While Tokyo may have taken over as the political, cultural, and financial center of Japan, Osaka used to be the hub.
And as the center of trade and a favorite port of merchants, it's always been about the money here. Osakans greet each other not with the standard Japanese "O-genki desuka?" (Are you well?), but rather with "Mo–kari makka?" (Are you making money?).
So it was with this bit of knowledge in mind that my mom and my aunt took me downtown today to hit up Den Den Town, the Osaka version of Akihabara. A little background: Akihabara is Tokyo's deep-discount electronics quarter, the only place in Japan where it's acceptable to haggle. Oh, there's one other place in Japan where it's OK to haggle - All of Osaka.
Now I'm not a haggler at all. Despite my half Middle Eastern background, I hate it. I'm bad at it. I prefer to reward merchants who already give you a good price upfront. So we walk into Naniwa Camera, a huge retail outlet with every sort of camera-related electronic component, and then some. It's one of those gleaming retail outlets where you'd expect high prices, slick sales people, and otherwise crazy inventory. Check, check, and check. I wanted to scope the baseline price of a Nikon lens I've been coveting for some time now, and as suspected, these guys cost almost a couple hundred bucks more than the best price I found online. I made a sour face and started to walk out, annoyingly nagging at my mom for bringing me to some retail giant instead of a discount shop.
"Wait, please wait a minute," or so I thought the sales guy said with my limited Japanese. He came back with a calculator showing a newer, much more agreeable price, then reduced it further by showing how much it would be with my tax waived. For just a fistful of Yen more, I got a professional-grade travel-worthy tripod and a 72mm circular polarizer filter. All for less than the lowest possible price for the lens alone back at home. SOLD!
I handed him my US passport and he started doing the tax waiver paperwork and rang me up... I was giddy during the transaction, but I felt guilty. Shouldn't I have told him? Didn't he know? Doesn't he know that the US dollar is plummeting? That the post-WWII days of happily obliging Americans and their cash are long gone? That he really shouldn't indulge the roundeye devil who stripped his country of its military and its dignity?
Who cares? All I have to say is: MISSION ACCOMPLISHED. I am now the proud owner of the highly coveted Nikon DX AF-S 18-200mm VR ED lens. It's a mouthful that's worth every damn syllable.
It was time to celebrate. Now Osakans, making all that money, also like to eat. In fact, it's said that while folks from Tokyo work hard to spend their money on ridiculous rent and overpriced fashions, the more humble people of Osaka like to spend it on one thing: food. So what better way to celebrate my frikkin' awesome camera deal than with heaps of food?
We met up with Makoto downtown. As the actual working chef in the group, he would be best to guide us to Osaka's finest dining. Oh, yes, I'm ready for this! Ooh, what feast awaited me in this town known for its gastronomic delights? We strolled through the downtown area, down various alleys and through various arcades, my stomach nearly digesting itself, my mouth salivating in anticipation. We walked past various curry joints, a few spots for deadly fugu, and god knows how many izakaya-style pubs. "Where are we going?" I asked. "Somehwere good," he replied. Considering the awesome-smelling places we passed up, I knew this would be great.
He led us into this bright orange abomination of a hole in the wall, right in the middle of the brash and gaudi Dotombori district. I looked around. There was no menu. No place settings. What the...? There was a big neon sign out front which in katakana writing said "Ramen." Before I could say, "Dude, this is for broke college kids in America," he was inserting a bunch of coins into a vending machine.
"Oh, maybe he's just grabbing cigarettes," I thought.
WRONG. He was putting in money and punching up the buttons for what we were eating. The machine printed up these coupons, let the cooks behind the counter know what's up, and by the time we grabbed some water, some of the all-you-can-eat rice, and some bottomless kimchi, our orders were at the table.
And I never should've doubted Makoto. This ramen was AWESOME. Thick, delicious broth. Perfectly chewy noodles. Delicious slices of meat. It's like the stuff you pay for at fancy ramen joints back in the Bay Area, but here, it's just a handful of coins thrown into a vending machine. And all the crazy noodle-slurping noise throughout the place makes for that much more atmosphere.
The rest of our walk through Dotomburi was strangely just like the Osaka episode of Tony Bourdain's No Reservations on the travel channel. The crab hat, the creepy animatronic clown, and, of course, takoyaki. That's octopus balls to you and me.
No, not octopus gonads - just little balls of dough fried up with a piece of octopus in the middle. And, of course, we had to hit the O.G. takoyaki stand, the place that kicked off this Osaka tradition that can now be found the world over. I've had takoyaki at a crappy little stand in San Francisco, and a great stand in London's Camden Market. It's amazing how an invention by my Osakan forebears has made it on the global scene. Oh, and they're pretty yummy to boot.
Our mini-kuidaore ended at the fancy European-style cafe in the massive Daimaru department store. A few things. Kuidaore (coo-ee-a-do-ray) is the Osakan tradition of "eating one's self to death." Basically, it's like a pub crawl, only with food. Department stores here are not like Macy's or Nordstrom, but serious showcase affairs like Harrods in London or Galeries Lafayette in Paris. So the food isn't just shopping fuel, but fancified high-end stuff. Just look at this "Capuccino con Cacao" my mom got...
Yes, that's a freakin' BEAR drawn into the foam.
Anyway, the real feasting is scheduled to start tonight. Pray for my waistline.