Saturday, April 20, 2013

Journey to Japan

“Journey to Japan”
Sun.Star Davao, April 20, 2013

I will never forget my first ever overseas trip with the family.  We went to Japan and I was eleven then. Tokyo Disneyland just opened the year before, and to be able to visit a Disney theme park was an absolute childhood wish that came true. It was such a magical time!

In 1999, I went back to Japan again as a delegate of the Filipino Youth Invitational Program sponsored by Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

My ten-day trip included visits to the Diet (Congress), Tokyo University (particularly their Department of Philippines Studies where I was pleasantly surprised that Japanese students learned our language, history, songs and dances), Japan International Cooperation Agency, among others. And, to top it all, I even had the chance to participate in a 3-day homestay program with a hospitable Japanese foster family in Yokohama.

Early this summer, I had the fantastic opportunity to explore Japan once more. This time around, with my husband, kids, cousins and in-laws, we went to Osaka, Nara, Kyoto, Hakone and Tokyo.

Here are some of the must-go and must-do activities for families in the ‘Land of the Rising Sun’!

 Universal Studios Japan

 Celebrating its 12th year, Universal Studios Japan is the legendary entertainment company’s first studio theme park outside of the United States.

 It combines the most popular rides and shows from Universal’s Hollywood and Florida Movie Studio Theme Parks, along with all new attractions designed specifically for Japan. The park’s areas include Hollywood, New York, San Francisco, Jurassic Park, Amity Village, Waterworld and Universal Wonderland featuring Snoopy Studios, Hello Kitty Fashion Avenue and Sesame Street Fun World.

 I am usually such a thrill-seeker when it comes to rides but since I was with my daughters, I found myself in Universal Wonderland most of the time. Young kids will definitely adore the vibrant and child-friendly attractions with the well-loved Peanuts, Hello Kitty and Sesame Street gang.

 If you plan to visit Universal Studios during the peak season; in our case, spring break, immediately get to the top three rides that you are willing to queue up for as the waiting time for famous rides could take two to three hours (not kidding!). During the extra hour or two, walk around the theme park for pictures and for shopping at the myriad of souvenir shops.

Sakura in spring

 We were fortunate that our weeklong trip coincided with the Sakura (cherry blossom) season which only lasts for one to two weeks per area once a year.

 Seeing the lovely cherry blossoms’ different varieties and colors brought big smiles to our faces. We couldn’t resist taking photos whenever we had the chance. With snacks in tow, we joined the locals in their hanami, which is the centuries-old practice of picnicking under a blooming sakura tree.

 When scheduling a vacation in Japan, the perfect time would certainly be during the Sakura season.

Nara Deer Park

 On our way to Todaiji Temple, we passed by the Nara Deer Park, which is home to thousands of tamed roaming deer. In the Shinto religion, the deer is perceived to be messengers of the gods. And, in Nara, they are a symbol of the city and, a designated natural treasure.

 I had some bread in my bag to feed the deer. But, the deer must have sensed it was inside for they began to nibble gently on my bag and clothes.  I went on a semi-panic mode at one point when a herd began jostling for the bread in my hands. But, it was a fun experience nevertheless for the whole family. Deer crackers are being sold at the park for a minimal fee.

Ancient Kyoto          

 Have you watched the movie, “Memoirs of a Geisha”? The award-winning film was set in the beautiful ancient city of Kyoto. To get to Kyoto from Osaka, we took the very efficient Japanese bullet train. With speeds up to of 220 km/hour and just 60-second in-between stops, it was an amazing experience in itself.

 Kyoto used to be Japan’s capital and the emperor’s residence from 794 until 1868. Most temples, shrines and structures were maintained to this day.  During the last war, its deep historical significance and cultural connection with its people spared it from bombs and air raids.

 Walking around Kyoto is like being transported back in time. Picturesque and breath-taking, it still continues to inspire awe and admiration.  It was actually my third time to see the Kiyomizudera (Pure Water Temple) but I still treasured my visit. I loved that the shop owners were generously giving food samples to tourists (much like in Macau). Strolling along lush gardens, we even saw several Japanese ladies dressed and made up as “geishas”.

 Snow at Mt. Fuji

 One of the most anticipated parts of our trip was driving up the snow-capped Mt. Fuji, the highest mountain in Japan. Originally, we were supposed to go all the way up to the top-most station (5th station) but as the weather condition was not ideal, we only reached the 4th station.

 The clouds did not give us a clear view of the magnificent mountain. But, this did not dampen our spirits as the kids were actually more excited to see and play in the snow which covered the scattered parts of the station. Snowball fight!

 In the afternoon, we proceeded to Hakone where we enjoyed the ropeway ride to Owakudani Hell Valley and took a scenic cruise on Lake Ashi.

Tokyo DisneySea

 For our tour, we chose Tokyo DisneySea over Tokyo Disneyland as the former is the only Disney resort of its kind in the world.

  Tokyo DisneySea, as its name implies, has exciting sea-themed adventures and entertainment which include the Mediterranean Harbor, The American Waterfront, Port Discovery, Lost River Delta, Arabian Coast, Mermaid Lagoon and Mysterious Island.

 Get a fast pass for the attractions and shows as the queues during peak season, just like in Universal Studios, are kilometric. Even the lines for food stations like popcorn, drinks, churros, turkey leg, etc. are a mile long. However, despite the crowd and the inclement weather (which dipped to a freezing 6 degrees Celsius), the Japanese discipline and patience, especially when it comes to queues, still held strong and true!

Japanese comfort food

 When traveling, I always emphasize to my kids to have an adventurous appetite for local dishes, and refrain from sticking to their ‘usual’ choices. Gladly, in Japan, trying their cuisine was not a problem as my family and I love Japanese food. Shabu shabu, sushi, yakiniku, yakitori, among others, were familiar and much appreciated dishes.

  After shopping at Shimsaibashi Namba in Osaka, our tour guide, whom we affectionately call “J”, recommended that we have dinner at her favorite ramen house. It was a low-ceiling, tight but cozy 15-seater restaurant with students and yuppies savoring their food. We ordered the house favorite, Happy Noodles, which was a huge bowl of ramen, melt-in-your-mouth roast pork and soothing broth. True to its name, the comfort dish did not disappoint. We were H-A-P-P-Y!

 In Osaka, we also tried the flavorful takoyaki balls, a ball-shaped Japanese snack in wheat-flour batter, and filled with minced octopus, tempura bits, pickled ginger and green onion.

 More than souvenir shopping, we truly immersed ourselves in the experience of gorging on authentic Japanese street food and snacks such as okonomiyaki (savory pancake with different ingredients), ningoyaki (bite-size sponge cake) and kakigori (flavored shaved ice) at Nakamise Shopping Street in Tokyo.
 And, if you’re wondering what ‘pasalubong’ would be a hit with friends and family, you’ll never go wrong with the kid-tested Kit Kat which comes in unique flavors such as Wasabi, Matcha-Green Tea, Strawberry Cheesecake, Rum Raisin, Cherry Blossom, Brown Sugar Syrup, Hot Japanese Chili, Edamame Soybean, among others. Oishi!

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