My Night Out In Osaka, Featuring A Writing Device Where I Look Through My Wallet The Next Day And Use The Items Inside As A Jumping Off Point
August 24, 2009
(This is long)
Kintetsu Line train ticket from Nabari to Osaka
The massive Osaka Namba train station cleverly dumps visitors right into the heart of Osaka, a trick that leaves one feeling like a seven-year-old who went to bed and woke up the next morning in the middle of Disneyland, your first time there. You don’t get a chance to set expectations, and everything sort of blindsides you at once.
The main part of Osaka (or, maybe more accurately, the main tourist part) looks like Times Square gone hyper. Video boards and stores and signs and throngs of people and the color, so much color! A lot of the streets and shops are housed under a canopy-like thing reminiscent of the Fremont Street Experience in Las Vegas. The ones in Osaka are a lot more narrow and don’t show an animated disco dancer groovin’ to the Bee-Gees above you, but the same “I’m outdoors but I’m kind of not” exists.
As I’m prone to do, I tried to find a comparable city for Osaka. And came up empty. I could pick up little details that seemed familiar – the sheer size of a New York/Tokyo, the flashiness of Las Vegas, the late-starting lifestyle of Paris – but none gelled together into a complete comparison.
The place that comes closest is, conveniently, its American sister city – Chicago. And that’s really only because the main street in Osaka is a deadringer for Michigan Avenue: trees covering the sidewalks, lots of major-chain storefronts, dudes just selling apple juice out of a van (uhhhh, I guess that doesn’t really happen on Michigan Avenue, still cool). Plus, there was an Apple store.
Still, all the small similarities aside, Osaka really seems to be in a category all it’s own. Or maybe I’m not as well traveled as I think I am and it’s just totally biting Atlanta’s style.
300 yen discount card from Mexican restaurant Brody
Two other JETs in Nabari gave me a can of refried beans for my birthday. “Trust us, you’re going to want this.” Being not much of a bean lover, I went home, put the can among the jumble of other foodstuffs scattered about my kitchen and thought “these are just beans.” Less than a month later, I now view this small gift as a sort of holy figure, visualizing the cold day in December when I finally prepare them because Japan has next to no Mexican food, and I find myself jonesin for a quesadilla way too often here.
The Japanese take stabs at all sorts of foreign food. Italian eateries pop up all the time offering up crude variations on “lasagna” and “pizza” (my favorite Italian place in Nabari is simply called Pasta, leaving absolutely nothing about it’s menu to the imagination). Nabari even has an Indian restaurant where they have a viewing area to watch the authentic Indian chef working (“guys you know our food is good, we have an Indian making the Non! Here, stare at him!”). But Mexican food…not nearly as prevalent. They can’t even spring for a Taco Bell!
There exists hope, however, besides my can of beans. Osaka houses several Mexican restaurants, and one of the key motivations for this trip into the city was the promise of burritos. One question weighed heavy on my mind as the train rushed towards Osaka – how do the Japanese approach Mexican food, when they put corn on their pizza?
The answer would come at Brody, a small Mexican-themed bar across the street from a 7-11 somewhere in the labyrinth of alleys making up Osaka. Brody (not possessive, just Brody) doesn’t stand out – if it weren’t for the collection of fake cactus and convenient sign next to the door it would be very easy to confuse the entrance for a roof access. Go down the stairs past walls decorated with wrestling masks and you end up in the bar, not a warehouse out of Resevoir Dogs as I had originally feared walking down the dimly lit area.
The main area continues with the wrestling-heavy theme first seen going down the stairs – masks all over the wall, along with an assortment of other knick-knacks one could call “Mexican” if there entire history of the Mexican state came from a Speedy Gonzales cartoon. Sombreros and cactus and a Tecate poster. The music played seemed pretty true to the theme at first (stuff sung in Spanish, Johnny Cash) but eventually the people manning the soundboard got tired of consistency and just played Joy Division. Very uplifting dinner tunes.
Brody only had two employees present that night, two Japanese folks. This meant I’d be getting the true Japanese experience, no imported Mexican chef to trot out and have us gawk at. This meal would be Mexican food prepared by Japanese people.
The menu seemed extremely promising – minus the offering of “nacos” – with all sorts of honest-to-God Mexican food. Words I haven’t seen in a month suddenly entered back into my life – chorizo, enchilada, carne asada! Like meeting up with an old friend who also is great to eat. I ordered the two-taco plate and a margerita, along with an order of “nacos” for the table.
The Japanese-Mexican-food experience got off to a good start with the drink (nailed it!), but the true first test came with the nachos. They looked like nachos and didn’t appear to be glazed with mayo (a very real threat anywhere here). And they tasted good! Just like nachos you would order as an appeteizer at a non-Mexican restaurant (lookin’ at you Chilis).
Next came the tacos. They were very tasty – oh cilantro, how I missed you! – and seemed pretty true to what I’ve eaten in the past. They were, however, on the very lean side. Maybe I’m just being a fat American here, but they didn’t put much meat inside the tortilla and said tortilla seemed super small. Great taste, not filling. On the taco authenticity scale I just made up, I’d put Brody tacos ahead of Chipotle but a little below the much-more-filling-and-cheaper Jack In The Box offering. A good showing, Japan.
As mentioned though, the tacos didn’t come close to filling me up. So, joining in with everyone else at the table who also craved more, I ordered a quesadilla. I asked for beef in it, but it came meat-less. A ticky-tack thing as cheese, another item not readily available in this country (why Japan, why????), was delicious enough. This second meal brought me much closer to being satisfied – at least for like 45 minutes.
Final verdict on Mexican food in Japan – it was good, and I wish more Japanese people would take a gamble and learn to prepare a tostada so they could open more Mexican restaurants. Or at least get a Jack In The Box over here.
All the money I saved not buying stuff at Japanese department stores
Japan sure sells a lot of wacky crap! Here are some photos with obligatory commentary.
Why does Mr. Obama look so angry???
Japan loves them some Totoro. Not pictured – sea of Ponyo merch and all the DBZ action figures you could dream of.
This shirt features the Pan-America airlines logo along with what appears to be the Wikipedia entry for said airlines. Who wants to wear a Wiki page on them? The Japanese, actually.
No words, now, onto my favorite item…
Bowlingual Voice! This device seems to translate your dog’s barks into sentences, and tells you how they are feeling. Unfortunately, all the translations come out in Japanese so I’ll never know how my dog really feels when she chases after a chew toy.
A Balabushka business card
I do not recall the specific reasons responsible for me entering into a beer pong tournament at a bar called Balabushka. I remember the group going into the bar half full of foreigners and half full of native folk, realizing they were having a beer pong tournament with a $300 prize that night only and being somehow swayed into participating. I blame destiny. Or, I actually blame the fact said drinking game tournament served as a convenient excuse to miss the last train back home, thus forcing us to spend the entire night roaming the streets of Osaka. Thanks beer pong.
The 12-or-so groups consisted of two types of people – Japanese people who had never seen this “beer pong” (it just doesn’t exist here) before and Bros. I’m aware the idea of the “Bro” has been completely mined by the media and has just become an ironic attitude, but I think all the real Bros relocated to Japan. These guys fit all the classic requirements – backwards baseball hat, those weird shorts and sandals, and of course the goldmine of saying “bro” every other sentence without even a drop of irony. It looks like the Peace Corps, the Bros of America deployed to a far-off land to teach the natives the basics of beer pong, which they did extensively before the tournament started with cups full of water and recitations of the rules.
(There was also a scattering of American girls, either with Bros or as an independent gaggle. They were all extremely good looking and very talented at beer pong. One even looked near-identical to a girl I recently had a crush on, so there were a couple of minutes of “awwwww shucks”-ness, but then beer pong mania gripped me like a mugger. If you thing the melancholy ends here, watch out for the next adventure!)
The rules for this particular tournament featured some interesting twists I feel the need to point out. I’m not saying these caused my team to exit when it did, but I think they sped it up. For sanitary reasons, players threw the ping pong ball into cups of water and the beer was lined up along the edge of the table. All fine and dandy…except the cup the ball landed on wasn’t the one removed from the table. The official (yes there was a beer pong referee, these things are important) just took a cup from the back and worked up. As any seasoned ponger can tell you, this removes an element of strategy from the game. The other major change…bounced balls counted. You couldn’t swat them away like you could in the good ol’ USA (where folks know there beer pong).
And yes, I did just spend a paragraph semi-venting about the sanctity of beer pong. Judge me accordingly.
Our team went second. Our first round opponents – a Japanese guy and girl who had not only never played beer pong before, but very possibly may have been unfamiliar with the concept of throwing something into something else. They weren’t good at all. I’m talking some serious North Carolina-Montana State stuff here. BUT because of the bounce rule, they were able to get a lot of lucky “shots” in. The game became way tighter than it had any right to be.
We still won though, well before the 15-minute limit finished up. I had a decent showing (I think four shots made? I’ll check the stat sheet later) and hit the last target. We were on to the next round to face…
The Broiest Bros I may have ever layed my eyes on. Time…for the Brodown.
Ehhhh, OK that line is max hyperbole, I’ve seen way bigger morons at Northwestern. But these guys seemed above-average Bro. Wife beaters and backwards baseball caps and I think one of them quoted Family Guy (oh the humainty!) There beer pong skills, though, shined brightest.
Now, I’m no beer pong fanatic – I played every once-in-awhile in college and wasn’t an all-star (I at least never got selected for the team, which I’m just assuming exists somewhere in the world), but I could hold my own. I even have a highlight that would probably finish three or four on a hypothetical Sportscenter “Top Plays” where beer bong is considered a sport (hey, if poker can do it!). I nailed the “save cup” (excuse my mastery of technical terms) with an arcing shot that would make Robert Horry proud and gave my team new life. Except everyone decided they didn’t want to play anymore so we went to Burger King instead. What I’m trying to get across here is that I’m not a great beer ponger but I’m also not that bad. Also, most of my nights end in fast food trips.
But these dudes…these dudes were the Cassius Clay of throwing ping pong balls into cups. My side started out hot (me in particular) but cooled down fast. The guys on the other end of the table…on more or less the whole time. They didn’t even get lucky by bouncing it…they threw the ball every time, and made that little white ball look like a smart bomb. We wittled them down to four cups, but they drilled our last cup and our run was over.
Also, even with all the “Bros” being thrown around here, I have to come clean and say these two guys who vanquished us were actually incredibly nice and cool. Maybe (PSA incoming) we can’t just judge people by how they talk or what terrible clothes they wear. Or, more realistically, I’m high on them because they were both Angels fans, and finding Angels fans in Chicago is hard enough, imagine Japan. They could have been choking people out and I’d be next to them going “man, Aybar has really turned it on this year!”
Our names scratched from the crude bracket the owner drew up, we ventured out into the night, with six hours to kill before the first train pulled into the station.
A punch-card from Capsule Hotel Asahiplaza Shinsaibashi. Three visits nets you a free breakfast!
There is no worse place to be by yourself when you’re feeling all confused than in a room the size of a fancy coffin. Yet there I was, crammed into a capsule at four a.m., my mind buzzing like mind but my body ready to curl up into a ball.
For those who didn’t spend prolonged periods of summer break watching Travel Channel shows about Japan (hey, it was high school), a capsule hotel is a Japanese establishment similar to a hotel, except instead of rooms you get your own hole in the wall, dubbed a capsule (not much different than what most vending machine toys come in). You go in, slip your shoes off into a locker, pay for your very own temporary crawlspace and then go off into the building to find said space amonst the rows and rows of other capsules. The feeling of walking by a bunch of mini-beds similar to a human test tube was unsettling enough, but that multiplied ten-fold when a friend told me you can drop some Yen into the TV and get 10 minutes of porn on the in-capsule television. Not knowing what the hell happens inside those things as you walk by is…creepy.
I crawled into my capsule wearing the clothes I’d worn all day (I passed on buying a pair of hotel pajamas, though the next morning I realized I might have literally been the only person not to spend the extra dollar on brown PJs) and collapsed onto my pillow. I didn’t realize the hotel provided a blanket underneath the pillow – I had too many other thoughts on my mind to investigate my tomb.
The prior four hours post beer pong bouncing were mostly spent at a bar doubling as some guy’s living room. Very small place and kind of weird, but the dude gave us free cheese so I’m not complaining. The rest of the details aren’t blurry as much as they are hazy – I distinctly remember, but I’m all for having it covered up.
The twist is, as depressing as that sounds, what happened (which, if you haven’t picked up on, I’m going to leave a mystery. Get sleuthin’) would be construed by most people as a positive. Nothing too serious at all. Hell, I feel a little bit more confident about me than I was the day before, and here I am moping. But here’s the thing – told via simile introduced earlier what – it’s a feeling like that dinner at the Japanese Mexican restaurant: satisfies right away but quickly goes away and you’re left wanting something a little more substantial. Like a Chipotle burrito.
This isn’t the first time I’ve felt this way. It’s more like – if you’ve figured out what’s going on, prepare to get a glance into how lame I am – the third or fourth time, depending on your view of Truth or Dare dares. And each of those times, I felt the exact same confusion. Confidence turns to emptiness
pretty quickly around these parts. But I’m human, and it’s way too easy to not think about future thoughts when your caught up in the present.
So, sprawled out inside that capsule, I’m replaying the night over and over again while also pondering what things (or, what people I’d just like to hang out with for like an afternoon) I’d trade the so-called highlights of my night for. My first night in Osaka, though, was amazing overall (definitely my best night in Japan thus far), I just think too much. Especially inside a tiny hotel room.
Thankfully, my physical being only worries about the total lack of sleep, so I pass out soon after. The next morning, I wake up and head to the cafeteria. You can buy breakfast via a vending machine there – you pick what dish you want (toast and an egg, traditional Japanese breakfast, what appears to be an omlette) and the machine dispenses a ticket. You present that to a cook guy, who then makes it for you.
I bypass any human interaction and just buy a water. I sit down amongst a bunch of Japanese people wearing brown pajamas. It’s much more comforting to be surrounded by strangers than cooped up in a capsule. Even if I have no idea what these folks were up to in their room last night.
(If you made it through all that drivel, here is a bonus Aflac ad from Japan featuring dancing animals.)