Our time in Japan is slowly but surely coming to an end. We decided to spend the last few days in and around Osaka. We had travelled through it before on our way to the five lakes but only stopped for breakfast. This time we were in it properly and for five days.
Our hostel was located quite a bit south of the city center near the zoo. Therefore we also for our fair share of subway travelling. The city center is actually split into two parts. There is the modern part around Osaka and Umeda station with high rise buildings and shopping centers. About four subway stations south of this is the downtown area with the well-known neon lit streets and a mindboggeling array of shops, restaurants, bars and clubs.
On our first day we did not actually stay in the city but went straight on a train to see Nara. It had been the Japanese capital in the 8th century but the administration was moved away when the local temples became too powerful. Today people flock there to see what is left of the old temples and the surrounding parks.
There are three big temples in Nara: Todaiji, Kofuku and Kasuga Taisha. The first of them consists of some of the oldest wooden buildings in the Japan. They date back as far as the 7th century. Obviously they have been restored multiple times over the years so we were not sure how much of the wood was still original. No matter how old they are they were still very impressive both in size and ornamentation. When we were admiring the five storey wooden pagoda wondering what it might look like inside an old lady approached us with a folder in hand, eager to give us a tour of the pagoda. We could not go in but she had photos that gave us a glimpse of the interior decoration. She showed and explained us things about the buddha statues and how the individual floors were hung from a central pillar rather than attached to each other to allow swinging with earthquakes rather than trying to resisting them. This principle is still used for high-rise buildings today.
In the city there was a small museum showcasing Nara and some examples of earthquake building protection. On a special seat, Matthias tested what some of the biggest Japanese earthquakes felt like with and without countermeasures. There was quite an impressive difference. In fact the whole museum rested on such systems and they could be seen from the outside.
Just round the corner where two traditional gardens. For some reason only one was open and strangely enough it was free for foreign visitors. It was calm, peaceful and pretty despite the time of year. We had a nice lunch in a mud-walled lookout soaking up the tranquility of the setting.
After a short walk we arrived at Todaiji temple. It sits at the edge of a forest and is famous for its huge wooden gate and temple hall. The main hall is the home of a 16m tall bronze buddha statue on an impressive platform decorated with flower petals.The surrounding hall is only two-thirds of its original size after it burned down, but it is still the biggest wooden building in Japan with a footprint of 57×50 meters. In the north-eastern corner of the statue is a pillar with a small cut-out at floor level called buddha’s nostril. Parents bring their children here to crawl through the small opening. This is meant to bring enlightenment in the next life.
Another thing that quite a few temples have in common and that Nara is known for are the deer living in the parks. They are regarded as messengers of the gods and hence protected. People buy special food from stalls near the temples and feed them everywhere. The animals are so used to being fed the same moment the food is purchased, that they can become very pushy and even aggressive when people tease them or try to keep the food away from them. Sometimes the deer even bite…
By going to the garden and then the short way to the temple we accidently missed out on the proper entrance. When approached from the actual road, visitors are greeted by the huge Nandaimon gate. This wooden entrance gate is guarded by two tall and chunky buddhist guardians called Nio. It was built in the 12th century and is still very impressive even though the colours have faded over the years.
To the right and up a small hill lies another temple complex. It consists of many well maintained wooden halls, a bell tower and quite a few shrines. Surrounded by forest, it has a very relaxed and natural feel than the temples mentioned above. It also attracts fewer tourists. We went for a very enjoyable stroll around the buildings and through the forest before heading back to our hostel (not without a yummy coffee and cake break at Nara station).
The next day was Zoë’s birthday. To celebrate, it was her wish to go to the aquarium. It is mainly based on the ring of fire around the pacific but also has a section about the rainforest. Unlike other aquariums, it also had trees in it with some birds which also formed part of the otter enclosure.
The main attraction is undoubtedly the cross-shaped shark tank. It is three storeys tall (or deep) and is home to a lot of smaller fish, sharks of various sizes and rays. Kings of the water (at least in size) are two whale sharks! Neither of us had ever seen them in real life and we were very impressed how majestically they roamed around their little ocean. The next surprise were a group of dolphins which were fully occupied with playing with some floats and chasing each other. It was incredible to see them turn around at full speed in very tight circles.
Another multi-storey water tank housed a group of very playful Californian sea lions. The other aquariums were smaller and had fewer or smaller fish. In the center of spiral staircase was a tall narrow tank with a sunfish and a swarm of squid it was strange to watch that big and flat fish swim. Because of its special fin positions it moves in a different way to normal fish.
We were totally confused when all of a sudden a big group of Japanese business men turned up on a guided tour. The poor woman guiding them did her best telling them about all the fish but for some reason at least half of them did not seem interested at all.
Back in the city we spent some time looking for new shoes for Zoë before heading to the umeda sky building. Instead of the viewing platform at the top we went for the small but nice German christmas market at the foot of the tower. The stalls where very nicely decorated and sold typical German christmas decoration and food. Children (both, actual and pretend age) could ride on and old merry-go-round and a small steam train. We had a bratwurst appetizer and would have had some mulled wine, but it was rather pricey and we would have had to keep the mug. Strangely, a refill was possible (and cheaper), but they would not take the mugs back and clean them. We were impressed and surprised to see the stalls actually being run by Germans (with Japanese help). The stalls come from Germany too and were shipped across in containers. This certainly justifies the higher price tag.
For dinner Matthias surprised Zoë and took her to one of the best burger restaurants in the city. After all the Japanese food we had both developed a serious burger craving which needed to be satisfied. After this treat we hit the strip and went for a stroll around the downtown nightlife district with its famous neon lights, bars and shops. It was (unsurprisingly) super busy and crowded and Japanese pop music and christmas songs were being played everywhere. It was nice to roam the streets there for a while but soon we had enough and rather enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere in the hostel.
On our last day we followed the recommendation of our hostel manager and took the train to the expo commemoration park. This is where Osaka hosted the 1970 world exposition. Nowadays it is a beautiful park with lots of forest, streams and ponds. There is a second, smaller part to it which has been turned into a Japanese garden, but we stayed in the other part (partially because at the end we did not fancy walking all the way back to the other end to walk across. There were some nice statues dotted around the park together with playgrounds and picnic areas. We even found a small garden/allotment area. Near the ethnographic museum is a big boating lake with a number of ‘swanaloes’ (swan shaped pedalos). You have to pay to see the park, but we recommend a visit to this green retreat from the busy city.
After a quick coffee stop on the way back we went to see Osaka castle. It was too late to go inside it, but our aim was the park around it which was quite nice during the early evening. With the day tourists gone we got to enjoy the views of the lit up castle and had it almost to ourselves. Apart from the foundations Osaka castle has been reconstructed with walls made of concrete. It still looks nice on the outside though.
After one last night in our nice hostel we used our last day to prepare for our next adventure: Vietnam. After the great organisation and cleanliness we got to enjoy in Japan Southeast Asia would be a big culture shock.
Overall Osaka is quite a nice place. It is a great place for nightlife and shopping. Around the bigger stations (especially Osaka and Umeda) there are a great number of high-rise building with shops, cafes and offices. They even have kilometer long underground passages packed with shops and restaurants. Osaka station has a rabbit warren-like network of them which also connect it to the surrounding shopping buildings. They are incredibly confusing to navigate. Maps and signage is sparse and finding a particular shop without knowing where it is is nearly impossible. For people who love shopping (i.e. Japanese) it is a dream; for everyone else (and during rush hour) it is a nightmare.