A mad dash past architecture, snow and fishes02 March, 2011 by Chad
This morning, we head to Osaka. To maximize whatever daylight we had, we woke up extra early in the morning to catch the JR Hikari bullet train that we had reserved seats for yesterday. Daylight breaks at around 5 to 6 AM depending on season so when you know you’re early when you wake up to no sunlight. The train departed Tokyo station at 6 AM. Which meant that we could be found leaving the hotel before 5. Keep in mind that we were an hour ahead in Japan and clocking two straight days with only 3 to 4 hours of sleep each.
In fact, were earlier trains which left Shin-Yokohama but it seem like a better idea to just take the train from Tokyo station which was just 10 minutes away. Still woke up extra early in anticipation of being encumbered by our luggage. It probably would had made sense to just forgo a hotel and camp for the few hours too.
Japanese streets are terribly not luggage friendly, being either asphalt or bricked. They have raised markers everywhere to cater to the blind, which is great but those in wheel chairs will suffer. To counter this, local travelers seem to mostly just use tiny cabin sized bags but Wilson and I were pulling along giant hard shells to maximize our future check-in.
It was still too early for the escalators up the overhead bridge to the JR Station so we had to carry them up the long flight of stairs. The only pair of shoes I brought over were boots that sported some raised heels, not the best equipment for walking. At some point of time, I sprained my ankle and would have to suffer from it for days. Top priority now seemed like getting more comfortable footwear. But the last thing we had was time to go shopping today.
We reached Osaka at 9 AM and at Shin-Osaka station, headed for the information center to purchase Osaka Unlimited Passes. Unfortunately, JR Lines barely scratched the outskirts of the city so our JR Passes would prove quite useless when traveling internally in Osaka. Instead we would have to take the local government owned subway for this two days. Thankfully there are pretty much special passes for everything in Japan that can help you save a few bucks.
For 2,700 yen ($40), the Osaka Unlimited Passes gave you unlimited rides on all public transport within Osaka and free entry into pretty much every touristy destination for two days.
The original plan was to spend our first day at Osaka near the city areas. It would have been the ideal day for a NMB48 show too. But you don’t just get tickets when you like, if at all. Turned out that Yan won an enpou (long distance priority) ticket for tomorrow’s show. NMB48 didn’t have a group ticketing option like AKB48 did so we had to buy our tickets separately. I lost all enpou ballots for the week, all normal ticket ballots and yes even cancel ballots. FML.
So NMB48 would have to wait till tomorrow. Today, we would fit almost everything touristy in Osaka in a single day. But first, we dropped off our luggage at our hotel.
Our hotel was located near Shinsaibashi and about a kilometer from Namba and the famous Dotonbori. Keep this in mind, more about it later. In a similar situation as to our stay at Hotel Wing International Kourakuen, there were also a bunch of other stations nearby that we could take, depending on where we wanted to head to.
We changed lines and got off one station further at Nagahoribashi, which was barely 50 meters closer to our hotel. But we were with luggage and lazy. On the way to the drop off our bags I spotted a 7-Eleven with Watarirouka Hashiritai and Valentine Kiss outside. Guess what day it was.
I went to explore hoping they might had some swag but it turns out that their promotional stuff were sold on the 7-Eleven web shop instead. Yes, if crossing the road to get cup ramen was too difficult for you, you could always order it online and have it delivered to you within the hour.
After dropping our stuff off at the hotel we headed to a further station in the North, Sakaisuji-honmachi, to take a direct train for Osaka castle. On our way we passed by a large bicycle shop which Wilson took a mental note of to visit. It also started snowing but then again not quite. It wasn’t cold enough so the flakes turned back to rain before they could hit the ground.
We stopped at Morinomiya station, near the South-eastern moat. It was a kilometer and a half to the main castle. The flaky rain had progressed into a shower of slush. Unprepared, we were the only ones without umbrellas.
A bunch of elderly folk were taking shelter at a building adjacent to the castle. They were dressed as badly as us tourists but were definitely Japanese, so I’ll presume they were homeless.
We took brief shelter at the adjacent souvenir shop. Even before visiting the main tower.
Here we found one of those medallion machines selling location specific coins. Wilson and I got Hello Kitty ones from Tokyo Tower last year. There weren’t any Hello Kitty themed ones here so I decided to pass.
Entry into the main castle tower which serves as both museum and vantage point usually costs 600 yen (or approximately $10) but was covered by our passes. Outside, a security guard stood firmly in place in the rain. He had a plastic shower cap type cover to protect his cap.
Photography was prohibited on the 3rd and 4th floors of the gallery, where actual artifacts and ancient paper correspondence between famous figures from the Sengoku period were kept.
When we were about half done, a horde of school children descended upon the place for a history tour.
Pretty much every scenic spot like mountains, castles or temples (and some arbitrary places too like every single train station) has stamped chops for people to collect. It must be great fun for the kids. I cursed in envy of their actual childhood. Yan went about stamping stuff into his passport over the next few days.
At this booth back on the 2nd floor, you could live your “gaijin impression of Japan” fantasies. For 300 yen, you could wear a silly Samurai hat and take a photo with some of the ornaments used in building the castle. The attendant there tried desperately to convince a Caucasian visitor to try it out.
Also, if the large shop outside weren’t nearly enough, there was a small souvenir shop at the top and another on the ground floor. It may seem a tad obsessive, but know that all the proceeds spend on stuff at these locations go toward the preservation of such historical sites and its staffing.
Not having an umbrella meant that a layer of now solid snow piled on us when walking outside, which in turn made it colder. We spotted a quaint curry and omurice place a street across the station and decided to try it out.
Yan went with the omurice (Japanese rice sealed in an omelet) and croquette meal while Wilson got katsu (pork cutlet) curry. I decided to splice the two and go with the omurice curry. A single meal cost about 800 yen or twelve Singapore dollars.
We were the only ones crazy enough to brave the weather outside and thus their only customers. After the disappointing dinner last night, today’s lunch was something that we needed. Between the comforting environment and the fact that this small establishment actually specialized in curry, it was a great experience.
Next we took the train further East toward Tsurumi-ryokuchi. One of the sites in Osaka I wanted to visit was the Sakuya Konohana Kan (or the Great Conservatory). The futuristic lotus shaped building is the largest nature conservatory around and access was free with our passes.
Stepping out of the station, you could now honestly call it snowing.
We passed by a large swimming pool and headed in the right direction after getting our bearing at a nearby map.
Unfortunately visibility was low what with the snow and all. I saw a building that looked like what we were looking for but the place was sealed up and the main gates were closed. Some junior high school girls from the nearby school came passing by and someone had the idea of following in their direction.
We ended up lost in some large park which was actually covered in snow. The paths here weren’t salted like the other roads so snow could actually pile up. Wilson identified the place as the site of the old Garden Expo, which should had set off some lights but we ended up wandering around the very place we were looking for, lost for about half an hour.
It was freezing now, not because of the coating of snow forming on top of us wherever we walked but because we were having too much fun as idiots tracking through the half a foot of snow. All that eventually melted into the inept shoes we were wearing as iced water.
We finally found our way out of the park and to a convenience store where we grabbed some much needed umbrellas. It was also there that we learned that the conservatory was closed on Mondays.
Japan is home to the 2nd and 3rd largest aquariums in the world. Up next was the larger of the two.
It was a little annoying when your company had to stop at every map on the road to confirm you were walking in the correct direction, even when something as large as this was clearly in sight.
Worst yet. In developed areas, there were maps round every corner. Still after the blunder at the conservatory, could you blame them?
It was Valentine’s Day so the place was decorated for the occasion. Spots like this were prime for couples, so apart from the few other tourists, we were clearly out of place.
But guess what, an after 4 PM special meant that we could get pair tickets for 300 yen cheaper! The aquarium was one of the few places not covered by our passes but it did give a 100 yen discount.
Inside, the dating couples couldn’t fathom a group of three visiting the aquarium on this day. More than once some of them went like “Eh. Sannin?” which is the equivalent of “Wut. Three peeps?”. Kinky. So much for Japanese being polite.
There were 8 floors inside, with the main tank taking up the entire center of the building. Osaka Aquarium was particularly famous for being one of the seven aquariums in the world (3 of which are in Japan) large enough to house the world’s largest fish, the whale shark. There used to be two on displayed but the other shark passed away some years back.
Interestingly, all the animals and fishes had names and their personalities penned down. I guess in a city where it is difficult for most to keep pets, people could come often to fill the void.
Osaka Aquarium makes for a particularly value for money visit since it’s also one of the 3 aquariums in the world that also features the heaviest fish in the world (which more will remember fondly for being fodder in Monster Hunter), the deep sea dwelling Sunfish.
It’s also one of the few places you’ll see a Manta Ray. The one here was 4 meters in size.
There was also an entire exhibit area dedicated to these tiny boring fish made popular in Pixar cartoons but the thousands of tiny fish swimming in continuous loops outside proved more entertaining. That and the giant spider crabs fighting. Some of them were missing limbs.
The aquarium starts from the 8th floor and spirals its way down to the end, where different jellyfish were on display.
It was getting pretty late. Which by Japanese standards meant 6 PM and the aquarium was about to close soon. Most of the couples had already left to
make babies go about their business.
On our way back to the station, we dropped by a Takoyaki shop that Yan was eyeing earlier.
Yan likes his Takoyaki.
Given that all the other shops on the street were closed by now, we didn’t keep our hopes up. But luckily, it was still open.
Apart from the more familiar kind, the stall also served “Soup Takoyaki”, which turned out to be literally Takoyaki in soup.
The last goal of the day was to visit the iconic Umeda Sky Building, which we knew was somewhere near Umeda Station back in the direction of our hotel. Yan and I knew how it looked but had a hard time making out the building in the poor visibility. It didn’t help that we couldn’t see past the other tall buildings in the area from ground level either, so we decided to board the nearby ferris wheel at the HEP Five building to attempt to find the tower from there. With our 2 day pass it was free!
Most of the 9 floors in HEP Five were dedicated exclusively to young female fashions, though the top floors housed sweets cafes. A prime teenage dating spot I presume. The ferris wheel could be boarded from the 7th floor.
I guess most should enjoy ferris wheels. But being stuck 100 meters from ground inside a suspended car, amidst the rain wasn’t exactly my idea of fun. Throw in a T-rex and the foruma would be complete.
Down below, the staff had swept up all the coins in the small pool into a heart shape. Some time ago I wrote about the phenomenon where Japanese people enjoy finding new places and ways to throw away their money.
We couldn’t find the familiar outline of the Umeda building but decided to wing it and head toward what we guess was our destination. It was a full kilometer away but we were right. The building was aligned perpendicular to the central area so the second block was completely obstructed from view.
The Umeda Sky Building ain’t the tallest building in Osaka by far as it is of similar height to Singapore’s Marina Bay Sands. But it’s claim to fame comes from how the escalators leading to the top are suspended in mid air between the two blocks. It also features an open air observatory on the roof, prime for night views of the city.
Normal entry cost 700 yen. Again free with the Osaka Unlimited Pass. Being Valentine’s Day, there was some promotions going on here where the female staff gave chocolates to all the men entering the observatory.
They also gave everyone something like a Omikuji, which are those scraps of paper with a random fortune written on them that you can get from temples. Wilson got bad luck (You’d think they just give everyone good fortunes). Yan had normal fortune. While I got away with a “Great Good Fortune!”
We headed upstairs to the open air observatory as the lower level were filled with couples on special pair seats they had erected for the occasion. A security guard had to be stationed permanently on the roof. He spent his time up there making this snowman.
Lighted buildings stretched as far as the horizon. But another thing that makes the evening skyline so much more beautiful over there is that most of the skyscrapers actually have ambient lights that stay on even in the evenings.
You kind of get something similar in Singapore in the HDB (public housing) areas where everyone is trying to sleep and the damned lights from the opposite building shine through your window the entire night. But in the city areas, it gets pitch dark (or at best scattered patches of light) at night.
After having our fill of city sights, we headed back to the station to find something for dinner. We ended up at a cramped shop serving another of Yan’s “must eat in Osaka” foods, Okonomiyaki.
The shop was near closing time, so we were being a great pain by coming in at this hour. After serving us, it was time for the elderly waitress to change and leave while the owner was left to clean up alone.
Dishes were affordable. But one of the hassles of eating with army reared breeds is that foods leave the table way faster than they should. I had only gotten to take a bite at one piece before some of the sides were cleared.
So it was yet another disappointing meal. Still hungry, it was time to head back to the hotel.
Reflecting upon the day’s happening’s. It amazed even us, how we had someone managed to scrape that many touristy destinations of Osaka in a single day.
The wonders you can achieve by waking up at 4 in the morning.
On our way back, we dropped off at Shinsaibashi Station, which would become the station we’d use the most often other than Honmachi. We turned a corner and came faced to faced with a saturation of large flagship outlets for all the designer brands.
It was only then that we’d come to the realization that we were staying at Osaka’s equivalent of Ginza. For just $60 Singapore dollars (USD$50) a room.
Back at the hotel, we finally checked into our rooms. Unfortunately, they were out of non-smoking rooms. Yan and Wilson’s rooms both turned out fine but mine was a little smoky before I messed around with the AC/heater. It was fine after the first night though.
Other than the fact that the lobby was located on the 2nd floor and that the lift stopped there every single time, Candeo Inn was a pretty sweet hotel. We were given rooms on the 5th floor, which were where the vending machines, washing machines and other amenities were located. Awesome.
That night, I took a double take when I noticed Kara appearing on TV in a high school drama speaking Japanese. They were big in Japan now, not AKBig but still doing way better than SNSD. It’s not surprising as their Japanese songs do sound better than the original Korean counterparts.