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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
Back to Osaka.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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 shop itself was also fully equipped with everything one needed for cosplay.
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.
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.
Ah, Osaka. My tummy and I miss you already.
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!