|October 20, 2009
Today we left China to head to Japan. I know Elizabeth was relieved to be heading off for a change of scenery and in some ways I was too. Whilst Shanghai had been a bit of a bust in terms of what we saw, I had really enjoyed China and could definitely imagine re-visiting Beijing and Hong Kong. It is such a shame that the Chinese visas are a little restrictive. Ours were expensive as we had to use a visa agency as neither of us were in our home countries ourselves to process them but, even so, it is still an expensive and slightly over-the-top process. The problems with Elizabeth’s visa highlighted this as apparently even the visa agency didn’t understand and couldn’t translate them correctly. It was a little frustrating but ultimately worth the hassle to facilitate some of the amazing stuff we saw along with some of the not-so-amazing, too. I think China was pretty much what I had been expecting with very few surprises. Well, bad surprises at least!
As we packed up this morning, the phone rang in the room as our taxi had turned up half an hour early. We got down there as soon as we could but I wasn’t rushing although I did forego my morning coffee! The driver actually spoke good English and drove well – this was certainly a new experience for us in China! The traffic on the way to the airport was pretty bad as many of the roads are under construction. Still, it took us just over an hour. The taxi fare was exactly 200RMB. I was glad it didn’t go much higher as I only had 233RMB left and the driver would’ve been out of luck otherwise (I had warned him at the start it was all I had).
We got checked in pretty easily and stamped out of China. The stamps are adding up in our passports and we are going to have to get extra pages added to Elizabeth’s pretty soon, especially as Japan took up another new page. For those losing track, here is a rundown since we left Bermuda:
2. Ireland (stopover)
6. The Netherlands (stopover)
7. South Africa
11. France (stopover)
16. Hong Kong
So, including Bermuda we’ve done 19 countries in just over 3 months. Crazy! (I’d usually point out somewhere around here that Wales isn’t actually a country but this is no time for petty xenophobia!) I reckon we have a similar amount left too!
We headed to the airport lounge to relax and pigged out. I think I had 2 coffees, three bottles of water and SIX sandwiches in our time there! They were mini-sandwiches, I promise! Even Elizabeth got stuck in with a bowl of cereal, pain au chocolate and a croissant before tucking into some noodles for lunch. The noodles were like the ones we had had a few times before – they cost under a dollar and you just add hot water. They are like pot noodles, really, but much tastier!
On the way to the gate, we stopped by a shop and picked up a Shanghai magnet to try and use our final bit of Chinese money. We ended up with about 14RMB left which is about $2 so that was a good effort.
On board the plane, I read the Lonely Planet stuff I had downloaded about Japan, seeing as we still hadn’t found the new book yet. I also couldn’t resist the food on the plane but thankfully it tasted awful and I just ate my salad and vegetables – something healthy, at last! I countered the healthiness with a glass of wine.
Landing in Osaka, it took some time to get through immigration as we had not been given landing cards on the plane and by the time we had completed them we were at the back of the queue. Still, it wasn’t that painful. I only have to think back to Egypt and remember that nightmare to quell any negative thoughts about other immigration lines! By the time we got through, our bags were already through and we headed through Customs. We got a bit of a grilling there as the man didn’t believe how many stamps we had in our passports and was asking us a few questions. Elizabeth got a bit annoyed with him but I just politely responded so we could get out.
We found an information desk and snapped up some info and maps about Osaka and the trains. The lady at the desk spoke good English and directed us towards the station and an ATM. Unfortunately, I wasn’t paying enough attention and we walked the wrong way to the ATM and had to double back!
Once we had cash, we headed up to the station and there we bought two tickets to head into the city. We only had a couple of minutes to make the train but we got down to the platform, found our carriage and hopped aboard. The train was very new and very clean. It was also very punctual, leaving the station at the exact time on our tickets and, 39 minutes later, arriving at our destination right on time.
Feeling pleased that we had got that far, we followed the signs to the taxis. We didn’t have any decent maps of the city and where our hotel was so we decided to get a taxi the last little bit. We had the printout of our reservation but it had no Japanese on it and no-one understood where we wanted to go. The printout had a phone number on it but the driver refused to call it. I would’ve called it but my phone wasn’t working. By this point, Elizabeth was getting really frustrated and I just wanted to get to the hotel and put my heavy bags down.
The guy organizing the taxis though was very helpful. Despite not speaking English he knew the information desk inside the station would and he took me there. The two girls there were helpful, too, and printed the address in Japanese as well as a map. Back at the taxi stand, we gave this to the driver and he got us on our way. Our tickets on the train had been 1,390 Yen each, about $15. The taxi to the hotel which took about 10 minutes cost 1,540 Yen or $17. Taxis were definitely not a cheap option here like they had been in parts of China. Still, it got us to the hotel in one piece and we got checked in easily.
Once at the hotel, I had an envelope waiting for me. We were heading to Fukuoka later on the trip and while we were there, the final sumo tournament of the year was taking place. I’m not sure Elizabeth was too interested first of all but wanting to do something truly unique to Japan and Japanese culture, we decided to get some tickets to the opening day of the tournament. The envelope contained our two tickets and, honestly, I was quite excited by the prospect of seeing it live. Not yet though; a few weeks away!
The hotel had given us a map of the area and a few restaurants were marked on it. We looked around a few of them but nothing really struck us until we found a little restaurant serving curry-type dishes. The menu had no English but pretty detailed pictures and we just decided to point and hope! Inside, a few locals were sat eating and it seemed a pretty “fast-food” joint as the customers were coming and going at a quick rate. We couldn’t understand why as when our food arrived the plates were large and almost over-loaded with rice and sauce. Mine was a beef and scallion mixture while Elizabeth opted for a vegetarian option which had corn, potato, spinach, etc. We tucked into our hearty meals and they were surprisingly good. In the time we had eaten about half our dinners, an older local man had come in, ordered, eaten, paid and left, leaving not a scrap on his plant. He must have inhaled his food! Along with an Asahi beer each, our dinner cost just under $24. It wasn’t cheap compared to what we will spend when we hit south-east Asia but we reckon this could be one of our cheapest meals in Japan.
We stopped at the supermarket on the way back and picked up some dessert, a couple of beers and some breakfast stuff. That was another $20 spent but hopefully, the bread and jam will last us most of the stay here in Osaka. Given we had a daily food budget of $20 each, we could be hard pushed here in Japan and might have to resort more to the supermarkets. We are both happy to do this but it isn’t a great way to spend the evenings. Even if you have been out all day, it is still all a bit too sterile and dull just to sit and eat some home-made noodles in your hotel room, especially as our TV here only has one English channel and the on-demand TV is $11 per movie! Later in Japan, we will be staying in hostels and here it is a different atmosphere where it is often more fun to eat in the shared common areas and meet some fellow travelers. After Osaka and Tokyo, we are heading through Kyoto and Hiroshima where we are staying in hostels so hopefully this will see budget reductions!
The accountant in me has certainly come to the fore in this trip as I’m keeping track, as well as possible, of what we’re actually spending. I think sometimes I’m a little anal about and Elizabeth probably thinks I’m slightly crazy and obsessed!
October 21, 2009
After a bit of a lie in and some bread and jam for breakfast, we headed off to Kaiyukan, the city’s aquarium. To get there, we had to take the metro. The closest stop to us was about 2 blocks from the hotel which was a relief after feeling a little isolated and stranded in Shanghai. At the hotel, we had bought a special discount ticket for the aquarium which included a metro pass for the whole day. This cost just over $5 each. We weren’t sure yet if this was a good deal as we didn’t have a clue what rides on the metro cost!
At the metro station, we found our line easy enough and, like everywhere else so far in Asia, the platforms and trains were clearly marked and nice and clean. Unlike China however, people here were much more patient and polite, standing back to allow people off the trains and getting themselves on without pushing and shoving. It was still quite busy but nowhere near the hustle and bustle of, say, Beijing.
It was seven stops to Osakako station and we were there in no time at all. I’m not sure if Osaka is that small or if the train was just speedy!
On arriving at the aquarium there was a sign outside. It advised visitors that it was currently busy inside and suggested coming back later. We didn’t want to do this and were willing to risk the crowds of school groups. Inside, there was no queue, presumably due to the sign outside and we used our entry cards and were straight in.
First, we walked through a tunnel which had fish and rays swimming all around us. From there, a long escalator took you to the top level and you worked your way down. The exhibits covered the areas around the Pacific from the Alaskan coastline, to Mexico, the Antarctic, the Great Barrier and, of course, around Japan itself. The otters and seals were great to see, particularly the seals which could obviously see through the glass and were enjoying playing with the small kids touching the glass.
The main tank though was the main attraction and here there were many types of rays, including a manta ray, a weird looking sunfish, tuna, potato cod and loads of different types of sharks. We saw white and black-tipped reef sharks, zebra sharks, tiger sharks as well as two large whale sharks. These two were about 4.5m long and looked smaller than those we’d seen in the Atlanta aquarium last year and a LOT smaller than the 10-12m one we had been snorkeling with in Mexico! Still, these creatures were amazing to see and surprisingly graceful as they swam around in circles, the schools of smaller fish swimming along around them. There were also three hammerhead sharks here and they were amazing to see. I don’t think I’ve ever seen fully grown hammerheads before and these were awesome so close up. The main tank was visible from just about every vantage point and on various levels. This was a great way to view the exhibit as you got to see different fish at each level, depending upon their normal habits – surface swimmers or bottom dwellers. One thing we also saw here which was very strange was a blowmouth guitarfish. I’d never even heard of these before and they looked quite similar to a shark at the back end but had the flat face of a ray. Some Googling later, it appears the taxonomy of this creature is a bit disputed but some people group it with the eagle ray family. I can see that similarity!
The last two exhibits were pretty interesting as well. The first of these was showing creatures which swim around the deep waters surrounding Japan. Here we saw long thin spinefish, which swam upright, and some absolutely huge giant spider crabs. These things were so creepy looking and followed you around. Elizabeth ran her hand along the side of the tank and one of them followed her intently with a menacing look! Finally, there was a jellyfish display. Whilst I like these, all jellyfish displays are the same – various shapes and sizes of jellies in tanks light by funky coloured lights. Maybe I’m asking too much, but can someone think of something original to do with jellyfish?!
For lunch, we walked over to the Tempozan Marketplace where we were greeted by many tourist shops. Most of these seemed to be selling sweets and cakes of some sort which all appeared to be expensively packaged. Needless to say, it wasn’t what we wanted for lunch so headed to the food court. Nothing there caught our eye so we wandered through Naniwa Kuishinbo Yokocho, an area which recreates downtown Osaka from 1965. There were lots of cool little stalls and restaurants here selling all kinds of things from deep-fried octopus balls to rice cakes to traditional Japanese dishes with a raw egg on top. We then saw a place selling bread rolls which were filled with a Japanese curry sauce. After the success of last night, we tried one of those. We then headed back and bought a couple of rice cakes – one with seven spices (don’t know which ones!) and a spicy one called red pepper. After trying all three, we decided that we liked them all but that the curry roll was the favourite. The curry sauce was a nice flavor and the roll was more like a soft doughnut, including a slightly sweet taste. We decided to get another of those to help fill us up. Thinking of our budget, our food for lunch cost us 550 Yen, about $6 so that was an improvement. The trouble was our two small bottles of water cost 400 Yen, over $4. It appears we can eat reasonable cheaply here but drinks are expensive unless you get them from a supermarket or even a vending machine.
And on that subject, a note on vending machines. They are everywhere! They are literally on every street corner and outside half the shops in-between the corners, too. They sell mostly just drinks ranging from Pepsi and Coke to water to tea and energy drinks. Most of these cost 100 Yen each which is just over $1. I think we might have to use these a little more often in future. Walking back to the metro later in the afternoon, one street must have had about 50 machines in about 100 metres!
Whilst in the marketplace, we also picked up some souvenirs, including a couple more magnets (we’re going to need a huge fridge) and some Hello Kitty stuff, including some chopsticks for Elizabeth!
After some shopping and eating, we headed onto the Santa Maria, a replica boat, which sailed around the dock area by the aquarium. The cost was quite expensive but we thought it would be a good way to see a different perspective. However, there was not a lot around this area and apart from a long range view of the Universal Studios and an IKEA store, much of the view was of a container ship port. Very disappointing and not value for money at all.
We had planned to go on the large Ferris wheel here too to get some views over the area but having seen the area from sea-level we passed on this and saved our money.
It was still early so we headed back towards the city and the Umeda Sky Building which had a high viewing area of the city itself. As it was getting near sunset, we thought it would be a perfect time to go and visit this. After coming out of the metro station, we eventually found the right road and the underpass to the building and just let ourselves in. We were surprised not to see a queue or a ticket office and we just got in the lift. Once a bit higher up, we found the ticket office and paid our entry fee. We got to the roof terrace just in time to see the sun go down and got some great sunset views. We waited downstairs a little bit for it to get darker so we could get the nighttime views as well. It didn’t take long and 15 minutes or so later we were back on the roof terrace admiring the views in a different light. It was a nice way to end our sightseeing for the day.
After the sightseeing, we went looking for a book store. Having persevered and found my laptop, we were now persevering to find the bloody new Japan Lonely Planet book. After asking a couple of lovely young Japanese ladies (the guidebook told us to ask young females, honest!) we found the Hilton Plaza and the Junkudo bookstore inside. There we found what we wanted, in English. What a relief! Unfortunately, the book cost nearly $50 but as we were going to be in Japan for nearly a month and would be going to places by train, we thought it was a necessary cost. However, we won’t be book shopping in Japan very much based on those prices. I’m glad we stocked up in Shanghai!
From there, we headed to an Irish pub for some dinner. Having sampled some Japanese food already and having three weeks here, we knew we had time to eat some more conventional food too. After a lovely meat pie, mash, beans and a Sapporo beer, we headed back to the hostel, both tired and ready to rest our tired legs (and drink some of the beer we got from the supermarket last night!)
October 22, 2009
After another quick breakfast in the hotel, we headed out to Osaka-jo, the large castle close to our hotel. The weather was lovely and warm but not too hot. As we walked to the castle, we wandered past the Osaka Museum of History which was housed in an impressive new building. We had not planned to go here as we suspected that the history of Osaka would be explained at the castle and would provide enough detail for us. Still, the building was nice. Directly opposite was the city police headquarters – this building was absolutely huge. Considering we’ve not seen any police since we got here, this building seemed larger than necessary!
We crossed the road into the gardens which surrounded the castle, outside the outer moat, stopping to take some pictures of the amazing outside walls and the Memorial Tower in the gardens. We walked around until we found the bridge to cross the outer moat, entering the castle by an impressive gate. The architecture here was similar in many ways to that in China but you could definitely see the subtle differences, most notably in the use of colours other than red!
The gardens here were very pretty, still very much green despite being well into autumn. You could see some of the changing colours but not much yet. Hopefully, we shall see more as we stay longer in Japan. Also in the gardens were many brightly coloured flowers including some impressive chrysanthemum displays.
Through a series of other gates and across the dry moat, we entered into the inner grounds of the castle and got our first glimpse of the main building. It was a tall white structure with a triangle roof every couple of levels with each triangle decorated in gold. Inside the castle was the castle museum and after paying our entry, we joined the many school groups in touring the museum.
We started at the top level, the 8th floor, which is a viewing level giving views over the surrounding area and the park in particular. Working our way down, we visited displays on Hideyoshi Toyotomi who built Osaka Castle and unified the nation, folding screens from “The Summer War in Osaka” and historical artifacts from the era of Toyotomi. These included some really cool samurai armour suits which were amazingly detailed but looked next to useless for wearing in an actual fight!
Throughout the castle, we encountered many schoolchildren. Looking around, it seemed we were the only (or one of very few, anyway) white people around and this meant they all wanted to say hello to us. It was very funny and our replies to them of “konichiwa” (good afternoon) were met with giggles by them also. We had one girl come up to us and greet us. She told me her name and said “nice to meet you” and held out her hand for me to shake it. It was so funny and cute all at the same time. The next kid was equally funny asking me “what time do you have?” I gave him an answer and he thanked me although I’m not sure he understood what I’d said.
All the children were surprisingly well behaved and were allowed to roam the museum almost unguided. It seemed there was often only 2 or 3 adults to groups of around 30 children. Each group seemed to be identifiable by their headgear, with one large group all wearing bright yellow caps! Outside, they were all getting their pictures taken by the teachers in front of the castle and it was so funny watching them posing. It was also interesting to see a couple of kids acting up and the teacher smacking them across the bottom. In the UK or US I can only imagine a major over-reaction. Personally, I have no problem with this within reason and I don’t think it was any surprise the children here are so well disciplined when out in public places compared to many we have come across in other countries (like the brats at the Moscow Zoo, for example!).
In fact, I almost owe children an apology – after my rant a month or so back about child-free days at museums, zoos and the like, the children here in Japan have done a remarkable job in putting a plus mark against the behavior of their age groups around the world. It’s just such a shame they are in the minority!
For lunch, we grabbed some snacks and ate back in the hotel as we were so close. We had a bit of a rest and tried to figure out some more of our trip – we know we will be in Africa again next summer but haven’t yet worked out how we plan to get back. We were going to go directly back but now we thought we might spend some time in Europe first. Still, plenty of time to change our minds but we looked at some ideas, anyway.
Later that afternoon, we headed to Dotombori, an area of little streets lined with shops and restaurants either side. We had come here as it was supposed to be a good place to come at night and see the bright lights. We’d gone out early thinking we could wander around for a while and that’s what we did! The streets here were very narrow and it felt like we were in “proper” Japan, even though I suspect this is a bit of a tourist trap for Osaka. Even so, it was nice to just be out and about, especially as the air here seems to be many times cleaner than anything we had in China.
We had wanted to try some traditional Japanese food and had found two different alternatives through the internet and found two places in the area we were going. As we wandered around, we found both. The first – which we had seen depicted everywhere around the city by a clown – was shut, despite the website saying nothing of the sort. They had a shop which was open selling all kinds of souvenirs but the restaurant was closed. The second, which looked really nice was in a completely different price range from the review we’d read and it was a price range way beyond us. As we walked along by the side of the river, we saw lots of other places but nothing seemed very appealing – this is strange for me as I’ll normally eat anything but I was just in a funny mood, I guess!
We took some pictures of the weird and wonderful restaurant signs and got some pictures of a man advertising a load of goods under the brand Glico. He even had a shop too, with all kinds of food items with his figure on it. It seemed souvenirs in Osaka revolve around food and extravagant packaging!
We eventually found an Indian restaurant which looked good and we just settled in for a nice curry. The menu choices were pretty decent and we both ordered a curry and a naan to share, expecting rice as par for the course. When it turned up, the bowls of curry weren’t very big and we had only the naan to accompany it. However, it was almost a pleasant relief to leave a curry house not completely bloated as the food tasted really great and we both mopped all of ours up!
Following on from what I wrote previously about the price of drinks, it seems worse in bigger restaurants, too. I had a Kirin beer and it was 600 Yen – almost $7 and it was about half a pint. Even Elizabeth’s coke, the same size, was 500 Yen (nearly $6). From restaurant to supermarket, drinks here are pricey. In Russia, drinks were pricey eating out but cheap at the supermarkets so we balanced it out by buying more from the shops but here, there is no cheap option – except the vending machines. Any chance Tokyo will be cheaper? I doubt it!
Tomorrow will be continued on another page - seems I'm writing too much now I have a laptop!