For visitors to Japan it is a great idea to fly straight to Japan’s third largest city Osaka. There are fantastic museums, great traditional cuisine and even Universal Studios Japan. Here are plenty more reasons why you should plan a visit!
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Direct flights from Australia
Osaka is a smaller, less overwhelming city than Tokyo. From language and signage to costs and cuisine, Japan can be daunting so it’s nice coming to terms with Japan on a manageable scale.
Tokyo is very large, with a population in excess of eight million, so there is a decided advantage to start your Japan experience in Osaka (population 2.5 million). There are direct flights from Australia and many of the major features of Japan (like the wonderfully traditional city of Kyoto) are nearby.
The stunning Osaka Castle
Ancient temples and unusual sites
Because our homes – and roads – are filled with the products of Japan, it’s easy to think that Japan will be comfortably familiar to visit. It isn’t and therein lies much of its appeal. Ancient temples and futuristic stores lie at either ends of the spectrum but even the middle ground comes with a twist.
One Sunday, I went to see Osaka’s Hanshin Tigers baseball team play. It was not surprising to find the ground was divided into “us and them” enclosures nor that the whole crowd had really elaborate chants synchronised by leaders with whistles and walkie talkies. But there was one pre-assigned moment of the game when everyone at the ground inflated long thin balloons and simultaneously let them go. It was a stunning sight but I never found out what it meant or why they did it.
Delightful old-fashioned values
Japan has good claim to be the world’s most fascinating first world country. It is completely foreign in all elements of life – from everyday rituals to eating utensils. Yet it is an easy country to travel in, because of the universal politeness and absolute honesty. I hope that never changes.
Try some traditional takoyaki balls at a food stall in Osaka (Photo: Visit St. Thomas/Shutterstock.com)
Being able to put my camera bag down in the street and walk away to take a photograph was rather like being back in the rural Australia of my youth. Don't bother to count your change or worry that your pen won't be returned. The change will be correct and your pen would be couriered back if necessary.
Modern and regional cuisine
Japan’s systems work flawlessly and there are enough signs in English to make just about everything comprehensible. Normally, the biggest battle overseas is ordering meals in a foreign language. But in Japan, there’s generally a plastic display of every dish on the menu.
If the dish you select shows four plastic pickles, you can have faith that your meal will come with four pickles. These window displays also work as great aversion therapy to western food. A plastic tonkatsu looks quite appetising; plastic steak looks disgusting. Strangely, a plastic hamburger looks remarkably like the real thing.
Plastic food replica of sushi in a restaurant of Otaru, Japan (Photo: Outcast85/Shutterstock.com)
It is worth exploring regional Japanese dishes you haven’t heard of and even giving another chance to Japanese food you don’t like. Personally, I’ve always regarded tofu as the culinary equivalent of polystyrene and vying with it as my least favourite taste sensation.
Then I found myself in a Kyoto all-tofu restaurant for lunch and found the whole meal was sublime, with a wide range of great textures and flavours. Any race that can make tofu taste great can do wonders with noodles.
Principal tourist destination runs alongside Dotonbori canal between Dotonboribashi and Nipponbashi in the Namba ward (Photo: Cowardlion/Shutterstock.com)
Unique shopping experience
There are electrical products in the shops of Osaka that won’t be in Australia yet. To get a glimpse of the future head for Den Den Town Osaka’s equivalent of Tokyo’s Akihabara, a place where the electronic future of the planet is on display and all for sale. Its 300 or so shops have numerous devices you never knew you needed. For example I’d never considered the option of buying an electric futon dryer before.
I approached my most recent shopping excursion with trepidation. The last time I was in Den Den Town I picked up a plastic stick with a hole in it and instructions in Japanese. Of course I stuck my finger in the hole and, just as inevitably, it fastened on my finger and refused to let go.
As I was considering the expense of surgical removal, it made a satisfied squeak and let go. It then displayed my blood pressure – and that was ironic because this was the only time I felt stressed in Japan.
To get a true sense of tranquillity in Japan it’s necessary to head into the countryside. A temple stay and fine cuisine are not concepts that easily fit together but that is what I found at Mount Koyasan, a wonderful Buddhist temple complex high in the mountains of Kansai south of Osaka. This is a whole Buddhist township with the highlight being the expansive and serenely beautiful burial grounds of Okuno-in temple.
Ekoin temple in Koyasan, Wakayama (Photo: TwoKim/Shutterstock.com)
It’s certainly a forest walk with a difference. An unexpected highlight of my time in Japan was staying at the Muryoko-in temple here. A particular joy was a vegetarian meal (served by monks) that could only be described as a banquet.
Our traditional pre-dinner bath was also a good welcome – as were some of the non-monastic features: the temple is ancient and venerable but it is still Japanese enough to have heated seats in the communal toilets. The next morning started with morning prayers in a room full of images, Buddhas and prayer symbols, all lit by candlelight.
Our local guide, had explained the rituals so there was never a moment that felt uncomfortable. Well, almost none. After a night on a hard sleeping mat I was reassured to learn that every moment of every day I’m as perfect as I can be. I didn’t feel it.
Dotonbori is famous for its historic theatres and restaurants, and its many neon and mechanised signs (Photo: Korkusung/Shutterstock.com)
My last night in Japan was spent prowling the small bars and cafes of Osaka’s Dotonburi area. The main strip is unrelentingly neon modern but once you move away from the roadcrash-noise of the ubiquitous pachinko parlours, there are some very quaint little bars where a beer or whisky won’t break the bank.
It was a good place to assess the Japanese experience. Japan remains an enigma but it is a remarkably pleasant place to take a holiday. The best holidays provide good memories and make you question life back home. Japan does all that and more. And my zen teacher has given me a newfound appreciation of a cup of tea. She told me that Australians often make a tea break into a session to worry about something they did or to fret about what is to come.
“Zen shows you that peace comes from living for the moment – it’s just a cup of tea”. Before a visit to Japan it’s essential to do your homework. The best place to start is at the Australian website of the Japan National Tourist Organisation.
3 handy travel tips
1. Will my mobile phone work in Japan? Your mobile phone will not work in Japan. That’s because, no matter how many bands your phone includes it won’t have Japan’s unique WCDMA system. You can always rent or buy a prepaid phone in Japan. You may be able to use your own SIM and number – check with your provider.
Another option is to hire a wifi router at the airport. If well charged it gives you constant access to your email, Facebook, Skype, etc for a daily rate of under $15 per day. They are really stable and work well everywhere so it’s very easy to use Google maps to get around. You can get one at any of the airport arrival halls from a provider like J-Phone.
Japan's high speed bullet train
2. Train travel: The JR Rail passes are super value and allow you travel on Bullet Train as well as local trains. The passes can be obtained through travel agents like JTB but you can also order online and have them directly couriered to you from Japan Experience.
As a general rule, Japan is a destination that rewards pre-booking.
3. Best travel time: Summer in Osaka is between June and August and is quite hot, with temperatures into the 30s. This is also the wettest time of the year. If you are thinking of a winter visit, bring warm clothes.
There’s a good reason why Japan has a booming ski industry as winter in Japan is cold with lots of snow in the mountains. The cherry blossom time will be sometime in April but it only lasts for about a week and the bloom time varies from year to year.
The famous Cherry Blossom at Japan Mint in Osaka. (Photo: Littlewormy/Shutterstock.com)
It begins in the south. It’s a very busy time for domestic Japanese tourism so consider the other end of summer: autumn colours are beautiful in Japan.
Have you ever been to Japan? Is it on your bucket list? Join the conversation!