Planko Parlors, Billikens, and Bowls of Ramen: Osaka Japan

Our flight landing in Osaka, Japan was nerve rattling. I watched the shimmer of the water reflect the intermittent flashes from our plane’s lit wing tips. At any moment I thought the wheels would touch water to a disastrous end. On the edge of my seat, I saw a strip of land appear just below as I felt the hard bounce of our tires hit the runway. I breathed a sigh of relief, we had made it to the final country of our trip.

Many of the temples of Japan felt austere compared to the colorful, dragon covered temples of South Korea or Taiwan. While, still grand, they embraced a “zen” atmosphere with quiet gardens, and water troughs where individuals washed their hands in a methodic, peaceful ritual before approaching the temple.

“Ugh, geez, that is disgusting,” I whispered to Hannah while surreptitiously spitting out the Takoyaki into a napkin. This “delicacy” was grilled octopus and seafood mixed with a mostly cooked batter to form a sort of oozing waffle ball. I pushed the tray closer to Hannah and went hungry for the next hour. It was not my cup of tea, or octopus. My initial experience with the octopus Takoyaki was thankfully a short blip on an otherwise delicious city.

We were not sure it the flavors of Japan would live up to our usual haunts of Thai food or recent experiences of Korean and Taiwanese which seemed hard to beat . But viscous, dark brown Japanese curry, soup-like ramen, and thick udon noodles crept right in at the top as we dove into the umami of Japanese dishes.

On one afternoon, Hannah and I stumbled into the Akihabara district to satisfy my nerdiness. Planko parlors dotted occasional corners as locals gambled away with bright lights and loud sounds. Japan is a mecca for anything electric really. The different systems, games, and devices on display only proved it as we walked past. Down one memorable street, several Japanese figurines, called Billikens, smiled back at me. They were familiar because they were my high school’s mascot. It purportedly represents good luck? Surrounded by these Billikens, local Japanese and visitors alike tested their luck at the tucked away video game cafes and casinos midday.

With the our trip’s end looming in the distance, we treated ourselves to retail therapy at the Japanese Daiso stores. Similar to the Korean Daiso’s, aisles upon aisles of random, fun toys, cookware, office supplies, food, and more entertained up for longer than we care to admit. We picked up small $1 knick-knacks and gifts for friends and family. As we filled our basket with origami instruction books, soft-boiled egg timers, and Daruma dolls I made mental notes of any severely worn out shirts that could be tossed out to make room. After all, we had worn the same 5 or so outfit combinations for almost 11 months to this point, it was time for some to be let go.

With only 2 cities remaining and heightened reports of the Wuhan coronavirus, Hannah and I needed the luck of the Billiken to stay healthy and arrive back in the US safely. The advent of this new disease concerned us, and there was already evidence of early adopters trying to guard themselves in Osaka. One afternoon, we sauntered into a lush green park to see Osaka Castle. A handful of visitors and locals sported surgical masks, more than we had seen in other parts of Asia. Distracted and hyper-aware of touching hand-railings, Hannah and I meandered through the reconstructed castle, learning the names of people, battles, and events that Western history books had all but forgotten or never even named.


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