Top 10 Things To Do in Osaka

1. Try okonomiyaki, an Osaka specialty

Where? Okonomiyaki Chitose, 1-11-10 Taishi, Nishinari-ku, Osaka
Why go? Contrary to what I thought a few years ago, okonomiyaki actually isn’t found all over Japan; it’s just Osaka and Hiroshima that traditionally do it. And you have to try it. Roughly translated to “cooked as you like it,” it’s a type of savoury pancake usually filled with pork and shrimp, and topped with a thick, almost sweet okonomiyaki sauce, mayonnaise, seaweed and bonito flakes. And it’s the ultimate in Japanese soul food.
How long will you need? Most okonomiyaki places like this one are quite small, so you’ll often need to allow for more time to get a seat than to eat.
Cost? We paid just under AUD$10.00 for a shrimp okonomiyaki.

 

2. Check out an undercover shopping mall

Where? Janjan Yokocho Alley, a few minutes walk from Shin-Imamiya Station on the JR Loop Line
Why go? For a really different shopping experience! This indoor alley is basically a mish mash of shops selling everything from second hand watches to dried fish. And there aren’t many tourists around, so you get a really good sense of what life is like in Osaka for the local population. And if you’re happy to rummage around, you can find some really cool stuff.
How long will you need? Give yourself a good few hours if you like to shop.
Cost? Prices range from dirt cheap for old stuff and food to a little more expensive for the odd clothing boutique.

 

3. Shop for stationery

https://www.u-arts.jp/
Where? U-Arts, 3-10,Namba Sennichimae,Tyu-o-ku, Osaka City
Why go? The Japanese have a love for stationery rivalled only by my own, and their stores are next level. There are the big ones like Muji and Tokyu Hands, but the little shops like U-Arts are even better. They stock pens and pencils, notebooks and washi tape, handmade decorative Japanese paper and origami pads, paint brushes and bookmarks… if a visit here doesn’t inspire you to create something, nothing will.
How long will you need? Normal people – half an hour. People like me – an hour or more.
Cost? Everything is very reasonably priced considering the quality. 

 

4. See some very unique shrines

Where? Namba Yasaka Shrine
Why go? Lots of visitors to Japan like to see the shrines and temples, because they’re so unique to that part of the world. Then there are shrines like this one that are unique on a whole different level. Hidden in plain sight on an unassuming street, you turn a corner and come face to face with a giant lion’s head…
How long will you need? We were there for about half an hour.
Cost? Free.

 

5. Eat all of the food

Where? Dōtonbori – along the canal
Why go? This is where you’ll find the best food in the city, advertised by giant crabs, octopuses and puffer fish. Great dishes to look for typical to the area are gyoza (fried dumplings), taiyaki (wafer-type cake filled with something like custard or red bean paste) and takoyaki (octopus balls – fried batter balls filled with little pieces of octopus).
How long will you need? All night. And then the next night.
Cost? Most food is pretty cheap, but a general rule of thumb is that the tackier the signage, the more you’ll pay.

 

6. Play some video games

Where? All around Namba district
Why go? If you’re a child of the 80s or 90s, chances are you have fond memories of Street Fighter and Super Mario Brothers. For a few dollars per game, you can relieve the good old days on old school arcade games. Sounds a bit nerdy, but it’s more popular than you’d think.
How long will you need? Depends how much of a gamer you are – plenty of people are in there fore hours on end!
Cost? Usually only a few dollars per game. 

 

7. Visit Osaka Castle and Park

http://www.osakacastle.net/english/park/
Where? 1-1 Osakajo, Chuo, Osaka
Why go? The park is home to hundreds of cherry blossom trees if you’re lucky enough to be there in spring time, but if you’re not, it’s still just as beautiful. You can walk the moat-guarded grounds,  check out the castle’s museum, or take a look at the shops selling Japanese tabi socks, furoshiki (gift wrapping fabric) and matcha beer.
How long will you need? Half a day – better to get there in the morning if you can.
Cost? Entry to the park is free of charge, the castle museum costs around AUD$8.00 per adult.

 

8. Do the character café thing

http://gudetama.createrestaurants.com/jp/
Where? Gudetama Café, Level 7 – Hep Five, 5-15 Kakudacho, Kita-ku, Osaka
Why go? Because you’re in Japan, the land of kawaii. They love their cartoon characters over there (we even saw Hello Kitty traffic cones being used at one point in our trip), and the character cafés are a really fun way to get into it. I chose the Gudetama Café, because the lazy little egg is my spirit animal, and I regret nothing.
How long will you need? An hour or so should do it.
Cost? Not super cheap – two matcha lattes and a dessert to share cost about AUD$22.00.

 

9. Try matcha flavoured everything

Where? Everywhere!
Why go? Matcha lattes were all the rage in Melbourne a few years ago, but it isn’t just a fashion statement in Osaka. Yes, they’re definitely cashing in on the tourist’s fascination with the green stuff, but it’s actually delicious. Start by trying actual matcha tea to get a taste. Then, the options are endless – soft serve, cookies, cakes, candy, husband even tried matcha beer.
How long will you need? Be on the look out alllll the time – we found that soft serve on the side of a really quiet street with not much else on it.
Cost? It’ll depend, but expect to pay a decent price for high quality matcha. 

 

10. Catch a bullet train to your next stop

Where? They depart from Shin-Osaka Station.
Why go? The best way to get from one city to the other in Japan is by bullet train. They fly along at speeds of up to 320kph (yes, really), are super clean and comfortable, and on the way from Osaka to Tokyo, you’ll get an incredible view of Mt Fuji. Can’t get that on a flight!
How long will you need? You can get from Osaka to Tokyo in 2.5 hours.
Cost? Not cheap – around AUD$175.00 per person in standard class. 

A Quick Guide to Ameyoko Market, Tokyo

Ameyoko Market and shopping street
Wedged in between JR Okachimachi Station or JR Ueno Station

 

Tokyo’s Ameyoko Market is a rabbit warren of streets that are home to 500-odd stalls, selling everything from dried fish to nail polish. It was originally opened as a black market post-war, but it’s visited by what seemed like everyone in the city now.

Where is it?
The area it’s located in can get a little confusing, so hopefully this map makes it a bit easier to navigate. I’ve marked on it where I took the photo above, standing at that Y-shaped intersection where the road diverges into two. Those are your two main shopping streets, with others intersecting and cutting across them.

 

How do you get there?
Via subway – it’ll depend where you’re coming from, and you can use this nifty map to work it out, but the closest stations are Ueno-Hirokoji on the Ginza line, and Ueno-Okachimachi (literally across the road) on the Oedo line.

What should I shop for?
There’s not much you won’t find there, but there are a few things that are particularly popular:
– Golf gear: there are more than a dozen multi-level golf shops, selling clothes, shoes, clubs, bags, and even lessons.
Athletic wear and shoes: they’re an active bunch, so probably no surprise that you can find a lot of stores selling training gear (gym shoes, clothes, etc).
– Fish: fresh fish and dried fish, they’ve got it all. If you’re looking at taking some of the packaged, dried stuff home, best check if you’re actually allowed to take it through customs before you stock up!
– Packaged snacks: there are a couple of mega-stores absolutely full of snack foods. Chips chocolate and crackers and lollies in flavours you never imagined could exist.

Do you barter?
Honestly, I didn’t bother, for a few reasons:
a) The prices are marked and already very reasonable.
b) Language barrier.
c) The Japanese are just so damn polite and likeable that I didn’t want to rip them off!

When is the best time to go?
Around 12pm is a good time to go – most of the stores should be open by then, but it’s not so hectic yet that you can’t walk around comfortably. Most casual eateries are already open and the restaurants are still getting ready for the lunch rush which is good, because you’ll want to have eat there.

What should I eat?
A sashimi bowl from the place in the photo above. It’s cheap, it’s market fresh and it is delicious. My bowl of fresh tuna, fatty tuna and salmon on sushi rice cost about AUD$10.00, and it was magnificent. If raw fish isn’t your jam, they cook up gyoza and tempura, too. Next door is an Osaka-style takoyaki stand if you fancy something a bit different. And then head back for a matcha soft serve. Just try to get a seat outside if it’s a hot day – the tiny little kitchen gets pretty warm…

Normally I’d say anywhere at the market is good for eating, but there are actually some really touristy places here I’d highly recommend steering clear of. General rule of thumb is if you walk past and someone walks after you waving a menu in your face and telling you that you must try their blah blah blah, don’t bother. If the food is good, they won’t chase you down to eat there because there will already be a line at the door.

If you have room for dessert, look for the taiyaki stand. Creamy smooth vanilla custard inside a golden crisp fish-shaped waffle. The perfect hand held market food.

How do I pay for stuff?
It’s a market – cash is king. If you’ve forgotten to bring some with you, just look for the green and blue Family Mart sign (they’re on every second corner), which should have an ATM inside.

 

When I’m done shopping, what else is there to do?
Head up to the Ueno Imperial Grant Park to walk off all that sashimi – it’s a short walk away, and the grounds are gorgeous. There are several pagodas and shrines on the grounds, museums, and even a zoo. And, if you time it right, cherry blossoms.

 

Tea time: Ippodo Tea, Tokyo

Ippodo Tea
Kokusai Building, 1F, 3-1-1 Marunouchi Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo
http://www.ippodo-tea.co.jp/en/

 

It was around 9am on my last day in Tokyo, and it was raining. My plan to head back to Kagurazaka for the morning went down the drain along with the rain water; I decided to take my umbrella out and explore closer to the hotel. I ended up in the basement level of Isetan Department Store, which also, apparently, food heaven. $400 bento boxes, French baguettes, Italian cured meats, 500 different types of noodles, animal shaped cookies, the most stunningly intricate cakes… Oh, and tea, coffee, wine, sake, beer… oh my God! I settled on a gorgeous little rice lunch box and a matcha cookie sandwich, and trotted happily back out into the rain. Eating my delicious lunch on my hotel bed, I was pretty happy with the week I’d had in Tokyo. There was just one more thing I really wanted to do, and that was to visit a tea house.

Tucked away behind the main retail area of IPPODO’s store was their Tea Room; there were quite a few different green teas on offer, which all came accompanied by a traditional Kyoto sweet to compliment that specific tea (the store was originally opened in Kyoto, but another was opened in Tokyo a few years later, as well as another in New York). I’d tried matcha and gyokuro and many types of sencha before, and would have happily had any of them again, but noticed one of my favourite teas on the menu – genmaicha. It’s a unique blend of green tea and roasted brown rice. Genmaicha originated with poorer families who used to add the rice to their tea in order to make it last longer and therefore save a bit of money, as well as using it to cover up the taste of often stale tea. Properly done genmaicha is amazing; it’s got the lovely green tea taste, with the nuttiness of the roasted rice.

I enjoyed my pot, which I learnt could be re-filled up to three times if the following points were observed:
– use all of the tea provided (12g, I believe).
– use boiling water.
– pour into the pot, cover, count to 10 and then pour.
– do not let it brew longer than 10 seconds the first time, or it’ll have a bitter taste.
– empty the pot COMPLETELY into your cup – you don’t want to leave any water in there, or it’ll make the next brew bitter.
– leave the lid askew while drinking that first cup so the leaves can breathe.
– you’ll only need to count to 5 on the following refills.

And my sweet? A delicate little wafer flower filled with sweet red bean paste. Perfect match with the tea.

The teahouse itself was beautiful – simple, unassuming and very peaceful. And my tea set only cost around AUD$13.00 – it was the perfect way to end not only the night, but the entire trip.

Photo Journal: Yoyogi Park & Meiji-Jingu Shrine, Tokyo

Yoyogi Park
2-1 Yoyogikamizonocho, Shibuya, Tokyo
http://www.tokyo-park.or.jp/english/

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For such a big city, Tokyo isn’t lacking in beautiful green spaces. I’ve always loved spending time in big parks on my own, ever since depression started taking over my life in high school. Sitting quietly on fresh green grass under a beautiful leafy tree has always been something that’s calmed me. So after a pretty busy first 48 hours in Tokyo, a little time at Yoyogi Park to re-calibrate was the perfect fix.

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Also within the park is the majestic Meiji Shrine, a Shinto shrine, tucked deep within the park. Shortly after the deaths of Emperor Meiji (in 1912) and Empress Shoken (two years later), 100, 000 trees were donated from well-wishers around the world to create this beautiful park. The shrine itself came along in 1920. The main buildings were sadly destroyed in 1945, during the second world war, but was rebuilt in the late 1950s.

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Observations of Tokyo oddities

As much as I LOVE being on the road and living out of a suitcase and being in completely foreign situations and places, I’m always grateful to return to Melbourne. I’m thankful that I’m in a position (particularly as a female, because there are still a lot of oppressed women out there in other countries and cultures) that I can work hard enough to be able to travel as much as I do, and I don’t take that for granted. 
As a single female traveller, Tokyo was the perfect place. It was easy enough to navigate, people are friendly and helpful to unbelievable standards, and it is the safest city (including Melbourne) that I’ve ever been in.

Accommodation aside, it was also a lot cheaper than I expected – I went away with around AUD$1000 worth of spending money for 9 days, and spent only just over half of it.

One of the best things about travel is how much it opens your eyes to things that aren’t your norm, and while Tokyo was a very modern city, there were a few curiosities and oddities I noticed…

– Early morning cafe breakfasts and brunches aren’t a thing.

– Most stores don’t open until around 11am, but they stay open later into the night, around 8pm (as opposed to Melbourne’s general 9am – 5pm hours).

– There’s a system and procedure for everything, everyone knows them, and everyone obeys them.

– ATMs for international cards pretty much only work in 7/11.

– Cuteness is EVERYWHERE!!

– That said, they are truly elegant ladies and dapper gentlemen in Tokyo – heels, pearls and full suits are standard.

– Public transport is quiet time. No talking to the person next to you, no talking on the phone, no eating.

– Litter doesn’t exist. Anywhere. People are literally employed to sweep the streets and walk them with giant tongs to remove rubbish.

– There are designated smoking spots outside, and people actually stick to them. There are “no smoking on the street” signs and they are strictly adhered to without the need for enforcement.

– People line up for EVERYTHING. Especially food. And locals really don’t seem to mind waiting over an hour in (a very orderly) line for their favourite eatery… Incredible!

– One of the things that surprised me the most was the amount of people who refused to use tissues! I find the sniffing thing pretty disgusting (I don’t understand why anyone would want to sniff the snot back up their noses and down their throats rather that just blow it out into a tissue), and was really surprised at the amount of people who would rather just sniff incessantly and occasionally use sleeves to wipe snot on rather than just blow their noses…?!

– While a lot of the older buildings are in the grey/beige/brown 70s styles, the modern architecture is impressive.
I also learnt a bit about myself…

– My organizational skills are one of my biggest assests and truly help me see and do more than a lot of other travellers.

Can read a map like a boss.

– Observing and writing and recording has always been (and will always be) what I love to do most.

– Anxiety attacks followed me but depression didn’t.

– Slowing down, taking time to breathe, and just stepping away mentally for a few minutes helped the anxiety attacks.

– I’m happiest when I’m in new places surrounded by strangers speaking in foreign tongues, where I can just slip into the background and explore and observe at my own pace.

– Knowing how to say “excuse me” and “thank you” in the local language is indispensable.

– I think I’m actually a bit smarter, stronger, braver and more resilient than I’ve given myself credit for..