I had always wanted to visit Japan, so to be able to go there for a second time was just an amazing thing. I had seen Tokyo in 2004, this time I went to Osaka and the surrounding places such as Kyoto, Nara, Kobe and going further west, Hiroshima. As Japan is a place I have a great deal of interest in, I had a lot to write about and photograph.
Just like Tokyo, getting from Osaka’s Kansei airport to the city centre is cheap and relatively quick, if somewhat baffling to figure out if you’ve just sleepily stepped off a long haul flight and are staring at the maze-like metro map. Fortunately the ticket machines have an "English" button and any nearby Japanese people are more than willing to help. The best thing is to figure out in advance of arriving which lines you need to use to get closest to your destination. Chances are you’ll take a train to Namba on the Nankai Namba line and then change for something else. In my case it was the red Midosuji line, to Hommachi. About a thousand train lines seem to converge in Namba and from several different companies too, so I asked a local. None of the metro system is expensive at all. Namba station is big and confusing at first however, but you can ask for help, and you will get it. Getting around any part of Osaka is not a problem. There are frequent trains, they are never late, (but sometimes full) and they are all inexpensive. The pink carriages are women only and there's a pink place on the platform indicating where to stand if you want this compartment. (And so you can avoid getting on the wrong place if you're a guy). The station P/A system plays a little jingle when a train is arriving, or when one is leaving, or when the doors close, or when they open, or sometimes it seems, just to announce there isn't a train there at present. In fact being on a platform is like being trapped in a Pac-Man machine, such is the bombardment of tunes, jingles and noises.
Walking around, the streets of Osaka don’t appear to be a great deal different to Tokyo. There are lots of people, few trees or greenery, lots of neon signs, it's all equally clean and tidy, and there are a similar number of 24 hour convenience stores and miles of confusing messy overheard electricity cables strung along the roads. All these things appear together at once in the Dotombori area, the centre of which I would describe as the bridge over the river, which is right next to one of Osaka’s most famous landmarks: The giant neon sign for Glico (a snack manufacturer) featuring a running athlete. Quite why three of what seem to be the cities most famous things are adverts I don’t know, but it tells you something of the nature of the place. The other two are a giant 2 meter animated plastic crab above a seafood restaurant, and a bizarre life sized animatronic clown-thing beating a small drum, outside another restaurant. The latter is hard to photograph as there are always scores of Japanese inexplicably clamouring to get their photo taken with it/him. Dotombori is buzzing with life all of the time, particularly between the hours of about 5pm and 10pm, and it was my favourite part of Osaka, especially after sundown. There’s a steady buzz of people and activity, numerous cheap places to get food, lots of neon and plenty of shops, many of which feature that cute-but-useless stuff that seems to be a particular specialty of Japan. It’s hard to know what to look at first; such is the bombardment of adverts, lights, screens and noises. The bridge area is also where the younger generation hang out, a little bit like Harajuku in Tokyo, although with a lot less of the strange fashions.
Two of Osaka’s signature foods can be found easily in Dotombori. One is takoyaki, a sort of dough ball with sliced octopus inside, covered with some sort of brown sauce and then grated dried fish. The other is okonomyaki, which is best described as two omelettes with noodles and vegetables sandwiched in between, and the same brown sauce and dried fish on the top. Both taste quite good, if a little unusual for my western tastes. You can see takoyaki being made all around Dotombori and other areas of Osaka, little stalls of people rapidly turning the little balls using a couple of cocktail sticks, getting them evenly cooked all over. There are several other things on offer on the streets of Dotombori too, though I never learned their official names. One standout one I got from a corner noodle outlet which like many similar places in Osaka works by you purchasing a meal ticket from a machine next to the serving are and then handing it over to the cooks/servers. This saves them the trouble of handling money or giving change and therefore makes the entire process quite efficient. This place had only two things on the menu: Noodles in soup with pork, or Noodles in soup with *extra* pork. It keeps things nice and simple, and not only was it very good, it was also very cheap. The machines are also a handy way of getting change, as just like the machines in the Metro system, they take large notes without argument.
Dotombori is also the place to get Fugu, the puffer fish. This is the one that can kill you if it’s not prepared correctly and apparently between 9 and 25 people die per year on average from this, depending on what statistics you read. Despite the giant inflated puffer fish signs temptingly hanging above many restaurants in the area, I avoided any chance of being such a statistic by avoiding eating the fish. You can certainly see live (or dead) ones in the nearby markets however. The inflated hanging fish signs are seemingly another of Osaka’s popular tourist attractions too, given by how many there are on key rings. They certainly add to the character of the area and if you’re looking for something to visit which has a resemblance to the street scenes in “Blade Runner”, then Osaka’s Dotombori is it. Except it’s clean. Spotlessly clean in fact, just like everywhere in Japan.
On the sidesteets around the bridge/neon area are numerous private clubs. I could not quite figure these out but they seem to be some sort of upper class hostess bars. Expensive looking cars draw up outside and rich looking Japanese guys leave or enter. The women on the doors give them a very long bow as they leave. I guess they’re either very important, very rich or both. I am guessing these places are all but closed to foreigners. They’re certainly impenetrable to understand what is going on. There are few tourists on these sidesteets at night, but plenty of locals. I also saw one indoor car park tucked away with 6 Lamborghini cars and a Ferrari inside. I’d love to know what more goes on in this area. It’s not quite seedy but certainly something interesting is going on and I’m sure it involves a lot of money.
Leading away from the bridge north and south is Shinsaibashi shopping street, a very long and expansive undercover shopping street. This contains amongst other things:-
1) A ton of cosmetics stores. I notice there is a much higher percentage per person of cosmetics stores in Japan compared to Europe. I was also able to obtain black cotton buds here, and an all-black toothbrush with black bristles. These stores also sell the popular “health” food called Calorie Mate, distinguished by its mustard coloured “generic” looking packaging. Calorie Mate is a bit like Scottish shortbread. A finger sized stick, but a little bit softer and less biscuity. It comes in a variety of flavours, some good (chocolate, fruit), some not so good, (vegetable, potato). I would recommend buying a little, however despite the name, it’s far from your "mate", as you can see from the back of the packet when you work out just how many calories it has within.
2) Scores of Pachinko parlours, filled with people sitting playing this vertical pinball type thing, except unlike pinball it’s all based on luck, not skill. The Pachinko parlours are amongst the brightest and loudest things in the area. Sometimes they’ll have a regular arcade above them, but the Japanese amusement arcade is not what it used to be, most now featuring only Initial-D and Midnight Run driving games, plus the ubiquitous Taiko Drum rhythm game, where you beat two drums with sticks in time to the moving images on the screen.
3) Fast food outlets. Don’t worry, if you really can’t find anything you like in Osaka’s many street outlets or restaurants, you can choose here from KFC, Wendy’s, McDonalds. Lotteria (burgers) and my personal favourite, Japan’s own “Mos Burger” chain, who are a step up from McDonalds in my opinion and have a far wider range of burgers including ones with rice-cake buns.
4) The Hello Kitty store. You’d be hard pressed to travel at all in Asia without coming across some product featuring Asia’s favourite cat, Hello Kitty. In the Shinsaibashi shopping street, there’s a whole shop devoted to the Sanrio moggy. Asia’s second favourite cat, Doraemon, is well represented in other shops in Osaka.
5) Karaoke booths. I have tried this once before, in Tokyo. I am poor at singing and didn’t need to prove this again to either myself or the Japanese.
6) Fashion stores. The Japanese 20something generation certainly love their fashion, and from what I could see, the guys probably take as long to get ready as the girls such is their devotion to coiffed and styled hair, clothes and general appearance. (and make-up in some cases) I had a look in some of these shops and the clothes are very nice and very stylish but have only two problems: since they are designed for the Japanese frame, they’re a bit on the small side and even if I could find them in my size, they’re also very expensive. There are a lot of well dressed, pretty girls in Osaka with blank "shopping princess" expressions on their faces.
7) Souvenir shops. Not entirely 100% key rings, but not far off either. Prices do not vary much from shop to shop, so I decided I might as well get a lot of my holiday souvenirs/gifts in just one shop. Puffer fish, the clown guy, the crab, numerous variations of takoyaki balls, hello kitty and the Glico runner are all featured here, and in one bizarre hybrid, a combination takoyaki ball – Hello Kitty head, with Kitty’s face on the side of the ball.
8) 100 Yen shops. Does what it says on the door. Everything’s 100 Yen (about 50p). Some rubbish, some great stuff to be had at bargain prices.
In short, Dotombori is a fascinating area. It also has the nearby Hozenjo Yokocho street, which with it’s narrow alleys, traditional style wooden fronted restaurants and shrine looks more like the traditional Japan you’d expect in a historical TV series. The rest of Osaka however, is thoroughly modern.
Namba is one of Osaka’s two “centres”. About 15 minutes north by metro from Namba is Umeda, the other centre. As Namba was nearby Dotombori, (and my hotel in Hommachi) I spent longer in this area. It also has a number of other things nearby, such as Nippombashi, the electronics area. It has to be said that Akihabara Electric Town in Tokyo is much better than Nippombashi however, but if all you want to do is gaze at electronics rather than root out a bargain, then the Bic Camera shop near Namba or the Yodobashi Camera Umeda shop are more than enough. Both are large multi-level department stores devoted almost entirely to all things electronic (not just cameras, despite the name). In fact the only non-electronic things are either toys or alcohol. Yodobashi Camera Umeda soon became my favourite shop. Nippombashi also holds many comic shops, toy shops and some huge shops selling thousands of miniature figurines from Japan-only tv shows and Manga. Quite who buys all this stuff is a mystery, but there’s certainly a market for it. A lot of the figurines are either giant robots or impossibly thin looking long legged girls with giant manga eyes, blue or green hair with some childlike pose and exposed panties. All very bizarre.
There are also shops selling replica guns, for the “Guns and Ammo” enthusiast market. I was a little surprised to see this in a country of know pacifists. In fact, if you’ve got a niche interest then there’s probably a shop somewhere in Nippombashi just for you. Also on a Nippombashi side street I saw a “pimp shop”, with two guys working away pimping a Toyota Estima (A family-sized "van"). I’ve seen many such customized vehicles cruising around Osaka and Tokyo, but never seen it being done before. Many cars in Japan have been “pimped” in a similar way. Wide wheels, big alloy rims, thin tyres, lowered suspension, custom interior trim, body kits and so on. At the time I was there, these guys were busy removing the entire wiring harness from what was only a vehicle of only a few months old. Outside on the steet was what I presumed as the owner's car, a large white Lexus LS400, lowered almost to the ground on fat fat chrome rims and impossibly thin tyres.
Near-ish to Namba are also the two department stores “Tokyu-Hands” and “Loft”, both of which specialize in cute-but-useless stuff. These are also in many other large cities in Japan. One thing I did learn when buying things in Japan however is that you practically have to impulse buy, which goes against my usual shopping nature. The thing is there, that unless you buy it when you see it, one of several things will happen: for example you won’t find the shop again. So many shops and streets look familiar, it can be trick to find that one shop again unless it is a giant department store. Don’t think you’ll find the same item in another shop either. Even the convenience stores don’t all carry the same range of snacks. Only certain products are found everywhere, many things are seasonal, limited editions or just plain hard to find. I had read before that the Japanese market craves novelty and new fresh items, so in many cases once stock is gone, it has to be replaced with something different. In this case even if you do find the shop again, they might not have it any more. One thing you can easily find is a snack called “Habanero” by a manufacturer called Toharto. Most convenience stores have these super-chilli snacks, easily identified by the black bag with the devil-chilli face and flames on the front. If you like spicy snacks, you have to try these. They are probably the hottest snack in Asia, and perfect with Suntory beer or “One-cup” sake.
Remember whilst you are shopping in Japan that whilst the shops might not open until 11am, they will almost certainly be open until 8 or 9pm, just like in all the other parts of Asia. I wish it were so in the UK.
Home of the aforementioned Yodobashi Camera store, Umeda is a more expensive appearing area north of Namba. There are expensive clubs here, Ferrari dealerships, office buildings and the Umeda Sky Garden office building, which I didn’t go up simply because I’d been up to the top of Osaka castle a few days before and therefore already seen the Osaka skyline. There is also an Autobacs store in Umeda, so I went in to check out what cool car accessories they had.
Thanks to a friend, I was able to organise a cheap and good quality hotel near to Hommachi station. This is a 5 minute metro ride north from Namba, or a 35 minute walk along Shinsaibashi shopping street. Hommachi is a slightly quieter area, and contains many hotels, one of which was mine, the Arietta Hotel & Osteria. I would certainly recommend this place. When I stayed it had only been open for a few months, so absolutely everything was new. The rooms are large by Japanese hotel room standards, the showers are good, free internet in the lobby, quality breakfast, and there’s a basket on the bed each time the room is made up containing slippers, hairdryer, razor and many other things you might need. Everything else you might need is available for free from the basket on the reception desk. All very perfect. The staff speak good or good enough English and are exceptionally polite and friendly. The room price is far from expensive, so in my experience of hotels, I give this one a 10 out of 10. I could not think of anything there which needed improvement except for the pillows being a bit on the small side, but I except this is a cultural norm.
There are several 24 hour convenience stores with 2 minutes walk of the hotel, and a bar nearby open until 11pm, where I was able to try the fabulous Suntory Extra Malts beer, and some 17 year old Suntory Whisky. I am no whisky expert but assured by my friend that it is very good. This is the brand Bill Murray advertises in "Lost in Translation". It is real stuff. Suntory is one of Japan’s large drinks companies and they make everything. The convenience stores also sell Sake. I had tried this before in Tokyo but had a much better experience of it this time. It’s quite tasty. A pity I forgot to bring a few bottles back with me, but my luggage was stuffed with all manner of other Japanese goodies.
As far as I could see, Osaka Castle was the only thing that ranked above the Dotombori advert group as the subject of a tourist camera. It’s very large and has high thick walls. Just like nearly all tourist attraction in Japan, it is inexpensive to get in, (about the cost of a burger meal) and you can walk all the way to the top floor (or get an elevator if you prefer). Whilst the castle is a modern-ish recreation of the original destroyed one, this does mean it’s in perfect condition and it just has to be seen and walked up. The top floor provides open air views of all of Osaka’s grey skyline and there are actually trees and greenery around, which by this time you will have forgotten what they are like as they don’t feature a lot in Osaka's concrete make-up.
Visit this if you’re not planning to see Kyoto. It is quite ok but Kyoto’s similar-ish Toji temple is older, larger and a lot more impressive. If you’ve never seen an Asian temple before however, then it’ll be very good. If you have, it’ll be only ok.
This rough and ready area starts at the south end of the long Nippombashi street. It’s like a grittier, more “realistic” version of Dotombori, and has the Osaka tower which you can go up. It feels like how you’d expect Dotombiri to be if the people there had about 50% of the income. There are several food markets around too, plus more Pachinko and more Fugu puffer fish restaurants complete with inflatable fish signs hanging high above the doorways.
The guidebook identified this are as “Korea Town”. A lot of Tsuruhashi seems to comprise of a very very large covered market, which starts early and seems to be ready to close up by about 2:30pm, so if you want to see this, visit early. Half of the covered market-maze is devoted to food, and the rawness and freshness of the food and are reminded me of some of the food markets I’d seen in other parts of Asia such as Hong Kong, Shanghai or Bangkok. Some of the food stalls sell all red-chilli tinged Koran food like kimchi, which many many others specialize in fish of every size and type, including the by-now ubiquitous puffer fish, alive or dead. As I had read, Osaka people really love their food and certainly I don’t remember such a concentration of raw and cooked food when in Tokyo. Tsurushashi in particular is buzzing with a “real life old-Asia” feel. Fascinating.
Universal Studios Japan theme park in Osaka is covered in a separate piece here. It’s another bonus of visiting Osaka.
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Copyright © M.F.Hughes 2007