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Archive for September, 2009

Get Ready for Autumn Leaves in Kansai

September 26, 2009 3 comments

castlefallKansai will soon be alive with the fiery colors of  the changing autumn leaves. In Japan, momiji-gari (autumn leaf viewing) is just as popular as cherry blossom viewing in the spring, and televised weather reports include the status of leaves in Japan as they change–a sort of “autumn leaves front” moving from north to south through Japan.

One of my favorite sites, Japan-guide.com, prepares a detailed report to let you know when and where to go to see the beauty of the changing seasons in Japan. Check out Japan-guide.com’s autumn leaves report now and start planning for some stunning Kansai scenery. Although this site does not list information on Osaka (although it does include surrounding areas such as Kyoto and Nara), I can personally recommend Minoh Park as a great spot to see autumn leaves. If you want to stay in Osaka City, Osaka Castle Park is a good option.

The best time for momiji-gari in Kansai will be November.

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A Journey Around Lake Biwa: Part 1

September 24, 2009 2 comments
Climbing up Mt. Azuchi toward the castle ruins

Climbing up Mt. Azuchi toward the castle ruins

I wrestled with the other travelers boarding at Osaka Station, knowing as they did that if I didn’t get a seat now I would be standing for the next hour and a half. It was a rare five-day weekend, and everybody in Japan was off to their own destination, mad with travel fever. As the train rushed out of Osaka, through Kyoto, and into the mountain tunnel leading to Shiga Prefecture, I felt the tension built up over a week of overtime work go out of my body and a smile float to my lips. I had this trip all planned out–or so I thought.

Chomeiji Temple in Omi-Hachiman

Chomeiji Temple in Omi-Hachiman

This was not my first time in the Lake Biwa area. I had previously spent a night in Omi-Hachiman and toured the area, including the beautiful canal district, and the mountaintop temple called Chomeiji (lit. long life temple). These are two truly wonderful places–the canal district for its beautiful old townscape that puts Kyoto’s Gion district to shame, and Chomeiji for its grand old buildings dotting the slopes surrounding serene Lake Biwa. Omi-Hachiman was truly an amazing experience, and I ended up spending the whole day there rather than continuing on to Azuchi as I had originally planned. My pleasant surprise at Omi-Hachiman and my unfulfilled goal of visiting Nobunaga’s former stronghold in Azuchi was my inspiration to spend the long holiday making a full loop around Lake Biwa.

Azuchi is the place where Oda Nobunaga, one of the three great unifiers of medieval Japan, built his lavish castle to display his power and wealth. It was covered in gold and the paintings inside were done by the best artists of the day. Unfortunately, it was mysteriously burnt down just three years after its completion, but it still remains in people’s memories as the symbol of over-the-top, luxurious Momoyama-Azuchi culture. Not much remains of the castle (mostly just some old walls), but the surrounding area and the view of Lake Biwa the site commands are still impressive. I rented a bike near Azuchi station, rode out to the mountain, and proceeded to make the steep climb to the top. Biking around is the best way to see the sights of Azuchi, and after going about five minutes from the train station, I found myself riding through crisp, clean air among bright green rice fields almost ready for harvest. The climb to the castle ruins is quite beautiful, and you can see Nobunaga’s (uncharacteristically) humble mausoleum along the way. Afterward, I swung by a few museums, including the Nobunaga no Yakata museum which has a recreation of the castle itself that was formerly displayed at the 1992 World Expo in Seville, Spain.

Riding my bike throught the countryside of Azuchi

Riding a rental bike throught the countryside of Azuchi

The woman working at the tourist information center was a great help when I first arrived in Azuchi, and on the way back, I stopped again at the information center for ice cream and a rest. The two of us chatted for a while in the (mercifully) air-conditioned room, and I learned that they are currently showing a film about Nobunaga’s Azuchi Castle, which explained why television crew had been filming live at the museums I visited.

I stayed the night in nearby Omi-Hachiman, in a business hotel run by an elderly couple that was located between the station and the historic district. Having just come from Osaka, I was shocked at how quiet the city was at night. After taking a short nap, I headed out to find something to eat, but couldn’t find any restaurants except for McDonald’s, Lotteria, a really depressing food court with one restaurant that was closed, and a couple of izakaya. I finally came across as small bar located on a side street, and went in to take a look. It was a reggae bar not unlike something one would encounter in Namba, and there were only two staff members. The food was good and the drinks were standard fare, but unfortunately nobody else was in the place the whole time I was there. Even more odd, the staff never even struck up a conversation with me, but silently watched me eat, which made me more than a little uncomfortable. I have been in empty bars in Osaka, and it’s always been a great chance to get to know the staff better, but this was just awkward. Despite this experience, I had met mostly friendly people that day–something that would change as I moved north into the more rural parts of Lake Biwa.

But I was already thinking about tomorrow and my next destination, the coastal castle town of Nagahama. This was the first moderaly long trip I had taken almost entirely alone, and I was ready to see all that I could see.

Oda Nobunaga's mausoleum on Mt. Azuchi

Oda Nobunaga's mausoleum on Mt. Azuchi

See part 2 and part 3 of the journey.

To see a map of my journey, click here.

Tsuruhashi

September 15, 2009 2 comments
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The crowded fish and vegetable (and other mysterious meats) market of Tsuruhashi

Ah yes, one of my favorite spots to go eat or just stroll around. This is Osaka’s own little slice of Korea. Tsuruhashi is populated by a large number of immigrants and family members of past immigrants, and as a result it is home to a large number of unique shops selling traditional Korean apparel, sweets, and other goods. But the main attraction is the food: not only are there a large number of fish and vegetable markets (be forewarned about the smell if you have not spent much time in fish markets), but there are many unbelievably delicious and reasonably priced restaurants serving popular Korean dishes. When you leave the ticket gates of the JR or Kintetsu station, your senses will be treated to a barrage of smells, sights, and sounds as you wander through the almost unbelievably cramped passageways between shops and buildings. This is a unique neighborhood to Osaka and Japan in general, and I recommend taking at least one meal here (give the chijimi a try, it is a delicious Korean food that is also popular in Japan).

One restaurant that I love in particular is Takohachi, a shop that manages to pull off some of the best okonomiyaki and chijimi I’ve had, among other great dishes, and all for more-than-reasonable prices. The staff are cordial will make you feel right at home in this cozy little shop. It’s just a step or two outside Tsuruhashi Station on the Kintetsu Lines and JR Osaka Loop Lines, and it’s close to the same station on the Sennichimae Subway Line as well. Be forewarned that Takohachi closes early.

The friendly staff of Takohachi cooking chijimi

The friendly staff of Takohachi at work--they were kind enough to let me take a picture.

QUACK

September 13, 2009 4 comments

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This was floating in the Okawa River, near Hakkenyahama pier (Tenmabashi station area). A huge duck. I’m not really sure why, to be honest.

The city has been doing a lot of urban renewal efforts focused on Osaka’s rivers, and I suppose this is one of them.

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This site has some great pictures of the duck.

Dotombori

September 8, 2009 1 comment

Stp62207Dotombori is one of the three spots most symbolic of and well-known in Osaka–possibly the most famous of them. It is order in chaos, a maddening mix of people and lights and sounds that will assault your senses. Lonely Planet went as far as comparing it to the futuristic cityscape of Blade Runner.* But in my opinion, Dotombori has no comparison, because it is simply the City of Osaka unapologetically being its over-the-top self.

The name comes from the Dotombori River, a canal that runs east to west through the middle of the Dotombori district. A theatre district starting in the 17th century, Dotombori is primarily a nighttime entertainment district today, so there are numerous bars, izakaya, restaurants, food stalls, and entertainments facilities (karaoke, bowling, pool, etc). The city has recently been doing construction work to boost tourism in the area, focusing on beautifying the canal-side boardwalks. Namba’s “love hotel” district can be found on the west end of Dotombori (near Yotsubashi-suji), if that’s what you’re looking for.

Stp62214Famous landmarks include the giant crab with moving pincers (there are actually three, but the center-most one is the most popular) and the surrounding lights and buildings, the night view of the Glico “running man” billboard, Ebisubashi Bridge (informally known as Hikkakebashi, meaning “pick-up bridge,” as it is a popular spot for hosts who attempt to pick up girls passing by), and the Ferris wheel attached to the side of the Don Kihote shop. There is a Starbucks at the most crowded point in Dotombori, which offers a great view if you like people-watching or just want to take a breather. There are boat tours that go along Dotombori River and connect to other parts of Osaka, as well. And finally, don’t forget to stop at Kinryu, the famous ramen shop that has multiple shops in the district, followed by some cheap and delicious okonomiyaki and takoyaki (fried dumplings with octopus in the middle) from the outdoor food stalls near the river—both of these are Osaka specialties.

The best way to reach the center of Dotombori is from Namba Station (Sennichimae and Midosuji Subway Lines, Kintetsu Lines, Hanshin Namba Line, Nankai Lines), but you can also get to the west part of Dotombori from Namba Station on the Yotsubashi Subway Line, and to the east part from Nipponbashi Station (Sennichimae and Sakaisuji Subway Lines). Dotombori is a 3-5 min. walk from Namba Station on the Midosuji and Sennichimae Subway Lines.

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*Lonely Planet: Japan 8th edition, p. 387.

Lake Biwa: Northern Lights

September 4, 2009 1 comment

Osaka Prefecure is an amazing place, but I would be lying if I said it was the only thing in Kansai there is to see. One of the great things about Osaka is that it its location–right in the center of the Kansai Region–and you can easily get to Kyoto, Kobe, Mt. Koya, Nara, and many other places in a short amount of time.

Recently I had a chance to travel to Shiga Prefecture and spend some time in Omi-Hachiman and Hikone, both are which were absolutely amazing and incredibly peaceful cities to be in. I am planning to take a five-day trip by myself in a loop around Lake Biwa (which is what Shiga Prefecture centers around geographically) in just two weeks. Oh, and I will definitely write about my trip here afterwards, including all my lake-swimming, mountain-climbing, onsen-bathing, fish-eating, castle-raiding adventures. 🙂

One of the great things about Lake Biwa and Shiga Prefecture is the abundance of natural sights and scenery, all of which are easily accesible from the big cities like Osaka. I have recently had the pleasure to learn about a small business called Northern Lights that operates on the northern shore of Lake Biwa, and is run by two friendly folks named Eriko and Yasuhiro (who hail from Osaka, in fact). They have been running Northern Lights for the last decade up in the beautiful northern tip of Lake Biwa, a truly special place (as those who have visited well know), renting out their log cottages to guests from all over Kansai and beyond.

Only one hour from Kyoto and 90 minutes from Osaka by train, the cottages are self-catered but come fully equipped with modern conveniences. With great views of the lake and the cleanest air around, it is the perfect getaway for school groups, families, couples, and any group up to 30 people. Locally, activities like fishing, kayaking, hiking, and cycling are available, and a sports hall can even be rented out for a cheap price, if that’s your thing.

Please visit http://sites.google.com/site/shiganorthernlights/ and take a look at what Northern Lights has to offer. As someone who formerly worked for a small travel company, I can guarantee that working with Northern Lights will be to your advantage because, unlike the big players in the industry, they will pay attention to your individual needs.

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This blog's author near the top of the HUGE staircase leading up to Chomeiji Temple (ironically, the temple's name means "long life"), near Lake Biwa. If I recall correctly, there are over 1,000 steps to climb before reaching the top, but it is more than worth it!

Note: top photograph used with permission of Shiga Northern Lights.

Covent Garden

September 3, 2009 2 comments

It’s back to the Horie district (Kitahorie, to be precise), this time to a bar called Covent Garden. The main reason I love this place is that it is one of the best places to get burgers in town–and let me make it clear that, as an American (a picky one) in Japan, I rarely say a burger is “good.” Besides burgers, they also serve a variety of Western-style foods including veggie burgers, cheese fries, nachos, pizza, and wraps, as well as a few Japanese dishes. They also offer a good selection of imported beers and other cocktails.

One of the great points about Covent Garden is the atmosphere: there are couches in the lower level; the bar is equipped with darts, foosball, and free Internet; and the staff are friendly and make you feel right at home.

Covent garden is a 5-minute walk from exit 3 of Nishiohashi Station (Nagahori Tsurumi-ryokuchi Subway Line), and a 7-minute walk from exit 5 of Yotsubashi Station (Yotsubashi Subway Line). It is located within 5 minutes (on foot) of Triangle Park in Amemura. They can be contacted by phone  at 06-4391-3177.

For menus, a map, the event schedule (they hold DJ events and live performances), and other information, take a look at Covent Garden’s website.