Friday, January 29, 2016

My Dream School

Ever since The Wizarding World of Harry Potter opened in Universal Studios Japan, I've always wanted to visit. I had started to love the Japanese countryside but I wasn't keen on skipping Osaka. Nevermind I was going to a theme park alone-- this is Harry Potter we're talking about.

I arrived at USJ at around 8:30am and bought a ticket (JPY7200). I had wanted to get a Universal Express Pass that will allow me to shorten waiting times at the popular attractions there but they weren't available anymore. The park wasn't open until 9am but a sea of people was starting to gather at the entrance. It was crazy because it was a Wednesday and yet there's still so much people. I lined up and when the gates opened, young people started running towards The Wizarding World. Seriously, it was super intense! 

I read that Timed Entry Tickets are needed to enter The Wizarding World but because it was early in the morning, I didn't have to get one of those and I was able to go straight to The Wizarding World.

I went straight to the Hogwarts castle for The Harry Potter and The Forbidden Journey ride because I heard that the lines will be crazy long. It took barely 15 minutes for me to enter the castle. There's still a line inside the castle towards the ride but it's cool because you get to see the castle interiors while waiting. I started reading Harry Potter books when I was 11 years old so entering Hogwarts is practically a dream come true. 

The Mirror of Erised

The moving portraits

Dumbledore's office

The ride was really cool. I guess it's no wonder it's called the "world's best attraction". I'm not exactly fond of theme park rides but I really enjoyed The Forbidden Journey!

Now the thing I hadn't realize before coming there is that the attractions are going to be in Japanese lol. Can you imagine Professor Dumbledore speaking Nihongo? It's so weird! I really gotta go to the Universal Studios in Florida or in California someday.

I continued walking around, looking at the shops and merchandise. The park is rather small so it doesn't take a long time to see everything. 

Early Wednesday morning

A real owl inside the Owlery with its trainer

The ceiling of the Owlery

At 11am, I started feeling hungry and seeing as there's no line at Three Broomsticks yet, I took advantage. As expected, the food is ridiculously expensive but, again, this is Harry Potter we're talking about. Besides, it's not like I was going to pay for the food-- I was going to pay for the experience of eating inside Three Broomsticks! I got fish & chips and a butterbeer with a souvenir mug all for JPY2800. The fish & chips weren't particularly exceptional but it was alright. Butterbeer, however, was really good.

Afterwards, I walked and looked around more and watched the shows: the Hogwarts Frog Choir and the Triwizard Spirit Rally. Good thing the shows were spoken in both Japanese and English. At 2pm, I ran out of things to do and it was getting REALLY crowded. There are lines to get inside practically everything (even the shops). Eventually, I decided to go back to my hostel. I heard that The Wizarding World is even more beautiful at night but I couldn't really wait until sunset with nothing to do.

Yep, lots of people.

This is the train I rode going to USJ. It's a Harry Potter train. How fitting, right?

I went home with a Butterbeer plastic mug and a chocolate frog. Not a lot of souvenirs for me because last time I bought Harry Potter merchandise (a Time Turner), I felt like I just wasted my money for something that's just sitting on my shelf. Besides, I didn't have a lot of space in my luggage. Hurray for self-control!

It would have been more fun if my family or friends (who also love Harry Potter) were there with me. Nevertheless, I still enjoyed myself there! My 11-year old self resurfaced and was very delighted.

The Historic Village of Shirakawa-go

Shirakawa-go is a traditional village in Gifu Prefecture. It's a UNESCO World Heritage Site made famous by its "gassho-zukuri" farmhouses. The roofs of these farmhouses look like hands in prayer and are designed to withstand heavy snowfall. The village's proximity to Hida-Takayama makes it a good day trip destination.

From Hida-Takayama, there are buses that go straight to Shirakawa-go. The hostel where I stayed offers a half-day tour (JPY3900 to hostel guests and JPY4400 to non-guests) which costs less than round-trip bus tickets and I booked that tour.

We left Hida-Takayama at 8am and arrived at Shirakawa-go at 9am. The bus ride was scenic except when we were passing through tunnels. We first went to the observatory where you can see the whole village. 

Afterwards, we proceeded to the town proper and we were given two hours to explore the village by ourselves.
Another hanging bridge

The village is small so two hours was just enough to explore it and there's still enough time to have a look at the numerous souvenir shops.

They have a koi pond!

In Shirakawa-go, there are a few houses open to the public and serves like a museum. The tour guide suggested that we only visit one since they're pretty much the same inside anyway. I went to the Wada House (JPY300), which is apparently the biggest house there. Before entering, you take off your shoes and take a pair of indoor slippers.

Wada House from the outside

Tatami room inside the Wada House


Second floor

It was cloudy and a bit rainy when I went there. The sun started to shine right we were about to leave to go back to Hida-Takayama but that was also the time when tourists started pouring out. The tour was actually informative and not at all restricting. However, if you want to be more flexible with your time, better get the bus tickets by yourself.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Kamikochi: The Japanese Alps

Kamikochi is a popular mountain resort in Nagano Prefecture, Japan that offers a lot of beautiful mountain scenery, especially during autumn. It's open from mid-April until mid-November and closes during the winter. It's not necessary to stay there to enjoy the place although there are a few high-end hotels. It's accessible as a day trip from a number of places, including Hida-Takayama where I was staying.

From Hida-Takayama, I took a bus to Hirayu Onsen (1 hour) and from there took another bus to Kamikochi (30 minutes). There are round trip tickets available at the Takayama bus station for JPY5040, which is cheaper than getting separate tickets. There's no specified time at the ticket but buses run on a timetable. 

From Hirayu Onsen, you have a choice of going down at Taisho Pond, Tashiro Bridge, or the Kamikochi Visitor Center. I went down at Taisho Pond and made the ~4-kilometer hike towards Kappabashi Bridge, near the visitor center, where I'll take the bus back. 

Taisho Pond

Gravel deposits

It's actually barely a hike because the whole trail's terrain is flat, might as well call it a bushwalk. I was a little worried because I had injured knees and my doctor said to take it easy. However, I figured I can always take a rest stop in case my knees get tired.

Walking trail

The backdrop should have been mountainous had the skies been clear.

Tashiro Pond

Azusa-gawa (river). That super clean water!

Such beautiful autumn view!

There are wild monkeys there. This one's hanging out outside one of the hotels.

The whole walk took me two hours (with short frequent stops in between, as well as a lot of picture-taking). Actually, I couldn't take very long rest stops because it was very cold! I had to keep walking if I wanted to keep myself warm. I was just wearing cotton base layers, a knitted pullover, and a thick cotton jacket. It was 10degC and it would have been a lot better had it been sunny but it wasn't.

The trail is also well-marked so no worries about getting lost.

It's a hanging bridge so it moves a lot especially when it's windy or when there's a lot of people on the bridge

The view from Kappabashi Bridge. Unfortunately, the clouds are covering the snowy mountains.

Kamikochi is very well maintained and the autumn views are just AMAZING. Honestly, everywhere I look seemed postcard-worthy. My injured knees didn't give me a hard time so all's good.

The original plan was to have lunch at one of the shops near Kappabashi bridge but there was a lot of people there so I just grabbed a snack. It was a Monday but, turns out, it was a holiday and Kamikochi is a popular destination during autumn so there was a lot of people that day (which is a good thing too because it's not a good idea to hike alone when there's no one else around). The queue for the bus back to Hirayu Onsen was very long and I still wanted to go to an onsen (hot spring) so I went back before the queue got any longer.

Kappa-shaped taiyaki with red bean paste filling

When I got down at Hirayu Onsen, I went to Hirayu no Mori, which is right next to the bus terminal. They're open to daytime bathers for JPY500. There is an indoor pool and a pretty big outdoor bath with multiple pools. Bring a towel because a bath towel there costs JPY500. Shampoo and body wash is available for everyone to use.

It wasn't my first time in a public bath in Japan. I've done it three times when I went to Japan in 2013 for summer school and we had a field trip to Tohoku so I guess I'm quite used to bathing naked with Japanese strangers (lol). Just familiarize yourself with public bath etiquette and you're good to go.

With the cold and all the walking in Kamikochi, a bath in the hot springs was definitely what I needed.