I walked out of the club into that strange time of day that’s not quite night but also not quite morning, the violet-tinged hour. I’ve just spent the last five hours of my life being battered by sweaty strangers in a vaguely hipsterish, vaguely Jersey Shore…hot tub on the roof speaks for itself…club. Due to bad timing and other little surprise roadblocks, none of my friends could come with me for the night. In most situations I would have backed out of going, choosing to stay in and watch the cute animal show on channel four they broadcast every weekend. I’d wanted to see the artist performing, Flying Lotus, for a long time though, so I forced myself to make the trip alone (aside: feel free to read my concert review here). I ditch the club when the local DJ takes to the tables, choosing to avoid one more hour spent in the Smirnoff Ice-heavy venue. A quick check of my watch reveals that it’s 4:15 in the morning…an hour before the first train rolls out of Namba Station.

With nothing open besides the am/pm and 60 minutes to kill, I choose to wander around aimlessly under the purple sky. It’s as I walk down one narrow street after another that I realize why I put myself through this sorta stuff, why being alone at this hour doesn’t phase me and why I love Osaka. Whereas most cities…even big ones like Los Angeles or Chicago…become model train set pieces at 4:15 in the morning, Osaka belongs to the small category of cities that continue to buzz at this young hour. I’m not talking about a few drunks stumbling along the streets looking for a convenient bench, but rather the places like New York or Paris or Tokyo that seem just as alive in these late-early times as they do during more sane operating hours. I admit to a little hyperbole there…it’s not nearly as crowded as, say, at noon or even three in the afternoon…but still feels alive. All sorts of people, not just young drunks or more experienced salarymen, hustle about.

It’s not just the fact people actually walk around this early that makes me so happy, nor is it the fact that I feel completely safe because every city I’ve visited in Japan feels safer than even suburb-rific Evanston. No, the reason I love Osaka probably reveals more insecurities in myself than anything else. Thrown into this situation in other places, my mind would turn to jealous thoughts…how surely after a night of clubbing all the pretty people hooked up or went up to something nice, while I wander around alone and aimless. Being in Osaka serves as a nice splash of cold water…people are everywhere. They sit around in the park smoking. They wait patiently outside the train station gates for the doors to be unlocked. They flock to the one place open 24 hours a day…the local two-story McDonald’s. And it’s not just schlubs like me ordering Big Macs as breakfast, but people dressed like high-end mannequins who could be paid to just stand around a club and look nice. Yet here they are, struggling internally over whether to spend the extra 500 Yen on the limited edition World Cup glass. Just like me.

So thank you Osaka, for being a very humanizing city that can snap me out of those assholish bouts of self-centered moping. Though being a little sad, it’s still kinda of hopeful to realize that I’m not the only one sorta stumbling around at four in the morning.

And then, after all that, being the city where an older woman approaches me on the street asking if I’d like a massage for 300 yen. Osaka…also boasts a great/creepy sense of humor!

(Japanese Fun Fact #64 – Japanese movie theaters have really tacky gift shops that sell calendars of Hugh Jackman headshots. They sorta balance it out though by also selling candy.)

(In Other News – Today I had a banana for lunch. Two students saw me eating the banana. They started calling me “Mr. Banana.” Cute, but honestly I’m “Mr. Apples And White Bread.”)

Much to my shock – it feels like yesterday I got here where did the time go! – I’ve almost been in Japan an entire year. I came to this realization not by looking at a calendar or realizing I should figure out tax information, but rather by the release of the latest “summer edition” Pepsi in Japan. I came to Japan just as the Pepsi Shiso flavor exited local convenience stores, and now the change in seasons can be official as Pepsi Baobab hit shelves as the new “wacky” flavor (aside: every Japan-related blog describes this flavor as wacky. It’s sucked any wackiness out of this drink. I believe “kookie” should be the new braindead adjective of choice).

The Baobab is an African Tree that can apparently bear fruit perfect for a novelty soda flavor. Almost surely released to coincide with the World Cup in South Africa, Pepsi Baobab comes in a bottle featuring silhouettes of what I presume are baobab trees and giraffes, all set against a sky reminiscent of a gay pride flag. The beverage resembles ginger ale inside the bottle, probably the least disturbing appearance any of the Pepsi seasonal drinks has taken on thus far. Let’s get to the good stuff…how does it taste?

Not horrible at all! Two knocks against this kookie (there it is!) drink – it has a stingy initial punch, and a bit of a bitter aftertaste. The experience between the start and finish, though, is entirely pleasant – the baobab soda tastes almost like juice…sugar-heavy juice, but hey that’s what you get in the supermarket…that’s sorta tasty! Easily the best seasonal Pepsi yet, this drink actually kinda rises above the “novelty” tag half the “limited edition” products in Japan aim for. Good going Pepsi!

I’ve made peace with the fact a lot of people in Japan stare at me and tend to notice me more. They should…I stick out pathetically, I’d stare at a huckleberry like me too if I could. Still, even being OK with this, I still have a few fears about standing out which I pray never ever become realities. Most of them involve speaking in public using Japanese. Yet one nightmare scenario managed to come to fruition recently…and it wasn’t that bad. I think.

Since I’m one of the millions of people running a music blog in the world, I go to a lot of concerts as “reporting.” Since I write about Japanese music, I naturally go to shows featuring Japanese artists. This usually means I end up being the only foreigner in the venue, an often tiny concert hall because I’d never actually see someone who is popular. I REALLY stick out in these situations. My big fear (because I’m a self-centered kinda guy) is that one day, a member of the band playing that night will notice me and decide to point it out to the audience or worse try to interact with me somehow. The closest this has ever come, in any country, was at an Art Brut show where lead singer Eddie Argos grabbed my hair and sort of held it for three seconds. I try to make this near-impossible situation more enticing by imagining the band inviting me on stage, followed by them asking me to sing a song in English, preferably “Private Eyes,” and I absolutely kill it. Following this miracle, I become a staple of the band and I finally get to live the unknown rock star dream I’ve always craved.

Thankfully, this never happens. I’m rightfully ignored. Until…DUN DUN DUN…today. I went to a music festival in Nara. Great time, some very good acts and one of the venues was in a hotel so it felt like a self-help convention. Anyway, one of the bands that played…name is all in Japanese, sorry…had a very crowd-interaction-heavy set. For the musically inclined, they were kinda like The Mae Shi meet a less labored Of Montreal stage show. For everyone else, they played kinda punky rock and mostly just went wild with the crowd, making everyone dance in a circle and hula hoop all while dressed real crazy like.

Early on, the lead singer of this band noticed me. While dressed as a giraffe (I didn’t get it either), he sorta looked at me and his giraffe head constructed out of cardboard nearly fell onto me. I dodged it. Later on, lead singer now stripped down to a gym singlet (I didn’t get any of it), led the crowd in various fist pumps and other gestures. He noticed I wasn’t doing it, and pointed at me to do them. I obliged. Fair enough.

Then he made his final costume change. He next came out dressed up as Elmo and proceeded to sing from the middle of the floor, everyone making a circle around him. He points at me. He then sorta comes towards me and pulls me into the center of the circle. I am now surrounded by all the other concert-goers, with a man dressed as a kids TV show character staring at me. Eeeeep.

He puts the microphone in front of my mouth. I guess I need to say something. I say “hello” in my fallback way meant to make people think “look at him, he’s pretending to be awkward that’s funny” when in fact I’m just honestly awkward and praying nobody notices. A nice greeting isn’t satisfactory though, as the singer makes an unidentifiable sound, most likely something in Japanese. He then thrusts the microphone back in my face. I stare at him confused. He shouts the gibberish/foreign language again. Mic back to me – I sorta make an “uhhhhhh” sound. Back to him, another shout. Back to me – I’ve decided at this point just to imitate him hoping this is a repeat-after-me drill. So I scream. He screams. I screams. He screams. I scream. This goes on a few more times. This finally ends. He moves away from me. I get the hell out of that circle. Show goes on, no more incidents.

So yeah…it was strange. Kinda cool in a “everyone look at me” sorta way. But still…strange. I got to shout into a microphone though, that was pretty sweet!

The fact seems so obvious it feels dumb to even write it down but — Hello Kitty is everywhere in Japan. Thanks to a licensing philosophy best described as “if something exists, it should have Hello Kitty’s face on it,” the mouthless spectre of a certain Sanrio creation pops up at least once a day. Whether plastered on my student’s notebooks, my co-worker’s Kleenex boxes or on a “weird Japan” blog post, escaping the image of Kitty borders on the impossible. Now, one of my favorite places in Japan has been given the Sanrio makeover – Lawson’s Convenience Store.

Following in the footsteps of the Relaxation Bear plate giveaway, Lawson’s have introduced a new promotion where if one collects thirty “Hello Kitty points” they get a blue mug with the words “Hello Kitty” inscribed on it along with a small picture of the famous feline. To help advertise this, Hello Kitty is everywhere in the store and on a series of new products bearing stickers. The one that caught my eye – and opened up my wallet – was the “Hello Kitty Apple Bread Item.”

It's not

It's not

Declaring itself…apparently the foodstuff can talk…as “heavy as three apples,” the real draw of the item is the general freakishness of it all. The engineers at Lawson’s responsible for making new bread-based foods managed to make a vaguely apple-shaped good colored the same shade of red as a Slushee, complete with fake stem and green blotch standing in for the leaf you never actually see apples have. Picking the faux-apple up, it definitely doesn’t feel like it weighs more than three apples…though who knows how big an apple we should use for comparison. How does it taste?

Not natural, no sir

Not natural, no sir

Surprisingly pleasant, mostly because the appley exterior serves just as a vessel for some sweet apple slices ala an apple pie. Since I’d be perfectly content living off nothing but apples if life forced such a situation upon me, this tasted delicious despite being an alarmingly artificial variety of red and including a bread stem I couldn’t identify. All in all, a tasty albeit weird looking treat which will surely serve as the gateway to me collecting Hello Kitty points like a zombie in order to obtain a mug that doesn’t even look cool.

(Japanese Fun Fact #62 – The popular stereotype regarding Japanese people is that they are very nice. Such a broad generalization is, obviously, not true…every country has assholes!…but today I experienced a small dose of Japanese kindness. It rained today, and since I loath umbrellas, I walked home from school with my hood. Well, a lady on the street stopped me and asked if I wanted her umbrella. Despite the fact she would get soaking wet, she was willing to give up her umbrella to some absent-minded foreigner. I declined. But hey, nice gesture!)

(Japanese Fun Fact #63 – I got a free “sample kit” of salad dressings from my gym today. Weird promotion but…OK!)

So…I sure don’t update this nearly as much as I used to. Chalk that up to several factors – the fact I haven’t done anything really blog-worthy in a long while, Japan is feeling more familiar to me so I’m not nearly as shocked by small details anymore and that I’m in a little bit of a slump at the moment. I’m not even sure what that last point even means – I still am enamored with Japan, and my job and the people I know here are awesome – but I’ve felt more sluggish and maybe hopeless (that might be a bit of a hyperbole, but…semi-hopeless?). Young adult issues don’t make for very original material so I’ll spare you the details. I will, however, make a cheap post by sharing a small number of photos I’ve had sitting on my phone for months now.

1. GET ME RAMBO!

THEY CALLED ME A BABY KILLER

THEY CALLED ME A BABY KILLER

The town game center has, amongst the rows of rip-off claw machines and photo booths, this Rambo machine. I’ve never ever seen such a machine anywhere in America, but the image of Sylvester Stallone unloading an assault rifle coupled with film footage playing in a loop on the screen convinced me that I had to play this game. Much like the Rambo films post-First Blood, Rambo the game focuses on mindlessly shooting everything that appears on screen. Unlike other rail shooter games (recall the scourge of all children on a field trip to the fun center Area 51), no innocent characters run across screen to force you not to spray everything with virtual bullets. EVERYTHING in Rambo the game is an enemy. Just pull the trigger, don’t let go and kill kill kill.

I did not do very well, getting to the part where Rambo jumped out of a trench and blows up a lot of trucks. I’ll practice.

2. In The Japan Self Defense Force

YouTube has already done a splendid job showing the difference between Japanese recruitment ads and their U.S. counterparts, but I’ll add my tiny contribution in anyways. Above is an ad near my old school for the Japanese Self Defense Force, featuring adorable anime characters aimed at tricking the youths across the street from joining in. Not quite “Army Strong” but…probably a good thing.

3. In Other Cute News…

What a wonderful sight.

(Japanese Fun Fact #61 – American movies released in Japan sometimes have different titles whoa! Crazy I know. Though they can be utterly ridiculous. A teacher told me about a film he saw roughly titled “Uncle Carl’s Balloon Adventure In The Sky” or something similarly long-winded. Turns out he saw Up!. Though the Japanese title isn’t without its charms.)

Fierce stuff. Seeing these two cuddly guys drawn into the wall of a bridge underpass also reminded me of another piece of graffiti (or maybe clever marketing, though it would be some super general advertising) I saw in Osaka last week.

South Central this isn’t.

While we are on the subject of Japan taking cool things and making them sorta cute, here is a guitar shaped like Doraemon.

The hell do you hold that?

(Japanese Fun Fact #60: Japan celebrates Mother’s Day! They have goofy sales all over the place. It looks like most people just buy there mom flowers, but I did see a few “economy options” available at the local convenience store. Send your mom a Rilakuma keychain for only three bucks!)

Gripping first image

Gripping first image

Not sure how this got lost in my pile of things to do, consider I don’t really have any such stack to sort. Well…two months ago I visited the Toba Aquarium, one of the biggest aquariums in Japan. I meant to post photos about three days after I visited. It is now May, and I finally am doing this. Enjoy some outdated pics!

Toba

Toba

Toba

Toba

Otter Statue...

Otter Statue...

...Otter Mailbox

...Otter Mailbox

Toba’s a relatively small seaside town that feels more like a suburb of much-bigger Ise. The combination of forested islands and heavy rainfall immediately conjured images of the Pacific Northwest, or at least what everyone thinks about when they picture the Pacific Northwest. Every other store seemed to be selling pearls. Nobody seemed to be out, most likely because of the rain. Toba seems to exist to hold an aquarium.

Creepy fish

Creepy fish

Seals!

Seals!

More!

More!

It was a very impressive place, even if trying to describe it leaves me without words. It was like a really good aquarium…but better. Degree paying off. Just gawk at some more photos.

Dah they are graduating school

Dah they are graduating school

Dining area

Dining area

Stared at this manatee for so long

Stared at this manatee for so long

Blugblugblug

Blugblugblug

Massive crab

Massive crab

Squeaky otter you can barely see

Squeaky otter you can barely see

Penguin

Penguin

Well that doesn't look fun

Well that doesn't look fun

Huh…maybe the reason I didn’t post this sooner was because my photos weren’t anything special. Welp, now it’s done.

(Japanese Fun Fact #59 – The hot spot in Osaka at the moment? Krispy Kreme. The donut emporium finally touched down in Japan’s second city recently, and the citizens of the place are going batshit about it. I passed by the location this weekend…and saw a pretty impressive line formed outside the door [around the block maybe?] made up of people just dying to enjoy mediocre dessert items. All around town, people carried Krispy Kreme bags stacked with two to three boxes of donuts around, like they were showing off a Gucci bag.)

Though I say Osaka is my favorite city in Japan, it would be far more honest to say I loved the Namba district of Osaka. The majority of trips into the city happen exclusively within this bright and buzzing area, one of the biggest cities in the country reduced to a maze of pachinko parlors and major brand stores. I doubt many people would blame me for this – everything anyone needs, especially a hapless foreigner, can be found in Namba. And by “everything” I of course mean “Mexican food and hip-hop style fashion stores.”

So naturally I found myself in Namba this past Saturday, making my usual rounds at the CD stores on a pleasantly warm day. The nice weather beckoned all the unique fashions of Japan out onto the streets, girls dressed as Little Bo Peep or wearing obnoxiously large pastel ribbons like undelivered Easter gifts. I watched this parade of peculiar individuals from a perch at Freshness Burger, home to the best fast-food burger in Japan. It was at this point in the early afternoon, I decided to go see a concert. To do so, I’d have to leave the confines of Namba and venture out to the outer areas of Osaka. With plenty of time to spare before the show started, I ambled my way over to the subway and went out to Juso, a neighborhood far from the hustle and bustle of the city I knew so well.

The area directly around Juso station resembled a miniature-Namba, swaths of people moving beneath billboards and Colonel Sander’s good-ol’-boy smile. Large open-space arcades cut through alley-sized side streets. At first glance, the outskirts(-ish) of Osaka seemed not terribly different from the center.

A pretty friendly street, yeah

A pretty friendly street, yeah

Walking a little deeper into the heart of Juso, though, revealed one very pronounced difference. Turns out this neighborhood doubles as a popular red light district, a fact made clear by the number of sexy anime girls dotting signboards positioned outside of clubs boasting a couple bouncers in nice suits. The situation became more skeezy on the side streets, which featured more run-down buildings, the type of establishments the scummiest bottom-feeders inhabit in a noir film. Fittingly, part of the main street was blocked off due to the filming of some sort of TV show or movie featuring two men dressed as detectives.

Noice

Noice

Obama wants you to frequent this place

Obama wants you to frequent this place

I doubt they have real bunnies

I doubt they have real bunnies

O___o

O___o

Though Juso comes off as a man’s carnal paradise, I did notice one business catering to (presumably) women. It appeared to be a host club stocked with men ripped from fashion magazines and J-Pop music videos. So…semi-equality?

The Juso neighborhood takes on a drastic new face only five minutes from the suspicious cafes lining the streets. Past all the seedy establishments rests a typical, peaceful Japanese city-suburban area featuring rows of apartments and convenience stores spaced out along the road. A peaceful park served as the dividing line, the collections of playground equipment and old men playing games signaling an escape from one of Osaka’s “pink districts.” After that all the typical scenes of Japanese city-suburb life appeared – school kids marching out of their schools front gates, women walking chubby corgis down the street, a baseball game played in a public park.

All this babbling about the suburbs, and THIS is the only picture I took

All this babbling about the suburbs, and THIS is the only picture I took

These parts of Japan leave me charmed. They manage to bridge the peaceful living of a Nabari with the enjoyment of big-city life. Juso manages all of this despite being a toss away from a salon best described as a sexy pharmacy. The ever-busy Namba will always grab my attention, but Juso convinced me I should take some time to see the rest of Osaka.

View from Juso

View from Juso