SYNOPSIS:  About my luck in meeting Rica.  Osaka lunch, Osaka shopping, Osaka viewing.  Two eras, two towers.


Two days ago I had stood rather forlorn at the exit of a subway station at the outskirts of Osaka, an unlikely place to be frequented by foreign visitors.  I had an inadequate map and nothing much else to go by to locate my new hotel.  “May I help you?” an accent-free voice asked in English.

It was Rica.  She had never heard of the “Four Leaves Hotel” either, but offered to walk with me to help me find it.  It was only a short two blocks from the station and we kept chatting a bit more right in front of the hotel.  There was something immediately likable about her, aside from being a woman and about my age.  I was so starved for talking to a real Japanese that without much thinking I asked if she would be willing to meet again for a cup of tea.  The poor woman!  She helped a stranger, OK, but now she got sucked into meeting me again.  I know how busy most Japanese are and how precious their free time is.  How could I have done this?  Afterwards, I felt quite horrible for having made such an imposition, but it was too late.

Rica agreed and we arranged for a place near a centrally located subway to meet for lunch today.  Rica found a Chinese place which served Osaka’s local specialties.  We chatted and then walked around one of the shopping streets catering to restaurants.  From plastic food to huge pots, from store signs to lacquer bowls, sign posts and napkins, you could find anything here.  I had such a good time with Rica.

Unlike my interview with Kazu in Nara where I had the computer on my lap while talking to him, my conversation with Rica was a lot more informal, and is much harder to summarize.  But two questions I asked both of them:  What do you like best and what do you like the least about Japan —  came out quite differently, and I think quite gender specific.  Rica loves that Japan is so safe.  There is no crime to speak of (not to say that there is none at all).  Especially for a woman it is safe to go out at any time day or night.  Rica does not like (as most women I think, would not) that Japanese don’t say what they think, but keep it all in.  Rica also had very different experiences with people who are using and abusing the government’s welfare system.  It sounded a lot like some abuse going on in the States.  I was so lucky, that it was Rica’s day off from work.  I cannot thank her enough for spending some of her precious time with me!

Osaka is almost a poverty-stricken town culturally speaking, if you compare it with Tokyo or Kyoto.  There is a castle which I was definitely not going to visit — all remade out of concrete.  And there is the aquarium which I would have visited if I had more time.

There are two towers I was curious about:  One, an older 1956 iron tower, once the glitz of the neighborhood, now a mere retro-experience, the Tsutenkaku, literally meaning “reaching to heaven”.  OK, at 63 meters, this is an overstatement but at least it managed to be the second-largest one in Asia for a while.  It was fun, but nothing special to go up, look around, get a sense of the town.  More interesting would have been to see the original structure at the site dating from 1912 which was another one modeled after the Eiffel tower.  But it burned down in a fire in 1943.

There is a Billiken craze going on at the tower — people take their picture with the Billiken, rub his feet, throw coins into his box as if he were a Shinto god.  There go the Japanese again, I thought to myself, until I learned that this is an American idol that was imported into Japan?  There goes my popular culture ignorance again!  Billiken?  Never heard of him.  Have you?

The other tower I had pictured completely differently.  It was advertised as the epitome of modern architecture.  Hiroshi Hara, a well-known Japanese architect, sounded promising.  I had seen his amazing railroad station in Kyoto.  But when I approached the famed Umeda Sky-Building it looked like a boring square high rise and I almost turned around.  I had trekked out here all the way for this?  It was getting dark, I was tired…

But I pushed on in the heat, across the plaza, through the underground tunnel and when I had reached the building I realized that it was a twin complex with a circular connection at the very top, a doughnut floating in the air.  Well, that was definitely more than a box and worth seeing.  Most likely, it has an even more powerful effect during the day.  Up I went.  By then it was dark.  I enjoyed the night views over Osaka, but my photographs don’t do this tower any justice.  If you care, check out some beautiful images online.

It’s a romantic spot where couple sit in little love-seat cubicles gazing across town.  You can also take your picture in a fluorescent-lit courtyard.  If you sit there as a couple just right, hold hands and push a button, fluorescent hearts will be displayed!  Did I ever mention that Japanese like cute?  No Billiken craze here, but plenty of heart kitsch and shlock to buy at the ever-prevalent souvenir shops.   No place in Japan, not even mount Fuji or holy Koyasan seems to be spared by them.  That’s the essence of this country.

As the Tsutenkaku seems like the symbol of the last century, now located in a rather rundown and neglected part of town, so is the Umeda Sky Building the symbol of the future, situated in the center of the new cosmopolitan, commercial district of Osaka.  I could not escape a certain feeling of melancholy while observing the passing of time as it manifests itself in these two towers, especially, since I am just about as old as the Tsutenkaku…

And so went another day in Japan.

Good night.