Part 5: Osaka and heading home

By allrite on November 5, 2017


Posted in: Flights, Japan, JRNEWStour, Railways

Along with Tokyo, the other major destination for tourists in Japan is the ancient capital city of Kyoto, a cultural jewel full of temples, gardens and geishas. It’s also a fairly short train ride from Osaka, which is a useful base if Kyoto’s accommodation is booked out.

In our case we were heading on a packed rapid service to Kyoto to visit the Toei Kyoto Studio Park, a combination of period drama film set and historical theme park.

As we approach Kyoto Station I notice a steam train operating on a side track. At the same time Alex is demanding that we return to the SCMaglev and Railway Park in Nagoya so that he can play with the ticket gates again. An alternative option forms in my mind.

Kyoto’s Railway Museum only opened a year ago and, although B is reluctant to visit yet another railway museum, Alex enthusiastically agrees. As we get off our train we notice the black and gold Shinobi (Ninja) Train besides us, running on the Kusatsu Line.

We exit the massive structure that is Kyoto Station and make our way through the heat towards the museum, about a kilometre away on foot. It seems rather unfortunate to me that railway museums (not just in Japan either) are often inconveniently located away from actual railway access.

Walking through a pretty park towards the museum we see the steam train to the side of us, shuttling slowly up and down the track. The smell of coal and oil evokes memories of my childhood catching heritage lines with my father.

The museum is huge and, despite us visiting the Nagoya museum less than a week ago, there is enough difference to make it worth seeing both. At the entrance we are greeted by an original Shinkansen, along with an electric express train and a steam locomotive. Inside the main hall is a 500 Series Shinkansen, sleek and pointed compared with the bullet nose of the original.

In addition to static trains there are plenty of interactive exhibits demonstrating the technology and processes of the railway operations. Alex is thrilled to discover a working level crossing which he can play on without fear of being crushed by an oncoming train.

You can press buttons to change points and signals, use the guard’s microphone to make announcements, walk beneath locomotives and raise pantographs to touch wires.

But what drives Alex absolutely crazy is another working ticket dispenser and gate. All in all he prints twenty-seven tickets, running in circles to use the dispenser and gate over and over again. It drives us crazy!

The cafeteria has wonderful views overlooking the tracks into Kyoto Station. Watching a Tokaido Shinkansen race past the temple past the Toji five-storey pagoda in the background makes for a perfect Japanese railway scene. However, the food is expensive and not particularly good.

We miss out on the model railway layout show as you are only allowed in to view it at set times. Another combination of user and automatic traffic controlled layout features cameras in the trains, but my KiHa 120 is stuck at the station awaiting a signal change.

There are a number of train simulator, some requiring a lottery to drive, other simpler ones needing payment. After Nagoya we don’t attempt to do either.

Outside of the main hall is working a turntable and a large range of steam locomotives in a round house. There is no time to inspect them all and neither do we pay for a ride on the working steam train. It’s hot and B is tired of trains.

Kyoto Railway Museum

The inconvenient location of the railway museum means it is a fair walk to the next station. Rather than return to the main Kyoto Station we set off for the slightly closer Tambaguchi Station on the Sanin Main Line. The walk takes us through the lonely back streets of Kyoto, past residential areas and warehouses. We stop off at a little bakery for an ice cream float and a bun. It’s nice to be away from the crowds.

Though it’s quite late in the day we catch the Sanin Line train up to Uzumasa Station and walk to the back entrance of the Toei Studio Park. Most of the demonstrations of things like sword fighting and street performances are finished for the day, so it is a bit disappointing. Some of the rides and shows also cost extra, above the already somewhat pricey entrance fee.

The Amazing Maze is fun, with its optical illusions and we make it in time to the Jidaigeki Show, where there is a live demonstration of various effects on the set of a samurai drama. Despite the language barrier it is both clever and hilarious. Alex certainly enjoyed it.

An older lady performed some fascinating tied chopstick tricks, making all sorts of shapes with them as she sang a story in Japanese. The park is a recreation of a samurai era town, but most of the shops were already closed by the time we got there.

Near the front entrance of the park are a number of rides and displays. We dissuaded Alex from trying the expensive, and closing, 3D Ninja Fort maze. The Ultramen (or their like) display was pretty cool with their wacky costumes. They were never part of my heritage, but followers of the Power Ranges would probably get a kick out of it.

The closure of the facility for the day sends us out on another walk through outer Kyoto towards Hanozono Station on the Sanin Line. It really is a different place from the hustle and bustle of downtown. Small rice paddies between blocks, narrow barber shops and bars, dinky cars squeezing through tiny streets.

We are all hot and tired. After catching the local Sanin line service back to Kyoto Station we cross the platform we use our rail passes to catch the waiting Haruka Airport Express, yet again. Unlike the commuter services I know that this will be comfortable and cool and indeed I sleep for some of our short ride back to Shin-Osaka (so that last time wasn’t the last), before we change to the subway for Umeda.

There are lots of shops and places to eat around Umeda, but we can’t be bothered wandering around and go straight to the massive Yodobashi building opposite the station. On the restaurant floor we return to an old haunt and eat okonomiyaki, a cabbage pancake that is one of Osaka’s signature dishes. Then it’s shop until we drop, though I surprisingly emerge with no new model railway pieces.

Toei Studios and back to Osaka for Okonomiyaki

Just Lego for Alex. And tired legs for all of us. What a day!

It was a Japanese film studio yesterday and today it is a Hollywood theme park. We gave him the option and Alex has insisted that yes, he does want to visit Universal Studios Japan.

To get there involves a subway trip to Tamagawa, a walk to Noda station, then a couple of train to Universal City. The area around Noda rundown, but interesting in a local kind of way. It kind of feels like Malaysia, especially with this summer weather.

A colourful Universal Studios decorated train arrives to take us the last stretch. Then we join the crowds streaming to the park. Before the entrance is a canyon of buildings hosting restaurants, shops and hotels. We haven’t had breakfast yet and head into a Japanese Mosburger outlet for an unhealthy start to the day.

This will be our second time here. Back in April of 2015 it was a wet day keeping the crowds down a bit. Not so today. This is more like our visit to Universal Studios Singapore earlier this year, hot and humid with skies as tropical in appearance with big threatening clouds in the sky. I think I preferred the rain.

Why are we visiting more than once?

Good question! Don’t ask me. I’m not responsible. I’d rather be trying to catch the Eva Series 500 Shinkansen and walking through Ritsu-en park in Shikoku, doing all of the four big islands on this trip. But I’ve had my turn and now I can stand around and watch while the other two make themselves sick on rides because I am a total wuss and hate such things.

At least there is Butterbeer. Singapore didn’t have that.

One change in the park is that it is no longer necessary to get an entry slot into Harry Potter World. That is our first destination of the morning and we set off through the forest, past the Weasley’s flying car and into the gates of Hogsmeade to join a crowd who would look totally out of place there (sorry Cho Chang).

Lurking inside the huge recreation of Hogwarts School of Wizardry and Witchcraft is the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride which we skipped on our previous outing. As B and Alex join the long queue for the ride I go on the walking tour through the dark corridors decorated to recreate the look of Hogwarts.

It’s then a matter of standing around outside and waiting for them. And waiting for them. And getting sunburned. And waiting. I go to a cart and bought a Butterbeer, a non-alcoholic vanilla and spice flavoured drink with a buttery head on it. The young lady Matsumoto serving it loves my UniQlo sushi lifting t-shirt, bought in Australia of course because Japanese sizes don’t fit me.

Only cold or frozen versions of the drink are available instead of the hot and cold drinks we had last time. Maybe it’s seasonal but none of the servers had heard of the hot version, which is a pity because I quite enjoyed it. The other two are great as well, but I do wonder if the formula may have changed a little.

I watch a couple of shows on the stage. A “magic” demonstration, then an energetic “Welcome to Hogwarts” for visitors from Durmstrang and Beauxbatons.

Finally the other two emerge from the ride. Alex is crying and feeling dizzy, terrified by the experience. Even B admits that it was scary.

Having had enough of rides for the moment, we walk across to the new Minion Park, based on the cute little yellow characters from the Despicable Me movies.

B and Alex queue up for the Minion Mayhem ride while I am left to stand around again. Full credit to Alex. Despite his experience on the Harry Potter ride he had swallowed his fear and is determined to enjoy the rides. And when Alex emerges from Minion Mayhem he is dancing with delight.

After an Minion shaped ice cream sandwich and a ice cream Slushie we have a lunch of pizza and pasta, then watch the Minion float parade outside. Checking the timetable we rush off to the Waterworld show across the other side of the park.

If it all looks familiar that’s because it is. It’s the same show as the one at Universal Studios Japan, just in Japanese this time. Still better than watching the movie.

Unfortunately for Alex there is no Canopy Flyer in the Jurassic Park area. Instead there is The Flying Dinosaur where passengers lie on their bellies on the world’s longest track and farthest drop according to the website. Just watching it overhead is terrifying enough and there is no way than any of us would ride it.

Instead Alex and B go down another favourite, the Jurassic Park Ride, a raft ride with a big drop. Then back to Harry Potter world for rides on Flight of the Hippogryph, a lower speed roller coaster that Alex can’t get enough of. I get more Butterbeer and Matsumoto recognises me again, laughing in delight.

Universal Studios

I finally get to do something as we all enter the Backdraft show, which features a video of Ron Howard in a natty cardigan and lots of Japanese dubbing. We’ve done it before, but the flames and crashes are still shocking.

More rides for Alex on the Snoopy Coaster. Last time he cried when we tried to convince him to ride it. Now B and I have to sit and wait while he rides it over and over again.

It all comes undone when B and Alex ride Space Fantasy. Alex emerges crying, motion sick and utterly exhausted and B admits that hated the spinning roller coaster just as much.

It’s a struggle to convince him to enter the Terminator 3D Show. Having never seen the movies, he doesn’t enjoy the amazing 3D/live action hybrid of the Terminator 2 show (which contradicts the only living tissue time travel rule of the movies). I admit the ending is a true assault on the senses with smoke, flashing lights and loud bangs.

Night has fallen and B wants to head back. Despite spending most of the day just waiting around I am a little more reluctant. Though I dislike going on rides what I like best about theme parks is the alternative reality they create, fantasy towns that you’ve seen on the screen and can walk around in real life. They are never more magic than at night.

But we are all exhausted and this is our last night in Japan. We search the restaurants in the neon city outside the gates for something both Japanese and that Alex, who has had enough of everything, will eat. Eventually we find a rather expensive Japanese all-you-can-eat buffet. Alex barely eats anything, but B and I pig out on the delicious desserts.

On the way back to the hotel our train gets stuck for a long time without explanation. We just sit there before eventually we begin moving again.

B and I want to wander the brightly lit streets outside for one last time, but Alex is adamant, he wants to go to bed and so we settle in for our last sleep in Japan.

One last day to shop and play. These are always the worst day of the trip. I am consumed by the sadness of leaving Japan and anxiety about the upcoming flights. B wants to shop and Alex just gets dragged around complaining. We stick to the Namba area, Takashimaya, Loft, Tower Records, Marui. A lunch under Namba station of soba, tempura and gyoza. I force myself to eat the salty foods.

In the back streets of Shinsaibashi B enters the terribly packed Don Quijote store while Alex and I stand in the heat outside. Then we return to the hotel lobby and lie on the sofas wishing we still had our room. I could bury myself in bed and sleep the day away from the ferocious heat outside and the touch of fear within.

At least it’s not the abject terror from before. I’m definitely improving, I think.

Eventually the time comes to drag out luggage the long walk to Namba’s Nankai Station. All of our rail passes have finished now, so we will catch the private Nankai Rapi:t B Express to Kansai International Airport.

We arrive early and there is just enough time to change our reservation to the earlier train. Then we have to race to get there, no time to waste.

Inside this odd looking train, a dark blue cross between Darth Vader and a retro spaceship on wheels, is an equally weird interior with a wooden cathedral arched ceiling, leopard print seats and huge oval windows. It is, however, a very comfortable way to travel to the airport, the equal at least of the JR Haruka Express and certainly with more character.

Japan is at its best in the late afternoon light as we cross the long causeway out to the airport. Upon arrival I spend some time photographing the exterior of the train, then we head up to the departures level. There is already a long queue to check in for the flight as we line up under a roof cambered like the wings of an aircraft.

Once we are free of our heavy luggage there is plenty of time to look for dinner. I’m not hungry for there are too many butterflies filling my stomach, though I know I need to eat something. I can’t stomach the ramen and gyoza that Alex and B select for themselves at Kamakura, so I walk to a coffee shop and force myself to eat a sandwich. It’s sad that my Japanese culinary travels always end like this.

It is now getting close to boarding time so we pass uneventfully through security and catch the shuttle out to the satellite terminal where we will meet our flight.

There have been some long waits before here in the gate lounge due to delayed flights, but that seems to be a thing of the past for Jetstar. It doesn’t seem to take long before we are boarding our flight, a Boeing 787-8, back to Cairns.

We are sitting on the right over the wing and the cabin mood lights is the familiar red and blue combination. The seatback IFE is a bit confused though and doesn’t seem to be properly reset from the inbound flight with our current position in Japan superimposed with our destination name of Cairns.

I’m okay. It’s not like the last flight back from Tokyo where I lost it emotionally as we departed. Now I am calm and ready for the flight.

Eventually we push back and make our way out to the runway for what feels like a leisurely ascent into the skies over Osaka Bay. Tonight there is no turbulence layer as we rise, just a smooth and steady gain in altitude that does wonders for my nerves.

Alex is soon asleep, worn out by the day.

Once we reach our initial cruise the cabin crew come through serving pre-ordered meals. B only takes her dessert, a tub of creme caramel. I take my katsu pork curry, which comes with a bun, tub of water and same dessert. It’s not great and curry isn’t really what I want right now. Maybe I should have ordered the roast chicken again.

When we are all finished the cabin lights dim, B falls asleep and I am left to stare out of the window into the darkness.

The seat belt lights are never switched on during the flight, and we mostly seem to be cruising above scattered cloud below, but it is not as smooth as on the way up. At no point do we ever seem to glide effortlessly through the air, there is a constant feeling of tiny bumps like travelling over a straight gravel road. I’m not concerned by it, but it does detract from the perfectly dreamy experience that I’d like to be having.

I can’t bring myself to watch any movies or television shows. The lineup is exactly the same as on the flight up. As we took off I listened to the same John Williams compilation as before, but as we head deeper into the cruise I change to a relaxation video of waves gently washing into beaches along the New South Wales South Coast while soft music plays in the background.

I realise that’s something I miss from the old days of flying on Qantas before on-demand services became available and you had to listen to one of their “radio stations”. There was usually a relaxation channel with electronic music that I would often switch to when I had tired of the other options, of waiting for the one classical piece or song I wanted listen to and being forced to put up with all the others in between. Maybe it was one of those things that made flying more pleasant. I could do with it now.

The video does relax me and I doze for maybe half an hour or so, around the upper limit for me on in flight. The video itself only lasts for an hour, so I play it again and try to get more sleep.

When my eyes are open I stare into the night sky and try to spot stars and clouds. The Western Pacific is quiet tonight. There is the odd cumulonimbus, but I only see a couple of flashes of lightning near Guam and even the skies over Papua New Guinea are quiescent. I realise that I kind of miss the light show even though it means that we risk a bumpier flight.

At four in the morning as we cruise over the Coral Sea the cabin lights are switched on and breakfast is served. For a time we used to get cereal, which I kind of liked, but today its just a somewhat dry banana bread muffin and yoghurt, which I don’t eat. Rather disappointing.

The First Officer pipes up to wish us all a good morning and tell us about the weather in Cairns. Then we begin our descent from the north. The lights of Queensland appear out the window as our altitude drops. Port Douglas, then the northern suburbs of Cairns and then we are over land with only the very early morning stirrers visible on the amber lit streets.

Finally we are racing along the ground, past other sleeping aircraft, as the humid cabin air fogs the windows, turning the scenery outside into a mystical glow of amber and white.

It was a pretty good flight and I am happy to have survived it with no major turbulence dramas.

As the cabin lights turn red and blue again we disembark into the hospital inspired jet bridge and corridors towards immigration and baggage collection.

Unfortunately the Cairns smart gates don’t yet allow kids to travel through them, so we are forced to queue with all the Japanese passengers and families in a very slow process. One passenger is vocally concerned that they will not make their connecting domestic Jetstar flight and asks to go ahead.

Once we are through immigration, the luggage belt is also slow to dispense our bags and then there is the next queue for customs and quarantine. Fortunately they wave us through, accepting my verbal description of our declarations.

Now we are also concerned about making our connecting flight to Sydney. It’s a long walk through the cool night air to the Domestic Terminal’s Departures area and I am glad my fitness hasn’t deserted me as I push the trolley and jog behind it along the designated path. Around me, first light is showing in clear skies while birds sing to the morning.

We make it to the Jetstar check in desk with time to spare. We have twenty minutes now to use the Qantas Club lounge, something Alex has been looking forward to. Not enough time for a shower there, but the hot breakfast and fruit salad is very, very welcome. My appetite has returned after eating very little yesterday.

Boarding is called for our flight. As we leave I discover that one of our bags is missing. I head back up to the Qantas Club but it’s not there. I know that we brought it from the plane. I go check the security screening area and there it is, sitting behind the desk. I identify it and tell them the contents, then they rescan the bag and I race back to the gate.

We aren’t the last to board, but we are close.

I’m feeling good about this Jetstar Airbus A320 flight down to Sydney. The sun is up and the skies outside are clear but for the odd cloud over the mountains. Right on time we back away from the terminal and make our way out to the runway for a southerly ascent. The engines spool faster with their distinctive sound and we are away.

Out across the coast, past central Cairns, only crossing land again once we see Townsville. The flying conditions are perfect and I sit back and relax, listening to the last of The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. I even fall asleep for a while. We all do.

The cabin crew tell us that we have twenty-five dollars worth of credit between us. Rather than spend it on food we use it to buy a 1:200 scale Jetstar Boeing 787-8 model for Alex, who has been asking me for a plane like the Jetstar Airbus A330-200 near my desk at home. It’s an interesting contrast between the two of them.

This is such a relaxed end to our trip, cruising through the bright skies. After two hours we begin our descent into Sydney, crossing over my workplace and the city with all its landmarks, continuing on towards our home in the south before swinging out to sea across the Royal National Park. Then we turn back to face north, cross the Kurnell Peninsula and Botany Bay before making a perfect landing at Sydney Airport.

I couldn’t have asked for a better final flight.

The long ride home

Thankfully the luggage arrives fast at Sydney Airport and we are soon catching a train and bus back home.

It’s been a long two weeks away, but what an adventure! I’ve finally done it, the four compass points of the Japanese Railway System and the complete length of the Shinkansen network. Each was different, yet they shared many of the same characteristics. Lonely places, abandoned by many of their young seeking better futures elsewhere. Shops closing, buildings left empty. It is little wonder that many of their rail services are under threat.

But on the way there I also discovered wonderfully scenery that deserves to be viewed by tourists from across the globe. There is something special, unique, about each of the rail routes and their end points. They are communities worthy of support and hopefully the trains will still serve them for many years yet.

And what now for me and Japan? Having completed the compass points is that it for my rail travel? Never! My lament on this trip was never having the time to stop and explore along the way. There are so many spots left to fill in, so many other railway lines left to catch, that it is unlikely that I can ever finish them all. There are also places I would love to revisit. In fact, most of the stops on this trip I would gladly return to in a flash. The compass doesn’t only point to the destination, it points to everywhere in between.

Here’s to the journey!


7 thoughts on "Part 5: Osaka and heading home"

  1. Ruslan says:

    Great trip report! really inspiring and glad that you had enjoyable flights back home (sort of).

  2. allrite says:

    Thank you! The flights back weren’t quite as good as those over, but that’s usually the case when it’s overnight and the holiday is ending.

  3. Arnav says:

    Hello Mr. Wright,

    I’m an avid reader of your “trip reports” and this report on the “compass points” of the Japanese Railways was an absolute delight to read, especially with all these amazing pictures and that fact that you covered so much in so little time. Japan sure looks like an amazing place and I have this fantasy of traveling on local train lines and getting off at small stations in between to see local sites and taste local food.

    Once again a fabulous write up which has only augmented my wish to visit Japan even further. All the best for your future journeys and Keep traveling!

    1. allrite says:

      Thanks Arnav! Japan is a perfect place for exploring the tiny stations. The delight is that every region specialises in some craft and food and there are always unexpected experiences along the way. I hope you have the chance to live out your fantasy one day!

      Regards,

      Andrew

  4. Chris says:

    Once again thanks for an amazing trip report – I’ve just finished reading the fifth part. I could feel your enthusiasm, but also some kind of sadness (has Japan already become too touristy?) and the uncertain future – will these trains still run in 5 years time? Have never been to Japan, do wonder how difficult it would be for a novice to arrange all these train rides?!

    Keep ‘m coming and safe travels!

    1. allrite says:

      When I first visited Japan in 2003 we ate the most wonderful soba at a small noodle store in Shinjuku named Kameya. The owner was delighted that these two foreigners would visit his tiny stall and took photos with us, heaped extras in our bowls.

      The last time we visited we had to wait for the other foreigners to vacate their stools and barely grunted at us. Kameya was obviously featured in some travel guide or blog (not mine, I hadn’t named it) and now everybody had to visit. Once, so long as it wasn’t a public holiday, we could hop on any train at a whim and book rooms when we arrived. Now the trains are often crowded with non-Japanese speakers. Look up information on Japan and it’s nothing but lists from “social media influencers” who go to pose for selfies in front of already famous places.

      Once we were both anonymous yet special. Now we are members of a crowd, no longer anonymous but speaking their language and sharing their faces.

      It’s the lament of all those who discover places before they become so popular. Fortunately there are still quiet places in Japan that can still be reached by train where they would be hard to get to anywhere else in the world. I do fear that economics will dictate that these lines close too, so I am in a race against time to visit them. In five years? The Japanese do not move fast in such matters, unless nature decides for them. Many lines in Hokkaido are slated to close, but I have heard that only a couple have definitive schedules against them.

      They are not hard for a novice to catch. Arm yourself with a rail pass and the timetables of Hyperdia and you are right to go.

      Andrew

  5. Chris says:

    True words (unfortunately). Thanks for your perspective and the very useful link. If I’m firming up any travel plans in the future, maybe I’ll be able to get that ‘must see, but still undiscovered’-highlight from you beforehand 😉
    Best regards!

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