Lost in Trans-Osaka Station

24 02 2011

There were still plenty of temples for me to see in Kyoto – there are so many I think you could take a whole week and not have seen every temple and shrine – but I decided to mix things up a bit and got the train to the nearby city of Osaka. This was only an hour away so it made it good day trip with Kyoto as my base. Upon arrival, however, I couldn’t find the tourist information office so I wandered around aimlessly for a while before finding somewhere for a late breakfast. This proved to be the undoing of any power-sightseeing of Osaka that I might have had in mind; I ended up staying in the restaurant for more than an hour and a half until I’d finished reading the compelling The Girl Who Played With Fire. After buying a copy of the final installment of the trilogy from a nearby book store I was still at a loss as to where the tourist office might be. After asking directions I finally found it and then asked for some advice of what to see.

Aside from the Universal Studios Japan and the local aquarium most of the attractions were, of course, more temples and shrines. I decided to visit the Osaka Castle Museum to begin with. Much like castles anywhere the tall outer walls were surrounded by a wide moat but the actual castle building was much more ornate than the Tokyo one – with gold gilt adorning the roofs. The whole building was given over to the museum where I read lots of unmemorable facts about the shoguns that had lived there. It was a nice way to spend the afternoon but I was hardly writhing in paroxysms of enthusiasm as I went around.

Osaka Castle

That most common malady of my travels – temple fatigue – hit me afterwards so, after a brief visit to the Shitennoji temple, I decided to wander to the Tsutenkaku Tower and ascend that. A lot of the Japanese cities seem to have a big Eiffel tower-esque structures in them and Osaka has one of the first (although this is now the second on the site). Obviously it offered great panoramas of the Osaka skyline from the top although without any extremely famous buildings it didn’t really give me a lasting impression.

Osaka skyline

After descending, a friendly street vendor shouted out to me and offered me a gaijin special of 8 takoyaki for his normal price for 6. I’d seen the strange balls of batter for sale all over Japan and had no idea what they actually were. Despite the obvious language barrier the street-seller was extremely affable so, in a fit of daring, I decided to take him up on the offer. The dumplings were like a cross between two of my favourite Dutch foods (I never ever thought I’d juxtapose those words together): poffertjes and garnalenkroketten. The batter was filled with a creamy savoury goo containing pieces of octopus and the whole thing is topped with a brown takoyaki sauce, mayonnaise and shavings of katsuobushi (smoked and dried tuna). It was delicious – although I scalded my mouth painfully with the first one; they were molten-hot inside.

 

Takoyaki

It was now time for me to head back to the hostel in Kyoto. My 8-bed dorm was now empty – the other 2 guys having vacated that day – and the hostel was very quiet. I decided to do my laundry which, for the first time on my travels, I actually had to do myself instead of putting it in a service wash. I was, after all, in a much more expensive country than those I’d visited in Africa, Latin America and South-East Asia. Fortunately the laundry room was located next to the TV room so I was able to hang out there whilst I waited for it to finish. In the TV room I chatted to a couple of strange German guys that I’d met the night before and a really young Norwegian couple who I’d arranged to go to karaoke with in Tokyo on Saturday.

I heard an Australian couple in the corridor asking if anyone knew a good place to go out. Had I not been waiting on my laundry, I think I’d have forced myself on their company, but I still had some time to wait and I didn’t manage to hear their recommendations either. It was clear that no-one else in the lounge was heading out so after I’d finished my laundry I decided to head to that mainstay of solo travellers everywhere: the local Irish pub. It wasn’t exactly busy but eventually struck up a conversation with a friendly old Scottish expat. His friendliness was probably due in some part to alcohol but, as a professor of philosophy he was very interesting enough although most of our exchanges (wherein I must have told my whole life story) ended with his sage advice of “F**k them”. He was keen to understand my views of Japan and Japanese culture and I mentioned how often as a gaijin, Japanese people wouldn’t sit next to you on the subway – I’d interpreted this as possible rudeness or fear of strange foreigners – but he informed me that this was them being polite. Eventually, of course, the conversation covered Japanese women: how beautiful they were, and how I should definitely make sure I slept with one before I left. I am also now blessed with the indispensable knowledge that apparently geishas don’t wear knickers. I think he may even have been trying to set me up with the barmaid, who was half-Korean and half-Japanese (the most beautiful combination my sage companion informed me), but I think she was just being friendly and ensuring good tips by flirting with the clientèle. In any case, I ended up with an extremely small bar tab by the time I left, my new Scottish friend having bought most my drinks for me.

 

"Tourist" geisha

The next morning I wandered around a few more temples in Kyoto and tried to find some real geisha near the tea houses but, although there were some that weren’t obviously tourists dressed up as geisha for the day, I’m not sure if I actually saw any real geisha. I also revisited a snack stand that I’d seen with Alex when we first arrived in Kyoto because I really wanted to try the Japanese equivalent of bapao (as I knew them in Holland) or steamed buns. Whilst the Dutch versions have an innocuous mush of minced meat more akin to something you might feed your cat, these contained delicious chunks of steak in a juicy, oozing gravy. Once again I was rapt in my appreciation of Japanese cuisine. In the early afternoon I got the bullet train back to Tokyo where I was due to meet up with Lisa, a travelling friend I knew from Colombia, who was now living and working in Japan. It promised to be a good start to the weekend.

Beef buns