A lot of these articles will be about some aspect of Japanese society or culture or history, or about teaching English, or about some specific aspect of my own experience in Japan.
Not this one.
This is what I like to call an ‘itemized ramble’- a stream-of-consciousness narrative of my first 72-odd hours in Japan, with very little editing. If you find it disorientating, you can’t be as disorientated as me. Buckle up, it’s a long read.
‘Overwhelmed’ is one of the most overused words in the English language. People pepper it about casually to garnish a busy day at work, or an above average gift, or how they feel about winning some godawful prize that they ought to be embarrassed by, like a BRIT award.
Well, in Osaka on Friday evening, I was overwhelmed.
Having made it to Shin-Imamiya station from the airport, trusted my instinctual sense of direction, promptly got lost, asked an elderly woman for help (who continued to shout words of encouragement at me for several minutes as I stood at the tram stop), and finally found my hostel, I set out into the baking heat of Minami, Osaka to breathe in the atmosphere of the place. I had very modest goals: mostly just to acclimatise, walk from the adult-theme-park fantasyland of Shinsekai up to the riverside at Dotonbori and ‘take it all in’.
It turns out, even those modest goals were a bit lofty. Dotonbori is an explosion of neon, with plastic crabs and giant fish jutting out of buildings and music blaring from every angle, including a bizarre takoyaki stall’s theme song which played maddeningly on repeat every 30 seconds. I have never seen so many restaurants in my life- Osaka is famous for its kuidaore (‘eat yourself bankrupt’) obsession with good food, and I duly obliged by trying a heartbreakingly delicious okonomiyaki (rich egg, flour and spring onion pancakes with a range of toppings).
By the time I got to the waterfront, I couldn’t even take in everything I was seeing anymore. Things became a whirl of lights and disembodied sound. I think the sleep deprivation and jet lag didn’t help, but I genuinely started to feel faint. In the end I wandered onto a quiet street lined with skyscrapers and had a bit of a sit down. It was as though I’d dived in the deep end a bit too quickly. So on Friday morning, I did what travellers have done for centuries. I escaped from the big city and went on pilgrimage.
To be fair, it wasn’t exactly a slog through the desert for forty days, to meet some hermit who only eats fluff from the underside of cactuses and has never combed his hair. Nara is forty minutes on the train and is very much on the tourist circuit. But since it’s home to the second greatest temple complex in Japan, it’s definitely an appropriate spot for a pilgrimage. I’m no man of God, but from what I can gather, neither are a lot of the people who offer their respects with palms locked and a bow at Nara’s temples. Japan’s overall attitude to religion struck me as ambiguous and hard to define even before I arrived- somewhere between agnostic mysticism, superstition and outright disbelief. It’ll be interesting to see if spending more time here gives me a clearer perspective.
Anyway, Nara. Nara is without a doubt one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever been to. Besides the famous Todaiji with its towering 800-year old wooden gate and its colossal Vairocana Buddha, there are so many temples that I couldn’t begin to visit them all- I did visit the pagoda and halls of the Kofukuji and the Himuro shrine (dedicated to ‘people involved in jobs related to ice’, which I can only assume means ice cream van drivers and figure skaters). Yeah, I hit peak tourist at this point.
I managed to venture as far as a magnificent bell tower, and had my first semi-coherent Japanese conversation that didn’t just consist of me barking inane phrases, with the proprietor of a quiet coffee shop. I wandered round some of the city’s smaller lanes, and even managed to convey the concept of ‘do you have a less girly umbrella’ to a shop owner, with some success, despite my truly abysmal Japanese. I bought a surprisingly nice mustard-yellow-and-black combo for battling the sudden rain showers- I have since lost it.
Nara’s parks are full of sika deer, which are incredibly friendly and will allow you to feed them and even gently stroke them. Amusingly, they do also occasionally headbutt people or chew their shopping bags or clothes. But enough of this- this is a blog, not a guidebook, and you don’t need me to describe every achingly obvious tourist attraction. You came here for grit, authenticity and tales of woe, and thems you will get, dammit.
Returning to my hostel, I realised that 20,000 yen was missing from my suitcase. Now, 20,000 yen is more money than I can afford to lose. I thought I’d generally been good at locking up my stuff, and realised with a deep, guttural sinking feeling that I didn’t feel comfortable going to sleep in this place next to my laptop, passport and the other miscellaneous debris of life. So I cut my losses and booked the cheapest hotel I could find for the next three nights before my training. That turned out to be a mistake.
I can’t honestly fault Hotel Chuo, Osaka. It’s exactly what you would expect from a hotel that costs 12 pounds a night. I mean, they’re clearly trying. I don’t really mind the fact that the lift smelled of boiled meat, or that the showers were five floors below me, or that there were trains going straight past my window every five minutes (well, I did mind that, a bit). But in the 30 degree humid heat of Osaka, not having functioning air conditioning is a step too far. Suffice to say, I didn’t sleep much.
I woke up on Saturday and dutifully headed off for Osaka Castle, my ability to deal with life somewhat diminished by my lack of sleep. The exterior is stunning and all, with its ascending spiral of ramparts and its embossed golden lions, but I wish they hadn’t decked out the interior to look like any generic modern museum. Outside the castle, a woman in traditional dress accosted me and asked if I spoke Japanese- I replied ‘chotto’- a little. She then rapid fired a sentence in which I barely understood a word. As I floundered, she turned to her friend and said ‘Probably just arigato, sumimasen, you know’. That hurt, lady.
I left the castle grounds by a different gate, and promptly got lost. The heat of the day was getting pretty intense, I was exhausted and I couldn’t face trying to nap at my awful hotel. So I rebooked- again. By this point I had booked three fucking hotels for Saturday and Sunday night- the Osaka hospitality industry has definitely received a boost from me, wasteful traveller that I am. I made up an excuse at the front desk and asked Hotel Chuo to book me a taxi, but they ‘couldn’t get through’. The person at the front desk pointed me to a taxi rank at Shin-Imamiya station, but as far as I can tell, no such taxi rank exists, at least in any dimension visited by humans. Then, comically, it suddenly started to pour with rain. A taxi sped past me as I tried to wave it down; I swore at it, and then briefly sat on my suitcase and nearly cried.
Finally, I managed to ply a route to my new hostel, and collapsed, exhausted onto my bed. I genuinely went to sleep by 8pm that night. This is all getting way too long and I’ve not learnt the fine art of self-editing yet (despite, or perhaps because of, my time at ZigZag Education) so I won’t regale you with Sunday’s touristic exploits- although they did involve the Umeda Sky Building, some amazing Korean pots and really good sushi with magurozuke (pickled tuna). Yeah, I gave up on being veggie for the time being too.
I will leave you with a few observations:
- Many of Osaka’s central stations are linked by a network of underground tunnels, which seemed odd at first, but after a couple of hours of 30 °C and stifling humidity, they soon become a godsend.
- For a country which prefers to use cash rather than card payments, it’s surprisingly difficult to find ATMs.
- I still don’t get why chopsticks are a thing.
‘Till next time.