A Magical Halloween in Osaka

So I’ve been in the middle of writing this post for quite a while, and while I said I was waiting for photos from my friend really I was just procrastinating. But now that the students are on winter vacation, and I’m just waiting for my own vacation to start, I thought I’d finally finish my story about Osaka trip #2.

A few months ago I happened to send a message to a friend of mine from Pac Rim. We hadn’t talked in a while but something made me think of her. I suppose the universe was sending me a sign, because as luck would have it my friend was preparing for a trip to Japan, and of course we should meet up! And even better, the end of her trip fell on a holiday and a day I didn’t have classes, so we decided to meet in Osaka for a long Halloween weekend.

Dotonburi – one of the most famous streets in Osaka

While I’d been through Osaka on my trip to Kyoto, I hadn’t really spent any time in the city itself. I was excited to explore one of Japan’s biggest cities and see a few friends. I flew out of Miyazaki on Friday, Ocotber 30, just in time to meet up with friends for Halloween the next day. My friend Sam and I wandered around on Saturday morning and had a lovely bagel breakfast at a shopping center near our airbnb (which we both tried for the first time and were very pleased with!). And while a bagel breakfast may not be the most exciting thing to all of you back home, but living in a country where decent (read – non-squishy) bread is hard to come by, it was absolutely amazing. I mean, the bagels were mediocre, but a mediocre bagel is far superior to no bagel, and they had a whole selection of uniquely Japanese flavors. We bought a whole bunch to sample later, and found that the soy milk and edamame bagel was surprisingly delicious, whereas purple sweet potato and white chocolate was a bit of a dud.

In any event, after breakfast we met up with Annin and set off in search of Liberty Osaka, a “human rights museum” that a friend had recommended. It wasn’t the easiest thing to find, but it was certainly interesting. There were exhibits detailing the various minority groups in Japan and the discriminatory practices and events that they have faced (and in many cases continue to face). While Japan is often presented as a homogenous and peaceful society, there’s a lot going on beneath the surface that never really gets discussed. For example, the people of Okinawa are not considered to be Japanese, as they belong to their own ethnic group, the Ryukyuan. For a variety of reasons that I won’t get into here they have historically been discriminated against for their heritage, and today you can still find apartments that refuse Okinawan tenants, and many people do not consider them to be Japanese. Similar things are said of the Ainu, an ethnic minority from northern Japan. And of course there are tensions between Japan and Korea, and the museum went into great detail about the hardships Koreans  and people of Korean descent have faced in Japan. I really wish my Japanese reading skills were a bit better so I could have read all of the displays (the English translations were a bit sparse) but ultimately I was glad I visited, and would recommend it to anyone who finds themselves with a bit of extra time in Osaka.


After the museum it was time to get ready for Halloween! Sam and I were feeling a bit lazy on the costume front, so she wore some cat ears and I dressed as Marty McFly from Back to the Future (it was just after “BttF Day, so it seemed topical enough) because I already had most of the outfit. Annin and her friend got a bit more into the spirit of the holiday, and she had a pretty great “Where’s Waldo” costume. Once we were all dressed and ready we met up with a Japanese friend of Annin’s and went out for okonomiyaki, an Osaka specialty. It’s one of my favorite Japanese foods – essentially a cabbage pancake with whatever savory toppings you want, topped with a variety of sauces. As with most Japanese food it’s hard to explain, but rest assured, it’s delicious.


Dinner was fun, and it was a great chance to once again practice my Japanese (mostly listening) since Annin’s friend didn’t speak English. Sam and I both studied Japanese at UPS, so we were up for the challenge and understood most of what was said.

Halloween in Osaka

After dinner we hit the streets to find a few other local JETs, and boy were we in for a treat. Based on my students’ knowledge of the holiday, I didn’t really think Japan did Halloween. But it turns out the big cities are pretty into it. We were in the heart of Osaka and people were out in droves, donned in amazing costumes.

A group of Totoros

Lots of people did group costumes, which was probably my favorite thing because it was so different from what you’re probably thinking. Rather than going as a group with a theme, like the gang from Scooby Doo or something, with everyone as a different character, Japanese group costumes are all the same. So you’d have a group of six Shaggy’s, or, as was often the case, about 20 Where’s Waldo’s. Waldo’s were wandering the streets in droves. It was quite a sight. In fact, we enjoyed it so much that we decided to grab drinks at a local conbini and just people watch for a few hours.

After a while we made our way to a “zombie bar” to meet a few more people, but Sam and I had a busy day coming up and decided to call it quits a bit early. We walked home through the hoards of costumed people (and cars!) and went to bed.

The next day was the centerpiece of our plans – The Wizarding World of Harry Potter! We took the train to Universal Studios Japan in the morning (after a breakfast of leftover bagels) and stood in a long line to get into the park, followed by another long line to get our timed entrance tickets for the Harry Potter area. Even though it was the day after Halloween, the holiday spirit was still going strong. Lots of visitors were wearing costumes, so Sam and I bought “face stickers” to join in on the fun. We wandered around the park and rode the Back to the Future ride while we waited for our entrance time, and  then we made our way to Hogwarts.

So USJ’s Harry Potter theme park is basically set up as Hogsmeade, with lots of shops and butterbeer galore, with the Hogwarts castle perched on a hill overlooking it all, with the great lake beside. Now, unlike American theme parks, Japanese parks seem to focus on atmosphere and shows over actual rides, which meant there were only two rides in the Harry Potter area, and one was a kid’s roller coaster. The line for the main ride, “Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey” was at least two hours long, so we decided to get some food at the Three Broomsticks before getting in line.

Every detail of the park was amazingly well done. Even the food was pretty authentic-looking. And of course we had to buy ourselves a frozen butterbeer (in the collector’s mug!) while we waited in line. As expected, it was super sweet, but we both managed to finish ours in the two hour line.


The line for the main ride takes you back behind the castle (the ride is in the castle) and you go through the Herbology gardens as you wait, which is nice. Sam and I had far too much fun waiting in line, catching up on each other’s lives and enjoying the nice weather. Sam was an especially great sport considering that the week before her host family had actually taken her to USJ, and this was her second trip in as many weeks. But her host family weren’t big Harry Potter fans, nor were they serious shoppers, so she said she was happy to go back a second time with me, and we really had a great time.

Finally we got to the ride – once the line takes you into the castle you have to drop your bags in a locker, then you walk through the castle up to the ride itself. You walk through Dumbledor’s office, past a Japanese-speaking Harry, Ron and Hermione, and onto the ride. Now, I’m not a huge fan of roller coasters. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever really ridden a proper roller coaster. But this ride was FUN. It’s so amazingly well done. You take off on broomstick to follow Harry through Hogwarts, the Forbidden Forest, into the Chamber of Secrets and through the Quidditch stadium. You’re on a roller coaster track but of course the whole thing’s inside, and switches between 3D screens (they give you Potter-style 3D glasses at the beginning) and animatronics and awesome sets. I can’t explain it properly, but it was soooo amazing and fun. Honestly, I got off the ride and seriously considered getting back into that 2 hour line to go again. So much fun!

But it was getting dark so we decided to check out the shops instead, since both of us needed gifts to bring home. We slowly made our way through the shops and out of the park, just in time for the “Zombie Nights” event to start, and we wanted no part in that. Literally, as soon as we stepped out of the rides area and into the shops that lined the exit, the lights in the park went out and people started screaming, presumably because a hoard of zombies had just appeared. Fun, but not my thing. We left the park and ate a takoyaki dinner (fried balls of dough and octopus) and went back to our hotel.

Leaving on the (not quite) Hogwarts Express)

Day three was all about the shopping. Sam and I discovered that we were shopping soulmates while we were on Pac Rim, and when we get together it’s hard to stop us from shopping. We had a pretty fun time looking around some of the major shopping areas in Osaka before we stumbled upon the “Gudetama Cafe.” Gudetama is literally a “lazy egg” character, and he’s super popular right now. It’s hard to explain, but Japan really loves cute mascots, even when they don’t really represent anything except themselves, as is the case with Gudetama or Hello Kitty. But in any case, we ate at the cafe before Sam had to take off to return to the US. It was great seeing her, and we were both super happy that our schedules lined up so well.

I still had another day and a half in Osaka, but I’ll save that for next time, since this post got pretty long, as they tend to do. Next time: A bit of culture at Osaka Castle and Nara Deer Park.

Next time, Osaka Castle

Silver Week Adventures – Part 3

Our last morning in Kyoto we had a tasty pancake breakfast at the hostel before packing up and taking the subway to our final attraction: Fushimi Inari Taisha.

Fushimi Inari Taisha
Fushimi Inari Taisha

While the other temples we had visited were all Buddhist, Fushimi Inari is a Shinto Shrine. The religions sometimes blend together, but personally I’ve found that Shinto shrines are often my favorite. To start, they’re free to enter (unlike the other temples, which all had a small fee), and I like the way Shinto is all about nature and connections to the natural world.

The tori (gates) are what this shrine is known for, and if you have the time and energy you can walk through them all the way up and down the mountain. Sadly we needed to catch a train, so we couldn’t do the full hike. I’ve already decided that one day I’ll go back and hike the whole thing.

Fushimi Inari was a great place to end our time in Kyoto, as it was by far my favorite temple or shrine. It doesn’t hurt that on the way out I found a delicious twist on one of my favorite Japanese desserts: Taiyaki Parfait!

After eating a banana caramel taiyaki it was time to go to Kobe, where we had made reservations for, you guessed it, a steak lunch.

The chef at work
The chef at work

I’m sooooo glad we made reservations – the line was outrageous, and many people were just being seated when we left, which meant they missed the cutoff for lunch prices. But we didn’t! The steak was delicious, and though I suspect it isn’t the highest quality of the Kobe offerings (the restaurant was called “Steak Land,” not the classiest of monikers) Annin and I both walked away thoroughly stuffed.

A delicious steak lunch
A delicious steak lunch

After another hour on two different trains we made it to Tatsuno, where Annin lives. It’s a tiny town with very little going on, but it was pretty cute. We had a lazy evening at home and watched part of The Last Samurai.

Looking out over Himeji
Looking out over Himeji

Tuesday was my last full day of vacation, and it was well spent in Himeji. First we went to a gorgeous temple on top of a mountain, where they filmed part of The Last Samurai (which is why we tried watching it. It’s a very long movie….). It was very peaceful, and offered some nice views of Himeji and the surrounding countryside.

Once we made it back down the mountain (by cable car) we took a bus to Himeji Castle. The castle was under renovation for the past four years and was only just unveiled in the spring, so it was in top form. It’s known as the White Herring, and is absolutely stunning (and massive). Again, the pictures I took don’t really do it justice.


After walking around the castle we had Okonomiyaki for dinner (a Kansai specialty that’s hard to explain. It’s basically a savory cabbage pancake, but it’s super tasty) and went home. Annin made brownies and we marveled at the fact that we’ve been friends for six years now. Time flies!


Wednesday it was time to head home. I parted ways with Annin after she promised to come visit me in Miyazaki, and made my way back to Osaka.

In Osaka I met up with Brad’s old host family, the Satos. They had invited me to their house for lunch and were absolutely the nicest people. We spent the afternoon chatting in a mix of English and Japanese, and it was lovely. I hope I get a chance to see them again while I’m in Japan.

Lunch with the Satos! Norinao, Brad's old host brother, was taking the photo. I wish he could have been in it!
Lunch with the Satos! Norinao, Brad’s old host brother, was taking the photo. I wish he could have been in it!

When lunch was over Masaki (their son) helped me find the bus to the airport, and four hours later I was home.

Overall, I had a fantastic time traveling around Japan and hanging out with Annin and her friends. It was great to have a chance to explore some of the most famous places in Japan, and I’m certain I will be back to Kyoto again soon. There’s simply too much to see and do, I could spend a month there and still not see it all. It was also so very different from where I’m living, and lives up to the idea of Japan I had in my mind when I moved here. This isn’t to say Miyazaki isn’t great, or isn’t Japan, but it’s very, very different. I’m sure I’ll write more about this later, when I figure out a way to put this feeling into words.

Until then, thanks for reading, I will try my best to post my next update in a timely fashion!