Japan is by far the most foreign place I have ever travelled to. Let me mention that I have been to Bhutan, Pond Inlet above the North Pole, and even the south Bronx. Japan is by far the most xenocentric locations on the globe, and has good reason why that is so.
My knowledge of Japan was like any other persons; a heathy understanding that sushi is delicious, Judo is awesome, and you can buy panties in vending machines. Unfortunately none of these academic kernels of knowledge came close to preparing me for what would be a mind blowing adventure.
If you’re reading this because you are about to embark to Japan then know that I like to travel as close as possible to a local. I like to stay in proletariat areas, usually renting an apartment, and eat at places that the general population favors. This is a disease I have that I caught at some point from living in Williamsburg in the early 2000’s. Unfortunately I can no longer be sated by a centrally located hotel and restaurants that have a menu in my native language. Makes me sick.
As training to enter a new culture, I do a minimal amount of research, as I hate spoilers, and yeah, you can spoil a city. I was fortunate to find one of the best guide books ever written, A Geek in Japan, by Hector Garcia. Who knew a Spaniard could capture Japan so well. What’s fantastic about this book is just that; it frames Japan from the mindset of a foreigner. He fills you in on not only what the culture has to offer, but why it is so different. Let me give you this small nugget to chew on: Japan was completely, COMPLETELY, closed off to the world up until the 1860’s. Think about that for a second. A country, stewing solely in it’s own culture for thousands of years. Only until an American captain (with finally superior weapons) forced them to open up their boarders to trade. When you understand that their culture was refined without input from any other culture for a millennial, and has only started to let the rest of the world in for the last 150 years, you start to understand why things are so
different… special, in Japan.
Let’s get onto it, first stop, Osaka.
Osaka has a brand new airport that kicks ass and offers wickedly affordable flights, much lower then flying into Tokyo. This is the reason we chose it for our home base, also considering that the Shinkansen or Bullet Train is only 2 1/2 hours to Tokyo and a ridiculous 15 minutes to Kyoto.
ALERT: First thing to mention, buy a rail pass for the Shinkansen, or Bullet Train. YOU CAN ONLY DO THIS OUTSIDE OF JAPAN for reasons I have have no idea why. In any case buy them, they are super cheap, and make travel a SNAP. Don’t cheap out and get the “green” pass … it’s the first class version and it’s sick. I never want to travel any other way ever again then on a bullet train. They have good food, fully reclining seats, and hot towels with jasmine. Also they bow to the train when it arrives which is just so goddamn sweet I wanna kill myself.
The first thing you will notice is Japan isn’t nearly as expensive as you think its going to be. In fact, it was 1.25 to the dollar while we were there. So good on you there Japan.
I take it back, the very first thing you will notice is that NO ONE SPEAKS ENGLISH. I have been to roadless villages in India where people spoke more English then Japan. It’s surprising, but also quite nice in an unexacting way. Japanese people in general are super accommodating. It’s integrated in their culture, and you will be hard pressed to hear anyone say the word “no” to you at any time. We called a restaurant to get a reservation and the reservationist said “Oh, it would be very difficult to sit you at that time”. Asking in a different way for a different time she said “It would be very difficult to sit you at that time as well”. It is never “We don’t have any space available.” or “We’re sold out.” it’s just never said cause it’s super rude to them. That being the case, even if you don’t speak Japanese, they will make every attempt to make sure you are satisfied, no matter what the request. Ridiculously polite is not even close to what Japan is.
From the airport its about an hour ride on the train to Shin-Osaka; a bustling outskirt of the main city, where we rented an Air B&B. It was in a traditional residential high-rise and nothing less then adorable. The ceilings were about 7 feet high, the tatami mats were pristine, and we got to sleep on a futon on the floor. In fact everything was on the floor. I imagine Ikea doesn’t do much business in Japan.
The nice thing about staying in Shin-Osaka is that you’re right next to the station which is amazing. There are dozen of restaurants and shops, it’s almost its own city. And in 10 minutes you are anywhere in Osaka, which, would turn out to be my favorite cities in Japan.
Osaka gets overlooked a lot. It’s modern, not as big as Tokyo, and is mostly proletariat in nature, but that is exactly why it’s so fantastic. It’s the difference between midtown Manhattan and the East Village; one is where tourists go, and the other is where the “real” people are. Osaka is a fully functioning city, and in so has some of the best restaurants in Japan. In fact it’s quickly getting the recognition as being the “chef’s city” where you can sample some of the best food this island has to offer. For instance, behind the Hozen-Ji temple you will find a positively ancient street with no name. You will know it by it’s cobblestone and crooked design. It is here in the heart of Dotonbori you will find a skinny little sushi restaurant that will melt your face with deliciousness.
Another night we hit the same street … lightning does strike twice people. This time for the famous Kobe beef and a fantastic Yakiniku restaurant named MatSuzAkaGyu. In a narrow little building you climb ancient steps, and they give you a little private booth with a grill where you proceed to cook the most amazing beef you have ever had. AmAzIng.
The entire area is a zoo in the best possible ways; nightclubs that offer “groups” of girls (for men) and boys (for girls) line the street. Apparently nightlife is pretty segregated here, with men grouping together to go to these nightclubs to be entertained by young girls singing and dancing. Women have the same option usually next door. It is truly bizarre.
There are also maid cafes, where girls, dressed as sexy maids, serve you tea or coffee. Thats pretty much what they do. And giggle. That’s a thing. These streets are full of rowdy locals, all getting their drink and food on. It’s about as authentic as it gets.
On the other side of the river in Namba you can find some amazing shopping. Electronics, camera gear, and a cooking center where you can buy the most exquisite knives you have ever seen. It’s a bit industrial, but never dull, and there are plenty of street markets to keep your eyes and stomach entertained for sure. Don’t forget to hit up Don Quijote; a 8 level superstore of bizarre Japanese shit that can easily be the mecca for finding gifts for your jealous friends back home.
Here the food is amazing, and sometimes tastes you back. There are a few things you must try… the pancake which is an Osaka original… usually good after several high powered beers. Then the octopus balls. WARNING they are extremely hot. Let them cool, then when you think they are cool enough, let them cool again. In fact, buy them, forget you bought them, then later that day find them and eat them. Last is the little octopus with a quail egg in its head. Is it good? No. But it sure is fun to eat.
And of course, after a day of drinking and eating it was obligatory to visit your local Karaoke center to drink some sochu, smoke some cigs, and sing some Springsteen. Karaoke here is serious business, so much so that the lobby looked like a Ritz Carlton. Oh yeah, they have costumes you can wear too. Epic.
And so we did Osaka … next stop… NARA
Roberto Serrini is a professional traveler who records his adventures in word, photography and film. He is a staff writer for Get Lost Magazine as well as a commercial film director and drone pilot. His work can be seen at www.robertoserrini.com where he can be contacted as well.