Osaka – “Japan’s Kitchen”

Osaka was my hub during my two-week trip to Japan. Rather than staying in multiple cities, William, Thomas, and I decided to just stay in Osaka and travel to other places by train.

My flight to Osaka from Bangkok was scheduled to arrive at 11:50 PM, but because public transportation at that hour was closed for the night, I had just planned to spend the night at the airport and then take the train to my hotel in the morning.

As I laid down on a row of seats in the entrance area, it appeared that many other people had the same idea as me, as several other businessman were stretched out on nearby benches next to piles of luggage. Fortunately, the night went by fairly quickly, and before I knew it, the morning rolled around. I first decided to exchange my money at the airport as I had heard that Japan was a mostly cash-based country, and I had no yen.  Exchanging all of my baht to yen at the airport turned out to be a bad decision, as the exchange rate was so bad that I probably lost about $80 in the transaction. I was pretty angry at myself, but being early in the morning without having had a proper night’s sleep, I was sort of delirious and unable to weight my options critically. Nonetheless, I gathered my money and made for the train station.

The train station was very conveniently connected to the airport, and I knew that there were several different lines I could take to my hotel, one of the reasons I had decided to stay there. I ended up taking the JR line, as I thought it would be the fastest and easiest to figure out. After finally figuring out where to catch the right train, I piled my stuff onto the train and sat down.

Almost immediately, it became apparent to me how different Japan would be from Thailand. Every time we came to a stop, a bunch of well-dressed businessmen and women got on the train quickly, and sat down. Although that may not sound unusual, the speed and efficiency from their movements was quite different from anything I had seen in Thailand, where people operate at their own relaxed pace and the concept of efficiency has no meaning.

As more and more people piled onto the train, it dawned on me that I was becoming more and more trapped away from the exit door. I realized that if I did not take action soon, I might not be able to maneuver my massive backpacks through the mass of people and exit in the short time of the stop. Fortunately, at the stop before mine, a lot of people exited the train and I took the opportunity to get up and place myself by the door. I managed to escape without incident, and after exiting the station took a few moments to take in the neighborhood where I would be staying.

I had been warned by my friend Taka that the neighborhood around the hotel wasn’t the greatest, although it turned out to be fine (to the south the neighborhood got somewhat sketchy but the area I was in was fine). I walked a short distance before finding my hotel, which was only about a three minute walk from the station.

The hotel also exceeded my expectations. Being a very modern, advanced country, I had expected things in Japan to be similar prices to the United States. However, I was able to find a hotel for only $24 a night, ludicrously cheap by American standards. The hotel was actually pretty decent too. I had my own room with A/C, the staff had both a fluent English speaker and a fluent Mandarin speaker (convenient for my friends from Taiwan), and even had a Japanese style spa (a hot tub and sauna) for the guests. Admittedly, my room was very small and there were only shared bathrooms and showers, but for the price I was paying it was certainly better than I was expecting. The area around the hotel was surprisingly nice too. I had picked the hotel because it was located near several major subway and JR stops, although I expected it to be a somewhat sketchy area after talking to Taka. It turned out to be fine though, and I was actually within a one minute walk of the Shinsekai neighborhood (meaning ‘New World’), which had walking streets filled with restaurants and bars. I was also located very close to the massive Spa World, which was a behemoth sized building filled with different style onsens (spas), water slides, pools and a gym – although I never ventured inside.

Shinsekai, the neighborhood near my hotel
Shinsekai, the neighborhood near my hotel

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Shinsekai at night
Shinsekai at night

The first few days in the city, William, Thomas, and I walked around and explored various neighborhoods. Shinsekai was full of interesting small restaurants selling foods like takoyaki, okonomiyaki, kushikatsu and of course, sashimi, as well as small bars in which patrons drank while standing, starting at early hours of the day.

Near Shinsekai was the neighborhood Nipponbashi, or Den-Den Town. I had read that Den-Den Town was a great place to find otaku items (manga, toys, video games), and it did not disappoint. There was an insane amount of toy stores, manga shops, and video game parlors along the streets. Every store seemed to have multiple floors stocked with every sort of toy, manga, or video game imaginable. After coming from Northern Thailand, where it is nearly impossible to find anything I need, it was overwhelming to be shopping in these massive stores that had endless supplies of things I didn’t need or even know existed. I also was excited to find the first of many music stores with a large amount of pianos that I could actually play (in Thailand, it is hard enough to find a piano store and harder still to find one where they actually let you play their pianos).

So many vending machines everywhere
So many vending machines everywhere

The next place we explored was the neighborhood of Dotonburi, which was located near the city center and was supposedly the foodie district of Osaka. Dotonburi also flanks the river, and contains the glico sign, which for some unknown reason is one of the most famous attractions in Osaka. The sign was also comically enough being renovated during our trip, so we were instead treated to the image of a woman posed in the same fashion.

The famous Glico sign under construction
The famous Glico sign under construction
Dotonburi at night
Dotonburi at night

Dotonburi was also located near some of the biggest shopping streets in Osaka. I was unprepared for the massive, pedestrian walking streets that stretch on endlessly and branch off in multiple directions. However, as massive as the walking streets were, they all seemed to be overcrowded with masses of people walking, shopping, or just exploring as we were. We seemed to find continuous amounts of massive malls, multiple storied department stores (often as large as eight floors), huge clothing stores, and other shops that catered to every shopping need possible. It was almost disbelieving to me that as many shops and stores as they were, there were even more people and customers to fill them. As much of a consumer culture as we have in America, I have never seen such a large area devoted to and filled with shoppers.

Shopping Street in Dotonburi
Shopping Street in Dotonburi

As I alluded to earlier, there were also music shops, a lot of music shops. I was stunned to find beautiful piano shops and guitar shops with endless selections of instruments. I even found a Yamaha store with multiple floors including a floor for digital pianos and a separate floor for acoustic pianos. After going roughly five months without being able to find or play a piano in Thailand, I was now finding about three to four piano stores a day in Osaka and endless amounts of pianos that I could actually play. I regretted that I had not brought any music on my trip, as I soon found myself unable to remember many of the piano pieces that had once come easily to my fingertips.

I was also amused by the sight of the massive, neon pachinko parlors that flashed their presence every several hundred meters on the walking streets. Having never seen pachinko machines before, it was bizarre to see the parlors packed with usually old Japanese people chain-smoking cigarettes and maneuvering their pachinko balls with nonplussed expressions on their faces. While I became more used to these establishments’ presence all over the city, it became somewhat depressing to see people playing the machines at all hours of the day, whittling their money away on what seemed to me like a nonsensical, boring game.

Pachinko
Pachinko

Later on in the week, we decided to go see Osaka Castle. Although located near the middle of the city, the castle is in a large park filled with Japanese Maples, Gingko, and Cherry trees that gave it a very serene and escapist feel. Some people were jogging or exercising in the park, while many others were drawing and painting the castle from the different angles we were walking around among.

Osaka Castle
Osaka Castle

The castle was quite picturesque, peeking through the trees and towering over a large moat, but I had a feeling that it would look that much more beautiful as the leaves turned yellow and copper in the coming weeks and the cherry trees bloomed their pink flowers of winter.

the front of the castle
the front of the castle

Part of the reason the castle was so beautiful was actually because it had been rebuilt and renovated fairly recently. Having burned down several times over the several hundred years of its existence, the Osaka Castle we saw and toured was not exactly an ancient monument. However, it was still cool to see, and the view from the top was great.

After seeing Osaka Castle, we decided to head over to the Umeda Sky Building to get a good view of Osaka at night. The sky building is one of the coolest skyscapers I have seen, architecturally speaking. It consists of two skyscrapers with a ‘floating’ observatory and gardens connecting the buildings at the top floors.

Umeda Sky Building
Umeda Sky Building

We took the elevator to near the top and then rode an escalator before entering the observatory. The observatory consists of two floors. The first floor has floor-to-ceiling glass windows on all of the walls as well as a bar with seats overlooking the city. The second floor was open to the elements, and had black lights everywhere that lit up planetary shapes on the walkways and around the top. The view from the top was amazing; I was very glad we came at night as I could see Osaka’s expanse stretch out in all directions, with lights illuminating and intensifying every detail.

View from the Umeda Sky Building at night
View from the Umeda Sky Building at night

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After walking around the top, Thomas suggested that we grab a beer at the bar below which I readily agreed to. The bar had a surprisingly good selection of beers from around the world, and after buying a stout from Sri Lanka, I settled down next to one of the glass walls and relaxed as I enjoyed the view. It was a great end to the day and the beer wasn’t too bad either.

The next day we decided to see a couple temples and shrines in Osaka. After eating breakfast and drinking some instant coffee at the hotel, we headed out to see the nearby Shitennoji Temple, one of the oldest Buddhist temples in Japan. On the way there we walked by another temple so we decided to check it out. It was pretty crowded with people praying and burning incense, as well as camera crews and security for some kind of religious event. There was also a Buddha that was apparently made from the ashes of dead people, although it looked fairly unimpressive to me.

Entrance to the temple
Entrance to the temple
Temple near my hotel
Temple near my hotel

After making our way out of that temple we walked to Shitennoji temple. While it was still within the metropolitan of Osaka, as soon as we entered the temple complex it seemed to be a lot more quiet and serene than in the surrounding city streets. As you enter most Japanese temples, there are wells with large dipping spoons that you are supposed to use to wash your hands and face. We walked towards the temple but decided not to go in after we realized there was a 300 yen entrance fee (about three dollars), so we just strolled around the complex and took pictures from afar.

Entrance to Shitennoji Temple
Entrance to Shitennoji Temple
Place to wash your hands and face before entering the temple
Place to wash your hands and face before entering the temple

Later that day we headed towards Sumiyoshi Taisha, a Shinto shrine. One of the best sites at the shrine was the Sorihashi Bridge, which arched gracefully across a small canal. We wandered around the grounds of the shrine for a bit before heading to our next destination, the tower of the sun.

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Sorihashi Bridge at Sumiyoshi Taisha Shrine

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The tower of the sun is part of Expo Park which was built for the Expo of 1970, the first World’s fair in Japan. The sun tower is right at the entrance to the park and visible from the highway because it is so massive. I found it somewhat unsightly and ugly, although that was what I was expecting after seeing it in pictures. After checking it out, we walked through the rest of the park which was pretty, although mainly known as a place to see cherry blossoms during the winter season.

Tower of the Sun
Tower of the Sun

Having seen most all of the city in several days, we decided to go to Universal Studios Osaka for a day. Although I figured most of the rides and attractions would be in Japanese, I was still curious to see Harry Potter Land and Universal Studios itself (I have never been to Universal Studios in the U.S.).

We arrived early to the park, as we had heard that they opened it early and to get the most we could out of the day there. Unfortunately, several other thousand people had the same idea as us, so when they opened the gates early, we still had to enter behind masses of people. We decided to head for Harry Potter Land first, as it was the area we all really wanted to see.

Although it was labeled as ‘Hogsmeade’, it was really more of a mix between Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley because it had stores and shops from both areas. Although overrun by people, it was pretty cool, and I really enjoyed the butterbeer (I got the frozen kind which was kind of like a butterscotch slushie with butterscotch foam).

Diagon Alley/Hogsmeade
Diagon Alley/Hogsmeade

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Hogwarts
Hogwarts
Frozen Butterbeer
Frozen Butterbeer

The rest of the park was interesting; there was an area designed like Hollywood, an area like San Francisco, as well as a Jurassic Park area and a Jaws area. Many of the rides were only in Japanese so I had no idea what was going on, but it was fun nonetheless.

Leaving Osaka and Japan was bittersweet. I was sad to part from William and Thomas, my companions for the whole trip, as well as Natsu and Taka, who managed to meet us even on their busy schedules. I knew I would also miss Japanese food, and the incredible organization and efficiency of the Japanese society and culture. However, I was also excited to start the second semester and return to Thailand. While there were certainly aspects of Japan I preferred, I was excited to get back to Thailand’s relaxed vibe and enjoy more four-dollar massages.

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Abeno Harukas, the tallest building in Japan
Abeno Harukas, the tallest building in Japan
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