Down-to-Earth Osaka

Part 4 of our 2014 trip to Japan

Osaka seems to be little more than a transit place for most people, but we actually liked the city better than e.g. Tokyo. It felt more down-to-earth, more approachable to us.

We arrived in the early morning after the Willer Bus trip from Hiroshima. A little dazed, we walked around the Station area and further south to take in the atmosphere. Passing a small shrine with a rather interesting backstory full of sacrifices made for love, we arrived at a temple with a flea market going on. What a wonderful coincidence! We bought some simple yukata for 500 Yen each to bring home. The skyscraper Abeno Harukas seemed overpriced, so we skipped that. We checked out quite a few supermarkets, snacking throughout the day instead of sitting down for lunch. In the afternoon, we reached Osaka Mint just before closing time. Originally, I had wanted to merely take pictures for my father, as I don’t have a particular interest in coins, but it turned out to be very informative and there are quite a few really beautiful coins around, especially the prefecture and commemorative ones. We bought my dad 2 prefecture coins and a sakura-style coin set. My feet really started to hurt after the first week as I didn’t have suitable shoes (after my first pair of shoes had been damaged badly during the first week, I had to rely on sandals from Don Quijote that were not ideal for the long walks we took, several dozen kilometres per day), so by the time we checked in at our hostel, the balls of my feet were all pins and needles. Too tired to venture outside again, we still had some veggie sushi rolls and sweets from 7-11, so those became our dinner.

We spent quite some time in the Namba area, spread over several days. First, we went for the electric town – careful if you are going with a pop culture or computer enthusiast, it might easily take several hours. Even though I am an engineer, there wasn’t much of interest there for me, it’s more used or new computer parts and console games. Apparently, one can spent hours comparing the prices and stats of graphic cards and marvelling at retro consoles, as my husband did. We preferred Den Den Town to Akihabara, the prices were better and it was less of an overrun tourist attraction. Fewer maid cafes, though… Luckily, there were a few interruptions to comparing PC components – in the shape of having a snack at various udon restaurants (we always ordered the “small” set to be able to sample different dishes). We hit Dotonbori twice in the evening. The ads and glitzy signs make for a rather unusual atmosphere. We had dinner in Hozenji Yokocho – Kansai style okonomiyaki with cheese (accidentally), niangao/mochi (thick rice “noodles”), potato and veggies. As to which is tastier, Kansai or Hiroshima style, I don’t have a clear favorite, though I like the addition of lots of cabbage and noodles of the Hiroshima version, giving the dish more substance and a less concentrated flavor. But with the right additions, Osaka-style makes for a rich and chewy mega pancake.

On another visit, we strolled through Amerikamura and bought a few manga in Japanese for practice (takes me hours to get through one volume, though). It didn’t appear as edgy or lively as it was billed to be, the tiny university area in my hometown is livelier and more “alternative” than Anemura for sure. That is not to say that we didn’t like the place. Unfortunately, I didn’t find any Goth or Lolita clothes that were to my liking (or within my budget – I would make some bargains later in Harajuku!), one of the drawbacks being that many places don’t allow you to try the clothes on – and I know that I am curvier than most Japanese women. Walking along Shinsaibashi Shopping Arcade was an extremely stressful experience, so many people (worse than Nanjing Lu or similar places, not sure how it would compare to NYC, though) and the heat… There was a “Zombie Apocalypse” haunted house event going on in of the malls, so we queued up. We were briefed on the situation and countermeasures (hit a button when the zombie attacks) beforehand. The experience was quite cool, not scary at all, but at the end, one zombie kept crouching towards my husband despite the button having been pressed, so I instinctively reacted and tumbled back to the button to press it again, scaring the heck out of two Japanese girls who had just stood frozen next to the button, not helping us at all 😉

South of Namba Station, there is a wonderful shopping area with lots of small shops selling souvenirs and restaurant equipment similar to Tokyo’s Kappabashi. We walked through it twice and got some tableware. Also in the Minami area, one of the most fun evenings we had was thanks to a udon making class we took at Hiro-sans restaurant Miyoshiya. We prepared the noodles from start to finish, the result was a huge pot of some of the most satisfying udon we’ve ever had. The “noodle master” was cheerful, with an infectious enthusiasm, gave us some delicious tempura as well, and then brought out some sake. Finally sake that we both liked!

We visited the History Museum, which was very well done, multilingual explanations and many (child- and adult-friendly) hands-on exhibits. The castle was nice, too, the museum not as interesting as we had hoped, but the ground made for an enjoyable evening stroll. We had been “castled-out” a little, so we decided to skip Hikone and Inuyama later on, which had been on our itinerary.

In Umeda, 30 min on foot from our hostel in the Fukushima area, we enjoyed walking along Grand Front with its lavish architecture and especially the lively Kitashinchi district at night. We had robatayaki dinner one night, a little awkward as we weren’t sure how to order – either from the waitstaff of the cook preparing the item of your choice on the grill, but a great experience nonetheless. As my husband loves city nightscapes, we made sure to ride the ferris wheel on the roof of Hep Five (the view is not as obstructed as claimed) and Umeda Sky Building. The latter is quite cool with a romance corner (replete with love locks) and a vertigo-inducing escalator. We regularly checked Hankyu Dept. Store for interesting snacks. We “lost” our stuff twice in the station building though – when using the lockers, make sure to take a picture of the surroundings and not to put your luggage in the shinkansen area unless you will actually take the shinkansen later.

One evening, we were lucky enough to stumble upon an Obon-related temple event that we hadn’t found online. We got to witness a very impressive Bon Odori dance with live singing/drumming and sampled some festival foods. It’s moments like these that make travel really worthwhile.

Less than half a day was filled at Tempozan Harbor Village. The ferris wheel gave us a lovely view of the waterfront at sunset, but that was about the only redeeming feature. The Naniwa Food Theme Park seemed overrated, very touristy and kitschy, plus it seemed impossible to get anything but a limited array of okonomiyaki, negiyaki and takoyaki – normal markets and restaurants offer a much better choice.

Furthermore, we spent a lot of time browsing through the amazing choice of products at the department stores, especially at the basement depachika food extravaganza. However, when we were there, there weren’t as many tasting opportunities as we had assumed from the many blog posts about that phenomenon, and being more proactive would have felt rude. My husband has become a market arcade enthusiast, whenever we chanced upon one, we had to explore the whole of it, buying snacks and just enjoying the local atmosphere.

Another interesting place was the Shinsekai area – aptly named New World. We went in the evening, it was very lively (though not full of people) with lots of colourful storefronts and nostalgic ads, even brighter than Dotonbori. It was slightly run-down in some corners, but in my opinion, not seedy at all, contrary to the majority of reviews. We got some Glico products in the store below the tower, there a lot of cute photo ops for kids.

In hindsight, we could have spent more time in the outskirts of Osaka, done more day trips or spent time at museums or spas, but we really enjoyed just exploring the city itself, trying various foods, and didn’t concentrate on major attractions. We didn’t get any day pass, it would not have paid off, but the Amazing Osaka pass looks like good value if you want to see a lot in a short time frame.

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