Land of the Rising Sun

Trip Start Aug 08, 2006
Trip End Oct 11, 2006

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Flag of Japan  ,
Wednesday, August 9, 2006

First Pit Stop: OSAKA, JAPAN (Country Name in Local Language: Nihon)
Local Time: 3PM, Wed
US Central Daylight Saving Time: 1AM, Wed

With the first sight of Japan's mountainous silhoutte emerging from the vast blue waters of the Pacific Ocean, I knew we were landing soon. 13 hours on the plane and more than 1 1/2 days of travel later, I opened my eyes to greet the Land of the Rising Sun. Japan is slightly smaller than California but holds more than twice the Golden State's population (128 million people). Osaka, a very crowded city, has a population density of 12,000 people/km2 (compared to 10,000 people/km2 in New York).

Its economy is a tale of wonder. In 1951, Japan's Gross National Product (GNP) was US$14.2 billion: 50% of W. Germany, 33%of Great Britain, and 4.2% of the US economy. But with President Truman's vision of democratizing Japan, preventing the re-emergence of militarism, and forfending communism in Asia, the US poured more than $2 billion of investment into the Japanese economy. By 1970, Japan had overtaken all European economies, and by 1980, it represented 40% of the US GNP. Today, all people of Japan have been enjoying a protracted period of prosperity, and the cost of living nation-wide is one of the highest in the world. Because of the deep historical relationship with the US, the Japanese have a great admiration for America. In fact, Japan is one of the few countries in the world that teaches only US English at all levels of education.

On the plane, I heard 2 passengers in front of me speaking in Brazilian Portuguese. They were having a hard time understanding what the American flight attendant was asking. I jumped right in and offered some translating service. It turned out that these two Brazilian girls of Japanese heritage were going to Hiroshima for a friend's wedding. Originally from Rio, they sported a glowing tan that was a signature trademark of Ipanema and Copacabana beaches. In fact, there were quite a few Japanese people holding South American passports on this flight. Most flights from South America to Japan would stop in Texas or Florida for a connection; travel time of 24 hours was usually the rule.

The plane touched down under a hazy, mid-afternoon sun, which hung like a fragile, crimson paper lantern against the blue horizon. This was going to be my 4th visit to Japan; the 2nd trip since January 2006. Something about the Japanese society, perhaps its advances in modern technology, its resplendent history, or the refined aesthetics of the culture and landscape, kept luring me back.

Osaka (meaning "Big Slope"), the largest economic power after Tokyo, lies in Kansai, a region where the first capital of Japan was founded more than 1,000 years ago. The rich historical value of this region has been well recognized in the collective consciousness of the nation. During World War II, General MacArthur forbade American warplanes from destroying the historical treasures of Kansai. Now, ancient samurai castles, Buddhist temples, and Shinto shrines lie well preserved amidst the mountain forests for all to see.

Back in the fortified passport control hall of Kansai Int'l Airport, I stood awaiting my real test of conversational Osakan-Japanese. Many signs were translated in English, Korean, and Chinese. One big sign announced the implementation of rigid immigration procedures to fight terrorism. I approached the passport official like Seinfeld facing the Soup Nazi. I had planned to pull out my dictionary, but to my surprise, I did not need it at passport control.

Entering the main lobby, I felt a sense of relief. First order of business was to find an ATM machine. The ATM system belonging to major banks in Japan was not compatible with the US system; hence, American cards would not work here. However, I had learned from experience that only two types of ATM machines would accept my card: Citibank ATM only at the airport or the Post Office ATMs in the city.

After withdrawing some money from an airport Citibank machine, I proceeded to the train station to head into town. At the bottom of the escalators some girls were standing in airport uniform, erect like silent mannequins, and bowing to passengers. That was their duty - to stand all day and greet arriving passengers.


If Tokyo were like NY, Osaka would be like LA. Both cities were electrifying, exuding an unforgettable experience of sensory overload: the electric signs, flashing lights, high definition giant TV screens affixed to skyscrapers, loud music, overhead speakers, bustling commotion. However, people in Tokyo seemed busier and more rushed -- businessmen in powersuits racing through the train station. In Osaka, people seemed more relaxed, and designer fashion and sunglasses were the fashion statement on the street. The food here was also highly reputable in Japan. In fact, Osaka was known as "the kitchen of Japan."

After arriving to my hotel in Nihonbashi (trans: "Japanese Bridge") Neighborhood, I quickly found out that I was located right in the heart of the Electronic District of Osaka. I was surrounded on all sides by hundreds of electronic stores. Regressing to my infantile days, I felt like a little boy let loose at Disney World. I simply could not make up my mind where to go first. Then, I remember that I was told to go to a store called Yodobashi-Umeda. My first order of business was to buy a brand new computer. Around the area, there were hundreds of varieties of computers ranging from $500 to more than $4,000 USD.

Entering Yodobashi-Umeda was like riding Space Mountain in the Magic Kingdom. Imagine a building full of electronic goods lay out in 8 stories. If consumer spending was known to be an important component of a nation's Gross Domestic Product (GDP), I positively affected Japan's GDP in a 1 hr shopping spree. Among many of my new toys was Sony's latest ultraportable handhed VAIO computer and its accessories. Because my Japanese vocabulary was not up to date in the realm of computer technology, I did not want to leave it up to chance to not fully understand the store assistants. So I requested an English speaker. There were many who fluently spoke English. One girl was very helpful and helped me quickly make up my mind.

Right after my shopping spree, I called my friend Yasushi to let him know of my arrival. I discovered that he had left a message for me with the concierge while I was out shopping. He was on call at the hospital the whole night. Yasushi, a young academic cardiogist at Univerity of Osaka, had completed his Ph.D. post-doc training in Houston. We knew each other from the same lab. Now he was back in Japan, and he had been immersed in busy work ever since then. He apologized for being on call, but he mentioned that he was allowed to take 1 day off on Friday to show me around his hometown and to have me over for dinner with his family. We spoke in half-Engllish, half-Japanese; his Engish was still very fluent.

It was now dark, almost 10 PM. I had not eaten anything since I landed. I walked around town and somehow ended up in one of the best sushi restaurants I had ever gone to. Osaka so far lived up to its reputation. Let's see what lay in store tomorrow in Nara.
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