Feeling The Heat In Osaka

Trip Start Mar 11, 2011
Trip End Sep 09, 2011

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Where I stayed
Umeda Dormitory

Flag of Japan  , Kinki,
Saturday, August 6, 2011

Our journey to Osaka took the form of a long bus ride from Tokyo, and even though we couldn't sit together (as men are put at the front, women at the back) the actual bus wasn’t too bad. The seats were probably the best bus seats ever, which reclined almost to horizontal, and had handy head covers which you could pull down over your face while you slept. We aren’t sure whether this is to stop others from being offended by your 'bus sleeping face’ (which everyone has, and usually consists of head back, mouth gormlessly open, drool spilling out, etc.), or whether it was to block out the light. Given that the bus was plunged into darkness at about midnight, we can only assume they are there as a result of the ‘bus sleeping face’. A nice touch, we both thought. We arrived in Osaka at about 7.30am at the Umeda Sky Building. We knew our hostel was only a stone’s throw away, and yet we still couldn’t find it. After asking in numerous Family Mart shops, we finally found our way there; however it took us the best part of an hour to do so. The Japanese owner came to greet us, and showed us to our room, which is better described as a box. Nevertheless, we are in Japan, so the limited space is to be expected. What wasn’t expected, however, was the lack of air-conditioning, and only a single fan to keep us cool. Dreadful memories of our time on Koh Tao came flooding back as we were concerned that the 38C temperatures of Osaka would ruin our stay. It wasn’t too much of an issue, and although it was hot at night, at least the fan here actually worked enough to cool us down a little! We had a nap as we hadn’t slept a great deal on the bus, then at about 3pm we headed out to the supermarket, bought some instant noodles, and headed back to the hostel. We had been informed of a fireworks festival which was to start at 8pm that night, and the owners of the hostel invited us up onto the roof of the building to watch the display. Between eating noodles and watching the fireworks, we began chatting to an Australian/Scottish guy, Eric, who has been living at the hostel for three years, and he gave us advice on what do see and do in Osaka, as well as what transport to use. 8pm came, and we all headed up to the rooftop where we watched the most amazing firework display either of us has ever seen! The fireworks literally took over the entire skyline, and they even had ones that made specific shapes and pictures in the sky! Our personal favourites were the ones of Hello Kitty and a Pokeball from Pokemon! The display lasted over an hour, and afterwards we all went back inside and chatted for a while longer, before heading to bed.

After an early night we got up bright and early on Sunday morning (6am) to get ready for Universal Studios Japan! This was an activity that we had planned on doing before we even came away, so we were both very excited! We got the short subway train to Universal City, and quickly rushed through the crowds to get to the entrance gates. Unfortunately, there was still quite a large queue, and the weather that day was scorching, so the first thing we did when we entered the park was run to the Jurassic Park ride. John has been to the Universal Studios in Florida, and so knew exactly what to expect from this ride, however Helen didn’t have much of a clue, the only hint being that we’d be getting a bit wet from the log flume at the end. The ride was terrifying for Helen, and hilarious for John, and after the huge drop at the end, we were both successfully ‘cooled down’. Dripping wet, we made our way to the Spiderman ride, where we had an hour long wait in the queue. Luckily most of the waiting was inside, and the whole building was set-up just like the offices of The Daily Bugle, so it wasn’t too boring just standing around waiting. The ride itself is amazing, and is too difficult to describe over a blogpost, but considering Helen tends to only be impressed by rollercoaster rides, this one did the job too, and it isn’t a rollercoaster. After that we went on Space Fantasy (not very good), Hollywood Dream (surprisingly thrilling) and saw the Terminator 3D Show (which was spoken entirely in Japanese, apart from "hasta la vista, baby", which made us laugh a lot!). We also managed to catch the Hello Kitty Dance Show (much to Helens enjoyment). After realising the queues were getting up to two hours for each ride, we decided it would be a lot faster to just join the ‘single riders’ queues, and go on the rides individually. This turned out to be fine, as we were always on the same carriages, and got to ride after a maximum of 15 minutes waiting, instead of a dreaded two hours. After an incredibly hot, fun-filled and tiring day, we went back to Umeda and pretty much collapsed at 9pm!

On Monday we decided to explore the local area of Umeda. We found an awesome place called E Street which is a long covered street arcade packed to the brim with restaurants, bars, strip clubs and shops. The whole street had a really good ‘feel’ to it, and it was here we discovered that everything in Japan makes a noise – speakers playing shop theme tunes, Pachinko parlours, waitresses shouting with menus open on the street, trashy J-pop blasting from shops and bars, people listening to music on their mobile phones, the shrill sound of dozens of people ringing their bicycle bells as they weave through the crowds – coupled with the bright flashing lights and neon signs, it really is a place that engulfs the senses! We wandered around, browsing in the shops and trying to decipher some of the signs for things for about two hours. The heat began to get stifling, so we walked (on the shaded side of the street) back to the hostel. To save money, we decided to eat in again, and our trip to the supermarket resulted in us buying the Japanese equivalent of a microwaveable TV dinner [check out the photo for proof that this country does everything better than England!]

On Tuesday we took the train to Namba and walked to Doguya-Suji Arcade, where the whole street is lined with shops selling everything you could possibly want/need/think of to put in a restaurant! They have hundreds of incredibly realistic plastic foods to buy (which are usually displayed in the windows of cafes and restaurants here) which on more than one occasion we had to prod to confirm if it was plastic or not, thousands and thousands of bowls, cups, plates, chopsticks, sake sets, lights, ashtrays, pots, pans, signs, lanterns, banners, scrolls, cutlery, rice cookers, steamers, ovens, hobs… the list is endless. After walking around fascinated by the sheer quantity of things on offer, we walked to Dotonburi – a district littered with neon signs, restaurants, flashing lights, and gigantic plastic animals pinned to the side of the buildings. It’s a nice area, with the main street running alongside the Dotonbori canal, which is lined with lanterns. We noticed a huge ferris wheel which was teetering above one of the buildings along the river. After walking up to it, we couldn’t figure out at all how to actually get on it. We entered the building which was directly underneath it, hoping that on the 6th floor there may be a way to access it. No such luck. Instead we were stuck (literally lost sometimes) in a building which was a Japanese version Wilkinsons. They sold everything possible, and it was all packed into tight aisles with hundreds of signs and a vast array of options. It was a genuinely stressful experience to just be in there! After leaving we strolled along the canal, and stopped at a little stall where we tried the Osaka culinary speciality – takoyaki – fried octopus balls. John loved them (after he got over the fact it was a cute octopus he was eating), however Helen wasn’t keen, as they were in a slimy mayonnaise style sauce. After eating we sat watching the tour boats float along, and waited for dusk to fall when all of the neon lights began to glow. We then took the long walk back via Shinsaibashi-suji  (shopping arcade) and through the city to Umeda.

On Wednesday we went to the aquarium! Before we caught our train, we ate lunch at a station restaurant. The place was very nice, and not a single word of English was spoken/presented, so again our decisions were based entirely on pictures, plastic models, and a lot of nodding/shaking heads with the waitress! We were beginning to enjoy this process of not knowing what we were ordering until it arrived at the table! After lunch we got the train to the Osaka Aquarium, which is one of the largest aquariums in the world. First and foremost we made our way to the information counter to receive our free gift which we got as we presented a particular flyer. The free gift was a phone-charm of a capybara, which are slowly becoming Helens new favourite animal!  At first the aquarium didn’t seem all that great, however once we got into the main area, where the floor winds around a massive cylindrical tank in the centre, we realised how it is one of the biggest in the world! Even John was impressed. The huge tank contained lots of sharks, fish, rays and Kai-Kun – a beautiful whale shark. It took us over an hour to see the main areas of the building, and at the very end we went to the ‘touch encounter’ corner, where you could stroke a shark and a ray. It was very cute. We had a good day at the aquarium, but we both agree that we have been ‘animal-ed out’ now on this trip! The rest of the day was spent back at the hostel, chatting to a few of the other people staying there. As activities like Universal Studios and the Aquarium were expensive, we were trying to limit our spending and stick to the budget for the week!

On Thursday we went back to E Street and enjoyed a delicious lunch in a wonderfully decorated restaurant. The lunch was beef in a Japanese style sauce served on a hotplate, with rice, miso soup, salad and water. All of this for 590 Yen – less than 5! Who said Japan was expensive? Before arriving we were worried that we would struggle with how expensive things are here, as that was what everyone told us. However, in reality, things are a lot cheaper here than at home, and considerably cheaper than New Zealand and Australia! It was a pleasant surprise to find a decent meal for about 500 Yen, and all restaurants give free bottomless drinking water or iced tea. Plus, the food is delicious! After enjoying lunch, and attempting to figure out the touchscreen table service monitors at each table (which we didn’t poke too much as we didn’t want to order the whole bar without realising!), we visited the Pokemon Centre where John ran around like a child! It’s amazing how huge Pokemon still is here, and there were members of staff at the Pokemon Centre who are employed purely to play Pokemon against anyone who comes in with some cards! Helen dragged John away eventually, and we went back to the hostel to write blogs and try to cool off (honestly, Osaka really was that hot!)

On Friday, John left the hostel to use a vending machine located just up the road so that we had some change for the showers (100 Yen for 5 minutes water). He was gone a while, and just as Helen was about to go and look for him, he turned up claiming that the vending machine had stolen his money, that he could see it, but couldn’t quite position it to a point where he could pull it out. Believing that this was just because John isn’t very good at these sorts of fiddly tasks, Helen went with him to prove that it is possible to get the money! Half an hour passed and after several attempts with tweezers, fingers, and everything else possible, we both admitted defeat. Our 500 Yen was forever taken by the machine. We realised afterwards that we must have looked so desperate to be raking around in the change compartment of a vending machine on the side of the road! But we didn’t care – we need all the money we can get (especially after our incident in Tokyo)! After getting properly dressed, we made for Osaka Castle. To get there we had to walk through a park to the castle grounds, and then alongside the moat to the bridge leading into the castle walls. It is a really beautiful area and the castle is stunning. We decided to pay the entrance fee and go into the castle (we got some money off as we are tourists) however the inside was somewhat of a disappointment. Osaka Castle is a reconstruction of the original, and from the outside it is very impressive, however inside no attempts have been made to restore its former interior, and feels very unauthentic. There are quite a few floors, and each floor has different displays on the history of the castle, however they were all in Japanese so we couldn’t make sense of any of them! We looked around, and gathered what we could from the mini-museum style displays, then found ourselves on the very top floor. As we stepped out onto the viewing area at the top of the castle, we decided that the entrance fee was worth it, as the view was amazing. We stayed up there for a while, taking in the view, taking a few photos, and enjoying the breeze. We left the castle and wandered the grounds, which was very pleasant, before heading back to the hostel once more.

We had a very slow day on Saturday, only leaving the hostel to go for lunch with Eric, then to the supermarket – where we were shocked to find a punnet of grapes selling for 3500 Yen (almost 30!). One punnet! We bought some alcohol to have at the hostel – sake, Cocktail Partner, and 8% chu-hi (vodka and lemonade mix). Hmmm! What followed was a great night making some good friends and getting somewhat very drunk!

We were meant to go to Nara on Sunday, but the inevitable hangover made us change our plans! Instead we went to Den Den Town (which is Osaka’s version of Akihabara – the otaku [geeky] district). Although not as impressive as Akihabara, it does still retain some of the finer qualities such as shops practically bursting with miniature figurines of unknown games characters, thousands of cabinets housing all of the extremely rare collectable cards/AKB48 photographs, and obnoxious  J-pop. Once John had seen enough, we walked back to Dotonburi for dinner where we ate our first genuine bowl of ramen in a proper ramen shop! It was delicious (as is all food here, except soba!), and you get such huge quantities. It’s very accepted to slurp your noodles as you eat, which John loves, however Helen is slightly disgusted at the sound it makes. After we ate we ended up getting lost by wandering around all of the backstreets, which was a lot of fun. We found our way back to the main street and walked back to the hostel, on the way eating a very interesting baked bun-type-thing which was pumped full of chocolate mousse-type-thing using a special machine. It was, again, delicious!

The next day we got up early and finally went to Nara! [The photos for Nara are in the next post!] It was really nice to be away from all of the intense concrete surrounds of the big cities, and find ourselves in a big open space with trees, grass, ponds, and hundreds of tame deer! Our first stop was the five tiered pagoda which was very impressive and pretty. Helen bought some kibble for the deer however didn’t get a chance to share it out as one particular male with intimidating antlers was standing too close for comfort! We walked into a beautiful park area where we sat on a bench where we watched the deer grazing and people wandering whilst drinking a lovely cold drink from a nearby vending machine. We then walked to Todai-ji – the biggest wooden structure in the world. It is a really impressive temple, and once you get up close, it really is very big! Apparently it is only two thirds of its original size. A nice man offered to take a photo of us outside of Todai-ji, which we were grateful for, as the whole hold-the-camera-in-front-of-you-and-hope-it-turns-out-OK thing wasn’t working! Inside the temple is a huge Buddha, and in one of the wooden posts is a hole the size of the Buddha’s nostril. It is believed that if you can fit through this hole, you are guaranteed certain enlightenment. Neither of us tried, as it would have only been an utter embarrassment!  After Todai-ji, we wandered to a smaller, less tourist crowded temple/shrine, which was really beautiful. Again, we sat on a bench with the deer in the shade drinking our drinks from the vending machine (which was located right next to the temple – the vending machines really are everywhere in Japan). We wandered for a little while longer, and began to make our way back to the station. We walked down a lovely traditional street, which had a constant soundtrack playing quietly all the way along. After looking in a few gift shops, we caught the train back to Umeda. It was our last night in Osaka, so we both had a couple of drinks and chatted with Eric, Trevor (another guy who was living in Japan) and a couple of others who were staying at the hostel. Tomorrow we would be going to Kyoto!
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