Monday, November 5, 2007

November 5, 2007

A few weeks ago, the kids had holiday from school so Marc and I decided to take them to Osaka for the weekend. Osaka is not generally a tourist hotbed, but there were several things we wanted to see, and Marc is there so often for business that I felt like I wanted to see it for myself.
The distance to Osaka from Tokyo is more than the distance between New York and Washington DC, but by Shinkansen, bullet train, is less than two and a half hours. I am telling you: Shinkansen is the way to travel. First of all, there are no airport lines to deal with – no immigration, security, or anything. We arrived at the train station at 8:20 for an 8:45 train. The seats are huge, there is a ton of legroom, and if we wanted to get up and walk around, we just did it. The cart comes through the aisle every hour or so which means that there is often food or drink to buy if we needed it. The funny thing is that the conductor and woman (it’s always a woman…) pushing the food cart do not leave the train car without turning around to bow to the passengers.
Osaka is quite a different city from Tokyo. First of all it’s more industrialized; it’s a business city in a way that Tokyo is not. Sections of Tokyo are devoted to business interests, but most of Osaka is based on it being a port city and mercantile center. According to my Lonely Planet Guide published in 2005, Osaka has a bigger individual GDP than all but eight countries of the world. It was razed to the ground during WWII and then built back up quickly so its architecture is eclectic and uninspiring. The people there are less refined – and the women especially are not as elegant and well-dressed. For some strange reason (Marc insists it’s to separate itself from Tokyo) escalators work backwards from in Tokyo. In Tokyo we stand left and walk right. In Osaka, it’s the opposite.
We arrived on Saturday morning and left our bags at our hotel. We stayed at a pretty nice place called the New Hankyu. Hotels in Japan have rules about how many people can stay in a room – so we didn’t have many choices because we were four people in a room. They don’t really do roll-away beds – we had one hotel room with four single beds crammed into it. Not ideal, but we really didn’t care.
We had three goals in going to Osaka: first, we wanted to see the huge aquarium that is supposed to be one of the largest in Asia. Second, we wanted to go to Universal Studios Japan, and third, we wanted to go to see the Osaka castle built in the sixteenth century.
The aquarium, which we did on Saturday, was stunning. It was built around a huge tank that housed a humungous whale shark and the largest manta ray that we had ever seen. They tried to recreate natural environments for things like sea lions and penguins. But really the attraction was the way that the tank in the middle of the building was able to display sea life from eight different levels of the ocean as we started from the top and then wended our way down through the displays. The variety of sea life that we saw was simply astonishing – from the huge ray to the jellyfish that was no larger than my thumb. The kids really enjoyed it and spent quite a long time watching the dolphins play around in their tank.
Saturday night we went out for Okanamiyaki for dinner. Billed as a Japanese pizza, this is anything but. It starts with a pancake – yep, a regular pancake. Then on top of that, they place various sauces, vegetables, meats and other unidentifiable items. We ordered in a fairly indiscriminate fashion and just tasted. One of them had shrimp and squid on it. The cool thing was that the middle of the table was a type of bar-b-que and so the waiter brought the various types of okanamiyaki and they sizzled away in the middle of the table while we ate parts of them. The kids ate it really well. Bailey has become quite adept with the chopsticks, and Sydney is no longer really struggling, though sometimes she asks for a fork.
After dinner we went to the 8th floor of a nearby building to a “sweets museum” which had various shops all dedicated to dessert. Of course we ended up eating ice cream. We’re willing to taste food adventurously, but for dessert we are more reticent. How odd is that???
Sunday we did something totally crazy: we went to Universal Studios Japan. Yep, it’s just like the American version. One major difference: it’s all in Japanese. The weather was perfect – sunny, sparkling and seventy. We bought one of those express passes that allowed us to get into the front of most lines and we rode whatever we wanted. We went on the Spiderman ride, Shrek Adventure, the Back to the Future ride, and then saw the Blues Brothers in Concert. They even drove up to the stage in their trademark black car. Here’s the catch on it all though: besides the Blues brothers show, everything was in Japanese. So on rides like E.T. or Spiderman, the point is to listen to the story and the ride will take the guest on an adventure with the movie character. Well, it didn’t quite work like that for us. We could barely understand anything that was happening through the line or during the greeting parts. We simply followed the crowd to get on the line and then rode. At the end of the day, a ride is a ride, right? Well, the kids thought so. It was a typical amusement park day: we played all day, the kids were wiped out, and we all went to bed early.
Both Sunday and Monday mornings we went to the breakfast buffet in the hotel. That was an experience. Think of every food you can imagine and it was there. They had the Western style eggs, bacon and cereal. They had rice and fish and seaweed. They had kimchi. They had Chinese dumplings. They had yogurt and fruit. They had a small salad bar. There was a spot to make Udon noodles in soup. Of course there was coffee and tea, but they had an array of juices as well. We were stuffed!! It’s funny because Bailey and I are breakfast people. Sydney and Marc ate dumplings and rice.
Monday we went to see the Osaka castle. It was simply breathtaking. It was commissioned by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the man who unified Japan and he wanted it to be the seat of his power. It took 100,000 workers three years to build the supposedly impregnable castle out of granite and it was finished in 1583. However, it was destroyed by the first Tokugawa Shogun, Ieyasu, 1615 when he wanted to unseat Hideyoshi and take over the ruling of Japan. It took the Shogun 10 years to rebuild it. It was destroyed by another clan of Shogun in 1868 rather than let it fall to the forces of the Meiji Restoration when the Shogun’s rule officially ended. It is not refurbished inside to look like it once did, as so many things are on the island of Kansai – especially in Kyoto. But there is an impressive museum chronicling the history of the castle and showing various artifacts of the times. The observation deck on the eighth floor has spectacular and crisp views of the entire city. It was fascinating.
For lunch we went to the longest shopping street in Japan. It is not anything touristy –it’s regular shops that people need in everyday life: a drugstore, a market, small restaurants, a few boutique clothing stores. We really didn’t buy anything, but just ate a late lunch. We hunted around for a little bit to find the best spot we could for a bowl of Udon noodles. Apparently, just to distinguish Osaka further from Tokyo, in Osaka one is supposed to eat Udon, while in Tokyo one enjoys Soba.
We sort of “fell” into this little noodle shop which had Udon in the window. It was delicious! They taught us to grind up the sesame seeds with the mortar and pestle and then put it in the cold dipping sauce for the hot noodles. Simply yummy. I think if you asked the kids, that was their favorite meal. (Besides the wacky, huge breakfast, and the American-style burgers at Universal.) One funny note: they asked Marc to check the English on their English menu that they were preparing to print for the first time. Marc deferred to me, the writing professor. I made one tiny correction and assured them that their menu was very understandable.
After the huge breakfast and late lunch, we ate snacks on the train home – not any real dinner. We felt over-food-ed.
We had playdates and other little visits for the rest of the week until Friday, which was our magic day: our shipment from the U.S. arrived. Between the movers working tirelessly both Friday and Saturday and Minnie’s magic, we were pretty well arranged by Sunday night. Our furniture looks beautiful in the house – it’s not too big – and we are now very ready for guests.
The kids were ready to start school again on Monday and I was ready to begin our normal life again. What was interesting was that I didn’t realize how unsettled I still felt until we got our things here and into the rooms and I suddenly relaxed. Our bed. My coffeemaker. The kids’ toys. It was warm and familiar, and we were thankful. We lost a few glasses, but that was it – the movers on both ends did a spectacular job.
I will try to write more often and in little bits from now on. I hope you are well and look forward to hearing from you soon.

Much love,

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


I don't know if you remember me but it's Jan Albert (now Babcock) from Penn State. Please say hi to Marc for me. This is really weird. I was actually searching for Scott G's email address online and came across your blog. What a weird world!