As many of you know, I worked as an English teacher in South Korea. Like most places around the world, Korea gives students a summer break in the middle of July and August, and our school had decided to provide a business holiday for their staff. With four days at my disposal to do anything I wanted, I decided to do something that I’ve been wanting to do for a very long time—I booked a roundtrip flight across the sea to Osaka, Japan.
Like anyone else travelling alone, I researched weeks in advance. This research included: local customs, the transit, the currency, how much things would cost me, how much money I should bring, what’s polite, what’s impolite, and so on. As my travel date grew closer, I found more and more things I needed to research before I would inevitably fly away from home and be left to fend for myself in a strange land. I was nervous and excited all at once!
There are some things I still didn’t consider and that I wish I was prepared for before my trip. For one thing, I wish I had a Japanese phrasebook that I could refer to, since wifi hotspots were sparse outside my hotel and I couldn’t rely on Google as much as I would have liked. I was glad I had an umbrella for those rainy days and a folding fan for the heat, but I wish I knew to bring a handkerchief or a hand towel with me. Although I was already familiar with the humidity of Korean summers (up to 70% humidity!), I did not anticipate that Japan would be just as humid and wet and a handkerchief would have been of great help. (I survived by sneaking hand towels out of my hotel, hehe.) Packing my makeup bag turned out to be completely pointless, thanks to that humidity. I know better now than to plan a trip without first checking the weather forecasts.
Flight: $316 USD (from Seoul to Kansai International Airport)
Day 1: First Impressions
Today is the first day of my trip. I have my passport and printed flight itinerary in one hand and my suitcase in the other. My morning is spent tidying and locking up my house before taking a shuttle bus to Incheon International Airport in Seoul, Korea––I felt like I was leaving my life behind me, frozen in space while I flew away to a place I’ve only ever seen on the internet. I was nervous, but also excited for the adventure ahead of me.
The flight was relatively short and easy for me and I arrived at Kansai International Airport by 4:30pm. However, this is where my first challenge arose.
I knew that my first order of business after landing was to find the transit station inside the airport and buy my Icoca transit pass. It’s a card that you can use to tap in/tap out when you enter subway stations and buses anywhere within Osaka, and at the end of your trip, you can go back to the transit station and return it to get your deposit on the card back! Thanks to my research prior to my trip, I knew this would be the easiest and most cost efficient way to get around during my short trip to Japan. When I eventually found the counter to buy my transit pass, I became confused and unsure what to do anymore because… it turned out that there were two separate subway stations from two different railway systems. Without wifi, I couldn’t remember if I was meant to take the JR railway or the Nankai railway which meant that already, within an hour of arriving into Japan, I was feeling overwhelmed.
So I took a step back, took deep breaths, and counted to ten. Then, I walked up to one of the counters and simply asked. The woman was very kind, patient, and spoke fluent English (as expected in an airport). She gave me my Icoca card and told me where I needed to go to get to my hotel. Relieved, I followed her directions and arrived safely at the subway station nearest to my hotel.
Then came my second challenge. The hotel was near the airport via a short shuttle bus trip, but the railway was not so close to the hotel. After traveling all day and having missed my chance with the shuttle bus, I discovered that I then had to walk for 15 minutes in the humid heat with all my luggage. Needless to say, I was not looking presentable by the time I arrive and checked in. Also, it turned out that the hotel was in a rather small town on the outskirts of Osaka. In hindsight, I wish I had looked into the location of my hotel a lot better so I could be someplace closer to downtown, but it hadn’t occurred to me that the airport was on an island in Osaka Bay and that it was relatively far from the city itself. I was disappointed that I wasn’t staying within the city and that everything wouldn’t be as conveniently close as I liked, but during that 15 minute walk in the humid evening heat, I had a chance to look around. I may not have been in the city, but it was interesting to see the more rural side of Japan. During the span of my walk to the hotel, I came to terms with the less than ideal location and decided that it was going to be an interesting experience nonetheless.
After checking into my very small hotel room and finding myself satisfied with the amenities, I then went hunting for several bottles of water and my dinner. I didn’t have to hunt for too long, thankfully––just a few steps away from my hotel, I found a ramen shop. The inside was just as you might imagine an old-fashioned noodle shop to be. The owner seemed friendly and evidently was prepared for tourists since he had an English menu with pictures handy so I was able to simply point to order. The meal was hearty and savoury; it filled me up and definitely left me feeling satisfied after a long day of traveling. (Unfortunately, I was so eager to dig in that I forgot to take a picture.) There’s something uniquely charming about having ramen in an authentic Japanese noodle shop and it’s an experience that I strongly recommend when visiting the country. Now I feel that if ever I were to return to Japan, it would feel almost blasphemous to not have ramen in a ramen shop.
Icoca transit pass: 5000 yen
Hotel: $188 USD (3 nights)
Ramen: 750 yen
Day 2: Osaka Castle
After sleeping soundly in my hotel, I sat down to take advantage of the free wifi and begin planning my itinerary for the next two days of being a typical Canadian tourist. Of course, I soon realized I had a long list of places I wanted to see and things to do, so I had to narrow it down to the places and things I’d be most passionate about––history, food, and nature.
So I opened Google Maps and mapped out my route for the day, being mindful not to close the app while I was out unless I could get wifi. I pinned key locations I wanted to visit so I can easily refer to the map anytime I needed. Another navigation app that you can use that’s very convenient would be MAPS.ME. The best part about this app is that it doesn’t need wifi once you’ve downloaded the necessary maps so you can use it on-the-go in foreign lands. You can even download guides for places and things to see or do.
The first stop on my journey was Osaka Castle. I admit that I didn’t do too much research on this place before making the trek over, wanting to be surprised as I get there. I was expecting it to be a historic site like most others in North America where they preserved as much of the original atmosphere as possible to be like living history. Sadly, that was not the case here. Most of the interior was completely remodeled into a modern museum like any other with its central theme being the samurai warlord that first built it 400 years ago. His name was Toyotomi Hideyoshi.
Despite my disappointment around the remodelling of the interior, it was still a cool and educational experience. Months prior, I played a game called Ikémen Sengoku that, believe it or not, was specifically about all the warlords that this museum primarily discussed. So I guess you could say that the game was like a preview for my experience at Osaka Castle and it was really fun to see the parallels between the game and the real people and history.
Within the castle’s property, there are numerous little kiosks and boutiques packed full of souvenirs and little cafes. I found a takoyaki bar, and decided that this was as good a time as any to try the popular Japanese street food.
For those that don’t know, takoyaki are essentially deep-fried octopus balls. Sometimes there will be chopped vegetables mixed in. These ones had green onions inside the batter. Since this was a takoyaki “bar,” once you were given your order of takoyaki, there was a round counter with a wide variety of dressings, sauces, and toppings! For mine, I added fish sauce, a little mayo, spring onions and bonito flakes!
But as much as I loved walking around and seeing Osaka in all her daytime glory, I was getting tired and decided to head back to my hotel. Once I had cleaned myself up, I went out for a dinner nearby and then relaxed the evening away.
Osaka Castle entry fee: 600 yen
Takoyaki: 1000 yen
Day 3: Tennoji
After relaxing the previous evening, I felt I had more energy to do more on this day. Just like the previous day, I mapped out and pinned key places to visit and the first place I set my sights on was Shintennoji Temple. As you can see from the picture on the left, it was fairly overcast and dusty that day. If air pollution is an issue for you, you can buy masks fairly cheaply in convenience stores.
My first impression arriving at the temple was how serene it felt. At the same time, I felt like an outsider––an intruder––to the people that were there to pray or pay respects to their gods and ancestors, despite the place being open to the public as a national landmark. Within the grounds, there was a large pond which was home to hundreds of turtles, there was a Buddhist temple where a funeral was taking place, and at its centre was the tower seen in the picture above where there were thousands of miniature gold plaques dedicated to the people who prayed at that temple and died since it was first built ~1500 years ago.
A short walk from the temple is Tennoji Park. When I researched places to go, I discovered a zoo inside the park but unfortunately, by the time I had finished at the temple and arrived at the park, it was 4pm and the zoo had stopped accepting entries. Disappointed that I couldn’t visit the zoo, I decided to wander around and explore the park itself, since there were signs posted everywhere of other landmarks to visit. There were lots of young families out for picnics on the property so if you like people watching, this is a good place to go. Inside Tennoji Park, you’ll also find Keitakuen Garden. The entry fee is really cheap and although I went in the summertime, it was still a serene and beautiful place to visit. I imagine it would be thriving with flowers in the spring.
After walking around some more, I found a few shrines dedicated to samurai warlords from centuries ago (all of which were mentioned in Osaka Castle). I wound up walking the perimeter of the zoo to get back to the main road and admittedly may have gotten a little lost in the process, but I knew I would get there eventually! After all that walking, I’ve managed to work up an appetite and decided to find a place where I could get wifi and searched for sushi restaurants nearby, knowing this would be my last chance to have dinner in Japan. I couldn’t possibly leave without first having sushi made in Japan!
Between Canada and Korea, I’ve been to a few different types of sushi restaurants where they serve either as a buffet or in sets, but I wanted to try a new type of restaurant I have never seen before. I knew that Japan had sushi restaurants where the food is served on conveyor belts; rather than charge per person or per set, they charge you by the plates you take! The plates are color-coded from cheapest to most expensive where the cheapest was about 300 yen and the most expensive was as high as 2500 yen! You simply stack the plates and the server counts them for your final bill when you’re finished. They even had a tablet at every table so you can order specific plates you want (which is how I got the edamame bowl). What was unique about this particular restaurant is that they had a hot water tap at every station with which you could make your own matcha tea to go with your dinner (the red pot in the picture).
Once I ate my fill, I went in search of the subway station and made my way back to my hotel, satisfied and in good spirits.
Shintennoji Temple entry fee: 300 yen
Tennoji Garden entry fee: 300 yen
Sushi: ~30,000-40,000 yen, depending on your appetite or the plates you pick.
Day 4: Conclusion
After walking around and exploring Osaka for two days, it was time to go back. There was still so much left to see and do, but I needed to get back for work on Monday. Just as I made an oversight when choosing my hotel to check in, I had another oversight when choosing it out to check out. The check out time was set at noon at the latest, but my flight was only in the evening. Thankfully, I was about to take the hotel’s shuttle bus this time and I was able to get to the airport without issue and in good time. I was very grateful I didn’t need to deal with public transit going back to the airport as I did to find my way to the hotel.
Once I arrived at the airport, it was now lunch time and I had tons of time to kill before my flight. I didn’t want to walk around with all my luggage, so I paid to have my luggage stored in the airport and I walked around with only my backpack and my wallet. I discovered that on the floor below security and bag check was a huge variety of shops and restaurant, almost all of them selling Japanese merchandise of some sort. Realizing this, I decided to spend the next few hours shopping for souvenirs (which I had yet to do) and having ramen for lunch.
When it came time for my flight, I went to reclaim my luggage, stashed my new souvenirs inside and then finally went through airport security. Within a few hours, I was taking a taxi home and resting in my own bed before starting my old routines all over again the next day.
All in all, it was an enjoyable experience but I wish I had more time to do more things and experience more of Osaka before I had to get back to my day-to-day life. I definitely look forward to going back, although I would likely try to go in Spring when the flowers will be in full bloom and the weather can be more forgiving. Some day, I will take the opportunity to go back and finish my adventures in Japan!
Research your destination and plan what you want to do and what you want to see.
Choose your hotel location carefully.
Have your travel route ready in a map app before you go out for the day.
Pack walking shoes.
Unless you speak Japanese with some fluency, a phrasebook is very useful.
Prepare for the weather. If it’s summer, be ready for rain and humidity. If it’s winter, prepare for snow.
If you’re sensitive to air (such as asthma), please be aware that the air pollution in Asia is generally bad so bring a mask to protect yourself.
If you’re lost or confused, don’t hesitate to ask. It’s part of their culture to be welcoming and they want to leave a good impression on tourists and newcomers. They’re happy to help and a good number of business owners and young citizens speak some degree of English.
Having ramen in a ramen shop must.
Try a conveyor belt sushi restaurant. It is a memorable experience.
I know this article can seem very long, but I hope it will help you on your journey and inspire you to try new things and embark on an adventure!