With school over for the semester and the responsibilities of the festival behind us, we took advantage of our week of downtime with another new adventure: a trip to Japan.
Of course, we’ve been loving every second of our time in Taiwan, but we were both excited for the chance to explore a whole new country. The only time either of us has been to Japan was during a brief, late-night layover in Tokyo on our last visit to Taiwan, so we were looking forward to seeing the country in daylight and spending a whole week exploring.
Our destinations this time were Osaka and Kyoto. Though Tokyo certainly has plenty more to offer than we were able to see the first time around, we were looking for more of a laid-back, local experience than Tokyo could provide. First up was Osaka.
Day 1: Destination Dotonbori
Where Tokyo was like New York City on steroids, much of Osaka reminded us of the coastal neighborhoods of Los Angeles, like Santa Monica or Venice: bustling and busy, but without the fast-paced tension of a major city center.
But being tourists, we wanted in on a little action, so we started our trip in Osaka’s famed shopping and entertainment district, Dotonbori.
The neighborhood is a network of restaurants, shops, bars, and arcades lit up all hours of the day and night and connected by a lantern-lit canal. You can find just about any food, drink, or activity imaginable here, from traditional sake bars to massive karaoke centers, and famous photo opportunities too.
American readers might not be familiar with the first landmark we headed to (we certainly weren’t at first), but the Glico Running Man is a major Osaka attraction known all around the world!
Glico is the company that makes Pocky, a biscuit-based snack that our friends back home are probably familiar with, and their mascot has been overlooking the Dotonbori Canal since the 1930s. Of course, back then he was made of wood, metal, and neon, while these days, the Glico Man glows down on Dotonbori with brilliant LEDs, making it that much easier to snap a shot with him.
Between snacking on taiyaki, takoyaki, and fluffy cheesecake, we headed to Hozenji Yokocho, an unassuming little street famous for its traditional bars, incredible local cuisine, and the Hozenji Temple, which marks the street’s entrance.
Unfortunately, it was too dark to snap a picture of the street’s most famous attraction: a moss-covered statue of the Buddhist spirit Fudo Myo-o. Legend has it that if you pour water over the statue’s head, it’ll grant you a wish. Decades of hopeful visitors trying it our for themselves have left the statue shrouded in a thick skin of moss, making it that much more popular of an attraction for tourists.
Dotonbori was the taste of city living we’d been hoping for, without the claustrophobia of a place like Tokyo. Plenty to do and see (and most importantly, eat) without feeling lost in unfamiliar territory.
Day 2: Geek Chic in Den-Den Town
The next day, we indulged our considerable geek streaks with a trip to Den-Den Town, also known as “Otaku Road.”
Here you can find merch for just about any Japanese cartoon, comic, or TV show you can imagine. Ryan is a huge Pokemon fan and I’m big on Studio Ghibli and Sailor Moon, so we had the time of our lives picking through just about every store in town. We bought ourselves some special memorabilia from our favorite series, and checked out the numerous arcades and capsule toy machines lining the road.
Ryan even got featured in a Japanese TV spot, where he crushed the competition in a round of rock-paper-scissors! We never did learn what the show was, so if anyone finds a video of us on Japanese television, be sure to drop us a line!
We also made a stop at 90’s kid Mecca: the Pokemon Center.
There are eleven of these massive Pokemon stores all across Japan, and luckily, there happens to be one in Osaka, not far from Den-Den Town. Ryan had been dying to visit one from the moment we arrived in Japan, so we set aside a good chunk of the day to settle in and check it out. With a whole floor of exclusive collectibles and in-store games to play, we could have spent a week just wandering around there!
Eventually though, we did fight off the temptation to set up camp right in the store, and made preparations for our last day in Osaka.
Day 3: Above the City and Under the Sea
Comfortably laden with souvenirs, we wanted some non-shopping-centric fun, so we got up bright and early on our last day to head to the city aquarium, Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan.
The website bills it as the largest aquarium in the world, and after a morning there, it’s easy to believe it. Nestled in the Osaka Bay, the aquarium is full of flora and fauna hailing from waters here in Japan all the way to Monterey Bay. The centerpiece of the aquarium was a massive tank viewable from three different floors, teeming with sharks, rays, and most notably, two whale sharks gliding through blue water.
It was a moment of rest in an otherwise hectic trip, and it’s hard not to feel at least a little at peace watching dolphins and seals at play. We even made a few new friends while we were there!
Our final destination was Osaka Castle, one of the most beautiful spots in the whole city. It’s a relic from 16th century Japan, a one-time shogunate that’s been a touchstone of Japanese military history through the years, serving alternately as a palace, an armory, and military headquarters. It’s been reconstructed multiple times through the centuries, and now it stands as a museum and historic landmark nestled in the middle of a huge, scenic park.
We made our way through the winding path through gardens and past temples, to get the chance to climb to the top of the white and gold tower. Each of its eight floors showcases different pieces of Japanese history, and artifacts related to the castle. When you reach the upper floor, you’re greeted with a stunning view of Osaka and the surrounding park—the perfect sendoff for our time in the city.
At the end of the day, we picked up our luggage from the hotel and hopped on the train bound for Kyoto, where we would be spending the rest of our trip. Kyoto is known for being the cultural center of Japan, full of temples and shrines and natural beauty, and we were looking forward to a whole new experience of the country than what we found in Osaka. But that’s a story for another blog!
For more on our trip and how we spent our time in the original capital of Japan, check back here in a few days! We’ve got plenty more adventures to share.