Japan Part Three: Osaka

Tuesday 8 October – Friday 11 October 2019

We arrived in Osaka Station fresh off – not a bullet train – but a Thunderbird. This was less exciting than it sounded. It was an older train but still got us from Kyoto in a pretty quick time. Osaka Station was quite impressive. There was a big shopping mall next to it and we spent a while in the Canterbury sportswear store in there trying to dig out Japanese rugby shirts to wear to the England v France world cup game we had tickets for (any rugby fans reading this will know how that story ends. Stay tuned).

Sadly it seemed that these were in scarce supply in Japan and the shop here only had a couple of very large sizes left. While my Dad and brothers could make these work, they looked like a dress on me. However, we spotted another Canterbury on the map, within walking distance from our hotel, so there was still hope for me.

Before leaving the station vicinity, we decided to grab some food. We found a food court below the station which looked a lot nicer than the kind of food court I’d expect to see in a station. There were a lot of good looking options but which one to pick? Well by this point we were getting a bit tired of the rice and miso soup that we were served with every meal and were in desperate need of something else. So we went to Kua Aina – a Hawaiian burger place. While we were in there, I realised this was actually a chain I had frequented in London, making it even less of a cultural option than I had realised. But it was a damn good burger.

Now full of burgers and in possession of three Japanese rugby shirts, we hit the subway and headed over in the direction of Dōtonbori, a popular area known for its food, street lights and Times Square-esque billboards. It was also the home of our first Osaka hotel: Yamatoya Honten Ryokan. A ryokan is a typical form of Japanese accommodation, with communal baths and futon beds. Some are smaller guesthouses (so probably more traditional), while others are more like hotels. We were staying in the latter.

We were taken to our room and left a little confused when we opened the door. The first part looked much like any hotel room – with two twin beds. Then there was another room which was more as I had pictured a ryokan to be. There was a paper sliding door and matted floors which we had to take our shoes off to walk on. There was a low table with some local snacks on (some tasted funkier than others and my brother lost it and spent a while rolling around on the floor after tricking my other brother into sampling one of the funky ones) but there were no more beds.

We poked around our room a little and found four futon mattresses and sheets in one of the cupboards along the wall. Being keen for the full ryokan experience, I offered to take one of these and my Dad offered to take the other. My brothers were more than happy to take the actual beds.

Now we’d clarified where we would be spending the night, we left our room and ventured outside to find the other Canterbury store. We were all dubious the “Canterbury” store we’d found on the map was actually the sportswear store and as we turned onto the street it was supposedly on this was all but confirmed. There was barely a shop in sight. It looked more like an office area. But we still walked to the spot on the map just to be sure and, what do you know, there it was. Unfortunately, this one was completely sold out of the rugby tops I was looking for so, not wanting to go to store number three, I bought a rugby world cup sweatshirt instead and left it at that.

The boys kept on strolling but I decided to head back to the hotel. Like I’ve already said, I wanted to make the most of the ryokan experience and so I was headed to the onsen – a hot communal bath, traditionally used au naturel. I was a bit nervous about that bit (I had visions of having a “Chandler from Friends” moment and being the only one to turn up butt naked) but there were at least separate onsen for men and women and, as it turned out, there weren’t even any other women in mine.

The onsen was a shallow pool in a dark room and it was nice but I quickly just ended up being hot and bored. I had debated bringing a book with me but thought that might have been frowned on by my fellow onsen go-ers. If I’d known there wouldn’t be any, I would have brought it and probably stayed in there longer. As it was, I swooshed around in the water, sending it slopping out across the room in waves every time I moved, for about 10 minutes or so before calling it a day.

Eventually, my family made it back and we got ready for dinner. We were going to be eating in the hotel that night so we donned the green kimono that had been left in our room and which we had been told that we could/should wear. We were a little skeptical about whether we were going to turn up in the dining room and be the only people wearing them but we need not have worried since, not only did we not seen anyone else on the way down, but it turned out we’d booked a private dining room.

What followed was a veritable feast. We had a lovely hostess tend to us all night and bring us lots of little dishes of Japanese foods. Some were fantastic (like the little prawn balls which we made ourselves using a dough mixture cooked over a candle), some were… harder for our palettes to adjust to and made us descend into awkward hysterics. At one point, my brother made me laugh as I was trying to swallow something my body did not want to swallow and I made a very loud sound as if I had sprayed it across the room, while somehow not actually doing so. I hoped the chef couldn’t hear me through the paper walls.

As our hostess brought in one of our courses, and placed it down in front of us, we thought she said it was pufferfish. I doubted my own hearing a little since I know this is very poisonous but I also know that it is a delicacy in Japanese cuisine (when prepared by specially trained, licensed chefs) so we tucked in, hoping we had a good chef. Spoiler – we all lived to tell the tale.

Our meal was accompanied by a couple of (small) bottles of sake. My Dad tried to order one per person but the hostess was hesitant and we quickly corrected this mistake. We would not be having that kind of night. Our dinner turned out to be one of our best meals in Japan. It wasn’t just the food (lots of which was delicious, even if it wasn’t all for us) – our hostess was excellent and we had a lot of laughs, sitting in a room which we had all to ourselves.

We returned to our room to find that staff had been in to make up the beds. I had already put my futon together when I was crashing out earlier but they did a neater job. Obviously it wasn’t the comfiest night sleep I’ve ever had (I was on a futon) but I was not uncomfortable, surprisingly. It helped that since my brothers had taken the beds, we had two spare mattresses so my Dad and I could each double up.

The next morning, we had breakfast again in our own dining room. We walked down to breakfast in our green kimono but this time we walked passed an open door that led to the communal dining area. As we’d feared last night, we were indeed the only ones actually in the kimono. We made a dash passed.

Breakfast again was made up of some dishes that we really liked (like fish we cooked ourselves over a flame) and others we found trickier. I’m not sure if it was because, by this point in our trip, we’d had an increasing amount of “difficult” food (like the last Japanese breakfast we’d had on our last morning in Kyoto) or because breakfast is a harder meal to force feed yourself but now we were starting to struggle. That’s not to say that the food was bad at all, just that a dish that’s equivalent to a soggy doughnut that I had to drain before I ate (and even then it oozed cold water when I bit into it) was difficult to digest first thing in the morning.

Although we were staying in Osaka, we were only staying in the ryokan for one night and so needed to move to our next, non-ryokan hotel: Best Western Plus Hotel Fino. We put “Best Western” into Google Maps and found that it was only a short walk away – that was handy, we hadn’t actually looked at the distance between the two places when we were booking them which seems ridiculous but thankfully it had worked out… or so we thought.

We arrived at the hotel but they couldn’t find our booking. It turned out, there were multiple Best Westerns in Osaka and we were at the wrong one. Our actual one wasn’t too far away but it was in a different part of town and so did involve a ride on the subway. That was a bit of a shame since Dōtonbori seemed cool and our new area felt more like the City of London, i.e. a financial district. But it wasn’t difficult to get around the city from here.

After we checked in (our hotel was nice enough, less ryokan and more business hotel, with rooms that were again not as small as expected and had actual proper beds), we hopped back on the subway and made our way over to Osaka Castle.

The castle is set in a park and was beautiful… from the outside. We decided to venture into the museum that lives on the inside to find out a bit of history about the place. I have to admit, I didn’t love it. The castle has been destroyed and rebuilt multiple times over the centuries but while the outside may still be aesthetically pleasing the inside is not. The interior is modern and it felt like the castle had been gutted. I appreciate it made the museum more accessible but surely they could have done something to make it less… concrete and more traditional.

After we wandered around the museum, we wandered over to the nearby Bluebirds Rooftop Terrace for a drink in the sun. This actually turned out to be our favourite part of Osaka Castle Park – it was quiet, we had alcohol and we had great views of the castle. We stayed for a while chatting, while my Dad drifted off to sleep in his chair and people at other tables had tabletop BBQs. We didn’t order one of these but I wish we had because they looked tasty.

Our next stop after the castle was the famous Osaka Aquarium. We’d been in two minds as to whether to go. On the one hand, I love going to see wildlife. On the other, I don’t like seeing wildlife in a box. And here it wasn’t just any wildlife, here there was a whale shark. That seemed like a very big creature to have in an aquarium.  But we had a Google and read about the research the aquarium engaged in and thought maybe it’d be alright to go.

The aquarium is located in the harbour and, still needing a bit of a break from the local food, we stopped at a place nearby called Kuma Kafe for some pizza first. Then we moved onto Osaka Aquarium.

The aquarium was pretty big but essentially wrapped around one main tank. There were dolphins (who looked like they were having some fun but not in a big enough space for dolphins), penguins, otters, seals and many others. Then there was the main tank itself which had a variety of fish, including sharks, rays and not one but two whale sharks.

The whale sharks were swimming in loops round the tank but while the smaller one was mixing it up with different levels – swimming up and down as it went around – the larger was taking the same line round and round again. It was like watching an animal in a zoo pacing backwards and forwards, which I don’t think is a good sign.

I’d gone because I wanted to see a whale shark and I’d looked for justification to go but I left feeling uncomfortable. Whilst I appreciate having the opportunity to see wildlife (and think it necessary that people have this) and I know research/conservation efforts are necessary, a big animal like that just shouldn’t be in a small tank.

We left the aquarium in the direction of the waterfront and made a surprising find: a statue of the Little Mermaid – just like the one in Copenhagen. It seemed a strange find in Japan (but I was happy to find it as that is one of my favourite movies). It turns out there are multiple copies (13+ according to Wikipedia) of the statue scattered around the world. Now I’m two down.

We had a chilled night that night, venturing out for a stroll to find a light dinner which we found at a tapas place. The next day, we were venturing out of Osaka for a day trip to Hiroshima and Himeji Castle (which I’ll save that for another post) so we needed a relatively early night.

When we got back from our expedition, we spent the evening in Dōtonbori.  I’d found a recommendation for a katsu restaurant (which I’d hoped would involve curry) called Katsukura. It was a little tricky to find (it turned out to be on the basement level below what I think was a theatre) and we almost stopped off somewhere else that was advertising katsu curry but I was determined to find the right place.

It turned out that Katsukura did not involve curry but it did involve a rice and miso soup combo which made me feel a little guilty about insisting on dragging us there as this meant our meal didn’t turn out to be quite so different from the vast majority of meals we’d had in Japan so far – which was the point of going off a recommendation this time and not just finding somewhere on the street. Having said that, this place did turn out to be a good find. We ordered a variety of different types of pork katsu and, curry or no curry, it was good. Now my memory is terrible so I can’t remember exactly what types we ordered but I think it was things like: plain, garlic, pepper… maybe even one with some cheese. We spent the rest of the evening wandering around Dōtonbori, exploring the brightly lit, busy streets and having a drink by the canal.

The next morning was our last in Osaka and we headed for Shin-Osaka Station to catch a bullet train back to Tokyo. We were heading back just in time. Over the past few days, there had been some weather developments in Japan. We’d known that a typhoon (Typhoon Hagibis) was being tracked but it was meant to miss us. Unfortunately, it changed course and now would be hitting Japan – and indeed Tokyo – right during the England v France rugby game we had tickets for on Saturday night. The game had been cancelled.

We were gutted but we were lucky that our travel plans had been what they were. Public transport was scheduled to be cut down/stopped as the storm approached. That would mean services would be especially busy on the Friday but we’d already reserved seats on a bullet train for that day. We’d also been debating whether to spend Saturday night in Yokohama – where the game was being played – so that we could soak up the post-game atmosphere as much as possible but given how close Yokohama is to Tokyo and how simple the journey seemed to be, we figured it would be easiest just to stay in one place. Had we not, we would have found ourselves in the midst of a storm on Saturday without transport between our hotels in Tokyo and Yokohama and struggling to find anywhere else in the city to stay.

As it was, we made our way to Shin-Osaka Station with plenty of time so that we could get something to eat. The food court wasn’t quite as impressive as that at Osaka Station (unless we didn’t find all of it) but there were still plenty of options. We ended up at an Italian for a pasta brunch. This might have been yet another not-cultural option but one thing we did find throughout our trip was that the food was consistently good. Even if we walked into somewhere off the street that we’d not found a review for before hand. Even if it was a cuisine you might not expect to see so much of in Japan. The food was just great.

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