Our Japan Jaunt – Part 1: Osaka
It feels like we barely had a chance to settle in to the new semester after our trip to China before we packed our bags again and headed for Japan. Last week, Korea celebrated a national holiday called Chuseok, which is its version of Thanksgiving. Tuesday through Thursday were days off, and our schools were nice enough to give us Friday, so we had about six days to do some exploring. We kept our focus on the Kansai region, which includes Osaka, Kyoto and Nara.
After an overnight stay in Busan, we flew out of Gimhae airport early Tuesday morning for the quick jump over to Osaka. We arrived around noon and after being lost for a while in the Namba district, we found our capsule hotel. The capsule hotel was a strange experience. It seemed modeled to look futuristic, but the 80’s version of what we thought the future would be, so it just looked like someone set up a dorm in the line for Space Mountain in Disney World.
The hotel is divided by floors for men and women, and although it was generally comfortable, there was a really high creepiness factor on the men’s side. As soon as you step into the hallway, you’re greeted by a TV playing blurred out porno movies. There’s also a schedule for what movies will be playing on the small TVs in the capsules. However, have a bucket of change ready (if you’re into that sort of thing) because the naughty channels are connected to a coin slot on the TV. But worry not frugal travelers! The sound comes through loud and clear and free of charge, which may not be a good thing when you’re sleeping in a chest of drawers packed with dudes. This would have just been funny if the hotel were full of young travelers having a good time, but the main clientele of the capsule industry is apparently old Japanese businessmen. As I understand it, they go on business trips and are given per diem’s for their expenses, but rather than spend the money on a decent hotel, they just stay in a capsule and use the cash on booze and girls.
We spent the afternoon exploring our neighborhood, which had a very New York/ bohemian feel to it. It was full of trendily dressed young people (some a little more hardcore looking than others) record stores, bars, and boutiques. At night we walked over to the Dotombori area in search of dinner. Dotombori is exactly what we imagined Japan would look like, with towering neon lights and outrageous signs in front of endless restaurants and pachinko parlors. I’m usually a fan of the noise and cramped chaos of arcades in Asia, but pachinko parlors are on a totally different level. As soon as you walk in you’re bombarded by cigarette smoke, ringing machines and metal balls clanking into their bins. The sheer decibel level was astounding, yet the players (some quite old) all seemed to be in a zen state of gambling.
The following day we went to the Osaka castle, which was nice enough, but I’ve developed a very short attention span for slanty-roofed buildings after all we’ve seen in Korea and China. I was most excited for our visit to the largest aquarium in the world, the Osaka Aquarium. The aquarium was exactly as I hoped it would be, with huge tanks of exotic animals I had never seen before including two enormous whale sharks and a variety of rays, strange fish and beautiful jellyfish.
However, a few of the marine mammal exhibits were very disappointing and somewhat sad. The Pacific Whitesided Dolphin tank seemed very narrow, so the animals were constantly turning around when they reached a wall on either side. They also had a single Finless Porpoise in nothing but a plain glass box. For a highly intelligent creature, this kind of solitary confinement with no sort of stimulation can’t be healthy. The poor guy was just swimming in circles. One thing we couldn’t get over was the “save our oceans” message in all the exhibits considering Japan’s practices with whales, dolphin and tuna. That being said, we had great tuna in Osaka! (Cut me some slack we can’t get decent sushi in Daegu) But we’ll write a separate post specifically on restaurants later on.