Animes of the State

A short train ride south from Kyoto and you arrive in Osaka – and the contrast is remarkable. If Kyoto was one of the most peaceful and calming places I have ever visited, then Osaka very well may be the least. As soon as we abandoned the train, we were sardined into the city centre – with no hope of deciding where our own feet went. With autonomy lost, we suddenly found ourselves in front of ‘Glico Man’ along with hundreds of Chinese students. An apparent ‘icon’ of Osaka (of which I had never heard of before), finding the running man sign signifies that you have reached the centre of Dōtonbori: Japan’s answer to Times Square (just without the junkies and prostitutes).

The Dōtonbori canal runs right through the centre of the district, funnelling tourists passed the brightly-lit restaurants and street vendors on either side – there really is no escape. After an hour or two of mindless wandering, I remembered the one and only thing I had pre-researched about our current locale: Osaka is full of hidden, miniature bars. With room for ten people, sometimes fewer, and concealed down narrow back alleys that used to be littered with opium dens and geisha houses, I was desperate to have a pint in one. Turns out, they don’t use the term ‘hidden bar’ lightly – where the bloody hell are they? After getting lost thrice and almost finding ourselves sold into the opium business, we called-off our search for the night – this isn’t over Osaka.

A day in Japan is not complete without visiting at least one shrine: the delightfully named Shitennoji Temple was today’s offering – and it was anything but sh…oddy. Consisting of a five-story pagoda (yes five!) and several large gates of the style synonymous with Japanese Buddhist temples, it held our interest very well – although it is possible that we were starting to experience the crippling condition known colloquially as “pagoda-fatigue”. An incurable illness that only befalls the most persistent of tourists, the single known cure is to stop visiting Japanese Temples – how damn awful. Heeding our doctor’s advice we left tout suite… and went to a castle instead.

However, Osaka Castle is not your ordinary Motte-and-Bailey. In fact, it was the complete opposite of every castle I had ever visited: made primarily from wood, remarkably well looked after, a glistening beacon of white, green and gold – Kidwelly Castle could learn a thing or two. After crossing several moats and defensive gates, we reached the central tower – and knelt in awe (although it could have been the osteoarthritis). The museum trip enlightened us to some of the epic battles that took place under its ramparts, it really is a shame they don’t teach anything about Asian history in British schools – our children (well not mine) are missing out on some fascinating eastern knowledge.

Now I’m not a raw fish man myself, but I suppose that sushi must be attempted at least once when in the land of the rising sun. Finding a restaurant that provides this offering is about as difficult as finding a Starbucks in New York (or an irritable Frenchman in Paris). From then on it’s a gamble. Grab a plate as they circulate under your nose, throw it down the shaft, and hope that is doesn’t make a reappearance until sometime the following afternoon. Four plates down, all was going satisfactorily – actually no, it was going wonderfully! Each plate more delectable than the last. At least, that was until the ‘broiled fatty salmon’. Like chewing the syrupy innards of a forgotten earthworm, containing the aftermath was a job for the Hoover Dam – not my convulsing pharynx. However, contain I did – and beer I required.

The photo really doesn’t do justice as to how god damn awful that salmon was. Anyway, back on the hunt for my miniature bar – and the good luck I was due post-sushi came back around. No sooner had we turned down yet another back alley that we were treated to a veritable smorgasbord of bantam-bars and tiny-taverns. As dingy and as sullied as I could have possibly imagined, we ducked our heads to enter the first one we came across and sat next to a row of morose Japanese businessmen nursing shots of sake – I had arrived. Like a scene from Lost in Translation, we attempted to order a beverage and not appear too thrilled by our surroundings – we didn’t need to look any more like gleeful tourists than we already did. I couldn’t think of a better place to end my Osakan adventure than within the depths of opium alley next to a line of Japanese alcoholics – next stop Tokyo.


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