Konichiwa! Here I am again to share my observations as I’m traveling through Japan.
Disclaimer: The content below is not fact-checked. It’s either from my guidebook or from my impressions… or I just plain made it up. Proceed at your own risk!
Today, I went to the Sky Umeda Building, which is a 40-story building that looks like it’s got a giant hole in the middle. Really though, it’s 2 separate towers connected at the top. I headed towards Osaka Umeda station, which is sort of like Grand Central but a million times bigger and a ka-jillion times more confusing. My (stupid) guidebook said, “there is an underground walkway to the Sky Umeda building from the Umeda subway stop.” I didn’t research it much further than that because I thought to myself, How hard could it possibly be to find a 40-story building with a giant piece missing in the middle? Well, as it turns out, really, really hard. Umeda station is like a giant maze and being underground does not help AT ALL with navigation. There is a subway station, the Japan Rail (JR) train station, a zillion shops, about 5 different department stores, and restaurants scattered throughout. After 45 minutes, I finally emerged from one side of the JR train station to see the building. Oh look, it’s right there! I weaved through the JR station, towards my destination, only to be thwarted again. Luckily, I spotted the elusive (according to my guidebook) Osaka tourism information booth, and the lady there was very helpful in giving me the right directions. It turns out I was pretty close. She even gave me a coupon for 10% off entrance to the “Floating Garden” of the building. The most frustrating part? In total, I spent more than an hour trying to find the building even though my subway exit was only about 5 minutes away from the information booth. Initially, I wasn’t sure I wanted to pay to go all the way to the top of the building, but since I had already spent all that time and energy, I decided, why not?
As far as views go, it’s OK. At least there’s a river, and the design of the building is really neat. I can appreciate the fact that many people go up there at night, when the lights illuminate the city. In fact, there is a little area specifically dedicated for lovers, with red benches and chairs. It’s kinda cute.
I ate lunch in the basement of the Sky Umeda building. For those who don’t know, some of the best, most affordable food in Japan and Taiwan is underground, literally. There are food courts and gourmet food counters under every major department store, as well as in train stations and other buildings. This particular food court sounded very interesting because it is modeled after the old-school, sanwo style. I thought that, even if the food wasn’t any good, at least it might be worth a look. I ended up beating the salarymen lunch rush at a small eatery serving bento boxes. It was awesome… but you’ll have to wait to get the details later. Sorry!
Next on the agenda: I headed to the mountain town of Yoshino, about 2 hours south of Osaka by train. Yoshino is a World Heritage site, due to the fact that cherry blossoms bloom here longer than anywhere else in Japan. Also, it’s got hot springs and quaint, old-timey store fronts and homes. I’m really glad I came here because it’s such a huge contrast compared to Osaka. I’m also glad that it’s low season right now because I was able to explore a couple of temples and shrines without any crowds, which was amazing. This was especially true for Kinpusen-ji, a huge Buddhist/Taoist temple that is both a Japanese National Treasure and a World Heritage Site. When I was there, I saw 10 people max, which was fantastical.
The reason I came to Yoshino was to stay in a ryokan, or a traditional Japanese inn. The treatment you get at a ryokan is the polar opposite of what I described about the capsule hotel. I chose to stay at a traditional ryokan called Sakoya because I wanted to stay in a tatami room with traditional Japanese furniture. Also, most ryokans will provide one meal (dinner) or two (dinner and breakfast). The dinner I had was called kaiseki, or what’s been called the “haute cuisine” of Japanese dining. Basically, I was served a 12-course, gourmet meal (and a giant bottle of Asahi). The best part is that I was introduced to so many new things that I would’ve never ordered at a restaurant. Some were great and some not so great, but it was an amazing experience. More on that at a later date.
I chose to stay at Sakoya because the nice ryokans in Kyoto are notoriously expensive, some costing up to $800, per person, per night. However, there are budget ryokans that don’t serve meals and have shared bathroom facilities for as little as $50. Sakoya is a mid-priced ryokan. For $180, I am getting: one nights’ stay (obvs), one huge gourmet dinner, a traditional Japanese breakfast, and unlimited access to the onsen (hot spring). As with a lot of hot springs in Asia, it’s public and separated by sex. I’ve gone to a couple in Taiwan, so I’m pretty comfortable with it; also, it usually isn’t crowded and sometimes you can get the whole tub to yourself. The onsen here is amazing, as it’s outdoors and in traditional wooden tubs. I’ve only been here 6 hours and I’ve gone twice already. I wish that I could take photos of it, but I think that’s going a bit far, don’t you? One funny thing that happened today was with my yukata, which is a cotton robe, similar in style to a kimono except that it’s made for everyday wear, so it’s much less ornate. The ryokan provides a yukata for all of its guests. So I brought my yukata to the onsen but I forgot to bring the obi (belt). Oops! Luckily, the yukata can be held together manually without being obscene, and I was able to make it back to my room without causing a disturbance. Also, I was lucky to be sharing the onsen with a very nice, older Japanese woman who showed me how to tie the yukata (left side over right).
One of the best things about staying at Sakoya is that the people here are really nice. There is one woman who has basically acted as my concierge the entire time, showing me how to do things, answering my questions, and just being super friendly. The owner also stopped by during dinner to greet me and to wish me well in her limited English, which was so sweet. When I left, the owner and two ryokan employees came to say goodbye and the owner even gave me presents!
Time for bed! Oyasuminasai!
*written 9/17; posted 9/18