Osaka’s a big place. Nearly 18 million people big, which makes it the third largest metro area in Japan after Tokyo and Yokohama. It’s also a bustling commercial hub that keeps late hours and early mornings – a true workhorse for the country.
The city, itself, is a little gritty. Sure, we stayed in a somewhat seedy hotel in an area that’s “getting better,” according to the nice lady at the train station information desk; but, overall, it really does feel a bit more raw, authentic, and approachable in comparison to the rest of the cities we visited in Japan. In terms of cleanliness, Osaka doesn’t hold a candle to Tokyo or Kyoto (in fact, we saw some very blatant littering at a major pedestrian intersection close to the main square) but we found the people and atmosphere immensely warm and welcoming.
In my mind, the city of Osaka was merely a jumping-off point for Hong Kong and I didn’t have great expectations for it. We made a lot of same-day plans and played things by ear so perhaps our footloose, fancy-free approach was the perfect recipe for a relaxing yet fulfilling visit.
We visited the Osaka Aquarium (Kaiyukan) and found it to be a breathtaking feat of acrylic glass and fluid mechanics. Considered one of the finest aquariums in the world, Kaiyukan has a massive (and I do mean massive) center tank that scales eight floors and is filled with some fascinating Pacific marine-life. Nick, a herd of Japanese children, and myself spiraled down the tank from the top level pointing, oooing, and awing all the way. Its cylindrical design allowed us to see the aquatic aliens from different levels and perspectives. There was also a one-way traffic rule that we didn’t conform to because in addition to feeding our urge to live dangerously we also wanted to catch the feeding times of the animals. Highlights include a pair of whale sharks, a family of sea otters, and a very strange garden of giant king crabs that looked like something out of a horror flick. Really, those crabs were beyond strange; it was like looking in on a club of mutant spiders under a black light. All they needed was a discoball…perhaps we should donate one.
Speaking of seafood (of course we have to talk about eating), there’s a small strip of restaurants and bars down by the Dōtonbori area that we frequented nightly. Osaka is often called “the nation’s kitchen” for good reason; the food is incredible. To both our surprise and delight, we had some of our most delicious and memorable meals there.
Our first evening out we found a Kushikatsu place (deep-fried meat, seafood, and vegetables on skewers) that had a consistent line of hungry patrons spilling out the door. We’ve found those sorts of queues to be quite helpful; when in doubt, look for the line of locals. Nick and I treated ourselves to a dozen or so helpings of fried fish, yams, eggplant, quail eggs, cheese with fish paste, some mystery meat, and a couple of beers. Dirty, yes. Delicious, you bet.
At some point we had drinks at a tiny whiskey bar where we put Austin on the map, literally. The bar owner pulled out his atlas and asked us to mark our city and sign our names, which we did happily. In return, we asked him to do us a small favor, which he did somewhat confusedly.
We also hit up Skavoovie – a reggae bar where we introduced both the bartender and his photographer friend to the musical genius of Sublime. In turn, Nick and I were taught the art of eating Fugu. However, I can assure you that when the time came to dine on blowfish, we approached it somewhat differently. But that’s a different story altogether.
It’s safe to say that Osaka capped our very awesome Japanese adventure. The city is full of surprises. And we like surprises. Did you know that in Osaka you can buy a Macbook Air tax free, complete with U.S. keyboard? Surprising, isn’t it? We certainly thought so.
So there we were, day 15, our last one-way plane ticket in hand. We bade the breathtaking country farewell with a couple of green tea ice creams from atop a very expensive manmade island (aka the Kansai International Airport). You should look it up, it’s fascinating. Anyway, onto Hong Kong.