Japan has always been a dream destination for our family. Pao and I have visited this funky yet beautiful country on separate occasions, and both were work-related. Even with just one visit each, we declared Japan to be the best place to go, especially as a family. We decided on an Osaka-Kyoto-Nara adventure, all within 5 days or on 2-6 October 2014. So 5 days, 3 prefectures, countless train rides, virtually limitless choices of Japanese food stalls and restaurants, equals loads of fun!
We purchased our plane tickets last 21 August, applied for visas the following week, and bought Lonely Planet’s ‘Discover Japan’ when we got our visas. And then I plunged into the complicated subways and various sightseeing maps and tourist walk guides, got lost, got some headache, but a week before our scheduled flight, we were ready with our 8-page itinerary, Kansai passes, pre-paid admission tickets to Universal Studios-Osaka, and coats to battle the cooler temperature.
Day 1, Getting around and ending up in those happy places: Osaka Castle and Kaiyukan
Our plane left Singapore for Osaka at 1:25am on Oct 2. Aryana was fast asleep just after we checked-in, two hours before our flight, so it was a great start since we had all these unspent energy that should just be enough for 5 days of relentless sightseeing.
We arrived at 9:00am, picked up our 2 suitcases, and went straight to Osaka via the JR line which took us from Kansai International Airport straight to Osaka Station in 65 minutes or so and costs ¥1190 per adult and half for children aged 4-12 years old.
We had lunch at one of the Japanese restaurants called Tsuruya at the 14th floor of the Daimaru Umeda department store, located at the south gate building of the Osaka Station. The girl who served us didn’t speak English but it was never a problem. We were armed with a picture-filled menu and she had a small placard with her that announces what’s next, for example: we will serve sorbet later. Language barrier is resolved immediately, by pictures and placards.
The Ritz Carlton-Osaka was a short 10-minute walk from Osaka station via the Sakurabashi gate. Although check-in time was still at 3:00 p.m., our room was ready by the time we got to the hotel lobby at 1:00 p.m. and we were able to avail of the early check-in, free of charge. Not only was the room ready, so too were our matching PJ’s.
We love it that our hotel was very near the Osaka station, with multiple access points to Nishi-Umeda station either via underground, especially since it was raining intermittently while we were there, or via that 8-minute walk while taking in the sights. Osaka station is humongous, you will get lost if you’re not mindful of the arrows. But I daresay it is one of the best in the world. There is an underground garden, complete with greeneries and running waters, which allows you to breathe amid the hustle and bustle that is city life. There are just about under a million restaurants and food stalls and stores that you can right away check food-tripping and shopping in your list of must-do’s-in-Osaka. More importantly though, Osaka station allows for hassle-free connections and switches from main lines to subways, subways to subways, and everything else.
We washed and changed as quickly as a family of five with a wriggling toddler could, and then we were ready for our family’s first official tourist spot in Osaka: the Osaka Castle Museum (entrance fee is ¥600 for adults and free for children aged 15-below). So to get there from Nishi-Umeda (Yotsubashi line), we got off in Hommachi (Y13), transferred to the Chuo line, and exited at Tanimachi 4-chome (C18).
From there, it was a 10-minute walk to the castle. Do take note that we have a toddler-in-a-stroller-saddled-with-many-bags, so for a brisk-walking all-adults’ party, it should take less. The Osaka castle museum and park were simply breath-taking. We’re lucky that our children- aged 13, 6 and 2 love museums so that everybody was excited and entertained. We were happy scrutinizing ancient war memorabilia, from dioramas to costumes to fans. Most of all, we were having so much fun taking pictures of the Castle and all its angles, from the ground to the observation deck in the 8th floor.
After 2 hours, we headed off to Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan, which is also in subway Chuo line. We went back to the Tanimachi 4-chome station (C18) and rode the train to Osakako (C11). From Osakako, walk straight for 5 minutes or so until you see the Tempozan Market Place. The entrance to the aquarium is on its left (Box A in figure below).
Entrance fees are ¥2300 for adults aged 16+, ¥1200 for ages 7-15, ¥600 for ages 4-6 and free for children 3-below. If you have a valid kansai pass, do show to every tourist destination you go to, because, more often than not, you get fee discounts.
There is so much to be said about the Kaiyukan: children’s h(e)aven, everyone’s blissful-peaceful place, amazing, wonder-full, are just a few that spring to my mind. We were there for almost 4 hours, until closing time, and we couldn’t get enough. The whale shark was cruising through the waters, glancing at us one second, swimming away the next, its magnificence and power took my breath away, and it was almost like there was no tempered glass that separated us. The dolphins, oh those happy dolphins, they were big show-offs, and my children, especially the little girls were enthralled! They played with the dolphins, putting their palms on the glass when the dolphins came near, waving and beckoning at them when the dolphins danced away. The many, many penguins were just as wonderful to look at. Some were swimming swiftly, leaving a thousand or so bubbles in their wake, others were dancing happy-feet style, while some were stoic, staring back at us. I reckon I could stare back at them for hours. We went to all the areas- from the islands to the oceans and rain forests. The last area we went to was the touch pool, where children, some younger than my 2 years-and-8-months Aryana, touched manta rays, small sharks and snakes. For the first time in my life, I saw children of all ages, plus some adults too, interacting with sea creatures and with each other in a harmonious, happy way. There was no crying, no pushing, and certainly no quarreling. It was pure fun. The mother in me was touched to the core. The Kaiyukan should be multiplied and placed in every country so that we need not pray every night nor spend our last centavo for world peace.
We went back to the Osaka station city for our dinner. We ate at this really delicious Italian restaurant called Trattoria Arlecchino at the 14th floor of the Daimaru Umeda department store building. We ordered two kinds each of pasta and pizza plus mixed grilled meat of pork and beef which were all gone in a jiffy. That good!
Day 2, Officially Kids’ Day: Instant Ramen Museum and Kids’ Plaza Osaka
Our second day in Osaka was officially children’s day, which turned out to be a family fun day as kids and parents alike all enjoyed the trek to the Instant Ramen Museum and Kids’ Plaza Osaka.
The Instant Ramen Museum was beyond expectations, especially because I expected it to be a sort of showcase of ramen through the years. It was more than that. There is a ramen tunnel, yes, featuring all kinds of ramen- curry, seafood, beef, pork, chicken, spicy, miso, and so much more, in all kinds of pictures on the packaging – a wrestler/body builder, anime and cartoon characters are just some which got my attention. There is a vending machine of all things ramen, set in a café overlooking a Zen garden which was simply delightful. There is also the house which built nissin noodles, complete with age-old pots and ceramics and noodle-makers and fans and refs. The best part is the kids’ workshop where they are given a blank nissin cup, which they will design themselves. And then they will choose the ingredients to their own nissin cup. How cool is that! We spent a good 4 hours in the museum.
When we were hungry, we walked for 5-7 minutes, back to the small Japanese restaurant we spied on our way to the museum. The restaurant was called Hakata Ippudo and although we were just on our second day in Osaka, we declared it to be our best lunch ever! The gyoza, which looked so ordinary, tasted so extraordinarily yummy. The ramen was to die for! Pao, Isaac and I ordered different kinds of ramen and they were all shocking to the palate- shockingly delicious plus delicious. Yesica ordered the grilled pork cutlets and it was outstanding in taste and presentation. Them Japanese know how to serve great food. We also bought sweet treats from a little organic shop nearby- from cookies to strawberry and raspberry and chocolate cakes, we simply couldn’t eat enough.
To get to the Instant Ramen Museum, go to the Hankyu-Umeda station, which is a short walk from the Osaka Station City, again, follow the arrows please. Look for the Hankyu Takarazuka line, get off at Ikeda Station, go down, turn right and walk for about 10-12 minutes from the station. Don’t forget to take your picture with the statue of the founder standing on top of a nissin cup noodle, which got us in stitches.
Re-energized with matching fuller-than-full stomachs, we trudged on to Kids’ Plaza Osaka. To get there, we exited from the Hankyu-Umeda station, transferred to Nishi-Umeda, got off at Hommachi, transferred to the Chuo line, got off at Sakaisuji-Hommachi, transferred again to the Sakaisuji Line and got off finally at Ogimachi. So many transfers yes, but so short distances and so worth it! The Kids’ Plaza has everything- science experiments, adventure land, interactive dioramas, musical instruments, role-playing area, even a very-short-distance race track which elicited laughs and guffaws and shrieks from Aryana to mama! We made this day more memorable with a nightcap at the amazing Umeda Sky Building and Floating Garden Observatory. The kids had endless chicken nuggets and strawberry sundae on one table while the adults had beer and waffles and quiet conversation on a separate table overlooking the entire city. This particular memory always warms my heart. Pretty awesome.
Day 3, The Magnificent Temples in Kyoto
We slept excited and woke up more excited, and yes it’s possible, when you know you are about to savor the magnificent temples of Kyoto. We had a quick breakfast of Lawson-bought assorted breads and left our hotel at around 8:30am for the Osaka station. We looked and found in about 1 minute or less the Karasuma line going to Kyoto (click and print: http://www.jrpass.com/images/map/map_kyoto_metro.pdf). If I remember it correctly, it was line 2 of the Osaka station. We got off at Kyoto in 30 minutes, hailed a cab and allowed ourselves to be swept away by the Kinkakuji Temple. There were so many tourists, but wherever we are, there the temple stood, unnerved by the million or so eyes upon it, glistening and making me teary-eyed. The first time I set eyes on Kinkakuji was in 2004, it was drizzling with snow and I was jostling with wide-eyed tourists like me to get the best angle using my age-old camera. But I found that any angle is the best angle. There is no escaping the golden pavilion. How amazing is that! We went around the Zen surroundings, tossed a few yens for good luck, drank pure green tea with sweet cake under a bright red Japanese umbrella, bought lucky charms, and ate nissin noodles from a vending machine and assorted mochi from a small shop for lunch.
We then took the cab to Kyoto’s Imperial Palace. It was a little disappointing since we didn’t get enough slots for the entire family, but the children had a fun time playing in the park, gathering pine cones and pretending to roast them using fallen twigs and branches, and just running around in the vast green expanse.
After that short rest, we were ready to experience Kiyomizu-dera. Because that temple was so wondrous that you cannot just use the word ‘go’ oh no, that is too casual. Kiyomizu-dera was an experience… that it made us breathless- literally and figuratively- since the temple has many layers and the trek, with a toddler-in-the-stroller was no small feat. We walked slowly, breathing in the vibes that the entire surroundings gave out- at once cheerful, at times somber, always peaceful. My daughter Yesica wanted to have her picture taken among the many dressed buddha because (and in a high-pitched voice) ‘I read it in your book mama!’ The temple itself, and the view from the top of the mountain, plus the many dainty shops and colourful things, everything was breathtaking. We took our time, we stopped for a little family picnic, and then went down to the little shops and bought what-else but Japanese mochi and biscuits and cakes (in all happy flavors of green tea, chocolate, strawberry, banana, mango, and chestnut too) and masks and fans.
Happy feet check, tired feet, double check. It was almost 5 p.m. when we got to Ryokan Ginkaku. I booked the ryokan from Japan Tourism Board (JTB), a travel agency located at Ion-Orchard. I tried to book online but it was too complicated looking for a ryokan that could accommodate a family of five, plus I was not comfortable with the ‘translate to English’ box that opens every time I try to book one. It turned out better for us, the total cost- dinner and breakfast included- was cheaper than the rates quoted online. The same agency offered admission tickets to Universal Studios in advance and also the 3-day Kansai pass, which was very useful and efficient since we get to use it from Osaka to Kyoto and Nara, plus less expensive than buying single tickets. It’s like a one-stop shop for travel must-have-tickets.
They don’t speak much English at the ryokan, but the big welcoming smiles said it all. They helped us settle in, gave us comfortable slippers and matching yukata, asked about our preferred time for dinner, and left us alone. We bathe the Japanese way, taking our time in the deep bath tub full of hot water. And then at the appointed time of 6:30 p.m., the parade of ryokan food began. I have never seen so many beautiful small bowls, each one filled with oishi food in all shapes and colors and sizes and emitting such delicate and dainty and delicious smell that we were salivating before we could say ‘Itadakimasu.’ There is no such thing as too much Japanese food. And ryokan food is just OMG-level. Superb superb superb.
We slept beside each other in our futons laid upon tatami mats. The girls were just too giggly, my teenage son was trying hard to be cool about it (but was still raving about the food hours after dinner), and the husband was feeling cozy and sleepy, while I had this warmth enveloping me, especially inside my heart. We woke up excited and slept happy. Truly the best of times.
Day 4, Feeding the Deer at the Nara Deer Park
The Kansai adventure is not for the faint of heart. Because on our fourth day, we woke up just as excited as the days before. We will be feeding the deer at Nara Deer Park! It is too much especially for hearts the size of my little girls!
The Kyoto station is just 4 minutes away from our ryokan. We boarded the Kintetsu Nara train and got off at Nara 45 minutes later. Right away, we could see some of the deer that wandered away from the park the moment we were above-ground. I was torn between restraining my kids and taking some pics myself. But we were to learn that that exciting moment was nothing compared to being face to face with the deer. Especially if you’re holding that saliva-inducing (for humans and animals alike, I promise you, it smelled so good!) deer biscuit. They do not look hostile or harmful at all, but they are excitable and aggressive when food is nearby. So be forewarned. Feeding the deer is an exercise that is best left to the bravest of hearts. Ergo, after feeding a deer or two, I had to be content with watching the excitement unfold before me as my children fed, stroked and got too close for comfort with the deer. After an hour and a thousand yen, we started to make our way to the Todaiji Temple. We went through the park, through tunnels and ice cream shops and quaint restaurants and more deer, and then lo and behold, there stood before us the Naindamon (Great South Gate), once the world’s largest wooden building, and flanked by the Nio guardians on each side. Further on is the Todaiji Temple, the UNESCO World Heritage Site, which instantly became our family’s favorite temple. We had to take a moment or two, to take it all in, compartmentalize each beautiful area, lodge the memory firmly in our heads, and just be grateful for being there, breathing in the temple and the harmony it emanates. We went inside the Daibutsuden, The Great Buddha Hall, and ‘great’ is too small a word for all the emotions it evoked in me. We spent a good hour inside the hall, looking up, up and up, allowing ourselves to be overwhelmed, saying a prayer of thanks, etching every single thing, big or small, into our hearts. Savor, savor, savor: this is how we should live our lives- that was my take-away during our Nara trip.
We went back to Osaka on the same day, in the same hotel, in the same floor with different room number, but the same nice feeling. I know others don’t want to spend a little more on a nicer hotel, but for us, it counts, resting in a nice hotel after an exciting and exhausting day sends out positive vibes that makes the trip not just any other trip, but an experience.
Day 5, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Universal Studios, Osaka, Japan
Save the best for last- perhaps this was the theme that was running through our minds as we ran from the hotel to the train station to Universal Studios-Osaka to catch the opening hour of 9am on the last day of our Kansai adventure. We bought the 7-ride special pass (including Harry Potter rides of course) at the USJ ticket area on the same day, and it was just a short queue of 15 minutes or so.So many rides, so many children’s indoor playgrounds, so many cafes, so many boutiques and shops, and we enjoyed every one of them, but the best of them all, and the only thing we really went to Universal Studios-Japan for (because we have Universal Studios here in Singapore too) was THE Wizarding World of Harry Potter. That world defied my expectations. Wherever I look, it was OMG level. Too much, too happy, too blessed, too grateful. My heart burst into a million happy bits and I didn’t care.
We were there from 9am up to 6pm, rushed back to our hotel to collect our suitcases from the concierge, went to the Osaka station to board the train to Kansai international airport, and made it just in time for boarding. As the plane took off from Osaka to Singapore, Paolo and I looked at each other above our children’s heads, and said in unison: we survived!!! 6-hour plane ride, 3 prefectures of Osaka, Kyoto and Nara, 3 excited children with ages at 13, 6 and 2, countless train rides and transfers and switches, endless stairs with me carrying Aryana in her 15-kilos-plus glory, Pao carrying Aryana’s stroller, and Isaac carrying our big bags, a thousand or so 15-minute walks, that when strung together, should make up a whole week of non-stop walking! More than these, everyday was peppered with laughter and jaw-dropping moments and such priceless things as being amazed together for 24/7 for 5 days. And that is what our family is all about.