Cool Japan TR so far, can't wait to see more. And to anyone who's never seen Back To The Future: rent it, stream it, download it, buy it - watch it somehow.
http://coaster-count.com/userinfo15854.xhtml and http://www.coastercounter.com/805Andrew (I don't count traveling fairs and casinos as parks, and I count Coney Island as one park)[url=http://www.clubtpr.com][img]http://www.clubtpr.com/images/memberbanners/07c56b6e6c57795b5e848cab51dd406e.jpg[/img][/url][url=http://www.clubtpr.com][img]http://www.clubtpr.com/images/memberbanners/4bcb6d715cbe293b80fdfea5d0baf0b0.jpg[/img][/url]
Day Four: Hirakata Park, A Kick-Ass Shrine, and More
You are a huge fan of the Korean girl group, Kara, right? Rhetorical question, of course you are. We could spend hours – days, even – arguing which song is their best, but let's just agree that Jet Coaster Love, their first Number One single in Japan, is a strong contender. Here's an English translation of the first few lines:
I am liking you, no matter whether I am asleep or awake I’m in love Ho! sixth sense I know I feel Confess to me, there’s still time left (My heart is pounding) If you don’t say it properly, we can’t start; please tell me! (NO!) My feelings are changing (HURRY UP) Prepare yourself! Your heart’s siren Is blaring, a jet coaster; hug me!
Bob Dylan wishes he could write like this, and the girls deliver the lyrics with a soulful intensity that puts Adele to shame but the point is that I rode my first Jet Coaster at Hirakata, which was kind of a big deal for me, silly as it sounds. And that was just one high point of very many on this day, because we also got to spend time at Kyoto's Fushimi Inari Taisha, a mega-wicked mountainside Shinto shrine, and we wrapped it up with a sushi dinner that will never be forgotten. And plenty more in between, including what may be my favorite non-Disney dark ride. (To the man or woman who thought to add headphones to a dark ride vehicle, I say: you should be on the shortlist for a MacArthur Fellowship.)
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The day began with a train trip to the city of Hirakata (a "bed-town" for Osaka), which is where you'll find Hirakata Park, a family-friendly joint targeting the tween-and-younger demo primarily. You should add this place to your northern Japan travel plans, though, because it has at least one solid credit, two or three if you're feeling generous; an Intamin freefall tower; a decent flume ride; and the aforementioned headphones-enhanced dark ride (and others, too!). (Remember Hai Karate! cologne? Not to digress, but LOL.)
The park is a minutes-long stroll from the local train station so we got to reconnoitre another more suburban part of this country.
I'm pretty sure it was Confucius who said: "A place for joyful entertainment without a tall revolving wheel is but a pond without koi, which is a crappy pond, if you ask me."
Thumbs up for the stylish entry plaza!
See, little kids. We saw several groups of them, from local schools or something, and they were color-coded for easy herding. I know, adorable.
For those adorable little kids, there were plenty of adorable little attractions...
...like Dolphin Paradise, this adorable little water ride...
...with the happy flowers, and happy monkeys and... pink dolphins. This detail did not seem odd at the time; it would later. (We'll get to Fantastic Coaster Rowdy in a bit.)
They put a lot of care into the general landscaping and there are formal gardens, too.
I don't think any of us spent a lot of time in those gardens, but they looked appealing at a glance.
The genuinely satisfying credit here is the Intamin junior woodie, called Elf, and we all hit that first.
C'mon, "Episode of Little Fairies," you gotta love that. I hope you do, because it's just nice to meet another human that shares my affinity for Elf culture (shout-out to my second favorite Christmas movie, right after "Die Hard," yo).
This mini twister isn't going to fry your motherboard but in my experience, it was the most enjoyable wooden coaster in Japan.
Both Elf and Red Falcon, the Jet Coaster, make their runs up on a hillside with some nice onride views of the surrounding area.
It's a great starter coaster for kids just tall enough to ride and entertaining enough for the rest of us, smooth and fun.
Nice non-prefab work, Intamin!
After Elf, we all made our way over to Red Falcon Big Roller Coaster. Okay, so now that I've ridden a few bona fide "Jet Coasters," I can say that they do have some kind of bizarre charm, even the ones that have a turn or speed bump that seems designed specifically to hurt you.
Red Falcon is very big – in length, certainly – with over 4,200 feet of track. That's nearly twice as long as Elf.
Why was my anticipation for riding a Jet Coaster as high as it was? Their Japanese DNA, and nothing more.
You can tell by looking at Red Falcon that it is kind of dopey, like a humongous Arrow mine train with Corkscrew rolling stock, shoulder harnesses and all. I remember Red Falcon far more for the very pleasant conversation I had with Cheryl on the way up the lift hill than for anything that occurred after we got started.
But Jet Coasters are uniquely Japanese and thus I'm more forgiving than I'd be normally. And it's probably less dull than your daily commute, so if the lines are short, then why not?
The third credit we all grabbed was the park's Crazy Mouse coaster, which is directly across from Red Falcon. According to the RCDB, this is a Reverchon spinning mouse but for the life of me I don't recall any spinning.
I like this pissed-off fairy chick.
BASSH, the flume ride, gets bonus points for the elephants and the kinda bloody monster head carving you go through at the top of the final lift hill.
No one will mistake BASSH for Kali River Rapids, but this "Journey to Asian Jungle" does have some decorative elements and static animal figures, like the wicked-big snake in the tree above...
...and this pachyderm trio alongside the splashdown trough – they tried a little, gotta give them props for that. Do the elephants squirt water when it's really hot? I hope so; they didn't for us.
In this shot above, you can see a bit of the monster head behind the trees. Totally respectable.
The rapids ride, on the other hand, is forgettable. Let's get the last two credits out of the way.
"Fantastic" isn't audacious overstatement; it's a big, fat lie is what it is. And I'm not sure what is going on here with the name and the theming. Is "Rowdy" that pirate guy? After five seconds of rigorous searching on the internet, I came up with bupkis.
And the alligator trains, why? I can only surmise that this is a Captain Hook "tribute" of some sort.
If you need the credit, gut it out, and don't let them see you cry...
And then go ride the teensy-weensy Peekaboo Town kiddie coaster, because if you've already got the credit-whore stank, own it. (And honestly, Peekaboo Town is more fun than Very Goddamned Far From Fantastic Coaster Rowdy.)
At this point in the trip, the obligatory giant Ferris wheel was still a bit of novelty, so we rode Hirakata's. (And then rode the park's Cycle Monorail, too, which was next door to the wheel. Snore. The novelty of those rides wore off much more quickly.)
Look at that artificial mountain down there! Doesn't that look cool?
The moment we entered the park, I was intrigued. Is there a dark ride up in this beeyotch?
Or even just a scary walk-through, that would be so awesome.
Unique rockwork, mysterious little details, yeah, this was damn promising, very "Lost Continent."
Upon closer inspection, it appeared to be more of an all-ages-friendly sort of attraction, but still, quite promising.
What could this BE?
Here is what Dowsing Mountain be: an upcharge, walk-through "interactive" treasure hunt-slash-game-slash-something with elves and crystals you have to look for and then weigh on a scale or something and then something else and something something oh crap what have we gotten into?
Steve and I had already dropped the extra yen to try it out, so we nodded and pretended we understood as a very patient woman tried to explain in limited English the point of this whole exercise. And then we went on our unmerry way.
Maybe if you are ten years old and have some grasp of what the damn you're supposed to do to "win" the "game," maybe then you'd want to spend an appreciable amount of time wandering around Dowsing Mountain.
Maybe. But we didn't run into many other people.
Get me the hell out of here.
"Hitachi Presents: Low-Temperature Environments For Proper Food Storage Educational Refrigerator Simulator!" On a skin-meltingly hot and humid afternoon, I'll bet a short, ice-cooled maze filled with oversized plastic vegetables is an E-ticket attraction. Otherwise, it's about as interesting as you'd think a short, ice-cooled maze filled with oversized plastic vegetables would be. Still, better than Drowsy Mountain.
And since I'm not quite finished dumping on Derpderp Mountain yet, Legend of Luxor is way better than that, too. This tidy little horror attraction is just several upright Egyptian "sarcophagi" in a space smaller than most theme park bathrooms. You climb in, they close the lid, and for the next few minutes, you're treated to a bunch of spooky audio-visual surprises, with some occasional rattling of the sarcophagus itself. They even rate your bravery, depending on how much you squeal during the show. In the grand scheme of things, it's fairly gentle, but much scarier than you'd expect from a park that also has something as lame as Dillweed Mountain, so do check it out and that's it, I'm done hating on Dogbreath Mountain.
I did not ride Octopus Panic, but I sure loved looking at it. Great name, great job on all the scenic elements!
If they sold Octopus Panic tee-shirts with this art on 'em, I would have bought one, no kidding.
Steve likes spinny contraptions more than I do; here he is giving Tentacle Porn: The Ride an official endorsement of approval.
Hirakata's Giant Drop wasn't super-tall, but my affection for them has grown considerably over the years and this model offered one more fun way to scope out Harikata, the city. (And I needed to start warming up for Sea Paradise's Blue Fall, if I was going to ride it at all, which was still an open question because of my vestigial acrophobic anxiety.)
Hirakata had another maze/game attraction which was a sequel of some sort? It was a colorful, lively affair – that I remember – with a lot of moving around and doing stuff.
The one great thing about these Japanese amusement park maze/games was that, win or lose, you almost always ended up getting some help from a very cute Japanese game hostess who guided you through the process of redeeming your points, or whatever. That's a win right there.
The really awesome news is that Hirakata has THREE proper dark rides: a totally charming one for the tiniest of patrons, a sci-fi shooter for the gamers, and then the dark ride I'm going to recreate, to the last detail, at my own personal mini-park some day.
The kiddie dark ride was circus-themed, and we almost missed it; Steve discovered it as we were on the way out (note the entrance pictured above; it's not far from Dolphin Paradise). I would imagine that the budget for this ride was about $10,000 American, but that's what made it so charming, in its humble, silly way.
Return of the Garg is the sci-fi/fantasy shooter, which offers alternating forms of targets. You pass through a room full of big, moving figures to bust a cap in, and them glide past a video screen and do battle with CG monsters, then another room of animatronics, then another video screen and so on. That was novel.
Is this guy above a Garg? Is he THE Garg? Where did he go and why did he return? So many unanswered questions. Anyway, RotG was filled with all kinds of weirdo Japanese-flavored alien beasts and bugs and mutant critters, so it wasn't bad at all.
Finally, we come to the ride that you cannot miss at Hirakata, a hallucinatory journey into some of the darker corners of Japan's collective psyche, or just some random meaningless crap, I don't know, anyway, let me say it again: CANNOT MISS.
These wacky characters on display above the entrance only hint at the copious what-the-effery waiting inside. I would guess that the details of these icons – the winking blue flame ghost, the one-eyed parasol guy, the cat geisha (or whatever they are supposed to be) – are culturally significant, but to uneducated gaijin like myself, they are wonderfully mystifying, as are so many of the details of the ride itself.
This is the ride that infamously features "Japanese Jesus." Messed. Up.
But as this completely unstaged photo reveals, it's the audio portion of the experience – delivered so masterfully by the stereo headphones each rider gets to wear – that pushes this dark ride into the exosphere of awesome. The surround-sound effects add an incredibly immersive layer of sensory stimulation. And by putting you into your own private "audio bubble," the headphones isolate you from the other riders; there's no distractive chit-chat going on at all. Brilliance on a budget.
We rode other dark rides that also had headphone-transmitted audio, and they were all great. This spook house, though, was one of the most memorable rides of the entire trip. I will return to Hirakata many times just to do it again.
On the way out, many of us discovered this store, Doubutsu Hug Hug Town, ha. And speaking of hugging...
Thanks to this park ad we saw on the way out, "hugging the pink dolphin" is now my go-to euphemism for a particular solo recreational activity.
Hirakata was a perfect half-day stop, which left us the afternoon to take a train to Kyoto and go do some unexpectedly extraordinary sightseeing.
It was suggested that we visit Fushimi Inari-taisha, which turned out to be the most extraordinary place of worship I have ever encountered.
This mountainside shrine is dedicated to Inari, the god (or goddess, depending on your source) of rice and sake, which makes Inari highly worthy of reverence, by my reckon.
These big vermillion gates are called "torii" and as portals between the profane and the sacred, they are traditionally found at entrances to, and within, Shinto shrines.
This enormous complex includes so many beautiful structures...
Large and small, all were fascinating.
There was too much to see in our limited time there; I hope to go back some day.
Gorgeous. See the two stone critters to the left and right of the top of the stairs?
They are foxes, or "kitsune," and are the messengers of Inari. This one holds in its mouth a key to a granary, as I understand.
I think foxes are pretty awesome in their own right, but magical Japanese kitsune are even more awesome: http://www.mythicalcreaturesguide.com/page/Kitsune
Here's a kitsune with his "star ball" on his tail, I think? Awesome.
I'm not sure what these writings signify, but this wall is beautiful.
This is the main hall. I love this hot orange color.
A great paper lantern with the image of a chrysanthemum, or "kiku," the Japanese Imperial Family seal.
I'll mention here at "taisha" means that this is Inari's "main shrine." It turns out that there are upwards of 40,000 shrines in Japan also dedicated to this particular god. Impressive.
These are "ema," or wooden wishing plaques, a Shinto prayer custom.
Again, we could have spent many, many hours here to properly see and appreciate everything.
And all of what's been pictured so far are just the elements of the shrine at the base of the mountain. Now, we go up.
This is the feature that really makes Fushimi Inari-taisha so astonishing: pathways to the top of the mountain that are almost completely enclosed by one torii right after another.
I found this endlessly spellbinding.
The gates are paid for by businesses or wealthy individuals as prayers for success. On the left leg are the names of the sponsors, and on the right are the start dates of the sponsorship. The cost of purchasing one of these large gates is apparently into five figures.
A shot from outside this pathway, with Shinto stone lanterns, or "toro," on the left.
It got darker and lighter along the way, depending on the thickness of the surrounding trees and the spacing between the gates.
I'd love to take this walk late at night.
My pictures can't capture the "wow" you feel when you're there.
It seems we were there at a quieter time, which was ideal.
It was so tranquil, in a kind of otherworldly way.
There are apparently several kilometers of these paths and there must be thousands of these gates.
So freaking awesome, damn.
At various points, there are breaks in these "tunnels," where forks lead up to smaller shrines (I didn't follow any of these, sadly.)
And you'll encounter more of Inari's messenger foxes.
Keith and I were walking the paths together and we didn't go all the way up the mountain; it was getting late in the afternoon, and a group of us wanted to go into downtown Kyoto for dinner.
The next opportunity I have to visit Kyoto, I will plan for the time to see everything here.
Waiting on the platform to catch our train into the city, we checked the map for what sounded like a happening scene; we picked the Gion district, famous as Kyoto's "geisha" area. Our mission was simple: find a killer sushi restaurant and have one insane meal, cost be damned.
We wandered around for a bit, passing some interesting buildings...
This one looks like it might have a story to tell...
Here's a backlit shot of the Gion district's badass geisha statue.
We crossed back and forth on a bridge over the Kamo River before we discovered what looked like a very enticing, narrow avenue to explore, called the Ponto-cho.
Turns out this is Kyoto's Greenwich Village, according to this helpful sign (though it's sad to see that someone tried to scratch out the word "gay" wherever it appeared).
Whatever your sexual orientation, you should check out Ponto-cho because it is pretty rad, a seemingly endless promenade of bars, clubs and restaurants, one right after the other.
We kept our eyes peeled for a joint that might be the sushi heaven we were looking for.
Yep, this is definitely Kyoto's Greenwich Village.
We reached the end of Ponto-cho before finding a place that looked just right, so we turned down another street and passed a wall covered with vintage Japanese movie posters. It turns out that we were in Shinkyogoku, a section of downtown Kyoto that was once famous as Japan's "City Of Movie Watching."
Turgid love-triangle drama?
I MUST OWN THIS FILM.
I MUST OWN THIS FILM ALSO.
The wandering continued underneath more of the paper lanterns I love so much.
I regret that we did not at least peek our heads into whatever this place was.
I only learned after we returned that Shinkyogoku's shopping arcade is the second oldest in Japan, after the Asakusa Nakamise.
This giant crab actually moved; neat! Seafood was definitely served there, but we kept looking.
Wandering still, we went into a little courtyard and found this totally sweet bull, and...
...a couple of totally sweet dragon fountains.
It was getting late and we were really starting to get hungry, so the search for sushi got real. And we found a place called Chojiro. If you like sushi, you want to know about Chojiro: http://www.chojiro-kyoto.com/shop/shop.php?id=44
First, the menus are multi-lingual AND you order your food by scrolling through photo selections on an iPad, so no worries about the language barrier. Second, the sushi ROCKS. Third, you may be there when the woman I should have proposed to on the spot was the lead sushi chef for the evening. Here's what happened to us at Chojiro:
We're having this outstanding meal, chattering away in English – me, Steve, Priss and Keith – eating, drinking, blissing out. After awhile, this beautiful woman working behind the counter leaned over and in flawless English, said hello, noted that we seemed to be having a good time, where are you from, yada, yada. I was smitten.
Then she asked us if we'd like to try something special, some fresh mackerel. We didn't even ask what the price was. Bring it, sister.
Behind the main bar, there's a tank of live fish. One of the sushi preparers pulled a mackerel out of that tank and in a couple of minutes, that fish was on the table in front of us. See the photo below.
Its gills were still moving.
We polished off the individual pieces, they took the platter back, deep-fried the head, tail, bones, returned it all to the table. And we polished that off, too. The entire fish, gone. Effing unbelievable.
I still tear up at the memory of that meal. BEST. SUSHI. EVER. And here's the punchline: that mackerel cost us 900 yen, about nine dollars. NINE DOLLARS. In Los Angeles, they take your car keys for something that good.
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