High On Kansai Japan

One would be pleasantly surprised with what the Kansai region of Japan – including its gateway Osaka – has to offer. It is the perfect blend of trendiness, culture, tradition and heritage. Savoring the region can be easily done by simply taking trains and having central Osaka as the base

Day 1

Upon our arrival at the Kansai International Airport Osaka, we were greeted by the numerous delegates from the Japan Tourism and Transportation Board. After introductions, it was literally, ‘Let the Fun Begin!’

We were whisked to central Osaka via the Rapid Train, a fast and luxurious train that connects the airport (which is situated on an island in Osaka Bay) to central Osaka. This railway is made up of a massive network of trains that connects not only between the districts within Kansai region but also with the rest of Japan.

The first destination of the day was the Osaka Aquarium. It was opened in 1990 and considered the largest in Asia. It is a vertically long aquarium, having each exhibit in a spiral manner from the top, enabling people to enjoy and witness amazing marine life in its natural environment in a gradual manner. The highlight of this visit was the chance to see the Aleutian Island otter from the arctic region, including penguins. We could even touch huge blue stingrays in the petting pool!

Then we visited the Osaka Eye.

Since most major cities have one these days, I could finally understand the relevance after my very first ride in such a contraption here in Osaka, which allowed me to enjoy the splendid view of the entire city.

For lunch, we experienced our first Japanese dish, okonomiyaki. It is essentially an omelette, but instead of the ingredients being folded into the egg, it was displayed on top. After lunch we headed to the Abeno Harukas. This is the tallest building in Japan that houses a hotel, offices and a departmental store. It also offers 360-degree view of the entire city from its outdoor and indoor observatory decks.

We must have truly enjoyed ourselves that we lost track of time. Suddenly, for all we knew, it was already time for dinner. We took the train and walked a few blocks to a small hidden traditional Japanese house nestled between two modern buildings at some back alley. As we stepped inside, we found out that the Japanese house is actually an authentic Japanese restaurant, famous for its udon suki, a typically traditional Japanese dish, whereby fresh meat and seafood together with tofu and vegetables are piled together into a boiling pot of hot broth. It was absolutely delicious and felt good for the soul, especially after a long tiring day.

Day 2

The second day started off on a high note since it was warm and sunny. After a light breakfast at the hotel, we walked to the train station and headed to Nara, the old capital of Japan. Nara is located about 40 minutes outside Osaka and trust me, the train ride into Nara was a pleasure. The train itself was comfortable and the sights that greeted us along the way when leaving central Osaka comprised hills, mountains and pretty houses. One thing I noticed about the outskirts of Osaka is that the tallest building is relatively low, at most around 5 storeys high.

Our first stop upon reaching the Nara train station was the Umemori Sushi School. Here, we dressed like sushi chefs and were taught how to prepare sushi. We had to do it right, since eventually that would be our lunch. This is the first ever sushi school in all of Japan that also has a factory that produces high quality sushi for many top notch companies. We learnt here that each type of sushi represents an individual region in Japan. For example, sushi found in Tokyo would be with sashimi (raw fish or seafood) since fresh seafood is easily accessible considering Tokyo is located near the ocean, while the sushi in Nara is normally the fermented type.

After lunch, we were taken further into the town of Nara. Compared to the fast paced Osaka, Nara is relatively quiet and simple. The houses are somewhat narrow and close together. Although this may be the case, you do not find that it confining – instead, it makes the atmosphere rather cosy.

Next stop was the Nara-machi Karakuri Toy Museum, where old, traditional and heritage toys played by children during the Edo period (1603-1868 A.D.) are displayed. It was fascinating to witness modern day children attempting to figure out how to play with these minimalist and interesting wooden toys. The museum is now owned by the city after it was donated by the actual owners of the house due to the financial burden in maintaining such traditional structure that was built in 1890.

After that we took a leisurely stroll among the shops and houses situated along the area and discovered many hidden gems such as the Shinto Shrine, located next to the Toy Museum. According to our guide, most of the shrines and temples here in Nara remain original since they were not affected during the war compared to those in Kyoto and Tokyo, which are instead replicas of the original structure.

We also came across the novel Cat Cafe (which unfortunately was closed that day, although we were able to see fluffy cats through the glass door), which is a huge trend here in Japan, a place where one can have a drink or snacks while petting and playing with cats. Then we came upon the Kikuoka Traditional Japanese Medicine Specialty Pharmacy and the Nara-machi Historical Library Monkey Museum. According to Japanese folk lore, Gods and monkeys are famous for warding off evil.

It was brilliant coming across these quaint and understated buildings that house such esteemed establishments.

After wandering the area around 40 minutes, we finally reached our next destination which is called the Kisakoan on K.ounoudou-cho 6, also known as the Traditional Japanese Tea Ceremony. It was an amazing revelation, seeing a Tea Master preparing tea for guests with such respect, grace, poise and dedication while pre¬serving its tradition, which started around 400 years ago to teach proper hospitality, etiquette and manners among the Japanese nobilities. This ceremony represents harmony, respect, tranquillity and purity, performed to greet guests and to celebrate the change of seasons or any form of celebration for that matter. Currently, there are only 25 of these Tea Masters in Japan.

We had green tea in our tea ceremony and I realised that in Japan, its green tea tastes delicious and does not have that lingering bitter after taste. After questioning the Tea Master, we found out that the green tea leaves in the ceremony were actually handpicked in Kyoto and hand grinded by the Tea Master, thus retaining its natural flavour and textures without the need for additives.

After undergoing the tea ritual, we took a 20-minute taxi ride to the Kasuga Taisha Shrine, Nara’s most celebrated shrine that is famous for its 2,000 carved stones and 1,000 copper hanging lanterns. These lanterns are lit twice yearly during the Lantern Festival in early February and mid-August. Since deer are considered sacred in Nara, they are scattered all over the shrine and parks, friendly in fact to people and eager to be fed with cookies that can be bought at nearby stalls. Some of the deer even bowed to say thank you after the feeding!

After enjoying the grounds of the Shrine which is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, we came up to the Todaiji Temple. This is the oldest temple in Japan, constructed in 752 A.D. The main hall of the temple is the world’s largest wooden building that houses Japan’s largest bronze statue of Buddha. It was wonderful to observe the immense beauty of the temple. It was indeed a brilliant afternoon spent appreciating the beauty that is Nara, with its gentle way of life combined with the preservation of tradition and heritage, together with the experience of feeding and petting friendly deer – all are simply unforgettable.

Upon arriving back into central Osaka, we headed to a very classy Japanese restaurant where we were served a set of Japanese meal (or also called bento but minus the tray), consisting of salad, soup, fried fish, tempura. rice and fruits. It was a tasty meal that was delicately and beautifully presented.

Once sated , we took a walk along the Shinsaibashi Suji Shopping Street . This traditional shopping street in Osaka features numerous interesting stores, from the long established to the latest trendy ones. As we exited the shopping street, we found ourselves on the Nara River Bridge, which seems like the place where everyone goes to at night time in Osaka, with the view of the nearby skyscrapers’ huge screens flashing with advertisements. The atmosphere was bustling, loud and colourful, which could even rival the Times Square in New York in terms of intensity. Along the Nara River are shops famous for street food such as noodles and takoyaki (small round balls famous with octopus piece fillings). As we walked along, the shops vary, from toy stores to pubs and restaurants. It was wonderful being able to bask in and observe the lifestyle of the public here in Osaka.

Day 3

We started the third day with an hour’s train ride towards Wakayama, a city at the south of the Kansai region. Upon arriving at the Wakayama City Station, we headed to the Wakayama Castle, the pride and joy of Wakayama. Built in 1585 and located on the top of a hill overlooking the entire city of Wakayama, the castle once served as the residence of the three branches of Tokugawa family w ho ruled over the area. Many artefacts are displayed in the castle, unfortunately photographs are not allowed to be taken since the collections within the castle are privately owned.

Afterwards, we headed to the man-made island called Wakayama Marina City. There are three separate establishments here, one being the Kuroshio Ichiba, which is the fish market, and Kinokuni Fruit Market, which specialises in seasonal fruits from around the area. Opposite both markets is Porta Europa, an amusement park.

The fish market displays and sells many types of fresh seafood, besides promoting local Japanese delicacies, for example plum mochi (starchy dessert with various fillings), which according to the locals is the area’s specialty. However, the real specialty of this fish market is the tuna carving show, an art form in itself that is not usually displayed to the public. People from all walks of life would gather and watch the expert tuna carver prepares and slices a 20 kilogram tuna.

After an impressive and lively show, we continued the day to a quaint little train station called Kishi. Many might not know of this but this train station is famous for being the first train station in the world to hire a cat as the station master, eventually spurred a worldwide interest towards the cat that travellers come in droves just to look and photograph it. The cat even appeared on the BBC News, besides a French movie called “Le Chat Miroir de L’homme’’. The cat uplifted the town’s status by helping to turn it into a tourist attraction.

After photographing the first cat known as ‘Tama’chan’, we boarded a cute train car donated by a toy company with the car’s interior made similar to a cheerful and playful room.

Apparently there are three of these cars: Omacha (toy) Train, the Ichigo (strawberry) Train and the Tama (cat) Train, each with its individual concept. These trains connect the Kishi station to Kidaiso station that houses the second Tama’chan.

After watching and photographing both cats, which I might add is a huge tourist draw, we took the train back to Wakayama City Station and headed back into central Osaka. We then headed to

Namba Park, a mall that strongly promotes sustainability by having a huge rooftop garden and terrace that is usable for the entire year. From there, we headed straight to a restaurant famous for kits hi kal.su, specialising another one of Japan’s special traits when dining out. It is basically a buffet with everything on a stick, consisting a huge selection of meat and vegetables that one could choose and then deep fry it into the respective fryer on one’s table.

Day 4

The fourth day promised to be another brilliant hot and sunny day until we stepped out of the hotel only to find out that it was raining and it lasted the entire day. However, we soldiered on by trudging to the train station heading towards central Osaka to savour city’s delights for the last time. The first stop was the Hankyu Department Store. The highlight of the store was the group of local artists displaying their talents and skills while physically moulding their wares, which we found enlightening and deserving respect.

After that it was to a Precure Shop. Anyone who has heard of Japan would be aware that Japan is famous for its anime cartoons. The shop represents our first experience with Japanese anime culture. It is a cartoon girl shop, something along the likes of ‘Sailor Moon’ that was famous in Malaysia. Next to it was a restaurant called TagoTo, which serves soba and udon (popular Japanese noodles) for lunch. The former is usually made from buck wheat while the latter is from seaweed, both may be taken either hot or cold. It is usually accompanied by a bowl of hot savoury soup.

Directly after lunch, we headed out to another one of Japan’s most famous and memorable icon, the Hello Kitty shop. Even though this icon generally appeals to females, it also has a strong following among males. The Hello Kitty brand has spawned many cartoons, toys and even amusements parks all around the world, including one in Malaysia.

We then headed to another area famous for shops that pay homage to the culture of Japanese anime, called the Nipponbashi Denden Town. Regardless whether it is a toy shop or even a phone shop, the theme revolves around numerous Japanese anime characters. It was interesting to see how this culture flourished here in Japan and the world. The anime shop we visited was a three storey collector’s shop that specialises in second hand Japanese anime figurines, costumes, videos and replicas of armaments from the anime shows. This would be a great place to pick up souvenirs for those who enjoy or follow Japanese anime.

After spending two hours at the shop, we exited into the rain onto the street to head to the Maid Cafe. Along the way, we passed by Nipponbashi Otta Road where we could see many people dressed in popular Japanese anime costumes or characters while peddling their wares along the street. The Maid Cafe, like any other cafe, sells coffee, tea and cakes except for the fact that the waitresses are all dressed like French maids and went around calling and treating the customers like their ‘masters’!

Next, we excitedly headed to the Rinku Premium Outlet, a shopping centre that boasts numerous stores bearing various brands at discounted prices. To get there, we simply took the Rapid Train from Nankae Namba Station (10 minutes’ walk from the Maid Cafe). It took us 40 minutes to get there. As the same with many major cities, Osaka is also famous as a shopping destination.

After about an hour or so of shopping at the premium outlet, we took a 10 minutes’ bus ride instead and headed to the Kansai International Airport, just to get a feel of another form of public transport available in Osaka. Upon reaching the airport, we were taken to Nikko Hotel, which is directly opposite the airport, for dinner on a covered sky bridge. We then headed back to the airport as it was almost time to prepare for our flight home.

Check in at the Kansai International Airport was efficient despite the large number of passengers. Before boarding the plane, we were taken on a tour of the airport, which I must say is remarkably practical and well laid out. There are many facilities made available for the passengers such as shower stall and even a prayer room for Muslims.

My time and experience in Kansai was definitely unforgettable. Kansai brims with its own charm and surprises, which make me want to return. It is indeed the place where skyscrapers and trendy establishments of Osaka meet the serene heritage of Nara and quaint quirkiness of Wakayama. The experience in Kansai definitely made me high on Japanese experience that 1 simply couldn’t get enough of it, leaving me wanting for more.

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