For me, to travel to a new destination should be all about dazzling the eyes, tripling the pulse, and— at least for the duration of the trip—raising cholesterol and sugar levels. If even one of these three criterions is missing, then I would simply qualify a holiday to be “so-so.”
Happily, my most recent trip outside the country satisfied all the prerequisites the traveller in me had long set in stone. I joined a media group with Cebu Pacific from February 26 to March 1 to Osaka and nearby Wakayama for a whirl of activities that make up one fantastic, albeit short, getaway.
Whether by pure coincidence or intentionally designed to be so, Cebu Pacific and our Japanese hosts from the Osaka Government Tourism Bureau and the Wakayama Tourism Federation took us to 10 exciting and delicious stops, which together round off an exciting and delicious experience in the Land of the Rising Sun.
1. Universal Studios Japan
I first visited Osaka in June 2014 for a family holiday, spending three out of our five-day stay in the city at the Osaka Bay Area. This of course is the site where Universal Studios Japan has drawn millions of visitors for the past 14 years.
My family and I conveniently stayed at a hotel just across the 39-hectare Hollywood-come-to-life theme park, and I tell you, every yen spent was well worth it just from Universal’s entrance alone. With Elmo and company there to greet my boys at the gate, every ride and attraction we eventually got to when we managed to pull them away was already a bonus.
The only little regret I had in planning our trip in June was that we were just a month too early to experience the Wi-zarding World of Harry Potter attraction. Now proudly one of just two Harry Potter attractions in the world (the other one opened just days before Universal Osaka’s July 15, 2014 debut in Universal Studios Florida), I ached for my boys as soon as I stepped foot into the magical town of Hogsmeade Village.
With the Hogwarts Express waiting on one side, Ollivanders open for wand shopping, and butter beer counters selling the popular wizarding beverage, it wouldn’t have been a surprise had Harry, Hermione, and Ronald suddenly whizzed by. And even if J.K. Rowling’s young hero spoke Japanese all through the attraction’s best part—the simulated Quidditch adventure—I felt every bit part of Harry’s Hogwarts posse.
In four words, this ride is a thrill-to-the-max!
2. Floating Garden Observatory
This 173-meters high skywalk is where the best views of Osaka can be had. Located at the landmark Umeda Sky Building, the Floating Garden Observatory is name as such for it “floats” between the structure’s two wings. As you feel the wind just beneath the clouds, enjoy a magnificent panorama of high-rise buildings reflecting the sunshine, the sun setting in the twilight, or the gorgeous night view of the city. (www.kuchu-teien.com)
3. Osaka Castle
This is a castle like no other, especially during winter. Fortunately for our media group, we made it to the last few days of the breathtaking “Festival of Lights” at Osaka’s foremost symbol, whose climax is an incredible 3D Projection Mapping show on the 400-year-old castle. No wonder the festival has been dubbed the “World’s Best Illumination Show,” with endless and colorful stories unfolding on the castle’s majestic façade, set into a crescendo of music.
Only in its second year when we caught it, Osaka Castle’s Festival of Lights annually runs from December to March, successfully drawing visitors to the surrounding Nishinomaru Garden despite the cold.
During Spring and Summer, it is still worthwhile to visit the grounds, according to our friends from the Osaka Government Tourism Bureau, as jazz concerts and other cultural presentations are held there throughout the year.
4. Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan
Come face-to-face with sharks, whales, manta rays and more in one of the largest aquariums in the world, the Osaka Aqua-rium Kaiyukan at the Tempozan Harbor Village. An eight level structure, this haven all creatures of the sea recreates the natural environment of the Pacific Rim. About 30,000 fish covering 620 species and other creatures—including the first ringed seal to be bred in Western Japan, and the popular whale shark—are all waiting for a little playtime between the glass.
Another destination for families with wide-eyed children, the aquarium’s complex is also where the Tempoza Giant Ferris Wheel is located, which lights up the night skies and Osaka Bay with dazzling colors. (www.kaiyukan.com)
For sightseeing, food tripping, and shopping, Dotombori is “the” destination in Osaka. A busy and colorful hub of shops, food counters, restos and bars on either side of the Do-tombori River, this is truly where the action is in Osaka, as epitomized by the famed Glico Man at the center of it all.
But besides being ready to click that must-have photo in Osaka, be sure to come with a huge appetite for such Osaka specialties as Takoyaki balls on the street, Omurice from teppanyaki tables, and even a taste of the blowfish sashimi, Tessa, which is thankfully described by the Japanese as “almost too beautiful to eat.”
Bring your eco bags too and shop for all things kawaii (cute) at the multi-level Don Quijote along the riverside.
6. Strawberry picking
From No. 6 onwards is where the tastes of Wakayama begin. Just under a two-hour drive from Osaka, Wakayama should be considered as a separately delicious food trip all together. To start with, this prefecture is known for its abundant nature and milder climate, thus making it the source of most of Japan’s agricultural products.
Fruit is on top of that list, which, when it comes to tourism translates into different fruit picking experiences for visitors. With March being the season for strawberries, our group had its fill of these big, sweet, and juicy red berries at the Noen Kinokuni Farm. Strawberry picking is best done from January to middle-May, with the following fruit-picking activities in the ensuing months of the year: blueberries, peaches and melons from June to August; grapes from mid-July to October; persimmons from mid-September to early December; Kiwi for a few weeks of October through November; and a variety of oranges throughout the year.
7. Yuasa Soy Sauce Factory
As common as soy sauce is around the world, it is guaranteed you will find the best soy sauce in Wakaya-ma. After all it is the birthplace of everyone’s favorite dip and seasoning whatever the cuisine.
More specifically, Yuasa town in Wakayama is where soy sauce was first produced when a monk discovered that the liquid residue when making miso could actually be used as a flavorful condiment in its own right. Since then, soy sauce production spread far and wide, but Yuasa to this day still boasts of the most premium blend in the world. How so? By fermenting the dark liquid in 100-year-old barrels for anywhere between two to five years before bottling.
At the Yuasa Soy Sauce Ltd. Factory, which we visited, a plant tour can be had, and of course taste tests of premium and crisp golden brown brews. The tour even comes with dessert, by the way—a serving of soy sauce ice cream.
8. Tuna cutting show
While many marina destinations around the world invite tourists to check out different fishing attractions very early in the morning, in Waka-yama’s Kuroshio Ichiba Market features live tuna-cutting shows three times a day, all year round.
With a variety of sharp knives—and well-formed biceps to boot—the tuna masters entertainingly engage audiences their swift and precise steps in dissecting giant tunas, even serving up the best belly parts in a buffet restaurant up the steps on the market’s second floor.
9. Wakayama Castle
Every Japanese destination has to have a castle stop, and in Wakayama, it is the picture perfect Wakayama Castle that dates back to the 16th century. Visitors can walk around the castle’s peaceful gardens, although the best panoramic view of the castle, as attested by CNN Travel, is from the Daiwa Roynet Hotel Wakayama where we stayed for a night. Just make sure your room is on the right side.
10. Rinku Premium Outlets
For a grand finale, just before heading home to Manila, make some time for last minute shopping at Rinku Premium Outlets, which is just 15 minutes away from Kansai Airport. With 210 shops to choose from, carrying most of the world’s most popular brands, enjoy discounted prices for such beautiful, beautiful things! Just as thrilling for yours truly as Harry’s stomach-churning Quidditch ride, this is the part of the trip that does nothing to my cholesterol and sugar levels, but a whole lot of spikes for my husband’s blood pressure.