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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.

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.

Take me out to the (Japanese) ball game — watching a Hanshin Tigers baseball game

16 Oct

Hanshin Tigers player Takashi Toritani at bat.

The crowd is quiet, save for areas in the outfields where the hardcore fans seem to be. From where we are, near first base, I can faintly hear their songs and cheers. All around me people are drinking beer and eating greasy baseball food. But here there is more takoyaki and yakitori than hotdogs and corn dogs. I’m a bit disappointed that it’s not as rowdy as I’ve been told it would be.

That is until a Tiger steps up to the plate.

Hanshin Tigers player Takashi Toritani at bat.

Hanshin Tigers player Takashi Toritani at bat.

Small plastic bats, towels and other paraphernalia begin to appear. These Japanese people, who rarely ever raise their voices or answer a phone call on a train, start to yell and cheer. They hit the bats together, singing elaborate songs for each player and moaning in disappointment at every out.

Though they are respectful when the other team is at bat, in this case Tokyo’s Yakult Swallows, Hanshin Tigers fans are known as some of the most dedicated in the game.

The Tigers are the favourite team of the Kansai region. Koshien Stadium, the Tiger’s main stomping grounds, is the oldest ballpark in Japan. The Tigers have a strong rivalry with the Tokyo Giants, often compared to the Red Sox and the Yankees. The Tigers, like the Red Sox, even have their own curse — the Curse of the Colonel.

The Tiger's main turf, Koshien Stadium, is old school -- natural grass and dirt.

The Tiger’s main turf, Koshien Stadium, is old school — natural grass and dirt.

The cursing Colonel after being fished out of the Dotonbori canal.

The cursing Colonel after being fished out of the Dotonbori canal.

In 1985, after the team won their only Japan Series championship, fans gathered downtown Osaka near the dirty Dotonbori canal. Player’s names were called out and people looked like that player jumped into the canal. When American born Randy Bass’ name was called, there was no foreigner with a beard in sight. That is, except for a statue of the Colonel in front of a KFC. In the canal the Colonel went and the Tigers haven’t won the Japan Series again.

The statue was finally recovered in 2009 but the curse still hasn’t lifted.

You’d think with such a long history of losses, the fans would get a bit discouraged. Watch a game and you wouldn’t think so. Tigers games are filled with rituals. Each player at bat has their own song that everyone tries to sing along to. As a foreigner, and one unacquainted with the team, watch the scrolling screens above home plate for the player’s names written in the roman alphabet.

The highlight of the game is the seventh inning stretch, after the singing of the Tigers’ fight song, when everyone in attendance lets balloons off into the sky.

Balloons being let off into the sky at a Hanshin Tigers game.

Balloons fill the sky at a Hanshin Tigers game.

Watching baseball in Japan is not only a lot of fun, but a great time to see Japanese kicking back and getting a bit rowdy. And while it’s America’s favourite game, it sure feels very Japanese.

 

TIPS

I purchased my tickets from a Family Mart convenience store, they were 2,500 yen each. There is a stand-alone machine that sells all sorts of tickets. It’s all in Japanese and a bit confusing, so enlisting a cashier’s help is a good idea. Tickets can also be purchased on the Tigers website, but it’s also in Japanese and even more confusing.

The Tigers usually play at Koshien stadium for home games, but not always, so double check. The stadium is right next to Koshien station, twelve minutes from Umeda on the Hanshin main line.

There is lots of food and drinks available inside and outside the stadium, everything from curry rice to pizza. Food and drinks can be brought in, but beer is poured into plastic cups at the door. Beer girls carry around kegs on their backs and sell cups for 600 yen.

News story about the Colonel’s reappearance:

A sporty night out — Spocha in Osaka

25 Jun

The rollerskating rink at Spocha. I see at least one person on the ground.

One of my group of friends’ favourite way to spend a night out, besides karaoke of course, is going to spocha. Spocha is pretty much any game you can think of for a set price… and there’s karaoke if you get restless.

We go to the Round 1 just south of Dotonbori, which is open 24 hours a day. When choosing how long to play, I would recommend going for the all night option. A two or three hour pass costs about 2000 yen ($20), but for a few hundred yen more you can play all night and not have to worry about late charges. The prices do seem to vary on what time you enter though.

The rollerskating rink at Spocha. I see at least one person on the ground.

The rollerskating rink at Spocha. I see at least one person on the ground.

After paying for the bracelet, you have five floors of entertainment to make your way through. The options seem endless and I doubt any person has played every game in the place in one night. The first floor welcomes you to the mayhem with bowling, pool and bull riding. For sports, you have team games such as soccer, volleyball, tennis and basketball on fairly good sized courts with nice squishy balls. There’s also dodge ball if you take the volleyball nets down and make your own court as my friends and I did in a fairly intense game one night. There are many games to play on your own or with a small group — darts, ping pong, archery, mini golf and batting cages.

Soocer or footie, depending on where you're from, at Spocha.

Soocer or footie, depending on where you’re from, at Spocha.

And there’s also the place that a select few of my friends and I shine at — the rollerskating rink. Apparently Canadians rock at rollerskating (I wonder why?). As every time we go, the Japanese seem to clear the rink and watch us in amazement while calling for rolling-by high fives. This while our gaijin friends from other countries are sore on their butts or clinging to the rails.

If you’re especially lucky you may witness the skating rink turn momentarily into a mini motorbike track. I sadly haven’t had the chance to race these yet.

For those less inclined to sweat, there is a whole floor dedicated to video games, with both new style games and arcade classics like Pac Man. This floor also has a children’s play area with ball pit, which I sneak into every time, powerful massage chairs with comic books to read and the aforementioned karaoke rooms.

Each time I go I’m so shocked that this much fun can be had under one tall roof for $20. One of the many, many reasons why Japan is fantastic.

Visit the Round 1 website (in Japanese) for more information and locations.