Osaka was a short stopover on the way from the far distant south Yakushima to the sacred mountains of Koyasan. But despite the only two nights spent in Osaka, the second biggest city in Japan, there was time to feel the vibe of the city.
It’s busy but people seem to enjoy life in a very relax way and Osaka is also a good place to be introduced to the Kansai gastronomy, very focus in meat (the famous Kobe beef) but where there’s space for vegetarian options, like the okonomiyaki a kind of cabbage and egg pancake, the tsukemono a Japanese style pickles marinated in rice vinegar (a subtle mix of seat and sour taste) and the yatsuhashi a delicate sweet made with bean paste and wrapped in thin layer of glutinous rice dough.
I explore mainly the area around Namba and the endless commercial area of Dotonbori located nearby a canal and the Shinsaibashi-Suji, an endless covered street full of shops and restaurants. It’s more interesting to visit this area in the evening where the neon lights are on, hiding the less interesting concrete architectures of the city. In fact, Osaka shows more appealing during the evening time, where the pace of city life seems even more intense and vibrant, but where the locals seem to enjoy life in a laidback style, filling up restaurants and bars, no matter in each day of the weeks!!
The Pachinko is a widespread phenomenon in Japan and the Pachinko parlors, as these places they are called, are everywhere from big cities to small towns, where the impressive massive buildings, which look more like sophisticated warehouses are easy to spot. The pachinko is a mechanical game that doesn’t require many skills and is a mix of entertainment with gambling. Despite gambling is illegal in Japan, Pachinko is considered an amusement game, as apparently the prize can’t be directly exchanged by money… but for sure it is highly addictive, as people line in long queues at pachinko parlor waiting for the doors to open!! In Osaka, around 10 am, on a weekday, about one hundred people were waiting outside.
People, mainly men, spend hours in front of these machines that line one after another in endless corridors that fill up huge rooms. There is a constant mechanical noise that gives to the place a kind of hysterical urgency, which contrasts with the passivity of the hypnotized-looking players.
While I stay in Osaka I use my last day of JR Pass to visit Nara. I regret. In fact, the Tōdai-ji Temple is impressive by its huge then gracious proportions, and the Buddha statue really overcomes the other famous Daibutsu, in Kamakura. Not in size, as Nara’s is the biggest one, but by the beauty and gentleness of Buddha’s features, by the deities that flank the statue, and by the magnificent temple that shelter it… or maybe because of the autumn colors of the surrounding park.
All this should have left a good impression, but was something there that made me rush and leave the place quickly, without exploring the city. Its indeed a very crowds place and don’t expect to find any spiritual environment between… I visit it at lunchtime and more or less could avoid the big tour groups.
Surrounding the Tōdai-ji Temple, there’s a park where deer live freely… free but not wild, as these animal are totally adapted to the human presence, waiting for the food that visitors offer them and in return they let themselves be petted, as it is part of the local tradition that touching a deer brings good luck, as these animals are considered sacred. These deer are totally adapted to the human presence looking carefully into the hands of visitors expecting some food! Sad.
Where to sleep in Osaka:
The Mad Cat Hostel Osaka… the place is cool, the staff also and they have two nice cats, one white and one black, that give a certain touch to the place and a bit of a homy feeling.
The negative thing is that there’s a bar attached, where most of the guest gathering, and if you are not in the drinking mood your schedule maybe not fit with late arriving in the dorm… and you’ll probably gonna disturb the other guests sleep if you are an “early bird”!!!
From Mad Cat Hostel you can quickly reach Namba Station or Shin-Osaka by the metro Midosuji Line.
Where to eat in Osaka:
The Namba Udon is one local dodgy place located in one of the most popular commercial areas, where you feel that nothing changed since they open, maybe dozen of years ago, where a layer of grease and dust warps the place, where the dim yellowish light increase the sensation. The aromas of food impregnate the air, and while you waiting at the counter you can observe the messy way of preparing and serving the delicious udon. This restaurant seams that don’t fit with the shiny glow of the surrounding shops but is always full of people, mostly locals.
I like it so much that I even got off at Namba on my way form Kumano Kodo to Kyoto just to have again the Donburi (vegetables and egg) with udon soup at Namba Udon, one of the most delicious meals that I had in Japan!!
The udon (think rice noodles) in the Kansai area served differently from the Kanto region(Tokyo/Yokohama), with a lighter broth, both in taste and in colour.
The okonomiyaki is a traditional dish from the Kansai area that consists of a kind of think pancake made with potato and egg, a bit like a messy Spanish tortilla, but cooked in a flat metal surface. To this cabbage, potato and egg base, other ingredients are added as vegetables, tofu, yam… and meat. Traditionally the okonomiyaki is topped with a sweet dark sauce, but there are also other options with cheese and many other toppings. Sometimes it’s served with stir-fry noodles. If chosen with careful this is a tasty meal that suits vegetarians… but not vegan!!
I had a very good experience that warm up my hear at the Okonomiyaki Nico, a tinyplace nearby Mad Cat Hostel where you feel at home, and have the chance to try a “tailor-made” vegetarian option of the okonomiyaki with different toppings, made just in front of me and served with a sip of sake. Remarkable.
From Osaka (Namba) to Kyoto station:
If you take the bus from Tanabe you can stop at Namba Station or at Osaka Station. From both stations, there is direct train connection to Kyoto, and it’s cheaper to travel by train than by bus.
From the bus terminal, I walk until Namba Metro station, took the Midosuji Line (180 ¥) to Yodoyabashi and there took the Keihan Main Line to Gion-Shijo Station (420 ¥), that is a bit further from Kyoto Station, but it drops me closer from my guesthouse. Maybe it isn’t the cheapest option but was the most convenient to avoid to take the metro in Kyoto… but it all depends on where your accommodation is located.
Here is a resume of the option given by the tourist information center in Osaka (inside the metro Namba station) that, by the way, is a good source of information also about Kumano Kodo and Koyasan.