11-Days of Free & Easy: Japan (Osaka Highlights)

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This is Part#2 (Osaka Highlights) of my Jun-2015 Japan travel blog.
Refer to the list of contents below for the links to other parts of the blog. Happy reading! =)

 

Osaka Castle @2015
Osaka Castle @2015

Contents

 

Bonus : 4 Great Tips for your Japan Holiday

 

11-Days of Free & Easy in Japan: Osaka Highlights

Below are the Osaka highlights of my 11-Days of Free & Easy in Japan, June 2015. (chronologically listed)

 

#1: Dotonbori and Shinsaibashi (info)

Located in the vicinity of Namba station, Dotonbori and Shinsaibashi together are one of the most popular (if not the most popular) places to go for shopping, food and entertainment while in Osaka. On the few nights that I visited, the entire area was always brimming with visitors even when it is raining.

Dotonbori, Osaka @2015
Dotonbori, Osaka @2015

Located parallel to the canal with its namesake, Dotonbori (map) is an unsheltered pedestrian street (a few hundred metres in length) populated mainly by food establishments. The most crowded portion appears to be the 300 metres section starting from Kani Doraku (the seafood restaurant with a gigantic crab on its billboard) (map) and ending at Kinryu Ramen restaurant (map). Many tourists to Osaka (like myself) would typically end their day here with dinner at one of the numerous restaurants, followed by shopping or entertainment in the surrounding streets.

Not someone keen with gastronomic delights, I tried the famous but “no-frills” Kinryu Ramen (aka Golden Dragon Ramen) as recommended by a friend working in Japan. The restaurant’s facade and interior decor doesn’t appear impressive, however, you can tell from the queue that it’s no ordinary food outlet. The ramen is excellent with the broth extremely fragrant. Most importantly to me, the price is very reasonable!

Note: There’re a few branches of Kinryu Ramen scattered throughout the Dotonbori area. You could locate them via their distinctive Golden Dragon billboards. 

Branching southwards from Dotonbori is a number of covered shopping street that have a larger presence of retail stores selling anything from souvenirs, clothing, fashion accessories and electronic products to manga/anime related merchandises.

Covered shopping street branching southwards from Dotonbori @2015
Covered shopping street branching southwards from Dotonbori @2015

Right beside Kani Doraku is a pedestrian bridge that crosses over the Dotonbori Canal. While on the bridge, look westward and you’ll find the next major icon of Osaka: the Glico man billboard (map). First installed in 1935, this billboard has grown to be an icon of Osaka. Every day, throngs of tourist flood the bridge and the pathways beside the canal to take photo of this conspicuous icon.

Tips: If you’re trying to snap a picture of the Glico man, avoid doing it on the bridge; it’s always crowded. Get off the bridge and head to the pathways by the side of the canal. There’s typically less crowd at the pathways and you could get a more direct shot of the billboard from across the canal. (see pics below)

On the northern end of the bridge is the Shinsaibashi Shopping Arcade, which runs adjacent to Dotonbori in the south. Shinsaibashi Shopping Arcade is a sheltered shopping street and has more high-end retail stores compared to those streets south of the canal (i.e. around Dotonbori).

Bridge on Dotonbori canal @2015
Bridge on Dotonbori canal @2015

When in Osaka after a tiring day of sightseeing, Dotonbori/Shinsaibashi is definitely the best place to visit during the evenings for food and entertainment/shopping. The high density of these establishments in the relatively small area ensure that everything you’ll need is within short walking distance. A trip to Osaka is never complete without a visit to this hub.


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#2: Nara day trip (info)

Nara is a historical district east of Osaka and south of Kyoto. From 710AD to 794AD Nara was the capital of Japan, thus this period is also known as Nara Period.

Less than an hour by train from both Osaka and Kyoto, many tourists visit Nara as a full-day trip from these cities. As the district is not particularly large, one could reasonably explore the area via a fair amount of walking within a day.

Nara main attraction: Todaiji Temple @2015
Nara main attraction: Todaiji Temple @2015

From Osaka, Nara is served by both JR line (via JR Nara Station; map) and Kintetsu Nara Line (via KintetsuNara Station; map). Your decision on which rail network to use should depend on what rail pass you’re having. Having said, most attractions in Nara are closer to the KintetsuNara Station. No worries though if you’re arriving via JR Nara station; both stations are just 12 minutes walk (1km) from each other.

Since I have the JR Pass, I took the JR line and arrive via the JR Nara Station. Once at the station, there are clear signage and maps showing the direction to walk towards my first and main attraction of the day: Todaiji Temple. The walk was to be an easy 30 minutes journey. Along the way, I was greeted by charming alleys and a laid-back atmosphere. Definitely a welcome break from the hustle and bustle of the major Japanese cities.

The general greenery area east of KintetsuNara Station is known as Nara Park. (info) (map)

I passed by the park while on the way to Todaiji and was greeted by the well-known “host” of Nara: the deer.

Deers in Nara Park are considered as sacred according to local folklore and protected by law. As such, you could find them roaming around the district. In fact, Nara Park is also affectionately called, “Deer Park”.

There are many vendors and shops selling “deer-crackers” throughout Nara. Many tourist (including myself) would purchase these crackers and feed the deers; given their cute looks, who wouldn’t? It’s also no surprise that I was “stalked” by hungry deers on a number of occasions as they are accustomed to such feeding.

Deers roaming freely in Nara @2015
Deers roaming freely in Nara @2015

 

Tōdaiji (info)(map)

“Todaiji (東大寺, Tōdaiji, “Great Eastern Temple”) is one of Japan’s most famous and historically significant temples and a landmark of Nara. The temple was constructed in 752 as the head temple of all provincial Buddhist temples of Japan…” (Source: www.japan-guide.com

Todaiji is a UNESCO World Heritage status temple. Before arriving at the temple’s main hall, one would first pass thru the Nandaimon Gate. The gate itself is a national treasure and houses two huge statues of the Nio Guardian Kings, presumably guarding the temple.

After passing the Nandaimon Gate, there would be a lovely pond on the right before arriving at the perimeter building of Todaiji. The perimeter building is the entrance to Todaiji’s main hall and fees are payable for the visit.

Upon entering the perimeter of the temple, a beautiful sight presents itself.

“Todaiji’s main hall, the Daibutsuden (Big Buddha Hall) is the world’s largest wooden building…”, 

“The massive building houses one of Japan’s largest bronze statues of Buddha(Daibutsu)…” (Source: www.japan-guide.com

Beside the stairs leading up to the main hall, there is a purification fountain for visitors to wash their hands and rinse their mouths before entering the main hall. This is a common feature in many Japanese temples/shrines.

Note: Click here to learn more about what to take note when visiting temples/shrines in Japan.

Purification fountain at Todaiji @2015
Purification fountain at Todaiji @2015

The interior of the main hall is truly spacious and imposing, befitting the title of being the world’s largest wooden building. The main statue of Buddha is magnificent and tower over the visitors with its immense size. There are a number of other smaller statues of Buddhism deities in the hall. Visitors and devotees can show respect via saying prayers or lighting candles.

Interesting activity: “Another popular attraction is a pillar with a hole in its base that is the same size as the Daibutsu’s nostril. It is said that those who can squeeze through this opening will be granted enlightenment in their next life.” (Source: www.japan-guide.com)

No photography is allowed in the main hall, as such, I’ve not posted any photos here.

 

Nigatsu-do Temple (info) (map)

After exiting Todaiji, turn eastwards and follow a pathway up a gentle slop. The path will lead to a few flight of picturesque stairs and some restaurants/stores before arriving at our next destination: Nigatsu-do Temple.

Note: See below map (click to expand) for the pathway leading from Todaiji to Nigatsu-do. The map is not oriented to true north at the top.

Map showing route from Todaiji to Nigatsu-do Temple @2015
Map showing route from Todaiji to Nigatsu-do Temple @2015

Nigatsu-do is a Buddhist Temple which literally means “”The Hall of the Second Month”. Completed between 756AD and 772AD, its nestled on a hillside and is classified as a National Treasure of Japan. The main hall of Nigatsu-do offers a good view of the surrounding area.

 

Kasuga Grand Shrine (Kasuga Taisha) (info) (map)

After visiting Nigatsu-do, follow the pathway leading south. The stroll to Kasuga Grand Shrine would be another easy 1.3km (15 minutes).

Enroute to Kasuga Grand Shrine @2015
Enroute to Kasuga Grand Shrine @2015

Established in 768AD, Kasuga Grand Shrine has obtained UNESCO World Heritage status and is the most popular Shinto Shrine of Nara. It is well-known for the numerous bronze and stone lanterns that populate its premises.

On the day I was there, the shrine appears to be having a religious ceremony and visitors could make a paid visit to explore the inner area of the shrine and pay respect to the deities. However, I cannot tell if this is a permanent arrangement or a one-off ceremony specific to the day I happened to visit.

Note: Photography is not allowed in the inner areas of the shrine.

After exiting the shrine, head in the general direction of east or north-east to get back to KintetsuNara Station or JR Nara Station. Along the way, you’ll pass by rows of enchanting stone lanterns where you’ll have the last opportunity to satisfy your photographic cravings before calling it a fruitful day.

Stone lanterns lining the pathways leading back to train station @2015
Stone lanterns lining the pathways leading back to train station @2015

 


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#3: Osaka Castle (info) (map)

Osaka Castle‘s construction started in 1583 under the leadership of Toyotomi Hideyoshi and was the largest castle in Japan at its time. Since then, it has grown to be one of Japan’s most famous icon.

The main tower was destroyed/damaged several times and the current main tower is the third generation with the latest restoration done in 1997.

Osaka Castle main tower @2015
Osaka Castle main tower @2015

“The main tower of Osaka Castle is situated on a plot of land roughly one square kilometer. It is built on two raised platforms of landfill supported by sheer walls of cut rock, using a technique called Burdock piling, each overlooking a moat. The central castle building is five stories on the outside and eight stories on the inside, and built atop a tall stone foundation to protect its occupants from attackers.” (Source, Wikipedia: Osaka Castle)

Access to Osaka castle can either be from the Tanimachi Yonchome Station (in the east) or the JR Osakajokoen Station (in the west). I arrived via Tanimachi Yonchome Station and it was a 1.5km (20 minutes) easy walk from the station.

Along the way to the main tower, I passed by a number of moats, gates and turrets before reaching the inner raised platforms.

Once at the inner raised platforms, I could see the majestic main tower with its high stone-wall foundation. The open space in front of the main tower is filled with visitors taking pictures of the grandiose tower. There are a few retails shops in this area selling snacks and souvenirs, and there’re even a few street artists entertaining the crowd.

Currently, the main tower functions as a museum (Osaka Castle Museum) and visitors need to purchase tickets for entering the tower. Once in the tower, the official recommended visiting route is to first climb up to the top of the tower to its observation deck (8th floor), before walking down each of the other levels to view the exhibits.

The observation deck is 50m above ground and though rather cramped,  I find it offering great views of the castle’s surrounding.

After snapping a few pictures at the observation deck, it’s time to descend to the other floors of the main tower and explore the exhibits. One of the more interesting exhibit in the museum is captured below.

After spending 30 minutes wandering through the various exhibits, I exited the tower and proceed to snap a few more photos of the main tower from other viewpoints, before calling it a day.

Overall, my visit to Osaka Castle was hugely enjoyable and definitely rewarding. There’s plenty of shooting opportunities for photography enthusiast and history buffs will find the exhibits in the museum entertaining.

Definitely a great place to visit while in Osaka!

 

 

#4: Umeda Sky Building, Floating Garden Observatory (info) (map)

Located within 15 minutes walking distance from both Osaka station (JR line) and Umeda Station (Midosuji line), the Floating Garden observatory is located on the top floor of the Umeda Sky Building.

“The 173 meter tall building consists of two main towers which are connected with each other by the “Floating Garden Observatory” on the 39th floor.” (Source: www.japan-guide.com)

I visited the observatory during one of my evenings in Osaka; an hour before it was about to close. Upon entering the Sky Building, I travelled up a series of escalators before coming to the lifts which sends visitors up to the 39th floor observatory.

Once passed the lifts, we were directed up a dimly lit see-thru escalator which brings us to the lower level indoor observation gallery. The indoor observation gallery has full length glass panels on all four sides, though some portion of the gallery is occupied by a cafe.

From here, take a short lift ride (or just walk a few flight of stairs) up onto the rooftop open-air circular observation deck which offers 360 degree view of the city. This rooftop deck is far more crowded than the lower level indoor gallery as the views are better.

Having said, I wasn’t exactly impressed with the views from the rooftop deck. To start off with, the circular platform’s edge is still a fair distance away from the edge of the building. Meaning that most of the time when taking pictures, you can see the edge of the building in your photos; which isn’t exactly aesthetically pleasing (see above pics). In addition, the city views are rather bland, which I attribute to the Floating Garden’s relative lack of height at 173 meters; there are other higher observatories in Osaka (info).

In short, I would definitely give Floating Garden a miss the next time I’m in town. I’ll rather try my luck at the other observatories.

 

 

Accommodation in Osaka: Hotel MyStays Otemae (website) (map)

Japanese accommodation tends to be costly and small, and it’s not everyday that you would come across a gem such as this hotel.

MyStays Otemae is located within 5 minutes walk from Tanimachi Yonchome Station, and 15 minutes from Osaka Castle. With Tanimachi Yonchome Station round the corner, access to other parts of Osaka is extremely convenient. Eg. Umeda and Namba station are both 10-14 minutes away 

As I’ve 2 adults and 2 children in my entourage, i booked 2 rooms (1x Superior Twin and 1x Apartment Semi-double). My previous experiences with Japanese hotels during business trips dictate that the rooms be tiny. As such, I was totally blown away when I checked in to MyStays Otemae.

For both rooms that i was given, they looked more like spacious self-contained apartments; complete with kitchen, living/dining area (see pics below). You could essentially hold a small party in each of them! The condition of the rooms are good and cleanliness superb; as to be expected of Japanese hotels.

Most importantly, the rates are extremely competitive. Without doubt I will be staying here the next time I’m in Osaka!

 

 

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