It was 6:20 am when my plane landed at Osaka’s Kansai International Airport (KIX).
At 13 degrees Celsius, Osaka was sunny, windy and welcoming.
Lady Spring has past her prime, but her sweetness and radiance lingered.
Sparrows were chirping and the sun was winking from above. Cool spring breeze caressed my face.
Sakuras were displaying their last splendour of pinks, whites and pastel yellows before Summer arrives.
Everything fell perfectly in place. I updated the checklist on my phone:
- Visit Osaka: Check
- Rent pocket WIFI router: Check.
- Change currency: Check.
I put on my cap, fasten my windbreaker and bought a one-way ticket for the downtown JR Line.
My train zipped past low-roofed residences, misty green hills and carpets of colourful landscapes.
It was a smooth and quiet ride. There were students on the train; their eyes were glued to their phones. Considerate and well-mannered, they spoke softly and made way for other commuters.
My stomach sang the latest J-pop throughout the journey. So did the one next to mine.
Tenjinbashi Shopping Street
After 45 minutes, I arrived at Temma Station and explore the famous Tenjinbashi shopping street. At 2.6km, it is the longest shopping street in Japan.
There were many shops, but most had not rolled up their shutters, except for Mcdonalds.
I was attracted by a brightly-lit restaurant. The staff was enthusiastically greeting Ohayogozaimasu! (Good Morning) to passers-by.
I loved their positive energy and happily bought a ¥300 Salmon Bento that came with rice and miso soup. A bit salty, but otherwise delicious and cheap.
With a skip in my walk, I navigated through cobbled streets and small alleys, crossing paths with polite cyclists and smiling elderly.
Interestingly, I saw a Malaysian flag hung at the back alleyway. I saw no Malaysian shop though.
It didn’t matter if I got lost. I was officially on vacation. I had time on my side, plus it was only 8:30 am.
I was amused to see elderly forming a long queue and chattering outside Pachinko parlours.
It was a similar scene where aunties and uncles queue up to buy toto back at home.
Japanese are crazy about Pachinko…like Indians are mad about crickets! Not the best analogy but you get my point.
There are two kinds of arcade games.
First is the Pachinko – a mechanical pinball arcade game. They can be found all over Japan.
Players can spend hours trying to slot pinballs into a special hole. If they are successful, they will be rewarded with more balls!
The other is the Pachislot – a fruit machine which needs 3 figures to win (tokens).
Unlike fruit machines, which are rigged, Pachislot requires an excellent control of speed and hand-eye-coordination to win.
To be fair, Osakans also enjoy playing chess. It is a popular game among old men.
By some curious chance, my happy feet came to a halt outside a traditional Japanese café with a woody interior.
Traditional Japanese Café
The aroma of freshly-ground coffee seeped through its glass door.
This place was warm and toasty. There were wall pegs for hanging hats and coats.
At the counter, a pair of senior Osakans was sipping their morning brew. One was chatting with the waitress and the other with silver sideburns was smoking his pipe and reading the papers.
Soft-spoken New Zealander
A young New Zealander sitting at the far left gestured me over. His cup was half filled with black coffee. He spoke very softly, in English.
“How did you manage to find this place?”
“By odd chance,” I whispered back. “I just happened to pass by.”
“Ah… I see. I’ve tried all the coffee joints around the area and this place serves the best coffee!”
Ritchie, as he introduced himself, asked if I was Malaysian, because I sounded like one.
Making Tea with Finesse
“Good guess. Singaporean by birth, Malaysian by marriage”, I said and turned to the waitress: “Sumimasan, Miruku Ti, Kudasai”.
“You don’t drink coffee?” he asked, rather surprised.
“Well…tea by preference, coffee by obligation.” He nodded laughing. Our conversation went on merrily for the next five minutes before he left for his morning exploration.
My milk tea was served in an exquisite tea set. It looked so beautiful that I couldn’t resist posting it, giggling like a school girl.
Not a streak of stain on the porcelain cup and certainly not pricey by Osaka’s standard at ¥400 (S$5). Interestingly, it came with a scoop of ice-cream. Oishi!!
No Tipping in Japan!
I learned from the hard way that it is Rude to tip in Japan. The owner, the bespectacled senior behind the counter, promptly refused, pushed away my hand and bowed.
It was a little embarrassing. I should’ve done my homework!
I activated Google Map in search for this cozy Japanese residence in Airbnb.
It’s called Tokie’s Residence (named after the lady owner). My stay cost about S$35/night, depending on the number of occupants that shared the room.
I would be spending 3 nights here.
My room, on the third floor, in the attic was kept spick and span – Japanese standard! The cleanliness of their shared bathroom was top-notched. Everything was neat and systematic.
Boy was I delighted! I would be sharing the room with a Filipino and a Singaporean (How big can the world be?)
Both were backpacking by their own travel itinerary and arrived that same day. We became instant friends.
Other tenants included a Japanese, a Taiwanese and a Korean.
With Backpacks on Our Back
Together , we ventured Osaka that same morning, visiting popular tourist spots, slurping spicy ramen and munching flavourful street food like Takoyaki, fruit ice-cream, teriyaki sticks.
(Courtesy of Joelle Kwek: www.instagram.com/junkiejoelle)
We went to the Osaka Castle, bought a pass and went up the castle’s tower museum.
The Osaka Castle is the prefecture’s most popular landmark and symbol. Constructed in the 17th century, it is a World Cultural Heritage.
It was also one of the locations shots for Hollywood’s “The Last Samurai” starring Tom Cruise.
Visiting Nara Park
On the second day, I had fun taking pics at Nara Park.
There were many students on excursion.
Here the deers roam freely. There are over 1000 of them. You can feed them with special deer crackers selling at ¥300.
According to Shinto lore, deers are the sacred messengers of the gods. Thus in ancient times, killing a deer in Nara was a crime punishable by death.
In honor of tradition, deers are today considered as protected national treasures. This is why you can see them roaming in Nara Park.
But do be careful when you walk. Deer poops the size of Van Houten chocolates are everywhere!
Another advice: The deers look sagacious and surprisingly tame, but they can be excited when they see food.
I got head-butted a few times!
Temples and Shrines
There are Buddhist temples inside Nara Park. The most famous is the Todai-ji temple. You can find a 16-meter Buddha statue (Daibutsu).
Eating Culture in Osaka
Heard of this Japanese proverb 京の着倒れ、大阪の食い倒れ or “Dress (in kimonos) till you drop in Kyoto, eat till you drop in Osaka”?
I’m never turned on by exotic food, unlike my brother who survived on Puffer Fish, Live Fish Sashimi (Live breathing fish with its body sliced and served) and horse meat in Tokyo.
Eating is not merely a material pleasure in Osaka, the ultimate food destinations in Japan.
Eating well and feasting happy contribute immensely to their characteristical zest for life!
Umeda Sky Building
The three of us also visited Umeda Sky Building, which has the highest escalator in the world.
It consists of two 40-story towers that connect at their two uppermost stories.
Here is a time-lapse shot of the scenes from above.
I bought fun collectibles and locally made products, which are otherwise expensive in Singapore.
Why Osaka? I tied my vacation with Shen Yun’s performance. Shen Yun, a world-class Chinese classical dance performance, is on its annual world tour.
Shen Yun on World Tour
It would perform in Osaka’s Amagasaki Cultural Center Amashin Archaic Hall before heading to Tokyo.
Tickets for both nights in Osaka were sold out very quickly.
I was VERY glad to have booked it in advance. So were the three other lucky fellow Singaporeans.
We took the front rows and thoroughly enjoyed the show.
The performance opened my eyes to a whole new world and I was left speechless, yet again.
Shen Yun exhibits China’s semi-divine culture via mesmerizing dance moves, enthralling visuals, beautiful costumes and originally composed pieces.
Its live orchestra is also the only one in the word to successfully merge both western and eastern classical instruments.
What an unforgettable evening!
Find out more about Shen Yun performing arts at www.shenyun.com
- Watch Shen Yun: Check!!!
Japan’s train lines are complicated, I recalled my sister saying. What she didn’t share was that folks in Osaka speak little English!
Lost but Lucky
The poor Osakans were visibly stressed, but polite, when I approached them for directions.
Some nodded. Some waved their hands. Some showed their most beautiful smiles before walking away.
I found myself lost on many occasions. Still for some reason, luck was with me.
Daichi to the Rescue
On my fourth day in Osaka, I met Daichi, an energetic 34-year-old owner of The Earth Café.
I had moved to Hotel-Taiyo, a budget hotel near Dōbutsuen-mae station.
Dōbutsuen-mae means “in front of the zoo”. There is really a zoo somewhere near!
I walked past Daichi, who was taking a puff outside his café one morning. Something made me backtrack and ask him for directions.
Btw, ‘Daichi’ as I knew later, means ‘Earth’ in Japanese.
An Unexpected Adventure
In the name of all wonder, Daichi spoke English, and pretty well! Certainly one of the rare ones here.
He volunteered to show me around (which is even rarer!).
It was his off day and he would be watching a boxing match in the evening. Cool!
Born in Osaka, Daichi knew the area like the back of his palm.
“Follow me,” he said. I did what I was told and kept up my pace.
Nimble and fast, he walked with lightning speed. He told me he practices Judo since young.
I noticed he walked with excellent posture and stealth. I imagined him as a ninja!
Daichi was curious about Singapore and my travel.
He said he would love to come to sunny Singapore one of these days.
Through lanes and shortcuts, I followed him close to places where never tourist would venture.
From their traditional market streets, we cut through Tobita Shinchi and wet market.
Tobita Shinchi is a hidden red light district.
It is operated under the guise of Japanese restaurants and F&B associations, said Daichi.
It is a notorious area which even the locals would shun, as ‘you can expected the unexpected any time’, said Daichi, his eyes narrowing and his brow raised.
Suspense was in the air. “George San, keep your camera!”
I took his instructions seriously. Later I found out that Tobita Shinchi is under the governance of Yakuzas and politicians.
These rows of shop houses belong to their turf. It was early afternoon yet uncomfortably quiet.
Most of the ‘restaurants’ are closed. I hastened my steps with all due and proper caution.
The mid-day sun was slowly heating up Daichi’s craving for coffee.
He brought me to his favourite traditional coffee joint in Shinsekai and ordered for me a glass of ice coffee with vanilla float. Oishi!
He had his favourite black coffee.
We then traveled by foot to landmarks such as the Tsutenkaku Tower (the symbol tower of Osaka) modelled after the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.
We also visited Namba and Dotombori River. These popular placed are all connected.
A Geeks Paradise
Daichi led me further to explore Nipponbashi – the paradise for geeks.
There were gadgets, Cosplay cafes, game cards, vending machines and all kinds of video games which you can imagine geeks playing.
This is the right place to buy some crazy (and useless) souvenirs for my colleagues. Haha!
I am grateful to Daichi for this generous time and reception!
Around 630am the next morning, I took a train to Kyoto, heading straight to Arashiyama for some sightseeing.
Arashiyama Mountains (Storm Mountains) is known for its natural sights, shrines and Bamboo Grove.
Here, the fresh scent of bamboos, trees and wilderness filled the air. It is arguably Kyoto’s top nature site.
The weather was fantastic and the sky blue.
The morning sun was dancing on rivers and chilly mountain streams.
Upon arrival, I hiked upstream, marching past umbrella-clad grannies and selfie-obsessed tourists.
Different Ways of Travelling
To get a different vantage point and perspective, I leaped onto a rickshaw and paid Chikara ¥3,000.
And since biking was allowed, I rented a mountain bike, cycled like there’s no tomorrow, further uphill, along wildflower-packed trail and pebbled laid paths.
I felt like Clark Kent. Only slightly plumper.
After 2 hours, I hopped onto the Sagono Romantic Train together with tourists, from Malaysia, India, China and Korea.
Due to the train’s popularity, there was quite a traffic at the ticketing station.
I visited quaint gift shops and bought local-made souvenirs for my colleagues.
I was spoilt for choice. There were too many dazzling options with too few notes left in my wallet.
I chose a card holder for my wife. It is embroidered with fine Sakura prints.
There were other gifts too.
They were painstakingly wrapped in a semi-dreamy state that same night in my hotel, back in Osaka.
Tracking at Arashiyama was a good workout. I was exhausted.
My flight was 10 am the next morning. I rolled wearily on the tatami mat and punched on my phone:
Visit Kyoto: Check.
Better wrap presents for wife: Check!