Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Big O: Osaka

" . . . the Japanese are the world's champion modifiers. Only the most serious restauranteurs refrain from editing some of the authenticity out of foreign cuisines . . ."
--Fodor's Japan 2009, pg. 90

Two girls posing in Dotonbori, a nightlife area.

A rock band sets up near JR Osaka train station.

Chika and me at Shinsekai, a local area.

"Where's the coolest place in Osaka?" I asked Chika, a Japanese girl who lived in the city.

She thought for a moment. "America-mura!" she said. (Translates into Americatown.)

Imagine that "wah-wah-waaah" sound in comedy shows when a joke falls flat. That's what I heard in my head.

"What do mean, Americatown?" I said, flabbergasted. I didn't travel all the way to Japan to see U.S. culture.

"Do not worry," Chika said. "It is still Japanese!"

That reminded me of something I read in my guidebook, how the people can take foreign things and make them Japanese.

"Okay, let's go," I said at last.

Indeed, we wandered into a land of luxury department stores that could've been anywhere in the world. The local effects were in the little things: a snack bar that served Coke and okonomiyaki, an American flag fluttering in the wind as everyone chatted in Japanese.

Two girls eating at a snack bar

An American flag outside a trendy clothing shop

In that moment, Japan seemed very much like America. As different as the two countries are, both are able to absorb outside influences and yet hold on to their national identities. Japan received most of its culture from China, via Korea. But no one would ever confuse Tokyo with Beijing.

Turn to the United States. French fries are Belgian, hamburgers are German, and pizza is Italian, and yet now they are stereotypically American foods. Fried chicken is so old, it traces its origins back to Europe and Africa.

A loud rumbling noise jolted me out of my thoughts. I turned and saw a monster truck roaring by. Just in case everyone around didn't hear him, the driver revved the motor once again with feeling.

Monster truck

I had to laugh. The louder the engine, the bigger the jerk.

"What is funny?" Chika asked.

I pointed at the monster truck growling away from us. "In America, my friends and I make fun of people who drive big trucks and noisy motorcycles."


"We joke that the drivers try to look big, because they are so small," I explained. I held my index finger and thumb an inch apart, in that gesture that is universally understood by girls.

"Ah!" Chika held a hand over her mouth and giggled.

Salarymen eating at a Japanese curry fast-food restaurant

"You were right," I admitted to Chika. "America-mura is still very Japanese."

"I know, I live in Osaka!" She lowered her voice. "We should not stay here too late."

Perplexed, I asked, "Why is that?" Japan was one of the safest countries I've ever visited.

"At night, it is dangerous. Some bad people sell cocaine," she said.

I laughed. "Now that sounds like America!"

Zuboraya, a restaurant famous for serving fugu (poison blowfish)

Photo: Three boys get onto a bullet train

Photo: The Hikari Rail Star bullet train (shinkansen)

Inside Information

Getting into town

Most trains arrive at JR Osaka or JR Shin-Osaka station. Shinkansen (bullet trains) usually go to Shin-Osaka. They're two different stations, so double-check to make sure you arrive at the right one.

From there, you have to take the "Loop Line" to your final destination. Be careful, the Loop Line is super confusing! It looks deceptively simple, but it's not. The different lines don't always stop at every station. This happened to me when I changed trains on it. I seemed to be going further away from the city. When I called my Osaka hostel to get directions, the guy said, "You're almost back in Nara!"

Where to stay

If you have a choice between basing yourself in Kyoto or Osaka, choose Kyoto. That's the best advice I can give. The quality and quantity of budget accommodation is much better. There are also more things to see in Kyoto. Osaka is more of a place to do business.

The good news is that Osaka has really cheap budget hotels, centered around JR Shin-Imamiya station. The bad news is that it's a really poor, ugly area. You won't get a positive impression of Osaka if you stay there.

The budget hotels are all roughly the same. The customers are primarily factory workers and low-level salarymen. For this reason, the room rates are shockingly low: around 2,500 yen (US$30) a night for a private room. Probably the best hotel deal for a major city in Japan.

Lucky for you guys, a nice new hostel opened up in Osaka about a month after I left. It's called Hostel 64. A funky designer hostel, close to Dotonbori and all the nightlife. I really wish I could've stayed there!

I stayed at Lemon House. The price and location were great, but the rooms were appalling! Way too cramped and messy. It's a "gaijin house" meant for long-stay foreigners, who are studying in Japan or looking for jobs. I did meet some nice people, but I wouldn't stay there again.

I've heard good things about Capsule Hotel Asahi Plaza Shinsaibashi. What you give up in space, you make up for in location since it's in the middle of all the action. Like all capsule hotels, it's strictly men-only.