Monday, November 23, 2009

27 hours and $270 in Osaka

It was in the months leading up to my departure for Japan that I found myself with a new, life changing, hobby. I slowly but surely become a bit obsessed with improv and was less than thrilled to be giving it up cold turkey. Nothing else has allowed me to feel so in-the-moment, so creative, so scared shitless, so silly - all in one go. So, after I cozied into my new apartment, the first order of business was finding some English speaking improv companies.

Our Lord and Savior, Google, led me to The Pirates of the Dotombori: an Osaka imrov group made up of improvisers from around the world. I emailed a bit with the lead pirate, and finally got up the guts to ask if I could crash on someone's futon the night of the next show. Five minutes later I had an email in my inbox. I would be staying with one Kwame Alexander. He even offered to pick me up at the train station. Michael Moore is right; Canadians are good people.

Traveling around Japan is not cheap. A one-way, 2 hour and 45 minute, train ticket cost me about $70. But, considering I'd paid $7 for a bottle of beer a few nights before, I figured this trip had to be more fun than chugging 10 Asahis.

Osaka is the comedy capitol of Japan, and the people are said to be the friendliest and most outgoing in the country. I liked it immediately. After dropping off my bag at Kwame's I was free to roam around on my own for several hours before the show.

I started my night at Shinsaibashi, a massive covered shopping arcade with eight bazillion shops and just as many people. It was a Sunday night but I couldn't walk an inch without bumping into a group of giggling high school girls or a thigh high boot clad woman dripping with shopping bags. I escaped onto a side street, passed a bakery selling cheerful slices of cake, and eventually found myself in the famous Dotombori section of south Osaka.

  1. The streets are lit by huge, pulsing, neon signs, delicious smells flood out of every restaurant, and scads of takoyaki vendors compete for business by hollering at the passing crowds. It's a food lovers paradise and I spent a glorious 45 minutes wandering the culinary maze looking for the perfect dinner. I darted back and forth between ramen shops, packed with satisfied slurpers, to okonomiyaki street vendors, sushi restaurants and curry houses. I curbed my hunger with an order of takoyaki (octopus balls), one of Osaka's famed street snacks, before deciding on a surprisingly inexpensive sushi spot.

Please forgive me, but I can't figure out what this particular style of sushi is called. It's very similar to chirashi, but doesn't exactly meet the definition. Eh, who cares. I do know that each slice of salmon and tuna melted on my tongue, there was a big heap of coveted, chopped up, toro and the rice underneath was perfectly warm and sticky.

By the time I finished dinner it was nearly show time, so I pulled out my little homemade map and prayed that my naturally poor sense of direction was taking a nap so I could find my way to the correct location. I'm a little bit shocked every time I don't get lost, and this was no exception. I internally high fived myself when I arrived at Sam & Dave's in Nagahoribashi on time.

Long story short, the show was awesome. The first half was all improv games performed in Japanese and English, which were fairly easy to understand despite the language barrier. The second half was a part scripted, part improvised, all English, musical written and scored by a company member. I spent the entire second half of the show alternatively guffawing my face off and perma-smiling like a goon.

The show lead to after-show beers which lead to drinks at a nearby bar which lead to an after-party at Jaime-the-improviser-and-best-host-ever's apartment, where he and his girlfriend proceeded to ply us with hooch, snacks and a mountain of spaghetti. If there are sweeter, funnier, more hospitable people in Osaka...I'd like to meet them. And tell them to make me spaghetti and force them to banter with me.

The next day, after a thanks-for-letting-me-stay Korean lunch, I left Kwame at the train station and spent the rest of the afternoon at the Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan. It is truly an impressive "fish museum," as one of my students called it, and I spent a couple peaceful hours gazing at schools of colorful fishies, whale sharks, dolphins, sea lions and pondering philosophical quandaries like "Is there such thing as a good looking penguin? Like, do penguins think 'Hey! That penguin is hot!' or 'I would never be caught dead mating with that penguin.'"

Apparently I pondered for too long, because I ended my trip to Osaka with a mad dash to the train station, and managed to hop on with literally one minute to spare. Phew. I kicked off my shoes, flipped on my iPod and let the train take me home.