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Osaka - Castles, Big Fish and Depressed Monkeys


semi-overcast 15 °C
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On my first few days in Osaka, I stayed in a single room in a budget hotel just so I take a break from the snoring I'd been subjected to in the hostels so far. As soon as I exited the train station at Shin-Imamiya in the south of Osaka I knew I was going to experience a whole different side of Japan. It felt a little shabbier, the buildings looked worn down, the people were noticeably poorer and the Pachinko (gambling) parlours appeared far more frequently. Until this point I had only seen two homeless people in Japan (under a bridge in Tokyo) but here they could be found around almost every corner. But this being Japan, I still felt pretty safe, even as I walked down the shady alley ways on the way to the hotel. My room at the hotel was quite tiny with only a single bed, a table with a tv on it, an empty mini-fridge and a stool. It did have an en-suite but it was the size of a portaloo with a tiny shower attached to it. But all of this was expected, not only because this is Japan, but because it was so cheap. As long as I had a bed, air-con and no snoring people four feet away from me I was very happy. Needless to say, I took a long nap within minutes after walking through the door.

The hotel entrance, not a bad place considering its location.

The following day I took a day trip to Himeji just under one hour south west of Osaka by shinkansen. This is the location of the famous Himeji-jo castle. This is supposed to be Japan's most impressive looking castle. Built in the 14th Century, parts have been restored but it stands largely as it did when it was first built. Best thing about the castle is that you get to walk around the inside and all the way to the top of the tower.

Himeji-jo castle from main gate

Himeji-jo castle tower from inside castle grounds

Himeji-jo castle tower roof arches

I didn't have much trouble climbing the tricky narrow wooden stairs between each level, it was the elderly people in front of me that concerned me, alas I reached the top without a scratch. Each level of the tower has open air windows through which you could get some decent panoramic views of the town of Himeji as well as the surrounding areas.

View of the town of Himeji and the main street leading to the train station from the top of the Himeji-jo castle tower

Once you reached the very top level of the tower you got to stamp your little tourist brouchure with the official "I've made it all the way to the top of Himeji-jo castle tower" stamp.

Quite proud of my red stamp I was

All in all it was a nice day trip despite the cold. Unfortunately, I had lost my beanie in Tokyo and I was always on the brink of hypothermia, particularly in the tower because the windows were wide open on each of the four sides on each level so they acted like mini wind tunnels. On the way back to Osaka, I slept on the train for the first time in my trip. There is hardly any danger of sleeping through your destination because before each stop, you are awakened by some gentle elevator-style music just before the next station is formally announced. The Japanese have made snoozing a true art form. On trains, trams, buses, benches, coffee shops, it doesn't matter, everyone does it. They probably nap while sitting on the toilet. When I was in Tokyo on a late night metro train, almost everyone in the carridge around me was snoozing. They are obviously not in a deep sleep because there's no snoring, drooling or falling on eachother's laps and as soon as their stop is announced, they perk up and leave the train. I even saw a woman riding her bike through Himeji with two kids sitting in small baskets, one at the front the other at the back, and they were both fast asleep. It's a shame I couldn't get my camera out fast enough, otherwise it would have been a priceless photo.

The next day I decided I might visit Tennoji zoo just because it was literally around the corner from my hotel and I heard it was quite cheap (500 Yen). I'm afraid this was the biggest mistake I've made so far in Japan. I should have known it wasn't going to be pretty because of the zoo's location, the same poor area I was talking about before. The zoo first opened in 1915 and it shows it. Most of the animals looked only slightly more depressed than how I felt. The paint on some of the walls was peeling off, some of the ponds were dirty and scummy and the cages and enclosures were definitely too small. Certain big cats (like cougars and leopards) were kept in tiny cages hardly bigger than my hotel room. A few animals were pacing from side to side and I saw at least two monkeys rocking backwards and forwards (the classic signs of animal depression). Also, I swear the solitary polar bear looked like it was trying to drown itself as it swam slowly towards the wall in the meager pond with no apparent purpose. I walked through the place as quickly as I could just so I could get out of there. What makes it worse is that this is the only zoo in Japan that has kiwis (the birds that is). They have two brown kiwis and I had to visit them. I felt like the Red Cross visiting tortured political prisoners. They were kept in a dark enclosure (as they should be since they are, after all, nocturnal) and to be honest, they didn't look too sad. They were even walking around digging their beaks into the soft dirt looking for food. But I still felt like breaking the glass, placing them one under each arm and saying, "Common fellas, we're going home". I only took one photo in the zoo and it was of the front gate which really says it all.

The front gate at Tennoji Zoo, Osaka

The next day I continued the animal theme by visiting the Osaka aquarium "Kaiyukan" which is quite a big attraction in Osaka and in a completely different part of the city so I was quite hopeful. This aquarium houses sea animals from around the ring of fire, that is, the waters bordering the pacific ocean. The layout has quite a clever design with the entrance at the top of the building followed by a clockwise spiral passage leading you around the main central tank. Several smaller tanks are housed on the outside of the main passage.

Looking back along the passage, the central tank on the left with a smaller outer tank on the right

One of the outer tanks, it was circular with an artificial current flowing around the central rock formation.

It was quite crowded in some areas but never so much that you couldn't get a good look if you waited a minute or two. Though taking photos was difficult not only because of the light but because someone was bound to walk right in front of you just as your target fish swam into focus, what's the phrase, "Never work with tourists or animals", it's something like that anyway. The only issue I could have with the place was the relatively small enclosures for the seals, penguins, dolphins and sea otters, but all in all it still felt much better than in the zoo, well worth the entrance fee.

Various species in central tank

The main attraction is undoubtedly the two whale sharks swimming around in the central tank along with various other species like hammer head sharks, giant tuna and sting rays.

The whale sharks

Scuba-Santa waving to the crowds

My favourite were the jellyfish which are housed in smaller tanks towards the very end. Their tanks were illuminated by flourescent light which made them look amazing, it was quite popular so I only managed to get a few decent photos without a head or hand appearing in the middle of the frame.

Jellyfish - They looked even more amazing in person.

Jellyfish backlit with flourescent light

Brings a whole new light to the question of finding Nemo

After the aquarium, I went a couple of blocks east to the Suntory museum which also houses an Imax movie theater. I had been to the Imax theater in Auckland, but here they were showing a deep sea documentary movie in the new 3D technology format. I couldn't pass up the opportunity so I went along bought a 2-in-1 ticket to tour the museum gallery before catching the 5 pm movie session. The gallery had a special exhibition on Klimt, Schiele and other Viennese art from around the turn of the 20th century. I'm not much of an art lover, in fact I usually avoid art galleries because I find a lot of art, particularly paintings, a little pretentious, but it was nice to walk around and some of the paintings were quite impressive, plus it was old so that had me convinced.

I rushed the last couple of gallery rooms so I could head over to the theater entrance to grab my headphones (for the English translation) and the 3D glasses. The 3D glasses used for the new 3D technology are not the old kind where one lens is blue and and the other red. The new 3D movies are shot with special cameras which capture scenes simultaneously from slightly different angles and the glasses simply bring these images together. If you watch one of these 3D movies without the glasses it just looks slightly blurry. The English narration was done by Jim Carrey of all people, but at least it was in English so I didn't just have to watch and guess what was being said in Japanese. It took a little while to get used to the 3D picture because even though the screen was an enourmous 20 meters high by 28 meters wide, it felt like it had been shrunk because the it appeared to shift towards you which also meant it covered your entire field of view. I do have to say that the 3D images were quite amazing. It doesn't feel like you are watching the movie, it's more like you are actually inside the movie. Will have to watch out for 3D horror/thriller movies when they start coming out. I quite enjoyed it, but more for the novelty of it being 3D rather than the content. Heck, it could have been about the history of locomotive engines and it still would have been good (no offence to train enthusiasts).

By the time I left the theater it was dark outside which was actually rather fortunate because I got to see how the Japanese decorate their tourist attractions during the christmas season.

Xmas decorations outside the Osaka aquarium

The rest of the week in Osaka was quite leisurely, I caught up with Roddy (UK) once again before he left Japan on his way to Vietnam. We took a wander in Dotonbori which is the main centre in Osaka for shopping, restaurants, bars and of course neon lights.

This glowing start of Dotonbori, Osaka

Me in front of the neon covered buildings in Osaka

We had dinner in a Japanese restaurant where you can cook your own food, I think the style is called Gyu Kaku but I could be wrong. Mine was ok, though it had more fat attached to the meat than I would have liked (even by Japanese standards). After dinner, we grabbed a few pints from a couple of bars in the area to toast our future travels before I headed back to my peaceful private room bed... aah, bliss.

Funny photo of the week - sticker on door of hostel in Osaka, the caption reads "In this area don't take a woman who is smashed out. Play fair to advance to a women"

Next up, Hiroshima.

Posted by joshuag 03:42 Archived in Japan Tagged backpacking

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