48 Hours in Osaka
Final 2 days of my solo travel finds me in Osaka with my heart still in Kyoto. Fortunately, Kyoto is just a 15 to 20 minutes shinkansen ride, so I could always head back if I got bored with Osaka.
Truth be told, I really had no idea what to do in Osaka. This was the last city on my itinerary. It is pretty telling that my research shows I am much more excited about Tokyo and Kyoto than Osaka. Cos if it existed in a filing cabinet, it would just be a single folder with a single page with, maybe, 3 bullet points parading as 3 sentences. But it wasn't intentional. This whole trip started with deep research into Fukuoka as part of a freelance content management job, editing and writing for a corporate travel booklet. As the job concluded, my curiosity led me to plan a solo trip on my own as a prelude to Fukuoka family holiday that was the original stand alone plan. But, I ran out of steam by the time I got to Osaka, turning pretty much a proverbial blank page.
On my first night in Osaka, I met a young Singaporean lady at the laundromat near the capsule hotel that we both incidentally were staying at. While waiting for our clothes to be washed and dried, we got to chatting ranging from culture to politics and of course, why we are in Osaka. She's been in the city for a few days and heading off to meet friends in Tokyo the next day. As it turns out she's been to Japan many time over and Osaka to her is the least interesting city compared to other locations.
"You could always head back to Kyoto... if I were you, I'd do that. Osaka is just about food, really. Most other things are a bit meh."
Great. Doesn't help that I wish I had spent a few more days in Kyoto. *cries* Yet a part of me needed to give this city a chance. I have to see Osaka for myself.
I also have to say, I got lazy to a certain extent because of the Osaka Amazing Pass. It's a two day pass the gives you unlimited train rides on pretty much all local lines covering all the major areas. Including free entry into many tourist destinations - Osaka Castle, Umeda Sky Building,. hot springs, museums, walking tours and even river cruises on the Dotonbori River.
I mean, I have my itinerary suggestion already planned out since it’s fully covered by the pass. I just need to arrive and decide where to go, right?
Day One - Osaka
When I picked up the Osaka Amazing Pass, it also came with an informational booklet jam packed with detailed maps and tour information.
I had already made some tentative plans to my first day itinerary based on information on the website. My first stop was to head to the iconic Osaka Castle.
Osaka Castle is a historic site with its origins dating back to the 1600s. It suffered several wars and even a lightning induced fire that pretty much destroyed the original but each time rebuilt by the government of the time. Like the Meiji Shrine, the castle is situated in a sprawling parkland extending roughly one square kilometer (about 247 acres). So, there was a lot of walking even before I got to the castle grounds. The park does have a little novelty train you can ride but I walked instead. Which, involved more stairs, but by this time I was very used to it.
The castle interior feature several floors of historic exhibits with the top 8th floor (accesible by a lift) featuring 360 views of the city. The castle itself sits on a landfill raised platforms with Burdock piling (牛蒡積 gobouzumi) rock walls, a unique advanced japanese technique for building stone walls. This sort of 'disordered piling' without the use of mortar allows for tiny stone movements during earthquakes to withstand damage. The castle also overlooks a moat, providing some beautiful symmetrical thames river-like reflections on the water.
The roof of the castle, similar to many other temples and castles, features the Japanese folklore creature, shachihoko (鯱鉾 or 鯱) or shachi (鯱) a tiger head with the body of a carp. These golden roof ornaments are adorned with the superstitious belief to protect buildings from fire. Legend has it that these mythical animals can either induce rain or spitting water from their mouths to put out flames.
The castle is also popular with local Japanese as well, with school excursions taking place regularly.
Outside in the castle grounds, there was a light snacks kiosk that sold beer with fried chicken. Pretty fitting on this cloudy overcast day as well as the amount of walking and stairs. Asahi beer with karaage chicken was such a good choice especially with an alfresco setting. Although, there were many wild birds about scavenging for scraps. As usual there was a sign not to feed them. Which is the responsible thing to do as you don't want to encourage the birds. Wild birds have been known to be aggressive yet there were still many tourists who still fed the birds despite signages saying not to. Just don't feed the birds. You may think you're being kind. You'll just be creating a problem for someone else. Who might get attacked by birds. So, just, don't.
Osaka Castle is very near the river and what better way to cross the channel than by the Osaka Aqua Liner to cut across to Umeda. Also covered by the pass, I decided to do this slightly scenic route to see the city via its river channel. There are many drop off points but I decided to get off at Yodoyabashi station connecting just two stations towards Umeda which is my next stop...
Umeda Sky Building
It did take me a few detours to eventually find it. Umeda Station is right next to Osaka Station along with many other interconnecting stations and malls. It's pretty much a hub much like Shinjuku on a smaller scale. I was expecting to see the Umeda Sky Building the moment I exited the station at ground level. Yet, it was nowhere in sight, shrouded by many buildings in the area. By the time I found it, I was quite underwhelmed. The building is actually very understated until you arrive at the foot and look up to see a giant flying saucer perched atop the two towers. I remember saying to myself, ‘wow that's it? Well maybe that's why it's free on this osaka amazing pass thing haha...'
Because, to be honest, the aqua liner wasn't mind blowing and even though I do love some museums and history I wasn't thrilled by Osaka Castle as well. In hindsight though, having read up a little more, post trip, I can appreciate Osaka castle a lot more. I just wish I had read up a little before heading there. Anyway, back to said sky building.
As I entered, ascended and boarded the lift, the all too familiar anxiety started to gnaw in my subconscious. Didn't help that the lift is partially exposed so you can see how high you are ascending. It also makes it worse by showing the number of floors and metres you are ascending. The lift was also very fast and if you look out of the window, you get the thrill of flying. On paper, at 173 metres and 40 floors it looked pretty doable until I got to the 39th floor. Goose pimples on the back of my neck.
The final escalator leading up to the viewing deck after you get your tickets is low-key terrifying. Me? Well, I was dizzy. It's a glass tube that gives you the view of the outside, suspended above the ground as you ascend.
The viewing deck turned out to be nice and calm. Even with floor to ceiling window views, my fears were assuaged. I spent a good amount of time taking some pictures selfies time lapses be for realising that there is actually a roof top sky walk.
All I could do was one round walk around the dome. The wind can get rather strong up there. There was also sporadic rain storms that day Umbrellas on the Sky Walk are not allowed as it a can be a projectile hazard if it flies off the building. I felt very exposed to the elements and my legs were shaking and partially numb from the blood leaving my body from the fear of heights. But it was worth the beautiful 360° view of the city.
Umeda Sky Building is an engineering marvel. Initially dreamed up as a "City of Air" project to consist of 4 interconnected buildings, it eventually became a twin tower featuring the rooftop observatory, the Sky Walk, known as the Kuchu Teien (Floating Garden) Observatory. It's an engineering marvel because it is designed to be able to withstand earthquakes. The viewing area is a treasure trove of info for those who are architectural geeks. I loved every minute of it.
The viewing deck also has a bar selling food and beer with plenty of window view seats to watch the sunset. It was a nice way to wind down for the day. This was definitely a highlight for my time in Osaka. I'm glad I braved my fear of heights for this.
I decided to explore the Umeda area a little bit and chanced upon a rice bowl shop in one of the underground alleyways under the train station. It was called Warau and because I was tickled by how the name sounded similar to hokkien 'wah lau', I decided I had to have it. Turned out to be a delicious bar meal!
Arriving at Dotonbori Bashi, it was apparent what my singaporean acquaintance meant when she said Osaka is all about the food. Pretty mcuh the entire street is overflowing with ramen, sushi and takoyaki shops with smaller intersecting alleys filled with yakitori and drinking shops. With long queues and crowds to boot too. It was quite a delightful way to soak in the energy of the city. Yet because I already had dinner, I just wanted to grab a snack. Specifically, takoyaki.
Takoyaki literally means Octopus (tako) Grilled (yaki). Osaka is the birthplace of Takoyaki. It is one of Japan's most exported street food. These are ball-shaped savoury pancake dumplings filled with octopus, crunchy tempura scraps, pickled ginger and usually served with katsuoboshi (fish flakes), japanese mayo and barbecue sauce. And because takoyaki originates from Osaka, this is the best place to have them. They also come with different toppings depending on what is offered in each shop. Each takoyaki is usually piping hot and full of umami flavour.
Now, I learnt a little later, that food prices are slightly higher at Dotonbori Bashi area. And of course it would since its a touristy area. I was on an irrational hunt for just 2 takoyaki, seeking to pay the lowest possible price. Prices were going for around ¥500 for 6. I really didn't want that many and I didn't want to pay anything more than ¥200. I was on a mission. Just. Because. Eventually I found a shop that sold 'Takosen' - with a photo showing 3 takoyaki for ¥200. Perfect, I thought, I found my treasure!
After paying, I was handed a shrimp wafer cracker sandwich with 3 takoyaki inside. Interesting I thought. I get bonus wafer crackers with my takoyaki! And it took me 2 minutes to realise it wasn't the best idea. The wafer crackers were nice and crunchy on their own. But when I got to the takoyaki bit, it was an absolute struggle to chew. It felt like a stale dried sandwich that was microwaved. Yeah, it was leathery. Also didn't help that the takoyaki was piping hot and I got attacked by the hot juices that spilled out. It just wasn't very pleasant to eat. All flavour if there was any was masked by the experience. Well, so much for my osaka takoyaki experience.
Check out my vlog for my fail takoyaki experience!
Day Two - Osaka
By this time, I had already abandoned all plans to go back to Kyoto since the later part of the day felt like there was more to this city I could uncover. Yet I had no concrete plans. Turning to the planned itinerary, I spotted the Tennoji Zoo which was in the Shinsekai area.
Osaka Tennoji Zoo
Against better judgement, I went to Tennoji Zoo only to be disappointed. It was free entry as well, on the Osaka Amazing Pass, but the zoo was one of the worse I've been. The place just wasn't very well kept. It looked forgotten, stuck in a 70s time capsule, badly aged. The animals looked very sad, especially the malnourished looking polar bear sitting in the sun, perched on top of faux icebergs that look like they were made of plastic. I didn't know why I thought it was a good idea. I do hope they do something about the zoo to upgrade it for the sake of the animals. After spending a little under an hour, I decided to abandon the rest of the exhibits and head off somewhere else.
Yet, all was not lost. For I chanced upon a good and cheap takoyaki shop just outside of the zoo in Shinsekai. You couldn't miss it as there is a massive installation of a mountain of takoyaki sitting in front of the shop. I reckoned it would be pretty popular since it was already open by 11am and a good crowd was building up. I decided, this was my second chance to redeem my takoyaki folly from last night. And I was handsomely rewarded. Basic ones go for ¥300 for 6. Which is so much cheaper than what was offered in Dotonbori Bashi. I opted for the slightly fancier Ponzu with Welsh Onion which was ¥350 for 6. Oh boy, fat, chunky and oversized balls of goodness. The ponzu sauce went so well with the onions. It was a delight!
Next, I made my way to the Namba area to check out some shopping. A friend had also sent me a recommendation for really good japanese curry that was very affordable in the Namba match area. After a bit of topography I found Oretachi No Curry Ya (俺たちのカレー家×ラーメン=kojilabo). The English translation is a little unfortunate given that they serve good curry! I was so glad I made a beeline for it. The curry was thick and served with cheese was so satisfying. And prices were also very affordable starting around ¥500 - ¥600 depending on what you add on. You get to construct your own curry plate with a variety of toppings and sides to make it the perfect meal.
After late lunch it was time to say goodbye to Osaka and head back down to Fukuoka to meet up with my partner and the rest of the family who are flying in to join us for a holiday.
So yeah, I didn't quite spend a full 48 hours in Osaka. But I was still glad I did stop by Osaka. It was more like a taster trip to be honest. I would definitely be back.
Although I didn't quite fully utilise the Osaka Amazing Pass, it was still a life saver. There were so many other entrances I could use, such as the HEP5 Ferris Wheel, hot springs and museums. Yet, even without adding the entrance fee of Tennoji Zoo, I was already ahead with my visits to Osaka Castle, Umeda Sky Building at the Aqua Liner ride - adding up to ¥3700 if I were to pay for them individually. The Osaka Amazing Pass costs only ¥3600, which meant that my local train rides in Osaka were practically free. Totally recommend it if you are headed to Osaka!