Osaka: East vs. West


Spending 24 hours to get some place in the world can put you out of sorts. Seven time zones (not to mention crossing the International Date Line) plus excitement-fueled insomnia can discombobulate even the hardiest vacationer.

When we landed in Osaka on Thanksgiving, our friends greeted us at the airport to accompany us to the hotel, just two easy train rides away. (The hotel’s location was right on top of a subway station.)

We emerged from the tunnels with suitcases clacking behind us. The first thing we saw as we hit the streets of this bustling Asian modern metropolis?


Goddamn Starbucks.

My first time in Japan was all too brief. Despite the short stay, I managed to pack it with enough sightseeing and snacking to satisfy the reawakened traveler in me.

It’s tough to leave the United States during a holiday like Thanksgiving. But an old friend’s wedding in an exciting locale is an irresistible lure.

I am learning more about myself (and the world, natch) as I make these journeys. Stoking my wanderlust has been the author/chef Anthony Bourdain, who wrote “Kitchen Confidential” and knocked out two great travel shows, “A Cook’s Tour” and “No Reservations.”

His is a simple creed: Don’t be a tourist — be a traveler.

Ask the natives where they like to eat. Immerse yourself in local culture. Shun the normal routine.

That can be difficult when you hit a city like Osaka. The legend of the Japanese vending machines is true. We were never more than a few steps away from smokes, beer or canned coffee. I indulged my one vice: a steady regimen of caffeinated soda. Over there, Diet Coke is hard to come by, so my vice doubled with the daily intake of old-fashioned sugary Coke.

Within spitting distance of the hotel was a McDonald’s. And a 7-11. And a Subway. I found it difficult sometimes to convince the group that perhaps Subway, a chain I can walk to from my house, wouldn’t convey the rich history and culture of Kansai region.

Inside Hotel Osaka Castle, we found our room to be immensely comfortable — if not very spacious. Even so, my heart sank a little when I saw a few rooms on our floor that were traditional Japanese: tatami mats and cushions for bedding instead of our Western-style room.

The complimentary breakfast offered a familiar, if somewhat unappetizing, table of American items: scrambled eggs, sausage, bacon, rolls, juice and coffee. The Japanese items provided a glimpse of what a native might eat: rice, miso soup (with all the trimmings), cream of broccoli soup and assorted pickled things.


At least the dining room view, a seventh floor panorama of downtown Osaka overlooking a canal, was a warm wakeup.

Enough signage and ad placards had partial English, so we were never completely down the rabbit hole. Not knowing any Japanese, only two times did I feel culturally immersed and quite lost.

The first was our brief stop at the Internet cafe, on the sixth or seventh floor of the building across from the hotel. It was 280 yen ($2.40) for half an hour, but free Coke. We logged on to check our e-mail and print my wedding toast.

My Windows computer was connected to the printer, so I handled both tasks. The QWERTY keyboards were protected with a plastic film, presumably to keep them (if not us) germ free. While the icons were the same, everything else on screen was in Japanese.

Fortunately, years of repetition at computers guided me shakily through the routine of connecting the thumb drive, opening the file and printing it. We still needed to get paper from the clerk, but we managed OK.

The second immersion was a simple request: Buy green tea in pretty canisters. A colleague had visited Japan earlier in November but didn’t bring back enough tea for gifts. She told me to duck into any market and it would be easy to find.

(For the record, she doesn’t know a lick of Japanese, either.)

First supermarket I saw, I jumped at the chance. Osaka being an urban center, it didn’t really have any grocery stores other than the domestic and foreign convenience store chains.

Here I was in an utterly familiar place, with aisles and aisles of food. And I couldn’t find a damn thing.

Every sign, every product in a gibberish, squiggly language.

So I walked the aisles. I scanned every section, every shelf as I walked down the aisle. My only hope: Use any pictures on the containers.

Shopping for one item this way takes a long time. If I had to shop for Thanksgiving dinner, I’d starve by aisle 5.

After a couple of trips down all the aisles, I may or may not have located the tea, which I bought and delivered to my colleague upon return to work. She’s not sure it’s green tea either, but at that point, it’s all we got.

But that moment of utter helplessness in an otherwise safe and supposedly familiar environment, that’s culture shock.

Most of the trip, we were never that close to shock, a shortcoming on our part.

The Dotonbori district is one of the few big draws for Osaka, a retail and dining area that lights up like Vegas when the sun goes down. Nearby is Amerikamura (“America Village”), where the kids go to hang out and indulge in brand name binges. Rumor is that the Yakuza run the area, but we were cautioned not to discuss it loudly during our stroll down its streets.

Essentially, the main finds in Amerikamura are vintage American clothes, about the same price you’d pay in the East Village or hipper parts of L.A. Some Japanese teens and young adults just eat it up, along with the exported restaurants: KFC, Denny’s and so on.

Heck, even I went into the Apple store we stumbled upon, just to say I visited it. Though I finally did see the new tiny iPod Shuffles and red Nanos in person, and it only took a 7,000-mile journey.

Modern Japan, for better or worse, has embraced the American invasion. Once in a while, I felt as I were trapped in a bizarro version of New York rather than a city on an island on another continent.

And while we feasted on a five-course meal expertly and elegantly prepared after the wedding, it too was closer to home than I had anticipated. A French feast with a Japanese crowd in the only international wedding I’ve seen.

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Osaka 2006


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