A Travellerspoint blog

East Asian Immersion: Shanghai

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When we left the last two weeks of our itinerary empty, we had no intention of visiting Shanghai despite the fact that my brother lives there with his two sons. I had been to Shanghai three times before and although it’s one of my favorite cities I was intent on covering new ground. Our hope was that my brother would find time to meet us in one of the other cities we were visiting, but unfortunately he wasn’t able to get the time off work so we flew from Osaka to Shanghai instead of back to Beijing.

Michael has been living in Shanghai for twenty years. He’s divorced and currently lives in a three story townhouse well to the west of central Shanghai with his sons, his girlfriend, a nanny, and an ayi. Although the location wasn’t convenient, we stayed with him to maximize the amount of time our kids could spend with their cousins. The townhouse was in a large complex of neoclassical buildings that could have been quite beautiful if they weren't so grimy and dilapidated. The three rooms on each level were arranged around a central winding staircase whose banister railings were far enough apart that any of our kids could have fallen through them easily. I spent most of our waking hours at the apartment making sure that the kids stayed in my nephews' bedroom to play rather than chasing each other up and down the stairs.

Being far from the center was an opportunity to see the modern, residential side of Shanghai. About half a mile away was a commercial area with enormous malls, restaurants, and supermarkets. For our first dinner in Shanghai we chose a supermarket where we could buy live seafood from tanks and have it cooked to order. Even though we had more adults around to keep things in check, it was still a daunting task to keep the critical mass of five ebullient kids from knocking over the displays.

The next day we never made it out of the local area. Mei Ling's brother took a train up from Hangzhou with his fiancee and we spent most of the afternoon in the local mall. The big event was an appearance by a Hong Kong actor named Andy Lau, who I'd never heard of but is apparently one of the biggest stars of Chinese language movies ever. Every balcony of the multilevel mall was packed with people awaiting the actor's appearance, which finally took place about ninety minutes after it was scheduled and lasted about two minutes. None of us even caught a glimpse of him from where we were standing. Afterwards we took turns on the virtual reality rides which were thankfully a lot less expensive than they had been in Qingdao.

By the time we left the mall a torrential downpour was competing with the colorful hourly fountain show in the plaza. We hurried to a local restaurant where the food was cooked at the table with an enormous blowtorch that ignited the cooking oil into a mass of flames. Not a good place to be wearing hairspray.


The next day we finally used Shanghai's world class metro. The Chinglish signs warning against jumping onto the tracks that I remembered from 2011 were gone. Now there were European-style barriers between the platform and the train, a welcome sight given that we had five kids to keep track of. We met up with one of Mei Ling's Chinese friends from Miami at the Shanghai Natural History Museum. I wasn't too enthusiastic about the choice because I'd just taken Ian and Cleo to the Museum of Natural History in Manhattan a year earlier and they hadn't clicked with it at all. Sure enough, the six kids seemed more interested in tussling with each other and scattering in every direction than they were in any of the exhibits. Before long the adults were all exhausted with corralling their offspring and we decided to search for a more interesting location. Before hitting the road we spent a few minutes appreciating the sculpture park in the plaza outside the museum.

Most of what is interesting to travelers in Shanghai is concentrated in a relatively small area between the North-South Expressway and the Huangpu River. The museum was just outside that area so we had a long but not unpleasant walk to Nanjing Road, Shanghai's main pedestrian thoroughfare. Along the way Mei Ling's friend rented a city bike and the kids alternated riding on it as they grew tired of walking. Along the way we passed by People's Park and got a close-up look at Tomorrow Square, a futuristic skyscraper that looks like a rocket-propelled grenade.

Nanjing Road was satisfyingly hectic and lined with a mix of classically elegant buildings and eclectic skyscapers, but it was decidedly more modern and Western-appearing than I remembered. Most of the sidewalk vendors that used to clog the area were gone with the exception of one small side street. We bought a cool little car from a kiosk where the demonstration model was driving straight up and down walls using suction, but once we got it back to the apartment it didn't even turn on. When we took it apart we found that it was missing the lithium battery. It was kind of hard to understand the point of selling a defective version of a toy that only cost twelve bucks, but my brother insisted that the battery was two thirds of the value of the entire car.

We continued moving east towards the river and soon encountered older neighborhoods that were riddled with narrow pedestrian alleys. We dived into these areas whenever we found them and found an excellent restaurant to squeeze into for an early dinner.

By the time we'd left the second restaurant of the evening darkness and fallen and we had reached The Bund, the historic western bank of the Huangpu that hosts the majestic remnants of Shanghai's colonial era. Although our experience thus far in Shanghai had been fairly sedate, here we found a huge mixed crowd of locals, Chinese tourists, and Westerners. Across the river was the brightly illuminated and futuristic skyline of Pudong, Shanghai's hypermodern expansion with huge international hotels and financial skyscrapers. We let the kids feed off the energetic atmosphere for a while and then returned to the metro for the long trip back home.

Friday morning we took the metro to a rather nondescript area in northwestern Shanghai for the weekly Muslim Market next to the Huxi Mosque. In the face of China's apparent homogeneity it is easy to forget that the country has a sizable Muslim minority. The most visible Muslim population is the Uighurs who have migrated from their home region of Xinjiang into practically every Chinese metropolis, often as providers of the highly coveted barbecued skewer street food. The Hui Muslims number more than the Uighurs but are less well-known because of the extent to which they have assimilated into mainstream Han Chinese culture. There are currently about 80000 Muslims living in Shanghai, but of course the market also serves many non-Muslim locals who enjoy Uighur food as well as Westerners. Aside from the omnipresent lamb skewers, there were enormous lamb shanks and mouthwatering deep fried chickens on display.

Ignoring the drizzle, we feasted on skewers that were better quality than the usual late night street food fare. I couldn't resist the temptation to buy a huge, meaty lamb haunch. I rounded up the kids and we took turns ripping hunks of meat from the leg with our teeth as other marketgoers looked on in amusement.

Stuffed to the brim with lamb, we were energized to press on to Yuyuan. On my last visit to Shanghai I was amazed how the huge koi in the pond at this historic garden aggressively piled on top of each other when they were being fed by visitors, sometimes until they were practically out of the water entirely. I thought to myself that I could even put food into their mouths directly with chopsticks. I got kind of obsessed with this idea and eventually resolved that on my next trip to Shanghai I would feed koi rice with chopsticks. It was still raining when we arrived at Yuyuan but the touristy bazaar around the garden was jam-packed. Despite the plethora of fast-food kiosks we couldn't find a single one that was selling steamed rice and eventually we had to settle for a loaf of crumbly bread.

The garden was also more crowded than I remembered from our last visit, probably because we were there at the peak of the summer tourist season. Despite the intermittent drizzle it was quite enjoyable to walk along the paths among the ponds and pagodas, admiring the artful rock walls and graceful trees. The bridge across the pond with all the koi was much narrower than I remembered, and as soon as the kids saw I was going to feed the fish they all rushed over and I couldn't convince them to go back. Not only did I have to grasp chunks of crumbly bread with the chopsticks instead of sticky lumps of rice, but I had to keep one eye on the kids as they jostled each other on the rain-slicked and crowded concrete path. Feeding the fish with chopsticks wasn't quite the experience I had imagined but it was still very entertaining, especially when a couple of enterprising snapping turtles made an appearance and dominated the session.

The area around the Yu Garden contains many of Shanghai's most beautiful traditional buildings as well as one of its most famous tea houses. We spent some time hunting for an amazing street market we remembered from our last trip without success. Eventually a security guard told Mei Ling that the market had been disbanded, just like our beloved street markets in Beijing. It was yet another unwelcome change from the China we remembered. We consoled ourselves by exploring a few alleys of the old town where we found a seafood store that allowed the kids to play with their live shrimp.

Around this time the skies opened and we were drenched with a torrential downpour that our raincoats were no match for. We'd also lost track of the metro station and had to ask other people on the street for directions. Predictably enough, we had to trot for almost half a mile before we finally found the metro to take us back to my brother's suburb. Still damp and bedraggled, we had to dash through rain and puddles one more time to meet my brother and his crew at the hotpot restaurant where we would have an early birthday celebration for Spenser. This might have been the last time we would be able to pass off a dinner with a cake at the end as his birthday party. By next summer he'll probably have to have his own party at home after we come back just like his older siblings.

Posted by zzlangerhans 02:30 Archived in China Comments (0)

East Asian Immersion: Nara and Himeji

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There's a lot more to Kansai than Osaka and Kyoto, but since we only had ten days in Japan we limited ourselves to two of the most popular day trips. I could still remember visiting Nara with my parents as a fifteen year old. Although the iconic temples of the ancient capital are its primary draw, my most vivid memories were of the crowds of tame deer overwhelming my attempts to parcel out crackers fairly.

We had an easy train ride from Namba and now I was in Nara again thirty-five years later, this time with my own children. While Nara is a good-sized suburb of Osaka, most tourists confine themselves to the small complex of temples and gardens at the northwestern edge of the town. We wandered around the peripheries of the more famous temples such as Kofoku-ji and Todai-ji but didn't go in, even to see the giant Buddha in Todai-ji. Neither Mei Ling nor I get too excited about religious iconography and the kids are too young to care. On the other hand the kids were enormously entertained by the hungry deer that roamed throughout the complex.

The largest concentration of deer were in Noborioji Park next to Kofoku-ji. A vendor was selling packages of crackers which contained an instruction pamphlet. The paper warned us not to tease the deer with the crackers and to show them our empty hands when we had nothing left. It seemed a little silly until we actually got out there with the crackers and had to contend with being swarmed by deer aggressively darting at our hands. At the same time that we were trying to keep the packages from being snatched out of our hands, other deer were circling behind us and investigating our pockets and bags. At one point I had to jump away from a deer that was slowly working my Japanese phrasebook out of my back pocket. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a sudden flash of movement near Spenser but by the time I could focus on him he was brushing himself off unperturbed. Only later when I watched the video did I see that he barely dodged a large doe lunging at him with its front hooves. He hadn't even done anything to provoke her. I guess I should have been watching my kids a little more carefully instead of filming, but at least we have a video Spenser can be proud to show his own kids one day.

There are two neighboring walled gardens adjacent to Todai-ji. We chose Yoshiki-en Garden for the simple reason that it was free for foreigners while Isui-en was fairly expensive to enter. We enjoyed a relaxing walk along the pebble paths of the beautifully landscaped garden before our return to Osaka.

Over the ten days we spent in Kansai we probably visited about as many temples and castles as the average tourist visits in two days. However, we didn't hold back when it came to visiting Japan's largest and most beautiful castle on the last full day of our visit. After a hearty breakfast in one of the food halls in Umeda Station we took the direct limited express train to Himeji. This meant we would be leaving Japan without taking a single bullet train which is something of a tourism sacrilege. On the other hand, we saved about forty bucks for an extra forty-five minutes of travel time. Maybe the shinkansen would have been worth it if we had been riding on the roof of the train, but from the inside of the carriage I don't see how the extra speed would have felt much different.

Himeji is a sizable city of half a million people that sits at the end of the continuously developed coastal area that begins at Osaka. The castle is about a kilometer from the train station but try as we might we couldn't find the stop for the bus that shuttles tourists from the station to the castle. Instead we walked up the wide thoroughfare Otemae Street with the hilltop castle directly in our sights. When I first researched Osaka and came across Himeji Castle I was taken back by how enormous and beautiful it was. Seeing it in person, what struck me the most was the visual impact of the gray-tiled eaves and gables against the pristine whiteness of the castle walls.

The interior tour of Himeji was quite exhausting. There were six floors and after the second the staircases were more like ladders. Between trying to position myself behind the kids while they climbed and keeping track of them on each crowded floor I don't recall very much about what was inside, aside from the facts that the floors and walls were a dark wood. I don't even recall if photographs were prohibited or not worth taking, but I don't have any. It was a relief to get back outside and walk the rest of the compound underneath the overcast sky.

Adjacent to the castle compound is a large complex of gardens called Koko-en. These were the best gardens we saw on this trip to Japan. There was a seemingly endless chain of gardens, each one greener and more pleasingly manicured than the last. The koi in the numerous ponds were colorful and enormous. It was a very relaxing way to conclude the day trip.

On the walk back to the Himeji train station we realized we hadn't eaten any soba since our first night in Kyoto. Not wanting to miss our last opportunity to eat these delicious buckwheat noodles in the country of their origin we found yet another underground food court close to the station. There was an unusual system in the restaurant where we had to buy tickets for our dishes at a vending machine and give them to the cook, where they were thankfully prepared in the kitchen and not in the bowels of the machine.

We arrived back at Umeda in the evening and stepped outside for one last look at the plaza with the fountains in front of Osaka Station. We often have mixed feelings about leaving a city that we've enjoyed, but we were sorry to be leaving Osaka. While we had packed everything on our list into our eight day stay, I was acutely conscious that we had still only seen a small fraction of the city's area. Who knows what secrets of Osaka we still hadn't uncovered? It would have been great to have had another week to find out. I had never expected to visit a city on this trip that would crack our top ten, let alone our top three, but we both agreed that Osaka and Kyoto taken together had more to offer a traveler than Tokyo. That left only New York City and London as greater cities to visit thanks to their incomparable international character. Now it was time to fly back to China and revisit our fourth favorite city in the world, the electrifying metropolis of Shanghai.

Posted by zzlangerhans 02:02 Archived in Japan Tagged himeji travel nara blog tony friedman Comments (0)

East Asian Immersion: Osaka IV (Shinsekai and Tajiri)

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Osaka is one of that rare breed of cities with areas worth visiting scattered all around the metropolitan area. With the exception of London, most major European cities have their interesting sights concentrated in the center. Some of the places I'd compare Osaka to would be New York City, Los Angeles, and Tokyo. As we reached the end of our eight day stay we began to explore some of the less well-known but no less fascinating parts of this enormous, intricate metropolis.

You won't see Shinsekai on many of the recommended short Osaka itineraries you'll find on the web. This compact commercial area just east of Tennoji Park was created by the local government in the early 20th century to mimic entertainment districts in the west, and the vibe is preternaturally similar to Coney Island in New York City. The streets are packed with cheap restaurants selling Japanese fast food to locals and tourists alike who may not be amenable to the high prices of izakayas in Minami and Kita. In the center of Shinsekai is Tsutentaku, which was the second tallest building in Asia at the time of its construction in 1912 and is still popular for its indoor exhibits and observation decks.

Shinsekai in some ways was similar to Dotonbori but the atmosphere was more working class than touristy. I had the feeling that most of the visitors to the area were local blue collar types who were looking for a cheap place to eat, drink, and socialize. The close proximity to Osaka's largest red light district probably contributes to that atmospheree as well. The Buddha-like monkey statue that appears somewhere around almost every establishment in Shinsekai is named Billiken and is the unofficial mascot of the area. Despite the enticing decoration of many of the restaurants, the offerings of deep fried skewers and other low quality snacks didn't tempt us. Fortunately Mei Ling figured out that the restaurant with the full-size fishing boat embedded in the marquee offered indoor fishing for dinner and we were immediately sold.

You can't make three young kids much happier than by taking them to a restaurant where you fish for your own dinner. The interior of the restaurant was styled like an ocean with the tables on large boat-shaped platforms seemingly floating on the water. Between and around the boats two kinds of fish swam freely, brown puffer fish and pinkish bream. The waiter provided us with a paper cup of tiny dead shrimp and made it clear that whatever we caught we had to buy, nothing could be thrown back. We baited hooks on the fishing poles that were propped against the railing and quickly learned that neither type of fish was the slightest bit interested in the dead shrimp. We could see the fish swimming right past the bait without even shifting their course. The next thing we tried was the net which I could actually reach into the water with. After a couple of misses I caught one of the puffer fish. I'm pretty sure it wasn't the kind that will kill you if it isn't prepared correctly, but it still cost us eighty bucks. I hadn't read the menu carefully before we began fishing. Afterwards we watched how the locals were doing it. They all went to the most crowded tank and waited for a huge swarm of the pink fish to swim underneath, at which point they would whip the bare hook up and snag one of the fish through the skin. We tried the same technique and soon enough caught one of the pink ones. We tried several different preparations of our fish including on-the-bone sashimi and flash-frying. Ironically the twenty dollar bream tasted better than the puffer fish which was four times as expensive.

The kids loved the fishing restaurant so much they made us go back for a second round two days later. This time it was Saturday evening so we had the added bonus of the weekly night market, held in a covered arcade parallel to the main pedestrian street. The first stall we encountered had a wide array of exotic snacks from lizards to scorpions. We'd tried similar things before in China but it was surprising to see in a conservative country like Japan. A lot of their food seems exotic to Westerners but typically insects and lizards are not on the menu. Cleo was actually the one who got us started on eating the bugs, clamoring insistently for a cup of the sauteed mealworms which she devoured with gusto. By the time we'd finished we'd gone through the mealworms as well as a huge scorpion and a meaty gecko. Unfortunately I can't say I enjoyed the creepy-crawlies as much as I did in China. The vendor used a frying pan rather than a deep fryer so the large scorpion and gecko didn't get crispy at all. The scorpion's skin was chewy and when it tore open there was a white pulpy interior that was somewhat bitter. The gecko likewise had an inedible skin and very fishy meat. The kids all had a go at each of them but in the end most of it ended up in the trash.

My research into Osaka seafood markets had yielded one last promising opportunity, the Sunday fish market in the southern suburb of Tajiri. The English language internet didn't have much information about this market so it was somewhat of a leap of faith for us to take the hour-long metro trip early on Sunday morning. Fortunately we found the market as promised and although it was small it wasn't disappointing. Not many tourists are up for the long trek to a residential neighborhood far from the center and it was clear that it was mainly a local event. We didn't see any seafood that was unusual or unfamiliar but there were a lot of snack vendors and we put together a decent lunch of typical specialties. There were plenty of fruit and vegetable stands along with the seafood stalls. One of the most popular dishes was eel tempura, although none of us are partial to deep-fried food.

There's an opportunity at Tajiri to board one of the fishing boats and help them haul in the nets, after which you can prepare your catch in an area of outdoor grills. We were somewhat late for that and it seemed to be a complicated and expensive venture, so we chose the alternative activity of fishing for bream in makeshift pools underneath the suspension bridge that crossed over the port. I was surprised at the number of adults that were fishing in these stocked tanks but I suppose it's the best way to be sure you're getting the freshest fish. It was kind of tricky to keep balanced on the floating platforms and I was terrified that one of the kids would fall into the water so we made them sit down most of the time even when they were fishing. We had to pay the full price for each kid to catch a fish even though we were throwing them back. We'd already eaten enough bream for a year over two dinners in Shinsekai.

We took a long walk through local streets to the next metro station over from the one we had arrived at. It was another nice opportunity to enjoy a quiet suburban atmosphere and admire the uniqueness of Japanese design. I especially enjoyed the old-fashioned ceramic tile roofs that make the most modest house look like a Buddhist temple. One house under construction had beautiful wavy blue tiles that were reminiscent of the surface of the ocean. It was another example of how Japan has managed to be simultaneously one of the most innovative and also most traditional societies in the world at the same time.


Posted by zzlangerhans 15:31 Archived in Japan Tagged osaka japan travel blog tajiri tony friedman shinsekai Comments (0)

East Asian Immersion: Osaka III (Tennoji, Ikuno, Aquarium)

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While most travelers to Osaka gravitate to the frenzied commercial nerve centers of Minami and Kita, those neighborhoods only represent a tiny fraction of the city's expanse. We found quite a lot to see and do in the areas just to the south and west of the center as well. On our first full day in Osaka we walked south from our Airbnb through Denden Town, Osaka's electronics and geek culture district. I was always a book nerd and never got into electronics or comics so there wasn't much of interest to me in Denden. The kids were mostly fascinated by the endless rows of vending machines selling cheap toys in plastic spheres. Close to Denden is Rockstar Reptile Cafe, where you can enjoy the company of reptiles and bugs while you drink coffee or nosh on fried worms. Rockstar copes with curious tourists by charging a one thousand yen lifetime membership fee. If you're a tourist passing through on a one-time visit, expect to pay this hefty cover. If you're local and become a regular you only have to pay once. We understood the point and we wanted to work with them, but they insisted that each one of our small kids pay the full cover. That didn't feel very welcoming and we weren't about to pay fifty bucks plus the high prices for coffee so our kids could play with a couple of snakes and bugs. Mei Ling got a video of the place while I tried to negotiate and then we hightailed it.

Before we visit a major city I always search online to see if there are any special events or festivals occurring during our visit. I had timed our visit to Osaka partially to coincide with the Aizen Festival, the first of three major summer Buddhist festivals in Osaka. The problem was I could find next to nothing about the festival schedule on the English language internet. In the end we just decided to walk to the Aizen-do Shomanin Temple on July 2, the last day of the festival. The temple is in Tennoji, a few blocks east of Denden Town. We climbed a long flight of stone steps to the top of the hill where the temple sits. When we reached the top there was no festival and practically no one there besides us. One Westerner walked by and explained to us the proper way to use the purification fountain. He had never heard of the festival. Fortunately I hadn't told the kids anything about it so they wouldn't be disappointed. It was a very beautiful place and since it's not well-known enough to be in any guidebooks we had it all to ourselves.

Further south, Tennoji Park is home to the Osaka Zoo and the Osaka City Museum of Art as well as Keitakuen Garden, a traditional Japanese garden that was designed more than a century ago. The central pond is surrounded by immaculately trimmed dwarf trees and has a central island which cannot be accessed. The foliage and the art museum in the background are vividly reflected in the mirror-like surface of the pond, a welcoming tableau for a group of painters on the opposite shoreline.

From Keitakuen we took the metro north to Osaka Castle. Osaka lives in the shadow of neighboring Kyoto when it comes to historical sights, but the castle is the city's one claim to traditional glory. Although there has been a fortress on the site for almost five hundred years, it has been destroyed and rebuilt several times. The most recent restoration was completed just twenty years ago. The castle is surrounded by two wide moats whose walls are constructed of granite boulders that have been carefully fitted together. The absence of mortar makes the walls more resistant to earthquakes as they can shift without cracking. The multi-story castle also sits on a stone base and has a very pleasing Japanese house-of-cards appearance with some ornate golden flourishes. On learning that the interior mainly consists of museum exhibits we decided to forgo entrance, instead providing the kids with oversized and startlingly fluorescent shaved ices at the gift shop.

Just west of Tennoji is Ikuno, home to much of Osaka's sizable Korean community. Many Koreans emigrated to Japan in the early part of the 20th century as menial laborers subsequent to the Japanese annexation of their country. The Tsurahashi district in the northeastern corner of Ikuno Ward is almost entirely Korean and contains Osaka's most vibrant and authentic market. Close to the Tsuruhashi metro station, the neighborhood changes from typical Japanese streets into a maze of narrow pedestrian alleys that have been converted into arcades lined with Korean businesses. Naturally the main event is food and produce, but housewares and furnishings are also sold. It was similar to markets we'd seen in Seoul such as Namdaemun and Dongdaemun, although smaller.

At the eastern end of this nest of alleys is the wholesale fish market, which in true Japanese style is virtually closed down by noon. We were early enough to catch it on our second attempt but it was a bit of a letdown in both size and variety. The only restaurant within the fish market was a coffee shop that didn't offer any cooked food.

Undaunted by the absence of a seafood feast at the fish market, Mei Ling put her homing instinct to work and soon located a crowded Korean restaurant back within the main market. The spicy Korean food was a pleasant break from our lengthy submersion in Japanese cuisine and the authentic, energetic atmosphere couldn't be beat.

South of the market the neighborhood quickly changed into a rather boring residential area. Fortunately we decided to return to the station along the neighborhood's main street where we encountered an unexpected crowd at one intersection. A banner across the cross street announced we had arrived in Korea Town and we realized we were at the beginning of a long alley lined with Korean restaurants and businesses. I hadn't realized that Korea Town referred to a specific pedestrian street as well as to the market and the neighborhood. We'd almost missed one of the best parts of the experience and just stumbled on it through dumb luck. Humbling. The street is nameless on Google Maps but locals call it Miyuki-Dori (Google will take you to a completely different place with that search entry). We walked about half a kilometer along Miyuki-Dori to the Hirano River enjoying kimchi samples and other snacks for the entire length of the street. Ian was in heaven because he loves kimchi but all the kids were ecstatic when we bought a cotton candy rabbit from one of the street vendors.

We had a long metro journey from western Osaka to Osaka Bay to visit the Kaiyukan Aquarium, one of the world's most highly regarded aquariums. Our last aquarium visit in Valencia, Spain had been disappointing so we were looking forward to making up for it in Osaka. The central feature of the aquarium is a 30 foot deep tank that holds two whale sharks, the largest species of fish in the world. We were fortunate to be there in the afternoon when the otters and fish were feeding. The larger fish like sunfish and rays were being hand-fed by divers. It was amazing to see the affection of the divers for these gentle giants of the ocean as they made sure all of them got their share of food. The walkway wound around the enormous central tank allowing close inspection of the beautiful rays and sharks from above and below. It was the best aquarium I had visited since Lisbon five years previously.

Outisde the aquarium we stopped to watch a juggler toss some torches around while balancing on a rickety ladder. He either wasn't very adept at it, or it was all part of the act to keep people wacthing. Either way it was quite entertaining. On the opposite side of the plaza is the Tempozan Marketplace, a collection of fairly boring stores and coffee shops. At the very back of this mall is Naniwa Kuishinbo Yokocho, a food court composed of narrow, dim alleys intended to convey an authentic impression of mid 20th century Osaka. We probably would have been more impressed if we hadn't already been submerged in delicious food in the far more energetic areas of Namba and Dotonbori. As it was we found a bowl of noodles for the kids and moved onward. We also passed on the landmark Tempozan Ferris Wheel adjacent to the mall, knowing that there would be more exciting adventures awaiting us no matter where we chose to go next in Osaka.

Posted by zzlangerhans 10:53 Archived in Japan Tagged osaka japan travel aquarium blog tony tennoji friedman ikuno korea_town tsuruhashi miyuki-dori keiyukan Comments (0)

East Asian Immersion: Osaka part II (Kita)

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In the north of Osaka city an island is formed by the wide Yodo River to the north and a much narrower river to the south whose name changes several times as it winds upward to join the Yodo. In Western countries this island would certainly have had a name, but if it does have one in Japan then it is very rarely used. Instead, Japanese refer to the three city wards that comprise the island: Kotohana on Osaka Bay, Fukushima in the center, and Kita on the western side. Kita has become the second urban hub of Osaka thanks to the enormous Umeda and Osaka train stations that are the main connection between the metro and the national railway system. The area around the stations is a dense conglomeration of department stores and business skyscrapers with an enormous variety of restaurants and entertainment. If one were to make a rough comparison to New York City, Kita would be Midtown and Minami downtown. If you're more familiar with Tokyo, Kita is somewhat like Shinjuku while Minami is more like Shibuya.

We didn't make it to Kita until our third full day in Osaka. Our first exploit didn't even require us to emerge from underground. We were able to walk to Hanshin department store via the enormous network of underground tunnels that connects the train stations with many of the surrounding buildings. The tunnels contain hundreds of restaurants and stores that comprise a virtual underground city. Hanshin's basement is the best-known department store food court in Osaka and we weren't disappointed with the selection. Some of the food was being prepared in booths with enormous picture windows to permit visual inspection of the technique.

Once we had stocked up on food court delicacies, we looked around for a place to sit and eat and were completely unable to find anything. Even the coffee shop upstairs only had tiny tables with barstools that looked pretty uncomfortable. Eventually we gave up searching and plopped down on a platform at the base of an escalator in the station. It was far from an ideal setting but we made the best of it. The worst part was that the first thing we came across after we finished was a huge common eating area on the way up to the surface.

The center of Kita is quite overwhelming. Crowds of people rush in every direction in underground tunnels, on the surface, and on elevated walkways that enter directly into the commercial buildings. It was difficult to navigate out of the complex even using GPS as we continuously found ourselves getting diverted away from our chosen direction.

Kids Plaza is a large, modern children's museum in Temma, about twenty minutes walk east of Umeda. The enormous building housing the museum juts out of the corner of a rather barren city park like a futuristic fortress.

Inside we found an enormous, colorful play structure full of towers, slides, and bridges. I couldn't understand why it seemed so familiar until I found a mention in the brochure that it was designed by Friedensreich Hundertwasser, whose Hundertwasser House we had admired in Vienna.

The games and exhibits were so good that we stayed for almost four hours, and the kids probably would have kept going the whole day if we hadn't dragged them out. Overall I would say that Kids Plaza was comparable to the excellent children's museums we'd visited in Copenhagen and Gothenburg, and nowhere near as crowded. Despite the amount of time we stayed the kids got to try barely half what was available. One of the coolest things for Cleo was a media display where she got to play the role of a news anchor and then watch her performance afterwards.

On the way back to Umeda I wanted to explore an area called Nakazakicho, a small old-fashioned neighborhood of narrow alleys and traditional buildings that has thus far escaped Kita's furious modernization. We walked north and overshot our left turn by a couple of blocks. Before we could retrace our steps a sudden rainshower descended and we took refuge in a covered arcade with some very appealing cafes and izakayas. Spenser had conked out on my back so Mei Ling took the two older kids inside a steamy little izakaya while I kept exploring the arcade. Eventually I crossed a street and found myself in a busy shopping street that was so long I gave up on reaching the end. I had accidentally discovered Tenjinbashi-suji shopping street, the longest shopping arcade in Japan. Unlike Shinsaibashi-suji in Minami, this street was completely devoid of tourists and the wares were very practical with no souvenirs in sight. By this time Spenser had woken up and I made my way back to the izakaya before he could demand to be taken to the bathroom. Then I had to schlep everyone back to Tenjinbashi-suji for more snacks.


By the time we arrived at Nakazakicho darkness had fallen and it was still raining. There were only a few stores open and no restaurants to speak of. We spent some time roaming around the narrow streets but the area was so small we were out of it in just a few minutes.

Back at Umeda we searched among the labyrinth of tunnels and elevated walkways for the Isetan food hall in the basement of the Lucua1100 shopping mall. The effort was more than worthwhile because it turned out to be one of the best food halls we've encountered anywhere in the world, with cuisine of far-flung ethnicities such as Italian and Mexican along with numerous types of Japanese cuisine. Almost all the restaurants were packed with locals, with many having a long line outside despite it being a weekday evening. The food hall was adjacent to a more conventional department store food court which had a huge chocolate fountain, much to the delight of the kids.

It occurred to me that we hadn't had an authentic Japanese shabu-shabu thus far and it seemed like the perfect place to find it. I employed TripAdvisor which found a highly-rated shabu-shabu practically under our noses but after walking around the food hall three times we still couldn't find it. Eventually a security guard directed us to the top floor, which is generally where the more high end restaurants are located in Japanese malls. As soon as we walked in I knew we were going to take a blow to the wallet, but casual shabu-shabu doesn't seem to be a thing in Japan. It was a very different experience than our other meals in Japan, mainly for the extraordinary attention we received from the waitress as we consumed our shabu-shabu. I think I spent as much energy nodding and assuring the waitress we were OK as I did eating. As I expected, it was by far the most expensive meal of the entire trip that we paid for ourselves. I hate to say it, but I enjoyed the last shabu-shabu we had in Los Angeles more. On the other hand, the ambiance in Osaka was much more authentic.

A few days later we returned to the Isetan food hall during lunchtime. It was just as crowded as it had been on our prior visit, but this time we were determined to try one of the restaurants and eventually found ourselves wedged into a corner table at an Italian seafood place. The food was decent but they had the decor nailed. Italian products and themes were displayed with Japanese over-the-top exuberance.

Outside of Osaka Station is a large plaza with shallow pools that seemed made for small kids to wade around in. Ours jumped in before I even had time to process the scene. A gigantic fluorescent green teddy bear was relaxing in the middle of one pool, squirting a constant stream of water from his mouth. The water from the pool flowed down a staircase to a lower level, creating a sense of a malfunction and impending flood. It was another typically whimsical Japanese scene.

We could see Umeda Sky Building from the plaza, although it proved to be a longer walk than it first appeared. Although it's far from the tallest building in Osaka, the Sky Building is probably the most unique and iconic. It looks like a Lego construction at the hands of a particularly imaginative eight year old. Two gleaming forty-story towers are connected at the top by an observation platform which is accessed via escalators that are suspended vertiginously in thin air. The reflections of the clouds in the pristine glass walls of the towers makes the building seem almost transparent. The tableau is an absolute delight for anyone with even a casual appreciation of architecture.

The views from the lower level of the observation platform were good enough that we decided not to pay the exorbitant price for the Floating Garden roofdeck. The kids would have been happy to spend the entire afternoon in the gift shop. Pressed for time and full of stomach, we also skipped the Takimi-koji food hall in the basement of the building.

The Umeda Sky Building might be only the second most unusual building in Kita. Top honors should probably be awarded to the Gate Tower Building, This otherwise undistinguished 16 story office tower is neatly penetrated through its middle floors by a highway offramp that never actually contacts the building. The unusual fusion of familiar urban structures came about thanks to the refusal of the property owner to alter his development plans to accommodate the simultaneous highway expansion. One might imagine an ideal situation of parking immediately adjacent to one's work cubicle, but in reality all cars that enter one side of the building have no choice but to emerge on the opposite side.

Within the river that flows south of Kita is a skinny little island named Nakanoshima. Despite its small surface area, Nakanoshima is home to an impressive number of Osaka's most important municipal buildings including City Hall, a major library, and several museums. The only one of these that we visited was the Osaka Science Museum, a surprisingly inexpensive institution that easily outclassed all of the science museums we've visited in the United States. Although the exhibits are aimed mainly at children and teenagers, I was captivated by their excellent design and how effectively they demonstrated basic concepts of physics and chemistry. I probably could have spent the entire day in the museum on my own. As it was, the two hours we had wasn't nearly enough for the kids who didn't even make it through one floor of the three floor museum before it closed.

Outside the museum a street performer was putting on an energetic and very funny juggling show for a large audience. Soon the kids forgot their disappointment at the museum closing before they were done. Osaka never failed to bring all of us enjoyment from morning until night. It's like a city where boredom was never invented. Adjacent to the Science Museum is the subterranean National Museum of Art, which is marked by a large sculpture of metal tubes by César Pelli that is intended to evoke reeds or stalks of bamboo. Despite this intention, most visitors seem to agree that the sculpture resembles nothing so much as a giant pair of rabbit ears.


Nakanoshima is also a great place from which to observe the beautiful interaction between architecture and water that is emblematic of Osaka. The O River, a late branch of the Yodo, splits in two around the island and then reforms downstream as the Aji River before emptying into Osaka Bay a short distance further. Countless bridges cross the Dojima and Tosahori rivers on either side of the island and provide a great vantage point to see Nakanoshima's glass skyscrapers reflected in the water. The rose garden at the eastern end of Nakanoshima is reputed to be very beautiful but we didn't have time to visit. On our next visit to Osaka, a complete circumnavigation of Nakanoshima's riverside promenades will definitely be on the agenda.

Posted by zzlangerhans 17:05 Archived in Japan Tagged osaka umeda japan travel blog tony kita friedman kids_plaza osaka_science_museum Comments (0)

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