June 30, 2008

Aizen Matsuri - Summer Festivals Begin

Tonight was the first night of Aizen Matsuri, the first of the three summer Matsuri (i.e., festivals) that are held in Osaka at Shoman-in Temple. Aizen Matsuri is dedicated to Aizen Myo, the guardian deity of charm and love.

During the day there was a parade of yukata-clad geishas riding on red and white decorated palanquins (called hoekago.). But since I was working during the day, I only made it for the evening festivities.

Summer festival evenings mean alley streets lined with lots of food stands, carnival-games, and crowds. The meat-on-a-stick was truly excellent!

The festive alleys wound their way into the temple grounds, where many of the stars of the day's parade remained around, smiling and handing out balloons and flowers. It smelled of incense, and there were lots of people out - and tons of kids - dressed in yukatas and kimonos (and also many who weren't). It was quite the family atmosphere, and it was nice to see all of the families out enjoying the evening.

There were also some interesting musical performances on a stage next to the temple. The dancers danced two-at-a-time, a man and a woman, while two others played cow-bell sounding cymbals and two others played the drums. It was very rhythmic, getting faster and slower, and, for lack of a better comparison, the dancing itself reminded me - a little bit - of Madonna's Vogue ("strike a pose"), but with a distinctly Buddhist twist. There is some video below; you can decide for yourself.

Here is a little bit of video:

June 29, 2008

Namba Redux - Doguya-Suji and Den Den Town

Today I headed back into the Namba area of Osaka. It was a wet muggy day, but I wanted to try to get back to see Doguya-suji (and this time, at a time of day when the stores are actually open).

Namba is a short subway ride from Umeda Station.

Having already gotten myself oriented a few days ago (by getting hopelessly lost), this time I knew where I was going. I made my way past Namba Ichiban and the many pachinko parlors along the way. Being Sunday, the crowds were pretty thick.

I spent the next hour or so wandering through many of the stores in Doguya-suji. Catering to the restaurant industry, they sell all sorts of cookware, cooking tools and utensils, signage and decorations, ceramic plates, bowls, mugs, and teapots, lacquer and wood serving blocks, trays, and bowls, an amazing assortment of knives, and, of course, plastic food. Fun place to poke around.

The plastic food was insanely expensive - around $45 for a (plastic) bowl of noodles and around $10 a piece for the sushi. But I did find some nice plates, mugs, chopsticks, and a sword-like letter opener. Here are some pictures from inside the stores (all food shown, is fake), so you can get a feel:

After finishing up there, I decided to check out the nearby electronics district of Osaka, called Den Den Town. It's only about a five minute walk from Doguya-Suji.

In addition to all things electronics - computers and computer components, audio components and stereo equipment, TVs, DVD players, DVDs, CDs, video games and gaming systems, and flash memory sticks and cards, all from the likes Panasonic, Sony, Toshiba, Mitsubishi, etc. - there are tons of collectibles shops - anime figurines, Pokemon-like cards, toys - as well as a goodly array of smut, including DVD and CD shops. There were lots of young people around, checking out the latest video games, etc.

As to the aforementioned collectible anime figurines, there were tons of standard Dragon Ball Z and Gundam figures, but here were also a lot of anime women. Some were cute in that wide-eyed blue-haired anime way, but others were a bit more...um racy (the second picture below is an example, but one of the tamer ones). Distinctly not for kids. In fact, I'm really not sure who buys these. Not the kind of thing that you can put on your desk at work. Or at home!

I happened across a guy selling chicken-kebab sandwiches on a street-side cart, which turned into lunch. (It was bizarre speaking Japanese to the obviously Greek but perfectly fluent proprietor.)

Anyway, here is some local Den Den Town "art." Not sure about the huge metal bug on top of one of the buildings:

And here are my absolute hands-down favorite two shots of the day. I think they really capture the essence of Den Den Town:

June 28, 2008

Ashiya Bike Trip

This morning, after playing basketball at Canadian Academy at the regular Saturday morning pick-up game, one of the guys pointed me out to a friend of his and said - "Mike actually went biking with those crazy guys!"

(Once again, the "crazy guys" part would have been real good to know before setting off on my mountain biking adventure! Actually I love those guys; it was really great!)

Today, I decided to set off on a different kind of biking adventure. I had heard that there was a nice path along the Ashiyagawa River in Ashiya and thought it would be fun to check it out. Ashiya is 3 stops away from Sumiyoshi on the JR Kobe Line in the direction of Osaka. Although it was overcast and misty and the weather called for some rain, its supposed to be like that all weekend.

So, I set off with my new best friend (my bike), up and over the red Rokko Island Bridge. It was my third time over the bridge by bike (once for the mountain biking and once with Jacob on the quick there-and-back trip).

That plops you in a fairly industrial area that you have to bike through to get into Sumiyoshi. I didn't really know where I was going, but I knew the direction of Osaka and headed that way. I soon came to the Sumiyoshigawa River and eventually came to the Okamoto area near Settsu-Motiyama. Since this is the first stop after Sumiyoshi on the way to Osaka, I knew I was heading the right way. We had explored this area a little bit before.

I had packed up some books and magazines, and found a good little coffee shop to hang out in for a while and relax. Okamoto is a neat area chock full of alleys heading up into the nearby mountains. I explored the neighborhood for a while, and then continued on in the same direction. There are some great houses in the hills, and some nice shops and bakeries. The Hankyu line train cuts right through the town.

I also met this cat. I call this "Cat Near A Hot Tin Roof."

I continued along, and through Konan Yamate (the next stop on the JR line - still heading the right way!), and into Ashiya. Ashiya is a classy nice area. They call it the Beverly Hills of Osaka, but I'm not sure that really fits. It is pretty upscale though; nice houses (especially up the in mountains), nice cars everywhere, and some fancy shops. Eventually I came to what might was the Ashiyagawa River.
(Interestingly, virtually every river bed bottom in Japan is poured over with a layer of concrete; I understand that this is because of extreme political corruption with ties to the contruction industry.) I followed the path along the river up the hill, until I came to the train station and could go no further. So I figured it was not the right river and headed back into town and hit the basement of Daimaru Department Store for some snacks. The basement of Daimaru is amazing. Baked goods and every type of food everywhere you look. Lots of free samples. It was a worthy stop.

Not realizing that I had found the Ashiyagawa River and gone the wrong way, I kept on biking through Ashiya. I explored some of the hills and found a nice little park to bike around. Eventually, I ended behind some guy with a backpack on a bike who was dressed in athletic clothing; not out shopping, it seemed. I followed him. Jackpot. He led me to a wide river, which I soon learned was actually called the Ashiya Canal. I saw some speed boats on the water; then I realized they were pulling water skiers. Good find. Crazy!

After crossing the bridge to the other side of the Ashiya Canal Park, which was lined with trees and really pleasant, I made another good find - a map. It showed me how to get to the Ashiyagawa River; just over the next bridge. But I also realized that I was very close to a large park - the Ashiya City Grand Park - which overlooks Osaka Bay. I biked over and watched soccer for a while, and also checked out the beach. The park was really well-manicured, with pretty flowers, nice views, and lots of people out walking and picnicking. (Of course, it is right next to the Hanshin Expressway and the view of Osaka Bay includes industrial freight ships and factories. But that is Japan. The industrial stuff is just always in the background. It's gotten to the point that it doesn't really bother me. It's still nice, but in that "Impression Sunrise" kind of way.)

After the park, where I loaded up with another sports beverage (the fact that vending machines are everywhere is really nice), I headed back to the mouth of the Ashigawa River and followed it back through Ashiya to the same spot that I had been earlier in the day.

It was starting to rain pretty heavily and I was getting tired. It was time to head home. The smells of the restaurants along the road - yakiniku restaurants and ramen-ya - were really hitting me hard. I found my way home pretty well. (I only panicked for a couple of minutes when I couldn't find the Rokko Island Bridge and the rain was really coming down.) I had left a little before 1 PM and it was after 6:30 PM when I got home, so it was a pretty full day!

Minutes after I got home, I got a call from friends of ours who are moving to Switzerland and are having a little goodbye party at a pub called Hobgoblin in Sannomiya. As it happens, I have no other plans . . . .

June 27, 2008

Keitai Confession

Back a few months ago, we did a blog post that somewhat mocked the Japanese phenomenon of cell phone (keitai) straps.

So how do I put this. I got one. I'm not sure what it means or how it happened, but somehow I wanted one. Strange. Anyway, here it is:

What!? Trust me; its cool. At least it appears cool to me after 6 months in Japan. Go Tigers!

Oh and one more picture from a kitschy hon-ya (bookstore) I came across during last night's wanderings. I call this "Sumo Illustrated - A Retrospective"

June 26, 2008

Namba at Night - Aimless Wanderings

This is Mike writing. And since I'll be manning the blog by myself for a while, I am going to dispose of the third person. (It just feels weird.)

With no real reason to go home after work, I decided to explore Osaka a bit. Although I commute to Osaka everyday to OBP, I usually hightail it back home to Rokko Island after work to have dinner with the family.

I had long been curious to check out the Doguya-Suji, an area near Namba Station that caters to the food and restaurant industry. They sell cool knives and those plastic models of food that you see all over Japan. I had missed out (we just ran out of time) at the opportunity to see the similarly themed Kappabashi area when we were in Tokyo. Why am I obsessed with the plastic food? I'm not sure. At any rate, tonight seemed like as good a night as any to check it out in Namba.

I emerged from the subway with my trusty JNTO map of Namba in hand, and set off into the neon-bathed night. And I got completely turned around and lost. Which happens all the time in Japan. (And not just to me.) But since I didn't really have anyplace to be, I was fine with aimlessly wandering. Namba is one of the two major shopping and entertainment areas in Osaka (the other being Umeda), and there were lots of people out and lots to take in.

This is the Namba Hips Building. It is gigantic, super-modern and looks coolest at night, when it is swathed with neon red. (The camera-phone picture doesn't do it justice. Here is a better one.) Oh and yes, that is a Freefall Ride down the middle of it. Of course.

The next interesting area that I came to (after walking for a while in what I originally thought was the right direction, but soon realized it wasn't) was filled with various love hotels, easily recognizable for their stick-out-like-a-sore thumb garishness (with names like Provence, Little Chapel, and - my personal favorite - Mickey Cookies) and their signs ("Please Spend Wonderful Time") advertising different prices for "rest" versus "stay." From what I have been told, these hotels sprung up out of the need for husbands and wives to get away from their too-small apartments and families and are now a Japanese institution. There are hundreds in Osaka alone. I gather that staying at one is more socially acceptable that hitting a pay-by-the-hour motel in the U.S. But what do I know?

Anyway, moving right along . . . . Namba is a cool area. Its bright and lit up along the main thoroughfares and crammed with shopping, restaurants, bars, pachinko parlors, karaoke bars, and apparently love hotels. But its also got oodles of those little non-descript alleys that are fun to wander down. These are home to the super-tiny sushi and noodle shops filled to the max with customers. Some that I came across reminded me of Greenwich Village, with loud music, out-of-place looking bars, and trendy clothes.

While lost, I came across (or rather, was drawn to like a fly to a bug zapper) the Dotombori area, a bright loud set of covered-arcades and alleys. Unfortunately, I only had the camera phone tonight, but here is a link to some terrific pictures of Dotombori.

Along the way, I also passed by the Shin Kabukiza Theater, which looked strangely out of place. Thank God, because this place actually helped me locate myself on the map.

Eventually, I got myself turned around and found the Doguya-suji. Unfortunately, I had been wandering for a while, including brief browsing detours into the Muji Store and Tower Records, and it was already 9 PM. So all the stores were closed. It was the only completely quiet place I encountered all night. Oh well. Now I know where it is for next time.

Some of the neatest eye-candy of the night were the various anime posters for up-and-coming movies and TV shows. I'll leave you with a few of these: