Osaka: Twisted steel and mechanical crabs co-exist here

The drive from Osaka’s Kansai airport is reminiscent of an apocalyptic movie set. Heavy industrial buildings, seemingly rusty and disused are not what is often associated with the cleanliness and mostly beautiful Japan. Major cities indeed have airports close to industrial areas but this was steel on steroids! The brutal mass of steel and pipes seem never ending,  steel and iron works, chemical plants, gas and petrol refining plants, paper plants, and so on….

Ube industries

Photo from Ube Industries website

Maybe I am idealistic but geez it’s awful! The airport itself airport is a feat of engineering, built on an artificial island it is certainly impressive and insanely efficient. So this twisted steel nightmare is not the best introduction to Osaka, but don’t be put off. I actually traveled by rail from Kyoto which was a far more genteel way to approach the city. It was on the way out I saw all this and it made me think about it being one of the worst introduction to a city that I have ever seen!

Having set aside two days to explore Osaka seemed reasonable, but to be honest, unless there is something you have your mind on seeing I would rather have spent extra time in Kyoto. I fell in love with Kyoto… you can read my previous posts on the city and see why. So why did it seem that Osaka is a city of confusion? To qualify this, I have had the opportunity to travel to 18 different cities in Japan and found Osaka did not seem to have a distinct uniqueness, please comment on this if you have a different opinion and let me know where to go on a return visit. Of course, my opinion is totally subjective only based on a brief visit.

The major tourist attraction is Osaka Castle which is indeed an impressive sight and added more insight into my fascination with the Shogun era. After that, it seemed to me that the city lacked a bit of soul, or was maybe confused as to its identity. Osaka is a large city with a great canal through the middle, historic alleys, sites, and massive loud neon signs all seeming to co exist here.

Inside Osaka is a wonderful guide by the same guys who wrote Inside Kyoto. Both guides are highly recommended by the way! their suggestions and itineraries are awesome without being too rushed, especially if you are time poor.

WHERE DID I STAY

Airbnb has been fantastic for the last two destinations of Tokyo and Kyoto. The only issue is the check in/out times. Check out was 10 am in Kyoto and most check-ins aren’t until 3 pm… which would have left me wandering around with a case ( I’m not keen on leaving in train stations) so a hotel seemed like a good choice. Close to the main train station which is in Kita Ward (section) is an area called Umeda, or Kita- Umeda. It’s really central, close to shops and transportation. I had never really stayed in a salaryman hotel before so this was going to be interesting. Hotel Hokke Club was fantastic, and a full buffet breakfast ( Japanese) was included. They have a public hot bath ( separate men’s and ladies) and a stand full of nice goodies such as bath crystals and face masks in the lobby which was a nice extra. This was my first experience in a public bath and it was fun!  My very first post was written to include this. It was inexpensive ( around $70 AUD) and very comfortable. Check in was not until 2 pm but at least I could leave my bags safely whilst I set out exploring.

hotelhokke club

DAY ONE

NAKAZAKICHO

Before arriving in a city, a google search for “hipster ” areas of the place I am to visit yields spots that are new, groovy and upcoming often with plenty of street art, musicians, alternative food and arty characters. Tokyo has Harajuku- which really is a tourist trap, fun and quirky but no longer totally original. Osaka’s curent hip spot is Nakazakicho. This was a short walk from the hotel and it didn’t disappoint. The area is a labyrinth of small back streets and alleys which deserve to be discovered in no particular order but rather wander, stop, look and soak in all the retro cafes, scenes, and stores.

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Retro and quirky cafes

The houses date back to the Showa Era of the 1920’s, surviving the air raids of WWII. Renovation started here only a few years ago, and to date, there are no big name bands anywhere near this area. Let’s hope this unique area stays like it is. Inside Osakas guide was an interesting read, although some places I would like to have visited didn’t seem to still be there.

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Street art abounded and was clever and calm, unlike some of the more aggressive tags we see adorning city walls. A feature of many places was an abundance of items dating from the 1950- 1960s which may well have been introduced to Japan during the years of occupation directly after WWII.

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I wonde what Che Guevara thinks of this place?

 DAY TWO

OSAKA CASTLE AND MINAMI AREA 

The walk approaching Osaka castle ( Osaka -jo) is just lovely and the surrounding park    (Osaka Castle Park)  is quiet and expansive. Osaka castle is an imposing and magnificent building which can be seen from many areas of the city.

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The Castle has an authentic looking exterior but is a modern concrete building inside. There is even a lift to make access easier to the several floors of museum detailing the history. Originally built in 1583 by Toyotomi Hideyoshi it has been burnt down three times and most recently re built starting in  1931 and completed in 1955. My fascination with the first Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu meant that a visit to Osaka Castle was a must for me. The Tokugawa shogunate started in 1600 and in 1615 Ieyasu laid siege to Osaka Castle and wiped out the Toyotomi clan,  whom he had seen as the last remaining threat to Tokugawa rule. Osaka Castle is an important historically significant site which bore witness to the period that began the unification of Japan.

Entrance to the castle is inexpensive, and if you have time there is also a boat cruise around the moat which looked like good value bought as a combo ticket, on this occasion the castle visit was all I did. The elevator takes you close to the top floor. You will need to walk up two flights only to soak in the full view from this eagles nest vantage point. Then each floor on the way down relives the history of the families and battles over the years. I soaked all of this up and came out feeling like another piece of my Shogun historical puzzle was in place.

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From the castle, I walked to Minami area which was good exercise and an easy walk. It was a warm sunny day and the city is good for walking.  In this area the main sights are:

Dotomburi – a loud bustling entertainment street with huge restaurants and touts outside, all screaming for business. There was a mechanical crab on one huge restaurant and on another, an octopus beckoning patrons inward. As I am vege these held no appeal but were entetaining. Rather I got out Happy Cow and found a very cute vegan organic cafe. Its somewhat frustrating being in Japan and wanting to try plant based food, however most of the places I have come acoss seem to all do western style food such as hummus and bagels. Lunch was lovely but not the Japanese food I was craving for.

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The tentaclesbecon diners in!

Shinsaibashi- suji

Osaka has two main shopping, or urban areas: Kita/Umeda and Minami. The place to head in Minami is Shinsaibashi- suji Arcade- a fully covered arcade which runs parallel to Midosuji- a wide tree lined avenue and home to all the big names such as Chanel, Gucci and the like.

Hozenji Yokocho

Of most interest to me ( as I wasn’t shopping) was Hozenji Yokocho. After being spoilt with all the atmosphere that was Kyoto, Osaka had, to date seemed somewhat rough and ready, until I found this small area consisting of two cobbled streets housing more traditional shops and restaurants. The area is named after the Buddhist temple of Hozenji – ji. This is which is where you will find the moss covered Buddhist statue called Mizu- Fudo ( mizu means water) . The entire area was razed by fire durring WWII but this deity remained intact. The ritual is to splash water onto the statue, hence it is covered in moss.

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Mizu- Fudo

There is a tiny alley of small shop fronts recreating scenes reminiscent of the Edo era. I couldn’t find much information about this, so it was a nice little find, connecting this quaint area to the madness of Dotomburi.

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You have to search to find this alley, it’s near the statue of Mizu Fudo and connects to Dotomburi

 

This trip to Japan has now sadly come to an end. I traveled mostly solo which has advantages and disadvantages. In any country where communication may be somewhat difficult, our reliance on information often comes from what you can read up on and research whenever wifi is available. Or view it as an adventure into the unknown, often the best experiences may be those we do not anticipate.

My next travel is to Malaysia, and Kuala Lumpur, a city I love. Thanks for reading.

KYOTO: Shoguns and Geishas Part 1

I cannot believe I have not been to this wondrous place before. Step back in time to the richness that is the history of Japan. You can almost imagine yourself in the era of the Shoguns. My studies of Japanese history have always held me enthralled with Kyoto and finally, I am here! Kyoto is absolutely charming, quaint alleys, temples and shrines galore, geishas, ryokans, and more modern day offerings such as cute craft beer bars on the river….whats not to love.

Footnote: Two days was not enough but was a great taster. A stay in a Ryokan would be high on my list and more time wandering around Gion at night, especially to some of the more interesting places behind closed doors.

TWO DAYS IN KYOTO

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Prettiness in Gion

 

HOW I GOT HERE- I caught the Platt Kodomo shinkansen from Tokyo station. Obviously dreaming of ancient Japan I ended up in Osaka instead.. hmm rookie error and discovered that the distance is only 15 mins by shinkansen, or 40 mins on the local train, which is a lot cheaper. Telling myself it is all part of the adventure ( secretly irritated at myself) I eventually ended up where I was supposed to be. I discovered that Kyoto is more bus orientated than other cities so again I was glad I didn’t opt for the more expensive rail pass. The buses are easy and a day pass is around Y500

WHERE I STAYED-   I also chose Airbnb for this stay and picked a place near to the beating heart of Kyoto that is Gion. I chose this area as it was central and within safe night walking distance to most places I wanted to go to.

DAY ONE

An early start was in order as I realized there was far more to see here than two days allowed, so don’t try and do too much but rather savor the time exploring fewer places I have decided. I would highly recommend checking insidekyoto.com for their wonderful suggested itineraries, I literally used them as a guide map for everything I did in Kyoto, so helpful and informative plus easy to follow directions and tips.

Tenryu-ji Temple and Gardens – Arashiyama. Easy to get to by train, then a nice walk over the river to the temple and gardens. As it was a hot summer day I tried cucumbers on a stick – really, they are pickled in brine and lemon and were really refreshing. There is a recipe for this in another of my posts, so simple and easy- have a go!

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Pickled cucumbers for a summer snack

The temple itself is a large Zen Temple with some of the most famed gardens in Kyoto. I was here in June which is not as busy as other seasons, I can imagine the splendor of the gardens in both the cherry blossom season and in autumn, of course having to navigate the crowds at this time is a trade off. Personally, I found early June perfect as the crowds have lessened and the weather is warm.

 

 

 

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The walk through the gardens meandered up the hill where I found a temple restaurant called Shigetsu and decided to treat myself, knowing it was all vege cuisine.

 

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Shojin Ryori lunch at Tenryu-ji Temple

Shojin ryori cooking is the Zen Buddhist style that does not allow for strong flavors such as garlic and onions- interestingly similar to some cuisines in India- specifically Jain food. Each meal must have a harmony of the six basic flavors- bitter, sour, sweet, salty, light and hot, and on top of this the three qualities of light and flexible, clean and neat and conscientious and thorough. All meals eaten by the monks are proceeded and followed by verses expressing gratitude…. hmm also not that different from many faiths.
My favorite dish was the one in the top left, made of several components being I think a banana flower- the pink shoot one, a small green perfectly tied bundle with the most delicate matcha flavor mochi I have ever had and konnyaku- the dark brown item. This is the basis for shirataki noodles, a Japanese superfood… it is an acquired taste but the texture is very unique, bouncy and chewy.
I did a basic lesson in this style of cooking and had dreams of mastering this one day. When this food was put in front of me I was in awe of the simplicity and sheer beauty of it, the training, skill and patience involved is something people spend their entire lives perfecting… wow.

After lunch, walking through the gardens was a peaceful way to appreciate the attention to detail and serenity the gardens of this magnificent temple provide to Kyoto and the world.  Everywhere I looked simplicity and beauty shone through.

I again followed the directions of Insidekyoto to the north exit and walked into the incredible Arashiyama bamboo forest. The sheer height and colors combined with the odd dark wooden branches are a photographers dream. As I was here I was remembering my friend and photographer Mike Hollman’s work and marveled at how he managed to get such perfect shots. Head to his page to view these as they are unbelievable. When I saw his shots a year or so ago it made me want to visit and here I am!

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The warmth of the day and the walk provided the perfect excuse for a cool beverage, so off back into the city in search of a spot to sit and people watch. There is the main river running through the city and alongside this are dozens of small restaurants and bars mainly accessed off Pontocho Alley which is very quaint, touristy but still lovely. I found a small bar called Bar Jive up a steep flight of stairs that literally sat about ten people, all of whom were Australians, time to share some stories and cold beer, as we down under are so good at.

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Pontocho Alley

Gion is the centre of the cities nightlife on the opposite side of the river. Here it was important to follow the directions at Insidekyoto to where the geisha stroll about. It is a few streets of the main Dori (street) so could be easily missed. I was completely stunned by the winding cobbled paths, pretty willows ( I think that’s what they were… but just setting the scene) hanging over the shallow streams, cranes standing on one leg, fairy lights strung into the trees and yes, geishas walking the streets to their business. They sure can move quickly in those wooden shoes, I can’t believe I couldn’t snap a decent photo- but I am sure that was how it was meant to be. These pretty back streets are home to any number of very discreet, high-end restaurants and clubs, and I got a distinct impression that foreigners are not all that welcome. This is a case of invites only, on a highly sought after list, which needed forward planning. Never mind, next time I will plan this part better.

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Pretty streams in Gion

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Almost expecting a gondola to float by

A nightcap in a Spanish tapas bar seemed in order to finish off a full day. Japan is a gourmets delight for international cuisine, and not just at the high end as is the case in many countries due to the high cost of internationally trained chefs I am guessing. Whilst I had been told this by my friend and didi (Hindi word for sister) in Tokyo, in my mind this conjured up meals with a Japanese undertone. Well not so, and I take it all back…. the Spanish food I had was just fantastic.

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My spanish drinking pal

End of day one. Kyoto I love you and am so excited for tomorrow. I dream of samurai continues. The below picture marks the end of day one…. Sake and Bed.

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Thank you, and to all a good night.