Hear about travel to the Kansai Region of Japan (Osaka, Kyoto, Nara, etc) as the Amateur Traveler talks to Amanda Kendle from the Thoughtful Travel Podcast about one of her favorite parts of the world. Amanda originally came to Kansai to teach English and fell in loved with it.
“If you think about Japan, the two biggest cities, Tokyo and Osaka, both have their regional areas. For Tokyo that’s Kanto and for Osaka, that’s the Kansai region. It should be better known. I am trying to make it better known because I love it. That includes a lot of famous cities like Kyoto and Nara as well as Osaka itself. It’s about the same size as Australia in terms of population but it’s a very tiny geographic area. It includes so much history culture and amazing food.”
We could start talking about the rich imperial cities of Kyoto and Nara with their thousands of temples and shrines as well as a palace or two, but Amanda starts us with the food which is appropriate because Osaka is sometimes called the “nation’s kitchen”. “The food is typically Japanese but not what you get in a Japanese restaurant. My favorite there is okonomiyaki.” Okonomiyaki means “how you like”. “It is made of a lot of cabbage, eggs, and flour, often pork or seafood and it is made in the shape of a pancake. They then smother it in the most amazing sauces and Japanese mayonnaise and then ground up green seaweed on top and it is the most divine taste you will ever experience.”
There are over 1600 temples in Kyoto alone (many are a part of a UNESCO site) so we pick out some of our favorite spots like the colorful Fushimi Inari-taisha with its thousands of torii extending up the hillside. Amanda also recommends a visit to Monkey Park Iwatayama to see the snow monkeys.
In Nara, we visit one of the largest Buddhas in the world located in the world’s largest wooden building. We also feed the deer at Nara Park and visit the Kasuga Shrine with its many moss-covered stone lanterns.
In Osaka, we visit the wooden Osaka castle (only one of 8 remaining castles in Japan) as well as the colorful shops of Japan’s second-largest city.
We also talk about nearby Kobe, including the famous beef as well as a wonderful museum about the Kobe earthquake.
Hear why the Kansai region is such a beautiful, culturally and historically significant and delicious region of Japan.
Not a Ballerina
Japan Rail Pass
Monkey Park Iwatayama
Nara National Museum
Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan
Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake Museum
The Thoughtful Travel Podcast
Japan Trip June 2017
Cindy wrote about Travel to North Dakota – Episode 523
Chris, just thought I’d give you a few more reasons to visit ND (and return to MN too, of course). While the Plains Art Museum isn’t the Louvre, you’ll leave the Plains Musuem understanding Fargo a little better. The Louvre is great, but it doesn’t really help you understand Paris. The Plains Art Museum does some lovely shows. Also, since you seem to like stav churches, you should know that there is a a full-size replica of one in Moorhead. Ok, it’s not ND, but the church is by the river so you can see it from ND – and if you cross the river into MN you can tour it, as well as a homemade Viking ship a college friend sailed to Norway in one summer many years ago.
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Chris: Amateur Traveler Episode 540. Today the Amateur Traveler talks about giant Buddhas and wooden castles, octopus balls, and earthquakes, as we go to the Kansai region of Japan, including Osaka, Kyoto, Nara, and we’ll even throw in Kobe.
Chris: Welcome to the Amateur Traveler. I’m your host Chris Christensen. Before we get to this episode, a special thanks for Jaw Way Travel, that has been sponsoring the transcripts of these podcasts for the last year or so. Their sponsorship is gonna end with this episode, but I wanna thank them for sponsoring. And of course, if you know somebody who wants to take their place, just let me know.
I’d like to welcome to the show, Amanda Kendall, from the Thoughtful Travel podcast, where you find at notaballerina.com, who has come to talk to us about Kansai, Japan. Amanda, welcome to the show.
Amanda: Thank you very much, Chris. Great to be here and I can’t wait to talk on and on about Osaka and Kansai, one of my favorite parts of the world.
Chris: But before we do that, I’m very depressed because apparently since Amanda started podcasting after me, the Thoughtful Travel was a podcast name that was available. I could have been that. But oh well.
Amanda: It’s a lot of pressure, though, to try and be thoughtful all the time. So if you’re the Amateur Traveler, then you can do anything.
Chris: Even when I get people say that I’m amateurish, I say, “It’s in the name. Really, it’s in the name. I never promised you anything.” So when we say Kansai, we’re not talking about a city, but a region. You wanna put it on the map for us before we do anything else.
Amanda: Yeah, absolutely. So if you think about Japan, the two biggest cities, Tokyo and Osaka, both have their regional areas. And for Tokyo, that’s Kanto, which is the whole region around Tokyo. And for Osaka, that’s the Kansai region. It should be better known, but I’m trying to make it better known because I love it. But that includes a lot of really famous cities like Kyoto and like Nara and Kobe, as well as Osaka itself. So I think the population is something like, I know it’s about the same size as Australia in terms of population, but it’s a very tiny geographic area, and includes so much history and culture, arts, and amazing food.
Chris: Excellent. And we’re talking about the same island as Tokyo, but the other end of the island, the southern end of the island. Excellent, well why should someone go down to Kansai?
Amanda: Oh well, it’s almost impossible to know where to start because there are so, so many reasons. And just to give you a bit of background, I lived in Osaka in the Kansai region for a couple of years teaching English, so I fell in love with it completely then. And I’ve just come back from another week back there, so I tend to act a bit lyrical about it because it’s an amazing area.
But let me start with maybe the food, because it’s full of food that is, it’s typically Japanese but it’s not what you often get in a Japanese restaurant, I suspect not in North America, and definitely not in Australia where you’ll have your barely standard…you’ll have sushi and you’ll have some teriyaki food and a few other things. But Osaka and the Kansai region are famous for all kinds of extra foods. Often it’s a fairly casual kind of region compared to Tokyo, which I think prides itself on being more sort of efficient and business-like.
And so in Osaka, it’s often what they would think of as more of a snack food that is famous. And my favorite there is Okonomiyaki. It’s a bit of a mouth full, but it really means “as you like it,” and they often translate it as being a cabbage pancake, which is a terrible translation. It doesn’t particularly sound tasty. But it is made of a lot of cabbage and eggs and flour, and often pork or sometimes seafood. And it’s sort of made in the shape of a pancake. And it’s really hard to sell the taste just from the description alone. But they then smother it in the most amazing sauces and special Japanese mayonnaise, and kind of ground up green seaweed on top. And it is the most divine taste you will ever experience, I promise.
Chris: You had me sort of there, and then you got the seaweed in there.
Amanda: But it’s sort of a sweet tasting seaweed. You gotta trust me on this one. It actually tops it off just perfectly. And then they just, this might not entice you, but they put special dried tuna flakes on top, and the heat from the Okonomiyaki makes the flakes kind of dance around. It looks like it’s alive. So it’s a little bit confronting, but I promise you, when you ever get a chance to eat this, eat it and you will thank me for it.
Chris: While we’re talking food, other foods that you would recommend or particular places to go for food? I mean, you mentioned Kobe for instance, which a lot of people in the US will recognize Kobe beef. Although when I was in Japan, I understand it’s passé that there’s the other place that is even better, but…
Amanda: Well, I was in Kobe last week again as well, and I have to say they are still telling the Western tourists that we should definitely eat Kobe beef, the Wagyu beef, and I think you should too. We went to a couple of really amazing restaurants in Kobe, but I think there’s a whole host of them because if the Japanese make food, they do it properly. They always take…they do. Like compared to the haphazard way I made my son’s sandwich for lunch this morning, it’s just incredible. Whatever the Japanese are making, they make it with such love and care, and the presentation of the food is always amazing.
And I went to one of those Kobe beef restaurants where the chef is in front of you cooking your meat on the hot plate, in front of you with the most amazing care and precision. And if a drop of oil spatters in the wrong spot, it’s cleaned up immediately. And everything is perfect, and everything tastes incredible. So although it might be somewhat passé, it’s still amazingly delicious. So I would definitely recommend that.
Chris: Now I’m curious with that, since we’re talking about it, when I eat Kobe beef here, I have to stop by the bank on the way to take out a second mortgage. When I’m in Kobe, is it more or less expensive than what I’m used to?
Amanda: Actually, I think there’s probably a choice. You can probably, I went to somewhere that definitely you still need your second mortgage for, and there’s quite a few places where it’s not so bad. So Japan has this reputation of being extraordinarily expensive. But I don’t think it’s particularly justified. Now it’s a bit hard for me to compare to North American prices, but Australia itself has got so expensive in recent, in the recent sort of decade or so that prices were very comparable. And often eating in Japan was much cheaper than eating in Australia. And definitely the quality, although we have great restaurants and stuff here in Australia, but the quality and the presentation and the service in Japan just far surpassed it. So you might not need your second mortgage.
Chris: What I found when I was there is that it would surprise me. It wasn’t as expensive as I thought it was going to be. I’ll say that right up front. Because when I was there offseason, I was there in February, and I got, for instance, a nice although small Japanese size hotel room in Tokyo right near a subway stop for $50 a night. Now on season it would’ve been $100 a night, but that’s still not bad. You can’t touch some place like that in New York, for instance. And then food, I’m not a big sushi eater where you could easily go out and spend $50 per person on a sushi meal at a high end restaurant. But I was eating at rice bowls and things like that, and I was spending $5 a meal or something like that. So it really wasn’t that bad, but it does depend a lot on what you like.
Amanda: Absolutely. I think that you’ve touched on exactly the case is that you need to eat fairly locally and probably, yeah, fancy seafood and those really high end restaurants are gonna be expensive. But if you eat fairly local food, sort of street food so to speak, then I think you’re all right. I remember when I lived in Japan, I learned very quickly that if I was gonna keep up with my toast for breakfast, I was never going to be able to save even one Yen. And I switched to rice for breakfast, and I could buy a 10 kilo bag for not much, and it lasted me for months. So I think the more you can fit in the way the locals do things, then it becomes much more affordable there.
Chris: Now, you started as unusually with food. I think there might be some things to see also in the Kansai region.
Amanda: Yes, absolutely. There’s a plethora of things to see in the Kansai region. But I just, my stomach still misses Japan, so…
Chris: I figured that.
Amanda: I start with food.
Chris: What kind of itinerary would you recommend? Where would you start us in Kansai? We’re probably starting in Osaka or in Kyoto I’m guessing.
Amanda: Yes, so you can easily fly into the Kansai airport, which is closest to Osaka these days. So a lot of international flights fly directly into Kansai. You don’t necessarily have to go to Tokyo first. So either directly into Osaka, or what I did on my trip last week for the first time, is you can actually take a boat from the airport directly to Kobe, which was a really different way to do it, and avoided all the traffic.
Chris: Because the airport is on an island, as I recall, off the coast of Osaka.
Amanda: Yes, that’s right. It’s in sort of reclaimed land in the middle of the bay there. So yeah, so it’s sort of equidistant from Osaka city and Kobe city. And to Osaka, you need to drive…they have a limousine bus so the switch is really easy to use, and goes to all the central spots, or this boat directly to Kobe.
So if you have, say, a week there, I think…in fact, you could actually base yourself just in one place and take day trips to everywhere. Everything is very, very close. I think you wouldn’t go more than 50 kilometers, so what’s that, about 30 miles to be in any of the cities like. So if you’re based in Osaka, you can get out to Kobe, up to Kyoto, across to Nara, down to Saki, all of those places it’s definitely less than an hour on a train because of course the Japanese rail system is so efficient.
So if you’re the kind of person who likes to based just in one place, you wanna just unpack once, then that would be totally doable. Or you might wanna try a couple of different kind of spots. So maybe spend a couple of days in Kobe, a couple of days in Kyoto, and a couple of days maybe in Nara or Osaka. So it doesn’t really matter what order you do it all in. It’s all really close, and there’s just so much to see. But Kyoto and Nara, of course, famous as being ancient capitals of Japan. So they’re full of amazing temples, lot of kind of historical museums and cultural stuff, and just beautiful.
Nara is one of my favorite spots. I used to live quite close to the Nara Park, which is an enormous green park full of deer. The deer are very precious things up there. And I once met the deer keeper of Nara Park, and he could tell me all the details about how many there were, and the whole history of the…just very revered there. So they’re lovely.
Chris: Well, and when you see the deer, I think people get this impression when you think deer, I think shy, which is sort of unlike the Nara deer.
Amanda: Correct, yes, they are not shy deer.
Chris: They are very, very used to tourists. And if you bring out food, they will mob you.
Amanda: So yes. Listen to their warning on this, definitely. And they do sell special biscuits, hika senbei so the shika are the deer, so you can buy them and feed them to the deer instead of what you’re after. So actually it was in another part of Japan where I had a real run in with the deer. I was on Mia Jima, the island next to Hiroshima, and a deer put its head over my shoulder and actually tore my map out of my hands and ate my map, which was a much more serious issue because then I had some trouble getting around that day. So you do have to watch the deer in Japan. They are not shy. But they’re lovely and very photogenic, so I forgive them. But yeah, do watch your snacks.
Chris: Now, am I gonna find anything else at that park while I’m there?
Amanda: Yes you are, exactly. In Nara Park, you’ll find Todai-ji, which is an enormous temple. And inside is a giant Buddha. And I think they like to say the Buddha is the largest in the world, but I think correctly said, it’s the largest Buddha inside a building in the world. So really impressive, massive sculpture.
Chris: And I think it’s the largest wooden building in the world, as I recall.
Amanda: Oh yes, as well, yes. I think you’re right. The Todai-ji is the largest wooden building, yeah exactly right. Yeah, so Nara’s a beautiful area. Kyoto is full of all those famous temples that people either know about or have seen pictures of. And as you’ve probably visited as well, Chris, so like the Kinkaku-ji, the golden temple, or Kiyomizu-dera, which is a bit up in the hills and amazing at cherry blossom season. So it’s easy to find kind of the tourist route around Kyoto, or just simply wander. It’s an amazing town to wander through.
Chris: Well and you say temples, we really, when we’re there, we’re finding temples and shrines, so both Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines.
Chris: As well as a palace or two in that area.
Amanda: Yes, you’re quite right. That’s the thing. There’s so much to see up in Kyoto. Yeah, absolutely, and they’re also home to the Inari Shrine with the famous orange gates that you walk through to get there. That is a very photogenic place. So yeah, so much around…
Chris: Now you’re talking about the Fox Shrine with all of the Tory gates.
Amanda: Exactly, right, yeah.
Chris: Up on the hill. A wonderful, beautiful area. Yeah, that was one of my favorite places that I went to in Japan, I think, was that…
Amanda: Yeah, I think it’s the Fushimi Inari shrine, I think, yeah. It’s so beautiful. I love that orange color that they use on their shrines. It’s such a distinctive kind of color, and you’d think it would clash wildly with nature, but it actually just makes it beautiful.
Chris: Okay, where else would you take us in Kyoto? Let’s just focus on Kyoto here for a second.
Amanda: The Arashiyama Mountains, so that’s where you can walk up the mountain. It’s very beautiful in autumn, and at the top, there’s a colony of macaque monkeys. And it’s one of those unusual places where it’s not the monkeys who are caged, but the humans. So you kind of get to the top, run the gauntlet of the monkeys, and get into the building, which is like a cage. And then you can see the monkeys around you. And it’s one of those places where there’s a natural pond of some kind, and the monkeys will swim in there, which we often see pictures of them. And if it’s in the winter, you’ll see the monkeys jumping into the water, and coming out with snow on their heads, and pretty gorgeous spot to explore.
Chris: And this is the hot springs that the monkeys are jumping into is why they can do it in the winter, as I recall.
Amanda: Yes, exactly, yes that’s right.
Chris: Excellent, what else are we gonna see just focusing on Kyoto here for a second. You’re not gonna see everything there is to see in Kyoto on one trip.
Amanda: Absolutely not. No, and I think probably the other part of Kyoto that I like is the more modern part. So even Kyoto’s train station is incredible. I heard they’re renovating it at the moment, so I’m not exactly sure how it’s gonna turn out, but it’s one of those amazing modern architectural feats. It’s always like a really impressive place to arrive into. So Kyoto might be old and historical, but it doesn’t have just that.
So and apart from that, just walking the streets and you might be able to catch a maiko, like a trainee geisha, wandering around. There’s lots of kind of spots set up for tourists to experience something close to the geisha experience tea ceremony as well. Musical performances, the shamisen, and stuff like that.
Chris: The one other thing that I would have add, we talked about the palaces. So when I was there, I went to the Nijo Castle, which is where the Shogun ruled from in the time of the Emperor. But when the Emperor, his power had been taken over by the Shogun basically, and the old Kyoto Imperial Palace, which I think is still a place where the Emperor doesn’t reside normally, but comes and visits from time to time. So when we talked about this being an ancient city, this is the old city of the Emperor from…I’m looking at the thing here, from the 700s until the mid-1800s. And so for many, many years, this is where you came to see the empire, the Emperor rather.
Amanda: Yes, yes.
Chris: And before that, it was Nara. So that’s why Nara has so much, yeah.
Amanda: Yeah, yeah, yeah, exactly. They’re two really significant cities in Japan, and they’re both in that Kansai region. Although today, Tokyo kind of gets all the credit as being the center of things, really Kansai has been the center of things for a much longer period.
Chris: Right well, and I think basically what happened is the Shogun wanted to distance himself from the Emperor’s influence, and so he went up to Edo basically, which became Tokyo.
Chris: When I wanted to break the two apart, so we talked about Nara, and then we went back to Kyoto. I want to go back and finish Nara. We talked about the Buddha, we talked about the deer. I think there’s at least a couple other things… There’s a wonderful Shinto Shrine, the one with all the moss covered stone lanterns in Nara.
Amanda: Yes goodness, what’s that one called?
Amanda: Kasuga-taisha, yes, yes.
Chris: And I had to look this up, but that’s at the Kasuga grand shine, and I found that incredibly photogenic, and very interesting. And that’s also in Nara.
Amanda: Yes, you’re exactly right. And that’s a beautiful area. And like you said, very photogenic. I mean I think so many of the Japanese shrines and temples are extraordinarily photogenic, even just the roof lines or the ornaments hanging off. It’s just something’s that’s very different to our own cultures so, so much to enjoy there for sure.
Chris: Okay, anything else we wanna cover in Nara as long as we’re there?
Amanda: The only other thing I recommend is the Nara National Museum, which I haven’t been to recently, but when I did live nearby and visit, it was always worth a visit. It’s on the walk between the train station and the park anyway, so it was always somewhere sort of easy to drop into. Lots of Japanese art displays, and kind of just a nice cultural taste of things.
Chris: Excellent. So we’ve covered some of Kyoto and some of Nara, and a little bit of Kobe. Where do we wanna go next?
Amanda: Well probably right in the thick of things. You need to get into the center of Osaka. So it’s one of those cities that when you first arrive there, it seems just busy and very colorful and crazy. But it seems, a lot of people say to me, “Oh, why would you wanna go to Osaka? Wouldn’t you just wanna go to the other places that more people know about?” But I lived in Osaka for a while, so I got to know it. And last week when I returned, oh, it was like such a joyous homecoming. And so it’s a city that takes a little while to figure out what you’re gonna do there, but certainly the center part.
So there’s a bridge called the Dotonbori Bridge, and there’s all the famous neons there. So very famous neon advertising for the Glico Man, and all these other neon lights right nearby, which everyone will have seen that photo that’s the standard Osaka photo. And right around that point, there’s always so much happening, and especially at night time, it’s so atmospheric and so much going on.
From there, there’s lots and lots of amazing restaurants there. Probably many people have seen the photos of the restaurants with the mechanical crabs on top.
Chris: I honestly have not seen this mechanical crabs on top moving.
Amanda: Very gigantic crab, moving crabs, which advertise the fact that they’re crab restaurants. Maybe they’re only everyday to me because I used to live there, but a lot of the restaurants there will have these kind of giant, some kind of representation of the food that’s inside, decorations at the front, so that you can be quite sure what you’re getting yourself in for. So there’s probably hundreds of amazing restaurants along there. Some a little bit touristy, but most not.
Chris: And you say touristy, I think of the restaurant with the plastic food in the window so I can tell what I’m ordering. How do you tell a touristy restaurant in Osaka?
Amanda: Right, well actually I think the restaurants with the plastic food are not necessarily touristy. That’s just a kind of a Japanese custom…
Chris: Well that’s what I was wondering, yeah.
Amanda: The touristy restaurants will be the ones that say, that advertise with a lot of English, and they’ll say, “We have an English menu,” and trying to be helpful to tourists. And to be honest, I think most of them are still probably pretty good value, and not much different to where the locals are going as well. It’s not like in some countries where the touristy restaurants are kind of ripping you off and not providing the quality and service you’d expect. Because this is Japan, they do quality well. So I’m completely convinced.
Chris: Well, and I should say here in defense of Amanda, who I picked on for starting with food, is the nickname of Osaka is “the nation’s kitchen.”
Amanda: Because I love their food and they’re good at it.
Chris: You’re not the only person who, when they start with Osaka, starts with food, so I should really give you full credit there.
Amanda: Thank you very much. Yes, it is a very foody place. Yes, and we haven’t even got to the takoyaki, which these ubiquitous little snack stands around that sell, well literally translated they’re kind of octopus balls, but they’re pieces of octopus in a fried batter with an amazing sauce. The Japanese know how to do their sauces. So yeah, we have come back to food, and I didn’t necessarily mean to, but there’s just so much of it.
So in the center of Osaka, as well as eating, you can do other things. And although it sounds like a really girly thing to say, you might wanna go shopping in Osaka. Now I’m actually not a big shopper at all, and before I went on my most recent trip, I wrote a blog post about the things I was looking forward to most in Japan, and I said one of them was shopping. And I did say in that post, but I know anyone who knows me well will be shocked to hear that I wanna go shopping. It’s not my thing. But Japan is full of unique things that you just can’t buy elsewhere in the world. And one of my favorite things to do in Japan is to shop in their 100 Yen shops. So that I think around a dollar. And it’s not like the kind of shops…I assume you have the similar ones in North America…
Chris: Dollar stores, sure.
Amanda: Here in Australia, we have…well we have $2 shops because everything expensive here. But in our $2 shops, a lot of the products are really rubbishy, very, very low quality. Whatever you buy breaks the next day. But in Japan, the products you’ll buy in their 100 Yen shops are often very, very high quality. They’re often made by the same manufacturers that are making the more expensive products as well, and they just have a kind of a 100 Yen version. And you can get everything. You can kit out your kitchen. You can get your amazing like Japanese ceramics or pottery. I brought home a few new teacups and some breakfast bowls, and with really intricate Japanese patterns on, and those typical colors. And the 100 Yen shops, and other kind of shopping around that Osaka area, the central Osaka area, are just fabulous.
I do recommend the shopping even if you’re not really a shopper. It’s worth a look because you can also find really intriguing things that you just wouldn’t imagine exist. So always worth a look.
Chris: Are there other places you would go shopping besides the 100 Yen stores? Are there markets or things like that that you enjoy?
Amanda: Absolutely. So right next to the Dotonbori Bridge, along that area, there’s quite a few shopping streets, I suppose they would be. So they’re kind of undercover. Mall is the wrong word, but they’re…Shinsaibashi is one and I think it’s Edisubashi, something similar to that. And they have just store after store. Some of them are more like proper shops, and some are more like stalls. Like they have an area where there’s shop after shop of restaurant supplies. And that includes the shops with all the plastic food. So you can go and see where the restaurants buy their plastic food to put in the window, and buy some plastic food yourself if you so desire because it’s quite a Japanese specialty.
So there’s those kind of places. There’s all these market stalls selling fabric. So you can imagine you need crafty person who wants to indulge in some beautiful Japanese fabrics. They’re all there. There’s always the shops with all the cute stuff. Japanese people, adult and child alike, they love their cute. So there’s shop after shop selling Hello Kitty, or any of those kind of cartoon characters that the Japanese people adore. I admit to bringing home some Hello Kitty calendars and the like, so there’s so much, anything you can imagine.
Chris: I don’t know if people can possibly imagine how popular Hello Kitty is in the region too. I know when, I can’t think of which airline had a Hello Kitty branded plane, or has a Hello Kitty branded plane. And they have to…
Amanda: Correct, it’s ANA
Chris: Is it ANA? All Nippon Airways? And they have to produce like twice as many things for that plane because people take stuff all the time, looking for souvenirs for it. You know, I must have learned this when I was in the ANA press strip. So that makes perfect sense. But it’s a huge, huge thing. And not just with little girls, right? With the collectors of all ages.
Amanda: Yeah, absolutely. The Japanese don’t seem to have this notion that we do that cartoon characters and the like are for kids alone. They kind of embrace that inner child for their whole lifetimes. And I think that’s wonderful. I remember when I lived in Japan, I had to take out a bank account to get my pay put into. And the bank card and the bank book I was given had Snoopy and all the Peanuts characters all over it. It’s normal.
Chris: Excellent, excellent.
Amanda: Yeah, so the Japanese love of cute is strong. If you get finished with the center of Osaka, which is something that can take you a day or two to process, I think, because there’s so much to see and do there, then within the greater area of Osaka, there’s a couple of things that I highly recommend.
Chris: Before we go outside, there’s a couple things that you skipped that are on my list of…I haven’t been to Osaka, but for instance, the Osaka Castle is one of the things…Oh okay, I thought that was in the center. I’m sorry. Go right ahead.
Amanda: Not as central as Mitosuji and the Dotonbori Bridge. So yes, so Osaka Castle is perhaps a 15 minute train ride from the center. And some people have said to me, “It’s not a real castle because it’s completely rebuilt.” And they don’t think it counts. But I think it absolutely counts because it’s been rebuilt quite faithfully, apart from the addition of a lift. But that’s very useful for people who need to get to the top.
Chris: But when you say it’s a castle, I don’t think people who haven’t been to Japan have the same picture of what a castle is as the Japanese do. For one thing, anybody who is sort of European focused, castles are made of what? They’re made of stone.
Amanda: Yes, good point. So…
Chris: Japanese castles, there’s only eight left because they’re made of wood.
Amanda: Yes, and they burnt down. Yes, there’s a lot of interesting history behind the Japanese castles, and it is a sad but true thing that most of them don’t exist in their original forms anymore. But they have such a beautiful shape. They have like the flowing kind of multi-roof. It’s almost like a pagoda kind of style, and the one in Osaka is similar to other ones in, like Himeji Castle is very famous. Sort of the white walls with the green flowing pagoda style rooves. And it’s just so picturesque. Osaka Castle itself is in the middle of a very large park called Osaka Castle Park, pretty logical name. And Osaka Castle Park itself is well worth spending some time there. You can just stroll around and there’s various spots to eat.
The Japanese love to treat their pet dogs very, very well. And I saw a lady who had a bicycle, Japanese also love to use their bicycles, and she had a smallish dog with her. And she’d taken him for a walk around the castle grounds, and then took him over to a tap, carefully washed off his feet very nicely, and then she carried him to her bike. And first of all, she tried to strap him into the basket on the back, which is obviously designed to be a good dog carrier, but he protested a little against that, so he apparently didn’t wanna be strapped into the basket at this time. And so she brought out this special harness, like people use to harness a baby to carry in front of them, and she had a dog harness. And so she harnessed her dog in, so he’s kind of hanging in front of her chest. And then off she rode, and the dog was happy.
And that kind of thing is what I love in Japan. You can do a lot of people watching around Osaka Castle Park because it’s kind of a real therapy where people will go out to get fresh air, to go for a walk, to go for a ride. Yeah, it’s a beautiful area. It also has a very large hall where events take place. For example, when I lived there, I went to the hall there several times to see a sumo wrestling tournament. And if you do arrive in Osaka at sumo time, it’s well worth finding a ticket because that’s an experience you’ll never forget either.
Chris: Excellent, yeah. Now I have not done the sumo wrestling thing. I’ve seen it on TV, but I imagine it’s quite different where you can feel the place vibrate as one of these very large gentlemen hits the ground for instance.
Amanda: Absolutely, yes. When I was there last week, a Japanese person I was chatting to was saying, “You must never, never sit in the front row. Have you seen how large those men are? And sometimes, they fall out.” And I said, “Yes, I think you’re right.”
Chris: Well that’s the whole point is you’re supposed to throw them out of the ring, right? So sometimes it’s successful, yeah.
Amanda: But I think she was right, and you probably don’t want them to land on you, because that would not be well…The other thing you can do near Osaka Park is, Osaka Castle Park, is take the aquiliner, so it’s kind of a canal boat. Actually, it reminds me a lot of the kind of canal boats you’d ride in Amsterdam. You can take a cruise on that, which gives you a different view to Osaka. I’d never done it before, but on my last trip I did. And it was interesting to see Osaka from below, sort of to see the big skyscrapers rising up from the water. And I was there during their autumn, so the beautiful fall leaves were out, and it was a really picturesque way to spend the early evening.
Chris: Anything else that you would recommend in Osaka?
Amanda: Well there’s one more area which is, while it’s sort of touristy, it’s also actually quite lovely. So on the harbor, slightly south of the center, they’ve got a very large aquarium. So it’s the Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan. And I visited it several times when I lived there, and again, I was there last week. I visited a number of aquariums around the world, but this one seems to be organized in a really interesting way. So when you arrive, you go up a couple of escalators to get to the very top. And the for the rest of your visit, you spend sort of winding down a spiraling path inside the building, and seeing various kind of levels of the ocean on the way.
So at the very top it’s got animals that live above the ocean, but near the ocean, like otters and stuff like that. And then as you go down, you get deeper and deeper until you get right to the bottom, which is like deep ocean floor sort of style, and they have these really scary giant spider crabs wandering around in the water there. And in between, there’s whale sharks, there’s penguins. It’s a really extensive aquarium. And yeah, I think really well done and interesting to see. And it’s located at this area called Tempozan, which also includes a really enormous Ferris wheel, which actually someone told me last week, when they built it, I think for just a matter of days, it was the largest Ferris wheel in the world. And then somewhere overtook it too quickly. But it is an enormous one, and you can have amazing views of Osaka, especially if like a clear weather day, then it’s a lovely spot, and a big shopping mall and stuff there.
But it’s kind of a day out from if you’re a bit overwhelmed with being in the real busy, busy city, then coming down to the aquarium in Tempozan is a good kind of place to pop out for a while. And not far from there is Universal Studios Japan. So if you’re a theme park lover, then…
Chris: Didn’t know there was such a thing.
Amanda: Yes, well actually it opened now 15 years ago, because they’re celebrating their 15th anniversary. So actually the month before I arrived in Japan, it opened. So all my…I was teaching English at first, and all my students were talking about USJ, USJ for months and months and months. So and I always maintain that if you’re gonna go to a theme park, a Japanese version is a really good one to go to. It’s a really calm way to explore a theme park.
Chris: Excellent. One of the other things that I’m interested in seeing in Osaka, I haven’t been there obviously, is the, and I don’t know if I’m gonna get the pronunciation right, the Shitennoji Temple?
Amanda: Shitennoji, yeah.
Chris: Which is the first of its kind temple in Japan from the 500s, almost 600 AD. So when Buddhism first comes into Japan, there’s this temple here and it’s one of those pagoda style temples with the five levels and things like that. But as a history buff, that’s some place that is on my list I think.
Amanda: Yeah, absolutely. I’d forgotten about Shitennoji Temple, but yeah. It’s definitely worth a visit as well. Oh, there’s so many around there. And the good part about Osaka and the Kansai region is everything’s really accessible by train. I mean, that’s probably true of most of Japan, but there’s so much in a small area, and as long as you can navigate your way around on the trains pretty successfully, then there’s just everything at your feet.
Chris: Right, right. Well you mentioned something about early on talking about the population density compared, for instance, to Australia. And just to put it in terms for those from the US, picture a country that’s a little smaller than California, but with a little more than three times the population of California. California in places is fairly densely populated, and Japan is more than three times as densely populated.
Amanda: And even more than that it feels because a lot of Japan is quite mountainous. And so everyone is really crushed into these small areas. Even in the Kansai region, there’s still like some mountain ranges running through the middle of it, like between Osaka city and Nara. There’s all these Ikoma Mountains coming through. So there’s a lot of that area which isn’t habitable, so they’ve got even more dense accommodation there, so…
Chris: Well in fact, Osaka itself means big hill, something like that?
Amanda: And when you get to Kobe, there’s mountains in the way there, so everyone sort of crams into a really small space. It’s funny, when I was there last week, as you travel on the train, you look outside the train, and you can just see massive apartment building after massive apartment building. And I was kind of looking at with the eyes, trying to imagine what it’d be like to be there for the first time. And from that view, it kind of looks like they don’t look very special from the outside. A lot of the building are old and worn, but I know from experience, that as soon as you walk inside those apartments, they’ve taken such good care of them, and they care so much about the presentation that they’re beautiful living spaces. Small, but beautiful living spaces. So it’s a really intriguing country in terms of how the people live and how small a space they manage to turn into a useful space.
Chris: Well and I was…I’ve been looking up for this fact for a while since we were talking about Kyoto, and we’re gonna have mentioned every Buddhist temple or Shinto shrine in any of these cities. But here’s a good defense of why we didn’t. Kyoto has 1,600 Buddhist temples and 400 Shinto shrines. So you won’t see them all on your trip, nor should you try.
Amanda: I think probably nobody has seen them all. That’s incredible, isn’t it? And it just goes to show, you can just wander the streets, and you will find these places everywhere.
Chris: Well and some of them, obviously, are going to be these fascinating large ones, and some are gonna be very neighborhood, very small things. So they’re not equally grand by mention. But look, if you’re going to go, look for a list of maybe the top 10 shrines to see in Kyoto or in Osaka, or something like that. Yeah, just more than that is going to be a little overkill.
Amanda: Definitely, definitely.
Chris: Anything we wanna do in Osaka?
Amanda: Now, the only other part of Osaka, but recently became a city in its own right, so in the southern end of Osaka. When I lived there it was just kind of part of Osaka, but now Sakai city is its own. So Sakai, S-A-K-I, city is kind of a growing area. They’ve got a really large collection of these vast Emperor’s burial mounds, so what they are is actually, they look like islands of grass, like of a grassy hill with a moat around them. So obviously very old, and Emperors were buried in them, and then they grow over. And that way, they often have these kind of keyhole shape and stuff. And at the moment, they’re in the process of getting…I can’t remember how many they have. It’s a large of number of these burial mounds, and they’re trying to get them World Heritage listed. And it looks like that might happen.
So Sakai city is perhaps one of those up and coming destinations where people don’t know about it yet, but they will be on the map soon. So they’ve been doing lots of things to try and encourage more foreign visitors to come down to Sakai. It’s also, it’s particularly famous for metalcraft. For example, very high quality knives are made in Sakai, a lot of…not being much of a chef myself, I didn’t know this. But they say that a lot of world class chefs use knives that have been manufactured in Sakai. So they have like a big knife, I guess translated would be a blade museum. So they have like scissors and other things that they…swords as well, that have been handcrafted in Sakai. And you can go and see like forges at work who are making the knives and stuff like that. So that’s kind of an interesting part of southern Osaka, which is now being called on its own Sakai city.
Chris: Well and you mentioned, UNESCO World Heritage sites, what we didn’t say, but people probably guessed from what we were saying is that large portions of both Nara and Kyoto, because of the historic significance, are formed in I believe three different UNESCO World Heritage sites. There is the temples of Nara and the temples and shrines of Kyoto, where monuments of ancient Kyoto and then the monuments of ancient Nara, and then I believe also the Horyu-ji temples, which is in Nara, is its own separate UNESCO World Heritage sites. So there’s…
Amanda: Yeah, that’s right, yeah.
Chris: Yeah, number in the region. I’m not sure why it wasn’t ancient enough to be…
Amanda: Yes, I don’t know why it wasn’t included in the other ones, yes.
Chris: Why if it’s a special mention, but yes.
Amanda: Yeah, so I can’t explain that either. Definitely World Heritage galore in the Kansai region.
Chris: Right, absolutely. Anything else we wanna talk about things to see before we get to some of the wrap up questions?
Amanda: Well let me just quickly take us around the bay to Kobe, because Kobe is another amazing city in the Kansai region. Probably a lot of Westerners know it because of its terrible earthquake in 1995, and partly because of that, it’s sort of a different city to the others in Kansai. So it’s less than an hour from Osaka. I think probably 40 minutes on the train. And because of that earthquake, a large portion of the city center has been rebuilt. So it looks very, very modern throughout. It’s a very, very clean and organized city. And it’s also home to like lots of really big fashion labels, and it quite a kind of, I guess, a high class kind of atmosphere there.
Also we’d already talked about home to Kobe beef. But what people don’t often realize about Kobe, all the extra things you can do there is it’s bordered on its northern side by mountains, and there’s lots of things to do up in the mountains. There’s several different like ropeway, cable car ways to get up into the mountains. And once you get there, there’s parks, there’s various museums, art galleries. A little bit beyond that, a bunch of onsens. So there’s Arima Onsen is an onsen town where you can go and indulge in some beautiful hot baths.
Chris: And an onsen being a Japanese style in around a hot bath typically.
Amanda: Yes, exactly right. So often you’ll be up to also get a really beautiful meal there as well, yeah.
Chris: But don’t expect a bed in your room. Expect a mat. This is Japanese style.
Amanda: That’s very true. If you’re staying in like a ryokan or an onsen resort, then generally you’ll have a room that looks empty when you walk in, an unfurnished room, and you’ll have a futon. So yes, a fold out mattress probably stored in a cupboard. Sometimes in some of those places, they’ll serve you your beautiful meal in your room. You might have like a kiseki meal, like a very upper class fancy meal with lots of different dishes, and just looks beautiful. And they’ll come and set up a low table and some cushions for you to sit on to eat. And then after dinner, that will disappear, and then you can pull out your futon mattresses and sleep in the same place that you ate your dinner.
Chris: And I should say just because someone’s gonna write in and tell us we have actually left the Kansai region when we talk about Kobe, but you’re in the neighborhood.
Amanda: Yes, I think most people want to lump it in because it’s so very, very close.
Chris: Right, right.
Amanda: Yes, and you can get there directly from the airport so it’s pretty handy. So beyond that, the thing that fascinates me always when I visit Kobe is the earthquake museum there. In Japan, that was known as the Great Hanshin Awaji earthquake rather than just the Kobe earthquake. And so they have the Hanshin Awaji Earthquake Memorial Museum. And it’s a really impressive, in two ways, kind of museum. Like it’s impressive as it’s well built and it’s an impressive structure. And the contents are really, well for me, as someone coming from an area where they’re just simply are never any earthquakes, then it was quite a confronting and quite a scary place to visit. A lot of scary experiences that are reenacted there.
But the main purpose of it is they say to make people be more aware and prepared so that the next time there’s such an earthquake, the damage is less, and people are more prepared to deal with it.
Chris: If someone has been to, let’s say they’ve been to Tokyo before. They’ve been to Japan before. What’s gonna surprise them when they get down here to Kansai?
Amanda: The biggest difference that, certainly the Japanese people always told me about, and I tend to agree, is that in Kansai it’s much more casual. Kansai is famous for producing all the Japanese comedians. It’s a much more relaxed kind of attitude. And they think Tokyo people are always too busy and too formal, and everything. So although it’s still very Japanese and ritualistic and formal compared to the Western world, it’s more relaxed and more sort of happy-go-lucky than Tokyo. And there’s another whole new range of foods to discover in the Kansai region as well.
Chris: It is amazing to me the number of countries where relaxed is in the south, and hard and busy is in the north. I think of Italy, and Germany, and Japan, and to some extent the United States, so it’s kind of funny that way.
Amanda: Interesting, yeah.
Chris: It gets warmer, people slow down. That’s the other thing. Any recommendations in terms of places to stay?
Amanda: Well I personally think that the best way to experience Japan properly is to try as many ryokans as possible, so the local kinds of inns. Also I think it’s worth when you’re Osaka, spending a night in the really center, in the number area right near the Dotonbori Bridge. There’s quite a lot of small hotels there that are sort of basically Western style. Interestingly, if you get down the theme park end, I got to stay in a couple of the Universal Studios hotels on this trip, and they were amazing. So I have to say I was really impressed with that whole area. It was a really welcoming kind of area, and lots of amazing Japanese food there. In fact, in the, it’s called Universal City, the area next to Universal Studios, and they have what has been recognized as the number one okonomiyaki restaurant in Osaka. That was a big call, and I did eat it, and it was amazing. But I can’t be sure it’s the best one because I need to go back and try all of them to be sure.
Chris: Any warning you would give? One thing you really need to know before you come to this region.
Amanda: I think probably just what applies to all of Japan is that although the people are amazing, and helpful, and kind, a lot of them are really reluctant to try to speak English. And sometimes that does make it a little bit hard to get around. If you get lost, it’s easy to get lost in Japan because addresses are not kind of logical, and it’s not always easy to figure out where they’re going.
Chris: They’re very logical. They’re the order that the houses were built, which is not as useful for actually navigating, but you can’t say it’s illogical.
Amanda: True, okay.
Chris: We should say also that they’re numbered by the block, not the street. You get the block and then the house number, and so it’s not the same as saying, “I need to go up this street.” So they work very differently and in a way that I can’t imagine thinking that was a good idea, but…
Amanda: I know, I know. The Japanese are so clever at lots of things, but addresses they really didn’t get right, I don’t think. So it’s easy to get lost in Japan, and it’s easy to experience some kind of language barrier, I think.
Chris: I think it’s a really good place to have a data coverage and a smartphone.
Amanda: Yes, absolutely. I was just gonna say that these days, if you have…because when I lived there 15 years ago of course, this didn’t exist, so it was a lot trickier. But these days, yes, make sure you’ve got some internet access going on so that you can have half a chance of finding where you’re going. I mean, I say that wherever you go, but in Japan particularly, really try to learn a few phrases so that you can start a conversation with someone in Japanese because a lot of them do speak quite decent English, but they’re very, very worried about making mistakes or saying something wrong. So it’s really useful if you can stumble through some Japanese first, and then they might feel more comfortable about trying their English with you, and they can help you out.
Chris: You’re standing in the prettiest spot of all of Kansai. Where are you standing and what are you looking at?
Amanda: Oh, there’s so many. It’s very, very difficult to choose. So I’m actually gonna cheat a little bit and say the prettiest part from my most recent trip, the Arima Onsen. In fact, I wasn’t standing. I was sitting in the hot spring enjoying this amazing beautiful bath. And the view out of the window at the bath at the onsen was across the mountains, and it was autumn, and you could see a little winding path, but fortunately no one could see back into us. That always worries me in those places. And just that perfect, perfect view over all those autumn leaves. And I’m always amazed in Japan, you can be half an hour early. You can be in the most crazy wild skyscraper area, and then half an hour later, you’re in somewhere where you can just see just beautiful views like that. And I think that’s one of the most magical parts of Japan, that there’s so much in a small area, and you just have to know where to look.
Chris: Excellent. One thing that makes you laugh and say, “Only in Kansai.”
Amanda: To be fair, this is not specifically to Kansai, but it makes me laugh the most there because that’s where I spent so much time in Japan. And it’s the toilets because the typical toilet wherever you got, probably in all of Japan, but in my experience in Kansai, is something that it looks like you need a post graduate degree to operate because there’s all these buttons. There’s this whole panel of different things you can wash, or do, or spray, or I don’t know. And there’s a little button to make some music so that no one hears your business as you do it, and all kinds of things like that. And every time I see them, I do laugh, and I despair at myself for being unable to use them.
Chris: Well and the biggest difference, obviously, for those people who aren’t aware of a Japanese toilet is that it also is washing you up afterwards, after your business is done, and drying you, and…
Amanda: If you know the right buttons to push…
Chris: If you know the right buttons to press, yeah. Well, that was actually one of the fun things for me. I flew over on ANA Airlines when I was in Japan because, as I mentioned, I was on a press trip there a few years back. And not only did they have, of course, a Japanese toilet in the restroom. It was a 787 with the larger windows, and there was a window in the restroom, so it was on the plane. So that was a double strange experience. Finish this sentence, “You really know you’re in Kansai when…” what?
Amanda: When you can smell the okonomiyaki because those restaurants you walk by, and you get a whiff of this amazing, I know it sounds unappetizing when I say cabbage, but you get a whiff of this amazing mix of cabbage and egg, and their sauces. And ah, you just know that you need to devour that okonomiyaki straight away.
Chris: Excellent. And if you had to summarize Kansai in just three words, what three words would you use?
Amanda: Picturesque, vibrant, and polite.
Chris: Excellent. I should mention just because I would be remiss if I didn’t, if we have encouraged you that you might be interested in coming to Kansai, one of the two Amateur Traveler trips in 2017 includes not all of what we’ve talked about, but does include Kyoto and Nara, or does include the Kyoto region. And I’m planning on getting over to Nara, and you could come with. So which is, as I said, just an amazing, amazing place, so a wonderful place. Amanda, where can people read more about your travels or hear more about your travels?
Amanda: Well yes, if you can read more about my travels at notaballerina.com, and you can hear all about them at The Thoughtful Travel podcast.
Chris: Now I let you get by with notaballerina.com at the front of the show because I didn’t want to get into it. Is there a reason we would’ve suspected you were a ballerina?
Amanda: Sadly, no. I don’t think I have the physique of a ballerina. And if you saw me out at a nightclub dancing, you would know that I don’t have any sort of semblance of rhythm or anything. The name of the blog comes from something my grandmother said when I was about three. And I was, as a three year old, I was dancing around in front of the TV, not with any particular style, I’m sure. And she said to me, “Oh Amanda, maybe when you grow up, you can be a ballerina.” And I apparently, angrily said to her, “No, I’m going to be writer.” So when I started writing my blog, it got the name Not A Ballerina. And that was 11 years ago, and nobody had mentioned to me then that it was perhaps a weird title. And for the first four or five years, I got lot of Google search traffic to things like Ballerina Moscow, or Ballet Dancer in Tunisia, and weird search traffic that didn’t find what they were looking for.
But thankfully now, Google has caught up with the world, and they understand it’s a travel blog. I don’t get that ballerina traffic anymore.
Chris: Amanda, thanks so much for coming on the Amateur Traveler and sharing with us your love for Japan, and particularly, for Kansai.
Amanda: Thank you so much for having me, Chris.
Chris: In news, a community I heard this week from Cindy who wrote about the episode we did recently on North Dakota. Just thought I’d give you a few more reasons to visit North Dakota, and return to Minnesota too, of course. While the Plains Art Museum isn’t the Louvre, you’ll leave the Plains Museum understanding Fargo a little better. The Louvre is great, but it doesn’t really help you understand Paris. The Plains Art Museum does some lovely shows.
Also since you seemed to like Stave Churches, you should know that there’s a full sized replica of one in Morehead. Okay, it’s not North Dakota, but the church is by the river, so you can see it from North Dakota. And if you cross the river into Minnesota, you can tour it, as well as a homemade Viking ship a college friend sailed to Norway one summer many years ago.
Thanks so much Cindy. With that, we’re gonna end this episode of the Amateur Traveler. If you have any questions, send an email to host at amateurtraveler.com, or you could even just use the button on the website to contact me as Cindy did. Or you can join the conversation about the episodes as they come out on the Facebook group, facebook.com/amateurtraveler. And again, my thanks Jay Way Travel for sponsoring the transcript of this episode, as well as many, many other episodes of Amateur Traveler. Jay Way is the experts in Eastern European travel. And if you wanna hear my personal experience with them, go to the show we did recently on Croatia. And again, thank so much for listening.
Transcription sponsored by JayWay Travel, specialists in Central & Eastern Europe custom tours.