Weekend getaway to Japan's second city

Trip Start Mar 18, 2003
Trip End Apr 08, 2007

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Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Since Mayu and I had to spend our first Christmas as a couple apart from each other - a definite no-no in a country where the holiday is one for couples - we had to make up for it as soon as possible. What better way to do so than to take a weekend break somewhere together? Neither of us had ever been to Osaka before, despite it being the second largest urban area in the country behind the Tokyo-Yokohama agglomeration. So, for a couple days' holiday, we decided to get out of the big city and into an even bigger one.

Mayu arranged a hotel and bullet train package mostly on her own, scoring us a pretty cheap night's stay at a business hotel near Yotsubashi. Arriving at Shin-Osaka yesterday morning, we made it our first priority to swing down to the Kita area around central Osaka Station. Really, apart from shopping, there wouldn't be much reason to stop off in the area, but the post-modernist architectural gem of the Umeda Sky Building was beckoning me personally for a visit. While the futuristic stylings of the building exterior itself were reason enough for me to visit, an added plus was that it offered the best view over the city from its rooftop observation deck. Looking down on the endless sea of concrete that is Osaka from above was probably the best introduction to the place we could get.

With only our light daypacks weighing us down luggage-wise, we didn't think we'd bother checking into our hotel just yet. Instead, after descending from the observatory, we caught the subway on down and over to Osaka castle, just east of the city center. Originally constructed by revered warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi in 1583, the fortress was destroyed in battle only some 30 years later. Rebuilt again after ten years, it then survived to the Meiji era, when supporters of the Tokugawa shogunate razed it to the ground themselves rather than have it be destroyed by anti-feudal government forces. As a result, the current structure is actually just a ferro-concrete reconstruction dating from 1931, with a shockingly inappropriate steel-and-glass elevator tacked onto the side. Ignoring that though, it is one of Japan's more attractive reconstructed castles from the outside, and certainly combined with the lovely apricot blossoms blooming in the surrounding park it made for a worthwhile visit.

We passed the rest of the afternoon in the older, grottier districts south of the center. The main reason for going down in what is otherwise a fairly neglected area by appearances was to visit Shitenno-ji. Apparently one of Japan's oldest Buddhist temple complexes, Shitenno-ji sprawls across a fairly wide space. Thanks to World War II bombing, pretty much nothing of vintage remains, however, so the atmosphere tends to be a little bland - even bleak, what with the predominantly grey rock grounds and little to no vegetation. Not too far off lies the crusty old entertainment district of Shin-Sekai, seemingly frozen in 1950s-era Japan; we wandered that way next, crossing the homeless-dominated Tenno-ji Park en route. Although somewhat reminiscent of the Osu district in Nagoya, the area reeked of abandonment and seediness, its centerpiece a hideous steel tower that really brought into question where everyone's sense of taste went in pre-boom-era Japan.

Ask any Japanese person about food and Osaka and you'll immediately hear them say tako-yaki (fried balls of dough with pieces of octopus) and okonomiyaki (the original recipe of the cabbage-based pancake that Hiroshima is also famous for). Having already sampled a little of the former earlier in the day, Mayu and I decided to make a meal of the latter for our first evening in town. Swinging through the happening nightlife district of Dotombori and its pulsating neon, we tracked down a particularly tasty okonomiyaki-ya just outside Nankai-Namba station. Stuffing ourselves full of delicious modanyaki (okonomiyaki with noodles mixed in), we then waddled back to our hotel to crash.

We woke up this morning and headed straight for one Osaka's most famous tourist spots: the kaiyukan (or aquarium) down in the port area of Minato ward. As most Japanese people know, Osaka's aquarium is celebrated for its resident whale shark, which swims around aimlessly in a gigantic tank in the middle of the multi-leveled structure. This alone draws the crowds, but the penguins greeting us at the entrance (living it up in the brisk weather) made for an entertaining prelude as well. Once inside, we were also treated to a couple manta rays, a ridiculously brainless sunfish (which they have to protect with nets in order to keep it from constantly ramming into the glass walls of the tank), a pack of eerie spider crabs, and a whole assortment of beautiful jellyfish. The arrangement of the complex was far more linear than Nagoya aquarium's more spacious one, but all in all it was well worth the somewhat steep 2000 entrance fee.

Having visited that, we'd largely exhausted the most obvious of Osaka's sights. Without the time, interest or energy to take in the much-hyped Universal Studios Japan, we returned to the Namba area to check out pop-culture center Amerika-Mura. All sorts of fashion victims haunt the place, but like Harajuku and Shibuya in Tokyo, it provides an interesting insight into modern Japan's youth culture. Stopping into Tower Records and a local guitar shop for the usual music fix, we then went down to Dotombori for a view of the bustling entertainment district by day. Somewhere along the way we noticed that there was an awful lot of action heading in the direction south of Namba station. Deciding to follow along and see what the fuss was about, we managed to stumble onto a big festival taking place at Imabiya Ebisu Shrine just down the way. It turns out that this was one of Osaka's biggest events of the winter, with packs of people lining up to get good luck talismans for the coming business year. The funniest thing about it was that it was listed in my guidebook all along, but I hadn't even bothered to check if anything was going on.

After we had finished exploring the festivities and dodging the crowds, we made our way back to the neon lights of Dotombori once more. With night having now fallen, it was time to think about getting back to Nagoya, so we snapped a few parting pictures and then looked for the nearest subway station. Our visit to Osaka this weekend was probably not the most thorough overview of the vast metropolis, but it served as a good starter course. I don't know that I'd rush to live there anytime soon - Nagoya's comfortable enough and all - but there's certainly plenty of life, bright lights and interesting places to keep anybody well entertained.
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