Japan: Bring Your Own Slippers

What a stressful, confusing, and absolutely marvelous day.

It started with a phone call from my editor Tim. He was in Chicago, and just learned that there was a mechanical delay and that he would not be making the connecting flight to Osaka out of San Francisco. On the positive side, this left me with an entire row in economy plus to stretch out and sleep for the 11 hour flight. The downside to this was that I would be flying solo in the meetings on Monday.

I will let you know how that goes later today. Or tomorrow. Or was that yesterday? I don't know anymore. I woke up Saturday morning at 4:30 for a flight and now it's Sunday night.

No, I can't tell you who won the AFC & NFC Championship games... I crossed the date line on a 747, not a DeLorean.

My flight landed at Kansai International Airport outside of Osaka around 4pm local time and after a photo, fingerprints, and bag-search I was officially in. I made my way through the airport to the train station and, surprisingly enough, managed to purchase a ticket, board the right train, and make it 75-minutes through the suburbs to downtown Osaka all on my own. From there it was just a short 5 minute cab ride to the hotel.

In attempt to keep with the local customs, I took my shoes off upon entering my room and, to very little surprise, found the complimentary slippers barely extending past my arch. They're so cute. Good thing I brought my own... ahh, the benefits of doing a little research ahead of time.

The hotel is in the northern business portion of Osaka known as the Kita district. It doesn't have the bustling nightlife of the south side of the river (where I hope to head with Tim on Tuesday) but it does have a very lengthy underground shopping mall that links the many subways, train stations, and hotels together.

I took a business card from the front-desk and a map I couldn't read and headed out in search of dinner. A short walk down a rather welcoming alleyway lead me to the entrance to the underground mall. There was something spectacularly risky about going underground and potentially popping back out somewhere far from my hotel that I found attractive so I went for it.

Much of the shops and restaurants in this glorified mile-long subway terminal were closed. It's a Sunday night, after all. I eventually came to a McDonalds and put my head down and kept walking. I was in search of -- there's one! -- a red lantern, the tell-tale sign of an izakaya.

I knew I wanted to eat at an izakaya and I thought I was prepared to do so, but these places (counter-style pubs) are very much the domain of the locals and, so I've read, will go out of their way to discourage gaijin like me from entering (usually because they know it will be hard to communicate). I ducked under the plastic curtain and took a seat at the counter.

And immediately had a brain fart. I forgot how to even order a beer. I forgot I had a phrase book in my pocket. I spaced out, competely.

Fortunately for me, at the far end of the 6-person counter, sat a stylish young couple who spoke english. Turns out they live in Osaka, but the husband has a friend who, get this, lives in Tacoma, WA. He helped order for me, got me an Asahi Super Dry -- my favorite Japanes beer -- and then I took it from there.

The izakaya consisted of a counter with six stools and behind it was barely enough room for two people to stand. The main food here was fried skewers of everything you could ask for. Just like American bar-food, only smaller portions. My english-speaking friend helped me order up some beef, pork, onion, and asparagus.

I was trying to be agreeable.

A plate of cabbage was put before me, along with my mug of beer, a hot towel, and an empty stoneware cup. The way the place works is that each skewer was, I don't know, maybe 80 or 100 yen, and you dip the skewer into the communal bowls of sauce -- just once I was instructed in case I was going to pull a Castanza -- eat the food, and put the empty stick into the cup. The barmaid then counts the sticks when you're done. I noticed the couple had sticks of several sizes, so I imagine there is more to this, but my two beers and six skewers came out to just 1100 yen, which under normal financial conditions would be $11.

By this point of my stay, I was getting familliar with the phrase book and attempting fractured cave-man speak efforts at conversation with the woman behind the counter. I really had no choice, as she had so little room to move she was forced to stand directly in front of me. I asked for the bill and know enough numbers (although japanese numbers change depending on what it is you're counting... go figure) that I could understand the tally and pay.

And for the second time in the two hours I had been in Japan, my tip (chip-pu) was refused. I know tipping around the world isn't as common as it is in the US, but habits are hard to break. I was able to reason why the cab driver refused my small-change tip, but a bartender handing me back the 200 yen? I rampaged through the phrasebook and found the words for "tip" and "custom" and was able to convey that I offered her the tip out of habit and that I was sorry if I offended her. She laughed and told me it was okay (at least I think she did) and that was that.

I made my way back through the underground mall to the right staircase and, here I am, sitting in some sort of robe that would have fit me a lot better when I was 15, and watching incomprehendable Japanese television.

This is going to be one hell of a week. As long as I can get through these interviews tomorrow.

Man, I wish Tim was here.


Eric Floyd said...

Awesome Doug, cant wait to hear more. I have always wanted to travel to Japan. What a great opportunity for you.

Doug Walsh said...

Thanks for writing Eric! Good to hear from you. Japan is pretty awesome from what i can see so far. The people are so friendly.

Not to change the subject, but you have GOT to check out the Canon G10. It's completely blowing my mind how good this 'compact' camera is. It *might* even be better than my 20D... at least at ISO <400.

Eric Floyd said...

Frick en unbelievable! I cant believe the advances in digital photography. I type this as I look at the D30 paper weight sitting next to the 20D!

Criscipline said...

I want more - this is so exciting!