Finally, the SE Asia leg of our journey has come to an end. We are very sad, it's been a great few months there, but also we have the excitement that comes with going to somewhere very different. We are now in Osaka, Japan, and it's quite a change of pace. The first thing we noticed was that we didn't get mobbed for a Taxi as we left the airport. What no tuk-tuk!? No hoard to fight through!? no-one trying to clean our shoes!? Quite a contrast to SE Asia....I kind of miss it (almost).
You might expect when going to Japan to be in luxury compared to SE Asia or South America, after all it's an affluent country, but for us quite the opposite is true. In SE Asia, we could find pretty luxurious "flash packer" hotels for not much money at all, but in Japan accomodation is inredibly expensive. Even hostels are around $25 per person per night (our last hotel in Vietnam was luxurious and since we shared a room we only paid $9 each).
We arrived past midnight in Osaka airport, and much to our dismay the metro had stopped running by then. We got the last "limousine" bus from the airport to Namba station in the centre of Osaka luckily. It was around $12 each (that would get you half-way across Vietnam I thought....I need to get used to these prices). Since the metro had now shut, we also had to get a Taxi from Namba to our hostel, near the dobutsuen-mae metro station. Luckily, we had no problem finding one despite it being nearly 1.30am at this point. The taxi driver was incredibly honest as we waved our newly withdrawn Yen around and asked how much...he really could have told us anything, but he even gave us change saying "too much, too much". The taxi cabs here are really interesting. Almost old fashioned with the net throws over the seats, and our taxi driver was fully suited and waistcoated, playing old American 50's music in his cab. We finally got to Hotel Chuo by about 2am. Thankfully it wasn't too late to check in, and we were extremely glad to sleep. Hotel Chuo is a very good hostel by the way; everything is really clean, it's quiet, there are lots of free things like coffee and shampoo, and the staff seemed very friendly.
The next day we set out bright and early (there's really not much choice Japan, most hotels/hostels have checkouts of around 9am-10am!), and we bought a metro day pass for Y800. The metro wasn't too hard to navigate. Before we came, we were worried that all the signs and stops would be in Japanese only, but in fact there are English station names and signs just about everywhere.
Our first stop was Osaka's most famous tourist destination, Osaka Castle. This castle was built by Toyotomi Hideyoshi in the 16th century, was burned down, restored, struck by lightning and then finally restored again. You can take an elevator to the top level and get a good skyline view of Osaka. The lower levels detail Toyotami Hideyoshi's life and his conflicts with Tokugawa, a neighbouring shogun. There are also Samurai swords and traditional armour. The grounds of the castle are also beautiful, but it's a shame we were not there when the famous cherry blossom was blooming.
Next we headed for lunch at one of the famed MOS Burger joints. It was definitely tastier than McDonalds, and quite a cheap lunch in an expensive city like this.
Afterwards we swung by one of the Yodobashi stores as we wanted to get Japanese SIM cards so we had some data during our stay in Japan. These stores are huge electrical retail outlets with multiple floors and seemingly endless aisles. You could probably buy just about anything electrical in here. The best guide for SIM cards abroad is this one in case you are in need of one. I got the So-net SIM with 3gig and 60 days to use it. I'm hoping the WiFi in Japan will be good enough to not need to use it much, but it's good to have as a fallback. By the way, you need to configure the APN for these SIMs, they not just as simple as plugging into the SIM slot and turning on your phone.
Next, we had read about the Osaka owl cafe, where you can pet owls as you sip your coffee. I thought this would be a suitably quirky Japanese experience, so off we headed in search of it. Unfortunately it was closed when we arrived, but instead we found ourselves in the middle of a parade, so we got another interesting Japanese experience instead.
Tired after the day before's long haul flights and in need of a caffeine boost. I bought a drink named "Strong Zero". To me it seemed to be branded as an energy drink, but I should have looked closer. It was a 9% alcolohic drink, similar to a gin and tonic. Certainly, woke me up a bit anyway. We had a walk around a supermarket, and gawked at the weird items for sale that we couldn't make head nor tail of (much to the amusement of a old Japanese lady walking by seeing us picking up and intensely staring at a packet of something or other), then we went back to the hostel to relax for a bit.
During the evening we went to the Dotonbori district. This place is a neon jungle with some of the neon signs being very iconic in Japan such as the glico running man. We found a little restaurant and tried Okonomiyaki and Tako Yaki for the first time. The Tako Yaki in particular was absolutely delicious. If you've never tried it, they are balls stuffed with cheese and octopus/squid. The okonomiyaki is nice too, and it was served on a hot plate built into the table. I'm sure I'll be eating lots of both over the next month!