As public school teachers in Jeollanamdo, we get 24 days of winter vacation. (There are also national holidays, summer vacation, and a vacation for renewing our contracts.) Anyway, we took 10 of those days and went to the Kansai region of Japan. It was an overwhelmingly mind-filling trip. It was a deliciously stomach filling trip as well.
Sadly, it started with my (Akasha) getting a nasty stomach virus. (I’ll post on the awesomely different Korean public health care system later.) We had to stay home a bit longer and miss our previously planned Seoul leg of the trip. On Sunday night we headed up to Busan for two nights. I was tired and only “eating” broth, so I got to watch Mike eat a beautiful burger and Korean grilled lamb ribs as I nursed myself up to drinking smoothies. Torture. I love lamb. It is like really cute bacon. I miss hamburgers so much…
On Tuesday the 17th, we left for Osaka on the 16 hour long Panstar Ferry. It is pretty cool. For about $200 USD round trip each, we went to Osaka. There is a cafe with full bar and 3 window/ walls providing a spectacular view of the ocean with wifi. The bunks in our rooms were small but comfy. The buffet was okay. The “show,” which was either a guy with a ponytail playing the flute or a woman in a ballgown playing electric cello, both to a pre-recorded background music (sort of a jazz-fusion karaoke) was as ultra cheesy, as you’d imagine. The staff was kind and the boat was very clean. It is in serious need of a costmetic update, has very 80’s decor, but the staff are constantly polishing every bit of glass and brass in their downtime. It had a Korean style spa that needs an update, but the facilities were clean. Best of all, we traveled internationally without the stress and rush of an international airport.(grrr, airports aren’t fun anymore)
After a night being swayed gently to sleep by the rocking of the boat, we arrived in Osaka at 10 or so on Wednesday morning, and began to look around the city. Our previous stay had been in Fukuoka, a smaller, working class city; by contrast Osaka is larger (22 million in the Kansai region), more cosmopolitan, with a host of world class attractions including huge ferris wheels, long suspension bridges, and great art museums. We intended to see as much as we could in the five days we had.
Our first hotel was the Hostel 64 Osaka , a quaint hostel run by an architecture firm, so it was artistic and comfortable, with a great, friendly staff. So we checked in, dropped off our bags, and started the walk across the city to Osaka castle.
From here, we took the subway down to the Shinsekai district to get a look at the great tower that was first built over a hundred years ago, then rebuilt after World War II. The district around here is retro-futurey, with lots of exposed steel, neon, cheesey golden statues, crowded streets and colorful ‘characters’ who want you to eat in their shops and play pachinko in their parlors.
Then, it was up to the HEP 5 shopping mall, where there is one of the two great ferris wheels of Osaka.
We went up just as the sun was setting, so we saw the city spread out below us in the great reds and oranges of the sun reflecting off the glass and metal of the buildings in the great sprawl of Osaka. It was romantic, and beautiful, and we wished we could go around again, but it was getting late and we had to find dinner.
The next day was cold and rainy, which was a disappointment, as we had planned to take a short train ride up to Minoh and see a waterfall in the region. But no matter. One of the hotel clerks, a very friendly woman named Nami, gave us directions to the art museum, which was right next to her favorite Udon noodle place. So, we spent the afternoon with a belly full of fresh-made noodles, looking at some recent modern art by Yayoi Kusama, who I’d never heard of but has been creating conceptual and ‘obsessive’ art since the 1950’s. Good, but weird, stuff.
After completely exhausting everything there is to see in Osaka in 36 hours (Mike jokes) we went up north, to Kyoto, former capital of Japan and still its traditional cultural heart. But Kyoto deserves its own post.
When we returned to Osaka, three days later, there was surprisingly still a lot of city to see, and a lot of great meals to be eaten. First, we went to the Osaka aquarium, which has one of the largest tanks we’ve ever seen. This one was large enough to hole an entire whale shark, a school of groupers, and devil rays about the size of a beach umbrella. We stood enchanted, watching them circle, for at least two hours. Then there were jellyfish, giant crabs, and seals that wanted to kiss Akasha through the glass. It was amazing!
After the aquarium, we’d planned to ride the other ferris wheel in Osaka, a monster called the Tempozan, which is one of the largest in the world. However, due to strong winds, it had been shut down. Akasha was very disappointed. But, this meant we could go have burritos in a place across town. Bad news, however, was that the burrito place was closed, so we had to go across the street to a bistro that served up some nice pizza, a fruit tort that was pretty incredible, and wine by the glass. They were playing Amelie on their wall .
The next day, we were able to take a day trip up to Minoh, a small town on the end of the Hankyu line. This was another nice little town whose main road leads up the side of a mountain until the village disappears and you’re taking a nice nature walk that ends in a pretty fifty-foot waterfall. We kept seeing signs that featured monkeys, and wondered why. Later, we learned that Minoh is famous for semi-wild monkeys. How we missed them, we have no idea. Maybe their vacation matched up with ours, and they were out of town…
When we got back to Osaka, we made another attempt at the Ferris wheel, and it was working! So we went around and got another spectacular view of the massive sprawl of Osaka. And then feeling lucky, we returned to El Zocalo, the burrito place that had been closed the day before, and… it was open! So we had a lovely dinner of burritos, homemade chips, and Dos Equis. El Zocalo is run by some Osakans who lived in San Francisco for years and the burritos were the real thing. Osaka is a fantastic international city. We also chatted with a nice guy named Guido, who turned us on to the best sushi place in town, which we vowed to visit before our ferry left the next day.
The next day we ended our Osaka adventure by visiting Endo Sushi at the Osaka fish market. This place is amazing. It is allegdly where the fish buyers go to taste what they buy. It is open from early dawn until 1 p.m. These bloggers did an excellent job describing the experience, I’ll let them do it for us.