Osaka is what Tokyo isn’t: gritty, subversive, gaudy and unpretentious. It is a major financial centre, the second biggest metropolitan area after Tokyo, and was the imperial capital in the 7th and 8th centuries.
We flew to Osaka from Tokyo. It was a quick, one-hour flight. We would have loved to have experienced riding the Shinkansen, which takes only two and a half hours, but the bullet train costs twice the plane fare — about $210 one way. Times that for three people and it was a budget blowout we were not prepared to make.
We stayed three nights in Osaka at a very cramped studio “apartment” with kitchenette and futons. Our futons took up most of the room in the unit and we had to roll them up just so we could move around a bit. Incredibly, it had a washing machine and also a tiny balcony where we hung up our washing to dry. It was located just five minutes from Kuromon market.
Kuromon Market in Osaka is a 600m long covered fresh food market, with 150 shops selling seafood, meat, produce and takeaway food. Some of the other stores sell souvenirs, household items, plants and flowers.
Japanese curry shop
Paul and Elina really love Japanese curry, so when Paul discovered that a tiny restaurant in the Kuromon Market specialised in Japanese curry — and only Japanese curry — there was no way he was not going to try it. We all ate lunch there one day. It was literally a mom and pop shop — the some couple had been running the restaurant since the early ’70s — and something of an Osaka institution.
The curry menu choices were: beef, pork katsu and and ebi (prawn) katsu, costing AU$9-11. I got the ebi katsu (see photo below) and it was very filling. It was served in an oval shaped bowl with plenty of curry sauce. Paul had the beef curry and bought a packet for later.
Eat Streets: Dotonbori district
The Dotonbori district is full of eat streets, so we just wandered, got lost and got hungry trying to pick a place to eat dinner. It is expensive to eat out in Japan so we were really wary of going to just any place.
Shiba Inu dog cafe
Elina loves animals so when we walked past a dog cafe in Osaka, featuring the popular Japanese dog breed Shiba Inu, she really wanted to go. Cafe customers pay for a 30-minute time slot to hang out with a bunch of Shiba Inus, with a drink included – it was tea or instant coffee or really yucky juice; I guess that’s the “cafe” part. The rule was you couldn’t pick any up or touch them, and there was a warning that the dogs could be a bit snappy.
The verdict: We enjoyed watching the Shiba Inus at play, but we wouldn’t go again. Elina and I both agreed that we felt sorry for the dogs, who were constantly on display the whole day and didn’t appear to be enjoying the attention. They really are cute-looking dogs though!
As we wandered around the busy Dontonbori district, we ran into the lovely, peaceful Hozenji temple. What’s unique about this Buddhist temple is that the main attraction is a statue covered in moss (see photo below). Curiously, during World War II, the 17th century statue stood standing while the temple was destroyed by bombings.
Apparently, the story goes that about 80 years ago, a woman made a wish and splashed the statue with water. Her wish came true, so others also splashed the statue with water, thus the moss grew. The green, furry statues look amazing in real life.
Namba Yasaka shrine
Osaka is not known for its shrines and temples, but the Namba Yasaka jinja should be on your list if you’re in town because … one of the buildings is shaped like a lion’s head. To me it looks more like a dragon … Enter the Dragon! (Who remembers that Bruce Lee film?)
In Japan, there is a difference between a temple and a shrine. In general, temples tend to be Buddhist and shrines are Shinto. Buddhism originated in India, while Shintoism began in Japan. Shintos believe that every living thing, including rocks and rivers, possess kami or sacred spirits. Unlike Buddhism, Shinto has no founder, no dogma and no moral code yet remains connected to Japanese values and daily life.
Impressive Osaka Castle (Osaka-jo) has five stories, was built in 1583 and was the biggest castle in Japan at the time. The present building is a reconstruction of the original. After the end of the feudal age around 1868, many castles were “destroyed as unwelcome relics of the past or were lost in World War II”. There are only 12 original castles left standing in Japan (we visited 2 out of those 12).
Osaka Castle Museum
Osaka Castle was built by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a peasant who rose to become one of the most powerful men in Japan. The museum holds a lot of interesting artefacts and displays, such as Hideyoshi’s life story and an impressive diorama depicting the epic Summer War of Osaka in 1615.
Journey to the CupNoodles Museum
I vividly remember eating CupNoodles as a latch-key kid; amazed that pale dehydrated bits in a styrofoam cup could turn into something relatively tasty and edible by pouring boiling water onto it. I often opened the lid too early in eagerness, closing the lid again, held down with a fork.
When I learned we were only a 30-minute train ride away from the CupNoodles Museum in Ikeda, I was quite excited! The train to Ikeda left from Osaka-Umeda Station – the busiest station in West Japan, served by three railway lines. We had to take the Hankyu Railway and to get there, we walked through a mall. Large train stations in Japan are often connected to shopping malls.
“In 1958, Momofuku Ando invented the world’s first instant noodles, Chicken Ramen, after an entire year of research using common tools in a shed he had built in his backyard in Ikeda, Osaka Prefecture.” CupNoodles Museum “He worked alone, sleeping only four hours a night and without a day off for an entire year.”
In 1971, after Momofuku saw supermarket managers breaking up a packet of his instant ramen noodles, putting them into a cup, pouring hot water over top then eating them with a fork, he was inspired to create CupNoodles. It of course became a global phenomenon. Momofuku passed away in 2007 at the age of 96. His secret to longevity? Apparently he ate a packet of instant chicken ramen noodles almost every day.
Around the city
‘Conbini’ stores are ubiquitous in this country. We visited a Family Mart or Lawson almost every day while in Japan. You could pick up breakfast, lunch and dinner there and it all tasted pretty darn good. The onigiris and sushi rolls were very convenient and there were also sandwiches, noodles, salads and yummy snacks. Paul and Elina took a drinking a lot of Japanese milk tea, which is found in the fridge and made by Kirin among others.
Bright lights: Dontonbori district
Dontonbori district isn’t just about eating out, it’s also about the neon everywhere you look, the most impressive of which is around the Dotonbori Bridge where the famous Glico Man sign is located. From previous photographs I’ve seen, the Glico Man we saw isn’t the original neon sign. It’s lit up, but it’s not as flash as the neon one.
As with other major Japanese cities, Osaka has old and new and that’s part of the appeal for me. Osaka is definitely more relaxed and not as serious as Tokyo. We really liked the vibe here and would come back.
Paul’s big night out in Osaka
Paul writes: “I went looking for some live music after dinner our last night in Osaka and the girls went back to the hotel. I found a place up some stairs off the street where, from outside the door, I could hear a jazz band playing but the cover charge was about $30, so gave that a miss. Back on the street I saw a sign for a bar called “Fanny Mae” with the Rolling Stones lips ‘n’ tongue logo. Down the stairs, walls adorned with old garage band posters, into this tiny, windowless, underground bar. No live band but it looked/sounded promising: room for nine people, ie, nine bar stools along the bar (all but one taken: lucky!), no tables, no standing room, you had to squeeze between the stools and the side wall to get to the single unisex toilet at the end of the bar. Run for 30-plus years by Masato, a Stones/Beatles-o-phile, who played nothing post-1974: lots of R&B, soul, Motown, ’60s garage, plenty of 67-74 era bootleg live Stones, including three different versions of Gimme Shelter (I think for my benefit: I told him that was my favourite Stones tune), Goats Head Soup and the White Album from go to whoa, Kinks, Small Faces/Faces, and turned me on to the work of genius that is the Keith Moon solo album, Two Sides of the Moon, while I partook of much Asahi, sake and later shochu, bludging ciggies off him (took up smoking again, just for the night) and chatting with Michelle, a Kiwi who was living in Osaka for a year teaching English at a primary school and was a regular at Fanny Mae to practice her Japanese with Masato and other locals and just enjoy the music and the wonderful (but very smoky) vibe.
“I lobbed there about 9pm, needless to say had a fantastic time (a night out in a little specialist music bar was on my Japan bucket list), and left when Masato shut some time after 2am. I found my way back to our hotel (about a 20-minute walk) but forgot I had no key to the front door and reception had closed for the night, stood outside wondering what to do for an hour, then somehow lucked out when I started playing with the door keypad and keyed in the correct door code second go! Got up to the room and Jolanda let me in — not without some expressions of displeasure at being woken up and my state of mind(lessness). I slept in till 10am, quickly packed, then we took the train out to the airport to pick up the rental car and drove four and half hours to Matsuyama, on Shikoku.”