Osaka: Dotonbori Disappointment

Osaka is supposed to be the LA to Tokyo’s New York: more relaxed and party-friendly, less cold and snobby. During the Edo Period, Osaka was the home of the merchant class, which the samurai class had a vested interest in keeping toward the bottom of the social order. They passed laws forbidding merchants from displaying their wealth through their clothes, homes, or other possessions, so the only outlet for all the money was eating, drinking, and partying, turning Osaka into the North Star of low-frills food and drink in Japan. One particularly beloved tradition is kuidaore, which means “eat till you drop,” and the supposed kuidaore capital of Osaka is Dotonbori. When I was researching places to visit in Japan, Dotonbori was my whole reason for visiting Osaka. Japanese food is some of the best in the world, and the idea of literally falling over from stuffing myself with it sounded like the kind of budget-friendly luxury I can get behind. The more I learned, the more convinced I became that it would be impossible not to have a good time in Dotonbori. No less than Anthony Bourdain said—while scarfing down kushikatsu, grilled crab legs, sushi, takoyaki, and okonomiyaki—“It’s easy to eat here. You just walk down the street [and] food’s everywhere.” Sign me up.

It was nearly 9 when we arrvied in Dotonbori for dinner, and I was buzzing with excitement. Saturday night, neon lights, enough food in my future to bowl me over. I was particularly looking forward to takoyaki, a favorite Japanese snack which I had been informed is brought to the height of its potential in Osaka. Every takoyaki I’d had in Tokyo was magnificent, scalding hot and slightly crisp, melty and chewy and delicious. I couldn’t imagine how Osaka could do it better, but my body was ready to find out.

Of course, to get takoyaki, I’d have to find a takoyaki stand, and to find a takoyaki stand I had to wade through the crowd. Now listen: I’m from a family of seven that crammed itself into a one-bath, 1000-square-foot house for the seven years before I went to college. When I lived in Tokyo, the Chuo line through Shinjuku was part of my commute, and I and the other passengers were literally pressed into the train by station employees just to get the train doors to close. I know how to handle a crowd. But this was different. It was like walking through a neck-high pool of jelly: as soon as you pressed forward a little in one place, the rest of the mass slowly congealed around you and cut off your exit.

The crowd thinned just barely as we got across the Ebisubashi Bridge, giving us enough movement to notice the trash scattered on the ground like a dusting of filthy, drooled-on snow. Finally, air circulation! And with it, the stench of the river and the rotting food on the street. Nowhere in Japan is this disgusting, except maybe Shibuya after Halloween. I pressed on for my takoyaki reward, but as I glanced up and down the street, nothing could be seen. Yes, there were plenty of restaurants, but where was the food that was supposed to be everywhere? We walked past the famous Kani Doraku crab, past the kuidaore clown, over the various bridges at least two or three times, but in the end, all I saw were slick young men handing out flyers for various restaurants that were mostly outside Dotonbori. Not a grilled crab leg or glazed-over yakitori shewer in sight.

I began to realize that we were going to have a hard time of it, but I was trying to keep my hopes up by distracting myself with what small joys I could find. Just look at all the neon! Ooh, the Glico running man! Hey, I know how to read that kanji! But as I got hungrier and hungrier, it was harder and harder to distract myself from my disappointment and I grew positively frenetic in my drive to enjoy myself, a plastic smile glued on my face as I tried to fake my way into loving every trash-filled, foul-smelling, non-eating moment.

Suddenly one of the slick young men reached out of the crowd and spoke to me in English, thrusting a  flyer into my hand for a restaurant just down the street. “Good food!” he said. “And close! We’re having all you can drink for 3000 yen!”

“Oh, thanks!” I said, taking the flyer. I looked down at it in panic, but my plastic, joyless eyes could no longer read kanji. “But we want to explore a little longer. We’ll come back.”

He frowned. “Okay, but we close in less than an hour. Are you sure you’ll make it?”

Less than an hour? How long had we been wandering around this place?

I looked at my watch. It was just after 10.

“What time do you close?”

“At 11:00.”

Eleven? On a Saturday night?

“That seems early,” I said. “What about the other places?”

He shook his head. “No, pretty much everything closes around the same time.”

This snapped me out of my joy-trance and I looked around. Indeed, the trembling jelly of humanity had dissipated significantly. Although there were still humans aplenty, it was obvious that people were starting to clear out.

What the hell kind of place is this? I climbed back inside my joy-cocoon, unsure how many directions I would go if it didn’t hold me together. “We’ll hurry!” I said, and rushed away before he could say anything else.

Anguish was needling its fingers into me now, but still I held on to the fiction that Dotonbori could live up to my expectations. I dragged Shannon and Jason along down the street one more time, and finally—finally!—caught sight of a lonely takoyaki vendor. There could have been nothing better in that moment: my favorite Japanese snack, a lava ball of deliciousness, made with love by an Osakan. I all but ran to him, my hands probably shaking as I passed over the coins to get my takoyaki. I picked one up and stuffed it in my mouth, so ready for this night to become what it was meant to be, ready for my communion into the family of kuidaore faithful.

It was lukewarm and mushy.

Never as an adult have I ever been so close to collapsing onto the pavement and weeping. I was exhausted, hungry, and disappointed. If I’d been cognizant of anything but the crushing weight of my anger and frustration, I might have been able to look at this experience as the universe trying to remind me that only through purging desire can we end suffering, but I’m pretty sure that if someone had tried to say those words in that moment I would have punched them right in their self-righteous face. In that moment, nothing mattered to me more than the feeling of hangry betrayal.

Somehow or other we made our way back to the restaurant we’d gotten the flyer for, and we sat down and I shambled my way through translating the menu and making our orders. We ate, but I don’t remember what we had. We paid and left, and the final insult that Dotonbori heaped on us was that even after eating there, we were still hungry. We walked down the street, hoping for another open restaurant, but didn’t find anything open until we’d left Dotonbori entirely.

Based on my diary entries from November 16, 2013.

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