Monday, 6 December 2010

Day 6: The Abyss of Yuri

I woke at 8:00 to find that Mark had already bought breakfast for us. I was pleased to discover that Melon bread still hadn't lost any of the qualities that made it delicious, and after eating and doing some washing, we headed off to get the train to Osaka.

Osaka is a major commercial metropolis, as was made evident by the skyscrapers and high-rise office buildings that increased in density as our Shinkansen drew further into the city. Fortunately the trip was only fifteen minutes this time, and we reached Osaka by 10:30. Once we had picked up Osaka Unlimited Passes for ¥2,000 a piece (which gave us free travel on the city's railways and free entry to a number of tourist attractions) we headed off to the first point of interest: the Kanon bench.

We had discovered that the real-life location of the Kanon bench the night before, when Henry had been looking up anime pilgrimages and found that some scenes from Kanon had been based not only on a place in Osaka, but a place that was just a couple of stops out of our way on the route that I had planned for us. Mark, who wasn't a fan of Kanon, was unenthusiastic about the idea of visiting it, and after we arrived, I rather saw his point: it didn't feel particularly magical or special, and was, in fact, just a bench. The others took photos, but may well have shared our sentiments, for despite the fact that I had trips to Washinomiya Shrine (the setting of Lucky Star) and the Kyu-Furukawa Gardens (the setting of When the Seagulls Cry) lined up for later on in the trip, we made mutual decisions not to visit either when the time came.
It really was just a bench
Leaving the Kanon bench behind, our next destination was Nijo Castle, a much more satisfactory trip. After arriving at the station, there was a twenty minute walk to the castle which I hadn't anticipated. We were all getting used to the very high heat levels, however, and there were good views of the castle and its moat and walls from the outside, so it wasn't an unpleasant walk. We wondered, as we passed uphill over two moats and under the castle's massive stone walls how an enemy would go about capturing such a thing. We also caught our first glimpse of the legendary 'sailor uniforms' used as the standard school uniform by a few Japanese schools and massively over-represented in anime secondary schools.
This moat formed the first obstacle for
attackers of Nijo Castle
We were fairly hungry by the time we reached the castle itself, and even though it was fairly early, we made the decision to eat lunch at the fast-food restaurant at the top, which was really the only option. My rice dish arrived quickly and was very filling. It also came with a small plate containing a couple of slices of some bright yellow vegetable and a sour plum. I tentatively tried both, and found the yellow vegetable pleasantly tangy and the sour plum exactly as disgusting as you would expect semi-rotten fruit to taste.
Nijo Castle
Approaching the towering castle, at last, we detached the coupons that gave us free entry from our unlimited pass, and after passing up a flight of stone steps and past a rather menacing cannon, we stepped inside. The interior felt much more modern and polished than the archaic exterior would suggest, but perhaps it shouldn't have been entirely unexpected - we did know that the castle had been destroyed and reconstructed at least once. After getting our heads round the idea that we were meant to explore the castle from top to bottom rather than the other way around, we headed up to the 8th floor, which was an observatory. There were some quite impressive views out over the city. Once we had taken in the view and spotted some of the places we were going to later, we headed down through the museum, reading the descriptions and looking at the artefacts.
A rather impressive cannon
It was around 15:30 by the time we had finished looking around the castle, and we weren't quite sure whether we had left ourselves enough time for the Osaka Peace Museum. It was just next to the station that we were headed for, however (which wasn't the station we had arrived at), so we made our way over there and, upon seeing it, decided that we probably did have enough time. Our passes once again covered the entrance fee, and once inside, I was very glad indeed that we had come. The museum was small but well-presented, and had interesting exhibits on the American bombings of Japan in the Second World War (with particular reference to the incendiary bombings of Osaka) and an apologetic display on the Japanese invasion of Manchuria.

Our next destination was Namba, the southern shopping district of Osaka. Other than simply to explore, Yingke wanted to buy some sandals to replace his trainers, which were slowly falling apart from all of the walking. We headed along the very long Shinsaibashi shopping arcade, walking slowly to avoid getting lost and to take in all of the surrounding stores. As we were to discover throughout our time in Japan, buying clothes is very easy if you're female and very difficult if you're male. The ratio of clothing stores aimed at young women to clothing stores aimed at men must have been close to 30:1. It wasn't an uninteresting walk, however, and on our way, we saw a display from a woman trying to sell puppets. She had one out on display, and it appeared to be moving all by itself, sometimes doing acrobatics and sometimes imitating her movements when she bowed or put out her hand. It seemed fairly magical, although we all suspected that it was somehow being controlled by the man standing a little off to the side and moving his feet in a rather suspicious way.
Twenty minutes of walking found us a shop that had two or three pairs of men's sandals amongst their massive stock of women's shoes. Yingke sat down to try them on and Henry stayed with him while Mark and I had a look at the upper floor (more women's shoes) before glancing around the surrounding shops. The most interesting one we found was an antique shop which contained the most expensive item we saw in our entire trip: an inkstone for ¥500,000. It wasn't a terribly attractive object as far as display items go, looking much like a large black rock, but it would obviously be far too expensive to use for its originally intended purpose. We were left wondering what on earth one would do with such an object, and not at all willing to empty our bank accounts for it. By the time we had finished marvelling at the inkstone, Yingke had bought his sandals. It was too late to go to Shitennoji Temple as I had intended, mostly thanks to the Kanon bench, which had shifted the schedule down by an hour or so, so we travelled instead to Umeda, the northern shopping district of Osaka.

A short train ride later, we emerged into Umeda as the sun was setting. My original plan was to head to the Sky Garden first and then do the HEP FIVE Ferris Wheel after dark, but considering that we had all walked a long way and were fairly tired, we decided to go for the HEP FIVE first, as it was much closer to the station, and then eat before heading over to the Sky Garden. Predictably, it wasn't very difficult to find (a huge Ferris wheel on top of a tall building tends to be fairly noticeable). After entering through the glass doors, travelling up to the top floor in glass elevators and detaching our coupons (which, sadly, were not made of glass), we boarded the wheel.
The view from the wheel
Night hadn't quite fallen as we moved slowly upwards, but the view over the city in the dusk was still very beautiful (so much so that I even took a photograph or two, something that I had avoided doing for most of the trip). The best views were offered as we moved over the top of the wheel, and had unobstructed views in every direction, although the view on the way back down over the northernmost parts of Osaka was unfortunately obstructed by a large flashing Coca-Cola advertisement.

We stepped off the Ferris wheel into the top floor of the HEP FIVE building, and decided, as I'm sure had been intended by whoever was making money from us at that particular point in time, that we would eat at one of the restaurants there. Having wandered around and explored the options, we settled on an Italian restaurant that nobody objected to, and which looked like it served some interesting variation on pizza.

"The gay scene in Japan is hard to find, and the lesbian scene even harder", thus spoke Mark's guidebook to Japan. Perhaps the multi-coloured letters with the name of the restaurant should have provided a clue, or maybe we should have realised that we weren't wanted when Yingke commented that it was the first time we had stood outside a restaurant and hadn't immediately been offered a table. When we were finally led inside by a waitress wearing a sports uniform to see that the only diners were pairs of young women, however, we realised to our horror that the clientele of the restaurant we had wandered into was exclusively female. More specifically, the diners were pairs of women, each of whom seemed rather keener on her partner than is normal for two women. In short, we had wandered unwittingly into a Yuri den.

The waitresses were perfectly polite to us, but even so, it was quite clear that we weren't meant to be there, and it really was profoundly awkward. It's very difficult to be in that kind of situation without talking about it, but at the same time, terrifying to talk about it without the worry that you're being understood. Still, our money was as good as everyone else's, and so whilst we weren't actively wanted there, they didn't seem to mind serving us. Somewhere in between hearing one of the waitresses address a customer as “onee-sama”, and trying to sink into the floor when Yingke let slip some rather explicit terminology in Japanese, we managed to eat our pizzas. Once we had at last finished, paid and left like proverbial bats out of hell, it was, of course, all hilarious.

After supper, everyone seemed to have recovered enough energy to go and search for the Sky Garden. Sadly, the traumatic experience of being in a room full of Japanese lesbians seemed to have skewed my navigation abilities, and I set off confidently in the wrong direction several times under the mistaken assumption that we were at a completely different point on the map to where we actually were. When we had finally got our bearings properly, it was unfortunately too late to attempt the journey to the Sky Garden. It was a shame, but we had done a lot on our trip to Osaka, and visiting more attractions was rather secondary to ensuring that we got the last train back to Kyoto (it would have been a disaster had we missed it). An uneventful four train journeys later, we had arrived back at the hostel. Exhausted as always, we collapsed into bed and slept well.

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