My first visit to Osaka in 1999 was as a stopover en route to the USA. I was there for less than a day, so it barely counts as a visit. I didn’t know it at the time, but that was the first day of my expat life. I was on my way the the US, and then the UK to begin my 2-year working holiday visa.
Since that brief taste I’ve always wanted to go back and have a proper look. When I found some cheap flights from Vietnam via Hong Kong I booked in a mini break. I had four days in Osaka, and my main purpose was to go urban exploring and enjoy the food.
Being based in Southeast Asia and writing about transport development in the region, coming to Japan is like having an infrastructure holiday. Arriving at the airport, I was immediately in awe of the integrated train station next to the terminal. I drooled over the greater Osaka subway map, which is inspiring for my own metro map projects.
I visited some cultural attractions in Osaka, such as the impressive Osaka Castle. It’s one of the most famous landmarks of Japan, even if it’s only a facsimile of the original which was destroyed.
There are random temples throughout the city, which I discovered along the way rather rather than by actively seeking.
Apart from the castle, the other best known landmark is the Tsutenkaku Tower.
For the most part though Osaka is an urban playground, which makes it just the sort of place I like to go wandering.
You can see Osaka in all its urban glory along the Dotonbori Canal. The area around here is lined with oversized signs advertising restaurants and shops.
The Don Quijote Ferris wheel is the stand-out landmark of the area.
From Osaka Station I could see the Umeda Sky Building. Its unusual design was enough for me to make a detour.
An “only in Japan” building I wanted to see was the Gate Tower Building. This building has a highway offramp that passes through the building like it’s no big deal.
This video from ONLY in JAPAN is a good summary of how this came to be.
After spending so much time in Southeast Asia, things like pedestrian crossings are something of a novelty. Even when there is no traffic on the road people obey the traffic signals. I get a bit twitchy waiting for the light to turn green. Japan also makes good use of the pedestrian scramble.
For eating I didn’t do much research for this trip as I planned to just eat whatever appealed to me. I did employ a lazyweb outreach to a friend who visits Osaka frequently on business. He told me about an okonomiyaki place and dropped a pin for me.
The place was down a little alley off one of the main pedestrian food streets. I overshot the alley the first time as it didn’t look like there was much down there. I wasn’t even sure what I was looking for.
The blue dot on my Google Map was hovering close to this doorway.
The place was packed, so at least I ended up somewhere that was popular. I found a seat, feeling confident that something delicious was about to happen.
The chef had an English menu stashed away so I pointed to the first okonomiyaki, which appeared to be the signature dish of the house. With my seat at the bar I could watch him prepare my meal in front of me.
I must confess that I am relatively new to the delights of okonomiyaki. I could count on one hand how many okonomiyaki I’ve had, so I have no way of judging if this was a great okonomiyaki. To paraphrase that old adage about art, I don’t know much about okonomiyaki, but I know what I like, and I liked this. There was also an extra satisfaction in my meal knowing that I come to Osaka dreaming about finding tasty meals down little side alleys, and here I was.
[Okonomiyaki – 800 JPY ($7.20 USD).]
Japan has a reputation of being an expensive place, and for sure I would have burned a hole in my budget if I was here for a month and ate the way I did every day. As I was only here for four days I wasn’t keeping a tab on my expenditure. Not that I was eating at fancy places, but I wasn’t hunting out the cheapest place for each meal either. If I saw an appealing place I would stop there.
One thing I didn’t get to do was to pay homage to Bourdain with Lawson’s egg salad sandwich.
— Anthony Bourdain (@Bourdain) November 4, 2013
If I come back to Japan for a longer stretch (and I do plan to do that), then I suspect I would be eating out at the wonderful convenience stores across the nation to control the budget. For this trip though I had no calories to spare for an egg sandwich snack in between my ramen and sushi binges.
[Pray for James – A not inaccurate approximation of what I looked like at the end of this trip.]
The budget traveller in me did wonder if there are cheap ramen bars, and I did find a place that was cheap and oozing in character. As usual, the ramen bar was hidden behind a curtained door. I would have walked right by it if I didn’t stop to investigate.
Many of these hole-in-the-wall restaurants have a vending machine menu, which has a picture of the meal and the price. I picked the one that was most visually appealing and took my seat at the bar.
I don’t know what it is about these places, but I love sitting in these bar-style restaurants. Maybe it’s the retired drinker in me that likes the familiarity of sitting at a bar. I like sitting there and watching my meal being prepared in front of me.
[At 320 JPY ($2.90 USD) this was the cheapest meal on my trip.]
I didn’t get a name for this one, so the best way to find it is to go to the Starbucks near Namba Station. It’s at the start of an arcade, and the ramen bar is opposite the Starbucks.
Sushi was also on the menu every day, even if it just involved a few plates from a conveyor belt restaurant.
While I was enjoying urban exploration above ground, it was underground that I was seeking sushi and ramen bars. One of the interesting features of Osaka are the underground shopping complexes below the main train stations. The two biggest networks are under Osaka and Namba stations. I walked around different passageways looking out for busy ramen and standing sushi bars.
This ramen bunker looked especially appealing, and indeed it was everything I hoped it would be.
[Underground ramen – 800 JPY ($7.20 USD).]
These passageways radiate out over several blocks from the station. It’s very confusing the first time you visit, and it took a few goes until I remembered where the exit to my hotel was.
In addition to all the little eateries, there are plenty of useful shops down here as well.
[A UNIQLO and Muji side-by-side in an underground shopping mall is probably peak modern Japan.]
In Ho Chi Minh City the first metro line is being constructed by Japanese contractors, and there has been a proposal for an underground shopping complex as part of the main station area. If it resembles anything like what is in Osaka then I would welcome such a proposal in Saigon.
Another curiosity about Japan that fascinates me are the amount of vending machines for drinks that are on the streets. I was there during July, and it was thirsty work walking around all day. I try not to drink sugary soft drinks, so I was happy to see that there were lemon-infused mineral waters.
[ Lemon squash 100 JPY ($0.90 USD).]
What is cool about these vending machines are the sheer variety of drinks. In Australia in the the old days you could go to a milk bar and there would dozens of drinks to choose from. Now it’s either all Coca-Cola or PepsiCo drinks. The worst-case scenario is when they have Coke, Diet Coke, and water (bottled by Coke).
There is plenty of variety in the canned coffee drink department as well. If I come back for a month I might make it a mission to try every one. These are stacked with sugar though, and like my food calorie count I had to stay within my daily coffee intake limit. I tried the UCC Coffee, mainly because UCC has recently opened a branch in Saigon so I wanted to try the canned version.
When in Japan, always be on the look out for manhole covers. Every city should aspire to make ordinary things beautiful. Here is a good Flickr group of Japanese manhole covers.
So that was my taste of Osaka, 2018 edition. I suspect I won’t be waiting 19 years again until my next visit.