Reunion At Last !

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

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Saturday, August 12, 2006


Yasushi arrived punctually to my hotel lobby at 10AM as he had mentioned on the phone. It had been 2 years since he returned back to Osaka with his family. He had not changed much, except that he was now much busier than in America since having being promoted to the position of Assistant Director of the Cardiology Ward at Osaka University Hospital at such a young age. His 2 year post-doc training in Houston had left a distinguished mark on his CV. Osaka University, like Tokyo University, belonged to an elite system of higher education in Japan, akin to the prestigious Ivy League sister univesities of Harvard and Yale. He modestly told me that there were many inherent problems at his university hospital, and there was great competition with other hospitals in the area.

It was really great to be able to see an old friend again. Yasushi was quite different from an average Japanese person - he was quite extroverted and individualistic. He was still very fluent in English, and we decided that I practiced Japanese with him and he would converse to me in English. While going to our first destination, we chatted and caught up on old times. I found out that he and his family still missed America, and specifically Houston, very much. They missed their friends, the diverse variety of food, the wide streets and large living spaces, the individualistic attitude of Americans in general, and the relaxing and flexible atmosphere in the States. In fact, his annual vacation schedule consisted of 3 working days and 2 weekend days - 5 days a year! And now he had only 2 working days of vacation left for spending time with me! Taking a 2 week vacation was unheard of in Japan, so he was very surprised to learn of my 64-day vacation. His wife was also doing very well although she still had great nostalgia for America. They had an 8 year-old son, Masa, who was currently attending an English class at a private International School. His English teacher was a native of St. Louis, so Masa could still continue practicing his US English. His 5 year-old daughter, Miyu, had no memories of growing up in America, but she liked playing with Barbie and watching The Rugrats.

We went to the Hitachi TV Tower for a bird's eye view of Japan's "Second City." The city itself seemed very congested, and it was like tons of buildings stacked up on one another. After that, he took me to Tsurubashi (Heron's Bridge) neighborhood for lunch. The area reminded me a lot of northern Chicago (along Lincoln Ave) with many ethnic Korean stores and restaurants. In fact, many 2nd and 3rd generation Koreans concentrated in this area, and like their US counterparts, they cohesively bonded together for survival. Today, we were not going to a Korean restaurant, but to one of Osaka's finest Japanese pizza restaurants, called Fuugetsu (Wind and Moon). I would have never found this restaurant, which was located in a labyrinth of small alleys. Japanese cities, in general, did not have many street signs; it took me an hour to find my hotel, which was only 2 blocks from the train station. I asked Yasushi how people could find their way around town without street signs. He responded that they just walked around with a gut feeling (or perhaps with a hand-held GPS device, I thought).

The waiting line outside Fuugetsu was quite long, so we were asked to sit on a long wooden bench outside the entrance with other customers. Then, we were handed Japanese paper fans since the temperature was around 95F (35C) and humid. That's why Yasushi said he had adapted so well to Houston's climate. The heat was really on in Japan!

Inside, my curiosity obviously peaked since I had not heard of O-kinomiyaki or Japanese pizza. Each table had a metallic heating board in the center where the chef would come by to cook the food for us. I tried some seafood O-kinomiyaki, which consisted of cabbage and shrimp mixed with eggs and flour. It was fried on the board until it became very crispy. Usually it was topped with mayonnaise and a brown slightly sweetened sauce. The taste was quite exquisite.

After a satisfying lunch, we went to Osaka's famous landmark: the medieval Osaka Castle. Reconstructed from the original castle that was built in 1585 by one of Japan's great warlords, Hideyoshi Toyotomi, the building symbolized the fierce power Hideyoshi gained over other feudal lords and samurais. The most striking aspect of the castle was the museum collection of authentic samurai armors, swords, and original accounts detailing the life of Hideyoshi. I tried to imagine myself living in Osaka in the 16th century where street life was tough under the watchful eyes of the capricious samurai warriors. There was even an extravagant small-scale figurine representation of Japan's last civil war, known as The Osaka Summer War of 1614, that forever changed the political climate of the country. After the defeat of Hideyoshi in that bloody war, the Edo Shogun era began, and political power was translocated to Tokyo ever since. Had the outcome of that war been different, Osaka might have been the capital of Japan today.

We took a river cruise after visiting the castle. The main river of Osaka was quite large with islands in the middle. After the cruise, we were picked up by Yasushi's wife. Again, it was very nice to see her and their children once more. Little Miyu was quiet and quite shy. Masa had grown up rapidly, and he spoke English fluently like a typical American boy, without any Japanese accent. He told me how much he loved watching Nickelodeon and The Cartoon Channel at home on their satellite TV. He also behaved more like a typical American boy than a Japanese boy - very extroverted and confident with himself, and he would exclaim, "That's so cool!" upon seeing something he liked.

For dinner, I was invited to have some Kobe Beef at Osaka's finest and most elegant 5 star hotel, the Rihga Royal Hotel, located on Nakanoshima, an island between the Dojima and Tosabori Rivers. We were early for our reservation, so we went to the lobby where there was a small brook flowing inside the hotel near a grand piano. A gigantic glass wall gave us a commanding view of a man-made waterfall next to a bamboo forest outside. The ambience inside this hotel spoke of pure elegance and luxury. The head Maitre D' of the lobby wore a beautiful light blue silk kimono, and she silently waved her hand to her assistants to come pull the chairs out for us to sit down. Immediately, a flock of young girls in cherry-pink kimonons rushed up to us and helped us sit down while placing neatly pressed napkins on our laps. The atmosphere was extremely upscale Western, but the image of kimonos preserved the Japanese presence.

At around 6:30 PM, we walked past stores like Chanel and Cartier inside the hotel towards a restaurant called Naniwa. We were led into a semi-private, softly-lit alcove where there was a chef standing next to an iron board bar. It was like Benihana's, according to Yasushi, but the original Japanese version was less of a show and more of cooking with composure. The dining experience was absolutely unique, with carefully selected premium quality beef, including succulent Kobe Beef, the freshest seafood and exquisite appetizers prepared and served right at our table on a Teppan-yaki metallic heating board. Yasushi ordered Osaka's finest sake for me to complement the exceptional food. In upscale, elegant Japanese dining, garlic rice or soba noodles were usually served as the last course without any accompanying side order. I was very impressed with the delicate dining experience. It left me thinking what tomorrow night would be like at a dinner party with Yasushi's friends in an Izakaya or typical Japanese restaurant-bar in northern Osaka....
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