‘Hankyu’ very much, Osaka!

WRY BREAD - Philip Cu-Unjieng - The Philippine Star

The daily PAL flights to Osaka are a godsend for those who need their “turning Japanese fix” but are jaded with Tokyo.

A mere three-and-a-half-hour flight, and one can find oneself landing on the artificial islands that make up the Kansai Airport, an hour’s drive or Japan Railways (JR) train ride, from the city’s northern center — the JR Osaka-Umeda station. Any hotel around the train station becomes your veritable gateway to the world of Japanese culture, world-class shopping and authentic food — and more food, as Osaka enjoys the reputation of being the food capital. In the country’s history, Osaka, Japan’s third largest city after Tokyo and Yokohama, has always played a central role in commerce and it’s not surprising to find interconnections between transportation on one hand, and city commerce on the other. Railway giants such as JR, Hankyu, and Hanshin are also prime real estate developers, and own the major department stores that dot the city — and can compete with the Harrod’s, Galeries Lafayette, and Neiman Marcus of the retail world. Osaka remains the headquarters of such electronic giants as Sanyo, Sharp and Panasonic.

On a three-day jaunt to Osaka, a visit to the historic Osaka Castle would be a must in anyone’s itinerary. Situated on a hill within a park and surrounded by a moat, the castle is an architectural marvel, an eight-floor castle built on five storeys of sheer walls of cut rock — done in Burdock piling style. Completed in 1597 during the rule of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the castle played a major role in the reunification of Japan during that turbulent period, and the dioramas of the castle’s exhibits make much of how Hideyoshi was a commoner who rose to rule on account of his loyalty, bravery and service to the emperor. Me, I was envious of how the castle and park were surrounded by skyscrapers and obvious centers of business, yet found a way to stay protected and preserved, a beacon of tourism within this highly commercial area. The park even boasts of a baseball park, a concert hall and a Peace Memorial — an exciting and praiseworthy blend of tradition and modernity; how rather than clashing, the disparate architectural elements fused to create a unique, singular cityscape.

A few JR Loop line stops from Osaka Castle is Shinsaibashi, one of the shopping meccas to be found in Osaka. The main Daimaru department store, a truly regal establishment, is found here on Mido-Suji; and another unique feature of Shinsaibashi is the covered 600-meter-long pathway filled with shops and boutiques of most luxury brands imaginable — the Shinsaibashi Shopping Arcade. Off Mido-Suji, one finds Amerika-Mura, a retail district known for being hip and young, much like the Village and Tribeca in New York. I loved how brash and non-traditional Amerika-mura is, with a Statue of Liberty perched atop one building, and how certain retailers conspired to turn the streetlights in front of their boutiques into refugees from the art world of Keith Haring. Here, one can also find Crysta Nagahori, an 81,765-square-meter underground shopping mall.

In the Umeda district, right beside the Hanshin and Hankyu department stores, one spies a giant red Ferris wheel emerging from the rooftop of a mall. No, you aren’t seeing things that a cyclone left in its wake, but you’ve found the Hankyu Entertainment Park, known as HEP Five (hence, the title to this piece). It’s an eight-floor shopping plaza with the aforementioned ferris wheel that one boards on the seventh floor, and one floor dedicated to SEGA’s Joypolis arcade. Also found in this district is the Umeda Sky Building, twin skyscrapers bridged by a rooftop “Floating Garden” observatory, with restaurants in the building that serve authentic Japanese food in a style that recalls previous centuries.

Speaking of food, Osaka’s reputation as “food capital” would seem to hinge on the specialty known as okonomiyaki, a pan-fried batter cake that comes in various incarnations — one served with shrimps and scallops mixed in the batter, another served with bacon strips, and so on. The President Chibo restaurant chain, which traces its roots to 1967 is one of the foremost eateries serving this specialty. Chibo is also a teppanyaki haven, and I loved how we found one on the restaurant floor of Daimaru, a great way to end the shopping day. Genji, on the third floor of the Osaka Hilton, was another memorable dinner — its scallops, pan fried with a tomato concasse was to-die-for. And let me just mention that you don’t have to order the most expensive beef selection at these restaurants. I prefer my beef with texture and bite, rather than super tender; so one can be assured of great quality even with the restaurant’s basic option. As for the now-popular European-styled cafes, be forewarned that anything pasta will be served watery and soup-like. I’d venture to guess this is to make the dish more palatable to the Japanese, bearing a closer resemblance to their ramen.

Traveling to Osaka with children? The Osaka Maritime Museum boasts of one of the world’s biggest tanks, and there’s an eye-popping underground tunnel one has to traverse to reach the museum. Situated in the same Western Osaka area is Universal Studios Osaka, which by end of July opens an area dedicated to Harry Potter.

Yes, not many Japanese speak English, but I was struck by how helpful the people in Osaka are. In Shinsaibashi, a man distributing pamphlets on the main concourse walked with us more than a block to point to us the street we were looking for when we had showed him a photo on our mobile. The subway cars all have someone speaking in English after the Japanese announcements. And one salesperson in a department store Food Hall (a must-visit as it recalled my times visiting the glorious Food Halls at Harrod’s) whipped out his mobile to translate the chocolate brand we were looking for, and used the device to help us out.

The PAL flights were impeccably on time. The Manila departure of 2 p.m. landing at 7 p.m. in Kansai, and the 10 a.m. Osaka flight even getting to Manila ahead of the scheduled 1 p.m. The turnaround is in Manila, so with the overnight layover in Osaka, the 7 p.m. arrival gives the flight, barring some unusual problem, more than enough time to ensure its 10 a.m. departure the next day. Didn’t even make a side trip to Kyoto, which is a 30-minute regular Hankyu train ride; which doesn’t even require we get on a Shinkansen (bullet train). In truth, three days just wasn’t enough; and perhaps precisely because it isn’t Tokyo, they try harder — but I would love to revisit Osaka sometime soon.

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