Our stay in Osaka came at a weird point in the trip. Because our ferry to Shanghai departed from Osaka we had decided to leave it out of our initial tour and see it at the end of our time in Japan. However after a 25 day sprint around the country and then one month of almost complete immersion in Japanese culture we were ready to return to China. We said a sad goodbye to the amazing staff and friends that Rosanna mentioned previously and boarded the bus to Osaka, mentally drawing a line under our stay in Japan. As a result we may have done the city a slight disservice and not squeezed every last drop of enjoyment out of the attractions it had to offer.
Osaka is the largest city in the Keihanshin metropolitan region which also includes Kobe and Kyoto. It’s the second largest in the country after Tokyo and it definitely feels that large. Our coach from remote Kumakogen took us the length of Shikoku and from the point where we rejoined Honshu until the coach dropped us in Osaka centre all we saw was urban sprawl.
Our hotel was cheap, so cheap that we were both a little skeptical of how it had collected such good reviews whilst keeping its price so low. Turns out they’d used advanced Japanese hotel technology to calculate exactly which corners could be cut whilst maintaining a positive hotel experience. So there was no hotel bar, no en suite bathrooms and no space to move in the room, unless you moved the futons to once side. It did feature flat screen TVs, free tea and coffee (in the lobby), very comfortable bedding, air conditioning in every room and an unhelpful but friendly robo-receptionist. We were very satisfied.
As it was our last stay in Japan we had a small list of things to do that we hadn’t got round to in the past couple of months. One of them was visit a Don Quixote store. These places are legendary, spread across multiple floors in huge buildings with a reputation for selling everything. I can’t really compare it to a british store, there was a place in Sheffield (it may still be there) called “Mad Harry’s Bargains” which, if spread across 7-9 floors might have come close to approximating the Don Quixote experience. We came in, got lost in the beauty section (including patches to remove the wrinkles from your feet), panicked, bought a very small can of beer (kawaiiiiiii!) and then tried to find the toilets. They were out of the building and then up four flights of external stairs, obviously. It did mean there was a bit more to look at from my typical position, posted up a respectful distance from the entrance to the ladies.
Another activity we hadn’t tried was a culinary one. A friend of mine (who’s palate I trust after he took me to an amazing restaurant in Amsterdam) had said that the best food he’s ever tried was Korean BBQ in Japan. Despite trying to minimise the amount of meat we eat on this trip I thought that possibly the best food in the world couldn’t be passed up. Osaka has a whole Korean district called Tsuruhashi, so we headed there and I can confirm that the food was delicious. The most memorable even of the evening happened after we left the restaurant. A TV crew were making their way down the street we wanted to go down and we were waved to one side by a producer to let them pass (or so we thought). In Japan there is a fairly popular show format where the presenters walk around a neighbourhood and stop and talk to random people about local food and customs. It transpired that this is what was taking place, and we could see the two presenters making their way towards us, pausing occasionally to comment on a shop or sign that they passed by. Just before they reached us the producer nodded at me, said “thank you’ and then gestured violently in our direction. The presenters, consummate professionals that they were, seamlessly moved towards us and then acted surprised to see two hapless westerners in the street. So Ros and I are now on TV and the presenters are asking all kinds of questions about how good we think the food is. “Really good” wasn’t detailed enough, they kept asking us if we thought the food was “reasonable”. I couldn’t work out if they meant price wise, or if the quality was acceptable to my refined, mostly vegetarian palette. They asked us how it compared to british food and on the spot all I could think of was “um… well, in the UK, you’d never have to cook your own food in a restaurant”. I think I let myself down with that appearance. Incidentally one of the presenters introduced herself as Agnes-chan, I have since researched her and she seems to be a pretty big deal so at least I have achieved my desire to bump into a celebrity at some point on this trip.
The following day we returned to Kyoto for a reunion with 3 of the other workawayers from Kumakogen. It’s close to Osaka and the transport links are excellent so we could get there in less than an hour. It’s amazing how close you can feel to people after only a few weeks of working together, I guess being aliens together helps to strength those feelings. But it was nice to retrieve that sense of community that existed at the Kumakogen resort and we are more than a bit jealous that a couple of them are staying in Japan for much longer than us! We ended the night drinking sake by the side of the river – if that sounds picturesque, then please continue to think so, the only photos of the event make it look decidedly more… seedy.
The next day we had to leave. We got to the ferry depot with plenty of time (much more relaxed than our ferry to Japan) and had to wait less than an hour before we boarded the ferry. There were very few passengers on board. Rosanna and I had booked the cheapest possible tickets which were Class 2B which we thought were just dorm rooms. They were, but for the first time on our trip the women’s version was significantly more luxurious than the men’s. Rosanna was in a Japanese style dorm with tatami mats on the floor, only 4 people in a room large enough for 12 and a door that you could close to give yourself come privacy. I was in a large room, big enough for 40 people (although there were only about 10 of us in there), which was separated from the corridor by a shoulder-high screen so all passers-by had an easy view in. As the entrance to the bathrooms and showers was opposite my ‘dorm’ there was plenty of through traffic, day and night. It felt slightly like being on display at the zoo.
My dorm-mates were very friendly, one spoke a small amount of english, the other a great deal – however he was more proficient in French. His extended separation from Paris (where he learned his French) and New York (where he learned his English) meant that the line between the two languages had faded in his mind so speaking to him was an interesting process. He was an open and frank individual and talking to him was worth the slight confusion! He was the first Japanese person to invite us to try Karaoke, which we bashfully declined. “You are SO British!” he shouted in frustration and stormed off back to the bar. After some introspection we had to agree that his accusation was correct, and in that moment he wasn’t talking about the aspects of our culture that we should be proud of. So with some trepidation we headed towards the sound of an off-key rendition of ‘Scarborough Fair’. Now neither of us have ever tried Karaoke in the UK, let alone Japan, but I think we did alright. I must admit I think I missed the point that you’re supposed to just have fun with it, I got too carried away trying to think of a song that I knew would fit with my limited vocal range and that I could remember most of the words to. The mix of Japanese people in the bar got bored and shoved a microphone into my hand and told me I was singing Oasis. I shouldn’t have worried because they were all singing along so loudly that even with a microphone I could barely be heard over their exuberant rendition. We stayed singing and dancing with them all until the bar closed, 20 minutes late, because the bar staff were having too much fun watching the people singing karaoke.
It was a fantastic farewell to Japan, a country we will both miss greatly. For full pictures of our time in Osaka, and our 2 day ‘cruise’ to Shanghai, please see here:
And here are all the photos from the ferry/cruise: