The wonderful thing about travel is the experience of something different than what you're used to. And for a European it doesn't get any more different than Japan. When you're in Japan, you know that you're 5,000 miles away from home.
However, one thing that’s Japanese that I am used to is their food. I seek out Japanese restaurants no matter where I am in the world. It was four years since my last trip to Japan so another visit was well overdue. I’d been hearing that the food capital of Japan was Osaka, so, of course, I booked a flight there.
I used some of my Avios (British Airways) miles to book a business class flight with Japan Airlines direct from Bangkok to Osaka for 20,000 Avios + £26.90 ($34.10 USD / €32.08 EUR) in cash. An excellent value redemption considering the cash price of the same ticket was £963 ($1221 USD / €1148 EUR).
It was a 5 hour flight but fortunately Japan Airlines use a long haul aircraft for the route. Long haul is usually defined by most airlines to be over 7 hours. The benefit of flying in a long haul aircraft is that you get a flat bed in business class rather than just a big seat. And with a 23:25 takeoff I needed it.
I got a solid 3 and a half hours sleep in. The cabin crew asked me before lights out if I wanted to be woken up for breakfast or left to sleep. Of course I value food higher than sleep so I wasn’t going to miss my first Japanese breakfast of the trip.
With the 2 hour time difference the flight landed at 6:25. Early morning arrivals are good in that you get a whole day at your destination. In fact, more than a full day for me because I generally don’t get out of bed before midday. But they are bad in that it’s usually way too early to check into a hotel.
I wasn’t staying in a hotel anyway as they are absurdly expensive in Osaka. You can find a small apartment that’s of the same standard as hotel room for about a quarter the price on Airbnb. Airbnb seems to be very oversaturated with hosts in Osaka so with much more supply than demand prices are very low.
Since I was arriving early I contacted hosts before booking to ask if I could check in at 8am. My first choice host refused, saying I’d have to pay for the previous day, but my second choice host agreed to it even though that meant she’d have to block out the previous day from booking, basically giving me a free day. So that’s the one I booked.
I got an 11% discount for staying a full week and the net total after Airbnb fees was $240 USD (£189 GBP / €225 EUR) for 7 nights. Which is roughly the same price as 1 night in the Holiday Inn in Osaka.
I also got a $50 credit from Airbnb for my first ‘business trip’, a promotion that they are still running. All you have to do is book a place that they deem suitable for business travellers and tick a box to say it’s a business trip.
(If you haven’t signed up for Airbnb yet you can use my referral for a free $30 credit to use on your first stay.)
I took the subway from the airport to my Airbnb as the 14,000 JPY (£96 GBP / $121 USD / €114 EUR) taxi fare didn’t appeal to my Scottish thriftiness. It was right in the middle of the early morning rush hour. I was in a train jam packed with Japanese men in business suits for an hour but as the first station was the airport I got a seat.
When I got to my destination station I couldn’t find an exit with a lift or escalator so I dragged my 32Kg suitcase up the steep staircase step by step. I was half way up when a middle age man in a smart suit, who was going down the stairs, stopped and asked me if I would like some help. I politely refused, telling him that I was going to be eating a lot in Japan so I needed the exercise.
A few minutes later, outside the station, I brought up Google Maps on my phone to get the directions to my Airbnb. I was messing around with my phone trying to get the compass to calibrate when another man in a suit stopped and asked me if I needed help. I showed him where I was going on my phone and he pointed my in the right direction.
Japanese people really are that friendly. I’ve since mentioned it to Japanese friends and they’ve said “yes, that’s normal” or “yeah, if you look like you need help of course someone is going to offer it to you”. In Japan perhaps, but in the vast majority of big cities in the world not at all, which is why I was so pleasantly surprised.
My Airbnb place was tiny, Japanese style, but somehow there was space for everything. Except my head in the shower. Talking about Japanese style, the toilet had about 16 buttons on it with Japanese letters, and it seems like every single one of makes water shoot your my arse, the only difference being the temperature and force. You’d have thought I’d given up trying after the 4th or 5th button but I was really hoping one of them would play some music or something cool.
After a quick shower, which would have been quicker if I didn’t bang my head an absolute belter on the ceiling, I set out on a mission to munch some delicious Japanese food.
My first stop was at Unatoto Unagi, a restaurant specialising in Una (grilled freshwater eel) with a reputation for being delicious and very good value. Prices start at 500 JPY for an Unadon (Una in a rice bowl). I went for the slightly larger Unajyu (Una in a rice box) at 800 JPY.
I could have stayed there binge eating Una all day, especially considering how cheap it was, for Japan at least, but decided to go straight from there to another restaurant.
I had tried Okonomiyaki (savoury pancake) a few times in Japanese restaurants in Bangkok and thought it was decent but not brilliant. A friend on Twitter, Asako, recommended her favourite Okonomiyaki restaurant in Osaka called Ajinoya. No matter where you are in the world, if a local tells you that a restaurant is great, it always is.
I walked 25 minutes from Una restaurant to the Okonomiyaki restaurant. I could have just taken the excellent Osaka subway but the centre of Osaka is completely flat and the streets are in grid shaped blocks. It's so easy to find and walk to anywhere in the city.
Plus, with the amount of food I was planning to eat, the exercise was welcome. As was the fresh air and mild weather, I'm used to hot and humid Bangkok where you can't walk anywhere for more than a minute without sweating your arse off.
At Ajinoya they have a Teppanyaki style bar, so you sit right in front of the chef as he cooks your meal.
I opted for the Ajinoya mix, their original Okonomiyaki, which is made with octopus, pork, squid, minced meat and shrimp. Topped off with mustard, mayonnaise, teriyaki sauce, fish flakes and seaweed.
After eating that heavenly Okonomiyaki I now know that the previous Okonomiyaki I've been eating outside of Japan were garbage, not even comparable to what I ate at Ajinoya.
Pablo - Part 1
I already knew where I was going for dessert. I had done my research and discovered that there’s a chain of bakeries known for their incredible cheese tarts.
I didn’t order the cheese tart. I found something even more appealing to me on the menu - matcha cheesecake.
It was a delicious, thick and dense slice of cheesecake and the matcha flavour was very rich. I left Pablo with a big smile on my face.
They say you should never go food shopping on an empty stomach because you will end up buying way more than you need. Well I went to the upscale supermarket, Koyo, near my Airbnb with a stomach full off Una and Okonomiyaki but still ended up buying half the shop.
There was so much good, fresh food there. I bought a box of tuna sashimi, a bento box full of everything, two matcha custard pancakes, a few bottles of matcha latte, a banana and strawberry cream sandwich and a bunch of Japanese chocolate bars. I really only went in there to buy milk.
Gym - Part 1
The one thing that I miss out on by staying in an Airbnb rather than a good hotel is access to a gym. After spending all day eating I thought I’d better look for a gym where I could buy a day pass. Usually this an easy task in most cities in the world but it seem that gyms aren’t that common or popular in Japan.
I found one 15 minutes walk from my apartment called Oasis Health Club. It looked nice from the outside, as did the lobby inside, so I paid my 2,000 JPY (£13.80 GBP / $17.07 USD / €16.39) for a day pass, which is less than the going rate in Osaka gyms, and proceeded to get changed in a locker room full of naked Japanese men.
I thought Japanese men were quite conservative but it seem when it comes to nakedness they are quite liberal. I saw more hairy Japanese penises in 5 minutes than I want to see for the rest of my life.
I was expecting this gym to be really high tech and awesome, Japanese style, but all their equipment looked like it was made in the 1980s. What a letdown. And the crazy thing is it was really busy. If that gym existed in the UK it would have zero customers, because your local council run gym would be cheaper and better equipped.
At least I only paid for a day pass. I would look for an alternative gym a couple of days later.
On the afternoon of my second day in Osaka I opened the doors to my balcony for a bit of fresh air and the smell of curry poured in. Curry is very popular in Japan and there’s a curry restaurant on most streets. It seemed there was one on mine too. So I followed the smell.
Next door, up some stairs, I found a tiny local curry restaurant that’s only open for 5 hours each afternoon and has space for just 10 people. I had to wait 15 minutes to get a seat, then sat along the bar with locals, who were looking at me like I was an alien.
When the staff handed me a menu, all in Japanese language, everyone was looking at me, I guess wondering if I could even read Japanese. Of course I couldn’t, but Google Translate can. With the phone app you just hover your camera above some Japanese text and it translates it into English in real time. I was able to confidently order the curry that I wanted plus several different toppings.
Maybe I convinced them that I could understand Japanese. At least until the staff spoke to me in Japanese and I just had to sit there and smile, then the game was up. Another bluff foiled.
The curry was superb and I enjoyed the setup of the place with one long bar placed around the cooking station, so you can watch the staff make your meal while you wait.
The trip to Japan can’t just be all about food, can it? I suppose it could be but it would be a shame not to see some sights while I was there. The most obvious one being Osaka Castle.
It is indeed an impressive sight but I knew going there that it was just a reconstruction. The original castle was built in 1583 and destroyed in 1868.
You can take an elevator to a 360 degree observation tower at the top of the castle, but there was a long, long queue so I hoofed it up the stairs. Working up an appetite for later and the view was well worth the effort.
That evening I met my twitter friend Asako who gave me the awesome Okonomiyaki recommendation the previous day. As an Osaka local and food lover, she knows all the best places to eat, so she was a good person to go out for dinner with.
We went to a Kushikatsu restaurant. Kushikatsu are pieces of meat and vegetables that are coated with panko batter, deep-fried and skewered with bamboo sticks. Every table has a big metal tin of sauce for dipping but you can only dip each stick in before your first bite, as everyone uses it. This means the sauce is full of the flavours of everything that’s been dipped in it that day.
That’s when I learned my first Japanese word. I asked Asako how to say “delicious”. It’s “oishi”, and the kushikatsu certainly was oishi!
Asako is a poker player so after dinner she offered to introduce me to the Osaka poker scene.
Gambling is mainly illegal in Japan but just like the many pachinko parlours that exist, there are poker rooms and casinos that have found a legal loophole. These “amusement casinos” allow you to trade cash for chips, and with the chips you can earn points, which can then be exchanged for something of value like travel vouchers.
At least that’s how I think it works. I never actually got to the stage of cashing anything out.
We played at Bluff Bar, which I’m told is one of around 20 amusement poker rooms in Osaka, in a nightly tournament with about 20 players. It was a fast structure style of game. Online it would be called a “hyper turbo” for sure. Which I was more than happy with as I’m more than decent with a short stack.
Other than the amusement poker rooms, there are many private home games, as there are everywhere in the world, whether real money poker is legal or not. If you wanted to play in a home game the amusement casinos would be a good place to meet people who could introduce you to those games.
For a country in which gambling is mostly illegal, the poker scene in Japan is surprisingly large. And I believe it’s going to get much bigger in the coming few years, as last week Japan's parliament passed a bill legalising casinos. I’m not sure how freely they will be handing out licenses or when then first legal casino will be built and opened but it’s a huge step forward.
Eating Takoyaki in Osaka is an absolute must, as that’s where it was invented. It’s a cheap and ubiquitous in the city. But I didn’t want to go to just some random Takoyaki stall and try my luck. I, of course, followed another awesome recommendation from Asako.
I tried Takoyaki at Akaoni, otherwise known as Red Ogre, which is so good it’s recommended in the Michelin Guide.
And for those wondering what Takoyaki actually is, it’s balls of egg-rich batter with diced octopus inside. A quick, easy and delicious snack, not to mention inexpensive.
I’ve probably ate more sushi in the last year than most westerners will eat in their entire lifetime. Still, eating it in Japan is a treat. But I didn’t go to some fancy sushi restaurant. I did the same thing I did on my Tokyo trip in 2012.
I visited Takashimaya which is a very upscale department store. All the upscale department stores have a deli and supermarket in their basement floor that sell incredible but incredibly expensive foods. Still, a pack of fresh sushi would work out cheaper than going to a fancy restaurant, and I was eating alone so to hell with going to a fancy restaurant.
The only problem with the deli and supermarkets in these big department stores is that they have nowhere for you to sit and eat the food. It’s all for taking home. However, and here’s a great tip, if you take the lift and push the button for whatever is the highest floor is, more often than not you will find there is access to the rooftop which will have some benches or some kind of seating area.
The rooftop of Takashimaya had a few benches and nobody else was there, probably because it was 14 degrees C that afternoon, so I got to sit in peace and enjoy my delicious sushi. And it was fancy restaurant quality sushi for sure.
That box of sushi cost 2400 JPY (£16.30 GBP / $20.35 USD / €19.47 EUR), which I think represents good value.
Pablo - Part 2
For my post-sushi dessert I went back to Pablo. This time to try the food that they are famous for; their freshly baked cheese tarts.
Only I discovered they also have a matcha version of the cheese tart, so screw the original, I went with the matcha.
I wish I was a good enough writer to explain how delicious that cheese tart was. The pastry was sweet and flaky and the filling was warm and tasted so good that I uncontrollably closed my eyes and made a loud “mmmmmmm” sound on the first mouthful. Orgasmic!
After that cheese tart I had a taste for sweet food. On my way back to my Airbnb I did a bit of shopping for some Japanese confectionary.
My favourites out of that lot were the Bake which are sweet cream cheese blocks, the Meiji rich matcha biscuits and the matcha Pocky Midi which are little fat biscuit sticks covered in thick matcha chocolate.
Gym - Part 2
As I sat in my Airbnb surrounded by the empty wrappers of the snacks I’d been eating, I decided I should probably hit the gym. But that meant finding a new gym, as I wasn’t going back to the previous one.
I tried a few possible places but they only do yearly memberships, no daypasses. I then had the bright idea of going to Osaka Swimming Pool which is local government run and has a gym that only costs 650 JPY for a day pass, a third the price I had paid at the last gym.
I wasn’t expecting much, but I knew it couldn’t be any worse than the place I tried a couple of days earlier, and it least it was cheap.
Well I was right in that they had the same ancient equipment, but I was wrong in that it wouldn’t be worse. It was distinctly worse because they only had dumbbells up to 12 Kg. Almost unbelievable that someone would kit out a gym with maximum weights of 12 Kg, but there it was.
I did my best to improvise a workout routine that I could do with those weights and got a half decent workout in regardless. It’s very rare that I’m the biggest and strongest guy in the gym but at that particular gym I certainly was.
Hoshi no Buranko
More exercise the next day as I left the city to go for a hike in Katano, which is halfway between Osaka and Kyoto.
The train I took there was beautiful. It was a double decker with elegant decor and a smell of perfume. One of the nicest trains I've ever been in, and it only cost 370 JPY (£2.51 GBP / $3.14 USD / €3.00 EUR) each way for the 1 hour journey.
Anyone who travels by train in the UK will realise that the Japanese have it pretty good when it comes to train travel.
I hiked out to Hoshi no Buranko (‘swing of the stars’), a 280-meter wooden suspension bridge in Fumin no Mori Hoshida national park.
The bridge was very impressive and I crossed it four times. The rest of the hike wasn’t that interesting, just a regular forest, but it was good to plenty of fresh air and exercise.
I went looking for post-hike food as soon as I got back to Osaka. I walked around the Dotonbori area, which is the touristy, flashing-lights area of the city.
It was absolutely packed full of people as it was Saturday night and every restaurant that I wanted to eat at had a long queue.
Eventually I found a good place to eat. It wasn’t recommended to me, and I didn’t find it with online research. I found it by following the smell of tempura, walking into the restaurant and looking at what the customers were eating.
Looked good, smelled good and was indeed very good.
Tempura is seafood and vegetables that have been battered and deep-fried. The perfect food for a Scotsman in Japan.
Unlike the Kushikatsu, which has a Panko batter, Tempura is battered similar to fish in a British chip shop (or Mars Bars in a Scottish chip shop).
Slightly more healthy than fish and chips from a Scottish chippy though, as the only vegetable we would dream to deep-fry is a potato. Also, Tempura is served with rice rather than chips.
I hope I’m not betraying my country when I say I prefer the Japanese version.
The next day I left Osaka again, this time all the way to Kyoto. Kyoto is the former Imperial capital of Japan so has a lot of history and old pretty buildings and temples. Unfortunately there are a crazy number of tourists there, so many that you can barely walk down the main streets. All the shops and restaurants are aimed at tourists and so are their prices.
I spent a few hours looking around temples in Kyoto when I heard some beautiful music. I followed the sound and found there was an orchestral concert in an outdoor theatre, and it was free.
After the concert I took a train to Arashiyama, where I visited some cute monkeys in a temple that was a steep half hour hike to get to, and then to the reason I came - the bamboo forest.
It was really impressive but, like everywhere, crowded with tourists.
After taking the train back to Kyoto I visited a Hafuu Honten, a famous steak restaurant that is in a quiet, nondescript, residential street. There is a usually a two day advanced booking period to get a table there but the menu item that I wanted was available for takeout.
That menu item was a beef cutlet Katsu sandwich.
It was incredible, and as a sandwich that costs 1,900 JPY (£12.94 GBP / $16.17 USD / €15.46 EUR) it bloody should be incredible! Although I actually think that’s good value considering how good it was.
The panko batter crust was very thin and crispy and the beef was cooked perfectly. Beats eating a Big Mac that’s for sure. I’m going to say that it was my favourite meal of the trip.
Before taking the train back to Osaka I visited Isetan which is a huge luxury department store at Kyoto station. Of course I headed straight down the to bottom floor, where there was sure to be lot of delicious food.
I found a stall selling freshly made Anko pancakes. Anko is a sweet paste made from adzuki beans and is very popular in Japan.
I bought a dozen but by the time I got back to my Airbnb in Osaka I only had half a dozen. It was an enjoyable train ride.
Universal Studios Japan
The other main reason I came to Osaka (other than the food) was to visit Universal Studios Japan. I’m a big fan of theme parks and spent two days at Disneyland and DisneySea when I was in Tokyo.
I knew ahead of time that USJ is usually very crowded. I found a website that gave estimates of how crowded the park would be on certain days and certain times. It seemed clear I had to go there at 8am on Monday morning, otherwise I’d be spending the whole day stood in queues, and that’s no fun.
I arrived just after 8am and I couldn’t believe how many people were queuing to get in at that time. I stood in line, studying the plan of action I had put together and the map of the park.
As soon as the gates opened I sprinted straight to Hogwarts. The new 4D Harry Potter ride is the most popular ride in the park, and can max out at 180 minutes wait time at peak times. For me it was a 0 minute wait time.
The ride was incredible, especially when you’re flying around the quidditch stadium on a broom. It just feels so real. The funny thing is that all the characters voices are dubbed in Japanese and I was laughing pretty hard at Hagrid’s voice.
There was still almost no queue when I got off the ride and I thought about going on it for a second time but decided to stick to my original plan. I ran straight to the other epic 4D ride in the park - The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, which was every bit as good as the Harry Potter ride.
I then ran to the Jurassic Park section for a thrill ride on The Flying Dinosaur roller coaster, which already had a 40 minute wait time by the time I got there. It did, however, have a single rider lane, with only five minutes wait time. I don’t know why people would want to stand in line for 40 minutes just to be able to sit next to their friends on the ride, but they did. The single rider lanes were always almost empty.
It was the same story at the other big roller coaster Hollywood Dream.
In the first hour at the park I was able to ride all the ‘must-ride’ rides in the park, leaving me to spend the rest of the day to enjoy the park and the rest of the rides casually, watch the parade, eat copious amounts of Baskin Robbins and a couple of tasty turkey legs.
I spent about 10 hours in the park and did everything, so was thankful I didn’t buy a two-day pass.
It’s been announced that in 2020 the new Super Nintendo World will open at the park so I will surely be returning when that opens.
So far in Osaka I had eaten curry and eaten Katsu, but not eaten a Katsu curry. After visiting USJ I visited CoCo Ichibanya, my favourite Katsu curry restaurant.
They have 27 branches in Thailand, where I’m a Platinum VIP card holder after spending 20,000 Baht (£449 GBP / $558 USD / €535 EUR) there. But I wanted to try the original Japanese version to see if there was any difference.
Well the meal was excellent as always. The curry sauce tasted the same, the menu items were slightly different, and the meat seemed to be of better quality. The real difference though was in the price, as it was more than double what it is in Thailand (even before my Platinum VIP discount in Thailand).
Still worth paying for though, for what is top notch Japanese curry.
Gym - Part 3
I finally found a good gym. It was a brand new place called Urban Fit24 and it was everything I had originally expected of a gym in Japan. Brand new latest generation equipment and immaculately clean. Members enter the gym by using a fingerprint scanner at the door.
They also really know how to kit out a gym. There were none of the useless equipment, that just wastes space, that you see in most gyms and the free weights section was well equipped, with good power racks.
I’d been used to gyms in Thailand which are equipped terribly and full of the most obnoxious people you can imagine. For example having four Smith Machines but zero squat racks and guys taking their tops off and flexing in the mirror, screaming on every rep, sitting on benches for hours taking selfies and playing Candy Crush.
There was a list of rules at Urban Fit24 that was definitely Japanese style, “no removing clothes, no loud talking, no using smartphone when on equipment”. Perfect, a great environment to work out in. I’ve never had such an enjoyable workout. Not a single obnoxious asshole in the entire gym. Japanese style really does suit me.
I would join that gym in a heartbeat if I lived in Osaka. I just hope their yearly memberships work out cheaper than the exorbitant rate I paid for a day pass.
Before leaving Osaka I ‘carbed up’ for the journey with some delicious ramen with 400g of noodles.
The type of Ramen I ate was Tsukemen dipping ramen. The Tsukemen soup is so incredibly rich that you’re given it in a separate bowl and then dip your noodles into it for a couple of seconds before putting them in your mouth.
I still drank the remaining soup straight after I finished the noodles. Damn it was strong.
There is a Japanese word associated with Osaka called ‘Kuidaore’, which means to eat one’s self into ruin by indulging in extravagant foods.
If I stayed in Osaka I don’t know what would come first. Dying of obesity or becoming flat broke, but either way it would happen soon.
A friend asked me what Osaka was like and I told him “It was expensive and delicious”.