Learning to Love Osaka

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Osaka, at first glance, is a hard city to love. It seems to be 140 square miles of concrete, sardine-packed with tower blocks and criss-crossed with flyovers.

But the cherry blossoms along the Ō-kawa River temper the brutality of the concrete. The river parts and flows either side of Nakanoshima island, where the first mile or so has been landscaped and turned into a public park. It is a tranquil spot, lovely to walk through with a gentle breeze blowing off the river, and as you gaze at the lawns and the trees and the rose gardens, you might not even notice that the island is hemmed in by soulless office blocks.

Beyond the park, there is a hint of what Osaka might have looked like before the War in the 1912 Central Public Hall with its red and grey brick, stained glass and cupolas and the 1904 Prefectural Library with its monumental steps and columns.

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The classical castle nearby was rebuilt in the twentieth century, but then so were most of the castles in Japan; if they were not burned down in the tumult of the Meiji Restoration, they were flattened in World War II. It is still impressive to see, and worth paying to go in for the museum with its samurai swords and suits of armour, screens and fans, woodcut prints and ancient scrolls, and the panoramic view from the top.

The Umeda Sky Building is the high-tech, modernist equivalent of the castle, designed, like it, to dominate its neighbourhood, to awe and intimidate, to exude power and wealth; and it has the best views in town. The lift scoots you almost to the top, then an elevator takes you through plate glass nothingness to the roof.

To the south and east, Osaka seems everlasting with office and apartment blocks fading to infinity. To the north, they are interrupted only by the broad expanse of the Yodo River, emptying out into the bay to the west.

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At night, a million squares and circles of light glow in the windows, yellow lights swirl at street level, red lights pulsate on the rooftops, neon hoardings shimmer in blues and reds and greens, and the spokes of the giant Ferris wheel out on the harbour glow orange if the next day is set to be sunny, green if cloudy and blue if it is going to rain.

Amerika-mura (American village) got its name from shops selling second-hand Levis and Zippos and trades on it with Uncle Sam and Statue of Liberty models bursting from shop fronts and local interpretations of American fast food.

The vintage shops and street style stores blast J-Pop from the doorways to deter over-25s and to try to encourage the sullen girls in clumpy shoes and over-the-knee socks and giggly boys with spiky yellow hair to look briefly away from their smartphones.

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A little to the east, the Shinsaibashi-Suji shopping arcade extends for a dozen blocks with all the world’s high street chains mixed up with noodle shops and pachinko* parlours, soundtracked one minute by J-Pop, the next by Vivaldi, and always  by the staff in the shops shouting irasshaimase! when customers enter and arigatou gozaimashita! when they leave.

Shoppers jostle down the street with three bags hanging off each arm, mothers propel push-chairs, teenagers snigger in unruly groups, tourists stop and whip out their selfie sticks and the crowd eddies round them. At the end of each block, a road cuts through and the honking cars surprise you.

The mall empties out by the Dōtonbori Canal, where there are monster neon adverts wrapped round the ends of the buildings. The oldest and best-known is the marathon runner, who has been advertising the Glico confectionary company since 1935.

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There is a crab restaurant round the corner which states its business with a massive 3D model of a spider crab above the door with claws that wave and eyeballs which extend in turn like pistons. Other restaurants along the street have taken up the theme and there are big puffer fish lanterns, an octopus, model gyoza dumplings, a giant hand holding nigiri-zushi and a life-size model cow.

There are bars and bowling alleys and amusement arcades. In the doorway of one, a salaryman, with his jacket off and sleeves rolled up, danced like your dad to the music from a game.

But just steps from all the sensory overload of Dōtonbori is a quiet corner with a temple dedicated to Fudo Myo-o, the deity of fury, where worshippers stop, pray and throw water over the diety’s statue, which is thick with moss from years of soakings.

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There are cobbled alleys lined by izakayas** with nothing but the traditional red paper lanterns to advertise themselves, no mechanical crabs, no illuminated puffer fish, no model cows. I ate very well in one of them, sitting at the bar watching the chef prepare the food and serve it to me on a long-handled peel like bakers use to take loaves from the oven.

Sake was once served in a small wooden box called a masu, but the practice fell out of fashion. Izakayas, though, sometimes put a glass inside the masu and let the sake overflow into it to show how generous their measures are. Here, the chef, who was also the barman, carried on pouring until first the glass and then the masu overflowed.

I had misjudged Osaka. The ugliness I saw at first was nothing like as all-pervasive as I feared. While it is no Kyoto, it has a sprinkling of traditional sights, and a whole lot more which could not be reduced to items on a list of Top Things to See…, but which is rewarding to see nonetheless. Above all, though, it has an infectious joie de vivre which I never saw matched as I travelled through Japan.

© Richard Senior 2016

*Japanese pinball

**Bars which sell food – loosely like Spanish tapas bars

Vientiane: the Small-Town Capital City

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Vientiane’s not exactly your giant metropolis, old boy,” said a repellent character in John Le Carré’s classic novel, The Honourable Schoolboy. The city is always there, in the background, referenced throughout, and a central character even spent time there, but somehow it never acquires three-dimensional shape.

It is much the same in real life.

Vientiane passed largely unnoticed by the outside world through the tragic, tumultuous history of Post-War Southeast Asia. It has none of the resonance of Hanoi, Saigon or Phnom Penh and little of their heritage, beyond the occasional colonial building, often derelict, overgrown, forgotten.

Even the familiar soundtrack of the region, the howling scooters, the cacophony of horns, the too-loud music, the shouting vendors, is strangely muted. The tuk-tuk drivers let you pass without hustling for business. No one follows you down the street, revising their prices for the trinkets you have already declined. You are not constantly offered sex, drugs and spring rolls.

There is a handful of splendid temples, but I am not sure they would have merited more than a polite glance if I had gone the other way round and seen Chiang Mai and Luang Prabang first. There is, as well, the notorious ‘vertical runway’. The United States, desperate to keep Laos from going communist, sent funds and materials to build an airport, but instead the royalist government built a massive triumphal arch: a Buddhist Arc de Triomphe. Laos went communist anyway.

I was out at eight to explore the city. I had run out of things to see by lunchtime. Once I had reserved a seat in a minibus out of town next morning, there was nothing to do but to go to the National Museum. It is in one of the best of the surviving colonial buildings, once the French Colonial Governor’s residence, and – with depressing predictability – it is due to be torn down any day soon to make room for a hotel.

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It had the forlorn air of small-town museums run by old ladies, with a few real treasures bulked out with maps and models and the sort of stuff which clutters up garden sheds.

The first floor is devoted to modern history, which here – in one of the few remaining Marxist-Leninist states – is weaved into a coherent narrative of revolutionary struggle. The bitterness is undisguised, but understandable too.

Laos has spent much of its history having indignities done to it by more powerful states. It has been sacked, invaded, colonised, administered, bullied, propped up, used as a proxy and had 270 million cluster bombs dropped on it by a faraway superpower for fear that another superpower might acquire it as an ally. Forty years on, Lao children still routinely lose arms and legs when they happen upon one of the 80 million which failed to explode.

French colonial rule is represented by paintings in the style of First World War propaganda, showing snarling soldiers clubbing women to death with rifles and dropping babies down wells. Rusting guns and faded flags commemorate “The fighting to liberate the connty [sic] against the American Imperialists and the puppet soldiers from 1954-63”.

The tabloid language might have been copied straight from the museums in Hanoi and loses the story some of the force it would have if it were just told straight. It is probably for the good that a lot of the captions are along the lines of:

“The weapons with which the carbon farming was Imperialist US.”

And

“The weapons caron farming as you guard leader in the time from.”

With this as a benchmark, you have to applaud the tuk-tuk drivers on the street outside for advertising trips to the “Fendship Bedge,” the “Fiendship Brege” and the “Freshdip Brig”.

None is quite Friendship Bridge, but you can at least understood what they mean.

© Richard Senior 2015

The Breakaway Republic of Užupis

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Užupis was the bohemian quarter of Vilnius, until 1997 when it declared itself an independent republic.

It was a peaceful secession, unlike Lithuania’s from the Soviet Union. No tanks rolled over the bridges across the Vilnia River. Lithuanian troops never engaged the 12-man Užupian army. The authorities did not tear down the Užupian flag (a hand with a hole in it against a background whose colour changes with the seasons). They stood by as the self-declared president appointed a council of ministers, and the new government erected signs either side of what it claimed as the international border.

But neither Lithuania nor anyone else recognised the breakaway state.

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Užupis still has the broken-brick, rotten-wood, flaking-paint post-Soviet shabbiness which has mostly been gentrified out of the Baltic states, now; but there is a cheerful, arty atmosphere amid the dilapidation. The hipsters who drink at the fashionable bars coexist happily with the marginal types who squat in the crumbling apartments. Artist and Drunkard are popular occupations.

There are no multinationals here; not even Subway, KFC, Costa and Tesco, which all must have outlets on the moon. The businesses there are, a convenience store, a dentist, a café, and several bars, restaurants and galleries, are local concerns. Most have Užupis, or some derivation, in their company name; many fly the national flag.

On one wall on a side road just off the main street, there are stainless steel boards engraved with the constitution in 23 languages. It is unlike any other constitution.

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The world would surely be a nicer place if all governments acknowledged that “Everyone has the right to love,” “Everyone has the right to be happy” and “Everyone has the right not to be afraid”. The idea would, of course, enrage the icy-hearted misanthropes who write for the tabloids. That is reason alone to promote it.

All constitutions should recognise that “Everyone has the right to love and take care of a cat” and, correspondingly, that “A cat is not obliged to love its master, but it must help him in difficult times”. Likewise that “Everyone has the right to look after a dog till one or the other dies” and that “A dog has the right to be a dog”.

Yet it is not all so enlightened. “Everyone shall remember his name” could lead to grave injustice, particularly on a Saturday night.

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For 364 days of the year, the borders with Lithuania are as open as any in Europe, outside countries like Bosnia, Belarus and Britain. But once a year, the authorities post guards on the bridges to check and stamp passports.

It is done symbolically to mark Independence Day, which falls on the 1st of April: a clear indication – if any were needed – that the founding fathers were not so much fired by patriotic zeal as kind of taking the piss.

© Richard Senior 2015