Sunday, November 25, 2007

A Tale of Two Cities: Osaka & Kobe

When I wasn't setting off alarms in public restrooms (see below), I passed the weekend bouncing between the cities of Osaka and Kobe. A few fellow female JETs and I took advantage of the Japanese Thanksgiving holiday on Friday to have a long ladies' weekend in urban Japan. Osaka and Kobe are 30 minutes apart, and they're a three-hour ride on the "cheap" train from Fukui.

Our accommodation matched our train: cheap. We stayed in a capsule hotel in Osaka, designed for business travelers and folks who have missed the last subway after a night o' partying in the city. The ¥2500 nightly rate included a toothbrush and a 7' x 7' space to sleep. These small, plastic capsule rooms were stacked on top of each other, but were surprisingly spacious: each room had a TV, mirror, light and radio. Not back for 25 bucks. The capsule served as an excellent base from which to venture out on our various (mis) adventures in the two cities.

The tradition-versus-modernity contrast I found in the toilets of Osaka (again, see below) is indicative of the rest of the place. Osaka, the second-biggest city in Japan, is king of preserving the old while building up the new. Our first stop was Osaka Castle, originally built in 1583. While it looks old from the outside, the modern-day "refurbished" version of the castle has a movie theater in the lobby, an elevator running up all eight of its floors, and an amazing view of the skyscrapers of Osaka from the top.

Our next stop was at the National Bunraku Theater. To describe Bunraku as a puppet show for adults downplays its cultural importance, but that's kinda what it is, in a nutshell. A team of puppeteers (dressed all in black so you don't see 'em) maneuver almost-life-size puppets while a narrator chants all of the characters' parts to the tune of a Japanese shamisen (a guitar-esque instrument). My description sounds a bit bizarre, but the overall effect is amazing - so much so that people sit through the five-hour-long performances without batting an eye. Our jam-packed Osaka agenda didn't include five hours for puppets, so we took in "just" two hours of the play before heading off to dinner.

Ah, dinner. Perhaps the most exciting part of my time in Osaka: we gorged ourselves on the "it's-not-quite-Mexican-but-it'll-do-because-I've-been-in-Japan-for-four-months" flavors of El Pancho, Osaka's finest (err...only) Mexican restaurant. There were a few less-than-authentic aspects to the meal - the fajitas had broccoli in them and the salsa included just a hint of wasabi -but overall, the food wasn't half bad. No corn or mayonnaise in sight...

We rounded out our Osaka experience with a fix of the urban nightlife we've been so desperately missing in rural Fukui. We hit up a club in Amerika-Mura (that's American Village), where the guitarist from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs was spinning tunes as the evening's DJ. From Lonely Planet: "The best reason to come is to check out the hordes of colourful Japanese teens living out the American dream." LP is right on the mark - our fellow club-goers were Japanese teens and 20-somethings, dressed in a funky mix of club clothes and ski wear, with so much Aquanet in their hair that I feared for their safety in the proximity of their cigarette lighters. One of my fellow JETs (also from Chicago, making the city proud) jumped on the fashion victim bandwagon with a green wig and matching eyeshadow. Her wacky outfit scored us a spot right next to the stage and free t-shirts from club promoters. Thanks, M!

Caution: blatant hedonism ahead. While Osaka clings to its traditional roots, Kobe is all modernity, all the time. We strolled to Harbor Land (that's ハーバーランド, Ha-ba Ra-n-do, in Japanese) Kobe's answer to Navy Pier, complete with a Ferris Wheel, overpriced ice cream, and boat tours. While I avoid Navy Pier like the plague in Chicago, I jumped right on the tourist bandwagon in Kobe and - yes - took the harbor cruise. The view from the boat was lovely, and the $4 ice cream was delicious. When in Rome...

Still aglow from the Mexican food we'd eaten in Osaka the night before (or maybe because there were two vegetarians in our group), we decided against lunching on traditional Kobe Beef in favor of more international food. We landed in Kobe's bustling Chinatown, where rows of cheap-crap shops (plastic poop for 100 yen, anyone?) and street-food vendors (mystery fried fish parts, anyone?) beckoned. There's nothing like Chinese food in Japan.

So that's the way Thanksgiving's done in Japan - heaps of food (sometimes it's Chinese), a bit of booze, lots of indulgence, all while being thankful for every last bit. Japan's kinda like America, after all...

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