Saturday, August 22, 2009

Deep Osaka 2

But it was during my final visit that I finally came across the heart of Osaka, tracing the roots of its oldest history to an area filled with people living a life without pretense.

Thursday was my last day of work. Afterward, I met up with a handful of friends who we hadn't seen in some time. We met at Tani-9 near the site of the old Naniwa Nagara-Toyosaki Palace which was Japan's capital from 645-654. This is the oldest part of the city, obviously, and an ancient path leads south from there to Shitennoji, the oldest Buddhist temple in Japan. There are many temples and shrines along the way, as well as sections of the old trail, most of them leading up and down steep slopes. A couple of these temples had large stone statues of Fudo, both surprisingly within the precincts of Zen temples, rather than the more likely Mikkyo sects. One large shrine had a section for prayers for the local Tigers baseball team, with home-made folk elements like banners and photos which had been added by fans. The trail winds up at Isshinji, a bizarre mix of international elements. It was the feeling of a Chinese temple, with water and trees and large porous rocks, yet the main hall is definitely Japanese, with beautifully aged wooden steps. A group of monks were chanting nearby, clanging Tibetan looking cymbals to time their chant. Beside the main hall was a smaller hall that held very old stone Buddhas, surrounded by flowers, and lit candles, shrouded in incense in a way that felt more Indian than Japanese. Most bizarrely were a couple halls done in a modern avant garde style of smoked glass and twisted metal. This whole layout was shaded by a tall events hall that mimicked Frank Lloyd Wright.

From the distant past we stepped into the more recent past of Shin Sekai, which leapt out of the postwar films I've been relishing lately. Created in 1912, it was apparently modeled half on Paris and half on New York's Coney Island. (This in itself is interesting, as pre-war Japan felt much more European, and postwar is, well, the 51st state.) The main arcade looks as I imagine the occupation looked with its cheesy shirts and other tat on display, touts hollering in front of oversized restaurants, 50 yen game centers, and wide sidewalks leading to the Tsutenkaku tower. You almost expect to come across remnants of the black market, and this seedy underbelly pervades all. Most of the people here are older, many looking in dire straits. Not homeless, but damn close. A couple guitar buskers are in their sixties. More men of that age sit drinking at make-shift tables, others stand in the many tachi-nomi joints about. There are three movie theaters, which are fronted by those beautiful old painted billboards of what's currently showing. Two of the cinema are for the unseasonal raincoat crowd, but the third has a split bill of a skin flick and the latest Jackie Chan. For some reason, huge gaudy creepy Billiken were everywhere. We walk down Jyan Jyan Yokocho arcade, lined with photos comparing then and now. As usual, the present gets a beating. Many of these shops are small, single counter restaurants, many with long queues even at this early hour. We pass under the JR line, a dark dank tunnel where a few card tables have been set up from which to sell second-hand porn DVDs.

We cross a wide boulevard to enter another arcade, this one much grimier and seedier, if that's possible. A couple cafes have been set up by activists, their facades lined with flyers. The caterwauling of karaoke spills out of many restaurants, drowned by the roar of pachinko with the opening of the sliding doors of the half dozen or so parlors here. People seem drunker here, pedestrians muttering to themselves, bicyclists practicing slalom precision. We pass through this poorly lit zone, on our way to our dinner reservation. As the arcade ends, we find ourselves in Tobita red-light district, a small grid of narrow two-story buildings that have taken the name of a teahouse. Upon approach, you see the mirror reflection of a plainly-dressed woman sizing up passersby, and from front on, you see the girl on display, her clothes and hair and makeup done to perfection, visible in the glare of a spotlight. To my surprise the girls are all young and most of them knock-down gorgeous. I had expected more weathered goods for rent here. Large breasts seem to be the going thing, the cleavage very visible. A few of the girls are uniformed, catering to certain tastes. Even the madams are younger than I'd thought, many probably younger than I. A couple of them beckon me to come closer. One old granny makes me laugh as she says "Dōzo!" in a gravelly voice. I walk a little ahead of my wife, playing the role of window shopper. If a girl makes eye contact, I quickly and bashfully turn away. You can take the boy out of the Catholic church but...

We have dinner at Hiyakuben, an old Taisho building at the red light district's lower corner. Our friends had been wanting to come here for years, but had been afraid. The building's interior is done up in a gaudy style that is a blend of shinto shrine and Chinatown palace. Loads of vermillion, as befitting a former brothel. Each party gets their own room. I'd peeked at other rooms on the way to the toilets; many had small stages and drums for private entertainment. Our own had interesting woodwork overhead, with a raised section at one end that resembled the prow of a small boat. When we opened the screen to look out the window, we found a bullethole. The staff here are a little too saucy and the service brusk, though the food doesn't live up to their pride.

For much of dinner, our conversation had been on the neighborhood outside, and on the trade of its residents. It's amazing how superficially similar to Gion it is, yet the roots much older. After dinner we passed back through, it being full dark now. A car rolled slowly by in front of us, and I made a joke about drive-thru service. Whereas earlier most of the women had been sitting in the doorways, now around half were empty. My eyes drifted toward second floor windows, my ears at attention. How ironic my imagination at work, yet regarding this profession, imagination needs little place. The reality is right there, unadulterated, unabashed.

On the turntable: Flower Travellin' Band, "Challenge"

On the nighttable: Rory Maclean, Under the Dragon"

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