It feels so familiar upon landing at Osaka. Walking through the airport, it feels as if I ended my previous trip last year to Japan yesterday, and am returning today. One of my former students described this feeling as a good middle ground – Japan feels not too familiar, but also not too exotic. Still, I will notice all kinds of small details about the country that I’ve forgotten such as the constant drone of announcements (usually chirpy female voices) or changes such as the absence of tobacco smoke. I also notice that the haole (white) man on the seat several rows behind me now sticks out like such a sore thumb. So that’s how much I stick out when I’m in Oregon!
We caught a short speedy train into the main lobby. It moved so quick and fast that it made Hawaii’s wiki wiki shuttle, a slow dirty beat up trolley seem like Third World transport. I lined up in immigration with all the other foreigners. So in one swoop I am now lumped together with Russians, Germans, Iranians, and other assorted nationals. There were these Europeans with closely shaved heads in line, and they looked like they could’ve been PRIDE or K-1 mixed martial arts fighters.
My wife Yoko shifts to Osaka mode and becomes antsy and in a rush. She speeds through the Japanese national line at immigration and rushes to get our suitcases, while I have to fill out a forgotten form. It is humid hot inside the airport. Just barely enough air conditioning to let you know that someone is making an effort to cool the room, but is trying to save electricity.
We rush to the bus. Now we are on the Osaka fast track – always on someone else’s schedule. Only $25 one-way for the two of us - a reasonable fare considering it was an hour drive. It’s an overcast day, and quite humid. I don’t want to be outside as it makes me sweat profusely. Once riding the air-conditioned bus, I notice that the color gray dominates the Japanese landscape: gray buildings packed next to each other, grey sky, and grey roads. What a contrast with all the anime showing bright colorful city scenes!
After an hour, we arrived at Osaka, caught a taxi from the bus stop (New Hankyu Hotel) to my sister-in-law Etsuko’s apartment. In the taxi, I realize the payoff for being Nikkei (Japanese American). Yes, I suffered when I first learned Japanese in the beginning – I did not receive special foreigner treatment. No Japanese will gush over how I speak Japanese so well, and praise my every word like they would for people of other backgrounds. But the long-term payoff– I can have a natural conversation with people like cab drivers.
Anyway, we get off at Etsuko’s place. Now I need batteries and it is still early in the day so we decide to just hop on a train and then travel with no destination in mind. Yoko is truly an Osaka woman – she starts walking quickly on autopilot. I am still in Hawaii mode and I have to keep running to catch up with her. I finally get batteries at the airport, and can take pictures on my old camera. So remember, do not throw away or sell your old digital cameras.
Here’s an ad on the train for “Hawaiian Hula Night.” Yes, for just 12,000 yen ($115 dollars) you can attend a dinner show and watch hula dancers. That’s how much some Japanese customers will pay to see hula.
The train goes alongside the freeway. I like the way you can peer into people’s cars while riding. I kept praying that I wouldn’t see drivers picking their noses in the “privacy” of their car.
A quick cultural note I had forgotten – escalators in the station? You kidding me, what escalators? Japan is like one huge Stairmaster. You will walk and walk like you’ve never walked before and put in at least 5 minutes a day walking upstairs. There are elevators, but quite inconveniently spaced and slow. So now you know why Japanese are so skinny since they have to walk so much every day. Now we were lucky, it was not yet rush hour when the sheer force of the crowd makes you walk quickly. You get off the train, and go down this flight of stairs, followed by another flight of stairs, to two different ramps, one for handicapped and one for regular walkers. What’s the difference?
We found a MOS Burger. I remember that they tried to open a branch in Hawaii but it closed. How sad since I love their food, and much rather prefer eating there than at McDonalds. My friend Scott told me that the reason for its failure was the failure to adapt to the local market: you got to serve huge portions to keep Hawaii locals happy. The portions here are definitely smaller than in Hawaii, but the quality is so much better that I don’t know why the company doesn’t try to open another franchise again. We are talking quality fast food, with service that puts many Hawaii RESTAURANTS to shame.
I had an “Ebi katsu burger” made with shrimp and cream, topped with chopped cabbage, and a sauce. They fried the burger and the French fries perfectly! No wonder the Japanese do not need ketchup with their fries – I enjoyed tasting the natural potato taste eating them plain! Why can’t American chains fry their burgers and fries like this? On the bottom is a “nan taco,” a delightful blend of Indian and Mexican food. The ice coffee was brewed very strong.
Yoko had a nan taco. The outside, instead of being a tortilla is Indian nan bread. Inside, one can eat a combination of beef, lettuce, avocado, and salsa, with some sort of chutney in it. It tasted fresh, not greasy. Who would’ve thought that Indian and Mexican food matched so well with each other? I’m waiting for someone in Hawaii to think of this idea.
It was nearing evening, so we decided to head on back before rush hour got into full swing. Huge crowds of workers, businessmen, and school kids getting off the trains and quickly, I mean quickly rushing to their destination. We got off, and saw a mini-massage place. We both got chair massages, which really helped to take the edge of the jet lag. I chatted with the massager in Japanese. It is easier to speak Japanese when the other person knows no English. My tongue gets tied up if the Japanese person speaks English fluently.
We got back and chatted over dinner. I visited an Internet café at the site of the former Blue Note Osaka. Enough for now.