Japan 2017 – Day 9 and 10

Day 9: Universal Studios Japan

Imagine if you had a theme park like Universal Studios just a bike ride from your house. That is the situation in Osaka. Universal Studios Japan is 2 train stops away from the Osaka loop line via the Sakurajima line. You know you’ve transferred to the right train (at Nishikujo station) when you encounter a train covered in cartoon characters. Even on a cold February Wednesday morning, the park was packed. It took 30-45 minutes just to get in the park even though we arrived at the entrance during the opening hour. Its smaller than the theme park in Orlando but it’s large enough to take a full day to cover it. And it’s the 15th year anniversary of this theme park! My advice other than getting there early on a weekday is to get a fast pass, otherwise your day will be 50% waiting on a line.

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What separates this theme park from the one in the USA are 2 major things:

 

  • The rides are in Japanese. Elmo and Cookie Monster are speaking Japanese only as Erumo and Kuki Monsuta. Even Harry Potter and the gang have become Japanese. But it doesn’t really matter, a ride is a ride.
  • Universal Cool Japan. It’s a suite of Japan-only rides/attractions that outclass most rides in my opinion. Also, they are anime themed, so extra points right there. The rides for 2017 were Godzilla, Attack on Titan, Evangelion XR, Detective Conan (didn’t do this one), and Monster Hunter. The first 3 are perhaps the best rides I’ve been on period.

 

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Additionally there are the common areas like Harry Potter world, Jurassic world, and such.

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Remember when I said to get a fast pass. Look at these record-breaking wait times!

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After being there for hours and seeing the multitude of young locals in groups and dressed up in park-bought attire, I believe that the theme park is a big after school hang out spot. The 3pm parade was quite impressive, they know how to throw a party.

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You may get hungry by the end of the day. Conveniently placed right outside the park is an avenue full of shops and restaurants. This was our last day in Osaka. As we headed back to our Kyoto hotel, we realized that it was also our last night in Kyoto. Time to pack and get ready to catch that early morning bullet train back to Tokyo.

Day 10: Back to Shinjuku, last day in Tokyo

Finally, a much-needed rest day. After arriving back into the madness that is Tokyo station via the bullet train, we hopped on the local train back to Shinjuku station (once we were able to actually find that train platform). Checked into the hotel and had a good 8 hours to spend eating at places, last-minute souvenir shopping, and spending the remaining coins at the arcade. We did not stay up too late since we had an early morning flight back to NYC. I have to admit, it is hard to say goodbye to a this place, this country. The food is great, the people are nice, so much to see and do, and I only managed to cover a fraction of it. Arigato and sayonara Japan! Maybe I’ll see you again during Olympics 2020.

Japan 2017 – Day 7

Day 7: Nara and Ninjas

Let’s get right to it. We got on the train to Nara from Kyoto station first thing in the morning; about a half hour ride. After getting off at the nearest Nara station, you simply walk up the main avenue until you see the park. You’ll know when you’re at Nara park (奈良公園) when you see these guys walking around.

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Nara park is a large park containing several temples, gardens, and 1000+ sika deer roaming freely. I would say that it can easily take a whole day to see it all. As for the deer, there are deer cracker salesmen scattered throughout the park if you want to feed the deer. But beware, these deer are cracker addicts and will follow and chase you down if they suspect that you have deer crackers.

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Some deer learned a bowing technique as a way to signal that they want you to give them a cracker. I’ve found them to all be approachable and friendly since they are very used to people. Since we only had a few hours to explore, we decided to check out Kofukuji (興福寺) Buddhist temple, Todaiji (東大寺) Buddhist temple complex, and the park/gardens in between. There is also the Kasuga grand shrine but we did not have enough time to venture that far.

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The closest temple to the train station and toward the entrance of Nara park is Kofukuji. After feeding a few deer and running from others, we saw a 5-story pagoda and just headed toward it. Kofukuji’s main buildings consist of the 5-story pagoda, Tokondo (東金堂) east golden hall, and Nanendo (南円堂) south octagonal hall.

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Todaiji temple is perhaps a 20-30 minute walk from Kofukuji. But it becomes an hour easily since there are some shops and food stands setup right at the entrance and you would be hungry by this point. How about a whole squid on a stick.

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Keep in mind that there are deer scattered throughout the entire park so there’s that. Before you know it, you’ll arrive at the Todaiji temple complex entrance.

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Once you pass through Todaiji main gate, you’ll feel small in front of a very large temple; Daibutsuden (大仏殿) Great Buddha Hall.

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I would’ve never guessed what was inside the Buddha hall and why it needed to be so massive. Maybe because the world’s largest bronze statue of the Buddha is in there. A photo won’t capture the size difference between the statue and a person. I can just say that I am approximately the size of its pinky finger. It’s truly a masterpiece.

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Like I said before, there is more to see and more strolls to take in Nara park but we had a 3pm appointment back near Kyoto station. A ninjitsu (忍術) appointment to learn the secret art of the ninja (忍者)! Yes, I found a cool authentic ninja training dojo in Kyoto called Ninjadojoandstore. As a youth who grew up in the late 80s and early 90s, ninjas were the thing. Since I’m in Japan, it had to be done. In an hour, they dress you up in ninja gear and teach you several things staring with meditation, main concepts, and ninja walking.

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It turns out that there are trap doors everywhere; it’s a ninja dojo after all. Ninja … vanish…

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Then one-by-one, the weapons are introduced. First, the katana (sword). How to properly sheathe/unsheathe and cutting techniques for small enclosed areas.

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But wait there’s more. The Kunai (dagger), the shuriken (ninja star), the stick type shuriken, the ninja blow dart, and a general show and tell with other miscellaneous ninja weapons. And this isn’t a museum, you get to swing and throw everything. You’ll feel like a junior ninja in no time. Did I mention that there is a photographer taking photos during the entire time. If you’re in Kyoto and like ninjas, then this is the place for you. Also, there is a store if you want to buy some ninja weapons to satisfy your inner ninja. It was a lot of fun and the ninjas are very cool even though they are deadly.

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After becoming ninjas, we decided to stroll through Nishiki (錦市) market which isn’t too far from Shijo dori where we happened to be at the moment. This marketplace is several blocks long and has and overwhelming amount of foods and goods. You should several things you were looking for as well as things you weren’t looking for but will end up buying anyway. Japan has a neat way of making you buy things without pressuring you at all. They can take some random object like a garbage can, and give it a smile and turn it into a cartoon character, and then make foods, clothes, magnets, watches, bags, earrings, and a whole bunch of other items that will make you think, hmm, I think I want one. Also, it doesn’t hurt to try out some new food, 9/10 you will be glad you tried it.

Well, that’s all for Nara and Kyoto. The next day would be full of brand new terrain, we would head to the city of Osaka.

Japan 2017 – Day 6

Day 6: Arashiyama (嵐山 [Storm mountain]), Arashiyama monkey park Iwatayama, and Nijo Castle (二条城)
Starting the day early, we took the subway for a few stop from Kyoto station to the saga-Arashiyama station. Once at the station, you just have to turn right and walk straight toward the Tenryuji (天龍寺) temple area. Surrounding it is a pathway which happens to be a bamboo grove. Perhaps its a good idea to do this early as it gets crowded and the path is narrow. The sun wasn’t fully out, but there was enough light for some photos.

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The end of this path leads you toward the Katsura river (桂川). I would imagine how colorful everything would be during a different season, but it was still scenic to walk by the river. The water is a nice blue.

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You’ll eventually reach the Togetsukyo (渡月橋) bridge across the river.

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Once across, you make a right and walk for about 5 minutes until you come across the entrance to the monkey park Iwatayama trail.

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It takes about 20 minutes or so to get to the top of the hill (160 meters). It’s a nice walk and totally worth it. You’ll know you’re at the top when you see the 100+ Japanese macaques all over the place.

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The rules are to not make eye contact, no touching, and no feeding unless you are in the cage house. These guys are territorial and tend to quarrel and fight every now and then especially when food treats are involved.

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Did I mention that the monkey park is on top of a hill. Which means you have great views of Kyoto.

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So after seeing a battle of the ages between to monkeys which had them rolling down the hill while the other monkeys cheered on, it was time to also descend the hill into the town. So backtracking across the bridge into the main street. There is plenty of shopping here. Also for lunch, there are plenty of eat spots. Speaking of, we just randomly walked into a small sushi store called Naritaya and it turned out to serve the best unagi (eel) I ever had.

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Since we still had some time, we decided to visit the Nijo castle which consists of 2 fortification rings, 2 palaces, and gardens. It’s quite a large open space so be prepared for walking. The main building is the Ninomaru (二の丸) palace where visitors get the opportunity to enter and walk around, but have to leave your shoes at the entrance. No photos allowed, but I can tell you that it was impressive and worth a visit. I did manage to take some photos of the grounds.

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It turns out that Japan is more than just the big city scene. There is the country side, mountains, rivers, history, palaces, and monkeys. For tomorrow, instead of monkeys, there will be deer… and ninjitsu.

 

Japan 2017 – Day 5

Day 5: Intro to Kyoto (京都)
Although Shinjuku station is so massive and seems to be the central transportation hub, the shinkansens (bullet trains) do not stop there. Just when I thought there could not be a crazier place than Shinjuku station, here comes Tokyo station. If you want to feel like a bee who lost its way and ended up deep in another hive during honey season, then visit this station. I didn’t take photos because I had to struggle with luggage, dodge people from all directions, and use all of my brain to locate my train (signs aren’t always straightforward) with little time. But once you arrive at the right platform (Tokaido line [東海道 新幹線] bound to Shin-Osaka station [(新大阪 駅]) and see your bullet train arrive, its smooth sailing from there. Just 2 hours and 40 minutes to Kyoto; the old capital city of Japan. Make sure to get a seat on the right side to get that Mt Fuji (富士山) view.

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After a high-speed ride with views of several cities and towns, you’ll arrive at Kyoto station; a monster train station with a 14 floor mall and a maze of platforms. It took me 2 days to get familiar with the layout of the station. I recommend staying at the Sakura Terrace Gallery hotel since isnt so expensive and just 2 blocks away from Kyoto station. It’s ideal to use as home base and serves great food for breakfast or dinner. So just like Tokyo, it’s not hard to lose your way when walking around. Kyoto tower (I realize my photo of it is quite blurry, sorry) dominates the sky since there aren’t high buildings in Kyoto, so it can be used as a reference point for Kyoto station. After a quick check-in, it was time to explore.

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Since there weren’t any trains that led to our first destination, we just cabbed it (2-3 miles) to the entrance of Kiyomizu-dera (清水寺); a buddhist temple that is located on a hill. By the way, a bit of Japanese will help greatly when requesting something or asking for something, like directions in a taxi.

I couldn’t tell you much about the history of Kiyomizu-dera but it definitely was the place to be during that Saturday. So many people (both locals and foreigners) walking up the shopping streets and on the temple grounds. It was a bad place for selfies but ideal for photo-bombing. Once you get through the paths of shops, you pass the Niomon (仁王門) gate.

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After the Asakusa pagoda fail (covered in scaffolding) during the day before, it was good to finally be up close with a huge pagoda; Sanjunoto (三重塔) 3-story pagoda.

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And since the path eventually leads to the peak of the hill, you get great views of Kyoto. It is here when you realize that Kyoto is surrounded by mountains.

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Once at the top, you simply work your way back toward the entrance of Kiyomizu.

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From Kiyomizu-dera’s entrance, it’s about a 20 minute walk through Higashiyama (東山) to Kodaiji temple. You’ll immediately notice that the streets are narrow and barely enough space for cars. You have to be mindful of cars at all times. The cab driver told us that Kyoto’s roads were designed a long time ago, when horses were the cars, which explains the street width. It has a totally different feel than Tokyo.

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Kodaiji (高台寺) temple grounds has nice gardens and a huge buddha statue (even a nice little bamboo tree walkway). Well, we couldn’t get in because it closed by the time we got there. Keep in mind that some places close 5pm sharp. But no worries, Kyoto is full of temples. Just a few blocks away, and boom, the 5-story Hokanji (法観寺) pagoda.

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A few blocks west bound via Yasaka Dori will lead you to the Kenninji (建仁寺) temple grounds. Sakura (cherry blossoms) are already starting to bloom and its only February.

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Walking north through Kenninji will eventually lead you to Gion; the geisha district. Many restaurants are right around Shijo Dori. Once you cross the bridge, the scene will start to resemble Tokyo somewhat with crowds, lights, and shopping. And right by the water is a strip of restaurants called Pontocho (先斗町).

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We were in the mood for sushi again and came across the Chojiro restaurant just 2 blocks away from the bridge. The sushi was very oishii (tasty). Similar to Genki sushi, you just click which sushi you want on an Ipad and the food gets sent to your table quickly. I miss it already.

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The Kyoto subway system is a bit simpler than Tokyo’s subway system. It’s fortunate that the Suica cards (just like a NYC metro card) can be used in Kyoto as well. Just a few stops to Kyoto station from Kawaramachi station.