Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Awesome Osaka reprinted from NST

This article is for Caroline who is in Osaka now.....

Awesome Osaka

Read more: Awesome Osaka - Travel - New Straits Times

Apart from great shopping and a unique culture, all things fresh and exciting are on offer in Osaka, writes Peggy Loh I AM comfortably seated, catching up on my reading while waiting to board my AirAsia X flight to Osaka when I overhear a man seated behind me asking his friend: “Do you think I can bring back samurai swords?” I smile when his friend replies that he can try to declare them as souvenirs. For a moment I’m distracted from my book because I can’t help eavesdropping on their lively banter about where to go and what to eat in Japan. I start to feel a tingle of excitement in anticipation of my trip. From the itinerary arranged by our host, Kansai International Airport Osaka (read story on Page 8), I see that I will be spending three nights in three cities — Kobe, Kyoto and Osaka — in the Kansai region in southern-central Honshu, Japan’s main island. With visits to city sites, mountain sides and historical places as well as boat rides, the diversity of items in the itinerary is mind-boggling but there are three main attractions this region has to offer — fun parks, heritage trails and shopping, of course. FUN PARKS The first amusement park we visit is Nanba Parks — nine levels of shops, restaurants and entertainment in a mall inspired by the Grand Canyon. Intrigued by the Nankai Hawks memorial gallery Parks Garden on level nine, I’m thrilled to discover that Namba Parks is built on the site of Osaka Stadium, the former home of the Nankai Hawks baseball team. In 1987, pop stars Madonna and Michael Jackson held concerts in this stadium before it was torn down. Our guide, Hiro-san, says the Japanese enjoy going to amusement parks for recreation, and this accounts for the many types of entertainment malls and fun parks in and around the city. The excitement at Universal Studios Japan is infectious and it doesn’t take long before I’m swept into animated fun with the likes of Woody Woodpecker, Sesame Street characters, Snoopy and Hello Kitty. I’m keen to see what’s unique at USJ and am delighted to discover Jaws and The Amazing Spiderman Ride in New York. In San Francisco, there is Backdraft, which was used as a set in the movie of the same name. When night falls, we join the throng who line the streets to watch the mesmerising Magical Starlight Parade. One night after dinner, Hiro-san leads us on a walk to the 173m high Umeda Sky Building that boasts 360-degree views from its Floating Garden. It’s rather nerve-racking to ride an external bubble lift to the 39th level and watch the sea of city lights. The rooftop on the 40th level brings us to Lumi Sky Walk, so named because the circular corridor is paved with phosphorescent stones that shine like luminous dots at night. As I take a slow walk around to enjoy the spectacular views, I discover the Fence Of Vows and stop to watch a cute couple pose for a photo after they have attached a lock, engraved with their names, to the fence. On our final day in Osaka, we head for Tempozan Harbour Village where I spot a Giant Ferris Wheel and Marketplace but we only have time for a tour of the Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan and a harbour cruise on the Santa Maria sightseeing ship. It’s interesting to start our aquarium tour from level eight to enjoy exhibits from Japan’s Ring Of Fire region (a volcano belt which surrounds the Pacific Ocean). The gentle spiral path that winds downward is bordered by 10 exhibit areas from around the world like Monterey Bay, Gulf Of Panama and Antarctica. The exhibit for the Pacific Ocean marine life spans an impressive height of three floors and is home to an enormous whale shark and hammerhead sharks as well as other fish. Walking in dim light with sea creatures swimming on either side of me makes me feel as though I’m underwater. HERITAGE TRAIL The route to Doguya Street in Osaka is lined with interesting street food vendors and I find it hard to follow Hiro-san’s pace as he leads us up a steep flight of stairs to R&M Food Sample Art Gallery for a hands-on experience in making fake food samples. I’ve always admired the attractive and realistic looking food replicas in the windows of Japanese restaurants and I’m thrilled that I’ll be able to make my own roll of lettuce, vegetable slice and prawns in tempura wax replicas, under the direction of an instructor. But unlike the gentle movements of her delicate hands that turn out lifelike wax food samples, my artworks are so badly made I’m sure they will put diners off. Sushi is a part of Japanese tradition and I’m thrilled to join diners at Daiki Suisan Kaitan Restaurant in Sakai City to witness a master carver demonstrate the cutting of a hon maguro (bluefin tuna). This performance includes a lively auction of the choicest parts of the fish and even though I do not understand what they are saying in Japanese, I join the audience in the boisterous bidding. Before sitting down for lunch, we head for the adjacent wholesale fish where the locals shop for fresh seafood like fish and shellfish such as prawns and snow crabs, pre-cooked seafood as well as packed cooked meals, being prepared at live stations. As I watch workers slice raw fish before arranging them in a fan design on a plate, I’m convinced that I should try eating raw fish which is said to slow down ageing because it retains more nutrients. Another exciting experience in Sakai City is a streetcar ride along the ancient Hankai Tramway which has been in operation since 1911. Even though the ride on the Chinchin Densha Streetcar is short, I’m still excited to have experienced the only streetcar in Osaka. Passengers enter through the wide door in the middle of the tram and ring a bell to signal a stop. They drop their fares into a machine next to the driver and the exit door in front opens for them to alight. As the streetcar trundles away on tracks in the middle of the road, Hiro-san leads us down several lanes to a charming monaka shop run by Okada Yasuto, a third generation confectioner of traditional Japanese sweets. Monaka is a traditional stuffed Japanese sweet made of sweet red bean paste coated in thin crisp wafers made from mochi or rice flour. Yasuto creates his monaka in interesting shapes including a Japanese pagoda, the Sakai City traditional streetcar and a hammer-like craftsman’s tool which is also a Japanese good luck charm. There are also square boxes filled with tiny colourful sweets or wagashi, traditional sweets to savour with sips of green tea in the tea ceremony. SHOPPING SPREE As I observe and admire the mature elegance of Japanese women on the streets and in the trains, I’m totally inspired and ever determined to emulate their impeccable grooming, not just in attire but also in their hairdo. In the stylish Shinsaibashi shopping area, I join locals and tourists to browse around and while I have one eye on the merchandise, the other is on the Japanese women, admiring the elegantly dressed older women and being amazed at the wild street fashion of the young generation. This is not just Osaka’s main shopping area because by night it is transformed into a must-see destination, with its dazzling neon lights from giant billboards. The iconic Glico Man emblazoned in neon lights brings back fond memories of the Pocky Japanese snacks I used to enjoy in school. The name Hankyu Umeda Department Store rings a bell not only because it’s the first railway-terminal department store in the world but because the Hankyu brand is a familiar name from the 1980s when Hankyu Jaya had a few stores in Kuala Lumpur. The original store which opened in Osaka in 1929 underwent a reconstruction over the last seven years and reopened in 2012 with 13 exciting levels of shops, restaurants, entertainment and event areas. As I discover a wide range of Japanese and international brands with entire floors devoted to cosmetics, shoes, fashion, sports, hobbies, living and even art, and two whole floors solely for food, grocery and confectionery, I can’t help thinking that this must be the Harrods of Japan. I have a different shopping experience at the Grand Front Osaka because, besides a range of shops that stock Japanese and international brands, the mall also houses a convention centre. Outside, it has tree-lined paths and on the rooftop, there are landscaped gardens dotted with seats, a comfortable respite from walking in the huge mall. The Umekita Floor on Level 6 this is a cool food-court-like place to hang out with friends for food and fun. If you pick a table along the corridors that has a sticker on it, you can order from any of the 16 outlets. Interestingly, this place is open until 4am. Located just 20 minutes by shuttle bus from Kix, Rinku Premium Outlets is the last stop in our itinerary in Osaka so we grab the chance to shop for some of the world’s finest international fashion labels and Japanese brands before leaving for the airport. Designed with 210 shops sprawled across two double-storey buildings linked by a bridge, Rinku Premium Outlets reminds me of Johor Premium Outlets but with “outdoor air-conditioning” on this wintry evening. I’m always keen on a good deal and without wasting a moment I plunge into checking out the product brands listed from A (Adidas) to Z (Zegna). Time truly flies when you are having fun. When I spot Hiro-san waiting patiently on a bench in the courtyard, I reluctantly leave the shops, telling myself I simply must make another trip to Osaka. FAST FACTS OSAKA is the third largest city by population after Tokyo and Yokohama and serves as a gateway to the historical city of Kyoto and Kobe, both of which are accessible by Japan’s highly efficient rail network. AirAsia X operates four weekly flights to Kansai International Airport from the LCC-Terminal in Sepang. The route is operated on Airbus A330-300. Details at Read more: Awesome Osaka - Travel - New Straits Times

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