OSAKA - JESUCRISTO, THAT'S NOT JASON BOURNE

 


Not knowing anything about the area I was in following my arrival, I marched with all the frivolity of a child in a summer meadow down a street filled with, what I can only describe as rows of rooms decorated like Japanese doll houses, and the dolls sitting on their cushions each tried to lure me in for a “massage.” It was still somewhat light outside, but I guessed this was one of the dangerous areas I was warned about. I continued on down to a supposedly even more dangerous area without seeing a single soul. The only thing that I was assailed by on this day was the smell of stale piss.

 

I reached the apartment building where my Airbnb was and double-checked the lone automated message I had received for the number of the lock box the key was hiding in, but when I peeked inside, I found nothing. I then proceeded to check inside all the lock boxes, to no avail. Satisfied I had the right building, I looked for a way to contact the owner, and surprise surprise, there was nothing. All I found was a year old review on Google from a Taiwanese gentleman asking where the key was. 

 

I stood outside for a while rubbing my two brain cells together in search of an idea, and finally settled on breaking and entering, minus the breaking. I didn’t have to wait long. A woman left the building, whom I willed to turn the corner onto the street before the automatic door locked. Feeling like Jason Bourne, I got inside and gingerly walked to the apartment I’d booked. Listening for a moment for signs of life. I slowly pulled the door handle down, finding it to be unlocked, and when I peaked inside I was met with a genkan overflowing with shoes.

 

 

Feeling a lot less like Jason Bourne and more like the star of a Netflix serial killer documentary, I swiftly escaped the crime scene. I spent some time thereafter exploring Tennoji, where around the famous Tsutenkaku Tower the bustling streets were brimming with restaurants, and it was here where I discovered that, much like the rest of Osaka, the smell of food doesn’t really go away. 

 

It was a fairground-like atmosphere; the buildings covered in bright lights and colourful artwork, and statues overhanging restaurant doorways of a giant, American-made baby/monkey mascot called Billiken. Some parts of Tennoji felt like they were trapped in a time warp, shops from the 60s sat somehow unaffected by the decades of bursting bubbles and recessions, and with Japan’s ageing population, there was now more than ever a need for leopard-print coats and spandex.

 

 

I met up that night with a local who took me to a German restaurant, and I learned here how different (fun) Osakans are. Their reputation amongst other Japanese is often quite negative. They’re loud, brash, their way of speaking harsh, while Osaka itself, a dirty and crime-infested hive. But if you’re from the West, you’ll still find the city safer than anything you’re used to, and the people genuinely friendly, making these claims laughably ignorant to any outsider. 

 

During dinner, a band was performing live, and when everyone had collectively finished and moved exclusively to alcohol, some got up to dance, and before I knew it, a giant conga line had formed and a man much bigger, stronger, and drunker than I had pulled me into it. I can’t think of anywhere else in Japan that this would happen, and I can’t think of a better example that illustrates the jovial Osakan nature more than this.

 

My replacement hotel was located in Yodoyabashi, a name that was amusing to say and an area that looked like New York. I’ve never been to New York, but the image that came to mind was based on the same thing that most people bring to mind when America’s premier city is evoked, I suppose. Home Alone 2. The price was a little higher than I usually liked to pay, but the bad taste of what occurred earlier that day, combined with the benefits of being an Agoda “Platinum Member,” provided a nice hotel in a nice area for what they claimed to be a 50% discount on top of an 8% discount coupon I activated.

 


The following day it rained, but I wasn’t about to let this stop me from exploring. Fortunately, all of the 7-Elevens, Lawsons, and Family Marts that you see on every corner came well stocked with umbrellas. What I really needed, however, was some plastic bags to wrap around my feet. I was wearing a pair of leather Converse, which I specifically chose to wear because I knew it was going to rain while I was here, but I soon discovered there was a hole in the left shoe. It filled up pretty quickly, and the thickness of my hiking socks could only do so much to alleviate the soakage. Needless to say, it made the rest of the day slightly uncomfortable.

 

Back at Tennoji, I went up Tsutekaku to get a pleasant view of the city and see the various landmarks, one of which being my next destination, Osaka Castle. To get there, I headed north through Denden Town, or Electric Town, a place fulfilling the same functions of Akihabara in Tokyo. There was even an adult video shop selling VHS tapes, and people were actually going in there, so get that idea out of your head that Japan is living in the future. 

 

Going further into the ancient past, the castle grounds were fun to walk around in, and to keep things consistent, I found it much more interesting than the main keep itself. There were two moats, each alive with the splashes of rain and orange carp swimming to the surface, and the imposing walls impressive in their grandeur.

 


In a shocking turn of events, this castle wasn’t destroyed during World War 2, presumably because it was fortified with anti-aircraft guns. Instead, it owes its rebuilds to more traditional sieges and, most excitingly, lightning strikes. In 1665, it caused the entire structure to be engulfed and lay in ruins for years due to the Tokugawa Shogunate’s financial and political concerns laying elsewhere.

 

Wanting to see the city from a higher viewpoint, I went to Umeda, the fancy part of town. Far more modern than Tennoji, to be sure, but amongst the towering glass skyscrapers and wide, busy roads, a certain atmosphere was lacking. I saw a good example of where people’s tax money was going, with groups of traffic wardens spread out around the busier streets, using megaphones at intersections to instruct the crowds to stand back when the little man was red. I crossed a narrow one lane road where five (5) traffic wardens directed pedestrians across. Something truly horrendous must’ve happened here to warrant such a presence.

 

Daylight still shone, and I’d already seen the city under dull grey clouds, so I went for a coffee and waited. The joys of travelling on a weekend were apparent as I looked through countless windows to see each cafe overflowing with people. Finally getting a seat in one of the many Tully’s chain of cafes, I drank a caramel latte while a grown man beside me complained to his wife about being tired, before putting his head down on the table and falling asleep. His wife did not seem to mind. 

 

Night fell, the weather improved, and the Umeda Sky Building rose up from what seemed to be a perpetual building site that started from Osaka Station, which was also present on my last visit a few years prior. A long queue awaited and large groups were stuffed into the big elevator every few minutes. One of the features is crossing between the two towers via an escalator, letting you peer down to the streets below. At the top of the tower, I stared at the sea of lights to the north, which was broken by the large Yodo River flowing out to Osaka Bay. In the other directions, the bright city skyscape looked clean and inspiring. 

 


I met up with a friend that night who took me to an okonomiyaki restaurant. One thing they don’t tell you about these places is that the smell will be forever seared into your soul, and god help you if your soul is wearing a down jacket. A group who entered after us requested plastic bags to put their coats in, we did not, and thus damned ourselves to an evening of wandering city night in a haze of oil and grease. My left foot was still wet, and I briefly speculated on whether this was how the rest of Japan saw Osakans, smelly people with holes in their shoes.

 

Under the cloudy, but rainless morning sky, I went to get some breakfast in Umeda. This turned out to be a bad idea, as every tourist in the city had the same plan. I obviously hadn’t learned my lesson. I spent the day dodging and weaving through crowds with the gracefulness of a ballet dancer with baby giraffe legs. Tired of walking, and dejected that my shoe had not yet fully dried, I simply relaxed and took in what atmosphere I could. 

 

When night fell once more, I met my friend again, this time avoiding the threat of smelling by eating from one of the many food stalls that packed the streets of Namba. We ate takoyaki and walked around the shopping arcade before heading to Dotonbori. It was a very lively Sunday night, with crowds gathering to watch street performers who were mostly beatboxing and doing tricks with basketballs. Bright signs on either side reflected on the Dotonbori River and filled the misty air with unnatural colour. 

 

I headed back to my hotel, passing a much better hotel staffed solely by dinosaurs. A man sat atop a large triceratops, whose animatronic movement set off the other dinosaurs in the area. The roads were densely crammed, and the rows of neon hanging above shone down on the most colourful collection of people you could ever hope to see in Japan.

 

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