Our home base for the entire trip was the lovely Hilton Osaka. It has all the things I look for in a hotel: Clean, safe, quiet, good bathroom, in-room refrigerator and coffeemaker, hairdryer, iron, and robes provided, and rounding out the list: Location, location, location! Part of that “location” criteria is proximity to food, and, although I didn’t try all their restaurants, I loved their breakfast buffet. Though a bit spendy at ¥3500 (about $35.00 or €28) you can eat and drink your fill from an impressive array of Japanese, European, and American offerings, and it’s not limited to breakfast fare, so come hungry. I also got a great deal on a fabulous 90 minute Swedish and Shiatsu massage in the hotel spa for only ¥13,000 (under $130.00 or €105ish), and included complimentary access to the steam room and hot bath.
As far as convenience, the Hilton Osaka is ridiculous!! It’s part of Osaka Station City… aptly named, as it’s less a train station and more a city unto itself. This multi-towered metropolis houses huge department stores, markets, hotels, theaters, restaurants, currency exchange stations… honestly, it’s too much to name here! You would need a week or more to explore the entire place (I could have spent a day in their massive Uniqlo store, alone, woo HOO!), but here are some highlights:
The glorious, and not to be missed, Umeda Tsutaya bookstore. If you are a lover of books, stationary, greeting cards, travel, collectibles, or any and all things beautiful and unique, this place is Nirvana. Laid out in a huge, user friendly oval, which I could have lazily spun around exploring for hours, you’ll be hard pressed to leave without a basketful of treasures… but then, why the heck would you want to??
Hanagatami Restaurant at the Ritz Carlton Osaka. The Ritz Carlton Osaka is stunning. Blissfully hushed hallways, tangerine marbled floors softened with woven Oriental carpets, dark wood paneled walls, chandeliered coffered ceilings, tall, green Calla Lilies resting in huge glass vases… and that was just the hallway to the restaurant! We ordered a-la-carte and ate an incredible array of Japanese delicacies which were prepared and presented in a way that was treat for all the senses!!
The 7Eleven (you heard me) in Osaka Station. Nope, it ain’t the Ritz Carlton, but I assure you, this is not your average Slurpee mill. Think clean, bright, and shiny!! I mention it only because the cost of eating out 3 meals a day, 7 days a week, can get tiresome, fattening, and costly (oh, my!); and sometimes you just want to sit in your room and eat in front of the TV without paying the inflated cost of room service. This isn’t fine dining, but it is a great grab and go on the cheap. The quality is higher, the selection is far greater, and the coffee is exponentially better than I expected to find. Trust, my friends. Trust.
Another fabulous restaurant alternative, also in Osaka Station, is the Daimaru "Feast Paradise" Food Hall. I mentioned it in the Japan “Part 1” post, but it bears repeating. It’s also a grab and go of sorts, but in a decidedly elevated fashion. The market itself is a sight to behold and many of the offerings are gift worthy. On more than one late night, on the way from the train to the hotel, we shopped for a variety of freshly baked breads and pastries, fresh fruit, juices, and some of the most delicious yogurt I’ve ever enjoyed, brought it back to the hotel, popped it in the little fridge and, come morning, enjoyed a much needed, leisurely breakfast in the room, in my robe, and at a bargain price! Yes, please!
Osaka Castle. A 15 minute taxi ride from the Hilton transported us to another land. Set high on a hill surrounded by a sheer cut Japanese Burdock Piling rock wall and a moat, this five story castle is a sight to behold! We took at least two hours exploring the castle and 15 acre park, but could have spent far longer! Sweeping views in every direction from atop the castle, stunning paths and gardens and, in our case, cherry blossoms reflecting in the still waters of the moat, make this a photographer’s paradise. Please pay special attention to your entry point, as there are several… we didn’t, and spent and additional 30 minutes trying to find our way back to the taxi stand. Oops.
Universal Studios Japan: As they say, all work and no play… so we hit the park!! Ok, soooo…. The last time I went to Universal Studios it was on the backlot in Hollywood; we rode a bus past the “Leave it to Beaver” and “Psycho” houses, and I played on the big telephone from “Land of the Giants”. Yeah, THIS is not THAT. WOW, Universal, what a difference a mere four decades have made! This place knocked my socks off! The highlights, for me, were the brand-new Minion Park and the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Even if you don’t know your Muggles from your Malfoys, the sheer grandeur of Hogwarts, et al, is worth the trip! It is majestically beautiful and the rides were amazing! And, MAJOR BONUS, we were lucky enough to be there for the grand opening of Minion Park!! If you’re a fan of Despicable Me and the Minions (and, seriously, who isn’t??) you will LOVE it!! Food, photo ops, fun… and MINIONS!! The Minion Mayhem ride is the real deal. So “real”, in fact, I had to close my eyes for parts of it because, although it’s supposed to be a “simulated immersion HD experience”, you cannot tell me that we weren’t actually being hurled though the GIANT dome theater that is Gru’s lab. Sheesh!! Call me Grandma, but it scared the crap outta me… although everyone, including all the children, seemed to really love it. Yeah, whatever, moving along. Both Minion Park & the Minion Mayhem ride are opening to rave reviews (from people who actually kept their eyes open). Start to finish, we had a blast. What a joy filled day that was!!
I was only there for a couple of days and saw relatively little, but if I had to describe Tokyo in a word it would be “clean”. Not a bad word for a city!! We took the Shinkansen Bullet Train from Osaka... it's about a 500 mile trip (800 km) but that bad boy goes about 200 mph (320 km/h), so in less than two and a half hours, we were there! We got off the train and started exploring. We shopped in the Akihabara gaming district and Shibuya City, and experienced Shibuya Crossing, known as the Times Square of Tokyo. We ate in a tatami room at a restaurant called Higashi-Yama Tokyo, which was a sublime, eloquent, presentation of deliciousness. Here are a few more highlights:
Hilton Tokyo Odaiba: We stayed here only one night but what a night it was. First of all, the view from our room was staggering. One of the best I’ve ever seen. An eye-popping panorama across Tokyo Bay to the city of Tokyo beyond. The hotel boasts easy access to a beautiful footpath along the bay and through Odaiba Seaside Park where dozens of fruit trees were in full bloom. We were also able to walk to a water taxi, which took us across the Bay and offered some spectacular views of the city, the bay, the Rainbow Bridge (no, not the one our beloved pets have crossed), Odiaba, and dropped us off in the city. The room itself was great, checked all the boxes but, honestly, it was all about that jaw dropping, once in a lifetime view!
Tokyo DisneySea. I’m gonna let my dork flag fly high and proud here: It was A-MAZ-ING. We arrived at about one o’clock in the afternoon. The plan was to stay for two or three hours, just to check it out, be on the Bullet Train back to Osaka by five pm, and call it an early night. About an hour into our visit we booked a hotel room there so we could stay until closing. We spent approximately nine hours in the park and it was nowhere near enough. The best park I’ve ever seen in my life. Bar none. Period. To say there is nowhere else like it in the world is true, both literally and figuratively. I’d go back in a heartbeat. If you are a Disney fan, or a park fan in general, I’m not joking when I say a trip to Japan is worth it just to see this park. It’s that good. Mind. Blown.
OK, back to food! Do you like sushi? Do you like sashimi? Yes, you say?? Two words: “kaiten-zushi”. That’s 回転寿司 in Japanese. It literally translates to “rotation sushi” or, as we call it here in the States, conveyor belt sushi. Delicious and so dang cheap!! I ate like a sumo wrestler for maybe 20 bucks. To put that into perspective, that’s about the price of one specialty roll at a decent Japanese restaurant in LA. It ain’t fancy, but who cares when you can trough up to a sushi bar and have at it?? If you love sushi like I love sushi, do yourself a favor, just go. Dōitashimashite. You’re welcome.
Kyoto is magical. I'd already spoken of the Zen Buddhist temple I visited in my last post, and it was one of only three places I visited in Kyoto. Here are the other two:
Wonder Café. And a wonder it was!! We stumbled upon this tiny restaurant after visiting the Shunkion Temple in Kyoto and I felt as though I was walking smack dab into the culmination of someone’s lifelong dream… a dream to have a tiny little restaurant, serving excellent food at an extremely reasonable price, and to fill every inch of the place with a lifetime of collectibles. The older couple who own this gem turned out to be the two nicest people I met on this entire journey. They seemed genuinely delighted that we came there to eat, and downright tickled to share their treasure trove of memorabilia. Rolling Stones, Beatles, Mr. Potato Head, Barbie; If it was from the UK, US, or Japan, circa 1960’s, it was there. We had a delicious four course lunch for under ten dollars and, despite a rather large language barrier, the woman gave us maps, directions, and even escorted us to the train stop just down the street, personally delivering us to the exact spot from where we’d catch our train to our next destination. I left there with a full belly and an even fuller heart. I will remember them always. Wonder Café, 616-8016 Kyoto Prefecture, Kyoto, Ukyo Ward, Ryoanji Nishinokawacho
Tenryu-ji Temple, Hyakka'en (Garden of a Hundred Flowers) and Sagano Bamboo Forest. A UNESCO World Heritage Site. I consider this area a “must see”. I arrived via train and, once there, I looked around, took a deep breath, and said to myself “OK. now I KNOW I’m in Japan”, as every inch of this masterpiece felt so iconically indigenous. I explored the stunning temple, it’s meandering and meticulously kept gardens, and the extraordinary bamboo forest, and found them to be transcendent. I was only in Japan for about a week and a half and chose my destinations wisely… and a few days later, I came back here a second time. On my second visit, we arrived late morning and were meant to stay there only a couple of hours, then continue exploring other parts of Kyoto; but we stayed until just before nightfall. Given the opportunity, I’d go back a third time. Some places just speak to you.
So that’s my two cents worth on Japan. Click on the names of the places I've mentioned for a link.
As I said at the beginning of “Part 1” of this blog-post, I never expected to go to Japan but, now, having been there, I would definitely go back. I also said that it had changed me. It has, in the best possible way. This, my friends, is why I travel.
How has a trip changed you? Please comment below and share your story!
HERE'S WHAT I'VE LEARNED:
1) If you don’t speak the language, kindness, patience, and respect make a great interpreter.
2) Use your cell phone to take pictures of the name of your destination, and your home base, and other important requirements such as “the express train, please.” in the native language of where you’re visiting. You can show it to ticket agents and taxi drivers and get help if you go off course.
3) Be flexible with your itinerary and schedule. You may find a place that you adore and may want to linger and enjoy.
4) If you’re traveling with others, be honest with your expectations, and level of interest in a place, and allow them to do the same. If their dream is to get to as many places as possible and yours is to find one place you love and spend hours there, say so! It’s everyone’s trip! Remember the old saying “Expectations are resentment waiting to happen.”
5) Conversely, be open to exploring places you may not have thought of. I hadn’t heard of the bamboo forest, someone else suggested it. I was exhausted at the time and wasn’t going to go. I ate, had some water, and changed my mind. It turned out to be one of my favorite places of the entire trip! NICE!!
6) Be mindful of “floor seating” and tatami rooms if you’re not used to them. Hard floors and no back rest can quickly become an issue for western knees, backs, and bums. I teach yoga and meditation and, while trying to enjoy an elaborate 90-minute dinner, found it uncomfortable after about 30 minutes. If you are going to be sitting on the floor, stay away from tight jeans; fabrics with some stretch and movement are your friends!
7) When converting yen to US dollars just knock off the last two zeros: ¥1000 = $10; ¥50,000 = $500, and so on, and you’ll be close. Soon you’ll be droppin’ yen like a rock star. “Yeah, I just spent 2500 on lunch… so WHAT??” “500 for a venti chai latte? That’s just how I roll.”
“WHEN WAS THE LAST TIME YOU DID SOMETHING FOR THE FIRST TIME?"
~JOHN C. MAXWELL~