Tuesday, February 27, 2007

A Weekend in Japan

The lunar new year came and went a couple of weeks ago. It's a big holiday in Korea with most businesses getting a short holiday. We decided to spend the long weekend in Osaka, Japan, for a change. It turned out to be well worth the effort. Japan and Korea both have their pros and cons.

It was raining heavily when we arrived in Namba, Osaka, late in the afternoon. With only a tiny umbrella and a rain-soaked map printed from a computer, things were beginning to look a little challenging as we couldn't figure out where our hotel was. Luckily, with the help of a few locals, we found it near the station and hauled our luggage upstairs.

The hotel staff were friendly and spoke decent English. The hotel itself was clean and neat, with vending machines on every floor and internet access in the lobby. In front of the reception counter you can see a basket with clear umbrellas for sale, at 300 yen each.

The room was nice, a little small but pretty much what we expected in Japan. We collapsed on the beds for a while, before contemplating how to spend the rest of the afternoon.

With a few directions from the hotel staff, we found our way to the nearby shopping district. Namba has the world's longest undercover continuous shopping mall in the world. Along it there are a lot of hotels, restaurants and pachinko parlours. Pachinko is a mechanical-electronic game mostly played by older men that resembles poker machines. I don't understand it completely, but the idea is to win small silver ball-bearings and redeem them for prizes.

The first thing we did is stop for okonomiyaki, a pancake that fries on a hotplate. Okonomiyaki can be bought in various formats, but often contains seafood and cabbage topped with a special sauce and fish flakes. Osaka is famous as it's birthplace and it can be found on just about every corner. The fresh and mild flavour was accompanied by some crazy wasabi mustard that was so strong it made me cough the first and second time I tried it. It was a very good dish and I'd highly recommend it.

We met up with Jimmy, one of my sister's friends who turned out to be a super tour guide. He took this photo of us standing in front of an area that the Osaka city council have been developing for years, but apparently with little progress. The neon lights were dazzling and pretty. I learned Japanese in high school and actually retained portions of my reading ability.

Jimmy took us to a good western bar called Zero. It had a mellow atmosphere and friendly people, including a lot of English teachers. We drank a cocktail called Caipirinha for the first time, which I'd never seen in Korea. It's a Brazilian invention, with some quality gin, lime and plenty of sugar. One of the best cocktails I've ever had, and a nice change from the staple Long Islands we usually drink.

This is Alfred, a sociable ex-pat from Germany who has been living in Japan for 22 years. People like him are valuable contributors to ex-pat communities, being a wealth of advice and knowledge to newcomers. Someone recently made a documentary about him.
In this photo he's drinking a beer using a special technique. You punch a large hole into the side of a horizontal beer can with your fingers and pour it into your mouth at the same time as you open it from the top. Air flows in through the top and if you do it right, it just shoots straight into your stomach in less than 2 seconds.

That's my sister there on the left with her new boyfriend, Dominic. I actually emailed my sister the wrong date that we were arriving, so it was an interesting surprise when I called her phone that day. She's been teaching English in Japan for seven years or so, but is heading out soon.

We left Zero and walked to another bar down near the river. On the way we picked up another famous Osaka morsel, takoyaki. These are little octopus-dough balls that are served hot. You buy them with sauce after watching a guy like this flip them around in special little cooking notches with a special little takoyaki poker.

Early the next morning, Jimmy and his Japanese friend, Ryol, took us to Kobe. Jimmy had heard sippets of information about a ferry that was rumoured to travel between Kansai airport and Kobe, but it had perhaps closed and reopened and may or may not have been a figment of his imagination. So we went down to Kansai airport to search for it. Turns out it did exist after all and was the perfect way to get there.

The tickets were cheap and there were televisions and plenty of seats on board. The boat was a hydrofoil, meaning that it has a T-shaped double keel that rises up in the water during transit, resulting in a smoother ride due to less wave resistance. You can thank Wikipedia for that one.

There's Ryol in the centre and Jimmy on the left. Both of them were very interesting people and great hosts. If they ever come to Korea, I am most definitely buying them some expensive imported Japanese beer here.

The boat stopped at Kobe airport, which was sparkling new. Kobe took a beating from the old Hanshin quake in '95 but has largely recovered.

The airport has been a subject of controversy in Japan, having been built on reclaimed land for around US $8.7 billion. Jimmy told me that there had been a lot of political nonsense that occurred before it's opening, resulting in it becoming partially-redundant due to the virtually simultaneous construction of the nearby Kansai Airport in Osaka. It did seem to be a little bit empty.

The main feature that draws your attention inside is the abundant display of flowers. They were very well maintained (probably by professional horticulturalists). It made the building feel more like a greenhouse than an airport terminal, which is a good thing.

Upstairs there was an open roof allowing visitors to view the runway. The island itself looked a little drab and miserable in comparison to the rest of the city. Photo: Jimmy Simms

On the upper deck was a wildlife display put on by a conservation society. This live owl had a small string around its foot, tying it to the stump. Owls have amazing eyes, but one thing they're not good at is eye contact. I tried to get it to look at me, but it kept turning its head away.

You were allowed to touch the penguin, but had to wash your hands afterwards with some detergent they provided. It may have been another frivolous manifestation of the bird flu hype going around Asia. In Kansai airport they have a small welcome mat at the arrival terminal with a sign that says 'Please wipe your feet on this mat to prevent bird flu transmission'.

Here's Jimmy hanging out near the railway station. He's a very cheerful bloke from New Zealand and has Jaimaican parents. That translates into a lot of fun things.

Kobe is a very clean and modern city, with many of the roads and buildings newly constructed. It was fairly crowded when we were there, although I'm not sure if that was normal. Shopping malls in Japan like this one are very westernised, but the individual shop stalls are smaller on average.

The Chinese community still celebrate lunar new year in Japan, whereas the Japanese normally don't. We decided to go and get lunch in Chinatown and see some of the celebrations. It was very crowded, with lion dances and lots of festive food. The crowds were so thick that on some of the pedestrian paths you could only walk in one direction.

Here we are posing for a photo in one of the main streets. You can't see much of it, but the ground was spotless, even though there were tonnes of people eating things. Japan in general is a very tidy place. Photo: Jimmy Simms

And here's a closer photo of the friendly Ryol, with a special greeting for the Lee's Korea Blog readers. Photo: Jimmy Simms.

We tried a lot of different food that day, all of which was delicious. But the highlight of it all were these gyoza, steamed and fried Chinese style dumplings. They were fresh and perfectly flavoured with not too much oil or salt.

It turned out to be a fun and fascinating day trip. Kobe felt like less of a metropolis than Osaka did, which was good. Thanks go out to Jimmy and Ryol for all of their energy and hospitality.

We did a lot of things in Japan, so I'll cut this blog post here and post the other half soon. Stay tuned!


Anonymous said...

Is the China town in Japan similar to the ones in US & Canada?

Like are they more authentic, they look like it.

All the buildings in American China towns look fake....

like cheap concrete painted over to look like the clay walls.

Epifaniadelrosa said...

Hi! I'm headed to Korea this summer and was planning a weekend trip to Japan also. Any recommendations on how to get there and places to visit? I'll be attending school in Seoul and would love to visit Tokyo.
Thanks! ^_^

Epifaniadelrosa said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Lee Farrand said...

You can catch a ferry to Japan from Busan, but personally I think it's better to fly. There are plenty of things to do in Seoul and Tokyo, the best thing to do is pick up tourist guides at the airports.

Epifaniadelrosa said...

do you know if it's cheaper to fly or take the ferry to japan? i'm assuming the ferry is cheaper but since i'll be in seoul, i'd have to take a train to Busan... I think Tokyo is my destination in Japan.

thanks for your help!

Lee Farrand said...

From Seoul I think it would be better to fly. We flew from Busan, just because it was faster. The KTX train to Busan takes about 3 hours and costs $50 one way, but it's another thing to make the journey complicated. When travelling I think it's best to keep things simple.