Monday, July 09, 2007

High-speed Osaka Tour

Roughly a year ago, I met a young Japanese man here (Mr. Takuya) in Los Angeles, who upon finding out I would be in Japan, invited me to dinner in his city, Osaka. Because I left Kyoto late, and because the rendezvous point I arranged through his friend over the phone (since she spoke better English) was farther than anticipated (via train) from my hotel, I was about an hour later than we had intended. Oops. Fortunately, the three ladies waiting for me spotted me instantly (not too many Americans, I guess). We then all piled into Mr. Takuya's car waiting outside.

We did a quick driving tour around Osaka. The conversation that evening was quite humorous given the language barrier, but everyone had little electronic dictionaries. This made it work well enough. Mr. Takuya drove, while I chatted with the ladies in the back seat. They told me they were students (from Tokyo, Hokkaido, and Kyoto), who had failed their Japanese entrance exams, so they were all studying together in Osaka. They pointed out various Osakan landmarks and I tried to catch a glimpse of them between buildings and trees in the way.

Unfortunately, my batteries gave out (as they had been doing a lot -- my camera only likes Nimh) and was only able to capture a few shots. Here is a tiny bit of Osakan architecture (probably not its finest) as we drove along:

Then we headed to the famous Dotombori district, filled with restaurants and things to do at night. I had hoped we might go to a Teppanyaki steakhouse restaurant, a favorite example of which is the Osaka Grill in San Francisco (a more refined version of the popular Benihana chain). Many of these restaurants had long waits, so we opted for a Okonomiyaki place (which I had never tried before).

Here are most of us (minus the photographer) in front:

Unlike the teppanyaki steakhouses I've been to, this type of place has you cook everything yourself sitting near the floor in a small private room with a phone to call the waiters with. (Okonomiyaki translates roughly to "grill whatever you want, the way you want.") There were no English menus anywhere, so my hosts picked the food choices. The raw ingredients arrived in bowls. Meats, chopped yams, onions, raw eggs, rice sheets, octopus, dried fish flakes, mayonaise... Other stuff... I have no idea really. The ladies took over immediately, stirring, mixing, combining and then pouring onto the hot grill at our low-flying table.

At one point, we talked about how Osakans and Tokyoites don't always like each other. I asked why. There was a pause, then a lot of typing on personal dictionaries. Mr. Takuya turned his screen towards me and it read "not on same wave length". A-ha!

After eating, we walked around the district. I saw a strange Ferris wheel-like ride thing built into the side of a building, with each car lit up with neon lights in the shape of a buddha(!) Also saw a place to eat fugu (the poisonous pufferfish), which had a nicely illuminated tank of large deadly fishes swimming and quietly daring people to come inside and eat them. We found a temple and each got fortunes written on paper. Apparently mine was very good. One of theirs suggested bad health, another a bad marriage ahead. I was supposed to keep mine, but they took theirs, folded them up origami-style, then attached them to the wooden structure of the temple itself, amidst hundreds if not thousands of other presumably bad fortunes. (What happens when the Temple gets filled up with bad fortunes? Misfortunate leaks out into the city? Yikes!)

Finally, we said goodbye to the ladies and Mr. Takuya took me to visit his Uncle's exotic sushi restaurant, where a whole family party (great aunt, uncle, aunt, friends) had already gathered after hours and eaten. I'm not sure that they were all that interested in meeting a tired American who spoke no Japanese, but Mr. Takuya's Uncle gave us some very good bonito tuna at least.

Then we bid farewell and headed to Takuya's apartment where I met his girlfriend, a friendly Korean woman. She also had a dictionary computer and practiced her English with me. Meanwhile, Mr. Takuya demonstrated his various electronic toys, including a miniature helicopter that floated around the apartment, and a remote-controlled matchbox car. Despite it being about midnight at this point and my consciousness fading, Mr. Takuya decided we should go see the 24-hour electronics shopping store so he could buy me a Gameboy Micro before I left. How generous!

One side note: Japanese GPS is way ahead of ours. Instead of typing in my hotel's address (which I didn't have with me), he was able to type in the hotel phone number and voila! There it was on the map. Coolness.

UPDATE: You can learn how to cook okinomiyaki at home!

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posted by Brian at 3:56 PM


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