Japan Day 16 - Osaka

It’s difficult to know what to do when you have one full day to explore a city the size of Osaka. Reading Lonely Planet had given me two ideas. One was a biking tour of the city that stopped off at various points to try different foods. We hadn’t attempted any guided tours up until this point and the idea of having a local show us some of the things we might not find on our own was intriguing. Plus it was a food tour. I love food. My other idea was to give culture a break for a day (we had been embracing everything Japan for over two weeks now) and go to Universal Studios to relive the childhood fun I missed out on. The bike tour was $80 for three hours of fun. Universal Studios was $75 for an entire day of fun. Fletch and I decided to go the roller coaster route.

It was a gray, Saturday morning and the skies were overcast. Nervously, I checked the weather forecast for the day. We had decided to spend our day in Osaka at Universal Studios several days ago, and now I already had my heart set on adrenalin-inducing adventures through my favorite movie sets. Rain was forecast for noon, but was supposed to clear up around 2:00. We could work with that. We would just take our time getting coffee and food and making our way over to the park.

We somehow missed the direct train from our train station over to Universal City, and so had to transfer a couple stops before. The second train that picked us up was covered from front to end in colorful, cartoon characters, welcoming us to the park. I noticed several little kids with violin cases waiting at the train station and laughed to myself. Once upon a time that had been me, dutifully hauling my instrument around everywhere I went and never failing to practice at least two hours a day (more so in the latter years). Music lessons, practicing, recitals, and competitions had taken up my entire childhood. I’m very grateful for the things music taught me growing up of course, but today I was gleeful to not be the one going to music lessons with an instrument strapped to my back while all the other kids went to Universal Studios. Today I was the one going to Universal. Sorry, kids.

We arrived at the Universal City Station and the rain really stared pouring. Maybe I had laughed at the kids with violins a little too soon. No, I refused to believe that. It was going to clear up at two, and we were going to go have fun! We would just have lunch outside the park gates in the meantime.

How's that for a hotel entrance?

The second food after okonomiyaki that Osaka is best known for is takoyaki. Takoyaki is a grilled ball of dough, about the size of a golf ball, stuffed with octopus, and another food I am a very big fan of. Conveniently enough, there was a restaurant called Takopia, which consisted of various different-style takoyaki stands. At the first stand, the dude working the stall had en exuberant personality, and was very excited to try and lure us over for his octopus dumplings. Very few Japanese people are that outgoing, so his smile and personality drew us right in. We just ordered one serving so that we could share and go onto the next variety. What arrived was your standard, no-bells-or-whistles, classic, takoyaki. They were lava hot, and so we broke the very important rule to never stab your food with your chopsticks, and stabbed some heat vents into the lava balls. After staring at them in anticipation for a painfully long time, they were finally cool enough to devour, and devour them we did.

The second takoyaki stand we went to had a vending machine to order, and we chose a sampler plate that came with a little bit of everything. The plate arrived with black takoyaki (I didn’t catch what gave it the color. Maybe black sesame? Or squid ink?), some stuffed with shrimp instead of octopus, a variety made out of a cheesy dough, and some more of the standard variety, but this time drizzled with mayonnaise and a sort of sweet, brown sauce. My favorite out of the bunch were the black ones. There were of course numerous other stalls to try, but after the first two, I had already reached my limit of fried batter balls. Takoyaki may be delicious, but it is also very rich and filling.

So much delicious takoyaki

The rain was still pouring. We saw a roller coaster beyond the gate still in operation, but only a handful of people were on it.

A rainy day at Universal City. 

With nothing better to do, we started browsing through the shops on our side of the gate. We found some funny odds and ends to tickle our amusement: sake flavored Kit Kat bars, a plush pig cut up into slices of ham (the perfect gift for the vegan in your life), oversized plush hats, and an epic hair dryer that looked like a time traveling device that had beamed itself back from the future. Japan had some great gadgets.

This poor stuffed animal...

We browsed through the majority of the shops and still the rain wasn’t letting up. We finally abandoned hope of the day ever clearing up and decided to head to the aquarium instead.

I finally saw a whale shark! 

Osaka is home to the 6th largest aquarium in the world (at the time of our visit). They claim that theirs is the largest, but I’m sure the other five do too. A quick Google search will tell you were the rankings really stand. Regardless, it was big enough to house a couple whale sharks, which I was very divided about in my head. On one hand, in my nine years of diving and over a thousand dives, I had yet to see a whale shark, and so desperately wanted to. On the other hand, I’m not a fan a large, intelligent animals being locked up in a glass box. Sharks travel across entire oceans when they migrate. They shouldn’t be confined to four small walls.

Some parts of the aquarium were really amazing. I got to see a lot of new species that I had so far only seen in pictures, and many species that resided in colder water than I cared to go visit. There was a tank of giant king spider crabs. I had seen a scene of them in the Disney Oceans film, and decided that they were the stuff nightmares were made of. Much like the coconut crab though, in person, they weren’t nearly so terrifying. In fact they were pretty cool. I couldn’t get over how big they were! Some of their bodies were the size of my head, and then their legs extended outwards menacingly so that they looked like monsters. Very cool monsters of course.

King Spider Crab (aquarium glass doesn't make for the best photos but I tried).

Some parts of the aquarium were really sad. There were creatures that were obviously distressed over not being able to go beyond their small enclosures. There were also some fish that seemed too dumb to notice the difference. Osaka Aquarium was home to not just one, but two mola mola, another species I had always wanted to see but hadn’t yet. Mola Mola are the fish that make you question Darwin’s theory. They are oddly shaped, big floating blobs, that seem to never stop growing. They have little tiny faces, with mouths puckered into a perpetually surprised “O” shape. Two mola molas were just hovering in their tank, motionless, looking like they were trying to have a conversation with the wall. I learned that while extremely cool, the mola mola was not an intelligent-looking fish.

Mola Mola (Photo Credit: Fletch)

The aquarium’s main attraction was a massive central tank, open for viewing from all four sides, and from several different stories. The walkway spiraled down around the entire tank, allowing guests to view from as many different angles as they liked. This tank was home to more species of sharks than I could even count, as well as several species of ray. Two whale sharks were there, more beautiful than I had ever imagined, even if I was torn up over seeing them in an enclosure. Black tips, white tips, tawny nurses, scalloped hammerheads, a zebra shark, woebegones, eagle rays, a Japanese butterfly ray, a wedgefish, and so many more beautiful creatures were swimming around in the large tank. It was a mesmerizing display. While most of the fish seemed relaxed, the hammerheads were clearly agitated over being trapped. They zoomed around faster than any of the others, looking just as distressed as the dogs you see pacing back and forth in their kennels at the animal shelter. One of these hammerheads had a beautiful, almost black hue, that I couldn’t take my eyes off of.

At the end of the aquarium was the touch tank, the infamous shallow pool full of the unfortunate animals that get molested by thousands of curious hands everyday. Usually these tanks contain brainless blobs like sea cucumbers and starfish, but this particular touch tank was full of dozens of little bamboosharks and pitted stingrays. At least the pool was large enough that they could all escape to the center, out of reach if they really felt like they were being harassed. We had a much better experience petting the sharks and the rays than we had petting the kitties at the cat cafe. Here at least they were actively swimming around and not acting drugged. I couldn’t help but miss our sharks at Supermarket in Fiji, who had become accustomed to our presence and would follow us around. One of the little white tip sharks, Lucy, had grown quite attached to Fletch, and would even come in for cuddles and let him pet her.

It was getting late in the day by the time we were finished at the aquarium, and so we decided to make our way back to the Namba area for dinner. We were doing a great job so far of trying a wide variety of food, and so decided to stick with that trend and scope out a kaiten zushi, or conveyer belt sushi restaurant. While popular all over Japan now, the idea of putting sushi on a conveyer belt originated in Osaka. We found a suitable restaurant, a massive place with lanterns hanging from the ceiling, and rows and rows of seats with a conveyer belt snaking back and forth and around each of the long bars. A screen was set up in front of every second or third chair to order and checkout, making the place look almost like a casino. We sat down at the bar closest to the entrance, and discovered a hot water dispenser and matcha powder to make our own tea. We also discovered that the plates weren’t color coordinated by price. Usually, each color denotes a specific price, and to checkout, someone counts up how many of each color plate you have and that is how much you owe. But here every plate was $1. This was going to be fun.

Isono Ryotaro Namba Shop, Osaka

Conveyer belt sushi. 

It is such novelty to watch plates of sushi move by like toy train cars, and to choose whichever plates you want. You can keep on eating until you are full, and not have to worry about leftovers. Leftover sushi is never as good. The quality isn’t the best for $1 per plate of course, but it is still better than the majority of sushi you get back home, because even if it is the cheaper cuts of fish, it’s fresh. It hasn’t been flown overseas before making it to the kitchen. We managed to eat our way through 25 plates, still a ridiculously cheap dinner for 2, and I felt like I was waddling by the time we left. We probably should have stopped after 20…

25 plates later!

We made our way back to the hotel and spent the evening relaxing and catching up on episodes of The Big Bang Theory that we had missed while living in Fiji. We were laying in bed when we heard the boom and vibration of a door being slammed shut. That’t what I imagined it was anyway, except that we didn’t stop moving after the initial back and forth sensation. We continued to rapidly shift several more times, side to side, and when I realized what was happening, my heart began to race. All I could think of was that we were on the 9th floor of a building, and there were meant to be aftershocks from a pretty decent sized earthquake that had killed 4 people, and injured 417, only a few days before. It was all over in a couple of seconds of course, but it had felt so much longer. I knew such tremors were nothing to be concerned with. I used to experience them nearly every day when I had lived in Sendai, an area well known for earthquakes, but it had been ten years since experiencing the earth move. And when mother nature takes over and you know there’s not a thing you can do, it is quite terrifying, even if only for a moment. My heart raced a little longer than it should have, but I eventually calmed down enough to fall asleep.