Saturday, June 25, 2016

Osaka, Japan: Universal Studios & MY FAVE MOMENT OF MY ENTIRE TRIP

MY FAVORITE MOMENT EVER OF MY ENTIRE TRIP HAPPENED IN OSAKA. FOR REAL. I'm going to extensively detail it in the "Moment of the Day" section below, so you can skip ahead if you're short on time. Although there will be judgment.

I spent my last couple days of my Japan leg in Osaka - I thought it was a fitting city to save for last.

What It's All About:
Osaka is the second-largest city in Japan, and is the first-largest city in my heart: it's where I lived when I studied abroad.  Some parts are similar to Tokyo, in terms of the bustling big city neighborhoods, while other parts are quieter and feel a lot more local.

The famous Glico marathon running man ad in Namba, Osaka

Osaka is seriously the greatest. I feel like tourists never really know what to do there, but I have a zillion ideas. Go shopping in Umeda, walk the neon-lit nighttime streets in Namba, take a dip in a thousand themed pools at Spa World, and hit up a club in Amerikamura (11 years ago, Sam & Dave's was very popular).  Oh, and then go to Koyasan on a side trip. There. I just planned your trip for you.

Cliffnotes of the Day:
  • Jamie and I headed into Osaka from Kyoto in the evening and checked into our hostel - which had an amazing secret rooftop. Nobody seemed to know about it, so we ended every night we stayed there with a beer and snacks on top of the roof. It was seriously magical.

Our private rooftop, with a prime view of the neighborhood's surrounding love hotels

  • First morning in Osaka, Jamie and I were discussing what to do for the day when he goes, "Omg, there's a Universal Studios in Osaka?"  Yes, yes there is: my host family had taken me there once, back in the day.  And that is how we last-minute, impromptu decided to go to Universal for the day.  It ended up being one of the greatest decisions ever.  We rolled up in the early afternoon, and the park was packed with people - but we found a formula that worked like a charm, which was basically to enter the Single Riders line of every ride. This would cut 2+ hour waits down to about 20-30 minutes. Every time. Like a dream.
  • Speaking of dreams, I found my FAVE ride of all time in the history of the world: it's called The Dream, and it's a backwards roller coaster where you have your choice of 5 soundtracks - you can choose which one, and each one corresponds perfectly with the roller coaster's actions (i.e. the song builds up as the coaster is climbing a hill, and the beat will drop right as the coaster drops as well). It was especially cool because the coaster is backwards, so you can't see what's coming beforehand. I kept choosing One Direction's song "Happily," which I've never heard before, but I was enthralled with the way it matched the coaster. Sitting there in the sun, flying over Osaka (oh, the coaster also had amaaaaazing views), One Direction in my ear, screaming/laughing people all around: that is the definition of pure joy. 

We are at Universal!

The Universal in Osaka also has Harry Potter World!!! It's super weird seeing all the Harry Potter characters speak Japanese.

And specific to Japan, there is also a Hello Kitty World!

And then we met Ernie, my favorite Sesame Street character. He was "my" character as a child: my sister had a Bert doll and I had an Ernie one, she had a Bert chair and I had an Ernie one, etc. I told him I was a huge fan of his work.

Byeeeee, Universal! Such a great, random, impromptu day.

  • Jamie and I later moved onto a hostel in the heart of Namba, which is an incredibly happening district with tons of shopping and eats and bars and excitement.  There is an especially famous road in Namba called Dotonburi, which has hustle & bustle and neon lights and is very reminiscent of Times Square, without the traffic jams and terrible restaurant chains. We spent a ton of time (both day and night) wandering down Dotonburi and its surrounding alleys - so many streets and people and amazing things to look at!

Kaiten (conveyor belt) sushi! We used to have contests when I studied abroad to see who could eat the most sushi and stack up the most plates.

I am basically the famous Glico man in Namba

One of probably a zillion shopping malls in Namba

Where you can buy amazing things like this. Kate and Mark's cat, Soup, has a new hat coming his way soon.

Love hotels (exactly what they sound like - you can rent rooms "for rest" hourly, or more for overnight) are scattered everywhere here. My favorite ones are the themed ones, such as this one, which seems to be themed after some kind of whimsical fairytale.  Everyone loves a good theme.

The famous Dotonburi St. and its moving crab restaurant!

So many people

And so many dining options! This is a melon-flavored bread stuffed full of ice cream. 

There is also a lovely riverfront with a promenade you can stroll down

  • I know it's getting ridiculous now, but we maybe also visited a puppy cafe.  Because they had photos of their dogs, and they were freakishly adorable.

Puppy cafe!! LOOK at the breeds they have. Die.

This dog leapt onto my lap and snoozed and we bonded and I thought we were besties, but then as soon as someone else had a snack, he vanished. So I named him Judas.


And how could I not have a soft spot for the Pom. Who is sitting in a ridiculous position.

  • And now, *drumroll* - the Moment of the Day that was my favorite thing to ever happen to me ever!

Moment of the Day:
As I've mentioned once or twice or maybe a few dozen times, I studied abroad in Osaka for an entire school year my sophomore year of college.  During this time, I lived with a host family, whom I absolutely, unequivocally adored. Adored.

My host parents were young, in their low-30's, and there were two kids at the time - a boy, Ryo, who was 7, and a girl, Yu-chan, who was 13.  My host parents treated me like one of their own. They wrote a note to my teachers at school excusing me from finals week (I just took the finals earlier), then bundled us all into the car and drove us 7-hours overnight to spend the weekend at Tokyo Disneyland. When they bought their kids ridiculous $10 Little Mermaid bottle toppers at the park, they bought me one too (even though I was 20). For my 20th birthday, they let me invite some friends from school and hosted a hand-rolled sushi party. When my host father would get small bonuses at work, we would go to a local Japanese BBQ restaurant, order enough meat to feed 20 dinos, and each of us (my host sister, host brother, and I) were allowed to choose one extravagant dessert from the menu as a grand finale.  They took me fishing with the grandparents. The whole fam got matching Sesame Street character phone charms when we went to Universal Studios.  We would spend weeknights watching movies together on the family room floor.

I didn't party even close to a level that the other exchange students at my school did - because most of the time, I went home to spend time with my host family.  All my friends who met my family agreed that I had hit the host family jackpot: it's so easy to have an awkward situation when you're thrown into a strange family from a totally different culture.  My host family didn't really speak English, and I was working on my Japanese, but we always found ways to understand each other. I truly, truly adored them.

Over the years, I'd gradually lost touch with my family. None of them had e-mail or social media at the time, and letter writing only lasted so long.

So when I got to Osaka again this time, 11 years later, I was determined to see if my family was still there. I didn't know their phone number or anything - only the address, their last name (I didn't even know my host parents' first names - because I just called them "Mama" and "Papa"), and a vague recollection of how to ride the bus to their house from the train station.

I showed up at the train station of Hirakata-shi - this is where my school was, and where the bus to my host family's house departed from. I assumed that once I showed up, everything would just come back to me and I would figure it out.  Long story short, it didn't. The station looked completely unfamiliar, and there were all these stores I didn't recognize. I vaguely recognized the corner where my bus departed from, so I chose a bus that looked kind of correct to me and got on.

Hirakata-shi, you look so different

The bus zoomed in a vaguely familiar direction, so I settled in - until it took a turn and I realized it was definitely not going the right way. I got off. There, in a random neighborhood in the middle of suburban Japan, with no idea of where I was or where I was headed, I turned on my emergency data and kind of analyzed Google maps to figure out where to go. It directed me a certain way, I followed - and suddenly I recognized where I was.

AND THERE WAS MY HOST FAMILY'S HOUSE, looking exactly the way I remembered

The placard outside the house said "Sakai," which is their last name - meaning they still lived there!  When I rang the video monitor, a woman answered the intercom - and I went "Uhhhhh", as I suddenly realized that I had no idea how to explain myself or what to say or how to say anything in Japanese, really.  Without skipping a beat, the voice suddenly went, "....Connie???"  ARE YOU DYING. 11 years later, I randomly show up on my host family's doorstep like a homeless person, and my host mom knew exactly who I was within 2 seconds.  I almost cried with joy.

My host mom invited me in - and the house was EXACTLY how I remembered. Down to the wood plank table and couch, except there's now a bigger TV and different things up on the walls.  It was SO weird. Like taking a step back in time.

My host mom and I somehow caught up on the past 11 years through gestures, broken English/Japanese skills on both our parts, and photos.  She was exactly the same. She told me about the kids (Ryo is now 18, and Yu-chan is now 24. DIE. I'M DYING.), and life, and how the family dog had passed away some years ago.  She also frantically called my host dad to come home.  They insisted on taking me out to dinner.

It was like a time warp. Riding in the car and going out to eat at a restaurant, with Mama and Papa fretting over the menu to see what I would eat.  After 11 years (having had numerous host students, not to mention life events, etc.), Mama still remembered that I don't like to eat spicy foods. She remembered so many things that I barely remembered myself.  It touched me. I wanted to cry.

AND THEN MY HOST BROTHER RYO SHOWED UP TO DINNER. HE WAS 7. HE IS NOW 18 AND HAS A GIRLFRIEND.  This was the craziest moment for me, as Ryo and I used to be buddies.  He would help me with my Japanese homework, and then we would go outside and throw balls at the side of the house.  He'd often show up at my door with a book of origami and a stack of origami paper, and we'd while away the afternoon making all the different shapes. We once found a frog out in the storm gutter, named him, gave him a cage with a nametag, and spent hours sending him careening across the living room on a wind-up McDonald's toy. The day I left Japan, Ryo refused to talk to anyone. He sat at the kitchen table and wouldn't eat, and even when Mama kept talking to him, he stayed silent. Right before I was leaving the house to head to the airport, Mama told him to say good-bye to me - he slowly stood up, walked over to the kitchen dishtowel, then threw his face into it and started bawling. I loved this kid so much, and it was insane to see his grown-up self, his 18-year-old-I-have-a-part-time-job-self, walk in the door.

My host family!!  <3 <3 <3 Papa, Ryo, and Mama (who looks exactly the same as she used to!)

Seeing my host family again was basically like a religious experience for me.  I loved them so much and they were such an integral part of my entire study abroad experience - for the year I was abroad, in a foreign environment and a completely different culture, they were actually my family - so getting to see them again and catch up with them and seeing how everyone turned out was hands down, one of my favorite moments of my entire year backpacking around the world thus far. To be able to randomly turn up on their doorstep after 11 years and having it turn out the way it did, the night before I left Japan, was amazing. I really can't describe any of it.  This time when I left, I made sure to get all their contact information in every single form. And as Mama and Papa walked me to the station, hovered over me while I bought my train ticket, and watched me walk through the station gates - it was somehow one of the most touching, fulfilling moments of my life.

Fittingly, seeing my host family was on my last night in Japan. It was the perfect ending to the trip, though I kind of wished it would never end because this country has such a place in my heart. I could have stayed for so, so much longer. But I couldn't. Because my bank account would have died.

Bye, Japan! Bye, world's best host family! So many amazing memories and moments, and every single second in you was worth it. I am beyond thrilled I got this opportunity to come back.  'Til next time!

Fun Facts of the Day:
  • Dressing up in matching clothes is a thing when you go to Universal Studios/Disneyland/etc. in Japan. So many couples or groups of friends were wearing matching Minion shirts, or even complete outfits. My favorite is when there's a peppy cute looking Japanese girl wearing a Hello Kitty tee, and her poor bedraggled boyfriend is wearing the exact same shirt. It looks ridiculous, and amazing.  I wish I took a photo. 
  • Namba = also full of Chinese tourists. They're everywhere. They own all the duty-free stores too.
  • Love hotels don't have the creepy association in Japan that they might elsewhere. Yes, the price "for rest" is only for a couple hours, while "overnight" gives you the entire night, so you know exactly what's going on there.  But it's not really a seedy thing - more like an accepted fact of life. I tried to wander into the lobby of one - the whole thing is very, very discreet. There's no one even staffed in the lobby - instead, you make your choice of rooms electronically, pay electronically, and then can head up to your room with whomever you choose and no judgment. 


  1. oh man...great story WangTrain - my cold heart might have warmed a bit

    1. ......you have a heart??

      Just kidding. Love you. Thanks for this comment, it means a lot!!

      See you in NYC soon!?

  2. Connnnnieeeeeeee. This blog post makes me so happy (which doesn't explain why it simultaneously made me cry). It's just the sweetest thing ever and validates how amazing and loved you are world wide. So special!!!!

    On a side note, my mom and I were chatting about this latest post and she told me she was in tears and "tried to comment for the first time on one of yours posts" because she was so moved, and "it"wouldn't add her comment (technical difficulties). Anyway - I felt it necessary to tell you how much she adored this too. (And in case you didn't know, my mom AND dad both read your blog pretty regularly and we often catch up and chat about the latest and greatest of your travels). #funfacts #urishkosloveyou we miss you!!!!

    1. Omgggg your comment almost made me cry as well! Love to you and your mom and the entire Urishko clan - you guys are seriously the BEST.


  3. PS. I don't think your "I told Ernie I love his work" should go unnoticed. I cried laughing. Out loud.

    PSS. I want whatever that lemon bread icecream mashup was. #nomcityyyyyy

    PSSS. Where are you off to next after Japan? Did I miss that?