The final stop on our first trip to Japan was Osaka, the country’s third-largest city after Tokyo and Yokohama.
To us, Osaka’s personality felt somewhat “Midwestern” compared to Tokyo’s New York vibe, or Kyoto’s…I’m not sure what, maybe New Orleans. Given Osaka’s size and commercial prowess, not to mention its reputation as a breeding ground for Japanese organized crime, the best American analogy might be Chicago. (In fact, Chicago and Osaka are sister cities.) Osaka has lots of waterways and bridges, plenty of historic and modern architecture, and great food. The nearly 3 million inhabitants insist their city serves up the best cuisine in all of Japan.
We won’t argue about the food. We enjoyed some of our best meals of the whole trip in Osaka.
Beef is a proud export in Osaka. Many local chefs claim the Wagyu cows raised in Osaka Prefecture render superior meat even to that of nearby Kobe. We found both varieties excellent, though to be honest, we still prefer prime American beef (and Argentina’s version too). Wagyu is certainly very tender and tasty, but it’s a bit too fatty for our tastes. (In general, the Japanese seem to prefer a little more fat in their diet than we’re used to.)
Kobe is only 20 minutes away from Osaka by train, so naturally we went there to try Kobe beef. (We wondered if we might spot Kobe Bryant, but no luck.) The city, which was devastated by an earthquake in 1995, has been completely rebuilt. Kobe has a pleasant waterfront area and plenty of shopping, but not much else to distinguish it.
We also visited nearby Nara, about an hour from Osaka. Nara was Japan’s first capital and the city where Buddhism became a powerful force in the country. You’ll be shocked to learn that Nara has several historically relevant shrines and temples. Naturally we flocked with all the other tourists to the oldest and most important of them. It’s called the Todaiji temple and it’s the largest wooden building in the world.
Despite the historic buildings, the main attraction in Nara seems to be the wild deer that roam all over town. They’re fairly tame, and the kiddies love them. Which is all well and good, but the deer shit everywhere stinks up the place and you have to watch where you’re walking the whole time.
Random interesting moment: in Nara we ate lunch in a small restaurant where they play old American jazz on vinyl all day long, then host a live jazz ensemble in the evenings. The shelves next to the turntable were stocked with what must have been a few thousand jazz albums. It was pretty cool.
Osaka is a shopping mecca. Like other cities in Japan, it has covered shopping streets that shield you from both sun and rain. But in Osaka it sometimes seems like the whole city is one gigantic covered shopping street. A few of them feel like they go all the way to Tokyo.
The Osaka Castle is a popular tourist destination. Like the one in Hiroshima, the Osaka Castle was destroyed in the war and then reconstructed. The views from the top are spectacular.
Osaka is also known for its fun, kitschy nightlife. In that regard it’s a scaled-down (and maybe more approachable) version of Tokyo, and very different from the earthy, mysterious tone that Kyoto takes on after dark.
Naturally we received a visitation from Pikachu while we were in Osaka.
“You do it! You discover!” Okay, it’s not hard to understand what that’s supposed to mean (the target audience is children). But it doesn’t sound quite right, does it? Often times, even in the hands of people who are probably reasonably fluent in both languages, translations from Japanese to English and vice-versa just don’t come out quite right.
I think the two languages might be so completely different, right down to their very cores, that people raised on one or the other are wired with different ways of thinking altogether. But could be not! Possible to be wrong! Knowing is hard!
We are sad to say goodbye to Japan. This has been one of the most fascinating and enjoyable trips of our lives. People were always smiling at us, always willing to help. We always felt completely safe, night and day. I have wanted to visit Japan since I was a little boy, when I was first introduced to origami and other imported aspects of Japanese culture. I love the Japanese sense of everything having a place and a purpose. I love their use of colors and patterns, the aesthetic of their interiors and materials and artwork. I share their passion for machinery and automation. (Electric totos and vending machines everywhere, yay!)
I love their appreciation for the smallest details in both nature and daily living.
Our experience in Japan was summed up nicely as we loaded our things onto an elevator at our hotel in Osaka, in preparation for our taxi ride to the airport and the long journey home. One of the hotel managers was helping us with the luggage, and we struck up a conversation with him. He spoke English with a European accent, so we asked him where he was from. France, he replied. The Normandy region. We asked, how long has he been living in Japan? Eight years, he said, but hopefully much longer than that eventually.
I escaped, he said with a smile, and I don’t think I’ll be going back.
Then you must really like it here, huh?
“Amazing food, amazing culture, amazing people,” he said.
Our feelings exactly.