My brother reserved our seats on the Shinkansen from Hiroshima to Kyoto in the evening, but we found ourselves with time to kill before then.
After two full days of walking, neither of us seemed all to keen to maximize our time in Osaka.
My brother had asked me repeatedly what I wanted to see in Osaka, and I had no clue aside from the Dotonbori. By the time we got back to Hiroshima, I was too tired to add anything else to the Osaka excursion, except for the Umeda Sky Building.
So we decided to set out relatively late — 9 a.m. instead of 6 a.m. — and we wouldn’t stay out later than 4 p.m.
The Osaka excursion would be the big shopping day, where we would visit Tower Records, the primary reason for my heading to Japan in the first place.
I held back pretty much all year, not buying anything through the mail, knowing full well I could just get them in one fell swoop. And the trip to Osaka would take care of it.
Osaka is an hour train ride from Kyoto, half an hour by Shinkansen. We took an express train to Osaka with only two stops instead of taking the Shinkansen.
Umeda Sky Building is located just outside of Osaka station, a 10-minute walk. On the way over, I noticed something different about the guys walking around town — they weren’t wearing suits. Some of them were, but a lot of guys we passed dressed casually, even stylishly, with guitar cases strapped to their backs.
My brother pointed it out to me, and I said I wondered about it. Osaka has a pretty vibrant music scene, if the visiting bands from Japan during SXSW are an indication. (Very many of them trek to Austin every year.)
Umeda Sky Building has the Floating Observatory, a roof-top lookout with a 360-degree view of the city. I have to say I was really impressed with the view. I sometimes wonder if Karakura Town in BLEACH is supposed to modeled after Osaka. The view from the Floating Observatory bore quite a resemblance.
The Floating Observatory also has an indoor view with tempered glass, which cut out the light fog hovering over the city. It was clearer from inside than from outside!
Kyoto Tower attempts to offer the same experience as the Umeda Sky Building for Kyoto, but I don’t think it’s as successful.
With the requisite sight-seeing destination out of the way, it was time to shop. So it was back to the train station and down to Shinsaibashi-suji, where I found another location for a Yamaha Store.
As it would turn out, I’d find two, one that wasn’t on the map I uncovered. My brother indulged me as I took a quick peek inside both, to get a sense of what else I could pick up.
From Shinsaibashi-suji, we headed to Dotonbori, where I got to see Glico, the famous neon sign from the makers of Pocky. I’m not sure what his appeal is, but I noticed lots of people mimicking his pose. Glico’s hands are clearly open, but everyone would close their hands into fists instead.
It was already lunch time, and my brother wanted to find a place he ate before. We walked on the west end of Dotonbori, passed a rather strange hotel with face statues and discovered the restaurant in question was gone. So we went back to where Shinsaibashi-suji intersected with the Dotonbori to find somewhere to eat. That’s what I like about Japanese restaurants — window displays of their menus. We ended up at a sushi place.
Let me back track to my breakfast that morning before we left for Osaka. My brother wanted to rest up in the inn, but I wanted to go out and find something to eat. I ended up at a cafeteria down the block, which had sections for smoking and non-smoking. The non-smoking section consisted of about three tables. The rest of the restaurant was clearly smoking. In restaurants at train stations, no distinction was made — every restaurant allowed smoking.
That cafeteria was an anomaly by even offering a non-smoking section, lot of good it did, since the smoke from the rest of the restaurant would waft right over. It did remind me of New York City back in 1992 — the non-smoking sections would always be smaller than the smoking sections.
So yeah, the sushi place we ended going to on the Dotonbori allowed smoking. My brother would usually mind, but when in Rome …
Sushi chefs in Japan are performers. They greet you far more effusively than any other person in a service industry role. When they say "Irrashaimase", they growl in a theatrical voice meant to exaggerate their hospitality. It’s pretty comic.
In the US, a dab of wasabi in the sushi is rare. In Japan, expect it.
On the way to the sushi place, we passed Kuiadore Taro, the mechanical clown featured in No Reservations with Anthony Bourdain. I wanted to take a picture, but there was a line. Nor did I want to pay the vendors who were also snapping shots.
From Dotonbori, we headed to Namba, where Tower Records was located.
Like Kinokuniya, Tower Records was spread out over a number of floors in a building, the first level dedicated to Japanese pop.
I busted out my shopping list and went to town — CDs by Onituska Chihiro, Cocco, UA, VOLA & THE ORIENTAL MACHINE, FLiP, LEO Imai, DVDs by NUMBER GIRL and Shiina Ringo.
I didn’t find Hajime Chitose’s Shima*Kyora*Umui, a compilation of her shimauta recordings. Nor did I find the final album by Okinawan hardcore trio BLEACH, titled bleachstone.
I dawdled about getting a SUPERCAR DVD, then decided not to get it. (Yet.)
After I crossed off most of the items on my list, I went to the cash register. Final damage: 29,720 yen, a little over $300.
I had budgeted just about that much, and I met it.
I did, however, leave a lot of "non-priority" items in the racks, such as the new album by Port of Notes, or catalog albums by METALCHICKS and Fuji Fabric.
My brother wanted to do his own shopping, and he knew I would be bored if I followed him around. I wanted to go back to the Yamaha stores to see if there was anything else I wanted to get.
So we split up for the first time on throughout the trip.
I wanted to get back to Shinsaibashi-suji, but I made a wrong turn. I went down another covered pedestrian street, this one lined with dozens of restaurants instead of shops. It didn’t occur to me I was lost till I walked over a block and didn’t recognize anything.
So I doubled back and got back to Shinsabashi-suji. I think I probably ate a good 20 minutes.
Between Kinokuniya and the Yamaha store in Hiroshima, I found just about all the band scores I intended to get, but I did find a score for Shiina Ringo’s "Ariamaru Tomi" at one of the shops.
I also went to a Tatsuya shop near Dotonbori to see if by some slim chance the Hajime Chitose album would be there. It was not. I had a suspicion that one album — the one nearly impossible to get stateside — would be equally elusive in Japan.
(It is available through HMV Japan’s web site, though.)
I had imagined myself gorging myself on food as I wandered through the Dotonbori. "Dress till you drop in Kyoto, eat till you drop in Osaka" as the saying goes.
But we were running on a compressed time line, and I couldn’t just restaurant-hop like Anthony Bourdain. I did find a snack mall where I purchased some sort of French-looking dessert. In Japan, western food has a very distinctly European influence. Even the mom-and-pop stands in the snack mall served dishes that look like fine dining fare.
If you look for American food, it’s probably going to look very European.
By the way, my brother and I would get most of our breakfasts from the bus ticket office at Kyoto station. There’s a pastry vendor in the ticket office called Boulangier. Guess what kind of pastries they serve.
We came back to Kyoto with time to spare before dinner.
My brother, who has foot problems despite all the walking we did, wasn’t inclined to go out. In fact, he had laundry to do.
I, on the other hand, wanted to find the Tower Records located in Kyoto, hoping to find that Hajime Chitose album. My brother said he found one.
I looked up the location on Google Maps, and it pointed me to a specific spot. My brother trusts the street view more than the GPS coordinates, and he led me to believe that a large white sign on the street marked the Tower location.
I had my doubts. Tower has a distinctive color scheme and logo. Why would they stray from that? The GPS coordinates also contradicted the street view perspective. But I trusted my brother anyway, because he’d been here before.
Well, it’s not a trip till you get lost.
I ate dinner at the Kyoto station mall called Porta. Then I took a subway to the wrong block of Kawarachi-doji, where the city’s main shopping area is located. I wandered a few blocks, recognizing nothing in the street view, consulting the map book to no end.
I broke down and asked a complete stranger for directions. We spoke in a mix of broken Japanese and English. He essentially told me to head down Kawaramachi till I pass two big thoroughfares.
I followed his advice, and I eventually found the big white Tower sign just as the street view indicated. But I went back and forth the area, trying to pinpoint the entrance of Tower Records. As it turned out, that "Tower" sign was for the NAMCO Tower, a video game arcade.
By some sheer fluke, I looked across the street and saw the familiar yellow and red sign of Tower Records. It was located on the 9th floor of a department store building. Google Maps’ GPS coordinates were correct after all.
From then on, I knew I could probably find locations far better than my brother.
No, the Tower Records in Kyoto did not have Shima*Kyora*Umui, but it did have bleachstone.
I also wasting a lot of money on the train system in Kyoto. It doesn’t really have much access, and the Hankyu Line which intersects with a few stops is not as user-friendly as the metropolitan stations.
I realized now why we were given bus maps of Kyoto instead of subway maps.