As we were arrived in Osaka late in the evening it was the perfect time of the day to begin by exploring the Dōtonbori area, famous for it’s bright neon lights, giant signs and hectic pedestrian streets. You need to bring your sunglasses as every building is competing trying to have the most neon on it’s street front.
After battling our way along the incredibly busy Shinsaibashi-suji we emerged onto the Ebsiu-bashi bridge, here neon is at it’s most garish and it’s a popular spot for photos. From here we continued our walk into the Dōtonbori Arcade where there are numerous restaurants and food stands with touts outside trying to get you in. Several places have decided to stand out from the crowd using giant signage, including a huge mechanical puffer fish.
After the sensory overload we moved on to the sanctuary of the old town through narrow lantern lit streets that have been surrounded by the neon monstrosities. After our walk around we found ourselves at a familiar place, Ippudo! After another tasty ramen meal we headed in for the night.
The next morning we headed out of Osaka to Kōya-san, a collection of monasteries raised high in the mountains in the Wakayama prefecture. It’s the headquarters of the Shingon school of Esoteric Buddhism. We wanted to stay here as it offered the opportunity to stay in a working monastery and see a unique insight into the traditions of Japanese religious life. The journey up to the town was through beautiful, lush green countryside and farm land. The train took us the majority of the way up but we had to complete our journey via a very steep funicular, which was a frightening experience!
It was then a short bus ride to the town from the station. Every other building in Kōya-san is a monastery with most offering lodgings, we found ours nestled in a quiet back street, tranquillity oozing out the front door. Our room was made up of 3 rooms, 1 large central one and 2 smaller, all separated by Shoji paper screens. One of the adjoining rooms had 2 chairs looking out to a private garden, it was really beautiful.
Our meals were provided as well and we ate in a dining room with the other guests, sat on the floor we waited anxiously for our traditional vegetarian meal. For those who love tofu and green tea it would’ve been lovely however neither Jon or I are massive fans. Concious not to offend we ate as much as we could, it wasn’t all bad there were some lovely tempura vegetables. We had to get up for 6am prayers so we had an early night. We got up bright and early and made our way upstairs in trepidation as we didn’t know what to expect. We arrived at a medium sized room with a shrine/alter at the far end, there were already 2 monks in full swing chanting. We sat in silence with the rest of the guests as the chanting continued for about 30 minutes. It was a very spiritual but I did feel an intruder in a private moment as we were sat watching in a group of tourists. However the chanting was hypnotic and it was a really special experience.
After another tofu heavy breakfast we headed out to have a look around Kōya-san before going back to Osaka. We went for a walk through Okunoin Cemetery, it’s the largest cemetery in Japan and many large companies (Panasonic being one) own plots there as it is a very prestigious honour to be buried there. There were many statues wearing red cloth aprons which commemorate children who had died in infancy. At the end of the long cemetery is the mausoleum of Kobo Daishi, the founder of Shingon Buddhism and one of the most revered persons in the religious history of Japan.
After our morning stroll we headed back to the station and back to Osaka. We arrived at midday and stowed our bags in lockers so we could explore some more of the city before leaving for Nara that night. Our first stop was lunch and then to the old castle, which was a stark contrast to the modern neon lights we’d come to associate with Osaka. We viewed the castle from the outside as it was a beautiful day and we wanted to head on to the aquarium.
Osaka aquarium is one of the best and largest in the world boasting many types of fish and sea dwelling creatures. It didn’t disappoint, however they have a whale shark and I still don’t know if I agree with having such a large animal kept in a tank. Still I can’t say I didn’t enjoy seeing all the different things, the otters were a highlight.
After the aquarium we went on the Osaka Tempozan (think London Eye) as the sun went down and the city lights came on and the wheel’s lights a continuous stream of colours as it rotated. The ride was a great end to a super few days. We then retrieved our suitcases and caught the train to Nara, it seemed though that we’d hit rush hour at 11pm, the train was full of business men and we had to stand the whole way. Luckily it wasn’t a very long journey!