Monday, May 15, 2017

18 Hours in Osaka

May 15, 2017
Osaka, Japan

Antics in Dotonbori in Osaka
I spent much of the Shanghai-to-Osaka flight talking to Gao, a Chinese woman who has been living and working in Japan for many years.  She was extremely friendly and knowledgeable, and provided tips to help us enjoy our stay in Japan. Some we were able to use almost immediately upon landing – including how to say “excuse me” (I jotted down "smee mah sehm" phonetically, who knows if I was saying it right), and where to eat on our one evening in Osaka. 
Gao further helped upon arrival, waiting for us near the train, helping us buy the right ticket (get the airport express train/subway transfer ticket for 10,000 yen!), and transfer at the right station.  Thanks Gao!

Posing with our new friend Gao as we ride the train from the Kansai airport into Osaka
Getting off the subway at Higobashi station, it was a short walk down the pleasant Aji Riverfront to the Mitsui Garden Hotel.  Like our Shanghai hotel, we found everything to be clean, modern, and functional – not always the case during our time in Thailand or Myanmar.  The hotel also had traditional public baths on the top floor, and we were given a nice “how to” guide at the front desk so as not to embarrass ourselves or anyone else.

View from our room at the Matsui Garden Hotel
The bath would have to wait, first we needed to find food.  The neighborhood immediately surrounding our hotel was quiet and business-y.  While there were expensive, high-end restaurants nearby, we were looking for something a bit more casual and less involved on this travel day.  We decided to follow Gao’s advice, and head for the Dotonbori shopping and dining area, which was absolutely bustling with both tourists and locals on this Monday evening.  Walking there and back, we passed plenty of other cozy and convivial seeming restaurants and dining districts that we’d have loved to try if we had more than one night in Osaka.

The primary area of Dotonbori seems to be a collection of covered, open-air pedestrian-only shopping streets. I would describe it as an arcade, with very high and brightly lit ceilings and signage, almost reminiscent of Fremont Street in downtown Las Vegas (though not nearly as terrible as that). 

Dotonbori shopping & eating arcade

Bustling canal in Dotonbori, complete with tourist boats
Our first stop was going to have to be a Takoyaki stand – again, a Gao suggestion.  We ended up at Takoyaki Wanaka.  Takoyaki is a local specialty and I suspect guilty pleasure in Osaka.  Takoyaki is balls of batter filled with octopus and tempura scraps, basted with a sticky brown sauce, and topped with green onion, mayonnaise, seaweed flakes, and shavings of dried bonito (fish).  I loved these hot, sticky, doughy, savory lumps.  Caroline liked hers well enough - sans mayonnaise, of course - but wasn’t jonesin’ for more, as I was.

Hard not to get your order right when they basically sell one thing
After walking and walking around, looking for a sit-down establishment where we could a) tell what the food was and b) that wasn’t ramen or a cook-your-own-food establishment (hot pot or shabu shabu), we were coming up empty. Let’s face it, Caroline had her heart set on sushi, as she had ever since she had a very happy sushi experience during our layover in Narita on the way back from Seoul in 2012.

After about thirty minutes blindly walking up and down streets filled with ramen and grilled meats, we eventually stumbled into a sushi place.  As soon as we stepped in to the traditional chorus of welcome from all of the employees, we could see that we were the only ones there – not a good sign for a sushi restaurant.  But they seemed to be very busily preparing food, and we were tired of searching, so we sat down and ordered ourselves some sake, beer, and sushi.  The friendly old sushi chef patiently took our order, and prepared us some very tasty nigiri and maki.  He even gave Caroline a fresh damp, hot towel when he saw her dabbing with futility at a large splotch of soy sauce that she had managed to deposit on her white shirt cuff. Caroline was satisfied – especially with her favorite of the night, the conger eel, but also with the thoughtful and attentive service from the sushi chef.

There's that delicious conger eel nigiri
One of several charming streets between our hotel and Dotonbori
After our stroll back to the hotel down the charming streets of Osaka, I was ready to “figure out” the baths, while Caroline was ready to climb into bed.  These were public baths, so separate for men and women.  We’ll get to try it out together at our ryokan in Kyoto later.  After reading the dos and don’ts of the baths, I just wanted to get through the process without looking like too much of a rookie. 

Donning my hotel-supplied pajamas and socks, but not the official slippers - still wearing my personal flip-flops
Scott's Steps for Japanese Bathing:
  • Put on Japanese pajamas and slippers
  • Grab appropriate towel (the room had separate towels for in-room showering vs. public baths)
  • Per the drawings, placed my slippers and pajamas in a locker, wrapped myself in my towel, and headed for the public showers
  • Realized no one else took their towels to the showers with them, so I was the only non-naked guy in the shower room. Pretended I knew what I was doing and found somewhere to sling my towel where it wouldn’t get wet.
  • Followed the lead of the other 3 or 4 Japanese guys and sat down (naked) on an overturned bucket and proceeded to take a long, very hot shower with a super high pressure hand-held showerhead.  I’ve never been so clean.
  • *Note - There are certain areas that seem hard to wash while sitting down on an overturned bucket.  I had to stand at one point, though I never saw that anyone else had the need to stand.
  • Dropped my towel back in the locker, and climbed into the hot bath with 4 other guys.  This is a large bathtub – there was no contact.
  • Everyone else seemed to stay for only four or five minutes.  It felt so nice, I stayed for 10 or 15 – hopefully breaking no protocol.
Overall, I felt clean, relaxed, and successful, and slept soundly in our comfy Mitsui Garden bed.  Tomorrow we catch the train for Kyoto, where we'll spend the rest of our short trip to Japan.

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