Five years ago, Broady and I landed in Osaka on a cold, chilly morning. The air was freezing, the light pant I worked out from lugging my luggage bag morphed into a cloud of thin mist. It was the first week of April—cherry blossom season.

It was also the first leg of our multi-leg Japan adventure, where we were going to jet across large portions of Japan; from Osaka to Kyoto to Takayama to Shirakwa-go, back to Takayama, followed by the finale in ultramodern Tokyo.

It was supposed to be spring. But winter was extended that year and we didn’t get the memo. However, the bitter cold didn’t stop us from slapping on multiple layers and wayfaring our through the land of the rising sun (Japan).

Osaka

Our fortnight long trip started in Osaka. This wasn’t our first time in Japan, nor our first time in Osaka. As wide body aircraft pilots (at that time), we frequented the country.

However, it’s not a holiday when you have to rush back to the hotel to catch some winks before an early start. Therefore, this time around, we were determined to walk till we were exhausted, eat till we were stuffed, and stay up so late we’d make the owls blush.

Of course, we visited the usual tourist spots and posed with the iconic running man. Fun fact: the running man is a Glico mascot. The company’s caramel candy was created in 1922 as an energy product that claims to give the consumer an extra shot of explosive energy. Hence, the running man.

The busy shopping/eating/touristing spot of Dotonbori.
The Iconic Running Man
Osaka Tower as seen from a distance.

And since we were (and are) permanently tethered to theme parks like a bunch of teenagers, Universal Studio Japan (USJ) was, like, a total must.

The trademark of USJ is—of course—The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. (Click here to read about our time at Universal Studio Florida and a similar experience.)

There, we visited Hogwarts, where Harry Potter went to school, and Hogsmeade, where Harry Potter chilled after school.

Hogwarts Castle looking like a million bucks in the bitter cold.
The (fake) snow covered roofs of Hogsmeade.

The following are exclusive (not really) pictures from the inside of Hogwarts Castle. If you do not live under a rock and have read the books or watched the movies, you should recognise these items.

A pensive.
Hogwarts house points hourglasses.
Hogwarts Portraits.
A quidditch ball.

Now for the food!

We lined up for ages in the freezing weather to taste this Okonomiyaki, a Japanese savoury pancake, at Fukutaro. And it was worth it.

TO-DIE-FOR. FOR REAL.

Of course, there was a reason why we chose the first week of April when everything in Japan was at its most expensive to visit. Two words, 14 alphabets: Cherry Blossoms.

Pretty cherry blossoms. I cannot, for the life of me, remember the name of this place.

Kyoto

Speaking of cherry blossoms, there was no better place to stand under a shower of falling petals like a character in a TVB drama than Kyoto, a neighbouring town of Osaka’s that is famous for its temples, shrines, and palaces.

One such place is Keage Incline, where a row of cherry blossom trees hung over an abandoned railway track. A good friend of mine took his wedding pictures here with nothing more than good lighting and a tripod stand, and they looked amazing. Therefore, I wanted in on the photography action.

Keage Incline

Another place with a stunning array of cherry blossoms was Kiyomizu-dera, although my photography skills does the place no justice in the following pictures.

Since it was five years ago, I cannot remember why we visited this place at night, but I do remember walking stretches of roads to get there. The temple is known for its wooden stage. To be honest though, I think it bears an uncanny resemblance to an oversized rumah papan (Malaysian wooden house).

Cherry blossoms at Kiyomizu-dera
Kiyomizu-dera as seen from afar.
Kiyomizu-dera again.

Of course, a trip to Kyoto isn’t complete without some shrine hopping. And right on top of our google results was this: Fushimi Inari. Inari is the Shinto god of rice, and this is a shrine dedicated to Inari. Rows of torri gates shade your way up to the honden (main hall).

Expect to cover a week’s worth of steps in Fushimi Inari. Also expect a serious glute workout.

Fushimi Inari
Torri gates at Fushimi Inari leading up to the honden.
Map of Fushimi Inari trail.

And then, we ate:

Takayama/ Shirakawa-go

We were going to ride the Shinkansen to Takayama, but the limitation of our wallets did not permit it. Therefore, we hauled our poor asses to Takayama with the cheaper yet comfortable ordinary train.

And maybe not experiencing the Shinkansen was not a complete loss, because from the slow(er)-moving train, we got to fully appreciate the Japanese countryside.

We’re on our way…
…way…
…way…
(Caption of previous three pictures are the lyrics of On Our Way by The Royal Concept)

And then we arrived at Takayama!

…Where we spent two nights. From there, we transited to UNESCO world heritage site Shirakawa-go.

Information dispenser mode: According to japan-guide.com, Shirakawa-go is known for their traditional gassho-zukuri farmhouses. Gassho-zukuri translates to “constructed like hands in prayer”. The roofs supposedly resemble the hands of Buddhist monks pressed together in prayer.

We visited in April when the snow had already partially melted. Even then, there were endless stretches of white, powdery snow. At that point, there was a winter charm to the place. Every season has its appeal. Summer spot bright green meadows with sunflowers dancing under the scorching sun, a perfect contrast to the dirty brown colour of the farmhouses. During autumn, the bright green politely bow out for the warm colours that tint the trees. Light pink cherry blossoms flaunt their grandeur during the spring, punctuating the aesthetics of the old farmhouses.

Once again, it was still winter when we arrived, albeit during the transition to spring. Scant amounts of snow capped the distant mountains and decorated the rooftops. At the same time, there were beds after beds of white, enchanting snow. Being the Malaysian kids that we are, the snow excited us in a way that transformed our spirits.

We have arrived at Shirakawa-go! (Read phrase in C-3PO’s voice)
The Gassho-Zukuri Farmhouses.
There is snow everywhere.
Everywhere, there is snow.
Peaceful bliss.
A bird’s-eye view of Shirakawa-go
There was a lake. That it’s not frozen suggest that spring was approaching
Same lake, different angle.

Tokyo

From Takayama, we took the long way to Tokyo by bus. This is an experience I highly recommend. A road trip in Japan is unlike a road trip in Malaysia. There, the highway rest stops are like shopping malls. There are retail shops and eateries. Also clean toilets. Because it is Japan, you can eat off a public toilet floor if you pleased.

The highway rest stops in Japan are like shopping malls.

In Tokyo, we visited Ryogoku, aka Sumo Town. Ryogoku is the epicentre of the sumo world. Among the various architectures found there are stables (where sumo wrestlers live and train), chanko nabe restaurants that serve sumo food (protein super-rich food), the Kokukigan Sumo Stadium, and a Sumo Museum.

If you frequent this blog, then you know about my love affair with museums.

After a train ride to Ryogoku Station, we found ourselves at the Sumo Museum. (But not before we witnessed a Chinese tourist harass a real life sumo wrestler into taking a picture with her. He looked very uncomfortable.)

All that seeming bulge is pure muscle, baby.
Sumo handprints.
Sumo name, height, weight, and email address (just kidding. No, really.).
Wall with painting of a sumo match.

Consistent with our museum rage, we found ourselves at The Railway Museum at Sitama City, which is a major city half an hour north of Tokyo.

Here, there are train models, a train simulator (of which I rocked), and a realistic life size mockup that we enjoyed tremendously. Of those who also enjoyed the mockup was a group of primary school age kids who elbowed us, created a racket, and totally photobombed all our pictures.

My thoughts looking at this is: if only Doraemon could shrink me, and mini me gets to play on those fun-looking toys.
All aboard!

Last but not least, one must not visit Tokyo without paying respect to the world’s most famous mouse… Jerry from Tom & Jerry! Okay, not really. (Jerry, I love you, but it’s not your moment to shine.)

Yezzz… Mickey mouse!

Having visited Disneyland during night stop before (if you consider us lining up 3 hours per ride and freezing in the cold rain “visiting”), we put all our eggs in one basket and spent two days at DisneySea.

Speaking of eggs, it was Easter season. Each season, Disney parks are decorated according to a theme of the season. If you recall, we visited Hong Kong Disneyland during Christmas season. I don’t think I mentioned it, but it was also Easter during our park-hopping-exploits at Disney World Floria.

I would do Halloween next if not for this gigantic hole in my pocket.

P.S.: I accept donations 😉

P.P.S.: On a serious note, please donate to the B40s (including refugees) who have been badly affected by the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. Many of them struggle to even put food on the table. Do contact me to find out how.

P.P.P.S.: But if you insist on contributing to my next Disney trip, I will not be so rude as to refuse.

Spot the hidden Mickey! (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you had no childhood.)
Dressing to theme is mandatory.
I waved at Mickey and… MICKEY WAVED BACK!! Who cares if he also waved at the girl in the Minnie headband standing next to me.
Chip & Dale, on a float; hip and tailed, own a boat!
Our first day in DisneySea was warm and sunny, so the whole wide world (it was the school holidays then), decided to clog the park up. On the other hand, the second day was cold and freezing so the park was practically empty. So, we were like, yay, private park! The cold never bothered me anyway. (I hope you sang the last part. Also, the cold did bother me a lot, I just sucked it up in the name of the theme park gods.)
Disney is famous for their quality performance. Here, you can see enough mascara on Daisy Duck to paint a full Sumi-e (Japanese ink painting).

All of these happened five years ago. Therefore, there may be lapses in my memory. Maybe we spent 3, not 2 days in DisneySea. Maybe the Shinto gods visited me at a shrine and gave me winning 4D numbers. Maybe I participated in a sumo wrestling match and actually won!

Or maybe we didn’t spend the entire night in a cafe to get first dips into Tsukiji Fish Market the next morning, only to be turned away because the spaces were already full. And maybe we didn’t—fatigued, starving, and disappointed—eat at the very same restaurant that Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone did during their trip to the Tsukiji Fish Market!

But Mickey did wave at me from the float. There is no memory lapse there. I am a reliable narrator.

Last but not least, here’s a picture of Minnie and Mickey. They’re saying something… wait, what is it?

What is it, Minnie and Mickey? I can’t hear you.

*Cups hand behind right ear and cranes neck.*

Oh! Haha.

Minnie and Mickey said, Sayonara!

Sayonara!