I know the mid to late twenties are often when people stop caring about their birthday, but on turning 26, I was determined to make it special.
I stubbornly refuse to lose that glimmer of excitement because, I mean, the world is negative enough as it is without ruining birthdays too. The actual day was pretty normal and apart from a phone call to my twin sister, it could’ve passed for any random day. But exactly a week later is when I could properly celebrate.
I’d booked a trip as a present to myself but because my birthday was the day after I finished work for the summer, I thought it would’ve been too tight a squeeze to catch the bus the night before. Taking hostel availability into account, I shifted it back a week, and I was anticipating it eagerly.
This would be my second time in Osaka in about four months, having already visited in April on a spontaneous decision to add a side trip to my itinerary. I still had some things to see given that I was there for less than 24 hours last time, and I figured that I could cross more things off my list if I went back.
We arrived early in the morning, and feeling the now all too familiar post-bus headache, I made my way to the hostel to drop off my case. I’d already emailed ahead to ask if it was allowed and I was given the go-ahead, which was a massive relief after what happened in Fukuoka Prefecture. I was not about to haul a heavy bag around all day if there weren’t any coin lockers.
Navigating the train routes a little more smoothly than I had in April, I got to my first destination, but with it being so early – the place wasn’t even open yet! I took the chance to eat some breakfast and re-hydrate after finding a bench in the shade. It may have been before 9am but the sun was certainly making itself known.
I was grateful for the chill time, and being close to the front of the queue was also a plus. Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan is one of the main attractions in the city so as you can expect, it does get busy.
You can buy tickets online beforehand, and as far as I’m aware, the only verified partner website is Voyagin (which is the one I used). Entry costs 2000-2300 yen for adults and 0-1200 yen for children. It may seem a little more pricey than other aquariums, but Osaka’s Kaiyukan is famous for being the world’s largest.
First was a greenhouse style area, with a few different enclosures. Here you could see otters and I watched one nestle themselves in a log to clean their face. It was adorable and the children clustered around to watch too, with several exclamations of ‘kawaii!’ from the audience. They also had miniature crabs climbing up an artificial waterfall, their deep coral colour contrasting against the rocks.
The sea lions proved to be very popular and I managed to see them during feeding time which was even better, then it was on to the penguins and dolphins.
After a while, I’d made my way round to the main attraction: the shark tank.
Because the tank was so big, the glass had to be at least 30cm thick, but from the outside it seemed much thinner. Inside, however, were two whale sharks. Being part of the largest fish species in the world, it was clear that they weren’t fully grown yet but they weren’t exactly small either. The pair swam around in circles, coming close to the glass as they did so. I am not going to lie, running on about 4 hours of very disrupted sleep, being less than a metre away from the biggest breed of shark on the planet was pretty damn trippy. I held out my hand and I marveled at the size comparison, an involuntary ‘woah’ leaving my mouth.
The aquarium has a darkened section dedicated to jellyfish and I watched them float around wondering how they were even real. I’ve always been perplexed at how something without a brain could survive but seeing them like this made them seem almost alien. One type of jellyfish even looked like an Ood from the sci-fi series Doctor Who.
At the end was a ‘petting area’ where you could touch the rays, but I can honestly say that I have never felt the need to, so I passed on that and left more room for the children who were excitedly milling around the pool.
By the time I had finished at the aquarium, it was nearing lunchtime and my breakfast wasn’t exactly that filling. I crossed over to the food court in the building next door to try and find something but with it being midday and close to a major attraction, pretty much all of the chairs had gone. I knew I needed to eat something so figuring that even if I had to sit outside in almost 40°C temperatures, it’d be worth getting food. I chose a tendon – or tempura bowl – and it was delicious. To tell the truth, I did feel a little pang of guilt while making my way down to the tail of a king prawn, having seen countless sea creatures only moments before.
Afterwards, I hopped back on the train to my second destination of the day. While the neon lights and iconic Glico billboard of Dotonbori are one of the famous sights of Osaka – other popular spots are the food stalls and observation tower of Shinsekai.
Shinsekai (新世界) is directly translated as “new world” and as such, looks miles apart from the more traditional cities in Kansai like Kyoto, Uji, and Nara. Even so, it hasn’t had much development in the last few decades and it does feel a bit like stepping back in time, albeit in a different way. It’s a little like being transported back to the Showa era, to the past’s idea of what the future would look like.
The streets are lined with restaurants selling the local specialty: kushikatsu. I made a mental note to come back after I’d checked in but unfortunately that didn’t end up happening. I could still enjoy the atmosphere though and I wandered round the area taking photos.
However, the ‘main event’ is Tsutenkaku: a tower that looks like it could belong in Blade Runner.
The structure, whose name means “Tower Reaching to Heaven” in Japanese, has a history dating back to 1912 when it was first opened. At 64 metres, it was the 2nd tallest tower in Asia at the time of construction and quickly became an icon of Osaka – mirroring the Eiffel Tower in Paris. It was damaged in the 1940s but instead of repairing it, it was torn down to provide steel for the war effort. With Osaka missing part of its landscape, it was rebuilt after World War II and the new Tsutenkaku opened in 1956, now measuring 103 metres tall. I mean, if you’re going to rebuild something, why not make it even bigger?
There’s an observatory on the fifth floor and you can look out over the rest of the city, but despite my love of a good tower I figured that I’d already been up Abeno Harukas and there wasn’t a whole lot of point. After all, Abeno Harukas is the tallest building in Japan (excluding observation towers like SkyTree) and it’s not far away at all. I still do have a tiny bit of regret, because at 700 yen for adults, it’s not too expensive to check out Tsutenkaku for a little while, but I did manage to get some pretty cool photos of the tower and its surroundings.
Judging from Google Maps, which said that the distance between Shinsekai and Shitennoji was a mere 12 minutes’ walk, I decided that it would be easier than walking all the way back to the station. This would be a decision I would come to regret, because at a humid 40 degrees that walk seemed to take forever.
I was chugging Pocari Sweat and I had to stop two separate times to recover. Now immensely thankful for my summer survival kit, I arrived at the temple and found a bench in the shade before entering the main area. I really needed to cool down so I used some deodorising wipes that lower your body temperature. It didn’t fix everything but it did help.
I mentioned in my August Diary that I have a habit of being in the right place at the right time, and this was no different. I arrived at Shitennoji in just about enough time to explore its buildings. The halls close to the public at 5pm and I got there at around 4:15, so after my little sit down it had just passed half four.
Shitennoji (四天王寺) was founded back in 593, making it one of the oldest temples in Japan. It may not be the oldest religious building I’ve been to (that title is claimed by the Shinto Ikuta Shrine in Kobe, and if we’re counting re-constructions, Ujigami Shrine would be the oldest original building). However, it’s pretty close at more than 1400 years old. It was the first Buddhist temple to built by the state, with Prince Shotoku Taishi wanting to spread the religion across the country. Shitennoji’s titular ‘Shitenno’ (四天王) refers to the four heavenly kings from Buddhism, each one dedicated to a cardinal direction: Jikokuten for the east, Zochoten for the south, Komokuten for the west, and Tamonten for the north. The Prince’s belief in these kings brought him strength in battle and in return he called for a temple to be built to enshrine them.
The interior of the kondo (金堂, main hall – the Buddhist equivalent to a Shinto honden) was painted with various images depicting different stages of the Buddha’s life, up until his death and his entrance into parinirvana. There was a monk leading a service while I was there so I circled the room as quietly as I could, and the other tourists were whispering quietly under their breath so as to not to disturb the atmosphere too much. It was almost silent save for the chanting, and the place smelled of incense: which is rapidly becoming one of my favourite scents. I have a feeling I’ll end up buying incense when I eventually move back to the UK in a natsukashii, nostalgic attempt to recapture my time in Japan.
Next was the pagoda on the opposite side of the path, and there was only one other group of people at that point. Like in the kondo, we had to remove our shoes at the entrance and I went up the staircase with my heart in my throat, worried that my socks would slip. The steps were pretty steep and narrow too; they were parallel spirals with one for people going up and one for people going down. They were signs explaining which was which, because I doubt it would be a pleasant experience if you did get them mixed up, especially if it was busier.
On the way up were a few (tiny) floors which had cabinets of Buddha figures lining the walls. By the time I got to the top, my leg muscles were on fire and I took a moment to wait for my thighs to stop burning. The windows were small but you could still see a little bit of Osaka and most of the shrine’s grounds below.
Once I’d caught my breath, I began my descent, probably even more concerned than going up. There were people behind me and going down meant it was much easier for gravity to do its job. But I managed with no incident and left just as the doors were about to close. In fact, they closed the pagoda door behind us; we were cutting it that fine. I knew I should head to the hostel and it was pretty close by, but I’d run out of drink and I’ve learnt the hard way that I need to have one on me at all times. I grabbed another litre bottle of Pocari Sweat from a nearby conbini and rested at the little seating area so I could drink more and charge my phone.
I reached the hostel about an hour after check in time started, and now a whole ten hours after I first arrived in Osaka, I was exhausted. I’d walked miles on only a few hours sleep, so I got to my room as soon as I could, made my bed and promptly passed out.
Fortunately, I’d had the foresight to set an alarm on my phone, and I woke up just over an hour later. As I mentioned earlier, it had originally been my plan to go out for dinner but I was not feeling up to that. Instead, I went down the road to the conbini, bought some dinner, and took it up to the hostel’s communal area to eat.
I had my Kindle on me and I started to read Junichiro Tanizaki’s The Makioka Sisters. I’d deliberately chosen to download that book for this trip, because it’s set in early Showa era Osaka and I wanted to start it in the same city. I haven’t finished it yet, so no spoilers please! Making time to read is harder than I remembered, but let me know if you’re interested in Japanese literature post!
Being out in the heat all day meant a shower was more than welcome, so I spent the rest of the evening relaxing. I knew for a fact that the next day had the potential to be intense, and I made the decision to conserve my energy for my upcoming adventure. I was about to have a day of pure indulgence – using my birthday as an excuse to go all out on treating myself – and despite my excitement I fell asleep once more.
I feel like I hit a good balance of new and old but which one do you prefer: futuristic cityscapes with things from the recent past, or historical places with plenty of culture? Leave your answers in the comments!