Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Postcards from Japan: Osaka

We spent our final evening in Osaka, before we flew out back to LA the following afternoon.  The shinkansen (bullet train) only took fifteen minutes from the Kyoto Central Station to Osaka Station.  A bullet train ride was a first for both of us so this was a cause for excitement.  Also, for the ticket price of under 5 USD, it was the most efficient way to travel between the two cities.

It was hard to leave Kyoto and its romantic history still alive today, its cobblestone streets, its old-style homes, and if one is lucky, a sighting of geishas in Gion who are said to be quickly becoming extinct.  Osaka was a shock relative to the small town charm of Kyoto.  High rises command the skyline. Osaka was also one of the cities that got bombed in World War II, ergo its lack of preserved traditional structures.   There's a thick crowd of people dressed for business.  Commerce is in full swing (what recession?) if the lines at the mall are any indication. 

Our final shuteye of this brief holiday in Japan was at the luxurious Intercontinental in Osaka, thanks to The Dutch's travel rewards.  Our room was vast with a minimal zen aesthetic, but also with the luxuries we skimped on in Kyoto - a massive bed that felt like a cloud, high thread count sheets, bouncy towels, surround sound, an in-room Nespresso machine, kimonos laid on the bed after turn-down service.  It also had a traditional Japanese spa, similar to an onsen, which we greedily took to after settling in.  It was the ultimate relaxing experience after you get over being stark naked in the company of strangers (all women, thankfully!).

It was tough to leave the cocoon of the hotel after an hour of zen at the spa, but seize the moment, we must.  We did not have a fancy schedule in Osaka.  We just needed to check out what Japanese goods our strong currency could procure (who knows when this will happen again?) duty-free, a taste of the famed Japanese beef, and a romp around Dotonburi, Osaka's Time Square.

We missed out on Japanese beef in Kyoto so it was imperative not to depart Japan without trying it.  We ended up at a traditional restaurant with tatami floors where you sit at cushions on the floor and cook your own beef shabu shabu and sukiyaki style.  Neither of us have done this before so we were delighted that our server showed us the ropes (in good English!).
We had some aged Wagyu beef cooked in a hot pot with an array of vegetables and some broth.  Once the beef starts to change color, you must pick it up immediately to not overcook it.  The beef only cooked for a few minutes and the taste was amazing.  Because it was thin and had visible fatty strips, it was tender and had an intense flavor.

We also had Matsusaka beef cooked sukiyaki style, which is meat seared in a cast iron pot in a sauce of sugar, soy sauce and sake.  We've never even heard of Matsusaka beef before, but this was 100 times better than the Wagyu, if you can imagine that.  It was so soft and tender that it really did melt in your mouth. Traditional sukiyaki is dipped in a scramble of raw egg in a bowl once lifted from the cast iron pan.  It is seriously one of my best beef experiences ever.
We had to walk off our huge dinner so we wandered all around Dotonburi.  Osaka is obviously more populous and more metropolitan than Kyoto.  But what shocked me was the volume of people on the streets at midnight.
 We ran into this place serving ramen or udon on the street and had I not been bursting at the seams already, I wouldn't have passed up on this - whatever it is!
The Japanese work hard, but little did we know, they party hard as well.  It was not uncommon to see drunk, passed out people on the sidewalks or, well.. train stations.  On the outside, Japan seems like a society perfectly balanced with tradition and industrialization.  It is pristine, and its people are helpful and polite, despite the language barrier.  I remember a conversation I had with a local I met in Paris who confesses that Japan is his favorite country to visit because it is the antithesis of France.  It is on the opposite spectrum of individualism.  The common good goes before one's own.  And our first intimate encounter of Japan taught me my Parisian acquaintance was right.  And the presence of that in modern day society is extremely fascinating. 
But like any society, its shadows lurk and they come out at night, after hours of imbibing on sake and beer.  Powerful men in business suits who have drowned all of their society's demands for conformity can be found, unconscious, wasted and oblivious, asleep against subway walls.  Step inside a subway car at midnight and the smell of alcohol breath accompanies men falling asleep in their drunkenness.  

Japan is fascinating, even in its psychosis.  And it is not all zen after all. 

P.S.  For more of food in Osaka, check out these articles:
1.  Wall Street Journal's "Taste of Osaka's Dining Scene"

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