Posted in on Wed 18 Jul 2012 by Andy
Japan is probably the furthest away I've ever traveled, if not in distance then at least culturally. The place is utterly confusing, a country poised between two cultural extremes. It is an amazing spectacle and a fantastic place. More after the break.
I'll be honest, Osaka is quite a bizarre place - to me at least. I've heard reports that Tokyo is even more intense. I regret not being able to visit on my short trip but to be honest Osaka filled my quotient of confusion quite nicely. By the way: you may have seen that Osaka is the place plastered all over 'Superdry' clothing but hilariously: Superdry's Japanese writing is complete drivel.
Osaka itself is a massive city connected together by an extremely efficient subway system. I've never felt so safe on a subway as I did in Osaka. It makes London's look like New York's and New York's seem like something from 'Escape from New York'. The feeling of the entire city mirrors this, although apparently Osaka is renowned in Japan for its high crime levels. The thing is, a city renowned for its crime in Japan is still safe compared to a city over here. Cities over here are probably war zones compared to most cities in Japan. I honestly just think that the Japanese are too polite to be committing crimes and what not. They're too busy apologising to each other and being polite.
In the center streets are narrow affairs, with all the wiring plumbed (plumbed?) above the street in a very hodge-podge manner. The electrics over there just look dangerous to my eyes. Everything is just suspended on wooden poles, wires added to cables added to trunk lines, all tacked on with no seeming logic. The massive advantage of this of course is that roadworks are near none existent compared to over here.
Here in the UK we take cultural diversity for granted. UK cities are a mish-mash of different people from everywhere. In Osaka cultural diversity is a little bit rarer. Well, ok, a lot rarer. It isn't uncommon to be stared at simply out of curiosity of seeing a foreigner. I felt like a Z-list celebrity; like some pleb from Coronation Street or something, except they weren't wondering why my career was in the gutter - they were probably just wondering who the bloody hell I was, what i wanted and why i was drunk so early in the day. It's hard not to fall into the British stereotype when you're in a country where drinking isn't a big thing. "I'm on holiday and I want a pint". Of course the bars aren't open yet - it's midday for goodness sake. Finding a bunch of English lads waiting at the door for your bar to open... of course. Typical.
Your guess is as good as mine
At night the main streets of the city seem to turn into the equivalent of giant a blinking light. Neon signs everywhere. Shops fighting each other to be the blinkiest headache to attract your attention. Giant plastic crabs, giant plastic running men, giant plastic whatever you can imagine all enveloped by neon and blinking lights. Food places attempt to attract your attention with 'delicious' looking plastic renditions of the food they serve. You can sort of get an idea of where the inspiration of blade runner came from.
A relatively tame street
In my mind there is two sides to Japanese culture: the uber-bizarre futurist technological wonderland and the traditional bits with temples, cherry blossom and what not. Two poles that couldn't be further apart.
On the geekier side of things I visited tech stores jammed packed with the latest gadgets. Seven floors full of everything you could possibly imagine, from the things you'd expect to find to the utterly insane. For example, some of the biggest televisions I've ever seen for sale. Glassesless 3D televisions were for sale - it's only a matter of years before they hit the mainstream. Headsets that give the illusion of sitting in front of a 150-inch television screen. Toilet seats that range from smart to sentient. (Don't press the buttons on the toilet seats, it isn't worth it).
The streets are lined with what at first seem to be arcades but on closer inspection are actually gambling places named "Pichinko". Stepping into one of these places is akin to putting a bucket on your head and having someone bash it with a frying pan whilst stood on top of a giant strobe light. At first they look like rows of slot machines lined up, with many people sat in front of them gambling away. When you look closer you notice that they actually resemble arcade machines combined with old school mechanical pinball. I attempted to have a go at this "Pichinko", it didn't go too well mostly because I didn't have a bloody clue was going on. First you swap your money for a tray full of ball bearings. You then proceed to dump your ball bearings into a blinking machine and twist a knob to shoot your balls at the things inside, all the while it's barking commands at you in Japanese. You can simulate the experience at home: first convert a ten pound note into ten pence pieces, next take your tray of ten pence pieces to the nearest drain and slowly dump them in. Fun!
What you can't get from the photo is the intense noise of it all
The traditional arcades are just as odd. The Japanese seem to really like UFO catchers. You know, the claw games that are impossible to win. No matter which arcade you go into, at least the first few floors are filled with these. I didn't see anyone win anything larger than a lollipop whilst i was there. As you go to the upper floors you get to the traditional arcade machines. I say traditional but really these are computer gamers where the controllers are getting way out of hand. Fancy playing a game where the controller is a giant drum? Check. Want to command mechs with a panoramic screen using your voice? Check. Of course, I had no idea how to play most of these outlandish arcade machines but they are fantastic to gawp at. The higher you go the more insane it gets. On the top floor there are photo booths. Being Japan, these aren't your normal photo booths. These are more akin to photoshop booths. You go in, get your photo taken, then attempt to make yourself look like a plastic doll. Very disorientating. I felt like Father Ted lost in the women's underwear section.
Who discovered that these would be popular?
When you get into more rural areas things couldn't be more different. Kyoto is a city near Osaka that is renowned for its traditional Japanese culture. The place is full of amazingly old trees, some even held up artificially to allow them to live longer. In particular some of its temples are phenomenal. One of the highlights was the Sangusanjen-do temple - the temple of a thousand Buddahs. Inside contains one thousand hand carved Buddah statues stood in perfect formation down the length of the temple, each one unique. Truly a sight to behold.
The oldest cherry blossom tree in Japan, held up by a system of wires
The main reason for visiting Japan was for some friends' wedding, which was a traditional Japanese affair - a once in a lifetime experience in all likelihood. Japanese weddings make English ones seem like a bore. You haven't known confusion until you are stood bowing in a Japanese temple surrounded by unfamiliar faces wondering if your shoes are meant to be on or off. It was at the point where a man in a robe was shaking a stick with bells on at my friend I knew I had lost the plot. Tourists taking photos of the wedding guests taking photos of the bride and groom. Photo Inception. Utter madness. The wedding itself somehow managed to fall on the first day of the height of the Cherry Blossom season, so the wedding itself was a tourist attraction - an odd experience indeed. I wouldn't have missed it for the world.
Congratulations you two, cheers for having me!