If any of you follow me on Twitter, you’ll know that (quite a while ago now…) I was in the Kansai area for a school trip, of sorts.
Kansai? Isn’t that that weird accent villains in Japanese kids’ shows speak in? Yes, you are (partially) correct when you say that. The accent itself is named after the region in Japan. For context, that region is the south/west side of the country’s main island with major cities including Osaka, Kyoto and Kobe. Unfortunately this place tends to get overlooked because, quite simply, it’s not Tokyo.
It’s a bit of a shame really, because there really are some gems in this part of the country. Missing it out is like visiting the UK but refusing to go anywhere other than Zone 1 on the London tube map.
I decided to make this list when a friend of mine said that she said she didn’t want to come because she had more interest in going to “places around Tokyo” like Akihabara, “that cool medieval castle” and “that golden shrine” *sigh*…I’ll just start the list.
So, in no particular order…
1.Kobe Earthquake Memorial Museum
I know you probably turned off at the word ‘museum’ but hear me out.
When you hear ‘devastating Japanese earthquake’ you’ll probably think of the 2011 tsunami, but that’s most likely because you’re too young to remember the 1995 Kobe Earthquake, locally refered to as The Great Hanshin Earthquake.
The building itself, a seven-storey tall glass cube with slightly expensive drinks vending machines in the foyer, serves as a memorial for the 6,000 lives lost as a result of the earthquake, as well as an educational centre for natural disasters such as earthquakes. The message, although subtle is quite clear: one shouldn’t try to oppose nature but try live in harmony with it.
As jetlagged as I was, I didn’t feel even the smallest bit tired while I was taking in the extremely well thought out displays and short films. I left feeling…at peace, enlighted and slightly ripped off by that vending machine at the front.
If more museums were life this, I’d go way more frequently.
2. The Golden Temple (and all the other temples and shrines in Kyoto)
So that ‘golden shrine’ my friend wanted to go to? That’s the Golden Temple. Which is in Kyoto. Which is just under an hour away from Osaka by train. For your information, Osaka is three hours away from Tokyo. By bullet train. Not sure how she was planning on getting there from Tokyo easily.
But anyway, Kyoto is literally one big opportunity for you to take photos of as many temples and shrines as you can find before they all blur into one. Honestly, I can’t remeber how many I went to, I just have a ton of photos on my camera, indicating that I went to quite a few. And a lot of charms. A lot of charms. I hope those exam ones do the trick…
3. Spend a Day in Osaka
This is just a thing you need to do. According to KLM, Osaka is ‘not the prettiest city’, but
then again, they claim Amsterdam is the centre of the world in every regard, and we all know that it’s actually I wholeheartedly disagree. How many cities can say that they have a Sengoku-era style castle you can take a boat tour around? (Again, not to stab too many holes in that friend of mine, but Osaka Castle is definitely in Osaka, not Tokyo.)
A special mention to HEP Five shopping centre. I mean, there aren’t many places in the world where you can ride a feris wheel on top of a seven story building in the middle of one of the world’s busiest cities…
Also, there’s a building containing MUJI and Loft all in one. For a stationery afficionado like myself, that was just pure HEAVEN.
Might I also highly recommend that Yakuza fans check out Dotenbori and, in particular a certain Ebisu bridge (if you’re still not sure where I’m coming from, I’ll leave a couple photos for you to drool over). Even if you’re not a fan, it’s a great place to see a ridiculous number of billboards and experience the atmosphere of a place swamped with tourists (which might be exciting if you don’t normally live in a popular tourist destination, like I do).
4. Eat Takoyaki and Okonomiyaki
I mean, you’ve got to try at least some food in a foreign country and where better to try a food than the very city from? You might think of getting some Kobe beef, but trust me, that stuff if hella expensive (it is really good, though).
There are other really good Japanese foods but both takoyaki and okonomiyaki are dishes attributed to Osaka and I was lucky enough to try them both (coincidentally on the same day). S
omeone might get angry at me for saying this, but even my host family agreed The two dishes are pretty similar, mainly because of the batter and toppings, but both are super addictive, once you start eating.
Takoyaki are small balls of fried wheat-batter (kind of like a savoury pancake batter) containing small pieces of octopus meat. They’re usually topped with okonomiyaki sauce (similar to tonkatsu sauce if you had it, otherwise think of BBQ sauce with a bit of ketchup and Worcestershire sauce added), (Japanese) mayonaise, bonito flakes and seeweed but you can also get them with just salt or ponzu (sweetish soy sauce with citrus added). You might have gagged at ‘octopus’ but trust me, if it’s well made, it won’t taste bad.
Okonomiyaki is more pancake/omlette like. The same batter as takoyaki (I’m told) is mixed with shedded cabbage and then placed on a griddle where bacon, cheese and various other items are added on top as it cooks. It’s then served with exactly the same toppings as Takoyaki.
If you aren’t as lucky as I was to have okonomiyaki prepared by a ‘okonomiyaki pro’ at home and/or in the comfort of your pyjamas (my host’s uncle apparently gained such skills during his days as a broke university student), just go to a traditional shop/street vendor for these dishes. A ‘high class’ restuarant would probably only sell them to extort tourists. If you’re going to pay an arm an a leg for this, you may as well save it to buy another gram of wagyu.
5. Get bitten by deer in Nara
About an hour from Osaka, Nara is a city relatively well know for its park full of ‘friendly’ deer. It’s true they aren’t afraid of people but I would describe their actions as more…viscious, rather than friendly. Unaware of this, we naïvely bought the offered rice crackers to feed the deer.
Let me tell you, the moment they even think you have food they’re onto you. Before I could even take off the wrapper, two deer had already bitten – yes, they bite (although it doesn’t really hurt) – and I was being chased across the road like they were the police in GTA. That’s not to mention the ones patrolling the picnic benches around lunchtime. Watching some poor kid wrestle with a deer over a croissant was admittedly a highlight but having to wolf down my bento as I saw them aproaching me was a small regret.
That being said, once the deer realise you’ve got no more food to give them, they’re more or less happy to interract with you, or just mind their own business while you enjoy the tranquil scenery.
Failing that, you can visit The Great Eastern Temple and see the world’s largest bronze Buddha and/or buy deer-theme merchandise.
This is stuff that I enjoyed but doesn’t necessarily have to be done in Kansai…
Visiting a Japanese School
(I don’t have any pictures because, well, I was at school.)
I was actually on a school exchange, and so we did have to go into school for at least a couple of days. The experience is…to put simply, really bizarre compared to school in the UK and what I’ve seen of school in America, but I understand that not just anyone can rock up to a school and go “Yo, I’m a tourist! Do you mind if I look around?”.
If you think that from your anime and manga all schools are the same, you’re kind of right (since it’s partially due to Japan’s ‘high certainty society’) but you’ll notice that the first thing they do after introductions is apologise for all the things they do in the school that aren’t ‘normal’. For example, our exchange school didn’t have indoor shoes (everyone just wears the same pair they came to school in) and homeroom classes…are basically non-existent? (I wasn’t entirely sure what they meant since flip-flopping between English and Japanese just made the conversation harder to follow).
Trying every drink from the vending machines
This isn’t a hard one, since you’ll probably do it anyway (I was hooked by day 2). There are vending machine LITERALLY EVERYWHERE. I’m even told there are some at the top of Mount. Fuji…
Quite a few drinks like tea and coffee will come hot or cold and the machines’ prices are usually pretty reasonable; ¥100 in desolate car parks and ¥120-140 in more popular areas like train stations. For context, that’s like 70p for a can of actual Coca Cola, a price pretty much unheard of for any vending machine I’ve seen in the UK for the last five years at least!
Special mentions to the following drinks: CC Lemon, Calpis, BLACK Rainbow, Royal Milk Tea, any black, oolong or green tea.
Visit Universal Studios Japan
If you have time, you may as well go, especially if, like me, your nearest Universal park to home is in another country and/or more than three hours away by plane. Sure, not all the rides are completely in English, but just talk to a member of staff and they will probably do what they can to make sure you understand what’s going on, if the English signs aren’t enough.
But just a note, that Minion’s ride is a complete waste of time, given the wait. Go queue up for something else like The Flying Dinosaur.
Buy souvenir snacks
At Kansai Airport, you might notice a large area full of, not perfume and booze (ok, there’s a bit of saké), but elaborately wrapped boxes of snacks selling at around ¥1,000-2,000. Ignore the fact that quite a bit of it says ‘Tokyo’ or ‘Hokkaido’, since outside of the airport, they’re decently hard to find elsewhere in the country, albeit at a lower price. Not going get into the details, but these are omiyage, the ‘souvenirs’ people bring back for their family and coworkers.
I strongly recommend buying a lot of whatever you think you’ll like (they even usually have tasters) because, trust me, you will REALLY like them, and I doubt you’ll want to go through the trouble of having them delivered to your home outside of Japan. There’s a reason why quite a few tourists buy four or more bags (each filled with multiple boxes) of JUST Tokyo Banana.
Useful tips for:
- Don’t buy Tokyo Banana if you’re not the greatest fan of banana. It’s literally banana flavoured cake filled with real banana paste.
- Don’t buy anything green if you don’t like matcha (if you’ve never had matcha, you probably won’t like it if you can’t deal with bitter things or green tea).
- If you want to play it safe, everyone seems to like the weirdly flavoured Kit-Kats (matcha, saké and Tokyo Banana, to name a few…)
A brief reflection
If I were to go back to Japan, I’d probably learnt A LOT more Japanese beyond just introductions and basic phrases like “where’s the toilet?” just because communication was so hard and outside of touristy areas, no one really knows any English at all so it gets awkward quite quickly. Considering that the country I go to most frequently is France and I actually know a passable bit of French (A* at GCSE, oh yeah!), this was the first time in a very long while I’ve truly struggled to convey myself reasonably clearly while abroad.
But I still won’t forgive the aiport security at Amsterdam for making me bin the Premium Morning Milk Tea flavour I bought in Kansai’s duty free (we just had to go through security this time while transferring flights)…
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But seriously, I would appreciate a couple dimes towards getting a microphone or something…
It’s back to school this week, so I’m kind of in the mood to complain about it… Stay tuned.