O saka! My saka!
From Kyoto, Hendricks and I Bullet Bill’d on a southwesterly route, staying within the Kansai Region of Honshu, to Japan’s second largest metropolitan area: Osaka. This was to be our central hub for day trips west to Kobe and east to Nara.
Upon arrival at Shin-Osaka Station, Hendricks and I elected to save the Osaka Loop Line for another time and blow ¥3,000 on a cab ride directly to our hotel. Not overly interested in visiting another Universal Studios (we have one at home) or massive aquarium (we’ve visited the one in Monterey Bay), we chose to stay away from those attractions at the Hotel Vista Grande. Since my home state borders on Spanish-speaking Mexico, and some fifty percent plus of our population is fluent in the language, I felt right at home! The primary reason for booking this hotel is absolutely location, location, location… it’s right smack in the middle of an incredibly vibrant Citywalk-esque nightlife and entertainment area abounding in shopping, street fare, and even a carnival ride or two.
Stepping out for the night to explore, Hendricks and I crossed over Ebisu Bridge on the Dotonbori Canal to marvel at the landmark illuminated Glico Running Man, which stretches several stories high. It became immediately clear from what Ebisu Bridge derives its moniker, “Hook-Up Bridge.” I’ve never seen so many ladies of the night. Though illegal, prostitution in this area seems to come with the territory: open solicitations garnered no attention from police patrolling the area, as did a rather noticeable hand-to-hand exchange of a large paper bag full of what my imagination led me to believe was likely some kind of opiate, or maybe something mythical of which I’ve never heard like Dotonbori krokodil moon gas white lightening... completely legitimate speculation on my part. This “look the other way” attitude toward certain transgressions grants beings of salaciousness carte blanche to slake their libidinous cravings. It’s interesting, as a non-participant (call me old fashioned), to observe the interactions that emanate from this process.
Tomoko-san from Osaka, who Hendricks and I had met in Kyoto while descending Mt. Kurama, warned us of the less than sanitary condition of the Umezu River, the river along which Dotonbori is built. This immediately came to mind as Hendricks and I witnessed three jovial twenty-something year-olds urinating into the river, as though it was a group bonding activity, shouting “Gaijin!” at us zealously as we continued to our terminus. I then also remembered her recounting of the last time Osaka’s baseball team, the Hanshin Tigers, had won a championship and that their enthusiastic fans had jumped into said river in celebration… and contracted hepatitis. No, No, I made up that last bit. But… probably?
Hendricks and I stopped in at Chibo Resturant on the river, trying okonomiyaki for the first time. Okonomiyaki translates to “whatever you like”-“fry/cook,” and it’s exactly that: whatever you’d like fried into a savory pancake. Chibo cooks prepare the dish and serve it on your own personal teppan grill. I definitely recommend it. Afterward, we stopped at the famous giant octopus in Dotonbori for takoyaki (octopus balls). I’m not sure if my balls (giggle) were undercooked, or if they’re simply prepared in this manner, but mine were filled with an eggy batter with small chunks of cephalopod floating around like cellular organelles in cytoplasm. But, I’ll try most food once… most food, not all food. I’m certainly not interested in sheep head, bug guts, or ranch dressing, all of which I consider to be equal in their ability to activate an upchuck reflex.
Since our daytime schedule was full while staying in Osaka, Hendricks and I visited the city’s most famed landmark at night. And, having done so, I wouldn’t have had it any other way. We exited Osaka Business Park Subway Station, crossed a stone bridge over a mote (YEAH, A MOTE!), passed Osaka-jo Hall, which strangely enough had just wrapped a John Mayer concert (not my kappu of kocha) and continued on to the heart of the park, where stands tall and illuminated over centuries-old fortress walls Osaka Castle.
As we approached, I was somewhat shocked that there were no hindrances to us coming into contact with the castle itself. In America, or at least in Los Angeles, most parks (even those without prized national monuments) close at sundown to dissuade the unsavory activities that occur at night: graffiti, thuggin’, muggin’, horizontal huggin’, …probably intravenous drug use, etc. Yet, here, not for a moment did I feel unsafe. According to a study recently conducted (February 2015) by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), Osaka ranks third in the entire world in safety, behind Tokyo and Singapore. Asia, you’re doing something right. So, perhaps ‘trespassing’ to the Japanese is a dysphemism for sightseeing past sundown. Though the park was mostly empty, we did notice a small boso zoku (motorcycle gang, of sorts) racing in circles at the foot of the castle on their motor bikes. Put into a cultural context, it just didn’t seem like that big of a deal.
Getting Lost in Kobe
We started out a rainy day grabbing Chinese food from an annex restaurant a block south from Dotonbori. After filling our stomachs, we continued another block west to JR Namba-eki, hopped on the aforementioned Osaka Loop Line at Immamiya Station to Osaka Station, and headed west like a couple ’49ers toward Kobe, except instead of searching for gold, we were searching for a steakhouse, which was propped up, at the time, as ranking #5 out of over 8,000 restaurants (on Tripadvisor) in Kobe, with rankings #1 through #4 going to sushi restaurants, meaning that it was ranked as #1 for steak restaurants in Kobe (note: these rankings fluctuate over time). We would accept nothing less than locating this eatery and engulfing its menu offerings.
Kobe beef, which originates in Kobe as the name suggests, is rare and expensive. Producing it is a time-consuming process. It is yielded from a Wagyu breed of cattle that is fed beer and massaged regularly, blending its fat into its muscle tissue and lending to its tenderness. Since the cattle is [struggling to find a euphemism for…] butchered in Kobe, it’s a genuinely good idea to try Kobe beef in Kobe, Japan. But, here’s how my experience went…
I won’t go into too much detail, but Kobe has far fewer signs in English, or even in romaji, than the bigger cities we’d visited. We exited the wrong station, which was our first mistake. We tried hailing a cab to take us to this steakhouse, which we thought must be well-known by its name… it wasn’t.
We got back on the train and headed to the correct exit at Sannomiya Station: from there we walked in numerous directions in the wind and in the rain, with no luck in finding our destination. It was so windy, in fact, that my umbrella blew inside out. I stopped at a gas station to evade the rain, and some incredibly kind men working there gave me one of their umbrellas to take, as much out of graciousness as out of pity. We had been trying to figure this out for about three hours at this point, and I was in no position to decline their gift out of my own humility. I accepted and thanked them for their kind gift.
Hendricks, tinkering with review sites and maps on his phone, found mention of a hotel adjacent to the restaurant, the B Hotel. We hailed a cab, fell inside, and asked if the driver knew where the B Hotel was. “Ah! B Hoteru,” he affirmed, shifting into drive. We were in luck! The driver took us in a zig-zagging route to the B Hotel (we never would have found it on our own). We paid, exited the cab, and lo… across the street from us, there it was: A-1, Shindo (of no relation to A-1 Steak Sauce, obviously). After four hours of frustrated determination, I had never felt so accomplished. It was a sight for sore eyes and, hopefully, solace for empty stomachs.
Upon entering, all doubt in whether we had made the right decision in persevering melted away. Categorically, and without hyperbole, the smell from the meat permeating the room was quite literally the most incredible smell I had ever smelled in my life. I was served a searing 12 ounce filet of Kobe beef, sizzling on a skillet, steam rising into my nostrils making my mouth water uncontrollably. The meat was so tender it cut like butter: it was unquestionably the best thing I’ve ever tasted in my life. A meal was ¥5,700, and although the sides were good, they paled in comparison. Hendricks and I easily could have ordered three ¥4,800 filets, splitting the third, and been content without anything other than the cuts. The day’s vexations became undeniably worth every bite, and I would travel to Kobe all over again just to visit that restaurant. It is that good. (*Editor’s note: in 2016, I do return to Kobe just to revisit A-1 Shindo).
As Ron Swanson once said, we’ll have the turf and turf.
Nara, Land of Sacred Deer
The big cities in Japan are phenomenal, and their juxtaposition with the edifices and relics of ancient Japan provides for a full and enriching experience. Add to a very beautiful old city friendly furry critters, and I’m there. Nara was the capital of Japan in part of the eighth century A.D. The “Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara” include eight temples, one of which, Todai-ji, is the largest wooden building in the world; shrines; and ruins, as well as Kasugayama Primeval Forest, home to a large population of protected deer that I could not wait to pet and then feed and then pet some more.
Knowing immediately we had arrived at our destination by the presence of sika deer freely roaming absolutely everywhere, I immediately purchased ‘deer crackers’ for my new friends at ¥50 a bundle. Deer crackers are likely so named for their ability to feed deer and, hopefully, not their contents of trace amounts of venison, spurring the emergence of a subspecies of cannibalistic deer which prays on fawns, calves and kids until the population of the family Cervidae declines into obscurity. Hopefully not.
The deer were fearless in garnering the treats, probably because (a) they know where their bread is buttered (near the deer cracker carts) and (b) the deer are classified as a national treasure, harming them is illegal, and up until WWII, the deer were considered sacred: killing one of these deer had been a capital offense punishable by death. Because of this, no one has killed one of these deer since 1637. Hey, Nara deer, it’s a good thing you don’t live in the U.S. –> you’d be legally and shamelessly shotgunned in the face with buckshot, thusly named for its efficacy in shooting buck… sad face 🙁
And, for a ticket price of ¥500/person, one can, slack-jawed, upwardly marvel at the eighth century (and, twice reconstructed post-conflagration) architecture of the largest wooden building in the world, housing the great Daibutsu (giant Buddha) of Nara within its hall.
Upon taking a look inside…
Reaching toward the ceiling of the second story of the inner hall, inside lives the Daibutsu (giant Buddha) of Nara, Vairocana. The statue is nearly 50 feet tall and weighs more than 500 tonnes, the tallest bronze statue of Vairocana in the world. For reference, a human being measures approximately 3/4 the height of his hand.
The visit to Todai-ji was a success. We hailed a cab back to JR Nara for the express train back to Osaka, leaving the next day to return to Tokyo. Osaka, Kobe and Nara, it’s been real.
Osaka was a great travel-hub since it was so close to two other big cities. What is your favorite day-trip “travel hub?”by