39. Street Life

from “Stranded”, Roxy Music, 1973.

Hey Mr Ferry, what the hell is that? It’s big and yellow and bright and it burns our eyes! Oh, it’s the sun. You don’t get many of those to the pound in Osaka! Blimey, we’d best get out on the streets and take a look at life around the dining and shopping district of Namba in that case before the rain comes back (which it did the following day).

But before we immersed ourselves in the busy streets to soak up some of the atmosphere we decided to try and find the “mossy Buddha” we had heard about, which is literally a moss covered icon of Fudo Myoo, a deity of fury said to protect people against evil, conquer devils, and grant any wish; he sounds like a handy fellow to have on your side. Fudo Myoo is located in the Hozen-ji temple, which is hidden away in the back streets but, with some trusty Google mapping, we managed to track it down without too much trouble.

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Hozen-ji temple – home to the mossy Fudo Myoo.
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Hozen-ji temple – you can see where water poured by devotees has encouraged moss growth over much of the stonework.
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Fudo Myoo – Japan’s answer to the Green Man?

Despite its tiny size the Hozen-ji temple was definitely one of the most memorable we’ve been to and it was rather nice watching devotees give their offerings to the idols in the sunshine. We queued up to do the same, though admittedly with the intention of getting some better pictures rather than anything religious. No one seemed to mind our evident tourist intentions.

So with the quiet start to the day over, we plunged into the chaos and colour of Namba and in particular the area of Dotonbori, where we would catch sight of another famous figure, but one of a more modern origin than Fudo Myoo – the Glico Running Man.

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In contrast to Fudo Myoo, the next picture shows the Glico Running Man. Glico is a prominent confectionery company in Asia and this athlete is their logo. This huge sign in Dotonbori is an iconic image in Osaka and has existed in various forms since 1935. He is certainly popular with the tourists all doing the raised arms thing in front of him.

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The Glico Running Man – we still think those girls are doing YMCA.

We headed north towards Shinsaibashi and were pretty much sucked into the Shinsaibashi arcade, packed with all manner of shops, eateries, and people, all accompanied to the (sometimes getting hoarse) cries of hawkers shouting to drum up business.

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Fortunately we made it out of Shinsaibashi alive and found ourselves in an area more akin to Covent Garden in London in both look and feel. It had bigger name stores as well as the more individual and trendy kinds of boutiques and shops and was clearly popular with young and hip Osakans. We stopped for a sit down and to soak up a little of the atmosphere; it was rather pleasant to find a place that did feel somewhat like home, though we’re not homesick just yet!

We (OK Philip) noticed the lampposts in the area were all different and done in a stick-man style as you can see here.

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Lamppost man – not sure that was a nice place to stick that security camera.

Our visit to Namba was quite the opposite from our visit to Cosmosquare in blog 38. Ghost Town. Both were enjoyable for their own aspects and quirks: sunny and rainy, hectic and relaxed, busy and deserted. And still plenty to see yet in Japan.

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38. Ghost Town

from “More Specials”, The Specials, 1980.

Oh look more rain – it must still be Osaka! As we are staying fairly near the harbour area we thought we would go and have a look at the exciting sounding Cosmosquare and nearby to see what was around. A look at the information online led us to think that, while it might not exactly be Odaiba (Tokyo) or Darling Harbour (Sydney), there would be something indoors to keep us amused.

Just a few stops along from our nearby metro station saw us arrive at Cosmosquare where the Chuo Line ends and connects with the elevated train service Nanko Port Line, which is somewhat reminiscent of London’s DLR and serves other parts of the harbour area.

First thing we decided to try after a check of the map was to take a look at the harbour-side garden, even if it was raining. So with umbrellas out and ready off we went.

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Cosmosquare – definitely not Odaiba or Darling Harbour. Hard to tell but take it from us it’s not.
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Harbour garden – the cranes across the water look more interesting than the garden!

We immediately noticed there was no one around – OK granted it was raining – but literally there was no one about at all after we exited the station. The only living creature we saw in the “garden” was a duck. The garden was really only some grass and a few trees in a thin stretch of ground beside the water, and very little of anything else. Certainly not a place to enjoy much unless it was a nice day and even then there didn’t seem to be any kind of services to enjoy; no shops or eateries.

Well let’s try the Asia & Pacific Trade Centre (ATC) instead as this looks like an interesting mall by the harbour. We had to brave the rain and cross some big wet roads with lots of lorries thundering past. But hey we’re Londoners, it’s fine!

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ATC – the view from the entry causeway back towards Cosmosquare.

A few minutes later, and somewhat damper, we made it into the ATC. It quickly became apparent that this mall was very quiet and the majority of people walking through were office workers and we could see from the directory that there were quite a lot of government and prefecture offices in the complex adjoining the ATC.

It was also apparent that the mall had either been designed for young children or by young children: it was all primary colours and blocky, like being in a giant child’s building set.

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ATC – even with all that space and lack of people, bet that guy busy with his phone tries to walk into us…

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ATC – we could ride up and down in the tube lifts without anyone getting in the way. We know how to live!

The ATC has twelve levels and the ground (or first as they will insist on calling it here in Japan) was the only level with the unit premises near 100% occupation. Of the rest of the building we saw mainly empty units. It really was something of a ghost town.

Up on one of the middle levels we found a huge furniture and homewares store; it all looked very nice with some good items, but we only saw one couple in there browsing. We did wonder how on earth a store like that could keep going. Perhaps it won’t and will just one day disappear to create yet another empty space.

The busiest shop we found was the Daiso on the ground floor. Daiso is a chain of shops that sells most anything you might want and all for just ¥100 – think Tiger stores but with even more. It’s stuff heaven / hell depending on your point of view. This Daiso was the biggest we’ve ever seen and Philip kindly granted unlimited browsing privileges just this once! 🙂

Some of the coffee shops and restaurants were doing some business, though these seemed to be office workers and a few people who looked like travellers as they had luggage – we guessed they were going to use the large Sunflower ferries that docked near to the ATC.

The closest we came to a crowd was when we were near a tax-free shop in the ATC and suddenly from seemingly nowhere a horde of tourists (Chinese we assumed from their speech) appeared and descended on the tax-free shop like locusts. Judging by the armfuls of stuff they were grabbing they were out to get some bargains come hell or high water.

Believe it or not – despite the somewhat irreverent tone of this blog – we did actually rather enjoy out day out in the “Ghost Town” as it was a different experience and a chance to see another side of Osaka. It was a strangely relaxing experience and after six weeks of being very busy in Tokyo and Kyoto it was definitely a needed slower pace day out.

37. Keep Young And Beautiful

from “Diva”, Annie Lennox, 1992.

The Osaka sun had finally made an appearance – or perhaps the rain had just run out of steam for a while – and so we hurried off to see one of our main agenda items: Osaka Castle. The castle is one of Japan’s most famous landmarks and it played a major role in the unification of Japan during the 16th century.

The castle is located in the centre of the city and was very easy to reach, being just a handful of stops away from us on the Chuo line of the Osaka metro. It is set within a huge area of green space; we didn’t get time to fully explore the gardens during our visit to the castle so we will be going back again for these as they are one of the main green spaces in Osaka.

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Osaka Castle – they’re not going to need a bigger moat.

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Osaka Castle – the main entrance bridge to the Ote-mon gate.

The grounds of the castle are free to enter and explore, which we duly did. There were lots of information plaques around to explain the features and points of interest, and in particular some of the stone blocks used in the walls were truly massive – the picture below shows a couple of “stones” that are huge single blocks with smaller stones fitted around.

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Osaka Castle – some of the stone blocks inside the Ote-mon gate.

Our destination was easy to spot inside the grounds; the castle itself is pretty unmistakable, rising from its central position within the huge estate it dominates. It is very impressive and is very much the classic vision of a Japanese castle – a definitive focal point that we found was missing from Nijo Castle in Kyoto during our visit there a couple of weeks ago.

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Osaka Castle – yep that’s it in all its splendour.

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The main castle building itself is in fact the castle museum; there is virtually nothing left inside of the original features, which seems rather a shame. Set over eight floors you can learn the history of the castle and the most famous battles – the Summer and Winter wars – though the English information is somewhat limited but still enough to get an idea.

Once again, unsurprisingly, there is limited photography permitted, and the areas with the best and most interesting exhibits are banned for cameras. It’s very frustrating too to see people blatantly taking pictures with their camera-phones when the guards aren’t looking, while we are being good and diligent tourists. So unfortunately no pictures of the samurai armour and helmets, the battle drum, the silk screens, and other great artefacts we saw in the museum.

You can climb up to the top floor of the castle and get some good views over Osaka city – we cheated and used the lift most of the way up to save our poor feet.

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Shachihoko – a mythical tiger-headed fish. These were said to spit water when touched by fire, and were charms to protect the building. They didn’t work…

Osaka Castle is definitely one of the most iconic – and beautiful – buildings we’ve visited so far in Japan, and we’re looking forward to seeing a little more of it when we return to explore the gardens.

36. Here Comes The Rain Again

from “Touch”, Eurythmics, 1983.

With Osaka only around 35 miles from Kyoto it seemed somewhat excessive to take the Shinkansen between the two cities and so we opted to for the JR Special Rapid Service. The Thunderbirds were considered for a while: great excitement was to be had upon the discovery of Thunderbirds beyond the known Thunderbirds 1 to 5, and Thunderbird 23 in particular was temping us with its convenient departure and arrival time. But we needed to get to Osaka station and not Shin-Osaka station, which is where the Shinkansen and Thunderbirds arrived, so no Thunderbird 23 (sorry Jeff Tracy).

All in all it was a pretty trouble free journey and we are getting quite adept at navigating and moving through busy stations and terminals whilst manhandling a large and small trolley case each; basically it’s “look out anyone coming the other way, chic and fashionable luggage coming through and we don’t take any prisoners!”

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JR Special Rapid Service – it’s a service that is special and rapid.

We piled on the 12:00 to Osaka and 28 minutes later (not 27 or 29, come on these are Japanese trains) we were there and switching to the Osaka Loop Line to get to our next Airbnb apartment.

We have had a near flawless run of great weather since we got to Japan with only three or four days of rain so far in over six weeks. However, Osaka has not smiled on us quite so much as Tokyo and Kyoto and it has been wet for the first three days here with a little more unsettled weather due.

So while dodging the rain – and the cyclists who carry umbrellas or have them fixed to their bicycles – we have had to confine ourselves to some of Osaka’s indoor entertainments until some sunnier weather comes along as well as a little familiarising ourselves with the city.

First up are the National Museum of Art, Osaka and the Grand Front in the city centre.

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The National Museum of Art, Osaka – well the top of it, as it’s all underground, and this is the entrance art thingy.

ikko-tanaka-geishaThe National Museum of Art, Osaka usually features mainly works from Japanese artists, and once again pictures are not really allowed except in the non-gallery areas and one of the collections. While this collection was interesting enough there wasn’t anything too special there.

However, the exhibit of graphic art by Ikko Tanaka was very good. No pictures here though, despite the fact that there is a glossy exhibition brochure with all the works which we could just photograph on macro! Never mind the works being available online – look them up as an image search for “Ikko Tanaka”; Philip particularly liked the samurai.

The picture to the right gives you an idea of his work style.

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National Museum of Art, Osaka – artwork in the central access hall.

The Grand Front is a huge complex of shops, restaurants, and offices north of Osaka station, where you can shop til you drop and then indulge is all manner of foods and cuisines. Given we are limited space-wise it was more a case of window-shop til you drop. The Grand Front also has the biggest Muji we’ve ever been in – not buying any of the tasteful home stuff was no easy matter.

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Grand Front – a huge complex of shops, restaurants, and offices north of Osaka station.

The North Block of Grand Front also has a series escalators that lead from the first (they mean “ground”) floor to the seventh and the escalators are all in a continuous line – with an alighting space between each – rather than switching back and forth as you usually get.

As we were ascending there was a clatter behind us and we turned around to see a little old Japanese man had fallen forwards on the escalator and dropped his walking stick. So it was Philip and Robert to the rescue as the top was rapidly approaching and the man was on his hands and knees and we were worried he might have an accident at the escalator end. Having set him on his feet he was off like a shot and without his stick or any word – quite odd.

A salaryman (the name used for a Japanese office worker) just behind the old man on the escalator had grabbed his stick and returned it to him before thanking us for helping and then hurrying away. We watched slightly concerned as the old fellow went and sat down – it was difficult to know what might have been the matter, if anything. However, we had to leave him to it and there were plenty of people and mall security around in case of further incident.

Our destination at the end of the escalators was access to the rooftop garden that was open to the public and this turned out to be a nice “hidden” space that was quite quiet and we could enjoy views of a somewhat grey Osaka.

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Grand Front garden – a nice little space to sit with snack or drink from the 7-11 inside; when the weather is better of course.
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Grand Front – there’s a very large plot of land right next door; surely we need another mall?

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We have begun to get more of a feel for the city and Osaka is definitely more like Tokyo than Kyoto. It’s been said that Osaka is to Tokyo what Melbourne is to Sydney, especially with regard to food; something we’ll be finding out we hope.

Come on sunshine, we want to go out to play a bit more.