Oh Nepal. You will be missed! It was a very long journey to leave you, about 27 hours from hotel to hotel, and it included a five hour layover in the airport in Bangkok, Thailand, and then waiting for Joan and Steve for another ten hours or so at Osaka's airport. Luckily, both airports were nice and had things to walk around and look at.
Like I said, we waited for Joan and Steve at Osaka Airport for quite some time. Our flight landed at 6 am and Joan and Steve didn't emerge from the arrivals door until about 4 pm. Seth and I spent the day wandering through the airport, marveling at all the amazing food choices, and noting the different cultural mannerisms of the Japanese people. So far, I like Japanese culture.
After settling some business at the airport, like JRail passes and money exchange, we grabbed a taxi to our hotel. Joan found us a beautiful hotel in a very convenient location. The Hotel Monterey Grasmere is a great choice if staying in Osaka. It has nice clean rooms near a major train station, near great areas to explore, and the rooms are quite luxurious compared to what we've stayed in on our trip so far. Something instantly noted in our room, and in other public restrooms at the airport, have been the bathrooms. The rumors are true. Japan has some high tech toilets with sprays, a heat seat, courtesy noises while you sit, and buttons galore. If you're not careful, you could push a button and you'll be sprayed with water. At first, flushing the toilet took some time to find the flusher.
We spent 5 days in Osaka and I loved every minute of it. There are tons of little streets lined with interesting restaurants and shops with cute little toys and nick nacks to look at. The Japanese really do have an infatuation with anything small and that has a large cuteness factor. If it's cute when it's life sized, make it smaller and the adorable factor multiplies exponentially. One of our days in Osaka was spent on a tour with All Star Osaka Tours. Our guide, Minako, was amazing. She showed us around Osaka pointing out bits and pieces of Osaka history and culture. She had tons of great little stories to match up with every place we went. And she's been quite a help. Espeically if you don't speak Japanese, I highly recommend taking a tour or finding someone to translate, because Minako's assistance was invaluable.
Another landmark we visited was the Osaka Castle. Perched upon a bit of a hill is a fortress which looks like an elegant mansion from the times of the orient. Obviously an important castle, continuous groups of children of all ages streamed in and out of the castle doors. Groups of elderly persons were wheeled and were ushered about, and we were right in the midst of it. It really is amazing how few non asian people we've seen in Japan so far. The castle was more interesting on the outside than the inside. The inside had been converted into a museum, but there was a viewing deck up top that proved for spectacular panoramic views of the city.
My favorite areas in Osaka happened to be clustered around our hotel. First of all, there are subway stations in Osaka, and some of them have massive underground mall-like areas. Namba Walk began just outside of our hotel's doors. We'd descend the flights of stairs into an underground world filled with seemingly endless shops and restaurants. So many of them fulfilling the stereotype of needing to have an adorably cute mascot of some kind.
The most vibrant scene in Osaka occurred at Dotonburi Bridge area. This area is the Times Square of Osaka, packed with huge billboards, three dimensional caricatures of people and animals and store mascots, and signs with neon lights abound. We took the necessary photos with the Glico running man, the Kuidaore Clown, and stuck our heads in any cardboard cut out we could find. Well, at least I did. We walked over the 'pick up girls' bridge where guys hang around in the evenings to pick up on the ladies, and learned why the Honshu Tigers have had bad luck since the early 80's. Apparently they won the series and fans would jump off the bridge into the water screaming their favorite player's name. There was an American on the team so they went searching for an American to jump off the bridge. They found an American guy and they picked him up and threw him off the bridge. The reason the Tigers still have bad luck is because the American has not been recovered, until recently. He was found, but his left hand and spectacles are still missing. Minako took out a picture of the American man and we saw that they had thrown in a statue of Kernel Sanders from outside the close by KFC. Awesome story. It is said that when they find the hand and specs the Honshu Tigers will break the curse!
I mentioned the Kuidaore Clown but I don't think I explained the word kuidaore. Kuidaore is something commonly practiced among the people of Osaka. Osakans are foodies and kuidaore means eat until you fall over. I love this idea. And when you are practicing kuidaore you need to take a picture with the Kuidaore Clown. So, we did. How did we practice kuidaore that day? We began the day with pork bao from 551 (go go ichi in Japanese) because they are renowned for their bao. Yum it was delicious. Eventually we made our way to another delicious restaurant where we tried okonomiyaki. This is a wonderful mix of tons of ingredients like eggs, onions, cheese perhaps, maybe some seafood, some rice cakes, you could really put just about anything in there, but it always tastes delicious, and you douse it heavily with mayo, okonomiyaki sauce (which is dark, sweet and savory at the same time) and sometimes hot mustard. It is so, so good! While we were there we, also, tried their yakisoba (noodles), and their taki yaki. Taki yaki is a wonderful dish native to Osaka. They are little octopus balls served molten hot and doused in mayo, some kind of dark sauce, bonito flakes, and whatever else they put on it. This is a type of street food and it is amazing. Though delicious, they are fiery hot inside and my mouth is paying for it. But the taki yaki we had in the restaurant was a bit different, as it was Tokyo style. It was milder in flavor and you dipped it in a clear broth type liquid with green onions and kind of salty water. Not as amazing as the Osakan street version, but still pretty good. We, also, tried something that I could compare to an omlette, but a little different. That was delicious too. The food was amazing and plentiful. Surely kuidaore was achieved.
Later, we tried some freshly made soy milk. It tasted different than any I have ever tasted. It was fresh like the beans themselves, and had no artificial sweetness like the ones you buy in the stores. And the couple who ran the shop were great to talk with (with Minako's help, of course). They were just as curious about us as we were of them. We learned that they were closing the shop in about a month to retire while they could still enjoy their time together. One goal for them was to visit Honolulu for the woman to run in the Honolulu Marathon. That's awesome.
There are so many things I want to share! Osaka was amazing, so I'm trying to do it justice.
We decided that we were going to put our lives in peril while dining in Osaka. Fugu is a potentially lethal meal of puffer fish. You have to be trained and certified to handle fugu, and you can, literally, die within hours of eating if improperly prepared. Stories have been told of people who regularly eat fugu, but suffer symptoms of tingling in extremities and facial numbness. Minako had showed us a famous fugu restaurant, so we decided to live on the edge. It was a very delicate fish, so delicate in fact that it hardly had any flavor. Yes, we dined on fugu, but will we order it again? Probably not.
If you don't know already, sushi is my absolute, hands down, favorite food. So, having a meal of sushi in Japan was a pretty big deal for me, and has definitely been on my bucket list. Anthony Bourdain visited Osaka and dined at a tiny tiny sushi bar run by an old couple. It took some effort, but after wandering around asking numerous people, we finally found this exact restaurant. We told the couple that we were interested in omakase, chef's choice. I was in heaven. We were in Japan, at a tinsy tiny sushi bar, eating amazingly fresh toro, blue mackerel, abalone and so much more. Something interesting we tried was bamboo shoot sushi. I've definitely never seen that on any sushi menu before. I'd say it was all amazingly delicious, but that would be a lie. I wasn't a fan of the abalone. It had the consistency of chewing on a rubber band, and the raw calamari sushi was like chewing on the sole of a shoe. I chewed it for a really long time before giving up and swallowing. But, the experience was enough for me. I even tried uni (sea urchin) and it wasn't that bad. I really hope I get more sushi experiences before we leave.