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Osaka, Japan

Nov 27 – Nov 30

It was a 5hr flight from Perth to Singapore (during which I met a really nice South African couple and got great areal views of the western edge of Australia).

Then it was a 4 hour layover at Changi Airport in Singapore (where I made wood block prints, ate Indian food, visited the butterfly garden, and charged all my electronics). This is the fanciest airport I’ve ever been in. They have a movie room, a workout room, a spa, multiple botanical gardens, restaurants that are actually good, and so many other things to distract you while you wait for your next flight.

Then it was a 6 hour flight from Singapore to Osaka (during which I had high aspirations to learn some Japanese, but I ended up taking pictures of the drawings on the safety manual instead and then deciding I better try to get some sleep). My flight from Singapore left around 1am and was due to arrive in Osaka in the morning. And I started thinking that sleep deprivation would probably inhibit my travels in Japan much more than my language skills would.

Customs in Japan was an interesting experience. On a small computer, my photo and fingerprints were taken. After the photo, which was taken on a screen with bright colored flowers dancing in the background, a smiling, animated couple said thank you and waved goodbye. If it weren’t for the big yellow sign on the wall saying something like “Extra Precautions are Taken to Combat Terrorism”, I would think I was in one of those cute photo booths rather than at the immigration counter. After a few random seeming questions from the Immigration officer such as “You smoking?” (not sure why he asked that, maybe he just wanted to encourage me to stay healthy), my visitor visa was stamped in my passport and I was granted permission to enter the country.

I was really tired at this point. But knowing it would probably be a long, confusing morning…I splashed water on my face and marched out to face the day. At the airport I had a few tasks to take care of: get some money, find an English map of the Kansai area, turn in my exchange order for a Japan Rail Pass, and figure out the series of public transportation services needed get to my hostel. With the help of the tourist information center, some smiley girls at various information kiosks, the stern-faced train operator (who, after watching me glance at my map several times and look nervously out the window, walked up to my seat and motioned when I should get off), several different men near the ticket machines, and the sweet girl running the hostel, I managed to figure it all. So far so good.

My hostel, Sumo Backpackers, was cute and comfortable. It was a small hostel, with 10 people all sharing one giant room upstairs, a tiny bathroom, a cozy kitchen with a hot plate and a warm water dispenser, and a small porch with a hammock. I liked it instantly so I reserved a bed for one extra night.

Rather than collapsing on my bed in exhaustion (like I probably should have done), I threw my stuff down and wandered around the neighborhood. So far, my favorite thing to do in each new city has been to wander around and take pictures, get hopelessly lost, and continue exploring the city while I find my way back again. But that day I felt very very differently. When I stepped out of my hostel, I saw that all the signs were written in Japanese, there were no street signs anyway, and the crowded streets with small alleyways branching off were filled with people who didn’t speak my language. It was very disorienting. I felt a bit like this guy.

I didn’t have the energy to deal with getting lost or trying to communicate my needs in a foreign language, so I decided not to stray too far. Every time I took a turn, I made a mental note of a tall building on my left or a bright red sign on my right. That way (fingers crossed) I would be able to find my way back.

First I walked down a few of the little side streets near my hostel.

And I immediately noticed all the bikes. Bicycles everywhere!

Then I found a convenience store and was so confused by what I saw, that I walked out without buying anything.

The menus at restaurants were not any better. Many of them have window displays that help clarify which dishes to avoid.

But if they don’t, it really is a mystery.

Next, I tried the grocery store. But it was a similar story. I stared blankly at the little containers and jars full of odd looking food items.

A friend of mine has a job flying to foreign countries and photographing grocery stores to study their packaging and layout (kinda like a spy). She said in Japan she needed a translator because she couldn’t tell what was wasabi and what was toothpaste. I understood instantly. I walked up and down the aisles and was seriously confused. Is it mayonnaise? Is it shampoo? Is it garlic paste? Is it baby food? I seriously had no clue.

The cute characters on the packaging often did nothing to help explain the food item.

Ok…so it’s BIG. Now what the hell is it?

After many minutes of staring at the milk aisle trying to discern soy milk from regular milk, I bought a few very expensive, individually packaged apples, along with a few other odds and ends and left to go cook up my own concoction back at the hostel.

I was pretty tired at this point and felt like taking a nap, but I still hadn’t come to terms with the fact that it is OK not to go go go all the time. I mean really, it was my first day in Japan. Was I really going to spend it sitting at the hostel and doing nothing? Out of a nagging sense of guilt and personal pressure not to be boring, I went back outside and kept walking. I didn’t know what to do exactly, so I decided to walk to the main subway stop just to see how far away it was. It would be a good way to orient myself and practice for tomorrow. The subway station proved to be very crowded and overwhelming.

Once at the subway station, I found a giant mass of people and I decided to follow them just to see where they were going. It didn’t take me long to find out. They were all going to Yodobashi, a giant, multistory shopping mall near Osaka Station. It had pretty much everything you’d ever want: a few floors of electronics, a few floors of fashion clothes, home accessories, hair accessories, costumes, toys, kitchen gadgets, restaurants. Christmas decorations were everywhere and Japanese versions of famous Christmas carols were playing in the background. It was also very overwhelming.

The past few months, I have been keeping my eyes out for a simple strap for hanging my camera around my neck. Surprisingly I’ve had a hard time finding one. But of course once I walked into this store, that was the very first thing I saw: rows upon rows of straps. They were even called “simple straps” (although some weren’t really all that simple: floral pattern, hello kitty, glow in the dark, elastic, plastic). Basically any type of “simple strap” of any length or size you would ever desire can be found at this store. I bought the cheapest, most basic gray one and left happily.

Back at the hostel, I met many people – some who have been living and working in Japan for the past year, others who had only been traveling about a week. It was good to hear all their stories and I tried to absorb as much info as possible. They had lots of tips about transportation, train tickets, etiquette, etc.

The next day, I met Benny, a vegetarian Israeli guy staying at the hostel. We decided to join forces and tour Osaka together. The first thing on our agenda was to buy a “No My Car Day Pass” (a discounted rail pass you can buy on Fridays). Finding the information center that sells the passes turned out to be a task in itself. We’d ask one person who would send us upstairs and around the corner, then another person would send us back downstairs and across the street, then back upstairs, then back down. Osaka Station is huge and we walked back and forth and up and down and around for over an hour. Every time we approached someone with a question, they’d get really flustered and seem really uncomfortable that we were talking to them. I’m not sure anyone really understood what we were asking. They just didn’t want to appear unhelpful, so they tried to point us in some sort of direction. Eventually we found it. Mission accomplished….finally. It was right next to McDonalds. Everyone here knows where McDonalds is, so everytime I needed to find the info center after that, I would just ask someone for McDonalds. Anyway, this pass turned out to be a great deal. A day pass is normally 800 yen, but the “No My Car Day Pass” is 600 yen. One train ride is normally about 200 yen, so if you take 3 stops you’ve already traveled your money’s worth. Finally armed with our “No My Car Day Passes”, we figured we’d just spend the day hopping off at whatever subway stops sounded interesting.

But first, we needed to find a place to eat. I copied down a list of vegan places in Osaka, but we couldn’t manage to find any of them. We asked a few younger people we passed on the street for directions (young people study English in school so are more likely to understand you), but even people in Osaka don’t know street names and numbers. Addresses here are so confusing that most businesses just give directions by citing a list of important landmarks along the way. But because I didn’t have that information, it was difficult to ask anyone for help. After wandering around for a while, we found an Indian restaurant with veggie options. It felt a bit like a cop out (I really wanted Japanese food. I can save the Indian food for India), but we were hungry, so we settled for this. It was alright, but nothing special. At least we were full.

Next, we visited Osaka Castle. We didn’t go inside, but we walked all around the outside.

The park near the castle was really pretty. Nice flowers and pretty autumn leaves.

In the park, we saw these guys. They were marching and chanting. Not sure who they are or why their fingers are all bandaged.

After the castle, we hopped on the subway to Tennoji.

The sky was cloudy and full of crows.

And I walked up a windy staircase to get a view of the streets.

We walked down some streets just as it was getting dark. And all the signs started to light up.

This is a restaurant that serves blowfish. They always make the animals look so cute and happy, even when they’re trying to encourage people to eat them. I’m not sure what this sign is trying to convey. These fish are either in love with each other, or in love with eating dishes made of blowfish. That’s another common thing here (well…common in most countries, I suppose) – cannibalistic animals used as advertising. I always thought this was an odd tactic.

Anyway, there were lots of Pachinko parlors and video game arcades.

Pachinko is kinda like pinball except minus the flippers. If you get the ball in certain holes, you can win prizes.

That evening, I met up with some couchsurfers: Jacquie, Yas, and Brillo, an Italian vegan now living in Iceland. Benny and a few other people from the hostel met us too. While we were waiting at the train station for everyone to arrive, Jacquie took me to the convenience store to point out all the things I can eat. It was soooo helpful.

Like seaweed onigiri

And these happy vegetable chips (most chips have fish powder, but these didn’t).

And inari zushi (basically thin fried tofu strips wrapped around rice). I’m currently kinda addicted to them.

And I finally figured out which ones were soy milk!

The people Yas was hosting were flying in from Australia and once they arrived, we all gathered at a restaurant with a few of Jacquie’s friends.

It turned out that quite a few of us were vegans/vegetarians. This is them explaining to the perplexed waiter what our table full of vegans and vegetarians do and don’t eat. It was a struggle. The poor man was very confused.

We got shiso leaves to pile with mushrooms, spinach, sprouts, and soy sauce.

Then came the rice. Only the first time it came out, it had tuna all over it. When they gently broke it to the man that tuna is a fish and when we said we don’t eat fish, we also mean that we don’t eat tuna. He wasn’t annoyed – just completely baffled. “Sea chicken? They don’t eat sea chicken?” Apparently tuna is its own separate category.
Not quite fish, not quite chicken. It’s sea chicken. I’ll have to remember that…and to learn how to say it in Japanese. I don’t eat meat or fish or chicken or sea chicken. Niku taberemasen. Sakana taberemasen. Toriniku taberemasen. Sea chicken Taberemasen. We gave the rice to one of the meat eaters at the table.

The next time our rice came out it had a giant raw egg yolk on top. I’m pretty sure that the girl ordering it for us did say “No egg” (Tamago nashi), but I guess he forgot. This time we just tried to pick it up with a spoon without breaking it and transfer it to another dish. Then we mixed some veggies into the rice and pretended it never happened. It was easier than wasting food or having to stress out the waiter some more. We were also really hungry at this point.

Typically in traditional Japanese restaurants, everyone orders little things and shares them. People just grab whatever they want with their chopsticks and put it on their plates.

At this type of restaurant, meat is the main course and everyone cooks it on a little grill in the middle of the table. Since we don’t eat meat, he wasn’t quite sure what to do with us….so we got some raw cabbage and a few other slices of veggies.

It ended up being really expensive for a bunch of cabbage that we all had to share and cook ourselves. Since we custom ordered everything, I think we still ended up having to pay for the meat that we didn’t eat. I’m not sure.

The next day, we all met up again for dinner. Lawrence, another couchsurfer joined us. Feeling sorry for us the night before, they took us to a great sushi place that served lots of veggie sushi.

Japanese restaurants are funny. It sounds like they’re yelling at you when you come in, but they’re just saying nice things like “hello” and “welcome” and “come inside”.

We ordered two plates of every type of sushi that was veggie (pickled daikon, natto, carrot, cucumber, eggplant, shiso).

After all the yummy sushi, we went downtown in Shinsaibashi. Lawrence had to ride around to different bars and drop off flyers for a company advertising 3D Internet. While he did that, we just went to the bars and drank.

On the streets, I saw a lot of oddly dressed characters walking down the streets pulling things that looked like sleighs. These guys were dressed up like cowboys. I don’t really understand. Lawrence said “They’re having chariot races. They do this all the time.” I would have loved to follow them to see what they were going to do, but since he was driving and couldn’t drink until he got home, we seemed to be in a hurry to get back to his house.

His house was really fancy. Traditional japanese style house, but giant! and the wooden floors in some of the rooms were heated from underneath. This house was definitely built for hosting people and throwing parties.

He had had two big rooms tatami mats and enough space for all of us to sleep.

We continued the drinking at Lawrence’s place.

And we played ping pong, but were all pretty horrible at it.

Everyone drank a bit too much. I couldn’t stay awake anymore, so I went to sleep earlier than some of the others.

The next day, a french couchsurfer was making everyone crepes. He was trying to make me and Brillo some vegan ones, but all he had to use was rice flour, so they turned out very weird. We added various items like tomatoes, vegemite (I brought some with me from Australia – hehehe), mushrooms, and soy sauce to help them taste better. The vegan crepes actually did turn out OK in the end…but it was hard for me to be enthusiastic when my stomach was doing somersaults.

I felt like crap and couldn’t move.

But we all said our goodbyes.

The french guy had Yas write him a sign so he could hitchike to Kyoto.

I had planned to go straight to Kyoto too, but I felt miserable. So when I went to the train station, I decided to go back with the other guys to the hostel in Osaka where it was comfortable and familiar. I spent the whole train ride trying not to puke. Then once at the hostel, I finally had to get all that crap out of my system. Fun night, but yuck. I learned a valuable lesson: Beer + scotch + sake + some sort of sweet plum drink + more beer = PAIN. Remind me never to drink multiple types of alcohol — especially after my entire diet that day consisted of rice. It was stupid.

Notes:

  • You are always expected to remove your shoes before entering a japanese home. In hostels and at many Japanese style restaurants, you should also follow this rule. Sometimes you will be given special slippers for wearing inside the house. And often a different set of shoes are provided for entering the bathroom.

  • I’ve seen lots of signs telling you to pick up your dog poo. And of course they include cute cartoons.

I don’t really understand this one.

  • A common item found at convenience stores is the noodle hot dog. Weird!

  • A professional Sumo tournament was held recently in Fukuoka. I missed it, but some people from my hostel went.

  • Folding bikes are very popular. It makes sense. Also, there’s often so much traffic (cars, bicycles, and pedestrians) that you won’t get a chance to ride your bike fast. So, it makes a lot of sense to get a small, compact one. I wish I could buy one and ship it home. I think this one is really great!

  • Aside from folding bikes, battery powered bikes are also popular (ones that have a small motor to help you go up hills). So are cruiser bikes – with either baskets on the front and back or seats for holding several small children.

  • I think Japanese NO signs are much cooler than American ones.

  • Many public bathrooms (except large ones at train stations) are unisex. They have squat toilets and urinals.

  • Toilets in private homes or small businesses are generally fancy versions of Western toilets. They have heated toilet seats and sometimes even a little arm with a remote control for turning on the bidet function. The sink is attached to the top of the toilet and is activated automatically once you flush.

Some look so complicated, you’re scared to push any buttons.

  • Vending machines are everywhere and full of interesting things. The labels at the bottom tell you if the drink is served hot (red) or cold (blue).

  • Many people wear masks over their mouths. I was told this is because they are worried about catching a cold.

  • Drinking and driving is taken very seriously. It’s not uncommon for the police to put up barricades and give random breathalyser tests to drivers. If a driver has ANY alcohol in his system, he gets fined a lot of money. Each passenger also gets fined if the driver is drunk. However, passengers can drink in the car as long as they aren’t driving.

  • I’ve seen many women in Japan with brightly dyed hair. Apparently it’s a trend and most common among older women living in Osaka. Osaka seems to have a reputation for being a little bit weirder, friendlier, and less uptight than other cities. They also have a unique way of speaking and dressing. Purple seems to be the hair color of choice, but this lady’s hair is bright green.

(Just so there is no confusion, this photo was actually taken in Hiroshima).

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