Thursday, March 25, 2010

Da ya shink I'm sexy?

Or, 'You Kansai what you want but it won't change my mind'.

I'm writing this on paper - remember writing on paper? - on the third of five non-bullet trains making its ponderous way from Tokyo to Akayu. My spring break is almost over.

The trip began at the ungodly hour of 06:50 on thursday, as myself and two fellow ALTs caught the first southbound shinkansen, or 'shink' as us gaijin abbreviate it, with casual disregard for Japanese syllabary. That's a bullet train to you. It was my first time on a shink, and while they are undoubtedly fast, the ride is so smooth that you don't really feel like you're hurtling along at almost 200mph. I think I was hoping for blueshift or something.

After a quick change at Tokyo, we were headed west to our first destination: Japan's second city, Osaka. We arrived at lunchtime, and wasted no time in hitting an Indian restaurant right outside the station; my excitement towards international cuisine is shared by most of us foreigners in not-so-cosmopolitan Yamagata. In the curry house, the people at the next table over were talking in English. This really weirded me out; I've not been able to eavesdrop in eight months, since usually anyone in my vicinity speaking my language would be known to me. Generally, I was amazed at how many white faces I saw in the big city. In fact, if I'm honest I slightly resented it - I've grown accustomed to being unique.

Bellies agreeably full of naan, we headed for our hotel. We really hit the jackpot in that regard - we had essentially a basic suite for the four of us (one member of our party would rendezvous with us later) for 3000yen (£22) per person per night. I would heartily recommend the 'Weekly Mansion' chain to anyone travelling in Japan.

The hotel was not far from Osaka Castle, so we went there first. After strolling around the surrounding park for a while - where a few precocious cherry trees were just beginning to show their eagerly-awaited pink flowers - we had only about half an hour to see the castle itself. This was fine, as we headed straight to the top for the view, and then just gave the exhibits within a cursory glance. This trip has really proved to me that I have negligible interest in history.

Although I was brought into this holiday at the last minute due to someone's parents being unable to fly to Japan, I ended up being the leader, at least for the Osaka leg. This is because I possessed: GPS; the relevant pages from the excellent Wikitravel saved on my Archos; a Lonely Planet guidebook I grabbed from my bookshelf as an afterthought; and an anal, uptight disposition. Essentially, I was Jamie from EuroTrip.

So, I led my party to Dotombori for dinner. Both of my information sources said that it was the best district in Osaka to eat, but what really swung it for me was that LP said it brought to mind Blade Runner. Fortunately they meant it was bustling and neon-filled rather than turgid and overrated. I loved it there; it had an exciting, edgy atmosphere but managed not to feel seedy or threatening.

Thanks to LP, I knew that there was a reasonably-priced fugu restaurant there. Fugu is pufferfish, the Japanese delicacy that notoriously contains a deadly neurotoxin (TTX, neuroscience fans). For this reason, it is illegal to sell it anywhere in the EU. Undeterred, we made a beeline for the huge illuminated pufferfish overhanging the street. Once inside, we each ordered the most fugu-heavy set meal we could find on the menu, featuring fugu sashimi, fugu sushi, grilled fugu, battered fugu, and fugu soup.

If one eats very high-grade fugu prepared by a master chef, a small amount of poison is deliberately left in, such that one's mouth begins to feel numb. I am sorry to report that we experienced no such loss of oral sensation. In terms of taste, I'd say fugu is a decidedly average fish - I'd take some succulent blood-red tuna any day of the week. However, I was very pleased to have another iconic Japanese experience under my belt, and at only 3000yen (still £22), I think we got a bargain.

We then met up with our fourth member, who - like the aquatic vertebrate in question - was gutted to have missed out on the fugu. As no trip to a big city is complete without some observation deck action, we went to the Umeda Sky Building, a bizarrely shaped futuristic tower. The views from the top were impressive, but evidently the people in charge thought that wasn't enough to justify the admission fee, and that the attraction needed a 'concept'. They went for 'love', so there were lots of artsy heart motifs and spurious touchy-feely exhibits scattered around the place. They didn't add a whole lot to the experience for me.

Thanks to the considerable generosity of the aforementioned absent parents, we had tickets to see the sumo on friday. Pretty good tickets at that - when I saw sumo in Tokyo three years ago we were in the seats right at the back, but this time we had a box much closer to the dohyo (ring). This isn't quite as good as it sounds, though; it's not like at football, where a box is a place for corporate types to enjoy prawn sandwiches and champagne in a private glass-fronted room. No, we had an area about a metre square delineated with metal poles, containing four cushions.

Quick sumo lesson: There are six sumo tournaments a year, each lasting 15 days. This happened to be day 6. The bouts go on all day from around 08:30 to 18:00. In the morning the rookies fight, and as the day progresses they move up through the ranks, finishing with the elite yokozuna class.

So, here's my top tip for enjoying sumo. Go along before lunch to watch the n00bs. Very few people bother turning up at this stage, so you can sit right beside the ring and no-one will hassle you. We did this, and we were close enough to reach out and grab a flabby buttock as the wrestlers entered and exited (though such behaviour would of course be ill-advised to say the least). Also, the elaborate ceremony is striped down to a minimum for the lower ranks, meaning that you see more actual action. Once you've had your fill, go away for lunch and maybe some sightseeing. Try to get back by about 3pm - that's when the televised coverage starts. The atmosphere is now very different, with a packed house and lots of flashing cameras and cheering.

In common with other sports that feature brief moments of excitement separated by protracted periods of dicking around (I'm looking at you, cricket) people view it as a kind of picnic opportunity, with a heavy emphasis on boozing. Fortuitously, no-one claimed the box adjacent to ours, so we could spread out, stretch our legs, and decadently quaff back warm sake. It was a very pleasant way to spend an afternoon.

During our lunchtime break we went in search of kushikatsu, kebabs fried in a doughy batter that are an Osaka specialty, according to Wikitravel. After accosting a random old man for directions (where my anal planning stops, my companions' chutzpah begins), we found a kushikatsu joint that was queued out the door. It took an age for us to get seated, since everyone sits linearly along a bar, and it took a long time for a block of four consecutive vacant seats to open up. I really wished they would just defrag the restaurant. Anyway, once seated, you order a bunch of kebabs for 105 yen (76p) a piece, containing anything from meat to seafood to vegetables to cheese. You dip these in what can only be described as small buckets of tangy dark sauce (being careful to observe the strict rules prohibiting double-dipping) before eating, and you can munch on cabbage leaves while you wait for you next consignment of doughy lollies. It's a fun way to dine, and the deep-fried kebabs were greasy but delicious. I particularly recommend the sweet potato. Keep it quiet though; the concept of battering chips could push Scotland's health service over the edge.

That concludes the Osaka leg of our adventures, so it seems like a good place to leave it. Stay tuned for fake geishas, fake ninjas, fake maids, and an unplanned capsule stop.

Update: I'm now on train 4 of 5, i.e. comfortably back in the inaka (countryside) and a drunk man getting off the train asked me (in English) where I'm from (I went with 'Scotland', not 'Akayu') and gave me a can of Asahi. I'm special again!


  1. Glad to hear you're taking a firm line on double dipping.

  2. I've been on a bullet train too now! They have a carriage of one at the National Railway Museum in York. Pretty awesome!

  3. Catching up with your adventures. We have had had some good laughs. Fantastic news about your paper -congratulations. Some great new photos - loved the winter scenes on the slopes and the winter lanterns. Can't wait for the cherry blossom! Katy

  4. The author here speaks of attending a sporting event, and even goes on to consider the merits of corporate hospitality dining! No Finlay Stewart that I recognise! A trip to Ross County and a pie await you when you get home!!! Dad

  5. Danny: their rules, not mine. I still retain my laissez-faire stance on double-dipping.

  6. Dad: Make it a haggis kushikatsu and I'm in.

  7. I'm with your dad finlay - I was up at dingwall the other night right enough and the pies were ... well ...... just pure magic!