Japan With A Twist

Trip Start Aug 06, 2011
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Flag of Japan  , Kinki,
Thursday, September 13, 2012

To get from Hiroshima to Osaka, we hopped on one of Japan's famous bullet trains. These things are fast. How fast? Short of Captain Kirk yelling at his Engineer to "beam me up Scotty", it's Star Trek warp drive fast (240-300 km/h in regular service)! The front end even looks like a narrow spaceship Enterprise. In addition to getting you to your next destination in record time, this speedy venture has many other untold benefits. DH usually uses these confined journeys to 'explore our relationship' but she had just barely gotten through the "do these denim shorts make my bum look fat" stage and we were already pulling into Shin Osaka.

Osaka is a massive Japanese city with a transportation infrastructure that most cities can only dream about- I'm sure that once you've lived there for a while it all becomes second nature. For us, trying to get from one point to the next was going to be a key part of the Osaka experience and given the friendly guidance of many of the locals we never did get seriously lost. These epic scavenger hunts allowed us to see modern Japanese life up close and personal. Tradition seems to have blended into newer lifestyles with only a minimum of effort- in a train car full of people texting on the latest smart phones (all in silent mode), the steward or concession girl will enter, bow, walk the length of the car, and turn around and bow again before leaving. Bowing, most of it subtle, can be contagious and I found myself joining in with at least a head bob at every interaction- some of the bowing, especially between business people can be whiplash inducing (weird fact that you don't know whether to laugh or cry at- aggressive bowing in Japan has resulted in 24 recorded head trauma fatalities). And right beside those smart phone users are a good number of people who seem to be reading comic books (manga) which is the start point of another Japanese quirkiness- the anime industry which pumps out cartoonish books, videos, TV shows, and movies that are targeted mainly to adults. These doe-eyed, spiky haired characters are absolutely everywhere- even the most historic of sites seem to have their own mascots.

Although we didn't use them much, Japanese cabs were also all about tradition and respect with all of the drivers wearing a tie and a chauffeurs cap- even the doors are respectful as they open and close automatically (although having  grown up on a diet of North American cab drivers who won't even stop eating their lunch while driving in an old sweatshirt and Adidas three stripe shorts,  I kept trying to slam these doors shut probably wrecking the mechanisms). One driver just about hurt himself apologizing after he took us to the wrong hotel.

Perhaps very restrictive immigration policies have allowed the Japanese to maintain this unique culture- you simply don't see any Chinatowns, Greek-towns, Little India's or even Little Italy's (although culture busters like Starbucks and McDonald's have managed to scale the walls). There is so little foreign engagement that most Japanese banks won't accept our ATM cards- they don't consider it worth the fees to process such a small number of transactions (even in Mongolia, I had more universal ATM access). And ATMs only operate during normal business hours- what's up with that? Self-imposed isolation can produce a quirkiness that is nothing short of fun. The gambling game of choice here is something called pachinko which is essentially a steel ball bearing cross between the kids game Kerplunk and pinball. How big is the pachinko business in Japan? Well, it employs a third of a million people (three times more than the steel industry) and it commands 40 percent of Japan's leisure industry, including restaurants and bars. The first thing you notice about these parlours is the baby doll advertsing out front that presumably draws in the customers. The second thing you notice, as soon as the doors open, is the ear crushing sounds (to the point that you will actually see players with a ball bearing shoved in each ear. The third thing that wallops you is the smoke, and don't even dare ask for the non-smoking sections- you're on smoker turf! And if you're a big winner, since gambling is technically illegal, you're given a prize that apparently you can exchange at a nearby store for money!! Not having a clue as to how you play this game wasn't enough for us to not give it a try- in typical Japanese fashion, the attendants were over-the-top friendly and did their best to give us some guidance (not particularly helpful since, even if we could hear them, they were speaking Japanese). We probably set some sort of speed record for going through our allotment of ball bearings but it was good fun and we're hoping to find someone who can give us the rules to the game (in English). 

And right next to the Pachinko Casinos are often times entertainment arcades for the younger set. And what would you expect to see in this type of facility given the high tech reputation of Japan- certainly not hordes of those gravity hook games where you try to latch on to a fuzzy toy and drop it into the exit chute.

And then you get into the really weird stuff. There's a number of 'Love Hotels' scattered around Osaka and the official explanation is that young Japanese couples have a hard time finding any privacy so they use the rooms to talk (pull the other one). Many of the rooms are themed and the check-in process is somewhat anonymous with an almost vending machine approach that displays a picture on the screen of any available rooms and offers buttons that allow you to book and pay. I found a particularly creative one that offered up rooms with classroom environments, cages, and even caves but DH (where the D stands for 'Don't even think about it!!) hustled us back out on the street before we could properly explore this cultural phenomena.

We did explore Osaka itself and found it to be a high energy, and welcoming big city. We were staying in the Namba district and a number of nearby neighbourhoods were worth a visit; Shinsailbashi-sujihas has to be one of the longest, most colourful, covered shopping streets around, a short walk from there brings you to a series of streets known collectively as Amerika-mura (American Village)- a mural of Marilyn Monroe and a replica of the Statue of Liberty looks down on groups of teenagers who seem to be striving for some sort of goth meets grunge look, Den-Den Town is a techie's dream walk, but my favourite had to be the bridge area at Dotonbori which is the most popular meeting place for locals and one of Osaka’s most famous landmarks- the iconic neon Glico man and billboards for Suntory Whiskey and Asahi Beer, karaoke boxes, restaurants, bars all contribute to an exciting environment. A giant mechanical crab beckons customers into a sushi shop, large glowing dragons, mechanical clowns, bright blow-up fish, must all be a significant drain on the electric grid. 

A short train ride got us to the Umeda District where we saw the Osaka Castle built by Shogun Toyotomi Hideyoshi after he had managed to unite Japan’s warring factions in 1583. He hoped that Osaka Castle would be a glorious symbol of his power- 100,000 men worked for three years to construct the granite castle. The  “indestructible” castle was destroyed after a siege in 1615 and then rebuilt only to be struck by lightning and destroyed again. The present Osaka castle is a 1931 concrete reproduction, but did survive World War II, when the rest of Osaka was destroyed by carpet bombing. As the sun was setting we paid a visit to the awe-inspiring Umeda Sky Building. At 173 meters, the twin towers are not quite Japan’s tallest structures, but the floating garden observatory (we didn't see a garden or anything floating?), spanning the tops of the buildings provides a 360 view of the city. DH was greatly disappointed that there was no outside walkway that would allow for a repeat of her Auckland Tower walk.

We also managed a day trip to Himejii Castle which is commonly rated as Japans best castle. Unlike just about every other historical structure in Japan, Himeji Castle was never destroyed in wars, earthquakes or fires and survives largely in its original form. Unfortunately it is nonetheless going through a renovation that has the showpiece portion of the castle is covered completely. We've been to other sites around the world with renovation projects are as simple as a bamboo scaffolding and a guy with a trowel, but in Japan, when they renovate they don't go halfway. Our tour was less about the castle and more about the reno- they've constructed a complete building, with elevators, over the 5 story castle (they estimate that it will require 1 year to take the building down after the renovation is complete). Interesting if you want to see a project like this but less so if you wanted to see the castle.

Osaka was a nice introduction to the fun side of Japan and we really enjoyed our stay here.
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Comments

Elaine & Elaine on

A funny, insightful blog!

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