The sidewalks are crowded, the street signs incomprehensible, and the buildings are packed into every available space but Osaka, Japans second largest city, seems safe, friendly and welcoming.
Western first-time visitors can be initially somewhat overwhelmed by this super-city of 18 million people but within days you will be travelling around like a local. All it needs is a little planning and determination.
My wife and I recently visited Osaka for the first time. I normally do some research on places I visit but, for various reasons we arrived at Kansai International Airport with little more than the limited knowledge that it was a long way from the city and the hotel we had booked.
Our experience started badly when it took an hour and 20 minutes to clear immigration due to huge queues. By the time we had retrieved our bags we were both rather frustrated and short-tempered but this was quickly put right when we asked for information at the visitor’s desk.
Our previous experience of Japanese people was immediately reinforced by the charming girl behind the desk. In perfect English, she asked where we were staying and directed us to an express bus which took us to within a few hundred metres of our destination.
By the next morning we were ready for anything. First, we headed to Osaka railway station to find the Osaka Visitors’ Information Office. After a quick discussion we bought a two-day Osaka Amazing Pass, had a comprehensive map of the city, and had plans mapped out for the next three days.
One of the main reasons for visiting Japan in Spring was to see the cherry blossom displays, so that was our first priority. We didn’t have far to go. Osaka has cherry trees planted on roadsides, along the river, in parks and in private property. There was a pink tinge across the whole city.
For a day we walked paths festooned with flowers, took a boat on the river to pass by trees literally swamped with blooms, then revisited at night to see the whole performance under lights. It was magnificent.
The Amazing Pass lived up to its name. The 2-day pass gave us access to all subway and New Tram lines, free entry to 30 or so museums, attractions, and experiences, special offers at some other places, and discounts at various restaurants and shops around the city. Apart from anything else the time and effort we saved by not having to buy individual subway tickets was impressive.
Osaka Castle – Phensri Rutledge
The key to getting good value from the pass was to start early and have an itinerary worked out so that you moved around in a logical way. We visited Osaka Castle, several museums, some temples, and the zoo. We rode a huge Ferris wheel, took two boat cruises, went up several towers and viewpoints, and put our modesty to the test at a wonderful indoor/outdoor public hot spring bath where nudity is required.
A quick calculation at the end of the two days showed us that we had received three times the value of what we paid. Even if we were broken, I would still recommend it.
Japanese food is one of my favourite cuisines so we had several memorable meals. Certainly they were not cheap but the presentation and the quality of the food could not be faulted. One evening we had a fun night at a huge table where other visitors and locals were sharing a meal. We ground and mixed some herbs and spices to match our own taste buds and decided that some of the other customers were just as inept as we were.
Japanese Hotel – Phensri Rutledge
We stayed at three different hotels. The first was a Japanese-owned 4-star property close to the city centre. It was similar to many international hotels around the world with an overlay of Japanese efficiency. No complaints there. On our last night we stayed at the airport hotel and found this equally good. In between we stayed at a ryokan.
As the epitome of minimalist Japanese culture, ryokans are essentially Japanese-style inns. Combining simplicity with a modern touch, they are something to try for any traveller visiting Japan, and are billed as the perfect recipe for true relaxation away from the outside modern world.
As with all ryokans, the noticeable absence of a bed or chairs can be a daunting prospect, but the bed on the woven floor mats was fine. It was the lack of somewhere to sit other than on the floor that gave me some problems. Sure the sliding shoji doors and tatami matting looks great, and the low-hanging lamps and hand-painted wall scrolls were stylish, but where do you sit? It was an experience, but I have done that now.
Shopping in Japan is always a good experience and Osaka is no different. One of the big attractions is the covered shopping streets, some which extend for several kilometres. Here there are thousands of small shops, cafes and restaurants just waiting to be explored. Prices are reasonable, displays are immaculate and owners are friendly.
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IF YOU GO
There is no getting around the fact that it is a long way from the United Kingdom to Osaka. The fastest two flights are with British Airways/Finnair via Helsinki or Korean Air via Seoul. Several other carriers, including Japan Airlines and ANA, have one-stop flights.
South Africa does not have an exchange agreement with Japan, so therefore, a visa is required for South African citizens to visit. This is obtained from a Japanese embassy or consulate. British citizens and many others do not require a visa for a short-term tourist visit.
Early April is considered to be the best time to see the cherry blossom displays. Several areas of the city have special lighting for two weeks at this time for night viewing. The other popular time of the year is late October/early November when there are Autumn colours.