Temples, treasures abound in OsakaOSAKA, Japan
When in college, you have time to kill during winter break but no money. Out of college and in the working world, you have more money but are pressed for time. This is a problem for adventurers who can’t shake the travel bug. With the resurrection of SARS, affordable trips to the west of the peninsula lose some of their appeal. But if you turn a little more to the east, there’s Japan, where an affordable and fun weekend getaway is possible.
Following in the steps of the popular Tokyo Goblin Tour, a so-called “3-day-1-night” tour that involves taking a red-eye to Japan and coming back to Seoul in the wee hours nearly 42 hours later, a sister package to Osaka offers round-trip airfare and two nights’ stay at a lodging house for 369,000 won (about $300). For 60,000 more won, you can upgrade to a tourist hotel, which I did with my friends still in college. What makes it so amazingly affordable is that there are no guides and no arranged transportation ― you are on your own. If you are a high-octane traveler with an adventuresome spirit, this deal couldn’t be better.
On Dec. 19, I got ready to take off from Incheon in a proper Osaka outfit of jeans and sneakers. You can’t climb to a mountain shrine and play with deer while in heels. Then I bought a Thru Kansai Pass at a Korean travel agency, a special train ticket available only to foreign tourists. I was all set to make the most of 35 hours in the land of the Rising Sun.
The first day in Osaka begins after dusk, which is why the package is called the Goblin Tour. With the flight taking off at 6 p.m. from Incheon, I landed at Kansai International Airport around 8 p.m.
If you remember the saying “Osaka might go to ruin from dining,” it would be insane to go straight to your hotel. The core of the Osaka culinary scene is the downtown street called Dotonbori. Walking out of Osaka Namba Station, directly connected from the airport via train, you cannot miss a huge mock-up of a red crab with moving legs, a sign for a fancy restaurant. Welcome to Osaka.
That giant, moving crab may stimulate your appetite, but remember your tight budget. Instead, look up to find a miniature dragon, the famous Osaka ramen house named Kinryu, meaning golden dragon. The restaurant is open 24 hours, a godsend for the fly-by-nighter.
Before you get yourself seated next to the dragon, have a little more patience and follow the dragon’s eyes. After walking less than five minutes, you will see a drawing of a dragon devouring a bowl of ramen with an English sign that says Kinryu, a branch of the dragon ramen house, where bowls of rice come free. The soup, simmered with pork and chicken feet for hours, is perfect with finely chopped garlic and spiced leeks, available for free.
Ramen costs 650 yen (about 7,000 won and $5.80) and 900 yen depending on the amount of pork you want. It took time for me to get the food, however, because I did not know I had to buy coupons first. I waited for ages until the clerk gave me a look. I realized later that many local restaurants don’t take orders directly but instead use a vending machine that sells coupons.
I finally tasted the ramen, which was unforgettable. Fully charged again, I wandered about Dotonbori street to enjoy another Osaka treat of takoyaki, a petite ball of chopped octopus, flour and other spices. When I suddenly realized that passers-by were scarce, it was half past midnight. I collapsed in my hotel room at 1:30 a.m.
Better to get up early, for I had a tough itinerary to cover: Kyoto and Kobe. My guidebook ordered me to get to Kyoto Station by 9 a.m. at the latest, but I disobeyed and found myself standing at the station at 9:30 a.m.
Kyoto, the ancient capital of Japan, is a city covered with historic treasures, where subway construction is held up by archaeological excavations. So the handiest way to get around Kyoto is by bus, with lines covering the city.
To see all of Kyoto in a day is next to impossible, especially in winter, when all the tourist sites close by 4:30 p.m. For a first-time visitor, eastern Kyoto is a good start.
First, I took the bus No. 206 to Kiyomizudera Temple, a must-see attraction that welcomes more than 3 million visitors a year. I was in rather a cranky mood after hearing that rain was expected, but the moment I got off the bus, snowflakes started to fall, adding to the scenery. A 15-minute-long climb up a mountain is not boring at all, which was lined with cute souvenir and porcelain shops.
First established in 780 A.D., Kiyomizudera Temple takes pride in its fine view of the mountains densely embroidered with pine trees. The temple inside was full of attractions such as a tasteful promenade and graceful gardens, which is worth the 500-yen admission. What added more spice to the Zen scenery was a three-stream medicinal waterfall, which is supposedly good for wisdom and longevity. I figured being old and wise some day wouldn’t hurt, so I took a hearty dose of the water with an extra-long, sterilized stainless steel scoop.
Next is a walk over to the Love Stone, two soccer-ball-sized rocks placed one meter (3.28 feet) from each other. Legend has it that if you can walk straight from one stone to the other with your eyes closed, then your love will come true. I tried it just out of curiosity, but was much frustrated when I found myself way off the mark.
At the next destination, Ginkakuji, the Silver Pavilion, however, disappointment was furthest in my mind. In the vicinity of the Kiyomizudera, by bus No. 100, Ginkakuji boasts a garden and temple. It felt like ages since I had last experienced such extreme serenity. The snow-covered pine trees over a crystal-clear pond, where shadows of the pavilion lingered to present a collage effect, make up my top Kyoto recommendation.
After a nice, easy stroll inside the pavilion, I’m reluctant to move on to the next destination, but it was already 2 p.m. After grabbing a bowl of udon at a neighborhood restaurant and completing it with a crepe, I headed to Heian Shrine, also known as Heian jingu, an upgraded version of an average shrine, or jinja. Heian’s bright crimson roofs catch the eye, but I do not recommend paying an extra admission fee to go further into the garden and main building. After the Kiyomizudera and Ginkakuji, Heian pales in comparison.
After 4 p.m., I went back to Osaka, as closing time for attractions neared. Time to hit Dotonbori Street again. This time, I tried Ryugutei, close to Kinryu Ramen, a sushi buffet. At 1,200 yen for women and 1,500 yen for men, you can enjoy as many plates of sushi as can move on a conveyor belt. After I created a high stack of plates by my side, I went back out around dusk.
It was time to enjoy the more modern pleasures of downtown Osaka, as I looked for clothes and other keepsakes. Then I found a 99-yen store, where everything ― from soybean sauce to earrings ― was sold at a strikingly discounted price. No wonder I bought a handful of bags full of odds and ends.
Don’t forget, day 2 is the busiest of the Osaka adventure. Kobe is the right place to enjoy a night cityscape by the sea. So I rode a train bound to Kobe, a port city south of Osaka. With the power of the Thru Kansai Pass, I don’t have to pay any extra charge.
On my way to the platform, I saw posters for the Kobe Luminarie Festival, where artists dress up buildings with colorful, small electric lights to present a fantastic view, and rejoiced in my good timing.
After passing through the tunnel of glimmering buildings, I was so enthralled I almost lost track of time. Oops, it was 10 p.m., even before taking the subway to the portside for the nightscape over the sea. With takoyaki in hand, I ran to the station to reach the seaside, only to find the Kobe Port Tower, the landmark of the Kobe night scene, with its lights off. Too bad.
But there’s no need to be angry with myself, as I enjoyed another hearty treat of Kinryu ramen with extra garlic and rice at half past midnight.
Ever since I saw a picture of my grandparents feeding deer in Nara Park, it has been my dream from childhood to take the same photograph. The day to fulfill the long-pending dream finally came.
There I was, at Nara Park, after a 15-minute walk from the train station. The vast green plateau is filled with deer. Deer are considered holy animals in the neighborhood, according to a legend. One boy who killed a deer by accident was buried alive as a punishment, reports one history book.
During World War II, however, the natives lost their respect and hunted the deer, radically reducing the animals’ numbers. With the help of animal-loving organizations, however, the number of deer inside the park now reportedly reaches more than 1,200.
To lure that many deer did not seem too difficult, so I was brimming with confidence, with a stack of special deer snacks in my hands. It did not take a second before my dreams of feeding Bambi were completely dashed. Smelling their favorite snacks, the male deer of Nara Park, sporting huge antlers, besieged me. Some even hit me with their horns.
I threw away the food and ran from the menacing deer. After 10 minutes, I got back on my feet, calmed myself and bought more deer snacks. It took a good 10 minutes to find the Bambi of my dreams, all alone, and then I had my friends take pictures of me. So my childhood dream came true, even though I look scared in the photos, ones that you won’t be seeing anytime soon.
After surviving my encounter with the deer, I visited Todaiji temple, where a giant Buddhist statue sits. The statue is so big that 16 adults can supposedly stand on one palm of the Buddha.
Around 2 p.m., it’s time to go back to Osaka to wrap up and to head back to the airport. After catching a 7 p.m. flight from Osaka, I got back home around 10 p.m., feeling much wiser and composed. I feel that I need more doses of the magic medicinal wine at the Kiyomizudera. And I think I can do much better with the deer next time. If you’re planning your own fly-by-night trip to Osaka, see you on the next flight.
by Chun Su-jin