Sunday, March 27, 2016

Osaka & the Kansai Region

Osaka:  Japan’s third most populous city and second most populous urban area.  And by second most populous urban area, I mean the area is big… really big.  More formally known as the Kansai region or the Kaihanshin metropolitan region, the area actually includes a bunch of cities lumped together in close proximity to each other.  It’s sort of like a San Francisco-Oakland-San Jose scenario, or a Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach scenario, but on a much more massive scale.  How massive?  The urban area has over 19 million people which is just slightly smaller than New York or Mexico City.  Osaka has more people than Rio de Janiero, Moscow, Los Angeles, Paris, or London.  Holy crap.

Lenora and I visited during the New Year period which didn’t give us the most typical impression of the area, but it was great nonetheless.

A few highlights of my time in the Kansai region:

New Year’s is a big holiday in Japan and pretty much all of the museums in Osaka were closed for the festivities.  Therefore, there wasn’t all too much to do in Osaka aside from walk around the very busy Doutonbori Street pedestrian area and a few other neighourhoods, check out the illumination at a shopping centre called Namba Parks, and – because we couldn’t resist – go bowling.  Lenora beat me all three games.  Devastation loomed large.

Just a fifteen minute shinkansen ride from Osaka lies Kyoto:  Japan’s old capital and the top agenda item on most tourists’ lists.  Kyoto is all about the temples, and with it being New Year’s season when everyone goes to visit shrines, the whole city was busy with both domestic and international tourists.  Our first stop was Fushimi-Inari Taisha – a shrine with thousands of red torii (gates) that line trails leading to the top of a small mountain.  The mass of people prevented us from making it up to the top, but we did join the crowd for a very slow shuffle up a small portion of the hill.  I’ll need to go back one day.  Kinkaku-ji was the most picturesque site we visited – a gorgeous golden pavilion sitting over a lake.  We also visited a few other temples, some well-manicured gardens, a bamboo grove, and a busy shopping area for tourists.

For me, Nara was the part of the Kansai region that I was most looking forward to.  The reason: one of the temples there is on my list of 103 Things.  Nara was the first permanent capital of Japan long before Kyoto rose to prominence so it also has a wealth of temples and other cultural sites.  The Todai-ji Temple was the draw for me.  Its main building – the Daibatsu-den (Hall of the Great Buddha) – is the largest wooden structure in the world, and it contains the Daibatsu (Great Buddha) which is the largest bronze indoor seated Buddha in the world and one of the largest bronze figures in the world.  The building was massive and we walked around the giant room for ages (along with the mass of other tourists).  The temple was located in Nara-koen (Nara Park) which also has various other temples, pagodas, museums, gardens, and more.  The gardens are of particular quality.  The one we wanted to visit was closed for the holidays, but a smaller one next door (the Yoshiki-en Garden) was open and free for international visitors.  AMAZEBALLS!  The park is inhabited by many tame deer (we got to feed them!) which are a tourist attraction themselves.  For me, Nara wins the award for most tourist-friendly Japanese city.  We were approached by a man at the park who gave us a flyer and told us to come to the Nara Visitor Centre for free sake, sweet red bean soup, chopsticks, and other gifts.  In any other Asian country (except Taiwan) this would have been a scam.  But this is Japan, and it was legit.  They just wanted to share their culture and give us free stuff – for nothing in return.  They even taught us how to write our names in kanji (Japanese characters!) and gave us tips for the rest of our stay in the region (we added on a stop in Himeji because of their advice).  Before heading back to Osaka, we walked around one of the traditional neighbourhoods which has lots of great-looking cafes, shops, and Migawarizaru (red monkey cloths that people hang outside for good luck).  Nara definitely wins the award for best part of the region.  A+.

Kobe – most famous for its devastating 1995 earthquake – was the first stop on our way from Osaka to Hiroshima. We hopped off the shinkansen after a quick twenty minute ride and headed straight to the Kobe Nunobiki Herb Gardens and Ropeway.  After taking the cable car up a steep hill, we entered the immaculately manicured gardens and slowly wandered down the zig-zagging trail that leads back to the lower entrance.  Despite it being a hazy day, views of the city were great, and we were able to take them in while enjoying an herbal foot bath.  Rather than take the cable car back down, we decided to go for a hike past the Nunobiki Reservoir, Nunobiki Dam, and Nunobiki Waterfall.  The end spit us out right near the Kitano neighbourhood, which is where Japanese people go to feel like they’ve gone on vacation to Europe or America.  We made a valiant attempt at enjoying some Kobe beef – the other reason Kobe is famous.  Kobe beef is expensive, and we skimped opting for a Kobe beef pizza to save money.  It wasn’t enjoyable.

Our final stop on our way out of the Kansai region was Himeji.  As mentioned before, the lovely staff at the Nara Visitor Centre told us that we absolutely must stop here on our way to Hiroshima.  And it was well worth it.  The star attraction here is Himeji-jo (aka Himeji Castle) – the “most magnificent castle in Japan” according to Lonely Planet.  The castle is the wooden original – not a concrete reconstruction like most other castles that have been destroyed by fire, earthquake, or war.  The building was expansive, and while mostly empty inside, it was still really interesting to walk through and climb up.  On the way in, I got stopped by people with a big video camera.  I don’t know if they were reporters or students, but they asked me a few questions about my visit to Himeji.  I’m just waiting for Elcid to call me and tell me that I’m all of a sudden famous in Japan!

I can’t not talk about the food.  The food.  The food!  Our first night in Osaka we had the privilege to enjoy the second most delicious melonpan ice cream in the world.  What is it?  It’s a sweet bread heated up and then filled with a very creamy ice cream.  Why is this one the second most delicious and not the first most delicious?  Is it just bad advertising?  No.  We think got second place in a TV competition and this made them famous.  They’ve embraced their second-place status as a marketing gimmick.  The queue was massive.  It worked.

Green tea is all the rage in Kyoto, and I enjoyed a nice cup of green tea, along with matcha (green tea powder) flavoured Kit Kats and Krispy Kreme doughnuts.  I had my first Japanese chicken curry (OMG yummy!),  the Japanese version of a kebab (similar to the one in Taiwan), and a full dinner at a nice restaurant in Kyoto which featured a set menu of edamame, fried chicken, rice, vegetable tempura, eggplant, and a nice warm sake to wash it all down.  I also first used a Japanese vending machine while in Kyoto!  Last but not least, I had more Japanese soft serve ice cream.  More than I probably should admit.

With only three days to split between five cities, the Kansai region is definitely one that I’ll need to come back to on my next visit to Japan.  From here, we continued on to Hiroshima to get a good history lesson.  But first, let me take a selfie.

To see more photos of my time in the Kansai region, follow this link:

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