Japan Trip 2015 (Part 2)
Our first full day in Japan would consist of two stops: Yamazaki and Osaka. Yamazaki is a small, quiet town halfway between Kyoto and Osaka. It's home to one of Suntory's two distilleries, the other being in Hakushu. Osaka, on the other hand, is a massive modern city. Although half a day isn't nearly enough time to even scratch the surface of all Osaka has to offer, we were using it as a warmup for everything we had planned in Tokyo. That said, another trip to Osaka to further explore it is definitely in order.
We had been traveling for a full 24 hours leading up to our arrival at the hotel in Kyoto the night before, so I was dragging badly the next morning as we made our way to the train station to go to Yamazaki. I grabbed an energy drink at a convenience shop on our way to the train station. It tasted like liquid Flintstones vitamins.
Yamazaki is located halfway between Kyoto and Osaka, and the distillery that brought us to the city was visible from the station. Getting to it, however, wasn't quite as simple as we'd have thought given how visible the main building was.
A handwritten sign pointed us in the direction we needed to go, and was followed by more signs of the same design to keep us on the right path. We followed the Sharpie ink along a winding walkway through bicycle parking lots and narrow roads. And then we came to a staircase and an arrow pointing down into the earth itself. To get to the other side of the tracks, we'd have to go under them.
The tunnel wasn't exactly tall. I'm only 5'7" (170cm) and I had to stoop to get through it.
I have to point out that what was essentially a gutter running through a tunnel underneath the train tracks was perfectly clean. I know it's an odd thing to say, but it's typical and a perfect example of how clean Japan is. I absolutely love it. Though I will say it has spoiled me when visiting other cities (looking at you, New York).
We ascended the stairs at the tunnel exit and walked another block to get to the distillery.
The grounds of Suntory's Yamazaki distillery grounds are beautiful and well-kept. They almost reminded me of a park setting - if I had a picnic basket with me I could have happily chosen a dozen different spots to throw down a blanket.
The museum has displays showing the company's history, and tastings are available in the whisky library which houses thousands of bottles of whiskies.
I'm honestly not a whisky guy. I enjoy the ones that taste good to me, but I haven't developed the requisite palate to truly appreciate the stuff. Nevertheless, we had to have some tastings while we were there.
Eric wasn't much of a whisky drinker prior to this, but he got hooked. Now he always makes sure he's got a bottle of Suntory on hand for when the occasion calls. I can't blame him. I do the same!
I snacked on some whisky bacon I picked up in the distillery's gift shop as we meandered to the train station, then we boarded a train and carried on to Osaka.
The first thing we saw when we got to Osaka was an old man wearing a schoolgirl uniform. I'm not even kidding.
We had never heard of the guy at that point, but it turns out he's famous. His name is Hideaki Kobayashi, and apparently he's usually found in Tokyo. It was just sheer luck we happened across him in Osaka. Had we known he was famous, we'd have taken a picture with him. Unfortunately, we had no idea. So we snapped a picture so we could prove we'd seen such a thing, and then continued on our way.
Osaka has several famous landmarks, and we decided to start off with what is probably its most recognizable one: the Glico Man sign. It's located a short walk from Namba Station and is pretty easy to find - there's a bridge in front of it that will most likely be covered in tourists.
The Glico Man sign is in Minami, and there are tons of restaurants in this part of Osaka. The sign faces Dotonbori Canal, and the street behind the sign is called Dotonbori, as well. So if you're trying to figure out where to go in Osaka to see the most touristy stuff as quickly as possible, Dotonbori is the magic word.
We strolled through the area which is full of restaurants, taking in all the wild signs and mouthwatering smells. I took the opportunity to find one that serves fugu - the poisonous blowfish. It's something I've always wanted to try, ever since that Simpsons episode where Homer ate it in 1991.
Honestly, it was a bit of a letdown. I went into it thinking it'd be more flavorful than it is, but the extent of this fish's specialness is its ability to kill people. The flavor wasn't there and, without the risk of an excruciatingly painful death, there's no real reason to eat it.
We meandered through a maze of packed streets and shopping lanes and, randomly, came across an owl café. Of course, we went inside.
Themed cafés are found throughout Japan's major cities. You typically pay for your time there plus some kind of drink, or you pay inflated prices for food and beverages but without the time cost. The owl café had about a dozen owls perched on branches or some other platform.
We also tried to go into a maid café, but they turned us away when they realized neither of us could speak Japanese. It wasn't meant to be rude, it was that their business was one of chatting and, well, we couldn't. It wasn't an issue, though. And we got more than enough maid café when we got to Tokyo. More on that later.
I have something of a tradition when going to other countries: I always try to have some sort of localized fast food from a US chain. While walking along we came across a Burger King that had a sign in the window for a kuro burger. Kuro is Japanese for "black" and the burger was true to its name.
It was a hamburger, with a black bun, black sauce, and black cheese. And a hashbrown because why not. The burger wasn't too bad. The black coloring of the cheese and buns was done using bamboo charcoal, and the ketchup and onions were died with squid ink, which sounds more off-putting than it tasted.
Activities in Osaka don't slow down when the sun sets. Dotonbori Canal calmed down a bit but took down a different life. The packed crowds slowly thinned and gave way to a more relaxed environment. People lounged around eating takoyaki, the squid ball dish for which Osaka is so well known. A fire dancer performed for onlookers and long lines of hanging lamps reflected off the canal's waters. The giant signs lit up and added a whole new feel to the still-active but less hectic atmosphere.
We lounged around for a while and took it all in, then hopped on a train and went back to Kyoto for the night. The next day we'd be heading to Suzuka for practice and qualifying for the Super GT race.
Click the button below for Part 3 of this feature, or the Gallery link to see more pictures from this part of the trip.