Saturday, 29-11-2014 through Monday, 1-12-2014.
Days 101 through 103.
As much as we were enjoying Tokyo, we wanted to explore other parts of Japan. We had plans to visit Osaka, Kyoto, and Hiroshima over the next week, so early on the morning of Saturday, 29 November, we climbed aboard a bullet train and headed to Osaka.
Bullet Train to Osaka
Today we put those Japan Rail Passes to good use when we rode our first bullet train from Tokyo to Osaka. It was a great experience. The trains were fast, clean, and very much on time. And, like so much of Japan, the people were very polite; the JR employees always bow before they enter or leave the train car.
Once we got to Osaka, we quickly found a taxi and started off ... only to learn that our taxi driver had no GPS and no idea how to find the address that we gave him (we gave it to him in Japanese). Fortunately, we were able to get in touch with one of the managers of the soon to be infamous Hello Kitty apartment, and he was able to talk our driver in ... kind of. We still resorted to using Google Maps to give the poor guy directions. When we arrived, the manager met us and told us that the driver actually told him he had no idea where he was going. Little did we know that this would become a recurring theme with taxi drivers in Japan.
Anyway, after that small setback, we found ourselves at the ...
Hello Kitty Apartment!
We booked the Hello Kitty Apartment via Airbnb, and yes, it's an apartment full of Hello Kitty. There were Hello Kitty rugs, Hello Kitty pillows, Hello Kitty dish scrubbers, and Hello Kitty shower gel dispensers. It was great. My one criticism of the place is there wasn't quite enough Hello Kitty.
We were out of yen, so the first task was to find an ATM, which was pretty easy to do. But, unlike Tokyo, it was harder to find an ATM that took global ATM cards. We tried two banks and three convenience stores (even a 7-Eleven) with no luck until we found a random, standalone ATM in Dotonbori that accepted foreign ATM cards—and charged no usage fee. If you're ever in Osaka and in need of cash, the coordinates of this magical machine are 34.668806, 135.503447.
One Smoking Town
Once we had cash, we went to a nearby udon place that the host of the Hello Kitty apartment recommended. The food was good, but they seated us in the basement in a corner room, out of the way. That was fine, but there are a lot of smokers in Japan, and a lot of people like to smoke at dinner, apparently. I think everyone in the basement was smoking a cigarette, and our little back room was sort of like a smoke vortex.
We've gotten used to the smoke-free restaurants in California (and our girls never really experienced a restaurant that allows smoking), so it was overwhelming. As much as we enjoyed our meal, we had to get out of there fast.
After dinner we walked around Dotonbori, which was a busy shopping and food district in Osaka that runs alongside the Dotonbori Canal. There were crowds of people and a lot of fun sights to see.
The main street in Dotonbori is filled with flashing neon signs and features a number of huge, mechanical signs hanging over doors to restaurants along the street. Here's a few of the standouts (click for larger images).
Our favorite find by far, though, was the Dotonbori Hotel and its four odd and unforgettable pillars featuring faces, each representative of a different world region (from left to right, Asian, African, Arabian, and Western). We didn't stay here, but we definitely will consider it on a return trip to Osaka (if the Hello Kitty apartment isn't available, that is).
One of the advantages of staying in an apartment through Airbnb over a hotel room (besides saving money) is that you usually have access to a stove so you can cook your own meals. Thankfully, there was a Foodium just down the street from the apartment, and we went there a few times to buy some fixings for our lunches and dinners. We didn't always know what we were buying, though, but that made for an adventurous shopping experience.
There's a cheese tart war raging in Osaka, and one of the top contenders is Pablo. We walked by this place on a few different occasions, and every time there was a queue of people that stretched all the way down the block.
One time, however, we walked by and there was no queue, so we hustled right in and bought a cheese tart (medium firmness) and a cheese cake soft serve ice cream cone (which was fabulous).
America Town (Amerimura)
People told us we had to visit America Town (also called Amerikamura and Amerimura and Ame-mura), and since it was just a short walk down the street from the Hello Kitty apartment, we couldn't not check it out.
You know you're in America Town when you see the Statue of Liberty looking out from the top of a building just outside of Triangle Park—as well as these crazy, advertising-driven, colorfully decorated, stick figure lampposts along the streets.
We visited a few things here, like Village Vanguard Exciting Book Store, which is right across the street from Freshness Burger (where, yes, we had a burger), and next door to Lilo Coffee, where I got a great pour-over.
From what we saw, America Town less about Americana and more about shopping, nightclubs, and crazy fashions.
This place (which is the restaurant under the giant dragon from above) sells two things:
- Soup with noodles and pork
- Soup with noodles and more pork
So we each ordered a bowl of noodle soup with pork for ¥670 from this machine (the one on the left; the one on the right serves beer and sake for ¥120).
Once you order, the machine spits out a ticket (one per bowl of ramen), which you then carry over to the gent behind the counter. He takes the tickets and makes you some soup. It's all very fast and efficient. We were eating our bowls of steaming ramen in less then three minutes.
Kurazushi Revolving Sushi Restaurant
Our host at the Hello Kitty Apartment recommended this place to us. It was a few blocks on the other side of Dotonbori and a bit of a challenge to find. We walked by it the first time, then stopped and turned around, realizing the entrance was on the second floor, above a parking lot, behind a building. I'm sure it would have been a lot easier to find if we'd been able to read Japanese.
Before long, though, we're at a table and the sushi was zooming by (it's the sushi that revolves, not the restaurant). Every plate was ¥1, and for every five plates we dropped into the "empty plate" slot at the side of the table, we were rewarded with a short animation featuring our samurai hero above. There was always some kind of contest, and he usually lost. But if he won, you were awarded a prize (we won a plastic sushi phone charm on our 25th plate).
It wasn't the best sushi we'd ever had, but it was good, reasonably priced, and a lot of fun.
Osaka, Bike Town
There are a lot of bikes in Osaka. I think during our three days we saw more bikes than cars. I don't know if this is typical for the entire city, but it sure seemed to be the case in the areas surrounding Dotonbori and America Town.