Thousands of Miles from Home


Gardening Gloves and Cuban Cigars: A Journey Into the Heart of the Rotary Exchange Student Dream

Golden Week. Keyword: Gold. The stuff dreams are made of. This morning I woke up from a long, strange dream stretching hours, days, even weeks. On the hands of a clock no more than a few minutes must have passed, but this was a dream to last a lifetime. To all charges and allegations I will therefore plead the 5th, or whatever statue allows me to carry a firearm at all times.

With that stated, on with the dream...

Flash back (or slow fade) to a late afternoon train ride with my accomplice whom I will genially refer to as Micah, the exchange student from Kanonji. He escaped from the yoke of Shikoku to subsequently enter my dream and accompany me to destinations unknown. The bullet train rockets through Kansai, where a soothing British voice on the intercom informs us the train will be making a brief stop in Osaka. Good a place as anywhere to live the Rotary Dream.

We exit the train and enter Shin Osaka Station, built especially for access to the Shinkansen. Taking a subway to Osaka Station proper, we exit through large glass doors and into the magnificent city. The beginnings of another adventure. Taking time to walk the streets, we catch some late afternoon sights and get our bearings in the massive city. A back-alley Indian restaurant situated to the immediate right of an all-leather-jacket clothing store looks enticing, but the owner informs up he won’t be opening for another hour or two. We hop the train to Shinsaibashi Station, in the heart of the city, and stash our bags in a locker to find our destination for the night.

First we needed tickets for the main event the following evening, Ritchie Hawtin, who would be spinning at a club near Traingle Park aptly named Club Triangle. Triangle Park is a sliver of pavement and trees nestled among the signs, crowds, and flashing lights in the heart of what I will refer to as “the crazy part of town.” While walking around looking for Club Triangle we spotted outfits that would have seemed outrageous even in Tokyo’s Harajuku (although the atmosphere was noticeably different from that in Tokyo). Most vivid in my mind was a man walking down the street with the craziest, largest, most colorful Looney-Tunes type glasses I have ever seen, easily 5 times too large for his face, with a complete look of focus and concentration (as if he had lost a dare and knew this would be the price to pay).

Eventually finding the club, no more than a doorway and staircase, we scored tickets for the following evening (which will cost you double in America and must be purchased months in advance) then hopped a train to Tennoji to start the evening.

Compared with the hubbub of Shinsaibashi, Tennoji was a relatively relaxed part of town. In fact, the most happening place in the area seemed to be the temple. Micah and I originally thought we would make a stop and wish for a prosperous evening, but were greeted at the compound with raunchy saxophone music. Apparently some sort of “show” was being held at what we later discovered to be the oldest Buddhist temple in Japan (built by Prince Shotoku in 593 A.D., for all you history nuts). We peered through the bars of the temple, and sure enough hundreds of people were gathered to watch Kimono-clad women sing old Japanese hits.

Exiting the temple, we found a delicious yaki-tori restaurant where I received a call from Dave Rupert, who lives near Osaka and runs Howdy Mr. Nippon. He happened to be in Okayama with a friend and wanted to know where I lived in the Prefecture. We had a short conversation and he said if I ever found myself in Osaka again I should drop him a line.

Back at Shinsaibashi we walked around the Nanba area of town (feasting our eyes upon the famous Glico Man, among other sights on Dotomburi) before finding the most amazing Tako-yaki stand in Japan. Clearly accustomed to foreigners frequenting the stand, after we got in line behind a number of people we were asked (in English) to which we responded (in Japanese) the usual questions like “where are you from?” and “how is Japan?” When we told the man we were from America, he immediately replied “America is Mike Tyson.” Never before had a heard such an odd comparison, but I suppose being the youngest heavyweight champion in heavyweight history makes Michael Gerard Tyson at least a decent candidate for the American dream, if not embodying American itself.

From Nanba we came across a small Bar called Mojo, offering “drinks and music from ‘Once Upon a Time.’” This place was like The Beatles’ Lonely Heart’s Club Band album cover with a pulse. And a rhythmic pulse at that. Decked out with bottles of beer and Beatles’ posters from around the world, Mojo is one of the more interesting places in (literally) underground Osaka. We struck up a conversation with the bartender who had opened the place the previous year and learned all his English from the customers. In fact, he showed us a book of insults and slang from around the world (compiled by visitors to the bar) which would make a sailor blush. After a few drinks with background music by The Kinks, we made out way to Club Joule a bit before midnight.

To be honest, as is sometimes the case with dreams, Club Joule is a large blur in my mind. DJ Emma was having a CD release party, and the 3rd floor was packed with an amazing amount of dancers. The DJ was killer, and I was amazed we found the place almost at random in the sea of clubs and bars throughout Osaka (I did get a tip that this place was good when I inquired about a club “with lasers”). The 4th floor chill area provided a wonderful break from the intense strobe lights of the dance floor, but we easily clocked a good 5 hours of dancing with DJ Emma. The last thing I remember before stumbling back to the hotel with Micah was finding a table full of heart-shaped chocolates with my name written all over them.

We spent our evenings, or should I say early mornings, at the Osaka Asahi Capsule Hotel. Capsule Hotels are incredible, and certainly a godsend for late partiers or businessmen in Japan. First of all, they’re amazingly cheap. Most are under 30$ for the night. This buys you a change of clothes and a 4 by 7 foot “capsule,” not much more than a slot in the wall with a small pull-curtain to spend the night. But most amazing about the Asahi Capsule Hotel was the huge Onsen and Sauna located on the ground floor. After hours of dancing, what could be better than a long soak in steaming water to sooth the muscles? I woke up the next morning feeling like a million bucks.

The next day in Japan was spent exploring the daytime sights. And when I say explore, I mean completely on foot. Micah and I found a great coffeehouse for breakfast where I ordered French toast and the largest orange juice I could get my hands on. Our main destination was the Osaka Science Museum, but as a rule when Micah and I are together we can’t find anything without walking around for at least two hours completely lost. But this leads to better adventures so I don’t mind at all. Anyway, a map in Japan is just about as useful as carrying a globe.

The Science and Technology Museum in Osaka is a must-see, especially after a night of partying. There are so many exhibits which would not blow your mind on a regular basis, but are absolutely amazing following very few hours of sleep. I took my picture with a plaster cast of Einstein and played with unbelievably large magnets before viewing a hands-on show about batteries with a room full of 7 year old Japanese kids. We almost went to see the IMAX but that seemed a little excessive.

Our next stop was the Umeda Sky Building, on the other side of Osaka. We collapsed in a large park after eating lunch near the museum to rest our feet and do some extreme people-watching. The weather was impressive, and in the heart of the city the large green space was a welcome sight. Taking a train back to Osaka station, we walked around for another few hours before making a sustained effort to locate the Sky Building. I had no idea what the place looked like, only that it was large and therefore famous. I remember mentioning to Micah that the large building in the distance looked “pretty neat” and “if he had ever seen anything quite that odd shaped?” He said no and we kept walking in search of the Sky Building. We found Pokemon Center Osaka, which was filled with dedicated card-players of all shapes and sizes. All I wanted to buy was a small pin to prove I had actually been to a licensed Pokemon location in Japan, but the line of preteens stretching out the door made my think twice. I settled with a picture and a good laugh.

Finally, towards the evening, Micah and I realized that the large, odd shaped building I had commented on earlier was indeed the fabled Umeda Sky Building. If you were to trace our walking route on a map, you would most certainly end up with a Curious George type dotted-line monstrosity that crosses and recrosses itself several times. But how else can you explore such a large city than by blind trial and error?

The Umeda Sky Building, as suspected, proved to not be worth missing. While trying to find the main elevator we stumbled into a service lift and rode that demon as high as it would go. We ended up in what appeared to be a janitor’s closet on the 36th floor, and decided to try the 35th instead. This yielded an entire room, wall to wall, stacked with cases of beer. Reluctantly, we rode to the 34th floor, where I wouldn’t have been surprised to find a 3-ring circus in full swing. We were instead greeted with a nice observation window, but not quite satisfying for an entire walk through the city. On the 33rd floor a Japanese recoding began to play as soon as I stepped out of the elevator, and it was about that time we decided to try another lift.

Back on the ground floor we found the real entrance to the top floors, and paid the 5$ charge to take a high speed ride to the roof. Exiting the elevator, we were greeted with a magnificent view of Osaka with the sun beginning to set. By complete chance, the Umeda Sky Building was hosting an entire exhibit dedicated to Cuba, called the “Havana Club,” featuring a dance floor, Cuban music, and photos from that area of the world. Micah and I sat down to Coronas and watched the sun set over Osaka, just enjoying the Cuban atmosphere here in the middle of Japan. Micah leaned over and asked, “Do you think Fidel Castro knows this is going on?” Who could say? I could only hope so.

When the sun set we walked up another flight of stairs to the top of the Sky Building, and out into the Osaka night air. There was a breeze but the night was warm and the city’s lights spectacular. After we both agreed that this is what Rotary Exchange is all about, we left the Umeda Sky Building to dance the night away (but not before Micah bought a Cuban cigar, just for the story. How many chances are you really going to get?).

We paid another visit to Mojo before walking to Club Triangle for the “main event.” Club Triangle is three floors of thumping beats and writhing bodies. What I would call “cool” and Pope Benedict XVI would most likely call “an abomination.” Just my kind of place. The first floor was entirely a dance hall, with a bar in the back. Steps lead to the second floor, with a bar and some couches, and a large hole cut in the floor so you can look down at the people dancing on the first floor. In the back is a huge projection TV screen, playing video of the DJ, the club, and various trippy trance videos visible from just about any place in the club. The third floor had a jacuzzi, which I unfortunately did not get a chance to sample.

At Triangle, Micah made an amazing discovery by spotting an English teacher, Tim, from his town, Kanonji (the smallest town in the smallest prefecture of Japan), on the dance floor. At first he said there was no way it could be Tim. That would mean that at least three people in the room had been to Kanonji, a place that most Japanese will say they have never heard of. But yes, in the coincidence-ridden vortex that is Osaka, almost anything is possible.

Two Japanese DJs warmed up the crowd (and by that I mean played until 3 in the morning) before Richie Hawtin and Marc Houle walked right by me in the crowd to get up to the front (I didn’t know quite what to say, it’s not everyday you happen to see the world’s #2 Techno DJ standing next to you). There were already about 5 laptops on stage, for who knows what purpose, but Richie and Marc unloaded two more for their sets. Marc Houle also whipped out a KORG synthesizer and went to work with some crazy beats. By this time the dance floor was absolutely packed, and no one wanted to leave before Hawtin took the stage. Between the laptops, the turntables, the synthesizer, and the massive video screens, I was having a pretty killer time before Hawtin even touched the equipment.

But when Ritchie took the stage everybody went wild. The video screens were showing crazy video of the dance floor, edited over wacked-out Tetris video clips. I suppose there is techno and then there is good techno, but the atmosphere of the club also has a lot to do with the experience. But strictly music wise, you could not help but dance with these beats.

When the set was over, and I again found myself stumbling and dancing back to the hotel, I could certainly give this club the Gleitzman stamp of approval (a very much coveted award, at that). I took the most luxurious bath of my life at the onsen, and fell asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow.

In the morning, I wondered to myself what I was doing in a small box of a hotel room in the middle of the second largest city in Japan. Was this a dream, or one of those rare dreams within a dream? All signs point to yes. Micah and I hit the record stores that morning (after a stop at our favorite coffeeshop for another delicious breakfast and beast-sized orange juice), where I found Richie Hawtin listed in the minimalist techno section. Something odd about finding the CD of a guy you just met in the dance section of a Tower Records. But such is the life in Japan.

That afternoon, I was feeling amazingly drained. I took another lightning quick Shinkansen ride back to Okayama where Micah and I shared a bite to eat. Sushi, as always, in the Sushi and Jazz restaurant at the Station. I bid farewell to Micah, fully expecting this to be my last trip to Osaka. But then again, it was only Sunday. The whole of Golden Week still remained, and who knows what can happen in that magical length of time.

That was not where my dream ended, for in real life I was sleeping soundly back in my bed in Tamano. No, the REM sleep had not yet begun, and it would be hours till morning.

And so I slept...


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