Jun 15, 2009

Bad Place to Visit, Wouldn't Want to Live There

My colleague, Robert Lindsay, a progressive journalist in Oakhurst, California, sent me a writing prompt—something like, "Tag, you're it. Write on the topic of 'Bad Place to Visit, Wouldn't Want to Live There.' " Easy. I know a lousy spot to visit when I experience one.

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Two weeks after I arrived in Japan for the first time—with every intention of working there to sponsor my youth-driven wanderlust—I left the Tokyo I had fallen in love with to go visit in Osaka with a Japanese college girlfriend of mine. She begged and pleaded for me to come stay with her and her new husband. During college, I had happily helped her with her tricky English-language essays whenever she asked—for two years. Heck, I thought it was fun and no big deal. She, however, saw it as a social obligation. So, to work off her karma, she had to "take care of me" while I was in her native country. I would much rather have stayed in Tokyo—the lights, the funkiness, the sheer, alien chic of it all—and, with a city the size of New York—a fun place for foreigners to hang out. Sure, I was a "henna gaijin" (strange foreigner) there, same as everywhere in Japan, but because Tokyo had plenty of other henna gaijin running around, and because Tokyoites are so sophisticated, it was wildly exciting rather than annoying when they'd surreptitiously stare. I felt like a rock star. Even the kids found me amazing. A slim young woman in my early 20s—sexy, fresh, brazen—quite different from "the nail that sticks out will be beaten down" Japanese mentality, as applied to Japanese young woman in the 1980s (I've heard it's much more risque there now).

Reluctantly, I took the shinkansen, the bullet train to Osaka, about three hundred miles away. The ride took about three hours. (It's not called a bullet train for nothing.) I arrived in a gray, industrial, polluted metropolis. I traveled to my friend Noriko's gray, industrial-looking neighborhood, and rode the elevator in her gray, industrial-looking apartment building in a complex of gray apartment buildings, ad infinitum. Gray, gray, gray. To escape what I imagined was just a bleak neighborhood, I took frequent walks. Choking with exhaust fumes and industrial spumes and smog, I'd gasp for breath, while passing, bleak, bleaker, and bleakest neighborhoods, just like Noriko's. She tried her damnedest to entertain me—and I felt for her, I really did. She and her husband took me to the big tourist attraction—Osaka Castle, which was indeed marvelous. But other than that, Osaka has got to be the gosh-awful ugliest place I have ever been on earth. Manila may have piles of rotting garbage in the streets, and the lights may flicker and go out from time to time, but it also has its beautiful sights and its green, lush areas. Osaka has, well, industry. And housing—all in shades of gray. Inescapable gray that seems never to end.

On top of that, a week after I got to town, I became deathly ill, probaly from some fsushi I ate. I wanted to be one of those adventurous visitors who tries everything the locals try--when in Rome, and all that. Instead, I almost died of food-borne poisoning. Ten days I suffered in a skanky hospital. (The hospital smelled like poop and pee the whole time. The paint was peeling over my bed. Everything was rusty or dirty. The staff and other patients were nice, though. One lady even bought me a Japanese phrase book that I still have. I finally got to go back to—you guessed it—gray, industrial life again. I could not wait to leave Osaka, and eventually made my way back to Tokyo , where I spent much of the next, mostly enjoyable, five years.

So, I have to say, if you can avoid a trip to Osaka, please do. See if you can turn it instead to a
trip to nearby Kobe or Kyoto—two marvelous cities. Kyoto, being one of the great wonders of the world, and a must-see while on planet Earth. But Osaka, well, even the local cuisine is rancid. Osaka sushi has to be one of the worst culinary experiences I've ever suffered through (the other was yard-bird with yams on a small island in the Philippines—but that's another story). The fish is marinated in vinegar, cooked, and then cut into little rectangles. It's a food only a child growing up eating it could love. And I do love sushi in general. Just say, "Mo, kekko desu" (no, thank you) to Osaka sushi, and to Osaka.

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