Impressions of Japan: Osaka and Kyoto

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On August 5, 2016
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Osaka and Kyoto are cities each written in their own code. Counting the lines and trying to create logic between the kanji ideograms, the scrape of paper doors, and the heavy rain, I spent my few days there trying to decrypt a message only to wonder in the end if it was all a dream.

Eating astronaut food

Stumbling out of the airport, I found myself flying along a monorail to the Momofuku Ando Instant Ramen Museum, dying to know; where did all that astronaut food come from? Bright yellow, salmon pink, onion green, ivory white, ginger and stir fry noodle – the colours of Japan dried and mixed together in a bowl of hot soup.

The deconstruction of the dried ingredients inside the ramen, to be fully enjoyed before they become whole, was somehow similar to the display of the museum itself. I was guided along the curly noodle trail of ramen’s evolution – all tangled up with the story of Japan – which began with the wish to give a hot bowl of hope to a hunched and starving population progressing all the way to the modern need for food while you walk.

Alice inside the Great Kitchen

Adventuring in Osaka, it was as if I had shrunk like Alice inside the drawers and cupboards of a super large-scale kitchen.

First, absorbed inside a hot bowl of ramen at a crossroads with many salarymen at a late dinner; next, roaming between the fabric of suspended noodles while floating down the Yodo river; then, climbing a mountain of flour at Osaka Castle for a view of the hundreds of crossing bridges.

At night, I took off through the rushing neon highlights of Dotonbori, somehow ending up squeezed inside the middle of a ten square-meter frenetic restaurant with more than 20 people stuck to each of my shoulders.

Two little ladies took my umbrella, my backpack and myself, and tried to push us all in as if they were trying to fit various shapes into a pattern of holes. There must have been 1000 types of food displayed on a rainbow of colored flags. Everything was in kanji, the curved black shapes seeming to spell out, “Eat Me”. I asked for the kitchen’s recommendation. Eight dishes later, my chef had made me more drunk with flavours than the tequila and sake that was doing the rounds. Osaka food is truly design. It was harmonious and delicious with fabulous textures: raw, chewy, slippery, smooth, folded, crunchy, sandy, soft, mellow, porous, or juicy.

In and out of moving drawers

Getting lost in Osaka was a dream; every corner calm, animated, dizzy or rhythmic. The smoke from the grill and the vapours from the soups would momentarily clear to reveal the hands of the chef’s in constant motion; cutting, chopping, mixing, frying. I’d watch the arms of baseball players throwing balls to the sky while feet skidded in the dust, and later try to take in the ritualistic movements and calls of a kendo practice.

If sound in Tokyo was almost mechanical, while on Amami Oshima fantasy natural, Osaka’s noise was a gumball of cooking, sports and the hard ripple of water.

Melting in Kyoto

The last morning saw me on a rental bike, breezing up and down the streets of Kyoto in the path of geishas, or diving my feet in the cold river, near the traditional stilt houses.

I entered the bright monochromatic red of the Fushimi Inari Shrine under the burning sun and allowed the flood of tourists to push me through a shaded exotic garden straight into a tiny 100-year old tea house. With all the vertigo and tatami tickle in my toes I collapsed into a cup of ice cold matcha.

Here, hours felt like minutes until another timelapse transported me to the repetitive bright red torii tunnel winding up the mountain. I was squeezed out through the other end into a clearing of forest rising to the sky: my own private bamboo and a brief row of torii were a second away from the other wanderers.

Wandering the lantern-lit streets of Gion in the evening was like exploring a delicately-crafted dollhouse. Although I didn’t see a geisha, getting lost in the maze of wooden townhouses it was as though I could feel them. They were somewhere; in the shadows behind the fabric curtains, the ends of their kimono slipping through sliding doors and the noise of soft laughter in the night.

Osaka and Kyoto are neighbours living in stark contrast to one another, like metal against wood. Vagueness and vividness they blur into each other as dream worlds.

Tumbling back through the city, I’m at the place that’s become my sure and steady anchor in Japan: the airport and the Japan Airlines check-in. The kind crew didn’t give me any chance to regret my departure but instead focused my attention on the next adventure. With my luggage off my shoulder, I took my favourite matcha latte to go and enjoyed another thrilling window view. Home is where your next JAL flight is. Fasten your seat belts. This time I’m headed to Nagasaki.

Don’t wake up.

Raluca Umbrella

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Romanian architect and designer, and now winner of a dream tour of Japan with the Japan Explorer Pass.

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  • Thomas DiMattia says:

    Outside of the Aquarium, I found Osaka to be too much concrete and very boring.

    Kyoto is such a huge living museum one wishes they could halt any more modernization of it. They ought to make Kyoto a summer course for university students. Read a couple of books on it, then live there for a month.

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