Osakaben – August 2001


Pee-wee’s Coffeehouse

Just down the road from the bunker-like city hall, where the Olympic campaign funds went in and never came out (and the IOC went out and never came back), is Caffe Cantate. It’s in the middle of the antique shop quarter of town, and the proprietor displays in quiet, warmly-lit, cool-jazzed rooms, his collection of Baby-Boomer Japanese kitsch. It’s magnificent. Along the top of the bar (this might have been a tavern in another incarnation) are lined old masks (which little kids wear at festivals like we did at Hallowe’en), mostly of long-forgotten cartoon characters, but many of Astro-Boy.

In this booth, to my left, a whole cabinetful of little cutesy characters made of plastic are arranged around: at least four ceramic RCA ‘Nipper’ dogs; a wooden radio from… I dunno, the forties? A dijon-mustard -colored Apollo lunar module (model); a real ovular little plastic TV set, with a 5″ screen, c. 1970; Ramune bottles, with the distinctive glass ball inside the lip (keeps the pop — which tastes not unlike Mountain Dew — from going flat, but also is a challenge for the kids to drink without plugging the bottleneck with the ball). The bottles are plastic now.

Arranged along the walls are movie posters, many of them for Japanese clones of the Beach Party genre (I would love to see one of them), early-60s fanzines and Sunday paper magazine inserts, wrapped in clear cellophane envelopes (to my right, The Asahi Picture News from 1962, and The Mainichi Graphic from 1961).

Behind and above me are recent artworks from some local artist. The Master (as proprietors, tenchou, are called in Osaka) invites young talent to display on the wall for ten days or so. About five years ago, a friend of mine showed her close-up-to -the-point-of-abstraction vegetable photos. Her husband made a couple dozen photocopies of his lips, which he cut out, colored a garish red and stuck at the end of thin wires, which he suspended around the shop. You didn’t really notice them until a customer walked by, or the door opened or closed: then they danced all around you.

Suspended from the ceiling from pushpins, and also wrapped in protective cellophane are about twenty-five palmetto fans . On the obverse are very 1951-style pretty girls (movie stars?) , on the reverse what look to be company names and addresses in demure calligraphy. The great-great grannies of those garish plastic uchiwa that the beer companies hand out every summer (and which I try to save).

On the bottom shelf of the left-hand cabinet, several prewar bottles of Mitsuya Cider (I know they’re prewar because the writing on the label runs right to left, and not wartime because katakana was illegal: beer had to be called mugishu ‘barley liquor’). Mitsuya Cider is still around, in cans of course, and tastes about as much like cider as a head of cabbage (imagine carbonated liquid Love-Hearts, that sweetnsour candy of my childhood).


Natsuyasumi 2001

Shikoku is the fourth largest of the main Japanese islands (this one, Honshu, is the biggest, followed by Hokkaido, and Kyushu). It’s to the east of Osaka, accessible by ferry. I took the 11:20 pm ferry there last Sunday night with Tom, my erstwhile landlord. Economy class is sectioned off into slightly raised tatami areas, and the first thing you do after boarding is stake out a corner of one. Getting stuck in the centre means people stepping over you all night if the boat is full. Luckily, we were traveling the week before O-bon, the time when the Japanese return to their hometowns or go on a trip. Every mode of transportation is packed and unpleasant then (unless you like crowds and standing in line: there is some evidence that some people here don’t mind it at all).

We deposited our knapsacks in a corner (shoes off, Tom! Shoes off!) and got some ¥50 blankets to sleep on. Tom had packed enough beer for a small group of people (i.e., just enough for himself and a few for me). I supplied KFC. We went out to the stern and watched the boat exit the port of Osaka, which was as calm as a pail of milk. Tom gave me a basic navigation lesson: red/right/return, and pointed out that the red-lighted buoys were to our left, the green to our right. There’s never a time when you’re not in sight, however faint of land, which makes the ride less of a challenge, say, than the ferryboat to Okinawa, which takes a night and the better part of a day, and the mainland (what Okinawans call the rest of the country) is nowhere to be seen for most of it.

We finally settled down for a fitful nap at around two. The engine made a furious grinding noise the whole time, but most people were snoring away (I envy the Japanese ability to catnap almost anywhere).

At 4:20 AM, the lights (which had been turned off at 12:30) flashed on and a recorded helium-voiced woman announced ‘ohaiyo gozaimasu! 4:20 de gozaimasu! [Good morning! It’s 4:30!]’ We joined the other bleary-eyed passengers down the gangplank. It was still not-quite-daylight, and the first thing we saw was the tree-lined side of a small mountain, and a path which opened onto a small pier. A few surfers got off with us, a few families. We were expecting to be met at the pier by one Ten Taguchi, the proprieter of Da Hawaiian Kitchen, a burger shop on the island.

But as it turned out (after a call to his cell phone), he had expected us the following Monday. He showed up anyway (surfing’s better in the morning at some beaches), and took us to find some accomodations. The place he’d booked for us was occupied that day (wrong Monday: my fault, I’m afraid). and it was too early to check into the nearby camp ground, so we got to take a nap at Da Hawaiian Kitchen on camping matresses. Surprisingly comfortable when you’re tired.

After dozing for a few hours, we got up and started foraging for food. We walked to a convenience store , where I purchased the worst pastry I’ve ever eaten.

Perfect American

The kid who served me just now at the Starbucks in Hommachi answered my Japanese request (Cafe mooka dekaffu no gurande saizu o-kudasai) with “Um, it’ll take about five minutes, is that okay?” in perfect American.

Studied in Seattle for three years (“You must feel like you never left, some days, working here” I said, in my barely-remembered Canadian).

I run into people like this all the time.

It makes me wonder whether a job like mine will still be around twenty years from now.

When I arrived here in ’89, studying English was a new and trendy thing to do .

These were boom years.

Everybody wanted to learn a few words to use on their then-popular six-day, eight-city package tours of Europe (of course that won’t get you far in the Louvre, and the tour guide did all the talking anyway, in Japanese – but I digress).

Some of my students were academics, trying to get their pronunciation up to deliver a paper somewhere in the States.

Very few were preparing to study abroad, other than for a two-week homestay with families in (inevitably, it seemed) Eugene, Oregon.

Then came the whole Seattle thing (safer than L.A. after the Rodney King Riots, the the parents thought). Nirvana was big here, around then.

Well, that was another century.

Actual Osakans speaking real Osakaben, which rivals joual in its elegance, jar me from my self-absorbed typing here at the Starbucks.

The upscale trendies and the suits from the business district and the apolitical foreigners tend to hang out here, paying obscene prices for a cup of burnt bean juice.

My apartment is in the Osaka equivalent of De Grassi St., with a smattering of Korean masseusses and tattooed men of honour thrown in for good measure.

Those people go to the local kissaten, where they know the mamasan and have done for years, or they smoke their brains out at Mister Donuts, near the subway station (any subway station in the boonies).

This is the rough, outspoken working-class image of Osaka, celebrated on TV, in books and movies, and which Japanese with a bit of travel and money under their belt come to Star5bucks and places like it to avoid.

Big in Japan

Starbucks Coffee does not have the onerous connotations here that it has elsewhere.

Suffice it to say that Dr Evil’s fictitious ownership of Starbucks in Austin Powers did not bring the house down here like it did in every cinema in the States.

Everybody just thought it was clever positioning on Starbucks’ part (and you know something? They were probably right) .

Last week, I took part in the Kumata Matsuri, not far from my neighbourhood, in the south of Osaka.

I’ve yet to talk to anybody who didn’t laugh or blush when I told them.

It’s such a… such a local festival, they say.

Local is a loan-word in Japanese, and it’s certainly not a compliment. It connotes hickdom, lack of stature, lack of class.

Many of my students claim never to have heard of Kumata (and it isn’t exactly small), or snort “No!” if I ask if they’ve ever attended.

I’ve never seen such status consciousness. Maybe I just haven’t travelled enough.

Note to myself: staffers at Starbucks say konban-wa! (“Good evening”) to the customers when they walk in, not the traditional irrashaimase (“Welcome”/“Come in, come in!”). I’ve noted this before, at several convenience stores (in Japan, it’s rude for the staff not to issue any greeting when you walk in).

The Japanese language is caught somewhere between calcification and calquification. Grandparents often do not understand a word their grandchildren are saying – a mishmash of katakana phrases lashed together with rudimentary Japanese grammar.

I wonder how the recent decision to start teaching kids English from Grade 1 will eventually affect this.

Road to Singapore?

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3 thoughts on “Osakaben – August 2001

  1. I collect old mitsuya bottles with the right to right writing. I have many from the early Taisho era and lots from later. Anybody who knows about pre war mitsuya bottles and drinks that came in them should contact me or twrite about them here. Did marbles come inside the bottles?

  2. Well, Joe, the fellow who collected these is not selling them. He’s pretty hardcore. I wrote this 5 years ago, and the last time I visited (last year?) his collection was still intact. If you’re in the neighbourhood (Osaka Yodoyobashi Station), you should pay him a call.
    Cool hobby, btw.

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