The Surprise That is Osaka

Osaka River

One of the great things about travel is that there is no requirement to stick to the familiar and the popular. In fact, lately I have been paying a lot more attention to travel destinations that hardly anyone recognizes at a social gathering. You see, most people stick to the familiar, to the popular places where tourist companies deposit endless armies of umbrella totting tourist groups. Not that there’s anything wrong with visiting those famous locations, for they are indeed full of “must see” attractions. The point is that by now they have become far too familiar to everyone, with endless photos and printed material dedicated to their immortality.  This level of exposure has somewhat taken away the mystery that once accompanied their distant locations.  What’s more, many of these famous places have recently been making the news because of the local aversion to uncontrolled tourism, which kind of sets the mood for when we all get there.

Osaka Department Store

Thus, for a while now, I’ve been putting my attention to the periphery, to the less-traveled places where I’m finding renewed enthusiasm for the travel life. And that is what brought me to Osaka, Japan. Heard of it but have never been there? You’re not alone. This large port city with its incredibly vibrant business community has to be one of the best kept secrets in the world. It hides in plain sight, as most travelers have only ventured 30 minutes away by train to splendid Kyoto. And yet, if you value great food, friendly locals, and a shopping experience second to none, Osaka must be at the top of your list of places to visit. Everything from some of the world’s largest covered and underground markets to the European designer scene can be found somewhere between the Namba and Umeda metro stations. And even if your plans did not involve eating and shopping yourself to death, you just can’t help it. When tiredness sets in, the side streets around Kitahama, with its sexy champagne bars and rowdy English pubs is where you want to end your day. Yes, Osaka is all that and more, and it just doesn’t want to let go of you.

Osaka Shopping

But not all is hectic in Osaka. Just like every other major Japanese city, once you leave the city center behind, a whole new world of traditional neighborhoods and quiet oases sit there as if frozen in time. Like an antidote to the rest of the city, these are the places where old ways are not really old. Places where you are met at the entrance of a restaurant with a simple bow and a polite greeting by an impeccably dressed hostess. Places where small, manicured gardens give new meaning to the concept of reflection. And places where you find yourself suddenly immersed in the mystery and romanticism of a faraway culture that up to then only existed in the old narratives of explorers from another era. A feeling that forms the very essence of the travel life.

Osaka Restaurant Wall

 

 

District Of Columbia Going Chic

City Center

Something is happening in Washington, DC these days, and it has nothing to do with politics. Well, not completely. It is as if the city is going through one of those TV makeovers where a person’s scruffy looks are dramatically turned into a glamorous, check-me-out kind of look. Neglected city areas are suddenly being converted into smart neighborhoods full of trendy new restaurants and livable urban spaces demanding a second look from those accustomed to fly by at high speeds. In the heart of DC, it is the area referred to as City Center, just off the less glamorous Chinatown neighborhood, that is setting the pace. The place is so glamorous that anyone coming down from New York’s 5th Avenue for the weekend would feel right at home. And it was about time, for in a city where money is literally being printed every day, there appeared to be a serious need for some glamour. Who would’ve known, chic and greasy joints just a few blocks from each other, and both apparently doing quite well. That is a definite sign of a great country.

 

Slowing Down In Freiburg, Germany

A young woman walk by Adelhauser Platz during the early morning hours. [Click photos for larger versions]
A young woman walk by Adelhauser Platz.
While not as large as in other cities, the Freiburg Christmas Market is just as colorful.
The colorful Freiburg Christmas Market.
Vendors don't seem to miss a day to sell their wares by the Historisches Kaufhaus next to the Freiburg Cathedral.
The Historisches Kaufhaus next to the Freiburg Cathedral.
There is never a shortage of patrons at one of the most popular breweries in town.
A town of great breweries.
Like in most European cities, getting lost in the backstreets is half the fun.
Getting lost in the backstreets is half the fun.
Blankets are very popular at local cafes, where locals insist to sit outside no matter how cold.
Blankets are very popular at local cafes in winter.
A small canal bordered by quaint restaurants and coffee shops is part of the charm in Freiburg.
A small canal bordered by quaint restaurants and coffee shops.

Some places have a way of captivating you through their quiet, unassuming ways. They usually don’t make the front pages of travel magazines, nor do they become world-famous for hosting major events like the Olympics or the World Expo. And yet, for those who venture outside the normal touristy venues to explore a bit deeper into a country, these somewhat out-of-the-way gems are full of rewards. In a type of understated way, they charm you not with UNESCO-type monuments to humanity, but rather with the easy-going simplicity that characterizes most of our everyday lives. Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany is such a place.

Straddling the western side of the Black Forest, this smallish university city in the state of Baden-Württenburg provides a much welcomed break from its more touristy French neighbor to the north, Strasbourg. It’s geographical location alone (sitting on the south-west corner of Germany by the Black Forest) makes it somewhat of a refuge from the tourist lanes that crisscross most of Europe these days. To go to Freiburg, you must want to go to Freiburg, because it will require you to get off the main road to do so. But this, my friends, is the good news about this wonderful city. It charms you for what it’s not, which if you have traveled any time recently to the overcrowded, major European cities that dominate most vacation brochures, you will soon come to appreciate.

If I had to pick a term to describe my time in Freiburg, I would probably refer to it as “slow travel.” None of that need-for-speed stuff that characterizes major metropoles these days. On the contrary, days wandering the twisted, quiet streets in Freiburg tend to blend into each other with the ease of day passing into night. After spending some time in a major European city, life in Freiburg felt like you had arrived at a place you could call home. Orderly, clean, and charmingly low-keyed, it is the kind of place where you go to recharge your batteries while enjoying a simpler way of life. But don’t get me wrong, Freiburg is not some desolate city where nothing of any consequence is happening. Rather, it is a charming city with all the trappings of a larger city, but on a much smaller scale (and a lot cheaper too), and with a lot less tourist traffic. And even if you wouldn’t think so from trying to find a free table at the incredible Hausbrauerei Feierling brewery (which by the way, is reason enough to go to Freiburg for a few days), you will be able to dispense with any notion of speed during your visit there. The city, with its easy-going, unassuming rhythm, will definitely grow on you. And as you board that train on your way to Basel, Stuttgart, or wherever your travels are taking you, you will be glad you took the time to stop and visit this charming city by the Dreisam river.