Leaving Hiroshima was difficult, because it felt like we needed longer there to explore everything it had to offer. The city gets under your skin and into your psyche, and the lure of discovering more of its charms was strong. However, we had a very important date to keep, with a very special person, and I was eager to get back on the Shinkansen and to head to Osaka.
When I initially planned this trip, the only thing I was certain of, was that I would visit Osaka and finally get to spend some time with the lovely Keiko Kurata – someone who had become a good friend over the previous couple of years and who I was longing to see. For those who don’t know Keiko, (and I can’t believe there are many people who read this blog who aren’t aware of her), she is legendary in Japan-fan circles. One of the original fans from the very beginning, Keiko is an incredible source of information about the band – if you have read Mick’s autobiography, where he recounts stories of the band being chased around Japanese cities by fans in taxis and being mobbed in hotel lobbies – well Keiko was one of those fans. With other like-minded people she produced the rather professional-looking ‘adonis’ fanzine, but unlike many of those old fans who fell away over the years, she has maintained a healthy interest in the band, and recently contributed dozens of photos and anecdotal evidence for Anthony Reynolds’ excellent biography of Japan.
So, meeting up with Keiko was my priority; she had promised us all a night of good Osakan food and karaoke, and we were more than ready for the challenge that lay ahead of us. However, before we could hit the sake and shochu, she had a rather more sedate experience awaiting us; the opportunity to witness a traditional wedding which was taking place at the beautiful Sumiyoshi Grand Shrine. What an incredible spectacle that was. We followed the wedding procession through the grounds of the shrine, across the barrel bridge and to the temple itself. Even though we remained outside, the fact that the ceremony took place in a wall-less room, open to the elements, meant that we were able to observe the whole thing; with Keiko quietly explaining the symbolism and meaning behind the myriad gestures and chants we witnessed. It was a truly wonderful hour, spent soaking up the atmosphere and submerging ourselves in the traditions of a culture which differs so very much from our own.
From Sumiyashi, we jumped on to a tram and headed over to the colourful chaos that is Shinsekai – and never has the expression ‘from the sublime to the ridiculous’ been more appropriate. Shinsekai is Japan’s answer to Blackpool; it is gaudy, loud, brash and tacky. It was completely compelling and totally at odds with what we had experienced of the country so far. I wouldn’t want to live there, but I am pleased I got to see this rather exciting and slightly seedy underbelly of Japan.
Keiko’s reason for showing us this part of Osaka, was to visit the Tsuutenkaku Tower, where we would be able to view Osaka from its lofty height. It took almost an hour to get to the top, not because it was particularly high but because this tower is a temple to gaudy, corporate tourism; every few feet, we had to stop and have our senses assaulted with a bewildering choice of crappy plastic things to buy. The whole place seemed to be sponsored by Pocky (those delicious chocolate-biscuity things we know as Mikado over in here in Europe) and the walls were covered with posters of a Japan’s current favourite boy-band, advertising the calorific sticks. There was even a poster featuring a rather different (and much, much older) Japanese boy-band, which brought a smile to my face for a brief moment….
Osaka from above is a sight to behold. The city is huge and stretches out as far as the eye can see, hemmed in by distant mountains. Seeing it from on high, as dusk was falling, was something I will always remember. Even the rampant materialism, which constantly assaulted our senses, couldn’t ruin the experience of watching a baseball game from hundreds of feet above the ‘diamond’, with the players looking like the proverbial ants as the sun started to set, bathing the city in a golden-pink hue.
What followed next is probably best left to the imagination. We were treated to an incredible meal, at Keiko’s favourite restaurant – she wanted us to experience her Osaka, so we found ourselves in a tiny, private dining room and course after course of food was brought to our table; including the most amazing sukiyaki and kushikatsu, all washed down with Sapporo and cold sake. In fact, we ate so much amazing food, I am surprised we could summon up the energy to stagger to the karaoke bar……but somehow, we (sadly) did. Oh dear. Let’s just say that whilst Keiko and her friend have really wonderful voices and are seasoned karaoke veterans, we four Brits were, without doubt, absolutely horrific. As the beer and shochu continued to flow, so did our dignity (out of the building, never to be seen again) as we slaughtered any number of songs by Bowie, Elvis and The Beatles. I had got rather excited at the prospect of Keiko and I dueting on ‘adolescent sex’, which she assured me was available, but when we got to the bar, the only Japan song they had was ‘quiet life’. Which we murdered. Dead. Deader than dead. As authentic Japanese experiences go, it was pretty incredible, but let’s just say that it is best for all involved if we never go for a repeat performance of that night’s antics.
The next day, we were lucky enough to visit Keiko in her home (and I finally got meet her fabulously grumpy dog, TT.) For a geek fan like me, this was like being let loose in Eldorado for an afternoon……we spent ages looking through all of Keiko’s photographs, magazines and records; constant squeals of delight emanating from me and scaring poor old T.T. It was absolute bliss.
We then took T.T. for a lovely wander round Sumiyashi park, close to where she lives, and enjoyed people-watching, as the locals went about their leisure time….and then it was time to leave, as we had to head back to Tokyo, for the final leg of our journey. Our 24 hours in Osaka with Keiko was one of the absolute highlights of the trip for me; not just because of the ‘Japan’ links, but because she is one of the most beautiful and generous people I have ever met, and I feel incredibly lucky to call her my friend.