✍️: Erin 📸: Jan & Erin
Imagine a Las Vegas casino meeting Pokemon on steroids in an IMAX theater. Then crowds of people, seemingly oblivious to the aural abuse, quietly weaving around each other and occasionally stopping to look at frying, fragrant seafood. Or maybe a purse or socks.
This goes on for blocks, in all directions, in one of the open-air street markets in Osaka, a port city of nearly 2 million people on Japan’s Pacific coast. But then, suddenly, a tourist’s reprieve.
Between the multi-story electronics shop and pharmacy, both buildings dripping with neon-lights and high-pitched radio advertisements on loop, there’s a dark alleyway.
The cobblestone street is an entryway into a maze of hole-in-the-wall noodle shops, centuries-old stone shrines, and dimly lit shops specializing in tea dishes or umbrellas.
Follow a faint drum beat, and you may happen upon a religious ceremony.
Add a maddening lack of jaywalking and a tiny hostel — with drawer-sized beds — and the city offers a solid introduction to traveling in urban Japan.
First stop: Osaka, Japan
Osaka, located roughly 300 miles west of Tokyo, marks the first stop on our international journey. We didn’t know what to expect, in part because we didn’t do much research ahead of landing at the airport.
But we soon became a bit numb to the noise and more attune to the aromas and friendly smiles inside all those vendors’ shops. We only spent three days in Osaka during our two and a half weeks in Japan, but we’re glad we fit it in.
Among the highlights:
- The food! Ramen shops around every corner, some offering tickets through vending machines with pictures of what you’re ordering. For $4, some of the best ramen I’ve ever had.
Tip: Don’t miss the takoyaki, which is essentially batter filled with diced octopus, onion and spices that bakes as it’s rolled around in half-sphere molds. Crispy on the outside, gooey on the inside. (Check out the video above.)
- Learning how to say “thank you,” in the mouthful that is “Arigatou gozaimas.” Add in a “Jā matane!” (See you later!), and the whole restaurant will pause before lighting up in smiles and waves (likely thanks to my total mispronunciation).
- Again, the alleyways. It was almost jarring how quickly the noise and neon-lights faded when you stepped into the narrow streets. A few lanterns and chest-length drapes hid small restaurants. Couples surrounded by tea sets nodded and smiled if they noticed us walking by. I could spend days just walking the side streets.
- Did I mention the food? Chocolate croissants! Maybe it was because we’d been eating fish for breakfast for three days, but biting into a warm “choco” croissant at a local bakery nearly made me cry. World-slowing. Blissful. Chocolate-and-butter-is-in-my-mouth happiness.
Thinking about visiting Japan?
We learned a few things the hard way and a lot of things from other travelers. Check out some of those tips here about how to plan and things to consider before you go.
Tip: Check to see if any major meetings of world leaders may be happening while you’re there. Perhaps … the G20.
Yup, we were in Osaka on the same weekend as government leaders from around the world. And it turns out that amazing places like Osaka Castle — one of Japan’s most famous landmarks — are blocked off to anyone who isn’t a head of state.