Awesome Osaka

Elmo, Snoopy and Hello Kitty leading the Magical
Starlight Parade at Universal Studios Japan, Osaka
I sit comfortably reading while waiting to board my Air Asia X flight to Osaka but my peace is disrupted when I overhear a man asking, “Do you think I can bring back some samurai swords?”  He and his friends are behind me so they cannot see me smiling when his friends said that he can try to declare them as souvenirs from Japan. 

For a moment I’m distracted from my book because I can’t help listening to their lively banter about where to go and what to eat in Japan and I start to feel a tingle of excitement in anticipation of my own experience in Japan.


From the itinerary arranged by our host, Kansai International Airport Osaka (KIX), I know that I will spend three nights in three cities – Kobe, Kyoto and Osaka – in the Kansai region situated in southern-central Honshu, Japan’s main island.  With visits to city sites, mountain sides and historical places as well as boat rides, the diversity of items in the itinerary is mind-boggling but I guess our host just wants to show us as much of Osaka as possible.  
A ride on the rapi:t train from KIX takes
us directly to Nanba Parks
The itinerary will take us around the Kansai region through a network of efficient trains and subways, returning to attractions in Osaka every day.  And it was much later that I realised that the locals refer to Kansai and Kinki interchangeably as the different words actually mean the same place!

Later I will also discover that Osaka is the birthplace of takoyaki, a ball-shaped Japanese snack usually filled with diced octopus and the Osakans say, “Okini” instead of “Arigato” for Thank You, in their own dialect.  I read and dozed most of the way and on arrival at KIX, the airport which aims to be the first Muslim-friendly airport in Japan, I meet with media representatives from Thailand, Indonesia and a Chinese Malaysian.  Our tour starts with KIX’s Tourist Information Center and Travel Desk for the convenience of arriving visitors and as our guide, Hiro-san helped with the English translation, I learn plenty about the Japanese as he patiently answered my curious questions.

Fun Parks

Built on a man-made island, KIX is linked to Honshu by a 4-km bridge and we board the Rapi:t express train from the station next to KIX for a comfortable ride into Namba City.  Our first stop is Nanba Parks – nine levels of shops, restaurants and entertainment in a mall designed in a concept that’s inspired by the Grand Canyon.  Intrigued by the Nankai Hawks memorial gallery at the level 9 Parks Garden, I’m thrilled to discover that Namba Parks is built on the site of Osaka Stadium, the former home of the Nankai Hawks baseball team.  Incidentally in 1987, pop stars Madonna and Michael Jackson, held their concerts in this stadium before it was torn down!

Hiro-san said the Japanese enjoy going to amusement parks and this accounts for various types of entertainment malls and fun parks in and around the city.  The excitement at Universal Studios Japan (USJ) is infectious and it didn’t take long before I’m swept into a tide of animated fun with the likes of Woody Woodpecker, the Sesame Street characters, Snoopy and Hello Kitty.  I’m keen to see what’s unique to USJ and am delighted to discover Jaws – that horrific shark which terrorised Amity Village, The Amazing Spiderman Ride in New York and in San Francisco, there is Backdraft, which was used as a set in the movie of the same name.  When night falls, we join the throng who line the streets to watch the mesmerizing Magical Starlight Parade.

Glittering night view from the Umeda Sky Building
One night after dinner, Hiro-san leads us on a walk to the 173m high Umeda Sky Building that boasts 360 degree panoramic views from its Floating Garden.  It’s rather nerve-wracking to ride an escalator through a glass tunnel to the 39th level – on the outside of the building – and watch a sea of city lights glittering against a dark velvet blanket.  A glass elevator ride to the rooftop of the 40th level brings us to the Lumi Sky Walk, so named because the circular corridor is paved with phosphorescent stones that reflect like luminous dots by night.  As I take a slow walk around to enjoy the spectacular views, I discover the Fence of Vows and stop to watch a cute couple pose for a photo after they have attached a lock, engraved with their names, to the fence!
Amazing sight of giant spider crabs in the deep
sea section of the Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan
On our final day in Osaka, we head to Tempozan Harbour Village where I spotted a Giant Ferris Wheel and Marketplace but we only have time for a tour of the Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan and a harbour cruise on the “Santa Maria” sightseeing ship.  It’s interesting to start our aquarium tour from the 8th level to enjoy the exhibits from the “Ring of Fire” recreated with the natural environment around the Pacific Ocean.  The gentle spiral path that winds downward is bordered by 10 exhibit areas from around the world like Monterey Bay, Gulf of Panama and Antarctica.  The exhibit for the Pacific Ocean marine life spans an impressive height of three floors and is home to an enormous whale shark and hammerhead sharks among other fish.  Walking in dim light with sea creatures swimming on either side of me, I start to feel as if I’m also underwater!

Heritage Trail

Our instructor showed us how
to make tempura prawn food sample!
The route to Doguya Street is lined by interesting street food vendors and I find it hard to follow Hiro-san’s pace as he leads us on and up a steep flight of stairs to R&M Food Sample Art Gallery for a hands-on experience in making fake food samples.  I used to admire attractive food replicas in the windows of Japanese restaurants that are so realistic that I want to order it and I’m tickled that now I’m wearing an apron and following the directions of our friendly instructor to make my own roll of lettuce, vegetable slice and prawns in tempura wax replicas.  But unlike the gentle movements of her delicate wrists that turns out lifelike wax food samples, the artworks by my unpracticed hand are so chunky that I’m sure, will put diners off rather than entice them to eat!

One of the distinct Japanese traditions is eating raw fish and I’m thrilled to join diners at Daiki Suisan Kaitan Restaurant in Sakai City to witness a master carver demonstrate the cutting of a Hon Maguro or bluefin tuna.  This performance includes a lively auction for the choicest parts of the fish and even though I do not understand what they are saying in Japanese, I join the audience in the boisterous bidding.  Before sitting down for lunch, we head to the adjacent wholesale fish market to see how the locals shop for fresh seafood like fish, shell-fish, prawns and snow crabs, pre-cooked seafood as well as packed cooked meals, being prepared in live stations.  As I watch one of their staff slicing raw fish before arranging them like a pretty fan on a plate, I’m convinced that I should adopt this Japanese eating habit because I learnt that raw fish retains more nutrients and slows down the aging process! 

Our streetcar driver in Sakai City!
Another exciting experience in Sakai City is our streetcar ride in the ancient Hankai Tramway that has been in operation since 1911.  Even though the ride on the Chinchin Densha Streetcar is short, I’m still excited with the trip on the only streetcar in Osaka.  I observe how passengers enter through the wide door in the middle of the tram and ring a bell to signal a stop request.  Then the passengers drop their fares into a machine next to the driver and the exit door in front opens for them to alight.  I ask Hiro-san if the driver will mind having his photo taken and he told me to try.  So when I point my camera at our driver, he happily obliged with a bow!

As the streetcar trundled away on tracks in the middle of the road, Hiro-san is leading us down a few small lanes to find the charming monaka shop run by Okada Yasuto, a third generation confectioner of traditional Japanese sweets.  I learn that monaka is a traditional stuffed Japanese sweet made of sweet red bean paste coated in thin crisp wafers made from mochi or rice flour.  This confectioner creates his monaka in various interesting shapes like a Japanese pagoda, the Sakai City traditional streetcar and a hammer-like craftsman’s tool which is a Japanese good luck charm.  I’m also delighted to see square boxes filled with tiny colourful sweets or wagashi, traditional sweets to savour with sips of green tea in the tea ceremony.

Shopping Spree

Check out the iconic Glico Man in neon lights!
As I observe and admire the mature elegance of Japanese women on the streets and in the trains, I’m totally inspired and ever determined to emulate their good grooming habits not just in neat clothes but also in good hairdressing.  In the stylish Shinsaibashi shopping area, I join locals and tourists to browse around the shops and while I have one eye on the merchandise, the other is on the Japanese women – admiring the elegantly dressed older ladies and being amazed at the youngsters’ wild street fashion.  This is not just Osaka’s main shopping area because by night, this site is transformed into a tourists’ must-see destination for its dazzling neon lights from giant-size billboards.  My eyes are riveted to the iconic Glico Man emblazoned in neon lights and fond memories of the Pocky Japanese snacks I used to enjoy in school, come rushing back!

The Shiseido counter in Hankyu Umeda Dept Store
The name, Hankyu Umeda Department Store, rings a bell not only because it’s the first railway-terminal department store in the world but because the Hankyu brand is a familiar name from the 1980s when Hankyu Jaya had a few stores in Kuala Lumpur.  The original store which opened in Osaka in 1929 underwent a reconstruction over the last seven years and reopened in 2012 with 13 exciting levels of shops, restaurants, entertainment and event areas.  As I discover a wide range of Japanese and International brands with entire floors devoted to Cosmetics, Ladies Shoes, Ladies Fashion, Sports, Hobbies, Living and even Art, and two whole floors solely for Food, Grocery and Confectionery, I can’t help thinking that this must be the Harrods of Japan!

Façade of the Grand Front Osaka by night
I have a different shopping experience at the Grand Front Osaka because besides a range of shops that stock Japanese and International brands, the mall also houses a convention centre.  Outside, it has tree-lined paths and on the rooftop, there are landscaped gardens dotted with seats, a comfortable respite from walking in the huge mall.  Don’t be confused if the logo for the Umekita Floor on Level 6 looks like a number “8” because this is a cool food-court-like place to hang out with friends for food and fun.  If you pick a table along the corridors that has a sticker on it, you can order from any of the 16 outlets.  Interestingly, this place is open until 4am!
A section of the Rinku Premium Outlets, Osaka
Located just 20 minutes by shuttle bus from KIX, Rinku Premium Outlets is the last stop in our itinerary in Osaka so that we can shop for some of the world’s finest international fashion labels and Japanese brands before leaving for the airport.  Designed with 210 shops sprawled across two double-storey buildings that are linked by a bridge, Rinku Premium Outlets just reminds me of our Johor Premium Outlets but with “outdoor air-conditioning” on this wintry evening.  I’m always keen on a good deal and without wasting a moment I plunge into checking out the product brands listed from A (Adidas) to Z (Zegna).  Time truly flies when you are having fun and suddenly I spot Hiro-san in the courtyard waiting patiently on a bench and as I reluctantly leave the shops, I tell myself that this is another reason why I must make another trip to Osaka.  

Fast Facts

Osaka is the third largest city by population after Tokyo and Yokohama and serves as a gateway to the historical city of Kyoto and Kobe, both of which are accessible by Japan’s highly efficient rail network.  Air Asia X operates 4 times weekly flights to Kansai International Airport from the Kuala Lumpur LCCT with flights on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.  The route is operated on the Airbus A330-300 with a seat configuration of 12 Premium Flatbeds and 365 Economy Seats.  Visit website: or more information.

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Life & Times on 9 January 2014

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