Rob and I first passed through Osaka 23 years ago. At the time, we were on our way back from five long cold weeks in New York and carrying a water ski (I’ll save that story for another time). Whilst we were tired and keen to get home, the thought of four final nights in Kyoto seemed like the perfect full stop to such an epic trip.
Not so. We landed, took one look at the airport and something just didn’t feel right. We didn’t get that pang of anticipation or excitement that typically comes with exploring a new location. So we boarded the next connecting flight and came home.
Jump to 2014 and I have to say, the feeling was pretty much the same. We’ve met so many people who have raved about Japan, in particular Kyoto. We were told that pretty much everyone speaks English, the train system is easy and the architecture and culture were fabulous. We went looking. We found nothing.
Let’s start with the positives. The people. Aside from the man opposite me on the train who buried his finger up to his knuckle in his nose and then blew in his hand, we loved everyone we encountered. They were friendly, courteous and always willing to help the ‘we don’t have a clue where we are’ Australians seeking direction.
At the Irish pub (yes, these will always be a theme in any Elliott travel story) on the rainy Friday night, Rob engaged the elderly woman wearing sparkly gold boots in the next booth by asking what teams were playing baseball on the television. She spoke zero English but it didn’t stop her from trying desperately to communicate with us as she sipped her G&T. When the gentlemen in the opposite booth later leaned in and asked where we were from, it triggered a three way translation across the booths until our drinks were done. They were kind enough to teach us a few Japanese words (very handy given we found so few people who spoke English) and applauded when we shared we’d been married for 25 years. Yeah, it was kind of nice.
The food. After the Irish pub, we wandered down tiny dark streets in Osaka lit with lanterns and packed with tiny restaurants, most sitting no more than twenty people. As we wandered the streets, locals actually called out to us to ‘come inside’ and join them, not unlike being invited into a friend’s home. We decided on a restaurant with communal tables and what can only be described as Japanese tapas – roasted scallops, salmon, prawns, and vegetables rolled in thin slivers of pork and barbequed – and all in bite sizes and delicious. Every time a new diner entered or left the restaurant, the entire staff would yell and cheer. I mean, really, where else can you feel that welcome?
And let’s face it, anywhere Rob can get his hands on dumplings, he’s a happy man.
Universal studios. Right out front of our hotel and one of my ‘happy places’. Before we arrived, Rob remarked that he will never understand my obsession with theme parks. After four awesome rides (okay, some were a 45 minute wait in line), burgers at a super cool 1950’s drive-in diner and wandering replica streets of New York, San Francisco and LA, I think even his mind was changed. I believe there was one ride where he, and I quote, “broke out in a sweat and had to close my eyes to get my centre back”. Oh, didn’t we laugh about that statement for a good while!
Now for the not-so-positives. The hotel, and specifically, the pillows. We were told before we left that it’s like sleeping on sacks of cement which I’m pretty sure wasn’t nearly accurate enough. Rob and I both had sore ears if we laid on one side too long. I had to take the photo of Rob sleeping below because it literally was his attempt to find some degree of comfort – he ultimately just slept on the couch cushion.
We stayed at the Universal Studios hotel which you would think attracts a significant international clientele. We still can’t explain why then there was not one English speaking television channel, few English speaking staff, no room service or kettle. Odd doesn’t even begin to explain it.
The train system. Rob and I pride ourselves on quickly grasping the public transport system in whatever city we land. Whilst conceptually the train system made sense, the names displayed on the platform route always changed – it’s like the Japanese just want to mess with your head. We had to keep asking if we were on the right platform, even though we had already ridden the route before. Quite frankly, I didn’t find it amusing.
I did, however, like the ‘women only’ carriage options. Handy if you are arguing with your partner and want to ‘lose’ them for a while.
Kyoto. We wanted our day trip here to be everything everyone said it would be – beautiful, interesting, captivating. We got off the train, onto the bus, stopped at a temple – token photo below and the least interesting we’ve ever seen – and headed to Gion, the ‘old centre’ where we wanted to explore the architecture, traditional tea houses and hopefully glimpse a geisha. All I know is, we walked around for six hours looking for something – anything – interesting and ended up at an all-you-can-eat pizza parlour. Hot, sweaty and tired from walking some 12kms, we jumped on the train and came home again.
And finally, the ‘I’m just not sure if its a positive or a negative’ category. The ‘matchy matchy‘ approach to fashion. Couples dress alike as do girl friends. And I mean in identical clothes. Whilst one could argue the matching couples are amusing at best, ridiculous at worst, the number of young adult females walking around dressed as school girls was disturbing. Do they not have school uniforms in Japanese schools? Do you wait until you’ve left school to suddenly start wearing one? Do they ring each other in the morning to coordinate which uniform they are going to wear? I have so many unanswered questions.
In the first photo, you’ll see the couple walking away from me in matching black t-shirts and white bottoms. In the second photo, you’ll see an example of the ‘school girl’ look.
Japan is only an hour’s flight from Busan (our closest capital city) so it only seems appropriate that we give the country another shot. Maybe Tokyo October – at the very least, they have Disneyland 😉