Winter Vacation Part 1 – Osaka

As part of our teaching contract, Nicole and I get 3-4 weeks off for Winter Vacation. This year our vacation was January 24th to February 22nd. We visited Osaka, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Singapore, Bali, and Kuala Lumpur. Here’s the first entry, on Osaka. I should also mention, my amazing girlfriend, Nicole, bought me a GoPro for Christmas and I’ve made GoPro videos of each destination on our trip. Take a look at the video below before reading the post.

Visiting Osaka

Nicole subway OsakaNicole and I visited Osaka once before during our first year teaching in Korea. We had such a great time that we decided to visit a second time since our flight would have to fly through there anyways. This time around we only stayed for the weekend.[divider_flat]

Our Neighborhood

Riding bikes around our neighborhood
Riding bikes around our neighborhood

We stayed in a little neighborhood outside of town called Deto. The neighborhood was mostly small apartment buildings and warehouses. One thing I noticed about Japan is there are drink vending machines everywhere. Literally every block had some kind of drink vending machine selling all manner of drinks from coffees to fruit juices.

Our AirBnb accommodations were in a first floor studio apartment with free bikes out front for our use. Nicole was feeling sick when we arrived so she stayed in the apartment and I ventured out to the nearest convenience store (a 7-11) for snacks and drinks to tide her over. The selection at Japanese convenience stores is really impressive. They have sushi, baked goods, coffees, entire meals. Their convenience stores offer various other services as well including package delivery, ticket purchasing and sometimes banking.

Exploring Dotonbori Solo

We got into Osaka pretty late so we called it a night after I returned with a bounty of snacks. The next day I stocked up on snacks for Nicole for the day then ventured into Dotonbori, Osaka’s downtown market and entertainment district. I made a simple day of it with conveyor belt sushi, some souvenir shopping and general exploring. The whole of Dotonbori is a maze of narrow lanes, some covered and some exposed to the elements, packed with shops on either side.

Pachinko!

After lunch but before I headed back to see Nicole, sick in bed, I stopped in at a Pachinko parlor. Pachinko is a kind of gambling in Japan. It’s a cross between pinball and plinko, that Price is Right game. You’re given maybe 1000 small metal ball bearings and you use a pinballesque launcher to fire these balls up to the top of a plinko game. The amount of points you earn varies based on where the balls land.

The Pachinko parlors are loud and smokey like a casino. Experiences Pachinko players will often sit down at a machine and play for hours with ear plugs in because they’re so loud. I found the one empty machine at the end of a row and sat down with some money. I put in about $8.50USD and tried to play. I wasn’t too sure what I was doing so one of the workers showed me where to aim to get the best odds. My $8.50 lasted a long time. At one point the same worker who helped me in the beginning walked past and said “amazing”.

The Secret Prize Handoff

I was there about 30 minutes and I would have been happy to leave earlier. Eventually I ran out of balls and a worker came over and swiped a card at my machine. Next they led me to the prize counter where I was given what appeared to be several fishing weights and allowed to choose a piece of candy. After I made my selection I was led out a side entrance and told to wait at a little opening in a wall. I watched as the person in front of me slid their fishing weights and candy through the slot in the wall and received some money in return. I did as I saw the man in front of me do and was pleasantly surprised to find I received $70. All in all I’d won about $60 and I hadn’t even spent that much since being in Osaka. For my second day in Japan, I’d actually made money on vacation.

Takoyaki

Takoyaki!It was getting late so I hopped on the subway and returned to Nicole and the apartment. She was feeling better but still a bit sick. We ended the night with some takoyaki, fried quid balls with mayo. Despite the description, they’re quite delicious. [divider_flat]

Japan’s Oldest Established Temple

Our last day in Osaka we visited Shitennoji temple. It’s Japan’s oldest officially administered temple, built in 593. I took some photos and we walked around the grounds. In total the land it sits on is the size of several city blocks and includes numerous buildings. What I find interesting about so many temples in Japan is that they are still in use. Often you will come across areas or buildings that you cannot enter because people are using them. It’s fascinating to see temples used currently and not regarded as some relic of the past.

Leaving for Tokyo

Our few days in Osaka were coming to an end. Nicole was starting to feel better and we were off to Tokyo for the next leg of our winter vacation adventure.

Japan Vacation – Returning to Korea

One Last Train Ride

Nicole and I woke early, cleaned our room, and took a train back to the Osaka airport. The ride was early and uneventful. The often crowded subway was sparsely populated with random Japanese people and the odd tourist with a suitcase making the same trip as us.

Along the route back to the airport, I saw numerous people outside exercising, playing tennis, jogging. It was refreshing to see a culture that embraced the morning. In Korea, I rarely saw anyone out and about before 10 am. The coffee shop by my house doesn’t even open until after 11. By then I don’t even need coffee.

Airport Food and Souvenirs

Duty Free Shopping
Duty Free Shopping

At the airport, Nicole and I checked in and bought Udon noodles and Takoyaki in remembrance of the great times we had in Japan. The food was considerably better than American airport food and much more reasonably priced. After our airport lunch Nicole and I perused the duty-free shops before out flight. When it was time to board, Nicole and I realized that we would not be sitting next to one another because we booked separately and checked in electronically.

Two Ships Passing in the Night

I was sitting in the back so I walked out onto the runway with the other passengers stuck in the back and Nicole boarded at the front like a normal human. In that moment I knew what it must have been like to be a third-class passenger on the Titanic. Right as I boarded though, Nicole flagged me down from the front of the plane. She had persuaded the Korean woman next to her to switch places with me and sit in the back.

In-flight Booze
In-flight Booze

I walked up to the front and sat with Nicole. Nicole regaled me with the tale of how she asked the woman and the woman said yes before realizing how far back it was and remarking in broken English “It’s so far”. I didn’t know this detail beforehand and felt a bit bad about it, but nothing that couldn’t be fixed by reading some exciting in-flight literature. Nicole and I had some Japanese money remaining that we hadn’t spent and decided to go out with a bang so we spent our remaining few dollars on Japanese in-flight booze. It was fun, we got a beer, some plum wine, and a highball (which is awful). Thoroughly sauced, we passed the rest of our flight discussing our favorite parts of our trip and planning our next adventure back in Korea.

Korea or Bust

Nicole and I landed in Korea and spent the rest of the day traveling back to Gwangju, first by light rail, then subway, then bus, then taxi. It was exhausting, but we finally made it back home.

Overall I had a great time in Japan. It was a place I’d always wanted to visit and I feel like Osaka, Nara, and Kyoto were a good way to see a wide slice of Japan. I’d love to go back someday soon, perhaps even teach there. It felt a decade ahead of Korea and the US. The food was amazing, the people were incredibly friendly, and there was so much to do all the time everywhere.

Japan Vacation – Kyoto and its Temples

Today marked the fourth day of Nicole and my Chuseok adventure in Japan. We arrived on Wednesday and spent the past several days visiting Osaka, Nara, and now finally, Kyoto.

Breakfast

Coffee and Bun

We started the day with coffee and buns at a nice little café around the corner from our AirBnB residence. Up until this point in Korea, I had only had commercial coffee from cafes that were franchises. This place seemed like it was transported from New York City right into Osaka. The shop was small and quaint and seemed to be filled only with regulars. Nicole and I got a bun and coffee for a few dollars and made our way over to the subway station across the street.

The Slow Train to Kyoto

Perhaps it was our outstanding record of getting on the right train every time over the past two days, perhaps it was our own hubris, but Nicole and I were becoming train experts and it was starting to go to our heads. Cue the fall. Nicole and I ended up taking the regular train to Kyoto as opposed to the express train. This meant we had to stop at every stop between Osaka and Kyoto, which greatly hindered our progress and doubled our commute time.

Kyoto like Nara, is really well laid out for travelers. The city of Kyoto provides maps of local attractions and bus routes between them in English. Nicole and I were able to easily map out our day of adventures in a matter of minutes. The two of us bought bus passes for the day that allowed us to travel everywhere for one day.

Kinkaku-ji The Golden Pavilion

The Golden Pavilion is on the outskirts of the city and it was our most remote stop of the day, but it’s absolutely beautiful and only about $2 each. The temple is situated on a pond surrounded by lush forests and beautiful gardens. Every part of the temple grounds looked like it was straight out of ancient Japan. The pavilion itself is covered entirely with gold leaf on the top two stories.

Nijo castle

Our next stop of the day was Nijo castle. It was a short bus ride away and centrally located right in the middle of Kyoto. It’s so strange to travel around Japan and see these ancient buildings and monuments adjacent to modern apartments and offices.

The castle was incredible. It sits on several acres in the heart of the city and its surrounded by these well manicured gardens that are incredibly peaceful. We spent several hours walking through the castle and its grounds. I kept having to remind myself that this castle was 400 years old. It was built on such a grand scale it was hard to imagine people 400 years ago constructing something as ornate and detailed as the castle.

Lunch Time

After several hours of observing ancient buildings and monuments, Nicole and I had worked up an appetite. We stopped in across the street from the castle at a little restaurant selling udon noodles. Udon noodles are like fat ramen plus delicious toppings and they’re so much tastier. Nicole and I split an order of noodles with mushrooms, green onions, and pork. The pork was so tender it was falling off my chopsticks.

The Bus to Kiyomizu-dera Temple

After lunch Nicole and I visited Kiyomizu-dera. The temple was a short distance away from Nijo Castle and our noodles. However, the bus ride there took nearly an hour due to traffic. It seemed that all the traffic in Kyoto had to pass through this one intersection that Nicole and I waited at with the rest of the bus passengers crammed in like sardines.

In Japan the concept of personal space on a bus or subway does not exist. Nicole and I were crammed into the bus literally shoulder to shoulder with everyone else. Nicole said it best “I’m touching 5 people right now”. It was like twister but vertical instead of horizontal. The most difficult part was getting on and off the bus. It would have been fine if everyone was going to the same historic temple as us, but most of the passengers were going about their daily lives and had no time for honoring their country’s illustrious past.

Chawan-zaka or Teapot Lane

Nicole and I fought our way off the bus and walked the steep hill to Kiyomizu-dera. The walk up to the temple was really fascinating. To get to the temple you have to walk along this narrow road filled with shops and cafes. The architecture of the buildings along the road made it feel as if we were walking back in time on our way to reach the historic temple. Before reaching Kiyomizu-dera, Nicole and I stopped at Tainai-meguri, a temple to the right of Kiyomizu-dera. The temple has an underground tunnel beneath it that is pitch black. Visitors are invited to take off their shoes at the door and walk through the tunnel feeling their way along the walls. The journey beneath the temple is symbolic of entering the womb of a female Bodhisattva. The only part of the walk that was illuminated was a rock about halfway through the walk. Spinning it in either direction is meant to bring good luck to the spinner. Nicole and I both spun it; we’ll see how our wishes work out.

Kiyomizu-dera

Ah Kiyomizu-dera, the temple I have alluded to for the past 4 paragraphs. We finally arrived after an excruciatingly slow bus ride, and passing through the womb of a female Bodhisattva…still better than flying through O’Hare am I right? All kidding aside, Kiyomizu-dera was incredible. It’s a Buddhist temple originally founded in 778. However all the buildings that exist today were built in 1633. The temple is built on a mountainside with a large veranda protruding out over the mountain 13 m above the mountain’s slope beneath it.

Legend has it that if someone were to jump off the veranda and survive the 13 m fall their wish would be granted. Apparently 234 people jumped off the veranda in the Edo period and more than 85% survived. However when Nicole and I visited, jumping off the veranda was not an option so we opted to just walk around. On our way out of the temple Nicole and I were stopped by a Japanese News team who interviewed us about our Japanese vacation. If anyone happens to see me on Japanese TV, please send me a link.

Geishas and Gion

A Blurry Geisha
A Blurry Geisha

Part of Nicole’s and my Kyoto goals was to see a geisha, but they are far more reclusive than one might imagine, or just as reclusive as one might imagine. Either way we didn’t see a real one all day. I did however get a photo of a blurry geisha impersonator along teapot lane. This was not enough for either of us though and we decided instead to search Gion, the teahouse district, for geishas.

The geisha district was an older part of Kyoto completely insulated from the main roads around it. There may be an easier way of finding it, but Nicole and I both stumbled upon it by walking several blocks off the main road. The streets were cobblestoned instead of paved and little bridges traversed a small canal running through the district.

Along our stroll, Nicole and I saw many tea houses, but alas no geishas. The teahouses are closed to foreigners, so we could not go in to investigate. Inside a traditional teahouse, a geisha would entertain her clientele with traditional music, singing, or dancing. In ancient times, geishas would entertain samurais. However today their clientele are more often business men.

Back to Osaka

Dejected after Nicole and I could not track down the elusive geishas, we returned to Osaka via another incredibly crowded bus and an equally crowded subway. Back in Osaka, Nicole and I got another round of conveyor belt sushi and returned to the AirBnB to pack and prepare for our return flight to Korea.

 

Japan Vacation – Nara and Deer

This is day three of my trip to Japan, if you haven’t already, I urge you to read Day One or Two first.

Nicole and I woke up early today and grabbed some snacks in our room before taking the train into Nara. The ride was on an express train and only about 40 minutes. We arrived in Nara a little before noon and enjoyed a delicious breakfast at the train station. I had a curry croissant and Nicole had a giant bun filled with cheese and potatoes. Say what you will about Japan, but their food, all of it, is delicious. I didn’t have a bad dish the whole time we were there.

Nara Park

From the train station we took a bus about 5 minutes up the road to Nara Park. The nice part about visiting Nara, is that it is very easy to see the highlights in a short amount of time. For a tourist with only a day to spend in Nara, Nara Park is a nice way to see the best of the city’s history. The park is home to almost all of Nara’s most famous temples and shrines such as Tōdai-jiKōfuku-ji and Kasuga Shrine as well as its famous deer.

Deer in Nara

Deer at Bus stopI’ll start with the deer. They’re everywhere. Legend has it that a god arrived in Nara on a deer and the deer have been considered sacred ever since. Consequently they’re allowed to wander the city doing deer things and whatever else they want, like waiting for buses at bus stops. As far as I know deer are not allowed on the bus so I’m not sure why they were waiting there.

There are many vendors in Nara Park selling deer biscuits for a few dollars so tourists can feed the deer. The deer go nuts over them. They’re like crack to the deer. If you buy a pack of the biscuits the deer will swarm around you like fire ants. Nicole was pretty popular with the deer after she bought a pack. The deer were really friendly to me the entire day because my pants were deer biscuit colored. I didn’t even need to buy deer biscuits. I felt like Justin Bieber at the Teen Choice Awards.

Kōfuku-ji and Tōdai-ji

After Nicole and I had our fill of deer companionship, Nicole and I visited Kōfuku-ji temple and the 5 story pagoda beside it. Many of the temples and buildings we saw date back hundreds if not a thousand years. The ones we observed were rarely the original as many of the building destroyed by warring armies and rebuilt several times in their long history. Nevertheless the buildings and their architecture were very impressive to behold.

Later in the afternoon, we walked over to the Tōdai-ji temple. Up until this point in my adventures through Asia, I was impressed with the architecture for its detail but this was the first ancient building in Korea which impressed me with its size. The entire building and the gate that led to it were massive. I had to get photos of Nicole in front of it to convey the sheer scale of these epic buildings. If they were built today they would be impressive. The fact that they were built 1300 years ago makes their construction that much more impressive. Inside the Kōfuku-ji sits a giant buddha, 50 feet tall and weighing 500 tons. Its one of the largest Buddha’s on Earth. The temple itself, built to house the Buddha, is the largest wooden structure in the world, built entirely of wood without a single nail in the whole structure.

Back to Osaka

After the Tōdai-ji Nicole and I headed back into Osaka to try some Okonomiyaki. Its amazing. I highly recommend it to anyone visiting Japan. It’s basically a pancake stuffed with some manner of seafood, meat, and/or noodles. You heat it up on the table right in front of you on a medium size stove then cut off pieces for each person to eat. Nicole and I got two, shrimp and squid, and ate them as quickly as two people can eat anything directly off a stove, which meant we ate them at a moderate pace.

After dinner we returned to our AirBnB and planned for our next day in beautiful Kyoto, home to scenic temples and castles.

Japan Vacation – Osaka All Day

This is day two of my Japan trip over Chuseok. If you haven’t read it yet, I encourage you to start with Day 1.

A Great Night’s Sleep

I can’t remember if I mentioned it before, but Korea is not known for its mattresses. My mattress and my coworkers mattresses, I’m told, are not comfortable. The hostel we stay at in Seoul does not have comfortable mattresses either. However, the mattress in our room in Osaka was very comfortable and I ended up getting a great night’s sleep.

AirBnBpano

Takoyaki at Osaka Castle

Nicole and my first stop of the day was at Osaka Castle. It’s a giant 400 year old castle with several exterior walls and moats and, much like Central Park, its right in the middle of central Osaka. Nicole and I got off at the subway stop for the castle and walked through the park surrounding the castle. We bought some coffees and Takoyaki for breakfast and ate beside a fountain before exploring the castle.

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Our Takoyaki Shop

Takoyaki are pieces of fried minced octopus covered in a sauce similar to Worcestershire and mayonnaise. For about $4 you can get a dozen balls of Takoyaki. They were a delicious way to start the day.

After breakfast, we made our way over the numerous moats and through the external walls into the central castle. Out front of the actual castle, we met a Chinese couple with a neat polaroid camera. They took a cool picture of the two of us in front of the castle.

The castle itself was really impressive. From the top of the castle, 8 stories above Osaka Castle Park, we had a great view of the city. Nicole and I took some photos and slowly made our way back down through the inside of the castle. Each floor had a different section of the castle’s history in it. The castle changed hands numerous times in its history, repeatedly being sacked and burned then rebuilt. The scale on which the battles for the castle were fought were really impressive. Some battles had as many as 150,000 soldiers on one side.

The view from the top of Osaka Castle
The view from the top of Osaka Castle

Osaka Station and the Umeda Sky Building

From the castle Nicole and I took the subway to Osaka Station, Osaka’s answer to Grand Central. The station is massive and filled with numerous shops and restaurants.

Osaka Station
Osaka Station

The reason we went to Osaka Station was to visit the Umeda Sky building. It’s actually two separate buildings connected on the top floor by a walkway. The view from the top is incredible. On the top floor there are little booths for couple’s to sit at and look out over the city. Nicole and I got a few great photos from up there then went to get some food.

We walked back towards Osaka Station and found a little underground food court along the way. Inside we found a cheesy little German restaurant. Nicole and I got some nice IPAs, which are few and far between in Korea and enjoyed a nice order of fish and chips. I dared Nicole to drink a shot of malt vinegar in exchange for a giant Totoro doll. She downed the vinegar like a champ and I owed her a Totoro doll.

Sega Joypolis and Photo Booth Fun

After lunch Nicole and I headed over to the Sega Joypolis, a giant arcade near the train station and sky building. The arcade itself was like a smaller version of Disney Quest in Orlando, Florida. There were tons of arcade games with everything from fighting games to the claw games where you can win prizes. Nicole and I since arriving in Japan, had become obsessed with this drum game that’s like Dance Dance Revolution. It’s a blast to play and we stopped at every arcade we say to play at least one game of it.

Upstairs there were two floors of photo booths. It was bananas. The floors were filled with teenage girls. Japanese girls love photo booths. Each booth not only took your photo, but photoshopped your face into something almost unrecognizable. All the booths made your eyes much larger and smoothed out any blemishes or wrinkles on your face.

Photo booth fun
Photo booth fun

In the pictures we took, the machine automatically removed my beard and made Nicole’s already large eyes gigantic. After you took your photos and the machine photoshopped your face into smooth featureless dolphin’s skin, it was time to add stickers and stamps to your pictures on the touch screen behind it. The ad suggested uploading your photos to your blog afterwards, so of course I had to.

The Japanese girls we saw there took the whole process very seriously. There was a shop on the top floor that would rent out clothes to girls for their photo booth pictures. We even saw two girls with rolling suitcases heading for one of the photo booths.

Umeda Sky Building at Sunset

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After an hour or so of arcade fun, Nicole and I headed back over to the Umeda Sky Building to watch the sunset and grab a drink. The view from the top of the building at sunset is amazing. The whole city is bathed in the amber glow of the setting sun which gives way to the dark blue of night. I really enjoyed the contrast in color and I think it shows in a few of the photos I was able to take.

Osakanightpano2

After the sun went down, Nicole and I got some drinks at the bar on the top floor. For being on the top floor of a tourist attraction, the drinks were reasonably priced and the Gin & Tonic I got was delicious.

Drinks on top of the world
Drinks on top of the world

Conveyor Belt Sushi

At this point the two of us were starting to get hungry so we made our way back to the Dontonbori area and got some conveyor belt sushi. This was quite an experience in and of itself. The sushi wasn’t as good as  the night before, but it was delicious, plentiful, and cheap. You walk in and the general layout is a conveyor belt in an oval patter circling the center of the room. Inside the oval are a handful of sushi chefs making sushi nonstop. Around the outside of the oval conveyor belt are seats and a little bar.

When you see an open seat, or two in our case, you walk over and sit down. At each seat there’s a wooden box with ginger, two boxes of tea powder, and a tap with boiling water. The tea is free as is the ginger. All you pay for are the plates of sushi you eat and each plate is only about $1. Nicole and I got about 15 plates total, 2 pieces per plate, so about 30 pieces of sushi and two teas for only $11. It was a glorious experience, and the first of many on our trip.

We walked back to our AirBnB and soaked in the hot tub which was now up and running. One of the deciding factors of where we stayed was the hot tub on the roof. Since it wasn’t working last night, Nicole and I made sure to make use of it this night. We planned out our adventures for the next day in Nara as well and aimed to get an early start.