Friday, August 6, 2010

Japan, There I was: Osaka Part One

Gimhae International Airport, Busan

Handsome James and I sip on a couple of Asahis looking out onto the airport tarmac. It's a beautiful Thursday afternoon and after nearly eight months in Korea I'm ready to finally venture out into the great beyond.

It took many months in Korea for me to feel like I understood much of anything about the country (really, the more I learn, the less I seem to know). On a six day holiday (that's for you James), I doubt I'll come to any deep realizations of Japan. Nonetheless, I'm excited to soak up as much as possible.

Japan has a very special place in my curiosity for the world. Back in the spring of 2008 when I was studying in Sevilla, Peckrill sent me a PDF file with information on the JET Program, the teaching exchange program he's currently on. All of the images of traditional Japanese culture came to mind as I envisioned what it would be like: the peaceful zen gardens and lilly ponds, tea rooms hidden behind paper-doors, the beautifully mysterious Geisha, and of course, delicate refreshing sake.

This curiosity for Japan marked the very beginning of my interest in living and teaching abroad. At last, it comes full circle.

5:20PM: Touchdown at Kansai Airport. Rock on Nippon!

6:55PM: Aboard the train from the airport into Osaka, the silence is deafening. Most passengers have retreated either to literature or their mobile devices. Some middle aged Spanish women in the seats in front of us break the silence with hushed chatter and laughing. I can't help but wonder what the gregarious Spaniards make of the reserved character of the Far East...

As dusk nears, the sky is a hazy gray. Our train passes through clean and neatly organized suburban neighborhoods divided by crisp roads and green rice patches. Off in the distance there are mountains that look more rocky and weathered than those found in Korea.

Getting off at Tennoji Station, James and I tried to figure out what train we needed on the Osaka loop line to get to our hostel. We took one look at the map and realized this wasn't going to be a casual trip for Charlie on the MBTA (no James, it's not a Vietnam joke, it's a folk anthem about the Boston subway system - here's a funny video in which the dude in the middle singer repeatedly pokes the dude to the right in the face with his guitar head).

Ah yes, rainbow spaghetti labeled by alien markings, good f'n luck:
Luckily, we didn't even have to ask someone. A friendly Japanese man approached us offering help, and not only helped with the map, but escorted to the right platform.

In little time, James and I were checked in to our hostel and on our way to meet Matt, a friend of our friend Caitlin from Daegu. They've known each other since grade school in Toronto, so it was interesting meet an old friend of a good friend in another country. Matt has lived in Japan for over two years, originally as a teacher, but now as a business student at a university in Kyoto.

After all the buses, planes, and trains, we had worked up one hell of an appetite. Matt brought us for some Osakan cuisine, kushikatsu.
James takes his first bite.

It was an extremely cool and unexpected introduction to Japanese food. The place had an authentic gritty edge (not spotlessly Japanese), it was crowded (we were elbow to elbow with other patrons) and you were encouraged to eat with your hands (Koreans eat fried chicken from the bone using only chopsticks!). A kushikatsu menu lists various meats, seafood, and vegetables to choose from. Your selections are then fried to order, served up with fresh cabbage to balance the grease and washed down with either a full-bodied Kirin lager or sake. You're encouraged to dip in a big tub of what tasted like a mix of soy and worcestershire sauce, but only once! Matt told us that he had learned this the hard way his first time and got a stern talking to.

We arrived during the late-hour rush. Situated in a main station next to the financial and business districts of Osaka, many salary men stop in to grab a bite after work. There was a lot of commotion as people barked their orders to servers behind the counters and one patron said "hi!" to which James turned around and responded with a big wave, grinning all the while. I didn't catch her reaction, but Matt informed us that "hi" means "yes" in Japanese. The phantom "hi" would go on to catch James off guard a few more times.

Maybe our celebrity status in Korea conditioned us for that misunderstanding. It's not unusual for people to say "hello" to us in the street. We definitely were not stared at as much as in Korea, though in fairness, it was like Seoul, where more locals are accustomed to seeing foreigners.

Afterward, we went to a bar district where I couldn't help but notice:
Look mom and dad, Bud and Zima! It's like the mid 90's all over again, somebody cue up "Scooby Snacks."

Discontinued in the U.S. years ago, Zima seems to retain a strong hold over the Japanese booze market. If the beer weren't so excellent, I would have ordered one for posterity. Later we went to "Captain Kangeroo," a joint I especially wish dad could have experienced. They were blasting "Walking After You" by the Foo Fighters when we walked in and went on to play the original self-titled album (one of my all-time favorites) in its entirety.
Matt, James and I.

A cheeky bowl of ramen capped the night. It was nothing like its instant-noodle counterpart, the meal of choice for hungry and cooking-averse college students across the United States. Authentic ramen features a thick, hearty broth with vegetables and strips of pork simmered to tender perfection. Good call...
First impressions: clean, friendly, tasty, and not at all that strange and unfamiliar transitioning from Korea.