Japanese city of Osaka is well worth a visit

Japanese city of Osaka is well worth a visit

I had envisioned savouring sushi or sashimi for breakfast when I arrived in Osaka, so I was stunned when I heard that we would instead be taken to a cafe for roti canai and teh tarik! Go all the way from Malaysia to Osaka to eat roti canai?

Later, I found out that Tourism Malaysia is partnering with the Osaka Government Tourism Bureau (OGTB) to introduce Malaysian street food to Osakans.

We, a 13-member media crew, went on a 30-minute bus ride from Kansai International Airport to downtown Umeda Kita where Travel Cafe is located. This eatery specialises in Malaysian favourites. Our group felt very cosy in this Japanese-owned cafe with an English setting. This was our first stop after a six-hour flight from KL International Airport in early December last year.

Everyone in our group had roti canai and teh tarik, of course, and they were among the best I had tasted so far. When we asked about the chef, representatives from OGTB pointed to Penang-born Mohd Shafirul Yakob, who was busy tossing roti canai dough into the air. Aah, a reminder of home in a faraway land.

After the meal, we crossed a busy street in the commercial centre of Umeda to look for Uniqlo. We learnt that Japanese clothing chain Uniqlo had opened its latest flagship store, within Japan, in Osaka. This store, which caters mainly to foreign tourists. opened its doors last Oct 31.

As winter had arrived, the clothes on offer in Uniqlo reflected the season.

Our group later headed to Osaka Station City by foot, about 20 minutes from Uniqlo, to see the prayer rooms - separate ones for men and women - set up by OGTB to cater to Muslim visitors in the city.

Lunch was a reasonably priced buffet in a Japanese restaurant at Osaka Station City Mall. After that, we had only 30 minutes of free time to look around. Most of the clothing and jewellery items sold in the mall cost more than 10,000 yen (S$115). Not for me!

Next stop: Umeda Sky Building, aka the Floating Garden Observatory, one of Osaka's landmarks. Located in Oyodonaka, Kita-ku, this unique building has a 170m-high observation platform which serves as a bridge connecting the two 40-storey towers of the building.

It also offers a 360° view of Osaka City. The perfect place to get a view of Osaka's skyline, provided one is not afraid of heights. Tickets cost about 700 yen per entry.

With Christmas approaching, Osaka Station City was beautifully illuminated. And just below the building was the German Christmas market. It looked like other Christmas bazaars, except that this was held outdoors, and had a huge Christmas tree as a focal point.

Strains of Christmas carols and the aroma of freshly baked bread and cake filled the air. Porcelain and wooden decorations were sold at some of the stalls managed by German expatriates and Osakans.

We headed to the Yamamoto Noh Theatre in the city for dinner. It is part of Japanese culture to welcome guests by serving tea. Clad in a silk kimono, a demure hostess demonstrated Japan's traditional method of making green tea. Each step was done slowly and elegantly, including mixing the green tea powder in a bowl and rotating the bowl before serving tea to guests, followed by the traditional bow.

Dinner was then served. Tray upon tray of sushi was brought in, accompanied by shabu shabu, a Japanese dish of thinly sliced beef and vegetables boiled in water and dipped in sauce. Ah, finally, some Japanese food!

The experience was further enhanced with a theatrical performance called noh. Noh or nohgaku means skill or talent, and recognised as shikigaku (an official ceremonial art) for ceremonies of the Tokugawa shogun.

The Japanese take pains in preserving their heritage. Noh has been performed for over 700 years and is acknowledged as the oldest mask theatre performance in the world. Performed with traditional instruments, costumes and masks, it was not only entertaining but a visual feast as well.

The Yamamoto Noh theatre is a 20-minute walk from Osaka Castle. The entrance fee depends on the type of Noh play one wants to watch. Workshops are also available for those interested to learn more.

The hotel we stayed in is located near Kema Sakuranomiya Park (Sakura blossoms park) and Osaka Castle. From the hotel rooms, we enjoyed stunning views of the Okawa River (just behind the hotel) and the city. We could go on a river cruise onboard the Aqua Liner, aka the water bus.

The Aqua Liner makes stops at Osaka Castle Park, Tenmabashi Pier and Yodoyabashi Pier. The hourly cruise operates on a daily basis, and tickets cost between 400 yen and 1,600 yen. The best time to take the river cruise is in April - springtime - when the sakura blossoms bloom.

We hopped onto the boat and got off just outside Osaka Castle Park. In the distance, we saw the towering, majestic historic castle.

Culture and heritage are important in Osaka, nicknamed the city of merchants. Visiting the Osaka Museum of Housing and Living in Tenjinbashi Ward is an experience you would not want to miss. Take a step back in time to the Edo period (1603-1868). On display are life-sized models of houses from that period, as well as ceramics, furniture, sewing machines, fabrics and books, among others.

Tickets to the museum are priced at 600 yen.

Visitors can try on a yukata (a casual unlined kimono made of cotton and worn with a narrow sash), for 300 yen per costume.

We were told that the start of winter was the best time to get a glimpse of colourful autumn leaves. At the Expo '70 Commemorative Park in Suita, north of Osaka, tourists can explore the various types of Japanese gardens, including the Medieval Garden, the Early Modern Garden and the Modern Garden. (Expo '70 was the name of the world fair held in Osaka in 1970.)

The Japanese gardens were created as exhibits for Expo '70, to present the best Japanese landscaping techniques to visitors from around the world. One of the outstanding features is the 65m-tall Tower of the Sun in the centre of the park.

The view in the park was simply breathtaking, with its natural waterfalls, autumn leaves, flowing river and birds chirping - how soothing and energising.

After a stroll in the park. we headed towards the famous shopping area of Shinsaibashi. It is huge - a 4km row of shops and boutiques. One is spoilt for choice, with the variety of shops selling clothes, shoes, jewellery, accessories, and lots more. Designer goods like Gucci, Coach, Prada and Georgio Armani are also available here.

Nestled within is Amerika-mura (American Village), known for its restaurants and bars. According to a local, it got its name because the area was patronised by Westerners. It is also the centre of Osaka's youth culture.

When it comes to food, Dotonbori, near Namba, is a must-visit. It has the added bonus of being near the famous shopping arcade, Ebisubashi-suji. A wide assortment of food is offered here, including street food.

It's also popular for its nightlife and huge neon billboards.

At the end of our four-day trip in Osaka, Tourism Malaysia hosted a dinner for us at Kani Doraku, a Dotonbori restaurant well-known for its snow crabs. It was fascinating to see the live snow crabs in huge tanks in the two-storey restaurant.

My short visit was enough to whet my appetite, and I would definitely love to go back to Osaka again during spring to see the sakura blossoms.

The trip was part of a media exchange programme by Tourism Malaysia in partnership with OGTB. Flights were sponsored by Malaysia Airlines, which has daily flights to Osaka.

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