Thursday, January 6, 2011

One Day in Japan: Osaka

My first full day in Japan started early at 8 am when I had to leave the couchsurfer's house when she went to work. I knew Osaka Castle would be my first stop since they were one of the only things open on a Monday (on New Year's week no less) at 9:00 am. The subway was the first challenge. One thing that REALLY gets to me about Japan is the lack of information in English. Everyone told me, "Oh, just memorize the kanji (chinese character) for the station you need and you'll have no problem finding it." Yea, right, no problem, when you're looking at a map of three cities and all their stations, all written in Kanji and there's not even a "you are here" arrow. Finally, after staring at the map for 5 minutes hoping someone would see the stranded look on my face, I broke down and asked a guy that didn't look like he was in a total rush to tell me which station was Osakajokoen station and how much I needed to pay to buy the ticket. "Sugui masen" is the magic word in Japan. It works for pretty much anything you need and I used it every time I needed something. Finally I arrived at the castle around 9 am.

A view from the top of the castle...

Osaka castle was built by Toyotomi Hideyoshi in 1583 and much of the museum inside the castle is dedicated to him and the history of the period in which he lived. I won't go into the history, because frankly, Japanese history doesn't fascinate me and I don't remember the details. What I do remember, though, was that Toyotomi Hideyoshi was a formidable figure who rose from peasant status to unite Japan. Of course, it didn't last long, by the time he died and his son was supposed to take power, someone had already usurped power and sentenced his young son to death. If you're into Japanese history, the museum inside the castle will be really interesting to you. If you're not, then you'll probably just like some of the art and historical items in the museum, like the samurai armor above. Or, the "military fan" below. This is a fan that can also be used as a weapon, as it's made of metal and the edges are blunt blades.

Another interesting point about the castle are the walls surrounding the castle. They are constructed of a few enormous slabs of rock. One would wonder how they got such big rocks to the castle site in the 1500's, but one factor that partially explains it is that these huge rocks are quite thin in comparison to the surface area. This would make them a little lighter to transport, I suppose.

Next, it was lunchtime, and boy was I hungry. I was supposed to meet a friend at 1:00 at Shitenoji Temple, but after walking the whole way there from Osaka Castle (over an hour including some stops in some local markets) I was famished and decided I was going to eat right then. I peeked into a few restaurants nearby Shitenoji. Some looked quite popular and tourist friendly but, they were also full, so I started walking down backstreets looking for something more hidden. Finally I opened the door to what I assumed was a restaurant by the looks of it, but there were no pictures of food or any English to indicate to me what kind of restaurant it was. I was greeted by friendly a Japanese ajumma (quite different from the Korean breed of ajumma, she had purple hair!) who presumably asked me what I'd like to eat. Of course, my Japanese is quite limited and I couldn't read the menu on the wall and I asked "menu?" but, apparently, they don't get many folks like me in there and she just started listing off the menu items when she realized I couldn't read them myself. I still had no idea what she was saying, so she took me to the kitchen where another woman was cooking. Now I know that it was okonomoyaki. At the time, though, I had no idea. The woman cooking knew enough English to say "pork"... "shrimp" and pointed to what she was cooking. Ok, pork it is! I ordered and sat down and continued to watch her cook. The ajumma saw me taking pictures and kindly took a photo for me with my okonomoyaki :-). It's surprising how filling it can be. It's the size of a Korean p'ajeon so I assume it would be the same level of fullness in my stomach (aka, not much). But, okonomoyaki is much thicker with much more put inside. And, by Japanese standards, quite affordable at around 600 something yen.

Then it was time to meet my friend Asami. We met in the Saturday Korean class and we only speak Korean together since we're both trying to study. She was home for the holidays so she took me on her own tour of Osaka. First stop was Shitennoji temple. To enter many parts of temples in Japan you need to pay some money, in this case 300 yen. But, we found that we could still walk around the grounds without entering the shrines quite happily without paying money, so that's what we did.

Me and Asami

We then wandered over to Tennoji where we wondered around the shopping centers a bit. We picked up some taiyaki, which is where Korean 붕어빵 came from. In Korea, this fish shaped bread is nearly always filled with red bean (팥) but in Japan you can find them filled with any variety of flavors. I got milk chocolate, but Asami stuck with the red bean flavor despite the selection here. They're also considerably more money. I think it was about 80 yen for one, where as I can get 3-5 for 1,000 won here. ㅠㅠ.

I really enjoyed looking around the kimono store. Asami showed me which kinds are appropriate for weddings and which kinds you should wear on your 20th birthday, which sounds like some sort of coming of age party in Japan. All the designs are so beautiful!

From Tennoji, we took a quick walk through the Tennoji zoo, which was closed because it was Monday, and went over to Tsutenkaku, this tower structure in the Shisekai area (where I took the first photo from this post). Again, we didn't go up, I think we're both pretty cautious with our money and I got some good views overlooking Osaka from the top of Osaka Castle.

I liked the fact that you could buy beer from a vending machine in Japan. I think there was some sort of mechanism that it could scan and ID to check if the buyer was of age.

From there, we headed to the Namba area to see some famous sights and eat dinner. In Dotonbori, Asami told me to take a photo of the crab above. Apparently it's quite famous. She also told me to take a photo of the advertisements below which are also well known sights in Osaka. Later, I saw them again on a TV program about Osaka at my friend Nori's house, so I guess she was right. Anyway, they're pretty cool looking.

We found ourselves at an arcade, and took some sticker photos (is there a better word for that in English?) on the third floor of the arcade. The room was full of photo booths, each of which advertising some way of making you look better... making bigger eyes, making skin look better, etc, etc. Anyway, we had fun and there were so many choices for decorating the photos! The arcade was also fun to walk around. There are arcades everywhere in Japan, and they are full of crane machines. We passed a group of 5 men, probably in their 20's or so, hovered around a Hello Kitty pillow crane machine. Unbelivably, as we passed by, one of the guys got a huge Hello Kitty pillow. It seemed strange to me that 5 guys would be around a Hello Kitty machine, with no girlfriends in sight. I only wonder what they did with that pillow after they got it.

Finally, it was time to go back to the couchsurfer's house after an exhausting 12 hour day of walking around. I got a bit lost at Umeda station, but finally found my way halfway to the house before the couchsurfer I was staying with serendipitously appeared and guided me the rest of the way home (because I'm not sure what would have happened if she had not shown up....). My second night I slept much better than the first and I was ready to head to Kyoto early the next morning. But, I'll get to that next time!


  1. Your experience @ lunch is like the one I had on tuesday at Namdaemun market...but the Ajuma put the food on my mouth O_o it was sooo funny! n_n

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