24.5. Osaka

In the morning it was time to wave buh-bye to Biwa's rice paddies and head onward to the conglomeration of Osaka, a city I've transited through many a time but never actually explored. I left my bags in Yodoyamachi and headed on foot to Umeda, Osaka's immense transportation hub. Guidebooks warn about getting lost in the bowels of Umeda's underground shopping malls, and they aren't kidding -- the place makes Shinjuku station look simple. I eventually managed to blunder my way into my first destination, a Kinokuniya bookstore, and immediately ran into a Finnish girl (as hinted by a boldly printed "JOENSUU" across her, err, highly non-Japanese chest). A 4-month exchange student about to leave Japan, she was shopping for souvenirs but was kind enough to show me around Umeda for a bit and point the way to the Umeda Sky Building.

The Sky Building is perhaps Osaka's best known landmark, consisting of two skyscrapers topped by a connecting disc featuring the obligatory observation platform. The elevator & escalator ride up was a steep Y700, so I was surprised to find a wide selection of microbrews in the cafeteria for only Y300 -- just the thing on a hot day!

After a bit of searching about for a place to stay -- I definitely did *not* want to stay at yet another hostel in the boonies -- the friendly TIC pointed me towards a capsule hotel near Umeda, located in the Hankyu Higashi-doori shopping arcade (ƻŹ) and simply dubbed the Capsule In(n) Osaka (ץ륤). At Y2600/night with all taxes included, it was cheaper than most hostels, and far better placed! But, aside from a few TV-equipped lounges and the toilets, there were zero free amenities -- everything from showers to disposable toothbrushes required a copious supply of 100-yen coins. But who wants to hang around a hotel anyway?

So I headed out to Dotonbori (ƻ) and fell in love. A vast, vast warren of covered arcades and little alleys, filled with shop after shop after shop of restaurants ranging from dirt cheap to too expensive to show their menus to the unwashed masses, bars, nightspots, love hotels and above all throngs of people milling about and almost as many hustlers trying to pull them in (but politely -- this is Japan, after all). Kani Doraku's mechanical crabs were out in force, Kuidaore's mechanical clown kept beating its tune, and everywhere "Irasshai, irasshai!". I was already hungry, and the sight and smell of all that food made me famished... in the end I picked a seafood teishoku set, containing little bits of everything, none of them particularly good. Sigh. Next time...

25.5. Nara

I woke up at the cheery time of 7 in the morning after a less than well-slept night: the primary problems were some seriously overenthusiastic capsule air conditioning (in terms of noise as well as temperature), plus the unending parade of salarymen on their way in and out -- on my way out I was surprised to find that occupancy seemed to be well over 80%. (Then again, it was a Friday night.)

And over to the spa! 10 minutes of shower would've cost Y200, clearly a calculated bid to make people spring the Y420 for a morning trip to the adjoining spa. And for the price it wasn't bad at all, the usual complement of warm, tepid and cold pools with and without jet sprays, waterfalls, negative ions and even electricity (!). In the shower room you could opt to have your butt-nekkid back scrubbed by one of the cute ladies in attendance, and at least based on the prices some of the private VIP massage services offered downstairs may well have been of the legally dubious sort. But hey, not my problem...

By 9 I'd managed to haul myself across Osaka and over to Nara to meet Jun-chan (of J3J fame). Exhibit number one was the aptly named "Everything About Todaiji" (Τ٤) exhibition at the Nara National Museum, showcasing several truckloads of the less often revealed masterpieces secreted away at Todaiji, the Great Eastern Temple best known for housing a giant image of the Dainichi (Vairocana) Buddha in the world's largest wooden building. After the museum we largely retraced the steps of my J2J-era visit to Nara, visiting Kofukuji, Todaiji itself, Nigetsudo, Sangetsudo, Kagura Taisha shrine... all over Nara Park plus up and down many a hill. Near the end of the day we did detour to a part of Nara new to me (and unknown to most tourists), the older part of town known simply as Naramachi ("Nara Town"), where many traditional shops still ply their trade in traditional buildings.

The program for the evening, however, consisted of a visit to her parents', always a bit of an exercise in the extremes of Japanese hospitality. Her parents were worried that I would be unable to deal with exotic foods like plain rice, miso soup and pickles (the three main staples of the Japanese diet, mind you), so instead they opted for the following foreigner-friendly menu:

The octopus salad was a bit of challenge, and I can't say I'm much of a gizzard lover, but the rest was just dandy. (Copious amounts of beer and some truly excellent sake helped.)

The ofuro (bathtub) deserves a special mention: I've seen many a Japanese high-tech toilet, but this was the first high-tech bathtub I've had the chance to check out personally. LCD displays of temperature in the tub and in reserve, buttons for adjusting the temperature to exactly the desired temperature... yowza.

26.5. Horyuji ˡδ

Today's favorite T-shirt slogan:
Vague Bore
And shop name:
Whoopee! It's Hair!
We'd spent much of yesterday evening figuring out what to do today, but the status of our (or at least my) legs crossed off most possible itineraries -- so we opted for Horyuji (ˡδ), a famous (and consequently gigantic) temple complex not far from Nara. I'll let the pictures do the talking this time, suffice to say that the place is big, the day was hot and there were way too many field-tripping students in the place. One refuge of peace and quiet, and probably the most interesting bit, was a special exhibition of Esoteric Buddhist art and paraphernalia. Doing the rounds was a bit on the costly side though, the sum total of entrance tickets was Y2000 per head...

In the evening we waved goodbye to Nara and headed to Kobe. Dinner was yakiniku (), the ubiquitous Korean dish of grilled meat known as bulgogi in the original, and after inveigling me into ordering the set of Kobe beef (Y3800!) Jun absolutely insisted on paying the entire bill herself. And good stuff it was too, grilled rare, dabbed with spicy Korean miso paste, dipped in sauce and wrapped in a lettuce leaf... although a little nagging voice in the back of my head kept trying to shock me into realizing I was stuffing something that was almost 50% raw lard into my mouth.

On the way back the sky kept flashing an eerie white, and Jun's face followed suit -- "that happened before the [1995 Great Hanshin] earthquake too...". Lightning? But there were no claps of thunder or clouds in the sky. Stadium lights or something? Nope, the light seemed to come from everywhere. Alien invasion...?

Then the first real clap of thunder cam ba-rooming in and Jun quite literally tripped into a sidewalk ditch. I hauled her out (no harm done) and steadied the poor thing on our short way back, just in time before the thunderstorm arrived and the heavy rain started.

27.5. Kobe

I'm writing this lying down on the wooden floor of Junko's apartment, barely able to move. I feel like I have a colossal hangover: if I move my head my brain follows a few seconds later, aching all the way, my stomach is queasy, I'm constantly thirsty and -- the only deviation from the usual pattern -- my legs loudly insist that they would prefer to fall off. Only problem is, total alcohol consumption yesterday was limited to one (1) small mug of beer, and I only started feeling like this in the afternoon so I can't even blame the yakiniku. So what happened?

In the morning I had taken a train to Sannomiya, the center of Kobe, and started to figured out a) how to get to Awajishima, an island on the route to Shikoku, b) what to do once there, and c) where to stay once there. Locating a Y800 travel magazine devoted to these very topics proved a handy solution. At lunchtime, after much deliberation I opted for a super-cheap Chinese buffet in Kobe's diminutive Nankinmachi () Chinatown, in retrospect quite a possible cause of most of my ailments.

Since Kobe's Phoenix Plaza, once a large presentation on the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995 (̺), has recently been turned into yet another testament to the glories of the 2002 Korea-Japan World Cup, sponsored by Coca-Cola at that, the show has been relocated to a swanky new glass cube out in the docklands to the east. A few token exhibits had been left in a dusty corner of the pavilion, and even they were upsetting enough -- 6400 people killed, over 100,000 made homeless, vast tracts of Kobe reduced to a wasteland in an instant -- that Jun's fear at yesterday's thunderstorm, very similar to the display right before the earthquake she herself experienced, no longer seems quite so irrational.

So as the new museum didn't seem to be too far away from the sake breweries I had wanted to visit (or Jun's apartment, for that matter), I decided to head thataway... only to find out that it was closed Mondays, and that it was quite a trek back home. Along the way, I lasted for one brewery tour (Sawa-no-Tsuru , "Crane of the Marsh") until my legs really started screaming, so now I'm back here at four in the afternoon, whimpering.

I thought I was feeling better by evening and even ventured to eat a banana, but after a hot bath and crawling into bed my little presentiments of a fever burst into flame: according to an independent eyewitness account my face was as red as lobster. This lasted long enough for me to start conjuring up visions of horrible tropical diseases from the Perhentians, lying in a hospital bed on an intravenous drip while being ravaged by malaria/dengue/ebola. But soon I felt a... well, "familiar" would be a bit too much, but let us say "not entirely forgotten"... sensation in the pit of my stomach. I headed for the bathroom, prostrated myself before the Porcelain God, and proceeded to vomit on and off for the next two hours or so. The diagnosis was now clear:

shokuchuudoku
...or, in other words, food poisoning. I was glad that I hadn't headed for that remote campground to perform these exercises; then again, I wasn't particularly glad to subject Jun to them, but she doted on me the way only (future) Japanese moms can. Eventually the evil Chinese food made its way out and I managed to fall asleep.