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My Buddhist temple stay with monks in Mount Koya, Japan! Booking a Koyasan guesthouse, Okunoin graveyard.

japanese temple stay, koyasan guesthouse

As the cherry blossoms bloom for sakura season, I’m thinking back to my days in Japan. I did something very different from my usual trips: I escaped for a few days to a Buddhist temple retreat in Koyasan! 

Several of my friends have stayed with the Japanese monks of Mount Kōya (in the mountains north of Osaka), and raved about the peaceful experience. Since I was traveling with my unlimited Japan Rail Pass, it was the perfect opportunity to do a spiritual pilgrimage.

kukai statue, shingon buddhism

Mt. Kōya was first settled in the year 819 by the monk Kūkai, founder of the Shingon sect of Japanese Buddhism. He discovered this mystical location high in the mountain peaks, and made it the center for his monastic headquarters.

koyasan bridge, mt koya japan

Since then, both monks and laypeople have come to Koyasan to study and practice Esoteric Buddhism. Most come for a 1-3 night stay, so that they can experience living in a temple with Buddhist monks. (I stayed two nights, which is a good amount of time to explore Mount Koya’s attractions.)

I hope this guide to Mount Koya gives you a sense of what it’s like to spend a few days in this spiritual village. You can see more about my entire J Rail Pass journey in the video above, or here on YouTube.

cable car to koyasan, mount koya

How to get to Mount Koya by train: I recommend getting a JR Rail Pass like I did. The pass lets you ride the rails throughout the country for a week or longer; it includes JR and bullet trans, busses and some ferries.

Most people come to Koyasan from Kyoto or Osaka. From Osaka, it’s only a 1.5 to 2 hour train ride: take the Nankai line from Namba or Shin-Imamiya Stations, and get off at Gokurakubashi (you may need to transfer at Hashimoto station). Then, it’s a 5 minute cable car up the scenic mountains, and a short bus ride into the town where the temple-stays are located.

japanese spiritual buddhist retreat

How to book a room at a temple stay: These Buddhist guesthouses (shukubo) are run independently by the monks, and most don’t even have websites.

Foreigners can visit the Koyasan Shukubo Association website, and fill out the form to make a reservation request (your travel dates, price range, etc). You’ll quickly receive an email reply in English, with a booking that you can confirm, and information such as maps. There’s no fee for this tourist service; you simply pay the guesthouse directly in cash upon check-out.

hoon-in shukubo, temple stay koya

I stayed at Hoon-in, a simple yet comfortable and authentic shukubo. I was greeted by a young Buddhist monk, who spoke English and showed me to my room (traditional-style Japanese accommodations with tatami floor mats, sliding doors, and futon mattresses).

koyasan temple monk dining hall

The monks serve the guests a vegetarian breakfast and dinner every day, and these meals are included in the price of the stay (about 10,800 yen per person, per night). I enjoyed gathering in this long dining hall and sitting cross-legged on the mat.

vegetarian food mount koya

Everyone receives a tray of delicacies — it’s a joy to open up the lids and see what’s inside! The cuisine is seasonal and vegetarian, and there are a variety of small dishes: tofu, soups, pickled vegetables, tempura, miso eggplant, rice and fruit. You can also order a small bottle of hot or cold sake to round out your meal.

I was impressed with everything I ate at Hoon-in. The plant-based fare is fresh, delicately seasoned and beautifully presented.

koya-kun mascot mount koya

I loved participating in the simple day-to-day life of the temple. At the lush entrance, you take off your shoes and wear socks or slippers. Each guest gets a robe to wear, and can soak in a large Japanese-style bathtub.

koya temple overnight stay, shukubo

Although you get to feel as if you’re in ancient Japan, the guesthouse has modern amenities such as free and fast WiFi. There’s even a convenience store and ATM machine next door, and you can easily walk to cafes, shops and more.

shingon buddhist chanting ritual

There are no “mandatory activities” or programs at Mt Koya’s shukubos. However, the guests are invited to wake up at 6am to see the resident Shingon monks chant sutras. I’m not a morning person, but this is well worth getting out of bed for.

buddhism prayers chanting koya

The monks’ chanting consists of low, guttural, repetitive verses, expressed in the same or different tones. (You can hear the Buddhist chants in my travel video.)

This ritual is as form of meditation that joins the body, speech and mind. It’s a feast for the senses: the monks sit beneath gold relics, light incense and candles, arrange offerings on the alter, and ring a bell or gong. It’s a powerful and uplifting effect that I hope you can experience in-person.

koyasan tourism, travel

For the rest of the day, you can walk around and visit the various temples, ancient gates, Tokugawa mausoleum, and other sites.

Of course, the town has a kawaii mascot: “Koya-kun!” The cute character is supposed to be  little monk in a “kasa” bowl-shaped hat… but doesn’t he remind of Toad the mushroom-head, from Super Mario Brothers?

japanese pyramid statue

I encourage you to wander around at a leisurely pace, rather than making specific plans. There’s no better place than Koya to practice mindfulness and being in the moment.

Okunoin cemetery entrance

Visiting Okunoin graveyard is an absolute must. It’s best to come during the morning, when the lighting conditions are ideal and there aren’t too many other visitors.

At the Ichinohashi Bridge (the traditional entrance to the cemetery), visitors bow and pay respect to Kobo Daishi (the posthumous honorific name for Kukui).

koya buddha statues wearing hats

I loved exploring Okunoin, filled with 200,000 ancient graves. This immense, forested cemetery is the largest in Japan, and home to the mausoleum of Kukai.

Okunoin buddhist graves

I came across many small Buddha statues, adorned with red bibs and hats. They represent the Bodhisattva Jizo, who protects travelers, women and children.

gravestones Okunoin graveyard japan

The gravestones are surrounded by a lush canopy of towering cedar trees. The inner sanctuary contains the resting grounds of several famous Japanese, including the samurai ruler Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and a memorial to the soldiers who died in the Pacific War.

hiking japan mountains

Okunoin cemetery has an otherworldly feeling. I felt as if I were surrounded by ancient Buddhist spirits.

ancient japanese graveyard

Some of the graves are over 1000 years old, and covered in layers of moss. No wonder Koya-san was declared a UNESCO protected site in 2004.

buddhist cemetery, mount koya

The path through the cemetery spans two kilometers. Along the way, you’ll find lots of interesting sculptures and gates, which cast shadows under the morning rays.

buddhist spiritual retreat

Many visitors leave flowers and offerings in front of the tombstones.

overnight stay mountains japan temple

The buried Buddhist monks are not dead according to legend, but meditating and waiting.

old buddha statues

You’ll notice that many of the little Buddha statues are wearing colorful red or purple bibs. Often, people who lost children tie these cloths around Jizo Bosatsu, since he is believed to protect children in the afterlife.

buddhist statue wearing clothes

These lovingly handmade hats and accessories keep the Bodhisattvas warm.

Bodhisattva statues

Doesn’t it seem like these stone statues are bursting with personality? I half expected this little guy to stand up and bow, as if were a character out of Totoro.

okunoin cemetery night

At night, Okunoin cemetery is lit up by long rows of stone lanterns for a spooky atmosphere.

shingon monks ritual march

I was fortunate to be in Mount Koya during an October festival for the spirits. These yellow-robed Buddhist monks walked single-file through the graveyard, followed by the head monk under a red umbrella.

koya buddhist monks procession

Everyone followed the Shingon Buddhist procession to the main temple of Okunoin. The monks slipped off their shoes to enter the inner sanctuary, which was glowing with lanterns and golden artefacts.

From behind the barrier, we watched the monks march in a circle and recite chants, while incense filled the air. A powerful and uplifting ritual — I’m fortunate to have witnessed it.

Kongobuji temple rock garden

The next day, I continued to take in the sights around Koyasan. I’m standing inside Kongobuji temple, the head temple of Koya’s Shingon Buddhist sect. It was built in 1593 by Toyotomi Hideyoshi upon the death of his mother.

Inside Kongōbu-ji, you’ll find Banryūtei, the largest rock garden in Japan. The inner rooms are beautifully decorated with sliding doors (fusuma) that depict cranes, animals and ancient landscapes.

Konpon Daito Pagoda koya-san

The Garan (Koyasan’s central temple complex) features a Kondo Hall, and the eye-catching Konpon Daitō pagoda.

The interior holds a statue of the Cosmic Buddha (Dainichi Nyorai) surrounded by art, which comes together to form a three-dimensional mandala.

mt koya temples

I snapped a photo of a monk bowing in front of Sanmaido Hall. This is supposedly where Nichiren (Buddhist founder of the Nichiren school) debated other monks.

zen buddhist garden pond

I discovered a pond with lotus leaves, under a red arching bridge… Koyasan, you’re magic.

zen rock sand gardens japan

There are many shukubo (guesthouse) to choose from, which all offer the temple stay experience. This one had a perfectly raked sand garden.

zen temple stay overnight

Do you see Koya-kun peeking out from the bushes? (I’m wearing vintage Japanese robes.)

japanese shinto buddhist retreat

I loved immersing myself into the spiritual culture of Koyasan. I hope you’ll take the cable-car up to these tranquil mountains one day.

staying with monks temple koya

Would you do a temple stay in a Japanese Buddhist temple, like I did? For more about Mt. Koya and my Japan trip, enjoy my travel video — and feel free to ask me any questions in the comments.

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Tokyo Goth clubs & absinthe bars! Gothic party Midnight Mess, Decabar Z, Japanese tribal tattoos.

hibiya shrine tokyo

Greetings from the red torii gate of Hibiya Shrine! Ready for more alternative travel tips from Japan?

I haven’t posted any updates recently to my Tokyo Goth clubbing guide, so keep reading for the latest party / nightclub information, as well as a peek inside an absinthe bar.

I’ll also take you to two Godzilla statues, and an exhibit of Japanese modern primitive tattoos with Keroppy Maeda (who did the infamous bagelheads for our TV shows).

japanese goth girl eyes contacts

I receive far too many emails from travelers, asking for information about Japanese Goth and Alternative parties / clubs. It’s impossible for me to look up specific information for everyone, so here’s what I encourage you to do:

1 – Consult my Tokyo Goth clubbing guide, which highlights parties and events from over the years.

2 – If you’re reading this post in 2017, I suggest you check out the Facebook pages of Midnight Mess, Decabar Z and Department H. Upcoming parties will be announced there, usually about a month in advance. There are also smaller and less frequent alternative / Goth parties, but it’s impossible for me look up everything for each person, as I’m sure you can understand.

So again, please check out this club guide and research the party names I mention there, to see if they have any upcoming events. I hope you have a great time!

fox spirit shinto shrne

We’ll delve deeper into the nightlife further down in this post. But let’s start with a visit to Hibiya Jinja in Minato-ku, by Park Hotel Tokyo (where we stayed).

Outfit details: My sunglasses are these exact ones. I paired fishnet tights with my leopard print dress, which is Gladnews Japan (it’s available for sale on my Depop).

shinto water purification scoops

Although it’s now surrounded by busy streets, this peaceful Shinto shrine dates back 400 years. I smiled at the statues of fox spirits, and washed my hands in the running water of this purification fountain.

ringing bell shinto shrine

Ring my bell-el-el. I’m tugging a rope that leads to a “suzu” or Japanese Shinto bell that contains pellets. The ringing sound calls the kami, or spirits, which brings in good fortune and positive energy.

japanese fox altar temple

Kitsune (foxes) are prominent in Shinto folklore. They’re messenger spirits to Inari, as you’ll recall from my visit to the famous shrine of Fushimi Inari in Kyoto.

godzilla statue ginza

There’s another creature who has a big impact on the Japanese imagination… ‘Gojira’!

I walked to the Godzilla Statue in Ginza, which is located next to Toho Cinemas (as they release all the Godzilla films). (Address: 1 Chome-2-2 Yurakucho, Tokyo)

japanese shin godzilla poster

Shin-Godzilla or Godzilla Resurgence was still playing in the theater when we visited.

The nearby mall even had a Godzilla-themed cafe with food that was shaped like the monster’s paw! (For more about Tokyo theme restaurants, check out my book.)

ginza hibiya godzilla statue

I’m wearing these exact Vysen lavender sunglasses and this Shashi Tiffany choker necklace

This little Godzilla statue is based on one of the older movie designs, and doesn’t seem so frightening. But inside the mall…

shin godzilla movie statue

… there’s a much bigger and scarier Godzilla! This is the latest look for the “dai kaiju”, as seen in the new movie.

tokyo shin godzilla statue

We saw a lot of fans come to take photos with the towering Godzilla statue (he’s so popular here). This was only a temporary pop-up so I don’t think this statue is here any more.

His little eyes and pointy teeth are a bit goofy when seen from up close….

godzilla head tokyo japan

If you’re a fan of the Japanese monster, you’ve got to stay at the Godzilla head hotel in Shinjuku like we did. Don’t miss these photos of our stay in the Godzilla Gracery Hotel.

tav gallery tokyo japan

One evening, I supported my friends John and Keroppy at their panel discussion on Japanese tribal tattooing at TAV Gallery in Asagaya. This small but progressive space showcases artists who are involved in alternative culture. (Gallery address: 阿佐谷北1-31-2 Suginami-ku, Tokyo, Japan)

jomon tattoo keroppy maeda

John Skutlin, a cultural anthropologist who specialises in the study of Japanese tattooing and body modifications, speaks about the experience:

“On display at the TAV Gallery that night were photos from the Jōmon Tattoo Project, a collaboration between journalist and photographer Keroppy Maeda and black-work tattooist Taku Ōshima that attempts to recreate the tattoos of Japan’s Jōmon period (approx. 14,000~300 BCE) on modern human bodies.”

japan ancient tattoos jomon

“Although there is no physical evidence of tattooed bodies from the Jōmon era, the people of that period left behind clay figurines called dogū, which depict human forms engraved with various swirling and spiraling designs that archaeologists theorize to represent scarification and tattooing. Chinese accounts from the second and third centuries CE record extensive tattooing among the people of the Japanese archipelago, making it even more likely that the Jōmon people had a rich tradition of tattooing,” says John.

tattoo event conference tokyo

The discussion held that evening included Maeda and Ōshima, as well as the Miho Kawasaki (chief editor of Tattoo Burst magazine from 1999-2012), Professor of New Materials and Technologies Werner Lorke (HfG Offenbach, Germany), and cultural anthropologist John M. Skutlin (The Chinese University of Hong Kong).

Subjects included the inspiration behind the project and speculation as to what kind of role tattooing played among the Jōmon people. Maeda believes that the urge to alter one’s body is universal, saying that, in the course of our evolution, “the first step to becoming a human being is the choice to change our own bodies artificially.” 

taku oshima keroppy maeda tattoo exhibit

John continues: “According to the project’s manifesto, the Jōmon tattoos are “inscribed upon real human bodies as modern tattoo designs to show how the primitive spirit of humankind will become a new identity to survive the postmodern life of the 21st century.” Ōshima, who spent time studying tattooing in Goa, India before traveling the world to ply his trade, is a master of bold black-work designs, many of which cover entire arms, legs, and bodies.”

tokyo handpoke tattooing

Nearly all of the volunteers for the project had never been tattooed before, and the striking designs indicate natural phenomena that would have been important to the tribal peoples of ancient Japan. Waves, snake coils, and tree branches are all motifs that can be seen in the designs of dogū and now recreated on the bodies of the project participants. “You could say that Jōmon tattooing is the true traditional tattooing of Japan, and the designs everyone knows from the Edo period [1603-1868] were Japan’s modern tattooing,” said Ōshima.

primitive japanese tribal tattoos

For more about John Skutlin’s research, you can read his interview with The Diplomat and watch his presentation at the University of Pittsburgh about ink and body modifications in Japan.

If you’re in Frankfurt, Germany between June 3-18, you can see the Jomon Tribe exhibition at Robert Mayer Zeigt Galerie. I’m excited to see how the modern primitive movement in Japan will continue to develop, and question the country’s taboos about tattooing.

japan goth party

While in Tokyo, John and I were also guests at Midnight Mess, the longest-running Goth club — and our hangout for a decade now! How time flies…

If you’re coming to Japan, I highly recommend that you check out their Facebook group page for upcoming events. DJ Maya always creates a welcoming space (and she and many of the guests speak English).

tokyo japan disco discotheque

We gathered at Bar Shifty in Shibuya for the all-night party. Under the disco ball, Goths in black clothing danced to EBM, dark techno / electro, industrial, aggrotech and noise. 

tokyo clubbing shibuya

Posing with Athena, who often plays with Mistress Maya in shibari (rope-bondage) performances.

shibuya nightclub, clubbing

It was great to reunite with Maya and DJ Statik, the resident deejay who I’ve known for years.

tokyo japan club parties

As always, the party ran all night long (trains stop running in Japan after about midnight or 1am — so you have to keep on dancing til dawn!)

industrial gothic dj japan

Midnight Mess always brings in underground performers and guests from around the world. That evening, DJ Maschinenpriester from Germany pounded out a special set.

mistress maya dj japan

I also invite you to visit Mistress Maya at her Gothic/Fetish Bar, which takes place every Monday & Tuesday at Grenier (a small snack bar in the gay district of Shinjuku). She’ll play alternative music, and make sure you are well fed with homestyle cooking and drinks. Address: 東京都新宿区新宿2-18-10 新千鳥街二階 (2-18-10 Ni-Choome, Shinjuku, Tokyo), phone 0363801199.

otaku dj anime

DJ Sin performed with a hooded head. (All of these club photos are by fake-fantasy).

Thanks to Midnight Mess for having us as the guests of honor!

guinea pig bar shinjuku

My friends and I also stopped by one of our favorite Goth bars — Guinea Pig in Kabukicho, Shinjuku. I previously wrote about this bizarre horror bar here. The bondage baby and spine immediately set the dark (yet fun) mood of this tiny bar.

Address: 2-41-2 Leo Kotobuki Building 3-A, Kabukicho, Shinjuku, Tokyo. 1000 yen cover. Opening hours are generally 8pm to early morning. Phone: 03-3209-3455

japanese smoking in bars

There’s always an eccentric crowd of regulars sitting around the long, black bar. Yes, that’s a blood-splattered pole in the middle — and torture instruments in the back.

kabukicho weird strange bars

We love coming here to sit under the rotting flesh cross, and watch splatter-gore movies play on the big screen.

horror bar tokyo japan

Obviously, Guinea Pig is not a bar for everyone. But if you love strange, obscure, weird Japan — this spot is for you.

haunted bars japan weird

Chains and zombie hands and live snakes — yes please.

tokyo fetish crazy bars

Even though I am in Tokyo all the time, the city and subculture never grow old to me.

craziest theme bars tokyo

Guinea Pig caters to horror / experimental / slasher movie fans. When we visited, they were showing trailers from Herschell Gordon Lewis films (such as Two Thousand Maniacs and Blood Feast), as he had died that week.

shinjuku kabuki-cho nightlife clubs

Cheers to Guinea Pig, which remains one of our regular drinking holes! If you’re interested in Tokyo Visual Kei and Jrock bars, a Suspiria themed bar, and other oddities, check out my Tokyo nightlife guide.

long spiked fangs ring

Close-up on Atsushi’s spiked fang ring and studded bracelets. Now, to the next party…

shinjuku buidings lights

There’s something about Shinjuku at night — lit up and buzzing — that fills me with joy, every single time I’m here.

pentagram men's shirt disturbia

Every time we’re in Tokyo, we stop to see our friends at Decabar Z (5F Shinko Building, 1-2-13 Kabukicho, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo, Japan. Here’s a link to the map.)

John’s pentagram top is by Disturbia Clothing, makers of occult and Satanic fashion.

pokemon nail art, pokeball nails

Tokyo’s alternative DJs, performers and personalities grace the colorful mural at the entrance of Deca Bar Z. Here’s Maya as a cat, offering a cup of sake in a pink kimono.

ouija board devil tshirt

Devil horns to match this Satanic ouija board unisex shirt, by Disturbia

deca bar z tokyo decadance

Say hello to Preta Porco, who you’ll find behind the (Deca) bar! He’s easy to spot with his bright yellow foundation, contrasted with rosy red lips and cheeks.

halloween tokyo decadence party

Adrien le Danois, owner of Deca Bar Z, also runs the Tokyo Decadance parties. If you’re not in town during one of the decadence events, don’t fret — Decabar Z is open every evening, and there are always interesting theme nights such as “Addams Family.”

decabar z cosplay bar

Grab a glass of absinthe, and chill out on the comfortable couches. (Here are more photos of Deca Bar Shinjuku, from my last visit.)

gothic lolita dj music

We loved the music at the “I Am Electro” night, run by Migon. The DJs play Depeche Mode, Visage, Europe and other favorites — as well as obscure synthwave and 1980s Goth.

shinjuku absinthe bar alternative

As an absinthe aficionado, I’m always looking for the green fairy wherever I go.

Maya took me to Caribbean, an absinthe and rock bar in Kabukicho. (Address: Kabukicho 1-3-10 2F, Shinjuku Tokyo)

absinthe bars tokyo japan

I drank Mansinthe (Marilyn Manson’s absinthe) and we chatted with the owner. He let DJ Maya control the song selection, resulting in the perfect Goth playlist.

absinthe alternative bar kabukicho

The same owners also run the nearby Absinthe Bar Alternative (Address: 1-6-12-B1F, Kabukicho 歌舞伎町, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo 160-0021). It’s a small basement bar, with several shelves of absinth from around the world — heavenly.

tokyo japanese absinthe

If you’re looking for more absinthe in Tokyo, check out Bar Tram in Ebisu.

Modern primitive tattoos, spatter-gore bars, Gothic club nights… isn’t Tokyo’s underground the best? For more coverage of Japanese alternative nightlife, come peruse my Tokyo Goth club guideHave fun!

A night at Kobe Gothic Fetish bar: Idea! Killstar Satanic occult fashion, pentagram harness dresses.

goth punk spikes sexy dress

Devil horns, times two! Appropriate attire… as I was ready to party at a Gothic and Fetish bar in Kobe, Japan.

● I’m wearing a pastel goth ram horns headband from Devilish 666. Love the lavender poof detail on a silver band.
● My bodycon dress is a one-off from Hong Kong’s Spider, similar to many of the fashions by Killstar

occult wiccan satan bar

Idea (pronounced “E-day-ah”) is one of the most authentic and unique underground bars in Japan. Those with a dark disposition will love the occult decor, particularly a light-up pentagram at the center of the bar. 

killstar kill star gothic dresses

What better place to wear occult, Gothic, fetish-inspired fashion? These recent designs from Killstar would fit right in with the aesthetic. My favorites are:

1. Spooky Harajuku Backpack — reminds me of the Ghostbusters ghoul, and is a perfect mix of spooky and cute.
2. Repent Vegan Leather Choker — I have a similar one, which you can see in this outfit post.
3. Living Dead Skater Dress  — Skeleton prints never go out of style.

pentagram satanic fashion killstar

Killstar has lots of pentacles and other Satanic symbols in their fashion. Such as:

4. Band Of Misfits Crop Top — such a killer cut-out design, and can be styled in so many ways.
5. In Like Sin Skater Dress — the horned devil on top, and a hem of Satan’s crosses.
6. Templar Initiate Knit Cardigan — a cozy oversize coat, with a pentagram devil on the back
7. Silver Spring Skater Dress — pentagrams all over. There’s a pentagram leggings version of this as well.

✪ Shop more from Kill Star by clicking the images below ✪

japan goth girls, parties

Many visitors overlook Kobe as a travel destination, or only know its name because of “Kobe beef.” But the city has tons to offer (food, nightlife, sights) — and the locals are known for their down-to-earth, friendly vibe.

I was traveling around the country on a Japan Rail Pass, and it made perfect sense to stop in Kobe. The station is only 45 minutes from Osaka, and 1.5 hours from Kyoto. With an unlimited J Rail Pass — which I highly suggest you book — you can hop on and off the trains, and easily see this city.

kobe okonomiyaki restaurant

John introduced me to his local friends, who as you can see are fellow creatures of the night. Alternative fashion, Visual Kei and more devil horn salutes!

We went to a cozy restaurant and ordered lots of drinks and dishes to share. The Kansai district is known for its okonomiyaki (Japanese savory pancake, grilled at the table). This restaurant’s version was probably the best I’ve ever had, especially the one made with natto (a fermented sticky bean that is not to everyone’s taste, but delivers cheesy umami in this dish).

pentagram coasters, satan bar

After this perfect meal, we walked to the Goth & Fetish bar where two of the ladies work: Idea.

Address: IDEA is located at 2-17-8 Nakayamate-dori, Chuo-ku, Kobe (it’s found near Kobe Mosque, here on Google Maps).
The bar is open from 8pm to 3am. Look for the chained-up slave boy at the entrance, and you’ve arrived.

gothic fetish bar idea, kobe japan

For those who love horror movies and witchery, Idea is a revelation. You’ll walk past a collection of skulls and taxidermy, and arrive at a long bar with nails under the glass… and an evil baby doll on top of the pentagram! 

goth halloween themed bar japan

Mistress Midori opened Gothic & Fetish Bar “IDEA” in July 2010. It’s comprised of two floors, with a spectacular Devilish VIP room on the upper level.

Under the glass counter, there lies a torture device: a nail bed with 8800 deadly spikes. The ladies can open it up, in case someone is in need of punishment!

pentacle skull, satanic altar

Mistress Midori has amassed an impressive collection of Satanic symbology. This black table is a miniature altar, strewn with skulls and roses. Nearby, there’s a life-sized replica of Dracula in “bat” form from “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” hanging on the wall.

Idea also keeps a ball python and scorpion as pets at the bar, and plenty of occult-related books on the coffee tables upstairs.

japanese goth mistress bar

Everyone who sits down at the bar gets personal attention from the staff, dressed in enticing Gothic garments. Our hostess Naito spoke conversational English, and made sure I always had enough yuzu chips and whiskey on the rocks.

Behind her, you’ll see metal rods behind the bar arranged in three rows of six (to signify 666, the number of the Beast). The red-and-black bathroom has the same black metal rods lining the room — but there are 72 of them, one for each demon of the Goetia or invocation of demons.

pentagram tarot coasters home decor

Idea’s pentagram logo (and much of the interior design) is the work of Taiki. He runs the magnificent Gothic club night Black Veil, and occult store Territory in Osaka, which I will feature soon. Taiki is also the cousin of Mistress Midori.

The speakers broadcast DJ Taiki’s Industrial-electronic-Goth mixes all night, which brought back fond memories of my earlier clubbing days in Japan.

japanese mistresses, fetish

Despite the frightening objects found in every corner (such as this three-eyed demon baby), the ladies make Idea a fun and positive space. Don’t feel intimidated about coming here: everyone is so welcoming.

(Naito is wearing a lace-up skull corset similar to this one.)

shibari rope tying bar japan

After a few hours of hanging out, it was time for a shibari performance (Japanese fetish rope-tying). Choose your weapon… there are plenty on-hand.

japanese s&m dominatrix

It’s incredible to watch Mistress Midori in action. She’s an experienced artist at the ropes, and has a deep connection with her girls.

shibari rope domination club

Mistress Midori tied up Naito with both care and speed, inverted her and spun her around, and applied flicks of the whip. 

candle wax sado masochism

On special occasions, she will often incorporate ritualistic elements such as lighting candles on a candelabra and raising up a skull, and then snuffing the flames after the show has ended.

For this performance, she lit red candles and dripped them onto Naito’s mouth, an image reminiscent of vampire blood.

japan medical hospital theme bar

Idea also has special events on all of the traditional pagan “wheel of the year” days (and women get in free). On Halloween, Walpurgis, and the Summer and Winter Solstices, she tends to have bigger events with rope shows and hook suspension as well.

osaka kobe goth clubs parties

Time flies when you’re having fun… and torturing victims.

pregnant goth mother

That must be Rosemary’s Baby, ready to come out and play!

japan goth occult wiccan

If you’re looking for an offbeat Japanese bar and nightlife experience to remember, come and experience IDEA in Kobe. The ladies may even let you lie down on the nail bed…

(For ideas for something to wear, there are pentagram and harness dresses below:)

baker street sherlock holmes kobe museum

I only had a brief time in Kobe, but there’s a lot to see. John and I walked around the hilly Kitano district, home to trendy bars and cafes. Many foreigner merchants and diplomats lived here in the 19th century, and their European-style houses are still around.

Fans of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective should check out the Sherlock Holmes Room, a replica of 221 B Baker Street in Kobe. (I didn’t have time to visit, but I went to a similar Sherlock Holmes cafe in Shanghai).

daruma shrine, kawaii altar

We also visited the Shinto Ninomiya Shrine, which is dedicated to good health, fortune and luck.

This colorful shelf of daruma and lucky cats caught my eye and made me smile.

Ninomiya Shrine, Kobe japan

Ninomiya is a small shrine, beautifully maintained. The stone gardens lead to fortune papers and red torii gates.

(Read more about Shinto worship and traditions in my post about Kyoto).

arashi shrine, japanese idol worship

On the less traditional side: why are there wood wishing boards (ema) with drawings of Arashi, the Japanese idol boy band? Because J-pop fans are hardcore. The singer of the group is named Kazunari Ninomiya, and this shrine shares his last name — so it’s part of the “Arashi shrine tour” that fans visit on a pilgrimage.

japanese snake statue shinto

I leave you with a white snake, coiled up inside the shrine. Fox and pig spirits help guard the exterior.

Did you know Kobe, Japan was home to such a fascinating Goth bar? If you’re drawn to the the dark side, here are more designs by Killstar below (click to see details).

Universal Studios Osaka Japan: guide to buying tickets, Express passes & Halloween horror nights!

where's waldo costume, minions girls

Universal Studios Japan rocks! You’ve got to visit this theme park at least once in your lifetime — ideally, during the Halloween season.

Getting express tickets is a bit complicated, so here’s a detailed guide to the theme park, which features Harry Potter, Minions, Hello Kitty, Resident Evil, Jurassic Park and other favorite characters.

wedding zombies, bride groom undead

Every September/October, Universal Studios Osaka turns into a zombie fest (literally, they send out walkers to attack!) For a limited time, there are frightening special attractions dedicated to Japanese horror — including Sadako of the Ring.

zombies halloween universal japan

Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights are brilliantly produced, with the right balance of fear and fun. (But there are themed events all year round, which match the seasons.)

If you only have a day to explore, I highly recommend getting entry tickets in advance, as well as Express Passes to bypass long lines. The online process is more than a little complicated — so read on for a detailed guide to purchasing Universal Studios Osaka tickets from their Japanese booking website.

universal japan entrance, directions subway

First, directions. To get to Universal Studios Japan, take the direct 15 minute train ride from Osaka Station to Universal City Station, on the JR Yumesaki Line (aka JR Sakurajima Line). You can use a JRailPass (unlimited Japan Rail Pass for 1-3 weeks) to ride all these trains, which saves costs and makes the trip even easier.

If you have a “timed entry” ticket and need to arrive by a certain hour, give yourself plenty of time to walk from the train station to the theme park. You might need an extra 30 minutes to purchase food outside the gates, or check your bags in the coin lockers (larger suitcases can be stored at Guest Services for a fee).

universal studios halloween horror nights

The amusement park goes all-out with seasonal decorations. Since I was there in late September, I got to see Hello Kitty, Elmo and Snoopy in spooky Halloween costumes!  (Shop for Sanrio goods below with a click:)

As for my outfit: I’m wearing a devilish T-shirt from Dead Gallery Iceland, and my tote bag is from Territory, DJ Taiki’s occult store in Osaka. 

I recommend wearing good shoes for walking around all day, and shielding your eyes with sunglasses and a hat (my cap is from the Drop Dead Clothing x Sonic the Hedgehog collaboration.)

flying snoopy ride, universal osaka

Now, a guide to buying tickets and making the most of your visit!

Osaka’s Universal Studios is compact, and it doesn’t long to walk between the various districts. However, this is a popular theme park. To avoid the crowds, try to come early, and on less busy days (avoid weekends and holidays).

While it costs more to buy Express and Special Passes, I highly suggest that you do. Otherwise, you’ll wind up waiting 1-3 hours in line for rides, and you might not be able to see the special attractions at all (as they require advance passes that sell out fast).

sailor moon group cosplay girls japan

If you’re going with a group of friends, I encourage you to designate one person to purchase tickets and advance entries. Otherwise, you won’t be able to coordinate the timed entrances, and “slowpokes” may not be able to get in at all.

Universal Osaka has an English-language sales website, but the available options in English are very limited (for example, when I checked, there was only 1 Express option and no Horror pre-sales).

Instead, you should purchase advance tickets from their website in Japanese. Let me warn you — this process is rather complicated and “Google translate” won’t work well, so ask a friend who is fluent in Japanese to help you (and reward them for their efforts!).

japanese suicide squad cosplayers cosplay

I can’t describe the entire process step-by-step because the Japanese website changes constantly, as the theme park updates attractions and passes.

However, I can give you a general overview. I recommend that you purchase three things well in advance, from the Japanese language site (or if you’re in Japan, you can go to any Lawson to order them):

1) An Entry Ticket ($75), which everybody need just to get inside the theme park. If you don’t get this ticket in advance, you may need to line up outside the gates for 1-2 hours. (If you decide to only get the basic entry ticket, you can purchase this on their English site. There’s also a cheaper evening-only entry price.)

2) An Express Pass, which lets you skip the lines on certain rides. The Japanese language site gives you a variety of Express options, which range in price. I suggest that you figure out which rides/attraction you want to see, and then pick the pass that matches. I personally went for the $55 “15th anniversary Express pass,” which let me access Harry Potter and 3 rides. A steep fee, but this lets you go straight to the front of the line instead of waiting 2-3 hours for the popular rides. Worth it, especially if you only have a day to explore.

3) Advance tickets to Special attractions that you’re keen to see. Again, this will change with the seasons; in my case, I did the $75 package to skip the lines at three Japanese horror attractions. These special events require advance/extra passes regardless, and they sell out fast — so advance entry may be the only way you’ll be able to get in. 

halloween wreath, skull

Ready for another layer of challenges? The Express and Special attraction passes have timed entries — meaning that you have to pick the exact “time window” for going to the front of the line.

Some of these “windows” sell out — so you’ll have to compare time-charts in Japanese, and do some juggling to figure out a schedule that works. For example, I chose an 11-11:20am entry for Harry Potter, and a 1:10pm entry for the first Japanese Horror attraction, followed by a 2-3pm window for the Jurassic Park rollercoaster, and so forth. The attractions may be in different areas of the park, so give yourself enough time to walk over.

prisoner striped costumes halloween

Final puzzle: How to pay for Universal Studios advance tickets? If you’re in Japan, you can go to any Lawson within a day to pay. If you’re outside the country, you must use a credit card to check out from the Japanese website.

Here’s the trick: you need to input a Japanese address AND phone number, or else your credit card won’t go through. You can try putting your Osaka hotel’s address and phone; it took me a few tries, but I finally managed to get through to the confirmation page.

universal studios japan theme park

Complicated? Expensive? Yes, but it’s worth it for guaranteed timed entries and to avoid waiting in queue. I’m glad I splurged on the Express and Japanese Horror passes, and booked weeks before so that I had many timed entry options to choose from.

You can also save money by bringing in outside food (just keep it hidden in your bag) rather than eating the theme park food, and resisting the merchandise. 

jaws ride osaka universal theme park

All right — now we’re inside, and ready to explore Universal Studios Osaka!

The park is divided into different sections: Jaws, Jurassic Park, Terminator, Spiderman, Waterworld, Harry Potter, Snoopy and more. The attractions are constantly changing; there previously were Resident Evil and Evangelion features.

ユニバーサル・スタジオ・ジャパン

From September to October, Universal dresses up its characters in Halloween costumes. Since this is my favorite holiday, I was excited to visit during this time.

universal studios osaka amusement park

As you can see in the photos above, many visitors come in groups, and dress extravagantly (even when it’s not Halloween).

It’s a terrific opportunity to cosplay as your favorite Universal mascot. However, keep comfortable footwear and sun protection in mind, or else you may wind up at Universal’s First Aid office (they have one near the front gate).

super mario cosplay, nintendo costume

I saw a lot of Suicide Squad and Minion outfits. Since this is Japan, I was happy to see Nintendo represented — “It’s me, Mario!” — and a bad Japanese schoolgirl in a sailor uniform.

harry potter entrance osaka japan

I was excited to see The Wizarding World of Harry Potter for the first time. My heart raced when I saw “Please respect the spell limits,” and the pointed, snow-capped rooftops of Hogsmeade village. Universal recreates Harry Potter’s world magnificently, with swells of music and meticulous attention to detail.

hogwarts express train universal studios

All aboard the Hogwarts Express! In every area of the park, you’ll find the Universal Japan staff smiling and welcome guests. In Wizarding World, they helped children perform magic tricks with wands (a few gestures made it rain candy). There was also a Harry Potter choir and stage show, performed in both English and Japanese.

You can easily spend an hour or more exploring Harry’s home. A barrel dispenses Butterbeer, a sweet non-alcoholic beverage that is a bit like butterscotch. Personally, I didn’t enjoy the taste…

hogwarts entrance winged boar statues

Hogwarts Castle looms high over the village. Stroll past the winged boars, and into Hogwarts’ School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. This is the site of the uber popular ride, “Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey.” (Average wait time is 3 hours… but with my timed entry Express pass, I got to go straight in.)

The anticipation builds as you pass Dumbledore’s office, the Gryffindor common room and Defence Against the Dark Arts classroom. Then, you put on special goggles and get strapped into a moving chair — for a “4K 3D” ride that makes you feel as if you’re soaring through the skies with Harry, on a broomstick.

harry potter roller coaster, flight of hippogriff

There’s also a small roller coaster called “Flight of the Hippogriff,” which dives past Hagrid’s hut. I was impressed by the moving recreation of the half-eagle half-horse creature, which you pass on your way up the tracks.

owl post, dogweed deathcap, harry potter world

Shops, shops everywhere. You can purchase Harry Potter goods inside the various themed stores, such as Owl Post and Dogweed & Deathcap (which had a moving plant in the window.)

harry potter magic wand store, universal

Inside Ollivanders, you can choose from an array of magic wands, including replicas of the film characters’ personal wands. They’re intricately carved out of wood and decorated, and are in the $50 range.

japanese cosplayers, universal studios osaka

The staff does a fantastic job at immersing you in a fantasy world. I watched a little girl purchase a stuffed owl, and the shopkeeper gave her gentle instructions on how to care for the creature (“she needs lots of hugs, and to have her feathers brushed”).

I snapped a photo of these Japanese girls in front of Honeydukes, which sells sweets from the Harry Potter stories, including Bertie Bott’s Every-Flavour Beans and Chocolate Frogs.

snoopy mascots, universal studios parade

I couldn’t help but smile as I strolled through the different parts of the park. Universal broadcasts holiday music, so I got to groove along to The Monster Mash and Time Warp.

Many of the live attractions appear at random. I caught a few Minions performing on a fire truck. Then, it was time for the parade.

hello kitty parade, sanrio theme park

Dancing Hello Kitties, and pumpkin-folk giving out free candy… How can this day get better?

asian matching couples kawaii costumes

Many visitors wore impressive costumes. Some couples dressed up together, such as this pair of Minions, and Hello Kitty and Daniel. 

cute japanese girls halloween costumes

Naturally, “kawaii” cute is a frequent theme. In the “San Francisco” section of Universal Studios Osaka, I came across three Little Red Riding Hoods.

resident evil hunk costume, cosplay mask

Behold — it’s Hunk from Resident Evil! If anyone can survive the zombie apocalypse, it would be this guy.

jason, nightmare elm street toys

As a horror movie fan, I was thrilled to see Jason Voorhees (Halloween) and Freddy Krueger (A Nightmare on Elm Street). They’re strung up as prizes, in the games section.

zombie blood bags, universal studios halloween

The zombie attacks and Japanese horror-shows start when the sun sets… you simply must read on to see what happens.

More here!

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