Japan Part 1 – Osaka, Kobe and Kyoto

Arriving in Osaka was a very odd experience for me. I had never been to Japan before in my life, however for some strange reason I was hit with a strong and persistent sense of nostalgia. From the moment I stepped off the plane, for the next 24 hours or so I felt like I was revisiting someplace from my distant past. I’ve come to the conclusion that either Osaka is a great representation of what America was like in the late 80s, or I was Japanese in a former life.

Unfortunately, try as I did, I wasn’t able to really capture these feelings of nostalgia in my photographs. Perhaps that will be a project for another time.

Off in the distance you can see the historic Osaka Castle. I didn’t take the tour inside, but I did walk around the grounds and it was there that I had my first taste of takoyaki, which I’ll talk about more in a bit.

This night I decided to wander around the area south of my guesthouse to do some exploring.

About ten minutes into my journey, I met a nice fellow by the name of Haru who lived around the area. He took me to a few of the local drinking spots and we spent the rest of the night taking turns buying each other rounds of Suntory.

This one particular bar was teeming with old toys and various trinkets. This liquid hourglass captured my attention for quite a while.

To cap off the night, Haru asked me if I wanted to go to a bar run by a super cute Japanese girl who was a self-proclaimed Ramen expert. Apparently he wasn’t aware of my affinity for Ramen and super cute Japanese girls.

One of the things I really wanted to see here was the Umeda Sky Building. This building was essentially two separate towers joined together at the top by a circular observation deck. For some reason I didn’t take any pictures of the exterior of this building, but this Google Image Search should give you an idea of what I’m talking about. So the nexy day I decided to head on over there with a few friends I met back at my guesthouse to check the place out.

The two enclosed tubes you see on the bottom are the escalators that take you to and from the observation deck.

Concrete as far as the eye can see.

We were getting a little hungry so we went inside to get some coffee and hot dogs at the cafe while we waited for nightfall.

Click on the pano above to view it in high res.

If you look closely, you can see a highway tunnel going through one of the buildings on the bottom right there.

Here’s a closeup. I guess they were building a new elevated highway but the owners of the building didn’t want to sell it, so they compromised and built a tunnel straight through it. Pretty cool if you ask me.

The next day while eating my instant noodle breakfast I met a lovely young Korean girl named Mia. She had been here on vacation with her friends, but they couldn’t all get a flight home together on the same day so Mia was stuck here alone till the next day and was terrified of leaving the guesthouse for fear of getting lost.

Being the gentleman that I am, I of course offered to take her out and show her a good time.

She wanted to stop by a bookstore known for its collection of cheap, used books, so we spent a while in here just perusing their selection.

We found a takoyaki stand so we stopped in for a quick bite. Takoyaki is essentially fried octopus balls. In the middle is a piece of octopus surrounded by some kind of battered dough, then they’re topped with Japanese mayo, okonomiyaki sauce, then finally nori and fish flakes. Every place makes them a little bit differently, but they’re all pretty tasty.

We ended up in the popular area of Dotonburi. It was rather quiet that night so we ended up just going for a nice long stroll along the river.

On the way back to the guesthouse we made a stop in Shinsekai for some kushikatsu, which is basically just deep fried, skewered food served with a Japanese Worcestershire sauce for dipping. You can get anything from chicken, onions, cheese, even ice cream, and again it was all pretty delicious.

After Mia left the next morning I just sorta took the day off. I hopped on the train and wandered around the city a bit but didn’t really have anywhere to go.

The next day I made my way to the train station to head on over to Kobe for the day. It’s only about a 20 minute train ride from Osaka, so I figured it would make a nice day trip before continuing on to Kyoto.

The main Osaka Station is really cool too by the way. It was just completely redone less than a year before I was there and if you’re into architecture I’d definitely recommend checking it out.

Now, the main reason I wanted to come here was to take pictures around the industrial shipping ports, so as soon as I got off the train I headed straight for the harbor. I only brought my medium format rangefinder and a pocket full of Portra with me today, and it was well before noon so I had all day to shoot it.

I was starting to notice that Japan had a lot of crazy highway systems and junctions. I think when I go back someday I’m going to have to plot out the locations of as many of them as I can and do a little project on them.

Looking back on this picture I really wish I had waited for a car to go down the ramp. If I could have caught a little white van in that illuminated section in the bottom left I think this picture could have been really great.

At this point I headed over the bridge to Port Island, where a lot of the container terminals were located.

Luckily I was there on a Saturday so there was nobody around to ask me what I was doing.

The island wasn’t all just industrial areas though. There are a couple of universities, some hotels, a convention center, even an IKEA.

And this is the seawall on the island. It’s maybe 15-20 feet tall and covers most of the perimeter to help protect the island in case of a tsunami. Right after I took this picture I noticed a truck driver who had a load full of used cars having some trouble with one of them. The battery was dead and he couldn’t push it off the top of the truck by himself, so I gave him a hand and he rewarded me with a bottle of some tasty vegetable juice.

So after wandering around the ports all day I headed back to my guesthouse in Osaka for one more night before leaving for Kyoto in the morning.

Kyoto was just another short train ride away, and upon arriving there I began my usual search for accommodations. I had heard about these things called capsule hotels, which are essentially just 1 meter x 1 meter x 2 meter tubes that you rent for the night to sleep in. I ended up finding a relatively cheap one a few blocks away from the main train station, so I booked it for the night and hit the town to see some of Kyoto’s famous temples.

This is an 80 foot Buddha I found in Eastern Kyoto.

If you’ve ever seen the movie Lost in Translation, this next shrine may seem a bit familiar.

This is one of the shrines Scarlett Johansson went to in the movie when she took the day trip out to Kyoto.

Now, after spending the night in the capsule hotel I needed to find a cheaper alternative. Even a cheap capsule hotel is still expensive by hostel standards. Don’t ask me why. So while I was out in Eastern Kyoto checking out the temples there I booked the next few nights at a hostel in the historical district of Gion.

Gion and Higashiyama are two neighboring districts which retain the old architectural styles of ancient Kyoto. It was really cool walking down all the preserved, historical streets.

I couldn’t help but laugh a bit at the sign out in front of this shop.

Here I was able to catch a glimpse of some Geisha walking the street.

The next day I hopped on a train and headed out to the other end of Kyoto to check out the Golden Pavilion and bamboo grove.

This is the Kinkakuji, or Golden Pavilion, and is probably the most famous temple in Kyoto. The top two stories are completely covered in real gold leaf.

Next up is the Bamboo Grove

Unfortunately it wasn’t very big. I think I walked from one end to the other in about 2 minutes, but it was still pretty cool.

After that, I decided to head up to the Fushimi Inari Taisha. This shrine has a hiking trail out back which ascends up a small mountain and is covered with thousands of large torii gates.

There were some more smaller shrines along the way as well.

I ended up stopping in here for some tea before heading back down.

With all the temples, shrines and beautiful scenery here it’s easy to forget that you’re still in one of Japan’s largest cities. With a population of around 1.5 million, Kyoto is home to more than twice as many people as the city of Boston.

So after spending around a week and a half over in this part of Japan it was finally time for me to head out to Tokyo. I saved the best for last, so be sure to join me next time for the final installment in my Asian adventure.

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