Osaka: The City of Signs

About a month ago I had the opportunity to go to Japan with my lab for a conference and workshop. The actual conference and workshop wasn’t very exciting, but the trip itself was fully funded and so hey, free trip to Japan.

For those of you that know me, you know that I love Japan. It’s probably one of my favourite countries to visit because so much of it appeals to me. So much of the media and snacks I consume on a daily basis are from Japan and growing up it’s had a pretty big influence on my life.

What made the trip even more exciting is that we were going to be staying at NAIST, a school in between Osaka and Nara, two cities that I’ve always wanted to visit but never had a chance to until then. So it was even better because I got to visit places I’ve never been before! This post is about Osaka and I’ll write another one about Nara hopefully within the week.

No other country in the world would have Mario greet you at the airport.

Anyways, Osaka has the second largest metropolitan area in Japan and so it’s a pretty big city with lots of people. It’s also located fairly centrally in Japan and closer to Korea than Tokyo, so a lot of people from Korea end up going to Osaka over Tokyo because it’s just closer and cheaper.

Now, I really like Tokyo so I was really curious to see how Osaka would be like. Osaka is definitely different but I have a hard time in putting the differences into words. The city itself has a different atmosphere to it. Tokyo is very cool and modern and Osaka is very similar too, but it just has more.. I dunno, warmth? It just feels more vibrant.

When you’re in restaurant and hangout areas like Shinsaibashi or Shinsekai the atmosphere is really nice. They have a lot of large 3D signs and decorations hanging over the restaurants and it just feels like every shop is trying to out-impressive their neighbours with their decorations. The result is just amazing cause you walk down the street and it just feels so comfy and interesting. Especially at night when the incandescent lights turn on and the streets are just awash with a yellowish glow.

Probably the most fancy looking restaurant.

Just walking around the city and checking out the store decorations and advertisements is already an experience in and of itself. In fact, one of Osaka’s most recognizable landmark is actually an advertisement. It’s a giant billboard of a dude running and honestly I have no idea why it became so iconic, but it’s pretty iconic.

In terms of other sightseeing, Osaka also has a lot of places to go. Aside from the Glico Man sign you also have Osaka Castle as one of the major sightseeing locations. It’s literally just a castle situated in the middle of a park in the city. The castle itself is alright. It’s nice to look at from the outside and at the top you have a pretty neat view of the city, but it’s nothing super spectacular in my opinion.

Osaka Castle, featuring a modern elevator.

The downtown area of Osaka is also quite nice. Of course, when you’re in downtown core it’s just glass and metal like any other big city, but it’s still very interesting to walk around. There’s a lot of cool malls and just neat looking buildings. I actually went and bought some stuff when I was there and it was also just an experience going shopping. For one, Japanese clothes are awesome. And second, it was definitely the first time where I went shopping in a building that had giant red whales hanging from the ceiling underneath a Ferris wheel. That was neat.

One of the highlights of downtown Osaka was the Umeda Sky Building. It’s a pretty interesting building by itself, but you can also go up it for a view of the city that’s much better than the one you can get at Osaka Castle. We were pretty lucky during our trip because it was supposed to rain but didn’t really rain that much. But the weather the day I went up the Sky Building was amazing and it made for such an awesome view of the city.

Awesome weather and an awesome view from the Umeda Sky Building.

However, I would say that Osaka doesn’t have too much to do from a purely traditional sightseeing point of view since there aren’t many “must go” places. Instead, it’s more about just going somewhere and walking around I guess. I find that Japan is pretty good for this in general, and it holds true for Osaka. There’s so many niches and subcultures and random things that you can just walk around the streets and find something new and interesting.

And of course part of that is discovering the awesome food and restaurants. I’m a pretty big fan of Japanese food in general, but Osaka is known for its food. Especially it’s street food. Meaning you have a lot of fried food and other types of snacks and it’s all just really good. Unhealthy, but good.

But man, being back in Japan and going to their convenience stores and supermarkets really reminded me of why Japan is awesome. Their snacks! Japanese snacks are honestly the toppest of tiers. They’re so good. One of the things that I really think Korea is lacking in is definitely the snack department. The snacks here just aren’t that good. But man, Japanese snacks are so good I wish I had access to it at all times.

Fried asparagus and fried pork with avocado and seaweed.

But of course, it’s Japan. Everything is (relatively) expensive. I honestly wouldn’t be able to live in a big city in Japan because I’d end up buying all the toys and clothes and have literally zero money. I was in Japan for a total of like 10 days and already had to restrain myself from buying all the things. Japan is just so awesome for stuff.

Overall, I recommend Osaka to pretty much anyone. It’s also situated in the heart of the Kansai area so you also have access to a bunch of different cities like Nara, Kobe, and Kyoto if you wanna travel around to other places too. I had a great time when I was in Osaka and I would definitely go back if I had the chance.

Seoul: The Big City

What started as just a plan to write three entries about Korea just dragged on too long. But here it is, the last one!

Is anyone surprised that the last one is Seoul? Of course it is.

To be honest, I don’t really like Seoul that much as a city. It doesn’t have a lot of super awesome sightseeing spots and for the most part it’s not that visually impressive either. As the biggest city in Korea it really does embody the spirit of Korean cities by being super big and grey.

The best thing about Korean palaces is that they’re colourful.

The main sightsee and touristy areas are colourful enough. The palaces are one of the go-to places for all tourists, and they’re nice to check out. Seoul has a bunch of palace buildings and I’ve been to most, if not all, of them, and for sure the best one is Gyeongbokgung, the palace pictured above.

It’s the biggest palace and as a result it’s the most grand. The one next to it, Changdeokgung is ok too. The palace garden they have in there is really awesome so I can really recommend that. Other than these two though, the other palacey or cultural things are not that.. exciting.

One of the issues I have with Korea, and which completely applies to Seoul as well, is that everything was destroyed so many times throughout history. Especially since the last time it was destroyed was only a lifetime ago so all the old things are just reconstructions and all the new things were built very fast.

For some reason this new overpass park has a Jacuzzi or something.

As a result, I honest feel Seoul is pretty boring from a pure sightseeing perspective. You hit up the palaces, maybe the tower and Dongdaemun as well. And then what?

There’s not too much more other that. Some random hikes, parks and other attractions sure, but nothing that really appeals to me.

On the other hand, since Seoul is the capital of Korea, and as a result literally everything revolves around Seoul. The entire country has a population of like 50 million people and a fifth of those people live in the Seoul area. As a result so many things just, happen in Seoul.

So much confetti.

99% of all of the events I ever care about in Korea happen in Seoul. Band I listen to coming to Korea? Performing in Seoul. StarCraft tournament happening? They’re playing in Seoul. Any other festival or whatever that people care about? Seoul.

This is great if you live in Seoul, but as a dude that doesn’t live in Seoul, it kinda sucks. I’ve made so many trips up to Seoul for a day or two just to check out some event or something that I don’t even want to think about how much money that has been.

But still, they’ve always been worth it.

Seoul is a fairly grey city.

Seoul isn’t a good place for sightseeing. But it’s a great place to have fun and just hang out with friends. Areas like Hongdae is always fun to just chill, grab some food, some drinks, and maybe even sing some karaoke.

Of course, all of Korea is like this in some way or another, but since Seoul is the biggest city, there’s always just, more stuff that can me done, more places to go, and more things to try.

The city is so big that there’s always something going on if you can find it. Of course that also means you have to get there too. Since the city is so big it always takes forever to get anywhere, even with the convenient public transit, but that’s the price you pay I guess.

The War Memorial of Korea is by far the best museum in the country.

So overall, Seoul is not an exciting country for the average tourist. However, if you are interested in shopping, eating, drinking, and just exploring the life of people in this country, then Seoul is a great place to visit.

I don’t live in Seoul now and that is probably my biggest sadness of my stint in Korea. If only KAIST was in Seoul. But who knows, I still might have a chance to live there. And then finally I’ll be where everything happens.

Busan: The Coastal City

Remember how I said I had a lull in my work so I was going to post more? Well, that didn’t turn out how I expected haha. But this time, for real, there is a lull. I promise. I will be doing more regular updates for the next few months.

Last time I talked about Jeju, an island off the southern coast of the Korean peninsula. In this post I’ll be talking about Busan, the coastal city on the south-eastern coast of Korea.

Seagulls are kinda scary when they fly so close.

Busan might actually be my favourite city in Korea. It’s the second largest city and it’s filled with a ton of natural, historical, and cultural spots. It has pretty much everything you need for a good and peaceful life. That said, a lot of life in Korea revolves around Seoul, meaning that a lot of events and things are centered around Seoul, which is not necessarily close to Busan.

Regardless, I really enjoy going to Busan. I’ve been there a bunch of times, typically going a few times a year. Busan is most well-known for their nature. They have the country’s largest beaches and like any other part of Korea, also has a ton of hikeable mountains.

A big city with greenery and the ocean, wonderful.

Gwangalli is by far my favourite beach in Busan. Everyone always talks about Haeundae, but Haeundae is boring. Gwangalli is where it’s at. It’s closer to the city center, has an awesome bridge, and is just, better. Pretty much every time I go to Busan I end up going to Gwangalli even if just for a short time.

It’s really relaxing to just be by the beach and eat and drink. At night time the bridge lights up as well and people start shooting small fireworks around and it makes for a pretty great atmosphere.

And speaking of fireworks, Busan also has an insanely big fireworks festival. Every year in the fall they have the Busan Fireworks Festival by Gwangalli Beach where literally a million people show up to watch the show. I’ve been twice and it truly is a spectacle.

Fireworks, lasers, and lights.

The fireworks are big, and it’s all choreographed to music. It’s a really great show. Lots of people, but great show.

Moving away from Gwangalli, Busan also has a lot of great cultural and historical stuff too. During the Korean War a lot of Korea was destroyed but Busan actually stayed relatively intact. As a result it’s actually an “older” city in the sense that not as much of it was rebuilt. Plus, a lot of refugees came to Busan from all over Korea and so it ended up becoming a city that looks visually different from most of the other cities.

Like you have the Gamcheon Culture Village which is pretty unique looking. Korea normally has pretty grey buildings, but that village decided to not be grey and so it’s just pastel coloured. It’s also kind of a hub for some art stuff too, so it’s a neat walk around.

Buildings in the Gamcheon Culture Village are pastel coloured.

Busan just feels more like a city that evolved naturally rather than some other big Korean cities which feel very artificial. The entire place has a sense of (modern) history, which to me is really nice.

Speaking of modern history, Busan also has a war cemetery which commemorates the fallen of the Korean War. It’s kind of an interesting place to go to as well if you are interested in modern history, but it’s a cemetery so it’s not really a super big sightseeing place.

Aside from this kind of stuff, Busan also has a lot of traditional spots as well. One of the most famous is Yonggungsa, which is Korea’s only temple that is by the water. The temple itself is not that special, but it’s cool that it’s by the water. But what’s even more especially cool is when it’s Buddha’s Birthday because then the temples get decorated with a bunch of lanterns.

Colourful lanterns in a temple by the water,

Many temples get lanterns during that time, but of course it’s cool when its by the water because the ocean is great.

There’s a lot of other neat things to say about Busan. One of my favourite is G-Star, a large Korean gaming convention they have every year. I’ve been twice, and it has always been cool to check out some more gaming stuff. I wanted to go again last year, but because of school I couldn’t make it.

Gaming is big in Korea and so I really enjoyed going to a gaming convention. They frequently host esports events and showcase a lot of games and cool technology. In fact, the first time I went was because they had a Brood War tournament with some pros I liked.

Lots of people, lots of interesting games.

There’s a lot I can say about Busan. It’s a cool place and I really like it. I highly recommend others to go visit it. Most people just end up going to Seoul because it’s by the airport, but it’s always worth the trip down to Busan. It even has it’s own (small) airport, which could make it a good stop on the way to Japan or Jeju.