#68 Osaka Aquarium

Ticket

Your family is coming to visit you in Japan. They don’t speak any Japanese, and they’re not that interested in high Japanese culture (theatre, museums etc.), so where do you take them?

I found myself in this situation two years ago when my brother and sister came to visit me in Japan on my year abroad. More recently, my partner and I were going to Osaka together for the first time. I needed to find something that would be impressive, inexpensive and fun to do.

Enter the Osaka Kaiyukan, one of the biggest aquariums in the world.

Aquarium entrance

It’s easy to get to, absolutely huge, and a super fun to spend the day. I mean, who wouldn’t be charmed by the cuteness of huddling penguins, the laziness of the big fat seals, the clever dolphins, or the big ass whales!

 

Penguin

 

Seal

 

Huddling penguins

There are also giant crabs bigger than a fully grown man, adorable capybara (what they’re doing in an aquarium is beyond me, but who cares) and mesmerising glowing jellyfish. What’s not to love?

Jellyfish that looks like a flame underwater

Turtle

As you walk around, you’ll probably hear the word ‘kawaii‘ approximately 400 million times, or ‘dekai!’ exclaimed every other step as you walk around the enormous central tank.

Capybara (like a giant guinea pig)

The variety of things to see is well worth the visit. I would recommend carving out at least half a day to explore the aquarium, and the shopping town built next to it.

Giant king crab

The last time I went, we grabbed a bargain by getting the ‘Osaka Kaiyu Ticket’ which combines the price of entrance with unlimited travel around Osaka on the subway, bus, and trams.

Glowing jellyfish

Before you leave, you can have a go at touching sharks with your hands (seriously). Anyone can have a go (Japanese people are very trusting – this kind of thing would not work in London zoo) and they assured us it’s perfectly safe.

Me looking like a badass, shaking like a leaf wondering if sharks can detect fear…?

There’s so much to see that you’ll probably run out of energy walking around the place before you get bored. Even though the place is huge, it gets pretty busy during holiday times, so if you can help it, the best time to go is on a weekday during school time.

Have you every been to the Osaka Kaiyukan before? Let me know what you think!

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#84 Karaoke

Who knew that some of the best lessons in life can be learned in a karaoke room?

As year abroad students with little to lose and and not experienced enough yet to be afraid of hangovers, we were amazed by the prospect of all-you-can-drink (nomihoudai) for the equivilant of about $15.

So we used to go out to various Japanese bars (izakaya) to order as many drinks as we could stomach within two hours (which, it turns out, when you have a bunch of foreigners including Americans and Europeans competing with each other, is a ridiculous amount).

Despite being a bustling city, the last train would be at the ridiculously early time of midnight, so we would usually find ourselves checking into karaoke to pass the time before the first train the next day. We discovered that a karaoke room is the cheapest (and probably most fun) place to spend the night without having to sleep in the streets, or take an overpriced taxi all the way home.

Just as revenge is a dish best served cold, karaoke is best served with copious amounts of alcohol. By the time we got inside, we would be pretty wasted, but this made for the best karaoke nights.

Suddenly everyone could sing like Mariah Carey, or at least we thought we could, as we screeched power ballads, and danced to Lady Gaga on the tables. In reality, we probaly sounded more annoying than continuous police sirens, but we didn’t care. If somebody was actually good at singing, we wouldn’t bring them with us anyway.

Not to be put off by the dozen trips per hour to the restroom that we had to take from all that we had already drunk, we would also help ourselves to the free soft drinks that came with our entry price. We would sip coffee to keep us going, and mix syrup with oolong tea, or drink too much of the mysterious green stuff pictured above.

Our disappointing moments of not being able to find a song we loved on the playlist would immediately be replaced with the joy of finding a popular chart song, a teen classic, or an anthem from the 90’s to belt at the top of our voices. (Side note: I must have sung AKB48’s ‘Heavy Rotation’ about 500 million times. To this day, it is remains a staple part of any karaoke trip).

Looking back, we may seem a little overindulgent, but at the time, we were having the most fun in our lives. It was those nights, which started out so optimistically at an izakaya, escalated to epic proportions at karaoke, and ended with a walk of shame to McDonald’s on the way to the station for the first train home, that were worth remembering.

#25 Tempura

Perhaps I could have set higher expectations for my year abroad than to eat a bowl of battered-fried vegetables but, as a woman, I am genetically predisposed to being attracted to anything laden with fat and/or sugar, so I happily added tempura to the list of conquests.

I’m the kind of person would basically eat her own foot if it was covered in batter anyway, so I knew all along that tempura couldn’t possibly fail me.

I was not disappointed. In ‘Green Eggs and Ham’ style I ate them in restaurants, karaoke joints, izakayas, in Osaka, Kobe, Kyoto, Shikoku, in tiny dishes, from large platters, piled on top of a steaming bowl of udon, with sushi… almost anywhere I could order them, I did.

Real Japanese Tempura (yes, with capital letters) is crispy, light and so subtly delicious that my mouth is watering right now thinking about the taste of dipping it whilst still warm into a dish of tentsuyu (tempura sauce), tilting my head back and dropping the entire thing into my mouth like those claw machines at fairgrounds. It’s an art that any true British person has mastered by the age of seven from practising since birth, The Art of Dipping the Rich Tea Biscuit – how to perfectly time the immersion so that you could pop the morsel in your mouth dripping with liquid on the outside and yet still remain crispy on the inside.

Good tempura batter tastes like buttery air and the vegetables still maintain their fresh sweet taste even after frying (deceitfully disguising the calories hidden inside).

Like the ‘scrambled egg test’ that a lot of trainee chefs have to pass in order to prove that they can cook well, (the premise is that if they can’t cook even a simple dish properly, then they have no hope), it’s hard to find Real Japanese Tempura anywhere else other than in the kitchen of a skilled chef. I remember once my host mother tried to make it but there wasn’t enough air in the batter so it was more like a piece of chopped vegetable was trapped inside dough mixture (which I had no problem with eating anyway), rather than wrapped in a delicate cocoon of translucent batter.

Speaking of transluscency, I can tell from my almost sexual way of describing Real Japanese Tempura that I enjoyed it a bit too much. Now I have become one of those people who have been to Nirvana and has come back to never be able to face a cod and chips again without comparing it to tempura and thinking, “Ew, this tastes like my foot in batter”.

#44 Zen Garden

For some inexplicable reason, I have more than just a passing obsession with carefully laid out rocks.

Now, in case you’re thinking about what a strange and rather sad obsession this is, let me just say… you’re not wrong.

It takes a special kind of person to have the ability to derive so much pleasure from pieces of nature that can’t be smoked. Yes, that kind person is me, but you’d be surprised at how many other normal-looking people also flock to famous places to silently ogle for an hour at raked sand.

Zen gardens are definitely very high up there in my favourite kinds of Japanese landscape (yes I have mental list of such things), which is quite impressive if you think about the kind of things Japan offers – glorious snow-capped mountains, miles of cherry blossoms along riverbanks and huge cities glowing with the neon lights of urban life.

Zen garden near Koya-san, Wakayama prefecture

I can’t say exactly what it is about these gardens that get me going except that there’s something about the fact that even though they are man-maintained, they still have a strong sense of natural beauty and an air of tranquillity about them.

Unlike gardens one might find in Britain (the kind I’m more used to seeing) Japanese gardens don’t try so hard to aim for perfection outside of nature’s ability to create it. This is a generalization of course, but it’s not uncommon in England to find hedges that are trimmed to at perfect right angles (and/or any ridiculous bear/snowman/phallis shape), red roses cross-bred for generations and lawns trimmed more carefully than one would their fingernails.

The Zen garden of Ryōan-ji, Kyoto

Whatever the reason, I for one really appreciate the thought that must have gone into arranging the gardens, even though to the untrained eye they may look as random as having been offloaded from the back of a truck. For example, in Ryōan-ji (pictured above) there are fifteen stones carefully placed so that no matter from which angle you can look upon the garden, you will never be able to see all of the rocks at the same time.

There are many interpretations but to me it simply means “that’s life”.

And if that wasn’t enough to blow your mind, I checked out Wikipedia (my reliable source for everything I know) and found this utterly fascinating piece of knowledge:

According to the researchers, one critical axis of symmetry passes close to the centre of the main hall, which is the traditionally preferred viewing point. In essence, viewing the placement of the stones from a sightline along this point brings a shape from nature (a dichotomously branched tree with a mean branch length decreasing monotonically from the trunk to the tertiary level) in relief.

The researchers propose that the implicit structure of the garden is designed to appeal to the viewers unconscious visual sensitivity to axial-symmetry skeletons of stimulus shapes. In support of their findings, they found that imposing a random perturbation of the locations of individual rock features destroyed the special characteristics.

For that kind of genius the I give the Anonymous who designed Ryōan-ji a non-patronising slow clap of respect.

#66 Nara

Nara was the capital of Japan from 710 when it used to be the center of Japanese religion and politics until the Emperor Kammu moved to Kyoto, ending the Nara period in 784.

Since then, although it’s lost some of it’s former glory, it still remains as one of the finest cities in Japan, deeply steeped in history and beauty. People from all over the country and the rest of the world still flock to Nara to appreciate its World Heritage site – Todaiji amongst it’s other world famous pagodas, gardens, towns and other temples.

Nara, like most other cities in Japan, relies heavily on tourism and should you happen to go during some of it’s busiest months (ie. cherry blossom season) you won’t find it hard to bump into more gaijin than Japanese people as you jostle your way towards the main attractions. I really recommend getting a guide or someone who knows what they’re talking about to really get the best out of this wonderful city.

Being the otaku Japanologist that I am, I arrived early one day to grab front row seats to Nara’s most spectacular show – the sacred Omizu-dori matsuri, also known as the ‘Fire Festival’ that happens just once a year. It happens in March and is really a must see if you’re in the Kansai area during this time.

On the way, you may see street vendors selling freshly baked sweet potato. There probably aren’t that many requirements that are compulsory to be a successful street vendor – except to be very old, because it’s those sad wrinkled faces that stir up the kind of guilt that make you want to buy such overpriced food – but at least it’s delicious and you could use the skin scraps to feed the deer…

Don't underestimate these beasts

Deer are believed to be sacred creatures, and have been protected for hundreds of years in Nara. It is illegal to harm or kill them, so it’s a good thing they’re all tame. They roam freely all over the city (and sometimes cross roads as cars wait patiently for them to make it to the other side) occasionally nudging tourists’ elbows for shika senbei (deer biscuits).

Be warned however, if a deer manages to sniff you up and discover that you’re hiding a delicious piece of recycled paper (or whatever it is the biscuits are made from), they’ll be after you like a herd of bees. You can tell who are the more seasoned travellers and who are the tourist newbies about to be terrorized because something like this always happens:

  1. Person sees Deer and exclaims “aww, how cute!” (or sometimes, just “kawaiiiii!“).
  2. Deer approaches timidly, and makes cute eyes.
  3. Person feels sorry for the Deer and buys a small pack of biscuits for them.
  4. Deer nibbles politely… but just as Person starts to smile or pose for a picture…
  5. Deer opens it’s jaws and snatches pile of biscuits straight out of the person’s hands quicker than you can say “Holy *%$& Bambi!”.

I’ve seen deer grab entire stacks of biscuits straight out of toddler hands and run away, leaving kids who were giggling just a second before wide-eyed with shock and now empty handed. It’s a cruel world.

If you find yourself being pursued by insistent deer, there are several ways I have learned (from experience of being chased by a half a dozen deer) that can get them off your back:

1. Drop everything. Scatter any/all of the biscuits you are holding onto the floor and walk away quickly. Try not to throw them at the deer, this may not be received well if there are Japanese people nearby.

2. Put your hands up in the air like you just don’t care! No, actually do it exactly as you would if a cop told you to “FREEZE!”. If you can speak Japanese, grovel profusely that you don’t have any food or else repeatedly apologizing often works. There are some deer that will grant your mercy.

3. Take cover. Dash into the nearest shop and hide behind some shelves… the old shop ladies know how to deal with stalker deer. In fact, old ladies in Japan (the elite obaachan) run the entire country. I wouldn’t be surprised if they control politicians and yakuza alike, so they can probably handle wild animals just fine.

Follow these tips and you should be able to get away from even the most desperate deer. If all else fails, deer also like to eat coats (see the deer teeth marks on my trench coat) and maps (since these seem to be plentiful in Nara) – you can drop these behind you and hope your enemies will be stalled long enough for you to get away…

… not unlike Mario Kart really.

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