My tour ended in Kyoto. Since I was already there, I maxed out my vacation time in Japan instead of going home. As you can imagine, Kyoto hotels were booked solid around cherry blossom season, so I opted to stay in Osaka. Funny thing about geography, I've heard about the places, but after looking at a map many are quite close together (with modern transportation). Part of choosing Osaka, was due to the fact that Kyoto is about 45-60 minutes away by train.
Japan being pretty homogeneous, most think of it as uniformly "Japanese". It's surprising how many distinct regions there are in the country. As an anime fan, I've become more aware of Osaka - mainly with characters using a Kansai accent. Osaka has it's own traditions, with a proud zealous culture different from the national norm.
Osakans are stereotyped as outgoing party animals, or at least more outspoken than typical Japanese. I found people in Tokyo aloof in a metropolitan way. Too busy and in a rush to bother with anyone. People in Kyoto are said to be more stuck up, which is kind of true. More so, I found them tired of stupid tourists. Imagine your house in the middle of Disneyland, and you'll become more sympathetic to their situation. One girl running a shop was complaining to her boyfriend about how Americans always ask to use the toilet, so I guess that's pretty common too. Funny how you pick up such conversations, even with little knowledge of Japanese. I really did find Osaka different though. People struck me as more friendly, and willing to help out if you looked confused.
I should also point out that Osaka is a Japanese city. Tokyo is more international, Kyoto is a tourist trap with foreigners all over. In Osaka it's RARE to see non Japanese even for a city of that size. I spent 5 days taking the subway and walking around Osaka, passing thousands of people. Aside from the aquarium, a bar, and a tour bus, I could count the number of non Asians I saw on one hand. There's very little English help either. This makes it sound intimidating, but like I said people are pretty nice around Osaka, which is probably why it captured my heart more so than the other cities. Osaka has one major thing against it: the notoriously brutal summer humidity. Luckily I was there during the spring.
Osaka castle is a must see destination in Osaka. It's an odd feature: a beautiful historic Japanese castle stuck right in the middle of a modern Asian city. I've heard Osaka castle get a bad rap by tourists as not being "authentic", so I wanted to check this out for myself. Japan used to have thousands of castles, but over time most of them have been burned down and rebuilt repeatedly over the centuries after enduring wars, accidental fires and Godzilla attacks. About 1000 still stand stand today, however only 12 castles remain original in their construction. One of these, Himeji Castle; is considered the most beautiful in Japan. If you want to see the real deal, check out Himeji Castle. (Nijo in Kyoto is also authentic) Osaka Castle is convenient and a good start. Its fate was typical for many castles. During reconstruction they became modern buildings, only correct in outward appearance. The Japanese transformed many into historical centers for regional culture. Some recent reconstructions are using authentic methods to rebuild them though.
What you get out of Osaka castle depends on what you want. If you want beautiful authentic wooden structure they wouldn't let you touch anyway, Osaka castle is not for you. I'm a museum goer, and I loved the hell out of the castle myself. Each floor had more and more history of Osaka and the castle grounds itself. Tip: At the bottom there are two lines: one for the elevator so you can go from the top down, or you can take the stairs up. There aren't that many stairs, and you get plenty of rest walking on each floor anyway. Taking the stairs cuts 20+ minutes of waiting in line.
If you go to Japan, look up some castles. Each is unique in history, construction and they all have a distinct personality. They're not all awesome, so it pays to read up on them. Castles are a great sight to see on a trip.
You may know of Akihabara in Tokyo, but did you know Osaka has an equivalent called Nipponbashi? I suppose some would say there is only one Akihabara, which is true. Both adapted to otaku interests, but both also reflect their regional differences. Akihabara is know for being more glitzy and over the top, while Nipponbashi is more more "down to earth" with conventional concerns in things like price and selection.
I spent five days in Osaka, and I went to Nipponbashi every day. Usually I'd go site seeing in the morning, then return to geek out on anime stuff later in the day. I intended to write how awesome it is, but it got too big to put here. Instead I turned it into a guide for people interested in Nipponbashi, since I'd hardly heard anyone else talk about it.
Ramen & Okonomiyaki
Ramen isn't a place, but it is an experience. One thing you really need to do in Osaka is eat. Which is convenient because you kinda need to do that to keep living anyway. Osaka is well known for culinary excellence, so there is very good ramen to be had. I really can't stress this enough: ramen is awesome. You won't get a cute story about it to tell people at home (who always ask if you ate sushi), but it's something you'll remember.
As you see in anime, you say "itadakimasu" before you eat, and "gochousamadeshta" after the meal. Anime is fairly accurate in the portrayal of eating; chopsticks for noodles and additives, drink the broth right out of the bowl. (See also the movie Tampopo which is awesome.) Eating ramen "properly" requires you to slurp the noodles. They taste better that way. Once you get started, you're supposed to suck with all your strength to inhale them. It's not like you'll blend in, so eat in the way that is most comfortable to you. It's hard to deprogram the non slurping mentality, but I did well for myself. When I was with a tour group, a small group of us went to a small udon shop for lunch. The tour guide explained how Japanese slurped noodles, and yet no one else in the group had the guts to try. (I already knew all that and was prepared to vacuum full force). I think the other Japanese in the shop decided to be polite for our sake, and tried hard to not slurp even though it obviously pained them to do so. But I'm like screw it, I came to Japan, they slurp so I slurp too. Then a guy came in and started inhaling his noodles. I'm like, hell yeah bro, lets do this! Then, it was like a contest between us to see who could be louder. Much to the horror of my tour group, and relief of everyone else who returned to their normal eating style..
If you give slurping a shot, I'd recommend not doing it at full force and making a spectacle of yourself. The problem with eating this way? it splatters everywhere - especially on you. The closer your face is to the bowl, the less mess it makes. Another trick is holding chopsticks on either side of the noodles you're sucking on. Noodles are messiest as the end comes out of the broth. Chopsticks on either side restricts how far noodles bend up and fling soup. Drinking the broth is optional. It tastes good but may be too heavy for some people. Not only is ramen delicious, it's pretty cheap too! As is the case in any foreign country, always carry Pepto-Bismol pills in case things don't agree with you.
Okonomiyaki (literally means grill what you want). They're pancake looking things with all kinds of stuff in it. Yeah, I'm not good at describing food. Both Osaka and Hiroshima are known for their Okonomiyaki - Osaka style is more consistent, and Hiroshima style is layered. Make it a point to try both kinds if you're in either area. I really can't describe how delicious it is. Do it!
Odds and Ends
Cherry blossom season is often hit and miss. A warm or cold spring will change the timing, making cherry blossom season a bit tough to plan for and heavily luck based. One lesser known Osaka feature are the trees at the Osaka mint. The mint itself is nothing special, but they have a grove of well groomed cherry trees that are very popular among locals. The mint opens the grove for public viewing one week out of the year, and they only announce when a month in advance. They also bloom about a week later than regular trees around Osaka. If you're in Osaka in April, I really really recommend you look it up. I hit the area a week too early which is a bummer, but with the earliest blossom season on record (tied with 2002) I managed to hit precisely best time for everything else. I went earlier than what is considered the "best" time to go, so I lucked out in that way.
Wierd side story: I pack light and don't take much clothing. This means I have to do laundry, and it always becomes a huge fiasco. Apparently people throw their dirty clothes away, or just pack them in bags or something. Not me. So a girl at the front desk of my hotel drew a map to a laundromat nearby. After navigating a variety of dark allies I finally found it. If I were to guess when it was built, I'd say it was the 1970s. When was it last cleaned? Also probably the 1970s. For various reasons I nicknamed this the Blade Runner laundromat because it seriously looked like something out of a movie. It wasn't dirty, just really sooty. But when you opened up a washer or dryer, it was the most immaculate thing I'd ever seen on the inside - like cleaner than new. So I stuck a load in the washer and sat down in a chair (with 3 1/2 legs) and what did I find to read? Apparently someones kid was into shounen manga, because there were multiple STACKS of manga for me to read. Shounen Jump, those kinds of things. (Collections look like telephone books if you've seen them). I was relaxing and paging through them when I noticed flames shooting out of the back of the dryers. They weren't on fire or anything, that's just how they ran. Seriously, Blade Runner. Only in Osaka...
Yes, somehow I lived to write one.