Winter Vacation Part 1 – Osaka

As part of our teaching contract, Nicole and I get 3-4 weeks off for Winter Vacation. This year our vacation was January 24th to February 22nd. We visited Osaka, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Singapore, Bali, and Kuala Lumpur. Here’s the first entry, on Osaka. I should also mention, my amazing girlfriend, Nicole, bought me a GoPro for Christmas and I’ve made GoPro videos of each destination on our trip. Take a look at the video below before reading the post.

Visiting Osaka

Nicole subway OsakaNicole and I visited Osaka once before during our first year teaching in Korea. We had such a great time that we decided to visit a second time since our flight would have to fly through there anyways. This time around we only stayed for the weekend.[divider_flat]

Our Neighborhood

Riding bikes around our neighborhood
Riding bikes around our neighborhood

We stayed in a little neighborhood outside of town called Deto. The neighborhood was mostly small apartment buildings and warehouses. One thing I noticed about Japan is there are drink vending machines everywhere. Literally every block had some kind of drink vending machine selling all manner of drinks from coffees to fruit juices.

Our AirBnb accommodations were in a first floor studio apartment with free bikes out front for our use. Nicole was feeling sick when we arrived so she stayed in the apartment and I ventured out to the nearest convenience store (a 7-11) for snacks and drinks to tide her over. The selection at Japanese convenience stores is really impressive. They have sushi, baked goods, coffees, entire meals. Their convenience stores offer various other services as well including package delivery, ticket purchasing and sometimes banking.

Exploring Dotonbori Solo

We got into Osaka pretty late so we called it a night after I returned with a bounty of snacks. The next day I stocked up on snacks for Nicole for the day then ventured into Dotonbori, Osaka’s downtown market and entertainment district. I made a simple day of it with conveyor belt sushi, some souvenir shopping and general exploring. The whole of Dotonbori is a maze of narrow lanes, some covered and some exposed to the elements, packed with shops on either side.

Pachinko!

After lunch but before I headed back to see Nicole, sick in bed, I stopped in at a Pachinko parlor. Pachinko is a kind of gambling in Japan. It’s a cross between pinball and plinko, that Price is Right game. You’re given maybe 1000 small metal ball bearings and you use a pinballesque launcher to fire these balls up to the top of a plinko game. The amount of points you earn varies based on where the balls land.

The Pachinko parlors are loud and smokey like a casino. Experiences Pachinko players will often sit down at a machine and play for hours with ear plugs in because they’re so loud. I found the one empty machine at the end of a row and sat down with some money. I put in about $8.50USD and tried to play. I wasn’t too sure what I was doing so one of the workers showed me where to aim to get the best odds. My $8.50 lasted a long time. At one point the same worker who helped me in the beginning walked past and said “amazing”.

The Secret Prize Handoff

I was there about 30 minutes and I would have been happy to leave earlier. Eventually I ran out of balls and a worker came over and swiped a card at my machine. Next they led me to the prize counter where I was given what appeared to be several fishing weights and allowed to choose a piece of candy. After I made my selection I was led out a side entrance and told to wait at a little opening in a wall. I watched as the person in front of me slid their fishing weights and candy through the slot in the wall and received some money in return. I did as I saw the man in front of me do and was pleasantly surprised to find I received $70. All in all I’d won about $60 and I hadn’t even spent that much since being in Osaka. For my second day in Japan, I’d actually made money on vacation.

Takoyaki

Takoyaki!It was getting late so I hopped on the subway and returned to Nicole and the apartment. She was feeling better but still a bit sick. We ended the night with some takoyaki, fried quid balls with mayo. Despite the description, they’re quite delicious. [divider_flat]

Japan’s Oldest Established Temple

Our last day in Osaka we visited Shitennoji temple. It’s Japan’s oldest officially administered temple, built in 593. I took some photos and we walked around the grounds. In total the land it sits on is the size of several city blocks and includes numerous buildings. What I find interesting about so many temples in Japan is that they are still in use. Often you will come across areas or buildings that you cannot enter because people are using them. It’s fascinating to see temples used currently and not regarded as some relic of the past.

Leaving for Tokyo

Our few days in Osaka were coming to an end. Nicole was starting to feel better and we were off to Tokyo for the next leg of our winter vacation adventure.

Day 1 in Taiwan – Skyscrapers, pizza, memorial halls

Over Chuseok break this year, Nicole and I visited beautiful Taipei, Taiwan. It was quite an adventure getting there. First we took a bus from Gwangyang to Busan which was about 2.5 hours. We stayed the night in Busan and visited a little Hamburger joint down by Haeundae beach. The next morning we flew out of Busan and into Taipei, Taiwan.

The Adventure Begins

Nicole and I landed a little after 1pm and by 3pm we arrived at our hostel. We dropped off our bags and started our busy day of sightseeing. Our first stop was at the Sun Yat Sen Memorial Hall. Sun Yat Sen was a doctor, one of China’s founding fathers, and also its first president. Nicole and I walked through the exhibit hall inside and even got to vote in a mock voting booth.

Dinner

Pizza, Takoyaki, and Taiwanese Beer
Pizza, Takoyaki, and Taiwanese Beer

From the memorial hall, Nicole and I walked through town the main business district of Taipei and stopped for a bit to eat. Our original plan had been to find a delicious Taiwanese restaurant, but everywhere we went we found international food. It would be like going to Times Square and trying to have a genuine American home-cooked meal. Eventually our hunger got the better of us and we had some italian pizza and Japanese Takoyaki with a Taiwanese beer.

Taipei 101: A sight of seconds!

After our dinner, Nicole and I traveled to Taipei 101, the second tallest building in the world. It’s also home to the second fastest elevator and the second most delicious thing I ate in Thailand that day: mango ice cream in beer! Taipei 101 is really cool though. There is a giant tuned mass dampener that’s several hundred tons. It’s a giant ball attached to the building by cables. It’s towards the top of the building and it helps the building to sway less during an earthquake. Another neat bit of trivia is that the actual 101st floor is called Summit 101 and it’s a VIP club. There is little to no information on it. Some people suspect it’s for foreign dignitaries or big spenders from the mall downstairs. Scratch that, I googled it. Here’s some info on Summit 101.

The trip up to the top was neat, the first 5 floors of Taipei 101 make up the fanciest mall I have ever been to. Seriously, the number of luxury/high end stores was absurd. There were tons of stores there I’d never even heard of. I felt really out of place in my Red Bull t-shirt.

Taipei Night Market

After walking through the luxurious Taipei 101 mall, we went for something in the completely opposite direction, a night market! There were cheap items galore. I bought some sushi, and a small notebook. Nicole bought a Totoro phone case. Mostly we just looked at the different stalls on either side.

 

It was a great first day in Taiwan and we were excited for the next day’s adventures!

Japan Vacation – Osaka All Day

This is day two of my Japan trip over Chuseok. If you haven’t read it yet, I encourage you to start with Day 1.

A Great Night’s Sleep

I can’t remember if I mentioned it before, but Korea is not known for its mattresses. My mattress and my coworkers mattresses, I’m told, are not comfortable. The hostel we stay at in Seoul does not have comfortable mattresses either. However, the mattress in our room in Osaka was very comfortable and I ended up getting a great night’s sleep.

AirBnBpano

Takoyaki at Osaka Castle

Nicole and my first stop of the day was at Osaka Castle. It’s a giant 400 year old castle with several exterior walls and moats and, much like Central Park, its right in the middle of central Osaka. Nicole and I got off at the subway stop for the castle and walked through the park surrounding the castle. We bought some coffees and Takoyaki for breakfast and ate beside a fountain before exploring the castle.

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Our Takoyaki Shop

Takoyaki are pieces of fried minced octopus covered in a sauce similar to Worcestershire and mayonnaise. For about $4 you can get a dozen balls of Takoyaki. They were a delicious way to start the day.

After breakfast, we made our way over the numerous moats and through the external walls into the central castle. Out front of the actual castle, we met a Chinese couple with a neat polaroid camera. They took a cool picture of the two of us in front of the castle.

The castle itself was really impressive. From the top of the castle, 8 stories above Osaka Castle Park, we had a great view of the city. Nicole and I took some photos and slowly made our way back down through the inside of the castle. Each floor had a different section of the castle’s history in it. The castle changed hands numerous times in its history, repeatedly being sacked and burned then rebuilt. The scale on which the battles for the castle were fought were really impressive. Some battles had as many as 150,000 soldiers on one side.

The view from the top of Osaka Castle
The view from the top of Osaka Castle

Osaka Station and the Umeda Sky Building

From the castle Nicole and I took the subway to Osaka Station, Osaka’s answer to Grand Central. The station is massive and filled with numerous shops and restaurants.

Osaka Station
Osaka Station

The reason we went to Osaka Station was to visit the Umeda Sky building. It’s actually two separate buildings connected on the top floor by a walkway. The view from the top is incredible. On the top floor there are little booths for couple’s to sit at and look out over the city. Nicole and I got a few great photos from up there then went to get some food.

We walked back towards Osaka Station and found a little underground food court along the way. Inside we found a cheesy little German restaurant. Nicole and I got some nice IPAs, which are few and far between in Korea and enjoyed a nice order of fish and chips. I dared Nicole to drink a shot of malt vinegar in exchange for a giant Totoro doll. She downed the vinegar like a champ and I owed her a Totoro doll.

Sega Joypolis and Photo Booth Fun

After lunch Nicole and I headed over to the Sega Joypolis, a giant arcade near the train station and sky building. The arcade itself was like a smaller version of Disney Quest in Orlando, Florida. There were tons of arcade games with everything from fighting games to the claw games where you can win prizes. Nicole and I since arriving in Japan, had become obsessed with this drum game that’s like Dance Dance Revolution. It’s a blast to play and we stopped at every arcade we say to play at least one game of it.

Upstairs there were two floors of photo booths. It was bananas. The floors were filled with teenage girls. Japanese girls love photo booths. Each booth not only took your photo, but photoshopped your face into something almost unrecognizable. All the booths made your eyes much larger and smoothed out any blemishes or wrinkles on your face.

Photo booth fun
Photo booth fun

In the pictures we took, the machine automatically removed my beard and made Nicole’s already large eyes gigantic. After you took your photos and the machine photoshopped your face into smooth featureless dolphin’s skin, it was time to add stickers and stamps to your pictures on the touch screen behind it. The ad suggested uploading your photos to your blog afterwards, so of course I had to.

The Japanese girls we saw there took the whole process very seriously. There was a shop on the top floor that would rent out clothes to girls for their photo booth pictures. We even saw two girls with rolling suitcases heading for one of the photo booths.

Umeda Sky Building at Sunset

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After an hour or so of arcade fun, Nicole and I headed back over to the Umeda Sky Building to watch the sunset and grab a drink. The view from the top of the building at sunset is amazing. The whole city is bathed in the amber glow of the setting sun which gives way to the dark blue of night. I really enjoyed the contrast in color and I think it shows in a few of the photos I was able to take.

Osakanightpano2

After the sun went down, Nicole and I got some drinks at the bar on the top floor. For being on the top floor of a tourist attraction, the drinks were reasonably priced and the Gin & Tonic I got was delicious.

Drinks on top of the world
Drinks on top of the world

Conveyor Belt Sushi

At this point the two of us were starting to get hungry so we made our way back to the Dontonbori area and got some conveyor belt sushi. This was quite an experience in and of itself. The sushi wasn’t as good as  the night before, but it was delicious, plentiful, and cheap. You walk in and the general layout is a conveyor belt in an oval patter circling the center of the room. Inside the oval are a handful of sushi chefs making sushi nonstop. Around the outside of the oval conveyor belt are seats and a little bar.

When you see an open seat, or two in our case, you walk over and sit down. At each seat there’s a wooden box with ginger, two boxes of tea powder, and a tap with boiling water. The tea is free as is the ginger. All you pay for are the plates of sushi you eat and each plate is only about $1. Nicole and I got about 15 plates total, 2 pieces per plate, so about 30 pieces of sushi and two teas for only $11. It was a glorious experience, and the first of many on our trip.

We walked back to our AirBnB and soaked in the hot tub which was now up and running. One of the deciding factors of where we stayed was the hot tub on the roof. Since it wasn’t working last night, Nicole and I made sure to make use of it this night. We planned out our adventures for the next day in Nara as well and aimed to get an early start.