Hiroshima’s Cry for Peace

Japan Day 18 - Hiroshima

Fletch and I took our time in the morning. We knew it was going to be a heavy day, so we weren’t in any real hurry to get an early start and jam-pack as much as we could into our hours of daylight. When planning our trip, I had asked Fletch what he wanted to see and do in Japan. His only real request was that he wanted to see Hiroshima, and learn about the Japanese side of WWII. That had been on my list as well, and so our only goals for the city were to visit the Peace Memorial Museum and to walk the Peace Memorial Park where the Atomic Bomb Dome and several other memorials were erected.

Hiroshima as a whole was a very quiet and peaceful city. We had noticed that about Japan, that despite the population density and size of the cities, places were surprisingly quiet. Now that we were away from the excitement and chatter of the bulk of the tourists, the quiet was even more palpable. Hiroshima wasn’t even a small place, with a population of 1.2 million, but it did have the peaceful serenity of a much smaller city.

It was lunch by the time we were ready to go, and so we walked to the adjoining train station to see what we might find for food. I felt uncomfortably self-conscious that day, being an American. No one treated us any differently, or gave us a second glance, but I still felt embarrassed. My country demolished your city, in the worst atrocity ever committed in war, but here I am touring and sightseeing like it’s just another world's largest ball of twine. I felt ashamed to be here.

Crowds and a few crying babies scared us away from some of the restaurant choices. Out of the remaining, the plastic pasta displays were the most enticing. There were dozens of different creative pasta dishes to choose from. We sat down and browsed the full menu, full of colorful photos. After days and cities of nothing but noodles and various fried foods, I was still craving something green and crunchy and rich in vitamins. I found a salmon carpaccio salad to go along with my veggie and squid pasta. The salad was minuscule, and contained only few lettuce leaves, but I savored every last one of them, thinking of the salmon as only an afterthought. Fletch did a shrimp and broccoli pasta in lobster sauce. Both dishes were good but Fletch’s pasta sauce was some of the best pasta sauce I’d ever tasted.

Vegetable and Squid Pasta

We found the Maple Loop Bus, or the Maipuru-pu as the Japanese phonetics spelled out. There were three different colored lines, all running around more or less the same tourist destinations, just in different directions. We decided to jump off at the museum first for our history lesson, before walking the park north to visit the memorials, ending with the Atomic Bomb Dome on the far north end.

It turned out that the main building of the museum was closed for renovations and earthquake proofing, but the east building was still open. We walked up to a large, glass, block of a building, and stopped in front to stare through the window at what might have at one point been a futuristic looking clock, part analog and part digital. The analog clock at the top of the tower showed the current time with two black hands, and the time that the atomic bomb dropped, permanently stopped, with grey hands. A digital display in the middle showed the number of days since the first dropping of the A-bomb: 26,621 days. An identical digital display on the bottom showed the number of days since the latest nuclear test: 295 days. The plaque read:

Peace “Watch” Tower 
This Clock Tower displays panels with numbers and cogwheels. The first panel indicates the number of days since the A-bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. The lower panel indicates the number of days since the last nuclear test. When a nuclear test is conducted, the number of days will be reset to zero to enhance the strength of the protest from Hiroshima. The cogwheels below represent a virtual countdown which warns us that we are on the path leading towards the annihilation of humanity. The concept is: the cogwheel at the top rotates 100 times per minute, but it will spin faster if the earth shows signs of being in danger. If it reaches the immovable cogwheel at the bottom, the clock will automatically self-destruct. In order to stop the cogwheels from spinning, we must work toward abolishing all nuclear weapons and seek for an age of coexistence among humankind without dependance on military forces.

A sign printed out explained that the latest nuclear test had been by North Korea, who announced it had conducted an underground nuclear test on September 3, 2017.

Peace "Watch" Tower

Already feeling the weight of what monsters the human race could be, we entered the building in silence and purchased two tickets.

The hallway lead us to a big empty room, with a panoramic photo stretched along the entirety of the walls. We were looking at a black and white photo of the city of Hiroshima before the bomb. We entered the next room to find the same panoramic view of the city, only this time after the bomb. Nothing was left save for rubble and maybe the odd tree stump. You’ve all probably seen photos. Blowing those photos up to life size and pasting them over the walls of the room to create a full, panoramic view was seriously chilling.

In the next room a few people were sitting on blocks and silently watching an old-fashioned tv with a grainy video playing. An elderly gentleman was giving a video testimonial of what he remembered from that day. We sat and watched, a dozen or so interviews, one after another, each person’s story lasting around five minutes. Everyone came from such different walks of life, from businessmen to school teachers, but they all remembered the same thing: a great white flash before being knocked unconscious and coming to several minutes later, to a grey world covered in ash. One gentleman had drawn out his entire story in a flip chart, and showed his own drawings of how he was so badly burnt that he could hardly move. He found a friend of his who had the bottoms of his feet completely burned off, and no idea how to help him. The friend couldn’t walk of course, and he himself was too badly injured to even think of carrying him. You could tell by the way his voice trembled, even all these years later, how much it pained him, above even the physical pain, to not be able to help his friend. Finally his uncle and aunt walked past and he was able to call them over for help.

Many of the stories were about the interviewees having badly burnt and mangled bodies running at them, and not even being able to recognize them as their own relatives. We sat and watched every last interview until the video looped and we were back to the spot we had walked in on again.

We left the small viewing room, which was simple and like something you’d find in a outdated library, and entered a grand display room like something out of a trendy museum. An entire wall was covered in displays, and a massive marble table took up the majority of the room, with interactive displays inlaid every few feet. In the marble spaces between the displays, the solid surface came alive with an eerie holographic display of the bomb being dropped and going off, silently, over and over again.

Main display room in the Peace Memorial Museum (Photo property of: Interior Design)

We parked ourselves in front of an empty display and began to soak up all the information. Screen after screen of information we read through, on everything: the development of of nuclear weapons, the decision process that went into choosing Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the extent of the destruction caused by the bomb, how the Japanese government didn’t even tell its nation that the attack had been nuclear until after the war, the research that went on for years and is still ongoing into the effect that the radiation had on people’s health, and lists of every nuclear test and accident that has occurred since that day that started it all. I was impressed because Fletch stood there and read through every last screen, with me reading over his shoulder. Had it been just me, I probably would have stopped reading and started skimming long before we reached the end. Not Fletch though, he made it through every last screen from beginning to end. I don’t know how long we stood at that screen reading everything; long enough to start shifting restlessly from foot to foot, moving to iron out kinks and aches, aches that were nothing compared to the graphic photos we were staring at. Long enough to feel sickened by the monsters we are.

When there was nothing left to read, we moved onto the displays scattered across the walls. There were models of the dome, before and after the bomb. Models of the scale of the bomb next to miniature people. Examples of tiles before and after the bomb. Examples of a glass Coke bottle before and after the bomb. A life-size model of the amount of uranium that was fissioned to create the nuclear explosion, less than one kilogram, a cube that was roughly one cubed inch in size. One little block that I could hold between my thumb and index finger, was enough to cause all that destruction. A portion of the wall was covered in enlarged photographs of people who made it to a hospital after the bomb, people so mangled and disfigured I had to look away.

Amount of uranium that fissioned.

It was 5:00 by the time we left the museum. It was a beautiful sunny day with blue skies, and the park was the picture of peace and quiet, with pretty green lawns, and trees, beautiful and alive. Hiroshima wanted primarily to send the message of peace far and wide, and this park was the epitome of just that. We slowly strolled the length of the park, silently letting the peace of today wash away the horror we had just been shown of yesterday. We strolled past the cenotaph, a curved concrete structure that held the names of every known person lost to the bomb. Then there was the Flame of Peace, set to burn until all the world’s nuclear weapons were destroyed, something I was now convinced would never happen.

Cenotaph in Peace Memorial Park, Hiroshima

Flame of Peace

Towards the end of the park we came upon a steep, three-legged mound, atop which stood a small girl with her arms outstretched and a paper crane stretching its wings out behind her, the Children’s Peace Monument. I knew this monument. I’d known it as long as I could remember. Growing up, I had three audiobooks that I used to listen to at bedtime, over and over again. I couldn’t even say how many times I listened to the story of Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes. Sadako Sasaki was exposed to radiation from the bomb at the age of 2, and 10 years later developed leukemia as a result. Based on an old legend, she believed that if she folded 1,000 paper cranes, she would be cured. Sadly, the disease claimed her life before she could accomplish her mission, and so her classmates finished the paper cranes for her and called for the construction of the monument in her honor, and in memory of all the children who lost their lives to the bomb. I had listened to that story so many times as a child, and now here I was standing in front of her monument.

Children's Peace Monument

All the emotion I'd been holding in all day fell on me like a waterfall and I broke down.

This was the culmination of so many stories. Sadako’s story, the stories I'd heard from grandparents and great uncles growing up who fought in the war, a visit to Peleliu three years previous where a war memorial had been adorned in paper cranes, the weight of everything we had taken in on this lucid day.

An inscription on the monument read,

This is our cry. This is our prayer. For building peace in this world.

I didn’t think seeing the monument would be so overwhelmingly emotional, but with so many tears streaming relentlessly down my face, I had to walk away. I had wanted so much to see that memorial, but now it was too painful to look at it another moment. I walked away without visiting the glass display cases filled with the thousands and thousands of colorful paper cranes sent in by school children from all over the world every year. It was too much. Fletch offered me his shoulder in comfort.

We continued our walk and found a concrete dome with a bell hanging inside. The Bell of Peace, the plaque read. Followed by:

We dedicate this bell
As a symbol of Hiroshima Aspiration
Let all nuclear arms and wars be gone,
and the nations live in true peace!
May it ring to all corners of the earth
to meet the ear of every man,
for in it throb and palpitate
the hearts of its peace-loving donors.
So may you, too, friend,
step forward, and toll this bell for peace!

The Bell of Peace

Fletch and I stepped into the dome together, and jointly pulled back the thick, wooden pole suspended behind the bell. We released it and listened as the hollow “donggg,” vibrated and extended out in every direction over the otherwise quiet park. The quiet of the city made it easy to imagine the ring slowly extending out to every corner of the earth, spreading its plea for world peace.

At the end of the park, and the opposite side of the pond, sat the Atomic Bomb Dome. The empty shell of what was once the Industrial Promotion Hall, built by a Czech architect, stood almost directly under the spot where the bomb had detonated. Everyone inside died almost instantly, but the dome survived, an eerie reminder of what had occurred. By that point we didn’t feel the need to walk over for a closer look. I was emotionally spent and happy to catch this last glimpse from across the pond. We had fulfilled our goal for today, and educated ourselves on a pivotal day in human history.

The Atomic Bomb Dome

We boarded the bus home, but ended up jumping off a couple stops early to hit up a little oyster restaurant sitting on the river’s bank. Hiroshima was known for oysters. I never really was a fan of that particular shellfish until my first visit to New Orleans. It was there that a friend had asked for help finishing off a plate of too many she had ordered, and handed me a shell the size of a teacup. I have loved those oysters ever since. If anywhere could rival NOLA oysters, surely it was the area of food-centric Japan that specialized in oysters. I was excited to see if they were as good.

Oyster Conclave Kaki-tei, Hiroshima (Photo credit: Fletch)

We ordered drinks and a set meal to share. Dish after dish was presented, some with various raw oysters, some with grilled oysters, some with oyster cooked into various quiches or soups. A pot of boiled oysters was followed by oyster and red pepper bruschetta. I was so thrilled for the bell peppers. I’ve already mentioned that vegetables were few and far between. All the dishes were divine, and having an entire set meal based around a single ingredient was a culinary novelty. I have to say though, NOLA oysters still came out undefeated.

Raw oysters prepared three different ways. 

We walked back to the train station, a pleasant 20 minute walk. Since it was our last night in the city, there was one last thing I wanted to do before finding our way back to the hotel. Hiroshima was food-famous, last and not least, for some sweets shaped like maple leaves. I’m usually happy to skip the sweets, but there had been a story in the manga I’d read the day before about the maple leaf sweets bringing happiness back to the lives of the people of Hiroshima after the bomb. After the day we’d just had, it seemed fitting to find some. Most of the sweets stores at the train station were already closed, and the few still open were sold out of everything save for a few remaining loaves of bread. After my fifth run into a shop with no success, Fletch pointed out a line coming out of a little shop and wrapping around the building. The sign advertised “cheese tarts.” Anything with a line of locals that long was surly worth waiting for. I stood in line while Fletch ran over to the nearest conbini to get drinks.

Hiroshima at Dusk

By the time Fletch and I found each other in front of the train station again, he told me we had to stop and watch what was unfolding for a moment. Amongst the crowd of faces, he pointed out a teenage boy, in trendy clothing, carefully wandering the crowd and scanning the faces around him. If he noticed a similar-aged girl, walking alone, he would single her out and approach, then ask something we couldn’t discern. Girl after girl either ignored him or turned him down. What was he asking? We stood and observed and opened our drinks. It soon became apparent that he had three friends he was working with, all behaving the same way. We called them: Gym Pants Guy, Blingy T-shirt Guy, Star Shirt Guy, and Black Pants Guy. We stood and watched, curiously, for a good long while. No one ever got lucky, but whatever they were up to had to work occasionally, because this seemed like a well-rehearsed routine. Fletch guessed that they were grifters.

When the game never came out successful, Fletch and I eventually grew bored of watching and walked back to the hotel, calling it a night.

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.