Terminal Pleasure

There’s a knife for that, Matthew Amster-Burton discovers, just before missing his flight.

It was completely my fault. I didn’t read the signs. When Akane said, “You should probably get to the airport,” she meant, “If you don’t get out of here right now, you will miss your flight.”

On Saturday afternoon, I explored Sakai, a southern suburb of Osaka with its own history and a playful intercity rivalry with its big brother to the north. Sakai is the birthplace of Sen no Rikyū, the greatest practitioner of the tea ceremony. It’s also home to the world’s largest burial mound along with the headquarters of Shimano (maker of bicycle shifters and other parts) and many kitchen knife manufacturers.

I love Japanese knives, and Sakai has a free museum devoted to them. I rented a bike at Sakai Station, which, thanks to the presence of Shimano, costs practically nothing. I cycled to meet up with my friend Akane Asaoka, who speaks fluent English, Spanish, and Japanese, and works as a translator, interpreter, and tour guide.

Akane and I rode over to the Sakai City Traditional Crafts Museum. Some of Sakai’s other crafts include incense, confectionery, and kelp processing. The motto of the Traditional Crafts Museum is:

We hammer. We steel. Nothing ever changes.

But they might as well have gone with “There’s a knife for that.” Knives for filleting eel, tuna, and whale. For slicing vegetables. For trimming fabric. For trimming another kind of fabric. For filleting a different kind of eel. All on display and most available for sale.

I drooled over a bunch of knives, and then we stopped for a lunch of okonomiyaki. A classic Osaka dish, okonomiyaki is a savory pancake consisting mostly of cabbage, held together with a sticky batter, studded with bits of seafood, and cooked for a long time on an oiled griddle. Okonomiyaki is terrific, especially after it’s slathered with two kinds of sauce and topped with dried seaweed and fish flakes.

It was here that I dawdled, chatting and nibbling tasty dregs, and Akane urged me to get moving.

“Plenty of time,” I assured her.

We cycled back to the station. I didn’t have plenty of time. I caught the Airport Express, which is nothing of the sort. My flight was scheduled for 2:45 p.m.; I got to the airport at 2:43. I felt like throwing a very un-Japanese tantrum.

But this is not an extended tweet about an angry guy who missed his flight. Just the opposite.

I headed to KIX Terminal 2 and bought a ticket for the next flight to Fukuoka (airport code: FUK) on Peach Aviation, a low-cost carrier. I was $120 poorer and still seething. Then I walked into the waiting area for Terminal 2.

The waiting area for Terminal 2 is like going back to preschool. You are no longer a frazzled adult. Instead, you choose among a seemingly random (but probably carefully selected and arranged) assortment of colorful, squishy rubber seats. No hard corners anywhere, and floor-to-ceiling windows overlook a stone zen garden.

A single waiting room serves all gates, so you don’t have to decide between waiting at your gate, where all the seats are already taken by smelly, harried people, or a desolate nearby gate where you won’t be able to hear your announcement.

I’m usually skeptical about the transformative power of architecture and design. Beauty and cleverness and playfulness are too easily rendered moot by a minor mood swing. But today I was wrong. I found it impossible to be grumpy in Terminal 2. I chatted with strangers. We were all going the same way.

The Fukuoka airport is practically downtown, five minutes from the city center, and until the last second, it looked like were going to land on a busy arterial. My stupid mistake earlier in the day was already slipping into the vault of my past embarrassments. And I was hungry.

Then I met up with my friend Johnny Lightning to eat the world’s richest pork soup.

Matthew Amster-Burton is a Seattle freelance writer covering food and personal finance. He has written for Gourmet, the Seattle Times, and the Wall Street Journal, and writes a weekly column for Mint.com. His latest book is Pretty Good Number One: An American Family Eats Tokyo. You can read two short excerpts from that book at Medium: “I’ll Fry Anything Once” and “Tokyo Trash.”

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