This past weekend was a three-day holiday in Japan. I am not quite certain what the holiday was celebrating. The Japanese government enacts approximately one three-day weekend every month. Not because they are particularly generous, but the holidays are to counteract the Japanese companies’ tendency to work their employees’ fingers to the bone.
Japanese salarymen are given the same amount of vacation days as their American counterparts, but it is greatly frowned upon to actually use them. Back in the States, my vacation days were usually used up by March. Here in Japan, workers will take their vacation days with them to their graves.
While employees cannot be directly punished for using vacation days, in typical Japanese fashion, they can be reprimanded in the most passive aggressive way possible. Last November Lisa took an extra vacation day so we could visit Hiroshima. When she returned to work the next Tuesday, her boss berated her for forgetting to return a company-owned memory stick to its proper drawer. He never thanked her for working until 1 a.m. the night before we left for vacation.
As you can imagine, this corporate mindset leads to elevated stress levels and high rates of alcoholism and suicide. Thus, the Japanese government forces people to take days off.
This past weekend, as best I can tell, the holiday was in honor of the signing of the Japanese Constitution. Not the current Constitution, but the previous one. This is not a joke.
Lisa and I originally planned to turn our three-day weekend into a grand adventure. We thought we would visit
Singapore. But then we researched plane tickets and discovered the cost for the two of us would exceed my monthly salary and that the one-way flight would take nine hours with a layover in Malaysia. Not the best use of our limited vacation time. Also, we’re not engineering professors.
So instead, we took the bullet train to Osaka.
If Tokyo is the New York City of Japan, then Osaka is the Los Angeles. Tokyo is the capital of finance, industry and fashion. Osaka is the capital of… well, not the movie industry. But the residents are a whole lot more friendly and outgoing then the Tokyoites. Tokyo people have the reputation of being a bit cold and uptight. There are 12 million people crammed into roughly the same area as Des Moines, Iowa, so your personal bubble is tiny. You don’t make eye contact. You don’t smile at strangers. You don’t help out a neighbor in need.
One classic example is the story of the old lady who had trouble lifting her luggage onto a subway car. Nobody stopped to help her until a foreigner grabbed a hold of the handle.
Many of the gaijin who have lived in Japan for some time express that they favor Osaka over Tokyo, and after spending three days there, I can see why.
The locals were the friendliest, and most genuine, people I have met in Japan. Three different strangers attempted to have a conversation with me, which was great practice for my Japanese lessons. In nine months living in Tokyo, this has only happened once, and that was with a creepy dude on the train.
As a tourist, there wasn’t much to shake a stick at. Osaka Castle was pretty cool. I’ll give them that. The shopping districts of Dotonbori and Shinsaibashi were unique, but fairly touristy. The fare was aimed mostly at teenagers.
I will say this, the Osaka Aquarium, or Kaiyukan, was the most amazing aquarium I have ever visited. The tanks were immaculately clean and well designed. Its Pacific Ocean exhibit alone contains 5,400 tons of water, and is the largest fish tank in the world. They strive to make the animals, such as penguins, seals, otters and dolphins, feel like they were living in their natural environment.
And not only did they showcase the largest Chinese salamander in captivity, they were also home one of the few whale sharks in captivity. The whale shark, named Yu-chan, is about 15 feet long, which is only half the size of an adult whale, however, she was none the less impressive. I took about 50 pictures of her, along with everybody else.
In addition to the aquarium and Japan’s Universal Studios (which we didn’t visit), Osaka is also known for its food.
While Tokyo leads the world in five-star restaurants, Osaka is the world leader in fried food (second only to the Iowa State Fair).
The staples in Osaka are okonomiyaki and takoyaki. “Yaki” is translated as “grilled.” Okonomiyaki is usually compared to a pancake made out of fish-flavored batter mixed with cabbage, ginger and an assortment of meats, usually pork or shrimp. We ate okonimiyaki twice during our trip and it was superb both times. However, on both occasions we were slightly tipsy and the small hand of the clock was on the wrong side of 12.
During the sober hours, we indulged ourselves on takoyaki. “Tako” is Japanese for “octopus.”
Takoyaki is small hunks of octopus meat rolled in dough and grilled on a specially designed cast iron skillet. Traditional takoyaki is topped with a soy-sauce syrup, mayonnaise and fish flakes. However, in Osaki, it came in many creative forms. We had takoyaki in daschi soup, covered in green onions and a third dish smothered in mozzarella cheese and tomato sauce. The waiter then handed us a bottle of tabasco sauce. Phenomenal.
My favorite joke is to tell people I ate 30 octopus balls while I was in Osaka. Hilarious, I know.
Osaka is also favored by foreigners because of its affordability. In a recent article, Tokyo retained its crown as the most expensive city in the world. At the local okonomiyaki restaurant, I paid almost 50 bucks for one small okonomiyaki and three draft beers. This was by no means a fancy restaurant.
In Osaka, Lisa and I paid the same amount for one humungous, scrumptious okonimiyaki, one serving of yakisoba (grilled soba noodles), one side of potatoes and green beans and five beers (guess who drank three).
During the entire trip, I only spent half of my budget.
This is why I would recommend Osaka to foreign travelers, maybe even more than Tokyo. Listen, I love Tokyo. There is no city like it in the world. But if you want to see Japan, you might want to consider a trip to Osaka first. Our biggest gripe is that the Osaka train station is absurdly complicated. But once you escape the station, you will find a tourist friendly city. Also, Kyoto, Kobe and Nara are all within less than a one-hour train ride.
Most importantly, the locals will strike up a conversation with a drunk foreigner at the bar. It reminded me of home.