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.

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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.

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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.

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Okonomiyaki

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Next time, Osaka Castle
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Hoi An – Everyone’s Favorite Ancient Town

The lanterns of Hoi An
The lanterns of Hoi An

If you find yourself traveling to Vietnam, you will inevitably hear about a handful of “must-see” destinations. Hanoi, Ha Long Bay, Sa Pa, Phu Quoc Island, Nha Trang and Ho Chi Minh City are the ones I hear most often. But of all the places I’ve been told I MUST visit, I think Hoi An was the only one I consistently heard positive things about, and I mean overwhelmingly positive. I never met a single person who didn’t like Hoi An, and several (including my Vietnamese friends) have said it was their favorite place in Vietnam. Strangely, nobody could give reasons for their love of this town. So naturally I figured I needed to see what all the fuss was about for myself.

I set out from Hue early in the morning and boarded a sleeper bus headed for Da Nang and Hoi An, about a four hour ride. I think I’ve mentioned this before, but the sleeper buses here in Vietnam are pretty comfortable,and the top bunk offers a nice view of whatever you happen to be passing. This trip was particularly beautiful, and absolutely lived up to the gorgeous travel photos I’ve seen advertising the central highlands. I wish I had stayed awake for more of this trip, but if you give me a bed and a rocking bus, I’ll probably fall asleep. I did manage to get a few photos between naps though.

Central Vietnam en route from Hue to Hoi An
Central Vietnam en route from Hue to Hoi An

Mid-day we arrived in Hoi An, and upon disembarking the bus were bombarded with the usual crowd of taxi and xe om drivers looking to get a fare. Before getting on the bus I had been told that my hostel was within easy walking distance of the bus station, so I refused taxis and decided to save a few thousand dong by walking. Luckily for me, several other passengers were headed to the same hostel. None of us were particularly great at reading maps, but we made it to our destination without too many hiccups.

Riding my bike through the rice paddies
Riding my bike through the rice paddies

As far as hostels go, the chain I stayed with in Hue and Hoi An, the “Backpacker’s Hostel,” was as stereotypically backpacker-y as you can get. Everything was clean, safe, and well-located, but they also had full bars, loud music late at night, and decorations with sexual puns all over the place. This isn’t exactly my scene, but my philosophy of travel is still that the hotel/hostel is only important for location, safety, and cleanliness. I don’t tend to spend much time in the room, so I’d rather not pay a ton for something I barely use. But man, the party thing is so not for me. I also tired quickly of the shallow conversations and constant discussion of how “real” this country is. It all stung of gross privilege and a well-meant but ultimately futile attempt to find “authentic experiences.” Honestly, I could go on and on about my frustrations with backpacker culture, but I’ll spare you that for now.

Doner Kebab! A true highlight of my trip.
Doner Kebab! A true highlight of my trip.

Regardless, I set my stuff down and went out to get a feel for my surroundings. I walked into the Ancient Town, the central attraction that takes up a good part of the city (which is really a small town). I quickly discovered that Hoi An was an excellent shopping destination, particularly if you want to have clothes tailored. Seemingly every other shop is a tailor, and everywhere you go people try to pull you into their stores. Even though I had plenty of time to have something made, I decided that I would rather wait and have this done in Can Tho, where the prices are lower and the hustle is nonexistent. However, if you’re only visiting Vietnam for a short trip, I think this is probably one of the best places to have clothes made. It’s also a great place to find charity shops and high-quality handicrafts. I found several beautiful jewelry stores, quilt shops and even a silent tea house, all benefiting local artisans or disadvantaged children. Nothing like a good cause to help alleviate the guilt of over-shopping!

The famous Japanese covered bridge, right on the edge of the "Ancient Town"
The famous Japanese covered bridge, right on the edge of the “Ancient Town”

In any case, I spent my three days in Hoi An wandering the streets and going from shop to shop, and was very happy. That first night I wandered into a shop called “Cool Japan in Hoi An” and chatted with the store owner, who just so happened to have lived in St. Louis. Small world! Everyone I met in the town was super friendly, and English was widely spoken. I’ve also never seen so many expats in Vietnam! If you’re interested in the tourism industry here, I guess this is where you end up (or Ha Long Bay). There were several expat-owned restaurants and coffee shops, including one that sold chai hot chocolate and delicious coffee, and I think I went there every day of my stay.

Walking by the river, a group of boats. I love the painted faces, which are meant to keep evil spirits from sinking the boat
Walking by the river, a group of boats. I love the painted faces, which are meant to keep evil spirits from sinking the boat

Besides shopping and sipping coffee, I also took a bike tour of the town and spent some time at the beach. I didn’t even realize Hoi An had a beach! It was gorgeous, and if I hadn’t already had my beach fill in Vung Tau, I probably would have spent a full day there. But in the end, I really prefer looking at the water to getting in it, so I wandered back to town.

So over the course of three days I learned to love Hoi An. It was cozy, quaint, and charming. The beaches are beautiful, the town is small and easy to navigate, and the food is fantastic. I finally got my hands on a doner kabob, which I have been craving ever since I left Hanoi (that’s three years) and it was marvelous. Local specialty dishes were also quite delicious, and there was no shortage of food options. And to top it all off, Hoi An is known for lanterns, which are everywhere in town. They look nice during the day, but the town is transformed at night. Wandering the lantern-lit streets was downright romantic, even if I was on my own.

Hoi An at night
Hoi An at night

At the end of three days I was sad to see my vacation coming to an end. While I had purposefully left my plans up in the air, giving myself flexibility should I find one place more interesting than the others, I decided to take my final day of the holiday and explore the neighboring city of Da Nang, which I will tell you all about next time.