Tuesday 23 January 2018

Osaka: In the pink at springtime

Holidays in Japan

Osaka castle with the cherry blossoms in spring
Osaka castle with the cherry blossoms in spring
Japan's first Ritz Carlton
Hilary White enjoys the delights of Japan

Hilary A White

There are two weeks in the Japanese calendar that transform the country's look, and in turn the ambience, into something that you can almost taste on your lips.

Nobody knows exactly what date the festivities will commence - depending on whereabouts on the four islands that comprise Japan you are, it can be any time between late March and early May - but TV news reports will constantly monitor the situation and give updates on both sightings and potency. All around the world, Japanese people book tickets and cross fingers hoping that an annual return visit home will coincide perfectly with this famous fortnight.

The cause of it all is small - only a few millimetres in diameter, in fact - and fragile. As soon as it emerges, it seems to be withering in the breeze. And it is beautiful. Intensely, head-swimmingly beautiful. And what is both beautiful and fleeting is thus precious.

For these days every spring time, Japan's blood turns pink as a nation is charmed silly by the bloom of the cherry blossom - sakura. It eclipses all other holiday periods . as the most important holiday season of the year in the Land of the Rising Sun. Hotels and train carriages fill as the nation's sons and daughters return to the motherland for an explosion of colour and joy.

Hilary White enjoys the delights of Japan
Hilary White enjoys the delights of Japan

For tourists, meanwhile, it has become one of those box-ticking experiences akin to the Camino de Santiago, Aurora Borealis or Rio de Janeiro's Carnival, a once-in-a-lifetime occasion that provides the definitive colours that the majority of visitors will not get to witness the rest of the year. But like all three of those other travel experiences, there are subtleties to drink in during sakura season that are special - elusive airs and energies as 127 million people break out into a collective smile.

If you can afford it I imagine travelling business class is worth every penny when travelling that far east although economy was comfortable. Turkish Airlines got us to Tokyo Narita refreshed and up for the zippy Shinkansen bullet train straight down to Osaka. Symbols in Kanji and the general feeling of another world bamboozle momentarily before a kind and patient Japanese face will quickly guess the cause of your babbling English and light the way.

As we catapulted along on what felt like a 550km film of smooth mercury, Japan seemed to "happen" before our eyes. White-gloved train conductors would enter the carriage and solemnly bow to passengers before inspecting tickets. Everything on board is clean, carefully designed and working efficiently. Outside the window, the greater Tokyo region gives way to Nagoya and then Kyoto. Cloud cover declined to give us a glimpse of Mt Fuji but it couldn't hide the increasing intensity of the pink splashes dotted here and there on the landscape. Osaka's sakura would be peaking just as we arrived, and you can't ask for more than that.

We will very much do as the Romans do and throw ourselves head-first into hanami, the epicurean festivities that take place on picnic mats under the boughs of the cherry blossom trees. During an afternoon saunter through Osaka Castle park, we notice solitary office boys swiping on smartphones in the centre of huge blue picnic tarpaulins, their only responsibility today to lay claim to a patch so that senior colleagues can unwind without fuss after clocking off. Next to them some students strum a guitar and sip bottles of beer. A toddler is marionetted past by a young father near where two teenage lovebirds take selfies.

Watching all this over the other side of the moat water is Osaka Castle itself, an imposing five-storey Edo period tower that has had an unfortunate back story of ruinous fires and rebuilds in its 400-year lifetime. With the blossom's pink blush crowding around its feet and the small huddles of nearby temples and shrines, the atmosphere is more conveying of ornate peace today than surly shoguns and bloody sieges.

From 30 storeys up at the sublime Ritz-Carlton Osaka, we gaze out across the nocturnal cityscape, following the street lights all the way out past glittering skyscrapers to a metropolitan horizon perspective that simply doesn't exist in Ireland.

Located in the upmarket Umeda district, the hotel is celebrating 20 years as the first Ritz-Carlton in Japan. In that time, its immaculately appointed Georgian features, extensive art collection and refined opulence have made it a cornerstone of the Umeda district and an Osaka landmark. Among its award-winning restaurants are French, Chinese and Italian options but it's to Hanagatami, their famous Japanese venue, that we beeline. We get funny looks as we moan blissfully through some of the finest food we've ever eaten.

In fact, it turns out that Osaka is the culinary capital of Japan, news that temporarily evaporates thoughts of pink flowers and castles. It was once the centre of trading for goods and ingredients, giving it the nickname "the Emperor's Kitchen". A swim and G&T on the terrace and we leave the Ritz-Carlton and head to the north city neighbourhood of Temma, a maze of izakayas, sushi huts, ramen houses, whiskey bars, food markets and steaming stalls selling takoyaki, Osaka's signature dish. These are golfball-sized dumplings of batter and octopus meat served with bonito fish flakes and Japanese mayonnaise, and by god do they go superbly with a cold glass of crisp, clean Japanese lager.

We leave Temma after grazing our way up and down the small alleyways as the sun is setting and the salarymen are loosening their ties at the sake joints. We've mostly avoided the neon hipness of downtown Dotonbori but we pop down there following a recommendation. Our destination would be unassuming were it not for the words "Sex Machine" emblazoned above it and a huge portrait of Soul Godfather James Brown in the porch.

Inside, we perch at a long bar running down its middle encircling an open kitchen where a man delicately prepares cuts of meat. This is the legendary Japanese beef such as Kobe and wagyu that is so marbled with fat that it appears pink. Using tongs, we grill strips on a small charcoal hearth placed in front of us and eat it with a little rice and kimchi. It dissolves like butter on the tongue and we immediately vow to eat here again the following night.

Along with this head-spinning cuisine, stand-up comedy and the lengthy market halls stretching up and down the city blocks, Osaka is also synonymous with the traditional Japanese puppetry theatre known as bunraku. A spring show depicting a folk tragedy from the days of yore is accompanied by live instrumentation on a shamisen, a three-stringed lute, and chanting.

We stroll back towards Umeda, down markets cleaning up for the night and past the shrill neon noise of pachinko parlours where players gawp at banks of vertical pinball machines. Besides horses and motor sports, gambling is illegal in Japan but pachinko - where you play for small silver balls and exchange these afterwards for lucrative cash and prizes - exploits a loophole in the law. It is worth billions to the Japanese economy and now brings in a healthy tax revenue following regulation. For visitors, it is simply one of those idiosyncrasies that make any vacation in Japan hum with sheer novelty.

The volume dies away as we leave behind the mayhem of Dotonbori. We turn a corner and find ourselves using Utsubo Park as a way of getting back to the Ritz-Carlton. The nighttime hanami is in full swing and lending itself to a slight air of warm giddiness as the sake and shochu appear to be hitting the bloodstream. There is cacophonous laughter and song all about, and most tables either tilt a curious glass to my partner and me or beckon us over to be guests in their merriment.

Lit up all about the small avenues of the local neighbourhood park are the pinks and whites of the cherry blossom, the fleeting star attraction that is nurturing a muzzy-headed sense of joy and happiness nationwide. A jackpot that pachinko could only dream of.

TAKE TWO : Top attractions

Bunraku puppetry

Be sure to get in some traditional Japanese culture. This 17th-century style of puppetry makes for an enchanting evening. Headset translations are provided for tourists. For info, visit www.ntj.jac.go.jp/english

Touch of class

Hilary Ritz Carlto.jpg
Japan's first Ritz Carlton

Located in the swanky hub of Umeda, Japan’s first Ritz Carlton  has an embarrassment of riches in facilities, dining and luxury. Stay at least one night here. For rates, go to www.ritzcarlton.com

Getting there

Hilary flew with Turkish Airlines, which has a daily service to Tokyo Narita from Dublin via Istanbul (connections are usually no longer than three hours).

Prices for round-trip economy class Dublin-Istanbul-Narita begin at €596 (including taxes).

Business class travel prices for the same route start at €1,932 (including taxes).


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