Electric Stars and Rock Gardens: Getting lost and found again in Kyoto and Osaka

The Electric Dreams of Osaka


Looking back now, I probably knew that night in Osaka was coming.

It’s why I was so excited on the bus down to Kobe that I couldn’t sleep, why by the time I met my friends two hours later I was so excited I didn’t need alcohol, and the lights of the city—the real city—again after three weeks away from it made me dizzy enough. But where Kobe was familiar, had that comforting smell of a cosmopolitan port city only two chips off the old Vancouver block, Osaka was something completely different.

New: all that night the seven of us kept reminding each other that nothing we’d ever seen was quite like this, right here—the cascade of electricity bouncing up and down the Dotonbori canal, the Glico running man shining in the distance. Japan’s Times Square, Japan’s Blade Runner—the Japan we’d always wanted Japan to be, bathed in neon and loud as all Hell.

We spent a grand total of 16 hours in Osaka that weekend, from when we finally slumped hungover into the train terminal (and then proceeded to get lost for another hour on escalators) to the morning train back to Kobe at 6 in the morning. And, however long my time in Japan ends up being, I can pretty safely put those 16 hours as some of the best. So much of it had to do with that sense of uncharted territory: because we believed anything could happen, we let anything happen. We ran through screaming arcade floors. Did all you can drink and were loud enough to make friends with a group of Japanese business men. Hopped in and out of clubs while making friends with various strange Osakan locals (including a Mexican man who openly bragged that he was here illegaly) on busy conbini streetcorners. On the train back, the sun is rising and your body is so drained you have to pinch yourself that what you’re seeing is still real, that you’re still real after a night that was perfect from beginning to end.

When you’re taken in by the lights and the noise like that, you get the sense that there’s a new adventure waiting to happen at every bar and street corner. Each person tells a story. The second time I went was even shorter, but just wandering with a beer in my hand and watching the angry and vibrantly dressed locals was just as exciting. I’d even taken to calling it “my Japanese city,” even when I’d been here for four weeks and had seen a grand total of four places.


I was so drawn in, invigorated by the city, counted down the days or weeks till the next time I’d be back again.

Of course, those Osakan weekends only ever saw me spend a day there; I didn’t have an actual weekend in Osaka until the first two days of Silver Week (mid-September, one of Japan’s big holiday weeks), and that time around I got a very different idea of the city. I saw what you could maybe say is closer to the ‘real Osaka.’

Though at first, again it was all about dem lights. It was shining billboards, gliding along and waving at me as we drove down an endless freeway as if we were on the rainbow road from Mario Kart. And just beyond, millions of twinkling apartments, the glow from red helicopter rods. Those advertisements just beyond me were like low-hanging stars, strange dreams strapped and posterboarded across the Osakan sky. I was back.


Only this time, I stopped looking up and started noticing what was actually going on around me. Things started to look a little different. I started to notice certain kinds of girls standing on certain types of streetcorners, with certain types of men looking at them from the distance. I began to note how I’d get lost in a whole maze of love hotels surprisingly often, and how hostess bars are almost as numerous as non-hostess bars. And then the dirt on the buildings, the rust on their doors, the boxes scattering themselves under the darker parts of bridges. The bugs in our hostel. The hostile stares from the skaters in a garbage strewn park, or waitresses that refused to serve us because she was in a mood.

I began to realize that Osaka wired those lights in the eighties, when the economy skyrocketed and everyone could only look up because things were moving too fast to look around them. That Glico Man and all the billboards around him seem less and less like the future and more like what the future was supposed to look like when it was imagined thirty years ago.

On my second and last night there I missed the train and had to walk a good eight kilometers back to my hostel, covering almost the entire length of the central city. I started at the northern edge, where the rush of partiers and taxis still made the night cackle and roar like I’d remembered, but once I moved into the massive business district things got eerily quiet. Sometimes it was only me on the streets, looking up at the inhuman blocks of concrete that stretched for miles. The only lights now came from the helicopter rods above or the headlights of a stray car. Business districts after hours always take on a soulless quality (since there are few things sadder than a human building without any humans inside), but in these mega-Asian cities, where everything is taken up a notch, that dread also increases. Miles of black eyesockets, of unused blocks free from trees or insects, of streetlights used by nobody.


Getting to the Namba district, where everything happens, things had mostly fallen astray by four in the morning. Now it was only raging drunks picking up the last of the street girls, men yelling at the river as the lights finally began to flicker off. That was about the time I started running, even though my feet were already screaming—something about the monotony of it all made me crazy; in the dark it was all just another store another drunk another stoplight. How could there be multiple adventures when it all turned out the same in the end, all melted down into one electric mess?

Osaka made me realize exactly how empty modern cities are at their core, after the money’s drained from them. Emtpy, but also cruel: near the end of my walk, I passed by policemen herding homeless people into a massive parking lot already being used by the hundreds. it was like being on the Lower East Side in Vancouver, only (once again), on a scale I’d never imageined before. And it’s all the scarier to realize because Japan always paints a picture of being so pristine and so good to its people: those who are forgotten are so rarely seen, unless you’re dumb enough to be found wandering at 4 in the morning.

It was around then, glancing each way at the rail lines and the boxcars and bag runners, I realized that all that talk of dreams, all those adventures and nights where “anything can happen”—all that magic Osaka seemed to hold was seen from my own position, my place as a person of immense privilege (here and being paid quite well because English is the global language of capital, and is pervasive enough for the Japanese government to spend billions on sending a bunch of Native speakers over).

Burning Out


              The next day, on the train out to Kyoto there were only more buildings more trees more mountains. It was all technically new to me, but none of it registered. After a month of jumping into everything, finding each sign or grocery product amazing, my enthusiasm deflated entirely. Now even the amazing—Kyoto’s soaring glass train station, for example—could be written off, be trivial.

All the peaks of cultural shock were wearing away, leaving the valleys in its place, mixing with that new sense that everything I’d been so enraptured with up till now was just a giant billboard that could be unplugged at anytime. For the first two days in Kyoto, I assumed the same was true here, and dragged myself to its different attractions with the feeling that “I probably should,” but was actually looking forward—for the first time since arriving—just to get back to Tottori and sleep for two straight days. I’d finally burned out.


And those crowds sure as hell didn’t help. Since this was during one of Japan’s big holidays, Kyoto was overrun with crowds, crowds pushing each other, yelling laughing, all jostling for the best place to use their selfie sticks. And while crowds are great in cities that were made for them like Osaka, it’s considerably more jarring in pristine temples like Ginkakuji which are supposedly designed for peaceful reflection. Supposedly, because that place only made me stressed.

I floated along those two days, chatting with friends as we followed the crowds. Being with the people I love made those days enjoyable, but during the last couple of hours of my last night I realized that I didn’t know what I’d just seen: I followed Lonely Planet’s advice on where to go and what to see, took my pictures and moved on. But I didn’t understand Kyoto, didn’t feel the city. And wasn’t this the Japanese city I had looked forward to the most?

The Opening Up of Kyoto 


              But that night we stumbled upon the Gion district after hours. Gion, neighbourhood of the Geisha, is one of the few perfectly preserved pre-modern districts in all of Japan, but the intense number of people in the day made it seem overwrought—about as special as “Old Town USA” in Disneyland. That late into the evening though, the empty wooden streets were aglow with lamps, and in the silence we could almost hear the soft pitter-patter of Geta sandels running along back alleyways.

As we caught a taxi back to our rental place, I caught a glimpse of an old pleasure house on the riverside. At night, its balconies light up by lanterns, it looked almost identical to the bathhouse from Spirited Away, and I knew I wasn’t done exploring. I grabbed one of the bikes left to us and took to the night alone.

And Kyoto opened up for me.


The streets were mostly empty except for the shining lanterns, leaving an electricity in the air, a breath being held in. I went along little canals, where still-lit restaurants and hotels shone out at me from across the water. Peering in, it felt like I was watching a play be enacted across the way—these pristine tatami scenes, painted backdrops, sake tables, kimonos and yukatas left folded in the chairs. Or along narrow back alleys where the last of the clients were being escorted out. I saw six Geisha then, though I found myself averting my eyes: when something as old as the Geisha practices still manages to be a secret even when thousands of tourists scan the streets every day, I realized that there’s some things I wasn’t meant to see. Because there’s nothing quite like them in Europe.

On the last day, after the rest of my friends had already caught trains and planes back, I left the Lonely Planet guide in a storage locker and biked in a random direction. I found an enclosed market a mile long, selling dripping fish heads, sword collections, kimonos, and works of art disguised as flower candy. I found a Tori gate that, looming over the city, could’ve been the Eiffel towers of Tori’s. I saw tree lined canals, art galleries, street festivals, massive temples in the most vibrant golds and reds, tiny temples with a single Buddha guarding it. The city is so saturated with cultural history that it seems ridiculous, in retrospect, that I ever used a guidebook to try to find any of it: you can trip your way through Kyoto. Kyoto encourages exploration, begs for it.


And I’d never been so free in Japan—not since Paris have I felt like this; that sense that you can go anywhere by any means and you’ll continue to find the surreal, the incredible. The city reminded me that, though I was blindsided by the lights of Japan’s big cities, this is why I was here. Kyoto is everything I dreamed Japan would be.

Finally, I stumbled upon Nanzenji. Nanzenji is a sprawling complex which includes multiple Buddhist temples and residences, a water sluice from the industrial era with the forest growing over it, and a massive wooden gate. The gate, standing in the middle of the grounds and growing up out past the trees, was immediately familiar. But it wasn’t because, as I later realized, it was the main setting for Rashomon and a scene from Lost in Translation. Instead, it had that wavering uncertain familiarity of a dream, of something deep below the surface. I walked in a half-trance around the grounds, wandering in and out of the gurgling sluice, smelling incense as I peered inside to see a Buddha glowing golden in the darkness.


Inside the main monk’s palace of The Hojo, a rock garden had been carefully cultivated to follow a wooden pathway. The more I gazed at their haunting, shifting patterns, the less I thought about anything at all. Shivers travelled through me like the gong from a great cymbal. It was the only time I’ve truly been at peace in Japan: excited, exhausted, ecstatic, distraught, but never calm. Leaving Nanzenji I was so calm I couldn’t speak.

It takes a special kind of city for a rock garden to be its main attraction in the face of massive tori gates, screaming markets, and golden temples. But Kyoto is unlike any city I’ve ever been to. Where Osaka rears in, dazzles, and leaves without a trace, Kyoto is quiet, subtle; it might not have affected me at all if I hadn’t thrown away the guidebook and stopped listening to everyone else’s idea of the ancient capital. But once it sank in, I began to realize that it’s a city with boundless depths—digging and digging for a thousand years’ worth of culture.


And I felt revitalized, full again. Once I’d seen the cultural roots of modern Japan, everything around me has started to make a lot more sense (sense in ways I’m still discovering new nuances to, sense in ways that’ll be the subject of many blogs over the course of my time here). This included the train back into Osaka, where the lights of the city growing up around me no longer seemed grating, and yet was no longer the be-all-end-all either. It’s just a city, in the end. But Kyoto is something different.

Different in ways I’ve only started grasping, different in ways I’ll never fully understand, even if I spent the rest of my life in Japan. Was never meant to understand. But after a few days there, I’m reminded why I came here in the first place: to see this, to discover this, to be changed by this.

Guess that means this is one off the bucket list, huh?



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