Oh, Japan, how I’ve missed you.
Okay, I need to preface this trip to Osaka. Osaka and I attempted a relationship many years ago. It was mid April in 1988 or ’89 and I’d just flown into Osaka International Airport1 from Hong Kong2. I remember peering out the window of the airplane into the darkness and seeing rain, rain and more rain. And cement. It looked like a scene from the movie Blade Runner. Armed only with the official ‘Lonely Planet Japan’ guide book stuffed into my backpack and with no internet, YouTube videos, or celebrity chefs talking about the virtues of Osaka- I decided that this city wasn’t for me – I took the first train out of town.
I’ve often wondered about Osaka… Did Osaka deserve a second chance?
Could we make this work?
After a short flight from Taipei, we landed in Kansai International3. It was 4:30 in the afternoon– we tried to get our bearings. Holy Christmas, this is a big city. The JR Office, where we needed to activate our JR Rail Passes4 was very busy and took almost an hour standing in line to get to the clerk.
JR Passes in hand, we tried to figure out our trip from the airport to downtown Osaka– it was a quite a trial– and I speak Japanese– Osaka and I were not off to a good start.
Google Maps was not particularly helpful– I had a JR pass, so I wanted to take the train system, however, Google Maps will indiscriminatly send you the way ‘it’ thinks is most effective– I would have this issue throughout the trip in Japan5.
We took the 30 minute JR train into Osaka and then a subway, they were both very clean and efficient– and with a 10 minute walk we were at our hotel Things were looking up. We checked in, dropped off our bags and went exploring to get the lay of the land and, more importantly, to get dinner.
It was a warm evening in Osaka, not nearly as humid as Taipei– I put on my flip flops and a pair of shorts and we sauntered over the Dotonburi River bridge towards the Dotonburi District6. Wow, what a sight– huge neon signs– the famous ‘Glico Man’, a huge crab, pufferfish, and octopus to name a few– the hustle of hungry tourists, vendors in the streets and lines of eager customers out the doors of many restaurants. The smells of delicious food drifting in the streets were tantalizing, and the display cases beckoned us to come in and dine– nothing is quite like Japan– tempura, curry, yakitori, takoyaki, okonomiyaki, yaki-niku, yakisoba, kushi-katsu and the list goes on and on… We had some takoyaki topped with takoyaki sauce, mayonnaise, green nori, and bonito from a street vendor– it was excellent– we were careful to not burn our mouths! We found a great Izakaya7 with super friendly staff– the chicken karage, gyoza, pickled cucumber, daikon salad and beer was excellent. It was a great introduction to the food scene in Osaka. Osaka was starting to grow on me a little.
After a short night’s sleep on a thin futon8, we woke up early, had a quick shower and went to the friendly Lawson Station9 convenience store next to our hotel and purchased a few rice balls and canned cold coffee for breakfast. What a selection of coffee!
Our first stop of the day was Kuromon Ichiba Market10— we arrived as the vendors were getting set up and there were hardly any tourists at all which was a nice change. Kuromon Ichiba Market is worth the visit– a variety of excellent prepared foods are available to snack on as you stroll through the covered market– my heart almost stopped when I saw the sticker prices of some of the premium cuts of sashimi and beef– $20 for three pieces of tuna belly… I mean it was very tasty, but pricey!
We then hopped onto the subway heading for Shitenno-ji Temple11. We passed a oba12 shop called Hayauchi and peered in the window; the chef was making Soba by hand– we made note of this place for our trip back to the subway station– handmade soba is such a treat and really separates the good restaurants from the great ones.
Shitenno-ji Temple was terrific! Much of Osaka burned when it was bombed during World War II and most of its temples and shrines where destroyed, but I was told this temple was made of cement and survived. The are several temple buildings and a huge pagoda in the center of the complex. It was peaceful and lovely to visit under the warm sun. Japanese ‘architecture is a lot to take in– lots of big wood beams and long planks make up the structures and the buildings were perfectly spaced throughout the grounds. We took our time to walk around and explore the complex– it was spectacular. There is a small museum called ‘Shitenno-ji Temple Homotsuka’ tucked into the back side of the temple complex which I’m sure no one finds. Inside there are huge festival drums, Buddhist scrolls and some Buddhist statues that are from the Heian Period13, so basically hundreds of years old– I had goosebumps. If you are a Japanese history geek– it is worth finding this gem. Unfortunately, no photos were allowed…
Remembering that the soba restaurant opened at 11:30, we made our way from the temple, pushed past the Noren14 and slid open the door to find there were only two seats left, it was obviously very popular with the locals as it was exactly 11:30. We ordered hot soba with tempura– the tempura batter was light with just the right amount of crunch; the vegetables and prawns were perfectly cooked and the dipping sauce was perfectly seasoned. It was probably the best soba and tempura I have ever had anywhere. I don’t think I could find the restaurant again if I tried.
Sometimes things just work out.
Kei shopped for a new chef’s knife at Tower Knives and even had his name inscribed into the blade of the knife he chose, which was really neat. We walked all the way back to the hotel15— while nibbling on some Kushi-katsu– walking down the smallest back alleys possible finding cool shops and neighbourhood shrines not listed in any guide books.
Back to Dontonburi to find dinner, the obvious choice was to find some Osaka-style Okonomiyaki. Kei found a restaurant called Ajinoya which had a pretty serious line up, but we were prepared to wait and I am glad we did– the restaurant was in the Michelin Guide and worth the wait. The server cooked the okonomiyaki right in front of us, hearing is sizzle away made my mouth water– it was excellent. Kei and I hardly spoke while we were eating it was so good (me not speaking is hard to imagine right?). Excellent service and super friendly staff.
Up early again on day two in Osaka (no surprise since we slept on the floor again), we had breakfast at our favorite convenience store and off we went to Osaka Castle16– the subway was smooth and speedy, but it was long walk to the castle from the subway as there is a huge moat and the grounds are really expansive; the sun was out– it was a great day. Osaka Castle is beautiful– lots of great angles and an intricate roof line– it is very pretty and the grounds are lovely– right in the middle of the city. The displays inside the castle were interesting for my inner history geek with the usual suspects of ‘Nobunaga’ and ‘Tokugawa’ throughout. We walked up, no climbed up, to the top of the castle- 8 floors. Seriously? Half way up, there was an AED17 machine, which I thought was appropriate. Good thing I have great walking boots and a great pair of hiking socks. Getting up early meant were at the castle as it opened up so we missed the hordes of tourists and school trip students who were storming the castle just as we were leaving.
Osaka completely exceeded all expectations– I will return.
Well played Osaka, well played.
A few thoughts;
1. I can’t seem to find decent deodorant… We are backpacking and I took my backpack into the cabin of the plane, so I couldn’t bring any with me from Canada… Whatever I used this morning stung and smelled like menthol…
2. Warm toilet seats are the best.
- This was before the Kansai International Airport was built
- Even then I thought it was a good idea to visit other places if you are flying all the way to Asia
- Built in 1996 on an artificial island in Osaka Bay
- JR Passes are a travel option for foreign nationals– a pass which you can use to board any JR train and most Shinkansen trains- we bought a two week pass
- There are Japanese travel apps as well, and the employees at the JR stations are very helpful and in the medium to large cities their English seemed pretty good
- The famous entertainment district in ‘South’ Osaka– with lots of restaurants and great street food and many tourists and locals enjoying the nightlife. Founded in 1612, this area originally was a theatre and restaurant district– most of the theatres were destroyed during World War Two and has now become the ‘Gastronomic’ centre of Osaka
- Japanese style pub
- Tatami rooms where you sleep on the floor on futons are cool… However, if the mattress bottom isn’t very thick, and if you sleep on your side like I do, you wake up as your hip starts to bruise… It means you are up early to start your day (and it’s also not getting any easier getting up off the floor. Just saying.)
- Lawson Station is a common convenience store in Japan- excellent food, drinks and decently priced
- Originally established in 1902, it is known as ‘Osaka’s Kitchen’– local residents and restaurants both get their food supplies here from among the 150 stores– known for fresh seafood and fruit– you can sample many types of fresh and prepared food at the stalls in the market
- Considered the first Buddhist temple and oldest temple in Japan – it is said that the temple was originally built in 593 AD, however, it has been rebuilt over the centuries with the last ‘rebuild’ in 1963
- Buckwheat noodle
- 794 AD – 1185 AD
- Colourful fabric panels above doorways in shops and restaurants
- I would suggest a hotel near Dotonburi– it is close to restaurants and everything else with the efficient subway system
- Construction started in 1583- finished in 1597 by Toyotomi Hideyoshi- Captured by Tokugawa clan in 1615- much of it was destroyed in 1945- rebuilt and then restored again in 1997
- Used when someone has a heart attack