DISCLAIMER: I DID NOT TAKE A LOT OF PHOTOS DURING THIS TRIP. FOR THAT, I AM SORRY.
It was way too unbearably hot & humid for me to even want to whip out my camera, let alone take any photographs. Not to mention, our tour itinerary was incredibly packed & so rushed, we barely ever had time for bathroom breaks. However, I still had a lot of fun experiencing cultural activities & visiting historical places that I would not have explored on my own. I also got to bond with & grow closer to my relatives, as well as share fun rare memories.
After our guided tour ended, I was affirmed with my own belief that I am not cut out to go on guided tour vacations. Sure, guided tours are great; very convenient, efficient & often all-inclusive. The guided tour I went on (brought to you by Super Value Tours Inc.) was wonderful in its own way. Let me make an itemized list, so I don’t get too wordy & over-explain.
The above listed benefits of our guided tour made the entire trip so easy & effortless. We didn’t have to pre-plan or think about anything. Pretty much everything was pre-selected, pre-planned, & pre-booked for us by our tour guide & the tour agency from the hotels, to the transportation, & all the way to allowances for meals & taxis. Each day, we were allotted 2 bottles of water, which were passed around on the tour bus. It was so unbearably hot during our tour, the bottles of water were very much appreciated. This guided tour I just went on was such a breeze. We were given specific instructions & organized maps each day for all of our activities.
I would definitely recommend this guided tour, & especially recommend our utterly phenomenal tour guide Michiko Sasayama. However, I don’t think I will be going on another guided tour. I’m just not cut out for the fast-paced environment of our tour. I prefer to take things slow, explore places at my own pace, & be able to choose my own desired activities & meals. Also, I try to avoid crowded tourist traps at all costs, & on this guided tour, inevitably, we visited nearly every available tourist trap. Those places we visited were fun & beautiful, quite historical & meaningful. Yet, it was the throngs of rude tourists that really turned me off. I honestly felt like I was thrown into a festering cess pool of the worst kind of tourists. No manners. No etiquette. No behaviors.
Even though those damned tourist annoyed the hell out of me, I didn’t let that deter me from having an amazing trip. I kept on repeating to myself that I was on this trip mainly to support my cousin Amber, who was experiencing Japan for the very first time. I was there to support her, & to make sure she was taken care of & had the best time. I put aside all of my discomforts, kept up a positive energy, & reminded myself that this family trip was not solely for me to have fun. This trip was purposely planned around my younger cousin & her dreams of visiting Japan to explore her hobbies & interests. I was exceptionally happy & very content to see that Amber was having the time of her life & learning new things, & that all of my aunts, my uncle (& also including my mom) were comfortable & well taken care of. I like to think of myself as a helper or personal assistant. I love to be useful & help others. Whether it’s to escort my aunt up & down a flight of stairs (so she doesn’t trip), or to help my mom carry her heavy luggage, or to help Amber understand more about Japanese traditions & pop culture, I was fully relishing my role as a helper.
The guided tour that we all attended could not have been more action-packed & busy, yet it was still a very fun trip overall. I was pleasantly surprised that I was also able to experience new things & try new activities alongside my cousin, who was having the time of her life. Each day was packed full, & it’s hard to describe our time without writing a 100-page novel about it. So, let me try to compartmentalize our experiences into one tidy itinerary for your reading enjoyment.
The day before our trip to Japan, my mom & I visited my aunt (my mom’s younger, & only sister) to celebrate her 69th birthday in Los Angeles. My brother, who is very close to our aunt, planned a quiet dinner at a trendy restaurant owned & operated by one of his good friends. We dined on new-age Thai-inspired California cuisine (so very L.A.). Since my siblings live so close to the International airport (approximately 10-15 minutes with traffic), we spent the night at my sister’s place before our flight.
Let me just say that although I am thoroughly in love with Japan Airlines & all of their generous & luxurious amenities, I am less than satisfied with their flight check-in/boarding process. In fact, their website check-in process, pardon my language,
sucks balls. Not only did I have to individually fill in all the information for each person, but it was mandatory to sign up for mobile text/email alerts in case our flight status changed. It took me 5 tries to get everyone’s information exactly the way JAL wanted to have it typed. If you misspell a line or accidentally skip a step, you have to start over again. (Usually when I fly to Japan, I prefer to fly on All Nippon Airways. Their check-in process is so much simpler than JAL’s, not to mention their tickets are often less expensive.) By the time I was done checking everyone in, I wanted to throw my phone across the room.
Aside from all of that nonsense, I do have one really huge positive thing to say about JAL. Their seats, from first-class all the way to basic economy, were super luxurious. Our tour package upgraded all of our seats to the premium economy level, which meant we got more leg room. I have flown on airplanes many times, & have flow on various airlines, but I have never in my life sat in seats so fancy in my entire life. Instead of describing the seats to you with boring, bland words, let me show you with pictures.
01. adjustable head rest, 02. privacy screen, 03. adjustable personal reading light, 04. removable remote control for entertainment console, *Also included: standard lumpy pillow & threadbare blanket.
The privacy screen was so narrow it did nothing except provide a hard surface for anyone who wanted to prop up their pillow to sleep. It did provided NO privacy at all, but it was a nice luxury. I liked the reading light, it provided a soft light instead of the glaringly bright overhead lights of other airlines.
01. USB plug for charging your phone, 02. complimentary noise-canceling headphones, 03. complimentary slippers, 04. adjustable footrest (comes standard in all Japanese airlines), 05. TWO seat recliner buttons, one to recline your seat-back & a 2nd one to pull up a leg rest from under your seat.
JAL is very clever. They provide you with their own noise-canceling headphones, which is a bonus luxury, but with the two prong plug, you can’t use your own headphones, & aside from the noise-canceling function, they’re just basic
cheap airline headphones. (So, don’t even bother using your fancy-schmancy $300 BOSE headphones.)
I didn’t bother to take a photo of my mediocre food.
Instead, I opted to show you our flight’s menu.
Take a look at this incredibly hard-as-a-rock ice cream. I was so excited when I saw they were going to serve Häagen Dazs ice cream, but instead they served Three Twins, which was equally delicious.
This Kouign Amann was offered as a mid-flight snack. Kougin Amann has become very hipster-popular in my city over the past few years, so I was pleasantly surprised to see it being served on our flight. This particular one was super dense & rich. The texture was more like a hard buttermilk biscuit, rather than a flaky croissant-like pastry.
We arrived right around dinnertime when we first touched ground in Tokyo. Our tour guide had pre-scheduled for us to have dinner at this interesting farm-to-table vegetable-centric Shabu-Shabu restaurant called やさいの王様 (pronounced Yasai no Ohsama, which translates to King of Vegetables). Shabu-Shabu is the Japanese version of hot pot cooking, fast cooking raw meat, vegetables & side dishes in a boiling hot soup base. Our soup base was a unique basil pesto flavor. All the pesto floating to the top made the broth look like there was algae floating around. I thought I was going to leave hungry after consuming mainly leafy vegetables, but surprisingly this was quite filling. The restaurant does offer a few select meats like thick-cut bacon (my favorite), so it’s not all rabbit food. Also, they offer an all-you-can-eat salad bar, but the catch is you can only fill up one time, so you gotta load up your plate as much as possible.
やさいの王様 日比谷シャンテ店 (Yasai no Ohsama Hibiya main shop)
We stayed at the Imperial Hotel on our first night. The hotel itself is very beautiful & historical. Our room was also pretty cool. It had a basic Westernized Japanese hotel setup, such as twin beds, compact bathroom, small sitting area & a work desk. I loved the convenient location of our hotel, right on the outskirts of the famous Ginza district. Our hotel was right in the heart of shops & restaurants. The only weird thing about our hotel is that in order to get to our rooms, we had to take one set of elevators from the street level to the mezzanine level. From there, we had to walk down several hallways to get to the elevators that go to your room’s floor. Other than that, the hotel was very comfortable & the rooms were cozy. I only wished we had more time to spend in Tokyo rather than one quick overnight sleep stay. It is my favorite city after all.
While everybody else chose to buy jumbo take-out boxes, I picked this simple yet hearty maguro nigiri & tekka maki bento set. It was super delicious (& inexpensive AF at ¥980).
The very next day, we had to rush to the train station to take the Shinkansen (bullet train) to get to Kyoto. We arrived at the largest station, Tokyo Station, & were given our first food allowance to buy lunch for the 2+ hour train ride to Kyoto. I’ll be the first to say that finding food in Tokyo station is difficult. Not because of the lack of food, but it’s because there are just too many choices! We only were given 30 minutes to grab something to eat, & we got to the train station way before any of the shops & restaurants opened. So, we were scrambling a bit towards the end to choose something to buy, & of course when you’re traveling with such a large group, there’s always going to be a few people who want to each eat something different.
From Kyoto station, we took a pretty long bus ride to our hotel in Lake Biwa. We stayed right by the lake at the Biwako Hotel. The hotel looked pretty large from the outside, but it was quite cozy on the inside, with very simple amenities. I believe this was the largest Japanese hotel room I’ve ever stayed in, with a medium-sized sofa seating area & a pretty large balcony that overlooked Lake Biwa. However, the room was not very luxurious with it’s dated 1990s interior decor & uncomfortable furniture. This was the first hotel I’ve ever stayed at that had hot springs amenities (a.k.a. 温泉). I wasn’t too thrilled with displaying all of my nakedness in front of a group of petite & sophisticated Japanese women (not to mention my own family members), but once I stripped down to my birthday suit & dipped in to the hot springs at the hotel, all of my inhibitions & insecurities flew out the door & I was able to relax & enjoy the mineral water soak.
Uh-oh. I just realized that I forgot to change the map for this graphic, & I’m too lazy to change it back. Please ignore this little flub.
One would think that staying near the water would help the weather cool down, but it didn’t. It was still hot, sticky & muggy every single day, without fail. During our stay in Biwako, we visited Sanjusangendo Temple (三十三間堂 ), one of the most famous Buddhist temples in Kyoto. This temple houses 1001 statues of Kannon, the goddess of mercy. Since most of my family follows the Buddhist religion, we found this temple to hold a special meaning. Two things I found very interesting about this temple is: 1. you must remove your shoes before you enter the temple, which I believe is to protect the original hardwood floors. (They provide plastic bags for you to carry your shoes in.) 2. They still have the original hardwood floors with the squeaking floorboards, which were devised during the Shogun period as a sort of alarm system which alerts anyone of intruders & sneak attacks by ninjas (True story, bro.).
In the afternoon, we got to see a Kimono fashion show at the Nishijin Textile Center. The textile center was a complete tourist trap, packed from the floor to the rafters with extremely ill-mannered Chinese tourists, but otherwise the fashion show was so much fun to watch & to see my cousin Amber having the time of her life, it was worth fighting through the throngs of tourists just to see the look of awe & wonder on her face. This experience was one of the highlights of our trip, for me at least. I got to help my cousin Amber pick out her very first Yukata summer kimono. Having one of my very own, I completely understand her sheer excitement at owning her very first proper & authentic Yukata, complete with matching sash & geta sandals ((下駄). The look on her face when she was trying on her very first Yukata was absolutely priceless. I was just too happy for her. It was all worth it & for her. I love seeing her happy, she’s like a little sister to me.
In the evening, we enjoyed a traditional Kaiseki dinner (懐石料理). Our tour guide Michiko encouraged us to dress in the Yukata robes (浴衣) provided in each hotel room. We were all excited to dress up & get together to enjoy sophisticated Japanese cuisine in the hotel’s traditional tatami banquet room. We dined on small dishes of pickled vegetables, sashimi, mini shabu-shabu, rice, grilled fish, & soup. Towards the end of the night, we all took turns singing karaoke. Our tour guide also sang along with us, singing 2 English pop songs from the 70s & also the song “Sukiyaki” in Japanese. I love singing karaoke, & often go to karaoke bars/private rooms with my friends, so I was completely in my element getting up in front of all those strangers & singing my heart out.
We barely stayed in Lake Biwa for one day before heading out to Arashiyama for the next day. Arashiyama was a beautiful traditional town set amongst a picturesque background of forests, rocky hills, & a serene river. Upon arriving in Arashiyama, we took the Kameoka-Sagano Romantic Train for some gorgeous river-side sightseeing.
famous Tanuki (狸) statues at the Sagano Scenic Railway station
a river view from the moving scenic train
At the end of the train ride was the very famous bamboo path, you know the ones you often seen on a computer screen saver, or perhaps you’ve seen it in the famous Tom Cruise movie The Last Samurai. We walked through the bamboo path to get to the Old Town area where we were able to buy traditional souvenirs for the first time, & feast on a refreshing Ochazuke lunch (お茶漬け). Ochazuke is a simple Japanese dish made by pouring green tea, dashi, or hot water over cooked rice with savory toppings. I’ve had this dish many times before, so I was already familiar with this type of food. I often like to eat this dish in the Autumn/Winter time. My family (as well as the other travelers in our tour group) have never even heard of this dish, so it was fun for all of us to share this super delicious meal together. I will admit that I don’t particularly like to eat pickled anything, especially pickled veggies, but I was enjoying the pickled side dishes with this Ochazuke lunch.
After lunch, we headed towards our next temple/sightseeing/landmark/tourist destination: 金閣寺 (Kinkaku-ji a.k.a. Golden Temple). Oh man, this place was packed to the gills with Oriental tourists all clamoring with their selfie-sticks & iPads to grab a stylistic photo of themselves in front of this very historical Japanese landmark (
not caring about the significance or history of the place, but only to show off that they can afford to vacation in Japan.) I’ve visited this temple before, when my dad last took my immediate family on a family reunion trip to Japan. I’ve always thought this landmark to be very beautiful, & always wished I could find a significant other who would build a 24k golden villa for me on a picturesque lake. LOL! No matter how many times I visit this extremely famous landmark, I always feel the impact of its historical significance.
Before heading to our next hotel, we spent a little time visiting Gion, another historical-looking district that, to me, seems similar to Arashiyama (quite touristy). In Gion there are many geisha training schools/facilities, & you can often see real-life geishas on the street heading to their next client meeting destination. I just recently learned that it is extremely rude to take photos with geishas without asking them for permission. When they are walking through the streets, it usually means that they are rushing to meet their next client, so they don’t have time to stop & chat or take photos, & it can be viewed as rude to take time out of their work schedule to take photos for your own personal pleasure/amusement. Also, it is often suggested to tip a geisha after you’ve asked to take their photo. In Gion, there are many yukata/kimono rental shops where for approximately $30USD, you can get the whole traditional Japanese costume experience. At the rental shop, there will be a shop assistant who will help you put on your rental yukata/kimono & other rental accoutrements (eg. geta, pouch purse, hand fan, etc.), & also help you style your hair with matching accessories (also rentable).
In the late afternoon, we checked in to our next hotel, the very comfortable Okura Hotel. I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned this before, but one of my cousins works as the head Cantonese chef at the Okura Hotel in Chiba. This was one of the most comfortable hotels we’ve stayed at so far, next to the Imperial hotel in Tokyo. This was the only hotel that we stayed multiple nights in & the only hotel that still used a traditional key to get into the hotel room instead of a modern key card.
During our first day in Kyoto, before we checked into our hotel, we were treated to a really cool arts & crafts experience of custom designing our own handkerchiefs. We visited the Kyo-Yuzen workshop at Marumasu-Nishimuraya, where we tried the yuzen dyeing technique that has been used to paint fabric dye onto traditional kimono fabrics for centuries.
With the help of stencils & very skilled instructors, we were able to create our own custom designs onto lovely cotton handkerchiefs. Of course, my cousin Amber who is an amateur painter & budding artist, just completely fell in love with this activity. Her handkerchief design of an ox & a tiger (her double Chinese zodiac signs) were so beautiful & so detailed. She garnered the immediate attention & praise of all the instructors at the workshop. Everybody greatly admired my cousin’s beautiful artwork, & she was also in awe of her first attempt at traditional fabric dyeing. She even joked that she wished she could stay at the workshop for the rest of the day & paint more designs on fabrics. I’m not a very good artist, but I do consider myself to be somewhat artistic, & I am pretty proud of my first handkerchief design.
I used three different stencil patterns (cherry blossoms & petals, a rabbit on the moon, & stars) to make the design on my handkerchief.
On the first night at this hotel, we were treated to a super delicious multi-course 鉄板焼き (teppanyaki) dinner featuring Ohmi Beef (which comes from the Shiga prefecture). This was the first time I’ve ever heard of this type of meat. It’s one of the Top 3 rated Japanese Wagyu beef, & is a similar style to the world-famous Kobe Beef. Our tour guide Michiko joked that the only difference between Kobe beef & Ohmi beef is that Kobe beef gets more hype advertising & TV advertising exposure. That made me laugh.
Oh my, Ohmi beef!!!
By this time on our guided tour, I was so relieved to be reacquainted with my full-size suitcase. Throughout most of our trip, we were only allowed to carry an overnight bag, so having a full set of traveling clothes & undergarments was a welcoming relief. Also, I’d like to let you in on a little side story. I accidentally left my plug-in charger for my mobile phone in the very first hotel room we stayed in, on the very first day of our tour. The Imperial Hotel in Tokyo was so wonderful, & kind, & generous. Upon discovering my charger, they promptly called our tour guide to inform her that some guests had left behind a few personal belongings. They also offered to express mail the items to our next available hotel, as well as waive the shipping cost. I had only discovered that I had forgotten my phone charger when I was already on the Shinkansen & well on the way to Kyoto. I really must thank my lucky stars for having my portable mobile phone charger in my backpack.
So, how does it feel to wake up at 5am on your vacation just so you can attend a temple tour at 6am, so you can avoid the throngs of other tourists? It was so beautiful, except when everyone in our group got mosquito bites. (That was one souvenir I would gladly go without.) But really, visiting the 清水寺 (Kiyomizu-Dera) temple early in the morning was incredible. You have to get there before 6am, because the temple already starts to fill up with tourists before 7am. The Kiyomizu temple is well-known for it’s pure flowing water, & many of the locals like to bring their empty jugs to fill with this purified water. We all got to take turns drinking the water, & my cousin even emptied out her drinking bottle to fill with the purified water to bring home.
front steps of the temple
large pagoda near the entrance
handwritten wishes on wooden boards
temple pagoda in the background
a tree that looks like a giant asparagus
unsuccessful fortunes tied to the post in hopes of becoming good fortunes
a shrine for women who want to become pregnant, pregnant women, & small children
a small shrine within the temple
purified water fountain
After taking our early morning tour of the Kiyomizu temple, we headed back to our hotel for breakfast & to quickly freshen up. Then we had a mid-morning coffee break at an historical café near the Kiyomizu temple, where we got to choose between cold tea with citrus or cold coffee with ice cream (similar to an affogato). I can’t remember the name of this café, & no matter how hard I search Google, I just can’t seem to find the name of this place. This café was built in a very Westernized Victorian style, & was used as a villa for foreign dignitaries & high ranking government officials. Eventually, it was turned into a hotel, & later on a café. From this café, we walked to our lunch spot where we dined on 洋食 (Yoshoku) style cuisine. That’s a fancy way of saying we ate Japanese-style pasta for lunch. The handmade pasta we ate was so delicious. I wish I had taken a quick photo of this dish, but everyone by this point was already feeling tired & a little burnt out from the excessive heat/humidity, & nobody was in the mood to do much of anything.
In the afternoon, we had a bit of free time to ourselves, so I took my cousin, two aunts, & my mom out for a little shopping. However, before going on our little shopping excursion, I helped my cousin Amber put on her newly purchased yukata costume. After seeing so many young girls walking the streets casually wearing their yukatas, my cousin felt comfortable enough to wear hers as well. Ok, so I don’t think I wrapped the obi (sash) correctly, but I tried to follow the instructions as best as I could, & my cousin was very happy with the result. Her super doting parents were over the moon when they saw her wearing this traditional summer costume. Amber was equally excited to be wearing her first yukata for the very first time.
Let me tell you, unless you’re already comfortable wearing flip-flop/thong style shoes, your feet will begin to hurt after a few hours of wearing geta sandals. After an hour of wearing her entire costume, my cousin’s feet began hurting, so we cut our shopping trip short & headed back to our hotel so she could change into more comfortable shoes (& clothes). The two of us younger girls still had the energy to go exploring & shopping around our hotel, so we continued to go out after my cousin changed her clothes. We had only been outside for an hour or so when it started pouring rain. No, it wasn’t a light drizzle, or even heavy showers. The rain was coming down like a storm, it was torrential. We were lucky that we had only walked 7 straight blocks down the street from our hotel, & I had fortunately brought my umbrella. However, the rain was coming down so hard that we were still thoroughly soaked through our clothes by the time we made it back to our hotel.
That night, our tour guide Michiko had scheduled a nighttime walking tour near the river before our free choice of dinner, but since it had been raining, most of our tour group had decided to skip the tour. My cousin was disappointed that nobody wanted to take the nighttime walking tour. She didn’t mind walking in the rain at all, but the rest of us decided to stay indoors. By the time we had all decided to cancel the nighttime tour & signed the company form that showed we skipped this part of the tour, the rain had stopped. Since this was the night we got free time to choose our own dinner, my cousin’s dad decided he would brave the unexpected weather & take his daughter out to eat by themselves. I, on the other hand, stayed behind at the hotel with my mom & two other aunts, & we ate at the hotel casual dining restaurant in the lobby.
This omurice looks large, but it was actually a perfect single serving.
At the hotel restaurant, I had one of the most yummy オムライス (omurice, omelette rice) dishes I’ve ever eaten. Omelette rice is one of my favorite comfort foods, so I was very happy that I was able to eat this dish on this trip to Japan. At first when I saw the plate, I thought the omelette looked huge, but it was actually a perfect one-person serving. The egg was very fluffy & light. I especially loved the ハヤシライス (Hayashi rice) filling inside the omelette. It was also light & fluffy, which made the dish easy to eat & not too dense or heavy.
After dinner, when my cousin & her dad returned to the hotel, we all decided to go out to explore around our hotel at night. All of the older adults decided to try playing Pachinko, which they ended up not enjoying at all. My cousin & I, on the other hand, decided to sing karaoke. Well actually, it was my cousin’s desire to sing karaoke in a private room at a karaoke place. Since I love to sing karaoke, & I’ve gone to several karaoke chains in Japan in the past (I also sing lots of karaoke in the U.S.), I was all too happy to join my cousin on this little adventure. We had a blast, singing a mixture of both English & Japanese songs. Also my cousin, who is only 17 years old, tried hard alcohol for the first time. I can assure you it was purely by accident. When we were booking our private room at the karaoke station, the cashier first asked us if we were going to drink any alcohol, which we replied no. Then she asked us which free drink from the menu we wanted. My cousin pointed to a bottle that looked like fruit juice, but little did we know it contained 16% alcohol by volume (ABV). She took one giant sip of her drink & her face immediately turned bright red. Needless to say, that was the last time she ever tried alcohol, but it made a great story to tell our family.
16% ABV? Whaaaat?! It didn’t taste strong at all. But I’m a seasoned drinker, so what do I know? This was a super yummy Kagamitsuki yuzu liqueur.
Luckily my cousin didn’t get any hangover because we had to wake up bright & early the next day to get our suitcases on the tour bus so that it would make it on time to our next destination, Osaka. This is the last stop on our guided tour, & we have made a full circle in the chain of hotels back to the Imperial hotel.
We spent the least amount of time at this hotel. Most of our day was spent touring Osaka castle & visiting 大仏殿 (Daibutsuden) within the 東大寺 (Todaiji) temple at Nara park. From Kyoto, we rode our trusty tour bus first to one of the last remaining castles in all of Japan: Osaka castle. By this time on our tour, I was already getting used to the heat, but I still could not get over the overpopulation of Oriental tourists, especially the annoying ones that always have to stick out their iPads & selfie sticks every 5 seconds to take a meaningless photo of themselves. My older aunt (a.k.a. my mom’s sister) had the most brilliant idea ever. She decided not to go inside the famous castle, but instead chose to sit in the shade on a bench near the ticket booths. She was going to wait for our tour group to finish our tour & not wade through the throngs of inconsiderate tourists in the overcrowded castle. I’ve visited this castle once before with my dad, but I decided I would accompany my cousin inside the castle since it was her first castle-museum experience. Looking back, I really wished I would’ve stayed behind & waited with my aunt. The castle was just too packed to the point where you felt like you were just letting the crowd move you.
After making our touristy rounds at Osaka castle, we had a very traditional boxed bento lunch in a small restaurant nestled in a beautiful garden. Our boxed bento lunch included pickled vegetables, tempura, mushrooms, maguro tuna sashimi, rice, handmade cold tofu, & a red bean jelly dessert. This would be the last pre-selected meal we would have as a whole tourist group. After this, our final meal on our guided tour would be a free meal which we would get to select ourselves. At this point in our tour, we heartily thanked our tour guide Michiko, & promptly proceeded on to our next destination.
Next, we rode our tour bus to Nara where we visited Nara park, the famous park where the deer freely roam around. I’ve also been to Nara park before, & was considering not going inside the park grounds but decided to go at the last minute only to accompany my cousin who really wanted to see & pet the famous Nara deer. Although the Todaiji temple & Daibutsu (world’s largest bronze Buddha statue) have remained the same as always, the park had changed quite a bit since I last visited 10 years ago. When I visited this park 10 years ago, one could walk up to the deer & freely feed/pet them. Now, there are stalls where you could buy cookie-shaped deer food to feed the deer. It was either a way to feed the deer proper food, or just another tactic to get tourists to spend money.
This time, my aunt had an even more brilliant idea to stay on the air conditioned tour bus & not get out at all. I should note that my aunt does not like being in crowded places & on that particular day her feet were hurting from fresh callouses, so she let our tour guide know that she would be waiting for everyone on the bus. Even though I loathed swimming through a sea of extremely rude tourists (from all corners of the world), I had a fun time walking around the park & visiting the large Buddhist statue Daibutsu with my mom (who is Buddhist by the way). We walked one lap around the park, payed our respects to the Buddhist statue, then promptly made our way back onto the tour bus to wait for the rest of our group.
After visiting both Osaka castle & Nara park, we checked into our last hotel, the Imperial Hotel. We had a little bit of free time to freshen up & get settled into our hotel rooms before heading out for dinner. For dinner, our tour bus & guide dropped us off at 道頓堀 (Dotonbori), a popular tourist nightlife & entertainment area characterized by its eccentric atmosphere & large neon signs. This was the place where we all could do some last minute shopping at more well-known brand name shops & some local Japanese branded shops. I bought my mom a cordless Panasonic clothes iron as a backup replacement to the exact same one we have at home, & I bought myself an negative ion hairdryer. I am soooo in love with my Panasonic hairdryer. It’s lightweight, quiet, powerful, & not too hot for my hair. My mom & older aunt each bought one too, & we are all happy with our new home appliances.
Dotonbori was a great place to take my cousin Amber shopping. There were plenty of shops that cater to girls her age, but we spent most of our time at Tower Records (yes, CD shops still exist in the world). My cousin was beyond overjoyed when she was able to purchase the Japanese pop CDs she was searching for throughout our entire trip. Even better was that she didn’t have to pay the markup price plus the import tax. I was also able to do a little shopping myself, & I bought Jian a birthday present (a bomber jacket from UNIQLO, & two pocket t-shirts from a local Japanese brand).
I missed my opportunity to eat my all-time favorite ramen at 一蘭 (Ichiran). All the grown-ups (a.k.a. mom, 2 aunts, & my uncle) wanted to eat 回転寿司 (rotating conveyor belt sushi). My cousin really, really, really wanted to eat お好み焼き (okonomiyaki, Japanese stir-fry pancakes), which are widely popular in Osaka & the Kansai region in general. What else could I do? I took my cousin to taste her first bite of okonomiyaki. We ended up eating at ゆかり千日前店 (Yukari Sennichimae shop), one of the tour guide recommended okonomiyaki restaurants. Unfortunately this wasn’t a DIY okonomiyaki place. The restaurant staff will pre-construct your chosen okonomiyaki for you, bring it to your table, then you grill it yourself. You don’t get to mix your own eggs & ingredients yourself. On the plus side though, the menu was written in several different languages (including, Hindi, Arabic, English, & Spanish, to name a few), so we were able to decipher the menu rather easily. The restaurant was also having a lucky raffle contest. Each table got to choose a random peel-off card from a basket, & you can win whatever prize is listed on the card. My cousin & I won a Coca-Cola classic drinking glass. Did I mention that the raffle was being sponsored by Coca-Cola? So all of the available prizes were Coca-Cola themed.
See how excited my cousin is? Okonomiyaki grilling is serious business.
We ordered 2 different flavors in case you couldn’t tell. The left was a ネギ (negi, green onion) explosion. The right had a simple beef filling.
Later that night, we went back to our hotel to pack our suitcases so we could head back to the States. Awww…It was bittersweet leaving Japan. It always sucks leaving the place I love, but I was ready to get out of the stifling humidity & heat, only to head back to Los Angeles, the land of even more heat (but no humidity). I’ve never flown through a local airport, so I was a little excited to experience a localized airport for the first time when I visited Osaka’s International airport in Itami. On a side note, isn’t the airport’s mascot Sorayan so cute?
This was the only thing I bought at the airport while we were waiting for our flight. I got this at a vending machine. It was okay, a little on the sweet side, but it satisfied my caffeine craving.
Oh man, the Narita International airport in Tokyo was crowded A.F.! [Insert pop culture slang acronym here] I always love going to Narita airport. The airport is so efficient & organized. I only wished that I was landing instead of taking off. The flight itself was pretty uneventful, except for the fact that I was sitting next to an older gentleman who was very interested in chatting & making me feel slightly uncomfortable, especially when he was knocking back double whiskeys like a dehydrated man drinking water. I watched more movies & tried to sleep, but sleep always alludes me, especially on long-distance flights. I don’t know why I can’t seem to get any sort of sleep on a flight no matter how tired I am.
This time, going back home, we had better airline food. The airline actually served us MOS Burgers, & the fun part was that you got to assemble it yourself. The only downside was that the burger was super small, almost slider size. I could’ve scarfed down at least three of these lil’ guys. We also got served Häagen Dazs ice cream…finally. (It was a limited edition summer milk flavor by the way.)
I swear I’m only drinking apple juice & not chardonnay or cheap whiskey. But at this point, I wish I had requested something stiff to drink.
Everyone in our family group was so burnt out by the time we got home. My cousin went straight to her bedroom & fell asleep. She took a 4 and a half hour nap before her parents woke her up to have dinner. My mom & I were spending the night at my aunt’s house before heading back to the Bay Area, just in time for Jian’s birthday. We also arrived back to the States just in time to watch the opening ceremony of the 2016 Rio Olympics. My aunt invited a few of our relatives over to her house for a small viewing party. I love watching the Olympics on TV. I watch as much as I can, & I’m always cheering for the host country to win many medals. I don’t much cheer for one country when I watch the Olympics. I like to cheer for every athlete that deserves a medal. Now I’m getting super duper extremely excited for the 2020 summer Olympics in Tokyo!! I don’t know yet how I feel about including skateboarding in the summer Olympics, just like I have mixed feelings about including snowboarding in the winter Olympics. I mean, this is the OL-YM-PI-CS, not the X-Games, but I guess it’s time to shake things up & bring more modern sports into an old-timey institution. And this concludes my blog post. My hands are tired. I’m done. Cheers.
Today’s song of the day: