Theme Park Insider

Asian Adventure, Finale - Osaka, Kyoto, Tokyo, & Universal Studios Japan

November 12, 2017, 7:13 AM · O
Day 10: Bullet Train to Osaka

Our time at Tokyo Disney Resort is at an end. But the vacation continues! What’s the next goal? Getting to Osaka.

Let’s go through the steps. First I check out of the Hilton and enjoy a breakfast.

Then I take a free bus to the Tokyo Metro station near Ikspiari.

It’s suddenly very overwhelming attempting to not only decipher the metro map, but to also get a ticket using the weird old analog machines. It reminds me of early Atari controllers, which had 50 buttons when the NES then came along and featured 5. (The NES in this analogy is the Hong Kong Metro.) Once I get it figured out it’s never again confusing, but there’s still Osaka’s equally old-school ticket machines to learn later today.

Then I ride the morning commute to Tokyo Central Station. Good thing it was a Saturday. They didn’t need pushers to cram us all in.

Dragging my luggage behind me, it’s over a mile through the metro station interior to reach the Japan Rail Pass distribution office. This is the most important step.

The Japan Rail Pass is offered exclusively to foreign tourists, granting them unlimited free trips on the Shinkansen (bullet trains) and JR Lines for the duration of their stay. Better still, you don’t need reservations for the Shinkansen; just hop onboard and treat it like a city metro. Hypothetically, the entire country is now available!

Of course, the Rail Pass isn’t free. It’s still cheaper than any alternative. I had to buy it a month out, and have a voucher mailed to my home. Ya gotta plan! But if you do, and you give that voucher to a distribution office, you’re all set.

Ten minutes later, I’m happily aboard the Shinkansen. This is my speedy solo pace. No portion of today’s journey has been self-explanatory, and I’m often interpreting colored kanji characters to determine my route. Yet somehow I always decipher the right route, a vacation skill I’ve had since childhood. The confusion level is just high enough to be engaging.

The bullet train is famously fast, traveling at airplane speeds on the ground. You’d think that’d be exciting, like the “Beyond the Infinite” sequence in 2001 or something. It’s really quite banal, like riding any old train. And the distance from Tokyo to Osaka ain’t short. It still takes over 2 train hours to get there. Also, I regret never getting a pic of an arriving Shinkansen engine, but, well, they’re fast!

How fast? One paragraph later, I’m in Osaka!

And one half hour following that, I’m in the Dotonbori district. For the entire train ride in, I watched Tokyo’s crisp blue skies slowly transform into ominous storm clouds. Now, as I ascend a subway staircase into the city, I’m caught in a fierce and powerful rainstorm! Worse still, the weather app suggests these downpours will be here for my entire three days in Osaka. Grumble!

Breaking out my umbrella, I beat a hasty path across neon-lit alleyways towards Ibis Styles Osaka, the next hotel. I’m doin’ Ibis again, just like Hong Kong! It’s undoubtedly a downgrade from Hotel MiraCosta. In fact, my room is tiny – two twin beds crammed against each other next to the window, a mere 2 feet from the TV wall. The bathroom door opens outwards because the toilet blocks it. When seated on that toilet, I cannot close the bathroom door because my knees are through the doorway.

Believe it or not, my upcoming hotel in Tokyo will be even smaller!

But I’ve selected Ibis Styles intentionally, not for luxury but for location. Dotonbori, street food central, Osaka’s main nightlife and entertainment hub set along a canal. It is a complex of narrow pedestrian streets. Animated billboards and neon signs abound. Even in the rainy daytime, devoid of raucous visitors, the area pulses with energy.

First though I need to see Osaka Castle before it closes at 5, come rain or sleet or hail or brimstone. So forget holing up in Ibis Styles, I set forth with my trusty bumbershoot. With time fleeting, I pause for a quick fried snack – fish-shaped dough filled with red bean paste. With the icy cold rains, it sure warms me through.

From the subway station nearest to Osaka Station, it’s still ¾ mile or so to the great feudal castle itself. Most of the trek is through ancient castle grounds, past monumental moats and through gate houses. It’s raining like the dickens. Already I’m soaked. Still I press onwards, out of stubborn pigheadedness or masochism or just a drive to make every part of this vacation count. I’ve had travel companions in the past who would’ve retreated to the hotel ages ago (if they’d have even been willing to reach Osaka), but I’m gonna see the sights come literal high water!

Oh, and taxis weren’t an option on medieval castle grounds. I guess I could’ve taken an overpriced rickshaw, which honestly would’ve been neat, but by now I was really relishing the rain hike. I haven’t been this wet in public since Hong Kong! For another heat-me-up along the way, I pause at a skewered meat stand just before the inner gates and I select a whole grilled squid. It was warming, had nicely spiced teriyaki, and was delicious. Mmm…squid…

There’s more history to Osaka Castle than I can quickly convey in this format. Various governments have used it continuously from medieval times up through World War II. The interior is a 7-floor museum stuffed with exhibits on these various eras. Were I in a different mood, I’d’ve enjoyed these displays, but immediately post-Disney I was hoping the castle’s interior would directly reflect its historical design…kinda like Kyoto’s Nijo Castle. Nah, it’s a grey-walled modern museum, a Wikipedia article in physical form, which wasn’t all that imaginatively inspiring. The castle’s exterior certainly was, as were the grounds, conjuring up images of life here in feudal times.

Afterwards, I trudge back through fresh rain puddles towards the metro. Due to continual schlepping, my dinky little umbrella is now leaking, and I keep using it mostly for decorative purposes.

This has been a fun little castle outing, feudal but not futile. But Osaka in the daytime is nothing too special. It’s a rather industrial port city, and not especially beautiful. But at night, Osaka erupts into a cavalcade of futuristic anime nuttiness!

Up next: Dotonbori Nights

Replies (20)

November 12, 2017, 12:02 PM · I've seen a Shinkasen (I think its one of the originals) at the National rail Museum in York. Looks like a lovely machine, with space comparable to an aircraft. The rail gauge there seems quite broad too allowing for more space.

The rail pass should also be something visitors to the UK or Europe should bear in mind- we do something very similar.

November 12, 2017, 6:13 PM · F
Dotonbori: Osaka Cyberpunk, 2017 A.D.

I’m quite cold and wet once returning to the Dontonburi district sometime still well before nightfall. With no time-sensitive touristy goals, I finally pause for a proper meal at one of the neighborhood’s many renowned ramen joints. Japanese noodles: one of the world’s greatest meals! My last big trip to Japan was really udon-centric; now it’s all about the ramen.

Other than the plaster dragon adorning their façade, this eatery has no airs. It’s the equivalent of a greasy spoon corner diner. You order directly from the chefs, slaving away over incredibly steamy huge pots of broth. The ongoing rainstorm really accentuates that steam. Seating is all cross-legged on the floor, very traditional. It’s a little past 4 now, and my fellow diners are mostly high school hoodlums freshly freed from their weekend tutoring. The soup is hearty, rich, and warming.

But still I’m soaked to the nth degree as I return to Ibis Styles. I opt for a lengthy rest, hanging my wet, wet clothes to dry. For a couple of hours, I mostly lounge in the bed watching sumo wrestling on TV. I occasionally flip to the weather station, which shows severe flooding occurring in towns very close to Osaka. They expect these rains to get even worse over the next few days. Uh-oh!

True to that prediction, it’s still thundering well into the night once I decide to go explore neon Dotonbori accompanied by my leaking umbrella. Actually, the rains have subsided enough that they’re now pleasant, and add to Dotonbori’s nighttime atmosphere. And what is that atmosphere?Blade Runner! That’s no accident either. Places like Dotonbori were that film’s inspiration.

Down narrow pedestrian streets cluttered with food carts and shops all competing for your attention with flickering neon signs, crude animatronic façades, and blaring J-pop. The locals all carry transparent umbrellas which brilliantly reflect the neon. Every 10 feet, there’s a new delicious odor or music source or something to draw the senses.

One restaurant advertises with a gigantic moving crab sculpture, another with a gigantic octopus, or a gigantic sushi chef man or gundam or et cetera. A skyscraper-sized TV screen is streaming what I can only call Japanese Idol, which has caused everyone to pause, listen and cheer.

It’s like I’m still in the theme parks! This is the cyberpunk land, and I can easily imagine that behind every futuristic glittering façade is a ride which digitizes guests into the Network, or confronts them with a sentient A.I. cyborg, or some such. And there are rides here, like an iconic Osaka Ferris wheel (which I never once saw operating). It’s not a traditional bicycle spoke design, but a distinctive scaffolding model where guests ride inside of what I can only call giant Pokéballs, all around an enormous kawaii anime face.

This is alongside the canal, the rain-swept waters giving the omnipresent neon yet another colorful dimension. Along the docks, there are cosplay wannabe popstars in their pink and purple wigs and their schoolgirl-maid-nurse outfits performing for drunken salarymen. Bicycle couriers speed past. It’s so wonderfully overwhelming!

Allover there is shopping galore! The standard boutique brands stand alongside quirky tech bazaars. Like everyplace I’ll go on this trip, there’s a Forever 21. The most crowded shops, filled with twenty-somethings out on the town, just sell candy – all incomprehensible concoctions whose main appeal is the amazing, eye-searing packaging. Behind discreetly closed doors are “Cosplay Lounges.” Video arcades! Pachinko parlors! True, Tokyo has similar neon otaku districts, but Osaka’s is more intimately scaled, cozier in its way even while conjuring up a post-human tech apocalypse.

Then there’s the street food! All of Dotonbori’s craziness has formed around snacking. My kinda place! It’s all part of a particular Japanese form of hedonism called kuidaore – “extravagance in food.”

The chief pleasure is takodori, which is a griddle-based wheat ball stuffed full of octopus chunks and other assorted goodness. Chefs turn them on pans using chopsticks. Whole paper plates of these miraculous balls are served topped with green onions and, oddly enough, mayonnaise and Worcestershire sauce. I could kind of do without those! Dozens of stands serve this delight, most with lines averaging 30 minutes. Over the next three nights, I’ll be trying this half a dozen times.

There’s also okonomiyaki, a savory pancake which you fry at your very own tabletop griddle. Careful with those elbows! There’s kitsune udon, so so good in the rain! There’s nonsense like fried gyoza. Matcha (green tea) ice cream often served inside cream puffs or crepes. Quick service stands dish out kobe beef, at a decent price and without airs. Weirdly, Spider-Man seems to be the mascot for one prominent kobe joint.

Of course there’s sushi. One place, adorned with a gigantic blowfish animatronic, specializes in fugu – that blowfish sushi which is instantly lethal is misprepared. I tried that in Kyoto my last time passing through Japan, and I’m not risking it again now. The flavor was too subtle! All these other foods I’ve listed out, I’ll be sampling them all while here in Osaka. What a gluttonous paradise! I have no clue how I actually lost weight on this trip.

So dinner my first night in Osaka consisted of drifting from one food cart to another. In between, I would explore bizarre bazaars. To cap off the night, I paused in a riverfront pub for a keg-sized bottle of Kirin and a comically tiny bowl of edamame. A schoolgirl popstar serenaded us all. What a fun evening, soaking in the best of Japan’s wild, forward-looking culture.

Up next: Day 11 – Kyoto: Japan’s Traditional, Conservative Culture

November 13, 2017, 7:33 AM · C
Day 11: Kyoto Daytrip

Kyoto is very likely my favorite city on Earth.

Kyoto was once the imperial capital of Japan for over a millennium, and its lush forested hills and valleys overflow with beautifully preserved examples of Japan’s history and heritage. Around seemingly every corner are castles, temples and shrines which would individually be the reason for a visit. It’s the densest collection of UNESCO World Heritage Sites anyplace. A vibrant modern city still teeming with detail from centuries ago, a truly evocative paradise.

I’ve visited Kyoto before, for the better part of a week during cherry blossom season. Even then, I felt I could’ve used more time there, so a simple daytrip from Osaka surely won’t cut it. But with Kyoto nearby, I cannot refuse a visit, come hell or high water. The latter is a real possibility, because the weather forecast still anticipates horrendous rains all day long. I’m willing to risk those, because the only other option today is holing up in the Osaka hotel.

My Ibis Styles breakfast buffet is filling, but otherwise totally forgettable. The panoramic Osaka views from the top floor restaurant are something, however, especially with a counter right against the window. And I find it odd that only now, two days removed from Disney Parks, am I eating meals which form Mickey ears.

Thanks to my Japan Rail Pass, the bullet train from Osaka to Kyoto is as convenient as a cross town express. It’s a simple 20 minute jaunt, so convenient. In Kyoto’s vast central train station, I quickly improvise a touring plan for the day. I plan to take the city bus to the hilltops, then return to downtown on foot, following the Philosopher’s Path which passes over a dozen notable sites. Surprisingly it isn’t raining yet, but the clouds are gathering. I’m eager to tour efficiently before they break.

What luck then that the thunderstorms they forecast never grew beyond a drizzle. The day was perpetually overcast, but that itself lent Kyoto a damp, dewy vibe very apt for its lush subtropical gardens and moss-covered temples.

The adventure begins at the northern terminus of the Philosopher’s Path at Ginkaku-ji shrine, the Silver Pavilion. Mind you, I know very little about any site’s history beyond what I could right now learn via Wikipedia. I can’t distinguish Edo from other periods. No shrine feels like a museum, all dry and fact-spewing. They’re living histories, actually experientially closer to something like Disneyland. Soak in the ambiance, the beautiful aesthetics, the multitudinous details, and let your imagination and curiosity conjure up the stories. It is incredibly easy to picture past feudal lords commissioning these shrines as their private residences and gardens. I gather from info gathered during the trip that many of these powerful men then discovered Zen Buddhism, and transformed their mansions into meditative temples.

Some of Kyoto’s monuments are outstanding examples of Japanese design throughout the centuries. Ginkaku-ji boasts both an incredible layered temple and an expansive, tranquil Japanese garden. There is a lovely balance between the structures, the trees, ponds, raked sand pits, and the distant forest. One can easily imagine yokai monsters roaming just beyond sight. The shrine’s pathways meander peacefully across many evocative settings. Details abound, like little bamboo mats and mossy ropes holding up banzai-style full-scale trees.

Everything I’ll be seeing today, I’ve seen before. Many of Kyoto’s top sites aren’t on this agenda, such as Nijo Castle or the Golden Pavilion. Still, even now revisiting it I must declare Ginkaku-ji my favorite single spot in town. Many, many other shrines are better maintained, or more ostentatiously adorned, which is actually why I prefer the worn bare wood look here. It’s less showy, but more engaging, more meditative and tranquil. And of course there’s a Japanese term for this aesthetic style – wabi-sabi, the idea of imperfection done artfully. Age, rot, rust, moss, asymmetry, all may be pursued as an ideal. In fact, I’d say DisneySea is wabi-sabi, compared to Tokyo Disneyland’s spotless cleanliness.

From here, I follow the Philosopher’s Path. This is a quiet, meditative trail alongside a rocky canal dotted by cherry trees. Every block or so, there’s another temple down a side street. Even wandering through town, the newer houses reflect on the temples’ appearances. There’s a visual fusion of Zen and Shinto. Everything feels traditional (some of it slightly exaggerated for the tourists). Everything is far enough from my normal life that I’m loving every sight and sound.

Even cross-referencing Google Maps right now, I couldn’t say what all temples I visited. There are so many so close, each with their own distinct design flavor. Honen-in, I know I stopped there. Somewhere near there, I stumbled upon a mossy stone stairway climbing up into the ancient forest, climbing up and over the aged, worn roots of ageless fir trees. Dotting the route are miniature stone shrines, best as I understand it, lantern houses for the nighttime spirits. Somewhere behind the trees, I swear I saw an Oni or a Kappa or a Tanuki or some similar mythical monster just ducking out of view.

And at the end of this mystical stairway is a centuries-old cemetery. Built into the hillside, terraced with gigantic boulders, and with family memorials covering generations. At the center is a magnificent stone mausoleum, the smaller stone equivalent of temples like Ginkaku-ji. I am quiet and respectful, despite the site’s utter isolation. The only sounds are of distant crows, or water calmly dripping from bamboo spigots. The drizzle and the low-lying highland clouds add to the serenity.

Some temples feel less touristy or historical, and more active. Some I can only glimpse from the road, spying live ceremonies within. I don’t dawdle at these spots, hoping not to offend.

My route perpetually leads me downhill, but always within the foothills of Kyoto’s eastern mountain. My distance on foot for this day will be 10 miles. With all the temple stairs and such, I’ll be climbing 60 floors. The pace is relaxed, contemplative, but it’s by no means a laidback day.

Slowly, as I continue ever closer to Kyoto’s city center, the houses and streets reflect this. More modern conveniences start to appear. Housed amidst ancient shrines is a “Robot Security Gate.” Generally, the wabi-sabi disrepair fades away for…I don’t want to say “better maintained sites,” because Ginkaku-ji is immaculately maintained, but maybe just “more precisely maintained sites.” There are fewer stains and cracks on these temples. Their vermilion tori gates are freshly painted, more symmetrical. It maybe reflects a different era in Kyoto’s development.

It definitely reflects the larger amount of tourists down here, where the buses and tour groups make visiting much easier. The day is older too, and less adventurous visitors are learning that the rains aren’t coming after all. Souvenir stands are starting to open up. The Ginkaku-ji area where I started gets this way too, it was simply still too early.

Still, even with greater crowds disrupting the tranquility, I pause in every random temple site I come across, often paying a minimal entry fee at each. Each is lovely in its own way. I’m noticing design commonalities, like the cold blue roof tiles which often feature religious symbols carved into their edges. Chains dangle from the roof’s ledges, the Japanese equivalent of rain gutters. Every so often, I’ll find something like a small mountainous trail leading up to a gigantic bronze bell. One or two of these I ring. The sound echoes across the valley below, which is beautifully framed by autumnal trees.

With the greater city density, some of these temple complexes are shared by wholly modern institutions. There’s an elementary school built into the Eikandocho shrine (like some modern Catholic schools which adjoin monasteries). The school is designed so well that it’s hard to distinguish it from the temple. And right next door is a water treatment plant!

Up next: Kyoto Kont’d

November 13, 2017, 5:40 PM · D 2
Kyoto Daytrip, Part 2

We’re definitely in the city now! Kyoto’s temples are becoming vaster, less intimate, and the distances between them greater. I continue on foot, now past things like city parks or even the Kyoto Zoo. I’m retracing the morning bus route, past a massive red modern tori gate spanning the boulevard. More and more tour buses! I’m grateful in a way for these buses and these gawky tourists, since it means more food stands are opening up. At no point in Kyoto today will I pause for a proper meal. Rather, I’m noshing as I go, sometimes just grabbing a hot bottled tea from a convenient vending machine (they’re omnipresent), sometimes snagging a quick fried red bean bun or something from a vendor.

The Chion-in Shrine stands out. It is monumental in a way nothing else so far has been. The entry gate alone is larger than some whole complexes, all dark and weathered wood. Over-scaled paths pass underneath the gate and to an assortment of smaller attractions. Rather anachronistically, there seems to be a Roman aqueduct.

D 2
It’s an aging arched causeway of red bricks, a material I can’t recall seeing anyplace else in Kyoto. But past it is another converted lord’s mansion, another meditative garden sanctuary. Honestly, these sites are starting to blend together for me. I don’t have the knowledge or vocabulary to distinguish many of them.

And I’m growing more tired. I’m taking longer pauses on benches. There’s still neat, unique stuff to find, like the Ryozen Kannon giant Buddhist statue nestled against a hillside. I’m now starting to refuse paying entry fees, partly because of the increasingly touristy feel, and so some of these attractions I’m just admiring from a distance, possibly while eating a green tea crepe.

South of this section comes an area teeming with shops and visitors. I think it’s called Yasaka Kamimachi. I start to notice Japanese tourists (or pilgrims?) dressed very traditionally in colorful kimono robes. They remind me somewhat of geisha, and in fact Japan’s main geisha district is within walking distance. (Nearer temples drew my attention, and I never made it there on this trip.) While I suspect this whole shop area is a fairly modern creation, somewhat like Disneyland, it felt like a traditional Japanese village. It was vibrant, dense with things to see and do, and nicely located along a rolling hillside. And interspersed with these wooden huts were more centuries-old sites like the city’s second tallest pagoda. Dudes were running around dragging rickshaws.

It’s a lengthy uphill trek to reach Kiyomizu-dera Shrine, past all sorts of touristy storefronts. I first pause at the hill’s base to devour a fish ball kebab. About halfway up I pause again for a bottle of Kirin.

One of these days I’ll have to do Kiyomizu-dera Shrine earlier in the day, before I’m so tired from lots of walking, because this site – considered by many as Kyoto’s very best – has now underwhelmed me twice. Partly because lots of it has been hidden under scaffolding each time…despite a 6 year visit gap. Also, Kiyomizu-dera is the anti-Ginkaku-ji, all ostentatious oversized red pagodas surrounded by commercialization and hype…None of the quiet introspection of that tranquil mountaintop shrine where I began my day. Man, I just don’t get Kiyomizu-dera, which is frustrating because most Kyoto reviews see something astounding here, something I don’t see. (Of course it’s still a pleasant worthwhile site, just a tad overhyped.)

I’ve made it pretty far south by now, and the afternoon is growing old. Even though my next step is to take the city bus back to the central train station, I’m not through with Kyoto yet! Nope, I transfer buses and head further south to one of Kyoto’s newest and coolest shrines…Fushimi Inari! (Newest? I misspoke, it’s from the 8th century.)

Most of Kyoto’s shrines are condensed complexes surrounding one or several amazing architectural masterpieces. Fushimi Inari, a Shinto shrine, instead is incredibly spread out, spanning the entirety of a mountain! And its unique qualities make it at different times introspective, touristy, tranquil, spectacular, and everything else which sums up Kyoto.

The lead-up is similar to so many shrines, just streets passing chintzy gift shops. Even the initial shrine grounds – and only this first section is technically Fushimi Inari – seem like the standard “square and temple” setup we’ve seen repeatedly today. Worse still, these early temples are of 20th century vintage (though in the traditional style), so they lack the eons of texture seen elsewhere. They’re all drenched in the same textureless red paint.

But then you start to follow the seemingly never-ending path of stone stairways further and further towards the hilly bamboo forests. At every landing, you pass under another red tori gate. Soon you round a corner, glimpse the trail ahead, and see the thousands of tori gates which cover it like a canopy!

A common nickname for this shrine complex is the 10,000 Gates, and my estimates suggest that is no exaggeration. Might even be downplaying the numbers. Every few feet, there’s a new gate! The trail meanders further up the jungle mountain, and around each corner the gates never let up. It’s a strange sensation, simultaneously outdoors under the trees yet also trapped inside a red manmade tunnel. It’s overwhelming in a wonderful way, and through the gates’ repetition (and with the thinning crowds) the mind enters a new meditative state.

In one regard, Fushimi Inari is a series of hiking trails. More than one branching path leads to the very peak of Mount Inari. Along the way, dotting secluded forest alcoves, are numerous mini-shrines set off the main route. These are small family shrines. This is an active religious site, and many of these shrines feel similar to a heavily-trafficked cemetery. Miniature foot-wide tori adorn altars. Kitsune the fox appears everyplace overlooking the grounds, granting the whole complex an otherworldly, eerie vibe.

Often, wandering away from the main tori paths, I’m soon all alone exploring these damp outdoor crypts. The sun is nearing the horizon, its shafts broken up by thick bamboo stalks. Congested corridors of stone statues, all unknown and fearsome Shinto deities, are barely lit by scant candles in granite lanterns. Vertical monoliths are piled together as tightly as the tori. Each is vaguely in the shape of a man. Their lengthening shadows add to an unnatural sensation. The wilderness feels both haunted and peaceful.

Fushimi Inari has no admission fee, and it never closes. Conceivably, you could remain here exploring all night long, getting lost in the branching tendrils of mountainous forest trails. Many visitors do so. In fact, my previous time in Kyoto I did do something like that, climbing to the peak in time for a wonderful sunset before retracing my steps in the dark past ghostly torii.

Not today, though. With nearly 10 miles already under my belt, the prospect of 8 more along a mountaintop roundtrip doesn’t sound too appealing. Especially since, dingbat that I am, I’m wearing dress shoes! (I’ve actually decided they’re comfier than my hiking shoes.) So the sun sets while I’m retracing the day’s rather short section of completed tori back into town.

I stop at an inn for a super crisp, super clear Asahi dry beer. (Stupid story: I was tired of drinking Japanese beers and ordered “a sake.” The server misunderstood me.)

Fairly quickly afterwards, via bus and bullet train and metro, I’m back in Osaka’s Dotonbori for another vibrant crazy neon night. Since today was so go go go, without a proper filling meal, I dine in a conveyor belt sushi restaurant. First sushi of the trip, actually! I gorge until I’m sated. These moments of downtime and good food are really needed, since today was quite the trek, and tomorrow will be too.

Up next: Day 12 – Universal Studios Japan: A World of Crowds Awaits

November 14, 2017, 1:06 AM · This may be funny to some here (given its a theme park site), but this is probably my favourite of your recounts yet. Our next "proper" overseas trip is planned for Japan once our kids are old enough. Kyoto is definitely on the to do list now.

How's so you cope with the language barrier over there?

November 14, 2017, 7:19 AM · Grant, Kyoto is the absolute No. 1 destination in Japan for me. I would definitely recommend several days there, far more than I took on this trip. If your schedule permits it, aim to go there during cherry blossom season in the Spring. The mountainsides are beautiful with blooming flowers, and the shrines are vibrant with festivals. Take a day trip to see the Ise Shrine, which I believe is the most ancient site in Japan, buried deep within a redwood forest.

The language barrier exists, but I never had a problem with it. Service industry workers will understand normal questions. Learning around a dozen common Japanese phrases helps. Travel abroad anyplace is similar.

November 14, 2017, 7:20 AM · F
Day 12: Universal Studios Japan “Rope Drop”

Following breakfast, I rode the JR Line west towards Osaka’s docks, towards Universal Studios Japan! My timing was perfect and I arrived at 7:30, a full hour before the park’s scheduled opening. USJ is supposed to get stupid crowded, even by Japanese theme park standards. Best to try heading off those crowds by any means possible.

Too late! Wandering through the expectedly chintzy CityWalk, the crowds are here already…just as many people as DisneySea boasted at rope drop, only an hour earlier. Yoikes!

And as I’m still walking towards the ticketing plaza (along with roughly 15,000 other people who arrived with me), a prerecorded voice booms across the esplanade. It’s in Japanese, but the enormous cheer which erupts tells me it’s a good thing. And then they immediately start letting people into the park, an hour early!

I’m convinced I read USJ’s website wrong, or maybe I somehow shifted one more time zone. Nope. Future research reveals that, indeed, USJ will regularly open an hour early unannounced if there are enough crowds gathered. Even though it’s an off-season Monday, that’s happening now. Is it a national holiday? No, I planned around those. Nope, it’s just Osaka’s gigantic local population of park-starved passholders. As a tourist I’m now at a serious disadvantage!

Thankfully it doesn’t take long to purchase my day ticket, since seemingly 80% of those visiting as passholders. Soon, nearly an hour before I’d planned, I’m wandering the Hollywood entry land, which faithfully recreates cheesier versions of building less than an hour from my house. Beverly Hills isn’t exotic! Like Tokyo Disneyland, this entry shopping/dining corridor is covered by a big immersion-ruining rooftop. USJ opened in 2001, the same year as DisneySea, so it didn’t have DisneySea to learn from. Though even the later Universal Studios Singapore uses the same covered entrance tactic.

From a frankly insufficient amount of research, I’ve learned that USJ is maybe the world’s most crowded theme park! Not the most-visited (it is the most popular non-Disney park worldwide), but with the worst ratio of attractions to guests. There’s more supply than demand. My only “ace in the hole” for countering this is Single Rider, which is offered on most of the rides I care to do. Most. (There’s always the option to pay money for a line cutter, but nah!)

Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey only offers standby, and for that reason alone I make it my rope drop destination. There’s a rather similar Wizarding World of Harry Potter at my local Universal Studios Hollywood, so it’s a minor priority, but it’s still something worth doing. Also, I’ve read that USJ’s crowds mean sometimes you need a reservation even to enter Hogsmeade later in the day – indeed, I pass a reservation center queue forming for precisely that purpose. Later in the day, Hogsmeade will indeed become inaccessible.

USJ’s Hogsmeade is a fairly one-to-one match for Hollywood’s…I presume Orlando’s too, which I haven’t been to. It’s much better located than Hollywood’s, actually, since it’s fully immersive, with no panoramic views of office buildings. Hogsmeade is a cul-de-sac found at the end of a rather long forested trail. This entrance greatly insulates Potter from the rest of this rather bonkers, cluttered theme park. Hogwarts Castle is perched before a reflective lake (instead of USH’s outdoor switchback queue), which is a lovely photo op. Tall fir trees fully envelop the snowy Scottish village.

Forbidden Journey is exactly the same as USH’s, and they still retain that 3D gimmick which Hollywood dropped. It remains one of the world’s great dark rides, thrilling and unique and…not even USJ’s best dark ride, I’ll later decide.

I opt against riding Flight of the Hippogriff (an exact duplicate), because time is fleeting on unique attractions and frankly it was foolish to start with a known land. But time is never too fleeting to grab a Butterbeer along the way, particularly with light crowds and thirst bearing down.

I got the warm Butterbeer, because I am dumb.

I drink and walk simultaneously (!) as I proceed counterclockwise around USJ’s lagoon loop. A little park context, now that rope drop rush is done: USJ is (I think) a sort of combo of the two Florida parks. The entry area is laid out in a grid, with Hollywood and New York and countless boxy soundstages like any old studio park. The park’s main feature, though, is a central lagoon like in Islands of Adventure, complete with a Jurassic Park land on the far end.

Everywhere, visually aggressive details clash for attention, with giant steel roller coasters rushing directly over otherwise-immersive settings. Osaka’s preexisting skyscrapers loom behind CityWalk (itself formed of skyscrapers), and at least the designers created the New York area to take advantage of these visual intrusions. The towers feel like an infinite park extension as much as the ocean outside of DisneySea. On the other side of this rather small, cramped park is a gigantic modern suspension bridge. Its cables loom high, high above the park’s facades, which constantly undermines the forced perspective. I can even see a non-Universal Ferris wheel outside of the park! This park site was chosen for business convenience (a grand slam success there), and here in the city’s center it lacks any sort of bubble effect.

Anyway…So I’m rushing, Butterbeer sloshing in hand, through Amity Village – yes, they still have Jaws out here! Anyway, so I’m rushing into Jurassic Park for the high-priority B&M flying coaster, The Flying Dinosaur. So is everybody else! This year-old steel monstrosity is a marvel, the world’s longest and tallest flying coaster (sorry, Magic Mountain). I reach the queue around 7:45, still well before the park’s scheduled opening, aaaand…two hour standby!!!!!

Wait times after I got off. Glad I rode when I did!

Good thing I’m doing Single Rider, which iiiiis…one hour! Oh boy. Oh well, what else am I gonna do? I get in that line, and soon enough a cast member hands me a really long safety card with riding instructions. I’m also given a plastic tray to load up all my copious loose articles, to store in a locker at the ride’s loading station.

7:49 A.M.

I’m really impressed with how efficiently Universal loads their coaster. It’s a double loading station, so the line’s always moving. B&M’s flying coaster seating lets you board in a traditional seating position, and then you’re tilted into a prone “Superman” position. This moment alone produces a scream from roughly 75% of the riders. And those storage lockers have doors on the far side for post-ride unloading, with a separate sealed compartment for the other train. It’s an excellent professional setup, contrasting strongly against similar arrangements sometimes found in Six Flags or Cedar Fair parks.

Granted, The Flying Dinosaur is a bare-naked steel roller coaster, which doesn’t really play from a thematic perspective. They built most of the ride over the preexisting Jurassic Park land, shattering the jungle vibe. Other than green paint, there’s little to no décor along the queue, station or ride.

Note the city bridge behind it.

Ah, but The Flying Dinosaur is an exceptional roller coaster! Seriously, the best flying coaster I’ve done, even better than Tatsu! It is a wonderful combination of thrilling, pleasant and intense. There are moments, such as spinning 180 degrees upside down inside a tunnel alongside a shrieking otaku, which rank among my favorite coaster moments to-date. The layout is continually inventive, without a dull moment and with a good progression of elements. The thematic pretense – that a pterodactyl has caught you in its talons, like that poor lady from Jurassic World who became mosasaur lunch – that barely matters at all. It’s just fun, well worth the hour-long wait. The Japanese passholders riding alongside me clearly felt similarly, judging by the ludicrous screams and faces they made throughout.

Seriously, The Flying Dinosaur is a great coaster!

From here, I’ll proceed to the other Single Rider lines in a way to maximize efficiency and crowd patterns. And with most Single Rider lines already reaching 60 minute wait times (at 8:29, still a minute away from “official” opening), efficiency will be crucial if I am to survive this day.

Up next: The Longest Queues of the Trip, All Single Rider

November 14, 2017, 7:37 PM · L
Single Rider Studios Japan

Leaving Jurassic Park, Universal Studios Japan transitions very abruptly into its increasingly-small San Francisco land. With franchise creep nearby, this land is exclusively home to the last surviving Backdraft attraction. That’s closed today.

Nearby is Minion Park, a new land as of 2017 which has, Thing-style, assimilated the rest of San Francisco. Once-stately facades are repainted in a garish toonish mishmash of pink, yellow, and whatnot. The so-called Happiness Café (a branded chain, I believe) has turned a realistic waterfront eatery into a crazed explosion at a jelly bean factory. I love their picture menu of normal foods which look like Minions. The crowds here are next-level out-of-control – makes sense, as Minion Park is the summer’s all-new offering – with no clear way to even get past the mobs to reach Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem at the far end.

Not that I intend to do that ride. This is a protest vote. Minion Mayhem replaced the world’s last surviving Back to the Future ride, whose days were sadly numbered ever since October 22nd, 2015. While it would’ve been interesting to see Minion Mayhem done using BTTF’s IMAX screens, much like The Simpsons Ride, with no Single Rider and with this ludicrous crowd level – the Minions are bonkers popular in Japan, they’re so silly and kawaii – my time is better spent elsewhere…

Like in New York, home to The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man! I assume most reading this report have ridden this at Islands of Adventure. I haven’t! And while USH does have the similar Transformers ride (so does Florida), there’s no comparison. Spider-Man is easily the better ride. It’s also better than Forbidden Journey, if I may be so bold. The last of this trip’s three Top 5 rides! And that’s me discovering it for the first time in 2017. But why is Spider-Man so much better?

Well, it was Universal’s first serious stab at screen-and-set fusion, and it’s clear a lot of thought went into making that complex new technique work. Lots of Universal rides tend towards chaos and overstimulation. Spider-Man does to an extent, but in a calmer way. Transformers is a confusing ride, full of visual Michael Bay clutter, and Forbidden Journey has a Dadaist narrative. Spider-Man is lean and simple – Spidey fights the Sinister Six, our ride vehicles plays a part – and that standard scenario is catered to the ride system. Physical effects respond to screen actions. Screens begin as extensions of the set dressing, and only later move into wilder freeform flight segments. And though Doc Ock was taunting me directly in Japanese, the visual storytelling was always crystal clear. This is a really good ride, and in my personal ranking behind only Journey to the Center of the Earth and Mystic Manor for “best of vacation.” (It just slightly edges out Hunny Hunt.)

Oh, and doing Spider-Man via Single Rider took 45 minutes. That’ll be the day’s average wait, better than the 2 to 4 hour standby times seen everywhere. My next Single Rider line will be 45 minutes too.

That ride is a USJ exclusive, Space Fantasy – The Ride with Dreams Come True. You know, to distinguish it from the other Space Fantasies.

It’s a 100% original, non-IP ride, very atypical for Universal. This one is found in Hollywood, housed awkwardly inside a generic soundstage. Nothing can prepare the western mind for what lays hidden within! Let me attempt a speedy summation: Psychedelic anime Space Mountain.

The queue and preshow gradually transport guests into an outer space monarchy, or something. There are CGI anime screens depicting a stylized King and Princess…um, in retrospect I assume they’re caricatures of J-pop super-group Dreams Come True, not that I’d even heard of them yet. The Princess is mesmerizing and hypnotic. Her mouth is huuuuuge! Throughout a repetitive loop of backstory and safety spiel which I cannot understand, I never take my eyes off her gigantic grinning mouth. Her manic wall-eyed expression only adds to the uncanny effect.

The ride itself is, like Space Mountain, a rather illogical flight through space. Uniquely, it’s a Mack Rides indoor spinning coaster, somewhat like Crush Coaster. Riders spin wildly through a stylized Solar System. Whereas Space Mountain mostly employs darkness and star projections (a very effective approach), Space Fantasy flings riders directly past huge physical sets. Here is Jupiter, painted a raspberry Day-Glo hue. Anime sound effects roar. Here are glowing neon comets, looking like Sailor Moon magic. Look, the stars are shaped like stars! The finale, which makes zero sense to me, sends us inside of a gigantic rainbow crystal discotheque where explosions happen. Then the huge-mouthed Princess congratulates us for successfully saving the cosmos somehow. I have no clue!

Oh, and for the Dreams Come True overlay this is the on-ride soundtrack:

Space Fantasy is a ton of ridiculous fun! It is profoundly, proudly strange, and so, so, so, so Japanese. It’s by no means a thrilling roller coaster. There are so many lift hills and brake runs it’s practically a dark ride. But it is beautiful, distinctive, mesmerizing, and quite unlike anything else you’ll likely find. And while it’s not USJ’s best ride, per se, it’s maybe the most fun. It is joyfully insane!

With crowds still continually pouring through the front gates, I begin another counterclockwise circuit through the park to pick up additional Single Rider rides. For now, I completely bypass Hollywood Dream – The Ride because its Single Rider wait is two freaking hours long.

Instead I retrace my steps past the Wizarding World entrance, which is now sealed off with a nightclub-style queue forming beside a bouncer. So Hogsmeade is basically inaccessible now. Immediately past that is Amity Village, home to Jaws – The Ride. Grieving Orlando fans rejoice! By USJ standards this is an unpopular ride. Standby is a mere 2 hours, and Single Rider is a breezy, “blink and you’ll miss it” 30 minutes. Sign me up!

This is a cool ride, like an actionized version of Jungle Cruise. You all know the drill, right? Better than I did before riding it, no doubt. A live skipper carries us through a goofy replica of Martha’s Vineyard. Soon Bruce the mechanical shark attacks. The several scenes which follow remind me a lot of the Tram Tour back home, back when it was exclusively practical effects. Live animatronic destruction happens before our eyes. Explosions, sparks and sharks, all tantalizingly tactile. It’s impressive how everything is synched together. By Universal standards it’s low-tech and old school, but charming for that reason and entirely appropriate for the physical pleasures of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws.

Next up is Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park. The Flying Dinosaur now has a 3 hour Single Rider line (I kid you not!), but the Single Rider wait for Jurassic Park River Adventure is a paltry 45 minutes. The time is passed easily by munching on a box of “T-Rex flavored” popcorn. And you thought Tokyo Disney Resort had exotic popcorn flavors! It turns out that Tyrannosaur tastes like turkey leg.

Jurassic Park River Adventure is a ride I know well from USH. Here it’s mirrored, and with some different effects (a falling raptor crate instead of a falling jeep). Variations like this make clones worthwhile. I think Orlando’s version is similar to this one. A solid, classic boat ride.

Rounding the horn back into Minion Park, where color comes to hallucinate, I come to an important realization: This park is insane! My next hour or two will be spent repeatedly saying aloud “What the *@&*# is going on?!?!” (I said that a lot on Space Fantasy too. My ride-mates loved me!) What sort of craziness am I responding to now? Stay tuned…

Up next: Insanity

November 15, 2017, 8:39 AM · K
USJ’s Seasonal Zaniness

The entirety of Universal Studios Japan has a hefty dose of insanity, especially here towards the front where unrelated franchises mix and match with zero logic. Thank USJ’s tiny size. There is so much pent up demand for Hollywood movies, anime properties, children’s favorites, horror icons, and other randomness, and only a few city blocks to fit it all in. I swear, sometimes in the same blink I would see Snoopy, Freddy Kreuger and Monkey D. Luffy all alongside each other dancing the Macarena!

Universal parks tend towards this crazed mélange already. USJ leans into it, embracing the silliness. For my visit, there are multiple seasonal events happening simultaneously. For one, it’s still Jump Summer. That’s an anime festival themed to DragonBall Z, Neon Genesis Evangelion, One Piece, and somewhat more nonsensically also Godzilla. There’s a Sesame Street event to draw in the families, and regularly they’ll shut down the streets for a parade featuring Elmo and pals. And it’s also Halloween Horror Nights, which in Japan isn’t a nighttime-only thing. Instead, HHN is going on now throughout the day, nonstop. So here come the chainsaw-wielding zombies, right on the tail of Bert & Ernie!

And because it’s Halloween guests are allowed to arrive in full costume, the same as at Tokyo Disney Resort. But while the Disney fans are politely clad as princesses, the Universal fans mostly wear gore makeup. You know, slashed throats and gouged eyeballs. Yeah. Some of the guests are simply surreal. This picture above, of the three schoolgirls and the dapper bulldog-headed gentleman, none of them is a cast member! I later saw that bulldog joining the schoolgirls in Spider-Man’s queue. Did he ride wearing the head?!

What takes the cake for me though, the most quintessentially Japanese combo of kawaii cuteness and foul eerie horror…was Hello Kitty Chucky!

Yes, Hello Kitty Chucky. “She wants YOU for a best friend!” The murderous, stitched-up Sanrio doll-cat, whose adorable evil can only be expressed in the form of a sugary iced coffee drink. Naturally, I ordered one. Drinking it was very difficult because I was laughing hysterically at this whole premise the entire time. Seriously, I fell over in hysterics when I first met Hello Kitty Chucky, only then realizing that life is not in vain.

One can only imagine how the chaos will compound in a few years when Super Nintendo World premieres here. This is a perfect park for Mario!

Okay, so, anyway, Halloween Horror Nights happens during regular park hours. That means there are several scare mazes scattered throughout the park. I tried to get into one of them, an Exorcist maze, sometime around 10:15 A.M. after doing Space Fantasy, only to learn I needed a reservation. So I dashed over to the reservations center (wait time: 40 minutes)…Mind you this was hard to find, as the 20-page long park map (!) only comes in Japanese.

No matter, roughly 5 minutes into enduring this line, a big shrieking buzzer goes off. Reservations are gone for the day! And not just for that maze, but for all the mazes, all the shows, all the “real” attractions (I’ll get to those), and for Harry Potter. All sold out well before noon! Yoikes! Oh, and you can only get one reservation per-day per-guest, best as I can tell. No wonder this place is so crawling with local passholders! To do all of USJ’s one-of-a-kind low-capacity offerings, you literally have to visit dozens of times. I swear, as a random tourist, I never stood a chance of surviving USJ!

Oh, and the wait to enter the Annual Pass Center? The wait that day just to buy an Annual Pass? Forty minutes!

I’m back in the Hollywood entry area now, back under the roof. Mutants and muppets are out in force vying for children’s love. Everywhere, there are soundstages advertising things called “The Real.” (Also a living nightmare called “Shrek 4D,” which I don’t even bother with at home.) What is “The Real?” Again, best as I can tell, it’s any temporary attraction which mostly utilizes live performers. This has many forms.

There are the shows which fuse performers and screens, such as “Final Fantasy – 4D: The Real” (tickets sold out) which is presently occupying the T2:3D theater.

There’s also stuff like “Resident Evil – The Real” (tickets sold out) which is a laser tag scare maze. This I only know from reading the Internet. Small groups of guests are handed helmets, laser pulse rifles, the whole shebang, then released into a post-apocalyptic wonderland where they shoot at live drooling zombie scareactors. Doesn’t that sound super cool?

For Jump Summer, there are variations on this concept using anime properties like Attack on Titan. Ticket-holding fans are queued up awaiting their 6 P.M. reservations – it’s noon now! These fans are in ComicCon-quality cosplay costumes. This will be their whole day!

Craziness continues into the nearby family-friendly land, Universal’s Wonderland. This is a cul-de-sac of childlike whimsy (and eye-melting colors) where children can meet their favorite easily-licensed characters. There are three unrelated sub-areas, each exclusively featuring kid-friendly flat ride spinners and nothing else. Snoopy Studios, Hello Kitty’s Fashion Avenue, Sesame Street Fun Zone. Have you ever wanted to fly in circles inside of a fiberglass Peanuts character? Oh well, it’s available anyway!

There are something like 16 spinning rides in Wonderland. All are A- and B-tickets, mostly stuff parents aren’t even allowed to ride. It reminded me of Legoland, with an exclusive appeal to the youngest guests. There are wonderfully interactive play areas, like ball pits and bubble pits and Styrofoam pits. Kids get to drive their own car through a scaled-down cityscape. They can hold symposia with Big Bird. A large indoors section, with storefronts found within Grover’s oversized mouth, lets guests escape the sun or rain. Snoopy flies like Dumbo. The teacups are cupcakes. The boat ride is in oversized rubber duckies. Three-year-olds adore this area.

In many ways I’m reminded of DisneySea’s Mermaid Lagoon, as far as programmatic elements are concerned. It’s less artfully done here, with harsher primary colors and less texture. I’m still not a huge fan of theme park segregation. Few guests will ride both Moppy’s Lucky Dance Party and The Flying Dinosaur. I didn’t. If USJ (or any park, really) could create a kiddie land which childless adults can also enjoy – such a land exists, and it’s called Fantasyland – that park would conquer the world.

Super Nintendo World will be a wonderful expansion for USJ, and I suspect it will have exactly that balance. I’m curious to see how Universal balances Nintendo’s colorful aesthetic with the more hyper-immersive approach they’ve spearheaded with Harry Potter.

Believe it or not, I’ve now done a pretty complete tour of Universal Studios Japan, twice around. I mean, I’ve only been able to do about 15% of the attractions, thanks to their reservation system. And I’m doubling down, doing rerides on Jaws and Spider-Man and Space Fantasy – The Ride with Dreams Come True, and burning a ton of daylight in the process. Also I had a sushi lunch in a restaurant chosen primarily for its quietness in comparison to the screaming hordes just outside in Minion Park.

Oh right, there’s a Waterworld stunt show. The original Waterworld in Hollywood is among my favorite theme park shows, in part because it employs Hollywood stuntmen. If a USJ visitor hasn’t been to USH, it’s worth seeing here I’m sure. I didn’t watch this version.

Instead I concluded the visit with something unique, Hollywood Dream – The Ride. That 110 minute Single Rider wait time isn’t very appealing, but I suck it up. The queue is steel switchbacks atop concrete circling a tan, textureless box. Kinda Six Flagsy. Hollywood Dream is this park’s Rip Ride Rockit, the entry-spanning coaster with on-ride musical selections. There’s a “Backdrop” version with trains facing reverse, with a four hour standby. Single Rider is “luck of the draw,” and I get placed in a standard forward-facing train.

The coaster is a B&M, so it’s smooth and fun. Otherwise, the layout is fairly undistinguished, unique only for how it traverses existing infrastructure. Compared to Rip Ride Rockit (what I know of it per the internet), Hollywood Dream’s song selection is limited: Four J-pop songs or Justin Bieber. This is when I learned that Dreams Come True (from Space Fantasy) is a band and not some huge-mouthed anime. In their honor I select DCT’s hit single “Osaka Lover.” Not the most intuitive song for an adrenalized roller coaster, in retrospect. Sounds like Dotonbori music. For true mortal terror, I should’ve selected Bieber!

Actually, this song was perfect. It kind of encapsulates Universal Studios Japan. For all of the park’s clones and similarities to Orlando, it struck me as being exclusively Japanese. It’s the right call for Universal, especially in Osaka (not nearly as touristy as Tokyo). The clientele here seemed distinctly Osakan, and USJ is theirs. They claim a passholder loyalty and passion most parks would kill for. There’s a reason USJ is the world’s most popular non-Disney park!

Once you leave USJ, you cannot reenter. That renders their CityWalk somewhat useless. For me, now seeking an early dinner, nothing here seemed appealing. It’s all chains I know from home. Instead I traveled back to Dotonbori just in time for a beautiful sunset along the canal illuminating their strange Ferris wheel.

I stopped in the Japanese equivalent of a Denny’s, and got their version of a Grand Slam Breakfast. Maybe Japanese foodies turn their noses at this place, but from my foreign perspective it was a filling and varied meal: Sushi, shabu shabu, tempura, udon, even savory egg custard. Plus another Kirin.

Follow that up with a third night spent exploring Dontonburi, eating more takodori street food, and it adds up to an altogether rich full day.

Up next: Day 13 - Tokyo’s Tiniest Hotel Room

November 15, 2017, 6:13 PM · A
Day 13: Tokyo Capsule Hotel

We’re all done with theme parks now for this trip. All that remains are two nights in Tokyo, then a flight back to L.A. My only agenda for this day is to reach Tokyo, then enjoy it.

It takes over half the day for that first step. I’m in no rush anyway, and by a substantial margin today will be the trip’s laziest, least eventful day. I slowly ooze my way out of Osaka, ride the bullet train into Tokyo Central Station, and take the JR Line from there to Shinjuku. There’s a slight confusion along the way where I accidentally get off in Shibuya.

There’s confusion in the Shinjuku Station as well, trying to locate the evening’s hotel. The Shinjuku Station is described as the world’s busiest, so that isn’t helpful. No rush anyway, because check-in ain’t until 3, so even after finding the place I have the time to stop off at some dumpy commuter restaurant nearby for a really nondescript Japanese curry lunch.

Then I go get situated at the hotel, which honestly takes most of the day. Why? It’s a capsule hotel, which is totally foreign and new!

This seemed a fun way to end the trip. Capsule hotels are an exclusively Japanese concept, commuter hotels which are basically “lockers for humans.” My bedroom was miniscule, 4x4x8. Feet, not inches. Here in Tokyo, among the world’s densest and busiest cities, space is at a premium and they’ll stack lodgers atop each other like shoeboxes.

The concept is intended for drunken Japanese salaryman without the wherewithal to get back home after a wild night of karaoke, or for husbands who’ve just been kicked out of the house. Oh, and for dorky American tourists. Actually, no, it wasn’t meant for me in the slightest. Often when seeking lodging in Japan, a foreigner must take note if a hotel offers “western” accommodations. Capsule hotels are as “eastern” as can be.

To start, it’s not a simple matter of checking in, then going to your coffin-sized room. There’s a whole cleansing ceremony first. I’ll be sleeping mere feet from snoring otaku, and Japanese culture – always so polite and conscientious – demands that I be as inconspicuous as possible.

So first thing is the front desk snatches my luggage away from me. Suddenly on the spot I go through a fairly embarrassing routine of opening up the suitcase to fish out my clothing for the next day or so, plus toiletries. This stuff I store in a nearby locker, opened with a wristband keycard Magic Band style. There’s no traditional key, and soon I’ll have no pockets, so the Magic Band is a necessity.

Also, I’m not allowed to go upstairs to my capsule in street clothes. I’m stinky. Management provides me with a bathrobe and slippers, which I don in the locker room.

Step two is the second floor, the bath and spa. I’m expected to bathe in the Japanese style, something which I’m learning on the fly. The concierges have long since abandoned me, and there’s no English going on anyway. No English signage. I’m getting quite adept at certain Japanese phrases. I’m having a blast! So onwards I go into a steamy traditional bathhouse, wafting with sweet herb scents. By the way, capsule hotels are male only.

In Japan, before you bathe, you have to wash. Disrobing completely (sorry, no pictures allowed in here), I sit at a communal shower bench under a flow of scalding, soothing water. All the bathing items you’d need are present, from shampoo to douche to things I don’t recognize…everything except shaving equipment. Japanese men don’t really get facial hair, and since I haven’t shaved since this morning I’m starting to resemble ZZ Top. This is awkward, since I have to head back downstairs to the locker rooms, dripping wet, to gather my razor.

Once cleaned and shaven, then you’re welcome to enjoy a Japanese bath. It’s like a Jacuzzi basically. It’s quite calming, helped a lot by the omnipresent relaxation music. No yakuza types are welcome, so you can’t stay in a capsule hotel if you have tattoos.

We’re about an hour into my hotel stay now, and no room yet. It’s a slow and meditative process, profoundly tranquil. At the tail end of a go-go vacation, that’s most warranted.

Next step is the third floor, the library. It’s not wholly necessary, but it’s a big part of the process. Here, the idea is you lounge about. There are tens of thousands of manga available, and everyone else present is making full use of them. (You’ll see grown men on the subway doing likewise.) I make an effort at it, but I can’t read kanji. So instead I plop myself on the massage chair and watch Japanese game shows on TV. The lounge includes a free vending machine which makes hot or cold drinks in a dozen flavors, so I’m enjoying a few of these too. Mmm, mango-infused iced coffee…

Once all that’s complete, you finally get to take the elevator (via Magic Band) up to the capsules. Inside is a perpetual twilight, dark and quiet but for the actively snoring oddballs who’ve already turned in for the day.

It takes a while to even get oriented inside my personal tiny capsule. There are outlets, fans, wifi, even a swiveling television, but they’re all about as confusing as Japanese toilets. (Those are in a side room, incidentally, and once I stupidly visited them around midnight without the Magic Band and I got locked out of the capsules.) It takes me a while to figure this room out – even how to turn on the lights – and I nap for a decent spell afterwards.

Already I’ve covered the vast, vast majority of this day. Pretty low-key, eh? Once I eventually stir, all that remains to do is to head out into Shibuya and hunt down a dinner.

By “dinner,” I mean “bar crawl.” Not by design, but that’s what happened. Shibuya is one of Tokyo’s four or so major neon districts, a bit like Osaka’s Dotonbori. None is as bitesize as Dotonbori, to their detriment. Shibuya sits right on the edge between a ritzy boutique area and the seedy “escort” part of town where tourists get robbed. Marking the border in between are endless pachinko parlors, cosplay lounges, karaoke dive bars, and all manner of Las Vegas-esque vice. Also, video game arcades!

Pachinko is silly. It’s like slot machines crossed with pinball. You can’t control the 1,000s of silver balls you’ve just poured into the device, but their bouncing path (hypnotic to watch, the main attraction) at least shows why you’ve lost. I wandered into a few parlors to watch, which is itself frowned upon; security guards chased me out! (Snagged my photo on the sly.) Also, gambling is technically illegal in Japan, so stores near the parlors will trade the pachinko balls out for souvenirs. Pawn shops then trade those souvenirs in for cash, and the circle of life is complete.

I roam innumerable back alleys, stopping at this place and that for a pint and a snack. Asahi and sausage. Asahi and fried duck liver. Asahi and fish brains. Easily the coolest spot I found was actually right next door to the capsule hotel, a tiny narrow hipster grill with unadorned furnishings, decades of spices baked into the walls, and a greasy chain-smoker chef. Also some really boisterous, engaging clientele. We got along famously over a televised soccer game, despite the language barrier. The waitress became fascinated with serving me off-putting foods, stuff that was either too identifiable or not identifiable enough, which I ate with gusto because that’s actually exactly what I’m looking for in a strange foreign hole-in-the-wall!

And with that, I slept for the night. Or tried too. The capsule hotel’s blankets, pillows and thermostat were all evil. Oh well, another round in the massage chair, and eventually laying off the free vending machine coffee, and soon I fell asleep anyway.

Up next: Day 14 – One Final Day in Tokyo

November 16, 2017, 7:06 AM · D
Day 14: One Final Day in Tokyo

One day in Tokyo. More so even than Kyoto, that’s not enough. But like Kyoto, I’ve visited Tokyo before, been to all its weird cosplay neighborhoods and its highfalutin museums, so for my final day in Japan I’ll just end up doing the most generic touristy things possible. By a large margin I’ll see more Americans today than in the entire last week, and I don’t enjoy many of these loudmouthed stereotypes. Dude, we’re in a Cultural Heritage Site, shut the *&@*#$ up about Burning Man!

In preplanning, I had a few crazy ideas for this Tokyo day – see the Ghibli Museum, eat at the Robot Restaurant, see a sumo match – but reservations for each proved elusive. There’s always another time.

Today’s alternate thrown-together plan? Using the “free for me” JR Line, see as much as possible, starting with the furthest attraction.

Let’s begin at the Imperial Palace. Not that there’s much to see, because like Buckingham Palace in England it’s a private residence, and similarly it devours a gigantic amount of top-dollar urban real estate (over 1 square mile!). We’re here surrounded by the city’s (and country’s, and continent’s) greatest centers for finance, shopping and government, which makes the vast green space even leading up to the private grounds all the more striking. There’s honestly not much to be seen here, but don’t tell the crowds of gathered tourists. Just the famous, iconic double bridges, offering intriguing glimpses down a stone-lined canal of the unseen treasures beyond.

On its own, the Imperial Palace wouldn’t draw me out here, but there’s a ton within walking distance. My goal is to reach the Tokyo Fish Market by 10. Wandering that way carries me through Ginza, the most upscale boutique district in a city teeming with such things. On previous, slower-paced visits I’ve toured some of the department stores around here, not so much for the shopping (though previewing the then-new 3D TVs was pretty sick) but for the architecture and interior design. Like so much modern architecture, there’s plenty of stark minimalism on display, contrasting with the older Beaux Arts boutiques which jumpstarted Ginza’s reputation.

So, no upscale shopping now, not that 9 A.M. is a good time for that anyway. Onwards I trudge, passing the Kabuki-za Theatre. This is a Japanese baroque revivalist structure built in 1924, a modernist reinterpretation of classical styles. This is perhaps the premier theater venue in all of Japan, host to traditional kabuki drama. Crowds are gathering for a performance an hour out, and I am seriously, seriously tempted to join them…only they’re in fine suits while I’m, well, I’m dressed for walking 10 miles. Which is what I proceed to do.

Leaving Ginza, the city grows slightly more industrial towards the docks. This is the region surrounding the astounding Tokyo Fish Market, a multi-acre covered trading floor where daily the island’s fishermen arrive with their freshest sea catches, and the city’s sushi chefs haggle over their daily ingredients. There’s even the highly-coveted tuna auction, which only 100 tourists are allowed into, and they must line up 6 hours in advance beginning at 4 A.M. It’s at 10 when everyone else is allowed to wander the main floor.

It’s not quite 10 yet, by design. There are so, so many sushi restaurants surrounding the marketplace, all ideal for a delicious raw breakfast. In choosing one, I ignore the abrasive Americans and their timid selections and I go to the tiniest, busiest spot teeming with locals. It’s so narrow, the single dining counter is directly against the side wall. I order “omakase,” chef’s choice, and piecemeal for the next 30 minutes I’m given a dozen different sushi types, all guaranteed exceedingly fresh. It was delicious!

You’ll learn when eating sushi in Tokyo to do as the chef says. Don’t make those vats of soy sauce and wasabi and drench your roll like I’ve seen so many gringos do. Eat it as served, and immediately. If the chef handled the sushi with his hand, he gave it a trace of warmth on purpose. Don’t let it cool! My last time near the Fish Market, I dined on “ikizukuri,” sushi so fresh it was prepared alive (!) and was still wriggling while I ate it. That was certainly an interesting meal, but I feel a little gross about its ethics.

After breakfast, I wander the Market. I don’t buy, I’m not allowed to buy, and I only take pics on the sly. This place isn’t really meant for tourists (a new, tourist-centric market is opening next year), and you’re expected to steer clear of the forklifts and ice trucks and fishmongers racing about with sharpened cleavers. The odors are varied and bracing. There are countless tanks and tubs of live sea creatures. A few of them, like a Jacuzzi containing a huge pulsing, oozing Grimace blob, I don’t even know what that was…an animal, a fungus, a shoggoth?!

Satisfied with the fishy goodness I’ve seen, I proceed back toward Ginza, pausing along the way to snag some clay fish plate souvenirs for friends back home. From Ginza, I’m back on the JR Line circling west. Next stop? Tokyo Tower, which is actually a new thing for me!

You’ve maybe seen Mothra’s larva in the Tower’s rafters, or seen Godzilla’s atomic breath melting its steel girders. That’s because Tokyo Tower is a modern icon of the city, until recently the country’s tallest structure and a big cheesy tourist trap. It’s a shameless knockoff of the Eiffel Tower, made distinctive by its international orange paintjob. So playfully modern, contrasting nicely against an ancient temple complex which I wander through along my way to maximize sightseeing awesomenes

The Tower really is a cheesy thing. They’ve got these odd kawaii fiberglass sculptures all around the base. The elevator to the observation platform is set amidst a whole shopping mall of Japanese pop cultural absurdity. If you didn’t know Godzilla attacked the Tower, they won’t let you forget it here! There’s also a so-called “One Piece theme park,” though it takes up just a few rooms of FootTown (the Tower’s mall), and costs the same to visit as Tokyo Disneyland. Yeah, I didn’t go in there. I paused for a while checking out the otaku merchandise, all the elaborate anime figurines and other silliness (and I bought a Tokyo Tower Lego set for a friend’s kid).

Then it was up the elevator to the Main Observatory. Panoramic views on all sides of Tokyo below! To paraphrase an old French joke, the best views in town…because you can’t see Tokyo Tower.

Tokyo Tower reminded me of Hong Kong’s Peak Tower. Tourists are guaranteed to go here for the wonderful views and the iconography, so let’s fill it up with cheesy tacky nonsense like a Bubba Gump and a Guinness World Records Museum and laser tag. What is this, Orlando?!

No thanks, I’ll move on now instead for the city’s ancient, timeless Meiji Shrine, which dates back centuries into the mists of time…built in 1912.

Designed in the classical Shinto tradition widely seen in Kyoto, Meiji Shrine doesn’t feel all that recent. It’s helped by the sprawling evergreen forest setting, incongruously set just outside of Shibuya’s vibrant hyper-modern shopping district. Deep down long, wide, seemingly endless pilgrimage paths, you only get the occasional auditory hint of Tokyo’s bustle, like an ambulance siren or J-pop. It’s a quiet natural oasis within the city, and precious for that reason.

I slow down before even entering Meiji’s initial tori gate, pausing for a light lunch at some rather innocuous touristy snack stand. (It’s like those eateries in National Forests; it’s just there.) I get another Kirin, because of course I do, and I default for the menu’s oddest item – a fruit sandwich. Kiwis, strawberries and peaches with cream inside white bread…it was far better than I’d anticipated. Light, fluffy, and subtly sweet.

Then I wander on down the thick forested trails towards Meiji. This is a complex honoring Emperor Meiji and his wife, who in Shinto tradition I believe are now deified. In life, this was his personal iris garden. In his death, the Japanese people’s reverence is unmistakable. The pathway is dotted by prayer walls, and by scaffolding full of sake barrels erected in tribute. At the main shrine, there’s so much ceremony. Visitors cleanse with bronze cups of water. There are incense sticks, giant old bells, and priests performing solemn chants.

It’s all the more striking, as I’ve suggested, by Shibuya nearby. Even at midday, Shibuya teems with life. Here’s another shopping district, more youthful than Ginza. Neon signs and TV screens cover the skyscrapers. All walks of visitor – teenybopper locals, high-strung businessmen, rustic Western tourists, cosplaying lunatics – gather together. It’s like Tokyo’s Times Square. I roam and wander, delighting in the mixture of international brands and hole-in-the-wall dives and the ubiquitous Forever 21.

Shibuya is perhaps most famous for its “Shibuya scramble,” the busiest pedestrian crosswalk in the world. Every minute or two, the entire intersection shuts down and fills shoulder-to-shoulder with people. As seen in Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift! It’s one of those so, so famous tourist sights, so iconic that you go mostly to say you did. There’s no real sense of discovery, but it’s a treat to witness firsthand something so famous and recognizable.

From Shibuya, I proceed back “home” to Shinjuku. Because I’m a goon, I do so on foot. There’s less to see in between these wards than I’d’ve expected. The only site which stands out is this amazing Art Deco clock tower, lookin’ like something I’d expect to see in the old “Batman” animated series…or possibly “Batman Beyond.” I remember this particular clock more dearly from a previous visit, from touring Shinjuku at night during a fog when the tower’s neon clockface shined through the mist in an eerie, hypnotic glow, highlighted by similar neon below my neo-Gothic balcony. Much like Dotonbori, that was one of those amazing transporting “cyberpunk” moments which I continually seem to experience in Japan.

It’s nearing nightfall as I return to Shinjuku and their neon is just starting to flicker on. Without the haze, that former lingering mystery is absent, but Shinjuku is no less alive. Another day, another 10 miles schlepped, and at the trip’s very tail end I am understandably exhausted. Looking to sit and eat, looking to relax, I find a restaurant using the tried-and-true “most locals” rule. The line I join means a 45 minute wait before seating, and it turns out this is a ramen restaurant. How perfect! A perfectly-seasoned bowl of steaming tonkatsu noodles, which warm the body after a chilly day, is an exceptional capper to a wild, wondrous whirlwind tour of Hong Kong and Japan!

Up next: Day 15 – Flight Back

Day 15
There’s nothing to tell about that. I flew from Haneda to LAX, with another unpleasant layover in Beijing. (Do not go there.) I ate Kit Kats and miso in the airport. I mostly slept. Customs in L.A. were a non-issue. The only interesting things in this whole final day? One, it was earlier in L.A. when I landed than when I left. And two, after two weeks of visiting major international theme parks, what was the very first thing that greeted me in the United States?

Welcome home to Hollywood!

And that CONCLUDES this epic Asian trip report! Thanks for sticking with me!

November 16, 2017, 10:33 AM · It's been wonderful to read about all your Asian adventures. Thanks for making me laugh -- especially with your descriptions of USJ and the shout-out to H.P. Lovecraft in the fish market :-)
November 16, 2017, 4:10 PM · Universal Japan seems terrible. Not the park itself, but the crowds. It makes the original Disneyland seem like Hong Kong Disneyland by comparison. Universal should be embarrassed by how little you got to do with a full price one day admission. Passholders are important to the success of almost every park, but they shouldn't wreck the experience for everyone else. Maybe it was because of Horror Days. Even so, only getting to experience 15% of the park is ridiculous! Maybe they need to block horror days to passholders or only give them discounted admission. Just about anything would be better than what you experienced.
November 16, 2017, 11:03 PM · Once again, this is an outstanding report! I enjoyed every single piece of it, and actually found some of the random tourist stuff more interesting than the theme park content. If nothing else, it made me more excited to one day visit Japan (probably not anytime soon, but it's on my bucket list), and possibly less excited to visit Universal Japan (I'll still go, but I'm paying for the line cutter). Though I'd probably sprinkle in a few of the larger Japanese theme parks, I'll definitely be looking back at this report once I plan my own trip to get an idea of what might be a good itinerary to use.

Great work, Blake! Hopefully we'll get to see another one of these should you visit any other exotic destinations.

November 17, 2017, 5:36 AM · Thank you SO much for taking us along! Again, I am relatively certain this is as close as I will ever get to experiencing any of the overseas parks. What you found as adventuresome, I found horrifying (to be alone in a foreign country with a language barrier). But being in the safety of my laptop, I loved every minute of your trip!

If the day ever comes I find myself touring with family, I'll say "Doug says we really gotta see this!" Thank you again for taking the time to detail your adventure!

November 17, 2017, 8:22 AM · Thanks for following along, everyone! Glad to transport you on an exotic trip many aren't as likely to take, and glad to inspire and inform anyone considering an Asian vacation for themselves.

This is my first international trip where theme parks were a major driving focus. As stated in the report, I've visited Japan before, and for a first time visitor I would recommend far, far more time (we're talking at least an additional week) for seeing Tokyo and Kyoto, to say nothing of what else Japan has to offer.

Universal Japan was certainly overwhelming despite my carefully researched gameplan (go during off-season weekdays, arrive early, do Single Riders in a particular order). There's little info on it in English, compared to Tokyo Disney Resort. It is what it is and I enjoyed its rides and atmosphere, despite it being maybe the worst park queueing experience I've ever encountered.

My future travel abroad will likely be exotic, and theme parks are by no means a guaranteed park of many future trips. When they should be - should I do a "10% Shanghai Disneyland, 90% actual China" trip - perhaps look forward to a report here.

November 17, 2017, 8:34 AM · Thanks for the trip reports, Douglas! I've enjoyed every one, and I'm a little bummed that they're ended. Great job!
November 17, 2017, 9:47 AM · Thanks from me too Douglas - this has really been one of the standout TPI contributions in some time. We're looking at a Japanese trip at the moment, so it's come at a perfect time. And you vividly brought it all to life.

I did a two-week Chinese trip earlier in the year - including SDL - so can happily offer thoughts there if you're weighing things up. (It's a good thing you're adventurous with food - there really is no dodging that aspect in China!) I wish I'd gotten around to writing that trip up - perhaps it'll be a good thing now we're into the depths of off-season...

November 17, 2017, 1:01 PM · Thanks very much for this series Doug. Its been great travelling along with you (Metaphorically speaking) and the side trips were certainly worth reading, as well as the parks themselves.

Although I must confess its put me off going to the parks (I don't do crowds), that said I'm kinda sad I wont be able to see em myself.

November 17, 2017, 6:10 PM · Ooh, Ben, yes please for a Shanghai trip write-up! Would love to hear about SDL, and everything else in China.

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