Live the adventures of Dan Walker's travels through reading his travel journal. The travel journals are listed below in descending order of date. To search the travel journals, use the keyword search at the bottom of the page.
|Friday, May 02, 2003 03:58:09
Asia Pacific 2003: 7 - From Osaka
Wednesday, April 30, 2003
It was a smooth run to the airport this morning in moderate traffic. I left early to give myself time to get some breakfast at the airport - the domestic terminal has a shopping mall with lots of eating places. When I checked in at All Nippon Airways I was informed that I could take a flight an hour earlier if I liked, so I jumped at it. Being a domestic flight there was neither customs nor immigration, so I had time for a sandwich and a juice and to check my email before boarding. There were coin operated internet computers in the waiting areas at the boarding gates, which charged about 8 cents (100 Yen) for each 10 minutes. What a very sensible idea!
Once again I scored on leg room, being assigned bulkhead seats set back about 6 feet from the bulkhead. As this 1 hr 50 minute flight was domestic it was necessary to buy the beer, and there was no food service other than a bag of snacks that came with the beer.
On arrival in Osaka I inquired at airport information and was advised that a taxi to the hotel would be very expensive, but was given directions to a bus that went to a hotel near the Westin. The price was 1,300 yen, about $11. The bus was ready to go when I arrived at the stop so there was no waiting. It took about an hour on the freeway into city centre, where I got a great view of the Port of Kobe and the city on the way in. The expressway is elevated - in the city varies from about the 3rd to the 8th floor level of office buildings.
The port is enormous, with has several large oil refineries located around it. To leave the airport, which is on Sakishima Island, it is necessary to cross a long bridge which then becomes the expressway. Getting to the Westin Hotel was very straight forward and check in fast and efficient.
It is taking a bit of getting used to when women, including hotel guests with their husbands, insist on holding the elevator door open to allow the men to exit first. Here the bellboy was a girl, and when she had shown me the room and put away my suitcase she firmly rejected my offer of a tip. Tipping just isn't done here, so I'm having to get used to that as well.
The hotel is very deluxe, and the room far from what I had expected in Japan. My Starwood Gold Card got me upgraded to the 21st floor where the room is big even by North American standards, with two queen sized beds, a desk, a table and two armchairs. The room key is interesting. It is a plastic probe in a leather case, with a computer chip imbedded in it. This is inserted into a slot in the door to open it. Electric power here is the same as North America, with the same standard wall plugs.
The room has all the amenities one could want, including a large marbled bathroom - one section with two sinks, the other with an oversize bathtub and a separate glassed in shower. The toilet once again has the control panel in the armrest, this time with even more buttons. On this one the water pressure can also be adjusted up or down for your personal enjoyment!
Osaka is one of the oldest cities in Japan, established about 1,350 years ago. In the 16th and early 17th century many canals were built, which were crossed by 808 bridges. The city became known as the "City of Water".
My greeting was a bit cool. Okinawa was hot and sunny when I left, here it was cool and raining. It is 13.4 degrees C outside right now. The rain stopped shortly after I checked in so I took to the streets, wandering around in an 8 block radius of the hotel. The area is called Shin-Umeda City, which is part of Osaka but a fairly quiet and laid back part. There are lots of restaurants and loads of convenience stores in the area. Shin, I have found out, means new.
I passed one eight table neighbourhood restaurant which had displays of their offerings in the window, so I pointed out the one I wanted to the proprietor. He spoke no English, but was very helpful and attentive. It turned out the dish I ordered came with a large bowl of soup and tea, so it made for a very filling lunch for less than $6.
On the busier streets there are wide sidewalks, but it is necessary to be careful as bicycles come barreling along them at full tilt. On my way back to the hotel I bought some juice and 2 liters of what I thought was water. When I got to the hotel I found out it was lemonade, so I guess I'll be brushing my teeth in lemonade for awhile! It tastes pretty good, although it loses something when mixed with toothpaste. The water here is supposed to be fine for drinking, but I'm not into taking chances on something that basic.
In the hotel services directory was a listing for non-allergenic pillows, so I ordered up couple of them. The regular pillows are feather, to which I'm allergic. The replacements were quite amazing - like sacks of coffee beans with pillow cases on them. They weigh about the same as a sack of coffee, and are filled with something that is very similar to beans. These will be interesting to sleep on. There will certainly be no worry about them being brushed off the bed!
In the bar the menu has about four pages of various brands of scotch. There are none priced by the glass, although I guess if you insisted you could buy it that way. Even the daily specials sign outside the bar had prices only for bottles. You could, for example, pick up a bottle of The Macallen to share with your friends for only $11,150, while a bottle of Johnny Walker Blue Label was going for a mere $430. I had a beer for $4.75 and ate the entire bowl of complimentary nuts - that was the extent of my largess!
There was another innovation in the bar which is, I suppose, a sign of the times. An outline of a cell phone with a red circle with the slash through it indicating NO.
Street vending machines are all over Osaka as they were in Okinawa. One thing I didn't mention is that they sell beer. One machine I saw yesterday sold beer in all sizes, right up to small kegs.
Next morning the weather was beautiful - blue skies and sunshine. By afternoon it was quite hot. I needed to take a taxi to another hotel about five minutes away to join the tour. My escort, a fellow named Hironori Mizuhara, took me by train to join the tour in Kyoto, explaining that I was the only one from Osaka on the morning tour. The train service here is great, and with his knowledge of where to go it was a very straightforward trip. The scenery wasn't much, pretty continuous urban sprawl. Once he got me connected with the tour group in Kyoto he headed back to the Japan Travel office in Osaka, with a promise to meet me in Nara in the afternoon to take me back.
In Kyoto I was introduced to "herd" tourism. Everywhere was crowded with tourists - this is Golden Week in Japan, one of the big holiday weeks with Emperor Hirohito's birthday, May Day and a couple of other ones rolled into the same week, so the Japanese were out in droves. Our group was about 30 strong. Other than two from the US they were all from Europe or the Middle East.
Travel in the city was slow due to huge union marches and gatherings. May 1 was being celebrated with many anti-government protests about the economy, with a few peace activists thrown in for good measure. We visited the Imperial Palace, Kinkakju Temple and Nijo Castle, all very worth seeing.
Kyoto is a nice looking university city with a population of 1,460,000, of which over 10% are students. It is the 7th largest city in Japan. The city limits include 610 sq. km. of land and over 2,000 temples and shrines. The city was the capital of Japan from 794 until 1864, so the Shogun had a palace here, as did the Emperor. The palaces had an interesting innovation call a nightingale floor. The passageways in the castle were constructed of wood, especially designed to make a sound like a flock of birds singing when anyone walked on them. It was so no one could sneak up on the residents.
We were late getting to the lunch location due to the demonstrations, so I had to dash straight to the 6th floor cafeteria of the craft centre building. This meant I had no time to shop in the other five floors of displayed crafts. Lunch wasn't bad, which helped me to live with the disappointment of missing the shopping. The bus for Nara City left right on time, with about five fewer people than the previous tour. This time they were all European. I was one of the first on board so had the seat right behind the driver, which was great for video. The buses here are standard leg room, so I need to use two seats to be able to fit in my legs.
The drive was a little more interesting, as it went through forests of bamboo. Apparently the bamboo in this area is very famous, and at one time was exported for use as filaments in light bulbs before tungsten came into use. We drove through some farm land, where the government is encouraging farmers to switch from rice to other crops due to oversupply. People are eating a lot less rice per capita now.
Nara is a small, historic city of 360,000 people. It was the first capital of Japan in 710, until the capital was moved to Kyoto. In the 800s it was one of the largest cities in the world, with a population of 180,000 people. At that time it was the eastern end of the silk road across Asia.
We went to a Buddhist monastery where what is reputed to be the largest bronze cast statue of Buddha in the world is located. The body alone is 15 meters high, with another 5.5 meters of head on top of that. The eye is over a meter wide. The monastery is located in 1,650 hectare Deer Park, where around 1,200 very tame deer live. Special deer food patties are sold to people to feed to the deer, who are wandering everywhere. They happily eat out of your hand. Profits from the food sales are used to feed them in winter.
As we were about to leave, I was sitting on the bus waiting for the others when the guide pointed out the window to one of the women in our group who was happily munching away on deer food, which looks a little like cookies. When she got on the bus, the guide said, "So sorry to tell you, but you are eating animal food". The look on the woman's face was priceless! The guide assured her there was nothing in it that would hurt her, and that if she liked them to go ahead!
The next stop was a Shinto shrine, where some 2,500 full size stone lanterns dating back as far as 1100 lined the walk ways. They are in the traditional Japanese form, and stand about 2 ½ meters high. The area smelled very sweet, as the trees were full of wisteria blossoms. Shintoism is an animist and ancestor worship based religion with over 1,000 gods and no written scriptures. It has gone back and forth with Buddhism over the years as the national religion, although most Japanese have adopted both as they are compatible.
The bus dropped a French couple and I off at the Nara train station, where Hironori was waiting to accompany us back to Namba Station in Osaka. He saw the French couple onto the subway, then took me out to see the Namba area. It is an amazing place, with blocks and blocks of garishly lit neon lined streets announcing bars, restaurants, night clubs, cinemas, gambling places, strip clubs and so on. Many of the streets are covered by a canopied roof going from buildings on one side to buildings on the other side, several floors up. The area was swarming with people.
I suggested drinks and dinner, so he took me to an Izakia, which literally translates to a Japanese drinking place. Hironori said it was where employees came after work to complain about their bosses and drink. There was little to indicate where the place was, just an elevator facing onto the street. It was on the fourth floor. Inside has been done like a Japanese country inn, with lots of heavy wood dividing the place into small rooms of two or three tables each.
The tradition is much like in Costa Rica, where bocas are consumed while drinking. I left the ordering to Hironori, and we soon had a wide variety of dishes to share. I see by the bill that there were 15 different items. We had a couple of beer to start with, then shared a bottle of saki, which is usually served cold in summer and hot in winter. We then had wheat saki, followed by plum saki. To finish up with had a liquor made from Japanese oranges. The Japanese certainly can drink! We were flying pretty high when we left, and the place was rocking with laughter and noise.
Once again, it has been shown that the stories I'd heard about the exorbitant cost of eating and drinking in Japan are not necessarily true. It depends where you go. The average plate of food in this establishment was 400 yen, about $3.50. The whole spread, to absolutely stuff and inebriate us both, cost about $60.
Hironori then walked me back to the subway and got me on the right train for Umeda station, which is near the Westin. The subway system is very efficient, with signs in English as well as Japanese. On the train are electronic signs above the doors to name the next stop in both languages, plus a bilingual verbal announcement, so there was no problem finding my station.
While I was on the train I'd been fascinated by a Japanese fellow sitting down and across from me, who looked like the painting you see of an old time Samurai warrior, with a craggy, firm set face. When I got off the train in Umeda Station, I stopped at a signboard which showed the miles of tunnels in the station hoping to spot the way to the Westin. There was no indication, but my Samurai fellow stopped beside me to offer his help.
He could not speak any English, but I showed him my key case with "Westin" written on it, and he was baffled as to how to get there as well, so with me in tow he headed off to ask directions. The first two shops weren't of any help, but after some considerable walking on a couple of different levels of the station he found the security office, who had a map showing a tunnel that runs from near the station under the railway marshaling yard to the Westin side.
After walking some distance we emerged from the station and walked outside for awhile. From there I could see the hotel across the wide expanse of railway tracks. We walked parallel to the tracks for awhile until we came to the tunnel entrance. I said I was OK now, but he was having none of it and headed into the tunnel, which was about three city blocks long. It came out a couple of blocks from the hotel. When we got to the hotel door, I insisted on him coming in for a beer.
We were soon working around the language barrier with hand signals and drawings on the coasters. He drew a family tree of his family and thus was able to explain he had three grandchildren. I did likewise, then excused myself to go up to the room to get some souvenirs from Canada I had for his grandchildren. When I presented them, he insisted on returning the gifts. This went on until I'd pretty much cleaned him out, and we said goodnight. I went to bed with my faith in human nature restored once again, and had no trouble passing out as soon as my head hit the bean bag, which, by the way, turned out to be fairly comfortable as a pillow.
Monday, May 2, 2005
Another bright sunny day, or perhaps I should say piercing, as I'm a touch hung over and sensitive to the light. I've spent the morning writing this, so to keep up production had room service send in breakfast. It is the same price for room service as in the restaurant.
To meet up with this afternoon's tour I took a taxi to the same hotel as yesterday, where a double decker bus was waiting. There was a Japanese section of about ten people with a guide, and three of us with an with an English speaking guide. My companions were a couple from Brazil. The bus had a TV connected to a TV camera aimed forward to make it easy for everyone to see ahead.
We first visited Osaka Castle museum. The castle was first built in 1583 then burned down in 1615. In 1620-29 it was rebuilt, then 36 years later was struck by lightening and burned down again. It was not reconstructed until 1931 this time. It currently is a museum with many audio visual effects to show the history of the shogunate period. A very welcome elevator takes visitors to the upper observation levels about 9 floors up. The view from here is great. To see the castle I'd recommend not taking a tour, but an independent visit. All exhibits have very good English explanations, and it would give much more time to explore the 210 hectare castle grounds.
Our next stop was the Shitennoji Buddhist temple with it's high, multi-level pagoda, and then on to the Hitachi tower, which is 103 meters high and offers a spectacular view of the city from the top. Unlike Koyoto, nothing here was overly crowded. It gives an idea of the city size, though. Greater Osaka (including Kobe) is about 5 million people.
We were dropped at Osaka Umeda Station, where I took a shuttle bus to the hotel, then walked to the little restaurant in which I had lunch the other day. I was starved, so ordered a huge meal. My suspicions about the place being a neighbourhood spot was confirmed when several tables of people all seemed to know each other. One fellow who looked like the happy Buddha was obviously throwing out one quip after another, keeping everyone in stitches. I had to laugh just from the laughter of the others. The happy fellow insured I was included by nodding in my direction now and then, and most people when saying their goodbyes gave me a bow. It is funny that in a country in which I really felt I'd be uncomfortable, quite the opposite has happened. I left absolutely stuffed, and the bill was $11.
Tomorrow I'm off by bullet train to Yokohama, so I'll try to get something off from there before heading for Ogasawara.