Weekly Photo Challenge: Urban

Taking on another themed post, this time the site-wide Weekly Photo Challenge! The topic? Urban. This is a great subject that can be interpreted in a wide variety of ways and, being an urban girl at heart, it’s also one I love.

I actually gave it quite a lot of thought and discarded a couple of angles before settling on something I consider intrinsically linked to urban life: public transit. So I’ve got four photos for you, coming from a couple of my adventures in Tokyo and Osaka!

Osaka Station

A busy platform at Osaka Station.

Ueno Station

Looking across the tracks at Ueno Station.

Inside Ikebukuro

The flow of human traffic inside Ikebukuro Station.

Tokyo From the Shinkansen

Tokyo rushing by, from the shinkansen.

Definitely click the link to the challenge page and check out some other posts! There are a lot of fantastic photos out there.

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Music in Pictures: Better Days

There’s a fun challenge going on at the blog Autumn in Bruges! Every week, she posts a popular song and a picture she feels represents it in some way, then invites others to share their photographic impressions. The song this week is “Better Days” and I decided to join in.

I listened to the song and, as I looked through my pictures, skyline shots really clicked. So the Osaka sky on a warm spring evening, taken from the top of the Umeda Sky Building, it is!

Osaka Skyline

“I feel part of the universe open up to meet me…”

Favorite Places: Umeda Sky Building

Bringing back a little travel feature today because it seems like a good enough idea. Our topic? The Umeda Sky Building! Located a mere 10-minute walk from Osaka-Umeda Station, the Umeda Sky Building (梅田スカイビル) is hands down one of my favorite Osaka attractions. It’s unique and ultra-modern, the seventh-tallest building in the city, and it will give you one of the best city views I’ve ever seen anywhere. No joke.

The Umeda Sky Building from the ground. Also the photo used to make my header.

I talked about my trip to the Umeda Sky Building back in May of last year, when I blogged about my mother and sister visiting me in Japan, but I’ll save you some searching. It’s two forty-storey skyscrapers that connect at the top two floors, with bridges and escalators crossing the center. It’s 173 meters (568 feet) tall and you get to the top by riding most of the way up in a glass elevator before switching to a glass escalator. The rooftop is called the Floating Garden Observatory and, if you pay the entry fee, you’ll get the most amazing 360-degree open-air view of Osaka.

Looking through the glass walls of the escalator.

We went in the early evening, when it was still pretty light out, but it’s open until 10:30 PM and I’ve been told that the sunset view, as well as the night view with all the city lights, are also fantastic. If you find yourself in Kansai, you should check it out! It isn’t a big commitment (we were in and out in about an hour), it’s pretty cheap, and it’s a great way to really see the city. Even my sister, who suffers from severe acrophobia, enjoyed it. You can consider that a ringing endorsement because this is the girl who’s terrified of Ferris wheels. So, if you’re in the market for an interesting sight-seeing experience, definitely add this one to your Osaka itinerary. You won’t regret it.

Whee!

Cost: ¥700 for adults, ¥500 for high school/junior high school students, ¥300 for elementary school students

Hours: 10:00 to 22:30 (last entrance at 22:00)

Access: Exit Osaka-Umeda Station on the Yodobashi Camera side and walk straight towards First Kitchen. At First Kitchen turn left and go straight. You’ll walk through an underpass and the building will be right there. It’s about a 10-minute walk and you can’t miss it.

Address: 1-1-88, Oyodonaka, Kita-ku, Osaka

Family in Japan 05: Kansai

This took a while to recap, with my job and actually maintaining some sort of social life, but we’ve finally arrived at the last part of my family’s great Japan adventure: Kansai!

My family on the shinkansen.

We left Tokyo at 11:30 (ish) on Saturday. It wasn’t much time for Kansai, just Saturday evening and all of Sunday, but it was a good way to end the trip. Something a little less frenetic than Tokyo, with fewer crowds and a slower pace. They actually preferred Osaka to Tokyo and my mum said that, if she ever comes back to Japan, she’ll base the trip out of Kansai and only go to Tokyo for a couple of days. Reverse the itinerary. Osaka is undeniably a fabulous city, so I totally understand the love. We also had a great hotel. It was kind of inconvenient, in that we had to take a couple of subway lines to get to Namba, which happens to be the best train station ever, but the room was really big and nice, overlooking a river. So that was lovely.

Saturday evening was devoted to Osaka itself. First, we did something I’d never done, or thought about doing: the Umeda Sky Building.

The Umeda Sky Building.

As you might have assumed from the name, it’s near Osaka-Umeda (it’s at 1-1-88, Oyodonaka, Kita-ku, less than 10 minutes from the station on the Yodobashi Camera side) and it’s amazing. My mum loves architecture, which is why she wanted to see it (as you can see from the picture, it’s two skyscrapers that connect at the top floor), but it’s so worth visiting for anyone. It’s 173 meters (~568 feet) tall and you can go all the way up to the top, which gives you a 360-degree view of Osaka. First, you go up in a really fast elevator, made of glass, then up a glass escalator, then you pay ¥700 (for adults) and can go up to the rooftop open-air observatory. We went early evening, before sunset, but apparently it’s open till 10:30, so you can also get a night view.

Whee!

It was so cool, one of the coolest tourist-y things I’ve ever done anywhere. If you’re in Osaka and have a free hour or so, I really recommend it. The view is spectacular and the building is fascinating. A winning combination for this kid.

After the Sky Building, we went to Namba to eat at my favorite Japanese chain, Italian Tomato, then went on to Dotonbori. I’ve talked about Dotonbori before, so I went go into detail on this one, but it was fun to take them because it’s so famous and interesting. My sister won more UFO catcher prizes, because she rocks those things and was a little obsessed, then we called it a night pretty early, so we’d have enough energy for Nara.

She won us matching mini-alpacas.

I know this is kind of an unusual decision, but with only one day left I decided to take my family to Nara rather than Kyoto. This is mostly because I prefer Nara to Kyoto, but also because it’s less crowded and Todaiji is amazing. They were pretty worn out and the crowds at Kyoto tourist spots are always going to be worse than crowds in Nara, which is just as lovely, but less famous. Actually, I think Nara is more beautiful than Kyoto overall, but it doesn’t have as many well-known sites so fewer foreigners go if they only have time for one.

The park is so beautiful. And it was a beautiful day.

As I expected, despite being tired and hot (it was really hot that day), they enjoyed Nara. We didn’t feed the deer, but we certainly saw enough of them, and my mum in particular was impressed by the Daibutsu. It’s just so big, you can’t help but be a little awe-struck the first time you see it. It’s one of those things, you know? Despite knowing how big it is from guides or whatever, you can’t quite realize it until you’ve seen it in person. There were a ton of school groups, mostly junior high and elementary school sixth graders, but it wasn’t too bad overall and we had plenty of space to take pictures and have a good time.

And that was it! We headed back to Osaka mid-afternoon, ate a late lunch at Namba, and did a bit of shopping. Then, on Monday, I got them back to the airport and headed off alone to Matsuyama. I ended up crying in the airport, and being really sad for a few days afterwards, but that’s all right. It was just such a fantastic 12 days, exhausting and full, but brilliant. We saw and did so much and, despite a few pitfalls along the way, they really liked Japan. In fact, my mum said she’d like to come again, if I end up back here for any significant amount of time, which is likely. So, I don’t know about you, but I’d call that a success! Now I’ve got about nine weeks left in my contract, which means about nine weeks till I head back to the States for a while. That means there’s a lot going on in my life, and Japan Version 2.0 is coming to a close, but I’m okay with that because it just means I can move forward, towards a proper career and, yes, Japan Version 3.0, because, despite being done with ALT work, I am still not done with Japan.

With things like this, how could I get bored?

So that’s it for the trip write-up series. I’ll be back soon, hopefully sooner than these posts were coming out, with other things going on right now. Some good, some bad, and no doubt some very weird. You know, business as usual in the land of the mikan.

Snapshots of Modern Japan: 03

A strange roller coaster… thing behind a Christian church in Osaka.

This is a weird one. It’s across the street from the hostel Lauren and I stayed in when we went to Kansai earlier this month and I had to take a picture because it’s so bizarre. In case you missed the big cross, in the foreground we have a Christian church (the sign says something about Christ), which are kind of rare here because there are so few practicing Christians, with a roller coaster thing in the background. We figured out that the roller coaster thing is not connected to the church, but rather to the zoo behind it. Why does a zoo have a roller coaster thing? Your guess is as good as mine.

Kansai in March: Part 02

I could do another post about the earthquake/tsunami/Fukushima, and the fact that the hysterical fear mongering in the foreign media is sensationalizing Fukushima and allowing it to overshadow the real tragedy, but I don’t want to. I’ve been talking about it, reassuring people that, yes, I’m really okay and, no, I’m not fleeing the country, for over a week now and I’m tired. So instead we’re going to return to your regularly scheduled programing with the second half of my Kansai trip: Osaka!

The famous fugu (pufferfish) restaurant in Osaka.

I love Osaka. It’s one of my favorite cities anywhere and my second choice part of Japan in which to live (Tokyo beats it for having more work for foreigners, and the proximity to people I care about). If, when I next come over here, the Tokyo area isn’t an option, Osaka is next on the list. It’s such a great city. Ugly in that special way the Japanese have mastered, but great nonetheless. I’ve been there three times and I love it a little more every time.

This time around, with just Lauren, we spent Sunday wandering around with no set schedule and no firm plans, which was perfect. First we ate at my favorite Japanese chain, which Shikoku doesn’t have: Italian Tomato. Honestly, it’s just a coffee shop with a small Italian food menu, and nothing special, but they have the greatest mozzarella and tomato cream spaghetti in Japan. Seriously. When I was doing JSP, it was sort of my comfort food, with Annie and Alex. We ate there whenever we were unhappy or worried about something or stressed. So I took Lauren and she loved it, too. As well she should because it’s amazing. Then we were off to Shinsaibashi.

Inside Shinsaibashi. There were a lot of people.

Shinsaibashi is the biggest shopping district in Osaka. It’s basically a massive series of covered shopping arcades (something that happens to be very popular here), filled with a mix of designer shops, foreign brands, Japanese brands, and restaurants. They have pretty much everything, including a Krispy Kreme, and, while it was really crowded, it was still fun to look. We went into the Disney store and I got a pair of earrings and a phone strap because I love Disney. Just in case you didn’t know. We were also traumatized by something truly frightening.

Shinsaibashi’s Sanrio store.

That. Now, unless you live under a rock, you know Sanrio. They’re the Hello Kitty people, producers of a series characters and their assorted goods. Lauren and I are not Sanrio people, but this store was so massive and decked out that we had to take a look. This was poor judgement on our parts because we got maybe five feet in the door, saw the sales girls dressed in cutesy aprons, the huge number of adult women seriously browsing, and the sheer amount of over-the-top cute and fluffy, and fled. Never again.

Aside from our foray into the Disney store, we didn’t buy anything. Most of the stores were either too expensive or too crowded, so we stopped in Subway to eat lunch and then moved on to go back to Namba, from which we would go to Dotonbori, which is a very famous walking street . To get to Namba, though, we had to find the Shinsaibashi subway station again and, in the process of following the signs, we found this instead:

Yeah, I got nothing on this one.

West Town. Apparently. We walked down the stairs that said we were going to the subway station and were greeted at the bottom by an underground shopping mall. The signs, for the record, did not say we were headed for said underground shopping mall. After a moment of confusion because, seriously, we didn’t expect to find a mall at the bottom of the subway stairs, we were able to locate more signs directing us to the subway station, and got back to Namba. From Namba Station, which has an awesome shopping arcade of its own, for the record, we went outside and walked (in the rain) to Dotonbori.

It looks like this!

The picture at the top of the post, with the fugu, is also in Dotonbori, but the above picture is farther down the street. Dotonbori is one long street, running between two bridges. In the past, it was a pleasure district, now it’s famous for shops, restaurants, and a lot of neon lights and iconic signs, like the fugu lantern. Basically, it’s the quintessential example of how flamboyant and quirky Osaka is, especially in comparison to the rest of Japan.

This ramen shop is really famous and open 24 hours a day.

Dotonbori also, for lack of a better way to put it, looks like Japan. In other places, particularly parts of Tokyo, there’s been such an attempt to imitate western countries that it ends up somewhere in between. Not quite like any other country, which does make it very Japanese in a way, but also not quite like itself anymore. Dotonbori has not fallen into that trap. When you’re in this part of Osaka, you look around and realize that, yes, you are in Asia. So, to close my little summary of my weekend in Osaka, I’m going to leave you with a picture of a side street off Dotonbori that captures what might actually be my favorite side of Japan.

Just a random side street. Every major city has them and I love seeing them when I’m out bopping around.