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During our stay in Osaka, we went on a two-day trip to Koya-san, a Buddhist temple complex in the Kii Peninsula. It’s nr 7 of the top 25 places to visit in Lonely Planet’s guide-book and I wasn’t disappointed. Even the travel from Osaka was very pleasant and a bit of an adventure in itself. First, we hopped on a train on the Nankai Line from Namba in Osaka. To my great surprise, we discovered that the train tickets were pretty much exclusively written in kanji (Chinese characters) and I’ve only learned the kanji for 1,2 and 3 (which is pretty easy since it’s only 1, 2 and 3 horizontal lines).

I felt a bit distressed about not knowing when and where we should leave the train so I asked the obāsan sitting next to me for some help. She must have had some kind of dialect because I had more trouble understanding her than I usually do. However,  she didn’t let a minor detail like that discourage her. Since she wasn’t going to Koya-san herself, she couldn’t guide us herself. Instead she found a lovely couple that was going the same way and asked them to take us. It turned out that in the middle of the train ride, we had to switch trains. If not for the help of the nice lady, we could have missed the second train.

Why can't I have this view from my bus stop at home?

Why can’t I have this view from my bus stop at home?

After we switched trains, the tracks started going up in the mountains along the steep mountain sides and it felt a bit like being back in Hakone. The view from the train was amazing and the nice weather just enhanced the whole experience. At the train end station, a cable car was waiting to take the visitors up the steep hill. After the cable car ride, there were buses waiting to take the visitors on the winding road that leads to central Koya-san.

In the cable car, looking down from where we came from.

In the cable car, looking down on the track where we came from.

When we got off the bus, we went straight for the lodging of the night. This time we hadn’t booked a hotel or ryokan but a room at an actual Buddhist temple! The temple in question is called Fudou-in and is located quite central and a 10-15min walk to the Oku-no-in graveyard. The monks were very nice and they spoke excellent English (something I did not expect?). The room was beautiful and the futon was actually one of the better ones we had on the trip. I usually sleep under a warm down bed cover all year around so I was ecstatic to find the fluffiest and warmest down bed cover I’ve every had the pleasure of sleeping under :D

This was our room at Fudou-in.

This was our room at Fudou-in.

Before it was time for dinner, we went out to have a look at the town and all its temples. An interesting detail is that everything is owned by the temples. And when I say everything, I mean everything. Even the restaurants and fire department is owned by the temple! And they don’t stop at the fire department, I reckon each respectable Buddhist temple town should have at least one giant pagoda and Koya-san didn’t disappoint. Just look at that huge building! The people look like ants in comparison.

Out of all the temples to choose from, I liked the Kongobuji temple the most. The rock garden was amazing and in a way it reminded me of the ocean with the rocks looking like small islands. If you’re going to visit one temple here, make sure this is the one!

While the temples are nice, the main reason why people travel to Koya-san is to visit the vast graveyard called Oku-no-in. The main path is lit up by lanterns and it leads the visitors through a place where ancient cedar trees and tombstones compete for space. At the northern end, there’s a building called the lantern hall. It’s filled to the brim with thousands of lanterns that’s been donated by worshippers. A stone’s throw away from the lantern hall are the Jizo pyramids. Perhaps you’re wondering about the red bibs? I was too, but an acquaintance explained that the bibs are placed on the statues to ensure Jizo’s protection of dead children.

After spending the night, we woke up early to attend the morning ceremony at the temple. It was very interesting but to be honest, I found it a bit repetitive. Strangely enough, the hour practically flew by and the ceremony was finished with one of the monks telling us a little bit about Koysa-san and how it was founded in 819 by the monk named Kūkai (also known as Kōbō-Daishi). After the brief history lesson, we headed off to the dining room where breakfast was already waiting. Just like the dinner, the breakfast was vegetarian and absolutely delicious! I sometimes feel that I hesitate to eat some dishes in a kaiseki dinner/breakfast because sometimes they tend to serve stuff that is a bit too exotic for my taste. Take snails for instance, that’s a little bit too out there for me. But when it’s all vegetables I really don’t have to think about what I’m eating. In a way, it’s easier to enjoy the food.Since a typhoon was supposed to move in during the evening we decided to go for a stroll before taking the train back at around 11-12. First we went to the museum which was a bit so-so since they didn’t have much information in English. They had some really beautiful statues, paintings etc. on display but I would’ve liked to know more about them. Leaving the museum, we headed for the huge gate to the east that used to be the main access road back in the day. Just a stone’s throw away was a small path lined with torii gates that looked very inviting. What better end to the trip than a nice mountain hike? After a mere 200m or so, we found a sign warning us about bears. We decided that meeting a black bear wasn’t a nice way of ending the trip and then we bravely advanced in another direction.

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Zombies dancing at Universal Studios Osaka

The zombies I talked about yesterday didn’t only scare people, they also entertained the crowd with some fancy dance moves! One minute, the zombies seemed to wander aimlessly and the next, all of them were spread out along the street evenly spaced. Then, as the sirens and gunshots stopped and “Thriller” echoed throughout the park, the zombies began dancing.

I apologize for the bad quality but the camera battery had just died and all I had left was my phone.

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Universal Studios at Osaka

When we arrived at Universal Studios at around 11:30, the sun was shining and there were almost no people standing in line at the entrance. “Wonderful” I thought to myself, “if we’re lucky, it’ll be like Disney in Tokyo last year”. I couldn’t have been more wrong. As we entered the park, we realized that all the people were already inside! The lady in the ticket booth told us that if we wanted to, we should go and get a time slot ticket for the new Harry Potter part of the park. Since this was one of the main reasons why we went to Universal Studios in the first place, we hurried to the vending machine for the time slot tickets and was lucky enough to get a ticket for… 19:40 (!?). With the tickets for Harry secured, we started scouting the park. The first roller coasters we stumbled across were the two found on your right as you enter the park. With a queue time of 300 min and only 250 min to the other one, we decided to try our luck with something else.
After walking around for a while, we reached the “Spiderman” ride. There was no visible queue and it didn’t have an estimated queue time. We probably should’ve realized that something was fishy at this point but we were so excited about finally finding an attractions without queues that we swallowed the bait instantly.

We walked in through the entrance, followed the stairs down to… the queue! “Wait a second, there are people standing in line here, but I don’t see the end of the line” Our smiles gradually turned into horrified confusion and the people behind us let out an exclamation “uso!” (loosely translated as “liar”, “you’ve gotta be kidding me”). As we exited the first (visible) “queue room”, the path lead us out to what looked like a small/medium size parking lot, but instead of cars there were people. Still with no end in sight, we continued walking up to the second floor of the people parking lot and there it was. Luckily the second floor was only half full. After a while we lost track of time, but we probably spent 2,5 – 3h in that queue. The ride itself was pretty darn cool but the queue time was just ridiculous.

This is the first floor of the "people parking lot"

This is the first floor of the “people parking lot”

As we came out from the Spiderman ride, there were even more people inside the park. You had to stand in line for practically EVERYTHING. Want to go to the bathroom? Hope it’s not urgent because you’re gonna have to wait. Feeling hungry? “Chotto matte” (wait a little), only 20-30 min or so to get a hot dog. But the worst queue must still be the 10-15m queue to the vending machine for beverages. Look closely at the picture, there are even two lines, one for each vending machine.

Queue for the vending machines. Notice the wonderful cosplay :)

Queue for the vending machines. Notice the wonderful cosplay :)

Instead of spending all our time in queues, we went for a stroll around the park to see the surroundings. Here and there, we found “Zombie Zone” signs as well as a couple of SWAT cars parked at the side of the streets. It looked like some kind of Halloween prop and I thought it had something to do with the fact that you could get some zombie makeup and dress up as one. After an almost complete walk-through of the park, we aimed for Wonderland, the area of small kids. It was here that we found the ride with the shortest queue time, Kitty’s Ribbon Museum! After waiting 40 min we got to see a lot of ribbons and of course, (Hello) Kitty!

As we got out from the complete overdose of pink, the sun had set and the streets were swarming of people who seemed uneasy. As gunshots echoed through the streets and the crowd moved in somewhat panic-stricken, irregular motions, we heard the sound of a chainsaw. On top of a car, only 25 metres away from us stood a man waving a chainsaw around and he wasn’t alone. Another man, armed with an axe, was at is side. Then we saw them, the zombies. They were all over the place and people were screaming from both excitement and terror. For a brief moment, I thought that the guy with the chainsaw actually was a mad-man on the loose but then I realized that it was all a part of the show.

It was a great zombie show! There was one zombie in particular that scared the living crap out of me. I was walking down the street with my phone in hand, fiddling with the camera settings when my husband said “Ehm Nicole… Nicole? You might wanna move this way”. “Huh? What are you saying?” I looked up, only to stare into the face of the most terrifying zombie woman. “Waaaaahhhh”, I screamed. Then I just stood there, unable to move, like a deer caught in the headlights. She hissed and growled equally loud. It felt like hours before my legs would finally move and I bravely advanced in another direction.

Note to self: During a zombie apocalypse, only cannon fodder fiddles with their phone while walking.


Osaka Castle and Kaiyukan Aquarium

Last year we regretted that we never got to see any of Japan’s castles. This time we wanted to make sure we didn’t miss it again and decided to visit the Osaka castle on our first day in the city. From one of the nearby metro stations, we made our way into the castle park from the south entrance.

The park is very beautiful with its well maintained trees and bushes and I imagine it’s even more beautiful in the spring with all the sakura in bloom.

The south-east entrance to the Osaka castle park. Don't you think the trees to the right look like Hattifatteners (Hattifnattar in Swedish) from Moomin?

The south-east entrance to the Osaka castle park. Don’t you think the trees to the right look like Hattifatteners (Hattifnattar in Swedish) from Moomin?

After walking through the many gardens and passing two moats, we could finally see the castle up close. It really is quite beautiful with its white walls, green roof and golden decor. Nowadays, the castle has been turned into a museum that mostly tells the story of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the man known as Japan’s second great unifier. On the top floor of the castle is a 360° panorama view of Osaka.

After visiting the Osaka castle, we took the subway to the harbour where the Kaiyukan Aquarium is located. According to the Lonely Planet guide, there’s a great food court called Tempozan right next to the aquarium and I can tell you it was not wrong. Both my husband and I are huge fans of okonomiyaki (a sort of cabbage pancake with shrimps, octopus and bacon) which means that we went straight for Fugetsu, one of the two okonomiyaki restaurants in Tempozan. Here you may choose from a number of different fillings for your okonomiyaki and the staff will cook it right in front of you, on the huge built-in hot plate on the table.

Full and happy from eating the delicious okonomiyaki, we made our way to Kaiyukan where all sorts of sea living creatures waited for us. It is a nice aquarium but if I compare it to the one found in Shanghai, I think that Shanghai was slightly better. One thing that was truly amazing was the whale shark in the main tank. Unfortunately, all my pictures of it were rubbish so you need to google it if you don’t already know what it is. However, as amazing as the whale shark is, my absolute favourite is still the sea otters. They are just incredibly cute and I could probably spend all day watching them!