Thursday, September 12

Long, deep and fast

Osaka was a late addition to our Japan tour.  Air New Zealand changed the date of Mum's flight to Tokyo several months ago.  As a result, we found ourselves with an extra day to fill. We'd originally planned to travel directly from Matsumoto to Hiroshima; a journey more than 700kms by train. This would have taken us almost seven hours to complete even with the super fast Shinkansen (bullet train).

Therefore, it was an easy decision to break our itinerary into two and stop overnight in Osaka. We stayed at the Westin Hotel. Our room was paid for using rewards points scored during last year's trip to Canada with Dad. The hotel is located next to the Umeda Sky Building, one of Osaka's most recognizable skyscrapers. This iconic building consists of two 40-story towers connected by a two-story bridging structure that spans its uppermost stories.

We were given a room on a high-floor.  This gave us a wonderful view over the Yodo River that runs through the city's centre and into Osaka Bay. From our vantage point we could trains and motorways crossing the river in every direction.  We couldn't decide if this view was better than the one we'd enjoyed in Tokyo.

We arrived shortly after 7pm.  It had been a long day, having caught our first train shortly after 7am.  We slept well and woke to gloriously sunny weather. It was going to be a hot day. Temperatures approaching the mid-30s were forecast. We decided to schedule our outdoor activities to the morning so that we could enjoy the air-conditioned comfort of Osaka's enormous aquarium during the heat of the day.

Our first excursion  took us 50km south to Maiko.  Here the world's longest suspension bridge, the Akashi Kaikyo Bridge, spans Japan's Inland Sea.  It links Honshu with Shikoku via Akashi Island. The bridge spans 3,911 metres, with its central span stretching a staggering 1,991 metres. It's difficult to imagine a road deck that spans almost two kilometres.

In fact, the bridge is so huge that its scale tricks the eye.  It doesn't look that impressive until you travel up into the superstructure. Once under the road deck everything takes on an entirely different scale. We took an elevator 47 metres up to the viewing platform where visitors can take a 317 metre long promenade out over the water itself.

The view along the bridge's length is mind-blowing.  The massive steel structure simply disappears into a distant dot.  It takes a moment to notice that the road deck is gently curved.  As result, you're only seeing half the bridge's span before it dips from view. Suddenly you appreciate just how huge this structure really is. 

Look again and you can see that there's an entire road nestled under its girders. The bridge was actually designed with enough clearance under the road deck to support twin Shinkansen rail tracks.

Having blown our minds with one of Japan's civil engineering marvels we ventured back to Osaka for a quick look at its elegant feudal castle.  The original was destroyed during the war so the structure you see today is a modern concrete replica.  We only stopped briefly for photos from the main moat as sun was simply scorching.  It was then off to Osaka Kaiyukan, considered the world's largest aquarium.  The venue is build around a massive central tank that rises four stories.  Inside swim to two large whale sharks, along with a host of smaller sharks, giant mantra rays and other exotic fish.

The aquarium's exhibits are grouped according to their location along the Pacific Rim.  As a result, its marine animals include arctic ringed seals, Californian sealions, sea otters, dolphins and tropical fish from the Great Barrier Reef.  The venue also had penguins, capybara (the world's largest rodent) and giant deep sea spider crabs on display. However, perhaps the most compelling exhibit were the jellyfish.  Tank after tank of these creatures were on display, each carefully back-lit to reveal their most delicate markings in stunning beauty.

We ultimately spent almost four hours at the aquarium, taking dozens of photos and watching scuba divers feed dolphins, whale sharks and penguins.  Mum loved every moment of it.  She'd never seen an aquarium like it.  We finished out day with a quick circuit on the nearby Tempozan Ferris Wheel. The wheel has a height of 112.5 metres (369 ft) and diameter of 100 metres (330 ft).

It was then back to the hotel to  collect our bags and catch the Shinkansen south to Hiroshima. This was the fastest train we caught during our entire vacation. In just over two hours we covered more than 345kms.  I later worked out that it was about this point that our Japan Rail Pass earned it keep. From this point forward, every train we caught was essentially free.

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