Travel to Japan, Part 2: Osaka

07/20/2011

Day 2

Today I successfully managed to get from Narita, through Tokyo, and down to my hotel in Osaka. The train stations are a bit of a mess, and the quality of english communication went downhill quickly from the Airport station and Shinkansen (bullet train) to the local Osaka subway, where it’s almost non existent. The trains run on a very accurate schedule though, so you can almost identify the right train simply by the time it arrives, as it will be on time down to the minute.

The bullet train was a pretty cool experience. I’m not sure how fast it was going, there wasn’t a speedometer, but my guess would be at least 150mph (I clocked it with GPS later in my trip at 160mph). Everything just wizzed by, and with almost no noise at all. It’s surreal.

The only time I got a little lost was in Osaka trying to transfer from the Shinkansen to the local subway. It took me some time (and asking a couple of people who didn’t speak english) to figure out that I had to completely leave the Shinkansen part of the station to get to the subway, as they aren’t directly connected. Then the ticket buying process is different as well, you have to use these vending machines to add money to a ticket. So you aren’t buying a ticket to a station, but just putting yen on a ticket, and you have to figure out how much you need to get to the station you want. Fortunately someone saw that I was looking a bit lost and helped walk me through it. Now I kind of have the hang of it.

I decided to just walk the last kilometer to my hotel instead of trying to figure out the subway transfer again, which allowed me to experience the local weather properly for the first time. June is the rainy season here, and while it wasn’t raining, it is pretty close to 100% humidity, so a half mile walk left me pretty sweaty. Nobody else here seems to sweat, but I’m soaking by the time I get to my hotel.

I had plans to meet up with my friend from college, Ash, to go to a birthday party that afternoon, so I just dropped my bag in the room and turned around to go meet him (more subway fun!). We head out to this little hole in the wall bar where a friend of his from Houston is having a birthday party with local Japanese friends. It was “college tail gate” themed, so we all wore shirts from our universities. In preparation, I had a couple of SFA shirts overnighted from Nacogdoches right before I left.

The party mostly consisted of drinking games, and the bar owner, who’s apparently a friend, prepared a special American menu for us (hamburgers, hot dogs, and a veggie plate). I had the “chili cheese hot dog”, the toppings for which consisted of onions, kraft american cheese, and what I think was Pace Picante sauce. It was a bit off the mark, but I guess that’s the closest they could get here. It actually was pretty good though!

They had a lot of american drinks as well, including one of my favorite whiskeys, Wild Turkey. It’s a bit of a rough drink by any standard, but I let several of the japanese friends try it and they all about choked. It was actually pretty entertaining. One of the girls told me it tasted like wood; I tried to explain the whole aging in a wood barrel process, but I don’t think they really understood much of what I was saying. I tried one of their drinks – it looked and tasted like water with a bit of vodka. Super weak! The local Japanese beer they had on tap was pretty good though, I went through several of them in the games.

We visited another bar in another part of the city for a while as well later that night, but I was completely wasted after getting up at 4:30am that morning and still being a bit jet lagged, so I took a cab back to my hotel and crashed pretty hard. With the exception of a small struggle to figure out how to work the excessively complicated washlet toilet in the middle of the night, I slept like a comatose patient. Finally a full nights rest!

Day 3

I met up with Ash again this afternoon for lunch. There is a river that runs through the city (several actually), and it has one area where it splits and there’s this long island down the middle of it which they’ve built into this really great park and garden. I found it while exploring a bit this morning, and there’s a nice restaurant on it, so Ash met up with me there. English menus with pictures for the win!

After lunch we went over to check out the Osaka Castle which was pretty neat. Very touristy, but that’s ok. The views of the city from the top of it are amazing. Osaka doesn’t really have a city center, but the castle is pretty close if there is one. You can walk around the whole top level for a 360′ view of the city, which seems to never end. You can’t see the edge of it, it’s just high rises and sky scrapers as far as you can see in all directions. Part of that is because it’s a little foggy, but still.  Osaka is maybe half the size of Tokyo. The scale and density of these cities is mind boggling, you’d never be able to see all of it.

Back on the ground we hit up an ice cream stand, where the currency difference finally tripped me up a bit. In buying a Y150 ice cream cone (~$2), I handed the woman Y1500 (~$20). She was quick to refuse, and others working the stand seemed to think this was quite funny. In some places you might expect someone to just take what you give them, even if it’s wrong, but not here. I think they’d chase me down if I left a Y5 coin behind. No tipping either, you pay exactly what the bill is, and never anything more.

I actually kind of wished I could let people ‘keep the change’, as the coinage really adds up at the end of the day. Almost no shops accept credit or debit cards, the Japanese are almost entirely cash based, and that cash is in the form of coins up to Y500 (Y1000 is the smallest bill). The 1 and 5 yen coins are effectively pennies and nickels, and are virtually worthless. I have quite a collection building up on my hotel desk, and I wish the staff at the hotel would be a little less virtuous and just steal them for me. I suppose the locals probably see them as worthless as well.

That night I finally met Ash’s wife, Ryoko, who has been working until 10pm+ every night (she’s a florist). This is apparently normal. Ash doesn’t get off much either, saying that 8pm is usually “taking off early” for him. They rarely get the same days off, so they don’t see much of each other. This is again apparently pretty typical in Japan; and I thought Americans worked hard! Ryoko is going to have to quit her job to have their state-side wedding reception because she can’t get more than 1 day off at a time.

We hear about some of the problems Japan faces in the US, such as the low reproduction rate (and resulting population decreases they face), and the high suicide rate (it’s the number 1 cause of death for those under 30). When you’re standing in an Osaka subway station at 10pm, and the trains are packed with people just getting off of work, it starts to make sense. How can you raise a family if you’re never home? Especially if your spouse is never home either, and your combined income gets you a small studio apartment? I found Osaka (and later Tokyo) to be among the most stressful places I’ve ever been. I’m sure part of that comes from not understanding the language and not being able to read signs or menus or speak to anyone, but I think a big part of it is the rush of everyone around you. Everyone has somewhere to be, and they’re in a hurry to get there.

The visual and auditory noise of the cities is overwhelming as well – every surface is covered with bright signs and lights, with store owners on the street all calling out (sometimes with megaphones) to entice customers in. It’s astonishing to me that this is the same country that is known for it’s zen gardens and peaceful monasteries. There’s an incredible polarization between the temples and shrines, and the cities around them, as if they’re competing extremes with little in the center.

Day 4

Monday morning everyone else was at work, so I set out on my own. Osaka is pretty famous for it’s shopping, so I went up to the longest shopping arcade in the world (2.6km). Think of it as a narrow street that’s been closed to cars, a roof extended across between the buildings, with small family owned stores for miles. There are clothes shops, hat shops, car repair, pachinko arcades (more on that in a bit), restaurants – anything you can imagine. Most of it seemed kind of low end – bazaar or thrift shop level products.

I walked for over a mile, and was particularly interested in finding something for lunch. I have found even fewer people speak english than I expected, especially outside the travel zones (airport, hotels), so I’m basically assuming nobody speaks english. That means I have a few criteria for picking a restaurant. They have to have pictures of the food, and I have to be able to tell what it is (ideally there are english hints). Apparently they don’t serve many tourists though, because nobody had anything in english, and the ones with photos were either unrecognizable, or recognizable as something I didn’t want. So I ended up at a KFC, which I had hoped to avoid, and a bakery with a cinnamon twist donut.

Having satisfied my curiosity on the low end of Osaka shopping, I set off for a shopping district in the south. MUCH different – name any high end luxury brand and they had a store there. Rolex, LV, Swarovski, Dolche, Diesel, Benneton, etc. Even an Amway! Off the main street there were even more – and I found where all the Japanese hipsters hang out. Tons of small shops with hip hop music blasting (often inappropriately, but I don’t think they understand the lyrics). Bars, clubs, restaurants, etc. It’s what Deep Ellum in Dallas should look like. I found a really great ‘bookstore’ as well that seemed to focus on American and British kitsch – tons of interesting stuff, I’ll probably go back today and actually buy something. I was a little low on Yen yesterday, and none of the ATMs I found would take my card (pro-tip: know where the post offices are, the ATMs there work with anything).

The one thing that really stood out to me in all these shopping districts was the prevalence of Pachinko, which is the only form of legalized gambling in Japan. It’s basically like a slot machine, but these little ball bearings fall and bounce around kind of like a pinball machine and you hope that they land in the right spot. That’s my understanding anyway, I didn’t play. These places are EVERYWHERE. And they’re huge – grocery store sized places 2 or 3 stories tall (and some even larger), and they are probably equal in number to the restaurants around here, which is to say on every block.

Keep in mind I was exploring on a Monday morning, and these places had a lot of people in them. It’s actually a horrible place to go, it’s not “fun” at all. The people at the machines are like zombies, most of them smoking, dropping coins in repeatedly and apparently sitting there for hours. The noise level from all the machines is deafening, you would suffer long term hearing damage if you spent much time there. I was able to tolerate being inside one for about 2 minutes before having to leave.
If there’s a drug of choice in Japan, Pachinko is it. There are clearly a lot of people with unhealthy addictions to it.

After exploring the shopping districts I headed up north to visit Ash’s office just outside of Osaka. The company he works for is considered one of the most progressive in Japan, and he was showing me some of the things that they are known for and are now consulting other Japanese companies on, such as the idea of a “paperless” office, having multiple monitors on workstations for increases in productivity, and using stuff like Google Docs for collaboration and file storage. Basically, “normal” American office stuff. For all the techiness of Japan, they are still very old school in their offices and do almost everything on paper. They don’t know about things like google docs or skype, and don’t really think about efficiency much it seems. There’s a much greater tendency toward tradition, and it’s difficult to overcome that inertia of how things have always been done in the past. I feel like a lot of Japan is stuck in 1990 at the peak of their modern industrial boom.

I grabbed a bit of a ‘pre-dinner’ on my way back to the hotel since dinner with Ash and Ryoko wouldn’t be till 10+. I’m loving the 7-11 across the street from my hotel, and the chain in general, which is everywhere. I found a bento box with teriyaki beef and a Sapporo beer – easy! Dinner, nap, then back out for dinner at a chinese style Ramen place.

Day 5

I went out to the Osaka aquarium this morning to see what is apparently the largest aquarium in the world. When I got there I discovered the only area of Osaka that I had seen yet that appeared to be for tourists (though not english speaking tourists). There’s a park and a giant ferris wheel, a mall, and along with the aquarium there’s a “Santa Maria” ship that you can get on and I guess sail around in. I’m not sure what the point is, I didn’t get on it. There weren’t a ton of people there, but the ones who were were either small school children or elderly in wheel chairs. The only people in the middle were assisting the former two groups. If there’s an illustration of the 75% drop in Japanese tourism since the March earthquake and tsunami, this was it.

The aquarium is pretty cool, and a bit different from others I’ve been to that have lots of small tanks of various kinds of exotic fish. This one seems to forgo most of that in favor of giant tanks with seals, dolphins, penguins, manta rays, and of course their famous whale shark. It might be better described as an aquatic zoo. Either way, it was pretty neat. At the end there’s a jelly fish exhibit which may have been my favorite part – really cool to see those up close, they’re almost hypnotic to watch.

I made the mistake of buying lunch in the little café they had in the aquarium. The menu consisted of mostly american fare – hot dogs, sausage, things like that. I got the “mexican sand[wich]” which looked ok in the picture, but then they hand me this warmed up pre-packaged bag of food. I open it and it’s basically a pita with a hot dog and some seasoned beef in it. I ate it anyway in a momentary lapse of good judgement. It was edible, that’s all I’ll say, but lesson learned – don’t trust anything “mexican” in Japan.

There was a shopping mall there by the aquarium that I wandered around for a bit as well. One of the fashion trends here is in english language shirts that don’t make much sense to a native speaker. I find them really hilarious (in a “all your base are belong to us” kind of way), and so I spent some time in a few clothing shops digging for gems. They’re really proud of these shirts though, with many running from $35-50 each, so I only picked up one at the mall. I then headed back north to the “Americamura” part of town, which is where all the hipsters hang out and there were many more shops with American kitsch in them. I went back to this bookstore I had found the day before that was just a treasure trove of awesome, and ended up picking up a few things. I finally found a new watch to buy – that was kind of my souvenir target, but most of the watches I had found were brands I could get in the US for half of what they’re going for here. I managed to find an inexpensive japanese watch that’s pretty cool though – only problem is that all the instructions are in japanese, so it took some time to figure out how to set it!

I found another shop that had a table out on the street packed with t-shirts on sale for Y500 (about $7.50) – jackpot! I got 3 or 4 more T-shirts there, with some really nonsense stuff. There were some that I really liked, but would simply be inappropriate to wear around english speakers who weren’t in on where the shirt came from, so I had to let them go.

Had dinner with Ash and Ryoko again – Ryoko cooked a quiche with soup and salad, which was all pretty good. Finally got a traditional sitting on the floor around a small table kind of family meal in, and we went through the bottle of Texas wine I brought with me.

Continued in Part 3: Hiroshima