

All the village shops were real. Some were restaurants, some were actual stores from the books. Honeydukes was there, as was Zonko’s Joke Shop, and Olivanders, and Dervish and Banges. Over in a clearing, little kids were being taught how to open doors with their wands. A digital overlay on a wooden door occasional creaked or flew open, much to the excitement of the kids.


We wandered through Hogsmead, and eventually came to Hogwarts. She was a beauty. The Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride was inside the castle, and so we decided to try our luck at using our Express Passes. It must not have been busy because they waved us straight through. We weren’t allowed to bring anything onto the ride with us, and so were led into a dimly lit area that felt like the dungeon with some densely packed lockers where we deposited everything. Then, armed with only the key on a bracelet, we wound our way through the line. I almost wished the line had been a longer wait, because it brought us through so many different rooms of Hogwarts that were all furnished and decorated with painstaking detail. It was like being in the real castle. We wandered through the dimly lit, stone hallways, went up the staircases where all the paintings on the walls talked and moved, and they didn’t just look like digital screens, but actual moving paintings. There was the stone gargoyle leading to Dumbledore’s office. There was the painting of the fat lady. There was the sorting hat, talking away, unfortunately in Japanese. We wandered through classrooms and finally through the Gryffindor common room. There was almost no line to speak of, and so before I could take it all in, we were being seated into a row of harnesses hovering above a track.

This was another virtual ride, with some parts being displayed on high definition screens, and some animatronics coming into play as well. We were following Harry and Ron on broomsticks, but unfortunately they were speaking Japanese so I wasn’t quite certain what the mission was, but we rode our brooms up and down through nearly every major scene in the movies. Spiders from the Forbidden Forest jumped out at us, the basilisk struck at us, dementors swarmed, the Whomping Willow nearly impaled us. There was the Golden Snitch just ahead! Just out of reach… A dragon breathed fire on us, and hot air actually blew in our faces. I think we saved the day, but again, Harry and Ron only spoke Japanese so I’m not quite sure if they were congratulating us at the end or telling us we were toast.

We left dimly-lit Hogwarts and reemerged into the sunlight, squinting ahead at the other ride, the Flight of the Hippogriff. This ride wouldn’t allow us to use our Express Pass since the time wasn’t until much later, and so we decided to just stand in line like all the common folk. How long could it be?

The line once again brought us around various scenes from the movies, including Hagrid’s Hut. We didn’t have to wait more than about 15 minutes. Lucky for me that Asians were more into minions than Harry Potter. This was a little old-school roller coaster, with a rickety track and wicker cars, the front one being shaped like a Hippogriff. It was charming in its own way, and over after a minute.

Sirius Black's motorbike beside Hagrid's Hut

On our way out of Hogwarts and Hogsmeade, we passed by a show that was just beginning. Western kids dressed up in Hogwarts robes were singing a musical number. I made Fletch stop for a moment, curious to see a bunch of white kids singing in Japanese. Surely that would offer some amusement. There were no words though, just the same syllable sung repeatedly. How sad if a musical career had to succumb to that. Apparently if you're a gaijin in need of a job in Japan, you can dress up as a fictional gaijin at Universal Studios.

We left the Wizarding World and wandered over to the New York area, the only area of the park that we hadn’t seen yet. There was a Curious George attraction with an entire row of baby strollers lined up against the building, as far as the eye could see. We could definitely skip that whatever that was, in fact just looking at it was exhausting. We turned and looked at each other, and decided that we were happy and had seen everything that we wanted to see. The Express Passes had gotten us through the highlights of the park in a whomping three hours. We bought some caramel corn on our way out, and made our way back to the train.

To be continued... 

A Day With Osaka's Sharks

Japan Day 16 - Osaka

It’s difficult to know what to do when you have one full day to explore a city the size of Osaka. Reading Lonely Planet had given me two ideas. One was a biking tour of the city that stopped off at various points to try different foods. We hadn’t attempted any guided tours up until this point and the idea of having a local show us some of the things we might not find on our own was intriguing. Plus it was a food tour. I love food. My other idea was to give culture a break for a day (we had been embracing everything Japan for over two weeks now) and go to Universal Studios to relive the childhood fun I missed out on. The bike tour was $80 for three hours of fun. Universal Studios was $75 for an entire day of fun. Fletch and I decided to go the roller coaster route.

It was a gray, Saturday morning and the skies were overcast. Nervously, I checked the weather forecast for the day. We had decided to spend our day in Osaka at Universal Studios several days ago, and now I already had my heart set on adrenalin-inducing adventures through my favorite movie sets. Rain was forecast for noon, but was supposed to clear up around 2:00. We could work with that. We would just take our time getting coffee and food and making our way over to the park.

We somehow missed the direct train from our train station over to Universal City, and so had to transfer a couple stops before. The second train that picked us up was covered from front to end in colorful, cartoon characters, welcoming us to the park. I noticed several little kids with violin cases waiting at the train station and laughed to myself. Once upon a time that had been me, dutifully hauling my instrument around everywhere I went and never failing to practice at least two hours a day (more so in the latter years). Music lessons, practicing, recitals, and competitions had taken up my entire childhood. I’m very grateful for the things music taught me growing up of course, but today I was gleeful to not be the one going to music lessons with an instrument strapped to my back while all the other kids went to Universal Studios. Today I was the one going to Universal. Sorry, kids.

We arrived at the Universal City Station and the rain really stared pouring. Maybe I had laughed at the kids with violins a little too soon. No, I refused to believe that. It was going to clear up at two, and we were going to go have fun! We would just have lunch outside the park gates in the meantime.

How's that for a hotel entrance?

The second food after okonomiyaki that Osaka is best known for is takoyaki. Takoyaki is a grilled ball of dough, about the size of a golf ball, stuffed with octopus, and another food I am a very big fan of. Conveniently enough, there was a restaurant called Takopia, which consisted of various different-style takoyaki stands. At the first stand, the dude working the stall had en exuberant personality, and was very excited to try and lure us over for his octopus dumplings. Very few Japanese people are that outgoing, so his smile and personality drew us right in. We just ordered one serving so that we could share and go onto the next variety. What arrived was your standard, no-bells-or-whistles, classic, takoyaki. They were lava hot, and so we broke the very important rule to never stab your food with your chopsticks, and stabbed some heat vents into the lava balls. After staring at them in anticipation for a painfully long time, they were finally cool enough to devour, and devour them we did.

The second takoyaki stand we went to had a vending machine to order, and we chose a sampler plate that came with a little bit of everything. The plate arrived with black takoyaki (I didn’t catch what gave it the color. Maybe black sesame? Or squid ink?), some stuffed with shrimp instead of octopus, a variety made out of a cheesy dough, and some more of the standard variety, but this time drizzled with mayonnaise and a sort of sweet, brown sauce. My favorite out of the bunch were the black ones. There were of course numerous other stalls to try, but after the first two, I had already reached my limit of fried batter balls. Takoyaki may be delicious, but it is also very rich and filling.

So much delicious takoyaki

The rain was still pouring. We saw a roller coaster beyond the gate still in operation, but only a handful of people were on it.

A rainy day at Universal City. 

With nothing better to do, we started browsing through the shops on our side of the gate. We found some funny odds and ends to tickle our amusement: sake flavored Kit Kat bars, a plush pig cut up into slices of ham (the perfect gift for the vegan in your life), oversized plush hats, and an epic hair dryer that looked like a time traveling device that had beamed itself back from the future. Japan had some great gadgets.

This poor stuffed animal...

We browsed through the majority of the shops and still the rain wasn’t letting up. We finally abandoned hope of the day ever clearing up and decided to head to the aquarium instead.

I finally saw a whale shark! 

Osaka is home to the 6th largest aquarium in the world (at the time of our visit). They claim that theirs is the largest, but I’m sure the other five do too. A quick Google search will tell you were the rankings really stand. Regardless, it was big enough to house a couple whale sharks, which I was very divided about in my head. On one hand, in my nine years of diving and over a thousand dives, I had yet to see a whale shark, and so desperately wanted to. On the other hand, I’m not a fan a large, intelligent animals being locked up in a glass box. Sharks travel across entire oceans when they migrate. They shouldn’t be confined to four small walls.

Some parts of the aquarium were really amazing. I got to see a lot of new species that I had so far only seen in pictures, and many species that resided in colder water than I cared to go visit. There was a tank of giant king spider crabs. I had seen a scene of them in the Disney Oceans film, and decided that they were the stuff nightmares were made of. Much like the coconut crab though, in person, they weren’t nearly so terrifying. In fact they were pretty cool. I couldn’t get over how big they were! Some of their bodies were the size of my head, and then their legs extended outwards menacingly so that they looked like monsters. Very cool monsters of course.

King Spider Crab (aquarium glass doesn't make for the best photos but I tried).

Some parts of the aquarium were really sad. There were creatures that were obviously distressed over not being able to go beyond their small enclosures. There were also some fish that seemed too dumb to notice the difference. Osaka Aquarium was home to not just one, but two mola mola, another species I had always wanted to see but hadn’t yet. Mola Mola are the fish that make you question Darwin’s theory. They are oddly shaped, big floating blobs, that seem to never stop growing. They have little tiny faces, with mouths puckered into a perpetually surprised “O” shape. Two mola molas were just hovering in their tank, motionless, looking like they were trying to have a conversation with the wall. I learned that while extremely cool, the mola mola was not an intelligent-looking fish.

Mola Mola (Photo Credit: Fletch)

The aquarium’s main attraction was a massive central tank, open for viewing from all four sides, and from several different stories. The walkway spiraled down around the entire tank, allowing guests to view from as many different angles as they liked. This tank was home to more species of sharks than I could even count, as well as several species of ray. Two whale sharks were there, more beautiful than I had ever imagined, even if I was torn up over seeing them in an enclosure. Black tips, white tips, tawny nurses, scalloped hammerheads, a zebra shark, woebegones, eagle rays, a Japanese butterfly ray, a wedgefish, and so many more beautiful creatures were swimming around in the large tank. It was a mesmerizing display. While most of the fish seemed relaxed, the hammerheads were clearly agitated over being trapped. They zoomed around faster than any of the others, looking just as distressed as the dogs you see pacing back and forth in their kennels at the animal shelter. One of these hammerheads had a beautiful, almost black hue, that I couldn’t take my eyes off of.

At the end of the aquarium was the touch tank, the infamous shallow pool full of the unfortunate animals that get molested by thousands of curious hands everyday. Usually these tanks contain brainless blobs like sea cucumbers and starfish, but this particular touch tank was full of dozens of little bamboosharks and pitted stingrays. At least the pool was large enough that they could all escape to the center, out of reach if they really felt like they were being harassed. We had a much better experience petting the sharks and the rays than we had petting the kitties at the cat cafe. Here at least they were actively swimming around and not acting drugged. I couldn’t help but miss our sharks at Supermarket in Fiji, who had become accustomed to our presence and would follow us around. One of the little white tip sharks, Lucy, had grown quite attached to Fletch, and would even come in for cuddles and let him pet her.

It was getting late in the day by the time we were finished at the aquarium, and so we decided to make our way back to the Namba area for dinner. We were doing a great job so far of trying a wide variety of food, and so decided to stick with that trend and scope out a kaiten zushi, or conveyer belt sushi restaurant. While popular all over Japan now, the idea of putting sushi on a conveyer belt originated in Osaka. We found a suitable restaurant, a massive place with lanterns hanging from the ceiling, and rows and rows of seats with a conveyer belt snaking back and forth and around each of the long bars. A screen was set up in front of every second or third chair to order and checkout, making the place look almost like a casino. We sat down at the bar closest to the entrance, and discovered a hot water dispenser and matcha powder to make our own tea. We also discovered that the plates weren’t color coordinated by price. Usually, each color denotes a specific price, and to checkout, someone counts up how many of each color plate you have and that is how much you owe. But here every plate was $1. This was going to be fun.

Isono Ryotaro Namba Shop, Osaka

Conveyer belt sushi. 

It is such novelty to watch plates of sushi move by like toy train cars, and to choose whichever plates you want. You can keep on eating until you are full, and not have to worry about leftovers. Leftover sushi is never as good. The quality isn’t the best for $1 per plate of course, but it is still better than the majority of sushi you get back home, because even if it is the cheaper cuts of fish, it’s fresh. It hasn’t been flown overseas before making it to the kitchen. We managed to eat our way through 25 plates, still a ridiculously cheap dinner for 2, and I felt like I was waddling by the time we left. We probably should have stopped after 20…

25 plates later!

We made our way back to the hotel and spent the evening relaxing and catching up on episodes of The Big Bang Theory that we had missed while living in Fiji. We were laying in bed when we heard the boom and vibration of a door being slammed shut. That’t what I imagined it was anyway, except that we didn’t stop moving after the initial back and forth sensation. We continued to rapidly shift several more times, side to side, and when I realized what was happening, my heart began to race. All I could think of was that we were on the 9th floor of a building, and there were meant to be aftershocks from a pretty decent sized earthquake that had killed 4 people, and injured 417, only a few days before. It was all over in a couple of seconds of course, but it had felt so much longer. I knew such tremors were nothing to be concerned with. I used to experience them nearly every day when I had lived in Sendai, an area well known for earthquakes, but it had been ten years since experiencing the earth move. And when mother nature takes over and you know there’s not a thing you can do, it is quite terrifying, even if only for a moment. My heart raced a little longer than it should have, but I eventually calmed down enough to fall asleep.

Okonomiyaki in Osaka

Japan Day 15 - Kyoto to Osaka

The strange “hotel” room we were staying in had given us a checkout time of 10:00 - 12:00. We took that as permission to have a lazy morning and took our time packing up. At 10:00 sharp someone was knocking on the door to make sure we were out of there. So much for that plan.

Japanese people are very into water conservation. If water is going to be running to flush the toilet anyway, why not have it run through the sink first? 

We rode the bus back to the train station, walked across the street to the drug store to return the key, and then went up to the 11th floor to look at food options. Kyoto station was a very cool building architecturally, that extended upwards instead of downwards like the other stations we had grown accustomed to.

Kyoto Station

We were two weeks into our Japan travels and I was craving a vegetable like nothing else. Every day I kicked myself for not packing multi-vitamins. I love Japanese cuisine, don’t get me wrong. They have carbs and proteins down to an art, but I was definitely beginning to notice a staggering void in the fruits and vegetables department, the stuff I live on. My body was begging for vitamins. I had resorted to drinking juices simply because that was the closest thing I could find to fruits. A Korean restaurant looked to have a few vegetables on the menu. At last!

We ordered two meals and a side of Korean pancakes, and somehow ended up with an entire feast arriving at the table. So much food arrived that it almost didn’t all fit onto the little table. We had salad (hallelujah), kimchi, pancakes that came with the meal (oops), the additional Korean pancakes we had ordered (not realizing we were already getting some with the meal), soup, and finally the big bowl of rice and veggies I had ordered as an entree. Thank you Korea for caring about the greens. I was reminded of how when I had lived in Japan ten years before, I had missed spicy food. My host family had finally taken me out for Korean food to give me the spice I was craving. Now Korean food was saving me in the vegetable department. It seems as though if there’s something you’re missing in Japanese cuisine, try finding a Korean restaurant.

A Korean feast!

Fueled and ready to conquer the next city, we bought our shinkansen tickets and rode the bullet train 13 minutes over to Osaka. 13 minutes to jump between two major cities on the bullet train! A local train brought us the remaining 4 minutes, and a 10 minute walk brought us to Hotel Mystays Dojima. The quick trip meant that we had arrived early, but luckily the reception desk allowed us to check in.

The room was the largest we had been treated to yet, at a whomping 19 square meters. It even had a two-sided desk jutting out into the middle of the room so that we had a place to set things. It seemed like the farther we got from Tokyo, the bigger the rooms got.

At dusk we headed out to Dotonbori, a street in downtown Osaka famous for its dazzling, brightly colored lights, and most of all, food. Osaka is a gastronomist’s dream. The city’s unofficial slogan is kuidaore, or ‘eat until you drop.’ (As if the whole of Japan wasn’t already food-centered enough).

We walked from the subway stop and took a right turn and wham, there it was. Dotonbori was overwhelming. It was a hundred times what I had ever imagined. The pictures didn’t do it justice. The nicest, professional-level photos they publish in guide books and travel magazines didn’t even begin to capture the scale of the buzz and energy emanating from the city streets. Take Khao San Road in Thailand and put it in a more modern city. Take Burbon Street in New Orleans and splash it with neon lights (that was sacrilege, sorry for that one). Of course there were thousands of people, all here for the spectacle, but they weren’t as much a bother. Unlike the shrines and forests were the presence of people had killed a part of the mystique, here the people drove the energy. Throngs of people, both locals and tourists alike, made the whole night come alive.

My phone's camera couldn't begin to capture the lights, so I stole this photo off of Google.

Since this was the food street, in the food city, in a country already renowned for its food, the lines pouring out of every restaurant and street stand were outrageous. We walked the length of the street, taking it all in, the lights, the animated crab signs, the crowd, the essence of downtown city vibes. When we reached the end, we were content. We walked around the block and found ourselves an okonomiyaki restaurant away from the crowds.

Okonomiyaki is the best Japanese food you never heard of, and one of the specialties of Osaka. It is a savory pancake made out of a yam-based flour paste, eggs, and shredded cabbage. I know that sounds dreadful but you’ll just have to take my word for it. It is grilled on a griddle and topped with whatever meat your heart desires (the name literally translates to “how you like it”), and finally drizzled with mayonnaise, a thicker, sweeter version of Worcestershire sauce, and bonito flakes. The texture is like a pancake, but it’s an entire savory meal instead of a sweet, flat cake. The result is the ultimate comfort food. I don’t know how eating raw fish ever caught on in America before okonomiyaki did.

We sat down at the bar, the entirety of which was covered in the griddle. The only option on the menu that didn’t contain pork was the seafood version, so that made my decision easy. I had consumed enough 7-Eleven beverages by that point to have a pretty good grasp on the Japanese language. Fully confident in my abilities, I ditched the point-and-grunt approach and ordered in flawless Japanese. Well not flawless, but good enough to be corrected in my choice of counters by the server. I have a theory that when someone is barely scraping by with the words they know, you just smile that they got the point across. When someone knows a bit more and has obviously made the effort to learn, you begin to correct the small mistakes. That’s how you learn, right? Anyway maybe it was silly, but I was proud that my Japanese was good enough to be corrected.

Okonomiyaki in action!

The girl cooked our okonomiyaki right there in front of us, and I hardly remember it landing on our plates, because there we were inhaling it right away and it was every bit as good as I had remembered, if not better. I’m pretty sure I got Fletch hooked on it too.

Freshly made okonomiyaki, hot on the griddle. 

We rode the drunk subway home with all the other Japanese people done for the evening. That was some highly entertaining people watching. Fletch stood in front of me like a gentleman to allow someone else to have his seat. The girl next to me had a hundred of the exact same photo on her tablet, just all in different colors; it was a logo of some sort. She was showing her friend and they finally chose the right color, so she set about tracing the outline with her stylus, to make it darker maybe, I don’t know. To watch someone trace an outline with perfect precision on a moving subway was oddly satisfying. I would have been hitting the ‘undo’ button at every bump and turn. To my left, a dude with a chain full of keys was trying to find the exact right emoji to send. I may not have been able to read Japanese, but everyone speaks emoji. I forget which one he chose but he was obviously texting a lady friend.

Our subway eventually dropped us off at our stop and we walked the ten minutes back to our hotel. The night was just getting started in Osaka; people were hanging out on every block like it was their backyard. We had to call it a night though, and so said ’til tomorrow’ to the city lights.

The Tourist Trap That 2018 Kyoto Has Become

Japan Day 14 - Kyoto

There were two places in Kyoto I definitely wanted to see. The first was the bamboo forest, which I had never been to before. The online reviews said to arrive early, before the crowds, and so Fletch and I did our best to wake up at an early hour. Despite our best efforts, it took an hour and two busses to navigate over to the outskirts of the city where the forest was located, and so we ended up arriving at a normal hour with the rest of the crowds, and crowds was an understatement.

The bamboo forest in Kyoto makes regular appearances in travel articles, or lists of places to see before you die. “Towering green stalks of the famously versatile plant sway in the wind, creaking eerily they collide and twist, leaves rustling,” says CNN Travel. “No picture can capture the feeling of standing in the midst of this sprawling bamboo grove - the whole thing has a palpable sense of otherness that is quite unlike that of any normal forest we know of,” says Inside Kyoto. “The absolutely gorgeous forest of skinny bamboo trunks is the heroin chic of wooded glades. As the wind passes through the tightly packed plants, the wood bends and creaks, the leaves rustle, and the trunks knock together, creating a peaceful sound like almost nothing else,” says Atlas Obscura. Who wouldn’t want to experience such a natural wonder? Apparently everyone else was thinking the same thing.

Obligatory shrine in the Bamboo Grove. 

I am sorry to say that the bamboo forest was nothing but a giant tourist trap. There was no serenity, no otherworldliness, just throngs of people and Chinese girls dressed up as geisha and tripods set up at every which turn. The chatter of excited tourists and the clicks of thousands of cameras drowned out any rustling or creaking noises the bamboo may have been making. Japanese guys dressed in short shorts that looked like lederhosen were selling rickshaw rides for those into such touristy gimmicks. The articles all promised that a photo couldn’t possibly capture the beauty of the experience, but the photos I did manage to capture, sans people (mostly by angling the camera upwards), were way more peaceful than the actual experience turned out to be.

Arashiyama Bamboo Grove (angled upwards to avoid all the people). 

Fletch and I tried our best to walk hand in hand, and slowly take it all in. I didn’t relax until we were out of there though. We made our exit at the opposite end from which we had entered, and got delightfully lost in a little residential neighborhood that wasn’t crawling with tourists.

Cute little stone statues are the only people in the bamboo grove that don't take away from the appeal. 

There was a little tourist town on the outskirts of the forest, which had numerous souvenir shops and sweets. We searched around for a suitable breakfast, and stopped at a tofu restaurant. We were seated upstairs in front of a window overlooking the street down below. The people watching was much more appealing when we weren’t fighting through the crowds, but merely observing from a distance. We ordered two set meals, which came with a variety of small, various tofu dishes. The meal was a vegetarian’s dream, and I especially enjoyed the “tofu skin,” which had a very pleasant, layered texture, and was almost chewy. I don’t think Fletch was as big a fan of that particular meal.

An entirely tofu breakfast. 

The second place in Kyoto I wanted to take Fletch to was Fushimi Inari Shrine, otherwise known as the orange gate shrine from the movie Memoirs of a Geisha. My roommate on Semester at Sea had brought me to this shrine, six years before, and I had fallen in love. If anything manmade could have been as otherworldly as a bamboo forest, Inari Shrine was it. Thousands of vermilion torii gates had wound their way up 233 meters to the summit of sacred Mount Inari. The maze of orange tunnels had been one of my most unforgettable experiences in Japan. I don’t even know how to describe it except for magical. I couldn’t wait to go back.

Fushimi Inari Shrine in 2012.

I almost wished I hadn’t gone back. We arrived after another hour-journey and two trains over to find a crowd ten times the size of the one we had left at the bamboo forest. I remembered a small crowd from before, one that quickly dissipated about fifteen minutes into the hike, once people realized they had seen what they had come to see, and there was no need to hike the entire path. I told Fletch that if we hustled through the first part of the winding orange tunnels, the crowd would probably (hopefully) thin out. So we hurried past the entry shrine and all the sightseers gleefully ringing the bells, and entered the first set of orange gates. We weren’t hurrying anywhere after that. There were so many people packed in there like sardines, I couldn’t even move. I’m not a claustrophobic person, but being enclosed in a tunnel with so many people that escaping wasn't an option, was vaguely sickening. It was worse than standing in line at Disney World. Determined to lose the crowds though, we shoved our way forward, hoping the crowd would dissipate soon. It didn’t.

Entrance to Fushimi Inari Shrine in 2018. 

We did find this cat, who seemed equally taken aback by having his home invaded by tourists. 

When searching for things to do in Kyoto, I had stumbled across services that offered to dress you up like a geisha for the day. Sort of like the Disney Princess treatment I guess, except the Japanese version. I had skimmed past those activities, dismissing them as tourist gimmicks. Apparently it was a popular thing for the Chinese tourists to do though, as a good percentage of the people stepping on our toes were Chinese girls in their geisha getups. They were all holding up traffic, trying to get their Memoirs of a Geisha shot, while their boyfriends dutifully got fancy with the camera angles. It is very difficult to walk in layers of cloth wound tightly around your legs, never mind the wooden shoes. Surely as soon as we gained some elevation, we would shake the fake geishas out of the crowd.

Onward we trudged, growing less and less hopeful all the way. We did eventually shake the geisha girls, but it looked as though everyone else was in it for the whole 4 km hike. The number of people invading this sacred space was saddening. The magic I remembered from being here was gone. We eventually abandoned ship and jumped at the first, less-traveled side path we found back down the mountain. This path was muddy and the few people on it eventually decided they were heading the wrong way and turned back. Perfect. A few scattered and greatly faded torii gates still welcomed us ahead. The muddy path even led through a small patch of bamboo. The magic of once-cultural Kyoto granted us this small space of peace, with a taste of the things we had set out to see this morning. I was happy.

The road less traveled...

We were trekking farther and farther away from civilization when we came to a sign warning about boars. Great, we had finally shaken the crowd just to get mauled by wild boars. Luckily we didn’t run into any though, just a swarm of thirsty mosquitos that made us pick up our pace to dissuade any more from landing on our bare skin. The path spat us out at the base of the mountain into a quiet, residential area. This looked to be a wealthy neighborhood, as the homes were very large with small but beautifully landscaped gardens.

We wandered around lost, not feeling the need to pull out the GPS jut yet. Instead, our wandering led us over to some random temple that was massive and didn’t have a person in site. This was the way to experience the sacred splendor of Kyoto. I have no idea what temple we were at, but we had a much better experience there than we had at the tourist traps. How sad that Kyoto’s magic had been trampled by enough visitors to make the place feel more like an amusement park. The world is being suffocated by too many people. Nearly every place I’ve gone, the locals all talk about that place as it was ten years ago. "If only we could go back to the way it was ten years ago." When the excitement of experiencing a new place has you seeing everything through rose-tinted glasses, that seems like a pretty pessimistic outlook on life. But now I understood. Now I was the one reminiscing about the place Japan was ten years ago, when the number of tourists in the country was only 28% the number there in 2018. 

Unknown temple we stumbled upon, away from all the crowds.

Grounds of the unknown temple; we were very envious of this bird and his prime perch away from the crowds.

In a last ditch effort to see something famous in Kyoto, Fletch and I boarded a train followed by a bus to Kinkaku-ji, the Golden Pavilion. We arrived 30 minutes before close, which meant that most of the crowds had gone. We hustled along the path and made it to the little clearing overlooking the pavilion sitting out over the lake. The pavilion was built as a summer home for the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, who willed it to become a Zen temple after his death in 1408. The top two floors were completely covered in gold leaf, making it a very well-known sight in Japan. We had just enough time to snap our photos, and then continue along the path to the exit. The recommendations on the internet had been to see the temple at sunset. If you travelers out there have the same idea, remember that in June, when the days are longest (actually this just happened to be the longest day of the year), the temple closes well before sunset.

Kinkaku-ji, or the Golden Pavilion. 

We returned back to the room with tired feet. I checked my email to discover some bad news. Remember I mentioned before that a strange new trend in accommodation was popping up across Japan? People were buying up entire apartment buildings and then renting out the rooms on Airbnb as a way to make some money without having to start a legitimate business. At least that appeared to be what was happening based on several of the rooms we had stayed in. Well Japan decided to put an end to that and shut down 80% of the country’s Airbnb listings. I had read about that the week before our departure. All the places I had booked had still been listed at the time, and so I had thought we were safe. My email was now telling me otherwise. Airbnb had waited until the week before checkin to tell me that we no longer had a place to stay for our last week in Tokyo.

The number one rule in traveling is that nothing ever goes according to plan. Always be prepared to be flexible. Everything had gone perfectly according to plan thus far, and so I had been lulled into a false sense of security. Now this. A month ago I had been scrambling to book the last couple reservations because I had noticed that hotels were already starting to book full. I was scared to look at what might be available with only a week’s notice. Instead of looking for new accommodation, I wrote some very bitter emails to Airbnb. For every one I typed out, I knew they were probably in the midst of receiving hundreds of the same. I never actually sent anything.

By the time I narrowed down our parameters - area of Tokyo we wanted to be in, price range, double bed, enough square meterage - there were only two hotels available. An hour of reading mediocre reviews back and forth for the two got me nowhere, and so I finally picked one at random. Hopefully we wouldn’t be spending our last week in a broom closet.

After that fiasco I was eager to go do something, anything, so Fletch and I boarded the bus and headed over to an area called Gion for a late dinner. According to Lonely Planet, “Gion is the famous entertainment and geisha quarter on the eastern bank of the Kamogawa. While Gion’s true origins were in teahouses catering to weary visitors, by the mid-18th century the area was Kyoto’s largest pleasure district. The best way to experience Gion today is with an evening stroll around the atmospheric streets lined with 17th-century traditional restaurants and teahouses lit up with lanterns.”

A TripAdvisor search brought up a teppanyaki place with excellent reviews, and so after getting off the bus, we walked in that direction. One look through the restaurant’s window though, showed a room crowded with nothing but white people. We had had enough of that for one day, and so kept walking.

Our stroll brought us down a dimly lit street, with numerous lanterns and trees. Everyone was dressed in their finest, and hurriedly disappearing through dark doorways. It wasn’t a late night party atmosphere though. A tranquility enveloped the streets, magnified by the gentle glow of the lanterns. It was a lovely place for a nighttime stroll.

We eventually found a sushi restaurant that suited our mood. We each ordered a "large," assorted plate, and were presented with some of the best sushi I have ever had. Sushi is already amazing, but when it’s made with the finest cut of the freshest fish available, you wonder how it’s even possible to improve upon a food that was already so perfect. And yet improve upon all past sushi experiences it did. The scallop went down smoother than butter. The texture of the squid was pure delight. The tuna was sweet and melted in my mouth. The eel was more decadent than cake. As is custom, I saved the egg for dessert. Tamago is usually a welcome sweet treat at the end of a lot of raw fish, but I was disappointed when I made it to the tamago, because it meant the fish was over. A masterpiece that could never be recreated.

Sushi in Gion, Kyoto.

After leaving the restaurant, we wandered around Gion a while longer. Eventually we decided to look at bus times, and realized that the penultimate bus was about to leave. Why chance fate. We hopped on our opportunity and said our goodbyes to Kyoto. We wen’t departing until the next morning of course, but we were already mentally checked out of the tourist trap of a city.