Japan Trip

Day 8 – Kobe

Yesterday I went to Kobe for some long-awaited Kobe Beef! I planned my routes the previous night so I was ready to go, and ended up there before 11, and most of the shops were still closed. Christmas season is going strong in Japan; if you look through the photos you will see a number of christmas tree-like things and banners. At least it’s not nearly as in your face as North America. One shop that was open was a kimono store with some of the prettier kimonos I’ve seen so far.

Moving along through the mostly-closed shops, I came to the scramble outside Kobe Motomachi. I find scrambles to be pretty cool, possibly because they just make so much sense, and it’s something you don’t see in Vancouver. The World Ends with You is another factor. Moving on!

Turning left after a while in Motomachi, I arrived at Nankinmachi, Kobe’s Chinatown. There were lots of students around, presumably on lunch or something, because many were lined up for food. I read that Kobe has really good gyoza, so I stopped by a place and had some. The man there recommended I try dipping in a mixture of vinegar, soy sauce, and ra-yu. They were good, both with and without dipping. Y600 got me the gyoza, fried rice, soup, and salad. Good deal! Back on the streets, I headed south towards the Port of Kobe, and picked up a banana-based milk drink from a vending machine. As expected, it tasted like bananas.

Random trivia: Kobe and Seattle are sister cities.

Some parts of the harbor were left damaged after the big earthquake of 1995, and there is a memorial set up. Outside the maritime museum, I saw replicas of the Santa Maria, TSL Hayate, and Yamato 1, a prototype superconductor-propelle boat. Inside the Kobe Maritime Museum, I was unable to take photos but learned how the propulsion systems of the Yamato 1 work; large scale application of the left-hand rule and superconductors. There was also a Kawasaki corporate museum that had a couple interesting things, and lots of motorcycles. Phil would have enjoyed that part, I think.

After exiting the museum I went up the Kobe Port Tower and shot a few good views of the city from above. That’s all there was, really; if I hadn’t gotten a discount from buying a double ticket with the maritime museum I would have felt ripped off. I bought some souvenir pins in capsules, then left and started wandering around Harbor Land. While wandering a woman from the City of Kobe approached me and asked me some questions about my trip, filling out a form, being friendly, all that. I didn’t mind. What really surprised me, is that I saw an Old Spaghetti Factory! I thought they were Canada and US only, but apparently there is at least one Japanese location.

I came across JR Kobe station so I hopped on the train back to Motomachi so I could look around the shops now that they were open. I saw a cooking supply store, but it didn’t really look like they had what I wanted when I glanced in, so I’ll just pick stuff up when I see Angelica next, she said she knows a place. Upstairs, I found a few shops selling character figurines. One of them had a pretty substantial Bleach section, and in the third or fourth one I found something I’ve been looking for for a long time: a Final Fantasy III Trading Arts Red Mage.

At Shin-Kobe station, I took the Shin-Kobe Ropeway to overlook the city, got some great shots, then headed back down because it was incredibly windy. The cab was rocking and I felt a little insecure at first.

Finally, the main attraction, Kobe Beef! My meal cost Y11,000 but it was totally worth it. I went to Wakkoqu and ordered the 200g tenderloin set. The first course was an appetizer of seafood and onions, and it was quite yummy. I’m not really a seafood person but the fish was very nice. Meanwhile, my chef was grilling some thin slices of garlic, which would later be used as toppings. Soup soon arrived, it was creamy, a little sweet, and very delicious. Salad came third. It was a salad, nicely presented and tasty, but not the main course.

The first round of beef arrived, and I set to it. It was so good, words really can’t do it justice. Incredibly tender, juicy, melt in your mouth, tasty, the list goes on and on. I really liked topping it with the garlic, and dipping it in the mustard. Next came grilled carrot, which had a fair amount of pepper, which was no problem at all. As you can see looking at the photos, there are salt and pepper on the serving plate for you to add as you wish. Next up, grilled tofu. It went very well with the vinegar sauce (off screen). I must say, tofu prepared right is so much better than the rubbery stuff I had at the szechuan place in Seattle.

Green tea, rice, and some vegetable garnish were brought out next. The tea was really good, very green, and one of the best green teas I’ve had so far. Next up: Japanese purple potato, taro root, green beans, and a fattier portion of the beef. I had a terrible time trying to grip the taro with my chopsticks so my chef stood it on its side for me. It was crunchy in a good way. The last “course” was a salad of the last remaining beef and the long white vegetable strips you often see at restaurants, I wish I knew what they were called.

Everything was really good. Really, really good. I took my time and enjoyed it, and then coffee was brought out. It was a small cup of coffee in a white cup, with stainless steel vessels containing milk and sugar. I’m really not a coffee person (I find it too bitter), but with enough milk and sugar I put something together that worked for me. This may have been the finest dining experience I will ever have, with a chef personally attending to me, the atmosphere, nice music in the background, and so forth. After paying the bill, I gave him one of my Canada pins as a show of gratitude, and it went over very well.

After saying my goodbyes, I hopped on the train back to Osaka, made a brief stop in my hotel room, then headed out to Hockey Night in Osaka. I underestimated the distance between the rink and JR-Namba station so I was a few minutes late, but it was all good. It was fun to watch, and in the third period there was a bench-clearing brawl where even one of the backup goalies came off the bench and entered the fray. One of the guys I was sitting with was pretty vocal about the penalties (minor for the instigator, major for the victim, no penalty for the bench-leaving goalie). Also, there was a zamboni. Yay zambonis!

Now to figure out what I’m doing today.

Day 7 – Vegging, Osaka Station, and Burgers

I took it easy today, since I’ve felt kind of worn out from touristing so hard. I did my laundry, vegged while reading literature on things to do in Kansai, and came across what’s been called Hockey Night in Osaka. It would be cool to do something at night, and it’s close enough that the trains will still be running. So I’m going to check that out tomorrow night. Could be fun.

In terms of actually doing something, I got off my butt around 3:00 and headed for Osaka Station to check out the area, since all I’d done before then was pass through the station. Turns out there’s a lot there! I wandered around the shopping streets east of the station, Ohatsutenjin-dori and Hankyu Higashidori, before finding myself in front of HEP FIVE, an 11-level shopping tower. The top two floors are occupied by Sega Umeda JOYPOLIS, a large arcade. Again, no Sonic presence outside the signage. I think I saw more Mario. Arcades in Japan are interesting; they’re about 1/6 to 1/4 prize machines, 1/4 to 1/2 arcade games, and the rest slots, pachinko, or other forms of gambling.

I also saw some arcades on the shopping streets and wandered around in them. The arcade scene is alive and well in Japan, that’s for sure. I like looking around at the different games, and I find the whole environment quite relaxing, except when there’s smokers around. Getting my video game fix by proxy, perhaps. Today I saw some really interesting ones though:

  • Video horse racing. Players appeared to be betting on a race, which would then play out on a large screen and nearby board with miniature horses
  • A multiplayer soccer game where players would lay out trading cards in position on the pitch
  • Video Mahjong. Lots of video Mahjong

After finishing up with this, I headed to the Osaka Ekimae Buildings. You know how I mentioned Mos Burger before? I’ve looked through their website and there’s three or four burgers I want to try before I leave Japan. So, I found myself a burger for dinner tonight. Burgers always cheer me up when I’m feeling worn out or otherwise negative. I had the saazen yasai baagaa (Thousand Vegetable Burger), which was basically a cheeseburger with lettuce, tomato, and onion. The sauce was interesting, maybe it was Thousand Island dressing. It would fit with the name of the burger. Along with it I had the onipote setto, which as the name suggests, is a half order of onion rings, half order of fries, and a drink. I tried the melon cola to drink; it was sweet and delicious. I must find a vending machine that sells it. The fries are thick cut, my preference, and the onion ring batter was about the perfect thickness. I just looked at the rice burger section, better add another one to the list, which now stands at:

…while checking the links for the other burgers, I went and added another one to the list. I’m terrible. I’m too addicted to burgers. Well, in any case, the burgers are small enough that I could just get two a visit. I’m only eating two meals a day, it wouldn’t be that bad. Besides, I need to live it up while I’m here, right? If it comes down to it, they sell the kurokke as a side dish so I could ditch that burger and get the other two on two trips. Enough about burgers though, it’s been like half the post so far!

After eating I made my way to the Umeda Sky Building. At the top is an observatory, and I had some great views of the city at night. I would have stayed in the open part longer, but it was windy and as you can see I only had a short-sleeved shirt on. Coming back to the hotel, I picked up a bottle of hot green tea. A little stronger than I like, but it was drinkable and warm.

I’m not sure what I’m going to do during the day tomorrow, yet. I was thinking maybe Kobe, but we’ll see. I have four days left in Kansai before leaving for Nagoya.

Osaka skyline, from Umeda Sky Building – West North East South

Day 6 – Himeji Castle

Theoretically these posts are supposed to go up after I get back from somewhere, or the morning after, not around noon the next day. Oh well. Yesterday I daytripped to Himeji, to see the castle there. The day started off rainy, and the trains were surprisingly against me. The Osaka Loop Line was running behind the schedule, and the Shinkansen to Himeji broke down at Shin-Kobe and required 30-40 minutes for repairs.

I finally got to Himeji and made my way for the castle. The park is smaller than Osaka Castle park, but the castle itself is much larger. At this point, the Canadian flag on my backpack was almost ready to fall off, so I put my bag in a locker and proceeded on my way. There was no audio guide available, but that’s all right, I still had a pamphlet.

Two buildings in the castle were open for the public to walk through. In both, you are required to take off your shoes and carry them; slippers are optional and provided. The first, the West Bailey, was basically a long hallway with a few sets of very steep stairs going up. On the left side were windows facing out, and in some of the pictures I took you can see the roofing tiles being used in renovations. On the right were rooms used mainly as sleeping quarters.

Honestly though, I just don’t feel like blogging a whole lot right now, so to summarize the castle: Large, authentic, better than Osaka Castle in that regard. Osaka Castle is better for learning about Japanese history because it’s been converted into a museum. As I wrapped up at the castle, the rain pretty much stopped

On the way back, I stopped at Club Sega, which turned out to be an arcade with a few slot/pachinko machines. I played some Street Fighter 4 and Tatsunoko vs. Capcom and was on my way. There were a number of crane game type machines, but there wasn’t much Sega merchandise in them. Lots of Dragon Ball, though. The only Sonic to be seen was on the signage.

I stopped at 7-11 to pick up lunch, at Yoshi’s recommendation. I had tonkatsu with rice, some unfamiliar yellow vegetable, and a few noodles. Yummy! To drink I tried some cold bottled green tea. It was simply too bitter, I couldn’t drink it. At a vending machine I replaced my drink with a bottle of hot milk tea, which was absolutely delicious. Yay for Japanese vending machines!

Back at the hotel I sorted through my souvenirs and receipts and sewed my Canadian flag patch back onto my backpack. Then sorted out laundry, messed around on the net a bit, and went to bed.


Day 5 – WAK Japan, Teramachi

Today was a day of learning. Also of a little bit of frustration but everything worked out in the end. As mentioned I had booked some courses with WAK Japan to do some origami and learn how to make teriyaki chicken and sushi. I had no problems getting where I had to go on the subway, but my details for the last leg weren’t quite specific enough and I got lost. 🙁 10 minutes late after asking many people for help, someone misread the address and dropped me back at Marutamachi station. Hustling back, I made a quick stop in an internet cafe (Y400 for the first 30 minutes, I used 2 minutes, sigh) and it turns out I was less than a block away from my destination.

I finally made it half an hour late, paid, and was able to catch up. It turns out everything was one on one, I had small groups in mind but that was not the case! The instructor was forgiving and happy to see me. She was worried I had cancelled, and said she does not see many male students for cooking. In this session, along with the main course, I learned how to make miso soup and komatsuna to kamaboko no karasimisoae, a salad of Chinese cabbage and boiled fish paste. The dressing is miso-based and delicious. After eating, it was time for origami. Not much to say here, I made a kabuto, candy dish, spinning top, and a jumping frog. The time went by quickly.

Faced with a three hour break until my sushi lesson around dinner time, and light rainfall, I wandered over to the nearby park to orient myself and figure out what to do. Turns out, it’s the park containing the Imperial Palace grounds! Suddenly I was oriented in that I knew I was near where I was two days ago, and the abridged map in the tour book I got for my birthday confirmed it. The rain let off so I spent some time sitting on a park bench reading it, and decided to head for the central shopping district south of my current position. My goal was “Duty Free Kyoto”, an English-friendly electronics shop to get that backup battery for my camera. I didn’t make it there, as I found a camera shop that did the trick for me. nikon no denchi o motte imasu ka?

I wandered around the main drag for a bit and found Sofmap, a five level electronics store. I imagine Akihabara is full of such stores, I’ll see in a week and a bit. Anyway, it was full of DVDs (largely of anime) and games, and had an Apple section and what appeared to be a computer repair area on the same level as the PC software. The top level appeared to be all eroge given the overabundance of pink. Japanese culture seems very open about this sort of thing, unlike Western culture. In shopping streets like Doubutsuenmae and Teramachi, every store is proudly displaying their wares. Let’s just say I saw my fair share of frills walking around.

Back to electronics, though. I saw Ace Attorney 1-4 lined up for Y1850 each, and the International editions of most Square Enix RPGs in recent memory, including FF12 International Zodiac Job System. I considered buying it but I didn’t know if it had an English mode or if I really wanted to try playing 12 again. FF12I ZJS fixes one of my issues, the License Board, but not Gambits. Anyways, turns out it has English VA and Japanese text, moving on. I also saw Ace Attorney Investigations, in Japanese of course, for Y2680. I was incredibly tempted, but ultimately I just don’t know enough kanji to be able to attempt to play. I’ll just have to wait for the English version in February.

Back on the street, I saw a fancy-looking burger place, Mos Burger. I think at some point I really need to have a burger or two in Japan, just to see how they compare to Western burgers. I mean, not all burgers are equal, and some look really appetizing, I just have to figure out what they are. Fortunately it looks like most of the menu is written in kana.

Another place I might have to go is Japanese KFC. Both locations I’ve seen so far have had statues of Colonel Sanders outside, but today’s was dressed up as Santa Claus. I’m not sure what’s up with Christmas in Japan. I’ve seen places that have “Happy Christmas” or “Merry Christmas” permanently written onto their stores. I mean, carved into the wall, clearly by owner’s intent. Interesting…

I bought myself a Fullmetal Alchemist capsule toy, Y300 but it’s bigger than the other capsules I’ve seen around. On the note of FMA, yesterday when I was buying my ticket for the cruise around Osaka Bay, the radio was playing Tsunaide Te, the current closing theme for Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood. When I was having kushikatsu on the 6th, Golden Time Lover, the opening theme, came on the radio. I guess anime themes are pulled from the local music scene, or radio versions are made after they’ve been on shows? I dunno.

A vending machine later I’ve still managed to avoid buying duplicate bottled water, which is quite a feat. I guess there are local brands in Kyoto and Osaka contributing. It’s kind of silly, I know, but it’s fun and I’m applying the same thing when I get any other drink, try to avoid duplicates, try new things. Who knows when I’ll be back?

I wandered into an arcade and saw a game that is awesome purely for the nerd factor: Gundam VS Gundam NEXT. It’s like Virtual ON, but with mobile suits from a wide variety of Gundam series, and one joystick instead of two. It’s also 2v2. You’ve got the stick for movement, left and right attacks, jump/boost, and change targets. Left and right attack simultaneously is your mid attack, and somehow you could call another unit for aid. I didn’t figure that out. I played as my favourite from Wing, Heavyarms, and had some fun blowing enemies up from afar.

Back to WAK Japan to make sushi! This time I was early, as I gave myself plenty of time to find the place again. Sides with the sushi were miso soup and a spinach salad with a ground sesame seed dressing. I preferred the previous salad, but this was still good. The instructor had already prepared rice, we made and added a vinegar dressing and mixed, then left it to cool. This rice got incredibly sticky, by the way, but was easy to work with for making sushi. The sushi was filled with carrot, cucumber, tamagoyaki (Japanese omelette, surprisingly delicious), imitation crab, and smoked salmon. Accordingly these ended up being the largest pieces of sushi I’ve seen in a long time. Before I forget, the tamagoyaki was two eggs with sugar and dashi, I think.

Before I leave I think I need to get a makiyakinabe, a small rectangular pan, to make tamagoyaki. I also need to find some makisu, bamboo mats used to make sushi. Apparently I can find the latter in Y100 stores, but I’ll have to ask Angelica about the former. She said she knows a place where I can get good chopsticks before, and I’m sure when I get home everyone’s going to want me to make authentic Japanese food.

Finally, it was pouring rain on my way back to the hotel and I got soaked. Overcast? Yeah right.


Day 4 – Tempozan Harbor

Yesterday morning I was feeling pretty tired from the day before, so I didn’t go too far today, just to Tempozan Harbor. Photos here.

I took the train to Osakako station and headed northwest towards the water. Pretty quickly, the giant ferris wheel came into view. It’s a dominant landmark for sure. After assessing the guide board it was off to nearby Tempozan Park. It’s pretty small and features a great view of Tempozan-ohashi Bridge. There was also a statue of Sutezo Nishimura, the governor who spearheaded development of Osaka Port. The park was originally dredged from Ajigawa River during the 1830s.

Walking along the pier behind Tempozan Marketplace, I saw a replica of the Santa Maria, one of the ships Columbus used crossing the Atlantic. It’s motor powered and serves to give 45 minute tours around Osaka Bay, leaving on the hour. I circled around behind Kaiyukan then entered the square in front. There was an absolutely huge elementary school group in front. Hundreds of kids, easily. I thought I’d give them a wide berth so I went into the marketplace.

Inside the marketplace was a number of souvenir stores that seemed to mostly sell sweets, some ninja-themed attractions, clothing stores, and two that really stood out, right next to each other. First, a Hello Kitty store, instantly meeting my Hello Kitty overload quota for the week. Second, a shop that sold capsule toys and figurines. I bought myself a 2? Kirby (with Chef power), and a couple capsule toys for a wishlist. I saw one of Edward Elric (Fullmetal Alchemist), and it looked cool, but I didn’t want to pay Y1380 for it. I’ll have to keep an eye out for Fullmetal Alchemist capsule machines in Den Den Town and Akihabara.

In the food court, there was a Haagen Daaz and a KFC! Apparently Japanese KFC has statues of Colonel Sanders, or at least this one did. Also, there was a McDonald’s next to Osakako station. I’ve seen ads on the train for a Bacon BBQ Quarter Pounder, and I’ve actually been thinking about getting one. What is with Japan, making me want to go to McDonald’s?!

Next up, Kaiyukan Aquarium. Like Osaka Castle, it was a start at the top and go down kind of experience. I was complimented on my Japanese when I said konnichiwa to an attendant, but forgot to add the modest demo, mada jozu ja arimasen (but, I’m not very skilled yet) when thanking him. The aquarium was interesting. I rented an audio guide, and worked my way down. Among the sea life I saw and tried to shoot were penguins, dolphins, seals, and sea lions. Even with my camera’s sports mode, some were simply too fast to get a clear picture of.

Near the large “Pacific Ocean” tank, full of rays and sharks, including whale sharks, the school group overtook me. I went and sat down to let them pass, and so I could watch the rays being fed. Divers went in and had food in plastic containers, and hand-fed them. I guess it’s the best way to make sure the rays get the food and not the others.

After the aquarium, I took the Santa Maria cruise around the bay. It was awesome, and my camera’s battery ran out during this. I met an Austrian man, an d talked to him for a while, he’s been traveling since August and was in Canada for a while.

Back on land I wandered by a street performer, juggling torches on a unicycle then juggling while dancing to the Japanese version of “living la vida loca”. My battery had recovered enough to take a few seconds of video, but I should have waited because he eventually got up to five torches. It was pretty cool.

Originally I was going to have a late lunch at the donburi place in the market, but when wandering in the food court I saw a place selling bacon potato pizza. I’d heart Japanese pizza can be pretty crazy so I just had to try it. It was delicious!

I headed back to the hotel after this and finished with photos from the 7th and 8th. Now I’m off to WAK Japan for a couple courses. After that I’m going to stop by Den Den Town and see if I can find a second battery for my camera. Later!

Day 3 – All around Kyoto

I meant to get this up last night, but I was dead tired. You’ll understand why as you read through this. Photos are here. Facebook kinda sucks for this, I need to come up with a better place to dump all these. Anyway.

Today I went to Kyoto! I took the shinkansen, because why not? This time I got a window seat and took a few photos between Shin-Osaka and Kyoto stations. Some subwaying later, I found myself at Demachiyanagi station, where I met up with Angelica and her fiancee, Kenzo. The plan was for me to rent a bike, but the way it ended up was Angelica renting a bike, Kenzo riding her bike, and me riding his, roughly matching people size to bike size.

We went to 7-11 first, since they had not eaten yet. Today’s new drink is Pepsi Azuki! Azuki is red bean paste, it’s pretty yummy. Sweet, and reminds me a little of cinnamon. I also had my first onigiri! I was a little hesitant at first, but it turns out Tuna Mayo is actually pretty good. We ate on the shores of Kamo-Ohashi, where the Izumoji-bashi and Aoi-bashi rivers join. It was nice. There were these stone paths crossing the rivers in addition to bridges, it was fun crossing via one.

Then it was off to the imperial palace, where, because it was open to locals this week (only done twice a year), the crowds were absolutely massive. There was lots to see, including a ceremonial soccer-like game, more gardens, gates, living quarters, and so on.

After this we left for Kyoto University to have lunch at the cafeteria there. We arrived about 1:30, half an hour before closing. There I met Yoshi, their friend from the olympic weightlifting club and winner of strongman competitions in Japan. He’s a really cool guy, down to earth with some interest in anime and manga. For lunch I had beef udon, katsu curry rice, and some mixed vegetables. For those not in the know, katsu is short for tonkatsu, a breaded, deep-fried pork cutlet. It was yummy!

Next, we went to watch a maiko performance and learn about traditional Japanese artisans. On the way, we passed by the giant torii (shrine gate) at Heian Shrine. The only pictures allowed here were of the maiko, after their performance, so unfortunately there are no pictures of the artisans at work. We saw wood block carvers, potters, bowl painters, and a few others.

We returned to Kyoto University and Yoshi and I left our bags in Angelica’s lab, and then we were off to climb Mt. Daimonji! When Kenzo mentioned it earlier I dismissed it as a joke, but it turns out he was serious. The path was pretty steep, with uneven steps in places, but thankfully there were handrails there for support, and also to prevent you from falling off the side. Some of the larger steps were probably around a 30cm height difference. Near the top, there were stone steps, and that made it so much easier to finish the ascent. The view at the top was absolutely amazing and you could see all of Kyoto sprawling off into the distance, and the mountains on the other side of the city. Words can’t do it justice, look at the photos I took.

The way back down was much easier than coming up, though it was dark at this point so we were extra careful. Going down the larger steps required a lot more control than going up. About 2/3 of the way down, we found ourselves behind two others, who had a flashlight, so we followed them through the last of the difficult part. At the bottom, we stopped for takoyaki, then bought some meat for a barbecue being held at Angelica and Kenzo’s apartment. We brought some sausages, beef for yakiniku, and chicken.

The barbecue was cool. I met their landlord, who spoke some English and had some really interesting musical equipment, like a digital turntable and some other piece of equipment I can’t describe but wish I had a picture of. I knew I should have bought an extra battery before leaving. Maybe today I should go to Den Den Town and see if I can find one. Anyway, back to the food. I had nori (the seaweed used to wrap onigiri), tuna sashimi, and fugu (puffer fish). When the sashimi was placed in front of me, I assumed it was off the barbecue, and was pretty surprised to find it raw. Maybe if I knew it was going to be sashimi (all I heard was that it was tuna), I would have been prepared and would have liked it more. As someone who doesn’t eat a lot of seafood, I thought the fugu was yummy, but not worth the cost, Y1000 for a bite-size piece according to Kenzo.

And that’s about it! Very long day. When I got home, I basically uploaded the photos, started this post, then realized I was too tired and went to bed. I’m not sure what I’ll do today yet, I’ll sort it out after breakfast. I’ll probably take it easy around Osaka, I dunno. If I was going to another city I think I should have been up and going at least an hour ago in order to get the most out of it.

Day 2 – Osakajou

Today was another good day. It was hot and clear and great for seeing the grounds of Osaka Castle Park. Y200 got me breakfast at the hotel, two prepackaged croissants, instant corn soup, and some tea. Once I got my nerves about me and decided where I was going, a far easier task than it was yesterday. Yay confidence!

I hopped on the JR Loop Line towards the park, only, I mixed up the directions in my head and got on the clockwise train instead of the counterclockwise train. I got there without issue, but it took almost twice as many stops. Good thing I wasn’t on a schedule, but I’ll have to make sure when I head to Kyoto tomorrow to see Angelica that I’m on the right train to get to Osaka station in time to make connections. If you’d like to follow me through the park, please reference this map. Also I will not be linking every single picture, when dealing with 140 photos it’s just too much. You can browse the gallery here. I realize Facebook automatically lowers the resolution on everything to be Web-friendly, sorry about that. If I keep taking pictures at this rate I will run out of space on Dropbox unfortunately. I suppose I could open a Flickr account. Anyways. I will post the text of signs in the captions for those respective pictures.

When I arrived at Osakajoukoen station, the first thing I notice is green. Lots of green. The station is at the northeast corner so I decided to start off following the river. The first sight of note was this large tower in front of Osaka-jou Hall. I went around it and walked down a path next to the river. There was someone fishing there, the first of many around the rivers and moats.

Walking west through the peach blossom garden, I made my way around to Kyobashi Gate. Here’s a closer look. Soon, I got my first really good look at the museum itself. In front of Gokurakubashi Bridge I was able to get another good view of the castle. From a nearby vendor, I bought some watermelon on a stick. Chopsticks for everything, apparently, including large skewered pieces of fruit. I guess they did support the weight though. I would have preferred seedless, and it wasn’t as sweet as the watermelon we get back home, but fresh fruit is fresh fruit.

In the process of looking for a garbage can and somewhere to wash my hands (watermelon gets sticky!), I passed through Aoya Gate. In the plum-grove garden, there is this large, forking tree with benches around it. I didn’t rest there, but it was certainly nice to look at. Instead I sat on a fence overlooking the east outer moat and watched some kids run around on the far side, just relaxing and enjoying the scenery. Another view of the castle.

Continuing south, I found the outer bailey and the Hokoku Shrine, which honours Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a significant figure in Japanese history. I entered the inner bailey through Sakura Gate, but first I snapped some students practicing their kendo outside the Shudokan. I passed the now-closed Osaka Museum of History and approached the castle after following a sign’s advice and getting a really nice shot from the southwest.

Inside I was able to borrow an English audio guide, then following advice to go from the top down, hoofed it up to the 8th floor to see the city skyline surrounding the park. On the south side, I saw a golden statue of a spirit said to help fight fires. I wish I could remember the name, but there was some serious information overload going on. On the 7th floor were a number of scenes depicting Toyotomi’s early career, rise to power, and life up to his death. The 6th floor was inaccessible to the public, so onto the 5th. It’s all about the battles fought around the castle, here. This is a copy of a historical artifact, a folding screen depicting the castle’s fall. Due to the nature of the priceless and irreplaceable artifacts on the 3rd and 4th floors, photos were not allowed. On display were several folding screens, including the original of the one shown above, some suits of armour, a recreation of Toyotomi’s golden tea room, and more. I bought a set of postcards of the castle here.

On the second floor, I was able to try on a kabuto and samurai surcoat! All of the helmets had some sort of horn or plumage on them, the one I wore was not excluded. It was fun, and I got odd looks from some of the locals while posing, but you know what? It was fun. Why not? On the way out, I stopped and got some ice cream. Silly me, I didn’t even try to read the label, otherwise I would have noticed the coffee flavour before I tasted it. I’m not a coffee fan but this was okay. It was like Coffee Crisp, but without the crisp, or the chocolate.

I sat on the side of the bridge leading to Sakura Gate for a few minutes, and an older gentleman came and sat down next to me and started talking with me. We were able to have some simple conversation between my broken Japanese and the little bit of English he knew. He’s an engineer and really likes Canada. I gave him a maple leaf pin, I think he was excited. He certainly was grateful. According to him, Osaka Castle is the second-best in Japan; Himeji is the best. Good thing I’m planning to make a day trip that way, eh? During the conversation I dropped my ice cream, both of us laughed for a couple minutes then he gave me some tissues to clean up the part of my bag that got some on it. After we parted ways I made for Nishinomaru Garden, which is basically a large open field surrounded by trees, with two buildings, the sites of two turrets, and another great view of the main tower.

I left via the Ote Gate and started going south around the outer moat. Feeling worn out, I goofed on my directions and ended up going through the Tamatsukuri Gate (no picture, sorry) and back to the outer bailey. Back at the fountain, I found lots of food stalls set up. I had my heart set on a good bowl of udon tonight but was unable to find any amidst these vendors. Lots of squid, though. I didn’t feel confident enough to try that, so I went with a known good, yakisoba. The red stuff is spicy, I’m not sure what it is. For dessert I had kasutera, a Japanese sponge cake. These were bite-size and would have been just perfect with some sort of icing or cream filling.

To wrap things up, my vending machine purchases today: Fanta orange is the same here as it is back home, and Aquarius is lemon water.

Finally, I’ve gone over on my souvenir budget so far, but it’s all good since I’m under budget on food (cheap breakfast at hotel plus one meal later will do that.) Here’s what I have so far, everything was automatically gift wrapped without me saying anything. This pile of goodies includes:

  • A miniature kabuto
  • Miniature samurai armour
  • A solar-powered ninja
  • Keychains
  • An “Osaka Castle” coin
  • A secret, since there’s a wishlist involved

Day 1 – Shinkansen/Janjan Yochoko/Shinsekai/Doubutsuenmae

Today was another day of traveling but I had enough time to also do some sightseeing. Taking the subway in Tokyo was much easier than it was yesterday, since I knew what I was doing. I discovered that when I put Y200 in for my Y160 ticket, I didn’t get change back. Must be exact change only when paying with coin. Shrug. It’s only 50 cents. Tokyo station is absolutely huge. The shinkansen area of the station is quite fancy, there were lots of vendors around as well as bilingual signs. I was unable to reserve a seat that was both non-smoking and window, so unfortunately I don’t have many pictures of the ride. As a consolation prize, I took lots of notes and will recreate the trip as faithfully as I can. For the record, though? Hikari (light) trains have tons of legroom and I would gladly take a shinkansen back to Canada if there was a bridge across the Pacific Ocean.

To start! Man am I glad I am taking this trip while it’s light out. There’s so much to see. The weather today was perfect, 20C in Tokyo and 24C in Osaka according to the morning forecasts, and clear skies. If this keeps up I will not be needing the sweater I packed. Tokyo is full of tall buildings with large, colourful signs, some I can read, most I cannot. There’s all kinds of shapes and sizes of homes, there’s really no good way to describe them all. Huge high rise apartment complexes, small little one level dwellings, etc etc. I was surprised to see what looked to be the bridge in Karakura Town in BLEACH. Said town is based on an area in west Tokyo, so it’s entirely possible that was the bridge that inspired some of the town. The surroundings certainly looked like the anime. Aside from death gods, ghosts, super-powered humans, and monsters running around.

Soon after I realized we were on elevated rail for the first leg of the journey. Take that, Skytrain! After passing through Shin-Yokohama station, there came to be many more trees, and more green space in general, than in the urban jungle of Tokyo. Farms started popping up, interspersed with residential areas. I’m not sure what was being grown; whatever it is was a short plant of some kind.

Feeling very thirsty, I silently wished a vendor would come by so I could buy a water bottle. Surely enough, after a little while one did! I managed to complete the transaction entirely in Japanese, I’m so proud of myself. mizu ippon wa ikura desu ka? Amidst the many heavily forested mountains, I saw one taller than the rest, with a snow-capped, cratered peak. Seeking confirmation, I worked up the courage to ask another passenger: are wa fujiyama desu ka? Yes, it was Mt. Fuji! I really wish I could have taken a photo, but it’s hard to say if it would have turned out with the train traveling at over 170km/h. Maybe if I’d fiddled with the settings to minimize shutter speed. Also, fujisan is an acceptable way to reference Mt. Fuji. Anyways, there’s lots of mountains southwest of Tokyo, more than I thought there would be. I guess it makes sense since Japan is a Pacific Rim country.

A while later, we passed over some rivers. The riverbanks were totally built up, between buildings or docks for small watercraft. It looked like there were marinas. At Nagoya station, someone brought on a boxed lunch, it looked quite fancy an well-presented, from what I could see without staring or looking over his shoulder. I will have to get a bento at some point myself. Seeing a tall, traditional building, probably a shrine, in the midst of modern housing was an interesting juxtaposition.

At Gifu-Hashima station, I was able to take a couple pictures while the train was stopped. Soon after we departed from there, I saw a very strange-looking building. Long, narrow, convex, and covered in solar panels, it’s Sanyo’s Solar Ark, a solar power plant and something I really want to see up close. I will have to investigate the feasibility.

After Maibara station, the landscape got very flat. There’s lots of farms, and very narrow streets running through them. They must either be one-way or for motorbikes. I saw a lot of mopeds on the roads. I’ve also seen a lot of laundry hanging out to dry from people’s balconies.

That’s about it for the shinkansen, it arrived at Shin-Osaka station and off I went to find the JR Kyoto line to get to Osaka station. shin means new in this context, by the way. So I’m going from New Osaka station to Osaka station. For the Narita Express and the shinkansen, I needed a reserved seat, but for the other JR lines all I need is my rail pass. Cool, less to worry about. Boo, less easy souvenirs. Unlike subway tickets, because I show my rail pass tickets to a human I don’t lose them when I’m done.

In Japan, you drive on the left side of the road. Convention also dictates that on an escalator, you stand left and walk right. In Osaka, you stand right and walk left, like back home. I learned this the hard way when I was blocking the way for people trying to walk down the escalator. sumimasen!

I found the Osaka Loop Line, which took me to Shin-Imamiya station, where my lodging for the next week and a half. Check out the video on that page, it’s more or less what I saw on my way there from the train station, but add about 50% more parked bikes, and several bikes in motion weaving around you. My room is basically the first one you see in the video, but mirrored. Interestingly, I have to step up into the washroom. I would prefer the extra foot or so to give me more headroom so I don’t have to stoop down when showering.

I spent about an hour in my room, unpacking a couple things and building up the confidence to go out in search of food. My Japanese language skills are poor, most notably that I know almost no kanji, basically just the numbers. I decided to head for Festival Gate, since it’s right next to the station and looked cool when I came in. Turns out the amusement park is closed, but all the nearby shops and eateries are still open.

So, off to janjan yokocho alley. At this point I’m still feeling pretty anxious. I spend a while wandering around, pondering simply getting something prepackaged. I see a place where the menu sign outside is partially in English and note them for future reference. I wander more, finding one of the many convenience store chains in the area. This one I get a discount at for staying at Chuo Oasis, but I resist and soon wander back to the restaurant I saw before. The waitress does not speak English, but ultimately I manage to order some kushikatsu – Skewers of various foods, battered (not tempura!) and deep-fried, served with a very delicious dark liquid sauce. I played it safe and ordered five chicken skewers to start. oishi katta! I soon followed up with three potato and two pork. They were good, but the pork was too fatty for my tastes. The chicken won.

Feeling refreshed after this, I go exploring more. First I find doubutsuenmae, a covered shopping arcade like janjan yokocho. I just took it slow, looking around and trying not to feel overwhelmed. After that I looped back north and into shinsekai, which supposedly has a bit of a seedy reputation but I felt perfectly fine there, perhaps since the crowds were smaller and it was more open. Most of the pachinko parlors I saw were in janjan yokocho.

As it went past 5:00, it began to quickly get dark so I started making my way back towards the hotel. On the way I stopped at a vending machine and bought a bottle of Pepsi Shiso. It’s minty and greener than Mountain Dew! I’m not sure if I’d have it again. It’s certainly interesting. Angelica was quite surprised to hear I found it on my first outing.

At this point I’m quite tired and have been working on this post for over two hours, so I’m going to throw up pictures and be done with it now.

Day 0 – Airborne/Getting to Jimbocho

Well, I’m in Japan now! It’s 8:10 PM local time, 3:10 AM home time, as I start to consolidate everything that’s happened since boarding the plane almost 14 hours ago. First? I’m surprisingly more awake than I expected to be. Second? Holy crap I’m in Japan. It finally hit me as the plane was taking off that I’m finally fulfilling one of my lifelong dreams.

On with the play by play! This was the last I saw of Vancouver before the call for electronics to be shut down. As we took to the air, I saw some incredible sights as we were right in cloud level, wispy little clouds were passing us by as the sun lit the sky orange above and the islands sat below us, still close enough that I could make out some of the details. I took this one as soon as electronics were permitted but it was still a minute too late.

We were fed twice during the flight and I think it was the same two options each time, beef or chicken. I had each option once. You know how everyone says airplane cutlery is useless? I managed to cut my pinky finger when the knife slipped while buttering my bun at lunch. The food itself was decent for airline food, teriyaki in both cases but not enough sauce with the rice. I tried to sleep three times, but wasn’t able to. Economy class seats are just too small for me to get comfortable. Maybe the time just spent resting is partly responsible for me still being awake right now. It could also be adrenaline.

Here‘s the first I saw in Narita after the plane came to a full and complete stop, etc. etc. We landed around 5:30 local time and it was pitch black. I wasn’t expecting it but I guess it makes sense since it’s the northern hemisphere and it’s almost winter. From the gate to immigration was one very long hallway, with moving walkways in the middle and a single bend in the middle. In the first part of the walk, I saw a zen garden on display. Kinda cool. For krichter, I saw an advertisement for SAP at the aforementioned bend. I knew they’re big but I didn’t expect a full English ad of that size in Narita airport.

On that note, all the signs in the airport were bilingual in both Japanese and English. Thank goodness. Everyone I’ve met so far has been polite and helpful, especially with my meek eigo ga hanasemasu ka? I need to use the phrasebook in my pocket more. Getting from the airport to Sakura
was pretty straightforward. The Narita Express took almost exactly one hour to get to Tokyo station. From there I had a bit of confusion while I figured out how to get my subway ticket to Jimbocho station. The ticket vending machines did not take Y10,000 notes so I had to go to the station office and get 1,000s.

Once I figured out my ticket it was straightforward to get to Jimbocho. Jimbocho station is unfriendly to large bags since there’s a few flights of stairs to get to the surface. Once I got out, it was easy to find where I was going. Now, before I pass out, here’s my room and here’s my rail pass. It’s now 3:45 AM home time, I’ve been up almost 20 hours straight now. G’night!

Day 0 – At YVR

Well, I am at YVR now. A little under an hour from now, my flight will start boarding and I’ll be on my way to Tokyo! I’m in seat 21A, a window seat a few rows behind the bulkhead according to the cabin map. Looking around the waiting area by the gate, there’s not many non-Asians (five or so including myself?), and around 50 Japanese girls in school uniforms. This would certainly explain why there were so few seats available on today’s flight. Perhaps they were here on an exchange to Canada. If I end up sitting next to one of them I’ll have to ask, and see if I can practice my Japanese a bit. It would definitely be better practice than watching subbed anime or repeat-after-the-tape audio lessons.

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