Travel to Osaka, Japan

In the morning I stuck around for a pair of shoes. As a shoe fetishist, I almost fell over when two guys from Finland came into the hostel with feet covered in bling. They had an amazing pair of skater Nike’s which were a flashy, metallic blue and red. The shoes are normally priced around 150 dollars but these two blond haired Fins told me that I could buy them down the street on sale for 35 dollars! Beyond elated I ran down the street, found the place, announced my arrival to the staff and soon had three employees running around to find my size.

Back at the hostel I strapped on my now robust backpack and stared down at my shiny new shoes before heading to the subway station. It seems there are about one thousand ways to travel from Kyoto to Osaka by rail. You can spend as much as $35 on the fast speed train or as little as $2.50 for the commuter local train. I sat on my cheap 45 minute train to Osaka thoroughly enjoying the relaxed atmosphere and splendid views. The train cruised through a valley, flanked by mountains on both sides as we shook across rice fields and into Kansai suburbia.

Osaka is located at the mouth of the Yodo River on Osaka Bay. Often dubbed the second city of Japan, Osaka was historically the commercial capital and to date the heart of Japan’s second largest and world’s ninth largest) metropolitan area, whose population is 17 million. A unique title that the city of Osaka holds is its day to night population ratio of 141%, a depiction of Osaka’s economic and commerce-centric character. While at night time the population ranks third in the country at 2.6 million, in daytime it surges to 3.7 million, second only after Tokyo. The city is also traditionally considered the “nations kitchen” or the gourmet food capital of Japan.

Getting off the train at Umeda Station in the heart of Osaka I climbed down the very busy stairs and out the first exit. I was entirely disoriented and was comfortably lost. I stood in front of a massive department store (which had a towering red Ferris Wheel spinning on its roof). I stared down at my Lonely Planet map trying to figure out where on earth I was. The people of Osaka are known for being unfriendly and I instantly noticed the difference between Kyoto and this major port metropolis. I did my shtick where I put on my puppy dog face and frustrated, “I’m going to cry” pout while pointing to my guide book. Several locals walked by and looked at me as if I was crazy. Finally, a lovely business man stopped to help me. He used his cell phone to call my hotel and they gave him directions. He then walked twenty minutes with me to the doorstep of my hotel quickly bowing before he ran off. I was so very appreciative…what great karma.

The Capsule Inn Osaka is Japan’s first capsule hotel, designed by noted architect Kisho Kurokawa. A capsule hotel is an accommodation system of extremely dense occupancy. The guest space is reduced in size to a modular fiberglass block roughly 2 m by 1 m by 1.25 m, providing room to sleep. Facilities range in entertainment offerings (most include a television, electronic console and wireless internet connection). These capsules are stacked side by side, two units top to bottom, with steps providing access to the second level rooms. Privacy is ensured by a pull down curtain and washrooms are communal. Most roomers are businessmen too tired or far away to make the trip home. Others (especially on weekdays) are too inebriated to safely travel to their homes, or too embarrassed to face their spouses.

I read all about Japan’s wacky Capsule Hotels and had heard many an interested woman complain about the fact that they were unable to check them out because of their Male-Only Restrictions. Since I could not afford a lavish night of traditional Japanese Ryokan I thought what better way to experience Japan then living in the futuristic only-in-Japan Capsule Hotel concept.

I sped up the elevator and once the doors opened I found myself in a spotless hotel lobby. I took off my shoes and filled the hotel guest form. One night’s accommodation with private coffin sized “room” with access to a three story spa complex was $33 a night. I was given a key bracelet which had a barcode sewn into the nylon. I was now a number in this hotel which had over 700 capsules to keep track of. The walls of the lobby are covered in tiny wooden shoe lockers. I was given a key and placed my Nike’s in the tiny cubby for safe keeping. I gave the man at the front desk the key to my shoes (for collateral) and he handed over my locker key.

I pushed through the central door and was soon amazed at the bizarre nature of this very foreign concept. Nothing like this exists anywhere else on earth. I was very curious as I snooped around the main floor. I walked past hundreds of locker rooms until I found my locker and grabbed the kimono which hung there for me. I then walked by a small room full of clattering slot machines and past a long row of vending machines which sold everything from juice to candy to underwear to ear plugs. I walked through a large social area where several business men smoked as they sat in leather arm chairs while watching a plasma screen TV displaying the days weather forecast. Through the next door I found a dark hallway covered in little glowing capsules. I walked forwards looking to my right as the main hall split into smaller alleys. I finally found my capsule and instantly plopped my backpack down with a sigh.

I used the ladder to climb up into my “hotel room” I found a soft duvet and pillow, swinging television and electronic console which operated the channels, alarm, radio, air conditioning, dimmer switch and fan.  I propped the pillow bellow my head and spent the next few minutes flipping through Japanese television stations before rummaging through my backpack and readying myself for an afternoon of Osaka sightseeing.

I handed my locker key to the man at the front desk who in return gave me the key to my shoe cubby. I jerked on my new Nike’s and walked down the wild street which my hotel is located. I realized that I had been so disoriented and dependent on the man who took me to the hotel that I hadn’t noticed where it was situated. The street is a covered entertainment arcade full of pings and dings as you walk by slot machines, karaoke bars, manga shops and hundreds of restaurants and Japanese pubs. Even at midday the eyes get a bit of sensory overload as hundreds of neon signs and flickering lights induce minor seizures.

I walked back up the street towards the train station and while waiting at an intersection I encountered the most hilarious sight in all of my Japan travels. I looked across the street and noticed that three policeman wearing white gloves and top hats were directing pedestrian traffic. When the light turned red they would walk in front of the crowd at the curb and utter something in Japanese as they bowed to their toes and held out their white gloved hands. With their arms outstretched, I giggled as I realized they sort of looked like men in need of a hug. I debated hugging one of them just to see how they reacted but thought against it. I had no clue whether “hugging policemen was a felony” in this city.  Just before the green light lit up they would walk to the side of the crosswalk, bow to their toes and turn their arms towards the opposite side of the street to direct you to the other end. Once on the other side of the street the conductors would smile, bow and point with their right hand at the sidewalk to indicate that you are not supposed to stand on the street while cars whip by. I stood for approximately ten minutes just watching this outrageousness unfold before my eyes. This is one of those unheard of occupations that High School Guidance Teachers seem to overlook. This one particular intersection had sixteen pedestrian traffic workers… “you’ve got to be kidding me,” comes to mind. Once I had safely crossed the street and bid farewell to the white gloved traffic nerds I walked through the train stations underground path to the entrance of The Umeda Sky Building. Once up the staircase I walked under hundreds of colourful fish shaped lanterns as they tossed in the wind.

The Umeda Sky Building was built in an attempt to upgrade Osaka’s somewhat downbeat Kita district. The bizarrely shaped 40-story, 173 meter building is a city landmark. It consists of two 40-story towers that connect at their two uppermost stories, with bridges and an escalator crossing the wide atrium like space in the center. I stood in the middle of the outdoor plaza staring up at the two massive skyscrapers which towered above me. I spent a few minutes walking around the outdoor gardens, water fountains and sculpture park before walking into the main entrance.

I took an escalator to the third floor where I purchased my ticket. After walking down a long glass covered tunnel I stepped into a silver elevator which shot up through the sky at lightening speed. I had to hold onto the banister as I felt like a bullet racing through a glass chamber. The top floor resembles a glass covered doughnut. I walked around the circular exterior glass walkway which provided a beautiful panoramic of the cities skyscrapers, river, harbor and many bridges. In the center of the doughnut hole you can stare down at the little people walking around the plaza bellow. It was a bit unsettling to look directly down the eye of a needle located in the center of two skyscrapers. The thought of falling through the glass and flying through the air for a few seconds to my death was rather nauseating. Up one floor I stepped out onto the observatory tower roof. A very odd sensation to be walking outside as your eyes meet with the tops of the neighboring buildings. I stood against the railing and stared out across the harbor and took in the salty ocean air.

Back at Umeda Station I once again found myself totally lost. Several lines connect here and I felt as though I was walking around in circles through a maze. Two university students asked me if I was lost and I nodded my head yes with a smile. Turns out I was a twenty minute walk from where I had to be. They walked me all the way to the correct subway line inside the station. Turns out these boys had lived in Vancouver for a year and excitedly talked about snowboarding in Whistler.

After a short subway ride across the city I found myself in a business district full of posh restaurants and foreign car dealers. I was starving and very happy when I found an affordable Vending Machine restaurant. I ordered a glass of Suntory Golden Dry Beer, a plate of cold soba noodles and a bowl of rice and tempura shrimp, pumpkin and eggplant. I love how my body feels after eating a Japanese meal. Never do I feel bloated or ill from overeating. The flavors contrast so well and the ingredients are always fresh.

The taste of sweet soya sauce and green onion lingered in my mouth as I strolled up the street to Osaka Castle. Osaka-jo is the cities best known tourist sight. This castle is situated on a plot of land roughly one kilometer square. It is built on two raised platforms of landfill supported by sheer walls of cut rock, using a technique called Burdock piling, each overlooking a moat. The central castle building is five stories on the outside and eight stories on the inside, and built atop a tall stone fountain to protect its occupants from sword-bearing attackers.

I walked along the moat, crossed over the stone bridge and wandered through the park gardens before arriving at the massive and regal state castle. A large crowd had gathered around a busker under a large oak tree. This street performer was dressed as a Samurai warrior and did various tableau and mime performances as he wielded his silver sword through the air.

After walking through more of the castle gardens I decided to return back to my hotel as my feet ached and I was beat. I popped back into my capsule, disrobed and wrapped a kimono around my torso. I tip toed into the bathroom and was excited to see a counter full of amenities. I shaved my face for the first time in ten days and used every moisturizer, cologne, body lotion and soap on the shelf. In my blue kimono and pink slippers I took the elevator down to the main floor of the building. At the main entrance a large sign read “no admittance with tattoos.” Another reminder that tattoo’s are not accepted as an art form but rather symbolize a violent mob culture.

I was given a key wristband at the front desk and found myself a bit lost in translation as I wasn’t certain if I was supposed to strip naked in the spa like the Korean jinjabong or cover my man space. I walked through the main door and entered into what seemed like another world. On either side of the main hall were vanity mirrors, combs, hair products and dryers. Past these primping stations were green lockers as far as the eye could see. I opened up my locker and found a yellow face towel and tiny speedo. I slipped on the spandex swim suit (if you can even call it that) and grabbed my face cloth. I pushed through the main door prepared to treat myself to a bit of relaxation. I had been on my feet running around Japan for the past nine days and was excited to finally wind down before I flew back to Seoul very early the next morning.

The first floor of the spa contained an arcade of ten massive saunas. It took me several minutes to find a room with a temperature that I could actually sit in without exploding. I walked into one room full of Japanese business men who looked as though they were stooped over dead. The room was worse than an oven. I walked out of that crematorium and found a smaller sauna at a comfortable temperature with a plasma TV on the wall playing a Japanese comedy show. Outside of the saunas there were four water fountains which spilled into small wading pools. I will never forget watching two men run from the saunas to these freezing water baths as they screamed popping out of the water after being full submerged in glacier water. At the end of the first floor was a hot yoga room and large swimming pool which was constantly moving as powerful jets of water carried those in the water around in a circle. I spent an hour or so spinning around in this pool before propping myself up on a ledge with jets massaging my back and legs. It was here where I met two businessmen who eagerly tried to practice their English with me. It is rather difficult to zone out and relax when constantly being chatted to death so I hopped out of the pool and walked up to the second floor.

Once at the top of the staircase I was shocked to see three old ladies handing out towels. I hadn’t expected to see any women in the spa as it was a men only facility. These poor ladies had to sit all day staring across their stools as old shriveled up Japanese men scrubbed their bums with large tooth brushes. Talk about being sexually desensitized, such trauma for these old gals! The left side of the 2nd floor featured fifty stools where approximately twenty or so geriatrics sat bare assed as they showered and shaved in front of mirrors. On the right side of the room was an open concept massage parlor where naked men lay on tables as tiny Japanese woman walked on their backs, and slapped their bodies senseless.

I walked up an iron spiral staircase to the third floor roof top. The top deck was truly a magical place. This floor featured two small saunas, a couple lounge chairs, a frothing hot tub and bubble bath. I sat in the hot tub and stared at a bizarre wine barrel which a young man walked into with the help of an attached ladder. Once seated in the barrel he swung the lid over his head and fitted his neck around a hole located in the center. He spent the next twenty minutes submerged under water with his head poking out as if he had just been decapitated. The view from the roof was spectacular. I was surrounded by glowing neon lights which glared at me from the surrounding sky scrapers. I finally found a place I could relax. I closed my eyes and tried to save this memory of Japan into my mind for safe keeping. And then I felt a tap on my shoulder.

I opened my eyes and found the two businessmen I had escaped from downstairs sitting across from me with two of their other friends. They had followed me up here and I was clearly becoming more popular. I was the only foreigner I the whole complex so I stuck out like a sore thumb. They smiled up at me and I felt like I was in some sort of practical joke or SNL skit. I threw my head back and decided to entertain my eager entourage. The moon was soon in the sky as I had lost track of time while tutoring my new fifty year old English students from a frothing bath tub. They all bowed at me eagerly as I motioned my exit. I pulled my hands out of the water and showed them my shriveled up raison fingers. My body had had enough water for one day.

I quickly showered, dried off and dabbed a bit of potent Japanese cologne on my neck before throwing on my kimono. I quickly changed back at my capsule and headed out into the very busy entertainment arcade at my doorstep. I found the perfect spot to enjoy my last dinner in Japan. I walked up two flights of stairs and found an authentic Okonomiyaki restaurant.

The Japanese pancake had been invented in Osaka and I had been told the best in the country were served here. This was my first truly authentic pancake house as I sat in front of a huge griddle which sizzled under my nose. I ordered a bacon pancake and moments later a personal chef was creating it before my eyes. Once given the go ahead, I stared down at a massive inch thick pancake the size of a steering wheel which glowed in front of me. A tear formed in the corner of my eye. Lets just say I hadn’t missed kimchi one bit. I sipped on a pint of Kirin dragon lager and stared across the tiny pub at my fellow food enthusiasts. I smiled at a group of girls who waved back at me and giggled. Four men to my left devoured their pancakes and smiled at me with their mouths full. As I quickly inhaled my last Okonomiyaki I realized how food is the bets social lubricant. All these people sitting around me hunched over their pancakes could not help but smile at the strangers who sat across from them. It is when I eat food that I realize all humans are connected through their desire to fill their bellies. After paying my bill I waved goodbye and realized I had just made friends with several people without even talking. Smiles, giggles and a swift chopstick maneuver speak a thousand words of satisfaction.

I was stuffed and sluggishly walked down the street through clamoring video arcades, karaoke halls, manga shops and casinos on the way back to my hotel. I crawled up to my capsule bed, pulled down my blinds and snuck under my duvet. I cringed as I set my alarm for a 5am wakeup. A sigh, a shuffle and sleep.

I darted out of my coffin and was surprised that I had slept solidly through the night. A surprisingly comfortable mattress! I threw my backpack over my shoulder and ran down the street. I passed by several drunk students zig zagging along the street as they wandered home from a late night on the town. I arrived at the train station and spent thirty minutes watching trains arrive one after the other, like clockwork. Every minute another train emptied with an exhausted looking mass of business men and woman.

My limited express train to Kansai Airport arrived with perfect timing. I found a comfortable seat and spent the next hour chugging south of the city to one of the countries busiest airports. The airport is located on an artificial island in the middle of Osaka Bay, off the shore of the cities of Sennan and Izumisano. The airport was rated 4th overall in the Airport of the Year 2006 awards next to Singapore Changi, Hong Kong International and Munich International. During 2006 the airport had 116,475 aircraft arrivals from 31 countries and 71 cities around the world. The total number of passengers was a whooping 17 million for the year!

I quickly checked my bag and breezed through customs and security. The terminal features a Starbucks, Hermes, Rolex, Cartier and several tourist shops and Duty Free stores. I wanted to use up the last of my Japanese cash and ordered a hot bowl of udon soup with tempura shrimp and poached egg for breakfast. I sat looking outside the massive terminal window as huge jumbo jets scooted across the tarmac. I grabbed a coffee from Starbucks and headed to the airport monorail which zoomed across the island to the other terminal.

The amenities at the airport were fantastic. I had 45 minutes until my plane boarded and normally find myself fidgeting and bored in these early arrival circumstances. I was elated to find free internet at several stand alone computers. I completely lost myself as I checked my email and read Yahoo! News. I peaked over my monitor every few moments to watch another Singapore Airlines or Cathay Pacific jet take off in front of me. My jaw dropped as I quickly read a news article about the horribly tragic stabbing rampage which had occurred in Tokyo two days ago. I had actually received three messages from friends on Facebook who wanted to check in with me and make sure I wasn’t stabbed to death in this shocking Akihabara massacre. It’s amazing how our lives are so dependent on the internet. I had been without computer access for just under two days and my friends in Canada new more about what was going on in Japan than I did!

I was tapped on the shoulder by a flight attendant who told me I had to board or I would miss my flight. I rushed onto the plane and spent the next hour looking through my window as I left the fabulous Land of Sushi for its neighbor which sadly revels in fermented cabbage. I would miss Japan dearly and slumped in my chair and suddenly panicked as I realized I had to go to work in four hours. Pull, breath, kick, glide.


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