Osaka gives Japan a flying start!

15 Oct

Osaka's massive sprawl of concrete boxes is second only to Tokyo as an example of Japan's urban phenomenon. At night time, this ugly duckling of grey buildings and highways is transformed to a flashing neon madness. During the day, Osaka had us happily staring at metre long tunas being sliced up in the market, at spectacular fish in one of the best aquariums in the world or simply at each other in mild disbelief over the friendliness of Osaka's residents.

Because only a day into our stay in Osaka, the Japanese had firmly pushed the Thais off their throne of being the friendliest people we'd met in Asia. Most people will help a confused tourist who approaches them, but only the Japanese actively seek you out to offer their help. Standing with a map on a street corner, looking confused left, right and centre, only minutes would pass before a Japanese person would come up to us. Do you need any help? Can I help you? What are you looking for? Same, a slightly confused look in the metro and whoops, there was the ticket controller helping us to push the right buttons on the ticket machine.

We were unaware of this at the time, but people in Osaka are known to be the friendliest in Japan. (As it happens, the city is also the hatchery and haven for the country's stand-up comedians.) Not surprisingly, Osaka gave our first impression of Japan a flying start. Although the city is home to 2.6 million people (and more than 3.5 million during day time thanks to the many commuters), it felt surprisingly easy to navigate its streets and metro system. Maybe it was due to the many kind offers to help, the rather compact city core or the fact that the Japanese have visibly gone to great lengths to make it easy for visitors through the use of bilingual signs or opting for colour codes or symbols.

Before we get to the food and the cost level, here are some photos of the city:

Osaka is Japan's third largest city, yet it only gets a fraction of the tourists. When people make their travel itinerary for this notoriously expensive country, Osaka rarely makes the cut. For many, it becomes a matter of two places: Kyoto and Tokyo. Yet, if you have time – consider adding a short stop also in Osaka. For starters, it is a fun, edgy city with amazing food, a brilliant aquarium and a compact city centre that is easy to explore.

Depending on your travel plans, travelling to Osaka might also save you money. Most people who start and end their trip in Tokyo opt for the Japanese rail pass and rely on the bullet train for transport around the country. Though, if you fly into Osaka and then out of Tokyo, you can get transport on the cheap(er). Compared with flying in and out of Tokyo and then taking the bullet train everywhere / buying the rail pass, we saved several hundred euros on flying in to Osaka and then out from Tokyo. From Osaka, you may hop on a local train or the metro to Kyoto (which is so close that many who live in Kyoto work in Osaka. Our metro (!) ride took 30 minutes). From Kyoto you may then choose the bullet train to Tokyo so that you also get the experience of travelling at a plane's speed on ground.

A few more words on the prices. One of the largest surprises in Japan have been the cost level. I never thought I'd hear myself say out loud in Japan that something was reasonable, but often it was. Sometimes it was even downright cheap. The price level seemed similar to most of continental Western Europe, and considerably cheaper than Norway. Instance: Accommodation will undoubtedly take the biggest bite of your budget. Yet, in Osaka, we stayed at Hotel Taiyo for 27 euros a night (so 13.50 euro each). That got us a neat room with two futons on the floor, a small fridge, each our kimono and complimentary toothbrushes as well as the friendliest staff imaginable on the ground floor, impeccably clean communal showers and a small osen (hot bath). If you're heading to Kyoto afterwards, the hotel is also very conveniently placed in terms of metro lines running close by.

For food, we headed to the markets, the smaller eateries where locals sit down for some quick sushi bites or we simply followed the stream of younger people with less deep pockets to their hangouts.

We also opted for the fantastic conveyor belt sushi places, where a plate with two sushi will set you back somewhere between 105 to 260 yen. After about an hour of gorging ourselves on the best sushi we've ever had, the bill (in three different places) invariably came to around 3200 yen for both of us. That's about 26 euros, so 13 euros each. Sure, we gave the fancier restaurants in Osaka a miss. But, even the cheap stuff was way fancier than any sushi I've ever had in Europe.



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