first twenty-four in Osaka: of money, modesty and macaronics

Posted: February 27, 2011 in travel

I’ve wanted to go to Japan, basically, forever. I think growing up in America in the 90s, there was this universal sense that Japan was simply ahead, in technology, innovation, education… it seemed like a place where success was boundless, advancement ever-present. Around the age of ten, I discovered sushi, and then I was basically in love — in America, Japanese food is still really quite un-bastardized or homogenized, the way one often finds in other Asian cuisine, and bowls of Udon, whole plates of sashimi would disappear in front of me. My fascination of the place never left — discovering anime, then reading Shogun, then other random history books like Army of the Rising Sun. Bicycles were certainly part of the love affair, as I got to sell and fondle many 3Renshos and Nagasawas and such in my tenure in a quaint little shop where the owner had been a major importer of Japanese goods for over a decade. Takashi Miike movies and other splinters of absurd cinema may have had an adverse effect on others, but to me they spoke of a place almost within its own reality — what the hell, Japan?! Seriously. I need to know.

So now, of course, it’s almost embarrassing to think of what kept me away for so long. I was very close to coming here in 2008, back when I was stuck in Beijing during spring festival, but looking at how far a dollar went simply kept me away. Then last year, I was in Korea, a mere $100 ferry ride away from Kansai, but again, China and Mongolia won out in my head: simple math. $30/day vs $70/day. Stretch it.

In 2008, the exchange rate was around 120 JPY to $1. Last year it hovered around 95. Yesterday, I believe it was 83. Our dollar really needs to get its shit together.

Still there’s no denying one’s own desires. In the great words of Tracey Morgan: “Live every week like it’s Shark Week…”

first impressions: ignorance and bliss

I flew into Kansai airport in the afternoon and basically immediately started fucking up. With no yen in my pocket, I cleared customs with nary a problem, even as the labrador lapped at my heels and circled around my feet, led by a man with white gloves and perfect posture. I stuck my card into the ATM in the baggage claim and struck out: nope, no money for you. Had I previously read that most ATMs in Japan are not friendly to foreign cards, I may have been more prepared for this, but as it happens, my last day in Korea I had mistakenly punched one too many zeros into an ATM to get the bus fare I needed and wound up with 200,000 Won in my pocket, which I immediately changed into greenback… so in my own twisted way, my previous fuck-up had in fact created a perfectly viable Plan B for the Japanese bank card incident: just buy some yen. I decided to change only half of the money at first, as I assumed $80 worth of Yen was enough to last me until I could figure out the ATMs here, and it’s always good to have some USD in your pocket, even if it’s backed by nothing but the Fed’s hot air, and horrendously artificially deflated, and the bills are sort of sticky…

I walked outside to the bus queue to find… well, no buses at all. The man at the ticket counter explained that the buses were shut down for the day due to snow, an odd reason, as there was literally no snow in sight. “Train”, he said.

I waltzed in and asked for a ticket to Osaka Station. The woman was happy to sell me a subway ticket, at a cost of 1,420 yen, about a 1/4 of what was in my pocket. “damn, that is a hell of a lot of money for a subway ticket” was in my head as I absent-mindedly thanked her in Korean. Japanese is my third dialect in 30 days, and in my brain it’s just a damn mess right now. She didn’t seem to mind.

My new friend Sho took me to dinner that night, at a place that greatly resembled a Perkins in terms of decor, though obviously not in fare. I had a bowl of rice with strips of tamago and a large pile of raw toro, presumably the scraps from making sashimi, with a side of udon. It was about 900 yen, $11 or so, which somehow put my mind at ease, as if to say, “well hell, that ain’t so bad…” because a bowl of rice with egg, sashimi tuna and a side of udon is probably about $15 in California. Perhaps my fears were un-warranted, I thought.

We spoke of traveling. Sho had spent two years studying in Vancouver and was dying to get back to North America. A long discussion ensued on the ramifications of working and living in Japan vs Canada. He was very curious about the midwest… I asked him what the snowfall was to shut down all the buses. “About 3cm,” he said, adding “most in 10 years in Osaka!”. I smiled and did some quick math. “Well, we’ve probably gotten about 100cm so far this year…” He dropped his sticks.

After dinner, we headed for an onsen, a public hot spring, something I was really looking forward to. I crammed my shoes in the locker and thought back to Korea and its jimjilbangs, basically bath houses, eager to get clean and soak in a hot tub for a while. It was in the locker room that I noticed an interesting sign, with several poorly drawn cartoons, that said something along the lines of “Those the tattoos are not for the entry”. hmmmm….

“Hey man, does this say that people with tattoos can’t come in?”
“Mmm… you have?”
“Uhh yeah….”
“Really? a lot?”
“Well.. just three…”
I pointed to my ribs and then my legs, wondering how the locations could possibly affect the odds of them being seen, given that you go into the spring butt-naked.
“hmm… I think… here…”

He went and asked a guy who was piling towels in a bin. I saw him point to his side and his legs, and the expression on the towel herder’s face was a mix of uncertainty and modest refusal, pursed lips and an a slight smile as he shook his head.

“No, we can’t come in…”

I like that he said “we” when clearly it was only I who couldn’t come in. “I’m sorry…” I started to stammer, as if I had done something wrong. We got a refund and headed back for the car, a tiny little cereal box of a Honda that I believe was called the Fresh. “yeah… sorry… didn’t really think of that…” We spoke of tattoos, and Yakuza and other taboos, and customs, and manners, and about a dozen other talking points that I was 90% ignorant of. Apparently I had a lot to learn.

On the way back to his house, we stopped for snacks. I found myself noting and chewing on prices, sort of like Michael Douglas in Falling Down. I’d say most food items are just slightly more expensive than in the US, although given the food, it’s a little intimidating… onigiri, which is basically a ball of rice, goes for about 120 yen. That’s three cents of rice for a buck-fifty. This does not keep me from eating them every day. Really, the major expense here is transportation, though I’ll save my thoughts on that for another transmission…

red lights and strange sights

Getting lost in new places is pretty much my favorite thing ever. As long as you don’t have, say, a train to catch, or a heavy pack, it’s sort of like my equivalent of a guided tour, minus the guide of course… indeed, an aimless tour. A walkabout. I was in southern Osaka, near Tennoji station, meandering around Osaka Tower, an eiffel-tower like structure (there are many Eiffel Tower clones in Japan) that is bordered by shopping and restaurants and clubs and all sorts of other places I can’t afford to go in. Belly full of oden and green tea, I put on the ear goggles, turned up the dubstep mix, and set myself out to find the hotel without the use of a map or compass, using only landmarks and memory. People always ask me how I travel so cheap, and this is sort of a dirty little secret… just get lost instead of doing anything that a normal tourist would consider. Not all the time, but sometimes. Go ahead, try it. It’s fun. And free. And you’ll probably see a lot of stuff you didn’t know existed…

I figured with a fake eiffel tower and a half-dozen railways that I had staked out, the mission would be over in just six or eight tracks. This was not the case. Osaka is, for the most part, built on a grid, but many of the streets were apparently designed by mice, and thus, they dead-end, and fork, and swirl, and some simply go off into nowhere. This is not the case downtown, where everything was likely designed by lasers and robots, but this neighborhood is old and weird. The conversation before moving there went something like this:

“Hey Sho, how come all the cheap hostels are in this one neighborhood?”
“Oh… it’s… kind of dirty.” (This is a very relative term in Japan)
“How so?”
“You know, homeless people, casinos, street markets, bars… and… things.” Things. Right.

So there I was, and I knew I was heading south based on the sun, and it seemed like I was at about the right longitude, but nothing was familiar. The streets got narrower. Graffiti appeared, not an incredibly rare thing here but nowhere near as ubiquitous as it is in, say, any other country. I took a left after the roofed market, no longer really concerned with the hotel at all, just wandering. ‘Chase and Status’ was playing, a track called ‘Eastern Jam’ which is really good, bright samples, but dirty and glitchy and creepy, the kind of beat that makes you slow down so you can walk in step to it. And then I saw them.

It was a woman. Well, two of them, actually, one dressed up, full of make-up and hairspray, sitting on a mat, on a platform, surrounded be space heaters. Her face was… blank. Just completely expressionless. Except for the occasional blink, she could have been a doll. Then, in front of her, an older lady, almost decrepit by contrast, sitting on a stool, smiling wide, gesturing me over. what… the… fuck…

It had stopped me dead in my tracks. I looked a little closer. The place was a storefront, with a lit sign above and red neon lining the window, or what would have been a window: the whole front of the building was open. This is in Osaka in February, around 30 degrees. Except for the lack of glass and the addition of an old lady, the entire scene was really shockingly similar to what you’d see in Amsterdam. I was in a red-light district.

More questions were presented than answered by this realization.

Why the lack of glass? An inviting atmosphere? Good lord, why the old lady? Is a pimp required to somehow not cross over the line of modesty in selling yourself? An old lady pimp?  With a creepy smile? What’s her cut? I simply didn’t know how to react. The contrast to the modesty that Sho and I had talked at such length about was stark, and yet, not… yes, they were clearly selling themselves, but in such a… bashful, almost sheepish way. I guess it fit right in. I kept walking. The old ladies kept smiling and waving me over, surely thinking I had wound up here on purpose. The storefronts were everywhere, and there sure seemed to be a lot of them open for 4pm on a Saturday. The inhabitants looked cold. Most of the mats were of the ‘Hello Kitty’ variety. The outfits on the girls ranged from traditional wear, to more modern, provocative fare (though nothing like what you’d see in Amsterdam). Then there was this one woman. She wasn’t dressed like the others… oh no… can that be…

Yep. A full wedding gown, with the veil and all. On a mat. With an old lady in front of her, the same creepy smile as the rest, gesturing me over. This was too much… I couldn’t help but laugh, though in my head there was another dialog going on….

Now, for a country with the second lowest birth rate in the world (estimates have it going up, which is good, as it was declining for almost 20 years), in a place where they make robotic infants, this was really something to behold… your very own wedding night, without the whole hassle of actually having a marriage. I wondered how anyone could desire such a thing, but supply and demand would dictate that there must be a market for it. About seventy dirty jokes popped in to my head in the span of fifteen seconds.

The ATM could wait: I needed facts. And a beer. I eventually found myself out of the neighborhood and back near a market I recognized. I grabbed a Kirin out of a vending machine with the last 130 yen in my pocket (okay, this has maybe happened once or twice before) and hopped on Google. Turns out this is pretty well documented and discussed, and both Wiki and even the damn WSJ even have posts on this specific neighborhood (favorite random point: all those signs are advertising the “Tobitashinchi Ryori Kumiai”, the name of the “cooking association” that oversees the area). I’ve never paid for sex (or “company” or “cooking lessons”) but I don’t really have a moral high ground about it… if it’s safe and it’s regulated enough to go on like this, let the girl don the wedding dress.  She probably makes more in a night than I make in a week.  Who’s really using whom here?

Anyway, the beer, and my pockets, were empty, my head full of thought. New missions.  More to come…

  1. Quinn Seaton says:

    Hey man, I like this post. I think I may have to try the head phones and compass thing when I get to Tainan somewhere that actually makes it possible to get lost. I hope you’re alright for cash dude. But I guess you’ve done this kind of thing before, take care man, keep up the good stories!

  2. Peter Evans says:

    Man, this is the first blog I’ve read of yours and I love it! I’m stoked to dive into some of your previous posts. You paint quite the picture. Japan sounds like a totally different world. Thank you for taking the time to write (and travel) and spreading your love. Keep on truckin! _P>.

  3. Jack Fox-Powell says:

    Great blog… missing Japan now! Im not sure what your plans are, but I hope you get to explore the whole country! I completely forgot about the ATMs! confused the hell out of me at first too… only post office ones take foreign cards AND they close at night! what a nuisance.

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