Awesome, cheap things to do in Tokyo

11 Jan

Tokyo — the city of $300 sushi meals and $1000 hotel rooms. Yes, it does have these things. As does New York, London, Toronto and numerous other cities. But Tokyo can be enjoyed on a budget. Food and drink can be found at very reasonable prices, as can accommodation. On my last visit, we stayed at Sunlite Shinjuku for 7000 yen a night (an Agoda special). It had a business hotel vibe, but was just five minutes from Golden Gai and had many tourists staying. Sakura Hotel also has a chain of affordable hotels across the the city. I’ve stayed in the Hatagaya location, which is centrally located, and the Asakusa hostel, which I don’t recommend since it’s a distance from Shinjuku and Shibuya, and I’ve gotten too old for hostels. Both were clean with a welcoming atmosphere and provide a good base to meet others.

Over three visits to the city, I’ve started to warm to it. It’s quite different from Osaka. It’s so big, that everything is very spread out and days must be planned accordingly. The people in Osaka are outgoing, curious and fun-loving, whereas Tokyoites can sometimes appear reserved and cold to foreigners. But Tokyo has much more art culture and other strong subcultures. It also has more foreign food and better coffee. What more do I need?

Here are some of my favourite things to do in Tokyo with little yen:

Lounge in the park and be entertained by greasers

On each of my trips to Tokyo, I’ve spent time in Yoyogi Park — a large green space right next to Harajuku. It contains Meiji shrine, deep in the forests of the park, as well as numerous ponds and green grass to sprawl on. During the summer the park is filled with people picnicking, playing sports and instruments, and practicing their dance moves.

Unfortunately during my last visit, most of the park was closed due to a dengue fever outbreak. Most infected had spent time in Yoyogi, though, previously, the virus hadn’t been found in Japan since 1945.

While this was disappointing, I also was able to finally see the greasers, those slippery characters that I’d been searching for for the past two visits. The greasers are a group of mostly leather and denim clad men, but also a few women and children, who rock pompadours that would make Elvis jealous and great dance moves. They congregate at the south entrance to the park nearly every Sunday, dancing to Japanese rockabilly between cans of beer. The moves range from synchronized line dancing to all out air guitar and high jumps, kicks and pseudo break dancing.

The greasers don’t ask for money, they do it for the love of the culture and the spectacle, as illustrated in this great song and music video –Peter Bjorn and John’s Nothing to Worry About featuring the lads in leather.

greasers

The greasers killing it in Yoyogi Park.

Have a fishy morning

Tsukiji market has become quite touristy, but it’s still a lot of fun and neat to see the biggest fish market in the world in action. It also remains completely free to visit. Read my blog post about my visit to Tsukiji.

Drop a bit more dough: Taste the market’s finest with sushi for breakfast. Be prepared that the waits for restaurants can be long — for 30 minutes to 3 hours. A decent amount of sushi can be had for 3000 or 4000 yen though ($30/40).

The big kahuna of the fish market -- tuna.

Drop by someone’s local

I can’t get on the shinkansen out of Tokyo without visiting Golden Gai at least once, if not twice. This is a small neighbourhood, about four alleys wide, with a hodgepodge of tiny bars, stacked on top of eachother. Some only fit about five people. They more or less all have themes. Some are devoted to certain types of music or films or… to trolls. Some of the bars have seating charges, generally around 500 or 1000 yen, as they have many regulars. But there are a number which are free to enter and drinks are generally cheap, starting at 500 yen. Golden Gai attracts a range of characters and I’ve met some very interesting people here, including drag queens, Australian oil barons, Japanese soldiers and wide-eyed travelers. It’s almost a guaranteed good night out.

Drop a bit more dough: Possibly the most famous bar in Golden Gai is La Jetée. It’s owned by a former film distributor with walls covered in movie posters. Like an old neighbourhood izakaya, customers can buy bottles which are stored on shelves around the bar. Here, the bottles are drawn on and if you snoop around, you can find bottles of some more well-known drinkers, like Coppola and Tarantino. The bar has a seating charge, possibly 1000 yen, and more expensive cocktails. (I’m not sure how much we paid and I may or may not have taken a sneaky drink from Quentin’s bottle.)

A Coppola bottle at La Jetee.

A Coppola bottle at La Jetee.

Visit Tokyo’s oldest temple and eat some chicken

Asakusa, about twenty minutes from Shibuya, is one of the most touristy places in the city, with the newly constructed, very expensive to ascend Tokyo Skytree and Sensoji temple, the oldest in the city. The area has an “old Japan” feel to it, with small old shops and shopping arcades. It has the added bonus of many very attractive rickshaw drivers hanging out on the main street.

The entrance to Sensoji is marked by a large gate with a huge red lantern. Past this is a small street leading to the temple buildings. This street is absolutely packed with tacky tourist shops and temple food. I recommend purchasing an ice cream, buying a fortune at the temple (tying the bad ones to the posts) and then wandering to the pretty garden in the back.

Note that this temple is absolutely absurd around New Year’s time, with millions of people visiting. I made the mistake of staying at the Sakura Hostel behind the temple one winter holiday and it was an inconvenience, to say the least.

Drop a bit more dough: Exiting the grounds to the left of the temple, when looking head on, there is a side street that runs parallel to the inner tacky tourist street. This street is lined with small izakaya restaurants with open fronts and tables spilling onto the street. This is a great place to have drinks, eat cheap greasy food and meet some locals.

The massive lantern at the gate to Sensoji temple, in Asakusa.

The massive lantern at the gate to Sensoji temple, in Asakusa.

Watch the scramble

The large multisided crosswalk outside the Hachiko exit of Shibuya station has become a landmark image of modern Tokyo and is featured in nearly every movie with a scene shot in the city. Five roads meet at this intersection and when the lights go red, people spill out from all directions to cross. But, this being Japan, the scramble is perfectly ordered chaos.

The Starbucks at the intersection is said to be one of the busiest in the world — they only sell tall sizes because of this. The second floor is a great vantage point to take in the scramble from above.

Take in art and city views

Away from the terrible American food chains and bars that fill Roppongi, is the Mori Art Museum — a contemporary gallery on the 53rd floor of a skyscraper. General admission is around 1500 yen depending on the exhibitions (or 1000 yen if you went to grad school five years ago and kept the student card). When I was there, there was fantastic photography and some really neat installations.

Also included in the admission price is access to the observation deck overlooking the city.

The Tokyo skyview at Mori Art Museum.

The Tokyo skyview at Mori Art Museum.

What are some of your favourite things to do in Tokyo on the cheap?

Three days in Taiwan

6 Jun

A back alley in Taipei.

There’s a lot you can pack into three days in Taiwan, from gritty street markets to ancient mountain-top villages, flashy skyscrapers to traditional tea houses.

The week before our departure this past February, the temperatures were in the high 20s with sunshine. Imagine our disappointment when it rained the whole time and was colder than Japan. We didn’t see as much as we liked but we did manage to eat as much as we could. Taiwan is a fantastic place to eat, with street markets galore, and a culture incredibly unlike Japan for being so near.

A back alley in Taipei.

A back alley in Taipei.

Jiufen

Perched on impossibly steep hilltops above the ocean, Jiufen is a magical place. The core is filled with traditional restaurants, shops and tea houses, that can be reached by narrow paths and never-ending steps.

Teahouse/restaurant where, the owner told us excitedly, the movie A City of Sadness was filmed. We were more impressed by the dumplings.

Teahouse/restaurant where, the owner told us excitedly, the movie A City of Sadness was filmed. We were more impressed by the dumplings.

We stayed at Golden 101, a charming guesthouse with a modernist design, run by a very friendly couple. They made us congee, rice porridge, for breakfast, with tofu, peanuts, pickles and pork floss to add in. As well as toast and peanut butter, possibly for our benefit.

As it was raining so hard, a thick fog had settled over the mountains. It was difficult to get a good view from Jiufen or really see much of anything. So we spent our time wandering the narrow alleyways, lined with red lanterns, under giant plastic ponchos, clinging to umbrellas, and eating as much as we could.

The first thing we tried was completely unlike anything I’d had before — a crepe filled with ice cream, cilantro, peanuts and pork floss. Strange but quite good. Pork floss isn’t eaten much in Japan, but I had grown quite fond of it after living in Thailand.

I felt like a dumpling when I left Taiwan.

I felt like a dumpling when I left Taiwan.

After a variety of dumplings and meat dishes, we entered the warm and traditional-looking Ah Mei tea house. As did hordes of others, needing shelter from the rain. We had a strange experience wherein numerous groups of Japanese tourists were seated while they wanted us to wait outside. We waited inside until they blatantly brought more Japanese in, until my friend gave a solid sumimasen! (“Excuse me!” — what people often say in Japanese restaurants). Everyone in the tea house turned to look at us, mouths agape, as I continued to speak Japanese to the waitress until she let us sit.

Despite the service, the teahouse is a beautiful space. It, and Jiufen, is said to have inspired the well-loved Japanese anime creator Hayao Miyazaki’s film Spirited Away, the most successful film in Japanese history. (Check out these visual comparisons.)

Jiufen is just over an hour from Taipei. Taking bus 1062 from Zhongxiao Fuxing MRT station is an easy and very cheap way to get there.

Taipei

Taipei is a major East Asian city, with a Southeast Asian look and feel. Motorbikes zip past scruffy street dogs, colourful store fronts and back alleys piled with trash.

We stayed at Apartment 10F, a great little spot near Taipei Main station. The owner and staff were incredibly helpful, even giving us a tour of the neighbourhood after we arrived. The guesthouse is new, with a clean design, and a full kitchen for guests to use.

Taiwanese breakfast of champions -- fresh soy milk and doughnuts stuffed with egg. It was dirt cheap and they were impresed by how much we ordered. We waddled out.

Taiwanese breakfast of champions — fresh soy milk and doughnuts stuffed with egg. It was dirt cheap and they were impresed by how much we ordered. We waddled out.

Night markets

Japan needs night markets. Well, really every place needs night markets. Taipei has markets seemingly in every nook of the city, from the big ones to the quaint neighbourhood ones. We visited one of each.

Piles of fried things at Shilin Market.

Piles of fried things at Shilin Market.

Ningxia night market was a ten minute walk from our guesthouse. It’s a smaller local market with mainly food for sale. It had a nice neighbourhood feel, but there were also some signs in English as well as a few foreigner’s wandering around.

Shilin night market is the biggest and most famous one in Taipei. It’s huge and sells many things from food to clothes to tacky souvenirs. There was a basement food court area with many stalls where we spent a good amount of time. Most stalls have an area with tables and chairs and great people watching.

Sausage party at Shilin market, with the stench of stinky tofu in the air.

Sausage party at Shilin market, with the stench of stinky tofu in the air.

Maokong

Hidden up in the hills of southeastern Taipei is Maokong, thought to be one of the oldest tea production areas in Taiwan. It’s a nice respite from the busy city. A cable car can be taken from the zoo to reach the top which is filled with tea fields and tea houses. There are many different grades of tea to try at many price points, but be aware they can get pricey. The process of making the tea is quite complex, done at the table, with many different vessels and utensils to make one little cup of tea.

Our view of most of Taiwan -- wet and foggy.

Our view of most of Taiwan — wet and foggy.

Yet another sakura season comes and goes too quickly

25 May

Classic elegance in Tezukayama, south Osaka.

Sakura, cherry blossoms, do not appear gradually on the trees. Rather they seem to burst out of their tiny cases one spring day when the sun hits them in just the right way.

Classic elegance in Tezukayama, south Osaka.

Classic elegance in Tezukayama, south Osaka.

The predictions on when they will blossom to their fullest are broadcast on the nightly news. I picture Japanese people peeking out their windows, waiting for the puffs of white and pink to appear. When the moment is right, and the day is warm, they emerge from their houses to celebrate the coming of spring.

The ubiquitous “leisure mats”, what we call tarps in Canada, are spread under any suitable spot under the large trees. Or, if for a child, a colourful Anpanman mat. Or newspapers for old men from another era.

Why get married during any other time of the year?

Why get married during any other time of the year?

Elaborate bento lunches; sakura mochi coloured pink, white and green; and numerous mixtures of alcohol are shared with the special people in your life or complete strangers. It’s the most celebrated time of the year. A time that is waited for all winter.

And then just days after they appear at their most glorious, the sakura fall. Covering the ground, swirling around ponds and down streams. Finding themselves in your limited edition sakura-flavoured tea.

A tunnel of sakura in Tezukayama.

A tunnel of sakura in Tezukayama.

And now it’s May, nearly June, and sakura season seems like many seasons ago.

Let your otaku flag fly… at Den Den Matsuri

16 Mar

An evil nurse with The Joker?

It’s almost time for one of the most fun days of the year! It was one of my highlights of 2013. A day when characters from anime, manga, video games, shows and movies take over the streets of downtown Osaka.

It’s Den Den Matsuri! Officially known as Nippombashi Street Festa for the area of Osaka it’s in, it will be held this year on Friday, March 21st, a national holiday. Den Den Town is Osaka’s version of Tokyo’s Akihabara and an otaku‘s dream. Otaku is a fairly derogative term and could be translated as “geek” or “nerd” into English.

A very elaborate cosplay outfit.

A very elaborate cosplay outfit from 2013.

While Japanese of all ages read comic books on the train, otaku are obsessed. It could be with manga (comics), anime (animation), Jpop music, video games or electronics, or even trains. (I understand, I love trains.) All these things and more are treasured in Den Den.

Detective Conan under attack by a group of soldiers.

Detective Conan under attack by a group of soldiers.

The festival is the chance for the otaku to have their day in the sun, not that everyone who participates is an otaku. People engage in cosplay — dressing up as their favourite characters. Some people take cosplay very seriously. Trying to embody the character and get the costumes and mannerisms just right.

A woman in cosplay at last year's festival.

A woman in cosplay at last year’s festival.

I know little to nothing about manga and anime but it’s still a ton of fun to wander around and see the cosplayers. Last year, there were some characters I recognized, such as those from Pixar movies, Nintendo and Star Wars.

The cutest little Stitch.

The cutest little Stitch.

It’s also refreshing to see these people who may not be really understood by society have a chance to be celebrated. The street festival is filled with people just taking photos, having fun and interacting with the cosplayers.

Last year, it was quite entertaining as I’d ask if I could take photos of people and, in typical Japanese fashion, they’d act all shy and embarrassed. And then quickly strike a fierce pose, in line with their characters.

An evil nurse with The Joker?

An evil nurse with The Joker?

Den Den Matsuri starts around noon and ends around 4 or 5pm. The festival is on Sakai-suji, just east of Namba Nankai station. Start here and walk south for all the fun.

Have you been to Den Den Matsuri? Do you recognize any of these characters? Let me know!

The wilderness and an amusement park — Hiking Mount Ikoma

10 Mar

Frame those views.

Spring is ideal hiking weather in Japan. Warm, but not hot, with the colours starting to reappear in nature. A great time to get into the woods and hike up a mountain to …  a vintage amusement park?

Mountain-top amusement park -- Skyline Ikoma.

Mountain-top amusement park — Skyline Ikoma.

Ikoma-san is on the border of Osaka and Nara prefectures, just twenty minutes away from Namba station. It’s nice to have a mountain so close to the city core, even if it’s a small one. Take the Kintetsu Nara line from Namba to Ishikiri station, then meander through the neighbourhood asking obaasan where the hiking starts.

The trail starts off rough, but turns into well maintained paths.

The trail starts off rough, but turns into well maintained paths.

The hike to the peak is a short one. We got there in less than two hours with plenty of breaks. While not a long hike, it is a steep one with the path mostly consisting of very tall steps.

The views of Osaka get better the higher you climb, with a panorama stretching from North Osaka to Kansai airport at the top where the amusement park is perched. Skyline Ikoma is closed for the winter, reopening March 15, but there are no gates to the park so hikers can wander through.

Frame those views.

Frame those views.

It’s a park mainly for small children, with the classics like a horse carousel and teacups. Tracks wind through the sky, overlooking Kansai, with kawaii panda cars waiting for little riders.  It’s a charming little spot, made eerie by the fact that it was completely silent and still.

After sweating our way up the mountain, it got chilly on the top quickly. There’s a cable car that we rode down with a massive group of young children who seemed way too excited to be on a mountain with a closed amusement park. They didn’t seem to mind as they squealed with delight as the tram slowly made its way down to Ikoma station.

Save for a few maintence workers preparing for the summer crowds, it was completely empty.

Save for a few maintenance workers preparing for the summer crowds, it was completely empty.

The hidden stone — Ryoanji zen rock garden

25 Feb

Ryoanji's zen garden is protected on three sides by an earthen wall, allowing viewing from only one side.

In Art History 101, we studied a wide range of works from around the world. For tests, a few images would be flashed on to the giant projection screen in the cavernous lecture hall and we’d have to write one page about each.

One work was the rock garden at Ryoanji temple in north Kyoto, possibly the most famous in the world. The garden is the ultimate in zen minimalism — just fifteen rocks set in gravel. I remember complaining to my mother “how am I supposed to write a whole page about a bunch of rocks?” I was relieved it wasn’t chosen for the test.

Ryoanji's zen garden is protected on three sides by an earthen wall, allowing viewing from only one side.

Ryoanji’s zen garden is protected on three sides by an earthen wall, allowing viewing from only one side.

Now, ten years later, I’ve seen the garden in person and am doing that very thing.

The garden is thought to have been created around the 15th or 16th centuries and has puzzled people ever since. It’s not known who exactly built it or what it’s meant to represent.

Some say it looks like islands strewn across the ocean or mountains peaking through clouds. One story states that it’s a tiger carrying her cubs across a pond. Others see the kanji character for “heart” in the arrangement.

Considering life or how uncomfortable kimono is.

Considering life or how uncomfortable kimono is.

Possibly the most interesting thing is that the rocks are arranged in such a way that not all fifteen can be viewed at the same time from any angle. The number 15 is thought to have connotations with ‘completeness’ in Buddhism. But in the imperfect world, the fifteen rocks cannot be seen at the same time. There is always one hidden that can only be seen in the mind’s eye.

A meditation hall borders the rock garden, with a ledge to sit on and contemplate what it all means. Why would someone decide to make this? Where is the hidden rock? Who rakes that gravel? How often do they rake it? What food will be available at the golden temple up the street? (Meditation seems to make me either sleepy or hungry.)

Get lost in the temple's grounds after visiting the popular rock garden.

Get lost in the temple’s grounds after visiting the popular rock garden.

After all that meditation, be sure to wander the surprisingly extensive temple grounds with many buildings and a large lake. Visiting in the end of winter, it wasn’t as lush as I imagine it will be in the spring or fall, when all of Kyoto is gorgeous of course.

Ryoanji is not the easiest temple to get to in Kyoto. I try to take trains and subways as the buses can take ages to get around Kyoto. We took the Karasuma subway line to Kitaoji station, then took a bus to a stop close to Kinkakuji and walked from there. (The bus stops were well marked and there was an information centre at the train station.) Of course, pair this temple with the famous Kinkakuji, the golden temple, or others in the area.

 

Bathing with beasts at Jigokudani snow monkey park

4 Feb

Snow monkey babies!

“Hadaka no tsukiai” is the Japanese phrase for “naked companionship,” the bonding that occurs in public baths. In the nude, there is nothing to hide and status means nothing; onsen, or hot springs, may be the most relaxed and uninhibited places in Japan. And here I was baring it all. To a monkey.

The directions to Korakukan ryokan, a rustic inn in the mountains, read like a scene in a Haruki Murakami novel – take the train to Nagano, a bus and then walk two kilometres through the forest. It gets dark quickly. There may be monkeys on the path. Do not look into the monkey’s eyes…

A story about my visit to Jigokudani monkey park and how I ended up sharing an onsen with some monkeys has been published in one of Canada’s national newspapers — The Globe and Mail.

It was definitely a once-in-a-lifetime type of trip. I stayed in a ryokan and went to an outdoor, natural onsen for the first time. And there were monkeys! Korakukan is a charming old inn covered in snow in the quiet wilderness. After this bath with a monkey, we wrapped ourselves in warm yukata and were treated to the largest feast with local food and sake. Then it was early to bed under big thick duvets, only to awake to another big traditional meal in the morning. A great getaway from the city.

Read the full story here.

Snow monkey babies!

Snow monkey babies!

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Afterhours enlightenment — spending the night in a temple on Mount Koya

20 Jan

As this is Japan, they will serve beer with your shojin ryori temple food.

The slightly chubby monk with a shaved head shuffles into the room bowing and carrying trays with stubby legs, like play tables for children. We stand awkwardly in the corner of our large, tatami-floored room until he motions for us to sit down with an open hand and a soft — dozo. Please. Go ahead.

There is an urge to sit in seiza, with legs curled under the body, on the thick blue mats, but this eventually devolves into legs splayed in numerous directions, coming out from under the little tables.

As this is Japan, they will serve beer with your shojin ryori temple food.

As this is Japan, they will serve beer with your shojin ryori temple food.

Food fit for Zen Buddhist monks — shojin ryori — is served in numerous little dishes. Vegetarian, possibly even fully vegan, food that is free of animal products and even garlic and onion because of their strong tastes. The emphasis is on fresh local ingredients — sesame tofu, miso soup, beans, and pickled, stewed and tempura vegetables.

The garden and hallway outside the rooms at Muryokoin temple.

The garden and hallway outside the rooms at Muryokoin temple.

A meal like this is one of the treats of staying in shukubo — temple lodgings. This past September, I stayed at Muryokoin temple, atop mystical Mount Koya-san, which is less than two hours from Osaka. More than 50 temples on Koya offer shukubo.  Muryokoin has guest rooms that face a central, perfectly manicured Japanese garden with pond.

Necessary yukata photo shoot.

Necessary yukata photo shoot.

It’s a quiet, traditional place to stay. The temple is surrounded by ancient, towering trees and set in the small charming town of Koya. It’s less than a ten minute walk from the impressive Okunoin cemetery, a must visit in Koya that we wandered both at night and the following morning.

Bed time comes quite quickly on Koya-san, as the town goes dark very early and the bath closes at 9pm. But this makes it all the easier to wake up before the sun for the Buddhist morning ceremony.

Muryokoin allows guests to attend the Goma fire meditation in the richly decorated, dark worship hall, that fills with smoke and rhythmic chanting each morning.

Staying in a temple on Koya is not cheap (thanks, ma!), as it’s about 10,000 yen ($100) per person but that does include both dinner and breakfast and, of course, the experience.

Walk like a pilgrim — hiking the Kumano Kodo

10 Nov

Along the Nakahechi section of the Kumano Kodo.

“The routes in the mountains were designed to be arduous and the journey over them part of the religious experience, rather than a means to an end.” – UNESCO

It’s difficult coming from a country like Canada, only 146 years young, to really understand how extensive the history of some cultures are. While the aboriginal culture of Canada is strong and fascinating, Japan’s lengthy history of traditions and culture is very much a part of everyday life here.

The torii near Hongu Taisha shrine -- the largest torii in the world.

The torii near Hongu Taisha shrine — the largest torii in the world.

The Kumano Kodo trails leading to the three main shrines.

The Kumano Kodo trails leading to the three main shrines.

Now ranked as one of favourite places visited in Japan, this past September I hiked the ancient pilgrimage route of the Kumano Kodo, in Wakayama Prefecture. Along paths trodden for over a thousand years, through dense forest, my mother and I hiked.

The Kumano Kodo, together with Spain’s El Camino de Santiago, is one of two pilgrimage trails designation UNESCO World Heritage sites. Many of the paths have been developed over but some still exist as they did all those years ago. Pilgrims took the Kumano to worship at three main shrines — Kumano Hongu Taisha, Kumano Hayatama Taisha and Kumano Nachi Taisha. These paths also lead to Kyoto, Nara, Osaka and Koyasan.

Along the Dainichi-goe trail, part of the Kumano Kodo.

Along the Dainichi-goe trail, part of the Kumano Kodo.

Yunomine Onsen

There are many different ways to attack the Kumano Kodo, we decided to stay centrally in Yunomine Onsen. Getting there from Osaka is fairly easy. We took a limited express train from Tennoji station to Kii-Tanabe (107 minutes, 4200 yen). From the station, it’s an hour and a half bus ride to Yunomine. The Kumano Tourism Bureau website has tons of information, including bus schedules and maps, how to ride a local bus and a map of Yunomine.

Yunomine is a quaint little spot, not really big enough to qualify as a town. Rather it’s a collection of traditional inns, minshuku and ryokan, gathered around onsen (hot spring) and baths. This place only has two small convenience stores and that’s it in terms of places to spend your yen.

The river running through Yunomine Onsen. On the left is a hotspring to boil eggs, chestnuts and sweet potatoes which can be purchased in the shop.

The river running through Yunomine Onsen. On the left is a hotspring to boil eggs, chestnuts and sweet potatoes which can be purchased in the shop.

We stayed at Minshuku Teruteya, a small guesthouse run by a cute lady who spoke little English. She served large delicious meals, including nabe, tempura and deer sashimi, and even packed us a bento for our hike.

The star of Yunomine is the Tsuboyu onsen — the only World Heritage hot spring that can be bathed in. It’s also the oldest onsen in Japan and supposedly has healing powers. Was I healed? Well, the sake with dinner and the very hot water sure put me to bed early! That’s a small miracle.

Tsuboyu onsen is in this little shack nestled over the river. It’s just a tiny stone bath fit for two or three people.

Tsuboyu onsen is in this little shack nestled over the river. It’s just a tiny stone bath fit for two or three people.

Kawayu Onsen

A great side trip from Yunomine, Kawayu Onsen is a a nearby village around a magical river. It’s quite close to Yunomine and accessible by bus. Here, holes are dug into the river bed and become little onsen when the hot thermal water seeps in.

A natural hot spring formed right by the river.

A natural hot spring formed right by the river.

Hiking the trail

We hiked two sections of the Kumano Kodo. In the morning, we set out from Yunomine on the Dainichi-goe trail. This was a fairly steep 3.4 km trail over the mountain, with lots of ups and downs. We went on a Friday morning in September and saw no other hikers. It took about an hour and a half and we ended up in the town of Hongu, home of the Kumano Hongu Taisha shrine.

Along the Nakahechi section of the Kumano Kodo.

Along the Nakahechi section of the Kumano Kodo.

In the afternoon, we hiked a portion of the Nakahechi Route — starting from Hongu Taisha shrine and hiking north for about an hour and a half, then back. It was an isolated trail with thick, dense forest.

Kumano Hongu Taisha

Emerging from the forest, the giant Torii gate can be seen from kilometers around. It’s the largest in the world, an imposing gateway to the sacred area of the shrine. Except now, this 33.9 metre Torii guards, well, nothing. Wandering the grounds, we looked for the famous Hongu Taisha shrine, not realizing we were at the wrong spot.

The scale of the torii compared to the people standing near its base.

The scale of the torii compared to the people standing near its base.

In 1889, a flood destroyed the original site and it was moved up a mountain into the forest. From the Torii, walk north to the information centre and cross the road. From here, many stone steps will take you to the shrine. Unfortunately, most of the shrine is currently under renovation so there wasn’t too much to see.

To plan your trip to the Kumano Kodo area, visit the Tanabe City Kumano Tourism Bureau wesbite. It has a wealth of information on the region and what there is to do.

Universal Studios Japan — Halloween Horror

27 Oct

Zombies, blood, and roller coasters or long lines, high entrance fees and overpriced food and beer — which is scarier?

You can have all of the above and more during one expensive day at Universal Studios Japan, in Osaka. USJ, as it’s known, hosts a Halloween extravaganza from September 13th to November 10th this year. I love Halloween and roller coasters, so it sounded like a good chance to finally get to USJ. We went on a Monday in October, thinking it would be fairly quiet. Boy were we wrong.

The lines were absurd. Most of the rides were an hour wait, some two. There were lines for everything — rides, shows, food, drinks and washrooms.

I think these girls were stalking the character they love. They were standing right next to her.

I think these girls were stalking the character they love. They were standing right next to her.

They have some of the classic Universal Studios rides, like Jurassic Park, Back to the Future and Jaws. I went on the first two and they were pretty much exactly as I had remembered. The seriously dated, cheesy dinosaurs on Jurassic Park still scared me and the big splash into the water after escaping T-Rex was a ton of fun.

There’s a big roller coaster called Hollywood Dream that was fantastic. One of the most popular rides is Spiderman. It’s a “4D” ride which I found a bit predictable (for example, a firey monster reaches right for you and you feel a blast of hot air), but there’s a great part at the end where you fly between buildings. Space Fantasy was also quite fun. Small cars get whipped around on a track while “flying through space”.

The kids area of the park. Lots of Sesame Street and Hello Kitty!

The kids area of the park. Lots of Sesame Street and Hello Kitty!

Despite the insane crowds, the Halloween theme was a lot of fun. Many people came dressed in costumes. Japanese people love dressing alike so there were so many pairs and small groups of people in the same costumes. They ranged from mecha kawaii (super cute) to bloody. Halloween is gaining popularity in Japan, but I was surprised there were so many dressed up and regretted not coming in a costume.

But after 6pm the real fun starts when the park is overrun with zombies. They were great, running around scaring people. Some even had fake chainsaws! There were scenes set up around the park, like a car with a zombie trapped inside and a zombie feasting on a person. It was quite creepy.

A hungry zombie.

A hungry zombie.

Some rides and restaurants were haunted by the very popular Sadako, the monster from the horror movie Ring.  We just missed the cut-off time for Sadako-haunted Jaws though.

All-in-all the day was fun, but expensive with the ticket price being 6600 yen, and the crowds were too overwhelming. The park isn’t very big but we weren’t able to ride every ride we wanted, nor could we go on twice.

My young students sometimes call me Sadako when my hair is really messy.

My young students sometimes call me Sadako when my hair is really messy.

TIPS

Be prepared that most of the park is in Japanese, including the rides. I didn’t mind, but we did miss out on a zombie hunting game called Biohazard because we didn’t know how to get advanced tickets.

Wait times are posted in front of the ride and on a couple signboards around the park. Know that they overestimate quite a bit though. For example, the wait for Hollywood Dream was listed at 160 minutes but it took 80 minutes.

When possible, use the singles line! You may be split up from friends but it doesn’t matter too much. We got on Jurassic Park in about 15 minutes.

Food is a bit expensive but not exorbitant. We had lunch at Mel’s Drive-in, a big burger set that we shared cost about 1500 yen. Beer was 700 yen and this being Japan you can walk around with a glass of beer (sometimes essential for those long lines). Vending machines also had drinks for 200 yen.

USJ is easily reached by train, a short ride from Nishikujo station on the loop line. You’ll think you’re in the U.S. when you step out of the station with Starbucks, TGIFridays and many more chain restaurants outside the park.