August 28, 2012

The Only Blonde in Osaka in the Otago Daily Times

Today an article I wrote about Osaka was published in the travel section of the Otago Daily Times. It talks about some of my favourite places in Osaka that have been featured in past blog posts, like DotomboriAmerika mura and Shinsekai.

You can read the article online here or after the jump...

Student and travel blogger Siobhan Downes spent a semester in Japan's most unconventional city, Osaka.

Osaka is Japan's black sheep.

Located in the Kansai region, Japan's third-largest city (which rises to second place during the daytime thanks to a huge working population) is the boisterous, crude and unkempt sibling.

Often compared to big brother Tokyo, the two cities have an ingrained tradition of rivalry.

Whereas Tokyo politely turns up its nose at Osaka, Osaka gives Tokyo the middle finger. It's an example of Japan's regionalism at its fiercest.

I stumbled off the bullet train at Shin-Osaka station, dragging five months of luggage and eight years' Japanese language study under my belt. I was to spend the semester studying at Kansai University.

When you arrive in Osaka, the region's quirks become immediately apparent. They say Osakans like to break the rules, and one of the most obvious manifestations of this logic is that people in Osaka stand on the right side of escalators, while the rest of Japan stands on the left.

To name another transport-related peculiarity, in Tokyo, the trains are known for their complete, courteous silence. But as I stood meekly on my first Osaka train, the passengers around me chattered away at full volume.

Which brought me to another realisation - my language study until now had been based around Tokyo-centric, standard Japanese. In Osaka, I was faced with a strong regional dialect, with completely different intonation and vocabulary. I could essentially throw my textbooks out of the train window.

Kansai University is located in Suita, a city in northern Osaka prefecture with a population about the same size as Christchurch.

The demographic in this area consists almost entirely of students and elderly people. Walking along the narrow, footpath-less road to university each morning, I jostle with cars, trucks, motorbikes, cyclists and other pedestrians for the same space.

Osaka is particularly known for its feisty obaasan (grandmothers), and you can witness these old, toothless women in their 80s riding scooters down the road at terrifying speeds, barking at dawdling university students to get out of the way. They own the streets and they won't stop for anybody.

Although, this is true of most Osakan drivers. As one of my Japanese friends explained, the road rules in Osaka are, "If it's green, go. If it's yellow, still go. If it's red, go carefully."

I laughed, until I realised he wasn't joking.

Weekends are spent in the inner city, where another important part of Osaka's culture can be found. Food. Osaka is known as Japan's kitchen, and there is even a unique saying to describe the culinary experience here - kuidaore, or "eat until you collapse".

The best place to do just that is in Dotonbori, a long, narrow street containing a high concentration of restaurants. It is rough-and-ready, loud and tacky. A giant mechanised crab marks the entrance to the street. Dizzyingly bright neon signs and lanterns scream "okonomiyaki", the region's specialty dish - a cross between a pizza and a pancake.

Osaka has a proud history as a merchant city, and these business skills are evident even today. The restaurant workers at Dotonbori stand on the street bellowing out welcomes, thrusting menus into your hands, and imploring you to enter. People are very relaxed and open to dealing with outsiders.

With a characteristic Osakan sense of humour, they target foreigners and are not afraid to test their English.

"Hey, come eat here, it's very delicious! Where are you from?

"You like Japanese food?

"Please, come inside!"

I was sufficiently charmed by one such worker, a street vendor okonomiyaki chef who engaged me in conversation as he cooked, every now and then pausing to shout greetings at passers-by.

He was very insistent on hearing about what I thought of Osaka, and where else I had been in Japan ("Tokyo? Why would you wanna go there?").

I decided to show off a little of my new-found knowledge of the Kansai dialect, and he spluttered with laughter, clapping his hands in delight. When the okonomiyaki was ready to eat, he yelled into the shop behind him, and his wife came hurrying out, with chopsticks and a plate for me.

She frowned as I took my first bite.

"How is it? Did he cook it right?"

I assured her it was delicious.

"Oh really?
"I don't like the taste of Japanese food myself. I'm Korean."

I later found out Osaka is home to Japan's largest Korean population.

Cross Dotonbori Bridge and soon you'll find yourself in another unique Osaka area, Amerika-mura (America Town), a reflection of the curious fascination that many Japanese have with America.

As a Kiwi studying in Japan, the most frustrating question I face on a daily basis is "Are you an American exchange student?" and the obvious disappointment when I reply, "No. I'm from New Zealand."

Osaka's Amerika-mura represents the ultimate in America-worship, a conglomerate of fast-food chains, tattoo parlours, fashion, hip-hop culture and American iconography.

The American flag is emblazoned on everything. So is Uncle Sam.

There is even a scaled-down Statue of Liberty.

The real reason to visit Amerika-mura, however, is to sit in Triangle Park, a concrete park right in the middle of the town, and engage in a spot of people watching.

Amerika-mura is Osaka's centre of youth rebellion, and Japanese teenagers come to this park to parade crazy fashions, get inked or pierced, smoke cigarettes and hang out with friends. In a notoriously strict, group-oriented society, Amerika-mura is one of the few places where young people can celebrate individualism.

Further south from the sightseeing meccas of Dotonbori and Amerika-mura is another side of Osaka altogether. Nishinari-ku is an area that many guidebooks advise tourists to stay clear of, a rarity in a country that is known for its safety.

This area is home to Japan's biggest slum, a place where day labourers, prostitutes and the homeless population can congregate, out of sight from mainstream society.

Both the area and its people tell a story of failed dreams and abandoned futures.

Take one of Nishinari-ku's famous neighbourhoods, Shinsekai ("The New World"), for example.

It was once Osaka's most vibrant and glamorous entertainment district, containing an imposing structure, Tsutenkaku Tower ("Reaching Heaven" tower) that would become a symbol of Osaka's pre-war modernism and progress.

Then World War 2 happened and Shinsekai, along with most of Osaka, was destroyed in the relentless firebomb raids. The tower was demolished, its steel recycled for the war effort.

Although both Shinsekai and Tsutenkaku Tower were eventually rebuilt after the war, the one thing that never recovered was the neighbourhood's reputation.

These days, the covered shopping arcades of Shinsekai are worn out, as are the people in them.

Old men spend their days sitting in darkened rooms playing shogi, Japanese chess, and customers squeeze into cheap kushi katsu, deep-fried skewer restaurants.

Homeless people sit quietly in the shadows of the tower.

You won't find many tourists on this side of the tracks, but the locals are very proud of Shinsekai's history, and insist that it's one of the few places where you can see "the real Osaka", stuck in a time that the rest of Japan has left behind.

This is my Osaka.

In this city the images I had of Japan are being challenged every day; stereotypes of Japan as a homogenous, white-collar nation simply do not hold up after visiting Osaka.

It is a loveable city, full of character. It's not particularly beautiful - in fact, as a fellow exchange student drily remarked, "It looks like God vomited concrete everywhere."

It's gritty, brash and at times overwhelming, but it's a learning experience like no other.

I may be here to attend university, but more than anything, it feels like the city itself is my classroom, and the people are my textbooks.

Siobhan Downes is a University of Otago student of Japanese.

If you go
How to get there: Fly with Air New Zealand from Auckland to Kansai International Airport from $NZ1699 return. From the airport, Osaka is less than an hour's train ride away.
Where to stay: Hotel Granvia Osaka, located above JR Osaka Station, is right in the middle of it all. Book on Expedia ( from $NZ199 per night. For budget-conscious travellers, Japan's famous "capsule hotels" are a unique accommodation option. Asahi Plaza Shinsaibashi ( in Amerika-mura is Osaka's biggest capsule hotel.
One night's stay comes in at just under $NZ50.
Where to eat: Splurge in Dotonbori at Osaka's famous crab restaurant, Kani Doraku. Easy to find - it's right underneath the giant moving crab.
Alternatively, take your pick of any takoyaki or okonomiyaki street vendor.
The dodgier-looking ones are usually the best. For atmosphere as well as taste, head to one of Shinsekai's oldest and most popular kushikatsu shops, Daruma.
It will be the one with the longest line outside.


  1. lucky bloody you hey! I wish someone would let me publish something! those buggers!

    1. Haha you should submit stuff to those buggers! Be persistent! Or move to a town with a population so small that they have no choice but to publish you... lol.

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