17 Days in Japan – Part 3

Welcome back! And welcome to the last part of my journey in Japan. This is arguably the most interesting of previous parts, simply because of the experience we had during our time in Osaka.

OSAKA

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At the heart of the Kansai region is Osaka (大阪), Japan’s third largest city and the region’s economic powerhouse for many centuries. Famous elsewhere in the world for its traditional Osaka-style food, its castle and the people’s boisterousness, it was by a stroke of great luck that we managed to experience all these stereotypes and enjoyed ourselves way more than we expected.

When we arrived on the evening of the 29th, our buddy Valentino opened his laptop and started Facebook-ing away during our journey from Kansai International Airport to Shin-Osaka where we were staying. Out of the blue, a random old man approached us and started to converse with us in English, asking where we were from and telling us he had a son our age. He told us he was a Kyoto native and he knew Osaka inside out, then he offered to take us all drinking, while celebrating his son’s return from his University in Okinawa. Torn between curiosity and suspicion, we hesitantly took his offer and carried our luggage along the crowded Dotombori area in Namba, Osaka, and we arrived at an African bar owned by our host’s African friend NuNu-san. We warmed up, drank African beer and laughed about many things. Our worry about this friendly stranger dissipated and we had fun, before even stepping foot in our hotel. The friendly old man was Mr Toshi Kanda, and to this day it is a story I will never forget: a story of the hearty, friendly Kansai people.

Us in front of the African pub with Mr Toshi Kanda and his son, Eiji on the right.
Us in front of the African pub with Mr Toshi Kanda and his son, Eiji on the right.

The next day we went to Osaka Aquarium, or Kaiyukan (海遊館), known as one of Japan’s most spectacular aquarium with over 470 species and near 30,000 animals housed in the humble building.

Kaiyukan exterior. A gloomy and rainy day didn’t stop us from enjoying sea life in Japan!
Kaiyukan exterior. A gloomy and rainy day didn’t stop us from enjoying sea life in Japan!

Size-wise it still can not beat Singapore’s very own S.E.A. Aquarium, boasting triple the number of animals and almost double the species than what can be found in Osaka. But, and it’s a very big but, we were pretty impressed by a couple things the Kaiyukan did right:

  1. While adults can enter for ¥2000 (~SGD 23), kids’ tickets are much cheaper, ¥400 (~SGD4.5) for age 4-6, and ¥900 (~SGD 10) for age 7-15. This encourages parents to bring their kids for an educational trip.
  2. All sorts of automated guide are provided, including standard English language audio guide and uber-cool Nintendo DS loaded with Kaiyukan’s very-own software. The latter is specifically for kids to further immerse themselves in the experience, with the interactive guide strapped around their necks. Really cool. Each of this will set you back a very reasonable ¥300-400 (~SGD 3-5).
  3. Kaiyukan does not make the animals perform ‘degrading’ tricks and shows for visitors. Its concept is to provide an environment closest to the animals’ natural habitats.

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After that, we visited the landmark of Osaka, the Osaka Castle (大阪城). This 400-year-old magnificent structure is a must-see for anyone visiting Osaka, as the whole interior has been renovated to become an informative museum about the castle’s history, as well as Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a prominent figure in Japan’s history.

Ōsakajō, which was once destroyed by Oda Nobunaga and rebuilt in the 17th century.
Ōsakajō, which was once destroyed by Oda Nobunaga and rebuilt in the 17th century.
Numerous interactive diorama, miniatures and replicas can be found inside the castle.
Numerous interactive diorama, miniatures and replicas can be found inside the castle.
You can also rent a costume and pose for a picture for about ¥500 (~SGD 6)
You can also rent a costume and pose for a picture for about ¥500 (~SGD 6)

And then New Year’s Eve came. It was 5° outside and we were strolling around crowded, famous Dotonbori area to find some good food after a long day of travelling. Dotonbori is a stretch of shops parallel to the Dotonbori Canal. Among tourists and locals alike, it is renowned for its shopping spots, entertainment centers, and above all, food. Every night it is lit by a flood of neon lights and mechanized signs, with the famous Glico Running Man and Kani Doraku signs.

We ventured into the endless stream of people and restaurants, and stopped by at this famous place called Creo-Ru specializing in local delicacy: Okonomiyaki and Takoyaki!

Creo-Ru‘s neon sign in the shape of a takoyaki ball.
Creo-Ru‘s neon sign in the shape of a takoyaki ball.
Okonomiyaki with leek, egg yolk and mayo on top <3
Okonomiyaki with leek, egg yolk and mayo on top <3
Tasty, tasty Takoyaki, authentic Osaka octopus balls!
Tasty, tasty Takoyaki, authentic Osaka octopus balls!
Look at how much Valentino and Stanford enjoyed their Okonomiyaki!
Look at how much Valentino and Stanford enjoyed their Okonomiyaki!
CREO-RU (くれおーる)
Address: Japan, 〒530-0003 DOTICA, 大阪府大阪市北区 堂島地下センター内1-9
Phone:+81 6-6442-6165
Hours: 11:00 am – 9:30 pm

And as it got later into the night, we walked around trying to figure out where to go for our New Year countdown. Apparently, we didn’t even need to travel anywhere far, since hundreds of people started crowding the Ebisubashi (Ebisu Bridge) in the Dotonbori Canal area. Apparently everyone there was doing a countdown, completely unplanned! Naturally, we joined them.

Men stripped and danced and cheered as we were nearing the new year.
Men stripped and danced and cheered as we were nearing the new year.
And then they started jumping. Into the freezing river…
And then they started jumping. Into the freezing river…
Many jumped. Many were nude. It was awesome.
Many jumped. Many were nude. It was awesome.

It was crazy. There was so much energy and genuine happiness from the people, radiating a sort of warmth even in the freezing weather. We joined the cheers and shouts, celebrated new year like a true Osakan, and afterwards crashed for about 4 hours, because we didn’t want to miss the first day of New Year, Japanese style. Basked in the first daylight of 2013, we headed to Sumiyoshi Taisha (住吉大社), a 18-century-old Shrine built before Buddhism was even found.

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It was as crowded as we expected, with long lines of people waiting for their turn to throw coins to the shrine and pray for a new year filled with good luck, others who were buying new year charms, and those who were getting their fortune read and tying Average or Bad Luck readings to turn their luck around. It was truly a sight to behold, a culture so strong and cherished it was reflected even in the smallest things they did.

Fortune readings tied in bamboo branches.
Fortune readings tied in bamboo branches.
Special heart-shaped Uma, where people would write their wishes and hopes.
Special heart-shaped Uma, where people would write their wishes and hopes.

Thus the story of how we ended and kickstarted a year with an awesome feeling we haven’t felt before. Osaka was pretty much a highlight of our whole trip, and it will always snag the top spot in my Places I Will Recommend list.

However, there is one last place we visited before ending our journey. During our run between Kyoto and Osaka, we managed to squeeze in a day-trip adventure to none other than Nara.

NARA

Todaiji (東大寺, “Great Eastern Temple”) is one of Japan’s most famous and historically significant temples and a landmark of Nara. The temple was constructed in 752 as the head temple of all provincial Buddhist temples of Japan.
Todaiji (東大寺, “Great Eastern Temple”) is one of Japan’s most famous and historically significant temples and a landmark of Nara. The temple was constructed in 752 as the head temple of all provincial Buddhist temples of Japan.

Japan’s first permanent capital established in the year 710, Nara (奈良) was previously known as Heijo. Today, Nara is a quiet little town that still houses many priceless historical assets such as Todaiji, as pictured above. Nevertheless, one of the big reasons we wanted to visit Nara was the unique fact that adorable deers run free in this town.

Sika (しか) deer sunbathing in Nara Park. Fun fact: Sika by itself means deer, but the official English documentation categorised Sika as a species of deer, Cervus nippon, officially calling it Sika Deer. Translated back to Japanese, it would literally mean ‘Deer Deer’.
Sika (しか) deer sunbathing in Nara Park. Fun fact: Sika by itself means deer, but the official English documentation categorised Sika as a species of deer, Cervus nippon, officially calling it Sika Deer. Translated back to Japanese, it would literally mean ‘Deer Deer’.
Stanford and Timothy feeding the tame deers.
Stanford and Timothy feeding the tame deers.
And me trying to feed the deers too, but I was visibly intimidated by the over-friendly deers who kept coming at me.
And me trying to feed the deers too, but I was visibly intimidated by the over-friendly deers who kept coming at me.
My favourite shot of the Sika deer in Nara Park.
My favourite shot of the Sika deer in Nara Park.

And that really ended this journal of our exciting 17-day-long adventure around Japan. The six of us were not prepared at all to face the kind of service, hospitality, technology, food and culture we did in amazing Japan, and we were overwhelmed with such glee every time something cool happened to us.

For me personally, I feel that I have learnt a lot from the Japanese, and there are certain cultural things that we can learn from, namely people’s ethics and service quality. Since then, I have returned to Japan a couple times, each time finding new things to discover and learn about. Above all, Japan is not just about sushi and onigiri. Japan is about the culture and the people.

If you have considered visiting Japan before, please do yourself a favour and go. You will not regret it, and it’s a promise. If you had never considered visiting Japan before, well, I hope this series of posts have changed your mind!

さようなら!

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