I’d been to Japan in 2007, zipping through the country on a Shinkansen to Kyoto, Hiroshima and Tokyo, so this time, while I planned to return to Tokyo, I also wanted to visit a new place. Osaka, the third largest city in Japan, is a base to see a lot of the historical sites.
My Osaka walking tour started in a rain storm, so we spent the first hour in Osaka’s Dotonbori district, a lively area with restaurants, bars and neon lights brightening the walkways on either side of the canal when it’s not pouring. The iconic symbol of the city is the Glico running man, a local chocolate company’s symbol who has been running and welcoming visitors since the 1930’s:
Osaka’s main cultural site is Osaka Castle, a replica of the original 1583 one which was destroyed in 1645, then rebuilt and destroyed a few more times including during WW2. It was reconstructed in 1997 and is an example of Edo-style architecture.
Just 30 minutes away by metro is Kyoto and I wanted to see two sights, the first being the Fushimi Inari-Taisha Shrine with about 1,000 red torii or gates leading up winding paths around a mountain to the shrine at the top. The gates are donated by local businesses as a means of securing good luck; the deity inari looks after rice and business:
After climbing around the mountain and through the gates, I was ready for a flatter surface. A train ride later, I arrived at the Bamboo Forest, so named because it is a forest made up of bamboo trees:
Next stop was Nara Park, an old capital of Japan and home to some impressive, and original, temples and shrines including the Todaiji Shrine with a gigantic Buddha inside:
The real stars of Nara Park are the Nara deer, hundreds of feral deer who greet all comers looking for food. Vendors sell deer friendly crackers, but I was warned if I started feeding one to a deer, a whole herd would follow me until they were satisfied I had no more, so I passed on the feeding:
Himeji Castle, in the city of Himeji, is the largest and most visited castle in Japan. Started in 1333, it has undergone rebuilds and restorations but is largely intact and remains the best example of Japanese castle architecture.
Inside, there’s a lot of wood and not much more. I was ushered along the visitor route, up 7 flights of slippery, steep stairs then down 7 flights of slippery, steep stairs with no chance to escape. I guess I should appreciate the exercise.
Osaka is famous for its cuisine and I embarked on a food tour to sample some of its finest. Takoyaki is the most famous – little chunks of octopus immersed in a wheat flour ball and deep fried:
Let’s just say it’s an acquired taste. We sampled 9 other local dishes – pork and bean sprouts wrapped in an omelet, deep fried shrimp, chicken wings and some ramen noodle soup- along with lots of sake. It was all good, but nothing I’m inspired to try cooking at home.
After 5 days, lots of castles, shrines and deer, it was time to depart.
After 8 weeks of history, temples and old castles I took a different tact to sightseeing in Tokyo: I would see nothing that hadn’t been constructed this century. In Tokyo, which embraces all things new and modern, this was easy to do.
My first stop was the Tama Centre trees, a yearly illumination of trees:
A bit underwhelming, but the next attraction definitely delivered. TeamLab Planets creates immersive art exhibits, along the lines of the popular Toronto Van Gogh Immersive Art exhibit, but without a focus on a famous artist. After entering, you’re required to take off your shoes and socks and roll up your pants – your feet are going to get wet.
After a few warm- up exhibits, you walk into a room filled with knee-high water dancing with sparkles and fish:
It took me a few minutes to realize the fish were just lights. A few exhibits later, I walked into the Chrystal Room:
My favourite exhibit was the shooting flowers, a room where I lay on my back and watched as computer generated flower images danced and flew across the ceiling:
Other exhibits, all designed to challenge conceptions of both art and how we see the world, were equally interesting.
Next up was the Suginami Animation Museum, devoted to exploring the Anime/Manga ( cartoon and comic books) culture in Japan. Though the first anime shorts in Japan started in the 1930’s, the subject felt modern enough to meet my sightseeing criteria.
The museum walks through the history and development of anime, its impact on Japanese society and vice versa, along with the principles governing anime and, of course, a theatre running the best of the medium:
Needless to say, I didn’t understand too much.
Far more comprehensible was my fish day. Beginning at 5:30 am, I made my way to the newly constructed Toyusu Fish Market to watch the daily tuna auction. The old market used to allow anyone onto the trading floor, so tourists could get very close to the often chaotic, and smelly, action. The new place is larger and much cleaner, but spectators are limited to watching from a glass enclosed section a floor above. Still seeing these giant tunas hauled around is mesmerizing:
The former fish market was at Tsukiji, where a cottage industry had developed of sushi stores and restaurants, most tiny little booths. I ate a fabulous tuna and salmon sashimi lunch there.
Tiring of seeing so many dead fish, I made my way to the Art Aquarium Museum where thousands of live goldfish are displayed in unique installations:
The Japanese imported the custom of watching goldfish from the Chinese over 200 years ago. The collection includes some very rare goldfish:
Not much more to say about goldfish. The rest of my Tokyo days were spent walking around some of its famous areas, visiting gardens and going to noodle street at the Tokyo Station for ramen noodles.
It seemed fitting to end my time in Tokyo visiting one of Japan’s most loved devices- a toilet- and I don’t mean your average run-of-the-mill toilet. For my time here I had been delighting in the toilets; heated seats, automatic wash and dry functions, noise disguising sounds, etc. I walked to the transparent Shibuya Toilet, which is designed to be fully visible until someone enters, then goes opaque automatically when in use. The thinking is you can check the toilet’s cleanliness before committing to going in:
Unfortunately they didn’t seem to be working and my non- existent Japanese suspects the signs on the door say “ Out of Order”.
After 9 weeks in Asia it was time to return to Canada. So until my next adventure, thank you for visiting and reading.