The samurai screamed a short, sharp battle cry, and drew his sword to expose the blade halfway from the hilt. The noise caught my attention, and I turned to see the commotion. The tourist walked away, and a new one walked up, also dressed in samurai costume, to join the staff member in full samurai gear.
The photographer counted them down, and then, the battle cry again. 3..2..1..Hargh! Click! There was a long line for samurai photos in front of beautiful Osaka castle. The line we were standing in was to enter the castle itself.
High on top of a hill in the middle of Osaka, looking down on the city, the ancient castle (actually a reconstruction) was ringed by massive, squarish castle walls surrounding the entrances. The main keep was the very essence of the stereotypical Japanese castle.
The bottom section was a stone reenforcement, square and strong. The castle was multi-tiered and painted white and green, with arrow slits peeking from triangular viewpoints, and multiple flaired roof structures asserting dominance as they swept outwards. Ornate golden touches highlighted the majesty and opulence of the owners long passed.
Highlight or tourist trap?
The inside felt disappointing. The interior of the castle had been completely gutted, and replaced by a museum about the castle. But that wasn’t the issue; the museum seemed interesting, but the crush of people prevented us from even getting close to many of the exhibits.
There was even an elevator to reach the top floors. I suppose I expected something more authentic; to see barracks and kitchens and throne rooms and living quarters. So we enjoyed the great view, and made our way back.
One thing I didn’t want to miss in Osaka was the Kaiyukan aquarium. I knew they had whale sharks there, and I was bouncing with excitement as we got off the last train stop and signposts of fish pointed the way. The path of visit through the aquarium is a beautiful flow.
Starting at the top floor with rolling seals and otters, the path spirals down past an enormous central tank, the ‘Pacific Ocean’. For multiple floors, sharks, rays and the gentle giants themselves – the incredible whale sharks – glided around the tank, surrounded by schools of smaller fish. Towards the bottom were tanks of giant spider crabs on slender, stilted legs.
On the bottom floor, the bottom of the sea, the lights were dark and tanks of luminescent jellyfish provided the luminesence. And in true Japanese form, the gift shop had the cutest plush whale toys i’d ever seen!
Taking our Airbnb host’s advice for a shopping destination, we spent a day out of the city at Expocity, a giant shopping and entertainment park. After a bit of sales shopping, we stopped for lunch at the food court, where we tried a strange Italian bento box (with pizza, and arancini balls). We checked out the local Pokecentre, which even had its own cafe.
Redhorse Osaka Wheel
We took a ride up the Redhorse Osaka Wheel, the highest ferris wheel in the city (Osaka has multiple ferris wheels) near to Expocity. There wasn’t much of a view at night, with the city just a blob of distant lights, miles away. But the wheel itself, illuminated in alternating colours in the night sky, and with glass-bottom floors, made a surprisingly fun attraction to experience.
Dotonburi is the entertainment district, a high rise, neon plastered megacity that people picture when they think of Osaka. There are arcades and pedestrian streets aplenty, and a bewildering collection of restaurants and bars. A lazy canal runs through the cacophany (which was a popular swimming spot during a freezing cold New Year’s Eve!).
Dotonbori is crowded and touristy, but it is a must-do, just to experience the fun! Decorations run wild, with giant mechanical crabs and sushi chef cartoons on the front of buildings. The food is the main draw, everything from hole-in-the-wall takoyaki restaurants, to hidden udon bars, and even seafood restaurants where you catch your own dinner!
Sassy Kansai Attitude
I remember Osaka well for two main reasons. The great food, and the people’s distinctive sassy attitude. In a 7/11, an employee gave us an exasperated sigh and rolled his eyes when we changed our minds about a drink we wanted to buy. It was a shock, when we were used to the bowing, smiling, friendly Tokyoites.
On new year’s eve, we saw plenty of rowdy and rebellious characters, jumping in canals and challenging police. Others hurried us out of restaurants to make room for more customers. It was the Kansai region attitude – a bit more cheeky, more blunt, more funny.
As for the food? We waited in line for half an hour to sit at a table for a wagyu beef bento box, somewhere under one of the main train stations. I’d still amazed that the best steak i’d ever tasted was in a train station restaurant!