Archive for December, 2005

Final Days in Japan

Wednesday was quite the marathon day for me. It started out with an early morning trip to Kamakura from Tokyo. I dashed over to Shinbashi Station and hopped onto the Yokosuka line for the one-hour train trip. Kamakura is a small seaside town located southwest of the hustle-and-bustle of downtown Tokyo.

At Kamakura, I hopped onto a three-car commuter rail to a more remote part of Kamakura called Hase. When I arrived there at around 8:00 a.m., Hase was still a little sleepy and seemed bit tentative about waking up for the day. It certainly made for a leisurely stroll through the narrow, rural streets on my way to the Daibatsu (or “Great Buddha”) Shrine. As many shrines and temples I’ve visited so far, this one proved to be exceptionally tranquil and filled me with a positive sense of well-being. But that lasted only 20 minutes, and I hopped back onto the train to get back into the Kamakura town proper, where I strolled through Komachi-dori Shopping Street to get to the Tsuru-ga-oka Hachiman-gu Shrine, which is the must-see in a visit to Kamakura. The shrine and its environs were a treat for the senses even before I stepped through the torii (shrine gate). The beautiful day only added to the serenity and wonder of the area. Another 20-30 minutes later, I made my way back down to Kamakura Station, and headed back to Tokyo, to checkout of my hotel. At Tokyo Station, I had a quick lunch while I waited for the Tokaido shinkansen (bullet train) that will take me back to Osaka, and reflected on the four magnificent days that I spent in that dynamic city.

The bullet train ride from Tokyo to Osaka was uneventful, although I made it a point to be on the other side of the train for this return trip, affording me with seaside views that I never knew existed along the route. Three relaxing hours later, I was checking back into my hotel in Osaka, where I met up with my colleague there for an evening of delicious sushi at the hotel’s restaurant. The selection was delectable, and the presentation was superb. We sat at the sushi bar, and the offerings were being made and presented one after another (rather than all at the same time). I ate sea urchin, octopus, and blowfish (yikes!) for the first time. The chef was very particular as to when we can use the soy sauce and when we should not. The sashimi (comprised of tuna, shrimp, and squid) was fantastic; and I ate the best unagi (eel) I had ever had! It made for a wonderful authentic Japanese sushi experience that I knew I couldn’t leave Japan without having.

I also couldn’t leave Japan without having an ofuro (hot bath) experience, so, with the help of the hotel’s purposefully tall bathtub (and hotel-provided Japanese bath salts), I enjoyed a very relaxing dip before retiring to bed. Ironically, it appears that it would be on my last evening in Japan when my body would finally adjust to the time zone.

Thursday morning would prove to be another marathon day in the sense that I took advantage o the fact that I had a later flight, and went on an early morning trip to Kyoto, a city that I was not going to leave Japan without having visited. And I was not disappointed! It was began with a leisurely stroll through Nijo Castle, where I took a majority of my temple pictures due primarily to the natural beauty presented in the castle grounds. It was also at Nijo Castle when I temporarily felt like a celebrity. It happened when a group of Japanese students wanted me to take a picture of them, but had asked me in Japanese, obviously mistaking me for a native. When I expressed sadly that I wasn’t, and that I didn’t understand everything that their “representative” said when he approached me, what followed was a comical “meeting of the minds” where they collectively put together the English phrase “Please…take…picture…” I agreed before being handed five disposable cameras, but still conceded to the task. When I was done taking the pictures, the group swarmed me with each person shaking my hand and saying “Thank you” or “Arigatou gozaimashita.” While this was happening, another group of students approached me and suddenly also wanted to shake my hand, as if doing so was quite the honor. It was the most hilarious thing for the day.

After an hour at Nijo Castle, I hopped on the Tozai Line from the Nijo-mae Station, and got off at Higashiyama Station, located about five blocks from Maruyama Park, which was the spot for another “can’t miss” location in Kyoto, the Yasaka Castle Grounds, which was a magnificent sight indeed. I even got to listen for a Buddhist monk chanting session at the main hall—that was way cool! A short walk further south got me up-close-and-personal with the Yasaka Pagoda, which is a Kyoto landmark. I ate lunch and went souvenir shopping at Gion-dori Shopping Street, before heading back to Kyoto Station to catch the rapid express train back to Tokyo. I had just enough time to pack, say my goodbyes to my colleague and several key staff members at the hotel, before heading to Kansai Airport for my trip back to the United States.

My time in Japan was very brief, but it was also very fulfilling. This trip was 15+ years in the making, and I’m ecstatic that I had finally made it happen. My exploration of the Land of the Rising Sun is far from over, and I intend to come back several times in the future, as there were many locations that I simply didn’t have time to visit during this trip. Ah, the thrill of anticipation! It is currently a little after midnight in the Midwest where I’m staying for a couple of days before heading back to Puerto Rico. It is safe to say that this Japan-trip is a life-altering experience for me, and I shall never take for granted such opportunities to explore other cultures in the years to come.

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Here’s a Tip: Don’t Tip in Japan

Tuesday was more of a relaxed day for sightseeing. I didn’t start until around 10:00 a.m. since, once again, I was up until around 4:00 a.m., and fell asleep at some point. I’ve documented the beautiful day and the gorgeous scenery in the pictures below, so allow me to tell you instead about my Denny’s experience in the wee hours of Tuesday morning.

It was nearly packed with Tokyoites who were at the trail end of their partying or in-between the end of their evening job and the start time of the trains. There were several people sleeping, heads buried in folded arms, which didn’t seem to phase the food servers. A couple of old-timers were reading their newspapers while drinking their endless supply of coffee or tea. There was a group of what looked like high school students (about six boys and one girl) being very rambunctious in the smoking section (which is two-thirds of the restaurant, btw). And—now, here’s the clincher—two Japanese transvestites, who looked amazingly convincing in their get-ups but whose gender-bending plans were betrayed when they spoke with deep, clearly male voices as they paid their bill. (Yes, I was seated quite near the cashier stand…) And the amazing thing was, I quickly looked around to see if people were reacting to the androgynous pair, and they weren’t. I guess this phenomenon is either widely accepted or purposely ignored. Either way, the duo made for absolute hilarity at 3:00 a.m. in Chuo City (the other name for the Ginza district).

The Denny’s “Grand Menu” is most definitely developed to cater to the local crowd. Whereas only one page featured western-style cuisine (i.e. the obligatory hamburger, club sandwich, and French fries, to name a few), all other pages were replete with variations of ramen, bento, yakitori, and even (gulp!) sushi. Almost everything is offered as a setto (“set,” or what is commonly referred to as “combo” in the U.S.), which comes with miso soup and your choice of koohii (coffee) or koocha (black tea). I always opted for o-cha (Japanese green tea) for its flavor and cultural significance.

My server was a nice young lady whose nametag read “E. TOMONE” so I referred to her as Tomone-san during my conversations with her, which elicited smiles and courteous bows. She didn’t speak much English, so, combined with my broken Japanese, I’m surprised that she got my food order correct. Of course, it does help dramatically by having pictures on the menu that I could point to and simply state “Kore wa hoshiin desu ga.” (“I would like this please.”) I ordered some breaded chicken dish, which came with rice, miso soup, and pickled vegetables. When I was finished, I asked Tomone-san for dezaato (“dessert”). She showed me the menu, and I opted for a bowl of green tea ice cream (which, sadly, actually sounded better than it tasted).

Now, I have to note that there is no tipping in Japan, which is an absolute adjustment for me since I am in the service industry. All pricing includes service and tax, and the service industry professionals in Japan would actually refuse to accept a tip. (I know, shocking!) Well, anyway, my Denny’s bill payment escapade proved this ever more so poignantly. My bill was for ¥1200 yen (approx. $9 USD), and I gave the cashier/server lady a ¥1000 yen note plus a ¥500 yen coin. Because the change was only the equivalent of $2.50 USD, I told her “Otsiru wa kekko desu.” (which means “keep the change”) and she all but short-circuited where she stood, with her mouth agape but slightly shyly smiling, a raised cupped right hand holding the three ¥100 yen coins, uttering “Ano…ano…” (“Uhm…uhm…”) while nervously looking at her co-worker on the other side of the counter. I tried my best to assure her, saying “Anata ni, sore wa desu. Saabisu ga, doumo arigatou gozaimashita.” (“That is for you. Thank you very much for your service.”)

This was when her co-worker came to assist her, asking her “Daijobu desu ka?” (“Are you alright?”) She babbled to him in Japanese that I couldn’t catch, but I’m certain it had something to do with me giving her a tip, and her asking him what she should do about it. I noticed nearby customers look up from their papers, or stop their talking, or temporarily awake from their nap, to look in my direction. The co-worker then took the coins, turned to me, bowed, apologized, and said in a strained English that the service charge is included, and that the tip is not necessary. For fear that I would cause a riot, I took the coins, put them in my pocket, again saying thank you, and bolted out the door.

Now, this was not the only exciting thing that happened to me today, but I must dedicate this blog entry to this alone in order to immortalize Japanese service culture. Ja mata ne!

Just Another Beautiful Day in Japan

Ii o-tenki desu ne! It was a beautiful and sunny 52°F in Tokyo on Monday, and I started it off with changing my train and hotel reservations so that I can leave Tokyo one day later than originally planned. (This, of course, means that I stay in Osaka just one evening before I depart, instead of two—which, of course, would make the Osakans very, very sad indeed—but that’s fine by me!) I got to Tokyo Station just before 7:00 a.m., hoping to beat the rush hour and, you guessed it, the rush hour had already begun by then. A swarm of Tokyoites rushed to and fro around me while I walked rather leisurely, with a distinct skip in my step akin to an ebonics-speaking brotha. I was able to change my train ticket without incurring any additional fees, so that made me happy. While at the station, I also inquired about and ended up purchasing a Tokyo Free Pass (which isn’t actually free—it simply means that I have unlimited use for one day of all the train, subway, and bus lines in the 23 wards of Tokyo). At ¥1580 yen (approx. $12.00 USD), it was certainly a bargain because I was a train-hopping freak today! Plus, there was a certain type of power involved in being able to flash the Pass at the station gate attendants, which elicits honorific bows as I egress. Well, at least I believe they were bowing, although, for all I know, they could’ve simply been looking for a coin that they dropped at exactly the same time as I am passing through their booth window. However, for that to happen as many times as it did today would be too much of a freaky coincidence even for my tastes.

A trip to Tsukiji Fish Market was entertaining. The open-air market featured merchants selling fresh seafood and variety of Japanese cooking/kitchen utensils and wares. There were several sushi restaurants within the network of alleyways that encompassed a 6-square-block radius, and a couple of them were already open and serving freshly made sushi, sashimi, maki, you name it (at 8:00 a.m.!) I guess that would be typical Japanese breakfast? Actually, I think it’s just one of many “typical” breakfasts in Japan. One such is what I had prepared for me by an attendant at the executive level at the hotel in Osaka several days ago. It consisted of miso soup, pickled vegetable, some sort of soft-gooey rice lightly flavored with a dash of a soy sauce/sweetened water combination, some soba noodles, and, of course, green tea (referred to as o-cha). It wasn’t as filling as the American way of feeding oneself when or before the sun rises, but I certainly enjoyed the experience. Although, breakfast every morning after that had involved a helping of Special K or any “All-American” fare (including, ahem, any of the tasty sandwiches at McDonalds). When I’d had my fill of the sights, sounds, and smells at Tsukiji, I headed toward the International Arcade, a (supposedly) recommended spot at which to purchase inexpensive souvenirs. To put it simply, I was gravely disappointed. But, that also meant that I saved some money. The rest of the morning was spent wandering around the beautiful Hama-rikyu Gardens, located only several blocks from the hotel, where peace and tranquility—amidst a rapidly awakening city—surrounded me.

Next stop was a trip to Roppongi to visit the landmark Tokyo Tower, which is featured in many Japanese films and has certainly attained iconic status worldwide. Fashioned after Paris’s Eiffel Tower, the Tokyo Tower stands 333 meters (approx. 1,092 feet), and offers magnificent views of the Tokyo landscape and its surrounding topography, including a beautiful, albeit faraway, sight of Fuji-san (Mt. Fuji). The day was incredible for photography, and Tokyo never looked more impressive and amazing to me as it did while viewing it from the “special observation” level, located 250 meters (approx. 820 feet) from the base of the Tower. From there, I could also see the most recently developed area of Odaiba, where the architectural wonder, Fuji-TV building—again, a Tokyo icon—is located.

Then, it’s off to Harajuku at the famous Takeshita-dori (Takeshita Shopping Street), which is home to storefront-after-storefront of merchandise designed to appeal to Tokyo’s hipsters and the general “youth” public. While walking this street, I was surrounded by young people wearing today’s Tokyo fashion, and by oodles and oodles of Japanese, um, students. (Boy, they make those skirts really short…ahem…) Thankfully, I walked out of Takeshita-dori with nothing in hand, or I would’ve been ridiculed elsewhere for wearing whatever I would’ve bought there.

My excursion took me to the famous Meiji Shrine Park, wherein the famous Meiji-jinja (Shinto shrine) sat awaiting my visit. It was amazingly peaceful and the scenery was breathtaking. It was then that my camera battery decided to no longer work, and I had to contend with the “still photos” feature of my digital camcorder to (try to) document the area’s awe-inspiring appeal. I said a little prayer the left just before the garden closed at 4:00 p.m. Then, it was off to Shibuya, another trendy, youthful hangout, just south of Harajuku. (I swear I’m not a perv…) Shibuya was just like any “downtown” location, but definitely had a much younger feel. There were still the suits and the business dresses all over the place, but there were more Japanese teenagers still in their school garb swarming around the area. I didn’t last long in Shibuya before I headed back to Roppongi Hills for a quick beverage at the Hard Rock Café. (Sorry, I had to stop into one…)

Dinner was at a mom-and-pop place in Ebisu (south of Shibuya), after a brief visit to the Ebisu Garden Place, an upscale mall developed by the people of Sapporo Beer. Unfortunately, the Beer Museum Yebisu was already closed when I got there. (Oh, well…I’d rather have real beer anyway, which is what I did at a pub called “What the Dickens,” which was recommended by the guidebook. I had the katsu-kare (which is breaded pork loin served with rice and curry sauce), which came with a bowl of hot miso soup and pickled vegetables (a staple in Japanese meals). Then, I hopped on Hibiya Line, got off at the Higashi-Ginza station, and made the two-block trek back to the hotel.

My feet, leg muscles, and lower back are still killing me right now, and it’s already Tuesday morning! Today, I’m thinking about going to Kamakura (about 1 hour by train from Tokyo) or to Yokohama (about 30 minutes by train from Tokyo). Or I might just tool around the city for a bit more, since I still haven’t seen the Edo Castle or a kabuki play. Well, I guess it depends on how my feet, leg muscles, and lower back feel in a couple of hours. Ja mata ne!

Sunday Escapades

Tokyo is indeed exceptionally vibrant, featuring an exponentially comprehensive rail and subway system, which (thanks to my experience in Osaka) I learned how to use pretty easily as well—despite everything, including the ticket purchase machines, being in Japanese (except for the JR Lines stations and ticket purchase machines, which are bilingual). It was an early start for me this morning, primarily because I, once again, fell asleep last night at around 7:30 p.m., and woke up at midnight. I kicked myself for doing that again since I really wanted to experience the Ginza and Shinjuku districts on my first evening in Tokyo. I went out anyway and discovered that Tokyo actually does sleep—at least, the part of the city where the hotel is located. Hence, walking around Ginza at 12:30 a.m. didn’t prove useful. Plus, it felt as if the temperature was at about 40°F with an equally low wind chill factor. Hence, I went back to my hotel room to try to get some sleep. I ended up Yahoo! Messaging with littlebrownbrother in California for a bit, thanks to the time difference and my being awake in the wee hours of the morning. I learned from the Front Desk Clerk that the Yamanote line begins at 5:30 a.m., so I decided that I would visit a few places early this morning, just to get my bearings.

I stopped over first at Shinjuku to see what all was there (and ultimately will be there upon my return in the evening). At around 8:30 a.m., I started to feel incredibly sleepy, so I headed back to the hotel for a light nap. (I asked for a wake-up call from the hotel operator in order to avoid that particular nap from turning into hibernation.) At 11:00 a.m. on the dot, my phone rang. Sleepily, I listened to the operator tell me in English-but-with-a-strong-Japanese-accent, “Good morning! It’s time to wake-up!” I thanked her, and was about to ask for a 15-minute follow-up call, when she suddenly repeated her initial statement of “Good morning! It’s time to wake-up!” It was then that I realized that it was an automated wake-up call message. (I am so not used to that anymore…)

After a quick shower, I was out the door, and my destination was Asakusa, which is dubbed “Riverfront District” and is home to the famous outdoor marketplace called Nakamisa-dori, which leads visitors to the Asakusa Kannon Temple complex. I forewent my plans of going on the Asakusa-Odaiba River Tour when it began (and continued to) rain in the city. Instead, I hopped back on the subway and went to Akihabara, and, in particular, an area called “Electric Town,” which is home to store-after-store of merchants hawking all kinds of electronic equipment from razors to DVD players to iPod nano—all at pretty reasonable, competitive prices. I was so close to buying this personal DVD player, which one merchant was selling for ¥9000 yen (or approximately $75 USD) until I decided that I really didn’t need one. Man, that took some self-talking out of! Then, I wandered into a “mall” called Yodobashi, which turned out to be like a CompUSA-on-steroids. It was clearly an electronics specialty “department store,” with eight levels of categorized shopping areas, plus a café on the rooftop. Yodobashi is an electronics-junkie paradise, wherein techno-geeks and otherwise alike can meander through a myriad stalls of gear, media, and Japanese-style toys (i.e. mecha, Hello Kitty, etc.). It was at Yodobashi where I learned about yet another perversion that can only come from and happen in Japan—hentai made to be viewed specifically on the Playstation 2 console! There was literally approximately six back-to-back stalls of titles available for easy purchase. Some of them were actually games! (Yeah, I bought one…) A quick trip back to the hotel followed the Yakihabara stop in order for me to drop off my wares.

Again, my sleep-deprivation habits have caught up with me, so I took a two-hour respite. When I awoke, zaa-zaa wa ame ga futte imasu (loosely translated: it was raining cats and dogs). Hence, I did what most Tokyoites do on a rainy day: I sat in a coffee shop and read a book. There is a surprisingly large number of Starbucks locations in Tokyo; however, I went to the Tully’s, located about a block from the hotel, for my java fix. Tully’s is a coffee shop chain that is mostly west coast USA-oriented (primarily California). So, imagine my surprise when I saw one here in the Ginza district! I had my obligatory chai tea latte, and settled into a window-side table, from where I can periodically look up from my Tokyo Guide Book, and look at people rushing to and fro despite the rain.

An hour later, my ADD/HD got the better of me, and I headed to the Higashi-Ginza station, hopped on the Hibiya line and headed toward the Roppongi neighborhood (specifically to Roppongi Hills), which is locally called “the expat’s playground” because this is where Americans living/working in Japanese tend to live and hang out due to the familiar mercantile and services landscape. This is also where “classy” strip clubs are located, and I can certainly vouch for (at least one of) them. (ahem…) There was upscale shopping everywhere—from Louis Vuitton to Zara to Armani (from the likes of which I stay away and for which I generally am not interested)—so I mostly did some window-shopping. I had a drink at a nice-looking bar called “Maduro,” but forewent dinner until I returned to the Ginza district’s “Yakitori Alley” (where I consumed a heaping bowl of ramen from one of the merchants—sorry, littlebrownbrother, but I had the pork!), and returned to the hotel at a pretty decent hour. I’m going back to Roppongi Monday afternoon (when the weather forecast is supposed to be partly sunny) to take some pictures of and from the Tokyo Tower.

Unfortunately, the little naps did affect my sleeping habits again, and I am now still awake at 3:00 a.m. But, that’s okay; at least, I can keep up on my blog. Ja mata ashita (see you tomorrow).

Arrived in Tokyo

We ain’t in Osaka anymore…I arrived in Tokyo about a half-hour ago, and am currently winding down from my 2-1/2 hour train ride on the Tokkaido Shinkansen. Tokyo Station was a madhouse, as I arrived right in the middle of rush hour. I’d meant to take the Yamanote Line to the Shinbashi Station, which is a shorter distance to the hotel, where I would’ve hopped in a cab and probably spent only ¥660 yen (approx. $5.50 USD). Instead, I caught a cab directly from Tokyo Station to the hotel; the 15-minute ride cost me ¥3,220 yen (approx. $26 USD). I’d heard that taxi fares in Tokyo was horrendous, but this was ridiculous. Oh, well, that was the price I paid for comfort. The room at this hotel is exceptionally small (see photo), and seemed about 1/3 of the room that I had at the hotel in Osaka. Oh, well, again, since I don’t intend to be cooped up in a guestroom anyway. Alright, time to explore T-town. Blog you later…

Tokyo Bound

It is 7:00 a.m., and I’ve been up since midnight. This is because I actually fell asleep at around seven last night. I hadn’t planned on napping or even sleeping at that hour, but the very long nap I had the other night may have been enough to throw off my sleep cycle. I’ve really got to get this corrected. But, then again, once I get to Tokyo, the other city that “never sleeps,” maybe I actually want to be up after midnight so that I can take in the afterhours scene (which, of course, is one of many things Tokyo is known for). It appears that it’s going to be a beautiful day in Osaka, which should then promise to be a wonderful day for train travel. That’s right: I’m taking a bullet train, called the Tokkaido Shinkansen, to Tokyo. Then, at Tokyo Station, I’m going to transfer to the Yamanote Line for a couple of stops to Shinbashi Station, closest to which the hotel I’m staying at in Tokyo is located. I will be there by 5:00 p.m. today, and, as soon as I drop off my belongings at the hotel, plan on hiting the ground running. This is due, primarily, to the fact that I’d lost one day of Tokyo time when American Airlines lost my luggage. But, enough about that. Tokyo, here I come!

Beneath The Surface

Day Two in Osaka was quite interesting. I woke up at five this morning, which was very unfortunate since I wanted to sleep in on my vacation. It would seem that the comfortable bed still did not allow me to escape my body’s alarm clock which, evidently, is perpetually set for 5:00 a.m. It turned out to cater to one of the highlights for today, which was to witness a beautiful Osakan sunrise. (Of course, it took place an hour and 45 minutes later, but it was so worth it.) I downed five cups of hot tea in my room—and thought at least three or four times about going to the gym—before finally meeting up with a colleague of mine for breakfast at the hotel’s executive level. We chatted a bit about his life in Japan so far, after moving here only seven months ago, and how much he’s come to believe that Americans are both loved and hated in this part of the world. I fought the urge to correct him on the fact that it isn’t just the Americans that would appear to befall this love-hate relationship, which the Japanese have been known to have with foreigners.

Breakfast with my expatriate colleague proved even more fruitful because I learned from him about the Umeda Underground, which is a network of subterranean walkways underneath the most central part of the Umeda district (at the outer rim of which the hotel was located), connecting a multitude of major hotels, office buildings, shopping centers, train stations, food pavilions, and movie theaters. A brief stop at Starbucks made for a quick fix of chai tea latte, which, despite the gallons of hot tea that I’d already consumed that morning, was a craving that I simply couldn’t curb. I took the time at Starbucks to study the map of the Underground, that I got from the hotel Concierge, in order to plot out my journey. I noticed hordes of bicycles neatly parked across on the sidewalk immediately in front of the coffee shop. (It would be later in my foot travels that I realized this scene repeated itself endlessly in front of almost every building in downtown, which wasn’t too surprising since I’ve had to learn how to instinctively dodge urban cyclists that are, unfortunately, allowed to weave in-and-out on the sidewalk amidst their non-wheeled co-pedestrians.) Deciding that I should begin my underground adventure from the hotel, I headed out of Starbucks back into the surprisingly very temperate Osaka morning. While walking, I noticed that I appear to be the only one among the hundreds of pedestrians who was holding a cup of coffee. It was then that I was reminded that the Japanese considered it a major breach of etiquette to eat or drink while walking in public. This would also explain the virtual absence of trash receptacles on the sidewalks (which is a mainstay in American metropolitan areas), and yet the city is remarkably clean. Sheepishly, I darted into the closest alleyway I could find, and downed my drink. Triumphant, I returned into the crowd and continued my walk. The problem was, I couldn’t find a damn trash receptacle to discard the empty cup. So, I tossed it onto the pavement and ran away as fast I could, leaving behind a trail of shocked faces. (I’m kidding, of course, but the thought did my cross my mind.)

The walkways themselves measured roughly 3,800 meters (or approximately 2.3 miles) in combined length. So, because I wanted to explore the Underground, I ended up doing a lot of walking this morning and into the afternoon, which was fine with me since I double-dutied it with some shopping (for just the necessities, mind you; that is if you considered two long-sleeved button down shirts, a pair of jeans, and a denim jacket “necessities”). And, although I had a map (two in fact), and the Underground had clearly marked signage, it was still all I could do not to get lost. This, of course, meant a lot of backtracking and u-turns, which, of course, added a few more miles to the total count. It didn’t help that from every direction came throngs of Japanese, who all whizzed by me as if they were all late for a meeting (including two older ladies, dressed in traditional kimono, who shuffled past me at one point), which served to add to my disorientation. My colleague advised me to simply resurface every once in a while to get my bearings, and look for the hotel, which supposedly was the tallest building in Umeda. The thought about this suggestion being useful disappeared after realizing that every damn building that surrounded me every time I surfaced appeared to be the tallest from my vantage point.

But, getting lost again proved its expected worth, because I got to explore some parts of Osaka that most definitely did not end up on the tourist map. One such place was Namco City, which, contrary to what gamers all over the world would expect from a well-known video game development company, was actually home to a sea of Pachinko parlors inasmuch as arcade halls. The surprising twist was the inclusion of “adult entertainment” establishments that completed the offerings in this unique complex. (I guess that when the Japanese come to play, they really come to play.) Another discovery was an aboveground entrepreneurs’ paradise called Tenjimbashi-Suji Shopping Street (see Internet photo above), which was home to storefront-after-colorful-storefront of merchants, restaurants, and (of course) Pachinko parlors that catered primarily to local Osakan shoppers, who wanted to avoid the high prices and cosmopolitan trappings in the central Umeda district. This meant, of course, that being able to speak Japanese became extremely mandatory—add to that the fact that Osaka is also the only major city in Japan that has a separate distinct dialect. But, that didn’t phase me, and I went about my merry way along the very busy thoroughfare. The sights, sounds, and smells (emanating from the mom-and-pop restaurants that dotted the area) were at once very overwhelming and surprisingly calming that I know I was smiling a lot as I meandered through the crowds. I’m pretty certain that several Osakans were frightened at the sight of whom they had probably considered to be a crazy gaijin (foreigner) who unexpectedly found his way into their forbidden lair. After what seemed like forever at Tenjimbashi-Suji, I remained on the surface streets, and relied on the walking map and landmarks to guide me back to the central Umeda district.

This afternoon at the hotel, an impromptu nap unfortunately turned into an unplanned five-hour slumber. I guess all that walking made me more tired than I thought. Even so, I ventured out again into the Osaka evening, which was complete with building-side neon lights akin (but not entirely similar) to what Billy Murray or Scarlet Johanson enjoyed at Tokyo’s Shinjuku Station (a reference to those of you who’ve seen the movie, Lost in Translation). The parked bicycles still abound, but they were mostly collected in front of late night noodle shops, Pachinko parlors, restaurants and bars, and suspiciously numerous in front of rabbu hoteru (“love” hotels; you figure it out). It’s 10:30 p.m., I hadn’t eaten dinner and was a little hungry, but I wasn’t particularly in the mood to go to a restaurant or even a fast-food joint (which was not difficult to find). Hence, before heading back to the hotel, I stopped by the AM/PM mini-mart (I kid you not!) that was about three blocks from the hotel, and picked up a light Japanese snack, which consisted of a large bowl of instant ramen, crab salad deli sandwich, shrimp flavored rice crackers, a chocolate candy bar, and a tall bottle of iced green tea. Total cost of “dinner”: ¥2,300 yen (or approximately $19 USD).

When I returned to the hotel, the most significant highlight of my day was seeing a very well known American celebrity being ushered from the hotel’s front doors, through the lobby, and toward the elevators. She had about six “bodyguards”, of a mixture of her own and who what I could only assume was hotel security. Because of my deeply ingrained company oath to maintain the privacy of celebrities that stay at our hotels, I can’t tell you who it is, but I’ll give you a couple of clues: it starts with The Mouseketeers and ends with Lady Marmalade, with a mixture of Genie in the Bottle in the middle. (If you can’t figure this out, you have no right reading this blog.) How lucky am I to see this celebrity in person during my Japan trip!

As I type this blog entry, I’ve consumed everything but the chocolate candy bar and rice crackers, and my full belly is making me tired enough again to go back to sleep. A Japanese gameshow is blasting on the TV as background noise—it was Jeopardy meets Family Feud meets Batttle of the Network Stars. It was comical but typical of the broadcast specialty in this part of the world. This evening, I finally gave in to purchasing a disposable camera, which I will use tomorrow on my sightseeing adventures. I was trying to hold off on buying one until my digital camera arrived with the rest of my luggage tomorrow (hopefully), and had to battle an “impulse buying” compulsion when I saw a Sony Cybershot being sold for ¥45,000 yen (or approximately $375 USD) at one of the electronics stores at the Whity-Umeda Underground Mall. But, a picture is worth more words than any I could use to describe the beauty and wonder that surround me in Osaka, and I hope to begin posting some for you by tomorrow evening. Until then, oyasumi nasai.

Japan date and time: 12/01/05 @ 11:45 p.m.
UPDATE: It is 2:22 a.m. and I am still awake. That 5-hour afternoon nap is costing me big time. Peace!
UPDATE 2: It is 4:04 a.m. and I am still awake! I’ve decided that I would simply stay awake, and watch Japanese TV and/or surf the net. In about an hour, I’ll head out and see what all wakes up early in Osaka. Peace!