Car. No, the wind around the car as it moves. Not the natural whisper of wind like through trees, but close. A kind of mechanical yawn as the air flows over the vehicle.

Light. Blanket. Stupid one sided pillows (The other side has beans. To what end, I do not know). Oh yeah, I’m in Japan…ain’t that some shit. It’s freezing cold in here is all I can think as I slowly sit up from the bed and try to untangle exactly what is going on in my life right now. College is done, money was saved, trip was haphazardly planned, yesterday was insanity, and now you’re alone in a room. In a foreign country. With an open bottle of scotch. Better take a morning tug for good measure.

With my head finally in order again, or as close as it will get at what I discover is around 6a.m. once I learn to find shows on T.V. that display the time, eventually climbing out of bed. It feels no worse than any hangover, and better than most for that matter. What’s with everyone complaining about jet lag? I get up, throw on a pair of basketball shorts, and turn down the air conditioner which I think I had running somewhere in the 50 to 60 Degrees Fahrenheit range from the feel of it. I grab a canned Boss Ice Coffee (with a picture of Tommy Lee Jones on the front) from the vending machine around the side corner of my hotel and head back up to my room for a morning cigarette. I decided to have it on the balcony instead of inside the room, despite that being an option. Besides, it’s better to stand outside and get a feel for how the day is going to be since this whole forty to sixty percent average humidity thing is going to be totally new to me. I head back inside knowing it’s going to be a day for light dress, and curl up in my blanket and nap again for a few hours. Got to have your post-sleep-naps. I wake back up a while later, and turn the television on, and decide to see if I can find anything interesting on like that marching waffle commercial from the Tokyo airport. It’s mostly morning news, but it’s interesting to find out what’s going on in the region. Until then I had no idea about the Chinese unrest about Japan’s ownership of two small rocky islands. Or Japan’s apparent dislike of having U.S. Osprey’s land in somewhere near them? It’s all still fuzzy, but I watch on, trying to pick up words here or there from context not knowing if it’s really going to be of any use.

The previous night had me taking a small precursory tour of the hotel room, and now I need to really get the feel for the place. Not bad by any means, especially for Japan. I had my own bathroom in the room, and even what I might call a kitchenette–nothing electric but what I can only imagine is a small hot pad and rice cooker, but you can definitely get everything done that needs to be done. The small supply of dishes and silverware are enough to get by any single person, if they keep up on their dishes. The thought of making a stop to a grocery store and trying to cook for myself while here as a money saving method has been present in the back of my mind since this trip became a possibility, and it would seem I have all the necessary tool to do just that. The entryway has a small clothing closet in which I hang a couple dress shirts and the like, in hopes that they might straighten out a bit after being in my suitcase. All shoes are also placed in the entry way. I may not use the overly tiny slippers 100% of the time, but I certainly will not be dragging my shoes all over the floors if that is the custom here. I take the time to spread a few more of my belongings around to get comfortable with the room. Somewhat happy that I have made some solid progress, I retreat back to the bathroom to clean up and get ready for the day. Now the toilet is nothing out of the ordinary for a westerner, which I am totally fine with, knowing how Japan can go to both extremes in this regard. The flushing sound on the other hand could almost be described as industrial. the sink was pretty typical except that the faucet looked pretty damn huge. The tub itself was deep but short in length, and of the two hanging positions for the shower head (on a rope) was at about my shoulder level. When I couldn’t find a dedicated faucet for the bathtub, it finally dawned on me that the sinks faucet was also for the bathtub. Explains the size and power of the thing. The following shower will not need to be discussed in detail except that the water got adequately hot, my head practically touches the roof if I stand up straight, and I got clean. Out of the shower I relax onto the bed with my map, pseudo-itinerary, and budget book. Think time.

Finally around noon, my stomach demands action, and I decide I finally have the courage to go venture out into the great Osaka jungle. Lets shoot for an easy target today. Osaka Castle is an all-too-obvious tourist destination but from the map it looks to be practically spitting distance from my hotel, and even if it’s a modern remake, it’s still a castle. And that is bad ass. Flip-flops, basketball shorts, hat, and crow-flight-path tee are all on the list for the days attire. I load up my backpack with what I deem are the ‘necessities’ which is far too much, and set off from the hotel. I double check the map for where I am to get a basic internal compass-rose going like my father always taught me, and set off in the direction of whatever seemed to smell good for breakfast. After a few turns I start to realize that most of these restaurants don’t have any English speaking staff or menu’s simply by their outward appearance. So I think back to what my friend on the plane had told me about the quality of convenience store food in Japan. Hell, couldn’t be any worse than the disgusting ‘food’ I have suffered through before at the hands of their American counterparts. I snag a C.C. Lemon from a vending machine on my walk to the nearest 7&i (like a 7/11, but with an i), because it promised me the power of 70 lemons worth of vitamin c. I have no idea what that actually equates to but it still feels like an impressive enough figure to qualify for my money.

I finally find a nice looking little 7&i with a small planter smoking area for the corporate building on top of it, so I head in and start to face my fate as this being my first real meal in Japan. It’s really not such a bad thing when you think about it, because then every meal can only get better, right? I decide to go with something that I recognize as having shrimp tempura, so I know that if nothing else I can eat that and the rice, hopefully to satisfaction. Plus at 550 Yen it’s practically a steal. I take it up to the counter and practice saying hello in Japanese for what is maybe the 5th time, and she suddenly rails off something at light-speed that I had no way of knowing, so I just  smile and say Hai (yes), learning that she was offering to heat up the meal for me in the  microwave behind the counter. Arigato indeed!

Yes, this was the first meal I decided to have in Japan.

Yes, this was the first meal I decided to have in Japan.

I take my little noon time breakfast outside and sit in the shade on a low stone wall, feeling only slight apprehension about the days activities to come. Primarily because I don’t know what they are outside of ‘go to the castle’ and ‘find more food after castle.’ In the midst of my mental warfare, I hear a particularly crisp exhaust note that nabs my attention in a heartbeat. Godzilla, in the wild, in her natural habitat. A beautiful shade of light gray, she tuns and goes down the street directly to my right, giving me a full 180 view: grill to boot. And for whatever part of me that is a true gear head, it gave me courage and directive. Some might think it’s stupid to find courage in a car. They’re probably right.

I finish up the rest of my lunch, practically cleaning my plastic plate/bowl device (it all really was quite delicious), and took my bearings. Or I would have if all the food eating and car viewing hadn’t gotten me so lost. And that friendly Japanese chap who I chatted with briefly while I was eating didn’t help either. Oh well. Lets think. I’m next to a freeway again (what luck, right?), so now I have east and west, but no idea which is which. Next clue. I’m sitting near a slope that runs along the east and west lines. Castles belong at the top of hills. Upwards we go. And it was definitely more of an upwards than I had expected from the look of it, but it turns out I’m just an out of shape American. Thanks to the size of all the buildings in the area, and the fact that I’m down hill and at an angle, I cannot see the castle one bit, and soon begin to question my choice. Luckily I happen upon a small recreation of an early Japanese hut, and my curiosity for history leads me over to it, only to discover the large park that contains the castle. I get excited, and despite my slight perspiration from the humidity, pick up my pace towards the park grounds. As I get closer I see the very top of the Tenshukaku (central keep) peeking out over the trees.

*Some moat wall may be included

*Some moat wall may be included

The park surrounding the castle is pretty large, and with a decent number of trees around, it was easy to find a nice little reprieve from the heat under a one by the outer moat near the Southwestern edge of the castle. I’ve never been much for taking pictures since I prefer to try and be in the moment as much as possible and just go with it, but for once I decided I’d make a mental note to take more pictures, and started with the moat. Being less than artistic with my photography due to lack of patience, I started making my way to the first set of doors allowing me into one of the outer courtyards. As I’m slowly making my way up the long sloping path towards the entrance at Ote-mon gate, I hear a slight, but kind older voice calls out in English…haven’t heard that in a while. I turn around, and my mind has literally come to a stutter as the only thing I even manage to think is “huh?” before I make the association, which wasn’t hard considering that we were the only two people for about 100 yards around. I have no idea how old she may have been, but this happy looking Japanese lady must have had to have been over 60. Easily. She strides up to me with a big smile and asks through what is fairly understandable English if I would like a tour of the castle. Yes please.

I already know some of the basic castle history from plaques I had read along the walk up the moat to the entrance, and even a bit from the Japanese history course I took back in my second year of college, but this sweet little old lady was by far the coolest person who could tell me about the history and I was not going to waste that chance. Hell, from the look of her, she probably experienced some degree of it first hand. The castle had seen some major renovations within the last century, but she knew the general age periods of all the stones dating back to some of the very first walls laid down by the Tokugawa family after the first castle by Toyotomi Hideyoshi was buried and built over following the clans destruction. The castle has seen many tragedies and has had to be rebuilt a number of times, to the point where the main keep is an air conditioned museum, while the outside is a beautiful and easy to maintain replica of the Tokugawa design. But none of that matters when they let you walk outside on the highest floor to look out over the city like if you were royalty. I’m a sucker for flights of fancy.

Before we get to the castle we take a quick detour over to the shrine which has an honorary statue of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a Chinowa circle that I pass through for good luck, and many smaller other shrines surrounding it. We head over to the main shrine to pay our respects. The process calls for a coin donation, with 5 Yen pieces being the preferred denomination considering it’s luck value in Japanese culture. After the coin is given, I’m instructed to clap twice, then bow twice. It feels like going back in time, and I enjoy it so much, I secretly make a mental decision to do this as often as feels necessary.

My inner wish for time travel slightly satiated standing here.

My inner wish for time travel slightly satiated standing here.

Who knows when or if I’ll ever get another opportunity. Near to the shrine was another series of gates, large ancient stones, and some more modern buildings within. Despite the castles rich modern history, I was really just more interested in the ancient implications of where I was. It was around this point that my tour guide inquired about my lack of picture taking, and this a series of photos had to be taken to remedy the situation. With me in them like-as-not. When grandma speaks you listen, and when foreign grandma tells you that you have to get in the pictures, you get in the pictures. As an upside to our impromptu photo taking, she showed me a lovely little pond which reflects the image of the castle in it’s water. Small victories.

The one with me in it would have been better for it's lighting, but it unfortunately it has the dishonor of having me  included in the picture as well.

It was borderline ludicrous how few people were over at this wonderful view, considering how packed the castle ground were at the time.

As we finished up the miniature nature walk, and rounded to the entrance at the front of the castle museum, obaasan stopped and informed me that she does not conduct the tours inside. I was sad to see her go, but thankful for everything she did. She would not accept any payment for her services, but instead insisted that I take two hand made nick-knacks back to the U.S. that were made by HER MOTHER who was too old to travel but wanted to know that her creations were going somewhere far and exotic. I mean really, can we crush my heart any more? Apparently yes, because she wont even accept money for those, either. I thank her with all the kind, polite, and sincere Japanese I know before we split ways.

The fee to get into the central museum was pretty small, and definitely well worth it just to stand up on the top in my opinion. Paid and walking up the giant stone steps, the immensity of the structure is really impressive, as I stop to take a picture. For grandma-san’s sake. I enter the small queue to take the elevator to the top (it has come to my attention that after beginning at the top, you then work your way down in a circular motion, going past all the historical artifacts), and end up next to a very friendly older Japanese man. Who also speaks a fairly good English. 2 for 2 Japan, I’m pretty impressed so far. Does everyone here just retire and practice foreign language or what? It’s amazing. After a brief introduction to each other on the elevator ride to the top floor, we both step out onto the balcony and he begins to give my a visual tour of the city. +3 intel. By this point the sky has clouded over considerably, and warnings of potential rain have come on the outdoor intercom system. I’m half in half out of listening at this point, trying to imagine legions of soldiers filling the courtyards, as I prep the defense of the castle from the enemy hoard lining up on the horizon.

These graphics are top notch.

These graphics are top notch.

360 degrees of Osaka later, Kenji and I say our goodbyes and head in opposite directions down into the castle to look at all the historical artifacts. Only we continually bump into each other for a while and walk/chat about the history inside the castle. By about 2 floors later I give up on the attempt at the solo experience and let the dude just explain it all to me, while helping him learn English. We even had a very interesting conversation about the words scroll and tapestry. I forgot to mention that this is a very popular field-trip destination on a Friday, a fact I was quickly reminded of when a huge group of children swarmed me from nowhere. I would have to approximate their ages to be around 4th or 5th grade. Brave, loud, and tragically undereducated about the world. What a lovely age. Anyway, these kids come up behind what I can only assume is their leader, who chooses his first words carefully. “Touch” he says, holding out his hand in some sort of high-fiveish fashion. Maybe not so carefully. So I do what anyone would, and went along with it. This prompted a shift in him, because he went for the double thumbs up towards me, and repeated the same command. “Touch!”

Here we are, face to face, double-thumbs-up-fist-bumping. The following conversation is what happens while we hold this pose.

Double-Thumbs-Up-Fist-Bump-Kid: “GTO!!”

Me: “………..uh, what?”

BTUFBK: “GTO!!”

Me: “…GTO?”

BTUFBK: “GTO!!!!!”

Me: “GTO!!!!”

Kids: *cheering and giving me high fives as they all walk away*

Kenji: “What is GTO?”

Me: “I have no idea, unless they really like classic cars” (It would later come to light from my Japanese friends Yuki and Manabu that they were talking about Great Teacher Onizuka. Arigato BTUFBK-kun!)

The rest of the walk through the museum goes pretty calmly, with Kenji and I still idly chatting as we walk down the great stone steps leading away from the entrance to the main keep. Suddenly, he notices my foot tattoo, and I tense for a moment remembering that tattoos as a whole are still pretty taboo in Japan. Stupid, stupid me. Walking around in flip-flops with the entire top of my right foot covered by the bones that lie beneath the skin. Overly clearly visible. As it turns out Kenji’s a pretty cool dude about tattoos. Sweet. We wander toward some vending machines so I can grab a drink and get intercepted by another group of youngsters, this time from Okinawa. They are a bit younger and have a kindly looking teacher with them. They ask me simple questions that they have on their sheets to help the learn English. Things like my name which, luckily for them starts with an L; my favorite food, which gave the opportunity to have myself a stupid word pun inside joke moment, and I couldn’t resist. I answered them by saying it was Tako. I mean Taco. Tako is Japanese for octopus, and I assume if you’re reading this in English you know what a taco is. It’s a lie on both accounts but I find it amusing, and I’m certainly not about to try to explain the finer points of what constitutes New Mexico style red enchiladas (my real favorite food). Then I’m asked to take a photo with the kids. Nicest children I’ve met in ages. Strangely cool to think there might be a photo of me at some school in Okinawa that I will never see.

I finally get over to the vending machine for a drink and Kenji asks me if I’ve ever been to Tennoji. I had in fact not been, and it was written down on my ‘general shit to do’ list for while I was here, and I relate as much back to him in better terms than those just used. He explains to me that he is not by any means a tour guide, but just a dude who knows a bit of history and wants to practice his English. Fine by me. We start back out of the castle with a light touch of rain in the air, but no real need for umbrellas. I feel more confident with Kenji around, but I’m still less than 24 hours into this city and I need to learn my landmarks, etc., so I can find my way back despite possible levels of intoxication (which I suspected might come later). Add on this the newly met guy trying to have a conversation through language and culture barriers simultaneously and you get a little dizzy for a second or two at the prospect of it all. Once we are back near the subway station I feel like I can finally understand my errors from the night before, a little bit, and relax considerably. The trains are still easy to figure out so far and after we get our tickets I have a quick lesson in how to change platform sides of the one train subway tracks without having to go back outside the gates. This information is as useful as the number of stairs it requires to execute the maneuver: quite a bit. Kenji and I continued our conversation with a little more enthusiasm on the train. I would normally hate to brazenly break cultural norms like that since it is considered rude to talk on the train, but I was already getting some interesting looks for my visible foot tattoo, and when I was with an older dude like Kenji it felt like I gained elderly-respect status by association.

Hopping off at Tennoji station (I wanted to exit Shitennoji, but Kenji said we had time to go to the park first, then the temple) there was still a whisper of rain in the air and a cooling breeze that comes with being just a little bit closer to the Seto inland sea. The park itself is relatively cheap to enter, and I love Japanese gardens on cloudy days, with all the beautifully muted greens and browns. As expected when things seem to be going to smoothly I’m hit with a dilemma. After entering the park, my attention is drawn to an Octoberfest event going on. Right then and there. German beer and food and music everywhere. I was full on set to go when I learned that Kenji did not particularly drink very much if ever. Do you:

A.) Thank Kenji for his time, go get drunk and hope you can find your way home, likely more confused and jetlagged

B.) Continue with Kenji, and enjoy Japanese nature in your favorite weather, also ensuring you will at the very least be assisted in finding your way back to an easy subway station to get back to the hotel

Spoiler Alert

Spoiler Alert

You go to Japan to do Japanese things. If you want to party like a German, best go to Germany. Koi ponds, thick trees, silence, rain drops, dirt paths, calm. Peace. I really could have spent the rest of my trip in that park if had stayed just like it was that day. Having an escape of that magnitude in the middle of a huge, bustling city like Osaka is simply astounding to me. I am absolutely smitten. Even an older dude like Kenji is surprised at how much I seem to enjoy the park since not many Japanese youth enjoy going there.

Youkoso!

Youkoso!

After much walking in the park we finally exit into a neighborhood and begin to make our way over to Shitenno-ji Temple.

We make it to the temple right as the last monks are leaving the grounds. It’s closing for the evening. Curse my love of dawdling in parks.

I will climb you. And you will like it.

I will climb you. And you will like it.

We still get to walk around most of the temple complex however, since it’s open to the public, and I get a ton of good pictures.

Fearsome guardsman at the temple gate.

Fearsome guardsman at the temple gate.

After feeding some turtles, paying respects at a shrine or two (I even got to do the water throwing kind!), we ended up on the corner by the main entrance towards the temple. Jet lag is starting to sink in after walking around all day, and hunger as well. I ask Kenji how to get to the nearest train station since I need to go lay down for a while and eat. After some minor confusion and questioning he understands me, and starts walking with me back to the station. He suggests McDonalds as we pass one, and I have to tell him several times that despite being from The States, I do not eat McDonalds. Instead he suggests an udon shop that is right near the exit required for my hotel. Now we’re talking.

As promised the little shop was no more than a few doors down the street from the proper exit for my hotel. I also now have a vague idea of the importance of exit choice when leaving subway stations here. Ordering was easy enough even though it had to be in Japanese. Kenji insisted that I try some of the chicken rice they make, going so far as to buy me a small bowl of it. Everything is simply amazing. The thick udon noodles, whatever flavored the broth, the spicy pepper flakes, the chicken rice, everything. I had pondered getting a beer while I was there, but my head was absolutely brimming with exhaustion by then, and even the happy face of the Ebisu beer man couldn’t sway me despite his best attempts. Feeling stuffed, Kenji and I walk outside to say our goodbyes. He gives me a little card with his contact information if I would like him to show me around some more while I’m in town. To offer that after having shown me around town for he last four or five hours was impressive to say the least. I was 3 for 3 on meeting awesome Japanese people out of left field and having them be more helpful than I could have ever expected. I thank him as formally and honorably as I can remember how in my exhausted state, and head back to my hotel.

Can of Boss Ice Coffee and a bottle of C.C. Lemon from the vending machine down stairs for the morning, and I head up back to the room. A little glass of scotch, a couple of cigarettes in a smoking-friendly room, and random Japanese television. For a few reasons I determine that I’m going to sleep backwards on the bed for the remainder of the trip. I get settled in and remind myself that tomorrow is going to be one of the most important days of my trip for several reasons. Best get some rest.

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