2 September, 2005

I guess signs like this are popping up in subway stations everywhere.

The Osaka subway. Each train has a driver and someone who stands in the back of the train watching when the doors close. And each station also has a bunch of other people who monitor the platforms and make sure people get in and out safely.

Here's a look at one of Osaka's "don't walk" signals. Thrilling, isn't it?

The trucks at an Osaka fire department.

Yes, they do drive on the left here.

A trio of Japanese businessmen leaving work on Friday afternoon.

Hard to believe it but there's a highway up there. You can't hear it either.

Street machines being delivered.

Coffee shops are everywhere in this town.

As are convenience stores of all brands.

Bicycles are also quite prevalent.

A very busy Osaka street.

A mailman does a pickup from one of the many mailboxes in town.

I've never seen so many cigarette machines as there are in this place.

An NTT communications tower.

There are shops like this everywhere as well.

A Yahoo! storefront.

This stretch of electronics shops seemed to go on forever.

One of the shops' displays.

Not sure what this is all about and since I haven't been in the States for a while I don't know if rabbits have somehow been integrated into McDonald's.

Gold and silver from a vending machine.

Another silent elevated highway.

And yet another convenience store.

Lines of taxis can be found on virtually every block.

A store's proud slogan.

The evening subway ridership.

Apparently, groping incidents made it necessary to implement "Women Only" subway cars.

Stations have huge air conditioning units installed along the platforms.

One of the well lit centers of Osaka.

This is the view over one of the canals.

A huge mechanical crab above the door of a restaurant. This isn't the only one either.

The Dotonbori district.

I've heard of Korean barbecues but never knew of this connection,

2 September, 2005

Day 48. There are a number of things about Osaka which almost immediately strike you. One would be the bicyclists which, unlike in China, ride directly on the sidewalk along with the pedestrians constantly trying to stay out of their way. Sometimes there are bike lanes marked. Most of the time there aren't any at all. They don't seem nearly as intimidating as the Chinese cyclists, just a whole lot more in the way.

Car traffic is about as different as you can imagine. I haven't been in a place where the cars actually yielded to the pedestrians in quite a while. But that's exactly what they do here. And not only the cars. Everybody. I've seen people holding doors, moving out of other pedestrians' way, waiting for riders to get off the subway before getting on themselves, the list goes on and on. And I don't think I've ever seen a society so obsessed with politeness. But that, along with the expense, is what everyone told me to expect from Japan. They were right on target.

Going to Japan right after China is like being in two totally different worlds. It's really night and day. In so many instances, Japan parallels Britain - both islands off the continent, both oddly eccentric in a number of ways, both really unlike anything else on the planet, and both hugely expensive.

There are all kinds of machines and devices everywhere that you're just not expecting to run into. Like the beverage machines which seem to be on every block. The incomprehensible subway and train ticket machines. And did I mention the toilets? Oh my God. I suppose they're intelligent or something, I don't know. I haven't had the guts to really experiment with them. The first thing I discovered was that when you sit down on them, water starts flowing for some reason which can really scare the shit out of you. (I honestly didn't realize what an apropos statement *that* was until I had halfway typed it.) There are all sorts of dials and settings for various other functions you may wish to perform while visiting. Then there's some kind of a device under the TV set in my micro hotel room that's the size of a VCR or DVD player but whose only input seems to be for a card of some sort as well as some RCA inputs. Since my hotel gives out keys and not cards, this device remains a mystery.

Then there are the people. As mentioned above, they are so different from anything I have seen up to this point. I mean I knew about the bowing and all. I guess I just didn't expect there to be so much of it. You walk into a place and from the reaction you get you figure the person in charge just dropped something on the floor. Then you realize it's a rather solemn greeting and you scramble to return it. At the end of TV news broadcasts, the two anchors put their heads down in unison in the direction of the viewer. I even returned that gesture since I'm still not sure what the mystery device under the television might be doing. But in general, people here give you space, unless you're in a hotel room where it feels a lot more like a boat cabin.

And on that subject, I've had one hell of a strange reaction ever since getting on land. Apparently it's something called "landsickness" which I had only been dimly aware of before. Basically, I still feel like I'm on that damn ferry rocking to and fro. No kidding. Whether I'm walking down the street or sitting in a chair or even lying down, I feel the swaying motion. It's especially weird when you're walking though since you actually think the ground is moving and it becomes difficult to maintain your balance. I'm told this can last a couple of days after a boat ride. Severe cases can last for years. Oh, thrillsville. Not exactly what I signed up for. Let's keep our fingers crossed, shall we?

It's interesting that I didn't have this reaction after six days on the Queen Mary 2 but the reason is pretty obvious to me. That boat was a hell of a lot more stable. The ferry was bouncing up and down a great deal, particularly on the first day. And the ferry ride was my second longest boat ride ever, soon to be my third. That's what has me a little worried. The upcoming ten day freighter ride across the Pacific could really screw me up if it's as choppy as this thing was.

It's ironic that here I am in Japan and it's the first country where none of my cell phones work at all. I had service in Mongolia and Siberia but not a thing here. The reason for that is because Japan uses 3G cell phone technology (3G meaning third generation) which is not something any of my phones is capable of. Mind you, there are dual GSM/3G phones out there but not in my pocket. 3G's big thing is transmission of video and real time video conversations. But that apparently doesn't even account for most of the bandwidth. Music downloads hold that distinction. So the only way for me to stay in touch via the phone is to either buy yet another cell phone, get a prepaid card and use payphones, or have VOIP calls routed to my hotel room. The latter is the best solution for now. There's a certain air of sophistication to being mostly out of touch in the most connected country on earth.

Did you know there are trains everywhere in this place? You can be walking down a street and some sort of a train will just zip past in a place where you didn't even realize there was a track. These trains are pretty silent too and they seem to go just about everywhere. But, yet again, my complaint is that the damned things don't run at night! What is the point? This is such a 24 hour town and yet after midnight you simply can't get around by mass transit. Is New York really the only city that believes in around the clock subways?

Speaking of around the clock things, there are convenience stores all over the place here. They have 7-11 and AM/PM plus a whole lot of others. From my hotel I could hit three separate ones with a stone if I so chose. But not one of them had the one thing I was looking for: pretzels. I guess once again what I want is the one thing that's just not available.

Right away upon arriving it was pretty clear how expensive this place was going to be. A meal that cost $4 in China could now be expected to cost $40. That's one of the reasons I went to MOS Burger for lunch. They're right across the street and they're comparatively cheap. But, get this - they're pretty damn good for a fast food chain. They have this thing called a rice burger where the bun is made out of rice. After eating there I actually felt like I had eaten real food, i.e., none of that usual bad feeling you get after ingesting McDonald's or the like. I hereby appoint myself as leader of the Bring MOS Burger to the States campaign. (According to their website, MOS is an acronym for Mountain, Ocean, and Sun.)

This is a rather difficult town to get around if you're on foot. I have yet to find a map that really makes it understandable. I know I have no sense of direction to begin with but you would think with the map I got from the hotel coupled with the occasional maps you find on street signs that it wouldn't be so incomprehensible. But, as I quickly discovered, these maps are often in disagreement and, in at least one case, the "you are here" icon wasn't where I was at all which led to all sorts of confusion. On the map I'm carrying, there are several maps of different parts of town as well as a subway map. Half of these are oriented in a completely different direction which really makes it harder than it has to be. Using the subway makes it all much easier and I feel much more in my element there. And today was particularly cool because it was Friday. Every Friday (and on the 20th of every month) they sell a special day pass for only 600 yen (it's normally 850) called the No-My-Car-Day Discount Pass (no joke). So with that I was able to hop on and off trains all day and explore some of the city.

I ventured into a community that seemed to sell nothing but electronic devices. Phones, DVDs, computers, music, and of course anime and comic books. It just went on forever. And I quickly noticed what was missing here. No "hello!" people. In fact I was getting the exact opposite here. The people who were handing out coupons seemed to make a conscious effort not to give me one, a wise decision being that they were probably written completely in Japanese. But up until the time of this writing, I have not been approached by a single person wanting to sell me something. Not once. I don't know if it's worth the fantastic jump in prices but it does make life a bit more pleasant and gets me to want to walk around more.

There are some homeless people here but even they don't seem to be asking for anything. On a few different occasions - and this is rather strange - I passed by what appeared to be a homeless guy who was surrounded by cats. In each case between six and eight that I could see. They were all just either hanging out, sleeping on the sidewalk, or sitting in the person's lap. I've never known cats to travel around like this but it seems to be the norm here.

People in Osaka tend to dress rather fashionably. And I don't think I've ever seen so many people in one place with dyed hair. I've seen more blond and red-headed Japanese people than I ever knew existed. It's just one of the many strange sights that actually makes you forget that they also drive on the other side of the road.

Late at night I wandered around a district known as Dotonbori which seemed to have a pretty decent nightlife. There were clubs, what appeared to be a sex district, lots of restaurants, and plenty of people just milling around on the street and by the canals. I didn't want to get completely drained of cash by buying food so I looked for places that took credit cards which I would estimate to be about one in ten. I finally found a decent looking one and, after a wait, got seated. The people there spoke not one word of English and my Japanese pretty much ended after the bowing. It was fantastic. Somehow I managed to communicate what I wanted which turned out to be some of the dishes that Osaka was known for: octopus, okonomiyaki (kind of a pancake/omelette/pizza thing), and yakisoba (a dish known for its light as air noodles that move as if alive when they bring it to you). They set it all down on a little stove attached to the table and it was my responsibility to see that it got cooked properly. I think it was as authentic Osakan as I could have hoped for. (Incidentally, for those of you in New York who would like to try yakisoba, go to a place called Yoko Cho on 9th Street and 3rd Avenue. It's right above Around The Clock where we hang out after the monthly 2600 meetings. In fact, it's owned by the same people. And you can get some decent octopus rolls further up 9th Street towards 2nd Avenue.)

It was too late to get a subway back and I didn't feel like taking a taxi not knowing what it could wind up costing. But mostly I just wanted to walk even though it was really hot and humid despite being after midnight. It took me about two hours to get back, mostly because of the conflicting maps that I encountered but it was still a fun experience. It was an impressive sight seeing all of the cabs lined up waiting for passengers on almost the entire route back. They weren't cruising for passengers but rather just waiting for them, just like the limousines wait for people getting out of work on Wall Street.

Tomorrow I intend to get my bullet train ticket to Tokyo for Sunday and record the next edition of "Off The Wall." Throughout today I've been occasionally getting updates on the horrors back home. I realized that it was a year ago that I was released from the clutches of the NYPD after being grabbed off the street during the Republican Convention. It's nothing compared to what the people of New Orleans are going through but that experience helps me to understand the utter frustration of not knowing what's going to happen to you and of being lied to by whoever is in charge, if in fact anyone is. I do hope there are some serious ramifications in store for the people who let this tragedy become so much worse than it ever should have been.