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Saturday, July 21, 2001

JAPAN LITE

Ruin yourself in extravagance with food


Today I will give you a tour of Osaka, Japan's third largest city that doubles as the nation's largest pachinko parlor. If you've ever wondered what it's like to walk around inside one of those pachinko game machines, I suggest taking a walk through Umeda or Nanaba at night. With all the neon and blinking lights, you'd think you were in Las Vegas. The only thing that distinguishes Osaka from Las Vegas is the fact that the Osaka Castle is not a hotel yet.

If you visit Osaka, you'll want to tour Osaka Castle, a building that sticks up obtrusively from among a skyline of large, expensive hotels. Upon entering the castle, you can see how the occupants lived 1,400 years ago. Some of the sights are scrolls on the walls, swords, armor, an elevator and a souvenir shop. They even have signs that tell you which direction to walk so as not to block the tourists.

Yes, the castle had tourists back then. After all, this is Japan, where tourism was invented through a system called feudalism, where peasants gave the shogun octopus balls in hope that some day he'd give them a tour of the castle. If they were lucky, at the end of the tour, they'd receive something from the souvenir shop -- like a telephone card with a picture of the castle. (Yes, they had telephones back then -- made of mochi).

The castle walls are most impressive and there is a display that shows how the castle wall was rebuilt. Yes, rebuilt folks. The entire castle was rebuilt after the castle was destroyed by fire. They brought the rocks by ship from Shodoshima in Shikoku. Yoku gambarimashita, ne?

Osaka is known as a business city. People greet each other with, "Mokarimakka?" (Have you made a profit?) Osaka is also a marketing phenomenon. Go down to denden-town (electronics town) and you'll see store after store making use of that obnoxious yellow color to make a profit. Somewhere it is written that the color yellow, accompanied by recorded voices over loudspeakers demanding you come inside, increases sales exponentially. Add some pachinko-type lights to your store and you'll have a mob.

And it seems to work. I don't know many Japanese people who can go to denden-town and resist buying something. A new electronic dictionary, a personal computer, anything can be bought on a whim in denden-town. It's a combination of the atmosphere and the pachinko factor -- they keep buying and buying as if it's a game. They're not getting much business from Americans though. The only thing that will entice us into a store is free beer.

Every visitor should take part in "kuidaore," a unique Osaka phenomenon that means "ruining oneself by extravagance in food." One of the most famous streets in Osaka is Dotonbori, which is lined with eateries serving every kind of food possible. One of the main dishes appears to be mechanical crabs. These giant crabs, hoisted onto signs above restaurants, beckon you inside with their moving legs. This must be a Freudian marketing technique.

Osaka is also the place to eat Osaka-style "okonomiyaki." Japan's funnest food, okonomiyaki is as much fun to watch being made and it is to eat. It starts out as a towering pile of cabbage on top of a strip of bacon and ends up a flat pancake with seafood and vegetables, topped with a sweet sauce and dancing dried bonito flakes.

It is said that it is hard to find "minushuku" in Osaka but I had no trouble finding one managed by a friendly "obachan" with purple hair. It was rickety and I slept with 1,000-year-old dust, but I was glad I didn't have to stay in stark castle lodgings with an elevator and souvenir shop.

The pinnacle of Osaka is the nightlife. At night, the streets come alive and neon and pulsing lights once again measure the heartbeat of Osaka. Unfortunately, I can't tell you about the nightlife because, in one of those strange Japanese twists of logic, most minshuku and business hotels have a 11 p.m. curfew.



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