In Japan — Osaka’s Knack for Resetting a Visitor’s Expectations

Upon arriving at the airport in Osaka, I read my travel journal — “I am curious about Japan and yet I harbor no expectations from it. I believe it will feel familiar, for I know it a little already.”

When I reached the airport, all the signs were in Japanese Kanji and lack of sleep gave way to disorientation. I found the rail station, went up to the station inspector, summoned up some courage and said in Japanese, “Excuse me sir, can you please tell me how I can get to this hostel?” The station inspector smiled, and replied at length. I smiled back; I understood 2% of what he said. “Thank you so much. But…do you speak any English?” I asked. The train inspector smiled and shook his head. I had been warned to watch out for the Osaka dialect, but now those nuances escaped me, leaving in their wake, the feeling of incomprehension from my first ever Japanese lesson.

I resorted to using my phone and managed to get on a train to the comfort of Japanese culture and real-life I could finally relate to — children in cute attire, lots of old people, a strange girl reading a thick manga, a teenager with One Piece branded headphones, and the passing sound of the Japanese fumikiri or railway crossing.

At Nishinari, I walked out of the station to find a street lined with homeless old men and their shacks. Unlocked bicycles lined the opposite side of the street and the homeless men were taking it in turns to ride them around in crisscross paths, most showcasing a toothless grin. At the hostel, wondering if I had chanced on a film set, I exchanged my ‘outdoor’ shoes for some ‘indoor’ slippers, and ticked another cultural trait I recognized. I met a young Chinese traveller in the bathroom and we exchanged (in broken Japanese and English) our observations on the strange location of hour hostel.

My plans for the day were to traipse through the city. The streets were deserted barring the homeless. I walked into a covered arcade, full of shops that sold nick knacks. Some of the proprietors stood outside, as though beckoning to me. Just past the arcade, I could see high rise buildings. The arcade appeared to be at the edge of a poverty ridden, hidden world, offering an escape to modern city life on the other side. I walked past sky scrapers and lanes with quiet residential houses, till I reached the Shitennoji Temple.

After taking in the Zen gardens of one of Japan’s oldest temple complexes, I sat below a sprawled out Cherry blossom tree, enjoying my salad, edamame crisps and matcha ice cream — being vegetarian in Japan was going to be a challenge. A pair of young siblings ran around the tree and turtles sunned themselves in the temple pond. The siblings stopped running, waved at me and shouted hello.

Going to one of Osaka’s busiest shopping districts right after garnering so much peace, wasn’t the best idea I had all day. The district was full of pedestrians, dressed in all sorts of fashion. A lot of the shops, restaurants, cafes, seemed to have started out with a Western frame in mind, and then switched over to Osaka-style half-way.

By dusk, I was at Osaka Castle, the last of the cherry blossoms were still on the trees, and there weren’t that many people about. The castle had a time capsule — a project to encapsulate the daily life of the 1970’s for the benefit of future generations. I sat on a bench by the capsule, contemplating the lengths that human beings go to in order to communicate with each other.

That evening, I had plans to meet an old friend from London. We took a taxi to Dotonbori — full of neon lights, restaurants and throngs of people crossing each other on the Ebisu bridge. We took a cruise on a boat with a loud guide; the lights of the shops, love hotels, restaurants along the canal flickering with mystery. It was like being in a matsuri or Japanese Festival of kitsch.

My friend took me to eat okonomiyaki (Japanese savoury pancakes). As excited I was by the prospect of an authentic Japanese okonomiyaki, I didn’t have too much hope of it being vegetarian. I noticed then that my friend had been nursing a bottle of oil. My friend proceeded to explain to the chef that I was vegetarian and he was to use this oil to ensure that my okonomiyaki was free from the chunks of meat/fat the normal oil had. The chef looked at me, looked back at my friend, and then said in Japanese, “That’s so strange. Does she have a weird religion or something?” My friend refused to give in. Finally, the chef laughed and cooked me a delicious okonomiyaki which I ate with relish.

When I told my friend I was staying in Nishinari, his jaw dropped. “I’ll take you home”, he said. At the door of my hostel, I bid my friend goodbye and said to him, “Masa-san, thank you so much, you really went out of your way to drop me home. I am travelling to Japan all the way from London, you know.”

“Sneha-san, I didn’t want to intrude or scare you, but I thought you might have booked a popular hostel after searching online. This is the reason that I asked where you were staying. I guessed you may not have realized that you are sharing this neighbourhood with almost 100% of Osaka’s homeless. There’s a brothel some streets away and I have heard there are even yakuza groups here…”

“Ah I see, no, I hadn’t quite realized…all of that.”

We looked at each other and laughed.

To start my tryst with Japan in Osaka was something I had deliberated on a while. Where you start your travels can set the tone of your entire trip. At many points, sauntering in Osaka was like sauntering through the back lanes of Commercial Street in Bangalore, or Les Halles in Paris. The commercial districts and the way people moved through the city, reminded me the most of being in Mumbai.

Despite my claims of being expectation free, in anticipating a sense of familiarity with Japan, I had set an expectation for Osaka that the city had considered and then reset. I left Osaka with mixed feelings but firm in my resolve of setting aside at least half of my mind space to being open to the change my travels would no doubt bring to my conceptions of Japan.

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