Osaka in a day… our introduction to Japan

On the 7th December 2017 we flew back into Manila in the Philippines to spend the night before flying out (for good this time) to Osaka in Japan. After mentioning in a previous post about not experiencing the bad traffic we had heard a lot about in Manila, we ended up being stuck in the taxi from the airport for 4 hours moving at a crawling pace on a journey that only took around 40 minutes the next day! I now see what everyone meant and would not like to have to drive around Manila on a regular basis. Niall had managed to find us a really cheap hostel called MNL Boutique and the place did a decent breakfast which was included in the price so our 24 hours in Manila went well. Our flight out to Japan was scheduled to leave at 3pm the next day, so we had our second day of traveling ahead of us with most of it being spent on planes or in airports – not every day is exciting you know!

Our flight ended up being delayed by an hour and so we didn’t arrive into Osaka until 9pm. By the time we had navigated the trains and then worked out how to get to the hostel (Peace House Abeno) it was after 11pm! The hostel was nice and had sliding doors and woven mats on the floor like you see in Japanese houses in movies (I love that that’s actually how it is in Japan!). The beds also had really warm, thick duvets which was ideal seeing as Japan was cold this time of year – although nowhere near the minus temperatures we were dealing with in Seoul! We had eaten enough in the airport and on the flight to not have to go looking for food so late at night and so got a good nights sleep ready for a busy day exploring the city in the morning.

Our first impressions of Japan? It’s going to be expensive! Our accommodation was costing us a lot and the Japanese currency (yen – ¥) is pretty strong so we were having to convert a lot of money over. Saying that, transport is very cheap and we were able to get the subway trains around Osaka for £1! A lot of signs don’t have English which makes things a little more difficult to navigate and it’s certainly not like a lot of the Asian counties we have visited so far that cater for western tourists a lot more. Saying that, everyone is very friendly and helpful and tries to help despite their limited English.

Small side note: Niall read that a lot of Japanese people don’t learn English because they don’t have a lot of the same sounds that we do in their vocabulary and so they find it very difficult to master. The Japanese are perfectionists and they find it embarrassing if they can’t speak the language well, meaning that many don’t bother to learn it at all. I find this a shame as we have heard so many people say to us that their English isn’t very good but if they’re able to have any kind of conversation with us in a language that’s not their own then that makes them pretty good at English in my eyes!

Osaka is one of the biggest cities in Japan and is primarily a massive business hub but that’s not saying it doesn’t have some good stuff to see and do. We only gave ourselves a day here (8th December 2017) before moving on to Kyoto but we wanted to make sure we got the most out of our time here as possible.

Our first stop of the day was Shitennoji Temple. It was really peaceful here, maybe because it was early in the day or maybe because the buildings were all really grand and in typical Japanese style. We didn’t pay to go into the pagoda square as it was getting some renovation work doing to it but I don’t think you need to in order to enjoy this temple site as a lot of the area is free of charge to go to.

Our second stop, and probably our favourite of the day was to Osaka-jō (Osaka Castle).The first impression of this beautiful site is of the giant moat that surrounds the complex guarded by a number of towers. The water is so still and calm and we had great weather that day so even this view was simply stunning.

We then walked across the bridge of the moat and through the gates into the castle grounds. Everything about the place is grand and it’s enormous so you can spend hours walking around the different sections of the castle and it’s gardens, relaxing looking over the city or at the castle or eating some food in some of the stalls they have dotted around the grounds.

The castle itself is a tall, tiered white building raised above the ground by stone steps. The roof is green with gold detail and there is a viewing platform in one of the top tiers that probably offers great views of the city. I had read that each floor of the castle had exhibitions and artefacts for you to see but we didn’t pay to go in here so I don’t know for sure what it is like inside. We stayed for quite a while enjoying the castle from different angles and the views you get of the city from the castle grounds was good enough for us to warrant saving the money.

After spending a couple of hours walking the grounds, we headed towards Osaka Station. We walked through a park that was lined with trees covered in red and orange leaves and walked through shopping arcades which had the odd shrine tucked in amongst the many shops and restaurants.

The station was all lit up for Christmas which I loved and it’s enormous! It has two buildings which are full of shopping centres, food courts and then the platforms. We had a really nice lunch here which involved us ordering on a vending machine and then taking our ticket to the counter to be given our food – a very common way of ordering food in Japan. I had tempura and noodle soup and Niall had a Japanese chicken curry. Due to the language barrier and me being a vegetarian I read in a blog about a dietary requirements card that translates into Japanese that you don’t eat meat or that you’re allergic to something etc. This card has actually been a godsend for me during our time in Japan and I have used it in restaurants (which leads to the waiters pointing out meals I can have) and supermarkets to check the ingredients in meals we have bought for tea to save money. Without it I would have found it very difficult to find and try lots of different foods during this trip.

Inside one of the station buildings is the Osaka Pokemon Centre. We are both big Pokemon fans, having grown up collecting the cards, watching the tv show and playing the game boy games and then spending many hours playing Pokemon Go when it came out a couple of years ago. We couldn’t not go here. Japan is still very much into Pokemon as this is where is was invented and the centre was packed! As well as selling many stuffed toys of the different Pokemon it also had areas set up for Pokemon card tournaments as well as people cueing to have Pokemon fights against players on their Nintendo’s.

In the adjacent building to where the Pokemon centre is, the North Tower, you can go see views down onto the streets of Osaka city for free. We headed there next but didn’t stay here for too long as it was a lot colder up here.

The sun sets around 5pm in winter in Japan and so we headed over to a place called Namba where we would be spending the evening as there is a district called Dotonbori, which is their downtown, lit up, district. Before it got dark we went to the Hōzen-ji which is a tiny shrine hidden away between the skyscrapers of the city. Here there is a stone covered Buddha which has become completely covered in moss after years of worshippers splashing water over the stone as part of their proper rituals. The shrine is very small but, even in the short time we were there, it was full of people coming in and out from the side streets to pray and pay their respects. It was especially nice coming here in the evening as the lamps were lit up and the shrine has a lot of small details to see that were emphasised by spot lights installed in the place such as the one lighting up the wall of small statues pictured below.

As the sun set we began to wander the streets of Dotonbori which was a mass of bright signs, people, restaurants and street vendors. This place was great and just how we had imagined Japan!

Dotonbori is next to the river and there are some bridges you can stand on which gives you great views of the mass of plasma screens that line the buildings to light up the night sky with adverts. We love big cities and we love the bright lights so it was great to walk the streets and try and spot the different signs or wacky things they had on the buildings.

For tea we had tako-yaki which is a very popular dish in Japan, particularly in Osaka. These are grilled octopus dumplings which are then covered in a sauce and drizzled with mayonnaise. We still weren’t very hungry from our lunch so we shared some that had been freshly made from a street stall that had a long queue to order – a sure sign that there is some good food there! We really liked these dumplings and it’s definitely something I would get again and I highly recommend them if you’re in Osaka (or if you see them being sold anywhere in Japan for that matter).

Osaka was a nice introduction to Japan as it gave us little tasters of what our next destinations would offer us. Kyoto with its many temples and Japanese culture and Tokyo with its busy streets and bright lights. Osaka had a bit of both but in a manageable chunk that we could enjoy in one day and it had us on a good footing for the rest of our time in Japan.

Next stop: Kyoto

Sending Love x

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