Japan (Part I) - Osaka

Thursday, October 25, 2018

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Growing up, getting to go abroad were occurrences far and few between. My family doesn't go on annual family trips, for reasons I have mentioned on this space before. It was only when we were able to travel independently did my brother and myself start to seek out opportunities and adventures in foreign lands. Definitely, it remains a privilege and I am really thankful that in just this year alone, I've been to five countries (and with more planned!) - three of being brand new countries that I've never step foot on prior.  

Yet, travelling does sometimes feel awfully self-indulgent. Most of the time we go there with the intention of taking a "holiday"; to relax, unwind and get away from the responsibilities of our actual lives. This usually takes the form of eating way too many meals just to sample every single local delicacy, purchasing frivolous souvenirs we don't actually need, and posing for photographs that aren't capturing worthy memories. Sure, we can all claim that we want to immerse ourselves into the cultures but how many of us actually make the effort to live like a local? 

Truth be told, a short four to five-day stay in another country will never allow us to accomplish that. And that's okay. A little glimpse into a completely foreign environment can still allow us to walk away with insights and lessons, which I did take away from this Japan trip which I will touch on sometime. Funnily enough, my extended stay in Hong Kong has made me accustomed to living frugally even in an overseas environment, and I adopted this mindset even when I flew over to Osaka - till Huiting (my travel buddy for this trip) and I realized that the holiday didn't feel right... and decided to splurge on tickets to visit Universal Studios Japan. 

Before we get to that, let's rewind a little. I flew over to Kansai International Airport from Hong Kong on the night of 26 September and arrived there in the dead of the night, when nothing was open and the subway wasn't operating. I camped in a little McDonald's outlet before the trains started pulling up at around 5am and caught the first one out into the city. Insanely fatigued from not catching any sleep on the plane nor the airport, I was definitely not in the right mind to figure out Japan's complex train lines. It's a miracle I even managed to navigate through two line changes and a bunch of street signs to reach my Airbnb apartment. But I did - and was greeted by a well-rested Huiting who flew in from Taiwan about ten hours before me. 

The first train from Kansai International Airport, that quickly became packed with Salarymen rushing to work, at - gasp - 5am in the morning.

I quickly freshened up with a shower at the Airbnb before we started out on our first very-touristy day of exploration in Osaka! I was definitely tired, but powered myself through my excitement since it was my first time in Japan and it's been a country I've been wanting to visit for a while. 

Osaka Castle

Who would've known that our Airbnb was just a ten-minute walk away from Osaka Castle? Thankfully, Huiting's map-reading skills are top-notch so I just let her take over the navigation from here. The castle was a gorgeous piece of architecture, but I don't think either of us really appreciated or took the time to read up on its historical significance when we were there. A pity, because we decided we could go without paying to enter the castle - which stems from our college-student-on-budget mindsets. 

Still appreciated its beauty from the outside though.

Patrolling the palace grounds. 

With one of the surrounding structures. 


After leaving the palace grounds, we took the subway to Dotonbori with the intention to grab lunch - and boy was I floored by the variety of food presented to us (literally, via the creative signs screaming out). I absolutely love the vibrancy of Japanese storefronts and streets. 

At Dotonbori, we stopped by a conveyor belt sushi place called Genrokuzushi for lunch. We joined the queue before it opened and managed to be the restaurant's first wave of customers for the day. A quick Google search will tell you that this is apparently the "Best Sushi in Dotonbori Osaka". I don't have a comparison but for what it's worth, the sushi here is definitely very, very good. We were fed a variety of traditional types like salmon and tuna, as well as more modern takes like the blow-torched Aburi ones. Insanely fresh and made right before your eyes - a gastronomical delight. 

Despite being rather full, we couldn't resist the Takoyaki calling out to us. There were two competing stores just across the pavement from one another and in true Singaporean fashion, we were drawn to the one with the longer queue. I didn't catch the name of the restaurant but it has a huge octopus signage and even plays a Takoyaki theme song to attract customers - hard to miss!

While flavourful, both of us felt that the octopus balls were way too mushy and liquid-y in the centre. We're not sure if it's because of the high demand that these balls were undercooked or if that's how they are usually served but I personally would not recommend this one. 


Following our little feast, we decided to take it a little slower and headed for Tennoji. We walked around this quieter district and stumbled upon the Horikoshi Shrine. It was tranquil and peaceful with barely anyone around. 

Hopes and dreams.

We continued our exploration of Tennoji and found the Isshin-ji Temple, a Buddhist temple that featured really modern structures and architecture. Most of the people who were there to pray appeared to be locals. 

Following our rather spiritual journey, we headed to perhaps the polar opposite end of Tennoji - Shinsekai, which was designed to be an entertainment district modeled after New York and Paris. Personally, I felt it embodied the same vibe as Dotonbori, minus some of the crowds.  

With the TsÅ«tenkaku Tower in the background.

I saw a shop selling corn dogs and knew that I had to try one - especially after watching countless of muk-bangs featuring people eating corn dogs, mostly because of how fun they look to eat and the stretchy quality of the cheese. Just for fun, here's a little video I captured of us savouring the ones we bought:  

The video is fast-forwarded, but essentially Huiting and I were confused that there wasn't a sausage in our corn dog and were wondering if we should ask the shop owner. After I paused the video, we did - and he told us that the sausage was only at the end of the corn dog, and he was right. 

We called it a day pretty early at around 7/8pm and decided to head back to rest especially since I didn't sleep the night before. We also realized that we were covering quite a lot of our planned itinerary faster than we thought, and weren't spending a lot either. As such, we decided to condense our Kyoto and Nara itinerary into one day and head to Universal Studios Japan the next day, which was such a good call. 

Universal Studios Japan 

Unsurprisingly, this was my favourite day of our Japan trip! I am really a sucker for imagineering done well. Despite having gone to Universal Studios Singapore multiple times, this visit was still full of surprises, wonder and awe. Japan really took it to the next level. 

Perhaps the attraction/ area of the park that I was most excited about was the Wizarding World of Harry Potter and I was not disappointed at all. I am such a huge fan of JK Rowling and the entire world she was able to create with just her extraordinary talent with words, and I absolutely love all the movies in the series as well - the actors really brought everything to life and it was so surreal to be able to physically step into this world - at least, as close as it can get. 

We rushed to get butterbeer the moment we stepped foot into the theme park. Creamy, refreshing, sweet - everything I've ever imagined. 

We queued around 2 hours for a Harry Potter 4D ride, and it was well worth the wait. It utilized a similar concept as the Transformers ride in Singapore, but it was a lot more thrilling and breathtaking. It was such an out-of-body experience and I was just so happy being able to be a part of the Hogwarts family - and yes, I'm also well aware that I'm a 21-year-old grown adult. 

I won't touch on every single attraction/ site we visited, but there is absolutely no way one can feel upset being in such an environment. Every single detail of this park was so well executed and it's just a beautiful place to be. Truly giving Disneyland a run for its money as being the "happiest place in the world". 

Not the biggest fan of Minions - but this was really cute. 

Heh, isn't it every bank in the world - except this one actually acknowledges its wrongs. 

Caught the sunset glow on this one. 

These churros were warm, crisp on the outside and slightly gooey on the inside. The dusting of granulated sugar on the outside made them perfect. 

Happy, happy me. 

As the sun set, it signaled the start of a change in the atmosphere of the park. Zombies and other creatures were about the roam the premises - yes, our visit coincided with the Halloween celebrations. We were pleasantly surprised that we were able to experience Halloween Horror Night in Japan, and considering I've never been to the one in Singapore, this added to my list of 'firsts'. 

And the zombie clowns emerged!

Huiting and I visited about three of the haunted houses, all of which were pretty scary - and that's coming from someone who's never been scared by horror movies. It boggles my mind just how they managed to pull everything off. Some of the trails required the participation of the visitors (such as running into little cubicles to dodge from zombies, or keying in passwords that they told us to memorize as the start of the maze) which definitely required an insane amount of coordination. It was amazing, but definitely not for the faint-hearted. According to Huiting, Japan's version surpassed Singapore's by leaps and bounds. 

Finally, we ended off our night with the night parade, which was not merely a show of dancing performers waving to the crowd, but one with a storyline and dark theme. Absolutely blown away. Unfortunately, low lighting limits my photography skills significantly and I only managed to capture this passable shot of the Harry Potter segment. 

Although this is only one performer, just look at the amount of detail already invested into her props/ costumes. 

I can't even begin to reiterate how impressed I am at the level of imagineering at Universal Studios Japan. Everything was on-point, and I'm so thankful to have been able to experience it all. Of course, this is just the first two days of my Japan trip - will be updating on the next three days on this space soon.   
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Typhoon Thoughts

Thursday, October 4, 2018

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A shot I took of the Kuromon Ichiba Market a day after the typhoon hit Osaka - bustling business as usual. 

Within the span of two weeks, I found myself in the middle of two typhoons, in two separate countries. I'm currently on fall exchange in Hong Kong, where the hurricane signal 10 Typhoon Mangkhut descended upon on 16 September. And I've just returned from a trip to Osaka, Japan, which was hit my Typhoon Trami on 30 September. 

It is easy, as a sheltered Singaporean, to fall into the trap of wearing such experiences as badges of honour. And I'm guilty of that - every time I mark myself as "safe" on Facebook's Crisis Response pages set up for these natural disasters, I am probably seeking attention, declaring to everyone who chances upon the post that "hey! I managed to survive a typhoon!" Afterall, if I had the capacity to get onto Facebook, I've probably also managed to text family and friends of my safety and whereabouts. There was no real need for the function. (Although, in my defence, I've written at least three academic essays about this feature on Facebook, mostly to prove how social media can be a force for good, so I jumped at the opportunity to actually test it out for myself.) 

That aside, perhaps the reason why I felt that surviving a typhoon was worth "bragging" about, is because such natural disasters are a novel concept to me. They are the events that happen only in "other countries", and they are the events featured in newspaper reports I've unfortunately become desensitized to. The sheer foreign-ness of these incidents makes them exciting. However, such a mindset is wrong on so many levels. 

For me, these events are mere experiences, while for residents of these countries, such occurrences are part of their lives. Having to stock up food and water supplies regularly in their homes to tide them through power outages or water cuts isn't fun. Some even have to evacuate their homes and seek respite at government shelters because they live in coastal areas or in low-rise buildings - and are even faced with the risk of having their homes destroyed by the typhoons.

Yet, I was thrilled to grocery shop and had the luxury of planning my meals in advance. In both countries, I was also lucky enough to have proper accommodation spaces which were comfortable and safe. The typhoons ended up being nonevents to me mostly because I'd just spend the entire day indoors and witness the storm through my strong and sturdy glass windows. I was not hurt and the only real inconvenience was a one-day plane delay.

Another key impact that I may have overlooked as an "outsider" are the substantial clean-up efforts that take place following the typhoon. While I don't think Typhoon Trami affected Osaka that much (physically, that is), the roads outside my dorm room in Hong Kong were badly cracked and I was personally inconvenienced the next school day by out-of-order elevators and fallen trees blocking my path. However, everything was cleared and repaired so efficiently - I witnessed volunteers and staff members hard at work, restoring things back to normalcy. This was all very eye-opening, and I can't help but wonder if Singapore would be able to respond to such situations in the same manner.

Probably not. The typhoon that hit Hong Kong occurred at roughly the same period as the less-than-an-hour blackout that hit several estates islandwide in my home country, which resulted in hordes of complaints online. Of course, while I am aware that this isn't a fair comparison - the blackout isn't a natural disaster and is likely the fault of the utility companies which I agree should be fixed, it gave us a glimpse of how Singaporeans may react. And in any case, it also highlights how fortunate we are - that the most "serious" thing that happens are short, one-off power outages.

Of course, the most obvious and devastating effects of natural disasters are the loss of lives and homes. For that, my heart goes out to everyone affected, not just by these typhoons but also the recent earthquake/ tsunami in Indonesia. It is not enough for sure, but perhaps I should start by counting my blessings from now on. 
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