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Osaka's skyline as seen from over a fish fixture at the top of Osaka-joAug 11-14, 1999  Osaka, Japan

The sun's out in force and beating down on our sweaty heads. We hope to seek a brief reprieve under the shade of an ancient contorted pine that's stretching out just in front of us and alongside the outer moat of the imposing Osaka-jo Castle. There's a group of middle-aged Japanese men who've already commandeered the same spot for a relaxing day in the park, and as we walk up, I manage to make eye contact with one of them. He in turn, does something that many Japanese could never imagine themselves doing - starting a conversation with a complete stranger, a 'gaijin' (literally, an outside person) like me no less. "Konnichiwa" he offers with a smile.

Kishi and Scott sharing a little shochuLuckily, I'm able to reply with one of only a handful of Japanese phases that I've memorized so far, "Konnichiwa" (good afternoon) I nod in reply. Next thing we know, we're teaching our new friend Kishi Kazuo the English phrase 'cheers', while he and I each toss back a glass of a clear liquid that he refers to as 'shochu'. Whew, it's got a little kick to it! (I later discover that shochu has an alcohol content of about 30%, and was used as a disinfectant in old Japan). We 'talk' about age, eye color, and travel, using mostly charade-speak supplemented with an occasional scribbled note or picture. His offer of a second glass of the stuff from his bottle, prompts me to politely decline, with the excuse of continuing on our way to get a closer look at the castle towering above and behind us.

The impressively imposing Osaka-jo CastleOur little half an hour 'afternoon tea session' in the park proves to be a suiting introduction to Osaka, a city that, from what we've read, may arguably offer the best of modern Japan. And, as we discovered first hand, is probably the least staid, most laid-back and friendly of Japan's larger cities. We also manage to discover for ourselves that Osaka is the city with the lion's share of Japan's 'urban personality'. It seems that Osakans love to enjoy themselves, and as a result, bright and buzzing entertainment centers have formed in little pockets in and around the city.

Osaka's Dotomburi district by nightOne such area is the Dotomburi district, where we've dropped in on the action, as it heats up at dusk. Our guide book interestingly (and accurately) describes this section of Dotomburi as a 'scene from the science fiction movie Blade Runner'. Sure enough, the miles upon miles upon miles of twisted neon tubing, covering a dozen or so floors of the buildings on either of the Dotomburi-Gawi River, almost convince us that we've stepped into the center of entertainment for some future universe. The array of bright billboards hypnotically lull us in with their gleaming kaleidoscope of colors, all dancing, flashing, and vying shamelessly for our attentions.

Street-side vendor under a row of chochinsBut a closer inspection reveals implements of enticement from the possible future, and the past as well. We ramble along, the stark brightness of the neon signs, contrasting with the much softer light of the chochins (paper lanterns), both mixing somehow to illuminate our way to the hundreds of pachinko parlors, the hundreds more high-end hi-tech game rooms, and the literally thousands of restaurants and bars that line the district's streets. We stroll past stories and stories of them, all crammed into rows and rows of high-rise buildings. 

Plastic models in restaurant windows intended to tease your taste budsAnd the name of each bar duly scripted on the building's directory, with the menu of each restaurant proudly displayed in the building's windows. Personally, I feel that all Japanese are secretly fun-loving (some very secretly), it's just that those in Osaka aren't ashamed to show it. Whether it be playing an electro-drum set and dancing on flashing floor dots in a futuristic arcade in Dotomburi, or sporting seven inch platform shoes and a 'Girls just want to have fun' T-shirt in Amerika-Mura, it's obvious that the Osakans are anything but timid about their zest for recreation.

The lights, props, and hoopla of Amerika-MuraAnd Amerika-Mura turns out to be yet another great place for us to people watch, but this session is during the daylight hours. Filled with mostly younger Japanese, Amerika-Mura's avenues are facaded with stores and boutiques selling anything, new or used, that is labeled with, get this, American name-brands! Levi's, Zippo, Mattel, or Playboy, they love it all. Adornments and clothes, and the more retro the better. Combine these imported fashions with the latest trendy trinkets plastered with Japanese comic characters (such as a cell phone hand-strap or wrist-watch with the wildly successful Hello Kitty) and you have the with-it wardrobe of the average pop-culture centric Osakan youth. A generation that seems to be fighting hard to advertise their unique personalities in the 'don't rock the boat', 'stay the course', 'for the good of all', notoriously strict Japanese culture.

The maze of underground malls and passageways that sprawl for milesBack towards our hotel, in a section of Osaka called Kita-ku, we spend the next few hours wandering the maze of underground malls and passageways that seem to sprawl for miles beneath the busy street level of almost the entire district. We pop-in for a little afternoon pick-me-up in one of Japan's numerous 'coughing', I mean 'coffee', shops. A quick sojourn into one of these smoky cafes would be enough to convince any hot-shot management consultant that the secret to this Asian powerhouse's stellar success, is what he might well dub 'Japan's three C's'.

Dcp03963.jpg (140500 bytes)Across all age groups, cell phones, coffee, and cigarettes seem the lifeblood of the country. Between giggles, the two young girls at the table next to ours, sip their café latte and puff on their Hope brand cigs, while comparing photos of their trip to Tokyo Disney. In their pictures, I can't help but notice yet another Japanese idiosyncrasy - each one of their photos showcase one of the two of them as the centerpiece. It must be a national law that any pictures, taken here or abroad, have at least one Japanese standing in front of whatever it is that's being photographed.

Barbecuing our own at Osaka's Don Don restaurantAnd paragraph two of the same page of legislation probably reads: 'everyone within the ages of 14 and 44 must own at least one cell phone, and use it as often as possible'. This edict's evidenced by three other girls relaxing at the table to our opposite side. They're all wrapped up in engaging conversation - although not with each other, but each with their own cell phone callers. Yep, from the digital phone disciples in Kita-ku, to the blaring verses of Living in America and Play That Funky Music White Boy in the shops of Amerika-Mura, to the intense arcade air-guitarists in Dotomburi, to the friendly boozers in Castle Park, Osaka definitely gets our vote for the city with the biggest share of Japan's 'urban personality'.

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Last modified: October 10, 1999    Photographs and text © 1999 Scott and Laura Kruglewicz. All Rights Reserved.


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