Trip Start Nov 03, 2008
Trip End Nov 16, 2008

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Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Some first impressions of Japan, from Day 1 in Osaka...

Where the streets have no name

As is typical for Japanese cities, Osaka's streets do have names, but you'd be hard-pressed to find a street sign, let alone an address, anywhere. Navigation instead is done by landmarks: Find the drugstore, make a left, follow it until the department store, and turn right at the shrine and walk 100m. Kind of like that. Despite that, Osaka is surprisingly easy to navigate, using a combination of the landmark method and subway stations as reference points. It's an easy city to get a feel for, and great to explore on foot.

Watch out for those...

Bicycles. People walk on the left here, same as they drive. But cyclists seem to make up their own rules. They share the narrow sidewalks with pedestrians, going in both directions and weaving in and out of traffic. It's a bit disconcerting at first, but you learn quickly to step out of the way. Cycling seems to be the main way to get around Osaka, and you see lots of people cycling in business suits and skirts, with large baskets to hold their personal effects, and even some with umbrellas mounted on the cycle for shade.

Feeling illiterate

Yes, some signs are in English, notably subway stations and stores that think it sounds fancier or cooler to have an English name. Aside from that, English is rare, not that I was expecting otherwise. Not being able to read Japanese characters, I'm back to relying on pictograms and visual cues to figure out what's what and what's where. It's not difficult, but it is disconcerting, since I know I must be missing out on so much.

Castles and fish

This morning, I spent at the Osaka Castle. It's a reconstruction but a landmark nonetheless, and quite impressive. There are gardens all around, complete with shrines. The chrysanthemum festival was also going on at the time, so there were impressive flowers everywhere. The main tower of the castle is an 8-storey pagoda style structure, with an observatory deck at the top that offers the best views of all of Osaka. The museum was full of school groups, of course, but there was enough English in the explanations to make it worthwhile.

After lunch, I headed to the port area to see the Harbour and the Osaka Aquarium. With over 8 floors and all kinds of marine life from all over the world, it's pretty impressive. More school groups, of course. Lots of kids wearing uniforms. The whole area around the Aquarium was interesting to explore, too, with lots of shops, restaurants, and a whole harbourfront town. One of Osaka's famous landmarks, a giant ferris wheel, can also be found here. I passed on the chance to go on it, though; I think the views were better from the castle. But the waterfront area was really cool, and I just spent some time meandering.

Get your fash'on

I'm feeling quite underdressed for Osaka. Basically everyone of working age wears business suits, and all students wear uniforms. The in-betweeners and the young people wear elaborately-styled clothing and hairdos that seem to mix extreme creativity with a healthy dose of "you're wearing WHAT?". (Sera, FYI, they really do stand pigeon-toed, too.) Given all of that, it's rare to see someone in jeans and a t-shirt. I did, however, see several women wearing kimono.

Where are all those tourists?

My nice, centrally-located hostel that's walking distance from everything is virtually empty. It's rare to spot another non-Japanese tourist in the street, even at the main attractions. Since the weather is about as perfect as it gets - sunny, 20-something degrees - it's hard to fathom why people don't flock here in November. But hey, maybe this is a secret best kept to myself.

Food and drink

Osaka is known as a foodie's paradise. From what I can see, it's certainly true. No, most places don't have English menus, but it doesn't matter, because virtually all restaurants display all their dishes in the window, either using pictures or the real thing. It's pretty simple to just point to your order and smile. A lot of the food is sold in vending machines - either dispensed directly, or purchased and paid for (like bowls of noodles). Whoever you are and whatever you like, you'll find it in Osaka. Except for you, Mom. You'd have a hard time eating here.


The main shopping, food and drink areas all come alive after sunset for some of the craziest nightlife I've ever seen on a Wednesday night. Japanese cities follow the maxim of "if you can't build out, build up". Hence the phenomenon of taking the elevator up to the pub on the sixth floor. Unlike in most places, where you can wander around and peek in from the street to find somewhere fun to go, here, you pretty much have to have a destination in advance. Oh, and the fashion thing applies double in the evening; the entire youth culture of elaborate hair, makeup and clothing emerges after dark to party it up.

Other random observations

- Most places require you to remove your shoes when you enter, including this hostel. They do provide slippers. They also provide umbrellas, presumably for rainy and/or sunny days. Japanese hospitality is great.

- I've noticed quite a few people wearing surgical face masks out in public places, like on planes, trains and in restaurants and shopping malls. Nobody seems to give them a second glance, so it must be a normal thing around here. Germophobic, maybe?

- Despite everything else being mechanized and automated, Japan is still predominantly a cash society. Few places will accept plastic, and this is Osaka. I'm sure it'll be even more cash-only in the smaller towns. Luckily, street crime is virtually nonexistent, so people just have the habit of walking around with large amounts of cash.

- Most places have automatic sliding doors. This can make it difficult to determine whether the place is open or closed.

- Yes, it's true, there are shops everywhere selling Hello Kitty products.

Side note about the US election

Yes, I saw that Barack Obama won the election. Yes, everyone seems to be talking about it here; I don't even speak the language and even I can see that. And, in a random odd happening, if you happened to be watching Japanese TV, you might have seen me on the news, being asked about my opinion on the Obama victory. Yes, I did inform the reporter who stopped me in the street that I'm Canadian, not American, and that I didn't really have much to say about the whole thing. He said it didn't matter. I think they were just looking for English-speaking people to interview. Go figure.

Up next: More Osaka. This hostel has free unlimited internet, so I can't promise all my entries will be this long. But I'll write what I can, when I can, so stay tuned for the next installment.
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lennie-o on

Osaka Madness
Hi Sari!

Wow looks like you're having a great time there! I'm happy the weather is so nice and that you're finding your way around nicely. It was very rainy when Jon and I visited Osaka, but we were very impressed by the castle. :-) Keep up the great posts!

shmiris on

Omigod sounds amazing...You are an amazing writer, I always knew that but every trip you just get better and better.
Love it all!
Have a great time!!!!!!!!!

urbangreengirl on

Surgical Masks
There is a reason for this my dear. It's out of respect for society when you're sick so not to pass on any maladies!

perleval on

Osaka on my mind...
Great post Sari! I almost felt like I was back in Osaka myself. :)

I couldn't help to add the following comment on your observations:
1. When you take off your shoes indoors, it is considered more polite to make the toe point towards the outdoors.
2. I believe some Japanese wear masks when they have the flue to try to prevent spreading the germs to other people. They also ask you do that in Montreal in some hospitals. I see it as yet another form of Japanese politeness and caring for others. :)

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