Osaka & a "sense of place" - we explore Paul's roots & find a comfortable space
Updated: Oct 22
Paul was born in Osaka in 1957, but his parents moved him to the United States when he was a baby. Here are some photos of Paul with family before he left Japan.
Paul's mother was Japanese, but in the 1950's the emphasis was placed more on "fitting in" to surrounding culture than learning the language of his roots. Nonetheless, Paul has always found a familiarity in certain aspects of Japanese culture. He had several long work assignments in Japan in the late 1980's, including one memorable trip in 1987 when his mother accompanied him and he met family & close family friends in and near Osaka.
My only trip to Japan, before this one, was in 1988. I felt overwhelmed by the strangeness (to me) of the culture. I was 30 years old, only a few years out of graduate school and living again in Indiana. I had two babies. I found everything about Japan intimidating - the language, the food, the culture.
Paul returned to Osaka, Tokyo, and Hokkaido in 2019 with our adult children, when James was a speaker at a professional conference. Because of my teaching schedule, I was unable to join them. You can see from these photos how happy he was to show Osaka, and other places in Japan, to his children.
When I was in college, I took a course called, "Southern Fiction & a Sense of Place". In that course, we read great (U.S.) southern writers including Eudora Welty, Kate Chopin, William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, and others. The idea was to focus not on plot or characters so much as the place. How do we understand the experience of the American South through these works? Similarly, in travel, we search for understanding the sense of place. There is no better way to understand the experience of a people than by living there and interacting with local folks on a daily basis. And so, our stay in Oaska was spent uncovering a sense of that place.
This was clearly a place where Paul felt happy, peaceful, and centered. I post a lot of our travel photos on Facebook, and many people commented on how happy Paul looks in the photos. Paul has confirmed that yes, living in Osaka (and being in Japan, generally) has made him very happy.
I, too, have felt surprisingly comfortable in Osaka. Unlike my experience in 1988, I have loved being here. 39 years of marriage exposed me to Japanese customs, food, and sensibililty. Cell phones, with Google maps, translate, and photos allows us to more fully experience this place.
What about Osaka have we loved? I think it breaks mostly into food, community, humility, and history. I should note that many of these things are also present in other parts of Japan we have visited, including Shikoku, Kyoto, Hokkaido, and Tokyo. We have also met many wonderful people along the way. I already wrote about our incredible experience in Shikoku here so I don't want to repeat that. And, I will write about Hokkaido, and Tokyo in future blogs, including something about the people we are meeting. So this post is really focusing on our experiences in Osaka & Kyoto.
1. The food
Several people have asked Paul why he enjoys being in Osaka, and he always mentions first, "the food!" Some of the food we had here he ate as a child, made by his mother. Some he learned to cook for himself as an adult. Some he experienced for the first time when he worked here in the 1980's. But, he says, even when he tastes food he has never had before, he usually finds that he really likes the flavors, textures, and the experience. They feel familiar and delicious. Osaka is considered the food capital of Japan. In Osaka, we really feasted on the food! In Osaka, we ate many different foods, including (but not limited to):
Takoyaki (deep-fried octopus balls - one of Paul's favorite foods. His face lights up when he sees them, and Osaka is known for them.
Okinomiyaki (often called "Japanese pancakes", these are made with batter but laden with proteins (fish, meat, other seafood, or tofu), cabbage, ginger, and topped with mayonaise and okinomiyaki sauce and, sometimes, an egg. There are many varieties of okinomiyaki and Osaka's versions are considered to be among the best. Our favorite okinomiyaki izakaya in Osaka was Okinomiyaki Chitose, which makes vegetarian varieties as well.
Tempura - maybe one of the most familiar of Japanese foods to Westerners. Here, you get the familiar flavors but the freshness of the food is phenomenol.One restaurant served the tempura in courses.
Sukiyaki & hot pot meals - cooked with a gas flame under the pot, full of yummy proteins and vegetables.
Noodles (soba,ramen). Japan puts noodles in all kinds of concoctions. We had ramen - simmered broth with noodles and toppings & yaki soba, which was Paul's mother's favorite. We had cold noodles and hot noodles.
Sushi & sashimi - it wouldn't be Japan without sushi & sashimi. We had a lot of really good sushi & sashimi from the grocery store, taking it home to eat. But, our best sushi meal was at a restaurant called, appropriately, "Sushi", which was on one of the top floors of the Takashimaya department store in Namba. It was superb.
Kushikatsu and other fried foods - Osaka is known for it's street food, and a lot of it is fried. In addition to the takoyaki, okinomiyaki, and tempura, kushikatsu is popular here, especially in the area around the Tsutentaku Tower, which was a theme park in the early 20th century and still has a bit of a state fair feel to it. We ate at one there, plus a teppanyaki restaurant in Dotonburi and a fry your own meat place in Tennoji Station with Yuji. We also had fried food from street vendors outside the Fushima Inari temple.
Unagi, pickles, rice, kobe beef, bento, miso soup, and much more. Beef more tender than any I have ever eaten, including steaks from a department store that Paul cooked at home. A set meal in Kyoto with Yuji that was amazing. Unagi (eel) in delicious eel sauce. Fried rice and white rice. Kim chee. Miso soup with clams on the bottom. Bento from department store basements (depa chika) with freshly made delicious offerings. The depa chika food stalls were an art unto themselves in Osaka, offering ready made food to take home and relish.
Saké and beer. Turns out Asahi, Sapporo and other Japanese beers are the perfect accompaniment to all that fried food and sushi! Also, saké. Paul has been reading a lot about saké, trying different ones. All Yuji's fault, for taking us to a saké brewery in Kyoto and Yamanishi-san's fault for giving Paul such a nice bottle of saké in Shikoku. By the way, we'd highly recommend the saké brewery tour at Matsui Brewery in Kyoto, where they have brewed saké for 14 generations. You can book a tour in English.
Sweets. Everything from crepes, gelato, ice cream, lots of stuff put in the middle of thin waffles (bean paste, custard, ice cream), and really, really, really big and delicious fruit. Oh, and Paul's favorite - strawberry shortcake, Japanese style.
In short, Osaka is a foodie heaven, and there is a non-stop supply of fabulous food!
Many people have written about the sense of belonging to a group that you feel in Japan. I wrote about it in our last blog about Japan. Reading about it is one thing, but when you are in Japan, you feel it everywhere. The Japanese are extremely organized. The photos above show the signs on the subway floors indicating that you should stand in one place while others get off the train, then enter. Other signs on the subway remind you to be quiet on the train when you are close to others. Most Japanese people, however, do not need the signs. They automatically take off their backpacks and hold them close to their front when entering a train station. They seem to move as one body to allow the flow of traffic. On escalators, all Osakans keep to the right (in the rest of Japan, it's to the left, and nobody seems to know why it is different in Osaka but everyone complies).
Japanese people take a long view in planning - which, I think, exhibits attention to the entire community. When you visit Japanese gardens, years of planning are involved to create perfectly balanced environments that appear to occur naturally. When you are with Japanese people, they are attentive and careful to make sure you are included in the group. For many years, Paul has told me how uncomfortable he feels in typical western-culture gatherings of more than 2 or 3 people. Instead of focusing on the group, most western-style gatherings consists of people vying for "the floor", often talking over each other. This kind of interaction can also be felt as rude in the West, and I am often guilty of lacking the self-regulation to stop doing it. But there is no community-based understanding, most of the time in my culture. In Japan, there is more of a common agreement about how to interact in groups. Paul finds this very comfortable, and enjoys being surrounded by this type of interaction.
Closely related, but slightly different, is a sense of humility in Japanese people. We feel this in Osaka, and other places in Japan. This behavior is most likely related to an imbedding of Confucian, Shinto and Buddhist philosophies that underly much of Japanese culture. Japanese people tend to be calm, quiet in public, and deferential, especially to guests and people who are older. Paul worked with Japanese businesspeople for many years. He tells me that in those interactions, the most respected member of the team often says the least. Rather, he listens to others. When he does speak, people really pay attention. Some Japanese people we have talked to express some discomfort with aspects of this type of deference. Our friend, Mika, suggests the word, 忖度, pronounced "sontaku", might express some of this behavior, but cautions that the idea is sometimes negative and sometimes positive. It encompasses a feeling of understanding what others need without their having to say it. But it can also translate as "guess" or "conjecture", and in the context of work relationships or politics, is often seen as quite negative. Our friend, Yuji, likes the idea contained in the word, 縁, pronounced"en", which is a feeling of connection or relationship.
I was raised by a pair of academics, and worked a 30-plus career in academia. In that culture, you had to exhibit your knowledge. When a group of us would get excited by ideas, we would become animated and quickly exchange new ideas, sometimes inadvertently interrupting each other in our excitement. This felt respectful most of the time, although at times I was reminded to try to listen more. These types of exchanges exhibit a different sensibility. I, personally, often find it difficult to be quiet and listen, having trained myself when I was younger to speak up. I had to work really hard to express myself as a woman in the academic and legal worlds. But now is the time to listen, something I should have done more of all along. Here, it is easier because the culture encourages it, and I am finding that when I can achieve more of a listening mode, I learn more and feel calmer. When we speak to Japanese friends about these ideas, we tend to agree that society would be better if we found a happy medium between the enthusiasm of the individual and the empathy of the group. Paul finds the Japanese style of engagement extremely comfortable.
Like many cultures, Japanese people demonstrate their pride in their history and culture. One is often reminded of this history - in historic sites such as the large shrine, Fushima Inari, which dates to the 8th century or Osaka Castle, which was built in the 16th century. It is evident in the many depictions of samurai; in the kimonos still worn by many women to honor special occasions or to visit special places.
Kyoto is about an hour from Osaka by train, and it exudes cultural history in its most traditional forms. The imperial gardens, for example, are a studied example of created beauty and care, and a testament to the importance of nature to the Japanese people.
Osaka is known for being a bit more relaxed than the rest of Japan, and this is evident in more recent history. The Tsutentaku tower which we saw from our balcony every night, is the center of a former theme park in the early 20th century; anime & mascot characters are everywhere. You can get kitchen wares, large lanterns, and traditional Japanese souvenirs at the Sennichimae Doguyasuji shopping arcade, and the Dotonburi area (often likened to Times Square) is not far away. Osaka has many gashapon capsule machines (sometimes called "gotcha-pon" by Westerners) which contain all manner of popular cultural items - from tiny reproduction of sushi, to many styles of cute cats, to anime figures and lots more. These street machines capture a certain fun environment felt when walking around Osaka. (There is an illegal form of gasha which involves gambling but these street machines are not that type). The gashapon blend in with the vending machines and little order-type machines near some food venues. While most people on the streets blend into the crowd in that special way Japanese do, you see some characters here - a guy in bright green slacks, a green bow-tie and green-ish hair, stands by me in the subway. Another guy, about our age, wears shorts made of a print fabric of large, pink, laughing heads. From the top of the Umeda Sky Building you can see all of the modern city laid out before you, and in the basement you can visit an Edo style street.
But the history that underpins all of this for us is Paul's personal history. His parents met in Osaka, on a U.S. Army base where Paul's mom worked in a commissary and his dad was a soldier. Their first date was at the Fushima Inari shrine, which was also a favorite spot, we're told, of Paul's grandfather. The Takarazuka Review theatre group (all-female musicals) has been in the area since 1913; Paul and his mom saw a show there in 1987 (we tried, but couldn't get tickets - next time we will!) One of Paul's parents' favorite movies was "Sayonara", which featured American soldiers in relationships with Japanese women, and one of the women was in that theater troop. The movie is set just after WWII, but was filmed and released in 1957 Kyoto, the year Paul was born. It had special meaning for Paul's family.
I ask Paul why he likes being in Osaka so much. He says, so much of his life he has felt out of place. When he worked in Tokyo, he learned he was more American than he thought. In Osaka, he feels like he belongs. And this makes him happy. So we've decided to return to Osaka in 2025. We've tentatively booked the upper story of a 3 bedroom home in a residential neighborhood in Osaka for July-September, 2025 - a place with more space and western-style beds. The World Expo will be in Osaka in 2025, and we want to go to that. Its theme of “Designing Future Society for Our Lives” speaks to us. So "sayonara" Osaka, we'll see you in a couple of years!