Journeys in Japan: Osaka and Kyoto

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It’s 10:23 am. I’m sitting slumped on a concrete train platform in Kyoto, toasty under the mild sun and surrounded by a slapdash assortment of buildings and blue mountains. Trains glide smoothly to and from the platform, and their passengers stare at me from clean, tinted windows with mild concern. Because someone sitting on the ground tends to draw attention in Japan.

We’ve been here for five wonderful, fascinating days. Our journey began in Osaka, the second largest city in the country, where we explored castles and temples and mouth-wateringly delicious Japanese cuisine.

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Of course, our first meal simply had to be okonomiyaki, a Japanese pancake generally stuffed with cabbage, green onion, pork, and topped with seaweed, sauce, and Japanese mayo. Our friend Reina first introduced us to the dish two years ago, and we even blogged about how much we love it.

So, slightly wilted from a night of red-eye travel, we forced ourselves awake and headed to a district that Google promised us had a plethora of okonomiyaki restaurants.

Unlike Hong Kong, most Japanese restaurants display no English signs whatsover. So most meals are games of chance, and involve entering random establishments that look like they may serve food, and ordering by pointing at Japanese characters on a menu. So, following this strategy, we gamely entered a small restaurant and repeated the word “okonomiyaki” about 15 times. Eventually they nodded and took our menus away, and we commended ourselves on our excellent communication skills.

What they brought us was definitely not okonomiyaki.

A few minutes later, the server presented us with two sizzling hot plates, each containing a thin layer of what looked like grey mush.

It tasted like grey mush too.

We nodded and smiled as we ate the tasteless sludge, which wasn’t that bad when I drenched it in spicy powder. I have zero idea what the food was (perhaps they thought we said Okayu, which is a Japanese rice porridge?), but I still enjoyed the experience immensely- the restaurant’s owner wanted to communicate with us so badly that she started texting her friend and showing us English phrases on her phone.

We managed to finish the sizzling gruel, and said “arigato” a bunch of times and then left, very confused with this new, strange version of okonomiyaki. Thankfully, over the next couple days we would get to experience real okonomiyaki- and it was, as expected, delicious.

After dropping our cumbersome backpacks off at the guesthouse we would be staying for the next two nights (and getting lost multiple times, but always getting back on track thanks to the wonderfully helpful locals), we wandered around Osaka. We experienced a true Japanese Cat Café and climbed the Osaka castle.

We strolled through Tennoji Park and stumbled across a gorgeous temple and cemetery.

We even tried out a public bathhouse, because we’re in Japan and why not? The entire experience was absolutely ridiculous.

To make sure that everyone is clean enough to enter the tubs, guests are (thankfully) expected to shower beforehand. This involves squatting butt-naked in front of about 50 other naked women, and using a hand held nozzle to bathe your body. At first I was horribly uncomfortable, but you soon realize that everyone is in the same boat. Everyone in the room was completely bare, so my internal awkwardness quickly faded away until I didn’t even think about my nakedness anymore. It just became a fact- I was naked, and so was everyone else.

After showering we crept over to the tubs, which are big, steaming vats of water, each accompanied by a sign cluttered with Japanese characters. Of course, we weren’t able to read the signs, so we dipped our feet into the nearest bath but grimaced at the boiling temperature and quickly withdrew. The tub next door was different: the water was cooler, almost tepid, and it held a tap that was piping fresh water from the wall. We stuck our legs inside, but then noticed that the sign on this tub looked strange- the red Japanese characters were indecipherable, but I was suddenly horribly aware that there were no other bathers in this pool.

“Crap, maybe this is a reservoir or something?” I urgently questioned Kelly.

Now concerned that we had just defiled a fresh water pool we weren’t supposed to enter with our naked bodies, we stepped out, now drawing multiple stares from the other Japanese bathers in the room (who were probably wondering why the stupid foreigners kept hopping from tub to tub).

Determined to find a tub we could sit in, we turned to our left and noticed a woman relaxing in a seemingly serene pool. Surely if she was in, we could go in too, right?

Wrong.

To my extreme fright, as soon as I had plunged my limbs into the water I felt both knees buckle and both legs seize up painfully. One of my hands, also touching the water, burst into horribly uncomfortable tingles as well. Desperately trying to make sense of my sudden on-set paralysis, I looked over at Kelly, who’s eyes were wide with shock as well. The water was somehow infused with electric currents (don’t ask me to explain it, I don’t understand science) and the electricity was shooting painful jolts at our limbs.

We launched ourselves out of the terribly painful death bath, both gaping at the Japanese woman who was still sitting contentedly in the electric tub, the picture of perfect tranquility.

Finally, it was the fourth tub we tried that we managed to stick with. Just a regular hot tub, this bath thankfully managed to relax my tense muscles into jelly.

After two days in Osaka, we headed to Kyoto, the home of one of our best friends in the world.

IMG_9169.jpgIt had been a year since we saw each
other, but, like with all my closest friends, we all fell back into easy banter and giggles like we had never been apart. Reina had one precious day off work, so we visited the bright red gates of the Fushimi Inari Shrine
and the dense greenery of the Bamboo Forest and a bridge that was apparently famous. We ate ramen and mochi and tea flavoured ice cream and everything was delicious and the sights were incredible but our focus was each other- on the fact that our crew was back together again, finally.

IMG_9275.jpgReina is unfortunately a true adult and has a job and responsibilities, so Kelly and I spent the next few days exploring Kyoto and Nara (a nearby prefecture) by ourselves. Nara is known for its extremely tame deer, which you can pet and feed “deer cookies.”

 

Each night we spent with Reina, eating Japanese snacks and chatting and watching movies. It didn’t feel like we were travelling- it felt familiar and homey and relaxing, as though we were living in Japan.

That feeling strikes me often, as we stroll through quaint neighbourhoods or have conversations with wonderfully friendly and unfailingly polite locals. Japan feels pleasantly familiar and comforting to me in a way that Hong Kong does not. Hong Kong is wild and exciting and often downright exhausting, while Japan is peaceful and charming. Where Hong Kong ignites and flames, Japan infuses with a soft, warm glow.

We have five more days here, and I already know that it won’t be enough. But it will have to suffice, for now, and someday we’ll be back.

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TRUE okonomiyaki.

 

We filmed a few of our Japanese adventures: check out the first video here!

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