Kevin: During the month of August I was able to step away from my military duties and explore a region of mainland Japan. Being the type of person I am I researched potential destinations, researched how we would get from place to place, and made a spreadsheet of things to see. We decided to base ourselves in Osaka, one of the larger cities and then range out for daily explorations from there. So, we purchased plane tickets online, packed our bags, and headed for the airport.
This is where the first interesting thing happened. The airport here does not offer long term parking lots. I did some research and there are two private companies that offer long-term parking in the area, but one of them specifically said they would not take our model of van due to its size. To us it is just a large mini-van, especially compared to our Ford Transit that we left behind in the states, but regardless they thought it was too big. I called the second company and they thankfully said they would take it for the week. Nicer yet, they met us at the airport. We pulled up to the departure drop-off area and the parking company representative was waiting on the sidewalk for us. We unloaded our baggage and he took the keys and the van. It was super easy! To jump ahead in the story, when we returned a week later we called the service and they drove our van back to the airport for us and again met us in the drop-off lane. We loaded our baggage and drove home. The cost for this door-to-door service and parking for a week? $45 total!! We were very happy to pay that much (or little), especially since they made it so convenient with the door-to-door service. I’m sure it would have cost way more in the states.
Continuing with the story at the airport, we made it through baggage check-in and security without issue, and none of us had to remove our shoes. We used a budget airline, so in order to get to our plane we actually boarded a bus from the regular terminal and the bus drove us out on the tarmac to our plane. We got off the bus and climbed a set of stairs to the door of the plane. While we have experienced this method of transfer for military flights, I can’t say I have flown commercial in this way before now.
In any case, we were soon airborne and on our way across the sea. We landed that evening at Kansai airport, which has been built on an artificial island in a bay close to Osaka. While I had seen it on the map before we left, it was a little weird to look out the windows on final approach and see water on both sides of us.
Once on the ground and we had collected our luggage we started our trek to the hotel. It was located approximately 45 minutes away by rail from the airport. That meant we had to figure out the rail system. To obtain rail tickets we had to use touch-screen ticket machines. The ticket machines were multi-lingual, but figuring out which machines went with which train systems and where we needed to go once we had tickets proved to be challenging for the first few attempts. We never ended up somewhere we didn’t intend to go, but we did get on a train, question ourselves, and get back off before it left the station once or twice.
Heather: I was very glad Kevin took over the responsibility of figuring out the train system. During this time I was mostly preoccupied with keeping us all together and making sure everyone was paying attention and not out in la-la land when the train stopped so that nobody was left behind. I was quite stressed by how easy it would be to lose someone in this massive, heavily populated, fast moving city where not very many people seemed to speak our language. Another worry was that some of the train systems had safety barriers to keep people from falling down onto the tracks, but some did not have anything and my children seemed fascinated with getting as close as I would let them to the drop-off that led down to the tracks. Another area of challenge for me was getting through places. I did much of the stroller pushing in the train stations while Kevin was more focused on navigating, but sometimes where we needed to go had a lot of stairs and we would have to backtrack to find an elevator. There were many times where we would go through an area that was narrow (the ticket collector turnstiles) and I would have to figure out which one was meant for the handicapped so that I would fit through with the width of the stroller. Once when Pie was pushing the stroller it had trouble fitting through the door onto the train and I had a moment of panic thinking we were going to get stuck with half of us on the platform and half of us on the train. Thankfully it fit through the doorway with a little bit of wiggling and once we were all inside and the train was moving we were able to fold the stroller down to go through the narrower-still train aisle to find seats. Most of the trains had much wider doors and plenty of room for our stroller.
Kevin: We made it to our hotel around dinner time and got all checked in. We were restricted to how many people could occupy a single room so we had 2 joined rooms instead. I am glad we did this, because it would have been super tight had we not. The rooms were smaller than American hotel rooms and other than the beds and a small table with 2 stools there was no other furniture. There was a small fridge, if you could even call it that. 3 1-liter water bottles filled the entire fridge. Other things that we weren’t used to were that there were sets of slippers for everyone as well as pajamas that were folded neatly at the foot of each bed. And then there was the bathroom… The toilet had a control panel on the wall. That’s not a joke either. It seriously had a push-button panel on the wall to control the toilet. It had 2 flush buttons, a button that turned the music on and off (it started automatically when one sits down), and controls for the front and back bidets.
Heather: I think the “smart” toilets are a bit much. Miss Kicky Feet was so afraid of the “relaxing music” that played every time you sat down on the toilet that she would not use it unless someone was available to come in with her and push the button to turn off the music, and even after the button was pushed the music would continue until it had faded out while she sat on the toilet with both hands pressed to her ears trying not to cry.
The shower on the other hand was very much enjoyed by all. It had a temperature control that was in degrees Celsius that was separate from where you controlled the water pressure. There was a regular shower head on a hose (so nice for washing kiddos) that could be mounted at two different heights and a rain shower head and a regular bathtub spigot. Miss Kicky Feet and Chipmunk highly enjoyed two bear-shaped sponges that were provided by the hotel. They would soap up the walls of the shower while playing in the water spraying at them from the shower head and it was big fun. It’s the little things, you know?
Osaka is a bustling city with a larger population than New York City. We explored the Osaka Castle which was surrounded by both motes and walls in the middle of the city. The castle was 8 stories high with an observation deck at the top that we were able to walk completely around the exterior of the building. The view from up there was very good. Each floor had different displays detailing the history of the royal family who once lived in the castle and their rise to power. Some of the floors specifically prohibited photography, so many of our photos are from the outside. I really liked the heavy timber construction and ornate carvings inside the castle. The roof of the castle was decorated with golden figures with green and white accents.
We walked through the majority of the 20-block long Dotonbori open air market full of shops and stores. This was a popular spot for locals and visitors alike with everything from high-end jewelry stores to dollar stores, clothing and food to Disney merchandise. The kids were overjoyed when we found a Pokemon store, although we had to enter a store that resembled an upscale Macy’s and use the elevator to the 9th floor to get to the Pokemon store itself. I wanted to take a ride on the 254-foot tall oval farris wheel, but sadly it was closed due to covid restrictions.
The day we went to Kyoto is rained pretty heavily. This was, for the most part, ok with us as we were planning to visit an indoor attraction that day. We rode the train from Osaka to Kyoto and then determined that the local train to the railway museum wouldn’t come for another 35 minutes, so we decided to walk the 1.2 miles instead. Heather discovered during our walk that her rain jacket was not really waterproof at the seams, so at her request we stopped at a FamilyMart convenience store to purchase clear plastic umbrellas for everyone.
The Railway museum had multiple real-life trains varying from steam locomotives, a 1960s diesel passenger train, and even a recently decommissioned electric bullet train. Some cars and engines were accessible for visitors to crawl up inside, while others could be experienced only from the outside. The museum had exhibits detailing how the drive-train systems worked, how the brakes worked, and how trains obtained electricity from suspended overhead wires. On the second floor they had model trains fitted with digital video cameras and “engineer” stations around the display. Visitors could drive the train by controlling the thrust and brakes while watching a screen with the camera view from the front of the model train. Bug really liked driving the model trains. The museum also had two engines, one steam and one diesel electric, that had walk-through pits underneath them so visitors could see the difference in the drive systems from below the train engines.
Adjacent to the two-story museum was an old train roundhouse complete with approximately 15 real steam locomotives. Many had oil drip pans under them which to me meant that there was a high probability they may have still been operational. There were stairs and platforms that visitors could get into the cab of 5 engines to see all the levers, valves, and fireboxes of these engines.
The second place of interest for us in Kyoto was the Thousand Torii Gate site at Fushimi Inari Shrine. This Shinto shrine is among the top tourist spots in mainland Japan. There is one mammoth torii gate in front of the shrine, but on the hill behind the shrine is a walkway with 10,000 torii gates positioned over the path. Along portions of the path the gates were positioned so closely together one could only slide their hand between them. It was quite a site to see, however the pouring rain during our visit lessened the time we spent there before returning to the cover of the nearest train station.
We spent a half day in Nara, a smaller town known for its wandering bowing deer population. In Japan bowing is a large part of their culture. Instead of shaking hands upon greeting someone, the Japanese bow. This has translated over to the deer as well. When the deer want fed they will approach you, bow, and then wait to be fed. Vendors along the sidewalks sell special deer “cookies” so visitors don’t feed the deer junk food. The deer roam throughout the town around grassy or tree-shaded areas. We saw one grazing along a resident’s front walk without much of a care in the world. They will walk right up to you, however some have better manners than others. One deer that we encountered had a full rack of antlers. He bowed very carefully as to not hit us with his antlers. Others are not as well behaved and were nipping at visitors’ shirts or nudging them with their heads/antlers in search of some “deer cookies”.
Nara had an open air downtown market, although it was nowhere close to the size of the one in Osaka that we had previously explored. We walked the 2-block length of the market and then picked from which ramen shop we wanted to have lunch. Even if the market was smaller, the ramen was still on point.
A few months back one of our neighbors mentioned wanting to go to Legoland. While the kids agreed that it would be fun they knew that Legoland was back in California; a trip we had not completed prior to leaving the continental United States. What they didn’t know was that there is also a Legoland in Japan. So as we planned our mainland trip we secretly made sure to add Legoland in Nagoya to the trip itinerary. Nagoya is 4.5 hours from Osaka by car, but only 1 hour by bullet train. I had wanted to experience the bullet train anyways, and since we didn’t have a rental car, this satisfied two desires/needs at once. The bullet trains in Japan travel faster than trains in America by traveling at a speed of 200 miles per hour, so even with making several stops along the route, we made it in just under an hour. Our train still used conventional track however the track is welded together instead of simply bolted together to make for a much smoother experience for the rider. The newest bullet trains don’t even touch the track, but rather hover a few millimeters above it through the use of electromagnets fitted to the underside of the train.
As we arrived at Legoland we had a backpack full of snacks for the day, but we quickly found out at the bag check station that outside food was prohibited. Oops! I guess we should have paid more attention to the pre-trip information our friends had sent us. It was around 11:45am and we didn’t want to be wasteful and just throw all our snacks away so we ate a lunch of chips, gummy snacks, granola bars, and mixed nuts before entering the park. It may not have been the healthiest meal, but hey, better than throwing it all away, right? Just before getting to the bag check we had also been intrigued by a local food stand just outside the gate so we purchased one portion of Takoyaki. We had no idea what this dish was, but I was feeling adventurous. For those not familiar with them either takoyaki is a ball-shaped savory pancake with pieces of octopus in the middle. These balls were then topped with mayo, sweet soy sauce, and edible seaweed flakes. I thought they were good, the kids thought they were weird and “interesting”, and Heather said she successfully choked one down but turned down having a second one.
Once inside the gates of the park (with lighter backpacks) we were pleased to find very little in the way of lines or crowds. The park was separated into “lands” that corresponded to different product lines of Legos such as Duplo, Ninjago, City, Knights Kingdom, Pirate Shores, Mini, and Adventure. Each area had themed rides and attractions. The mini section featured some very impressive mini Lego models of real structures from around Japan including the Thousand Torii gates, multiple castles, the Osaka train station, and the Tokyo skyline to name a few.
We made our way through the different lands and took a guided tour of the Lego Japan factory that explained how Legos are produced. At the end of the tour we each got a lego block with “LegoLand Japan Factory” printed on the side of it. It was certainly a day enjoyed by all, even Heather and I. After visiting the souvenir shop and heading back to the center of town via the local train we ventured out into downtown Nagoya for a stroll and some dinner from a phenomenal Indian restaurant. After dinner we boarded the bullet train bound for our hotel in Osaka.
On our last day in mainland Japan before heading to the Kobe airport, the second airport that services the greater Osaka area, we made a stop at the Maiko Marine Promenade. The promenade consists of an enclosed viewing area, a small restaurant, an open-air catwalk, and glass-bottom walkway located 150’ in the air on the underside of what is claimed to be the longest suspension bridge in the world. The kids had fun walking across the glass panels and looking straight down at the water below them.
Difference between Mainland and Okinawa
As we traveled around the central region of mainland Japan we couldn’t help but notice the differences between our “home” island of Okinawa and the mainland. In Okinawa the overall strength of the economy is less and it shows. Buildings in Okinawa are frequently tightly packed together, have bare concrete walls, and generally lack color other than concrete gray. There is also a general surface rust that seems to cover any exposed metal. However, on the mainland houses are spaced just a little farther apart and there is almost no bare concrete. Houses are painted in various colors and generally appear nicer than those on the island. One can just kind of tell the median income must be higher on the mainland versus Okinawa. Back in the World War 2 era the Okinawans were looked down on by mainland residents as a lower class of people versus mainland citizens. This was very evident when the Japanese rulers during World War 2 preferred to send the Okinawans into battle first, even against terrible odds, in order to save mainlanders from certain death, so it isn’t surprising that some of that social class difference continues to manifest itself to this day even if it’s only economically.
As with many vacation trips, ours came to an end too soon, but we had a wonderful trip and made lasting memories for our family during our stay on the mainland. With ever-changing Covid restrictions we were very glad to be able to actually go on the trip at all! We would love to explore some more areas of the mainland as well as some neighboring countries in our time on this side of the globe, but it will all depend on how the Covid pandemic plays during our tour of duty in Japan. Until next time…. The Ready Rovers