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Onwards to Osaka

Japan day six


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Modern Japan – with a touch of history

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Waterfront in Osaka at sunset

For a slice of modern Japan you could do much worse than visit Osaka. It has some striking modern architecture, a vibrant nightlife scene and tasty local cuisine.

Osaka is Japan's third largest and second most important city. It might even have become the capital had Tokugawa Ieyasu not moved the government to Edo (now Tokyo) when he came to power in 1603. While it has some historic buildings, the main impression it left on me was definitely of modernity when compared to the other places we visited in Japan – even Tokyo. But there’s nothing wrong with modernity!

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At Shin-Osaka Station

After our two nights at the cosy Fuji-Hakone guesthouse in Sengokuhara we said farewell to our friendly hostess and took the bus back to the station at Odawara to catch the bullet train to Shin-Osaka station.

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Bento box bought at
Odawara Station

Although we had been on the Shinkansen (the proper name for the bullet train) from Tokyo to Odawara, this was a much longer ride (2.5 hours) and it was the first time we had experienced the train getting up to full speed. Everyone says how smooth the ride is on a bullet train and they are right – you would never know that you are going as fast as you are. Of course, the landscape outside rushes past, but inside it is hard to accept that you are travelling at 170 mph (270 kph). I had thought that there would be displays in the carriages showing the speed as I have seen in (much slower) Italian express trains, but there was nothing – so you just have to have faith! Actually, it’s easier to appreciate the speed if you watch one of the trains flashing past, as we did while waiting on the platform at Odawara – maybe my short (very short) video will demonstrate this better than I can describe it (although I think the trains slow down for the stations even when not stopping).

Shinkansen passing through Odawara

Travelling on this route meant that we were on the original Shinkansen line, which was built in the early 1960s to link Tokyo and Osaka - the so-called Tokaido line (named after the ancient route of the same name).

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Umeda OS Hotel

When we got to Shin-Osaka we took the regular JR line the single stop to Osaka Station which was near our hotel. The reason for the two mainline stations so close to each other is that in several cities, Osaka among them, the introduction of the Shinkansen necessitated the construction of new a station to handle the faster (and I think longer) new rolling stock.

From Osaka Station it was about a five minute walk to our hotel, the Umeda OS. It was only late morning, and we weren’t able to get into our room, but we could store our bags in their luggage room which already held the larger suitcases we had sent directly from Tokyo using the excellent luggage forwarding service offered by Japan Rail.

Leaving the hotel we headed back to the station to catch the JR Loop line to Osakajo Koen Station. From here we had a fifteen minute walk to our first Osaka sight, the castle.

Osaka Castle

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Osaka Castle

The first thing to say about Osaka Castle is that it is not as old as it looks. This is a concrete 1930s copy of the first Osaka Castle, which was built in 1585 by Hideyoshi Toyotomi. This was considered the finest in the country and was a powerful symbol of Hideyoshi’s supremacy – it was he who brought an end to the wars of over a century, thus unifying the nation. He was succeeded by his son, Hideyori Toyotomi but the latter was challenged by Ieyasu Tokugawa (Hideyoshi’s former retainer) who, in 1615, vanquished the Toyotomi family and destroyed Osaka Castle. Tokugawa moved the shogunate government to Edo (present-day Tokyo).

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Osaka Castle from the moat

In 1620 the castle was rebuilt by the Tokugawa shogunate who held it until 1868, although the main tower was struck by lightning three years before that and destroyed in the ensuing fire. The remaining structures were also destroyed in the battle between the Tokugawa shogunate and the New Government Army. Under the Meiji Restoration the castle precincts were requisitioned and in 1931 the main tower was reconstructed according to the original 16th century design, as it had been under Hideyoshi Toyotomi. It was used as a military base and arsenal, and during World War Two 60,000 workers were employed in the armouries here. It was targeted repeatedly in the bombing raids and badly damaged, with a particularly bad attack on August 14, 1945 destroying 90% of the arsenal and killing 382 people working there.

The main tower was fully repaired in the 1990s, and despite being now made of concrete, externally retains its historic appearance, although inside there are modern touches such as lifts. Meanwhile the 1620s boundary walls came through these various disasters relatively unscathed and are still today pretty much intact, made out of interlocked granite boulders without mortar.

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Roof detail

You can enter the castle precincts without charge and wander the grounds, from where you can get some good photos of the dramatic castle perched high above. To enter the main tower you must pay a fee of 600¥ (adults, October 2013 price), which Chris and I decided to do (having travelled here as group we split up on arrival to explore, as was usually the pattern for this trip). Once inside we were directed to the lifts as you have to start your visit on the top floor, working your way down by the stairs.

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Looking up at the eighth floor gallery

The first thing we did on arriving on the eighth floor was to get outside, where you can walk all round the tower and get some great views over Osaka. We also had an excellent close-up look at some of the detailing on the castle tower itself, including the gilded shachihoko, sometimes also called orcs – a mythical creature, a fish with the head of a tiger.

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Osaka skyline from the tower
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In the garden around the castle

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Close-up look at a shachihoko

Once we’d seen our fill of the view we started to explore the museum, which has a comprehensive collection. On the top-most (seventh) floor, dioramas tell the story of Hideyoshi Toyotomi’s life, and on the fifth (the sixth isn’t open to the public) there are miniature models of the Summer War of Osaka (in which the castle fell and the reign of the Toyotomi family came to an end) and a folding screen telling the story of the battles fought. Although not normally especially interested in military history, I found these some of the most appealing exhibits because of the level of detailing of the costumes etc.

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Model of the Summer War

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The castle moat

On the fourth and third floors there were various artefacts and models of the castle during different periods. These are the only floors where photography is not allowed – I imagine that they might be concerned at flash damaging some of the more delicate objects. The ‘stars’ of the second floor displays are the full size replicas of one of those golden shachihoko and a fusetora (crouching tiger). There is also an area where you can dress up in a kimono, wear a helmet or try on some armour (all replicas, naturally) and have your photo taken for a small fee as a souvenir of your visit.

Once we had finished exploring all of this we were hot and a bit weary, so we were very happy to spot ice creams on sale at one of several refreshment booths in the grounds. We enjoyed a tasty mango soft scoop cone (chocolate, vanilla and green tea also available) and a chat with an elderly local who stopped while cycling through the park, keen to practice his English and find out what we had been enjoying in Japan – a pleasant way to while away the last part of our visit here.

We met up with the rest of the group and Andrew proposed a visit to the aquarium. Most agreed but a few opted to go back to the hotel to rest. I was in two minds, as I was quite tired and inclined to think that I could visit an aquarium anywhere, without coming all the way to Japan to do so. But Andrew enthused about this one so much that I decided to give it a try, and I was glad that I did, as this is quite a special aquarium!

So we walked the ten minutes or so to Morinomiya station on the Chuo subway line, which we took to Osakako station about five minutes’ walk from the aquarium. As we walked towards it we saw a huge Ferris wheel which looked like fun – something for the to-do list in the probably unlikely event of a return visit to Osaka.

Osaka Aquarium

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Giant tank at the Osaka Aquarium

This very well thought-out aquarium presents the marine life of the Pacific Rim in a really effective way. At its heart is a huge tank with whale sharks, smaller hammerheads, rays and many other Pacific fish. You wind you way down a gentle spiral around this tank with multiple opportunities to enjoy watching the fish at all levels, from near the surface to the ‘ocean’ depths. The experience is enhanced by the carefully chosen background music, and seats are provided at intervals so you can sit and admire the spectacle.

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Whale shark

But there are other delights too. We loved the river otters and their marine cousins, the rainforest fish and monkeys scrambling overhead, and the huge leggy king crabs. Among other highlights for me were the penguins (I do love penguins!), who have the experience of gently artificial snow drifting down on their heads, though I felt their tank area was a bit small. And the beautifully lit jellyfish drifting against another well-chosen background track were mesmerising.

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Jellyfish

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Emperor penguin

The creatures are housed according to the area of the Pacific Rim where they live, so you will visit, for instance, the Gulf of Panama, Monterey Bay and the Tasman Sea. An excellent balance is struck between education and entertainment, with touch tanks for children (and adults!), informative displays about climate change and so on.

Having said all this, I have to acknowledge that these beautiful creatures are captives here and their lives would be better lived in the open seas where they belong. In particular, the main tank, while huge, is still a very confining space for the larger fish that are kept there. It is wonderful in some ways for people who will never get the chance to dive or snorkel to see and appreciate these magnificent fish, but the animals pay a high price for our education and entertainment.

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Standing on the right

Chris and I left the aquarium a little before some of the others in the group, keen to have a little time back at the hotel to settle into our room and freshen up before a planned group outing to see something of Osaka’s famed night-life. So we took the subway back to Higashi-Umeda station right next to the hotel. As in Tokyo, we found it easy enough (with the help of a map) perhaps because we are so used to the London Underground system. We were surprised though to spot one difference from Tokyo. In Japan, the general rule on escalators is to stand on the left, the opposite of what I am used to in London. This surprised me a little as the Japanese drive on the left just as we do in Britain, and I thought that like us they would also climb their escalators on this side. But no – you stand on the left and walk on the right. And being the Japanese, they all stick to the rule. But when you get to Osaka, suddenly it’s all change. In Osaka they like to do things differently, so here you stand on the right and walk on the left!

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Our bedroom at the Umeda OS Hotel

Back at the hotel we retrieved all our bags from the luggage store and settled into our room. This was on the top (17th) floor with a great view of some of Osaka's skyscrapers – particularly good at night. The room was small (as is usual in Japan) but comfortable, with everything we needed. Two large twin beds, a sofa, small desk and large TV were all neatly fitted into the space, while the bathroom had a good shower over a 3/4 size tub. A good range of toiletries, hair dryer and sundries were provided, as well as light dressing gowns and slippers, and there was free wifi too.

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View at night

But there was little time to make use of the wifi or to take photos, as we had arranged to meet up again with most of the group in the hotel lobby for an evening out together. We took taxis from our hotel for speed and comfort, after the very long day’s sightseeing, and were soon in Dotonbori.

Dotonbori

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Entrance to Dotonbori

Osaka generally is known for its nightlife, and in Osaka one of the best places to spend an evening is Dotonbori. This single street draws both locals and tourists in their thousands to eat, drink and play, and has done so for centuries. First built in 1612 as part of a development programme in this part of the city that also saw the construction of the nearby canal of the same name, it was declared the entertainment district of Osaka in 1628 by the newly established Tokugawa Shogunate. Within 35 years the avenue offered as many as six Kabuki theatres and five Bunraku theatres, plus the unique Takeda Karakuri mechanical puppet theatre. Many restaurants and cafés sprung up to cater to the hordes of people who thronged here nightly.

But interest in these traditional forms of entertainment declined and with the interest, the theatres themselves. The five that were left at the time of the Second World War were all lost in the bombing raids. The restaurants, bars and cafės however remain. In Japan, Osaka is famed for its cuisine, and Dotonbori is the main destination for food travel in Osaka. You can get anything here, from local specialities through fast food to high-quality meat and fish.

We were heading for a restaurant recommended by Andrew which serves an Osaka speciality – okonomiyaki. But first we took the time to stroll along the street and observe all the action and bright lights. Many of the establishments here have become known for their extravagantly large decorative features that aim to lure diners, such as the giant crab of Kani Doraku. I also spotted giant sushi, a huge dragon and a rather fierce looking chef. There are neon lights everywhere and a real buzz in the air from all the people out to enjoy themselves. This is definitely a great place to see Japan at play!

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On Dotonbori

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Cooking takoyaki
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Our takoyaki

We stopped at one of the food stalls to sample takoyaki, another Osaka speciality. These round octopus dumplings are sold by street vendors and stalls in Dotonbori and elsewhere. The octopus is chopped and mixed with other ingredients such as spring onion, covered in the batter and cooked in special takoyaki pans. A sauce is added (typically a brown sauce similar to Worcestershire sauce) and other flavours such as green laver (a seaweed) or bonito (dried fish flakes) sprinkled on. The ones we bought also had some cheese inside which added to their deliciousness and also to the challenge of eating them – they are served piping hot and are quite liable to burn your mouth if you bite into them too soon, as of course we did!

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Stall selling takoyaki

The takoyaki were a great appetiser, and now we were ready for the main course. Andrew had called ahead to reserve a couple of tables at Warri-Wa which specialises in okonomiyaki (most of the restaurants in Japan serve only one style of cooking). These are often described as Japan’s answer to pizza, but we found them to be more like omelette. The base for the dish is a batter made with flour, eggs, grated yam and shredded cabbage. Various ingredients are added to this to give the different flavours, just as you add toppings to a pizza or fillings to an omelette. These can be seafood, meat (usually thinly sliced pork), vegetables or cheese. In Osaka the ingredients are all mixed together before grilling, while in Hiroshima, where the dish is also a major culinary tradition, they are cooked in layers.

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Enjoying a beer in Warri-Wa

Our tables were upstairs on the first floor. Okonomiyaki are traditionally mixed and grilled on a hot plate at the table by the diner – you order your fillings of choice which are brought separately to the batter for you to mix to taste and cook. But in some places they come ready-made, and Warri-Wa is one such, so although our table had a large hot plate in the centre, this was just intended to keep the okonomiyaki hot as we ate.

My okonomiyaki, with a filling of pork and squid, was delicious, though I'd have welcomed more squid (I found just three pieces!). Chris had a similar one but with pork and shrimp. The okonomiyaki come topped with a special sauce (similar to Worcestershire sauce but thicker) and sometimes other toppings are added – we had dried fish flakes (bonito) at the table to add ourselves, and some of the options on the menu had salad leaves on them too. They were very filling and tasty – one of my favourite of the various Japanese delicacies we tried on this trip.

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Two variations on okonomiyaki

After dinner we wandered around a little more before again choosing to take taxis back to the hotel. It had been another long but fascinating day in this most fascinating of countries.

Posted by ToonSarah 05:40 Archived in Japan Tagged night osaka castles fish streets japan history restaurants museum aquarium Comments (2)

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