First impressions of Osaka. An endless city, one district or prefecture bleeding into the next, over and over, with arterial highways that soar overhead and ding you automatically for tolls every few kilometers, courtesy of a system called “Electronic Toll Card.” This means that the most common sign you’ll see on Osaka roads is, appropriately enough, “ETC.”
Down below, the streets are narrow and built at cracked-mirror angles, making each new intersection a life-or-death challenge of translation and navigation for a foreign driver like Jevon, our host. The streets are shared by cars, scooters, and bicycles, democratically yet with no discernible system of communication or hierarchy. As with most metropolises, anything goes, and everything comes with the tacit understanding that you don’t really want to crash into your fellow citizens, because it would interrupt the endless forward motion of the organism.
Hedging in the tiny roads are buildings of all shapes and heights: 50-year-old walk-up tenements, blocky like beige Lego, with the laundry of a hundred housewives drying on balconies; or lumpy glass complexes with rows of shops at street level—often tiny, squeeze-in-between-two-strangers family-owned restaurants with painted red lanterns wafting from awnings. The rest of the businesses are a mixed bag: some are obvious to my foreign eyes, like the chain diners that put bright, plasticized 3D models of their menu options in the display windows, so Gaijin like me can point and pick; and some are totally inscrutable, unless you can be bothered to take pictures of the Kanji script for Google Translate to attempt.
A third kind of shop is my favourite: the signage offers clues in the form of a visual puzzle, often just a well-chosen mascot. So a courier service might use a mother cat, transporting her kitten by the scruff of her neck. Or, on the front of a childcare centre: a friendly kangaroo (representing maternal love) wearing boxing gloves (we’ll protect your kids!). I like this kind of rebus advertising because it seeks out ways to transcend language—plus, the animals are “chibi” adorable, even the smiling puppy that warns foreigners about drug-sniffing dogs at the airport.
On the opposite end of some semantic spectrum, there are the “Engrish” shirts worn proudly by local adults and children alike. Just as Western goofballs sometimes get random Kanji phrases tattooed onto their bodies, the Japanese love random strings of English verbiage. Their shirts bear slogans from the starkly surreal (“Money is Like Much Not Not”) to the suspiciously salacious (“Try My Delicious Salt Beef”). My friends and I, enamoured of nonsense since junior high, have already resolved to start our own Engrish t-shirt company, although our early efforts may be somewhat fueled by jet lag and sleep deprivation: “Real Power Chocolate Right Into My Robot Soul”; “Without Monkeys, No Victory So Why Not Join Honourable Squad Grass”; “Spelunking Dreamers Aren’t the Worst At Hammering.”
We drive down one long street lined with cherry trees, which Jevon assures us is very beautiful in cherry-blossom season. Even now, in high summer, the thick overhanging branches and winding cobblestone paths are enchanting, and probably the closest approximation to a traditional Japanese vista as I’ve seen thus far. But then we roll the windows down, and a city-wide car-alarm disrupts the tranquility. It’s cicada season, which means that every week, a new plague of crickets, each one the size of a dog-tag, descends upon Osaka, chirruping an apocalyptic chorus day and night. I was expecting a noisy city, but I counted on human noise, not the cacophony of insects who properly belong in horror movies.
My friend Jevon lives in a brand new house, tucked into an acute-angle roadway a stone’s throw from his children’s school. However, that stone had best we well aimed; between his house and the school there’s a concrete-walled stream, a brick apartment house, a half-wall surrounding a two-car parking lot, a long, thin playground, and even a patch of rice, grown in the centre of the city due to a tax incentive to use vacant land for agriculture. All these features seem so effortlessly integrated, so incongruously blended, that it’s easy to overlook any of them while meandering through the streets. It’s easy to miss the forest for the car-alarm trees.
Having arrived on a Saturday, the first 36 hours of my time in Osaka has been weekend time, and so the metropolis seems strangely calm. Only once, on a late-night train trip, did we find ourselves salmoning upstream through the human stream, the dense shifting walls of humanity that agree to treat each other as benevolent obstacles, mouldable as they move and adapt to the bottlenecks and forks and vertical tiers of Umeda Station. Girls, returning from some kind of contest, bear temporary tattoos on their cheeks. Middle-aged women wear hygienic masks across their mouths and noses. Somehow, miraculously, a young blind man parts the maelstrom, swinging his white cane in slow, calm arcs as the crowd surges past. Exhausted and overwhelmed, I feel more like the blind man than like part of the crowd.
Riding on the skytrain, I see Osaka at night—still endless, but softer in darkness, illuminated by soothing patterns of vertical staircase lights and back-lit drink dispensers. A gently unfolding, reassuring map of the experience of civilization, nine million strong and growing.