Osaka, like Takayama, was another one of those places I didn’t do any research on before I turned up. I had expected it to be a bit like Hiroshima, or a less interesting version of Tokyo, but boy was I wrong. One of the things I really like about Japan is that every city, every region, has an extremely distinct culture. Tokyo was modern. Kyoto was historic. Hiroshima was hopeful. And Osaka was… well, Osaka. Like the eccentric sibling in a family of squares, it stood out like a sore thumb.
Not that I knew that when we got off the train. We stepped out of the metro via a big department store, which was fancy, sparkling clean, and (like everything else in Japan) expensive. But as soon as we turned off the wide shopping streets and into the twists and turns of Shinsaibashi, where our hostel was, the character changed in an instant. Gone were the pristine shop fronts, replaced by colourful street food stores. Instead of billboards, there was street art. But most visibly, the suits had disappeared. Young people in colourful clothing whizzed past me on skateboards. I got the impression that Osaka is far more individualistic than anywhere else in Japan – the youths aren’t afraid to express themselves, and nor is the city.
Influencer #1, meet influencer #2. Their companions were both putting in a lot of effort to take stylish Instagram photos of them.
Having done my research a month late, I’ve just found out why this is. This area of town is nicknamed ‘Amerika-mura’ or ‘American village’, because of its thriving Western-influenced youth culture. Even some of the bars and restaurants are run by foreigners round there. At first glance, this isn’t immediately obvious, but looking back it does make a lot of sense. Unfortunately that leaves Shinsaibashi open to some of America’s more negative influences – obesity, capitalism, brashness, and possibly a lack of health care, terrible choices in Presidents… need I go on?
Regardless, Amerika-mura lived up to its reputation as a hub for quirky fashion and unusual happenings. Dragging my suitcase behind me, we reached a big, open shopping centre. Music boomed out of some speakers, and a crowd gathered to watch what was going on. “I recognise that beat”, my brain told me, willing me towards the crowd. I saw a man in matching shorts and shirt, accompanied by a DJ, singing in a tongue I couldn’t understand – I only knew that it wasn’t Japanese, English, or any other language I recognised.
Him and his crew also looked like a throwback from the 90s. What the…?
Suddenly, it dawned on me. The music was ‘It Wasn’t Me’ by Jamaican legend Shaggy. This man was singing in English, attempting Shaggy’s unique patois, but with a heavy Japanese accent. Honestly, it was bizarre. But the crowd were having a good time and that song is a complete bop, so why not enjoy it? I joined in, until I was dragged away to check into the hostel.
We had a while to rest before heading to Osaka’s entertainment district, in the evening. Only we decided to go the long way, so we could see the coach station we needed to get to the airport from. As the sun was going down, it really emphasised the unique architecture in Osaka’s Namba area – it’s very dynamic, and a bit space age-y.
This, I believe, is a music venue. Or is it an alien spaceship? You decide.
Next stop was Dotonbori, the riverside entertainment district Osaka is famous for. It first became known as a nightlife district when the first kabuki and bunraku theatres were built there, and while most of these were destroyed in World War 2, they were rebuilt anew. Only this time, other things sprang up too – restaurants, bars, karaoke venues, and a whole variety of gaudy shops. Nowadays, it’s known worldwide as a place to indulge one’s deepest, darkest pleasures.
It truly is a feast for the senses – along the busy streets, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the bright lights and strong smells of this place (hint: mostly it smells like BBQ).
Once you’re done munching on meat – no vegetarian options here – you can cross the bridge over the canal and indulge in a little shopping. But before you duck into a shop, take a bit of time to stand on the bridge and soak up the bustling atmosphere. Crane your neck a little and you’ll see bright adverts… it’s starting to look a lot like Times Square.
And this is the most famous of them all. It’s the Glico Running Man. He might look young, but he’s been here for about 80 years, in various different incarnations. Now, ‘Glico’ is the company behind Mikado. While it seems contradictory that a confectionery company is using this pinnacle of health and fitness to advertise its products, there is method in the madness – it was said one of its candies could give you the energy to run 300m, and so running man was born. Kind of like if Mars started using Usain Bolt as a figurehead.
Dotonbori is famous for more than shops and restaurants, though. Before I came to Japan, I became acquainted with the concept of ‘love hotels’. In the same way as those grimy American motels, a couple can rent a room for a few hours to get some alone time, and to fulfil whatever fantasies they may have in total privacy. In Japan, they’re popular because couples tend to live with their parents right up until the moment they’re married, but social conventions are changing faster than property prices – so while they may want to have sex, logistically speaking, it’s tricky.
Cue love hotels. I hadn’t even noticed any in Tokyo, because they’re so damn discreet. You can normally spot one if it has a slightly weird name, strange vibe, no obvious front desk, and most importantly, fake or tiny windows. But Osaka is a city that doesn’t censor itself at all, so here, they’re about as discreet as a Bollywood film.
Hotel “Rose Lips” eh? Not an innuendo at all…
You’d expect them to be really seedy and gross, but actually, they’re nothing like that on the inside. Sure, the main reception is hidden away, but according to the internet the rooms are spotlessly clean. They’ve got brand new, comfortable furniture, modern decor, good tellys, and lovely bathtubs with lots of toiletries to try. You can buy condoms from the vending machine in the lobby, but you could also just have a very nice, relaxing weekend. Hell, I’d stay there myself if I could afford it. Just buy some things from Lush and enjoy myself in the jacuzzi.
Across the river from Rose Lips was a Gyoza (dumpling) restaurant called Gyozaoh that did veggie options, so Vithiya and I gave it a shot. We sat at the bar – like most Japanese people do – and ordered our food. Naturally, it came out in record time. The chef, however, seemed to enjoy talking to us – he asked us where we were from, and what we thought of Osaka. That’s another thing about this city – I’d noticed the people are much chattier and more open than in other places in Japan. But when I said I was from England, he smiled and laughed a little. “The food there is so bland! No salt!” I nodded in vehement agreement, and poured more soy sauce on my dumplings so he wouldn’t think I was talking crap. “Enjoy Osaka!” he said as we left. I had a funny feeling we very much would.
Vithiya and I tried two types of dumplings – steamed and deep fried. Oddly, I thought steamed tasted better, as it seemed more ‘authentic’.
While our grub was digesting, we walked along the canal after nightfall, and met up with more folks on our tour. At night, Dotonbori really comes alive – its true neon colours really show, and people are milling about enjoying the atmosphere, the food, and of course the drinks.
This shop-cum-ferris wheel is the most standout landmark on the Dotonbori canal. I wanted to go on it and get a view of the thriving city at night, but nobody else really shared my enthusiasm without having a few drinks down them.
Since drinking in Japan was proving expensive, we thought we’d hit the jackpot when we stumbled across the 200 yen (£1.50) bar. Yes, that’s right folks – it’s like Poundland for drinks. Okay, admittedly we had to pay a cover charge of about £3 each, but it’s still a very cheap night out. Sadly, the locals also knew this, so it was full. We asked the staff if they could direct us a similarly cheap establishment.
The barman mysteriously went off to make a phonecall, and a couple of minutes later, a waiter led us out of the bar. We thought he was going to point out a place then dive back inside, but no – he walked with us for about five minutes to another branch of the 200 yen bar, chatting all the way. Only this branch was totally empty, save for a couple of patrons. Chuffed with our luck, we sat down and picked a cocktail each, out of about 250 menu options (I’m not kidding. The list of concoctions was endless).
I didn’t really have time to read the ingredients, so I went by colour. My thought process was essentially: “Oooh, bright pink, you don’t get that in Spoons”.
I only stayed for a couple, then I went home because I am a terrible drinker. But on my walk back to the hostel, I spotted 11 love hotels in this miniscule area alone. 11! Each one had some sort of theme – there was a water hotel, something that looked like naff Disney, and a couple of gothy ones. It confuses me how these places could possibly be seen as sexy, but hey, to each their own. For me, it was back to the hostel to get a good night’s sleep.
Morning came, and I woke up with a bit of a scratchy throat. “Uh oh”, I thought. I always get a cold on holiday – just read my Morocco or Pakistan blogs – but I hoped that the telltale sore throat was simply a result of the air conditioning being on. Sadly, it wasn’t going away after we’d left the hostel, so I figured I’d just have to go about sightseeing while drinking a lot of scalding hot tea.
We took the metro up to Osaka Castle, which is the main thing I wanted to see in the city. It’s an impressive complex, at least as big as Himeji. But unlike Himeji, it’s a reconstruction – a replica of a castle built in the 1620s, but made from concrete in the 1930s. Unusually, Osaka Castle wasn’t destroyed by earthquakes or World War 2 – it was destroyed in the 1660s as a result of a lightning strike. What bad luck!
It’s got an impressive 8 storeys, and each floor is a museum, telling the story of the castle’s history. Plus, there’s a lift that goes all the way to the top, so it’s handy for disabled access.
The main castle building (‘tenshu’ in Japanese) is a bit of a walk from the nearest metro station, but it’s through a park, and there’s a 7/11 and Starbucks you can stop into if you get peckish. I stopped for a vegetarian (I hope) sushi bento box, and we set off in the direction of the moat. The grounds are absolutely worth seeing in themselves, in fact – the greenery is totally juxtaposed with the glass skyscrapers that surround it.
If you have the time, I think it would be nice to take a boat trip round the moat. That way, you can enjoy its tranquil waters and fish, enjoying a moment of calm in the buzzing city.
Once we got to the castle, we stood around and took photos outside it. A man approached us and asked if we wanted to take a big group photo. Of course, we said yes, and smiled for the camera as he tried to act like a photographer. Then, he engaged us in conversation. Only the Australian fella among us seemed to understand what he was trying to say, but he seemed nice enough.
The operative word there being ‘seemed’. He turned to me and said something about my eyes. I’d bothered to put makeup on that day, so they were probably more noticeable than they otherwise would be, but still. The Australian guy has exactly the same colour eyes that I do, why didn’t he comment on his? The man asked for a photo with me. I agreed, because he’d just taken one of us all, and I felt a bit obliged. An arm appeared on my shoulder, making me uneasy. Then it was two – I was being pulled into a hug I didn’t want. Suddenly, I felt his face approaching mine, going in for a kiss. Argh! I struggled and broke free from him, hiding behind a male member of the group for safety. I felt angry, because someone had invaded my personal space and not asked for consent to do ANY of those things. I am not a prop to be manhandled for pictures, and I certainly shouldn’t feel the need to seek safety amongst my male peers. That’s just wrong.
I will, however, put a disclaimer in here and say that Japanese people in general are much more respectful than they are at home. Nobody stared at me, I only got a few catcalls (none would obviously be preferable, still), and only this one guy had touched me without my consent. So all in all, they’re a good bunch.
Hiding the humiliation of being treated like an object quite well, I think.
Eager to escape the situation, we hiked up the castle steps to poke around the museum. There are 8 storeys in the castle, most of which are filled with fascinating artefacts, paintings, and audiovisual displays. You learn about the history of the castle, which teaches you a lot about the wider Japanese context, since Osaka castle was strategically very important.
Golden decorations like this would once have conveyed a sense of terrifying power to any visitor.
I spent at least an hour climbing up the floors, reading the information boards and taking it all in. But towards the end, I got a bit eager to see what awaited on the top floor, so I headed for the observation deck. 50 metres above the ground, you can get panoramic views of Osaka in all its glory, stretching as far to the distant mountains (if you can see them through the hoardes of people).
Castle ticked off my sightseeing list, I hopped on the metro to go back into the city to do some shopping. My phone alerted me to the ever-growing list of gifts to buy for my curious English friends, and I had better start buying things before I ran out of time. Even more sadly, I’d not bought any of Japan’s famous flavoured KitKats yet. My colleague told me that Japan has over 200 kinds of KitKat, all in weird and wonderful flavours, such as strawberry cheesecake. We’d tried some in the office, and those ones in particular were quite delicious. Some flavours are location-specific – so for example, you can buy Hokkaido Melon and Mascarpone flavour to sample the northerly island of Hokkaido’s most famous produce. Thankfully, on my way to another shop, I managed to pick up two iconic flavours – matcha tea and raspberry.
The next thing I needed to get was a manga book for my friend, who’s really into anime. We headed to Nipponbashi, Osaka’s answer to Tokyo’s Akihabara (electronics and anime district). It was a lot quieter than I expected, but the air-conditioned anime stores were filled to the brim with young people and cosplay fanatics.
Even my beloved Coco Curry had anime books you could peruse over a tasty bowl of katsu.
I did think about getting my friend a doll that looked like her, but all the female ones were scantily clad, Japanese, or both.
I finally found what I was looking for in the third shop we visited – a manga comic, featuring cute animals (no sexual stuff), simple Japanese characters, and a very visual storyline. At least that’s one gift ticked off the list. But I could feel my cold worsening in the dry heat, so I trudged back to the hostel for a cuppa and a siesta.
The idea was to rest up for a few hours before going out again in the evening, but as is often the case when you’re travelling, that didn’t happen. After I’d made myself a piping hot green tea, I went down to the bar and found some pals from the tour, and we decided to go for a walk. Mug in hand, we wandered around Shinsaibashi, ogling at all the Japanese hipsters that went by.
Equally, some of them took a double take at me, a tourist in flip flops carrying a white mug about the neighbourhood. Close to the hostel, I’d noticed there was one of those snazzy robot car parks, like I’d seen in Thessaloniki. I watched it at work while I drank my green tea, and thought how much my Dad would like Osaka. It’s such a high-tech and modern place, and they’ve literally thought of a gadget for everything. Once the cars were tucked away and the free entertainment was over, I retired to my room for a few hours before going out for a final meal with Machi and my tour buddies.
Okonomiyaki was on the menu again tonight, because Hiroshima and Osaka Okonomiyaki are two very different things. Here in Osaka, it’s a lot more pancakey, there aren’t often noodles in it, and all of the ingredients are mixed together – not layered like they are in Hiroshima.
You can also griddle it yourself, which was a fun touch to an already entertaining evening.
I chatted to my new Bulgarian pal about the logistics of his job in air traffic control. Despite the fact I am terrified of flying, I never fail to be fascinated by how it works, and this was my chance to get a real insider’s scoop. My cold meant that my voice was largely out of action by this point, so I had to express my interest by nodding enthusiastically and gesturing wildly. I think my friend understood I was trying.
Our conversations quietened down as we saw Machi get up on her seat and raise a toast. She said she’d had a fantastic time, and we were the “best group she’d ever had”. “Ah, bet you say that to all the groups”, we said. But no – she said that with a real heartfelt feeling, which touched us all to our core. In turn, we couldn’t have had a better tour guide – she was a total heroine, and helped us all in our times of trouble, whether that was visits to the hospital or translating Japanese to make sure there was no meat in a veggie pizza.
But for Machi, her work is never done. On the way home from the meal, we stopped into a chemist to get some medicine for my cold, and she recommended some effective remedies. She even kindly offered to accompany me to the coach station at 5AM, which I refused about 3 or 4 times before relenting. She must be an angel sent from heaven.
After all, I did have an early plane to catch from Kansai’s floating airport. I was heading to the final stop on my Japan adventure – the stunning tropical island of Ishigaki. It’s not often frequented by Western tourists. Join me soon to find out why it should be on everybody’s Japan bucket list… though not everybody, because I don’t want to share this beautiful island with too many people. Just you, my dear readers.