Sunday, 14 August 2011

Osaka eats (and grumbles)

{Sorry, first I need to rant. For food only, move on to the black text.}

I have long been a lover of all things Japanese, but always laughed at the anime otaku crowd that said they absolutely want to travel/move there. Anyhow, when a good friend was working in Osaka, I decided I might give it a go and absolutely fell in love with the Kansai area (that is, the area in central Japan that includes the ancient imperial cities of Japan, Kyoto and Nara, and Japan's anti-capital and second biggest city Osaka). I couldn't stop thinking about it ever since, and the trip also fuelled a wanderlust unbeknown for me ( I have spent about 2 days off in London in the past year, usually I was just travelling).

When my freelancing started to make enough money, I decided to give this location-independent thing a go, packed up in London and have a little flat in central Osaka for a few weeks.
So, here's my verdict after a month being here: I am finding it really hard to connect to people, and that's not due to language issues. There is an absolute lack of decent GLBT places and culture which makes me feel very alienated. There are a few places of the loud, neon-signed clubbing type, but in general, if you're gay in Japan, you stay well in your closet.

There's an enormous pressure on women to be stereotypically girly. I like to cook and have a thing for quirky skirts and dresses, that is about as far a girly as I get. No excitement about hairstyles, makeup or pop music, thank you very much. I'm a queer artsy nonconformist gal by heart, which means: I won't fit in here.

Usually I could fall back on the couchsurfing community, but even that here is extremely flaky and superficial. I must have been stood up for meetups about a dozen times by now. I met some people who are nice, but most are just travellers on a super commercial shopping tour through Japan.

Now, the good:
The Japanese people I have met are brilliant! I actually have a penpal who lives in a suburb of Kyoto, and now we can meet for coffee (or Donuts, as she particularly loves Mr Donut in Kyoto's central station). My landlord is an awesome punky bagpacker in his 50s, and my neighbour runs a guitar repair shop (his name is Hiro, but sadly he looks nothing like the guitarist in Gravitation), speaks as much English as I Japanese but we get on well. Japanese couchsurfers are also awesome. Osakans are just such a friendly and curious bunch, I could tell lots of stories!

So, Osaka aka Japan's Manchester (seriously, it's about as much like Manc as Tokyo is similar to London), is a brilliant and cheap place to live, especially for its awesome foods. What's even better is that I get to try all the stuff in the Japanese supermarkets in my tiny kitchen. They have a massive tofu aisle in every supermarket! So, on to the foods!

My local supermarket, I am not sure if the Italian makes any sense (must ask the Italians in my life):
Suprisingly, eating out in Osaka seems to be much cheaper than buying food. A 2kg bag of rice costs about 900 yen or £8! And that in a country where rice is the staple food.

Fruit is also crazily expensive, though not as expensive as often touted online. Yes, you can get those £40 melons, but they are thought as presents. You can get a small melon for about £6, though there are none of the big watermelons I have seen in Europe. Still, an average apple will cost you about £2, and a tiny bunch of grapes £4 pounds. You know what's the worst? The cost actually seems justified. It sounds totally silly, but I've never eaten juicier, higher quality fruit in my life! Things in Japan might not be cheap, but they are always good value.

On the other hand, I had this delicious kitsune udon for 320 yen, which is £2.50 - it's udon in a clear broth (it's Japan, so most likely some fish has been sieved through it. I know it's horrible, but if you ignore the fact that the base of Japanese cuisine is fish stock, your life is so much easier. In 9o% of the cases, you will still get fish stock even though you ask for something vegetarian. If you can somehow ignore that 1 tbsp of fish flakes of passed through 10l of stocks, there are many otherwise animal-free options. Otherwise, eat bananas, seaweed rice balls or move to Tokyo and spend £30 on a meal in a fancy veggie place).

So, Kitsune udon... it's udon noodles in a clear soup with a giant sheet of aburaage (deep-fried, sweetish delicious tofu) as a topping. 'Kitsune' means fox and the stories goes that the cheeky fox stole the meat that was to go with the dish and replaced it with cheap old tofu. It's awesome.

I usually boycott all Coca Cola products, but had a good look at the vending machines: they are on every street corner here, and 95% are owned by Coca Cola. So there goes acid green fanta (I couldn't actually figure out the flavour).

The vending machines that aren't owned by Coke are those owned by Kirin and look like this:

The fabled beer vending machine, selling very cheap ice cold beer! Everyone can use these without proving their age (the legal age for anything in Japan is 20). They are usually next to liquor stores so kids would be afraid to go there in case they are seen. Not sure how that works. Curiously, they close down at night (some after 9pm, others from 11pm) so kids can't get anything. How about closing them from 3pm - 9pm instead when kids are out after school?!

Last year we went to the ridiculously named Blarney Stone pub near Umeda (central station in Osaka), which has plenty old Brits as well as cider, so I decided to go again with some couchsurfing folk. I tell you, you know you'e a Euro when you go somewhere and everybody wonders what this strange 'Blarney Stone' is that the place is named after.

Cheesy name and £8 pints ignored, this is a nice little place that served me this awesome VEGAN falafel plate with chips, salad and a pita pocket full of falafel goodness for just 500 yen (it had olives! even a tiny 100g bag of olives costs more than 500 yen here, another reason why I cannot live in Japan permanently), and they had a good live band, so I'll be back!

Oh, and the pasta! Italian will hate me for saying this, but there are quite a few places that do nice pasta, and much cheaper than in Italy. While there are such curious things as the Japanese Neapolitan Pasta and other seaweed/fish egg concotions, I had a really nice arrabiata lunch set the other day at Namba Parks, a big mall/park complex in the southern downtown area. I also got a ridiculously tiny cup of hot liquid with this that I mistook for dressing - it turned out later that it was the soup that was advertised on the lunch deal that I couldn't find anywhere. Cultural differences... I mean, it was in an espresso cup!!!
I've taken quite a few pics from my cooking efforts with real Japanese ingredients in my tiny Japanese kitchen and hope to post some recipes here within the next week or so!


Amanda Kendle said...

I can totally understand your rant. I loved living in Osaka and made some beautiful Japanese friends but even as a straight girl it took a *long* time. I love Japanese people but as a culture they suffer somewhat by being bound up in a lot of norms and stereotypes and "acceptable" ideas. I think this applies to pretty much all people not just LGBT - although I certainly remember teaching young adults who you'd imagine were surely gay but they never came out to us - in fact I didn't meet an openly gay Japanese person my whole time there and statistically, of course, I'm sure I'd met dozens and dozens. It must be very hard for them.

But not just LGBT - for example, I always said I loved living in Japan but thank god I wasn't born as a Japanese woman - so many of my students were unable to do what they wanted, and even came to English lessons after secretly siphoning off part of the housekeeping money their husbands gave them because they hadn't "allowed" them to take English lessons.

And I could go on, but I won't! Loved the food part of your post too, by the way - made me hungry!!!!

Newburgh Surveillance said...

Japan is one of the countries that is really interesting. Would want to visit soon.