Monday, 17 September 2012

Exploring Osaka

A heavy thunderstorm kept me holed up in my room one evening.
The day following my excursion into the sordid underbelly of Osaka was lost to largely my laptop and a bit of lethargy. The morning after I had to move hostels, but there was a five hour gap between checking out of one and checking into the other, so I was destined to lose most of the day. I went and got my hair cut. I gestured I wanted it shaved but couldn't be much more specific, and ended up with the shortest shave I've ever had. Afterwards I had some time to kill, and so I played some more pinball and also went in one of the many games arcades. Many of the machines I recognised from cinemas and bowling alleys at home, and I spent a couple of quid shooting up some relentless zombies for a bit. Once I'd checked into my new hostel I planned to explore the neighbourhood, but the heavens opened and I was held captive by the dramatic downpour for a few hours, the only plus being I was treated to an impressive lightning display outside my window. Later on that evening the rain ceased so I could go for a wander around the dampened alleyways of where I was staying, before doing some laundry on the roof of the hostel, which had some alright views across Osaka. I spent the dregs of the night talking to two German guys who were also guests at the hostel, and for once I declined an offer to go out on the town. 

Views across Osaka at night from Momodami.
Sleeping apartments.
Many narrow alleys.
The day after the rains came was my final full day in Osaka, so I had to make the most of it. I still didn't make it out until lunch time, but six hot afternoon hours is long enough for me to be walking around an unknown city. I'd done a little bit of research and decided I wanted to visit Osaka Castle and a couple of vibrant neighbourhoods, which are more famous for their nightlife but still had plenty to offer during the day. Navigating the subway and train network was much more difficult than Moscow, the metro system which had challenged me at the beginning of my journey. I really had to concentrate and my brain whirred in ways not known since sitting my Eleven Plus. I passed this test too however, and ended up where I had intended to go. 

Osaka Castle is situated in a large park area, and on my way in I walked past some kids playing baseball, which seems to be a really popular sport here in Japan. There was also quite a lot of live music. Young, probably school-age bands were performing along a promenade, and I spent five pleasant minutes listening to them as I made my way towards the castle.

Young rock bands perform to the public.
A huge moat surrounded the castle, and from here I caught my first glimpse of the impressive tower. Within five minutes I had bought my ticket and was making my way inside the Imperial looking stronghold. It wasn't until I was inside that I realised the entire thing was as modern as a shopping mall, with a lift taking tourists up through the middle of the building to the highest and fifth floor, and mock-marble and chrome banistered staircases winding up alongside it. Post-visit research reveals that it was all restored in 1997, and the interior was intended to be modern and function as a museum. The castle, originally built in the 16th century, has been destroyed and rebuilt many times during the course of it's life - the last time it was badly damaged was in 1945 during bombing raids. The museum spanned several floors and was fairly interesting, but some displays consisted purely of photographs of things like statues, which are boring enough to look upon in real life, never mind in photos. It lacked artefacts, I like to see history more than I like to read about it when I'm visiting a site like this, and there were no good cabinets of weapons for me to choose my armaments for imaginary battles. There were plenty of illustrations which seemed to mostly date from the 19th century and told the story of the battles that had occurred here. These were actually quite enjoyable, they were very bright and drawn in a way that really reminded me of comics and graphic novels, both in the layout and graphic style. Perhaps Manga has it's origins in these 150 year old depictions. The top floor of the castle provides a panoramic view of Osaka, and I circumnavigated the restored ramparts before descending back into the park below.

A huge moat separates the castle from the park.
Osaka Castle 
Crossing the moat
One of the 19th century illustrations.
Views out across Osaka
I stumbled across this ceremony in a temple on the way out - I think it was a wedding.
After exiting the park I made my way via subway to the neighbourhoods of Namba and Dotonburi, both former pleasure districts and today house many shops, bars and restaurants. Incredibly long shopping arcades seem to be the norm in Japan, and many stretched out through these neighbourhoods like canals of consumption. I enjoyed drifting through them, the people flowed like rivers and I felt like I was sat on a rubber ring floating along and taking it all in. The people of Japan are not only incredibly polite, but also very stylish and fashion conscious. Many of the trends would be unrecognised at home and some viewed as downright bizarre, but this is a relatively alien society to me with it's own different subcultures and tastes. Even if to my foreign eyes some of the identities subscribed to seem strange, there's no denying that the Japanese are cool, in their own way of course. Some of the men sport huge haircuts, like a steam-punk version of the 1980s, that even our own Russell Brand may find too flamboyant. The women dress well too and are quite attractive to boot. It seems that somewhere along evolution's lines bust size has been traded for creamy thighs and dreamy eyes, and my head was turned a good number of times.

One of the many long shopping arcades filled with people.
I'd come across a dish in my research that was renowned as Osaka's main delicacy - Octopus balls, and I wanted to try them. Known locally as Takoyaki, many places were dedicated to serving these profiterole sized snacks and I bought mine in a side street away from the queues. The balls are largely made of a type of batter, filled with chunks of octopus, brushed with a sauce and sprinkled with dried seaweed. They tasted alright, but mine were straight out of the pan and rather hot and gooey inside. They were a bit like an undercooked and fishy yorkshire pudding, with rubbery chewy chunks of octopus leg inside; they were better than they sound even though I couldn't eat all six. 

Takoyaki - octopus balls.
A shopping street in Dotonburi - the octopus on the right marks a Takoyaki store.
The canal in Dotonburi
Something Japanese.
I walked for a while down different streets and through various shopping arcades, it seemed to never end and it felt like all of Osaka were out on this Sunday afternoon. I went into a musical instrument shop, the best I have ever been in, and spent a while picking out which guitar I would like. There was a specially crafted acoustic guitar retailing for £20,000, it had a big mother of pearl tiger on it in a Japanese garden scene, but this wasn't one I would have chosen. In many of the food outlets and convenience stores the staff are so attentive and diligent in their duties. I enjoyed listening to them even if I couldn't understand a word of what they were saying. They sounded like mopeds revving through the gears; a series of quick and high pitched syllables before a long, drawn out and rising syllable, repeated over and over again. Even when just simply buying a drink, the transaction is filled with chatter and smiles and a bowing of the head. 

Shoppers in the arcades.
A tiny fragment of the huge music store.
Quieter side streets.
This area is the place to be once night falls, apparently.
Sunset canal.
After six hours on my feet in 30 degree heat, I decided to head back to my hostel. I'd enjoyed what I'd seen of Osaka, even if I hadn't made the most productive use of my days here. I'd only explored a tiny fraction of Japan's second city, but it seemed a cool and vibrant place with lots going on and plenty to do.

Taking the train back to the hostel.

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