Goodbye Tokyo… hello Osaka!
It’s been 12 days since I arrived in Tokyo and it feels like I’ve barely scratched the surface of this amazing city. There’s still so much for me to do and relatively little time, but that’ll all have to wait, because today I’m heading to Japan’s second city- Osaka!
An early start followed by a loooong train journey took me to Narita airport’s domestic terminal. Peach Airlines, Japan’s version of Easyjet (but peach rather than orange, obviously) were tasked with getting me to Osaka in one piece. And they did it wonderfully. The incredibly quick check-in (scan my passport, tell them I didn’t have a bomb or knife or anything, print boarding card), the extremely quick boarding and one of the most pleasant flights I’ve been on in a while meant I got to Osaka perfectly unscathed. Plus the clear skies and beautifully scenic airport located on an island in Osaka bay made for an incredible view as we came in to land…
As you can see from the video, it was a beautiful sunny day, perfect for exploring the city. As with everything I’d done in Tokyo, months of meticulous planning and research meant I knew exactly what I wanted to see, so I hopped on the train for the center of Osaka. After checking in to my hotel (more on that later) I began to explore the surrounding area, beginning with Dotonbori street. Osaka’s main tourist area, it’s full of shops, restaurants and an awful lot of people. Quite honestly it was all a bit too much. Obviously I’d been to some very busy areas in Tokyo but it never felt quite so cramped and frustrating as Dotonbori did. Maybe it’s because these areas of Tokyo were more filled with locals than tourists, but there was something about Dotonbori that felt a little off. At least I found an arcade with an awesome Mario themed slot machine.
My next stop was Shinsekai, an area in Osaka that was developed as a tourist attraction 100 years ago. A zoo, an observation tower and a LOT of restaurants all make up this bright and vibrant area. The area is just visually incredible. Giant inflatable blow-fish, neon lights and dozens of ‘billiken’- oversized charm dolls (looking something like a cross between a troll and a buddha) that the area has adopted as it’s mascot.
Now you may think this had made it onto my to-do list because of all of the amazing things to do, see and eat, but you’d be wrong. Granted once I’d discovered it these things all added to the area, but I’d seen it all somewhere before… in a certain music video… featuring 5 Korean girls who have a penchant for jumping… enough clues? Well whether you’ve guessed it or not, having been personally responsible for around 14% of all views of their music videos on
YouTube, I knew that this was where the totally daebak K-Pop group Crayon Pop recorded their debut music video!
You can see it’s pretty unmistakable. I’m not above admitting that it took some Sherlock Holmes style detective work to get me to this point. Zooming in mid video on the statue on the right showed me that the it was called a billiken… google then told me they were common in Osaka… I then found the tower in the background was called Tsutenkaku which I found on Google Maps… I then found a crossroads about the right distance away… and finally street view showed me pretty much the exact view you see above! Elementary my dear Ellin.
Now you may not care about any of the above, but the important thing is I CARE! I got to stand where ChoA stood! One day I’ll make it to Seoul and I’ll witness the magic of the straight five engine dance in person, but until then this will have to do! Anyway, if you have 3 minutes and 48 seconds spare, here’s the aforementioned video in all it’s glory (the spot features from 1:35 onwards)…
Clearly after all this excitement it was time to sample some of the amazing food that Osaka is famous for. Okonomiyaki, kushiage, chanko nabe… there’s seriously too much amazing food for me to fit into my visit, let alone my belly. There was at least one thing, however, that I knew I absolutely had to have while in Osaka- Takoyaki. Octopus balls! That’s octopus in balls of batter in case that needs clarifying. While I knew I’d likely find somewhere that sold this, what I actually found was something else…
MAKE YOUR OWN TAKOYAKI! For just 790yen (about £5.50) I got to actually prepare and cook Takoyaki all by myself!… Although some help may have actually been useful as it was a lot harder than I expected! The batter, grill, fillings and topping were all delivered to my table along with some basic instructions. According to the crudely translated guide I had to pour the batter onto the grill filling all the compartments until they overflow, then before it cooks too much add all the fillings. That’s the simple bit. What comes next requires far more skill than they make out. Skill that I clearly don’t have because by the time I had something that remotely resembled what they’re supposed to look like, the restaurant was starting to get a little… smokey! Partly because I wanted to make sure they were cooked and partly because I was preoccupied with taking photos and filming! Fortunately the restaurant was well ventelated so the smoke cleared before anyone could complain!
Once my balls were fully baked it was time to decorate them with the requisite Takoyaki sauce, mayonnaise, nori and bonito flakes. While I won’t win any prizes for looks, they more than make up for this in taste. I don’t mind saying that they were amazing and my Takoyaki making skills were clearly underestimated! I happily wolfed them down and made a sharp exit before anyone could shout at me for choking them with fumes.
By now it was dark and the area was lit up like a Christmas tree. While the it was impressive in the daytime it was something else at night. The giant fugu lantern shone green and Tsutenkaku cast an imposing pink glow over the district. For my first day in Osaka, I was definitely spoiled. As it was a mild night I decided that once I’d finished admiring the neon lit district i’d forego the train and walk back to my hotel.
On several occasions on this trip I’ve chosen to walk instead of heading underground so I can see more of this amazing country. On every single occasion I’ve stumbled upon something awesome that I wouldn’t have otherwise found. This time was no exception. The street I walked down leading away from Tsutenkaku turned out to be Osaka’s entertainment shopping district, with dozens and dozens of music, movie, game and nerdy shops, including a huge ‘Animate’ branch (Japan’s largest manga/anime chain) and the newly opened Osaka branch of the Hello! Project shop (an idol label that are home to Morning Musume, C°ute, Angerme and many other groups that you probably don’t care about… but I do gosh darn it so I’ll be excited if I wanna be!)
My walk ended back at Dotonbori dori, which by now was glowing neon, with the famous Glico man beaming over the swarms of tourists that (over)fill the area. The early morning and long walk had taken it’s toll, however so it was time for me to head to bed. For the first 3 nights in Osaka I’d booked into the ‘Cabana Spa and Gym 24h Capsule Hotel’. For those who have never heard or seen the unique Japanese phenomenom of the capsule hotel, it’s very similar to a western hostel, with shared facilities and a bed in a dormitory. The difference is that rather than have a bunk bed, you have your own self contained box lined with a mattress and featuring a TV, it’s own air-con, alarm… everything you’d expect to find in a hotel room, just in a 7×4 box!
Looks and sounds cosy, right? Well it was, actually. It’s exactly enough space to not feel claustrophobic and the mattress was VERY comfy. It’s not just about the capsule, either. These kind of hotels have full spas in them and everything is included in the price (which incidentally was only about £20 for a night!). The only slightly odd thing about the place (at least for a westerner not accustomed to this) are the very strict rules for the spa (or onsen as they’re called). To use the facilities you need to be completely naked, no swim-suits, and all you’re allowed to take in with you is a small hand towel. While it may feel a bit odd at first, knowing that no one else there cares is enough for it to feel comfortable! On top of this ‘nekkid’ rule, there are also a few others including no tattoos and you need to shower completely before you enter any of the baths. Plus remember the towel? While you can use it to conserve your modesty and obviously dry off a little, you must at ALL cost avoid it going in the water. The traditional thing to do is to fold it up and place it on top of your head while your in the tub. This keeps it dry and also mops up any sweat from the heat of the spa.
So a comfy bed, a free spa and gym, what more could you want? Fortunately I have another 2 nights in this lovely place, and with the amount I have planned I’m going to need that spa at the end of the day!
What do I have planed for tomorrow? 3 letters… MCZ. Excited doesn’t even describe it.