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A visit to Osaka Japan and area

by Jenny and Charlie Plesums

February 11-17, 2006

This was a text only travelogue shared with friends at the time of the visit. We discovered it hadn't been populated with pictures and posted, so at least the text is being posted 7 years later. Maybe someday we will dig out the pictures!

Jenny and I found round trip tickets from Dallas DFW to Osaka Japan for $504 each, so we couldn't resist. Especially since I still have platinum status on American Airlines (until the end of February) so that this one trip will earn enough frequent flyer miles for a free domestic ticket potentially worth $1000 (maybe we should go to Japan twice this month!). We will be driving to/from Dallas and spending the night with our son Mark in Frisco before we leave on February 11th, and again after our return on February 17th, to celebrate his 31st birthday.

Getting There

Our flight to Japan was fine...boring... the best kind. Left Saturday morning, landed Sunday evening (14 hour flight, 15 hour time change) Japan Rail pass took a while to figure out, but we got it (after almost an hour waiting in line unnecessarily).

We are staying in the Hilton Osaka hotel - great to have an international breakfast buffet, and a concierge who speaks English. And my many days in Hilton properties when I was on the road gives me a "Gold" Hilton status, which gives us a free breakfast (a significant consideration here - most people were paying over $20 each for their buffet)

Monday

Monday (Sunday to you), we took the train to Nara (50 minutes), one of the historical capital cities with lots of temples and shrines. We spent most of the day walking around Nara, and then took the train back to Osaka to explore the department stores, etc.

On the train back from Nara an elderly gentleman (73 years old) asked to sit with us so he could practice his English. He pulled out his notebook, with English descriptions of Buddhist shrines, and found words that he wasn't sure how to pronounce. He hopes to visit the Northeast US later this year, or perhaps southern England.

Valentine's Day is a frenzy here. Women buy gifts, traditionally chocolate, for their boyfriends or husbands. Men treat the women on a different holiday, White Day, about a month later. Perfection, not size, is the criterion, so Godiva chocolate is treated as routine - merely average. One large department store (think Marshall Fields) had converted the entire 7th floor to a chocolate shop, and it was packed solid with customers (zigzag lines like an amusement park). They had smaller valentine chocolate departments in the food court (basement) and another floor. It was so unbelievable that it deserved a picture, but photos are not allowed inside the stores.

One of the shopping high-rise buildings has a Ferris wheel that you enter on the 7th floor, but it moves outside and above the upper floors of the building. For $5 each we took the ride! With the pivot point at about the 10th floor, you really are high! Great view at night.

Jenny found food for me that wasn't swimming (cooked meat), so I am also happy. She hasn't had any bait (or as someone else called it, cat food), yet, so I continue to live in terror.

Tuesday

Today (Tuesday morning to us, Monday afternoon to you) we are taking the bullet train to Hiroshima, almost two hours away. Hiroshima is a bustling small city (merely 2.8 million people) - with an amazing number of new buildings (bad pun). (Actually the city is getting old - the buildings look tired. Since most of the buildings are just over 60 years old, all built about the same time, it is too soon for many to be replaced with "new" even though they are looking old.) The ground zero from the first atomic bomb has been preserved as a "peace park" with skeletons of the few sort-of surviving buildings. It seems that every organization with a guilty conscience has erected a memorial here, but the most poignant to me was the large grass covred mound of ashes of those tens of thousands of people who could not be identified - probably 10 feet high and 50 feet across.

We are getting better at finding our way round Japan... we were still on the trolley heading back from "ground Zero" in Hiroshima, with 9 minutes to go before the bullet train left... and we made the train. The train is much like an airline flight - extremely fast (average 162 to 186 mph, depending on the line, with the speed record of 277 mph). With the need for straight tracks, probably half of the trip is in tunnels through the mountains. Arrivals and departures are so prompt that it is a good way to set your watch. Flight attendants ... oops ... vendors ... offer beverages during the trip. Comfortable seats - if you make a seat reservation, spacious seats, otherwise you sit in coach. Of the 8 cars on our train, two are smoking, one is silent (no announcements or cell phone conversations so you can sleep), three are unreserved, and a few seats even have internet connections, 110 volt outlets, and tables for laptop computers.

Japanese modesty takes a little getting used to. On the trains, the men's room has a full-height window in the door so you can see if it is in use (although you can only see the back of the user). One rest room was for both genders - the uprights had modesty shields on both sides, but were in the same room as the doors hiding the thrones for either men or women. Even in places where there were separate rest rooms for men and women, anyone passing by could see the back of the men using the facilities.

Back at the hotel, Jenny just moved from the chair to lie on the bed and read... The problem though is that we are in the Jetson's suite. The line of switches by each side of the ultra-modern curved headboard are

  1. Floor light - a night light for each side of the bed
  2. Room master lights - the same as the switch where we enter the room
  3. Mood light - indirect light at each side of the bed - haven't figured out what that is for
  4. Left reading light - a spotlight that takes a 2 week course to aim properly
  5. Right reading light - see 4

The bidet in the bathroom is built into the toilet - when you sit down, water starts running, so that it is warm by the time you are ready to use it, with a 2 page instruction manual about what you should do next (with a knob and 3 buttons).

There are no curtains in the windows, but sliding wood panels with translucent or light blocking screens. Despite differing expectations, the hotel really is very nice.

We are off to find dinner next. Jenny is hoping for something swimming, and I am not. Since it is St. Valentine's Day (bigger in a Buddhist and Shinto country than in a Christian country - go figure) a number of natives wished us Happy Valentine's day... but it was obviously the total extent of their spoken English.

Breaking news... Tuesday night Jenny found a place that served bait (cat food, sushi) that also served cooked food, so we were able to eat together. We are across the street from the Japan Railway main Osaka train station (19 tracks, if I remember right, with trains leaving each track every few minutes), but there are two other train stations in the area, as well as subway stations, so the underground city is huge, including hundreds of restaurants from 3 seats to giant, offering every level of sophistication from carry out to gourmet.

It feels like we have walked for miles in the underground - probably not an exaggeration, given that a brisk walk is 4 miles per hour, and you must walk briskly or get trampled. Yesterday we arrived just as the trains were bringing commuters, so we were the only people moving towards the trains, in a solid wall of people rushing the other way. We have gotten lost underground for extended periods - English subtitles are far from universal, as they were in Hong Kong, Tokyo, and Singapore, (although they do manage to include English whenever there is a fee involved). When you do find a sign you can read, it may be the name of a department store that fills a block above ground, and has spread out farther below ground, including down multiple corridors (no help at all, other than reassurance that you are somewhere in the right section of town). Landmarks can be bad, too - for example, there is an underground McDonald's (five one person tables) near our hotel (initial excitement as a landmark), but we found another small McDonald's someplace that wasn't near the hotel (a false sign of hope that we encountered when we were lost).

One of our friends asked us to bring back Animee souvenirs for her daughter studying Japanese, based on large-eyed comic characters. We found a number of books - paperback books in comic format - apparently suitable for different age levels (which might also be useful for different levels of Japanese skills). Email confirmed that this would be an ideal thing to buy. So the next time we were in the underground we stopped in the first bookstore we saw. Of course, everything is in Japanese, so we were struggling to find the different age levels.... then realized that all the girls in the pictures were oozing out of their dresses, and the guys in the pictures were enjoying the girls too much. Finally we realized that Animee craze has extended to porn shops. We hope for better luck finding a suitable bookstore, or at least having confidence in what we are buying.

Near the beginning we described the frenzy over Valentine's Day, February 14th. On February 15th the stores were totally reconfigured - no mention of Valentine's Day, but many displays for White Day, March 14th, where the men treat the ladies. I assume there will be a similar frenzy of males in the stores in the March 12-14 period.

Wednesday

Today we took the train to Kyoto, one of the ancient capital cities with countless temples and shrines. Unfortunately it has become more commercialized since we were there a decade ago...more parking for tour busses, more admissions fees (how could you not want to pay $10 each to see Buddha in THIS temple/shrine - this one is more historically significant than the last Buddha?) The foreign tourists arriving at the train station were directed to the 10th floor of an office building for English speaking guidance - the convenient tourist information office was for natives only. Contrast this to Nara, where they fewer temples and shrines but still far more than we could absorb, and the two person tourist office (spoke excellent English) offered to call a college student to be a free guide - they like to do it to practice their English. Needless to say, we recommend Nara over Kyoto for anyone who wants to visit "historical" Japan.

When we were young we were smarter than we are now. Our most common vacation then was to a club in Florida where we could rent a mobile home by the week, sit by the lake or pool, and occasionally venture out to Disneyland, Sea World, or whatever, but only "go" for a couple days during a week-long vacation. Now that we are older, we are going all day, every day... a full day is climbing the stone steps to a temple, a slow day is walking a museum, but none is sitting beside the lake. Now we need to find a way to plan our "active" vacations without taking the busses that pick you up at your hotel, and store your walker or wheel chair during the drive. So we are starting slower today (Thursday morning here), our last full day, even though we have a long list of museums....

Thursday

The first museum we planned to visit was next to the zoo. We checked its web page, which had an English version. However, the English version failed to mention that the Museum was closed until the end of the month. It did mention that you should not come by car when you visit the museum. There was not only no parking at the museum, but none anywhere nearby. The Japanese travel mostly by trains and subways.

Being an engineer, I enjoyed the 20 minute train ride to the museum (Osaka has 8.8 million people) since I could see one of the "driver's cars" that was mid-train. The in-city subway-like trains cruise over 140km/h, which is 80 mph. When the train starts each motor is running 150 amps, but routine acceleration is 100 amps per motor. Dynamic braking is used almost exclusively - the train becomes a generator, transferring it's momentum to other trains - the brakes are only applied as the train finally comes to a stop.

As we walked from the closed museum to Takashimaya department store, one section of the tunnels had an art museum... impressionist paintings from the Chicago Museum of art were reproduced, life size, on a single ceramic tile per painting, so they could decorate this part of the subway halls. The copies were unbelievably realistic, despite the virtually indestructible media.

Friday

We visited the Osaka castle Thursday as it was getting dark, so returned on Friday morning - a sunny day with the rain passed. Our flight departed Osaka at 7:10 pm on Friday, and landed in DFW about 14 hours later - we cleared customs at 4 pm Friday. The date line does funny things... Since we had slept about half the flight, we have had almost no Jet lag - as long as you don't try to figure out which day it is.

With a stopover to celebrate Mark's birthday, we are back in Austin on Sunday afternoon


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