Entering Japan: Osaka

I left the school I worked at in Vietnam to start a new journey backpacking Japan, visiting my family in Singapore, and to live and teach in Taiwan. I didn’t dislike Vietnam but couldn’t get past some of the cons that made me not want to extend my stay past my fifteen months of living in Ho Chi Minh City.

Some of the things I do and don’t miss about living in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam:

The corruption: My temporary residence card was a piece of crap to begin with. It cost me well over $100 and was simply a cheap quality business card that had my photo laid on top and laminated. The seal was uneven and already breaking after just a few weeks in my wallet. So, I tried to double laminate it like a stubborn fool only for it to get bizarrely stuck in the laminator and come out looking like this. As a result, I tried several different ways to leave Vietnam from trying to purchase an exit visa, paying a bribe, and hiring a man who specialized in immigration issues such as this. In the end, the only method that worked was ironically getting help from a friend’s, whose dog I was fostering, cousin who worked for immigration. He simply met me at the airport, talked to immigration for maybe one minute, and waved me through hundreds of people queued in immigration and security. Literally he instructed me to go to the staff lines, which were empty, while hundreds of people waited in the regular lines. Each employee would look at me confused, I’d point to him, he’d give a thumbs up and a nod, and they would wave me through without a second thought. It was the most impressive thing I’ve seen in a long time.japan 004The pollution: My neighborhood in district seven was among the cleanest in Ho Chi Minh City, which isn’t saying much frankly, but I still never got used to waking up and seeing smog that would conceal the sky. I ended up getting a Vietnam “cough”, something a lot of expats initially develop from the exposure to pollution and are left with no choice but to either get used to it or leave. I was missing fresh clean air and nature more than I ever imagined to the point that every holiday I took I would go somewhere with mountains or beaches or both. Fresh air is something I’ll never take for granted again. japan 027The flooding: There’s nothing more comical than watching a horde of people with their feet on the panhandles of their bikes, going a kilometer an hour, and doing everything in their power not to come to a complete stop as that would cause them to have to put their leg, sometimes thigh deep or more, in the dirty flood waters that have nowhere to go due to the poor sewage system which is regularly clogged by locals uncaringly sweeping their trash into the drains. It was also unpleasant to be driving to work or the gym and experience a mild drizzle turn into a full on flash flood within five minutes. Many people wear heavy raincoats while driving, as umbrellas aren’t rational, even when walking due to the strong winds. However, people typically still bring an extra outfit in their bag or wear shorts and flip flops to avoid being stuck in wet clothes the entire day.

 

My students:japan 011My neighborhood, Phu My Hung:japan 013An unfortunate quick stop to Singapore: I reluctantly took a trip to see my mom and her side of the family in Singapore for my birthday prior to going on a three week holiday to Japan. I was fighting a serious case of homesickness and had contemplated going back home for my holiday instead of Japan. However, after spending three days with my family I couldn’t wait to say goodbye and move on to the next adventure. Aside from a nice birthday dinner and some much appreciated birthday gifts, I was all but forgotten. No one wanted to go out to eat, I ended up getting sick again, and every conversation went to gossiping about people or questioning my every life action. “What are you going to do after you’re done teaching?” “How are you qualified to teach social studies?” “What’s this? Why are you growing a beard?” “If you don’t like it you can go eat somewhere else!” It’s been a long time since I’ve been around people who made me feel so alone and small and I attribute my coldness and lack of trust to my undesired experiences and interactions with a fair amount of my family. To them it’s normal, to me it’s something I would never tolerate from any other persons. I chalk it up to different cultures but also to a lack of understanding from both sides of my family. I’ve never been understood and people can seldom relate to me, I ultimately think it attests for a lot of my loner mentality and lack of emotions.

Fair warning Singapore is a fun place but definitely strict when it comes to drugs. If you want a party beyond alcohol, don’t come to Singapore or try your luck in Geylang.japan-014.jpgThe view from my grandmother’s apartment in Braddell Place.japan 020Six different currencies I’ve managed to collect overtime. Thai baht, US dollars, Japanese yen, Malaysian ringgit, Singaporean dollars, and Vietnamese dong. (From left to right, top to bottom.)japan-026.jpg

All About Osaka:

Osaka’s Kuromon Ichiba Seafood Market: The seafood market was easily the best and my favorite out of the three I visited in Japan. Some of my favorites of the foods I tried were Kobe beefsteak, raw sea urchins, and fresh fire-roasted scallops.

Osaka’s Streets: Osaka is absurdly clean and people follow every traffic rule there is. No one j-walks, no one loiters, and everybody is helpful and courteous despite the language barrier. In Japanese culture, it is rude to stare and common courtesy is expected such as holding the door out for someone, allowing someone in a hurry to pass you by, and to greet and thank customers and patrons habitually. That being said, a lot of Japanese will still see foreigners as outsiders, especially if they do not speak Japanese. Meaning just because they are polite to you does not necessarily mean they care or want to know about you.

My regular traditional Japanese food: Sushi and dumplings.japan 105japan 252A Guilty Pleasure: I go to a McDonalds in every country I visit because it’s always a little different from the menu to the seating. Japanese McDonalds have bacon lettuce burgers, teriyaki chicken fillets, and double beef and egg burgers for example.japan 134Vending Machines: Vending machines are sprawled out everywhere, literally every block has one. From soda to coffee to beer and even ice cream. There are very few things, especially beverages that you can’t find in vending machines in Japan.

Trains: Japan has a lot of conveniences such as toilets and breastfeeding rooms everywhere for the self-explanatory. Trains are definitely one of those conveniences offering different trains like local, sub-express, and limited express. The system is a bit confusing but there are some conveniences to help you such as maps posted every where, machine for route finders and fare adjustments, and there is almost always a tenant who speaks reasonable English at every ticketing queue.

My first experience on the train in Osaka I followed Google maps which took me on an unnecessarily longer route. I showed the ticket tenant my ticket and asked if my directions were accurate. He literally gave me my money back, bought a new, cheaper ticket, and walked me to the right line, stop, and told me when and where to get off. I had never been so thankful or respectful of someone’s courtesy and helpfulness.

7th Eleven: These are everywhere as well in Japan and offer some of the freshest meals as well as an exceptional variety of beverages.

Toilets: Something I have to admit I miss about Japan is the toilets. The seats automatically lift up and down and there is always a set of buttons that allow you to control music, clean the toilet for you, a bidet with adjustable buttons for the spray strength and temperature. It became one of those weird things where you actually looked forward to using the toilet.

Traditional housing in Japan: japan 123Oddities: For whatever reason Japanese people love Spam, they literally have flavors I didn’t even know existed. japan-096.jpgNightlife: Osaka has a thriving nightlife from strip clubs to highball bars to British pubs. People in Osaka are generally more open and friendly towards expats whereas many Japanese can be particularly cold to foreigners. For example, many foreigners who have tattoos are not allowed into saunas, gyms, and springs unless they find a way to cover them up. Also, many foreigners are politely unwelcome at restaurants or bars simply because they are foreigners as well as aren’t fluent in Japanese. They’ll be politely told we are closed or full.

I experienced all these things in a variety of ways such as being told at a hookah bar in Kyoto that they were full, until they saw my Japanese girlfriend and magically two seats became available. I also booked a hotel in Tokyo with a Taiwanese girl who spoke Japanese and laughed when a sign posted read:japan-975.jpg

The famous Glico Running Man:

Highballs & Sake: Highballs, which are basically tall cocktails comprised of liquor, normally whiskey and a lot of club soda. At first, this drink seemed unappealing to me as I prefer whiskey on the rocks or neat, but overtime they grew on me and I ended up having numerous highballs over my time in Japan.

Sake, on the other hand, is something to be either taken as a shot or sipped and enjoyed. A general rule of thumb is that quality sake is served cold where has lower tiers are served warm. I had the pleasure of trying a variety at various bars and have to admit I became a fan of aged Suntory whiskeys.

To politely cheers in Japan you should either pour your sake bottle or be holding your sake glass with two hands to receive your sake. You should also cheers lower than the person you are cheering with.

Japan isn’t cheap to eat or drink out at and one should expect to spend around 600-700 (around $6) for a standard beer at a bar.

Hookah in Japan: I fell in love with smoking Japanese shisha in Japan because it was something cheaper, social, and I wouldn’t be comatose in bed the next day. I also happened to Casanova my way into charming a female employee who gave me quite the hook up.japan 830.jpgTraditional Japanese Eateries: What I loved about the neighborhood, Tennoji, that I stayed at in Osaka was the variety of traditional eateries a short walk down the street form my hostel. The language barrier was difficult at first as I didn’t learn how to say useful phrases such as, “one please”, “thank you”, or “excuse me” until after a week of practicing in Japan. I relied on Google translate, pointing at pictures, and the dumb luck of having an occasional English speaking server or chef.

japan 116

Osaka Castle: Is it touristy? Yes. Is it worth it? Hell yes.

Nature and weather during summer’s June: All over fellow travel blogs and travel websites I heard that June was the worst month to visit Japan due to the lack of blooming cherry blossoms and the unfortunate rainy season. However, of the three weeks I spent in various cities in Japan it only rained, and mildly at that, a fraction of the time. There was no flooding, no heavy rain, and no thunder or lightning. A simple umbrella and you can get around no problem. As far as nature goes, there is a bit of a lack of variety in color but there are still plenty of flowers and everything is very green and pleasant to see nonetheless. Many flowers won’t be in bloom but nature is still worth visiting in parks and gardens for sure.

Survival Japanese: Simplified for English pronunciation.

One = Itchy

Yes = Hi

Cheers = Comb pie

Please = Own knee guy she mas

Thank You = Are we got toe go zi mas

Excuse Me/Sorry = Sue me ma send

No Problem = Moan die nai

How are you? = Gain key desk caw

Goodbye = Sigh o gnar a

Story Time: My last night in Osaka I spent the day in the slums run by the Yakuza. I walk into the first restaurant I see without any foreigners and the server tells me, “only Japanese menu.” I reply “mondai nai (no problem),” and the cook comes out to take my order but instead asks me about my cauliflower ears. I explain I’m a semi-retired fighter on holiday.

We start taking about fighting and I show him old videos of me and some of my old training partners killing it right now. They start bringing up old Japanese Pride fights and ask me to send them one of my old fight pics. They print two copies out and get me to sign them and they tape one on the wall and tell me they are going to put the other up in a nearby bar. It turns into a small group of the staff but we are all vibing.

I ask them if there are any Yakuza bars nearby I should be wary of and they laugh. They tell me you’re really close to one and I go seriously? The cook pulls up his shirt to show a full back piece of Shiva and I’m like oh shit. He explains he’s lower tier but not to worry, if you respect us we’ll respect you. I offer to buy them a round of drinks and they starts cheersing me and return the favor by giving me a free meal.
We keep talking and they literally say we’re going to close the restaurant down and take you to a local bar. Being me, I reluctantly say let’s go. They literally close the place down and we go to a Yakuza bar that’s something like a speakeasy where, go figure, is the second picture hung up. The bartender’s and other patrons go what are you doing bringing this foreigner here? They go don’t worry he’s with us, he’s cool. They warn me the boss isn’t in tonight but if he decides to show up you have to leave, it’s not personal but you aren’t one of us. I tell them I understand and we start eating and drinking but then a random member stands up and slaps me in the face – twice. I stand up and square up like what the hell? They all start laughing and say we wanted to see how you would react then say don’t worry, we all like you now because you didn’t back down, it shows you have pride like us. We go shot for shot, drink for drink ALL NIGHT. Eventually, I leave and they ask for a way to contact me to keep in touch, I right down my number and bid them farewell.
Never a dull moment. This is my version of Bert’s “I Am The Machine!”
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