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Japan Tour: We Visit Osaka

I belong to a private international e-mail list serve group for seniors called, Senior World, or S-W for short. My wife and I attended a gathering of this group in Osaka, Japan in October, 2004. This is an account of our trip which I wrote up afterwards and sent to the group.

Off to Osaka

Downtown Osaka
Downtown Osaka
My wife, Lil, and I left home in the wee hours of the morning on Thursday, October 14th for the drive to Indianapolis. The flight on United Airlines to Chicago was uneventful and we got to our boarding area with lots of time to spare. Then, inexplicably, our flight to Kansai international airport in Osaka, Japan, was delayed with no explanation. It must have been something mechanical because, after about an hour’s delay, an announcement was made that the mechanics had certified the plane air worthy and we started boarding. Our plane was a Boeing 777 and there wasn’t a spare seat to be had. The flight lasted for about 13.5 hours and we actually landed at Kansai only about a half hour later than scheduled.

This was our first time on a 777 and I must say, we were impressed. There was a reasonable amount of leg room and plenty of food was served in route – I think we had two meals and a snack. There is a small TV screen on the back of the seat ahead of you and no less than four 2 hour movies were shown. And if movies weren’t your cup of tea, there was an “On-Star” type of display at your disposal whereby you could watch our progress all the way to Japan. The screen would show the terrain below with us in the center. Readouts concerning the altitude, ground speed, distance traveled, outside temperature, etc. would periodically flash by – and I found myself to be more than just a little fascinated by this display. I was quite surprised to note that our route took us almost due north out of Chicago where we then veered left over northern Canada and tracked over the upper part of Alaska, the Bering Strait and down across Siberia.

When we got to the Osaka area, I immediately regretted that we had not been assigned window seats and, thus, could not look out and actually witness our approach to Kansai. Kansai, you see, is built on an artificial island that by most accounts qualifies as one of the modern wonders of the engineering world. Nevertheless, we landed uneventfully and proceeded to the baggage and customs clearing area. After clearing customs, we walked around a blind corner and – bang – there was Mitsue and Toshio along with some of our fellow S-W members to greet us. Esther Immer, her friend Anne Rafter, and Lily Leung had arrived about a half hour before us and they were there also to bid us welcome. Esther is from Seattle, Washington and Lily is from the Province of Saskatchewan in Canada. Even though I had never met Mitsue or Toshio, I had seen their pictures and knew them from our email exchanges – now it was just a matter of connecting the names to the faces. And that’s how it is in S-W when you meet people for the first time – there really isn’t a lot of ice that has to get broken. In no time at all, it feels real comfortable – sort of like donning an old pair of slippers that are familiar and just feel real good. Of course we already knew Esther and Lily from previous S-W gatherings and it was great seeing them and getting hugs all around.

We all then left the terminal building and got a train for the nearly one hour train ride to Osaka and our room at the Umeshin East Hotel. Oh, yes, I forgot to mention – we crossed the International Date Line between Alaska and Siberia and it was now Friday evening (about 4:30 p.m.) – a day later than when we started out. Coming into the Osaka area on the train reminded me some of going into the outskirts of Chicago on the train. Both are huge metropolitan areas and they have a very urban and cosmopolitan feel about them. Toshio told me that while Osaka itself has over two million people, the Osaka area and its environs takes in over eleven million people. That’s a lot of stories in the naked city!

We got to Osaka station and then proceeded to walk to our hotel which, as it turned out, was probably about a mile or so away. Thank goodness we had purchased new luggage a few years ago – our bags have wheels and the handles which extend upwards making it a breeze to pull them along. We got to the hotel to find Miki waiting there to greet us. We had first met Miki in Seattle at an S-W gathering back in the summer of 2000 – and it was great seeing her again. Michel and Michéle from Paris were also there and we met them for the first time – and I got to say a big “bonjour” – thanks to Michel’s tip sheet that he had posted on his web site. I then asked Michel for help in differentiating between himself and his wife since their names are spelled so much alike. Michel said, Mike, would be okay but that he really preferred, Michel. He then told me to call his wife by her nickname, “Mimi.” In meeting Mimi, she insisted that kissing four times while alternating cheeks is the way it needs to be done. And that is precisely the way I greeted her at the beginning of every day from then on – now I know why I like French people so much! After checking into the hotel and getting our room keys, we then all agreed to meet in about an hour for dinner.

Our room at the Umeshin East was very nice. We had twin beds which were low down near the floor – but were quite firm and comfortable. There was a flat panel TV in the room which I first mistook for a computer – it was only when I couldn’t find a keyboard and instead saw the remote control that I realized it was a telly. I turned the TV on and immediately found a playoff game between the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox. I later came to realize that the reason for showing most of the Yankees games is because their left fielder, Hideki Matsui, is a national sports hero in Japan. After the Yankees were eliminated by Boston, there wasn’t much coverage of the World Series – and it actually wasn’t until we were home in Chicago nearly two weeks later that I found out that Boston had in fact gone on to win the World Series.

But I have to tell you – the best part of the hotel room was the toilet! About a week before our trip, I had done a Google search on the web for typical Japanese toilets and learned that, most of the time, they are of – shall we say – “the squatting” variety. So it was with more than a little trepidation that we approached our first hotel room in Japan not knowing what to expect of the bathroom. Thankfully, the toilet was a western style with a set of controls on the side which reminded me of a sophisticated ejection seat in an Air Force fighter plane. As a matter of fact, I kidded Lil to be careful when she used the “John” lest she eject herself through the ceiling! The controls were, of course, for the bidet and other water features.

For dinner that evening, Miki took us to a charming little place that was an easy walk from the hotel. I had fish with rice, crab soup, a salad, and some tofu. Lil had something similar and we all donned kimonos which were provided. A fine time was had by all – although we were all getting tired from the day’s travels – and it was starting to show. We all went back to our hotel and crashed for the rest of the night.

Saturday, October 16th:
Breakfast was included in our daily room rate at the Umeshin East. It was a western buffet style which always featured scrambled eggs and bacon or sliced ham. There were croissants and rolls, salads, smoked salmon or herring, and always some kind of soup. But best of all was black coffee and orange or grapefruit juice. We never did find any decafeinated coffee for Lil but she soon learned to take a little black coffee and cut it a lot with milk or cream.

The formal S-W events weren’t scheduled to begin until a dinner on Monday night. We had a mix-up of sorts right after breakfast as Mitsue had indicated the previous evening that she was going to take a train to Kobe on Saturday and those of us who wanted to could accompany her. I guess I misunderstood the departure time as when we got there in the lobby, the group had already left and thus, Lil and I were left to fend for ourselves.

Having concluded that we pretty much knew the area between the hotel and Osaka Station, Lil and I decided to go to the station as I needed to exchange two sets of papers for Japan Rail Passes for use during our second week. I also need some money and we figured we could find an ATM machine at Osaka Station. So, off we went. And in no time at all, we “discovered” the underground city below Osaka Station. I never did find a map of this place but below the train station fanning our in tunnels in all directions was this fabulous artificially lit array of shops and glitter that just seemed to go on forever. You would go down one tunnel for a ways and then the tunnel would branch out. You’d go down a branch and that one would branch out, til…well, you get the idea. It was almost like something out of Alice in Wonderland. I’ve been to some big malls in my day but none of them would hold a candle to this. I also found the Japan Rail Pass office and that business was conducted handily. And I found an ATM which I worried might eat my card before I learned how to successfully use it. Fortunately, I figured the thing out and got my money – AND my card back!

Lil and I then found a nice tea and coffee shop (still no decaf!) and each had a nice coffee and a slice of “to die for” cheesecake. We then left the Osaka Station area and walked back toward the Umeshin East. Along the way we stopped in a book store and found our way to the seventh floor where we bought some post cards. Curiously, we found that many stores had escalators for going to the upper floors but only stairs for the way back – an interesting marketing ploy! I then tried to find an Internet Cafe‚ (I wanted to send a note home saying that we had arrived and were okay) only to find that, without any of our hosts present to interpret, communicating can be difficult if not impossible. We then went back to our hotel and called home for a brief chat just to let our kids know that all was well.

We gathered in the hotel lobby in the afternoon and were joined by Ichiro who, like Miki, we had first met in Seattle four years earlier. Also, we met Kees and Kekou for the first time – they are from the Netherlands. Mitsue was there with her daughter, Hiroko, and they offered to take anyone who wanted to go by bus to the Rihga Royal Hotel for a formal Japanese Tea. So, Esther, Anne, Lily along with Lil and myself agreed to go. We talked this over among ourselves and I think most of us thought this was going to be something like “High Tea” meaning that we would get a light meal consisting of finger food or small sandwiches. How wrong we were! The tea ceremony was fairly impressive and the Rihga Royal was, indeed, a princely if not opulent place. But there sure wasn’t any food to be had. The tea ceremony consists of being served green tea by Kimono clad girls who are ever so polite. You first partake of a sweet morsel (kind of a mushy cookie) and then you are presented with a bowl of green tea. You then carefully rotate the bowl in your left palm three times finally stopping it on a portion devoid of markings. Then you drink three times consuming all the contents. And that’s it. And, no – I don’t have a clue what happens if you fail to do all of those things.

As I said, some of us were quite hungry by now. So when we got back to the hotel, Ichiro, Lily, Lil and I set out on foot to look for a place to eat. It was well past dark, now, and I don’t think Ichiro had ever been to this part of Osaka – and the further we walked, the seedier the surroundings became. At one point we passed a place that had a “red light” look about it (replete with “staff” pictures, yet!) and Lily admonished me not to look. (Sorry, Lily, but I did steal a glance!) We finally settled on a place where Ichiro ordered skewers of chicken, green peppers and onions served with bowls of rice. It was very tasty and Ichiro ended up ordering several more skewers. This ends up being another night – by the time we get back to the hotel, we are really tired and hit the sack for a good night’s sleep.

Sunday, October 17th:

Esther, Lil, and Tom in Osaka
Esther, Lil, and Tom in Osaka
At breakfast at the Umeshin this morning, we are joined by Verbeck who has checked in overnight. Verbeck is from Seattle, Washington. It’s always such a pleasure to see him. When you look up and see Verbeck at one of these S-W gatherings, you instantly know that all is well and that things are as they should be. After breakfast we are also joined by Jutta from Nova Scotia for the first time. Jutta has been here in Japan touring by herself for a while now and it is good to see her. I still have very fond memories of the time we spent at her place near Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Miki and Ichiro then accompany all of us to Osaka Station to purchase tickets for the train ride to Himeji Castle – which is one of Japan’s four major and sacred places. It is designated a national treasure. Before I go on, let me say a word about Osaka Station as it typifies an important part of all the big cities that we visited. Traveling by rail is a primary mode of transportation in Japan and “The Station” is usually a big and important landmark in all big metropolitan areas. These stations are always very large and they fairly vibrate with the pulse of a very busy populace. We also found that merchants (department stores, etc.) seemed to realize the value of such exposure as there was invariably lots of nice window shopping to be had where one could see the latest fashions, etc. When giving directions, we would often hear references like, “so many blocks from the station….”

The train ride took nearly an hour and we passed through several cosmopolitan areas as well as open country side. The train made frequent stops and, at one point, a mother with two young boys got on and sat across the isle from us. One boy was wearing an American style baseball cap and he would occasionally steal glances at us, sometimes looking away awkwardly after making eye contact. They got off the train after a couple of stops and, as we were sitting there waiting for the train to resume its journey. Lil noticed that the boy had left his cap on the seat. I immediately grabbed it and ran to the door which was still open. I leaned out and saw the mother and boys one of whom had just realized that his cap was missing. With tears streaming down his face, he saw me gesturing with his cap and started running toward me – all the while shouting, “Arigato, arigato gozaimas!” He finally got to me just a split second before the door started to close and I tossed him the cap. And while I knew full well that he was saying, “Thank you – thank you, very much,” I couldn’t for the life of me remember the Japanese expression for, “You’re welcome!” (I have since learned that, “Doo itashimashite,” is what I should have said – and trust me – I learned to say that often to the delight of many Japanese merchants as they were giving me change.) At any rate, that was one happy little camper and it made me feel real good knowing that I had done a good deed. Some things are universally understood in any language!

We finally arrived at the Himeji City station and transferred to a bus to make the short trip to the castle. Himeji Castle and its surrounding gardens and paths is a huge site comprising many acres. The 1980 mini series “Shogun” starring Richard Chamberlain was shot in large part right here on these grounds. Miki and/or Ichiro had made advance arrangements for us to be escorted by a tour guide who introduced herself as “Susuki.” Susuki was a pert little gal in her early to mid twenties and she brimmed with enthusiasm as she showed us all around. She must not have learned English until after her mid teenage years (or that critical time when the ability to make certain sounds gets “hard wired”) because she absolutely could not make the English “el” sound. But, to her credit, Susuki’s verve and spunk more than made up for this and it was a real joy to hear her spout off the many facts about Himeji Castle that she seemed eager to want to pass on to us.

When we entered the Castle proper, we had to take our shoes off and leave them in convenient and well labeled “pigeon holes.” While we were offered slippers of the “one size fits all” variety, Lil and I opted to go in our stocking feet. I don’t remember exactly how far it is to the top floor of the castle – but we finally made it – after negotiating many, many long and narrow wooden stairs. Trust me – it was a long ways up there! On the top floor, one could look out through some grated open windows and see the surrounding countryside and misty hills in the distance. Looking down, I could see some of our party (the smart ones!) who had opted not to make this long and arduous trek. I instinctively took my hat off to wave at them, failing to first realize that I had propped my favorite sunglasses on the top of my hat. I no more that made one swipe with my hat than there went my sunglasses – flying in the breeze and landing right near the edge of the nearest steep roofed overhang. After uttering a short obscenity to myself, I instantly realized the error of my ways and chalked this on up to “that’s the way it goes!” If some Japanese roof fixer some day runs across my sunglasses – “Well pal, I hope you enjoy them. Doo itashimashite!”

After leaving Himeji Castle, we stopped at a restaurant and had lunch. Or perhaps I should say, we “had at it!” As was commonly the case, this place had a static display outside which supposedly showed you a facsimile of the different dishes on their menu. Lil and opted for what we thought was going to be some tempura (fish dipped in a batter and fried) on a bed of rice. Instead, what we got was tempura that was floating in a bowl of soup – with rice on the side. And by the time we were able to retrieve some fish with our chopsticks, it was all soggy and falling apart. We fiddled with all this for a while and finally gave up chalking this up to experience. When we got back to Osaka and were walking back to the hotel, I spotted a McDonald’s – and guess what Lil and I had for dinner that night?!

This had been another long and full day and the sack full of McDonald’s hamburgers really did hit the spot back in our hotel room as we unwound, had showers and tried to make some sense of the TV news which of course we couldn’t understand as the announcers only spoke in Japanese.

Monday, October 18th:
Breakfast again at the Umeshin and this time K C from Hong Kong has joined us. Lil and I had not met K C previously and found him to be an engaging and very conversant fellow. We had several in depth chats with him over the next several days and now, I would like to visit him sometime in his native Hong Kong and have him show us around.

Lil and I had brought with us some gifts to hand out and we had run short of some ribbon to place around each of our offerings. So, after breakfast, I went with Esther, Anne, and Lily as I overheard them say they were going back to a dollar store they had found the previous day. It turned out that the store was very close to the hotel and I actually went back to it on several occasions. Everything in the place was priced at 100 Yen and they really did have a good all around inventory of notions and accessories. I even found some ribbon that was close to what we needed.

At about mid morning, several of us then went on a boat trip on a river in downtown Osaka. We went about a mile up and back while a tour guide told us what we were seeing. It was probably just as well that I couldn’t hear very well where I was seated as the guide only spoke in Japanese. But I did enjoy the sights and took several pictures along the way with my digital camera. At one point, I could overhear that we were going by an area where several homeless people were living in makeshift tents along the riverbank. I viewed that with mixed feelings – I guess some things are simply universal and Osaka is the same in that regard as any major city.

Mitsue then took us to a very fashionable and upscale restaurant that was located high up in one of Osaka’s tall buildings. This was a place where the patrons are each seated around a grill. The Japanese cook – in this case, a young girl who looked to be in her early twenties – came to our table and proceeded to make each of us a concoction of chopped cabbage, onions, and an egg. Each serving ended up resembling an omelet and, as a finishing touch, each was topped with some flaked tuna and a sweet sauce. Whatever it was, it was quite tasty and really hit the spot.

Himeji Castle
Himeji Castle
We then had the afternoon to ourselves and to get ready for the formal dinner that evening which heralded the actual beginning of the S-W gathering. The gathering took place at a nice Japanese establishment that specialized in udonsuki with various additives such as sashimi, tempura, etc. There were about twenty people present at this event which included Miki’s husband, Seiji, Ichiro’s wife, Junko, Kaijiro and his wife, Harumi. Also, Verbeck had invited a lady by the name of Yasuko who apparently used to belong to another email group that some of us had once belonged to. Verbeck gave an impromptu introduction of his friend to the group and this seemed to set the stage for a nice evening. While there were several courses to our meal, the main one consisted of a big kettle of ingredients that cooked over a gas fire right there at your own table of four. The kettle contained lots of udon noodles in the bottom to which a broth was then added. Then, raw chicken, fish, shrimp, and vegetables were added. This mixture was then brought to a boil and allowed to simmer for quite some time.

At this point, I must tell you that, just days before our trip, Lil found out that she was no longer allowed to take Vioxx for arthritis pain control (you may recall that Vioxx was recalled by the manufacturer due to complaints amid suspicions about its causing heart attacks). Instead, she was now struggling and trying to find some relief with some over the counter substitutes such as extra strength Tylenol. I don’t know whether it was that or possibly a reaction to some ingredient such as MSG (Monosodium Glutamate – an additive often used in Chinese and Japanese cooking in the U.S. to enhance flavor). At any rate, something caused Lil to have an upset stomach and to start feeling nauseous. So, rather than risk an accident, I took Lil outside where we caught a taxi back to the hotel. Sorry that we had to miss what otherwise looked to be shaping up to be a very enjoyable evening. After a good night’s sleep, Lil was feeling much better by the next morning.