Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Sayonara, Osaka - Thoughts on a First Visit to Japan

Well, I've finally settled in at home after a two-week business stay in Osaka, Japan.  This was my third trip to Asia, after Seoul and Singapore in years past, but my first to Nippon.  Truth be told, I really don't go in for "touristy" stuff when I travel; instead, I enjoy exploring cities on foot or by train/tram/subway, finding hole-in-the-wall bars and restaurants, interacting with folks as much as possible, and generally trying to observe as much of the "regular guy" culture as time allows.  I'm more likely to bring home a restaurant menu or advertising flyer than I am postcards or traditional souvenirs.  Having said all of this, my comments are more stream-of-consciousness than travelogue, so - in no particular order:

  • The language barrier was (obviously) severe; with the exception of a few basic phrases (such as 'please', 'thank you', and 'excuse me'), I have no facility with the Japanese language.  Nonetheless, people were always eager to help, and I found that a combination of map-pointing and expressive gestures could usually get the job done.
  • I was surprised to meet only one Japanese of a height close to my own.(I'm 6'5").  Sure, there's a stereotype of the Japanese as diminutive, but I thought that random genetics would have produced at least a few tall folks here and there...
  • Personal service, at all levels, was assiduous.  From the door greeters at my hotel (who called me by name after the first day - then, again, I was somewhat recognizable) to the white-gloved taxi drivers who hustled around to take my backpack from the trunk and the restaurant servers who (despite the language barrier) made absolutely certain that my needs were addressed, I was struck by the attentiveness shown to all customers.
  • Kids are kids.  There were bashful youngsters who peered at me from behind their mother, those who grinned and waved as they ran by, some who just stared at the big American guy, and those who gave the "V" sign when I took their picture, but they were all fun to watch.
  • In Japan, public transportation rocks.  The subway and railway trains were ridiculously clean, always on time, affordable, and effective in every way.  My only complaint was that, in some cases, English-language maps were not available.  (I'm looking at you, Hankyu Railway!)
  • Every meal I ate was delicious.  While I don't like sushi or sashimi, I tried everything else I could find.  My hosts were surprised that I wasn't interested Western food (which was available, in the form of KFC, McDonald's and Outback Steakhouse), but I don't eat "American food" when I travel.  I truly wish that we had a kushiyaki restaurant in my area...
  • I wish I could say the same of the packaged snack foods.  I always buy a good amount of this stuff (think convience-store snacks/candies) when I travel abroad, to share with my family; imagine our surprise in finding that, alongside the chocolate and hard candies, I had purchased fish crackers, bitter berries, and squid jerky.
  • There's a lot of day-to-day kindness and courtesy in the Japanese people.  One of the memories I'll treasure came as I sat in the Kyoto train station dripping sweat (I had forgotten to stick a towel or fan in my pocket before leaving Osaka); an old man walked over, tapped me on the shoulder, and wordlessly handed me one of his fans.  I knew enough to stand, bow and give him a respectful "arigato gozaimasu"--he had to be at least 80 years old, after all--but he just grinned, smacked me on the arm and gave me a look that said "hey, we're all in this heat together" as he walked away.
  • Advertising, advertising, advertising...while Osaka and Kyoto did not have many of the huge neon signs or billboards seen in American cities, ads are almost omnipresent.  The handrails on the escalators carried ads, as did the hand straps on the trains; street teams were distributing flyers, fans (MANY fans - popular ad media in the humid heat of Osaka, I guess) and even packets of Kleenex.
  • I love pachinko.  I had always wanted to play "Japanese pinball," and I found the modern machines quite entertaining.  It's a gambling game, and I actually came out slightly ahead after two visits, so I left it at that.  I will say, however, that pachinko parlors are DEAFENINGLY loud places; I've been to rock concerts that had lower decibel levels.
  • One stereotype that I confirmed: the Japanese LOVE cartoon characters and mechas. From shopping mall mascots to anime characters to caricature-bearing ads, cartoon characters were EVERYWHERE. (Yes, there's a Pokemon Center in Osaka.)  At the Yodobashi-Umeda store, an entire floor was dedicated to nothing but anime/manga characters and mechas (e.g. Gundam Wing).
  • If my observations are accurate, text messaging in Japanese is a keyboarding nightmare on the typical mobile phone.
  • Sadly, I found that some stereotypical "American tourist" behavior is alive and well.  Several of my colleagues told me that I was their first American visitor who visited a pachinko parlor, didn't want Western food at some point, asked to learn some Japanese phrases...*sigh*
  • Heated toilet seats are okay.  It's unusual to 'discover' one in a public toilet.  It's downright weird to discover one in a public toilet when it's 90 degrees.
  • I'm convinced that the television pitchmen of the US learned their trade by watching Japanese commercials.  Even though I don't understand spoken Japanese, it was clear that they were offering the GREATEST PRODUCT EVER, and that ONLY A FOOL would fail to IMPRESS HIS FRIENDS with THIS WONDERFUL PRODUCT!
  • It felt extremely odd not to leave tips.
  • Much is made of Japanese business culture, but I found it easy to slip into the proper forms of address, the sempai/kohai relationship, etc...yes, there was some verbal tap-dancing here and there in deference to the culture, but I didn't find it cumbersome at all.
  • It was interesting to watch Buddhists use the "mini shrines", of which I saw several around Osaka (see my Flickr stream for pics).  It wasn't pretentious at all; they'd simply stop, offer a prayer, light a stick of incense (perhaps) and go on their way.  To me, this shows both a tight integration of belief into daily life and a lack of concern for showiness or demonstrative worship.  I liked it very much.
  • I saw only one homeless person during my two-week stay.  I saw no panhandlers.
  • I greatly enjoyed exploring the world of Japanese beverages.  I tried at least 40 different brands of bottled tea, drank Pocari Sweat by the liter, and made friends with Kirin, Asahi, Yebisu, Suntory and Minou (all Japanese beers). 
  • Gaming, gaming, gaming, gaming and more gaming.  I've already mentioned pachinko parlors, but I also ran across several slot halls (video slot machines) and game arcades of all stripes.  The Taito "Game Station" in Osaka's Namba district is a six-story arcade, with everything from "claw" prize machines to the latest video games.  I also saw several card-gaming systems; imagine buying Yu-Gi-Oh or Magic: The Gathering cards, assembling your deck and playing against a machine that displays animation of your match during play.  Very cool.

Long story short - I had a blast.  If you'd like to see my photos and additional comments, check out my Flickr site linked below.  (The photos aren't of the best quality, since they were taken with my Blackberry, but you'll get the idea.)

Flickr: wesmorgan3's Photostream


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