It was 8am at Barcelona airport. The sun was rising over the horizon: vivid orange and yellow contrasting a blue sky. It was basically the start of the Lion King, except the gazelles were planes and Mufasa was the airport manager. Actually, a rising sun was appropriate today, because my girlfriend and I were flying to the land of the rising sun: Japan.
We had two flights to take: a two hour journey from Barcelona to Paris followed by a gruelling ten hour flight from Paris to Osaka. Fast forward sixteen hours and several inflight films later, and the plane dipped through clouds, revealing a city below us.
“That must be Osaka.” I said to my girlfriend eagerly. “It looks just like it does on the maps.”
But it wasn’t Osaka and we flew right past it. My girlfriend made an “I told you so face”, even though she hadn’t told me anything.
Half an hour later, the real Osaka came into view. I knew it was Osaka because the plane was quickly diving towards the sea. The pilot wasn’t on a kamikaze mission. No, he was landing at Kansai airport, which is on an island next to the mainland.
Outside the plane window was Osaka: a gigantic, grey urban sprawl. Every inch of land built on. “Concrete. Ugly. Looks like Birmingham.” I observed in my diary.
We successfully navigated the airport and made it to the train station. We bought a ticket for Osaka, but then we got stuck at the ticket barrier. We couldn’t figure out where to put our ticket. We stared at a Japanese man who placed his card on a scanner, which unlocked the turnstile. But when we did the same, an alarm sounded and the turnstile stayed firmly shut. We realised we had to put the ticket in a slot, and the turnstile spat it back out at the other end.
The train was quiet… almost too quiet. None of our fellow train passengers talked to each other. The passengers also avoided looking at each other, like on the London Underground. I tried looking out the window, but my gaze was too close to a man sitting next to the window. So I stared at my shoes instead.
We got off at Namba station to change to the Yotsubashi line. However, the Yotsubashi line wasn’t on any of the signs. We had to get directions at the tourist office, and the subsequent walk to the station itself seemed miles and miles. It was endless corridors of people, shops and restaurants. At least the smells from the restaurants were wonderful. Each restaurant displayed actual plates of food in its window. I stared at the food hungrily until I realised they were only plastic.
We managed to find the station and reach the hotel. After checking-in, we went looking for a place to eat. A waitress outside one restaurant greeted us in a string of undecipherable Japanese. Then she pointed to a picture of a steak and said, “Handbag”. Handbag? It didn’t look like a handbag. We nodded, despite our lack of comprehension. “Handbag” she repeated, more enthusiastically this time, prodding the picture of the steak. Perhaps she meant we could take home our leftovers in our handbag? But no, it turned out she was trying to say hamburger.
Another restaurant displayed pictures of appetising chicken, and decided to go in. The waiter greeted us with a barrage of undecipherable Japanese, but we guessed from his gestures that he was inviting us to sit down. We picked up the menu on the table and started looking at the pictures, but the waiter took it from us and said, “No no no. This”. He handed us a sheet of paper with only three things written on it in Japanese, and with no pictures. My girlfriend and I looked at each other in alarm. She pointed to the first thing on the menu, and asked, “What’s this? Is it chicken?”
“Hai,” said the waiter, and then added something else in Japanese. Unsure but hungry, we ordered one each. What arrived was breaded chicken, miso soup, rice, pureed vegetables and salad, coming to a ¥700 (£4) each. The chicken was breaded but I ate it anyway, because I was too tired and hungry to put up a fight. My girlfriend looked at me in astonishment. It had been years since I’d eaten gluten.
At night we went to Dotonbori, Osaka’s downtown. At first I thought the name was the Japanese version of downtown borough. But actually it’s named after Yasui Dōton, an entrepreneur responsible for the construction of the canal that runs through the area. And the Japanese word for canal is “hori”. So, Doton + hori = Dotonbori. Dotonbori is like the city from Blade Runner. There’s neon, paper lanterns, bright lights, and flashing signs. You’d think it’d be the tourist area, but we only saw two other westerners the entire time.
We made a gaijin (foreigner) mistake when trying to pay for a packet of nuts in a shop. I tried to give the money to the latex-gloved cashier, but his assistant said, “No no,” and pointed to a tray next to the cash register. I had to put the money in the tray and the cashier then picked it up from there. Strangely, the same wasn’t true for the change. The cashier handed the change directly to me, with no tray involved.
I needed more money so I tried to withdraw money from ATMs using my British debit card. However, each machine rejected the card and refused to give me money. Thankfully my girlfriend had brought euros with her from Spain, and we could change them easily to yen. But we were in trouble if we couldn’t withdraw any money from ATMs. I later read that the only place foreigners can withdraw their money is in post offices and, for some reason, 7-elevens.
In Dotonbori, there was a procession of people carrying signs and shouting. One was repeatedly shouting “oiga” through a megaphone and the others repeated “oiga” back to him. They were carrying small branches of leaves and waving them like a fan. At first I thought they were protesting or on strike. This assumption was shattered when they stopped at a handbag shop (or was it a hamburger shop?), bowed, and handed the branch to one of the shop assistants. Then I had no idea what was going on.
Then we trasped the streets for over an hour looking for something to eat. We found a place that had a giant plates of plastic food in the window. One had a sign that said ¥2900 (£17). I calculated that if we shared this massive plate of food, it’d cost only £9 each. Great value for money – or so I thought. When we were seated, we read the menu, and I saw a tiny dot next to the character for “2”. What was that dot doing there? I wondered if its purpose was to change the 2 to a 12, making the price a ridiculous ¥12,900 (£75) instead. We began to panic. We tried to confirm the price with the waitress, but she spoke no English, and instead continued speaking Japanese. It was as though she assumed we could speak Japanese too.
Next the waitress lifted a lid on the table to reveal a gas burner. This was a surprise, as we’d had no idea we had to cook our own food. Then came the food itself, a huge plate of raw fish, chicken, cabbage, mushrooms, and noodles. It turned out we were in a nabe restaurant, where we had to cook our food ourselves in a giant pot of boiling soup in the centre of the table. We then fished out the cooked food with chopsticks or a slotted spoon.
We had a shock when it came to pay. Although the menu had said the price was ¥2900, the restaurant charged us ¥6200 (£36) instead. They had multiplied ¥2900 by two people and then added tax. So instead of sharing one dish, my girlfriend and I had inadvertently bought food for two people. My girlfriend shook her head in shock. The cashier smiled and politely waited. We felt depressed and deflated for a while after.
For dinner we ate at a kaiten (a conveyer belt sushi bar). We asked the waiter for water, but he didn’t understand us. Then we discovered that there was tap built into the counter right in front of us. The tap dispensed boiling water, to which we added a strange green powder, hoping it was powdered tea (it was). Each plate cost ¥135 yen (80p) and held one to four pieces of sushi. We ate fifteen plates between us, which came to ¥2,025 (£12).
I had read about the popularity of pachinko (pinball) in Japan, and lo and behold, there were indeed several pachinko parlours. They were like casinos except with rows and rows of pachinko machines instead of slot machines. At each machine sat a zombie Japanese man feeding tiny metal balls into the machine. We quickly left due to the deafening noise. The noise wasn’t music or the clattering of metal balls. No, the noise sounded like a huge fan, even though there was no fan in sight.
There was also an arcade devoted solely to claw crane games. Thankfully, there was no deafening noise this time. Unlike the machines in England and America that are packed with stuffed toys, there was only one or two prizes in each machine here. Also, the prizes were more diverse, including chocolate bars, anime figurines, and even giant packets of cereal. Apparently, anything is possible is the land of the rising sun.