Travel Diaries #18 - Osaka

Japan's second city and Kyoto's younger, bigger, brasher counter-part in the Kaihanshin metropolis had an altogether different effect on me - disjointed, chaotic, hectic yet compelling in its own way

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Three days in Osaka (or maybe four)

After a week I accept that they aren’t going to grant me the freedom of Kyoto and an official permit of residence and so I get the train to nearby Osaka. Compared to Kyoto, Osaka is a different beast altogether, even though they’re only about 50km from each other and form part of the same Keihanshin metropolitan area, along with Kobe (total population between them is about 20 million). The contrast between the two is so stark, the change of atmosphere and culture so immediate, that it feels like stepping into and out of an elevator rather than taking a train: the doors close, they quickly re-open, you step out on a different floor, your world transformed.  

Everything in Osaka is a bit of a blur. The greyscale of the weather makes it harder to remember  what I saw there, it all melding into indistinct days and nights spent mostly walking and eating and drinking. Immediately upon stepping into the city, things are busier. The buildings are taller, the traffic is heavier, the roads and highways spiral upwards and criss-cross each other, disappearing out of sight behind high-rise offices. Walking out of a station at Osaka is like being in New York – except it’s the same New York the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles inhabited, all comic book cartoon, more fun and ultimately there would be no blood spilled or needles strewn on the ground – in comparison to the much milder and more perfumed atmosphere of Kyoto.

Osaka is cool and it is fun and it is hip. People are younger, scruffier, cooler. The streets are grubbier. In Osaka, they have cigarette butts on the ground. You don’t get that in most of Japan. People in Osaka love food and clothes and drinking. They drink beers on the street. Men in suits drink cans in car parks before they head off up town for a feed and a few pints. People talk to the strangers beside them at the bars. People eat. Osakans love their food. You can buy it everywhere, you can eat it anywhere (eating while walking down the street or on public transport is also generally frowned upon in Japan).

People are stylish. Lads with ski goggles and pocket chains and skinny sweatpants. The same guy. He looked like a character from SSX Tricky even though he wasn’t within 200km of any snow. But he looked good – everyone in Tokyo and Osaka looks like they’ve dressed themselves, which is more than you can say for most of us.

Everywhere in Japan is a 45 minute train journey from everywhere else and so I take another one to Nara. It’s pissing rain and grey, so I don’t bother going up the mountain. I walk around the grounds of the castle, see more temples. The touristy selling points of Nara are temples and deer. It’s like being at a zoo or theme park but the deer wander around the town like little people. You can buy little biscuits to feed the deer, but be careful because they’ll follow you and nibble your umbrella. I see a small boy getting chased by a deer after trying to feed him a biscuit; it looks like a series of panels from a Calvin and Hobbes comic. I get an overpriced meal in a Disneyland-esque café and write some more in my leatherbound notebook. I don’t get any mad urges to move to Nara.

Back in Osaka I visit the history museum and then go for a stroll around the nearby castle, which is surrounded by moats and stretches into the sky like a flying palace, though it’s got some scaffolding up around it which kills the effect and the queues are too long for me to bother going in. I visit the famous harbour but don’t get a boat. Any time I try to explore outside the boundaries of the city proper I end up confused and wandering over or under some freeway or flyover or tunnel so I end up shepherded back into the grey city centre.

It feels like I am unable to venture off the side of the map, like the restrictions in a computer game when the game is trying to force you to do a particular thing, even though the map is an abstract concept, a technological fabrication that exists only on my phone. I oblige the god guiding me around Osaka and wander around the neat alleyways, tiny craft shops and vintage chic of the Umeda district.

I check out Shinsekai, an historic shopping district near the centre of the city. It’s full of neon and bright LED lights and colours, which are a welcome break-up of the concrete and tarmac and the grey March skies. I grab some spicy noodles and a beer in a nearby bar and watch a psychedelic rock band jam to no-one else. I write a poem in my notebook about all the freedoms I want in my life. To wake up whenever I want, to write whenever I want, to go wherever I want. To eat spicy noodles and listen to psychedelic rock bands whenever I want.

There’s a red-light district at nearby Tobita-Shinchi, where girls sit in small rooms, breaking the fourth wall of their existence with a plastic smile. Their arms erect and oscillating gently in a waving motion, their legs crossed, their windows open to the world. Their faces made-up and over-the-top, comically so, tragically so. Too muddled to be perfect geishas, maybe intentionally so they won’t ever stand up and leave. Watched over by their overweight, grey-haired, middle-aged madams all of them, sitting beside each and every doorway, wearing heartier smiles and adopting a beckoning call that seems more genuine, more eager.

The girls are plumped up on cushions, some wearing Real Madrid or Man United jerseys over their mini-skirts, perhaps to attract international guests, or men whose wives won’t stop nagging them to turn off the football, an air purifier puffing gently on each one. In one doorway a girl waves, not hello but goodbye to a man, he casually replaces his shoes with a shoehorn before departing. A red light over each window, each scene the same, they all look like they’re sitting at altars or shrines of some sort, attending their own funeral. Many of the wooden buildings are some of the oldest in the country, and are listed as being of architectural or cultural significance, so the rents are cheap and they won’t be torn down. Maybe they will be there forever.

In a nearby shopping arcade, dirty shutters are pulled down and flattened cardboard boxes pile up and overflow in gangways. A couple of bars are packed with older men, some with unshaven grey beards, all drinking cans, no wives or girlfriends to be seen. Karaoke is in full swing, some are asleep on the inside of their elbows sprawled over tables. Spirits are rowdy, the internet says this area is dangerous for tourists. They look like the most fun bars I’ve seen since I’ve been here.

Memories of trips

My memory of Kyoto is that of the rhythm of softly turning pages in a pleasant picture book; Osaka an achronological scattering of polaroid memories slapped down on the desk on Monday morning. In Kyoto I imagined what it might be like to live there, but in Osaka I embraced being a tourist.

In Kyoto I walked or ran or got the train up and down the river, into town and back around it. I had my walking routine perfected, the same simple animated loop as everyone else – or close enough. I knew how to get places and how to get home. In Osaka my movements scattered, jagged, hopping from one train station to another, walking, then staggering and doing laps looking for nothing and finding it, before turning back to go where I wanted. After four days still no distinct map created in my head, either of the terrain of the city or the time I spent there, jumping from one thing to the next, not tied to any one place, and no idea where I was going, I may as well have teleported my way around.

My memory is less linear as a result, and Osaka remains a strange place to me. Things stick out but it all blurs into the dull grey skies over the three days I spent there, or maybe it was four. Kyoto was calm overcast days with the odd hopeful sunshine, Osaka disorienting grey skies and dusk – in reality, the weather was probably consistently overcast spring, the odd rain and drizzle. Kyoto was delicate meals of meat and fish with garnishes, Osaka was quick bites of takoyaki balls and okonomiyaki served up on grills with brown sauce. Again, the reality was probably plenty of cheap Japanese fast food in both.

In Kyoto I attempted to blend in with tradition and routine, in Osaka I was free to wander according to my whims. Kyoto is older, Osaka is bigger. Kyoto is safe, Osaka exciting. Kyoto was for eating, Osaka for drinking; Kyoto for living and Osaka for travelling; Kyoto is this and Osaka is that.

The effects of places

It’s true that places contain distinct personalities. We interact with them as if they were people as well, their characters formed by the sum of not just those who live there, but their buildings too, their natural features, and even their climates, as if the population were just one organ in a greater body. Some places calm you down, some rouse your senses and your spirit, and some mess with your sense of who you even are.

It’s not just the places that affect your memory of them, but also how you lived while you were there, which may not be how you always think of yourself, as you form a relationship with places the same way you do with people. And some of them have such an effect on you that you act this way or that while you’re there, not your self, but entirely yourself as well. They bring out or accentuate this or that within you; it could be your best or it could be your worst side, or a part of you never seen elsewhere.

And sometimes it’s just the weather guiding your moods this way and that.

It is good to abandon yourself temporarily and allow the city to immerse you not just visually, in the manner of a museum where you go here and see that and continue to the next exhibit, but to consume you entirely with its mode of being and how you live while you’re there. It is then that you see the true spirit of a place, and each place in turn reveals a truth about yourself as well.

This is why memories exist not as chronological series of facts and details - a scrolling film - but as images and snapshots, as flashes and sparks and emotions and surges of energy, as the profound haze of a dream rather than the strict details and events and facts of a book, as this is how the truth reveals itself as time unfolds.

Life goes on and memories have lives of their own as well.

Maybe that’s why the things that stick out for me from Osaka include dark signs in bright subway stations, and youths dressed like Keanu Reeves in The Matrix smoking vapes and drinking cans of Monster on the steps of fluorescent convenience stores at 3am – despite the fact I that know the latter never happened in Osaka, or at least I didn’t observe it – it’s a recurring image of a sub-culture of the youth of Hanoi.

It just feels like Osaka.

Yet its slightly grim cyber-punk undertones merge neatly into the aesthetic I recall from nights spent wandering through Dotonbori, where no matter how much I try to remember the ground-level scenes of packed streets and raucuous bars and people as I walked up one street and down the next, the gaze of my mind cannot help but be pulled up, up and further up – film scenes skipping as if in a dream where you can never wrestle full control of your senses or the use of your limbs – up through the dazzling and garish neon as the skyscrapers break through into the night – maybe it’s because the days were so dull when I was there, the energy of the city so unforgiving, my actions and movements so chaotic, woozy and becoming of a drunk in a stupor, but as far as I remember it, in Osaka it is always night.

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