“You just throw it down the hole,” said our host, Shuya. We were dining at a sushi train in Osaka, and he’d just flung his empty plate into a mysterious abyss beneath the table. We tossed some plates down the hole too – it was oddly satisfying. Suddenly, something began to happen on a screen suspended above the table.
“Oh! Oh,” Shuya exclaimed, “you can win a prize!”
On the screen a battle played out between the hero – some anime kid wearing a space suit – and an evil space monster. Blows were traded between the battling duo, and we all watched as the fight played out. In the end, our hero was defeated and lay slain in the dirt.
“Oh no, I thought we were gonna win,” said Shuya, the post-match excitement still in his voice. “The more plates you throw down the hole, the more chance you have of winning.”
What a brilliant scam.
“What do you win?” I asked.
“A magnet from the vending machine,” he answered, pointing at a gumball dispenser full of coloured plastic balls. Pictures on the dispenser were of the very famous Yo-kai Watch, which we’d begun to see in China, had seen a lot of in Taiwan, and could not avoid in Japan on a daily basis. The characters looked like cats.
“What are those cat things? We see them everywhere,” we asked.
“Oh, they’re not cats. They’re spirits that look like cats. They all represent different emotions, so if for example you’re feeling sad – that’s because the sad one is close to you.”
We ate more sushi and tossed more plates down the hole. We made special orders on the touch screen, and the food whizzed towards us on a conveyor belt from some unknown source. The empty tray whizzed back to oblivion once you pushed a flashing green button. Finally the hero won the battle and the machine vomited out a magnet with the grinning face of a spirit/cat thing. Komasan, apparently. He’s a Rank D Fire-attribute Rare Yo-kai. Lots more info about him here.
After a month and a half of traveling through Japan, we had finally found the version of Japan that I had in my head before arriving.
Our hosts, Shuya and Noriko, who were lovely enough to let us stay in their downtown Osaka apartment for three nights, took us out to see the madness.
A team of five girls were dancing and singing a pop song with a backing track of what sounded like punk-metal. They were on one side of a canal, and their fans – almost entirely guys – lined the other side, waving glow sticks in practiced movements and joining in the singing at rehearsed intervals. They jumped and fawned over the gang of singers, and while this was happening under the flashing neon lights of Dotonbori, boatloads of tourists floated past on the canal snapping photos. All around us were lights and energy and vending machines and goths and drunkards.
“That Ferris wheel?” said Shuya, “That’s where we’re going. It’s not working anymore – it only ran for a few months before nobody wanted to use it.”
In a country where every small town seems to have a Ferris wheel, this was not surprising. At the foot of the Ferris wheel was a nine-story shop teeming with people. It seemed to sell anything your heart desired, from bear-themed food products to toilet paper featuring Gudetama – the lazy egg yolk monster. I was searching for a new bike light, so we took the stairs to level 6: electronics and alien costumes.
By day, the city was moderately less insane. Caroline and I walked the streets eating whatever delicious thing caught our eye. The Pablo cheesecake shop didn’t have its customary enormous queue in the morning, so we bought an entire cheesecake and practically ate the whole thing there and then. We needed more Japanese food, so we walked into a ramen store…
…scoffed that down, tried to figure out what the machine was that wanted 100 yen apparently for 3D trading cards of the new One Piece film, “Gold”, went to pay for our ramen…
…and carried on down to America Mura, the second-hand district where the fashion meets the sky. I found some sunglasses in a cosplay store for 63 yen, we watched two girls walk down the road dressed in Lolita costumes, and we took refuge in a Family Mart where the girl behind the counter squeaked greetings like a horse-race announcer dosed up on helium. The goth shops were empty on this Saturday morning, as was the custom bicycle shop and the stores selling second-hand clothing at luxury prices. Machines vended plastic Godzillas, post-shop characters, head scarves for cats, and tiny sweaters for plastic bottles. Manga was for sale, and straying down a particular side alley might mean a poster of faces (some oddly blurred out); girls that could be bought for the right price.
Near where were staying, but a little bit further south (on the wrong side of the tracks), the homeless walked the streets pushing carts, collecting cardboard, and wearing grubby toys around their waists. Japan’s homeless all flock to this part of Osaka. They have a certain amount of pride, which means they aren’t begging and they aren’t causing crime, but the universal benefit can only be given to those with a fixed address, and the jobs are few. Many of these men – and they are all men – once had jobs and families, but they lost everything and now prowl the streets sleeping on folded cardboard boxes and trying to get one of the limited labouring jobs that become available each morning. We wouldn’t have known about the homeless area if we hadn’t stumbled right into the middle of it while searching for Okonomiyaki. A soup kitchen dispensed bowls near where we were walking, and the odd characters assembling there were a far cry from the Japan we’d seen so far. In its tragically fascinating way, this certainly brought an amount of peculiar colour to the surrounding neighbourhoods.
“There’s that one guy,” said a man who I’ll call Jack because of his resemblance to Jack Black, “Did you ever see him?” he was talking to Shuya. “All he wore was a helmet and – like, diapers! Like British nappies… Only once did I ever see him take off his helmet to clean the visor.
“And there’s that guy with the long pink hair, who pushes a pram with a baby inside. A doll, I mean. But he’s cool; he picks up the trash – keeps the streets clean.”
“A lot of guys here dress like women,” put in Shuya. “But they don’t try very hard. Like, I get it, I don’t care if you want to dress like a woman – it’s fine. But you think they could at least do it properly. They don’t even shave their body hair.”
“Yeah, tons of guys like that,” said Jack. “You can find them down at ‘Supa Tamade’ – it’s the cheap supermarket down the road. Next door to that is a normal supermarket full of normal people.”
We went to a Supa Tamade (there were several of them and they had enough neon signage to look like pachinko parlours), but we didn’t see any freaky people. We did find find a bunch of expensive Japanese grapes for half the usual price (about $7.00) and bought those. They were the best grapes either of us had ever tasted.
After years of successfully negotiating the subways and public transport systems of many large cities throughout Asia, I found Osaka very confusing. Caroline did much better than me with remembering the names of stations, and she seemed to find the correct signs on the busy ceilings. I stumbled along behind her trying to avoid the one million people that seemed to be everywhere at any given moment, and I tried not get too distracted by the vending machines and various subway warning posters. We managed to get to where we wanted to go without getting on the wrong train, including a day-trip to Kyoto which I’ll possibly write about in another post.
“How did you meet?” I asked Shuya and Noriko.
“She taught music in one class, I taught English in the next class.”
Noriko was a pianist and singer. A couple of years ago, through Couchsurfing, her and Shuya hosted a violinist from the Czech Republic. They played together and sparked up a friendship that saw Noriko being invited to Prague to record an album with him.
“He said no keyboard,” she told us through her slightly limited English, “We will record you on a Steinway.” She showed us photos from the impressive looking recording session, and played us some of their work. It was excellent – both were fantastic players. The violinist would arrive back in Osaka in November this year, and they would play several shows together. Sadly, by that time our Japanese visas will have expired.
“We used to work at the same school,” said Shuya, “but in Japan you’re not allowed to work together if you’re married. You’re not even allowed to date, and if you do, nobody can know before the top boss.”
“Nobody even knows the bosses first names,” added Jack, “It’s all family names. Like, you can ask the name of the CEO, but nobody will know it.”
“What about social occasions?” I asked.
“Nope, everyone still uses formal names. You could be cooking at a barbecue alongside your boss, and you would still use the formalities.”
Shuya resumed the dating topic. “So we’d get back from our summer break, and they would announce that this person and this person got married. It happened with our friends – suddenly they were married, and then we found out that they’d been living together in secret for three years.”
“So who had to leave the school out of you two?” I asked.
“I did,” said Shuya. “She’s a much more valuable teacher than me.”
It was Noriko who seemed the most interested when we walked past the local fish factory area. Night had fallen, and large trucks were dropping off boxes of anago – Conger eels – at small hole-in-the-wall gutting operations. Hundreds of eels were dumped into a pool, and were then fished out one at a time. The guy fishing them out would toss an eel about three metres to another guy at a bench, and bench guy would drive a knife into the eel’s neck, twist, and toss it into one of three buckets depending on size. This didn’t appear to kill them.
“What is he doing?” Noriko asked one of the workers.
“Bleeding them,” he replied.
“Otherwise there will be blood in the veins of the meat,” explained Shuya. He was a vegetarian – he didn’t even eat fish.
We moved on and watched another man skillfully gut three snapper in about one minute. He eventually noticed us watching and smiled shyly.
Osaka, Japan’s second-largest city, was wildly different from everywhere else we’d seen in our time cycling from Okinawa upwards. We’d seen small towns and slow-moving people. Folks who dressed normally and inquired about our travels with interest. Osaka seemed to be a whole other level. We said as much to Shuya.
“Well, those other places? That means you’ve seen the real Japan.”