How I went to Japan and how I left…

It was March 2007 when I first visited Japan. It was a very short trip. We visited Osaka first, and then Tokyo and some other cities like most other tourists would do when they visit Japan for the first time. Growing up, I have always been familiar with Japanese food and culture although not very deeply, but to some certain degree. And for some reasons, I was not very interested Japan but instead I always found myself going to English-speaking countries for home stay or go somewhere far away to travel.

In that very short trip, I met a girl on a bus in Osaka. She was in a senior year of an international university in Kyushu, the southernmost island of Japan. Since she was also from Thailand, we greeted and chatted a little. She told me she received a scholarship from her university and that Japan is great. She encouraged me to apply to her school. It sounded to me like a good opportunity. Although I had zero knowledge about Japan, during that trip, I realized Japan was probably the cleanest, safest, and probably one of the most beautiful countries I have ever been to. And that was only the first impression I had of Japan which followed by thousands of things I love about the country during my almost 6 years there. I also noticed how good the service was. I felt very welcomed during that visit. I was impressed with how polite people were and how unbelievably organized everything looked and not to mention so many unique things I had never seen anywhere else. There were just so many places and things that are beautiful and also very different. The beautiful sakura, the shrines and temples, Maiko-san on streets, vending machine in every corner, the cool toilet (!) and so on.When I returned home, I applied to her university and I was very fortunate to receive a 100% scholarship from the university. My university is called Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University (APU). It is an international university in a very small city called Beppu located in Oita prefecture – the city of onsens (hot springs). I took the chance and went to Japan. I was 17 years old, fresh out of high school just two weeks before I left for Japan.

I am not going to mention much about how I adjusted to the life there but like other people, I struggled for a couple of years trying to learn the language and culture and figuring out how everything works in Japan. I remember some of my first incidents in Japan were using a cooking sake (alcohol) as cooking oil, using mochi instead of normal white rice, carrying my bed across town with my friends when I was moving out, etc. When that period was over (although there were always things I had to struggle with :P), it was mostly the fun part. I explored the country, met new people, and just simply let myself experience.

I moved to Chiba after I finished all my credits in fourth year first semester to find a job. Although, everyone warned me working in Japan is not easy, I decided to take the challenge. After so many hand-written resumes, web tests and interviews, I received a job offer. Then, I changed my visa, moved to Tokyo and started working! And yes, like what people had warned me, I encountered several hardships that I considered that time to be one of the toughest times I had in my life. When the first company did not work out, I tried to change my job. It is not easy to change job in Japan as a new graduate but I was determined to get out of the situation I was in, and so I did. After two months working in the first company, I received a job offer from a very big and well-known Japanese company. I thought things were going to be alright finally but before it even go anywhere, things were just really wrong. I was fired right after I told my first company my plan to quit, I was asked to move out of the company’s dorm, I had an accident in the middle of a mall in Shinjuku and was rushed to hospital, I could barely walk, I became completely broke, and so on. It was a very rough time but I got through it and after all that, I think I definitely added a few layers on my skin for sure. Like they say, life is a struggle. All in all, it was a good learning experience. What can I say? I became salary woman in Japan and also a real shakaijin (社会人- working adult)!

After that, I moved to Yokohama and commuted to my new office in Tokyo every day. From my office I could see the beautiful Mt. Fuji view every morning. The new company was great, everyone was nice, things were right again. Then, they moved me to Osaka. The workplace and the people were completely different. People are more casual and fun. Everybody has some sort of energy which I tend to think it’s only-in-Kansai. They are fun, energetic and have a strong Kansai dialect that I got used to after a little while. In Osaka, I woke up to a buffet breakfast provided by my company, I walked 10 minutes to work, and then when I finished working, I went out and then I came home to a nice hot bath. What could be better than that? My weekend schedules were also full of travel plans to other cities in Kansai areas and even a farther trip to Okinawa and others. I had the best time!

Then, I decided to further my studies since I have always wanted to do so. This reason, along with some issues just made me go for the graduate school plan. I chose to come to Bristol, UK for my master degree. After so many years, I decided to leave which was a very hard decision but I knew it is not going to be forever (hopefully). Japan has given me so much from the start. It is one place I feel like home in many ways. One way I like to see it is that part of me grew up there. I may have become the third culture kid who understands the culture while also choosing to follow and not follow some of the traditions but I guess that’s the whole purpose to go live abroad which is to broaden your horizon and become an open-minded person.

I have been putting off writing out me leaving Japan for a long time because I simply wanted to spend time with people I knew I was going to miss and do things I knew I couldn’t do here. On top of that, I was overwhelmed with UK visa application and things I had to do before leaving Japan. If you noticed, I also didn’t go into details of many stories but maybe I can write more into it later.

So I am here in Bristol for a few weeks now. School has already started. I don’t know many people, or where to go, what to do, what to eat and others. I am still homesick. There are just millions of things I miss about living in Japan…but the main things are probably the food and people, even Thai food in Japan is quite authentic enough that it rarely let me down. The only things I don’t think I miss are those typhoons and earthquakes…and maybe morning trains on rush hours. 😛 Although wanting to go back every day, I am here now and I intend to not forget what I am here for and make this time the best. So…may new the adventure begins! 🙂

As for this blog, I will definitely continue writing more about Japan since I have so many posts in the drafts already and I may as well update you on how I am over here sometimes.

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One of the hottest day in Tokyo this year (you can probably tell).
Taken with my best friends in Sensoji temple, Asakusa(浅草寺、浅草).

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My Last Trip in Kansai (for a while) – Universal Studio Japan

I moved to Osaka in April which is very recently but I am leaving Kansai (関西)soon in less than 2 weeks. Time flies when you’re having fun! I have ended things with my company peacefully and about to move back to Tokyo before moving…again. But that is another story for later.

In Osaka, I live one station from Universal Studio. Believe it or not, it is even within a walking distance. So, I saved this place for last.

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My coworker has a platinum year pass (year pass = nenkan pasu年間パス) for Universal Studio Japan (USJ), a pass that allows unlimited entrance for a year with some exceptions of New Year count down or additional fees for some special shows. With this pass, he can reserve seats for shows or new attractions before other people and receive some other privileged deals. That day, he was also able to get us discount tickets for 1 day pass (400 yen off – better than nothing!). The normal price for 1 day pass is 6,600 yen so in case you live in Osaka area, a year pass is much better than a 1 day pass. Gold year pass (スタジオゴールドパス) is 15,800 yen and platinum year pass (スタジオプラチナパス) is 22,800 yen (adult price). The differences between these two are the limitation and privileges. There are also express passes for attractions so you do not have to wait hours to ride on one attraction. However, it is an addition from the regular entrance fee.

Details on year pass -> Here!

Details on 1 day, 2 day and express passes -> Here!

For those coming from abroad, some travel companies do offer cheaper day pass. For example, this website offers discount tickets with further credit on their app download (Apple, Android – Input L2AI9 when downloading the app for bonus credits). For details of the pass, click here!

20130610-153248.jpgWe got there early in the morning. USJ opens at 9 am but they would usually open the gate about 30 minutes before. Since we live close by, we were able to get there very early and got our tickets. It was an extremely HOT day in Osaka! The sun was so bright I knew I was going to burn in the day out there.

20130610-153239.jpgWe got in and played a few fun attractions such as Jaw, Jurassic Park、and Back to the Future.;) There were not that many people since everyone were lining up for the newest attraction called ‘Back Drop’ (バックドロップ) which is a roller coaster in which you ride backward! The waiting time there was about 260 minutes so we gave up on that one.

Then, we walked around and took lots of pictures. The whole place was lively and fun despite the sun. I got my kiss with Spiderman! 😛 This and many other sets are scenes for people to take picture by the staff and if you like it, you can buy the picture, mostly for 1,500 yen each.

There were shows scheduled for many times of the day. We got to see so many fascinating outdoor shows! The staff told us to put our UV umbrellas away. …NOOO! My coworker’s phone was even too hot to be used. We were so surprised to see a message on his phone saying something like ‘気温が高すぎる’ (the temperature is too hot).

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One show I found myself praying for the man’s safe landing.
He was doing jump roping in the air!

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Besides attractions and shows, there are arcades and game booths all over the place. We all played lotto game for souvenirs. Each draw is 500 yen for one item. My poor lovely friend got an outdoor mat two times in a row! They wrote in the lotto as ‘レジャーシート’ which literally translates to ‘leisure sheet’. What a great way to make it sound better! 😛 For me, I got a small mascot doll and a bath towel.

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Besides our fun times playing games, I went around observing and cheering on little kids determined to win a prize. 🙂

20130610-153417.jpgWe also got to see Kitty! This was very funny. We went into Hello Kitty house full of little kids. They taught us to say ‘Kitty’ when they say ‘Hello’ = HELLO -> KITTY! They made the scene as if we were meeting a Hollywood star in her house which is a huge privilege…in this case, it was Kitty-chan. 😀

After walking till noon, we had lunch at Jurassic Park restaurant. It was great but not exactly what we thought dinosaurs would eat. We had so much food throughout the day: caramel popcorn, churros, pretzels, etc.

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My friend got sick after eating so much and took a ride. Luckily, there is a first aid room so we got her to lie down for an hour while we went on a roller coaster called ‘Hollywood Dream’. After a bit of rest, she was fine after. 🙂

There are just so many fun attractions inside USJ. We also got to see WaterWorld show, Rock n Roll show, The Terminator, some 4Ds attractions like Shrek and many others. All day till the night parade, we went on every attraction except the Snoopy and some kids’ ride.

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The night parade was pretty awesome! So many characters we all familiar with. Some were Disney characters…yes, I was surprised as you all probably are right now, too. 🙂

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After that, we had a few more snacks and walked home! Had a great time.

Universal Studio website:

http://www.usj.co.jp/e/ (English page)

http://www.usj.co.jp/ (Japanese page)

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I haven’t got a chance to smile. The photographer took a shot too fast!

A Weekend in Okinawa (沖縄)

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Traveling is one thing I can say I would invest on when I have the time, chance and some pocket money. A lot of people have asked if I am a secret agent, rich or if I am a professional traveler but I am none of that (although the last one sounds amazing). I started traveling since I was little as much as I can to broaden my horizon and to fulfill my own little curiosity. I prefer to spend some time in a certain place than a couple of days in order to really experience what the place is all about but that, of course, always up to time, money and for sure, some luck.

That say, this time I had a special 3-day-weekend holiday, a department holiday which is although short, I decided to spend this holiday on the beach and explore another interesting place I had never been in Japan – Okinawa.

Okinawa (沖縄) is a prefecture with group of islands located in the southernmost of Japan. The islands can be grouped into three: Okinawa islands where the main island (本島) with its capital, Naha (那覇市) is, Miyako islands (宮古島), and Yayeyama islands (八重島). It is also a site for American military bases even after WWII. It is said to be the Hawaii of Japan. Okinawa is also known as Ryukyu islands for its own culture, art, and language of the Ryukyu native culture which is very interesting.

I planned the trip quickly right after my move to Osaka in April. I got a package from HIS, paid for the trip, and then prayed for the good weather. May is supposed to be a rainy season in Okinawa which starts earlier than other parts of Japan. After May, it is the typhoon season which may easily blows off my plans. Whichever the case, May 24th – 26th was the travel date, and it was all set! I kept checking the weather and it seemed to be raining almost everyday but then suddenly, the weather for Friday May 24th changed to cloudy. I was very lucky. The weather was nice the entire trip. 🙂

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Our hotel is located in Onna-son(恩納村)or Onna village in the main island of Okinawa (本島 Hon-to) which is around an hour by bus from Naha airport (那覇空港). We flew from Kansai airport which took around 2 hours. We got to the hotel in early afternoon and the first thing we did after checking in was finding information on marine sports. We went out snorkeling just half an hour after we arrived. Our hotel is called ‘Hotel Moon Beach’; it is a beautiful resort with various marine activities and a warm indoor pool.

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This was the first time I went snorkeling with a wet suit. I was quite surprised since in Thailand, we never have to wear one except for diving. 画像 2522The fish in Andaman sea of Thailand are visible even within one meter deep water (I miss Thai beaches!). We got all the equipments, and then they started explaining how to use them. Then, we got out to the sea! The water was unexpectedly cold…like Titanic-cold as I am so used to the warm water in Thailand. The wave was quite strong. We got out and started snorkeling…so much fish life! We gave out some bread, saw more fish, and then back to the port. It was quite an exercise but definitely fun! Our hotel offers so many marine sports such as diving, para-sailing, snorkeling, canoe, and something called fly boat & so much more!

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Cool, isn’t it?

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Snorkeling time 🙂

We went out to dinner that day at an Okinawan food restaurant called がちまい(Gachimai). I found the food to be quite different from everywhere else in Japan. The variety of food and drinks were interesting. I had more than just a fun time trying all the food and drinks. 😉 The guava drink, the famous shikuasa drink (シークワーサー), and so much more yummy things that should be sold widely in Japan!

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Yummy fried crabs

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Okinawa-only ice creams

Not only the food I found different, it was the people and the dialect, too. めんそれー!(Mensore) meaning welcome as in general Japan would say いらっしゃいませ(irasshaimase) was visible almost every tourist places I went. 画像 2642The people, too, looked different from Japanese people in general. Some of them even looked like foreigners. I have heard that Okinawa people or Okinawans are actually native Ryukyu people with different cultures and dialect they had formed way before Okinawa islands became part of Japan. I do not know much about this but it is very interesting and I would definitely find out more about it.

The next day, I visited Ryukyu Village (琉球村) to explore more into the Okinawan culture. We took a taxi from our hotel for about 15 minutes.

When got there just in time for Ryukyu dance show. There was a parade, song, and then a dance I had never seen before. They used some kind of wooden instrument to make sound when dancing. Their heads and faces were so still… After the dance, they all got us dancing, too!

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We had the famous そーきそば (so-ki soba) there. It is a famous Okinawa soba with pork and flat yellow soba. The pork was so soft and tender…delicious!画像 2598

Inside the village, there were small cottages with some exhibitions in each one, for example, silk making, Okinawan musical instrument, pottery, and others. All of this, you can pay a small fee and do a trial session by yourself. Then, there were the famous water buffaloes which is quite unusual to be seen in Japan and then some goats! We explored a bit and got back to the hotel. I saw later at night that the hotel also offers a day trip to 4 different places with one lunch meal and the cost is only 4,700 yen. This is definitely worth it if you want to visit many places.

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After Ryukyu village, we got back and went out on a dragon boat (ドラゴンボート)! I am not quite sure about the difference between a dragon boat and a banana boat. In other places, it is called banana boat, a boat people ride with the intention of the driver to make it flip so that people fall into the water. However, the banana boat has only one row while dragon boat has two. So I guess that is the difference.

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Our tour package includes a buffet Yakiniku (焼肉) dinner at Okinawa Beer Garden (沖縄ビール園). What could be better than this? I couldn’t think of any. A guy from the restaurant picked us up by car to the beer garden. That good thing about this place is the free pick up. Then, everything went pretty quickly…next thing we knew, we were strolling on the street in front of the hotel trying exercise a bit after a huge meal.

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The next morning was the last day. We had the buffet breakfast, headed out for a walk on the beach and left for the airport. We had a wonderful time. Definitely a great place to visit. There are so many places in the main island to visit such as Nago pineapple park, Churaumi aquarium, Ryugujo butterfly garden, and so much more. Next time, I would love to go to other islands in Okinawa especially Ishigaki island (石垣島), an island a bit far from the main one with deep blue ocean. 😉 Time was limited, but it was a great trip.

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Airport Okinawa themed Purikura

More information on Okinawa

Travel guides:

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Late Night Conbini Run – 11PM Opening, First 50 Customers

How many of you can say you have been to a convenient store ‘Grand opening’…at 11 pm at night?

I don’t think there are many of us who have done so.

I live in my company’s dorm in Osaka not so far from the company, close enough for me to walk to work everyday. It is a pretty fancy place but that’s another story for another post. The area around the place I live is mostly covered by my company’s facilities: our office, factories, hospital, dorms, employees club, gym and other facilities. So, besides these, there are not many things despite being located only one stop from Universal Studio. No McDonald’s, no Starbucks, forget about walking in a mall after work. Thus; when something new opens around here, we all get excited (I guess?).

This time, it’s a convenient store – Family Mart! Convenient store = Conbini コンビニ in Japanese, shortened from コンビニエンスストアwhich is a direct katakana translation from English. This new Family Mart is right in front of my company. It was built and decorated in less than a month. Then, when it’s finished, they put up a sign ‘OPEN 5/22 at 11PM – First 50 CUSTOMERS GET FREE PRIZES!’ We saw a lot of people stopping to read that sign and we got interested, so we set up a goal to be one of those 50 first dates customers! As odd as this may sound, this is probably one of the funniest moments since I’ve been in Japan and one I’ll remember…

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Something to do before going out to get the prizes!

9:30 PM, we gathered at one of my coworkers’ house right next to the new Family Mart. While waiting for the time to come, we managed to snack ourselves, laughed, and played Wii!! 😀

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Some snacks for the Wii night.
POPCORN PAPA and Umai 〔うまい)

At 10 PM, we went out to see our ‘competitors’. About 10 people were already there! We got a coupon from one of the Family Mart staffs to exchange our presents. She said although the coupon says 5/22-5/23, 5/22 11 PM- midnight is the only time we can use. So YAY! We surely can get the prize now. Went back to play Wii with peaceful minds!

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Present exchange ticket

Then, it was pretty much like what pictures tell. So funny being there, coming out to a conbini at 11 pm. I kept laughing while standing in line.

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10:45 pm
LOOK LOOK..There are there already!!

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10:50 PM

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Photo for memory… 😀

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We were not the only ones looking forward to this ‘grand opening’

The place was surprisingly packed. Believe it or not, some people brought their babies. Even at this time of the night. First thing we were handed when we went in was this little bag.

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The prize for the first 50 customers!

Then, we bought their Fukubukuro 〔福袋) or Happy/Lucky bag just for fun. In my head echoed (YAY YAY YAY!).

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Family Mart Happy Bag – 500 yen!

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The store got so packed…

I started laughing till my stomach hurts seeing everyone, including myself, got all excited over a new Family Mart. I have to admit, it was kind of…fun.

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Store front: The open sale

We got back and opened the bags. Both bags were filled with snacks and drinks.

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Stuff in the lucky bag!

I guess I got my breakfast…

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The first 50 customers bag

やった!YATTA (Finally).

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11 PM Convenient store opening
CHECKED!

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WOO HOO!!

This was just a very funny night. Made me thought of my time as a college student in Beppu city 〔別府市) when I would walk outside at night to the only McDonald’s and have a few laugh with some friends while devouring the M size french fries. Everywhere, city or suburban, there are always things and events to enjoy and laugh about. ❤

[UPDATE] Yaki Tate Melon Pan (焼きたてメロンパン)

From a few posts before, I wrote about Yaki-tate melon pan which is a fresh-from-the-oven melon bread sold in bakery vans. It is not widely sold but the soft hot bread is worth trying and definitely not a regular hard sugary melon shaped bread sold in any supermarket.

In Tokyo and Yokohama where I used to live, the bakery van chain I always bought melon pan is called ‘Happy-Happy‘. Happy-Happy has a few flavors if I remember right: Hokkaido, butter, original, and probably more.

After finding one melon pan van around my place here in Osaka, I have been going there almost every Monday and Thursday according to their schedule. Now, I have tried every flavor! Original (オリジナル), butter(バッター), strawberry(ストロベリー), caramel(キャラメル), and strawberry chocolate(いちごチョコラー)!

And what’s the best flavor? Guess…*drum rolls*……..The ORIGINAL! 🙂

Caramel and butter are also yummy. Strawberry and strawberry chocolate are so-so. But still, original is always the best!

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A Visit to Osaka Aquarium -Kaiyukan (海遊館)

20130520-111233.jpgOsaka Aquarium or Kaiyukan 〔海遊館) is one of the most famous tourist attractions in Osaka and probably in the whole Japan for aquariums. It is located in Osaka bay area. This aquarium is famous for its various displays of marine life which is organized in a very impressive way.

When I was living in Beppu city (別府市), Oita prefecture (大分県), I visited an aquarium called ‘Umitamago(Umi 海 = ocean, Tamago卵 = egg). 20130520-143913.jpgThe aquarium is obviously not as big as others in the bigger cities but the fish tanks were arranged nicely and with its location on a scenic beach, the atmosphere is great. I got to shake hand with a cute seal when I was on an outdoor stadium for a show and had club sandwiches in the terrace near the beach. The entrance fee was free that day because we got two tickets from the owner of the place by chance. 😉 I had a great time. It was a lot of fun even in a small city aquarium so I had high expectations for this well-known Osaka Kaiyukan.

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Outdoor show at Umitamago

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My friend observing marine life inside Umitamago

I went to Kaiyukan with the same friend I went to Umitamago with. The difference was that we are a few years older; both have graduated and now working in a different country. Since my friend decided to visit from Korea, I was especially excited to spend the day catching up and having fun. This was actually my second time at this aquarium. The first time was 5 years ago although I could barely enjoy the place or remember much having been so sick and fainted inside the aquarium (no joke!). So this time was sort of like my first time there. It was a rainy day so we thought we could enjoy the day being inside.

We started from Osaka station and took a train to Bentencho station (弁天町). From there, we took Osaka municipal subway Chuo line (中央線) toward Cosmo square to Osakako station (大阪港 Osaka port). It took only about 18 minutes. Then, we walked to the aquarium in the rain, had some ice cream (soft cream ソフトクリーム), paid for the entrance and went in. There were tons of people inside!

20130520-111804.jpgThe exhibitions were divided according to the Pacific Rim or the Ring of fire from Japan forest to Antarctica to The Great Barrier Reef and others. There were various kinds of sea animals; dolphins, penguins, sharks and so many others we are familiar with or some that we had never heard of. With the massive amount of people, it was hard to view the animals at first but there seemed to be less people as we moved along the route. The aquarium has 8 floors which go in spiral once we move forward so we could observe marine life from many angles. The central tank is one of the main attractions. It is 9 meters deep and is visible along the route.

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I could observe so many sea animal activities; dolphins playing water polo (in their way), penguins community gathering, huge Japanese crabs showing power, jelly fish floating up and down, and so many other interesting marine life.

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Right before the exit, there is a big fish tank which contains mainly sharks and stingrays. They allow people to touch the fish in this tank with a warning of Do not touch the sharks in the head, please only touch the back. I tried…but failed. 20130520-111221.jpgI blame the announcer who kept announcing the warnings. 😛 Despite the fact that there were so many people, I did enjoy the place although I could say that 2,300 yen for the entrance is a little bit expensive. The only thing I wish they had is an outdoor show. Apparently, there are other attractions besides the exhibitions, too. There are cruises, Ferris wheel and other activities you can enjoy. This place can be really good for families with kids for a day out activity.

The most surprisingly thing that happened there was that there was a wedding inside the aquarium! We were walking along the route when we heard someone ringing the bell and shouting ‘現在海遊館の中で結婚式を行っております’ (genzai kaiyukan no nakade kekkonshiki wo okonatteorimasu) meaningThere is currently a wedding inside Kaiyukan at the moment. Then, we saw a couple wearing a suit and a wedding gown walking out with some people following behind. What a very strange place to get married but I’m sure it is something they’ll never ever forget.

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A couple having their wedding at the aquarium

Access:

Take Chuo Line and get off at Osakako (Osaka Port) station.
Approx. 12 min. from Hommachi (Midousuji line) to Osakako station.
Approx. 18 min. from Umeda (or Osaka in JR line) to Osakako station.
Approx. 35 min. from Shinosaka (Shinkansen JR line) to Osakako station.
Approx. 37 min. from Universal City (JR line) to Osakako station.
Approx. 75 min. from Kansai International Airport to Osakako station by JR line and Subway.

Operating hours: 10 am – 8 pm

Entrance fee (one time – adult): 2,300 yen

Website: http://www.kaiyukan.com/language/eng/index.htm

Discount ticket from Klook -> here! (free bonus credits when downloading their app and input this code: L2AI9)

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Shibazakura Viewing at Hitsujiyama park, Chichibu – The Colorful Carpet of Flowers!

Golden week had quickly come and gone. In Japan, there are a few long holidays; one of those is Golden Week (ゴールデンウィーク). Golden week starts around the end of April till the start of May. This year, April 29th and May 3rd – 6th are holidays; hence, the holidays are divided to 2 parts of 3 days and 4 days with 3 working days in between. Some people may be lucky and get 10 consecutive days of holidays from April 27th to May 6th! My work schedule was a little different. I got holidays on May 1st-6th so I used this time to visit Tokyo again. 🙂

On May 2nd, I visited the famous shiba-zakura (芝桜) park in Chichibu city(秩父市), Saitama prefecture(埼玉県).

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Shiba-Zakura (芝桜) season comes around mid April till mid June, a bit after the sakura season. Shiba-zakura is called moss phlox in English. It is a plant that is similar to shrub-type plants which grows to a height of about 10 centimeters with long leaves and small vividly pinkish flowers. Due to its appearance that is similar to cherry blossom, it has been called ‘shiba-zakura’. I have never seen shiba-zakura before but I have heard wonderful things about it, so I decided to visit the nearest park to Tokyo in Golden Week.

20130507-102602.jpgChichibu city (秩父市) is located in the Northeast of Saitama prefecture(埼玉県), a neighbor prefecture of Tokyo. It is famous for shrines and nature especially for outdoor activities such as flower viewing, picnic, barbecue and strawberry picking. There are also many festivals such as Chichibu night festival in which decorated floats are lighted up at night in a shrine. There was a festival on the day I went as well but time was limited so I couldn’t stay long enough to see. The easiest way to get to Chichibu is by train from Ikebukuro station. I took Seibu-ikebukuro line (西武池袋線)from Ikebukuro station (池袋駅) to Seibu-chichibu station (西武秩父駅). The trip took about 1 hour and 45 minutes. Apparently, there are express trains as well but the tickets were all sold out for the day due to the amount of people visiting during holidays. So, make sure you get the tickets beforehand if you plan to go on holidays.

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When we arrived at seibu-chichibu station, it was around 11 AM. The weather was extremely hot! We followed the crowd and walked up the hills to Hitsujiyama park (羊山公園). Occasionally, we would stop and buy some cold drinks to keep our body cool. We paid a small fee for the entrance and entered. This park is one of the renowned spring destinations with amazingly colorful shiba-zakura that are not only planted in different rows for each color, but also in different shapes making the whole field appears to be an incredible carpet of vividly attractive small flowers. Sometimes, this place is also called ‘Moss Hill‘. I found it very picturesque and just spectacular, similar to a scene from a lively musical movie! There are flower rows in pink, light purple, purple, light blue, white and some are planted in circular or heart shapes. I had to fight the urge to jump into the flowers! At that time, it felt like a thing to do…

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One of the things I love most about Japan is that Japan has a way to make nature very attractive and Japanese people sure know how to appreciate it. They create an event out of what is around and make everything exciting. All year round, there are always new events, things to see and places to explore. It is obvious that this shiba-zakura flower field was well designed and surely has become a great tourist spot out of the wonderful nature. It is just very impressive. In Japan, people definitely have a great sense of beauty.

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There are some other places to view Shiba-zakura as well. One is on the foot of Mount Fuji. Just only imagine a colorful flower field with amazing Fuji view on the background, I could tell it is worth it. Also, there are some other similar places in Hokkaido. (Click here to see other shiba-zakura destinations.)

Shiba-zakura festival near Mount Fuji -> http://www.shibazakura.jp/ (Japanese), News in English -> click here!

Other than Hitsujiyama Park, there are also other places in Chichibu city. I got to visit another park called Chichibu Muse park (秩父ミューズパーク)which is famous for poppies. I took a free shuttle bus from Hitsujiyama park to Muse park and a free shuttle bus to Chichibu station before heading back to Tokyo. However, this time the poppies were not in full bloom yet, so we got 50% discount for our tickets. Despite not being to view the poppies, the park was beautiful. I could see different kinds of flowers which I don’t know what they are but it really didn’t matter since everything was beautiful. I also found a small two-storied stadium on top of the mountain where we can see scenic mountain views. The scenery was breathtaking.

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If you plan to visit these places, don’t forget to bring a hat or a UV umbrella. The weather was so hot that it got me a very bad cold. *boo* So yes, prepare well and enjoy spring! 🙂

Hitsujiyama park official site -> http://navi.city.chichibu.lg.jp/flower/shibazakura/ (Japanese)

Nearest station: Seibu-chichibu station

Muse park official site -> http://www.muse-park.com/ (Japanese)

Yaki-Tate Melon Pan 焼きたてメロンパン – Not a normal melon pan!

What’s a Yaki-Tate melon pan (焼きたてメロンパン)?And how is it different from the normal melon pan sold at convenient stores and supermarkets?

As you may know, melon pan is a melon-flavored bread. Bread in Japanese is ‘パン’ pronounced as ‘pan’. It is a round-shaped bread with rough sugary texture that looks like checker prints. I personally love this ever since I came to Japan. But last year, I found something even better than normal melon pan-Yaki-Tate melon pan 〔焼きたてメロンパン)!  This literally means it is a melon pan that is fresh out of an oven. It may seem to be not so different from the normal melon pan, but I can tell you it really is.20130429-111350.jpg

One day when I came out of my station and about to walk home, I saw this melon pan van. The smell was mouth-watering but I did not pay much attention and just walked away. 20130417-184712.jpgThe second time this van, there were so many people waiting in line and I thought…maybe this is good. So I bought one melon pan just to try if it was special. There were Hokkaido and butter flavors. I chose the butter one. The bread was freshly-baked from the oven. I took a bite and then…I LOVED IT! So soft and it tasted really good. Since then, I loved it and I looked forward to this van coming to my station every week. This is definitely different from normal melon pan sold at supermarkets. Obviously, it is sold in a van and since it is fresh out of the oven, it is hot, soft and just yummy!

This just started to sound like a confession from a FAT GIRL AT HEART. 😉

Apparently, it is not that easy to find this melon pan van. After I moved from Tokyo to Yokohama, I never saw this again until last month when I went to view sakura in Naka-Meguro 〔中目黒). That’s when I found this van again. Judging from the long line of people, I guess I’m not the only one who love this!20130417-185259.jpg

I also found a website with schedules of this melon pan van ‘HAPPY HAPPY’. Check the schedule to see if you’re close by. It’s delicious. Definitely my favorite although some people may find it too sweet. (I have a sweet tooth) 😉 Website: http://www.happy-happy.jp/

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Other than the van HAPPY HAPPY in Tokyo, I also found one right near my place in Osaka. This van has even more flavor…even strawberry flavor. They also sell apple pie and others as well.

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If you haven’t tried, I suggest you do so. 🙂

Stroll Around Kyoto (京都) in a Kimono (着物)

Have you ever wanted to stroll around Kyoto in a kimono? I have always wanted to do so seeing many tourists walk in beautiful kimonos sightseeing around beautiful temples and shrines of Kyoto. I always thought to myself that I must do this at least once while I am in Japan.

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Kyoto is definitely the most famous place in Japan to do kimono fitting since it is an old capital with numerous wonderful old shrines and temples. A lot of Japanese traditional things that pop up in your mind when you think of ‘Japan’ or see in movies are here; for instance, Maiko, Geisha and other forms of arts, traditions, sweets and so many others. As you may know, I have done Maiko transformation before and it was such a great experience. You could never get closer to a Japanese traditional culture than this. 😉  This time, I wanted to simply wear a kimono and walk around Kyoto city, especially to visit Kiyomizudera temple (清水寺)and take photos for memories.20130422-110309.jpg

I finally did it and I had a great time. It was worthwhile. As of how to do kimono rental (着物レンタル)in Kyoto, very easy!

HOW:

  •          First, plan you trip to Kyoto.

Leave a day or at least half a day in case you don’t have time for this experience since you obviously want to take a lot of photos while you’re wearing kimono. If you stay in a ryokan (旅館) within Kyoto, some kimono rental stores may allow you to return the kimono the next day at your hotel. But, in case you stay in a nearby city, you must return the kimono by the designated time at the store (until 5pm in my case). Keep this in mind when you plan your visit.

  •          Select store and decide the places you want to visit.

For this, you want to choose a kimono rental store close to your hotel or tourist attractions that you want to visit. Especially when you’re wearing a kimono and walk around in kimono shoes, you want to be as close as you can to the places you are interested in.

          Recommended kimono rental stores

  1. Yume Kyoto (夢京都)– I visited this store for kimono fitting. It is located right next to the entrance of Yasaka shrine (八坂神社)in Gion (祇園)district (central Kyoto) and only around 15 minutes on foot to the famous Kiyomizudera. Yume Kyoto also has another branch near Todaiji temple. They have kimono rental plans from 3,500 to 5,250 yen depending on the type of kimono. For 3,500 yen plan, you cannot choose kimono but for the 4,000 and 5,000 yen plan, you can choose kimono, bags and accessories as well. I liked their kimono choices. They also give free Tabi (kimono socks) for free and you can bring home as souvenirs.
  2. Okamoto (岡本)– This store is located in Kiyomizudera area which can be convenient for people who wants to visit this temple. I remember seeing in just on the bottom of Kiyomizudera!
  3. Yume Yakata 〔夢館)– The cheapest plan of this place is 2,500 yen which is pretty ideal. This is also the place I did my Maiko transformation.

In addition, if you are a traveler from abroad with limited time to plan, you may opt for a package tour for this kind of kimono experience. Many are sold within the city such as at big JR stations and travel companies. Some are also sold in websites for tourists from abroad. See this discount tour for a great 1 day plan with hotel pick up, English speaking guide and admission fees included (Input code L2AI9 when downloading their app to get free credits! –apple, android). 🙂

  •     Make a reservation

Make sure you reserve in advance so you can be sure you will get a place and time you want.

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PLAN & PRICE:

Usually, the price ranges from around 3,500 to 5,250 yen for Kimono rental. However, depends on the type and prints of kimono, it can also be much more expensive or less expensive if you are very lucky. At Yume Kyoto, I chose 5,250 yen kimono and got my hair done for 1,500 yen. So in total, it was 6,750 yen. Unlike Maiko transformation, you need to do your own makeup. After you are done dressing up, you are free to walk around in kimono and return it at the store or at your hotel depending on the store’s policy. Beware not to spill anything on your kimono. You may need to pay for the cleaning fee if you do so.

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PROCESS:

  •           Go to the store at your reserved time and tell your name.
  •          They will lead you into a room full of kimonos. Choose a kimono of your choice, then choose obi (similar to a big belt). In my case that I chose 5,250 yen plan, I could choose a rope which is a layer inside the kimono, too. You can see my reddish collar inside my kimono which is not a regular white layer.
  •           Then, they will start dressing you up. Starting from the rope, inside layer, then kimono. After that, they will tie you with some more ropes and Obi. And then, you’re done! It took less than 30 minutes for me.
  •           After you’re done dressing up, they will lead you into a hair section where you can choose a hairstyle that fits you the most.20130422-110338.jpg

The whole process took about 40 minutes for me.

TIPS/ADVICE:

It is important to bring a friend to take photos for you. I was lucky as my friend’s friends join us with their professional cameras. So, we got very good photos. Also, prepare to smile a lot because so many people will ask to take pictures with you or try to snap a photo of you.20130422-112409.jpg

Last but not least, CHECK THE WEATHER before you decide to do this. It is hard to predict the weather as you may want to reserve in advance but the day won’t be as fun if it’s raining, so try to avoid it!

And…of course, ENJOY! 😉

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At the ladders in the front entrance of Kiyomizudera

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In front of Yasaka shrine

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We met two tourists dressed up as Maiko-san, too.

Big thanks to two amazing photographers Kenichi Sanguan-ngern & Nichchima Anongjanya.

Japan Mint Cherry Blossom Viewing, Osaka 2013 – Yaezakura

In a few posts before, I talked about Yae-Zakura (八重桜) which is double cherry blossoms and the event for Yaezakura viewing at Japan mint bureau (造幣局) in Osaka head office which is now officially opened to public from April 16th-22nd.

Yesterday, I finally got a chance to go to the event. I choose to go on a weekday expecting that there will be zillions of people on the weekend. As soon as I got out of Temmabashi station (天満橋駅), I could see sign saying ‘Cherry Blossom viewing’ (桜の通り抜け) with police shouting and pointing out the direction toward Japan Mint Bureau.

From the station, we walked across Ogawa river (大川)and turned right.

20130419-092553.jpgSo many food stalls were all along two sides of the road making the place look like a festival.

I got there around 5 pm, just before everyone gets off work so there were not too many people but still…I wouldn’t say there weren’t a lot of people. 😉

As soon as I passed through the crowd into Japan Mint, I was in shock for a few seconds… Most of the sakura were gone! The area was mostly green and some sakura trees had zero blossoms or some with withered blossoms. Before going there, I had some doubts whether the timing of the official event was a bit too late or not too since the weather this year got warm faster than other years. However, despite a little disappointment, some sakura trees were still very beautiful. 🙂

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This one was still full of blossoms. This type of sakura is just beautiful. The blossoms look like little bouquets hanging on a tree.

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Apparently, even among Yae-zakura, there are so many types as well. Unfortunately, this year we could not see the green and yellow Yae-zakura which must have already fallen a couple of weeks ago.

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The area inside Japan mint is somewhat similar to what supposed to be a cherry blossom tunnel with coins and metallic objects factory along side.

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Most sakura trees started to have green leaves indicating that the blossoms are about to fall. Still, it is beautiful. But as we all know, sakura is short-lived. At night, all the sakura trees were lit up and the night sakura view is said to be enchanting. I did not stay till the light up this time.

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There were also so many food stalls from the exit gate of Japan mint till the main road. I had lots of delicious festival food. 🙂

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Then, I walked back to the station pass the beautiful Ogawa river. Across the street, a huge crowd of people who just finished working were marching down to Japan Mint bureau to see Yaezakura.

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Beautiful view of Ogawa river in Osaka city

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People walking from Temmabashi station toward Japan Mint

Website: http://www.mint.go.jp/category/eng