In 2012, I traveled solo for the first time in my life.
I still remember how scared I was before the trip. With only a small backpack, a Neil Gaiman book, a thousand dollars, and a will to get out of my comfort zone, I boarded the plane to Bangkok. As I was checking in, there were no butterflies in my belly, only a great fear that I might find myself unfit for the travel lifestyle and come running back home earlier than planned.
It’s interesting that, given the proximity of Kyoto and Osaka from each other (less than half an hour by train), each city radiates a distinct vibe that distinguishes itself from the other. I noticed it as soon as I stepped off the train station: while Kyoto is all about heritage and tradition, Osaka is fast-paced and adventurous. Kyoto has its temples, shrines and UNESCO sites; Osaka has its cuisine, shopping districts, and amusement parks.
If you ask me to enumerate all the things that I love about Japan, you’ll probably not gonna hear the end of it. From its simple but sublime cuisine to its rich but action-packed history to their gentle but efficient way of life, Japan has always captivated me since childhood.
But one thing that I have always been fascinated with is the cherry blossoms. Perhaps it’s because of how my favorite manga and anime shows have romanticized the way their petals gracefully fall to the ground and slowly get blown by the wind. Perhaps it’s the way their pink and white foliage paint a new character to the landscape. Whatever it is, it is one of the many reasons Japan was a long-time dream destination.
That night was especially cold in Osaka. It was my first Christmas Eve away from home; I had always celebrated the occasion with family. That night, however, there won’t be any noche buena or wine or reunions for me.
I picked up my luggage at the hotel and made my way to Umeda Sky Building where I would catch the overnight Willer bus to Tokyo. I would be welcoming Christmas on the road. Merry Christmas to me indeed.
I picked up the paper-thin slice of fish and silently hoped it wouldn’t be the last thing I would do. That night, I did not plan on having fugu, Japan’s deadly delicacy. I did not plan on dying, either.
How I ended up at a fugu place was a matter of fate. Like the last time I was here, I could not choose where to have dinner. Picking a restaurant is never easy in Dotonbori. Osaka is the center of the Japanese food culture, and it can’t be any more evident in Dotonbori. Dozens of food places, from small kiosks to proper restaurants, flank the main street and its inner alleys, bombarding tourists with countless options if not blinding them with giant electronic displays. I checked out one menu after another and still could not pick one, for the life of me. It was only when I felt my knees begin throwing curse words at me that I finally declared to enter whatever establishment was behind me. I looked up and found a giant pufferfish lantern dangling overhead.
Uh-oh. Not that.
Dotonbori is the gastronomic epicenter of Osaka, Japan. This world-famous street runs from Dotonbori Bridge to Nipponbashi Bridge, and on both sides stand dozens of restaurants whose facades are adorned with enormous, electronic displays.
It was the trip I was so afraid to take.
The notoriety of Japan as an expensive destination hovered over my head for the longest time. Even when airlines offered bargain deals for flights to Osaka, I was reluctant to book. Not only was I worried about the visa not being approved for I didn’t have enough in my bank, I was also dreading how much I would be spending in the days after stepping on Japanese soil. Japan is expensive, I always thought. But someday, somehow, this trip has got to happen.
It finally did! And guess what? It wasn’t as tough on the pockets as I expected.
The moment that sushi graced my palate, I knew I had been mistaken all this time.
I was known in my circle as the guy who hated Japanese food. Well, ‘hated’ would be quite a stretch. I was just not a fan. At lunch or dinnertime and a friend would suggest a Japanese restaurant, I’d be the first to run to the opposite direction (unless they’re treating me). I’d always found sushi weird-tasting and many other dishes too dry. If there was one thing I wasn’t looking forward to in my first trip to Japan, it was the food.
But that changed as soon as I had my first meal in Osaka.
Hotel Chuo Oasis was my first choice when I was browsing online for affordable places to stay. Just by reading the reviews, I was already sold. It has a stellar 89% rating on Hostelworld, 83% on TripAdvisor, and 8.2/10 in Agoda. Although listed on Hostelworld, it is not a hostel but a hotel. A very affordable hotel, considering how expensive everything is in the mighty city of Osaka.
Even before six o’clock, I was already at the foot of the giant spinning wheel to catch the sunset. But I forgot one thing: I was in Japan. And in Japan, the summer sun sets much later, at around seven.
When it finally dawned on me, I painted a smile on my face. Just a few minutes earlier, I dashed from the train station to get here thinking I would be late for the heavenly show and worrying that I wouldn’t have enough time to explore the rest of the area. But look at that, I got an hour to spare. Sometimes the universe knows just how to surprise me.