Posted by: Carolyn ODonnell | February 14, 2014

Japan: Fried food and freezing temperatures

Shinsekai: This kind of seedy is fine with me, at least there is plenty to eat

Shinsekai: This kind of seedy is fine with me, at least there is plenty to eat

Nothing prepared me for how cold it was in Osaka. I’d been to Japan before in winter and recall nothing of my feelings about the weather (unlike, say the whale restaurant in Shibuya and Otto-san and his stuffed dog in Nagano).

But I will never forget how cold I am now. Yesterday I wore six layers, including two fleeces, and I was still cold. I don’t remember feeling this cold in the Arctic Circle when it was 30 below.

The Japanese think it is cold too, though they are not wearing as many clothes as me. Maybe four years of living in the Tropics have ruined me for places with more than one season. Today I looked out the window and it was snowing and all I could think was: “Damn, wet feet.” By then I was in Kyoto and though told it doesn’t snow in Kyoto, well, the weather had other ideas.

Apart from being freezing, Osaka is nice in an orderly built-up kind of way – rather grey in winter with a rather overwhelming amount of concrete. However the shops are colorful, especially near the “youth area” of Amerika Mura. And everything is so clean and the public transport is really well organised.

Giant sushi: All you can handle

Giant sushi: All you can handle

It is said Osakans spend more on food than anything else, and there are plenty of dining opportunities to help this happen. I was researching street food for an article and a nice man called Toshio was showing me around, introducing me to okonomiyaki (the Japanese “pizza” with lots of cabbage), and takoyaki (octopus balls).

After seeing Shitennoji Temple, I told him we had to eat more, so we headed to Doutonburi Street, where crowds gather beneath neon and signs in the shape of food (giant crab, cow, octopus, sushi, puffer fish).

Big decisions: What if they only have 80 tidbits that can be dipped in batter and deep-fried?

Big decisions: What if they only have 80 tidbits that can be dipped in batter and deep-fried?

We found queues besides takoyaki stalls – it is fair to say that Osakans love balls. And kushikatsu – stuff on skewers, battered and cooked in hot oil. It is fair to say I ate my own weight in fried food that afternoon.

Later Toshio took me to see Shinsekai, a postwar development that is now considered a little seedy by the Japanese, which means the rest of us won’t even notice. This place is the kushikatsu center of the universe, with illuminated mobile menus outside most restaurants advertising their fat-soaked morsels. There is all kinds of food here, but kushikatsu is a big draw. One place, with a giant smiley chef holding a skewer stuck to the front of the building, had more than 100 kushikatsu varieties, from meat to lotus root to ice cream. One menu had eight kinds of pork (fatty belly, heart, stomach, ears, etc) waiting to be battered.

Where the snacks are: Giant gyoza

Where the snacks are: Giant gyoza

To finish off a full day of new experiences, Toshio and I drove through the red light area. It seemed silly not to – it was right by my hotel. Even this was clean and tidy and appeared to be well organised. Small groups of mostly young men were wandering around looking sheepish through a small grid of streets. These featured ground floor “shops” which were open to the night, with an older madam type in a kimono and a comely young miss in lingerie/nurse’s uniform/skimpy frock sitting on a Hello Kitty cushion behind her.

The women looked very attractive, the madams looked business-like. I imagine they were rather cold sitting out there like that and just wished those young men would get over themselves and make their minds up already. Though at $300 a pop, I guess you want to make sure you get the sexual fantasy and kawaii (cute) soft furnishings.

Then it was back to the Hotel Mikado, which I’d found on the internet. It’s popular with travelers of all kinds and I can see why – it’s clean, the staff are very friendly and speak good English, and the price is very reasonable. It has computers and a laundry and even a small kitchen. I liked it, though there was little sound insulation and I found the futon on the floor a bit thin after staying with an American friend who believes in comfort.

My room being on the 7th floor, I had to go down to the ground floor for a shower, which probably wouldn’t suit everyone, but there was plenty of hot water and clean towels. The hotel even provides a robe and slippers so you can travel around with minimal inconvenience. If you are a light sleeper, I would recommend the top (8th) floor, maximum distance from the lift and the ding ding dinging microwave.

Arriving in Osaka the plane was late. We were delayed leaving LCCT in KL (and after I was thinking good thoughts about Air Asia being punctual). Instead of making up as much lost time as possible, the Captain got on the loudspeaker and wittered on interminably about which way he’d go when he entered Taiwanese airspace and what speed he’d be going when he got to Osaka. He woke me up and I have trouble sleeping on planes, so I was cross to be disturbed by such utter drivel (subsequently translated into two more languages). The whole thing took about 20 minutes. By then I was too angry to sleep anymore.

So we landed at 11pm and there was a huge panic to get out of the airport and catch a train into town, as I imagined taxis would be extremely expensive (and I was right). The guy next to me was not happy either, he had to catch a train to another area altogether and pessimistically said it would take an hour to get through customs.

I’ve never spent an hour getting through customs and I wasn’t going to start now. I barreled through the airport in about quarter of an hour, with enough time to harass the poor ticket man and get him to call the hotel and tell them I was on my way, having read something about check-in finishing at midnight.

Then I reached Namba, and was supposed to catch the subway – I had maps and everything! Of course it was finished, and I had to take a cab, which cost $16 to travel about one train stop. Then we couldn’t find the hotel, and he switched the meter off while we frowned at my map. Anyway, I got there and the hotel was a heaving hive of activity and I met a young nice young guy on reception, who was from Tokyo but spoke great English with an American accent and knew more about Osaka than all the other people I met put together.

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