I’m back from my 30-hour excursion to Osaka! In case you’re just joining me (or if you just forgot), I had to leave South Korea before my student visa expired so I could come back as a tourist and have 90 more days. (Good thing too, because my original student visa expired right in the middle of final exams and being deported does NOT look good on your student transcript!) The thing is, Japan has this reputation of being sort of crazy…
…okay, make that really crazy! But I figured as long as my vacation didn’t turn into Battle Royale, I could handle any kind of adventure!
I flew out Sunday morning on a little Japanese airline called Peach. It was super cute and everything was decorated in pink (though thankfully not Hello Kitty, because I know there is a Hello Kitty airline in Japan and to say they’ve gone overboard in their decorating is a serious understatement.) I got in to Kansai airport around noon and then I had to take the train into Osaka proper. This is when I started to notice something.
I can’t speak Japanese.
I can’t even READ Japanese!
Holy fish out of water Batman! What the heck have I gotten myself into?
Fortunately the ticket machines at the airport had an English setting (some of the machines in Osaka, I later found out, did not!) so I was able to buy a ticket and somehow I managed to get on the correct train. I also bought some mochi (squishy, delicious Japanese rice cakes with yummy bean paste in the middle) from a convenience store and that made everything a little bit better. Generally I find sweet bean paste makes everything a little better. The train ride itself took a little over an hour, and I even managed to transfer halfway through. Looks like all that subway riding in Seoul has paid off!
My first stop was at Osaka Castle (or “Osaka-jo”. I don’t know how to spell it in Japanese though.) It’s basically the main attraction in Osaka and it looks like this:
Pretty impressive, right? The castle itself sits on a gigantic stone base and it’s surrounded by two large moats. Even the biggest Korean palaces have several walls but they don’t have moats. I think this tells you a lot about Korean and Japanese culture, at least historically. The Koreans wanted you to be impressed when you walked through the gates on your way to meet the king. The Japanese wanted you to be impressed when you stood far away and wished you could meet the king.
The inside of Osaka castle has been turned into a museum dedicated to the history of the castle. Basically there was a king inside the castle with an army, and some dude outside the castle with a bigger army and he really wanted the castle and so there was a super huge battle with lots of samurai and dragons and orcs and even some of those flying monkeys from The Wizard of Oz.
The castle is in the center of a huge public park, which is full of nice biking paths and ponds and plum orchards and old gates and secret shrines. It also seemed like the popular place for street food vendors, struggling musicians, and street magicians. And also the local bird-of-prey enthusiast club, apparently. I have no explanation for why these guys were just chilling in the park with large carnivorous birds, other than that Japan is crazy.
Though those were not the weirdest pets I saw in that park. Do you see what this guy has on the end of that leash?
It’s a chipmunk!
This guy was walking his pet chipmunk! You know what, if I had a pet chipmunk that was leash-trained, I would probably go show it off in the park too. But I would stay away from the guy with the owl.
After touring the castle and the park I hopped back on the train and headed toward the main Osaka station. I figured if anywhere was supposed to be the main part of town that would be it. Turns out it was more like the breeding ground for overly large department stores. You come out of the train station and all of a sudden you’re in this hive of enormous, multi-storied department stores all connected by skybridges and completely packed with people. Seoul can be pretty crowded but in Osaka there were definitely a LOT more people so it was a lot crazier. I’d say if a Seoul train station was controlled chaos, this was barely controlled chaos! Even so, I still felt that safe-ness that I feel in Seoul. There are probably only three countries in the whole world were you can be a woman traveling alone who doesn’t speak a word of the language and those countries are South Korea, Japan, and the magical land with the dancing penguins from Mary Poppins.
Anyway, I took a look in maybe like two stores before I realized that I couldn’t afford anything, even if I spent all the cash I had on me (which was yen, by the way. Also, to go from Korean won to dollars you divide by 1000. To go from yen to dollars you divide by 100. For a while I was really thrown off and I kept thinking that everything cost 10X less than it actually did.) Everything was soooo expensive! I honestly don’t know how the Japanese clothe themselves without going broke. I decided I would rather be fed than fashionable, so I found my way down to the main street and started looking for something to eat.
Before I went to Osaka I did some internet searching and the one thing that kept coming up as a must-eat was this thing called “okonomiyaki.” Okonomiyaki is like a mix between a pancake and a latke, and it’s sort of like the Japanese version of a Korean jeon (pancake). However, unlike the Korean version, which uses green onion as the main stuffing ingredient, okonomiyaki is made with shredded cabbage instead. Then the chef puts in whatever other little tasty morsels he wants (usually other veggies or sometimes squid or bacon pieces), fries it on a stove top, spreads super-secret special okonomiyaki sauce on top, adds a few swirls of mayonnaise, and then sprinkles some more secret spices to top it off. Another typical topping is shredded dried fish, which mostly just adds a little salty flavor. It’s basically the most delicious thing in the whole world and it looks like this:
The cabbage in the batter makes the whole thing a bit puffier than a regular pancake, so it stays nice and soft in the middle and doesn’t get fried all the way through. Also, you’d think mayonnaise would be gross but it’s a special Japanese mayo that’s much tastier (I think we would call it aioli). Also, if you go specifically to an okonomiyaki restaurant (yes, such a thing exists!) all the tables have little metal hot-pads in the middle of the table that are there for the sole purpose of keeping your okonomiyaki hot while you eat it. That way, each piece is literally hot off the grill.
I loved it so much that I even ate it again for lunch the next day, meaning half the meals I ate in Japan were okonomiyaki. No regrets!
That night I took the train back from Osaka to a little town called Izumisano. Originally when I planned this trip I was planning on leaving on an earlier flight, so I wanted a hotel that was near the airport. I ended up making a reservation at this little mom’n’pop motel (or in this case, super cute and tiny grandma’n’grandpa motel) near the train station. They hardly spoke any English (and I only spoke 4 words of Japanese: “yes”, “no”, “hello” and “thank you”) but once I showed them the reservation receipt we got it all worked out. I think they were used to dealing with confused foreigners on their way to the airport, so they even had a little homemade brochure about Izumisano showing you where to find food, how to get to the airport, etc.
The next morning I decided to check out the town. If you’ve ever seen a Hayao Miyazaki film (okay, one that actually takes place in the real world) you might have seen scenes like this:
After walking around Izumisano all morning, I can see where he gets his inspiration…
And those are just regular homes! If anyone thought it was weird that I was just wandering through their neighborhood taking pictures of their houses they certainly didn’t say anything. Sometimes I would come across these shrines (or at least I think they were shrines) and the gates were open so I would just go in and walk around the gardens.
It was really quiet that morning and the few people I did see were mostly older folks but strangely enough none of them gave me a second glance, as if random white people always come creeping around in little old Izumisano. Also, most of the people I saw were on bicycles. In fact, so many people in Japan ride bicycles that there are parking lots just for bikes.
Based on my brief experience, the one thing I can say for sure that Japan does better than Korea is pastry snacks. Korea has a lot of coffee shops (including this major chain called Paris Baguette that is everywhere!) where you can get croissants and bagels and “toast” and other breakfast items, but they’re usually kind of dry, the way bread normally is. Japan on the other hand, is really into nice, soft, squishy rice cake treats that usually have sweet been paste in the middle. I already mentioned mochi, but basically you can just walk into any old 7-11 store and find rows and rows of delicious-looking, prettily-decorated pastry snacks. I ended up with these little kabob thingies for breakfast that turned out to be soft, sticky rice balls covered in sweet honey sauce.
Okay, that’s all the food pictures you guys are getting. This isn’t Instragram or some such nonsense. But I will just add that Japan is really into deep fried street food. One time I ended up snacking on some fried lotus roots and this thing called a “cloud dream” which was basically a ball of soft glutinous rice (like the rice dough mochi is made of) that was fried in batter. Yum, deep-fried rice!
Sadly, two days was about all I could take in Japan. I think mostly it was the language barrier. Even for an introvert like me, who could theoretically spend a whole weekend hiding away watching Netflix in my room without missing human interaction even the slightest bit, it was a little disappointing not being able to communicate with anyone beyond “me Tarzan, you Jane”-level. But I did get to work on my acting skills by practicing exaggerated pointing and facial expressions, which was a plus.
Another weird thing was that I started missing Korea really quickly. When you’re learning a language, the new-language part of your brain kind of goes into hyper drive. I know this because ever since I started learning Korean, I’ve been hearing Korean in other foreign languages. I was at an Indian restaurant one time and my brain kept struggling to interpret the Hindi music playing in the background. I swore I could hear Korean words in there. Also, I went to an Italian restaurant with my family once and I kept reading the Italian words on the menu with Korean pronunciation. My brain assumes all gibberish is Korean and it’s trying to translate for me, bless its little heart, but I just end up with a headache. It’s like listening to this as a native English speaker:
Doesn’t that just hurt your brain? You feel like you should understand it but you just can’t. Japanese really doesn’t sound all that much like Korean, but my brain spent two whole days trying to make sense of it and then getting frustrated when it couldn’t.
That settles it then: as soon as I am fluent in Korean I’m going to learn Japanese. When I do, the first thing I’m going to do is fly right back over there and order me some okonomiyaki!