Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Once upon a time in Osaka...

After a week of being totally amazed by Tokyo I was exited to go see another Japanese city, Osaka! Ōsaka, or 大阪, is a part of the Kyoto-Osaka-Kobe metropolitan area of close to 20 million people. I'm starting to wonder how many of the world's biggest cities are located in Japan....!?!

It was easy to decide how to get from Tokyo to Osaka: with the Shinkansen train (the bullet train), yay! I had popped by the Tokyo train station before my departure day to check out the place so I would know how to get to 1) the right station and 2) the right platform. There are soooo many stations, terminals, platforms, entrances, escalators and underground passages that it's quite easy to get lost! But I made it! Just a little problem with my tickets at the automatic gates but no worries since there's always lots of helpful staff around! 

The noses of the trains look so funny, some had even longer noses than this one, over 10m!

The trains go the 556 km distance in about 2,5 hours and you’ll see the landscape whizzing by – mostly urban scenery but also green hills, rice fields, lakes, rivers, mountains, tunnels.. you name it, they have it. Best way to travel in Japan!

So it was a Sunday afternoon when I arrived to steamy Osaka. The weather was a lot hotter than in Tokyo which didn't make walking around with a backpack any more fun. To top it off I got lost a couple times on my way from the local subway station to the hostel - it's a bit harder to find places with only very few English language signs. Finally I gave up trying to understand my small hand-drawn map and pulled out my notebook to look up the actual map I had saved (and of course there were some passers-by keen to help me). I never could have done that in a big city in South America - it's lovely that it's so safe and civilized in Japan!

Osaka is known for food and long shopping streets where you can find lots of cool designer clothes as well as all kinds of cheap knick-knacks. On my first day I made a little walk around my neighborhood and found that even right there was a massive shopping mall (which I later discovered would be just one of many). I also found a great buffet restaurant with all kinds of Japanese food, and you get your own hotplate to cook your dinner - unless you want to just fill your stomach with the sushi and the ready salads, soups, omelets and deep fried veggies & fish... Yum!

Miles and miles of covered shopping streets...
...and restaurants

Also on my first day I went dancing in Juso - I had found out about a local latin dance school that ran zouk parties every Sunday! I got the warmest of welcomes there and spent a lot of time in Osaka with the lovely owners of the Vida Latina dance school, Mio and Lenny. More about the dancing in Osaka on my previous post!

Osaka is also quite famous for its nigthlife. I didn't do much partying besides dancing so can't really tell where to go. But in Namba there are lots of restaurants and bars - I did visit one salsa club there (of course I find the places to dance) but plenty of "normal" clubs too :D Also there's a famous river crossing there with lots of cool billboards and lights, and all kinds of people buzzing around!

One of the famous attractions in Osaka is the Kaiyukan Aquarium. I love all animals and was curious to see this place - and it was indeed massive! There are some mammals, such as seals, otters and dolphins along with all kinds of fish and sea creatures! It was so cool to watch the rays and sharks float by, passing through the large school of small fish changing its shape in the biggest tank. Some of the cutest residents were the sea otters though! I took a bunch of video clips I filmed that day and compiled this video below! First some of the playful mammals and then the serene sea creatures of the big big tank (with some surprisingly fitting zouk music on the background):

You can get all kinds of combi-passes to the Aquarium, including local Osaka transportation. Look up the deals at your accommodation or ask at the local train station. Many museums (and there are actually quite a lot of them!) in the city offer combi-passes as well!

One of the most impressive sights in Osaka is the Osaka Castle with its high, decorative tower. To see the castle grounds is free but you have to pay an entrance fee (600¥) to the main tower - which is a must place to visit! There is a cool museum with authentic armors that are hundreds of years old, samurai suits and helmets. I also liked the hologram videos of the historical scenes as well as the miniature battle troupes. On the top floor there's an observation deck from where you can see all of Osaka!

New and old Osaka
The biggest rock of the wall surrounding the castle, weighed surely over 10 tons!
The main tower

That's all I managed to do in three days in Osaka - time flies when you're having fun! If I have had more time I'd definitely liked to stay in Osaka longer.. more eating, shopping, dancing and seeing the cool museums perhaps!

Getting around

Getting around in Osaka can be a bit tricky as there are less English info and maps than in Tokyo. Some of the stations in the city comprise actually of several terminals such as the biggest one, Umeda. The Umeda station serves the Hankyu Railway (Kōbe, Kyōto and Takarazuka lines), Hanshin Electric Railway and Osaka subway's Midōsuji line. This maze of a statio is also linked with criss-crossing underground passages and shopping malls to the nearby Ōsaka/JR West station, Kitashinchi (Tōzai line), the Nishi-Umeda station of the Osaka subway (Yotsubashi line) and Higashi-Umeda subway station (Tanimachi line).

Lost already!?! Make sure you allow some extra time when passing through Umeda! Also, if you buy a subway ticket and want to transfer to another line then don't pass the automatic gates or you have to buy a new ticket! Keep a close eye on all the overhead sings, there are (luckily) plenty of them; some routes between terminalas are also marked with large stickers on columns.

To get to Osaka you can take the Shinkansen trains; they will arrive to Shin-Osaka (means the Shinkansen Osaka terminal). From Tokyo it was 13240¥ (about 135€) for a one way ticket. Reserving a seat costs extra but there are always a couple cars of each train for non-reserved seats (the Sunday when I went from Tokyo to Osaka there was plenty of space, almost empty - when I rode back to Tokyo on a Thursday it was more crowded but still lots of free seats). 

Train schedules and prices: http://www.hyperdia.com/

You can buy a Japan rail pass before arriving to Japan or just buy the Shinkansen ticket at any big train station. For me (just going Tokyo-Osaka-Kyoto-Tokyo) it was pretty much the same price to either get the 7-day rail pass or buy individual tickets so I decided just to get the individual tickets just to save myself of the extra hassle with the pass. There are also some night buses in case you’d like to travel cheaper.

Kyoto is also close to Osaka, 45min on the fast local train and costs and 390¥ (you can also take the Shinkansen train or even a slow local train). You can use either Osaka or Kyoto as your base to explore both cities. Kyoto may be slightly cheaper in terms of food and accommodation but if you want to see the Osaka nightlife the train schedule may determine Osaka as your base.

More about my visit to Kyoto on the next post!!

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