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Konichiwa! Last week we went from St. Lucia to the Land of the Rising Sun - and believe me, I was so jet-lagged I watched it rise every morning (at 4:45 a.m.). Now we pick up where we left off -- early on my first day in the big city of Osaka.
After breakfast, I met Mr. Miyagi in the lobby. Iím only kidding, it wasnít the man from the ďKarate KidĒ movies. It was Mr. Haga, but he reminded me a lot of Mr. Miyagi (Iíll tell why soon). But before I go any further, let me share the best tip for traveling in Osaka (or anywhere else in Japan, for that matter). Because most people here donít speak English (or at least pretend not to), itís not the easiest city to navigate around.
But did you know that the Japanese Tourism Association can set you up with a free tour guide? Thatís right -- a FREE tour guide every day you are in town. All you have to do is pay for the guideís transportation, meals and entry fees to places of interest (like museums). What a bargain!
The guides (usually retired) speak fluent English, and have taken all the appropriate courses to be a knowledgeable representative for their city. There are only a few restrictions. For example, you canít be part of a commercial tour group, you must make a reservation at least two weeks in advance, and your tours cannot be at night.
I found them by contacting the City of Osaka Chicago Office. The representative, Terry, was amazing. He asked me where I wanted to go and what I wanted to see. He then coordinated with the OSGG (Osaka Systematized Good-will Guides) Club, and planned a sensible 2-day tour. OSGG Club guides cover not only Osaka but also nearby Kyoto, Nara and Hyogo. To apply for a free guide, contact the Osaka Visitors' Information Center, tel.: (06) 6635-3143; Fax: (06) 6635-3144; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thatís where Mr. Haga comes in. He was my tour guide for both days in Osaka. He reminded of Mr. Miyagi not just because of his looks, but also his mannerisms and personality. Like Mr. Miyagi, Mr. Haga was really cool and laid back, and had tons of wisdom and experience. I guess that comes from being an executive for an electronic company and traveling the world for business. Teaching English part time didnít hurt, either.
Before we went exploring we sat in the lobby of my hotel and chatted. He immediately started teaching me Japanese cultures. For instance, when the hotel manager gave me his business card I grabbed it with both hands and read it carefully, before putting it in my pocket. Then when I handed my business card to him, I used both hands. Mr. Haga didnít tell me that part, but I was smart enough to follow his example. When the manager walked away I knew Mr. Haga was proud of me. Deep down inside he probably wanted to high five me, but itís not the Japanese way to show emotions. I didnít show my emotion either -- otherwise I would have moon-walked out the door.
The sun was hot, and the air humid. The high was in the 90ís, the low in the upper 70ís. (Normal for this time of year is 68-82į F.) Whatís funny (or smart) is that whether itís cloudy or not, most women in Japan carry umbrellas. That way they can block either the rain or sun. They are so obsessive about not getting too much sun that even their bikes have umbrella holders.
Because it was so hot, I really appreciated Japanís fascination with vending machines. They are everywhere, and look really cool -- especially at night. My favorites were the ones that poured the drink into a cup. Oh, that cold peach Hi-C drink with those perfectly symmetrical small ice cubes Ė it was soooo good (and it only cost 110 yen -- $1).
Mr. Haga asked me if I was interested in Japanís history. I said of course (I was a history major in college). So throughout the day I learned Japanese history. I will not get into most of it, or else weíd be here for weeks (it goes back to the 5th century). However, at the bottom of this newsletter I will include a bunch of helpful links and recommended guidebooks that will teach you everything you need to know about Japan. That includes knowing that during World War II Osaka was crushed by American bombers. You canít tell that today, though, because the city has done a great job rebuilding, and restoring its landmarks. Iím glad times have changed, because I canít imagine war with these people.
One of the first things I learned from briefly reading my guidebook was that in Japanese the word Osaka means "big hill." It should mean ďbig clean hill,Ē because thatís exactly what this place is (except the river Ė thatís dirty). Hereís an example of how clean Osaka is: Do you know what that picture is? It was hard for me to comprehend; thatís why I took it. Those are rails for the subway. If you are like me, and are used to staring at New York City subway tracks (always filled with puddles, rats, old batteries, used Metro cards, bottles and cans), seeing spotless rails is nothing short of amazing.
Not only is Osaka clean; itís also safe. Thatís key for me to like a place, especially in a foreign country. Iím not one of those adventure-type travelers who gets off on exploring unsafe places. If I did, Iíd just walk around the Bronx with a Boston Red Sox jersey on.
To make sure you know exactly where Osaka and Japan are located, I have included a couple of maps. Japan is about the size of California. The population of Japan is about 125 million (Californiaís is about 35 million). The countryís population is almost entirely Japanese. The small percentage of non-Japanese is heavily Korean.
With 2.6 million people, Osaka is Japanís third largest city (Tokyo has 8 million, Yokohama 3.4 million). Osaka is divided into two main areas: Kita (north) and Minami (south). Kita is the city's business center, and the main train station serves as the gateway to Kobe and Kyoto. Minami is the city's entertainment district, and has the best shopping and nightlife. I bet you know where I spent most of my time.
Our first stop was Osakaís most famous landmark: the Osaka Castle. It was just a 10-minute walk from my hotel. The Castle is not only one of the cityís most popular attractions; to Osaka-jin (Osaka residents) it is the symbol of their city.
The Castle was founded by monks as a temple in 1496, then taken over in 1583 by Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Lord Toyotomi intended it to become the center of a new, unified Japan under his rule. But after his death in 1615 it was attacked and destroyed. It was rebuilt in the 1620ís, but in 1665 the main tower was struck by lightning and burned down. In 1931 it was rebuilt again. During WWII it was partially damaged in an air raid (our target was the ammunition factory next to the castle). In 1997 it went through another major refurbishment, which made it more accessible to the disabled
Today the Castle is a magnificent eight-story museum. Make sure to go to the top, because from there you can see all the grounds, including the many moats and gigantic stone walls. I have no idea how people moved those stones back then. Some are the size of a small house. The castle is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and costs 600Y ($5.50). Osaka Castle, 1-1 Osakajyo Chuoku, Osaka City 540 Phone#: 06-6941-3044.
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Our next stop was supposed to be just a short walk to the Osaka Museum of History, but because it was such a nice day we decided to skip it. Osaka Museum of History; 1-32 Ohtemachi 4-chome, Chuo-ku, Osaka540-0008, tel: 06-6946-5728
Instead we headed to the shopping centers on the other side of town. The best way to get around Osaka is by subway or bus (). Of course, if you know your way around you could act like an Osaka-jin and ride a bicycle.
The city has public and private rail lines. Both run efficiently. The subway and bus are public, and operated by the Osaka Municipal Transportation Bureau. The private lines run between other major cities like Kyoto, Kobe, and Nara, and the airport.
To ride the rails all you need to do is buy a ticket from machines inside the station. There is an English button, but because I had Mr. Haga I didnít need to push it. Fares are not expensive (a dollar or two), and are calculated on where you are going. Note to all the men out there: Be sure you donít get on the women-only cars during rush hour.
We got off at Shinsaibashi station Number 5, and headed to some of the cityís best shopping. The first street we stopped at was Midosuji. This is often referred to as Osakaís Champs-Elysees, because it has so omany expensive designer shops like Prada and Gucci. Mr. Haga and I arenít into sophisticated boutiques, so we walked a couple blocks to Shinsaibashi-suji.
Shinsaibashi-suji is a really old, neat -- and bizarre -- shopping street. What is so crazy is that the shops are all indoors until you got to the end of a block. Then you came to an open street -- no doors or walls at all. To keep shopping you have to cross the street (watch out for cars!) Then you are back inside the air-conditioned stores. This goes on forever. Well, actually 1.6 miles Ė but that makes it Japanís longest shopping street.
One of the most notable places was the Japanese version of the 99-cent store. They call theirs the 100-yen store. There were also a bunch of pharmacies selling disposable cameras. Look how cheap they are: 398 Yen ($3.60).
The area was full of shops and malls. One of the cooler looking places were the neon signs next to the Dotonbori River. It was there that Mr. Haga and I got hungry. There were plenty of places to eat. Mr. Haga suggested this spot because it is famous for seafood. But I donít eat seafood, so we kept walking. Here is Mr. Hagaís advice: ďThere are no bad places to eat in Osaka.Ē If you ask people what Osaka is famous for, they will probably say the laid-back people and food.
We had lunch at Okonomi Yukari. They serve Okonomiyaki, a popular Japanese-style food that looks like hash browns but doesnít taste like them. Customers usually cook their own okonomiyaki at the table, but we had our waitress come over and cook ours to see how it was made.
The dough has flour, water, eggs and cabbage. "Okonomi" means "as you like," so you choose what you want to add: chicken, pork, beef, octopus, green onions, katsuobushi (dried bonito), even dried seaweed (yuck!). Then you add a sauce. The choices are a brown okonomiyaki sauce (ketchup, soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce and mayonnaise), or just mayonnaise.
The guidebooks say Okonomiyaki is a kind of Japanese fast food place, but (unfortunately) Japan has tons of American fast food joints. I saw numerous McDonalds, KFCs and Subways.
I gotta be honest: I didnít love the food I ate in Osaka (except the breakfast buffet in my hotel). I can feel the daggers being thrown at me right now from all of you who have been here. I donít mean any disrespect, and I know I may be the first person to feel this way because everyone raves about the food. My problem is that I donít like seafood, sushi, tofu, mushrooms, mayonnaise, duck, caviar, seaweed, pickled things Ė and they serve a lot of that there. Iím just not into those things. Next time I will visit restaurants that serve teriyaki chicken, vegetable tempura, noodles and yakiniku (grilled meat). On this trip I had to sample what the locals eat.
After lunch we took a couple of subways to the Shitennoji-mae subway stop, then walked a block or two to the Shitennoji Temple. This Buddhist temple is believed to be the oldest imperial temple in Japan -- founded in 593 AD. Prince Shootoku built it in gratitude to the 4 Heavenly Guardian Kings of Buddhism, who supposedly helped him win a battle.
There are six buildings, all in a straight south-to-north line. They include the Main Gate (with two fierce-looking guardians on both sides), a five-storied Pagoda, Lecture Hall, Worship Hall (or Main Hall), Stone Stage and Rokuji-do (the place for religious services conducted 6 times in a day). It is a very quiet and peaceful place to walk around, and if you are Buddhist to pray. Shitennoji Temple: 1-11-18 Shitennoji Tennoji-ku; tel.: 06-6771-0066
We then paid 300Y ($2.75) to get in to the Garden of Gokuraku-Jodo (Paradise) which is located next door. The newly restored gardens were beautiful with all kinds of ornate statues, manicured bushes, chirping birds, colorful flowers, trees, rocks and a pond with a waterfall. It created a tranquil retreat. My mom would have loved painting in here.
The Temple and Garden were nice, but the highlight of the day (actually, the entire trip) was having Japanese tea inside a traditional teahouse in the garden. This is what I always imagined Japan to be like, and I am so lucky to have experienced it.
As we entered we took off our shoes (make sure you place them carefully, with the heel against the wall). We walked to an open spot on the carpet, and knelt on the floor. The waitress came over and bowed . I placed enough money to cover the 400Y ($3.67) admission for Mr. Haga and me in a dish. She returned with my change (tipping is not common in Japan), along with thick green tea and red bean sweet cake. Red bean sweet cake did not sound very appetizing, but it was delicious (and sweet). Kneeling on that mat killed my knees, but the experience was amazing. I will never forget it.
I returned to my hotel room exhausted, and passed out early. Lying in bed I started thinking about random things, like how the bathrooms in Japanese hotels and restaurants always have the menís room closer than the women's, so men don't have to walk too far. In all the other places itís the opposite. I later found out itís because of cultural tradition, which used to put men ahead of women.
I woke up at 3 a.m., was happy I slept an hour longer than the previous night. As I lay wide awake watching the Yankees game at 4 a.m. there was a news flash. I didnít need to read Japanese to know this wasnít good. It turned out we were about to get a powerful typhoon-- just my luck.
When I finally got out of bed I opened the curtains all the way. It was one of those days I would love to have spent doing nothing but hanging out in the hotel and my room. But I had big plans with Mr. Haga. Not only did I need to not get ready, I also had to check out of my hotel. I was leaving the country that night.
I think Mr. Haga had the same feeling as I, because when we walked outside into the strong winds and pelting rain, we both looked at each other with a what-the-heck- are-we-doing expression. There was hardly anyone on the streets, which looked like a tornado was about to touch down.
But on we went. Our first stop was Osakaís Waterfront Amusement Area. But we were not there for the shops, or the gigantic Ferris wheel. Instead we headed to Osakaís aquarium, Kaiyukan. I usually donít get excited about aquariums, but this one was awesome.
After I paid the $18 admission, the pretty ladies behind the counter set me up with a headset so I could hear the guided tour in English ($4.50). This aquarium is one of the largest in the world, with over 580 species and 30,000 marine animals. The aquarium takes you on a journey around the Pacific. It was awesome to see the different tanks dedicated to specific regions: the Japan deeps, Great Barrier Reef, Antarctica, Aleutian Islands, Monterey Bay, Gulf of PanamaÖ I especially enjoyed watching the huge tiger sharks, penguins, crocs, manta rays and jellyfish swim around. But the highlight was seeing a crazy-looking turtle, and a truly weird fish. If I saw either one out in the wild, I would swear I discovered a new species. Osaka Aquarium: 1-1-10 Kaigan-dori, Minato-ku, Osaka City, 552-0022 Japan; tel.: 81-6-6576-5501; fax 81-6-6576-5510.
We ran from the aquarium like kids jumping through puddles and laughing, because we were insane to be out in that weather. We took cover in the Hotel Seagull Tempozan, and had a traditional Japanese box lunch. The restaurant was nice and the waitress was in a kimono, but I wasnít into the lunch. It was filled with all kinds of fresh seafood and things I listed earlier. Yukari Houzenjiten
After lunch we waddled back to the subway. We found more shelter at the HEP (Hankyu Entertainment Plaza) 5 building, a commercial and amusement complex with another huge Ferris wheel. The wheel is built into the middle of the building, so riders get some incredible views. Itís 350 feet above ground Ė thatís crazy! Iíll stick to the shops Ė and there are 153 of them, ranging from Japanese designers to the GAP. Hep
I seriously donít think Iíve ever been to a city with more shops. Osaka has them everywhere -- including underground, which we explored. When we made it back to street level Mr. Haga said that across the street was a popular camera store, Yodobashi Camera. I figured since I was in Japan and my digital camera was falling apart, I might as well look into upgrading from 3 Megapixels to 5. Even with a salesperson who did not speak English, I plopped down 500 big ones for a Nikon Coolpix with 5.2 Megapixels. The camera is much nicer than my old Coolpix, and much smaller. Mr. Haga gave me a coupon, and I got 20 percent off. How cool is Mr. Haga?! Unfortunately I had no time to try it out. The battery needed charging, and I needed to get back to the hotel to grab my bags and head to the airport.
When I reached the bell counter at the hotel I saw this sign that read most flights were cancelled due to the typhoon. In addition, the bridge to the airport was closed. That was not good news, because the airport is on an island. I thought, oh boy -- I guess Iím not leaving Japan tonight. I wasnít that upset though, because I really liked the city and the hotel. But just as I went to book another night the concierge made a phone call and said, ďJohnny, they just opened the bridge. Your flight is showing on timeĒ.
Getting to the airport was an adventure itself. I didnít know I was supposed to get on in the middle of the train, because the front part I got on split off halfway through the trip. I guess the first part of the train was public, and the second part was private. Luckily a Japanese lady told me (actually, she escorting me, because she didnít speak English and I donít speak Japanese) to move back a couple of cars.
Next week I will tell you all about my next destination. Here are a couple of hints: Itís 2,580 miles from Osaka (about the same distance as L.A. to New York), and itís the only Southeast Asian country never to be colonized by a European power.
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HELPFUL LINKS FOR OSAKA
SOME OTHER THINGS TO SEE IN AND AROUND OSAKA
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Folk Remedy for hot-weather health challenges. They work wonders, even if we don't always know why. |
Look for jewelweed, nature's antidote, which often grows near poison ivy. Find a picture on-line at altnature.com/jewelweed.htm. To find a picture of poison ivy, click on "Poison Ivy Info Links." Crush the jewelweed leaves and stems, and apply to the affected area. Do this every hour after exposure for the rest of the day.
To stop the itching and foster healing, rub lemon wedges over the affected area. But don't rub it on broken skin -- it will sting.
Rub the area with a piece of watermelon that has about one inch of pink fruit on the rind.
Bottom Line/Personal interviewed Joan Wilen and Lydia Wilen of New York City. The sisters are authors of Chicken Soup & Other Folk Remedies (Ballantine) and Folk Remedies That Work (Harper). They grew up in Brooklyn, where their mother and grandmother had folk remedies for almost everything.
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