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Japan Part IV: Osaka, Kobe and Nara

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 hookers. 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, to observe¬†the interactions that emanate from this process. Call me old fashioned.

namba osaka dotonbori at night
Giving you the jist of Dotonbori after sundown. Lots of foot traffic at all hours and, again, just lots and lots of street food.
glico running man osaka dotonbori
The famed Glico Running Man, who was allegedly created to be an icon for the Ezaki Glico candy company for the following reason: Ezaki Glico Co.‘s flagship caramel candy contains the precise number of kilocalories to produce the energy needed for a 165 centimeter-tall runner weighing 55 kilograms to run 300 meters. Completely intuitive, right? Glico is also the maker of Pocky! You know, those chocolate et al. covered cookie sticks.

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 twenty-something year-olds brandish their appendages¬†over the water, adding to its volume in unison 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 manufactured¬†that last bit. But… probably?

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Bright lights illuminate the riverwalk along the Umezu River.

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.

Osaka Castle

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.

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Here I go, crossing yet another MOTE!!! And, not the kind that are filled with seawater eroding the sand citadel I spent, like, an hour building.
A mysterious figure guards the castle walls.
A mysterious figure guards the castle walls. We were granted passage in exchange for lasagna.

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), one which brought to mind Shotaro Kaneda and his crew,¬†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.

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The actual castle rests atop a fairly tall stone foundation, presumably as a defense against would-be attackers.
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“Architecture depends on order, arrangement, eurythmy, symmetry, propriety, and economy.” -Vitruvius
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.

Retro
This would be the metro station we incorrectly exited, which was actually fine by us because otherwise we wouldn’t have found ourselves in the 1970s. Photo Credit: Hendricks.
lost kobe japan
Let’s not resort to batrachomyomachy over being in a temporary state of wandering. On the bright side, while getting lost we did happen upon this beautiful park…
kobe park
I imagine that this row of Tori Gates would be a photographer’s dream, or a trypophobe’s nightmare.

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 their gift and thanked them endlessly.

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.

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Left:¬†I wonder why “A-1” is such a commonly used title. Is it synonymous with “the best?” I genuinely would like to know.¬†Right:¬†Whatever he’s doing to that steak…¬†for the love of what is good and holy, don’t stop.
No shame in bib-wearing.
Bib-wearing past the age of 3 years old has been typically uncommon between the two of us, but this instance warranted exception.

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.

Nara Eki
Yet another beautiful train station, JR Nara Eki. And, another example of Hell incarnate for a trypophobe.
A little steep for a wheelchair access ramp if I do say so myself.
A little steep for a wheelchair access ramp if I do say so myself.

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 ūüôĀ

nara deer feeding
Feeding deer crackers to an insistent young buck. And, Hendricks winning over a couple of the ladies.
Nandaimon Gate at frames the southern entrance to the Historic... Nara. Each wall of the gate
Nandaimon Gate frames the southern entrance to a fraction of the Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara. Within each wall of the gate is a 28-foot tall A-un (symbolically representative of the beginning and end of all things) pair of statues, each representing the Theravada Scriptures-referenced guardians of the Buddha. Agyo, to the left, stands with an open-mouthed expression, and Ungyo, to the right, stands with a closed-mouth expression, a consistent representation across all A-un figures the world round.
Nara Park
The grounds are simply stunning, everything made from stone.
nara temples nara bell Nigatsudo Hall
…as are the structures throughout Nara Park.¬†Left:¬†Nigatsudo Hall. Right:¬†A more than 12 foot tall bronze bell,¬†Nara Taro. The bell weighs 26 tons and measures 27 feet in circumference.

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.

biggest wooden building in the world
Legend has it, the golden horns atop Todai-ji, if touched, trigger thunderstorms from above, much like touching a girl’s hair triggers hellfire from below.
todai-ji kannon-den
So very very big. A large number of school children surrounded us throughout the day. Todai-ji is the destination for many a field trip.

Upon taking a look inside…

vairocana buddha statue
Vairocana, celestial primordial Buddha, embodiment of the Buddhist concept of emptiness.

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?”¬†

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2 thoughts on “Japan Part IV: Osaka, Kobe and Nara

  1. I knew I had to read this post when I saw those gorgeous torii gates on Pinterest! ūüôā We just got back from Japan as well and we absolutely loved it! And I’m sorry you got lost in Kobe– Japan can be a bit tough to navigate, at least it was for us!

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