Transforming Osaka: Rear-View Funhouse Mirror

With Japan now firmly in my rear-view mirror, I feel some self-applied pressure to present a bunch of poorly-informed conclusions about the ancient, infinitely nuanced land through which I just stampeded. It turns out rear-view mirrors aren’t a very good tool for detailed analysis, especially when one is driving forward.

Summing up Japan after 10 days is fruitless. Besides, I was never in Japan for Japan. Sure, I did some touristy stuff, like hoofing it up to Osaka Castle, strolling through Nara’s deer-filled parks… um… shopping for Hello Kitty chopsticks… But the fact is, I was there for my friends, and the backdrop could have been Spain or the Sahara or Saturn, it would not have mattered to us. And that’s a bit sad, I guess, and likely frustrating to all the friends whose eyes glowed green with envy when I told them what I’d be up to this summer. Japan is a dream destination for many North Americans, and I feel guilty about my indifference.

It’s like Jasper, 1988 or so. My father driving, Tony and I in the backseat. Every five minutes, Dad’s voice would drift back to us: “Look at that scenery!” “Check it out, mountain goats!” and so on. But his invocations barely made it through the imaginative membrane two kids had constructed, sewn from a dense fabric of private jokes, Monty Python quotes, and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Roleplaying Game Handbook.

Eventually, I think, it got under my Dad’s skin. Maybe he had us pegged as entitled, presumptuous kids, which we were. Maybe he felt like we were being offered something which his childhood had lacked. Now, I can feel the same irritation rising in myself, when I observe my son’s eyes glued to his Nintendo DS (the one I bought for him) while the entire country—and soon enough the world—unfolds in front of him. Why can’t kids just appreciate whatever we tell them is important?

There are valid answers which apply to most kids, and then there’s me and my friends. The general issue is that children just aren’t mature or experienced enough to know what’s unique and deserving of appreciation. When we took X to the zoo the other day, he observed the elephant with mild surprise, but not with the elation you’d expect from a five-year-old. And that’s because… he’s five years old, and what does he know? Maybe elephants are everywhere, and he’s just missed them up till now. Like most kids, he’s much more impressed by what he can do than what he might chance to see.

Eventually, most of us grow up, and bit by bit we learn to cherish moments and visions and experiences that stand out—call them transcendent or sublime or whatever. For a long time, I simply called them capital-m Moments. But there weren’t many of those in Japan for me, and it’s because, like I said, my friends are special. It’s easy to blame arrested development—we grew up physically, but our minds remained childlike, and so we keep on ignoring our magnificent surroundings in favour of our inner slideshows. But I don’t believe that’s it. Because those Moments do exist for me, when awe and joy combine to stop time and make me feel both insignificant and blessed at the same time.

I’ve felt that: reading Coleridge’s poems while sitting in the ruins of Kendal Castle, surrounded by the undulations of the Lake District. Or watching a lightning storm through the stained-glass windows of Saint-Chapelle in Paris, as scored by a chamber orchestra playing Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Or visiting Lumbini, the birthplace of the Buddha, modestly preserved over millennia. Or feeling myself absorbed into the pulse and motion of a metropolis like London or Manhattan.

In this last context, Osaka—a city of 19 million people—should have fit right in. It’s strange that, one of the observations I had most consistently about Osaka was how sparse and empty it could seem. Perhaps, if I’d been left to myself to wander around for 10 days—or if it hadn’t been unflaggingly hot and humid—I’d have noticed more about the city and its inhabitants, and those minute observations would have added up to a Moment or two. Here’s what happened instead.

Since our principal mutual interests are coffee, beer, and Magic: The Gathering, my friends and I framed our odyssey around that stuff. We debated the relative merits of Boss Coffee and Red Ring, two of the chilled java choices found in the city’s ubiquitous drink dispensers (Boss Rainbow Blend is the best, not because of the taste—they’re all pretty disgusting—but because of the gay Columbian drug lord on the label). We raced to the bottoms of countless cans of Asahi, Sapporo, and Kirin. And, as we trudged from train station to electronics store, or from temple to MacDonald’s, we’d adopt the lingo of Magic to liven up the trek: “Tap for more mana” instead of “hurry up”; “Counterspell the traffic lights”; or “Can I borrow some yen? I sent all mine to the graveyard.” Honestly, I don’t know if we said any of those things, but I have no doubt that equally nerdy phrases slipped out all the time. There’s a potent liberation that comes when you’re fairly sure that nobody around you but your friends can understand a word you’re saying.

Jevon likes to joke that, from a Western vantage point, Japan is like The Truman Show crossed with Punk’d: a culture seemingly calculated to test your gullibility with sheer bizarreness, until you finally snap and call bullshit on the entire island. As in: “Okay, I was willing to accept that fish sperm is a delicacy, or that you can pay women to take showers with you, but a milk-based drink called ‘Cowpis’?! Come on!!” For 10 days, we played this game with the gusto of Olympic hopefuls, riffing with juvenile glee upon any sign that bore the slightest hint of the surreal. “University Touch Campus!” “Doche Hair!” “Private Vegetables!”

In short, we were 12 years old again, missing the forest for the trees, or the Moments for the madness. I regret it enough to think it’s worth going back someday, in a different context. But I missed the madness, and now that we’re apart, I miss it again. Friendship is a different sort of sublime, infinitely adaptable and reassuringly portable.


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