I woke up on September 24th, 2019 to a very happy W. His mission for the day was to reach the Akashi Kaikyo Bridge, a short stop away from the Maiko station on the JR line from Shin-Kobe station after we rode the Hello Kitty themed Shinkansen. From Kobe, a local line would take us to Nara for the Uneme Lantern Festival that started at 17:00 or 5pm. The hectic day looked promising.
W walked up to the JR ticket counter at Osaka station around 9:50 am to secure seats on the 11:49 Green Car. The Hello Kitty special only has eight cars and runs a daily looped two way route from Hakata (Fukuoka) to Shin-Osaka. The collaboration between Sanrio and JR West started in 2018; there are also local lines from the Kansai airport to the Osaka Loop, called the Haruka, perfect for those who can’t make it or afford the higher cost bullet train. The guy at the counter had no clue this was a thing, even though the night shift had validated its existence to us the day before. After a few minutes of research, he found the timetable book pages that showed the unique features of the train that matched our request.
W and I joked that the guys would run to their wives and children later in the day to tell them how two foreigners schooled them on the Hello Kitty train’s existence.
After eating some takoyaki and okonomiyaki at the Kukuru at Shin-Osaka, we walked around the station to kill some time. Inside the Eki Marché there’s a souvenier store that carries exclusive toys, pens, keychains and plushies we wanted to purchase during our ride. The find meant we could travel light through Kobe since we could pick the items up on our way back to the Hilton or Yokohama if we planned appropriately. Woop woop!
The N700 Kodama engine arrived a few minutes before the scheduled departure. The 50 or so patrons with us on the platform shared our excitement, shutters and smartphones at the ready to take pictures of the livery and with the characters painted on the doorway areas. A trio of European 20something year old Instagrammers took selfies and posed with the front cab as if they were meeting a real life celebrity. A mom and her toddler daughter started the line to enter the store directly upon boarding, and a merrily followed them inside once the crew cleared our departure.
In Japan, the train seats swivel around to face the new train trajectory. W was paying attention to the clean up crew as he boarded while I was giddily taking pictures 4 cars ahead.
The Shinkansen itself is an ordinary JR West train except the first two cars have a Sanrio Hello Kitty exclusive store and an unreserved purple and pink branded antimacassared seating area. The second car has a life size Hello Kitty statue and photo op area. At the door, the neatly dressed attendants hand activity booklets to everyone entering the compartment where passengers can also find a window seating coloring station, a space to stand and chat, and a sign with the date next to a conductor Hello Kitty doll which you can use as a photography prop. The pay counter has coffee, light snacks and drinks ready for purchase. It is really enchanting and inviting!
About 5 minutes into the trip, W came through the door, elated to tell me all the stuff I was missing out by staying upfront. Coming from Green Car #6, he was concerned that I migh have missed the train or worse, spent too much time in just one place when there was so much more to document. His face lit up when saw all the toys and goodies at the store, smiling at the people playing with the plushies. DSLR in hand, he dragged me through the rest of the train to make the best out of our 15 minute trip. There was so much to see and so little time! In what felt like the blink of an eye, we had arrived at Shin-Kobe, joyous and happy, ready to experience the bridge.
This is when the poop I was expecting to hit the fan found us.
Finding our bearings quickly, we made the transition to the metro and JR line platform that would take us to Maiko. The underground mall that connected the rail lines had a Godiva store with an advert of a strawberry chocolixir that was too good to pass up. Yum!!
As I waited for my drink, W got on the free wi-fi only to discover that because of the Monday holiday, the bridge visitor center would be closed today. 😱 He wasn’t mad, he was DEVASTATED. I started laughing, like Batman’s Joker, because he had been looking forward to this day for months and I knew convincing him to improvise would be nearly impossible. Surprisingly, he bounced back quickly and agreed to flip half of the full day we had left in Osaka with Kobe, heading to Nara earlier than planned to make up for the lost time. It was 1 pm already, with our Godiva stop included. With an hour ride between the cities, we would have enough time to squeeze in one more activity before the festival. The question was which one…
Then, Typhoon Tapah’s leftovers found us.
Walking from Nara station through the city center under drizzly rain was not fun. W’s pneumonia was still going strong forcing us to stop and take cover, delaying the walk a few minutes here and there. When we finally reached the festival grounds, there were a few locals ready to greet us and exchange bows for food.
Cookies are sold everywhere, at 150 yen a pop. Apparently, the deer in the city learned to curtsey on their own which is a neat trick to coax food out of human hands. As a species we are amused by simple things, and animals always melt tourist wallets. Unfortunately, the cute creatures can also turn greedy and violent around folks, something we would have loved to witness. Signs reminded us to be aware at all time. Sadly, we got to see neither.
Disappointed with the tourist traps and inclement weather, the free admission to the Kofuku-ji temple grounds started to turn things around. The Buddhist temple opened in 710, and is still standing! There is a museum on the grounds that can be enjoyed for an added fee but we decided to skip it to save time. The campus connects to Nara park and the Todaji-jo, but with the rain and distance, we had to skip this too. The temple is right in front of the Uneme festival location. We eagerly waited in a pizza place near Sarusawa pond to not miss the magic. From where we stood the Nara period-court dressed procession, and beauty queens on floats, would pass us by as it made its way from the JR station.
Guess what happens next…
The Uneme festival is held during the fall harvest moon. W had read somewhere that in 2019 this equated to September 24th but the festival had actually occurred the week of the 13th! 🤦♀️ I felt slighted like the uneme, the maid-in-waiting who drowned herself after being rejected by the emperor, after whom the tradition is named. The angry spirit of the maid turned the shrine erected in her honor around overnight to avoid looking at the place of her demise. The lantern vigil is held in part to appease her. (I know it would appease me!)
Luckily for my husband I didn’t follow the maid’s lead and laughed it off, opting to remain cool. W’s face was red with embarrassment but he kept mum. The apology wasn’t forthcoming, but I patiently waited out his gray mood. It didn’t help that we though we ordered two pizzas but only got charged for one, leaving us mad and a bit hangry. If had been the one with the incorrect date, I’d never hear the end of it! The mile trek back was a hardship, but it had its moments. We took the sunset in as we avoided the drizzle, again.
Eventually, we started talking again thanks to a pet store sweater collection. W acknowledged he was being too hard on himself, and on me, about keeping the itinerary, especially since he had sabotaged it by not cross referencing data points. It happens! We survived Barcelona. This was nothing compared to that mess.
Another sign caught our attention and we started to miss Z. Boy was this day emotionally draining!
The local rapid special train took us back to Osaka, via the loop. Safe and warm in the hotel, I booked a massage for the next day to get rid of the soreness and tension of the last four days. If we were going to make the vacation work, we had to start prioritizing what was in it for us. Since Dotombori had been a bust the first time around, we headed back to redo it. It worked like a charm the second time around.
There is a familiarity that W needs to feel comfortable at a destination. We decided to add scouting days to future trips to get around the single failure mode of a lone itinerary. Plan Bs will be both encouraged and welcomed on the fly, with certain exceptions .
At the Namba station, I spotted a Bearded Papas which renewed W’s mood. It was late, and it was closed, but W resolved to find one before the vacation ended. Thanks to Groupon, we had discovered a franchise located near our home in the PNW and had fallen in love with the delicious puff pastries, conveniently offered in six pack format. He couldn’t wait to find wifi to check if The Beast had one hidden in its underbelly. He he he! This small win, and the Akashi Kaikyo Bridge confirmed open on Wednesday, we called it a day and went to bed around midnight.
It should be smooth sailing from here on out, come hell or high water. 🤞