Tag Archives: castle

Things as They Ought to Be

It’s noticeable as soon as you disembark the train from Tokyo. Things just look a little different. Everyone’s shirt is not fully tucked in. People are a little rounder and some are a few weeks past due for a haircut. There is litter on the street. Not a lot, but after the scrubbed streets of Kyoto and Tokyo, it is visible. A couple of older guys stand under the “No Smoking” signs, sharing a story and puffing away. Both have on baseball hats and looked like they didn’t spend a lot of time choosing their wardrobe today. The smell of fried food drifts from somewhere nearby. People tend to wander, or maybe just walk with a little less purpose here. Voices are a little louder and everyone doesn’t stay in line. It’s immediately clear you have arrived in a different part of Japan. Welcome to Osaka.

 

 

 

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Osaka Castle

 

 

We struggled to choose a 3rd city for our visit to Japan. Kyoto had been an obvious choice. History, culture and sophistication. Tokyo was an easy decision. Modern, stylish and fast paced. We thought about something to the north or in the green countryside. Maybe something in the southern islands. Our budget is pretty tight and we were feeling pinched after rent, food and transportation. We really needed to find a place that had a lot to do, good transportation and wouldn’t require too many moves.

 

 

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Dotonbori

We had begun our travels in Japan at Osaka’s huge Kansai Airport a couple of months earlier. Normally we are one way travelers, but this time had chosen a round trip from San Francisco. So eventually we were going back to Osaka. Perhaps we could locate ourselves in Osaka and save some time and money on connections later in the month. Could we find enough to keep us occupied for a whole month?

 
Osaka is known for two things in Japan. Business and food. A common greeting in Osaka is “Have you made any money today”?. Even in a country as obsessed with food as Japan, Osaka stands out as being a mecca for foodies. It is said that while a person from Tokyo will spend his last dollar on fashion, a person from Osaka will always opt for food. One restaurants motto is “Eat until you are bankrupt!”. Maybe this explained the slightly expanded beltlines that we noticed upon arrival.

 

 

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Osaka Castle

Our apartment was once again very small, but well located in the Namba area. Close to transportation and with a nice view from the 11th floor balcony, the apartment offered everything we needed, although without many luxuries. It was bright and clean and the simple furnishings had been recently upgraded. It was perfect and proved to be everything we needed for a comfortable stay.

 
Best of all, we were just a few minutes walk from the famous tourist area of Dotonbori and visited it often during our stay. Dotonbori is a neighborhood that stretches for about 8 blocks along the Dotonbori Canal in the Minami area of town. People have come here for hundreds of years and the area is so famous throughout Japan that it has produced some iconic images. During the day it is packed by shoppers and tourists buying souvenirs and eating any variety of foods, many cooked right on the street. At night the area really comes alive after the sun goes down and the lights come up.

 

 

 

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Shinsekai

Filled with huge neon billboards, music, smells of fried food and blinking lights the area is reminiscent of a beachside boardwalk tourist area that provides anything to amuse a visitor. Wall dragons, giant moving crabs, huge illuminated puffer fish and a famous mechanical drumming clown called Kuidaore Taro have become iconic symbols of the city. Kuidaore was a mascot for a popular restaurant and generations of Japanese built family memories posing for photos in front of the clown. The restaurant is no longer open but Kuidaore has a special place in the center of the strip where all visitors must continue traditions and pause for a group photo.

 

 

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Kuidaore Taro

Probably the most favorite street food here is called Takoyaki. Basically a golf ball sized pancake made from batter formed in a special rounded pan, this theatrically cooked street food is enjoyed by nearly everyone and is hard to pass by without sampling more than once. Tako (octopus) and tempura bits are added to the ball as it is being cooked. Once golden and rounded, a special sauce and mayonnaise are drizzled over the top and dried bonito is sprinkled on top to give a nice crunch. By description they may not appeal,, but they are actually delicious, cheap and very addictive.
The entire area was completely destroyed during World War II but has returned bigger and brighter than ever. Perhaps our favorite area to stroll were among the tiny alleys just south of the main street of Dotonbori. The alleys are lined with tiny restaurants and bars that provide a glimpse of the area when it was a theatre district long ago. The tiniest alley of all has a street museum which uniquely gives a feeling of what life was like here before the bright lights of modern times. A small shrine is hidden amongst the alleys and provides a moment of solitude amongst the commotion not far away. Visitors throw water over a statue at the shrine so often that it is now covered with moss and is quite beautiful.

 

 

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Shinsekai

A few blocks from our house was perhaps the best street market in Osaka. Kuromon Market is a seafood lovers paradise. If it is found in the ocean and can be eaten, you can find it here. Scallops, shrimp, sea urchins, eel and every type of fish imaginable can be had. Many shops will grill your selections to order over charcoal fires or in a sizzling wok. While the seafood markets are king, beautiful cuts of Kobe (Wagyu) beef can be had along with some of the most spectacular fruits and vegetables imaginable. While visitors can be found, patrons are mostly local and give the market an authentic feel that was fun to share during our nearly daily visits. The market runs many blocks and with a more robust budget we probably would never had eaten anywhere else in town.

 
Osaka’s malls are not to be outdone on the food front either. Unless someone was starving, I don’t think I would ever recommend eating in a mall food court. Not so in Osaka. Every major department store has a basement food areas that are must see attractions for any visitor. Prepared foods are wonderfully displayed in glass cases. Both savory and sweet flavors are equally catered to,, but deserts perhaps draw the most attention. Beautifully prepared and packaged, the sweets are designed to appeal as much visually as they are to a persons sweet tooth. Every shiny color in the rainbow is found in the assortments of gorgeous preparations. A massive gourmet food market will usually be found on the lowest basement floor of each store. Here is where you will find the best of Japan’s bountiful ingredients. We always made time to gawk at the perfect melons, peaches and grapes that have to be the finest examples of agricultural goodness anywhere. The perfectly formed produce has incredible prices that precluded us from sampling with anything but our eyes. I don’t know who would pay 50 dollars US for a cantaloupe or 25 dollars for a bunch of grapes or a set of 3 peaches but just the thought of sampling some of these always left our mouth watering.

 

 

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Namba Parks Mall

The convenient transportation connections near our house made it very easy to make our way around town. We visited the waterfront area of Osaka’s massive harbor. We found giant Ferris wheels, more malls and a world renowned aquarium. The area was especially gorgeous at sunset.

 

 

 

 

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Todai-ji Temple- Nara

 

 

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Nara Deer

 

 

We also had easy access by train to enjoy areas outside of town. We made an easy day trip to Japan’s first capital of Nara less than an hour away. Known for its World Heritage site temples and free ranging deer, Nara could have easily filled more than the one day we had to visit. We even had an opportunity to see a unique dragon boat festival on a lantern decorated lake that entertained thousands of attendees with costumes, music, food and intricately designed boats floating slowly on a mist covered lake.

 

 

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Dotonbori

Back in Osaka, a last area that we enjoyed was called Shinsekai. Shinsekai means New World in Japanese and was an area that was designed in the early 1900’s to represent the new modern world that Japan and Osaka were to become. Designed to be resemble parts of New York combined with parts of Paris, the neighborhood spreads around the massive central Tsutenkaku Tower and is adjacent to the city zoo and the large Tennoji park.

 
The area presents a slightly run down carnival like atmosphere of glitzy and gaudy signage. Rickshaw runners provide visitors with tours of the streets that are filled with restaurants, gaming parlors and brightly lit amusements. While here we learned the story of Billiken, the golden colored mascot of the area. Billiken was originally found outside an amusement park that was located in the area. While the park only lasted for 11 years, Billiken has remained as a symbol of the area and perhaps has been adopted by the whole city.

 

 

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Shinsekai

Billiken is large, golden and has a impish smile on his baby like face. His likeness is found throughout town and quite noticeable everywhere. Around the base of his statue is the motto “The God of Life as it Ought to Be”. He has a look of someone who enjoys life and knows that life is meant to be lived with enthusiasm, enjoyment and perhaps a little less conformity.

 

 

 

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Osaka Streets

We thought that Billiken was the perfect symbol to represent our visit to Osaka. We found a city where hard work has built a modern economic powerhouse where everything once was a ruin. However, it appears that while Osakans believe in focused labor and aggressively chase a rich industrial future, they have not forgotten that life is meant to be enjoyed. Fun, food and a little less formality are obvious everywhere and made this unique city a perfect place to conclude our travels throughout Japan.

 

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Osaka Mechanical Crab

 

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Waiting for Spring

A biting chill rides the frozen wind that crosses the esplanade in front of the castle. Visitors tuck closer behind the ancient ramparts hoping to find a protective lee, a moment of relief from the sand-like frozen mist. It proves fruitless as the gusts swirl and twist as though they originate from every direction. The ancient castle is perched high on its volcanic outcrop and looms mightily above the city below. When viewed from the streets of the lower city on stormy days like this, the castle appears to be floating in the clouds, sometimes visible and sometimes not.

The sound of a lone bagpipe carries strongly upward from the streets of the New Town far below. Its distinctive sound, so engrained in the culture of this part of the world, can fill the heart with longing and melancholy. Yet, on days like this, the sound penetrates the weather, and provides the hopefulness and inspiration to make the best of what the day might bring. Muted streetlights cast shadows on Princes Street, the wide boulevard below. Double-decker buses carry late commuters along the moist streets. Pedestrians stride briskly along the broad sidewalks, past ornate Edwardian storefronts, wasting no time getting to their destinations. It’s late March and winter still hangs heavy over the city.

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Victoria Street

 

 

If gray is a color, then no city has cornered the market better than this. Starting from the sky and looking down toward the cobbled street stones on this stormy day, the shades seem uncountable. Common vocabulary terms of light gray or dark gray don’t do justice to describe the lack of color. You often find yourself reaching for less used descriptors. Ash, platinum, gunmetal, charcoal, nickel, gray-green, blue-gray, asphalt and battleship become common terms. You may discover yourself reaching for more, perhaps taupe or puce uncomfortably roll across your tongue.

The architectural history of the city is easily traceable as you walk downhill from the castle along the high street toward the royal palace. In medieval times nearly the entire town was located along the wide street now called the Royal Mile. Only small parcels of land were available next to the road running along the natural volcanic rock spine that flows downhill from the castle. In ancient times these small plots were massively developed with some of the tallest and most densely populated buildings anywhere in the world at the time. Impressive stone facades line the street. Built to stand up to the elements and impress, they spread their broad shoulders high above the street.

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Edinburgh Castle

 

On cloudy days, the gothic spires of the many ancient churches along the mile literally reach skyward into the clouds. St. Giles is the most famous. It provides a welcome break from the weather on a stormy day. Towering arches rise high above the pews, softly but colorfully lit by the immense stain glass windows that fill the church. Although fairly modern by this church’s standards, the ornately carved Thistle Chapel inside conjures images of Knights and Kings in times past.

Numerous tiny alleyways called ‘closes’ are located along the entire length of the Royal Mile. They lead to tiny courtyards surrounded by large buildings that provided crowded housing for the early citizens. Rich and poor mixed together in these tenements. When passing through these arched passageways on a stormy night or gray windy day, it is easy to see where favorite Edinburgh authors Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert Louis Stevenson and J.K. Rowling found inspiration for Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, or some of the darker passages of the Harry Potter books. The cold drafts, dark shadows and foggy mists can inspire a chill in anyone’s dreams.

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Edinburgh from Calton Hill

 

The stormy days and chill filled nights may force the visitor indoors. This is not necessarily a problem as Edinburghians have created a wealth of indoor activities to chase away the gray of winter. A host of world class museums, as nice as any in Europe, seem to be around every corner. The National Museum of Scotland is amazing and requires multiple visits. Visits to the National Gallery, National Portrait Gallery, Museum on the Mound and National Gallery of Modern Art can easily fill a day. The Writers Museum and displays at the National Library are interesting and provide excellent afternoons indoors. All are outstanding and all are free.

Cafes, Pubs and Bars are always filled with friendly people who are willing to have a chat. Stylish, well informed citizens are proud of their country and heritage. Coffee, Tea, Gin, Beer and of course Whiskey each have loyal devotees who are willing to share their knowledge with the less informed.

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Edinburgh

 

Time passes and the gloomy skies eventually give way and spots of blue sporadically appear. Almost magically a few yellow daffodils are noticed as you pass the towering Scott Monument along Princes Street. The next day you notice a few pink or white flowers in the budding trees. Recently turned flower beds begin to fill with colorful flowers in the abundant parks of the city. Window boxes are hung out on windowsills of palatial Edwardian townhouses adding a welcome softness to normally stern facades.

It is time to head up the hill to Queens Park, the undulating grass covered hilly area behind Holyrood Palace. Take an easy hike around Salisbury Crags or perhaps follow the young and fit to the top of Arthur’s Seat for commanding views over the entire city and all the way to the sea. The cities different periods of development are noticeable, roads growing wider as your eyes travel from the dense inner city outward to the surrounding countryside.

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Dean Village- Edinburgh

 

Another sunny afternoon can be spent viewing monuments on Calton Hill which towers over the inner city and provides the best views if you are lucky enough to catch a sunset. The nearby seaside town of Leith is an easy bus ride away. The once gritty town depicted in Trainspotters is slowly (and perhaps grudgingly) giving way to gentrification. Perhaps a tour of the retired HMS Britannia, the former Royal Yacht of Queen Elizabeth on a sunny day will give you an idea of the excitement surrounding a royal visit.

Sunny days also bring opportunities to purchase an inexpensive day pass on public buses for trips outward into the beautiful green countryside that is found north of Edinburgh. After crossing the choppy water of the Firth of Forth, narrow two lane roads lead the way through wooded farmlands and lush pastures. Horses, ponies, cows and of course sheep with heavy fleece ready for shearing after a long winter are everywhere. Recently tilled fields, separated by tall hedges, appear ready for planting soon.

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Salisbury Crags and Edinburgh Castle

 

A visit to Saint Andrews, the legendary home to golf, is enchanting for day trippers as well as golfers. Classic architecture of the historic city center filled with restaurants, cafes, and shops draw visitors for sunny afternoon strolling. A long sandy beach and stunning coastal walkway leads along the gray-green sea and past the ruins of an ancient castle and cathedral.

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Edinburgh

 

Edinburgh is known as Festival City. It is known worldwide for its almost never ending outdoor party that runs non-stop for most of the summer. Unfortunately we were not here to visit in the best part of the year. Nevertheless, once we adjusted to the hour to hour weather extremes that make up Edinburgh’s early spring, we found the city to be one of our favorites. Any challenges or frustrations encountered with the weather were easily overcome with an extra layer of clothing or an interesting conversation with one of the warm hearted citizens. Most assuredly we will return one day. This is a four season area of the world and surely each is worth seeing.

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