We have been to Osaka (大阪) twice on day trips during previous visits to Japan. I know plenty of people who have been there and loved it, describing it as a Japanese Manchester, but I hadn’t quite got on with it on our previous encounters.
Last year, as we were flying into and out of Kansai Airport, we decided that we would spend a couple of days in the city to make getting to the airport for our flight home less arduous.
As we left Hiroshima for Osaka, I discovered at the station the delight that is Momiji Ramune.
This is one of the nicest soft drinks I have ever had. It tastes like liquid cake. Really. The flavour of a Miyajima momiji in a bottle. So good.
But I digress. On with our return to Osaka.
One of the problems we have had in Osaka in the past is the lack of directions in and confusing maps of the city. This time was no different. When we arrived at Shin-Osaka station from Hiroshima we didn’t know where to go to catch a JR train to Namba, which is where our fancy hotel was. We managed to navigate our way to the JR line gates and asked a guard where to go for the train to Namba. He handed me a tiny piece of paper on which was printed a basic map showing the loop line and how other lines connected with it. Onto this tiny piece of paper, he circled Shin-Osaka station, the number 1 for the loop line we should travel on, and underlined Imamiya Station and Namba Station, drawing a small arrow between them. Then he explained what we needed to do and directed us to the gate for the line we needed to take to Osaka. So far, so helpful. After that things went a bit pear-shaped. It took us a while to work out which platform was track 1, then we got onto a train that was a rapid train without realising it (because my understanding of kanji eluded me at that point). We only realised we were on the wrong train when it went through Imamiya station and didn’t stop. We changed at Shin-Imamiya station instead for the Yamatoji line, so it wasn’t all bad. Imamiya and Shin-Imamiya stations are going to play another role later in this tale.
We left the train at Namba and found our way to our hotel, which is sited directly above the station, but that didn’t make it any easier working out which exit we needed to use. We took a diversion through an underground shopping mall before my husband spotted a sign directing us to the Hotel Grasmere. We chose this hotel partly for its location in the Minami area of Osaka, close to Den Den Town, partly for the madness of the images we saw on the website. Oh, and it was on offer on Expedia.
The website’s promise of traditional British styling didn’t disappoint. The first thing we saw on exiting the James Bondian lift was a glorious fireplace. Then we glanced to the right and saw a full scale stone church. On the 22nd floor of a hotel. Aha.
Astounding. The joy continued when, after a ride in another lift out of a James Bond film (no visible buttons, no apparent sensation of movement until the slight flutter in the stomach when it came to a halt, infinity mirrors and a ceiling fan on the inside) to the 31st floor, we entered our room. The view was incredible, but the houndstooth check bathroom was more so.
We unpacked and rested a while, and then went out. We went to Dotonbori and wandered around the streets taking photographs, then headed down to Den Den Town in Nipponbashi. We had a good time, I was starting to warm to Osaka a little. I could see why my friends thought it was a Japanese Manchester – it had the same mix of smelly streets, light drizzle and borderline rude people in a hurry who manage to be rude with a smile (I can say all this, I’m from Manchester).
Dotonbori wasn’t too busy, perhaps because we were there before the salarymen got out of work, and it was pleasant to stroll in the evening sunshine, once the drizzle had stopped, looking in the shops and marvelling at the range of weirdness there is to be enjoyed in Osaka.
As we emerged onto Nipponbashi, we spotted some adverts for a number of Host Clubs. These are places where women can go out for a drink, have some pleasant conversation with a handsome young man, feel good about herself. The adverts were quite something. There were a bewildering number of men all with ridiculously big hair. Some might say Host Clubs redress the balance with Maid Cafes and bars where men can drink with women who are paid to be nice to them, but I found myself wishing that nobody had such a sad life that they needed to pay someone else to make them feel good about themselves.
Den Den Town was as geektastic as we’d remembered it. On this occasion my husband spent a frightening amount of money on CDs by Japanese bands that it’s almost impossible to find back home. Slum was just one of the record shops we went into.
After our mini excursion, we headed north to an Indian restaurant I’d read about on Happy Cow, called Shama. After our last attempts to find vegetarian food in Osaka, we decided that we were on safe ground with Indian! The restaurant ploughs all its profits back into the village where the owners are from, where they are helping to fund a school. We had an absolute feast and it was all delicious. I tried a new-to-me Indian beer called Golden Eagle, which was really hoppy and malty. I wish we could get it in the UK. For anyone vegetarian struggling to find places to eat in Osaka, I can heartily recommend this place – not only is the food wonderfully tasty, you will also be supporting a good cause by eating there.
So far so good, you might be thinking, bar a few inept tourist travel issues – what is this woman’s problem with Osaka? The events of our second day in Osaka were the cause of my finally deciding that Osaka is just not the place for me.
We decided to head north to Umeda, so that we could look around Yodobashi Camera, then head to Ohatsutenji-dori where there is a branch of Yukari which has vegetarian okonomiyaki on its extensive menu.
We had been to Yodobashi Camera before, and hadn’t had any problems getting from the train station to the shop. This time we took the subway Midosuji line, managing to navigate our way around the ticket machines and the ticket gates successfully. When we got to Umeda, though, we again couldn’t work out which exit to use, despite having highlighted Yodobashi Camera on our map and comparing that with the station map. We wandered around inside the basement level of a department store for quite a while before we managed to emerge onto the street. We were across the road from the store, but nowhere near a convenient crossing point, so we had to walk into the JR station, head up a level and cross via a walkway. Frustrating!
After a fruitless scout around the various departments and not finding the things we had gone in for (Yotsuba Revoltech figures and cheaper accessories for my Sony camera than I can get at home), we decided it was time to eat. We had the reverse issue of getting from Yodobashi Camera across the road and over to Ohatsutenji-dori, but it was more straightforward than getting into Yodobashi Camera had been.
We found the okonomiyaki restaurant okay, and settled into our booth, ready to see how Osaka okonomiyaki compared with Hiroshima style. You can read about the experience on my previous post about okonomiyaki. It was fun, and after we’d filled up on tofu cheesy eggy goodness, we had a little wander around Ohatsutenji-dori and over to America Mura and Europe Mura before heading back south down Shinsaibashi-suji to Dotonbori. Ohatsutenji-dori was nice, full of higgledy-piggledy streets around the temple, but I found Shinsaibashi-suji to be too much like Market Street in Manchester on a Saturday afternoon, especially when we spotted someone carrying a Next bag.
It had started raining by the time we got to Dotonbori, and Dotonbori in the rain on a busy Saturday afternoon was less fun than it had been the previous evening. Somehow, despite the kanji and neon around us, it started to feel as though we could have been in any city in the world. It definitely felt less like Japan than other places we have been to.
We went back to Den Den Town in the evening. We had earmarked a restaurant Saijiki which was situated in the Namba Parks building close to the hotel. The description we read on Lonely Planet said it specialised in tofu dishes and seasonal vegetables, plus it was organic. What could go wrong? Our plan was to stroll through Den Den Town to Shinsekai, have a look at the Tsutenkaku Tower, then head back up to the Parks building and have dinner.
On our various excursions, we had passed by the tantalisingly named “A Year of ‘Your’ in Provence”, a love hotel close to where we were staying, so we went to have a look at the room rates, just out of curiosity. It’s good to know that you could have a rest for an hour or make a stay for 15 hours. In case you’re feeling ‘tired’.
As evening fell, so did the rain. Den Den Town was good fun, going in and out of the shops trying to find Yotsuba figurines and failing. When we reached Shinsekai, the rain was really coming down, but we managed to get a few shots of Tsutenkaku Tower.
Shinsekai interests me as a concept – this pleasure district was built as a ‘New World’ (which is what Shinsekai means) in the early 20th century, and was partially modelled on Paris. The Tsutenkaku Tower is supposed to resemble the Eiffel Tower. The other part of the district was modelled on Coney Island in New York. When we were planning our stay in Osaka, I thought we might try some of the kushikatsu, which is a speciality of Osaka. Kushikatsu are battered and deep fried foods from meat to vegetables to fruit and ice cream, and probably wouldn’t be out of place in Glasgow. We didn’t venture into Shinsekai this time, though, because we had decided to eat sensibly at the tofu restaurant and it was getting quite late. Instead, and I still don’t really know why we did this, we carried on walking south along Sakaisuji-dori. This is where the tale of woe properly begins. The area south of Shinsekai is a pretty rum area of town. It didn’t feel quite as safe as the rest of the city, but we saw some interesting sights, like the small bar where drunk salarymen were singing sad karaoke into a microphone at the counter. When we got to Dobutsumae Station, we turned right, thinking that we would catch a train on the Nankai line back to Namba and not realising that the next station along was on the Hankai tramway, which didn’t go anywhere near Namba. So we carried on walking. And walking. And walking. We ended up on National Route 43 heading west. We were off the tourist map at this point, but didn’t know it, because I thought we had managed to double back at Shin-Imamiya station and were heading north on National Route 25. Instead we had taken a backstreet route back onto Route 43, crossing a footbridge over Route 25 on our way. As we walked, the landscape around us became more and more industrial and unpopulated. We couldn’t see the glow of neon ahead of us, and it was this that made us realise that we probably weren’t walking towards Osaka anymore, Toto. After a bit more walking in the rain, and we were very wet by this point, as well as hungry, we came across a small branch of Jonetsu Horumon, a chain of yakiniku restaurants that would normally have been offensive to our delicate vegetarian sensibilities. Don’t worry, we didn’t go in to eat. Instead I mustered up my courage to speak actual Japanese and get us out of the fix I’d managed to get us into through a combination of a bad tourist map and even worse tourist map reading skills.
I took the map to the counter, and pointed at the Namba Parks building. “Sumimasen. Kore wa doko desuka?” I asked. The man at the counter picked up the map, turned it this way and that, and took it outside. I followed him into the rain. He did some more staring at the map, then realised that the rain was falling on it, so he took me back inside. He started to speak, thankfully not in a thick Osakan accent, so I was able to pick up a lot of what he slowly said to me. “You’re not on the map,” he told me. “This building is a long way away. You need to walk back down this road to the footbridge, then you need to cross the footbridge and turn left. You need to walk two blocks. You will see a building with a shape like an A on it. Turn right there. You will get to Imamiya-Ebisu station. You can catch a train to Namba.” He checked to see that I had understood, then wished us luck.
His directions were perfect, because they got us to where we needed to be. And I have never been so glad to have taken time to learn a language in my life. I don’t know what we would have done if I couldn’t understand some Japanese, because he and the other staff didn’t speak much English.
Our woes weren’t over, though. Oh no. Remember that restaurant that promised organic tofu based dishes and seasonal vegetable dishes? We found it, on the top floor of Namba Parks. We were just in time for the last sitting, but as we spoke to the waiter at the door, who seemed reluctant to let two bedraggled Westerners into his pristine buffet establishment, we discovered that all of the dishes were mixed with meat or fish. There was nothing for us. We should have tried the kushikatsu in Shinsekai after all. Or gone back to Shama again, as my husband had suggested.
It was a deflating moment. To have got lost, felt slightly scared, managed to get back on track and get soaked to the skin only for there to be nothing we could eat at the end of our adventure was almost more than I could take. I know it’s not entirely Osaka’s fault, but somewhere in the heart of me I felt that it was.
We then had to find our way out of Namba Parks, which didn’t seem to have a ground floor. We exited onto an upper walkway before we found an escalator which deposited us onto the street near a gym. It took another bit of wandering around trying to find a street sign we could decipher before we got our bearings in relation to the hotel. At that point we also found a Family Mart where we bought a fancy dinner of instant kitsune udon (I know, it probably had fish in it, so why didn’t we just eat fish at Saijiki? Because we hadn’t quite given up at that point) and crisps, which we ate in the hotel room watching crazy Japanese tv and trying not to let our misadventures in Osaka spoil the end of the holiday.
Hopefully people reading this who are heading to Osaka will have a better time. I like Osaka Castle. I like Den Den Town. I just don’t like Osaka, or the experiences we have had there, enough to give it another chance.