Let’s Go to Osaka

It’s our last day in Kyoto and we should be on our way to Tokyo soon. Until we got a call from a friend that is. She was asking to meet us before we head to Tokyo. So we packed our suitcases and made our way down to Osaka. We honestly did not have a lot of time to spend in Osaka. The trip from Osaka to Tokyo alone would be around three hours and that’s not including finding our way to our Air BnB host. But we couldn’t let an opportunity to catch up with friends pass by especially since we don’t come around that often to the land of the rising sun.

We're high up but we don't care!

We met up at Umeda/Osaka station and made our way to the Umeda Sky Building. It was a good walk from Umeda/Osaka station and when we got there, it became eerily familiar. As my memory came back to me, it turns out that this was where we took the bus to Hiroshima back when we were here in 2013. Those were pretty good memories.

Enjoying the view
Enjoying the view

The Floating Garden Observatory that connects the two towers of the Umeda Sky Building is accessible from the 39th story. It should be noted that I am actually afraid of heights and that 173 meters high is quite high. So what the heck was I doing up there? Well, the view is awesome for one thing. I should also mention that Japan has several of these tall towers with observation decks on different cities, but this one in Osaka was the only one we actually went up to. So yes, the view is great. And that was in the middle of the day. Imagine what it could have been at night. You can see practically all across Osaka from up there. This top floor is called the Sky Walk and it would be obvious why its named that when you are actually already there.

The view from up there
The view from up there

There is small pocket of space on top of the observatory called the Lumi Deck. This is a place where couples “lock” their promises on the Fence of Vows. The Lumi Deck can be accessed from the Sky Walk. And while it was windy and cool on the day that we went up to the Sky Walk, we heard that it can get freezing cold during the winter. We also discovered that Japan’s weather can change abruptly from time to time, so it’s best to check for rain or other undesirable weather conditions before going to the Sky Building.

Going back the way you came, you would already have noticed the souvenir shop which is (un-creatively) called the Sky 39 Souvenir Shop. There are items unique to the Umeda Sky Building that you can only buy here. You just need to keep your eyes peeled and your thoughts clear on whether you need them or not.

Matthew and Yumi (he's much taller now)

It was soon time for lunch and we decided not to go too far anymore. We just went back down to the basement level of the Umeda Sky Building and we were actually pleasantly surprised. Takimi Koji Gourmet Street is like a nostalgic era of Japan that is filled with restaurants and other food shops. We had our ramen here and some pretty good photos for our memories too. It was a great place to eat where the food is good and the prices reasonable. And all of it just some 10-15 minutes of walking from Umeda/Osaka station.

Alas, it was time to go. Time spent was short and sweet but we were happy to meet up with a good friend once again. Until next time, Yumi-san.

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Let’s Go to Gion

Okay, it was late at night and it was drizzling when we decided to take a walk at Gion. In fact, it was the night of the same day that we went to Arashiyama and the Kyoto Railway Museum. So I guess you could say that my day had been full. Of course, I spent the morning with both Matthew and Judy in Arashiyama and then I spent the afternoon with Matthew in Kyoto. The night ended with me and the wife taking a stroll in Gion. By far the most productive day of my stay in Japan.

Gion at Night

We didn’t get to see any Geisha. But we saw lots of bouncer type guys in full suits though. I guess that shows what kind of place the surrounding area of Gion is. We did feel safe while we were walking around, and the atmosphere in Gion has its own special aura. The air may have been cold and damp due to the rain, but it was nice just walking around the neighbourhood.

Streets of Gion
Streets of Gion

If my memory is correct, we were walking along Kawaramachi-Dori street that is lined with Pokemon themed street lamps. We just walked through alleys and streets trying to make our way to where Google Maps says “Gion”. And while it did not prove to be the most educational tour of Gion, we did manage to take in the atmosphere. The area around Kamo river is full of old school vibes combined with touches of the present. The cobbled street with Japanese lanterns are especially gorgeous at night. We were also trying to reach the Shirakawa area where the streets are lined with willow trees. I think we did, as we managed to walk through Shirakawa-Minami Dori on the way home. We were also surprised that we managed to find the entrance to Yasaka Shrine. A shrine that we visited the last time that we were in Kyoto back in 2013. It looked different in the morning but it is arguably better in the evening because of the quieter atmosphere.

Ending up in Yasaka
Ending up in Yasaka

Come to think of it, I would consider it a romantic stroll of Gion. We just walked, held each other’s hand and sat down for some coffee. All the while just talking and having a good time.

Let’s Go to Kyoto

Going to Arashiyama was the earliest we ever traveled during our stay in Japan. And to no surprise, by the time we returned to Kyoto, it was still just lunch time. We had time to kill, but not much muscle left to kill it with. Since it was still early, and our memories of the SGMAGLEV Railway Museum was still fresh in Matthew’s mind, we decided to try the next nearest destination. The Kyoto Railway Museum. The wife may have had enough of trains for the moment though, as she let us be on our way and said that she would just go home to rest up (and do some laundry). On that, we had to rely on Google Maps to bring us to our destination.

Nope. Thomas is not here.
Nope. Thomas is not here.

It turns out, the Kyoto Railway Museum wasn’t that near the train station at all. We found that out as Matthew and myself were walking to the museum but ended up in front of the Kyoto Aquarium instead. But we persevered and walked the additional meters to get to the Kyoto Railway Museum. Was it worth it? You bet it was.

Matthew trying out a train.
Matthew trying out a train.

When we got to the Kyoto Railway Museum, Matthew was back in explorer mode. He couldn’t wait to go around and once again soak up what this museum has to offer. The Kyoto Railway Museum, unlike the SGMAGLEV in Nagoya, caters more to the history of Japan’s railway operations. You will notice straight away that this museum is bigger than the one in Nagoya. You enter the museum from an open area where you already have several trains from Japan’s rich history of rail. Matthew, as always, goes on ahead going in and out of trains where possible. You can even have your picture taken from the cockpit of a bullet train (for a price). Once you enter the main building, you are transported back in time to the beginning of Japan’s railway history. There is a very old steam engine that has been preserved on one side. And all throughout the main building are evolutions of the trains that have plowed all across Japan’s countryside. Even if you are not a train nut, it’s difficult not to be the least bit interested in trains. There are cut out cockpits of trains with working levers and switches. There was even a working public address system (which Matthew had absolutely abused). There were more trains here than in the SCMAGLEV Railway Park, so much so that if we spent half a day there, you would need the whole day here in the Kyoto Railway Museum.

At the roundhouse turntable waiting for a magic train.

We saw a model of an old train station complete with a counter, train schedules and wooden gantries. We saw the difference in classes of trains. We saw how kitchens in trains looked like and their dining cars. There were so many trains to see that we were almost lost in the museum. And then as we were heading to the exit, we saw it. A stable of steam locomotives inside a roundhouse and a turntable for the trains. The steam trains have all been meticulously restored and you can smell the grease and oil all around you. It is one of the most majestic things I have seen. The trains all seem to come to life in that place and if you close your eyes, you’d get scared that they might even start talking. But it is enough to feel the steel on your skin. That roundhouse and that turntable is a must visit.

The exit, as always, is fronted by a museum shop where Matthew’s eyes always light up. Here we got the next wind up shinkansen that completes his pair of souvenirs from the railway museums. We headed home after that. But that was not the end of our Kyoto trip.

Let’s Go to Arashiyama

Arashiyama. When we started planning for this trip, the wife had already mentioned that we would be going to the Arashiyama bamboo grove. So during the time that I was preparing the itinerary, there was already a place holder for Arashiyama. It’s always a good thing to plan ahead for places that you would expect to be crowded, and Arashiyama is definitely one of those places.

The gardens of Tenryuji
The gardens of Tenryuji

We came to Arashiyama via Saga Arashiyama station on the JR line (Yey! JR Pass covers this). I didn’t really plan the route that well because on the map, it looked so near to the station. Thank you Google Maps! We made our way to the Tenryuji Temple grounds as we were going to use that as the pass through to the bamboo grove. The temple grounds were quite big and we got a bit lost traversing the garden paths. So much so that we didn’t manage to actually go into the temple. We were more nature lovers than temple goers anyway, so you could say that served us just fine. The gardens are impressive. Like most of the landscaped gardens that we have visited in Japan before, the gardens here are beautiful. It seems that they have a knack for picking out which greenery goes with which tree and which flower and which shrub. We could stay there for hours just breathing. And we would have, if not for the incredible number of tourists. And we haven’t even reached the bamboo grove yet. We started getting glimpses of sky high bamboo trees as we were walking along the garden paths. And we knew we were at the end of our temple trail.

Bamboos of Arashiyama
Bamboos of Arashiyama

We exited the temple grounds and followed the directions to the bamboo grove. As we walked along the bamboo grove trail, it was obvious that the path was going to be a bit dark. The weather has not been bright and sunny from the start of the morning after all. But the bamboo grove itself lends its mysterious aura as the wind ruffles the surrounding and you feel the slow swaying of the bamboo trees. Its truly an amazing feeling, albeit fleeting for only a moment as the noise from tourists trespass into your visual and aural periphery. Yes, we knew that Arashiyama would be a tourist hot spot, but we didn’t think it would ruin the experience that much. Oh well. At least we had moments.

Tanukis or Racocon Dogs along the rails
Tanukis or Raccoon Dogs along the rails

Moving on after the required photo taking (and photo bombing), we decided to take the Sagano Scenic Train route towards Torokko Arashiyama where we were planning to take the JR train back to Saga Arashiyama. The Scenic Train wasn’t part of the original plan, but considering we still need to hike all the way to the same train station, we decided to go for it. The Scenic Train takes you across and through the mountain along the Hozugawa river. The natural state of the mountain with the river passing through it is, again, nothing short of beautiful if you love nature. The feeling was again only for several fleeting moments when you can isolate yourself from the tourists. Don’t get me wrong, we were tourists as well, but we were quiet and observant because we wanted to take in what Arashiyama had to offer. But the group of tourists that we chanced upon were noisy and inconsiderate of other travelers. It was like a wet market in the train all the way down to Torokko Arashiyama. Other than that bit with the noisy tourists, Arashiyama gave us a great time.

I should mention that it was raining by the time we reached Torokko Arashiyama. And even then, it was fun. We got lost and we got wet but we got what we came for. We enjoyed our day of travelling. But it wasn’t about to end so soon.

Let’s Go to Nagoya

Nagoya is about an hour away from our home base at Kyoto by shinkansen. And judging by the time we normally wake up in the morning, plus the time it takes us to actually get ready for going out, I had a feeling that it was going to be another long day.

Driving a train like a boss.
Driving a train like a boss.

Once again, we took advantage of the JR Pass by hopping on a train from Kyoto to Nagoya. From Nagoya station though, we had to take a local train bound for Kinjofuto station on the Aonami line. Kinjofuto is the last station and walking distance from Kinjofuto is Japan Railway’s SCMAGLEV and Railway Park. It left me scratching my head as to why a JR park would not be outside a JR station, but it is what it is. The important thing is that we made it to the SCMAGLEV and Railway Park. Despite the drizzling weather outside, the trip had been a very educational and enjoyable one. Entry to the park is a considerable amount, but it’s worth every Yen.

This is a MAGLEV Train
This is a MAGLEV Train

This is one of JR’s three museums across Japan. The SCMAGLEV catering more to the high speed trains and its evolution. Inside are actual trains like steam locomotives, bullet trains (shinkansen) and of course, the latest in high speed rail transit, the maglev (magnetic levitating trains). I’m a car guy, so trains didn’t really interest me when I was growing up. I only started understanding and appreciating trains when Matthew was growing up and we started to have a growing system of Tomica Plarail sets. When I set foot inside the museum though, everything changed. The history of Japan’s railway system is phenomenal. Yes, I have not seen any other railway system apart from Singapore’s MRTs, but this museum immediately rips open your brain and stuffs it with trains and tracks and more trains.

Trainspotting. Not.

We actually had lots of fun entering the trains whenever possible. There are trains that seem to transport you to the time that it was actually running. The complicated-looking controls were intimidating, especially on the older trains where you only rely on analog gauges to judge your speed and braking distance. As you progress along the timeline of the trains, you get to see the evolution of Japan’s shinkansen. The bullet train if you will. And memories of an old toy came to mind. A ‘0’ (zero) series bullet train. I remember the face of it clearly with that rounded nose, blue and white colorway and the unmistakable bullet-like silhouette. I was in love again. Matthew, overwhelmed with all the things that he is seeing seems to be lost in thought. You can see how ecstatic he is whenever he discovers something new, like the camera underneath the trains showing the bogeys and then the pantographs on the roofs of the trains. And then there are the cutaway bits that show even more parts in close up. It was also amazing finding out how much I actually knew about trains. Well, theoretically anyway, based on things that I have read in books, magazines and the Internet. It’s always fun to share knowledge with Matthew because he always takes it in like a sponge. The downside though is that when all the information that I have has already been sucked dry by him and he still asks for more. I do my best not to tell him to just Google it and point him to actual sources of information like books and people who know what they are talking about. Yes, those sources are scarce and sometimes inaccessible, but you do find them if you look hard enough.

My kind of diorama.

One of the highlights of the museum that we really enjoyed was the enormous diorama built around Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka. We managed to catch the show, which lasted some 10 minutes cycling from morning to night. It was really awe inspiring seeing trains and cars and other vehicles zooming about and bringing the cities to life. It almost makes me want to build one for myself, and we might. At least with Pla-rail. There was also a train driving simulator where the goal is to reach each station within the allotted schedule. And knowing how incredibly accurate Japan’s train schedules are, I knew it was going to be a challenge. I wasn’t wrong. I would have had a better chance of winning at Forza Motorsport. Matthew had a go as well with better-than-me results. I guess the last highlight for Matthew was the trip to the museum shop. Oh yes, our trips would not be complete if we did not drop by the museum shops. We didn’t mind having spent half a day at the Railway Park. In fact, we should have probably arrived earlier and spent more time there as Matthew really enjoyed the place, and so did we.

Let’s Go with Alice

After three nights staying in Hiroshima, we had to bid sayonara to our kind hosts. It was time to continue with our trip and hop aboard the shinkansen once more. Our next base of operations would be Kyoto. But before we leave, we reckon there was still time to hit the arcade and spend some time with Alice!

Yeah, I married a crazy woman. And it seems that it runs in the family, Alice being her cousin and all. We went to the mall and window shopped our way to the arcade. I was already warned about claw machines and other similar prize catching machines, but it didn’t hurt to try anyway. And it’s a good thing that we did because Matthew seemed to have luck on his side with the machines. It wasn’t all good luck though, but we still managed to snag a prize or two. He didn’t quite warm up to Alice until later that day though, but they did manage to bonk each other in Mario Kart VR. Yup, since VR is practically everywhere now, why not, right?

Cross-eyed family
Cross-eyed family

After lunch, it was really time to go. Kyoto was waiting, and we had to check in at Hatagoro before we were left out in the cold. So, sayonara Hiroshima, for now.

Let’s Go to Fukuoka

The kids are still sick and we want to go somewhere. Thankfully, we got a JR Pass so our options were quite good. Since we get unlimited travel on nearly all JR trains, we booked a ride to Fukuoka. I’m loving the shinkansen every time I ride one. Travelling to Fukuoka from Hiroshima took only about an hour via shinkansen. Reserving a seat is fairly easy through any JR counter (most major hubs have more counters than others, and some even have counters dedicated to foreign travelers), and you would want to reserve a seat if you are travelling during peak hours. There were times that the three of us had to get separate seats due to the reservations being full. It’s best to always check the train schedule and your estimated arrival time at your intended destination to avoid crowds, congestion and stress.

Fun times at Uminonakamichi.
Fun times at Uminonakamichi.

We arrived in Hakata at lunch time. And as with any other meal time between me and the wife, it was time to eat. We were actually torn between eating at Canal City or just at the train station but a coin toss made that decision to go to Canal City. Now, Canal City is one of the places that we were going to visit while in Fukuoka, but we still needed to go to Uminonakamichi before going to the mall. The good thing about the initial trip to Canal City though was having a buffet pizza lunch at Shakey’s Pizza. Again, that’s pizza. And buffet. In one sentence. Another surprise that caught our attention at Shakey’s was the serving of dessert pizzas. Again, that’s pizza. And dessert. In one sentence. Who would have thought you could have cinnamon and banana on a pizza and that it actually tasted good?

Pizza as a dessert? Yes, please!
Pizza as a dessert? Yes, please!
Family time at Uminonakamichi.
Family time at Uminonakamichi.

After lunch, we made our way by local train to Uminonakamichi Seaside Park. It is a sprawling complex nearly 4 km from end to end and is located on a narrow peninsula off Hakata bay. There seemed to be only one train that services that route and the intervals are quite long. So knowing the train schedule will help you from waiting too long at the station. There is an admission fee and a bike rental fee. And as luck would have it, my wife was already full and had the common sense to rent bikes. It was a tremendous help and I was immediately thankful that we did rent them when I realized how big the park is. We cycled through most of the park and enjoyed the cool breeze of the surrounding area. The rose garden was only one of the places that still had a good amount of flowers blooming. It was nice walking among the roses, roses of different colors by the way. I didn’t realise that there were more variations of roses than I thought. We cycled through the rest of the park stopping every now and then to rest and enjoy the greenery. According to the park information, there are different flowers in bloom all year round. We probably had the misfortune of coming to the park on one of the days that the flowers are still in transition. We missed the meadow being filled with blooms, but it was still a good stretch of the legs nonetheless. If we were to come back to Fukuoka another time, Uminonakamichi would be one of the reasons why.

Having ramen and yakitori at a Yatai.
Having ramen and yakitori at a Yatai.

We headed back to Canal City after our visit to Uminonakamichi. The feature that differentiates this mall from other malls is their canal as the name suggests. They basically have a small river running through the stretch of the mall. At one end of this is a water feature with fountains dancing on a music and light ensemble. It’s not really new, but if you haven’t watched one before, Canal City is a good place to start. After strolling around the mall, we made our way out to the nearby Yatai stalls. Yatai are basically open air food stalls seating about seven or eight persons at a time. They serve an assortment of dishes like ramen and yakitori and are open in the evening just in time for dinner or an after-office snack. And yes, they also serve beer and other beverages. In other words, it’s street food. Our experience wasn’t that enlightening, but it wasn’t bad at all. Not really sure if we were just expecting more out of it, but for us anyway, it didn’t live up to the hype. Or maybe we just ate at the wrong stall, who knows. The day went by nice and slow and we hopped on a train back to our room in Kyoto. Another day in Japan done.