Osaka, Japan 2015
The first time my feet stepped on Japanese soil was twenty-seven years ago. I was 6 and my family and I visited Tokyo. I cannot remember every single detail of that trip but I do recall colored tights, kiwi, and Tokyo Disneyland.
The lure of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter was what really pushed me to book a trip to the Land of Rising Sun again – in Osaka to be specific and with my family in tow once again. Well, that and the Dalai Lama’s wise words:
I’m glad I gave in to the Dalai Lama – and to Harry Potter – because this trip has turned out to be nothing short of mesmerizing, authentic, and enjoyable. It seemed that every nook and cranny of Japan’s second largest city screamed of a culture that is entirely different from mine and there was nothing I could do but marvel at its sights and sounds (or lack of; the Japanese are very quiet people).
We stayed at Daiwa Roynet Hotel in the Kitahama area. It is a business hotel and is relatively affordable. The rooms are clean and well-equipped (I miss the warm toilet!). One can practically not bring a toiletries kit because everything one can need is provided by the hotel: hair dryer, shaver and shaving cream, tall bottles of shampoo, conditioner, and body wash, facial foam, ponytail holder, butterfly clip, hair brush, and towels, towels, towels! The breakfast buffet isn’t bad, either. They provide a mix of Japanese and continental selections – and unlimited curry sauce! Which you can drown your rice in!
I can get used to this.
My attitude toward dining in a particular country is to devour its local cuisine. I can never get my head around going to, say, Hong Kong and dining in an Italian restaurant no matter how good the reviews are. But that’s just me. In Osaka, I followed the travel advice I perpetually read about in travel books and blogs: Go where the locals go. Eat where the locals eat. I approached the friendly hotel staff one night and asked for a good ramen place (because there was no way I was leaving Japan without diving into a steaming bowl of authentic ramen) and she directed me to small ramen place in the neighborhood which she said was popular among the locals. Turned out following her recommendation led me to the best tsukemen ramen I still have dreams about.
Dotonbori is still, of course, a must-visit in Osaka. Osaka isn’t the “kitchen capital” of Japan for nothing and in Dotonbori, one can have his/her fill of the famed okonomiyaki and takoyaki (which Osaka is known for) along with rows of eateries offering everything from sushi, ramen, to yakitori. It seems to have more tourists than locals, though, but if you follow where the locals line up, your tummy will thank you for life, I’m sure.
If all else fails, the neighborhood convenience stores offer filling gastronomic options too. The first night we arrived in Osaka was close to midnight. We were famished and trooped to the nearest 7-11 because it was the only place still open. There, we helped ourselves to cartons of soup, donburi, noodles, and maki – and they were surprisingly good!
Food trucks parked inside the Osaka Castle Park
Don Shop in Shinsaibashi
Ramen dinner at this place. Nothing can get more authentic. There was a sake place next door.
Because we were first-timers, we did the tourist-y thing of visiting the Osaka Castle, Dotonbori, and Shinsaibashi. And Universal Studios. Of. Course.
A wall full of wands
A fun thing to do in Osaka is to people-watch. One can spend time in a local coffee shop (Japanese coffee – yum!) and watch professionals smartly-dressed as they rode their bikes to work (Osaka had me at its bike-riding culture), little Japanese children with their boxy backpacks independently walking their way home from school, and Japanese women who can pull off wearing sneakers and an electric-pleated skirt.
Yup. These things still exist! :)
We visited the Grand Front Osaka and only got to check out Kinokuniya Bookstore. If you know me well enough, you’d know I hardly leave a country without checking out the local magazines they have – so I really did not mind that Kinokuniya had no English books at all. An invisible string pulled us to the roof deck, though, where we were welcomed by a calming sight – a small rooftop park. And you know me and open spaces.
Do walk around the neighborhood where your hotel is situated at. Because Kitahama is at the heart of the business district, the neighborhood can be very quiet and serene during off-duty hours and it was nice to engage with the neighborhood – even at midnight when we came across a fellow who clearly had too much sake. Cannot get more authentic than that!
Taking cues from the Japanese
While it was fun doing the tourist-y stuff (I totally geeked out in The Wizarding World of Harry Potter), I admit the most fun I had was allowing myself to be engaged with authentic experiences – the stuff one only reads about in books or manages to get glimpses of in movies: Japanese schoolchildren being all independent at 6 years old, neighborhood eateries, rows of parked bikes, slurping my soup, the muted colors of a Japanese wardrobe, fellows who roll their sleeves to enjoy dinner with friends after work, straight Japanese men with handbags (which they carry off soooo well), locals who read books whilst on a train ride, among other things. And if only for these (which do not cost a single yen), I am raring to go back.