It only takes about 30 minutes to get to Osaka from Kyoto by train. Because of their relatively close proximity it’s certainly possible to visit Osaka as a day trip from Kyoto but I’d always advise staying the night in Osaka if possible. I arrived at Osaka Station and from there took the metro south to the neighborhood my hostel was in. For my three nights in Osaka I’d be staying about a third of a mile north of the city’s famed Dotonobori area and after checking in and unloading my stuff I figured I’d start my time in Osaka there.
Dotonbori is a very popular food, shopping, and entertainment district that is located along a canal. At night the region is lit by hundreds of neon and LED signs and as I was arriving in the area they were all starting to turn on. Perhaps the most famous of those signs is the Running Man, which has become something of a symbol of Osaka. Owned by Japanese company Glico, the Running Man is a huge sign that was first built back in 1935 and has been updated multiple times since then. While the sign has always been of a man running on a track, arms outstretched like he’s about to cross the finish line of a race, with today’s modern sign you see various Japanese landmarks dynamically passing behind in the background. In a sense the Running Man and I have something in common in that we travel all around Japan.
I must have spent about two hours exploring the Dotonbori area and gathering photos. The streets were packed with tourists like me taking in the sights and every store and restaurant was full of people. Along the canal there was some sort of event where aspiring pop stars were performing for the public—or at least, that’s what I think was happening—and while I was there I took the opportunity to try out takoyaki, a food you can get in a number of places around Japan but is considered an Osaka specialty. Takoyaki is pieces of octopus meat that are cooked in dough balls and then covered with toppings. Seeing as how I didn’t know what all the toppings were, I had all of them put on my order, just to try them all (and to channel my inner travel snob and be able to say that I had the “authentic” experience of not skipping out on toppings). Some of the toppings tasted better than others, but my takoyaki tasted fine overall. Personally, I’d probably just put mayo and cheese on my takoyaki if I ever got it again.
When I was done taking photos in Dotonobori I pulled out my phone and searched for a grocery store to buy some food. There was a Life grocery store only about a thousand feet away, but it took a surprisingly long time to get there. To reach it I had to pass through a juncture where multiple streets, highways, and train tracks met and when I finally got across all of that I had to figure out where the entrance was. As it turned out, the store was down in the basement level. Like I said in my post on Tokyo, Life seems sort of like the Whole Foods of Japan, meaning that the food is good but expensive and had I gone there consistently I would have bankrupted myself. While picking out food I got the strange feeling that I was somehow Vitamin C deficient and among other things I bought a small package of orange juice that I drank on the walk back to my hostel. That feeling was probably completely unwarranted but drinking the orange juice made it go away. Back at the hostel there was a group of loud Chinese people in the kitchen area. Part of me was a little annoyed by this as I ate dinner, but it was a Saturday night so I suppose people being loud and having a good time was to be expected. They, along with many others in Osaka, would be staying up late that night, but after several days of intense tourism in Kyoto I needed to go to bed.
No surprise, the next morning it took an hour after my alarm went off for me to get out of bed. Part of that was all the strain of Kyoto catching up to me and admittedly another part was just the fact that I wasn’t 21 years old anymore. For much of the day I felt somewhat tired and at times I had difficulty seeing without having my sunglasses on. Still, even with my body not operating at the way I wanted there were two big things to accomplish that day: visiting Osaka Castle and then day tripping to the nearby town of Nara.
Built in the late 1500s, Osaka Castle was the seat of power of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the man who forcefully unified Japan under his rule, however in the early 1600s Tokugawa Ieyasu (the guy whose mausoleum I saw in Nikko) seized power and the castle was burned. It wasn’t until the 1900s that major restoration work began and during World War 2 the castle somehow survived despite the rest of Osaka sustaining heavy damage. Today there are a few restored buildings around the castle grounds, but the big attraction is the rebuilt main tower in the middle of the castle. Inside is a modern museum that tells the story of the castle and Toyotomi Hideyoshi himself (with handy English descriptions of everything for non-Japanese speakers like me). At the top of the tower you can step out onto an observation deck with decent views of the surrounding area, though there are safety nets that make it tricky to get a clean shot of the city from up there. After exiting the tower I checked Google Maps and found a train station not too far away that would get me to another station from where I could hop on the train to Nara. It was time for the day’s second major activity.
Like Kyoto, the town of Nara is only about half an hour away from Osaka by train (unless you get on one of the slower trains). Nara holds the distinction of being founded in 710 as Japan’s first permanent capital, and for being home to some of Japan’s oldest temples. Those temples interestingly are also much of the reason that the capital was moved out of Nara in 784—the Buddhist monks in Nara’s temples were gaining too much influence in the government, and thus to keep them from becoming the effective rulers of the nation the central government was moved first to Nagaoka and then, 10 years later, to Kyoto. When I arrived at Nara’s train station I got on a bus that took me out to the area near Todaji Temple. My plan was to start there and steadily work through Nara’s historic district until it was time to leave.
Very shortly after getting off the bus I ran into Nara’s famous deer. In the Shinto religion deer were viewed as messengers of the gods and in Nara about 1,200 of them freely roam around the area in and nearby Nara Park, where most of the city’s major historic sites are located. Although they are technically wild they have no issue with being around humans. Seriously, I walked right up to one that was lying down and I took a selfie with it. If you like, you can feed the deer special crackers that are sold in the park, and the deer have developed a habit of bowing their heads since they’ve learned that humans tend to feed them when they do that. One word of caution I’ve heard is that the deer can get a little aggressive if they smell food in your pocket. I didn’t see anyone having trouble with the deer while I was in Nara, but if you go there just remember that the deer are still wild animals, tame as they may appear, so don’t do anything stupid.
After walking around Nara Park and saying hello to the deer I went to Todaji Temple. The main hall of Todaji Temple is the largest wooden building in the world, but what you see today is actually a reconstruction that was built in 1692 and is only 2/3 the size of the original hall that was built in 752. Inside that main hall is a Buddha statue so large that its hand is as long as a grown man. Various other Buddhist statues and decorations can be seen inside the main hall, along with a model of what the original hall was believed to have looked like.
From Todaji Temple I walked across Nara Park to Kasuga Taisha Shrine. The path leading up to the shrine is lined with stone lanterns and when you enter the shrine you’ll see that it’s full of hundreds of bronze lanterns. Hence, I refer to Kauga Taisha as the “Latern Temple,” which sounds like something out a fantasy book or video game. From what I’ve read online, the lanterns are lit twice each year during festivals that occur in February and August. While I didn’t get to see the exterior lanterns lit, inside Kasuga Taisha there’s a room that’s completely dark and has a few dozen glowing lanterns in it for the public to view. The walls of the room are all mirrors, so you get a cool optical illusion that makes it look like there’s a sea of lanterns stretching out before you.
When I came out of Kasuga Taisha I decided I’d buy some of those crackers to feed the deer with, but I found all the stalls selling them had closed. At that moment I realized that Nara is one of those towns where everything closes early, so I hurried over to Kofukuji Temple to get in one more temple but I got there just barely too late to get in to the paid area. While most of the temples and other historic sites in Nara have areas that are free and open to the public 24 hours a day, the parts where you have to pay to get in normally close around 5:00pm. I spent a little more time checking out the region near Kofukuji Temple and then began the walk back to the train station, passing another temple along the way. In retrospect I should have come to Nara first and then gone to Osaka Castle at the end of the day, or maybe even spent the night in Nara. I guess this is a lesson for any future visit(s) to the city.
Back in Osaka I went out after dinner to an ice cream place that was highly rated by the online community. This ice cream shop served something I had never had before: soft-serve ice cream that’s placed between two halves of a piping hot fried bread bun. It looked sort of like an ice cream hotdog and was very tasty (and I’m sure it was also absurdly unhealthy). Food is the thing that comes to mind when I think of Osaka, and even though all of Japan is known for its food, for me Osaka is the country’s foodie capital. A lot of people might disagree with me on that point, saying that Tokyo is Japan’s foodie capital, and they’re probably right. Please don’t @ me.
The next day in Osaka wasn’t all that eventful, primarily due to the weather. Unlike where I live in Colorado, the weather forecasts in Japan are very reliable—rain all day was what the forecast showed, and rain all day is what I received. That morning I got up later than normal and didn’t leave the hostel until around 10:45am. I first went back down to Dotonbori to get take a selfie with the Running Man sign and then I walked through the covered shopping street to a metro station. From there I traveled out to Shitennoji Temple, one of the oldest temples in Japan. First built in 593, the temple has burned down many times in the past but each reconstruction has closely followed the designs of the original temple, so what you see today isn’t that far off from what the first temple looked like. The downpour of rain, however, made my viewing of the temple less enjoyable and I decided against going into the paid area. Had it been a nicer day I definitely would have gone in, especially because Shitennoji is one of the few temples where the public can enter and climb the pagoda. On my way back to the metro station I came across a small graveyard, and being the odd duck that I am I stepped in for a quick look. In Japan they tend to use stone pillars to mark graves and you’ll occasionally see a Buddha statue or two.
I next returned back to the Dotonbori area to expand my culinary horizons by eating at the mythical establishment known as McDonald’s. This might have been the only time in Japan when I bought American fast food and I did it purely to see how it compared to McDonald’s in America. My meal tasted very close to what I remembered McDonald’s tasting like back home, which was a little disappointing because I had hoped I would have an experience similar to what I had gotten in 2015 in Sarajevo where I ate the best tasting McDonald’s of my entire life. While the food tasted about the same, one thing that is different about McDonald’s in Japan is that they deliver, though I didn’t see any of their scooters driving around Osaka that day. After leaving McDonalds I got ice cream from an ice cream truck that stuffed ice cream into melon pan bread. It was good, but the truck confusingly appeared to advertise that it was the second best in the city—not something that you normally brag about.
It was now time for the day’s main event: the Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan. The aquarium is located out by the harbor, not too far from geographically Universal Studios Japan, and has marine life from all across the Pacific Ocean. When you enter the aquarium you are first taken up to the top and then you steadily work your way down. The biggest attraction is the massive central tank that houses two fully-grown whale sharks. As I slowly descended to the ground level I saw dolphins, seals, penguins, (giant) crabs, jellyfish, stingrays, and so many other creatures. Near the exit there was a pool where people could touch sharks and rays. I touched the back of a nurse shark and it was rougher than I expected, almost like fine sandpaper.
When I left the aquarium I started walking back to the metro station but I stepped into a nearby shopping mall to check out a Lego store that was inside it. When I was younger I played with Legos a lot and though the sets in the store seemed similar to what I’ve seen in America it was still interesting to see this sort of thing in Japan. On my way out of the mall I filled out a survey for the mall staff that were asking people about ways to increase foot traffic in the mall. I got some sort of trinket for my time—I think it was a pen, if I remember right.
Later that night while eating dinner at the hostel I got into a conversation with an Australian girl named Megan. In Australia she worked as a teacher in the city of Perth and she was in Japan on a two-week vacation. I’m not an expert on Australia but I knew enough to know where Perth was and we chatted for a few minutes before I left the dining area and retired to uploading photos to social media.
On my final day in Osaka I spent some time in the morning writing online reviews for places I had already stayed at while in Japan. In the old days I wrote reviews for every single place I lodged in, but with time I had come to realize this wasn’t necessary and by that point I was only writing reviews if I had something notable to say. In the case of my guesthouses in Kanazawa and Kyoto I wanted to leave a really positive review because they both had done a really good job and they deserved more business. Once that was done I loaded up my backpack and left it at the front desk while I headed out for a final walk in the Dotonbori area.
In Dotonbori I grabbed a few more photos and then went back into the covered shopping streets to visit a bookstore. Browsing through the manga section of the bookstore, it became clear just how out of the anime/manga scene I was. There were a few titles I recognized, but the vast majority of the stuff I saw were things I had never seen or heard of before. Then again, I never was any sort of anime or manga geek, so my very limited knowledge of what was in that store should have been no surprise. One of the floors of the bookstore was dedicated to video games and I felt much more at home there. True, it had a bunch of obscure Japanese games that I didn’t recognize, but most of what I saw was familiar to me. One of the most interesting things for me was observing the differences in cover art that some Japanese versions of games had compared to their Western editions.
Looking around the bookstore was interesting, but I had a train to catch so I started back towards the hostel. Before getting there I stopped again at the ice cream shop that made those ice cream hotdogs and got another one. This time I had chocolate-vanilla twist ice cream, which was good but I think I prefer the plain vanilla ice cream that I had chosen the first time I was there. Once that was eaten I got my backpack from the hostel and took the metro to Shin-Osaka Station for my shinkansen (bullet train) out of the city. The journey west was continuing. Next stop: Hiroshima.