Saturday, April 3, 2010

Neon lights, Ramen Noodles and Sumo!!

Mar. 13 –> 19th, by Jason

We took the local train from Kyoto to Osaka, only a half hour ride away and checked into the Hotel Chuo Selene. Wow, were we surprised by this place! It’s a brand new hotel that just opened a week before we arrived and we booked into a dorm room they had which conveniently turned into a private room because no one seems to know about this place since it’s so new. (And one hell of an ensuite shower, see below!) The rooms are clean and brand new, so definitely worth checking out if you’re headed to Osaka. Plus it’s a 30 second walk to the subway and a minute walk to 2 of the regional train lines that run through Osaka.

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I grabbed a map from the tourist info office just around the corner and must say that I was amused by the ad on the back (check out the text just to the right of the little boy):


After checking in and getting settled we decided to head up to Dotonburi for a bite to eat. It’s probably one of the most iconic tourist areas in Osaka. Known for it’s large plastic signs, it did not disappoint. On a Saturday night it was fairly crowded but we managed to sneak in some takoyaki, which is a fried dumpling filled with bits of octopus, and also a large and hearty bowl of Ramen pork soup. Enjoy the pictures:

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As you can tell from the pictures it’s pretty much a large eating street and it does not disappoint, so check it out when in Osaka! After a long day of travel and walking around we were ready to call it a night.

Random Osaka

Sunday was a fairly lazy day that included catching up online and random wanderings around the city. I won’t bore you with details because, well, there aren’t many, but enjoy a few pictures and we’ll move on to Monday :)

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Hot Instant Ramen…

So Monday we headed north of Osaka to one of the suburbs along the Hankyu Line to the Momofuku Ando Instant Ramen Noodle Soup Museum (that’s right, a whole museum just for the invention of instant ramen soup!) It’s a small place and the main draw is creating your own custom cup of instant noodle soup but it’s worth a visit just to get some of the background on the invention. Admission is free, as is the English audio guide headset (Y2000 deposit, refunded upon returning the headset) and it has 2 audio/visual presentations on the invention along with a huge wall of instant ramen soup through the years.

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We finally headed to the back to make our own custom cup of soup (Y400) I went with curry soup with cheese, shrimp, corn and garlic as my toppings (it worked out fairly well actually) and Swiss had a soi soup with cheese, green onion, asparagus and pork. You purchase your cup first, then the staff covers the cup while you sanitize with an alcohol gel (this is Japan, come on!) You then spend time at a table with markers decorating your cup before they then add noodles, soup powder and finally your selected toppings. It’s then sealed and you place it in an inflatable protective pouch.

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Afterwards we headed towards home with the intentions of checking out a Pachinko parlor (our local neighborhood had no shortage!) First I needed a quick stop in the room to read a little bit online about the rules and how to play (seemed easy enough, shoot little metal balls through a vertical pinball style machine.) Of course with my luck with mechanical games like this I was certain to lose, but it’s part of the experience! So we headed over to a local place and each placed Y10,000 into the machine (we each really wanted to gamble only Y5000 but that didn’t seem like an option) So we loaded it up, shot around some little silver balls, won a few in the process (about 25 myself) and put those back into the game. Once we’d both gone through all our silver balls we got up to leave. We headed upstairs to see the prize area and luckily one of the attendants caught us and gave us each a chip that he told us to place in an automated machine. We figured it would give a ticket to turn in to the prize counter for a small token prize for the foreigners (what a nice gesture) but instead it gave us each Y5000 in money back. Apparently (as best we can tell) we put into 10,000 Yen but only played 5000 Yen in credit and if we could read Japanese the machine would have likely given us that token back if we’d hit he right button. Luckily the Japanese are a nice and honest people (even when gambling!) and we walked away with a fun experience only having lost what we’d planned to spend anyways.


Afterwards we got some beverages and relaxed in our room and amused the hotel lobby staff while sampling our ramen creations:

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Are you ready to rumble?!?!

Well, Tuesday was the big day. We had it on good advice from a guy we met in Beijing that the Spring Grand Sumo Tournament was going on this week and the following. Being our final full day in Japan we decided to head out early for a uniquely Japanese experience, Sumo wrestling! First we headed over to the stadium around 8.30am to get tickets. While ticket prices can go up dramatically, the unreserved day of seats are only Y2000 and provided us exactly what we needed. Not wanting to get in there too early Swiss took advantage of a post office ATM, I went in search of a post card to send home to Mom (yeah, I procrastinate in every country, sorry Mom!) and Swiss enjoyed a final Beard Papa Cream Puff in the land of their origin. Of course there was stalking of sumo wrestlers also:


We stopped by this bento box takeout place and grabbed lunch and drinks to take in with us and camped out in our seats. The rest of the day was spent enjoying the art and sport that is sumo. There are plenty of videos also up on my flickr account, go check them out in the “Osaka, Japan” album.

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A few interesting things we observed in our day of sumo:

1. There are quite a few foreign (non-Japanese) sumo wrestlers. We saw wrestlers that were Scottish, Welsh and Brazilian, just to name a few. More entertaining, though, is that they have a groupie!! There' was a fair skinned (ie. western) woman that had a collection of flags and a large camera with a huge zoom. As each of the non-Japanese wrestlers would come out her and her little sidekick would unravel the flag and fly it during their match along with a lot of loud hooting and hollering. It was fun to watch her and see which flag was coming next!

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That’s right, I stalked the stalkers. Judge me! :)

2. Sumo is a huge thing here in Japan and the wrestlers themselves are national celebrities. I say this because we both left throughout the day to grab random snacks/drinks from the local convenience store and each time when walking out of the arena it was tightly controlled by police with media crews waiting to interview and crowds of people waiting to watch the wrestlers enter and exit the stadium. Of course it’s also the main entrance/exit for spectators, so it felt like walking the read carpet, except when I looked at the sad faces of Japanese people when they realized it was just me coming down the walk and not their favorite wrestler.

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The afternoon matches brought out the more experienced wrestlers, more time for theatrics and also a few ring entering ceremonies. As you can tell by the pictures below it also brought out a much larger crowd of spectators compared with the morning matches seen above. Again, be sure to go take a peek at the videos!

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It was a long day of sumo watching and we’d worked up a sumo sized appetite (oh wow that was too easy) so we headed back towards home in search of Okonomiyaki, another Osaka area specialty that we needed to try in it’s home city. It turns out there is a great family run little place around the corner from our hotel called Two Foxes and they whip up delicious okonomiyaki, definitely worth tasting!

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With a long day of travel coming up that was the end of our day.

Getting ejected from Japanese trains, politely of course!

Wednesday morning we were off around 8am to catch a train to Osaka International Airport for our flights to Mumbai. We bought an unreserved seat ticket from the machine and headed up to the platform. The second train coming was an airport train in just 3 minutes, perfect timing. The board said that reserved seats were available, but we figured we could just board and move if someone else came on with a ticket for the seat we’d chosen. We got settled in very comfortable seats (window seats no less) and settled in for the 40 km journey.

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As you can see the train was fairly empty and plenty of seats were available. The problem came when the attendant stopped by to take our tickets. Apparently ALL seats on this train must be reserved and we needed to pay 500 Yen more to take this train. Problem being we didn’t have anymore cash because we’d worked things out to have exactly enough Japanese cash to get us to the airport, the magical land of US Dollars and credit cards so that we would not waste any of our yen. She very politely told us that we could get off and transfer to a “non-reserved” train at the next station. Oops! Luckily we’d taken the express train and the next station (by the time she got to our seat) was one stop from the airport, so we got off


and waited about 7 minutes for the next airport train which was luckily an unreserved train. Let’s just say the seats weren’t nearly as nice :(

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We arrived with plenty of time to check in for our flights, Osaka to Bangkok and Bangkok to Mumbai on Thai Airways, a full day of travel. The service on Thai Airways was pretty good, meal service and drinks were well done on the Osaka to Bangkok segment, although there was no AVOD (Audio-Visual On Demand) in the seatback but instead just a few screens hanging from the ceiling, a really bummer compared with other overseas carriers. On the flight from Bangkok to Mumbai the lack of audio/visual was still present and the quality of service also declined. Apparently carriers run a different level of service on flights to/from Japan to meet the requirements of that market, as we learned from a flight attendant for Emirates Airlines we met in Jaipur, but more on that in a future post! We arrived in Mumbai on-time at about 11pm, cleared immigration, then promptly waited another 30 minutes or so for our luggage to arrive. A breeze through customs and a stop at the ATM to get our first Indian Rupees and it was off to meet our ride.


Due to our late arrival (and the airport’s near 30 km distance from downtown Mumbai) we’d booked with a local hostel only 2km from the airport that also offered free airport pickup and came highly rated. Sure enough they were waiting for us and we were quickly delivered to Anjali Inn in Andheri (a suburb of Mumbai) where we promptly passed out at nearly 1am.

Karma pays off again

Thursday morning was a late start but we got online at the guest house to catch up and start looking at ideas for what to do in India (we came with plenty of recommendations but no concrete plans) other than that we needed to head to Goa to meet Swiss’s friend Chiara and that we ultimately fly out of Delhi a month later. Swiss was chatting with 2 Norwegian girls who were finishing up their travels through India and headed off the next morning to South Africa. They politely offered us their Lonely Plant India book for free, which we gladly took them up on the offer. All we could offer in return was a China guidebook, which they politely declined (for the record we also offered some cash, which they also declined) and so we donated our China book to the hostel in the hopes that the cycle of karma would repeat itself.

We decided to head into Mumbai to see the city, look for a place to stay the following night and also check out train tickets at the station. Given the distance a cab or train would be required. With a cab costing around 400 Rs (about 9 USD) we decided to go with the train/rickshaw option, which is about 36 Rs/person instead. Our hostel was a quick 3 km journey to Andheri station and after a little wandering we finally figured out where to buy a 2nd class round trip ticket to Churchgate (the final station on the line, making it easy to get on and stay on until the end) The Mumbai suburban train system is famous the world over for the immense crowds of people that ride daily and also has some unique features for the uninitiated. First off they have women’s only cars (nice feature) which are marked on the platform by a yellow and green beam up above. Not knowing this we stood and waited quite a while in this area until a local man politely asked us what we were waiting for and then informed us that we were standing in the women’s car boarding zone. Second the crowds of people are just unimaginable! I’ve now ridden subways on 4 continents, including China, the world’s most populous nation, and I’ve never seen anything like this. You become very close friends with everyone else on these trains, let’s just say that.

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Luckily near the end of the line the car started to clear out and Swiss even got a chance to hang out of the car, standing in one of the most coveted spots on any Mumbai train!


A quick 10 minute walk from Churchgate station is CST, the main train hub for Mumbai, both local, regional and national trains depart from here. The Indian Railways also operate Foreign Tourist ticket windows in their reservation offices, which is where we were headed. Apparently most Indian trains book up very quickly but on about 200 train routes throughout the country they hold a small portion of seats for foreign tourists so that they can make reservations last minute as travel plans change. Oh, and the lines at the foreign ticket window are dramatically shorter than the regular ticket windows :) About an hour later we walked away with 2 berths on a 3AC train car headed for Goa on Saturday morning (6.55am!) Of course, this was now our second sighting of the Indian government’s love for paperwork and bureaucracy! There’s a form you must fill out to book a train ticket that must include age, sex, home address, address at destination, whether or not your a doctor (actually a smart question!) and whether or not you want a free upgrade to the next class if free seats are available (uh, yes please!?)


Next up was booking a room for Friday night in town, preferably close to the train station. Another interesting part of Mumbai is the insanely high rates for hotel rooms here. A simple private room with a shared bathroom will run about $15-20/night, about 2-3 times higher than most other cities in Asia (Japan excluded of course.) We booked at Seashore Inn, conveniently located in the Colaba neighborhood, which along with Fort area just north of there forms the major tourist area of Mumbai. All the crap out of the way it was time for some sightseeing! First stop was the Gateway of India, one of the most famous landmarks in the whole country, along with a few exterior shots of the Taj Hotel.

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A dinner of my first thali (vegetarian and delicious!) and a short stroll around town, we ended up back at the Taj Hotel to check out the interior. A gorgeous hotel that rivals the Raffles in Singapore, it’s famous/infamous most recently for the 26/11 Massacre (as it’s known here in India) where a group of armed terrorists took over the hotel in a 12+ hour siege of the compound and it’s guests. As beautiful as the site is, it’s also a reminder of how the terrorists have “won” in a small way. I don’t say that last sentence flippantly or with a sense of cynicism. It’s true that day to day operations and security at the hotel have changed dramatically since that day and while new security enhancements were of course done tastefully, the hotel and the experience of guests and visitors is permanently changed because of that day and the actions of a few. Otherwise the hotel is still a majestic and amazing facility with old world charm everywhere and definitely worth a visit (the air conditioning and fantastic couches are still free :)


We stayed in town until about 8.30pm at the advice of our guest house owner as he said that the suburban trains out of the city remain packed until about 8pm. A short ride back to Andheri Station and it was time for rest after a long day.

Our inadvertent city tour

Friday morning we met a nice English girl in Mumbai for a few days who was looking to share a cab into the city (there was no way we were hauling our luggage onto the packed suburban trains!) So we settled in for what became an over one hour journey to Colaba and a full on tour of Mumbai. We saw everything from the infamous slums of Mumbai to middle class neighborhoods, luxury high rise condos, and industrial/commercial areas. The span of people and economic levels living across Mumbai is just astounding but across it all you feel the warmth of Indian people and the ubiquitous smiles on people’s faces.

We checked into our hotel, had a quick lunch at a local place


then continued our walking tour of Mumbai. Sites for the day included Mumbai University (no entry for non-students, though) and the High Court of Mumbai (no cameras allowed inside)

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One thing I did not know before coming to Mumbai is the amount of amazing architecture in that city. Much of it obviously from the era of British colonialism, it does not look out of place at all and I was constantly stopping to look and appreciate the amazing buildings.

After our walking tour it was time to head to Chowpatty Beach, just two train stops north of downtown, a great place to catch the sunset and known as a famous family hangout on Friday/Saturday nights.

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Now here’s where the fun of the Mumbai Suburban trains comes in. We headed back into our part of town, just 2 stops from Chowpatty Beach. We were waiting on the platform for a train and a decent crowd had developed as it had been a while since the last train into downtown. When the next train arrived it was already packed and it was an all out shoving match between people boarding the train and people trying to get off. A few fights nearly broke out amid the shoving and we just stood back in amazement (forget the pushy ladies getting onto a Muni Bus in SF!) We waited for the next train (3 minutes later and relatively empty.)

After quite a few vegetarian meals it was time for some meat and we headed to a local Muslim restaurant that made excellent meat (non-veg in India) dishes and then headed to bed before our early morning train the next day. Next up will be Swiss with more on the sandy beaches and Portuguese influenced lifestyle of Goa.


Anonymous said...

I loved Mumbai. Its an amazing city :) the trains are something else. Can't wait to go to Japan. By the way, great blog :)

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