I managed to do some travelling for a change and coupled with a week’s holiday and an Aussie mate, i made my way to the country’s second city, Osaka, and the others that surround it in an area known as Kansai.
After an overnight bus a couple of Saturdays ago we found a cheap hotel in a part of Osaka called Shin Imamiya which was a dishevelled neighbourhood that was wonderfully trapped in a 1980’s time warp complete with an old knackered tourist tower, a closed theme park with a rollercoaster covered in scaffolding and lots of cafes, restaurants and game centres filled with old men in a variety of different shades of grey and beige somehow managing to successfully melt into the neon.
Just to the north of all this was Dotonbori which is the 21st century equivalent of Shin-Imamiya where the endless shops, bars and restaurants are all new and the men are fifty years younger wearing freakish haircuts in a variety of different shades of blonde trying quite successfully to stand out against the neon. We wandered around slightly bewildered, getting a bit lost, getting a bit drunk and finding our way to some tiny unpretentious back alley bars where local businessmen and office workers let one day fall into another before finding a taxi to take them home. We joined them, much to their enthusiasm, as one of them seemed extremely happy that we were staying in the 1980s time warp as this was where some of his favourite brothels were. He spent most of the rest of the night giving us rather too much information about Osaka prostitutes before meeting up with his wife. There was a slightly less drunk guy who told us he worked in “asset management” and was also part of the “camouflage business” and that when the police weren’t watching he’s “making soup”. Oh, and he also somehow, and for reasons i still haven’t fathomed, showed us a picture of his cock on his mobile phone. And this was the first night we were there. Osaka nightlife is a bit daft.
Less than an hour from Osaka is Nara which was once the capital of Japan and is second only to Kyoto in terms of historic temple tourist appeal. We hired a couple of bicycles and saw a five story pagoda, a three story pagoda, an octagonal temple, old shrines, new shrines and very grand Todaiji Temple which is the biggest wooden building in world containing one of the biggest bronze Buddha statues in the world. There are also loads of deer in Nara. I’d heard about the Nara deer and seen pictures of people feeding them. The deer there are a bit like cows in India as they just have right of way and graze around looking of people to feed them deer food which can be bought near all the tourist traps. At first i thought this was quite cute and charming until i got a shoe full of deer shit and then i quickly changed my mind to realise that they were, in fact, cute and charming faeces-filled vermin. Still, Nara is a beautiful city dripping with history and understated serenity. It’s one of the best places i’ve been in Japan.
We also managed to venture to Kobe for a day which is less than one hour west of Osaka. Kobe is probably most famous for an earthquake that ripped the place up in 1995 wiping out large parts of the city and population. Although you wouldn’t know it now as Kobe is an attractive gleaming shiny city tucked neatly between the blue ocean in front and the green mountains that loom behind it. After dodging crap restaurants and school kids in China Town we managed to find a sake museum and brewery that showed us the history of sake brewing and then gave us several samples of the stuff which was a tasty way to start another night back in Osaka amongst the back alley bars and the eclectic mix of drunks again.
The rest of our time there was a haze of alcohol, people and food with Japanese, Filipino, Irish and Australians, eating pizza, okonomiyaki, takoyaki, sushi, and pie and chips whilst drinking soju, sake, beer, Guinness and some weird mango thing. Eating and drinking is what Osaka is most famous for and what the city itself would probably most like to be remembered for. I once heard somebody in a pub in Leeds describe Osaka as “like two Birminghams”. I’ve never really been to Birmingham but i can only hope, for Birmingham’s sake, that it’s like half an Osaka.