Day 111-113: Osaka, Japan

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

Elina in front of an entrance to Kuromon Market, taken near closing time.

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.

This shop sells just tuna, which is my favourite nigiri sushi!
The head of this tuna looked very fresh.
These guys were selling uni, which is sea urchin. Quite expensive at about AU$30 a pop.
All kinds of delicious on display here!
A lovely plant and flower shop.

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.

It’s quite common in Japan for tiny eateries like this one to do just the one dish.

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 restaurant displays were so detailed and looked good enough to eat.

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.

This Kobe Beef place, just under the huge 3D scallop sign, was constantly busy.
Osaka has an abundance of restaurants and street food shops, and on any given night there are throngs of people out enjoying the nightlife.
There were quite a few of these moving signs.
We ended up at a restaurant that served up all sorts of tuna, not only different cuts but also different varieties of tuna, some costing a bonza.
Elina ordered an ebi tempura, which turned out to be sumo-sized!

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.

Shiba Inus in action.

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!

Hozenji temple

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.

Fudo Myoo, or Mizukake Fudo as it’s known to locals, is covered in a lush layer of moss.

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.

Elina standing in front of a row of street lamps around the corner from the Hozenji temple.
This was near the temple. I love the wooden facade of this house and the bikes in Japan all look similar to this one, with a basket in front.

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?)

How fierce is that face? The lion’s head shrine was built in the ’70s.
This is the main building of the shrine and it looked like there was a small wedding taking place. I think the bride is the one in red (below right).
Cranes are often a motif on wedding dresses because the birds mate for life.

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.

Osaka Castle

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).

We walked through a lovely park and past a fountain to get to the castle.
There were several of these outdoor garden shops along the way. Wish I could take the plants home with me.
Osaka Castle is a great example of the wall and moat style of defence.
A railing decorated with cute birds. This is on the walk outside of the moat towards the entrance.
Elina’s Sumikko Gurashi stuffed toys pose in front of Osaka castle.
Gorgeous roof lines and golden accents.
The view of Osaka from the top of the castle.

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.

The sigils of clans involved in the Summer War.

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.

Inside Osaka-Umeda Station, we followed the signs for the Hankyu Railway.
The platforms were on the same level as the shopping mall.
With help from a station attendant, we got on the right train.
The train trip took about 20 minutes.
After a 10-minute walk from Ikeda Station, we made it to the !!! CupNoodles Museum.

“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.”

A replica of the shed where Momofuku worked tirelessly.
A recreation of the shed’s interior.

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.

A display of ALL the different CupNoodles ever made and sold!
We decided to create our own CupNoodles. First we had to decorate the cups.
Next, the cup is put through a machine that places the noodles in the cup.
Then we pick three dehydrated ingredients for our noodles. Some of the options included green onions, shrimp, pork, fish cake, carrot, corn, chilli and chicken.
This is my cup, I think I picked fish cake in the shape of a cartoon duck face, corn and green onions.
The final step is to wrap the CupNoodles in plastic.
Et voila! Your very own personalised CupNoodles. What a great souvenir!
We went upstairs to find that there was a cooking class in session. How cute are the hats?!
An old vending machine that added boiling water to your Cup Noodles. Lunch is ready!

Around the city

I thought it was interesting that this building incorporated traditional architecture with modern.
Paul and Elina outside a Family Mart near our hotel in Osaka.

‘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.

See the salt bottle second from left? These mini bottles of condiments are super kawaii (cute)!
This cute vending machine features Anpanman, a superhero in series of children’s books and anime, and his friends, including one that has a face of a slice of bread, one that has a face like a ‘melonpan’ (a yummy baked bun) and one is a purple germ that looks like a fly.

Bright lights: Dontonbori district

There are several bridges that cross the Dontonbori River. On either side you will find plenty of eating and entertainment.

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.

The colours of the Asahi Super Dry sign constantly change, as did the images on the huge TV screens beside it.

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

Fanny Mae regular Michelle with proprietor Masato behind the bar.

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.

Masato and Paul: dig that way groovy leopard print T-shirt and fur waistcoat.
Michelle and Masato outside Fanny Mae. The stairs behind them go down to the bar.

“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.”