So now we are in Japan! We took the Japan Rail train from the airport to get to our hostel. The ticket machines here deserve a description. We were flummoxed at first, but now we love them. Most of them even have a big lit up button that says ‘English’ on it! I think it could also say ‘idiot’ and that would work quite as well. They take most sorts of money – coins and notes – and they take it really nicely, a bit like you’re feeding them, and they don’t spit the notes out because you’ve fed them in wrong, they swallow them all beautifully. Then you press the button for the number of people you want tickets for. It comes up with a screen of buttons with prices on of tickets you can afford. You can see from looking at the maps how much your fare is going to be and you just press the appropriate button. Your change showers out and a neat little ticket pokes out very suddenly like a child sticking out its tongue. It is all very satisfying.
People here are very polite and helpful. There have been many times when we have patently been floundering tourists and someone has come up and helped us of their own accord. Walking from the subway to the hostel, I was struck by the number of vending machines. It makes me wonder what the ratio of vending machines to people is. They stand along the streets at intervals, glowing whitely and silently, racks of soft drinks and cans of coffee displayed across their chests. However, I have never seen anyone use them. You can even get beer from vending machines, I’m not sure how they police that!
We arrived at our hostel, Backpackers Hotel Toyo. It was very cheap for Japan, but we were pleasantly surprised. The rooms were compact but freshly painted and clean inside and the showers were great, which is always a bonus. However, the curious thing was that the light switches were on the outside of the rooms (although we did have a pull switch over the bed as well) and there were panels on the bottoms of the doors that had been papered over. I read a review speculating that it used to be an asylum or similar, with feeding flaps in the doors and I suspect they might be onto something. Thankfully the locks were on the inside. The common room was very laid back, with a few sofas and cushions spread on the floor and there were lots of other backpackers – several Americans, some English people, a couple of Australians, German, Taiwanese… There was quite a buzz about the place.
It was getting quite late in the day, so Luke and I went to a little backstreet café for dinner not far from the hostel that had been recommended to us. The owner was very friendly. It was a Japanese omelette restaurant, and he explained to us how to choose our meal and then what to do with it once it was made. It was fun to watch him prepare the meals. There was a large hotplate on his counter, and there was also a hotplate on every table. He mixed the eggs with ingredients you had chosen (cabbage or spring onions), then rice or noodles might be added. The mixture was dolloped onto the hot plate, stirred about and arranged into a fat cake which was liberally decorated with sauces. You might have prawns, squid or bacon in it as well and these were usually cooked for a short while separately and then arranged on top. The whole process took quite a long time and there was a lot of rearranging and adding of extra things. They were then brought to our table and put on to our hotplate. We each had a small plate, ‘for catching accidents’ and a flat ended trowel for eating with. It was a bit like a wallpaper scraper. You had to cut off bits of the noodly omelette, cook it a bit longer if you wanted, and pop it into your mouth without burning it on the trowel! It was very filling and rather enjoyable to do! The sauces were quite rich though, so I wouldn’t want to eat it frequently. At the end of the meal, he gave Luke a bar of chocolate and me a small paper envelope kite with a painting of a famous geisha on it. How brilliant to get a kite at the end of your meal instead of a mint! We gave him some Estonian pence for his foreign money collection. He had a £20 note pinned to the wall!
We found a walking tour in our guide and caught the subway to the Amerikamura district. This was in a very hip and happening part of town! The Japanese youth are very trendy; we tried our best rocking backpacker/hiker chic, but I’m not sure we pulled it off… The walk started out in a district full of independent clothes shops, vintage shops and bars, and merged into an area jammed with jostling neon signs and restaurants proclaiming their specialities with huge models displayed on the wall outside. One had an enormous model crab that was wiggling his eyes at us, another had a massive blown up puffer fish projecting from the building. It was quite a sight to behold! We entered a shopping mall, which I think had the longest shopping street in Japan (Shinsaibashi). It was bright white inside, and the line of shops stretched out before us. It was quite late at night so many shops were closed, but the area was still bustling, and the arcades were full of young people playing games and generally being cool. We queued up for some dessert at a crepe stall and soaked it all in, then walked to a bridge over the canal and stopped to admire the neon panorama before us. One building had a large cartoon of a man – known as the Glico running man – picked out in lights so it was a bit pixellated – he looked as if he had just won a race as he had his hands in the air. Glico is a confectionery company, and the picture must have iconic status in Osaka as lots of people were having their photos taken in front of him. Whenever Japanese youth have their photos taken, they stick two fingers up in a V for victory sign; we saw this a lot in China as well. Once we’d had our fill of neon nightlife, we meandered back to our hostel.
Our first full day in Osaka was spent pootling and visiting the castle. We had toyed with the idea of visiting the aquarium, which is supposed to be one of the world’s best, but we felt it was too nice a day to be inside and headed for the parks instead – which were much cheaper! We breakfasted on the hoof whilst chasing woozles in the vicinity of our hostel, until we finally broke free and got on to the right track. Our first stop was Tennoji Park. We didn’t go to the zoo, or the Japanese garden (that was closed), but we did get to see courting terrapins in the lake there, which was more than worth the entrance fee for the comedy value. There was a big terrapin (I presume the lady) swimming calmly along, just enjoying the day, and then a little squirt of a terrapin kept trying to catch her up and get in front. Whenever he managed this, he would put out his front feet and tickle her face! She was very tolerant. I never knew they did this, it was very funny!
We reached the Osaka Castle park and wandered about the grounds. I was startled to hear what sounded like someone in distress, then I realised it was a big black bird with a chunky beak. Every time it flew from tree to tree, it went, “AAARRRRRRGGGGHHHH!!”, as if it wasn’t very confident about flying and might forget how and drop out of the sky at any given moment.
The Osaka castle is not anything like its European counterparts. The building is ornate, the high walls are painted white, the green roofs are turned up at the corners in the oriental style and the building is embellished with gold leaf which sparkles in the sunlight. It is perched on top of a manmade hill and surrounded by two high walls made of massive bricks and two moats. Having been burnt down a couple of times and damaged by bombing in its long history (the original structure was completed in 1597), the castle that stands today is actually a concrete reconstruction. Inside there is a museum, but we were not in a museum mood, so we contented ourselves with admiring it from the outside!
After a quick meal from the convenience store (cheap and tasty and they microwave them for you there and then), we went with a big group of people from our hostel to a karaoke place. We arrived just after 10pm and hired a 15 person room. There was one computerised menu for alcoholic drinks and snacks, and one for the songs. Soft drinks were free. Needless to say, I was in my element – I duetted with an American I had only just met ( A Whole New World), harked back to my BangTailFeathers days (Loveshack, Everybody Needs Somebody), hammed up an Evita classic (Don’t Cry for Me Argentina) and generally had a whale of a time. Luke and I even attempted MacArthur Park, singing about someone leaving the cake out in the rain with the appropriate anguish. We had meant to stay until midnight, but soon it was creeping towards 3am – time flies when you’re having fun! We wrenched ourselves away from the microphone (okay, I did) and left the stragglers to see in the dawn.
The following morning we were pretty tired, but still felt compelled to do something with our day! Out of the many attractions in Osaka, we elected to visit the Osaka Museum of Housing and Living, and it was fantastic. We went with a young Australian called Tim, whose mother was Japanese. He was over visiting her, but had got bored in her home town, so was out exploring for a few days. He was one of those people with an encyclopaedic knowledge that didn’t seem to equate with his age, and amongst other things, told us quite a bit about Japanese culture and Australian politics!
The Osaka Museum of Housing and Living was surprisingly hidden away on the 8th floor of a tower block. As you enter the museum, you look down on the roofs of a superb reconstruction of a street in Edo period Osaka (1603-1868). You go down a flight of stairs and descend into the street, where you are able to browse the wares in the shops and enter the traditional houses and have a nosy around the living spaces. There was plenty of English information as well, which was great. They even had a stall where you could hire a kimono for half an hour and wander about pretending to be a Japanese Edo person! I did this, and chose a rather fetching back and red number. I was fascinated by how they tie the bows so beautifully. I could get into kimono wearing; they are very comfortable, a bit like wearing a giant dressing gown, though I imagine I would end up dipping my long sleeves in my dinner all the time and so wouldn’t be the picture of refinement. A proper kimono outfit involves wearing socks with sandals – something my dad would approve of! I was given a pair of white socks which were split so your big toe was separate from your other toes – it makes them easy to wear with the flip flop style sandals. I was even allowed to keep the socks afterwards, although I’m not sure I like the toe segregation, it feels weird.
I thought the reconstruction was pretty special; they even had phases of the day with natural daylight style lighting, and a soundtrack with a thunderstorm during the night and a cock crowing as the sun rose. However, imagine my delight when I went to the next floor and found a room full of cases of model villages from different periods with scores of tiny people going about their daily business! Quinderquond is how I would describe them. (That is a word I made up in a dream a few years ago – it means small, but astounding. It is an ambition of mine to get it into the Oxford English Dictionary, so please, use it freely). I spent a happy hour peering into windows and down streets, seeing all the funny little details that had been added, like the cat sleeping down a hidden alleyway. I would love to meet the people that make these things; they must be a bit like story tellers and bit like children and very particular and precise. I can imagine them gleefully hiding something that no one will see somewhere in the maze of buildings, feeling a little bit excited because they know it is there and no one else will. I bet they feel a bit sad if there is an empty room and can’t rest until they’ve given it some purpose.
After this gem of a museum, we went to the station to catch a train to Ishibashi, a district just outside of Osaka. We had decided it was time to save a few pennies and try couchsurfing again.