December 25th 2018
So it’s time for my 6th trip to Japan, this time I’ve decided to experience Christmas and New year… Uneventful run from London Heathrow to Osaka via Amsterdam, long and boring in the way these things are. But no unscheduled excitement like flames, screaming etc – much the way I like it.
Extremely efficient immigration. They have machines that take index finger prints and a photo, these were manned by extra staff (I’d guess drafted in just to deal with peak tourist times – some were definitely retirees). Very friendly, but when I greeted the lady good morning in Japanese (ohayogozaimasu) she proceeded to talk to me in Japanese. I explained I only knew a little, and she switched to very good English with a smile.
Customs – this was a bit more intense than the usual check forms, wave through. When I said this was my 6th visit in 3 years, he very carefully checked all the stamps in my passport, then had a rummage around my suitcase and backpack. Clearly thought I had a little import business of some kind going on!
After grabbing my bag, I spotted the Nintendo check in sign and knew I was in Japan. This was very quickly confirmed by the sight of artwork wrapped elevators with Bowser and Princess Peach on them. Sadly since it’s the winter, coldbrew coffee is tricky to find so had to make do with Starbucks iced Americano.
First sight of a mascot – the statue representation of the Namba Rap:it fast train, very martial. Rap:it to Namba, then subway to near my hotel. Cold here, down around 4degC (though I later found that a week beforehand it was about 20degC, and the autumn leaf colours had only just faded, very late).
Much to my dismay not only could they not check me in earlier than 3pm as I’d hoped, they actually had me down as a 9pm check-in! . Something to do with the price deal I’d booked. 1,200 yen later they’d agreed to 3pm, so I dragged my jetlagged bod around the neighbourhood to kill time. Nice shrine complex where they were burning last year’s charms (little wooden tablets or decorations kept from the previous year to ward off evil and bad luck). Then found a great gyoza shop for lunch.
Checked in, crashed out for a couple of hours.
Headed to Umeda Sky building in the evening, long walk from the hotel past some great illuminated trees – these stretch nearly 3km along one of the main roads. Got to Umeda around 8.45pm to find a German Christmas market in full swing. Decided to go up to the observatory deck first. The queues turned out to be a nightmare – in total 1hr45min to get a 15 min walk around the rooftop. Worth it though, but sadly just as I got back to ground level all the lights on the market turned off – and they’d run out of beer! Time for a big gallery:
Never mind, found a Craft Beer Market at Osaka main station – actual handpumps on the bar, a local brewery doing English style ales, very nice. They also had Brewdog Santa Paws on draft.
KFC: so in the end, I didn’t get to try KFC for Christmas. But as I found out the next evening, this wasn’t as much of a loss as I thought…
December 26th 2018
Quick breakfast at Café Di Espresso – with possibly the sweetest most processed pancakes I’ve ever eaten!
Travelled a short way on the Osaka Loop bus and had it all to myself. Very friendly and helpful guide, turns out she was from Kumamoto – and was most impressed with my Project Kumamoto Kumamon lapel pin. She also had the other tickets that came as part of the trip package – a 2 day Osaka Metro pass, and a cruise ticket for the afternoon.
Walking across to the grounds of Osaka castle, I came across a massive queue outside the Osaka-jo event hall. Almost all were women, turns out they were after last minute tickets for a J-Pop boy band called Bullet Train. They’ve been together 7 years, but look about 15…
Heard the strains of Christmas songs and turned to see a very cute Dotto land train driving along with a load of passengers. I’m familiar with these from seasides in the UK, but hadn’t realised until now they are actually all made in Italy. As I came to the Gokuraku bridge over the moat that leads to the castle, I saw some beautifully decorated boats giving tours of the moat. These were Gozabune – golden boats modelled on one found on a folding screen painting of Osaka dating from the 17th century.
So of course I had to take the ride – very pleasant 20 mins going up and down the moat getting a good look at the steep walls that protect the castle. In one picture you’ll see an unusual shaped round stone. This was referred to as ‘human faced stone’, or ‘Jin-nem Iwa’, and was thought to have been installed to expel evil. It faces north-east from the main building which is thought to be a direction of bad luck.
Most of the stones making up the wall have symbols engraved on them, each representing one of the 64 feudal lords who were commanded to assist in the construction of the castle. Further down you can see closeups and some of the reference keys to the clans represented.
Then on to the main castle keep. Like many of the magnificent castles open to the public this is a 20th century detailed replica of the original wooden keeps – most of which burned down at one time or another over the centuries. It contains a great exhibition about Hideyoshi Toyotomi who ordered the construction of the castle, and has great views of Osaka from the top. One thing is for sure – I wouldn’t have wanted to be among an attacking force on this castle, the layout and steepness of the walls (complete with arrow slots) would likely make it a suicide mission.
Stopped at the castle café for my first taste of takoyaki (octopus dumplings). An unexpected texture – the batter inside is still quite liquid and slightly chewy, very tasty. They also showed the obsession that Hideyoshi had with gold leaf, with matcha ice cream cones decorated with it.
Took to the water on a river and canal cruise from near the castle down to the entertainment district of Dotonburi. Started on the Ogawa (literally ‘The River’), then turned off onto the Dotonbori canal. This waterway runs for most of its length under an expressway giving it an industrial feel – there are old buildings here that probably haven’t seen daylight in many decades. At one point we stopped ahead of some lock gates, and waited while a swing gate rose up out of the water behind us – the level of the canal and the river are slightly different, and this also helps in times of potential flood to keep the area around the canal from flooding.
Got to Dotonburi and strolled one section of the canalside walkway. There is a serious intent to promote these parts of the city as a kind of Venice or Amsterdam – and with the crazy signage and lights around Dotonburi I’d say they are succeeding. Took a ride on the Don Quixote (discount store) vertical ferris wheel – great fun and good views.
Then to the evening entertainment. I’d booked a Bar Hopping Food Tour around Namba for the evening https://www.magical-trip.com/product/a9a2ebd9-ced6-4793-a0cf-14488d92b03a. Met with our guide, the brilliant Yaeko Tanaka, and a couple from San Diego Jason and Taryn. Luckily for us the other 4 people who’d booked didn’t turn up, so we had a nice little group.
Visited 3 different izakaya, and tried kushiage (deep fried skewers of different foods), oden (simmered foods) and then finished at Uranamba Torameyokocho, which was a great little food court style of restaurant with 9 different places selling food. Finally got to try seared chicken sashimi – yes, raw! – was very tasty. Finished with lots of sake and then a stroll to the Glico sign by the Ebisu Bridge. A brilliant evening. https://www.instagram.com/p/BsAT1r7na5k/
KFC update: during our discussions I mentioned the KFC thing to Yaeko. Turns out that if I’d pitched up there in the evening, I wouldn’t have found anything special – in fact all the Christmas specials would have sold out long before. Turns out they almost always order in advance, and even pick up in the morning – then reheat in the evening! Yaeko said it wasn’t so good after having to do that…