Stop number 2 on our January 2016 Asia trip, and despite a less than ideal flight with budget airline, Peach, we arrived in Osaka with a spring in our step after an incredible few days in Seoul (read that blog here). As we peered out of the plane window at the red sky above the mountains in the distance, and a grey, mysterious sea, we were unmistakably in Japan.
It was a somewhat chaotic arrival, as we flew into Osaka Kansai airport, which we hadn’t realised, is pretty far out of the city. We queued for 40 minutes to collect our Japan Rail passes- little gems that would be our golden tickets for the rest of our 2 weeks in Japan! You have to pre-buy the JR passes from outside of the country, and then you can collect them at any big train station on arrival. They enable you to whizz around the country on any train, at any time, and reserve seats at the last minute along the way. They also come with a free Wi-Fi set-up, which means you get connection to Wi-Fi at stations, restaurants, bars and tourist attractions all around Japan.
Our chaotic and confused first impression of Osaka seemed in sharp contrast to calm and collected Seoul. We eventually found the train we needed to take us to the metro in the centre of the city, before finding our way to the stop closest to our own hostel. By this time it was dark, we were tired, and we were cold. Although not as cold in temperature as Seoul, we simply weren’t prepared for Osaka’s sharp and unforgiving wind tunnels created by the tall skyscrapers aligning either side of the streets. Most tourists to Japan start their travels in Tokyo, which I imagine may be somewhat more welcoming and visitor friendly than our greeting at Osaka station.
After far too long, we finally found our hostel, which was actually only a minute’s walk away from Doboturan-Mae metro, despite managing to wander around in the cold and dark for at least 20 minutes before we found it. An elderly Japanese man who spoke very little English greeted us at Park Inn hostel, Osaka, where we paid our 3800Y each for 2 nights, and were given the keys to our rooms. The hostel is entirely single futon rooms, with thin blankets and mattresses on the floor in the centre of what could, perhaps not unfairly, be described as little cellblocks. We were told there were no showers, only a public bath, which women could use between 9 and 10pm at night. A quick glance in the direction of the bath, and we decided we’d be fine to go a couple of days without showering! As it was so cold, we were unbelievably grateful that we had paid slightly extra for the rooms with warm air-con, and the kind hostel owner very quickly showed us how to turn the temperature up. The toilets were fine, but there was no common area or kitchen, which may begin to feel slightly secluded for lone travellers and longer stayers.
We pepped ourselved up on our first night and had to somewhat force each other to brave the cold again and head out to find somewhere to eat. We hopped the metro to nearby Dotonburi, the lively centre of Osaka, and couldn’t have been happier that we’d made the effort. Bright, rustic and just a little bit weird, Dotonburi gave us our first feel of the beautifully hectic meeting of modern Japan and local culture. Amongst the rows and row of restaurants and bars, we found a traditional Japanese restaurant, where I was treated to my first taste of okonmyaki. ‘Okonomi’ literally means ‘what you like’, and this delicious soul food consists of a pancake-like batter cooked with any variety of vegetables, meat and fish, and topped with okonmi sweet sauce and octopus flakes. Traditionally served on stove tabletops sizzling away in front of you, okonomyaki became a staple part of my Japan diet, and is without a doubt one of my new favourite foods. Our mild fears about Osaka seemed a distant memory as we fell asleep in our little rooms, full of glorious food, excited for our day exploring the city.
Osaka Prefectural Government Sakishima Building Observatory
We were up and out at 8.30am for our full day in Osaka, and headed straight to the sky observatory at the top of the government building. The observatory is 252m high and the highest in western Japan. On arrival at the building, we stepped into a glass elevator (Willy Wonka style) and shot up to the 40th floor. We paid our 800Y entrance fee and started the day enjoying a coffee looking out across Osaka. Osaka’s skyline does absolutely no justice to the fascinating nature of the city, but nevertheless it was nice to get our bearings with the help of a bright view of the river and buildings surrounding us.
Sumiyoshi Taisha shrine and Hankai tramline
Without a doubt the best decision we made in Osaka was to take the Hankai tramline out to Sumiyoshi Taisha shrine. Authentically charming, taking the tram is like stepping into 1920’s Japan, and riding straight through the centre of wonderfully traditional neighbourhoods alongside commuters on their way in or out of central Osaka. The journey is 210Y one way, which you pay in exact change when getting off the tram. You could buy an unlimited day pass for 600Y, and at a higher price than a return ticket we originally couldn’t figure out why you would ever need an unlimited day pass for the trip. However, a travel photographer’s heaven, if you have longer in Osaka you could without a doubt spend an entire day getting on and off the tram to explore the stunning surrounding streets and architecture.
We arrived at the shrine to just a handful of locals wandering silently beneath the imposing architecture. It was the calmest and most peaceful place I have ever visited. You could feel all tension leave your body, as the clean and cool air blew gently across our faces in the warm afternoon sun. We walked around in silence watching local worshippers, with no noise but the birds quietly tweeting away.
With only one full day in Osaka we chose not to go up Osaka castle, but instead enjoyed Katsu Curry in the café in the park, that we amusingly ordered from a vending machine. We were slowly beginning to realise Japan’s obsession with vending machines in everyday life! The curry was surprisingly delicious and we took photos of the castle from the outside, which really is a must see due to its traditional architecture and picturesque Japanese structure.
The world’s first ‘sushi-go-round’ restaurant
We went back to Dotonburi for our last dinner in Osaka, which is where we found the world’s first ‘sushi-go-round’ restaurant Genrokuzushi on Dotonbori ten. Don’t be put off by the massive queue down the middle of the street outside, as it moves surprisingly quickly! Affordable and delicious, Genrokuzushi was exceptionally worth it, both for the experience of eating at the place of conveyer belt sushi’s invention, and the tastiest selection of fresh sushi. Genrokuzushi is also the world’s first chain sushi restaurant, which now has restaurants all over Japan.
It was the perfect end to our first Japanese stop, and we left the restaurant and wandered over Osaka Bridge to take photos with the famous flashing billboards. Osaka grew on us quickly, and in it’s own retro and quirky way, we came to love the city as our own (alternative) introduction to Japan!