The next leg of our DIY Japan trip brings us to Osaka – the 3rd largest city in Japan and it is from here that we will fly back to one of the smallest countries in the world – Singapore. While I’m sure there are lots of eating, shopping and taking ‘KAWAII’ photos in Osaka, I made sure we incorporated some educational experiences (this is what happens when you have a teacher in the family).
For this leg of the trip, our goodwill guides are Miss Kazuko and Miss Keiko. Both were very friendly, proficient in English and wasted no time in explaining to us the history of Osaka and the places we were visiting. For one, the Osakans (if there’s such a word) pride themselves that their city is ‘busier than Tokyo’. Judging from the immense crowd at the Nankai Train Station, the speed of the escalators and the rate they slurp their ramen, I know they are for real.
The modern yet historical metropolis that is Osaka
Our hotel, the Swisshotel Nankai is situated right on top of the Osaka-Namba Station in Osaka – one of the main (and busiest) train stations in Japan. It is one of our favorite hotels which we will highly recommend to DIY travellers because it connects us to virtually anywhere in Osaka and to greater Japan conveniently (more on that in the next post) . Take an escalator down from the hotel and we are surrounded by several large shopping malls and eateries, think Takashimaya in Singapore except bigger…and busier (I honestly think Singaporeans have not seen ‘busy’ until they experience the Japanese subways during peak hour. Agree?)
We took the Kintestsu Railway limited express train from the Osaka-Namba station direct to Nara (Kintetsu Nara Station). The Kintetsu Nara Station is an underground station just a few steps from Nara Park, while the JR station is a 15-20 minute walk from the park. Our rail journey took about 30 minutes and costs 1070 yen each – so quick and fuss-free.
Our first stop is the Nara Deer Park (奈良公園). This is the famous park where about 1200 deers have been roaming free since 1880 when the park was established (I love old places!). The deers here are revered in olden times as messengers of the gods. Devotees would flock to feed them while on their pilgrimage to the nearby Kofukuji and Todaiji temples.
When we arrived in Nara, we walked towards Nara Koen (Park) but not before passing by Kōfuku-ji Temple (興福寺). Built since 710AD, the current temple complex comprises of the Eastern Golden Hall and the 5-story Pagoda which incidentally is Japan’s 2nd tallest. Temples and Pagodas in Japan are fascinating works of ancient architecture and I can never tire of seeing the intricate craftsmanship involved. While I was admiring these ancient structures, what should come trotting? Yes, one of the 1200 deers in Nara Park.
Right in the compound of Kōfuku-ji Temple are some spotted deers. They are endearing and totally docile. Some would sit there and let you pat while others would just trot towards you for some food. All around, you’ll hear playful shrieks as people get excited feeding many of these wild deer. The park, a mere 20 minutes walk from Nara Train Station, is essentially a large lawn with random trees planted. There visitors can buy the flat crackers (Shika Senbei) sold for about 150 yen a pack by an old lady to feed these deers.
The deers which seemed tame are wild animals after all. Which means that you have to be gentle with them, don’t stand behind their hind feet nor make excitable noises near them. When you’re holding the crackers, more may come towards you but stay calm. It’s best to put these crackers flat on your palm to feed them so that they don’t nibble at your fingers.
Get up close and stroke their fur, observe those intricate dots and the fine hair surround the horns. It’s really quite magical to be so near these ‘mythical’ animals.
Walking further down 15 minutes past Nara Koen (and side-stepping many dried deer poo), we arrived at the Nandaimon Gate – entrance to the famed Tōdai-ji Temple 東大寺 (Great Eastern Temple), one of Japan’s most famous Buddhist Temples and a prominent landmark of Nara.
I was awe stuck standing at the Nandaimon Gate alone! This is a huge wooden structure (in fact, the largest in the world!) watched over by two huge fierce looking wooden statues that represent the Nio Guardian Kings that have been ‘guarding’ the temple since AD752. The gate and the statues are designated national treasures, protected by wire mesh. I can’t even imagine the work involved in carving them!
Walking past the Nandaimon Gate, we saw right before us, a colossal wooden structure – Tōdai-ji Temple! So far we have not entered any of the temples in Japan but for the Todaiji, we are willing to make an exception. It’s that same feeling I had when I stepped into Turkey’s Blue Mosque or the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican City looking at the huge beams and pillars. There is nothing like this anywhere near home! Within the Daibutsuden (Big Buddha Hall) is the largest bronze Buddha statue. I’m sure for Buddhist would be quite a spiritual experience! We left Tōdai-ji feeling awestruck, still trying to fathom how these structures were built about 1000 years ago.
On the way back, Dana fed more deers and we fed ourselves some of the heavenly Macha ice creams sold at the road side stalls. It was a pleasant stroll back to Kintetsu Nara Station for our train ride back to the hotel.
The next day, we took a gamble. Instead of visiting Osaka Castle – a quintessential icon of Osaka, we were drawn by posters of a large whale shark to visit the Osaka Aquarium KAIYUKAN (海遊館), one of the largest public aquariums in the world. I was also curious if it would be predictable since Singapore already has our own S.E.A Aquarium. From our hotel, we took the train from Namba to Osakako. From the station, walk about 10 minutes and you’ll reach the aquarium (tip: bring a brolly as part of the route is not sheltered).
The KAIYUKAN has an extensive list of 19 permanent exhibits featuring marine animals from Cook Straits to the Pacific Ocean, from the Aleutian Islands to Monterey Bay. Visitors start their tour of the aquarium on the 8th floor and slowly spiral down floor by floor around the central tank. Some of the tanks stretch over several floors, making it possible to observe the animals from different depths and perspectives.
The aquarium painstakingly replicates the natural habitats of the marine creatures, allowing them to thrive. Visitors can appreciate the landscape and conditions in which these creatures survive in. They are not featured plainly as a hole in the hall type which makes the experience all that authentic and enjoyable.
While it was awesome watching the gigantic Whale Shark regally swimming in the Pacific Ocean exhibits alongside giant rays (bigger than the ones in SEA Aquarium), what we truly enjoyed was the ‘newly’ opened Kaiyukan areas (opened in 2013) which gives visitors an unblocked visual access to some of these sea creatures. The Artic Zone features the world’s largest dome-shaped ceiling tank allowing us to see seals swim from beneath the floating ice. In the Artic Zone, visitors can get seriously up close to the seals. Unreal! The Falkland Island Zone features free ranging penguins (yes, here in Osaka!) right before our eyes without any barrier. It was very interesting, to say the least, to see such animals within a whiskers’ length from us! Not to mention, these amazing rarely-seen marine life. Simply mesmerizing!
Verdict? We love Osaka Aquarium KAIYUKAN! It is what all world-class aquariums should emulate – highly educational and interactive, allowing visitors young and old to understand marine creatures in their natural habitats up close. We really enjoyed our visit and had no regrets swapping Osaka Castle for this. Oh, do visit their souvenir shops before you exit. They sell a range of interesting marine-themed stationery, crafts and memorabilia not found anywhere else in Japan. We bought quite a lot of souvenirs there for friends back home.
Interactive ‘stamping’ stations gives children a sense of mission during their visit!
Osaka Aquarium KAIYUKAN is part of the Tempozan Harbor Village at Osaka’s bay area which houses the Tempozan Giant Ferris Wheel, one of the largest Ferris wheels in the world at 100 m in diameter and 112.5 m in height (it takes 15 minutes to complete a ride). There is also a LEGOland Discovery Centre (which kids will love) and over 100 shops, restaurants, fast-food restaurants and amusement park. It’s worthwhile to devote a full day here.
1-1-10 Kaigandori, Minato-ku, Osaka City 552-0022 Japan
Opens 10:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m.* Last admission is one hour before the closing time.
Holidaying in such a big city like Osaka is no easy feat but yet the locals are more than willing to go out of their ways to ensure foreign visitors like us get the most authentic experience. We left with a much greater appreciation of the Japanese way of life and culture. Japan has charmed us so much and we would love to return in the near future!
Our DIY Japan Trip 2015 (Summer):