Everyone on the plane to China seemed to be coughing their guts up in a not so discrete manner. Luckily I implanted my secret weapons (earplugs) and tried to sleep through most of the flights from Bangkok to Osaka on China Eastern Airlines. After a full 24 hours travelling and an overnight at Kunming airport (China), I was no longer sure my policy of picking the cheapest flight was one I’d recommend to myself in the future.
I arrived at a very new looking Kansai International Airport in Osaka at 15:40 on 6th March and intended to rush immediately down to Osaka Port Customs to rescue my much missed Triumph Tiger motorcycle as soon as possible. However, first I had to find out several things like: where on earth they lived, where the receiving cargo agent lived (to pay their bill) and where the warehouse was my motorbike was being stored at. Apparently the agent said I had to arrive at the warehouse with a forklift truck to transport the crated motorbike to customs for checking. I knew I’d forgotten something!
My endless tasks list didn’t stop there. I’d read before customs would stamp my carnet de passage (like a passport for the bike to allow temporary import into many countries) I had to get the carnet ‘authenticated’ by the Japanese Automobile Federation (JAF). The cargo agents advised me to employ a local shipping agent to do most of this for me, but that was going to cost me a fortune (Japan is not cheap), so I decided to give it a go myself. Can’t be that hard, can it??
My plan for a quick airport escape to visit JAF was dashed when I was almost strip searched by a very thorough (but very polite) customs agent. It was the first time anyone had ever searched me, except for Australia, but it looked as though everybody coming off the plane was being searched.
Once I’d explained away my bag of drugs, antibiotics and talcum powder (which had typically exploded everywhere in my bag), I was eventually let loose in Japan.
I always imagined Japan to be a very clean, super-efficient country colourfully decorated with billions of neon lights and Karaoke bars. I was spot on.
I was a little worried everything (signs, instructions etc) would be written in Japanese only, but I was somewhat relieved when I saw the train timetable and station names written in English as well at the airport train station. It was a cool 5 degrees C (41 F) but it felt refreshing – it was nice to be back in the temperate zone after sweating my balls off in SE Asia for the past 6 months. I was pleased though I still had the coat I’d bought in Burma, and my woolly hat.
Jumping on the express train into central Osaka, I plonked into an empty seat in an almost empty carriage and was then very politely explained each ticket had a seat number, and that I should sit in that seat. Yes, I was quickly realising Japan was more organised than I gave it credit for.
We set off at the exact second it was scheduled to, and in complete comparison to my last train ride in Burma, this train was smooth as silk. I could have probably balanced an egg on its end on the window ledge for the whole journey.
The train was incredibly clean and comfortable, and all the seats were tastefully covered in leopard skin material, just like my old Mark II Ford Escort. For a moment I thought I’d sat in first class by mistake.
Forty minutes later I arrived in downtown Shinsekai, the old town hub of crime and prostitution, and so the cheapest area to sleep, of course. It was now past 5pm and JAF was shut, so instead I made my way to the cheap hotel I’d booked online for £9 ($15) a night. It was Thursday, so I had all day tomorrow to get my bike released, with luck.
The receptionist at Hotel Kaga spoke good English and was a fellow biker, and he help me out no end with various matters like getting the local SIM card I’d bought up and running. Only data SIMs are available for ‘foreigners’ in Japan (no phone calls), but this was all I needed to access Google Maps and web browsing for trip planning. Garmin maps don’t actually produce navigational maps for Japan, but instead I managed to downloaded free OSM maps I found online onto my Garmin, which worked a treat.
The street outside my classy hotel seemed to be a gathering point for all the city’s homeless people (they need to install more public toilets in the area) but they did seem harmless enough, and my hotel did provide free admission to the local sento (public baths) which seemed fair compensation. Wasting little time after my long 2 days travelling, I dumped my stuff in my (tiny, tiny) room and headed down the road for my first real taste of Japanese culture.
Walking into the sento it was all rather confusing at first. An old lady sat at the desk by the front door and took my free admission ticket, and then directed me to take all my clothes off in a large communal changing room. With no idea where to go from there, I followed another naked man through another door into the bathing area, which consisted of a row of showers (and little stools), a couple of huge hot tubs and lots of naked men. Unfortunately I never had the opportunity to play rugby, but imaged it must be a rugby team’s heaven, all scrumming together in a luxury huge hot tub with lots of other naked men.
I guessed (correctly) that you must shower before entering the baths, and so I took my seat on a tiny stool, like everybody else, in front of a shower head and bucket and had a good wash. It really was quite surreal for a first timer-visitor, although once submerged in the beautifully hot baths, it was very relaxing.
A young guy entered the bath and sat next to me and started chatting, although our lack of ability to speak each other’s language hindered any lasting relationship. In fact I was quite the object of amusement to many, but then again a bald white Brit must have looked quite strange sitting naked in among all the local folk. I wish I could show you a photo of the place, as it was a great experience, although being a family-friendly blog it would have taken too long to Photoshop out all the little willies (and I haven’t got Photoshop anyway).
Relaxed, refreshed and extremely clean, I said my farewells to the old lady at the desk (who must have seen more willies than a Jewish circumcision surgeon), found the nearest bar and ordered myself a draft Asahi beer and a large serving of the recommended local dish. The local dish was called Kushikatsu, and was basically a selection of deep fried meat, fruit & veg on kebab sticks. I ended up with (I think) octopus, steak, prawns, asparagus, onion and even a hotdog. It probably wasn’t the best choice considering my delicate stomach (recovering from Chinese plane food), or healthiest, but was actually pretty tasty.
Wondering around the streets of Shinsekai I started to feel like I was really in Japan. The streets were full of colourful neon street signs, lights, lanterns and everything else you’d expect. It was great!
Smack bang in the middle of Shinsekai is the 103m (338ft) high Tsutenkaku tower, which offered great views of Osaka from the top, and definitely worth a climb.
The next day I was up with the Japanese sparrows (which get up slightly later than the British ones) and set off to find the mythical JAF office to get my carnet ‘authenticated’. Luckily JAF have a website, thank goodness (as did customs and the cargo agent) so finding them was actually pretty easy with my good old Google Maps. The Osaka metro system took a bit of working out as not all the stations are written in English, but a logical station numbering system makes it easy when you get the idea.
By mid-morning I was sitting in the JAF office receiving my paperwork for customs; pretty painless so far. When I asked them about the compulsory basic insurance I needed to ride my bike, they looked rather confused, and after a quick search the web produced the address of the Japanese Insurance Association. Unfortunately, after a couple of hours of travelling and looking for it, the Japanese Insurance Association was not where it should be. I sacked it and had lunch instead in the middle of Osaka city centre, where I had ended up.
I decided to try and release my bike without insurance and deal with that later, so made my way to customs down by the port. I’m glad I did, because after a couple of hours dealing with very nice customs officials, running 2 miles to the cargo agent office before they closed (to pay the bill), running back to customs before they closed (with the cargo receipt), and travelling in a taxi to arrive at the warehouse just before they closed, I managed to get my hands on my beautiful bike. YIPPEE!!!!
It was now past 6pm and I was over the moon my busy Friday had paid off and I was now back on the road (albeit not quite legally). It had become quite chilly as the day had wore on, and typically the one day I really needed my lip balm was the one day I’d forgotten it, as the wind chill factor decreased into minus figures. Coming straight from the warm, humid tropics, my lips started to feel like I had just done 2 seasons with Scott in the Antarctic. Riding back to the hotel with no gloves, I’d also forgotten both my middle fingers turn blue when they get really cold (after various breaks in both). At least they were colourful.
Even though I was probably in the cheapest hotel in Osaka (even cheaper than shared dormitory hostel rooms there), I was pleased to see no expense has been spared on the toilet seats. I got quite a shock during my first sitting when the seat gradually grew hotter and hotter – yes, it was my fist heated toilet seat! I sat on there for quite a while enjoying the new sensation as my bottom thawed out. These ‘hi-tech’ loo seats are actually all over Japan, and also include a variety of jets and sprays for celebratory fountain displays after a job well done. Why don’t we have these in the UK? I think I’ve found a gap in the market!
Anyway, a celebration was in order indeed, and I had just the ticket. I’d never really used the Couch Surfing website, where people volunteer free beds for the night for travellers, but a couple of days earlier I had decided to give it a go. I didn’t find a free couch to sleep on, but I did find out there was a Couch Surfing get-together in Osaka Fri night, with ‘all you could drink’ for 3 hours for 12 quid ($20). Luckily that night happened to be Friday, so of course I couldn’t afford not to go.
It turned out to be a great night, and helped form my opinion that Japanese are among the friendliest people I’ve met on my travels. But they can’t sing for toffee (and all the girls really do sing like Yoko Uno, which is not a compliment by the way).
Japan is the 10th most populous country in the world with 127 million people, and it must have about 127 million Karaoke bars as well. Amazingly, all these people and bars live on only 4% on the land surface, the rest being covered in mountains, forest, agriculture and water. No wonder everyone is packed together so tightly in tiny shoebox rooms. Despite this, it doesn’t seem that crowded because the public transport system is superb and runs like clockwork.
Everybody seems to smoke in Japan. Everywhere. There are even ashtrays in individual public toilet cubicles. Personally I find there’s hardly enough room to sit down in one, let alone do anything like smoking (OK, it doesn’t take up that much room). For a non-smoker I hate being next to someone smoking, and I find it really strange all the bars and restaurants I’ve been to allow it inside. However, it hasn’t stopped me using them, because I have to eat of course, and drink beer, naturally.
A couple of days later on Sunday morning I woke up in the afternoon feeling like my head had been run over 3 times by an articulated lorry (or big truck for our American readers). I also could not speak. Then I started to remember the evening’s festivities the night before. It really isn’t fair alcohol gives you (me) such a terrible hangover when it’s so much fun to consume.
The night after the ‘Couch-Surfing’ get-together, I’d arranged to meet cool couple Meray (Syrian) and Sven (German) in the most civilised of manners to dine upon traditional Japanese pizza. We were also joined by Khalid who had contacted me via Couch Surfing website a couple of days before. Khalid had just arrived in Osaka earlier that day to ride his bicycle around Japan; kind of the same I was doing, only much, much slower. An interesting guy, he was half Irish and half Iraqi, so one half was an alcoholic and the other half a teetotaller (didn’t see much of the latter half). He had been living in China for several years teaching English and fancied a break.
Despite the large numbers of Karaoke bars in Osaka, we had had trouble finding one with an ‘open house’ the night before, where everyone sings together at the bar; most of them had private cubicles you had to hire with a group of friends. Eventually we found what must be the best little Karaoke bar in the world – The Kama Sutra Karaoke Bar – located in nightlife central’s Shinsaibashi; a maze of bars, restaurants and shops.
What followed was an extremely fun night of song and laughter that somehow led onto more bars and more drinks with beer-monster Khalid, until we stumbled outside around 7am the next morning. It’s always a bit strange when you walk out of a bar and see people heading off to work in their suits when you look like an extra from Beerfest. I decided that walking back to my hotel would be the most sensible course of action, via McDonalds (God bless their 24 hour opening times!).
Notwithstanding my 2 day hangover (which I realised I was getting to old to repeat) (again), for the next week I allowed myself to get sucked into Osaka city life, visiting tourist hot-spots, sampling the amazing food and partaking in the occasional bout of duelling Karaoke.
I had a good little routine going; a cheap place to sleep, a good breakfast round the corner for a couple of quid (have you ever tried eating fried eggs with chop sticks?) and time to relax and explore at will. Japan is one of the most expensive countries in the world, but it doesn’t have to be if you’re careful (and don’t drink too much). I also had a lot of time to write inspired, humourous and meaningful prose into this blog, but somehow never got round to it (hence I’m frantically trying to catch up now, 2 weeks later).
One of the highlights of my week included a visit to Osaka Castle, an impressive reconstruction of a 5 story 16th century castle, after 90% of the original was bombed in WWII.
Osaka is a huge city in its own right – the 13th biggest in the world in fact, with a population of around 19 million. To cater for this vast market there are many shopping areas including the impressive and entertaining lights of Dotonburi.
While I was happily wondering around taking snaps, a smartly dressed middle-aged businessman stopped me on the street to chat and ask what I thought of Japan (a common question I get asked). Half an hour later he was still asking me questions, but we had progressed onto such topics as what I thought of Japan’s financial outlook, and what sectors of the world’s economy would be wise to invest in. I’m not sure how we got to that point, but I did know I was completely lost and tried to re-route the conversation back onto motorbikes and beer.
I find this a lot in Japan – people seem genuinely interested in what foreigners think of them and their country. The businessman above even wanted to know what I thought about Japan’s role in WWII.
Osaka is the proud owner of The World Spar – a Disneyland for bathers who can wonder gaily nude around a labyrinth of ornamental baths, hot tubs, pools and massage parlours all day for about 6 British pounds. Except for the hundreds of willies hanging out in every eye direction, I spent a great couple of hours pampering myself, and even had a (clothed) work-out at their gym. That reminds me – I really need to start that up again. My favourite section was a serious of hot springs situated outside. I had chosen a cold, rainy day to go (of course) and it felt great to sit outside submerged in a 43.5 degree C (110F) spar with the cold, icy rain pelting down all around.
The last great Osaka attraction I visited was the Osaka Aquarium, one of the largest in the world. In the largest tank swims a very sad looking whale shark with its dorsal fin bent over at an unhealthy looking angle. If you’re ever in Atlanta, USA, they have a much better aquarium with healthier looking whale sharks that I’d recommend going to.
However, it did have some interesting and fun King Penguins and 2 Pacific Whitesided Dolphins.
In the evenings I sought out interesting new bars, like the Space Station bar, which was full of old computer games at every table, free for drinkers to enjoy. Most of the bars here are tiny, and seating for 8-20 is average, but they create a cosy, friendly atmosphere to drink good beer (asahi) and meet interesting new people.
Finally, I used the time to prepare for my next month exploring Japan, and complete the most important of tasks which was to buy a new set of camping equipment. When I arrived in SE Asia from Australia 6 months ago, hotels were so cheap (the average I paid was 10-15 USD a night) that I took all my camping equipment back to the UK with me when I returned briefly for my brother’s wedding last August. However, I would certainly need it again for the rest of my trip back home through Japan, Russia, Mongolia and Europe.
I thought for the price of posting all mine back out, it would be much cheaper and quicker to buy a new set from a ‘Home-Mart’ type store I found close to my hotel. I got a decent looking tent for 36 USD and a whole host of other exciting camping vitals for a few dollars more, including a good gas stove – I love camp shopping! The only things I didn’t want to save money on were a good quality, warm sleeping bag and a comfortable roll mat (a good night’s sleep is priceless when you’re completely knackered). For these I found a MontBell store and in the end I was all set for a couple of hundred pounds. I was excited to test it all out!
Oh, I also managed to get fully legal on my bike with basic compulsory insurance kindly arranged by the local Triumph dealer. It felt good to ride legal at last, and now I was really all set to escape the trappings of Osaka and start exploring the countryside.
So, on the morning of the 7th day, instead of resting and enjoying the new world I’d created, I donned my helmet and jacket and rode off into the sunrise at full speed. I didn’t get far at that speed because unless you’re on a very expensive toll road in Japan, you are more often than not stuck in a queue of traffic crawling though the huge metropolis. In the end I gave up and jumped on the toll road (expressway) past Kobe, and then across the world’s longest suspension bridge into the countryside onto the small island of Awaji – my next stop.