2012 Japan Trip Day 32 – Nara

Date of Travel: 01/03/2012

We found ourselves starting the day on an early morning shinkansen ride back to the Kansai area…which we just left 2 days prior. It was quite inefficient planning on our behalf, but the reason we were heading back was for the Omizutori festival in Nara, which is held over the first couple of weeks of March. We arrived at Nara station and headed out for lunch. As it was still too early to check into our accommodation at Guesthouse Sakuraya, we decided to hop onto another train to head over to Horyuji temple.

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Horyuji temple is one of the oldest temples in Japan. While its complex is not as old as that of Shitennoji in Osaka, its buildings supposedly dated back to the 7th century, making it the world’s oldest surviving wooden building. The approach to the temple grounds was very long but simple in design, as it was only lined with trees. It’s an approach benefiting of the temple itself, as the temple buildings’ architecture, and the general landscaping, was perhaps the simplest I have seen thus far. It was especially a far cry from the elaborate buildings in Nikko.

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We were held up by a tour guide at the temple’s entrance, who wished to show us around. I was not really keen as I did not want him to take too long because we wanted to reach our accommodation by 5 pm before heading to the Omizutori festival. However, Brownie did not know how to say no, so we ended up getting a tour of the place. To be fair, he did tell us a few interesting facts about the buildings, especially some of the statues and carvings present in the main hall and 5-storey pagoda.

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After parting ways with our tour guide, we explored the eastern end of the temple grounds. This part of the grounds featured an exhibit showcasing the temple’s collection of art. Slightly further from that is the Yumedono Hall, which is known as the Hall of Dreams. There wasn’t much to see around this part, and we would have left earlier if not for a security guard asking Brownie if he wanted his photo taken.

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We caught a train back to the JR Nara station, and ventured to the Naramachi area, which like Gion and the Chaya districts in Kanazawa is famous of having old traditional buildings. We then followed a map I printed off from Google to find Guesthouse Sakuraya, where we are staying the night. After reaching the location specified on the map, we could not find Guesthouse Sakuraya anywhere. After asking a few locals, we learnt that the place we were looking for was located a few blocks away! When we told this to the lady who greeted us at the entrance to the guesthouse, we had a good laugh about it. The guesthouse was one of the nicest we stayed in during the whole trip. The staff was extremely friendly, the room was spacious, and the accommodation felt very traditional. After leaving our backpacks and resting for a while, we headed over to Nigatsudo Hall near Todaiji Temple for the Omizutori festival.

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Omizutori is an annual “sacred water-drawing” festival, and is perhaps the longest running Buddhist event in Japan. On every evening over the first 2 weeks of March the priests would walk along the stage of the Nigatsudo Hall with giant torches. We got there relatively early and had a good view of the stage. It was not as crowded as I thought it would be, which probably made the experience more enjoyable than anything else. The falling burning embers from the torches were a sight to behold. As it was only the first day, only one torch was brought to the stage each time. Still, it was a nice atmosphere to be in.

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After the event, we headed up onto the stage to have a wander around. It was quite crowded upon the stage as almost everyone went up. We had a good view of the grounds from there, and also could see a number of security people wandering through making sure that none of the embers would set a fire to the stage. On the way back down, we did come across a pile of additional torches which were to be used over the following days. Each of these bamboo poles were over 6 metres long, much bigger than I thought it would be!

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We passed through a number of small shopping alleyways back towards our accommodation, and found another Katsu restaurant for dinner. I have kind of gotten sick of deep fried foods by this point, but we were quite tired and couldn’t be bothered finding an alternative! The food was pretty good however, as with most katsu restaurants in Japan. As most of the other shops were already closed, we headed back to our accommodation to rest for the night. There, Brownie and J.C. had a great game of Go, while I started planning for the train trips the next day. Another long day ahead tomorrow!

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Daily Expenditure

1) TRANSPORT
N/A [3 days in a row – score!]
JR Trains covered by JR
 National Pass

2) ACCOMMODATION
Guesthouse Sakuraya – 5,000 yen

3) FOOD
Breakfast from convenience store at Newdays KeiyoStreet Tokyo Station City– 385 yen [ham and egg muffin, hotcakes with jam and cream, chocolate melon bread]
Lunch at Nakau near Nara JR Station – 490 yen [large gyudon]
Dinner at Tonkatsu Ganko @ Higashimuki Shopping Arcade in Nara – 1,180 yen [katsu and friend oysters]

4) ATTRACTIONS
Horyuji temple entrance fee – 1,000 yen

5) OTHERS
Souvenir at Horyuji Temple – 1,000 yen [book]
Souvenir from Omizutori festival at Nigatsudo Hall – 100 yen [pamphlet]

TOTAL (cost for whole trip in brackets)
9,155 yen (531,520 yen total)

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2012 Japan Trip Day 31 – Nikko/Tokyo

Date of Travel: 29/02/2012

We woke up to an extremely cold morning in Tokyo. I opened the curtains and saw the reason why – it was snowing heavily outside! It made me extremely nervous of our plans for the day ahead, as we were planning a daytrip to Nikko. We decided to go ahead with our plan, as it was the only chance we had of visiting Nikko on this trip.

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The train from Mitaka to Tokyo station was significantly slower than the day before due to the snow. It usually would have only taken about 40 minutes, but ended up taking well over an hour. We hopped on a shinkansen which would take us to Utsunomiya Station, where we would transfer to another train to reach Nikko station. It was snowing even heavier at Utsunomiya. I could only imagine how heave the snow would be at Nikko!

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When we arrived at Nikko, we ate our lunch which we bought earlier before walking towards Toshogu Shrine. It was summer the last time I was in Nikko, and it was extremely hot and full of tourists – not so much this time.  Back then, a bus took us directly to the shrine, where else this time we walked there ourselves from the train station. It was a very different atmosphere this time, with the heavy snow and lack of tourists bringing a sense of solemn isolation to the place.

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We walked along a path to the east of the main approach to the shrine. We passed by Rinno-ji Temple along the way, which was under renovation. We headed west along the next junction, and stumbled across a beautiful snow-covered shrine surrounded by tall trees. It definitely ranks as one of the most memorable scenes from our whole trip to date. We continued west to reach the Five Storied Pagoda of Toshogu Shrine. I was definitely not used to seeing this area so quiet. Last time I was here, there were plenty of school children and tourists wandering around the place. I would say that the quietness and the snow really helped enforced the mystical and magical atmosphere.

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The entrance to the Toshogu shrine was up ahead. The shrine was famous for its carvings. One of which is the three monkeys (hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil). The many buildings around the ground were very grand. A lot of them were covered in gold leaf and plenty of carvings and miniature statues. The most famous is perhaps the Yomeimon Gate, which contains over 500 sculptures. Comparing this to the 1/10th model we saw back in Takayama, I must say that the model did a very good job capturing so many characteristics of the building.

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Towards the back of the shrine is the Nemurineko (Sleeping Cat) craving. It is said to be very life-like in appearance, though I wouldn’t say so as I almost missed it completely! There is a long path beyond this gate which led to the tomb of Tokugawa Ieyasu, who according to Japan-Guide is the founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate that ruled over Japan for 250 years until 1868. Surprisingly, the design of his tomb was very simple and basic – a sharp contrast to the other grand buildings scattered around the shrine grounds.

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After visiting the tomb, I slowly headed back to the shrine entrance. Once Brownie and J.C. finished exploring the place, we regrouped and caught a bus back to the train station as it started getting very cold. The bus was almost completely empty, demonstrating the lack of tourists present due to the heavy snow! Once reaching Nikko station, we hopped on a train back towards Tokyo.

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By the time we reached Tokyo, it was already dark. We switched trains and headed over to the Shinjuku district. We wandered around the Odakyu department store which was located directly over Shinjuku station looking for a place for dinner. A sure sign that we were in a big city is that it was difficult finding a place that had some tables available! Luckily we managed to find one in the end. After dinner, we explored the western part of Shinjuku, which is known as the Sky Scrapper district, before heading over to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Office building.

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Both of the building’s towers have observatories on the 45th floor which is free to visit. We went to the north tower since the south tower’s observatory was closed. To my surprise, there was a security check on the ground floor when entering the building. It was the first time we were searched in such fashion outside of airports. The view from the top was great, as it really showcased just how huge Tokyo was. However, the bright lines from inside the observatory made taking photographs difficult and annoying. There was also a toy store here selling a lot of popular goods like Ghibli, Hello Kitty, and popular anime series. It was still relatively early when we finished exploring the towers, but we were quite tired from the long train trip to Nikko and back. As such, we headed back to Mitaka to my friend’s place. Our plan for the next day was to return to Kansai for another night (specifically in Nara), which was a very stupid plan on our behalf. Since it was only for a night, we planned to leave our luggage at our friend’s house and pack everything we need in our daypacks. Once we finished packing, we headed off to sleep relatively early in preparation for the last round of long distance travel of our trip.

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Daily Expenditure

1) TRANSPORT
N/A [I can live with this!]
JR Trains covered by JR
 National Pass

2) ACCOMMODATION
N/A [Thanks to my friend!]

3) FOOD
Breakfast/lunch from convenience store – 2,025 yen [croquette bun, onigiri, sushi, umbrella]
Green tea at Nikko – 150 yen
Dinner at Tsunaan @ Shinjuku Odakyu Department Store – 1,418 yen [zarukatsudon set]

4) ATTRACTIONS
Toshogu Shrine entrance fee – 1,300 yen

5) OTHERS
Souvenir at Toshogu Shrine – 1,000 yen [book]
Ikamusume mini-figure at  Hakuhinkan @ Shinjuku Metropolitan Government Building – 682 yen

TOTAL (cost for whole trip in brackets)
6,575 yen (522,365 yen total)

2012 Japan Trip Day 30 – Kamakura

Date of Travel: 28/02/2012

We kicked-started the penultimate leg of our trip with an early start. We were definitely half asleep, as we ended up hopping on the shinkansen which does not accept JR Passes, and were caught by the conductor! Luckily he didn’t ask us to pay any fines. At least, we think he wasn’t going to. We hopped off the shinkansen at Kyoto anyway just in case! There, we finally got on the correct one and headed towards Tokyo Station. We dumped our luggage in coin lockers, and hopped on yet another train to Kamakura. Kamakura is known as the mini Kyoto of the East, as a large number of temples and shrines were spread out around the town. We had a quick walk around the main town area before having lunch.

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Our aim after lunch was to find the Tenen Hiking Trail. According to Japan-Guide, this walk contains several tomb caves, which sounded very interesting. To reach there, we headed through the Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine grounds. This shrine was located northeast along the main road from Kamakura station. The grounds were quite large and pleasant to walk through, but we did not spend much time here as we wanted to cover the Tenen Hiking Trail before it got dark. We reached Kenchoji Temple after following the main road heading west. We had a quick look around the place but could not find the start of the Tenen Hiking Trail! We ultimately gave up and decided to tackle the Daibutsu Hiking Trail instead.

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We continued west along the main road, then turned left. We thought we were going to reach the Jochi-ji temple, which was the starting point for the Daibutsu Hiking Trail. However, we soon crossed paths with the JR line, and immediately I knew that we were lost! We decided to continue down this path anyway since it would likely cross the hiking trail sooner or later! We ended up passing some tomb caves, a random cave with beautiful moss and fern leaves growing around its interior, and reached a temple. The temple (which I later found out was named Kaizo-ji) had some beautiful plum blossoms in full bloom, which I personally thought was prettier than those we saw back in Kyoto a few days prior. The temple was quite small but spacious, and we had a nice stroll around.

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We backtracked a bit before I finally figured out where we were! We were right next to Genjiyama Park, which also joins up with the Daibutsu Hiking Trail. We followed the path until we reached Zeniarai Benten. This is another popular shrine in Kamakura, where people visit to wash their money, which supposedly increases one’s wealth. The entrance to the complex, and the washing area itself, was amazingly built into the hills. It was a very unique shrine.

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After exploring the shrine, we continued along the hiking trail towards Kotokuin Temple. The trail mostly passed through forest areas, and offered great views of the town. There were quite a few squirrels scurrying about as well. Somewhere along the way, we all got separated from each other. Brownie rushed ahead, but took the wrong turn at the end and got lost. J.C. decided to take things slightly slower, and asked me to move on ahead. I thought that Brownie was well ahead of us, so I headed straight to the Kotokuin temple a couple hundred meters from the end of the hiking trail. In the end, I was the first one there!

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Kotokuin temple is famous for having the largest outdoor bronze Buddha statue (second largest bronze Buddha statue overall). It sits in the middle of the temple grounds, surrounded by other temple buildings. There were also large straw slippers being hung up, which is supposedly the size of the Buddha statue’s feet! After wandering about a bit more and regrouping with Brownie and J.C., we started heading back to the train station. We stopped by an ice cream parlour selling Kamakura’s specialty – sweet potato ice cream. It was not bad, though I was not used to having sweet potato flavour in my ice creams!

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After returning to Tokyo station and collecting our luggage from the coin lockers, we hopped on a train to Mitaka station, where we would be staying with a friend of mine for a few nights. The train was the most packed I have seen on my trip thus far. It was very awkward as well as we were having large items of baggage and took up quite a lot of space. I took a quick picture of the train carriage, though I do not think the other passengers were all too pleased about it! My friend met us at Mitaka station, we were had dinner nearby. We walked back to his place which was only a short 10-15 minute walk away, where we chatted for a while before getting some sleep after a relatively hectic day!

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Daily Expenditure

1) TRANSPORT
N/A [Yay~ saving money!]
JR Trains covered by JR National Pass

2) ACCOMMODATION
N/A […what really? It’s great to have friends you can count on when you are travelling!]

3) FOOD
Breakfast from Lawson @ Momodani – 293 yen [lemonade cream bun, strawberry sandwich]
Lunch at Kamakura – 730 yen [Yaki buta-don]
Sweet potato ice cream – 295 yen
Dinner at Mitaka JR Station – 590 yen [Tonkatsu]

4) ATTRACTIONS
Kotokuin Temple entrance fee – 200 yen

5) OTHERS
Coin locker at Tokyo station – 500 yen

TOTAL (cost for whole trip in brackets)
2,608 yen (515,790 yen total)

Random Fun 2 – Eyes Wide Open

Those who had visited my Youtube Channel featuring videos I had taken from Japan might have come across a video called “Eyes Wide Open“. This was a video I made as a trailer to my youtube channel, and features a compilation of videos I took during my trip. The song used in the video was composed entirely by myself under the alias of a virtual band “Contradicting Illusions“. I want to share my experiences and thoughts that went into the making of both the video and the song, which will hopefully help guide you to find your own inspiration for creativity.

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The virtual band logo I created back in 2005

REVIVAL OF CONTRADICTING ILLUSIONS

I had been writing music since 2004 using Guitar Pro, and gradually got better and better at it over the years. Since starting my second year of university in 2008 however, the opportunities I had to sit down and spend some hours composing new music had significantly decreased. In the meantime, I had started using the Vocaloid software (particularly the Hatsune Miku voice bank) to add vocals to my older compositions. During this time, my creativity ran completely dry, and I found it hard to compose anything new that I actually liked.

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My tools for creativity – guitar pro and Hatsune Miku’s Vocaloid voice bank

One of my goals of the 2012 trip to Japan was to get inspiration to compose new songs. I had a few ideas after visiting the Peace Museums in Nagasaki and Hiroshima (regarding war and its aftermath), and the Room of Living Dolls ride at Hep Five in Osaka (one based on horrors of life). The latter idea had grown into the “House of Living Dolls” project which is close to completion. However, I had wanted to write a song that reflects the feeling of traveling, but no matter what I did I couldn’t compose something I like.

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My virtual band’s current avatar on Google+ and Youtube, inspired by the Room of Living Doll attraction at Osaka Hep Five

FINDING INSPIRATION

For over a year since returning from my trip to Japan in 2012, I was very busy with my postgraduate research, attending local and international conferences, and conducting experimental work. During this time, I found very little inspiration to write songs. The only new song I managed to write was Empty Spaces, which I only got inspiration for by walking through a near empty carpark to my car at university (amazing the strangest ways to get inspiration for things). The rest I had published were modifications of past songs I’ve written. It wasn’t until my 2013 trip to Japan with my family did I manage to come up with something new. I think it was because I had just been there just over a year ago, and I didn’t do anything new as I was just showing my family around places I had already been. I also did not get up to anything stupid like I did with Brownie and J.C. The thrill and excitement from the year before was missing. It was only when I returned from my family trip and started comparing photos between the 2012 and 2013 trips did I realize the feelings and emotion that was missing, and immediately came up with lyrical ideas for Eyes Wide Open.

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You can even tell the difference in feeling and mood from the outcomes of my photos
(2012 on left, 2013 on right)

TRANSLATING EXPERIENCES TO WORDS

For most of the songs I had written up to this point, I usually started off with composing the backing tracks then fitting lyrics to match the mood and theme of the song. In this case however, I had trouble coming up with the basic music melody, so I started off with the lyrics instead. I must admit it is one of the sappiest songs I had written (and I’ve written plenty of sappy crap), but it is the most meaningful to me. The verses were by far the easiest part. The first verse was based on how excited we were to be traveling despite how absolutely tired we were majority of the time, and also our experiences in Sapporo and Otaru.

It’s time, my body wants to sleep
But my mind is awake, the excitement runs deep
The cold winter mornings, the streets covered in snow
The feeling of loneliness in this city of old

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The next verse was based on our eagerness to see as much of Japan as possible, which often lead to plenty of train rides to places that we had no idea what to expect. This was something I did not do on my family trip, as I cut down the amount of traveling to take an easier approach to the trip. We often looked forward to the next stop on our journey, no matter how much we missed the place we just left.

I pack my bags, I’m leaving this town
The train ride destination unknown
I feel I want to see something new
Goodbye to the world I have known

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The final verse was based on some of our experiences in Kyushu and Chugoku. It also reflected the nervousness of traveling knowing that one wrong move could end up getting us lost, injured, or even behind bars…not that we did anything that dodgy! I also reflected upon how much this trip helped me recover from anxiety issues, which I was diagnosed with a few months leading to our trip.

I sit by the sea watching the sunset
Hoping I don’t end up in a place of regret
I let the emotions succumb to the atmosphere
Let it wash away the worries of yesterday

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The toughest part was coming up with a chorus to tie it all together. In the end, what the trip did the most for me was changed the way I viewed the world. I gained a lot of experience from planning this trip, interacting with people I’ve never met, and finding myself in places I would never have dreamt I would go. In short, the trip helped me open my eyes to view the world differently.To cap it off, I was glad I went with my close friends Brownie and J.C., as the trip would not have been as fun without them!

Hey, now you’ve opened my eyes
Forever I will see the world in a brand new light
Just come with me
Forwards along this road of our own

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ITS ALL IN THE MELODY

Possibly the hardest part of writing this song was finding the key melody to match the lyrics and general feel of the song I was after. After having a think about it, I wanted something upbeat, yet ends with a bitter sweet sorrow once the melody ends. It would relate to us feeling excitement whenever we arrive at a new area, enjoying ourselves, then saying goodbye as we move on to the next place. I ended up drawing some inspiration from the theme to Chariots of Fire, which I was reminded about during the 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony. I also decided to use the koto soundbank available on Guitar Pro to give it a slight Japanese feel to the song.

UntitledThis was the main melody I settled for in the end

The next part was composing the tracks for the backing instruments. I wanted the backing tracks to slowly build up with time to reflect the experiences we gained with each new area we went to, before fading away at the end signalling the end of our trip. I intentionally made the song quite repetitive as I found that the tune was quite catchy and pleasant to listen to, and that once the song ended, I found myself left with a satisfied feeling, yet with some eagerness to listen to it again. It more or less matched our feeling when our trip ended. We were happy and amazed with what we managed to accomplish and knew it was time for the trip to end, yet felt like we wanted to go and do everything all over again.

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You can see just how the number of instruments builds up over time

Now, I am usually pretty horrible when it comes to writing guitar solos, but I felt that this song deserved one. I did not have a clear idea what I wanted from the solo, and I came up with several iterations. I ended up going with one that starts of pretty slow with plenty of long notes, before speeding up and playing higher notes with plenty of bends, hammer ons, and sliding. Pretty happy with the end result in the end, as I felt it did manage to capture the feeling of the built up and release of excitement very well.

UntitledMy finished attempt at a solo for the song!

THE VISUAL MEMORIES

The final part of the process was making the accompanying video to the song. I used a compilation of videos I had taken during the trip with my camcorder. The model I had was the HDR-PJ50 from Sony. The specs for it can be found on here. In addition to being a great camcorder, it was also able to take great photos in areas with bright light and in the daytime (not so well for night time). Majority of the photos on my blog were taken using this camcorder. The camcorder was also quite small and light, which made it quite easy to bring around.

HDR-PJ50This is an example of the same trusty model I used while in Japan

I went through my video collection, and selected one video for each main attraction/city/area we went to. I then selected about 4 seconds from each video which I could use, trim out the parts I did not want, then combined it all together on Windows Movie Maker. I tried to select videos that matches the lyrics where possible. It was very difficult and time consuming, but fun all the same.

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Be sure to check out my TaiaInJapan Youtube Channel to watch some of the videos I took during this trip!

EYES WIDE OPEN

After all the frustration of starting to lose my creativity in song writing, I realized just how much my trip to Japan has inspired me to pick it back up again. Since writing Eyes Wide Open, I had managed to write another 8 songs (some of which were clearly inspired by the Japan trip), with another one currently in the works to finish off my House of Living Dolls project. Sometimes all that is needed to reignite the flame of inspiration is to look at a few photographs, some old diary entries, or recall awesome memories. The trip to Japan has definitely opened my eyes to the world.

2012 Japan Trip Day 29 – Osaka

Date of Travel: 27/02/2012

One attraction which Osaka is quite well known for is its aquarium; Kaiyukan. I had initially hoped that we would arrive there and start exploring by 10am. However, we struggled to get up on time after being quite fatigued from our travels and the long previous day we had. We bought breakfast, ate some of it on the train, then ate the rest outside of Kaiyukan. By the time we finally got into the aquarium, it was past 11am. The grounds around the outside of the aquarium were nice and pleasant at least.

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The aquarium itself was amazing. It featured a massive central water tank that is 9m thick where the star attraction of the aquarium, the whale shark, and a number of other sharks and manta rays reside. In order to hold all this water in, the glass used for this particular tank is a foot thick! There were a large number of smaller exhibits surrounding the major tank, including otters, seals, dolphins, and even one with a capybara! We tried to make it to as many feeding times as possible, but there was just so many exhibits there was no way we could see all in one go.

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I started getting hungry just before 3pm, so I stopped by the aquarium café for some food. There wasn’t much available as it was quite late, so I went for some pretty terrible takoyaki. I’m guessing it had been sitting there for a few hours, so it was a bit stale. At least the view out to the harbour was pretty good!

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After the quick snack, I headed to the lower levels of the aquarium, which featured an exhibit of massive snow crabs and jellyfish. I waited for Brownie and J.C. at the exit for over half an hour as they got distracted by the otter feeding time. When we regrouped, there was not enough time to go explore the interior of Osaka Castle, which was our planned activity for the afternoon. Instead, since we were still quite hungry, we headed over to the adjoining mall for an early dinner.

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We found an Okonomiyaki restaurant at the mall, and it was the first time we had it since Hiroshima. It was delicious as always, but personally I still think that Hiroshima style is still better. Of course, in fear of getting punched in the face by proud Kansai locals, I never made it known to anyone else until we got to Tokyo! Only joking of course. The rest of the mall had very interesting shops, including one selling ninja goods, and a ninja themed room. J.C. had wanted to go for the ninja room, but as Brownie and I were still disappointed with the Room of Living Doll ride from the day before, we declined. On hindsight we should have gone, as it was one of the few times that J.C. had requested to do something. Fatigue probably had a hand in our decision at the time too. There was also a robot exhibition going on at the same time which we had a bit of fun at.

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After exploring the mall, we had a walk around the bay area. It was very quiet, though not surprising as the bay was located quite far out from the city centre and from residential areas. As there wasn’t really much to do, we hopped on a train back towards our accommodation to pack in preparation for one of the earliest starts of our trip the next day. On the way back however, we had a change of plans and decided to walk around the Osaka Castle grounds instead. The park surrounding the castle was larger than I thought. I was surprised that we were about to walk up right to the base of the castle. In many countries, especially in Europe, the castle would probably be covered in graffiti if there was an absence of security such as this. Just goes to show how well behaved Japan is as a society. Complete contrast to Brownie, who was hiding in the shadows for a good few minutes just to jump scare me with J.C.’s help! Damn hooligans!

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After our quick visit to Osaka Castle, we finally headed back to our hostel. We were a bit hungry however because of our early dinner, so we stopped by Lawsons again for some snacks and ice cream. Our scheduled plan for the penultimate leg of our trip was the most frantic, and so we headed to bed early. With that, our short return to Kansai came to an end.

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Daily Expenditure

1) TRANSPORT
Subway from Bentencho Station to Osakako Station – 230 yen
Subway from Osakako Station to Morinomiya Station – 270 yen
JR Trains covered by JR National Pass

2) ACCOMMODATION
Bonsai Guesthouse – 3,000 yen

3) FOOD
Breakfast from Lawson @ Momodani – 400 yen [teriyaki burger, chicken onigiri, strawberry sandwich]
Takoyaki at Osaka Aquarium (Kaiyukan) – 480 yen
Dinner at 鶴橋風月 @ Kaiyukan Marketplace – 780 yen [Okonomiyaki]
Supper from Lawson @ Momodani – 413 yen [Salmon rice ball and 2 types of ice cream]

4) ATTRACTIONS
Kaiyukan (Osaka Aquarium) entrance fee – 2,000 yen

5) OTHERS
Souvenir from Kaiyukan – 1,190 yen [Tiger whale chain and capybara toy]

TOTAL (cost for whole trip in brackets)
8,763 yen (513,182 yen total)

Total Cost of Kansai (revisited) Leg
25,542 yen (8,514 yen per day)

2012 Japan Trip Day 28 – Osaka

Date of Travel: 26/02/2012

We planned to meet one of J.C.’s friends today at about 10am. As we didn’t have anything planned before that, we took the chance to have a sleep-in (well…if you call 9am a sleep-in that is…). We quickly headed down the road to Lawsons at about 9:30am to buy breakfast and headed back to the hostel to eat. To our surprise, J.C.’s friend was waiting for us when we returned! It was a bit awkward spending the first few minutes eating in front of them when Brownie and I just met them! But they were pretty cool about it thankfully!

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Our first stop of the day was at Shitennoji Temple, which was located about 20 minutes away. The temple itself wasn’t that grand, as the temple was quite old. Nonetheless the ground was very spacious and the landscaping was attractive, as is the case for most temples around Japan. It was also the first temple that we were free to roam around in since leaving Nagasaki, so it was nice getting back to the activities we kick-started our Japan trip with. It was also the first time we had climbed up a pagoda in Japan. It was only 5 stories high and did not have that great a view, but it was nice seeing how the architecture was like on the interior.

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Next stop was the Gokuraku-jodo Garden, which was located a short walk away from Shitennoji Temple. The building itself was reminiscent of Nijo Castle in Kyoto. The vegetation here was quite different to those we had encountered in other parts of Japan. We had a nice walk among the greenery surrounding the interior lake. It is still hard to believe that we are still right in the middle of the 3rd largest city in Japan considering how quiet and peaceful the garden and temple grounds were.

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Shortly after, we started heading towards the Shinsekai district for lunch, which was located another 10-15 minutes away from the temple grounds. It was quite an interesting walk along the way, passing by fire stations, other buildings with interesting architecture, and the Tsutenkaku Tower looming in the distance. This was a district was once upon a time seen as the centre of growth in Osaka (Shinsekai means “New World”), but other parts of Osaka has risen in dominance since. The gloomy appearance of the tower is a constant reminder of what could have been in years past.

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One of Osaka’s many food specialties is Kushikatsu. It is basically “deep fried everything you can think off”. It is surprisingly popular, as we saw by a massive queue into such a shop. In addition to the usual deep fried seafood and meat, there were deep fried onion, cheese, lotus root, asparagus, tomatoes and more. J.C.’s friend brought us to one of those places for lunch. Can’t say I am a fan, as despite the amount of deep fried meals I had throughout this trip, I actually dislike deep fried food as I just feel like complete crap after having it. Having a meal comprising almost completely of deep friend food was way too much for me. Luckily they had also ordered Yakisoba and a delicious egg and pork dish called tonpeiyaki, so it wasn’t all bad.

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After lunch, we explored the Shinsekai area together with J.C.’s friend. The place was very lively and colourful; a bit like Dotonbori from the night before. As with Dotonbori, many of these buildings had very interesting exterior decoration. There were small interesting alleyways around the place, featuring heart locks (for couples to declare their love) and a place to play shogi and go. After exploring for a while, J.C.’s friend wanted to bring us up to the top of the Tsutenkaku Tower. However, there was a thirty minute waiting time in the queue. There were still many things we wanted to do in the afternoon, so we had to decline their offer. We felt bad about it too as they had been so nice to us. Thankfully they understood and offered to travel with us to the Umeda district before parting ways.

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Umeda is one of the busiest areas in the whole of Osaka. A large number of high rise buildings and shopping malls are located here. The first order of the afternoon for me was a short stop at Yodabashi Camera to see if I could find a new pair of headphones (as mine broke sometime on our trip between Ogimachi and Takayama). Afterwards, we headed up to the main walkway leading out from Osaka JR station and had a great view of the area. On there, we spotted a mall with a ferris wheel and decided to have a look. We eventually found the mall (Hep Five) and spent a while exploring it while waiting for the sun to start setting outside. It had large whale sculptures hanging over the ground which was a bit intimidating but awesome all the same. Brownie was getting a bit of a headache so we stopped by an ice cream parlour for a quick snack. Luckily he recovered very quickly afterwards!

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Once it started getting darker, we started walking towards the Umeda Sky Building. The walk there was interesting, as we really got a feel for how built-up Osaka was compared to the many cities and towns we had visited recently. Part of the walk was along the train lines, which gave us the opportunity to take some photos. There was also an automated carpark, which I had not seen up close and personal before.

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The grounds around the Umeda Sky Building were very modern and spacious. There weren’t many people present since a lot were still at work and that this area was more of an office district compared to the area closer to the Osaka JR Station. We took a look upwards to see how high the observatory was before heading upwards.

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To get to the observatory, we had to take an elevator up to the 35th floor. From there, we took a glass escalator up a further 4 floors. The view from the 39th floor was reasonable, though the reflection of the interior lights against the windows was annoying. Luckily, as the weather was good, we were allowed to go up to the roof. Interestingly, the roof was lighted up by a strange glow-in-the-dark light, where anything white reflected back blue light. We had some fun trying to take creative photos with this light. There was also a corner with more heart locks for couples.

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Needless to say, the view from the roof was amazing. In addition to that, the sound of liveliness of the city really added to the atmosphere. The amount of high-rise and skyscrapers was amazing, especially coming from Christchurch where you could probably count the number of buildings over 10 stories high with your fingers. I also spotted a building where part of a bridge passes through it (top right photo). It was an amazing feat of engineering, though I would not want to be based on that building.

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We headed down from the observatory and observed the nearby grounds. There was a fountain display that was quite attractive, and a garden located at basement level. The modern feel of the place was a sharp contrast to the old temple grounds we encountered earlier in the day. This is one of the reasons why I just love Japan, as the old and the new seem to integrate together seamlessly.

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The basement itself was interesting, as it featured dozens of restaurants which were set up as if it was an old alleyway reminiscent of Gion in Kyoto or the Chaya districts in Kanazawa. It had a miniature shrine, vehicles that were used in the day, paved floors, strange displays, and fake building exteriors. It was done really well. Unfortunately we could not find something which we wanted to eat at a reasonable price, so we decided to head back to the Umeda train station for dinner. Funnily enough, we actually found a shortcut that went under the train tracks we saw earlier in the afternoon that took us back to the Umeda station area a lot quicker than before.

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Since Hep Five was close by, we decided to head back there for dinner. A lot of the restaurants were packed, but luckily we managed to find one with some tables that wasn’t too expensive. While having dinner, we started discussing what we wanted to do after. I picked up a pamphlet earlier in the day for the arcade on the upper floors of Hep Five, and saw that they had a ride called “Room of Living Dolls”. I jokingly suggested that we should go as I thought that J.C. would not be keen on horror related stuff. But surprisingly, J.C. agreed to it in a heartbeat. As such, we headed upstairs to the arcade to try the ride.

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We had no idea what to expect for the ride. The person in charge of the ride asked which room we wanted. We had no idea, so we asked which was scarier. He then led us to a dark room surrounded by creepy dolls, and we were asked to sit down and put headphones on. He then turned off the light and exited the room. We then listened to an elderly woman speak. It was quite well done as it felt like the woman was actually speaking right in our ears, and moving around in the room. But then all hell broke loose when the lights in the room started flickering and large thunder sounds burst through the headphones. It was really deafening. Unfortunately, we had no idea what the woman was saying as it was in Japanese, but soon there were loud bloody screams and yelling, and the sound of something cutting up something else. At one stage, the sound was too loud so I took off my headphones momentarily. I then heard in the background “Somebody I used to know” by Gotye. I had wondered at that moment whether it was signalling that I was never going to step foot outside of this room ever again! Nothing much was happening during the ride, so I started pushing Brownie, who in turn decided to start pushing J.C., who thought that there was a robotic arm actually pushing him and was frozen in fear! After one final blood hurling scream, the chairs suddenly dropped and moved towards the table, and the ride was over. We walked out feeling somewhat disappointed to be honest, as we were expecting an actual haunted house or room that we had read up online before going on this trip. But nonetheless it was a great story to tell! We wandered around the arcade for a few more minutes before calling it a day and headed back to the hostel.

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Daily Expenditure

1) TRANSPORT
Subway from Dobutsuen-mae to Umeda – 230 yen
JR Trains covered by JR National Pass

2) ACCOMMODATION
Bonsai Guesthouse – 3,000 yen

3) FOOD
Breakfast from Lawson @ Momodani – 441 yen [green tea cream bun, sakura flavour red bean bun, water]
Green tea ice cream @ Hep Five – 320 yen
Dinner at some Udon Restaurant (replaced by Korean restaurant) @ Hep Five 7th floor – 780 yen [Curry udon and oyako-don set]
Lunch shouted by J.C.’s friend

4) ATTRACTIONS
Umeda Sky Building entrance fee – 700 yen

5) OTHERS
Earphones from Yodabashi Umeda – 2,510 yen
Souvenir from Umeda Sky Building – 780 yen [little doll]
Room of Living Doll ride at Hep Five Joypolis – 600 yen

TOTAL (cost for whole trip in brackets)
9,361 yen (504,419 yen total)

2012 Japan Trip Day 27 – Kyoto/Osaka

Date of Travel: 25/02/2012

The rain had returned on the final morning we were in Takayama. There were a few last minute souvenir shopping we wanted to do before we left so we split up again. I returned back to the morning market near Takayama Jinya before having a quick walk through the Old Town back to the hostel. We regrouped at the hostel and headed to the Takayama JR Station. The shop Brownie and J.C. wanted to go to was closed earlier, so they rushed back to see if it had since opened but unfortunately they didn’t have any luck.

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Next city on our itinerary was one we had already visited – Kyoto. We were going to stop by for a couple of hours to observe the Plum Blossom Festival in Kitano Tenmangu Shrine. The trip took about 3.5 hours by train. As such, we bought enough food in Takayama for breakfast and lunch to save us the trouble of looking for food once we arrived in Kyoto. When we arrived in Kyoto, J.C. and I found some large coin lockers available to leave our luggage. Brownie unfortunately was unable to find one, but he did find a security room that stores baggage for a cheaper price! Note to all reading this – if you want to leave large items of baggage in Kyoto for a day, leave it at the baggage storage room, not the coin lockers! Coin lockers however are cheaper for smaller luggage items.

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We took a subway from Kyoto JR station to Imadegawa station, and walked to Kitano Tenmangu. I had underestimated the distance between the two locations, but the walk in between was a good refresher that we were back in a big city. When we arrived, we found ourselves among a large crowd mingling at the flea market held at Kitano Tenmangu on the 25th of every month. We decided to skip the stalls for now and head to the Shrine complex.

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The highlight of the Plum Blossom Festival features an elaborate tea ceremony which we did not participate in. Rather, we observed it from a distance, and also explored the surroundings. There were dozens of Maiko (kimono girls) serving tea to those who had purchased tickets earlier in the day. It wasn’t the first time we had encountered Maiko on this trip, but it was the first time we were able to get decent photo opportunities of them.

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Throughout the ground lie a number of bull statues. Like with that other creepy statue we had encountered at Todaiji Temple in Nara, rubbing the bull supposedly heals any ailments the person might have at the respective body part. There were also beautiful lion statues surrounded by plum blossom trees.

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The Kitano Tenmangu shrine itself was larger than I thought it would be. It was perhaps one of the largest shrine buildings we had encountered on our trip thus far. There was an extremely long queue of people lining up to pay their respects to the shrine. There were smaller shrines and numerous tori gates littered around the ground as well, and it was quite enjoyable walking through and exploring everything. The rain let up as well thankfully! There were plum grooves around the back of the ground which we had considered visiting, but as we could see that a number of plum blossom trees had not yet blossomed, we decided against it. There were still the odd tree present that had fully bloomed which was beautiful.

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We had a slower walk through the flea market after finishing up at the shrine. These stalls brought back memories of similar flea markets back in the countries I grew up in when I was a child. Most of these stalls were selling food, though some were selling toys/masks/clothes etc. There was a creepy one selling idol goods, including adult only items. It was funny how everyone was walking so closely together, but when it came to that dodgy shop, people crowded away from the shop, so there was about a half meter radius of empty space around that shop!

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On the way back, we were deciding if we had wanted to take a bus back to the JR station. That would have saved us about a quarter of an hour so that we can move on to our next destination sooner. When we bus came however, we saw how crowded it was and decided to walk back to the subway instead instead! We were a bit hungry however, so we stopped by 7-11 along the way. I wasn’t hungry for a meal, but rather some desert. As such I bought a fabulous cup of cookie and cream ice cream, which was delicious!

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When we arrived back at the Kyoto train station, we took the time to take a few more photos of the amazing architecture. After spending so much of our time here earlier in the trip, we did have a nostalgic feeling, especially after thinking about what we had experienced and accomplished on this trip since leaving Kyoto about 3 weeks ago. It would be the last time we step foot outside of the ticket gates at this station, so we stood around to soak in the atmosphere one final time before collecting our luggage and heading to our next destination – Osaka.

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We arrived in Osaka quite late, and it took us a while to find our accommodation at Bonsai Guest Houses near the Momodani train station. We ended up getting lost as well as we walked out the wrong exit at the station! We checked in, left our luggage in our room, rested for a while, and then headed off to get dinner.

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We found a decent place for dinner near the accommodation. It was one of those places that we ordered using a vending machine. It has been a while since we used one of those! Food came out quick as usual in these places, and damn it was good. After dinner, we headed back to the station to catch a train to the famous night time district of Osaka at Dotonbori. Along the way, we spotted a poor cat who was stuck under the platform at the train station! Poor thing D:

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For those who are unfamiliar with Dotonbori, it is the site of the famous Glica neon sign. We walked along the canal which was lined by rows of such signs. J.C. did note that it was the first time on this trip we had encountered quite a lot of rubbish lying around on the ground. Still better than most places in the world, but enough for people to take note of.

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Dotonbori was filled with interesting characters we had not yet encountered throughout the trip. For example, we came across a group of what appeared to be guy hosts (or at least it appeared that way). The main street itself was lined with colourful neon signs and interesting exterior decorations. It was a sharp contrast to what we had experienced thus far on this trip. And I suppose it should. Osaka is the biggest city we had been in thus far. The bright lights definitely added to the liveliness of the place, and it was refreshing being surrounded by so many people for the first time since leaving Sapporo.

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Walking back towards the train station, we came across a very strange building exterior, where strange heads on short legs were used to support columns. Personally, those heads creep me out! There were several small displays at the train station which we had a quick look at, then noticed that a large group of youths were out breakdancing just outside the station. We went and watched for a good 20 minutes. Most of them weren’t any good (I’m one to talk – I suck too), but it was a sight we had not seen much of thus far in Japan. Just behind us were large overhead bridges towering above. It definitely hit home that we were no longer in laid-back Takayama. We headed back to the hostel shortly after for a good sleep after one of the more exhausting days in a while.

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Daily Expenditure

1) TRANSPORT
Subway from Kyoto JR Station to Imagawa Station – 250 yen
Imagawa Station to Kyoto JR Station – 250 yen
JR Trains covered by JR National Pass

2) ACCOMMODATION
Bonsai Guesthouse – 3,000 yen

3) FOOD
Breakfast/Lunch – 800 yen [Onigiri, melon custard bread, chilli dog, sandwich, chocolate croissant]
Water – 240 yen [one of the vending machines ate my money – turns out it was out-of-order]
Ice cream at 7-11Kyotokamishichiken – 268 yen
Dinner at Meshiya Miyamoto Munashi @ Momodani Station– 590 [Prawn Katsu]

4) ATTRACTIONS
N/A ~all free~

5) OTHERS
Souvenirs from Takayama – 1,420 yen [String ball thing, 3D glass Takayama festival float]
Coin locker at Kyoto station – 600 yen

TOTAL (cost for whole trip in brackets)
7,418 yen (495,058 yen total)