Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Sleepless in Osaka

Twenty-six hours after flying out of Exmouth, I finally arrived at my hotel in Osaka. I'd had only three hours of fitful sleep on the plane and was already completely shattered. It was to set the pattern for the entire trip. My journey had begun at midday on the Friday, just around the time that Tori was being examined at Exmouth Hospital as part of a routine pre-natal checkup. On the way I'd had a nine hour transit in Perth where I managed to catch up with some family and see a jazz gig, then got the midnight flight out to Japan with a brief stopover in Hong Kong. As usual I was sitting upright in the rear of the plane. Some new design engineer at Cathay Pacific had brought in a new style of seat since I'd last flown with them. A great entertainment system for each person but seats that don't actually lay back at all. They just sort of slide down and render sleep pretty much impossible. And so I arrived on the Saturday afternoon feeling jaded and worn out but at least with the remainder of the weekend in front of me before I had to work. The reason for the trip was to assist a Japanese customer implementing some security software on their live computer system. As they are a major financial institution they can only bring their application down at a particularly unsociable time of day when nobody really uses their service. And so the work was scheduled to commence at midnight on the Monday night and go until 8:30 in the morning. With little sleep behind me and the prospect of working through the night ahead, I just wasn't sure how to approach it all. If I went to bed too early, I reasoned, I'd just set a pattern where I'd need to be sleeping early on the Monday night and fade before the work was done. So with this misguided approach in mind, I decided that going out until late on the Sunday night was the best preparation for what lay ahead.

Japanese tourists are stereotyped as camera toting people who stop every few metres to take photos of the most mundane and commonplace objects. It could be a photo of a very normal looking house or a shop or a bus stop or even a lamppost. Often in the west they are joked about for what seems to be their relentless need to take a photo of everything they pass. On visiting Japan, I completely understand why. Everything is so different to what you would see in Australia or any other western country. The buildings, the people, the clothes, the signs, the shops. The restaurants with the plastic models of their food in the windows. Neon signs beaming out Japanese characters and caricatures from the sides of buildings and over the busy streets below. Even the lampposts look different. It is as if the Japanese world evolved with a completely separate mindset and with different rules in aesthetics to the west. Which of course is exactly what happened. Western influence is certainly all around, but it has been melded into a Japanese styling. Everything looks completely different. Coming from the tiny Western Australian town of Exmouth to the large bustling metropolis of Osaka is somewhat of a culture shock. While Osaka is less crowded and frenetic than Tokyo, it is all relative. Compared to any of the Australian cities, or even more so a little Aussie coastal town of around two thousand people, there are a lot of people in Osaka. Somewhere in the region of 9 million. I was staying in Shinsaibashi which is one of the major entertainment hubs of the city. There are bars and restaurants everywhere from street level and upwards to the higher floors of the multi-storeyed buildings. All manner of local cuisine are on offer as well as Italian, Chinese, French, Spanish and Indian. The challenge in Japan is to find an establishment either with an English menu, English speaking staff or pictures on the menu so that you can work out what to order. The food is of such great quality however, pretty much everywhere, that it would probably work out well to play dining roulette and just point at some Japanese words on the menu and see what was served up. I can't help myself though, especially on arrival in a new place, to at least try and work out what I'm eating. So it was on this quest for food and a beer on the Sunday night, that I walked through Shinsaibashi looking for the right establishment. The narrow Osakan streets were bustling with people who had been out shopping or who were heading for dinner or a drink. As I walked further from my hotel I noticed that the restaurants and bars suddenly gave way to what appeared to be, for want of a better phrase, gentleman's clubs with a scattering of women out front on the street who were soliciting passers-by. I was approached by a couple of middle aged women asking me bluntly if I was looking for sex. I muttered in the negative and kept walking. Undeterred by this a younger woman followed along beside me for about 50 metres. "You want massage? Want sex?" she enquired. Not particularly perturbed by the offer, but also not interested in making that kind of a transaction, I escaped into a bar where I saw a couple of western looking faces. Perhaps I could get a beer and some respite in here. No sooner had I walked in the door than a well-toned looking American bloke came over to me and asked me my name and where I was from. He told me that his name was Ken and he was from the state of Georgia. "I hear that Australian men are very thick" he told me as he made a fist pump in what I assumed was a gesture to indicate the girth of a man's penis. "Perhaps so", I responded and quickly made my way straight back out the door. It seemed I'd found sex central in Shinsaibashi. I wandered down a block or two, still on my quest for food and drink when a couple of girls from a bar started calling out for me. "Hi there. Come on in here with us". Given my recent encounters I was quite dubious of being hailed from a bar by two attractive Japanese girls. It brought to mind a previous experience in Bangkok where I ended up locked in a bar with men and women yelling all around me, demanding exorbitant amounts of money for the one beer I had consumed and a non-conversation that I didn't have with a working girl. After much argument, I managed to escape more or less unscathed and with most of my money intact, but I was lucky that that was the case. I'd heard stories of guys who had had similar experiences in Bangkok and ended up beaten and bruised and several hundred dollars poorer for the experience. I'd never heard any similar tales associated with Japan. Besides this bar was open fronted with a sign indicating the price of beer and that there was no cover charge. It all seemed harmless enough. As it turned out, it was a good decision to go in. Bar Y8 was a new bar that had been open only for a few weeks and was obviously yet to catch on. The place was completely empty except for Jenny and Christine who were working behind the neon blue bar. I was now the only customer. I sat on a stool up at the bar and talked to the two girls for at least an hour before anyone else came in. Christine was actually from Taiwan. "Do all Australians think that Asian people are yellow faced monkeys", she enquired. I replied that I didn't believe so and that I certainly didn't have that view. She then recounted the story of a friend of hers who was abused in such a manner and then bashed while visiting Australia. I said that yes we do have our own contingent here of stupid people, but believed they were in the minority. (I think I'm right. I hope so). "Every country has ignorant people", I suggested. "Do all Taiwanese people think that Gwailo are white devils", I asked her. She responded, no of course not, but took my point. I had a great night in the bar with these two girls discussing the world and the various places we'd been or wanted to go. I made my way back to my room around 2 and after a good deal of stuffing around and a beer from the mini bar, probably got to bed around 4am. Good practice for tomorrow night I figured. And anyway, if I needed to I could sleep for most of Monday in preparation for Monday night's work. 

It's funny how when you are really tired and in desperate need of sleep that life seems to conspire to deprive you of it even more. That certainly seems to be the way it goes for me anyway. Around 8am on the Monday morning I was woken abruptly by the roar of power tools down below my window. They were accomanied by a computerised version of Greensleeves that rung out in what I guess was an attempt to somehow mask the sound of the tools. The drill would start up and so would Greensleeves. The "music" would stop along with the drilling. I wasn't sure which one of these was annoying me more after only four hours sleep. I tossed and turned for a few more hours until finally I had had enough. Having missed breakfast I decided it must be time for some lunch. That was when I discovered that the power to the hotel had been switched off, apparently linked somehow to the drilling, and that rather than taking the elevator, I had to walk down the stairs of the external fire escape to get to the street. I stumbled in to the specialist ramen restaurant across the road and had one of the finest soups of my life. A sesame and chilli based noodle soup with minced pork and an egg along with a side order of gyoza. Delicious and completely revitalising. Which was just as well as I needed some extra energy to climb my way back up the stairs to get to my room on the 8th floor. At least I had some time now to have a couple of hours sleep before I had to get ready for work. Which of course is when my phone rang. Two and a half hours later after an entertaining and completely enjoyable conversation with my friend Matt in England, the time for any real sleep was gone. I collapsed on the bed desperately for about 30 minutes and an hour later I was downstairs dressed in a suit and tie to meet my colleagues from HP Japan with whom I was to be performing the evening's work. I couldn't help but feel that my preparation for this all night workathon hadn't been ideal.

But somehow I pulled through. Not only did I manage to survive the late shift without nodding off, but on being called to the fore to troubleshoot a potential problem around 6am, I was able to deliver. Apart from a couple of minor configuration hitches along the way, the implementation went smoothly and the customer was happy. Which meant in turn that the HP guys were happy. Which meant that my trip was definitely worth it for all concerned. I was relieved it was over and on arriving back at my hotel had a satisfied breakfast before tumbling into bed around 10:30am. I listened to the continued drilling and a version of Greensleeves that sounded like a cheap electronic "on hold" music from the 90's while I drifted off to sleep.

In the afternoon I went to the best camera shop I've been to in my life. Yodobashi Camera in Umeda, up near Shin-Osaka station, has everything photographic you could possibly think of plus a whole lot more. Catering from beginners looking for their first compact to professionals requiring specialist lighting worth over $30,000 they had it all. I was not surprised when the helpful shop assistant came back to me with the exact model of underwater housing I required for my new Canon S95 compact. All of the Australian shops I'd been to online indicated that they would need to order in the part. Here it was in stock. And for about two thirds of the price. Satisfied that I'd managed to achieve something other than lying in my bed, working or eating, I made my way once more back to my hotel. This time I just dropped off my purchase, along with the other small photographic items and new headphones I couldn't resist buying and wandered sleepily around the streets looking for dinner. I also wanted to see if I could locate the Y8 Bar. I'd promised Jenny that I would come back on my last night in Osaka, so thought that tonight I should probably at least find where it was so that I knew where to go the next night. I was determined to be in bed early so that I was in reasonable condition for work the next day. Jenny saw me from the bar and came running out to the street to greet me. I told her that I wasn't up for sitting in the bar and needed some good nourishing food. After a quick word to the boss, she led me around the block to a different bar, one that served oden, a collection of vegetables, fish balls, egg and tofu individually steamed in a clear broth. A very wholesome meal, washed down by a couple of not quite as wholesome but refreshing beers. Jenny ate some oden with me and went back to work. I finished my meal and fell into bed around midnight.

After my first full night's sleep in 5 days I felt suitably refreshed to tackle my last day in Japan. A day at the HP office reviewing the implementation and planning for the next stages was followed by drinks and dinner at a local izakaya, Japan's equivalent of the tapas bar. The Japanese certainly like their beer, which is perhaps why Australians warm so quickly to the place. I didn't want to be rude so made sure that I drank my fair share before we said our farewells and I went off to my hotel to pack in preparation for my early departure the next morning. I still had to get down to Y8 for a farewell drink there and knew that packing in the morning would undoubtedly pose a greater challenge. When I got to Y8 just before midnight, I could see that business had picked up and there were a few people in. I sat at the bar once more and chatted to Jenny, her friend Yuki, a Japanese rasta guy who they knew and another of their friends who dropped in. It was a very social affair involving more beer and some experimental cocktails until I dragged myself away around 4am. I had to get up at 6 to get to the airport, so I figured I might as well end the journey as I'd begun, albeit this time with the added bonus of a hangover. It had been quite a strange trip. Two visits now to the city and I still haven't made it to Osaka Castle, one of the city's main tourist attractions. I had planned to go down to Kyoto for a day and spend the Sunday night there, but in the end blew that out. In essence I'd stumbled into a nice little local scene in Osaka and had met some local people who made me feel extremely welcome. That always means much more to me than wondering around on my own looking at stuff. My feelings for Osaka are warm. I love going to Japan and look forward to my next trip back.

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