Thursday, November 12, 2015

Letdowns and surprises in Osaka, Japan

LOST IN OSAKA: Taken at the famous shopping district in Osaka, called Namba/Dotonbori

Osaka was a city that I've always wanted to visit since young, partly because my sister was obsessed with the city. That — along with the numerous photos of the city that I've seen — may have caused me to developed certain expectations prior to stepping into Osaka. While the Osaka is still great, I was less wowed by it as compared to its neighbouring towns: Kyoto and Nara.

I guess one of the reasons why was because coming from a highly urbanised and modernised Singapore, Osaka felt strangely familiar with its tall skyscrapers, crowds and rail system. Some of its famous attractions, like the Kaiyukan Aquarium or the Tempozan Ferris Wheel are not that different from their Singapore counterparts. As a traveller, I prefer new experiences, which was why they did not really stood out for me.

But still, Osaka in its whole is still a great place to visit, definitely, with the main selling point being the Japanese culture experience. The streets are cleaner, the people more polite and the weather is just awesome.

Sadly, we were not able to visit all of the recommended attractions due to our short stay (our biggest miss was the Osaka castle, but according to a friend who was also visiting Osaka at the same time it wasn't that great anyway) but here is a list of the places we visited, from the ones which wowed me the most to the least wowed. Disclaimer: This list is purely based on the opinion of Luke.


1. DOTONBORI / NAMBA

RUNNING MAN: Probably why this place is first in my opinion

Okay, I must admit for the life of me, I can't seem to grasp the name of this place. Whether if it's called Dotonburi or Namba, or whether is there any difference at all. But this area is located near the middle of Osaka, and consists of numerous shopping streets where only pedestrians can access.

I like this place the most because it captures the essence of a Japanese city perfectly. There are numerous bars for beer, sukiyaki restaurants, ramen places and souvenir shops strewn across the district. There's even a cat cafe that both Dawn and I visited because we just wanted to see how a Japanese cat cafe looks like (turns out they're all fat and lazy thanks to their idle lifestyle).

We came to this place twice during our stay because there were just so much to explore/eat. Aside from the modern looking shops, there are also alleys that look like a blast from the past and small temples like the Hozen Temple that adds to the flavour of the place. I really enjoyed the sights and sounds of this place and even though we came back twice, we haven't fully explored the entire place yet.

We ate really good kobe beef, sat down for a hot steaming bowl of ramen, got duped by a steamboat shop (because the price was exorbitant), walked out of a restaurant due to communication breakdown (they were having a celebration but we had no idea what to order), bought a ton load of gifts (tokyo banana!) and even got ourselves some Japanese massage. To get the most out of Osaka, this place is a must visit.


2. UNIVERSAL STUDIOS JAPAN

YOU'RE A WIZARD, HARRY: The Harry Potter village inside of USJ

This is a no-brainer. Osaka is famous for its Universal Studios (USJ), in which the Harry Potter village is located, and that was the reason why we wanted to visit Osaka in the first place.

Despite the overwhelming crowd, the long waiting time for rides (we actually waited two hours for one ride that gave us headache) and the sort-of pricey entrance fee, I still rank this place second because it's Universal Studios, and Universal studios are fun. The Harry Potter village was of course the crown jewel, because of how similar they made it look to the films. The butterbeer was to die for, the shows magical and the visit to the castle left me in awe. The signature ride was also very well-done with the way the simulated the 4D ride and Dementors attack. I still hate the insane amount of people though (you actually need to book a timing to enter the place). PRO TIP: Wait until near closing time (6pm+) to go in.

PEOPLE MOUNTAIN PEOPLE SEA: The amount of people in the Harry Potter village can get a little insane
The other rides like Spiderman (though it's based on the same mechanics as Singapore's Transformers ride) and the roller coasters were also enjoyable, especially the roller coaster because they let you play music during the ride (still not as scary as Battlestar Gallatica though).

I wouldn't recommend the shows because they're all in Japanese which left us feeling very much lost and do make sure that all the attractions are open when you visit. We were extremely unlucky as the Jurassic Park was closed during our visit.


3. TEMPOZAN BAY AREA (Ferris Wheel, Kaiyukan Aquarium and the Market)

SCHOOL TRIP: We're not the only tourists around. Taken outside of Kaiyukan, Tempozan Osaka

Somewhere near the Southwest of the city, lie several small islands, one of them containing the Tempozan Harbour Village, or as some call it the Tempozan Bay Area. Here you can find several attractions together, the Kaiyukan (Osaka Aquarium), the Tempozan Ferris Wheel, the Santa Maria cruise ship and the Tempozan Market Place. I lumped them all together because this should definitely be a day's itinerary and helps with easier planning (it took us quite a while to figure out these four attractions go together).

SAY HI: A trainer shaking hands with a dolphin in the Kaiyukan Aquarium

Taken individually, the attractions don't really count as much but if you visit them all together and explore the area, it's really quite enjoyable (though I won't rank them highly). Activities here are more relaxing and slow-paced, as it's mostly only sightseeing.

JUST ENJOYING THE BREEZE: Aboard the Santa Maria, a ship that takes you around the bay area

Like I mentioned earlier, some of the attractions, for example the Kaiyukan and the ferris wheel aren't exactly new attractions to me. I've been to the aquarium at Sentosa and Singapore Flyer before, and I personally feel that Singapore's version are comparable, if not better. Except for the central pacific tank in the Kaiyukan and the opportunity to touch a stingray, Singapore's aquarium offered a more immersive experience while the Singapore flyer had a much bigger space and room (sometimes you need to travel the world to realise that your flyer rocks, eh?).

TOP OF THE WORLD: Don't be fooled, this Tempozan Ferris Wheel cabin can only seat up til four

There's also not much to do in the Tempozan Market Place, other than some touristy priced items, but we did found a rather quaint eating place. It's called Kushikatsu where you can fry your own food after dipping them into some sauce and bread crumbs. Sinful but totally delicious.

DEEP FRY: One of the few food places that stood out for us

There's also a Lego place at the market, but sadly it's just limited to children so we were not able to enter it. I wanted to say I'm still a child at heart but the employees didn't really understood my English.

Personally I find the whole Tempozan Bay area to be interesting, but not really high on my priority list. It's nice to see fishes and stuff, but nothing really jumps out at me (unless the fish escaped the tanks). I like the cruise ship experience the most, mainly because it's not always I get to be on the boat but other than that I would only rate the whole experience at Tempozan Bay as average.


4. HEP FIVE (Ferris Wheel and Joypolis)

HI-FIVE?: Hep Five, one of the bigger shopping centres in Osaka

I did not know what came over me when I thought visiting an arcade will be a good idea but visit an arcade we did, which is why we went to HEP FIVE, where SEGA's Joypolis is located. While it's interesting to see how Japanese arcades look like, it's not really interesting as a standalone attraction. There are, however, tons of Neoprint machines for you to camwhore and look like a girl.

LOOK PRETTY: Apparently the neoprint craze is still very much alive in Japan

There are a few indoor rides in Joypolis, some which include a log ride simulator (where you occasionally get splashed with fake river water) and a flying tricycle simulator, but the main attraction were the two haunted houses. They looked really scary from the outside, though I didn't know how they are on the inside, since Dawn didn't really wanted to go. But other than that, there was nothing much else in the two story indoor arcade that stood out. We did take a neoprint though, as memory.

Arcade aside, we lucky enough to stumble across the HEP FIVE ferris wheel, which I felt was way better than the Tempozan Ferris Wheel.

WHEE: Look from inside the ferris wheel

The reason why I say the HEP FIVE ferris wheel is better is because it has a better view, a longer ride time and allows you to play your own music during the ride, which I promptly did. It also cost a lot cheaper with 5 SGD+ (500 yen) per ride.

And after the arcade and ferris wheel, there are plenty of shops around for food and a shopping spree, both inside and outside the mall. We managed to have great ramen in one of the outside shops and I heard that the Umeda shopping district is nearby the mall, which you should definitely pay a visit of you have the time.


5. NAKANOSHIMA PARK

ALL SMILES: Nakanoshima Park, Osaka

We ended up at Nakanoshima Park pretty much the same way as how we ended up at Joypolis: We read somewhere on the internet that this is one of the must visit places in Osaka. It's not entirely a bad attraction, but it's not entirely outstanding either. It's a good place to visit occasionally if you're a local (the sights are quite serene) but as a tourist there's nothing that really grab your attention.

Do not trust the internet photos about all the roses either, because when we were there, there was hardly any other colours than green. Perhaps you need to go there during the correct season. The park did give some good photo opportunities though, but that's really all the park has to offer.


6. SHRINES AND TEMPLES

Tsuyunoten Shrine

While many people list shrines and temples as a must visit in Osaka, somehow Dawn and I only ended up visiting two: the Tsuyunoten Shrine (dedicated to Osaka's Romeo and Juliet, spoiler alert: they both died too) and the Hozen Temple near the Dotonbori/Namba district. I think we picked this two because they were highly rated and fit into our travel route, but in the end they turned out to be relatively disappointing.

I admit that we may have missed out the big ones like Tenmangu or Sumiyoshi, but the two that we visited was quite a letdown, hence the rankings of this two places. I guess it's because I expected shrines and temples in Japan to be bigger (because they're define Japanese travel) but for Hozen for example, you can cover the entire place in just less than five minutes. A pale comparison to Kyoto/Nara's shrines and temples. I may be wrong, however, as I did not cover all the temples and shrines in Osaka but if you're thinking of visiting, do check the square area of the shrines/temples first.


CONCLUSION

Presenting to you, Osaka!

I won't say that my experience in Osaka is comprehensive, it's far from it. But the places that we decided to visit was cobbled from whatever guide we could find on the internet and sometimes the guides or ratings do not offer a complete picture of how the attraction is in real life. As our experience turns out, some lived up to the ratings, others do not.

Still, it's good to have as much information as possible before setting out, but it's always best to have a local's opinion or to watch some videos or spam pictures before going to a place. We did miss out on quite a few places, which is sad because we had to make some choices in our short span of visit.

Osaka is really huge, tbh, and I believe it's really difficult to experience everything in one short trip. Still I wouldn't call it a bad trip, and despite it feeling familiar as Singapore, it's still a great trip (honestly I think nothing can beat Japanese culture).

If you think we should have visited some other places, do let me know in the comments. Next in the Japan travel series: the historical city of Kyoto!

*****

Read more of what I think of my first trip to Japan: LINK
Read more on Kyoto: LINK
Read more on Nara (Upcoming)

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