We have been in Japan for a week now and I am only just getting round to writing up our first blog. Why? Japan is busy, its fast and we are trying to pack in as much as we can into our three weeks.
Our flight from Manila was perfectly fine especially as we managed to bag the bargain of the trip, the tickets cost us a mere £35 each. We arrived at Osaka a little bewildered, especially after John's detailed questioning by immigration on his drug use and a polite yet thorough inspection of his bags.
First step was to find our hotel and work out how to get there from the station. This was our first introduction to the Japanese ticket machines. They all have an English button to help you, but its still a bit bewildering at first. Be warned if you spend too long looking at the button a hatch will open beside you and a JR rail employee will pop his head out to try and help you. You will also get fantastic help from the Japanese Tourist Information staff who all speak perfect English and will go to any trouble to make sure you know exactly where you are going.
We have come to love Osaka and have used it as a base for our first week of exploring southern Japan. Our first two days we stayed in the city, availed ourselves one of the great value two day passes for 2700 Yen (£21) which gives you unlimited transport and entrance to nearly thirty of the attractions in the city itself. Be careful though if you are arriving in Osaka on a Monday as lot of the museums and gardens close.
We didn’t manage to squeeze them all in but have saved ourselves a total of about £20 each by using the offers that come with this card. It also allows you to pack a lot in each day as you whizz around the city on the fantastic subway system, which is prompt, neat, tidy and well planned. Some of the interchanges can be a little confusing with Osaka's array of underground subways and shopping malls, but everything is well signposted.
Our favourite of the attractions was a trip to the Museum of Housing and Living, where as well as looking at Japanese street life through the ages, you can if you want get dressed in a kimono for the experience.
We thought it would be rude not to so we did and some lovely women dressed us up and tied our belts with beautiful ornate knots and we wandered around the museum for 20 minutes with some of the locals giving us a wry smile.
We then had fun on some boat cruises round the docklands area, there is not much to see other than a big IKEA and lots of bridges connecting the natural and reclaimed land jutting out into the sea. It is a good way to see one of Japan's largest ports, we've also nicknamed Osaka the 'city of bridges'.
We have been up two Ferris wheels, one perched on top of a building which lets you plug in your iPhone so you can select what tunes you want while you enjoy the views of the city.
We ascended a number of tall buildings to get an idea just how massive Osaka prefecture really is (it has a population of about 9 million) and pledged our love to each other at the special love seat aloft the hanging garden, which doesn’t have a garden on the top so not sure where its name derives.
The best thing about Osaka though is just wandering around and watching life go by, the business the bustle and the hubbub is fascinating to watch both day and night. Osaka has a great bar scene, catering for all tastes.
A wander throught the park at Tennoji takes you past the Osaka Zoo (we didn’t bother) where we hoped to do our first art gallery but alas it was shut for preparations of a new exhibition.
Especially interesting for people watching is in between Namba and Shinsaibashi where you will find a covered arcade streching a mile between the two areas. Great fun to while away a few hours. Dont forget to pop into a Panchenko arcade and waste 1000 Yen flipping balls round a screen and then getting confused when exciting things happen on the video screen in front of you. We didn’t leave with armfuls of ball bearings, but it was fun for fifteen minutes and absolutely deafening with all the machines going crazy. My ears were ringing for about 20 minutes afterwards.
Traveling Japan's Transport System
The transport system in Japan is incredible it runs bang on time and is all connected up around major hubs and interchanges. This integrated system makes it easy to use buses, trains and subway system in Osaka. The only slightly confusing piece of the puzzle for us are the private railways. We have our Japanese Rail (JR) passes so can only use their lines. The private companies sometimes offer different routes and on occasion have their own stations in larger cities and towns.
The finest journey so far has been on Shinkansen from Osaka to Hiroshima, more of that in our next update. Our JR passes entitle us to travel on any of their trains apart from the very fastest Nozimi trains in second class.
The booked seats are luxurious, spacious, the trains have smoking rooms, clean functioning toilets and of course the ubiquitous vending machines and travel at an amazing speed meaning the journey form Osaka took us just one and a half hours.
The train guard as he passes through the train turns as he is leaving the carriage and bows to all the customers before proceeding into the next. The bus drivers all say thank you when you pay your fare and leave the bus and announce each stop. Its a wonderful respectful culture. John and I have now started bowing as we say thank you, which is always met with appreciation. It just feels right somehow to join in with the culture.
You know from my previous blogs that I am a bit of a train nerd without being a fully paid up member of the train spotting club so I'm loving the train travel here. For non high speed routes the fast trains are called Thunderbird which I also think is sweet, especially when you hear it pronounced by the guard during his announcement.
Finally taxis here are something else, they are driven by the most impeccably dressed (some even go as far as bow ties) polite and service orientated people you could ever meet. The seats all have broderie anglaise embroidery on them. The rear doors open automatically to let you in and out, and the bodywork is polished to within an inch of its life and sparkles. They are not cheap but they have to be the finest city taxis you will ever come across.
Learning the Lingo
We are both honing our Japanese language skills now and have mastered a hello (Konichiwa) a thank you (Arigatou), good bye (Sayonara) and yes (Hai). Hai is pronounced exactly the same as a "Hi" greeting in English so I spent the first few hours thinking everyone was saying hello and being uber friendly. Not mastered no yet so we have to accept anything offered. While our four word vocabulary is a little limited this has not stopped us having some wonderful engagements with the locals. Most people speak a little English, even outside of your hotel or the major tourist spots, but sign language, a big smile and a friendly konichiwa has got us a long way.
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