12/25/2013 – Day 6 of Japan

January 3, 2014 - 11:38 am No Comments

Merry Christmas! We woke up bright and early to take the train to Osaka, Grace’s favorite city in the Kansai region. Only 40 minutes away by express train, Osaka is a vibrant, youthful, colorful, and expressive city. People here speak in Kansai-ben, with intonation that sounds much warmer and more casual than Tokyo-speak.

We started off at the famous Osaka-jo Castle, one of the most famous in all of Japan for the role ir played in the unification of Japan during the 16th century of the Azuchi-Momoyama period. Toyotomi Hideyoshi commenced construction of the castle in 1583. He probably represents one of the few examples of social mobility in feudal japan, rising from a lowly peasant’s son to a powerful samurai and kampaku (regent) with his effective political machinations. The castle eventually fell under his son’s rule when the Tokugawa invaded in a legendary battle (the descriptions illustrated that many of the generals and key officials committed suicide afterward – suicide in feudal japan was highly honorable).

We then took the subway to the Shinsaibashi, the main central shopping area. What a fun city! Shotengai (covered shopping areas) abound everywhere, and I enjoyed poking around. When we got to the famous bridge with the Glico man and crazy giant food-stuff storefronts (crab, sushi, octopus, cow…), we took a lot of pictures. Even though all Japanese love their food, Osaka residents take it to the next level. We started off with deliciously fresh and hot takoyaki – tender octopus in a soft batter with a tasty coating of barbeque, sweet mayonnaise, and bonito flakes. Then, we went to have kaiten sushi (conveyor belt sushi). Everything was so cheap! Grace and I had 12 plates in total, including fugu – the poisonous puffer fish if cut improperly. Fugu has such an interesting texture – it doesn’t taste like much, but it has a very soft, watery, yet tender texture – really hard to describe but very delicious with its delicate flavor. It came out to be only $7 per person even though we stuffed ourselves full with lots of sushi, including soft cloud-like raw scallop, seared tuna, seared and marinated salmon, surf clam, octopus, eel, and of course, all the traditional fish pieces. I love the experience of pulling things off the belt – I wish I could eat like this every day….

With our bellies completely stuffed, we headed to Mandarake, one of Grace’s favorite stores, in America-mura (the foreigner district), selling all sorts of anime, manga, idol goods, and other subculture curios. Grace bought some doujinshi and some anime goods, and I enjoyed browsing through all the crazy cosplay outfits.

Looking at trip advisor, the #1 attraction in Osaka is the famous Kaiyukan aquarium, one of the largest public aquariums in the world. I give the aquarium 5 out of 5 stars for content and scale, but barely a 2 out of 5 stars for animal welfare. Since Christmas is a couples’ holiday and the aquarium a popular date location, we had to wait in line for 30 minutes to get in, but it was a pleasant day outside and we enjoyed the architecture and whale illumination on the outside of the building (not to mention people watching and marveling at the crazy gravity-defying hair of the teenage Japanese male). Inside, we followed the guided path, elbowing amorous couples out of the way, to see a huge variety of fish and aquatic flora and fauna. Notably, this aquarium is famous for its whale sharks – we saw two inside a large tank, sharing space with a multitude of stingrays, manta-rays, and smaller sharks. Known for being the largest extant fish species, the whale shark can grow to be over 14 meters and and weigh over 66,000 pounds.

To make the viewing experience more pleasant for visitors, the width of the tank is very limited so the fish have to approach the viewing glass, but the depth can be significant. I felt terrible for the dolphins, seals & sea lions (crammed together into a small tank), and penguins in that order – the aquarium squashed in a sizable number of each in a very limited amount of space. They barely had sufficient space to move without smashing into each other, particularly the dolphins. It was really impressive to see so many animals up close as the high density compelled more of the animals to approach the glass, but I wish that the overall environment was healthier. Don’t even get me started on the touch tank area…there were a dozen penguins just sitting out in a tiny viewing space with their wings clipped. They were completely stationary, unhappy and probably too hot. The touch tank allowed me to feel a slimy manta ray, a spiny leopard ray, and a shark. The rays were huge, perhaps 4 feet in diameter each and stuck in a tiny limited space with shallow water, tons of grasping hands, and too high an animal density for any comfort. One part of me marvels at the opportunity since I’ve never been able to get a chance to touch something so large before (most touch tanks stick to just horseshoe crabs and small boring crustaceans), but the other part of me is astounded that the aquarium can get away with something like this and vehemently opposes some treatment of animals…oh well, not all aquariums have a conservation focus.

We then headed back towards the station area for some dinner, stopping in at the fancy rooftop dining bazaar of the Seitan Department Store. We had odd “western” fusion food my traditional Japanese chanko nabe set meal also contained German sausage. Grace had a hamburger hot plate special, and we then shared a delicious holiday chestnut parfait (the desserts are too amazing here…it’s terrible for me but if I don’t eat them now, when will I get a chance again?).

Tired, we headed home for a good night’s rest. Alas, a conclusion to Christmas – frankly, it doesn’t feel very much like Christmas so I have every intention of celebrating a “proper” Christmas with my family when I get back to the US!

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