yokoso! osaka part 1 – hanami (cherry blossom viewing)

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asia / japan / on the road
Somewhere in between first bloom (kaika) and full bloom (mankai)

I have always been fascinated with both traditional and contemporary Japanese culture. My younger sister is even more of a fan than I am–she has even taken a few language classes and has gone to workshops in script-writing dubbed versions of popular anime for Philippine TV.

Plus, if I were stranded on a desert island and had the choice of eating only one type of cuisine forever and ever, it would be Japanese. Yum.

In planning our trip to Osaka, Japan, I knew that the biggest hurdle would be the language barrier. We needed a guide, but within a reasonable budget.

Thanks to patient research on Japanese government sites (so that I knew anything recommended would be trustworthy), I found the Osaka Systematized Goodwill Guides Club (OSGG). The OSGG-ers assigned to us made the trip easier for my Mom, my sister, and me. They were invaluable in navigating the local subway system, which has barely any English translations, as tourists who’ve been to the city may know.

OSGG (their site can be found here) is a volunteer group whose members provide free guide services within Osaka. All you have to do is pay for the guides’ meals and transportation costs when you travel around the city. Not bad, eh?

To request their services, submit a request form (which can be found on their site) and they’ll email you shortly thereafter.

We took Cebu Pacific flights to Kansai International Airport and made our way via subway to Shinsaibashi, a district in Chūō-ku ward and the main shopping area of Osaka.

We arrived in the evening and got a bit lost on our way to the hotel, which made my Mom very nervous. Whenever we asked for directions (which we did twice), the locals were always extremely helpful. Or at least, if they knew how to speak English (or if we spoke Japanese better), they would gladly have told us exactly where we needed to go. I could actually sense our mutual frustration.

The cashier at the 24/7 store ampm even told people at the queue to hang on a sec–which they did, bless them–then he drew us a map and, via all sorts of creative hand signals, we finally got to our hotel.

That aside, I was pleasantly surprised with how central Hotel Villa Fontaine was, and found it reasonable for the price.  Bear in mind that the toilets may be small for really tall people.

Morning calisthenics on the TV

Morning calisthenics on the TV

On our first day out, we were accompanied by Mr. Akira Ikehata, a retired professor who had been to Manila once, and a young mom named Mrs. Kumiko Hikawa, who was introduced to us as a trainee guide. They arrived on time at the hotel. We gave them some Cebu dried mangoes, which they seemed to be delighted with, and off we went.

Our first stop was the Osaka-jyo Castle Park for the main purpose of our trip: hanami (sakura or cherry blossom viewing). Sakura season normally begins late March to early April. When we arrived, the pretty pink flowers were not yet in full bloom but were already looking very lovely.

Somewhere in between first bloom (kaika) and full bloom (mankai)

Somewhere in between first bloom (kaika) and full bloom (mankai)

Osaka Castle was originally constructed by feudal lord Hideyoshi Toyotomi in 1583. It was burned down in 1615, rebuilt in 1629, then destroyed by lightning in 1665 (talk about bad luck!).

In 1931, the castle was reconstructed through donations of the local citizens. It is bordered with 4,000+ cherry blossom trees, which makes it an ideal and popular picnic spot once the season is in full swing.

On our way to Otemon Gate, built during the early Edo period in 1628

On our way to Otemon Gate, built during the early Edo period in 1628

the castle itself, which is illuminated at night

the castle itself, which is illuminated at night

I am amazed at the variety of things you can get from vending machines in Japan. This is a vending machine within the castle grounds--I practically inhaled Kirin's Royal Milk Tea throughout this trip. Absolute YUM milk tea goodness.

I am amazed at the variety of things you can get from vending machines in Japan. This is a vending machine within the castle grounds–I practically inhaled Kirin’s Royal Milk Tea throughout this trip. Absolute YUM milk tea goodness.

Next, Mr. Ikehata brought us to Namba Parks, a shopping mall with plenty of trees and benches to sit on. We weren’t really in the mood for malls so decided to skip it.

It was time for lunch anyway, and he took us to this delicious yet cheap (¥130/plate!) sashimi /sushi place which shall remain forever nameless because I can’t read Japanese. The photos, hopefully, will help me locate it next time I come visit.

Time for lunch!

Time for lunch!

The nameless place where we stuffed ourselves with fresh tuna, squid, snapper, eel, fatty salmon, octopus--and even salmon roe nomnoms

The nameless place where we stuffed ourselves with fresh tuna, squid, snapper, eel, fatty salmon, octopus–and even salmon roe nomnoms

We passed by this beautiful, old theater which was due to be demolished. The old making way for the new.

We passed by this beautiful, old theater which, sadly, was due to be demolished. The old making way for the new.

Incidentally, we had requested the National Bunraku Theater to be included in our itinerary, but because it was closed at the time we didn’t get to go. Bunraku is old, traditional Japanese puppetry at its best, and declared a World Heritage by UNESCO in 2003.

The next few places we went to entirely on foot, since the shopping arcades where all conveniently connected to each other. Crowded, lively, colorful, and noisy–it was truly a slice of everything young and hip in Japan.

We walked to Doguyasuji, a shopping district famous for its many cooking supplies and fake food. I have a soft spot for fake food, especially the miniature ones which come in key chains. How do they make it look real enough to chomp on?

That's me with a whole display of fake dishes in our Jakarta food trip, which I talked about in an earlier post

That’s me with a whole display of fake dishes in our Jakarta food trip, which I talked about in an earlier post

Back to Osaka.

A restaurant serving the infamous fugu, or blowfish, which requires specially-licensed chefs to prepare and cook. Else, diners are highly likely to suffer a quick death. Clearly my Mom was solidly against the idea of having an afternoon snack in the place.

A restaurant serving the infamous fugu, or blowfish, which requires specially-licensed chefs to prepare and cook. Else, diners are highly likely to suffer a quick death. Clearly my Mom was solidly against the idea of having an afternoon snack in the place.

We finally arrived in Dotonbori, which has all the famous neon lights, including the Glico Man, and the famous Dotonbori Canal.

First, we stopped by Hozenji Temple, which is a small Buddhist temple built back in the 1600s and miraculously still intact in the middle of the very modern Dotonbori area. A peaceful spot in the midst of all the city’s busy-ness.

the temple, which was open air, was smoky with sweet incense

the temple, which was open air, was smoky with sweet incense

walking along the quiet back streets

walking along the quiet back streets

We were making our way to the bridge. There was plenty of eye candy along the way–I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many neon shop signs in my life (caveat: I haven’t been to NY or Tokyo yet).

things to buy, places to go, people to see

things to buy, places to go, people to see

There was a Turkish ice cream guy who was absolute magic. He made your ice cream cones disappear, gave you two when you thought there was just one--we actually bought one cone each just to see him perform again.

There was a Turkish ice cream guy who was absolute magic. He made your ice cream cones disappear, gave you two when you thought there was just one–we actually bought one cone each just to see him perform again. In the photo is a highly-amused Mrs. Hikawa.

The Glico man, who looks better lit up at night

The Glico man, who looks better lit up at night

Another Osaka landmark, the Kani Doraku mechanical crab

Another Osaka landmark, the Kani Doraku mechanical crab

According to the Go Japan website, the Glico man, the symbol of Glico candy, was originally installed in 1935. Meanwhile, the Kani Doraku mechanical crab can move its arms and legs. It’s found above a restaurant famous for its grilled crab legs and other crabby dishes.

On the bridge linking the Ebisubashi-suji and Shinsaibashi-suji shopping districts

On the bridge linking the Ebisubashi-suji and Shinsaibashi-suji shopping districts

While the bridge itself it an excellent spot to people-watch, don’t linger too long, as it’s supposed to be a popular “pick-up” place because of the familiarity of the Glico Man. Go figure.

We had a popular Osaka dish, takoyaki (doughy fried balls filled with octopus or octopus+cheese), for an afternoon snack before saying goodbye to our kind guides for the day.

We bought small takoyaki keychains in a souvenir shop near our hotel. The shop, which specializes in takoyaki souvenirs, was playing a catchy Japanese song about the dumpling--which got stuck in our heads for the rest of the trip.

We bought small takoyaki keychains in a souvenir shop near our hotel. The shop, which specializes in takoyaki souvenirs, was playing a catchy Japanese song about the dumpling–which got stuck in our heads for the rest of the trip.

After our guides left, we decided to do a bit of exploring on our own before getting dinner. My sister is a big fan of manga so we decided to make our way to Amerika-mura (American Village) to check out Mandarake, the largest manga and anime shop in the world.

The salarymen on their way home from work

The salarymen on their way home from work

The sexiest building I've ever seen, aptly named 'Namba Hips'

The sexiest building I’ve ever seen, aptly named ‘Namba Hips’

Inside Mandarake, rows and rows of all the manga ever written (or so it seems)

Inside Mandarake, rows and rows of all the manga ever written (or so it seems)

The shop itself was also fully equipped with everything one needed for cosplay.

Hair of all colors and lengths -- be whoever you want to be

Hair of all colors and lengths — be whoever you want to be

It was getting dark by then. Amerika-mura was filled with a lot of young people. I remember a group of them rode by in an open-top Jeep shouting expletives in broken English. While this all seemed to be in the spirit of good fun, it made my Mom somewhat nervous so we decided to go back to the shopping arcade near the hotel and look for dinner there instead.

On a side note, there were a lot of beauty and cosmetics shops along Shinsaibashi selling all sorts of creams, powders, and all types of fake eyelashes. The Japanese ladies we saw seemed to very well put-together too. The good thing about the number of shops was the presence of beauty sales everywhere, which made the good-quality brands a steal.

Gold condoms -- only in Japan

Gold condoms — only in Japan

Without our guides we were feeling a bit lost on where to eat, but eventually chanced upon Manmaru, a cafeteria-style restaurant which served excellent hot udon noodles (I got the seaweed flavor), yummy tempura and onigiri.

my delicious bowl of seaweed udon

my delicious bowl of seaweed udon

As an added bonus, the place is VERY affordable

As an added bonus, the place is VERY affordable

Ah, Osaka. My tummy and I miss you already.

Next: Yokoso! Osaka Part 2 – A Bit of Hollywood and Anime

Note: We went to Osaka, Japan in April 2010, before the unfortunate tsunami that hit the country last year. The people of Japan have done an amazing job of rebuilding their country since then. 私はあなたの勇気を賞賛!

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The Author

I am 100% Filipina. I've lived in Manila, Jakarta, and London. Right now, I'm firmly planted in the tiny island of Singapore! I caught the travel bug early on. I also love reading, dark chocolate, spur-of-the-moment food trips, Fridays, dachshunds, and lazy weekends with my family or the Hubby.

2 Comments

  1. eihongo says

    Nice pics. Love Namba Hips! Really good Mexican food in there (when you feel like a change). Strangely enough Japanese chefs do most countries dishes really well. Perhaps somewhat ironically I have had better pasta and pizza in Japan than Australia, despite there being many Italians here! ;)

    • We didn’t have the time to go inside Namba Hips or try the pizza/pasta…yet another reason to go back to Osaka (though we hardly need one!). I loved your post on Japan-things-you-like. The politeness and the kindness of the Japanese for the many times we got lost in the city really stuck with me. And I LOVED the heated toilet seat at the hotel. Haha.
      Thanks for dropping by! :)

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