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Universal Studios Japan on Christmas Eve

As I mentioned in my Christmas theme post before, we went to Osaka as a short trip for Christmas. On our second day there we visited the Universal Studios Japan (USJ). For sure many other people had the same plan, so the theme park was pretty crowded this day. But how is it like to be at USJ at Christmas time?   Our first way brought us to the Harry Potter area. To enter, you need to get a timed entry ticket first for which we had to line up. Luckily, we could already enter the area around half an hour later. The magical village Hogsmeade was decorated with Christmas ornaments and it looked very beautiful with the fake snow on the roof tops. However, this was the only “Christmas special” at Harry Potter area we could see. We lined up for an hour to ride the Hogwarts rollercoaster, bought a souvenir, took some photos and went back to the main area. Around the park Christmas music was played around you all the time what really brought you into Christmas mood. The buildings had Christmas ornaments on their walls, too, and for sure, a huge colorful Christmas tree was set up in the park. Some unique Christmas dishes were offered at the different restaurants (however, we went to the Minions restaurant). Four special Christmas shows were held all around the day. We first watched “Santa’s Magical Surprise" which was held at the big stage close to the Christmas tree. The USJ characters like Elmo, Hello Kitty and Snoppy were preparing everything for Santa together with their friends. The show includes a lot of music and watchers were animated to dance. The around 25 minutes show was really fun. In the evening the shows “The Voice of an Angel” and “Joy of Lights” were held. Indeed, people were already waiting and reserving places for theses shows up to three hours before. That’s pretty crazy. We have been to a restaurant before the start of the first show, because it was cold and we were exhausted. When we came out to watch the show, the waiting crowd was so huge, we hardly could see anything. I have a good video camera, with this we could at least guess what is happening at the stage. At the end, the Christmas tree was lightening up with a firework – this was very touching moment. But we decided there is no meaning in watching the next show from such a distance. It was a great and memoriable day we spent at USJ on Christmas Eve, however, if you have a chance you should go there on another day. We just rode one rollercoaster (at Harry Potter area), because most others had waiting times of over two hours. But we could enjoy the some shows and Minions stuff. The Christmas event is held for several weeks before Christmas and even some time after. So it’s enough time to visit it on non-holiday-days.____________________________________________________________________________ If you want to see more of out day at USJ - I uploaded a video on my Youtube channel. English subtitle is available.

New year`s eve in review

The end of the year is apparently the biggest holiday of the year in Japan. People compare it to the western Christmas, as people go and visit their families and friends, drink, have fun and sing “ashita ga aru”. I have had some varied experiences when it comes to New Years in Japan. My first time in Japan, I was in university, I was in a strange country and ready for anything. So naturally I decided to go clubbing. I am not now, nor have I ever been the clubbing type of person, and I have no idea why I decided to go. The alcohol was expensive, the music was loud and I was an hour away from anywhere called home. Despite everything seemingly working against me, I actually had a pretty good time. I got mildly drunk, danced until I got self-conscious and had some deep, meaningless conversations with friends I don`t talk to when I am sober. All in all quite a successful night. I guess one of my biggest culture shocks happened that night too. After the countdown (big screen in the dance-hall and everybody dancing), we went outside to get a bit of fresh air. Right next door, there was another bar or club, but they had this big, wooden bowl and a cartoon-sized hammer just whacking a blob of mochi in the middle of the corridor. I was gaping in awe of this sight. I had never seen anything like this before in my life. So these mochi-people, seeing this foreigner wide-eyed stare, offered the hammer to me and for the first time in my life, I whacked mochi with all my might. And let me tell you, it was wonderful. I have GOT to get me one of these bowls! 2015-2016 was pretty interesting too. There I was with my partner in Osaka. We decided to go to Osaka Castle to witness the countdown light show. We went walking to the park and I thanked multiple deities that someone invented “Kairo”, the self-heating bags that you can keep in your pocket or glue to your clothes to keep warm. It was freezing cold, and it did not help that we had to stand outside, waiting for the countdown to begin. So we wait and wait and wait. Finally people start to count down. 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, Yay! Nothing… The normal lights of the castle turn on and life continues as if nothing had happened. No light show, no nothing. It. Was. Cancelled. Oh well, we went to the shrine next to the castle and did the whole “first visit to a shrine of the year” thing. There were people playing drums there and another group of people were giving out free hot soup. You know the feeling when you are really thirsty and finally get to drink a glass of water and it tastes like honey from the heavens? That is exactly what the soup tasted like. We were freezing by that time, so a hot cup of tonkatsu soup was just the right thing to kick start the body back from hibernation and get our good feeling back. We thought about waiting to see the first sunrise of the year. We thought about it for exactly one second before running inside to warm up. This New Year`s eve was a little different. One major difference is that, due to some … family matters … we cannot really celebrate. In Japanese tradition, when a family member passes, you are encouraged not to celebrate anything for a few months afterwards (even up to a year). That means, no shrines, temples, weddings, and no major celebrations. In light of these new circumstances, and looking back at our failures in the last seconds of 2015 what with Osaka Castle not lighting up and all, we did not make the same mistakes again. We refused to be fooled by cancellations and promises of lights when there are none. This time, we acted like the middle-aged couple we aren`t and stayed home. No going out in the freezing cold. No standing in line for 45 minutes to pray for luck and wealth to Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and a definite no to all crowded areas. It was bliss! We stayed home all night watching endless comedy shows on TV and ate cakes. (That doesn`t count as celebrations, right?) Doing that, we managed to relax, save money (since we didn`t take any expensive trips) AND hopefully we gained some holiday weight. Who knows what next year will bring. There are plenty of events and shows in between Christmas and New Year`s eve. Light shows, concerts, dinners with distant family members whose name you conveniently fail to mention because you have no idea what it is. The possibilities are endless. Whatever will happen, one thing will be guaranteed. It will be interesting. It wouldn`t be Japan without a little bit of surprise.

The grievances of 2016 that weren`t

This year has been a remarkable one. With celebrities dropping like flies and America`s political biosphere on fire, it is good to look back and reflect on all the good and bad things these past 365 days have brought. Of course, living in Japan is a whole other story. When you stay here for long enough, the outside world starts to look like some distant memory; nothing can touch you. For some, this means the stress of war, turmoil and new presidents (not necessarily talking about Trump here. Iceland also got a new president this year, albeit one with less fabulous hair). Some people come to Japan to run away from their problems. The problem is that this country is not free from its own problems. Troubleshooting in a completely different environment is not for the faint of heart, and many well-meaning individuals buckle under the pressure and leave within a few months. There is a term I often refer to when discussing the expat experience: The Honeymoon Period. For those not familiar with the term, The Honeymoon Period is the time period in the beginning of your stay somewhere unfamiliar, where everything seems perfect. The flowers smell fresher, the air is cleaner, the people more polite, trains on time and the food. Oh my Glob, the food! Like an explosion of feel-good senses burst from your brain and permeates everything you see. Even the homeless people seem to be smiling. Now, as we hopefully know by now, all good things come to an end. It is sad but true. You wake up one morning and you find an uncooked rice in your bowl of gyudon. You drop your change from the conbini because the teller put the coins on top of the receipt again. Some kid yelled “Why Japanese people!” at you for the three-thousandth time and something inside you. Just. Snaps. This is when the honeymoon period ends. The time it takes differs between people. For some it takes only a few months. For others, a few years. The most common timeframe I`ve heard is two years. It seems that the second or third year for expats is the hardest one. I guess it has something to do with starting to see patterns in life. You`ve experienced the same things before, the veil of freshness drops and your brain starts getting bored. And when it gets bored, it starts focusing on the negative parts in life. And that`s when you`re in trouble. For myself, I have no idea where I am on the “honeymoon-period-curve”. I am on my third consecutive year in Japan, but my fourth in total. I have experienced some hardship and annoyances during that time, but never have I gotten close to saying “well, it has been fun. I`m leaving. See ya never!”. So for the difficulties of 2016, I would only count the minor grievances as a collective, rather than one big event. And even then, these annoyances don`t add up to me wanting to pack my bags.   So, without further ado, I present the top 5 gripes of 2016 in no particular order. 1. The amount of people (hito-gomi). There are so many people in Japan. There are so many people in the cities. There are so many people in my train station. Why can I not get a seat on the train at 7:30 on a Wednesday in the most populated station in West Japan? Why is everybody pushing me? Why is that person running? What does he know that I don`t? Don`t you dare steal that seat. I saw it first! What`s that smell? Why is a school baseball team taking the train now? Despite all that, I actually really like riding trains. 2. Polite versions of already polite enough words There`s the plain form, there`s the polite form, there`s the super polite form and probably twenty more forms. I barely mastered using the desu-masu forms, and the teller in the Disney store just asked me something I couldn`t understand. I say “eh?” and the teller replies “puresento?” like I`m a damn fool. Even now, I cannot recall what she actually said, but I know it was not a “masu” form of any word I know. Or maybe it is. Now, the real reason I don`t understand is because I haven`t bothered to learn as much as I should have. That doesn`t make me feel any better, you know! 3. The lack of sleep Japan has such variety. There are so many things to do here. Everything is available almost any time of the day. 24/7 entertainment. Why would you want to leave? Why would you want to sleep? So what if you have to wake up at 6:30 to dance in front of hundreds of 6 year olds. You can survive on 3 hours of sleep and coffee. There is no escape. Sleep or boundless entertainment. Choose one and regret the other. 4. The variety Why buy this when you can buy that? This place has a discount, but this place uses point cards. If you sign up now, this place offers a free takoyaki machine with your purchase. Options, options, options! Sometimes I wish for a world that has just ONE STATE APPROVED TOILET PAPER TYPE. And then I remember that I actually like takoyaki. Oh well. 5. The weather It`s too sunny. It`s too cloudy. It`s too rainy. It never snows! It`s too cold! Why can`t it be summer in wintertime and winter in summertime? Why is the weather not like it used to be back home? What? It`s because I`m not home? What`s this nonsense? Now, as you may have noticed, these are extremely minor annoyances. Barely worth mentioning. And all of them can be summed up to my own personal view of the world. My own failures as a person, my own inexperience and my own irrational, egotistical ways. And that is the way of the world. We all get upset sometimes that the world doesn`t revolve around us. And that`s quite alright. As long as we recognize and deal with our feelings in a productive, safe manner (Batting center!), it`s alright to feel the way we feel. If you start feeling overwhelmed and alone, just remember that there are options (options, options, options!). We all get into a slump every once in a while. As Doctor Seuss said, there are plenty of ways to “unslump” yourself. 2016 is coming to an end. The next year will promise another four seasons and a whole lot of reasons to leave the country. It also gives us just as many reasons to stay. So let`s rejoice and count our lucky stars we`re not celebrities.

What to do for Christmas...

Christmas back home is always special. The entire extended family gets together, has a massive dinner with ham, turkey, goose, browned potatoes and an endless flow of gravy. Presents and pleasantries are exchanged, everyone is happy. This will be my fourth Christmas in Japan, and honestly, although it doesn`t have the same `homey` feel to it, I enjoy it so far. Different countries have different ways of expressing themselves. My first Christmas in Japan I honestly can`t remember. I was in university and was living in a dorm. Although New Year’s eve was memorable, with all its drinking and dancing and attempting to count down from 10, Christmas passed quietly by without so much as a peep. A few years later, after I properly moved to Japan, I had my second Christmas here. I was living in Kanto, with great access to Tokyo without the hustle of having to actually have to live there. So, naturally I went to Disneyland. On Dec 24th. Now, I know what you might be thinking. Is he insane? Nobody goes to Disneyland on Dec 24th! There`s too many people! Well, I was pleasantly surprised. I don`t know if it`s the park layout or the wonderful people who work there or some sort of Disney magic, but it didn`t seem as crowded as it should have. We even managed to go on a few rides and see Santa in the parade (yes, he waved at us!). I highly recommend going to Disneyland and Disney Sea (on separate days of course) during the Christmas season. You won`t regret it. The third Christmas was after my partner and I finally moved to Kansai. Naturally, there`s no substitute for Disney, but we made do with Universal Studios. Now, tickets to USJ are considerably cheaper than tickets to Disneyland, especially yearly passes, so we couldn`t …pass on that deal! (haha) I have to say, when you only have one chance to go to Disneyland, the pressure to have fun makes the experience a little bit frightful. So, when we have yearly passes to USJ, we go there, ride the Harry Potter rollercoaster, decide that we`re tired, leave and come back the following day. Or not. It`s our choice. And I think that`s one of the great draws of having a yearly pass. If you`re on the fence whether or not to buy the yearly pass, keep this in mind. If you`re pressured to have fun, you won`t have fun at all. This year is my fourth Christmas in Japan. What will we do this year? Well, there are a few options to consider. 1. For the traditionalist in me Decorating Christmas trees is a wonderful tradition that brightens up the house and brings out the hidden interior designer in us all. I usually try to spot the moment 100 yen shops start selling Christmas products (usually right before Halloween ends). My partner and I usually end up buying way too many decorations and have no idea where to put them. But being creative is just part of the fun. Now, right after Christmas is the perfect time to buy discounted decorations. You can find products for up to 90% discount in some stores. This is the time to buy in bulk. I buy a lot, put them straight in a box and put the box on a high shelf not to be opened until in November the next year. It`s a little present from me to me. 2. For the food lover in me There`s no shortage of good food in Japan. Getting all sorts of foods from other countries is a breeze compared to just a few decades ago. Although getting ham from Europe seems pretty difficult. But anyway, the old story about how Japanese people simply cannot celebrate Christmas without KFC chicken seems a bit off to me. The people I work with are more inclined to eat chicken from Mos Burger. This year, my partner and I decided to go all out. We pre-ordered Christmas cheesecake and chicken from our local Life Supermarket. I am very looking forward to seeing the results. In the years past, we simply went to the supermarket on the very last minute, so that we could feast on the discounts, rather than the food. I really recommend doing this if your wallet is lighter than a helium balloon. But the options are as many as there are people (and there are a lot of people here). 3. For the commuter in me The bigger train stations usually have something for everyone. There`s illuminations everywhere, the shops are decorated, the classic Christmas songs are blasted through every speaker possible and not to mention all the great Christmas bargains. I personally recommend either Kyoto station or Osaka station. They usually have some events that make going there worth it. Unfortunately, I always forget one important thing about Christmas in Japan. You see, back in Iceland, Christmas starts on December 24th. The entire thing is filled to the brim with celebrations and special days. Christmas officially ends on January 6th, the 13th day of Christmas. This is when you are allowed to take down your Christmas decorations. This is not the case in Japan. In Japan, Christmas begins when the stores decide to put up the decorations and it ends on December 25th. After that, they have to get ready for New years, which is more important to the native Japanese. What I`m trying to say here is, if you`re like me and wait until the last minute to do everything, please remember that the last minute is a lot sooner than you think.   Whatever you decide to do this Christmas, just remember one thing. That last box of Christmas lights in IKEA is mine!

Saturday From an Osakan Train.

        It's 2:07 pm and I'm boarding an inner city bound Nankai Line train having just enjoyed a buffet lunch in Rinku Town. In stark contrast to the busy, usually jam-packed trains I take during the week, this train is only half fall. The other passengers seem to be mainly just-landed travellers en route from Kansai airport, and satisfied shoppers heading elsewhere after spending the morning making the most of the famous  Saturday morning sales at the nearby Mitsui Outlet. The atmosphere is relaxed and un-rushed; It's Saturday, and it feels like it. Once on board, I choose a forward facing seat by the window. I switch on some music, glance out the window, and look forward to a relaxed, sun-kissed journey back into the city.In true Osakan train fashion, the train glides promptly through a combination of built up urban areas, random small rice-paddies, traditional Japanese streets and various riverside paths and small parks. The Nankai Airport Line's intimate positioning to these areas ensures me an inspiring view of the numerous episodes of weekend life being played out on the streets below. I'm a big believer that a city's true beauty is radiated not through its physical structures, but through its charm and character; something which can only really be created by its inhabitants, by its people. When noticed, it can make simple train journeys like this unexpectedly memorable.My almost forty minute ride  into Namba  rewards me with big glimpses of Osaka's character in motion. I observe people of all ages engaging in various sporting passions: soccer, tennis, baseball and Futsal. An Oji San tending to his crops on one of those random patches of farmland just outside Izumisano. A lone orange vendor waiting for custom at an industrial area a little further up the line. I observe joggers making the most of the early afternoon sun along a canel near Ishizugawa; families doing the same by the water fountain feature in front of the big Aeon shopping mall in Shichido. I also notice various relaxed Saturday gatherings of people outside community centers, and in parks as well as open, but quiet artsy coffees shops that I'd never noticed before in the streets surrounding Sakai station; then a little further on from Sakai I observe a small, but lively market occupying a tiny fraction of Suminoe Koen. The things I'm observing are not particularly newsworthy, nor are they particularly unique, in fact most of the things I'm seeing probably happen every week (and not just in Osaka), but seeing these things in motion from a speeding train in quick succession of each other somehow makes me appreciate them more.I feel like a I'm being treated to an inside glimpse of Osaka's heart; a front row glimpse into the simple things that make the city and that Saturday feeling so special. They are the very small, uncelebrated things that make living in,  and traveling through this city so beautiful and inspiring.

Summer in Japan: Kansai Escapade

Aside from Golden Week, Obon is one of my anticipated holidays in the Land of the Rising Sun. During Obon, I get to explore Japan and add a different prefecture on my growing travel list because I have a vacation! It will take a lot of time and money, but it’s my dream to travel to all the prefectures. So, whenever I have free time and extra dough, I make sure I go somewhere new.  Last summer I went to Osaka, Kyoto, and Hyougo. Hopefully, this year, I could visit Nara, Wakayama, Mie, and Shiga, thus, completing my Kansai journey. As soon as my 2016 summer vacation is finished, I’m going to post on this site how my adventure went. But first, let me talk about my last year’s Obon. 1. PLANNING I’ve always wanted to visit Osaka because of my late aunt. She lived in Osaka and sent us a lot of pictures of the places she’s been in Japan, stirring my fascination.Things to plan,-  The place I’m staying in - The most convenient and affordable way to travel from Yamagata to Osaka. - Where to go 2. PLACE WHERE I’M STAYING My friend and I decided to stay in NAMBA because it’s not very far from the center of Osaka, plus they have affordable hotels. I also wanted to see the famous “Running Man” in Dotonbori, which sadly I didn’t, but I caught a glimpse of it this year’s spring. I used to book a room in BUSINESS INN NAMBA. This site is very convenient, especially if you don’t have a credit card, like me. 3. FROM YAMAGATA to OSAKA There are 3 options, - Highway Buses It takes about 12 hours from Yamagata to Osaka, and cost about 20,000 yen (round-trip). - Shinkansen It takes about 6 hours and cost around 40,000 yen (round-trip). - Airplane For me, this is the most convenient. I flew by PEACH AIRLINES, but as of now, it doesn’t have a flight from Yamagata to Osaka. However, they do have one in Sendai, which is only an hour away from Yamagata. It takes about an hour and a half and you can buy a round-trip ticket for as low as 8,000 yen. You just need to plan it ahead and be patient to wait for the prices to go down. I purchased my ticket for about 12,000 yen and when I travelled to Osaka last April, I paid 14,000 yen. In addition, if you don’t have a credit card, you can just pay in the convenience store! Then from Kansai airport you can just take the bus or the train. I took the bus to Kyoto because my friend and I decided to make that our first stop. 4. THE ADVENTURE BEGINS - Manga Museum and Fushimi Inari Shrine in KYOTO Like I said, I went to Kyoto once my plane landed the soil of Kansai. From the airport, I took the bus to Kyoto, which takes about an hour and 30 minutes and cost 2,550 yen for adults and 1,280 yen for kids. Then from Kyoto station we took the train to Inari (140 yen, one way) to explore Fushimi Inari Shrine, which is only 5 minutes away from the station on foot. Since it was Obon, a lot of people went there and it was difficult to get a decent picture. Few of the presentable pictures I took XDAfter our stroll in Fushimi Inari, we headed to the Manga Museum. It only takes 5 minutes from Inari to Kyoto by train, then another 5 minutes from Kyoto to Karasuma Oike Station (210 yen). Ready your 800 yen because there is an entrance fee. You can’t take pictures of the pieces in the museum, but you can read the mangas. You could see drawings/drafts of selected mangakas, like Tite Kubo of BLEACH. It was truly inspiring. Before, I just reblogged on TUMBLR about this Manga Museum. But last year, I was there reading manga and looking at the artworks of my favorite mangakas!Check out for more information regarding the manga museum. - Universal Studios OSAKAThis is the most expensive part of my escapade, but it was okay because I get to drink BUTTERBEER! I was hoping to get the “Express Pass” online, but it was already SOLD OUT! It sells out really quickly so make sure to check its availability as soon as you can, especially if you plan going around the holidays. The line was really long, but my friend and I managed. We went before the park was open. It’s advisable to head to Universal as early as possible because some of the rides have a waiting time of 300 minutes! Use your time wisely so you can get your money’s worth. My favourite rides are the Amazing Spider-Man (waiting time, 2 hours) and Harry Potter (almost 3 hours of waiting time). For more info, check out their site! - Himeji Castle in HYOUGO Lastly, a place that is very sentimental for me. Aside from anime, I became mesmerized with Japanese culture and castles because of my aunt’s photos, postcards and Himeji’s photo book. Whenever I travel to a new city, I always wonder if they have a castle and I make sure I visit it. Among the 13 prefectures I’ve visited, Hyougo has the best Japanese castle. Obviously, it’s the most preserved, the largest, and the most visited castle in Japan. The Majestic Himeji CastleDuring the time I went there, they just finished renovating Himeji; hence, there were more people. Only a limited number of visitors could go inside the castle, so we were given numbers. If you don’t have it, you can’t enter! We waited for an hour to get in, so make sure to wear a hat, bring water and a fan to survive the SUMMER HEAT of Hyougo. The entrance fee is 1,000 yen (adults). From Osaka to Himeji by train, it takes about 64 minutes and cost 1,490 yen. Going to the castle on foot from the station will take 20 minutes. But if you decide to ride the bus, it’s only 10 minutes. For more inquiries, visit Himeji’s site My summer escaped in Kansai last year was brief and tiring, but I was fun and fulfilling! I went to places that I used to dream of visiting. Dreams do come true! Just make a plan and take an action!  ADDITIONAL NOTES: Train schedules Bus Schedules, KATE   Plane tickets, PEACH AIRLINES

Do they celebrate St Patrick's Day in Japan? Where?

Yes, the good news is they do! There are 10 parades planned for this year, 2016. Among them the Tokyo parade, the largest in Japan, that runs up and down the Omote Sando – Harajuku thoroughfare. The Tokyo parade has been running annually since 1992, with the exception of March 2011 after the Higashi Nihon (West Japan) earthquake, tsunami and nuclear power plant disaster.  Apart from the parades, there are three festivals, a number of music events and some parties in various locations throughout Japan. A lot of the Irish bars offer green beer and organise events during March. This year Daiso, the 100 yen store giant, have got in on the action and a select number of stores are selling Irish goods such as shamrocks, leprechaun hats and green hair accessories. Run-down of the parades SATURDAY MARCH 12TH YOKOHAMA Parade Where: Motomachi Time: 12.45~ URL: KUMAMOTO Parade Where:  Near Kumamoto Station Time: 14.30~ URL: SUNDAY MARCH 13th CHIBA ParadeWhere: Makuhari Prefectural Park Time: 14.00~URL: MATSUE Parade (Shimane prefecture) Where:  Near Matsue’s city office Time: 11.00~URL: FUKUOKA Parade Where:  Sun Dome Time: 14.00~URL: SATURDAY MARCH 19TH NAGOYA St Patrick’s Day Parade Where: Osu Shopping District Time:  12.00~ URL: OKINAWA ParadeWhere: Chuo Park Avenue Time: 15.00~ URL:   SUNDAY MARCH 20TH The 24th TOKYO St Patrick’s Day Parade & Festival Where: Omote-sando / Harajuku Thoroughfare Time: 13.00 – 15.00 URL: OSAKA Parade & FestivalWhere: Tonbori Riverwalk Time: 14.00~ URL: TAKAMATSU Parade (Shikoku)Where: Marugamemachi Dome and Shopping area Time: 13.00~ URL: This is just information on the parades in Japan. More information will be shared on the web about other events, a lot of that information will be available on the official Irish Network Japan website at:  Wherever you end up, make sure you’re in your finest greens!! Happy St Patrick’s or as we say in Ireland “Beannachtaí na Féile Pádraig oraibh!”  


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