I have finally gathered sufficient evidence to conclude that my post on our annual trip to Japan is not going to write itself. So let’s get to it, shall we? We’ll (mostly) slip the bonds of personal finance and play travel blog for a day.
Our annual pilgrimage to Japan happened a little earlier than normal this year. The late June G20 meeting in Osaka needed to be avoided at all costs, so we left pretty soon after the boys’ school let out. (If you’re ever targeting summer travel to Japan, I’d highly recommend the month of June before Japanese schools let out for summer.)
A key question in going to Japan is determining where and how to recover from jet lag. We’ve found, from painful experience, that wherever the trans-Pacific leg ends, we need to stay the night – the boys are wrecked from jetlag and we’d be courting disaster to continue the journey.
We’ve also learned, again from painful experience, that we need the lads to almost fully recover from jet lag before we arrive at the grandparents. Two young boys wide awake and causing mayhem at 3am is a major shock to my in-laws’ peaceful lives.
While our goal was Osaka (my in-laws are in one of the distant suburbs), our trans-Pacific flight was to Tokyo, so we planned on crashing there the night of arrival. Since we’d be flying out the next day and Narita is really far from central Tokyo, we chose to stay near the airport.
There is supposedly a really nice ryokan (traditional Japanese hotel) at Narita – the Wakamatsu Honten Ryokan. Since my youngest doesn’t remember his last ryokan, we thought that would be a great way to start the trip – experience some Japanese authenticity while staying close to the airport for our flight the next day. Sadly, it was fully booked, so we settled for the Narita Tobu Hotel. It was fine, but its key selling points are that it is indeed a hotel and is really close to Narita. I would have taken a picture of the interior, but if you just close your eyes and imagine “generic hotel room”, you’ve got it. Here’s the view from the window:
We had many a discussion on where to go to finish the jet-lag-burnoff process. In years past, we’d wend our way down to Suzuka Circuit (a theme park and F1 race course) but wanted to do something different this time. We’d spend another night before heading to the in-laws, see someplace new, and have some fun.
We were considering hopping a flight to Hokkaido, which I’ve been to and love; Kyushu, which the missus says is awesome and sounded fun; and Shikoku, which I got pretty excited about, but which the missus shot down immediately (apparently Shikoku is rather provincial – I need to do some research to build the case for a visit, as right now it mostly consists of visiting this spooky village).
But the boys were really jet lagged this trip, and I was a little worried about the added logistics. Then I hit on a great idea: why don’t we take a little mini, pre-grandparents vacation to…Osaka! The missus looked at me like I was crazy. Crazy like a fox. She’s from Osaka and used to work downtown, but she hadn’t really given it a great visit in almost twenty years. She started to get pretty excited. I was keen to go because although I’ve “been” to Osaka many times, I had never seen the full tourist show. And getting to the grandparents’ house in the distant suburbs would be a lot easier from downtown Osaka than it would be from another island.
Visiting Osaka got an added boost when the missus saw that the Imperial Hotel Osaka was available for cheap. This is a really nice hotel (in fact, it’s where the U.S. delegation stayed for the G20!), so we pulled the trigger and booked a night there.
Sidebar – Hotel Price Discrimination
One nice discovery we made this trip was some major price discrimination in hotels. Whenever the missus went to a Japanese site (hotel direct or 3rd party), hotel rooms were far more expensive (~50% more) than they were on the U.S. version of booking.com. Whatever parity normally exists between hotel and 3rd party sites didn’t apply across countries.
That does make some sense, though – we were always booking at the very last minute, and for some of the hotels (esp. the one we stayed at in Gifu, below) they would have good reasons to maintain the high price & prestigious brand for Japanese guests. They couldn’t care less about what foreign visitors think – they just want to sell the room before it spoils. Everyone wins. Well, except for the local Japanese – they have to pay more.
Waking up for our early flight to Osaka was easy. I had woken at 1am to do a careful study of the room’s ceiling, and even the slugabeds were up by 4am.
It’s kinda weird that we’ve been to the same food court in Narita so many times that our sons know where everything is and exactly what they want to order.
Our ride to Osaka:
You may remember that last year, I was a bit underwhelmed with the welcome message developed by KIX airport. So I was curious to see how they might have improved it this year, hopefully better highlighting the beauty and traditions of Japan. And I saw this:
What. The Actual. $%#&.
The folks on KIX’s marketing team need to be fired. Or at least tell me who’s the target audience for this mess.
I can imagine how the agent sold this to one particularly unlucky model:
Agent: “Hey, I have a gig where you can be on the welcome board for KIX Airport!”
Model: “Awesome! I saw the one last year where the boy band looked sullen with an ugly airport backdrop. Sign me up.”
Agent: “Well, this year they’re going to go with a more festive design. Everyone’s going to have an airport role and be smiling and super happy. You’ll be the guy representing the Quarantine Detector Dog.”
Model: “Hmmmm…that’s not my first choice, but it sounds OK. Will I just be holding its leash?”
Agent: “Not exactly. You’re actually going to be the dog.”
A bunch of goofballs on an almost-colorless background with a huge “BOOOOOOOM” (everyone’s favorite sound when flying). Nice work, guys. An eight year old could design a far better welcome message.
No, seriously. Not only could an eight year old design something better – an eight year old has! My youngest son, using my trip photos and a solid five minutes of his time, came up with this:
KIX management: my son is available to help with your next design.
The Imperial Hotel Osaka was really nice.
It’s the first hotel I’ve been to where they have a professional flutist just hanging around fluting all day long:
When we did a photo scavenger hunt / best picture competition in the hotel (don’t judge us), we saw some menus that gave a sense of how posh this hotel really was.
Nice try, Imperial Hotel Osaka. Sadly for you, we’re less of the “$300 a plate” crowd and more of the “stock up on food at the nearby Lawson convenience store and carry it back to our room in plastic bags” one. Convenience stores in Japan have far better food options than their American counterparts, so we’re typically able to put together a good breakfast and snacks for cheap. Perhaps we may have gotten looks of disapproval, but Japanese looks of disapproval are far more subtle than American ones – they’re basically imperceptible.
Our highlight for our first day seeing Osaka was to visit the famous Dotonbori.
Osaka is known as Japan’s Kitchen, for good reason. Takoyaki and okonomiyaki originated locally. And Dotonbori is the epicenter for Osaka cuisine.
The Glico man has been a Dotonbori icon since 1935. Glico is the caramel candy that athletes need for superior performance.
We went to the alleywalls of nearby Hozenji Yokocho for dinner. For anyone who thinks that all Japanese food is healthy, I present kushikatsu. Deep fried everything. It’s like a day at the State Fair of Texas.
There is also a famous statue at Hozenji Temple. Apparently 80 years ago a woman threw water on the statue as she made a wish. Her wish came true, so now everyone does it, and the statue is covered with moss as a result.
Before we headed to the in-laws, we wanted to tick off one more tourist box, so we headed to Osaka Castle.
Osaka Castle looks very nice, but it’s not the original. It was burned to the ground in the 1600’s. It was rebuilt and burned several times after that. It was largely destroyed during WW2. And Godzilla pulverized it when he smashed Anguirus into it in 1955. It’s kinda like the swamp castle in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
But even though it was rebuilt with concrete and is just a modern replica, it looks pretty cool.
To the Suburbs!
With our boys mostly on local time, we were ready to head to the grandparents’ house.
Our routine there is pretty similar each year.
We always visit the local 1,000 year old Tada shrine:
We made many trips to the local Seiyu grocery store. It’s fun to see the differences, like a 100 pound fish just sitting in the middle of the aisle for sale.
Across the street from the grocery lives the worst Anpanman statue in Japan, where I always take an annual picture of the boys:
We always visit Uniqlo to pick up T-shirts that look cool and exotic in the U.S. but cost less than $10 (shhhhhh).
And we eat like kings:
Before we wore out our welcome at the grandparents, it was time to give them a short break. We planned an overnight trip to see my sister-in-law and her family outside Nagoya.
Our trusty steed was my father-in-law’s LeVorg, which we’re hoping Subaru will start selling in the U.S.
Nowadays, they have these stickers that old people can put on their car so you give ‘em a break when they’re driving slowly and horribly. That’s not such a bad idea.
The “I’m an old person – cut me some slack” stickers are permanent, though. So as the missus chauffeured us around, people assumed that it was a super old, really bad driver at the wheel, which was kinda funny. There’s definitely more comedic gold there, but let’s just move on.
Staying with my sister-in-law would be cramped, so we looked for a nearby hotel. While I’m normally the lead contrarian in our household, the missus had a stroke of contrarian genius: she found a nearby wedding hotel (Japan has a number of hotels primarily geared toward weddings & wedding parties). Since it was a Sunday night and there were no weddings planned, she thought we might get a great deal. She was right! The Japanese website was still really expensive, I suspect to keep the brand value and prestige of the hotel high. But booking.com was really cheap – the most extreme example of this hotel arbitrage we found the entire trip.
This was a ryokan (traditional hotel with tatami mats) with onsite onsen (Japanese hot spring).
For those who have never stayed in a ryokan, it’s a fun experience, especially with kids. You just have a bunch of tatami mats on the floor with a table. Sometimes they include meals served in your room.
At some point while you’re out, elves come in and set up futons on the floor. When you return to your room, it looks like this.
Tatami mats aren’t the most comfortable thing in the world to sleep on, but it is a fun sort of camping once in a while.
The hotel was near a river where they still practice the traditional art of fishing with birds (no, I didn’t know that was a thing either). Normally I’d say Japanese words sound pretty cool, and perhaps even more elegant than English. But the Japanese call the fishing bird “u” (like the sound you make when someone punches you in the stomach), whereas the English word for this fair creature is the lovely and lyrical “cormorant”.
Anyway, cormorant fishing has apparently been done worldwide for a long time, though nowadays it’s a dying art and only survives on the tourist trade. The cormorants dive in and grab fish, and the fisherman pulls the bird back to the boat. Because there is a string tied around the bird’s neck, it can’t swallow the fish, leading me to believe that the cormorant isn’t a fully willing participant.
Much to the missus’ (but no one else’s) disappointment, we didn’t actually have time to do the “u” boat tour. But if you want to see the magic she missed, you can watch this video:
But we did get to walk around Gifu and check out some of the sights.
Guide to Onsen
Normally, folks frown on you taking pictures in the onsen because naked people abound. But since there was almost no one in the hotel, the boys and I had it to ourselves. Yeah!
I’ve long thought about having a comprehensive post explaining all of the etiquette and nuances to respectfully enjoying onsen. While we wait for that, I did capture a wonderfully artistic CliffsNotes version, made by a cartoonist who may want to consider a different career:
Every frame is a work of art, but the second is the best by far. It captures the grace and beauty of the human form as he cannonballs into the onsen; it channels the raw rage of the older man as his social order is destroyed; and it leaves the viewer with the enduring mystery of “What the hell did that guy get into to get so filthy?”
On our way back to the Osaka area, we stopped to see some of Kyoto. This was a first for the boys, so we took them to Sanjusangen-do, a famous Buddhist temple.
We weren’t allowed to take pictures of these statues. So I took a picture of a poster of the statues 🙂
On our way out of Kyoto, we decided to stop by Nintendo’s headquarters. There didn’t appear to be any official tours or whatnot, but surely a kid-focused videogame company would roll out a warm welcome for two of its most passionate customers. Right?
No. Nintendo is not exactly encouraging the tourist trade. There wasn’t any barrier to us pulling into their headquarters parking lot, but as soon as we did, a 70 year old security guard ran over to us to ask what’s up. The missus explained that we wanted to take a picture and check out the place, so this crafty old geezer smiled nicely and directed us to a security office at the entrance where he said they could help us. But it was a trap! The only thing we got there was a really grumpy 80 year old security guard who said, “You need to leave!” The missus gave her cutest smile and tried chatting him up, but he resisted her charms and just said “Get out!” He pointed to the exit just in case we were slow. It wasn’t very welcoming, but it was kinda funny, and we were able to take some pictures from the car:
There were two different headquarters buildings. But there seems to be a third one under construction in between them – a bullish sign for Nintendo, perhaps?
Near the end of our trip, we needed a day trip to wear the boys out and give the grandparents another break. We decided to drive to Kobe.
There was a go-kart track en route, so of course we had to stop and do some racing. As always during a weekday in June (when the poor Japanese kids are still in school), we had the place to ourselves.
If I had to live in any city in Japan that isn’t in Hokkaido, I think I’d choose Kobe. It’s cool.
It’s got everything that’s great about Japan, but is a much more manageable size.
We visited the waterfront…
…and stopped by the combination Kobe Maritime Museum / KawasakiGoodTimesWorld.
The Maritime Museum pretty much met my expectations of what a maritime museum should be. I would say you could skip it, but you can’t – it’s a shared ticket with the Kawasaki museum.
And KawasakiGoodTimesWorld delivered on the promise of its name. It was a lot of fun, and there were a number of games and simulations that the boys enjoyed.
We dined at a number of “make your own” restaurants this trip.
One of our favorites was this one, where you make your own okonomiyaki:
We also made our own noodles here:
And that got me thinking.
There are many restaurants like this in Japan. They’re not just a kitchy, once-in-a-blue-moon concept like in the U.S. – they’re a popular and well-established part of the restaurant scene.
I have to admire the pluck of Japanese restaurateurs – they charge a premium for us to do the cooking ourselves. Who knows – perhaps in an “Emperor’s New Clothes” stroke of genius, sushi / sashimi was born out of such lazy brilliance (“How ‘bout we just don’t cook the fish at all and pretend it’s super premium?”) Sometimes there’s a fine line between marketing brilliance and laziness, but we really enjoyed all of our “DIY” dining this trip.
Normally we set off fireworks while in Japan to celebrate July 4, but even though we were a few weeks early, the boys insisted on it. Strap yourself in, because this is going to get pretty wild:
Our ride home:
Remember how I said it was a good idea to crash for the night in whatever city you land from the trans-Pacific flight? That’s really good advice.
Because if you ignore it, this is the result:
Because we landed early in San Francisco, it didn’t make sense to overnight there after our flight from Osaka. But we paid dearly for that decision on the way home, especially after weather turned our one connection into multiple ones.
The boys were troopers, though, and we eventually made it home and put another great trip to Japan in the books.
And now that I’ve confirmed that my blog is still functioning, we’ll try to keep the gears turning and start posting with more regularity 🙂
Hope everyone is having a great summer, and see you soon.