Story and photos by Paulo Loreto Lim
Visited Japan for the first time earlier this month. On previous travel opportunities, with Japan’s reputation for being “expensive” and having experienced pricey locations on past holidays (Australia and Singapore), opted for locations such as Taiwan, Hong Kong, and South Korea because they were better values for tourists. With a re-visit to Busan always on the backburner, a third visit to South Korea nearly happened instead; but, in the end, (especially after hearing about Osaka being a “foodie destination”) booked Japan.
Upon arrival, found the public transportation system to be less straightforward than when landing at Hong Kong International Airport or Incheon International Airport. Despite earlier consulting guidebooks and pertinent YouTube videos on what to do when arriving, as with most things, it was very different handling the situation in real life.
One of the other concerns with the country was its reputation for being a difficult destination for visitors who are not fluent in Japanese. While it’s a similar situation in places like Taiwan, there seemed to be an added apprehension when it came to Japan. After studying the huge train map at the main transit hub just outside Kansai International Airport, spotted a ticket booth that had a sign indicating they had representatives that spoke English. Showed the counter staff the hotel reservation and the intended subway stop and they were able to map out how to get there – very helpful.
Much like other destinations, that first train was on an airport line that eventually required a transfer onto the main city subway. The process was fairly seamless but something became very apparent: There are a lot of stairs.
Arrived at the hotel around 8:30 a.m., but check-in was not until 3:00 p.m. As usual, left the luggage with the front desk staff and proceeded to begin exploring the city. Specifically chose a hotel that was near Dotonbori, the principal tourist spot of the city. Came to find out, not only was the hotel one block away from the popular locale, despite the proximity to a place that becomes so hectic at night, the street the hotel sits on manages to remain fairly quiet.
Since it was so close, Dotonbori was a nightly event; walking up and down the various streets, looking around souvenir shops, admiring street food, and perusing menus all night. Among the most striking sights are the massive wall decorations that line the main street, typically associated with whatever food was being served at the first floor establishment. There are several giant crabs; big octopus; and even a giant takoyaki, a local snack of battered octopus served in a ball shape – must note, while real takoyaki looks as delectable as it tastes, a giant mock-up tends to look rather menacing.
Exit towards the other direction of the hotel, Kuromon Ichiba Market was only a couple blocks opposite Dotonbori. Much like other markets throughout Asia, one can find a variety of local foods being prepared on the spot. However, something that sets Kuromon (and probably other markets in Japan) apart is the abundance of fresh sushi. Have always said there is a deficiency of good sushi in Bacolod City, from a lacking freshness of the fish to the sloppy knife skills exhibited in the uneven cuts. Sushi in the United States is pretty good and even that experience has always made fulfilling sushi cravings locally difficult. Now, after visiting Japan, the home of sushi, it’s difficult to even imagine having to pay for something a typical Bacolod City restaurant would refer to as “sushi.”
The first morsel tells the whole story. Sinking one’s teeth into a firm slice of tuna, salmon, or toro (tuna belly) and feeling every millimeter of the bite-size portion offers a sensation like no other – and this was regular market sushi, not some high-end restaurant. In addition, after the first couple bites, the fish literally melts in the mouth; so soft and tender due to its freshness, it would change the mind of any local Bacolod City foodie.
Beyond enjoying the food, also visited Osaka Castle, a landmark structure in the middle of a vast park with over 400 years of history. Walking through the park, visitors often have to navigate around the moat that surrounds the structure. After finding one of the entryways, it’s a short walk before arriving at the foot of the tall green building. It’s majestic.
It was particularly hot during the visit and the on-site shopping area, Miraiza, had stands selling snow cones outside and ice cream inside. In addition, next to the souvenir shops within the building, there was also Shinobiya, a “ninja/samurai goods specialty store” – some of the best browsing ever.
Also on the premises is the Osaka International Peace Center, or Peace Osaka, which documents the air raids the city faced during World War II. The center discusses the precursors to World War II, the Russo-Japanese War and Sino-Japanese War; the experience in the city, depicting what life was like from hiding in bomb shelters to the government controlling everything down to the clothes people wore; along with rebuilding and working to maintain peace. Hidden away within Osaka Castle Park, the center likely goes ignored by regular tourists, but it is an enlightening experience.
The most memorable thing about Osaka was the food. On a future trip back, it would be the primary motivation. Enjoyed everything from eating at a conveyer belt sushi establishment, sat at a counter to have gyudon for breakfast, ordered tonkatsu from a vending machine, managed to avoid a scalded mouth from piping hot takoyaki, along with several visits to the nearby convenience stores for everything from local beer to samgak kimbap; when it comes to food, Osaka is one of the best./WDJ