Charles Harries

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Week 23

A brief layover in Osaka on the way back from the States leads to some real soul-searching on trains.

So I was in Osaka, and I was also in Kyoto, and I don’t think that realistically I can actually put into digestible words what it was like to be there. Osaka is an incredible place (like legitimately, experientally not credible), spotted, bokeh-ed almost, with these weird subtle flavors of something different, something entirely foreign from the way that life works up here in Hokkaido – something that the Japanese would probably have no problem putting their finger right on, the first time, maybe even without looking too hard; but for a foreigner it’s more like trying to describe what Coca-Cola tastes like to someone who has never tasted a cola of any kind before (e.g. Pepsi-, R.C.-, Selection-Brand-from-Metro-, et. al.). It’s something you know in a sixth-sense part of you but can’t articulate, can’t even understand conventionally, something you can’t gesture to; you can’t actually even bring yourself to say the sentence, “See this? Look at this guy & what he’s doing. This is what makes Osaka, Osaka.” That sentence just doesn't make sense. Like saying, “I’m dead,” or “I’m asleep,” it’s something immanently false.

Instead I’ll offer up the things that I saw and thought while riding back to the Hotel Mikado on a monorail, and then on a train, and then on a subway (which btdubz is actually the most consecutive different methods of rail transport aboard which I have ever found myself).

Ed. note, 15/9/2021: The night before this, I’d gone out to see a friend named Andrew, who I’d known from the East Asian Studies department at McGill. He was living out in the suburbs of Osaka and I was passing through on the way back from the States to visit family for Christmas. We got drunk with a couple of Swedes who refused to touch anything but vodka & Calpis. I fell asleep on Andrew’s floor and got up before dawn for the trip back into town. I write this down now because I know that there will come a day when I’ve forgotten these details, and I didn’t think to write it down a decade ago.

So I’m on some monorail in suburban Osaka, high up above the houses and the buildings and all of the deep-down disturbing, uninterfaceable life that does on below. Soaring in much the same way that really trite books describe soaring, like moving over everything with your arms spread like wings. Below, apartment buildings cozy up against rice paddies, the rice already harvested and leaving behind big quadrilateral corpses the color of empty cicada skins. I’m tired and my back is sore in places I don’t think I've ever laid eyes upon and there’s cudge in my eyes and I wish desperately that I could have slept in this morning but my circadia is still operating on good ol’ EST and for me it’s something like 6 o’clock in the evening, which is really no time for sleep at all.

The rice paddies give way to bigger, taller, wider apartment complexes, garages, squat supermarkets and pachinko parlors. Some buildings are so close together, jammed so shoulder-to-shoulder that a person could probably wedge themselves in between and like crab-walk vertically up into the sky. I wonder if anyone has ever done this.

At one station the monorail stops right in front of a big disembodied Statue of Liberty head, planted inexplicably on top of an opposing building. It’s probably a little bit, but not a lot, less than 1:1 scale with the real one in New York City. This marks the second Statue of Liberty that I’ve seen in Osaka, which as far as I know is precisely twice as many SoLs as there are in NYC.

I don’t know it at the time, but when I will think back to this meeting with the big SoL cranium I will visualize it as Eddie Murphy’s face under the big green spiked crown. My brain is copy-pasting it from a picture I saw once.

this picture
this picture

We’re solidly out of rice-paddy country at this point, now totally entrenched in this semi-urban, quasi-suburb, that neither-here-nor-there commercial district straddling the margin between residential and business areas. We’re no longer soaring at all – the buildings have climbed up around us and I think that the proper term for our motion now might be ‘trudging.’ The whole thing looks bric-a-brac, whatever that means, like a little city made of Lego, submerged in the haze and the sunlight and blanketed by a tangled web of black rubbery wires, holding everything together bricolage-style. Way off in the distance, a silhouette in the haze, ragged peaks of forest line the horizon, like islands nosing up from the sea.

The dawn is orange and white and a little bit blue in a very ambient way, like no single part of it is actually blue but you get this sense of pervading blueness. In the early morning light, the haze doesn't mute anything, doesn't make anything softer, doesn't blur edges like snow. It’s all very clean and sharp, like sunlight sparking in the ocean, as if the haze is catching the photons in the air and suspending them there, falling minutely, aimlessly, like pinpricks of dust outlining buildings and streets and signage and horizon, showing you precisely where solid ends and air begins, like gleaming knives in the distance.

The clouds are, without exception, on fire.

When the monorail is stopped, everything is silent. Maybe some birds in the background, the station whirring like a glass orb spinning on its end. But as we accelerate, this high-pitched scream, like a woman with an impossibly trebly voice, cuts in through the rush of the wind and the hum of the wheels on the big concrete track. The scream comes from everywhere and it’s only the fact that it’s way too high-pitched for the human larynx, only the fact that while the vowel shape is correct, the frequency is not, that prevents it from being terrifying enough to move bowels.

The subway, on the other hand, groans like a sea mammal, a being meant to express itself in air cut down a few octaves by having to pass sound through water, a creature built for the surface but forced below.

I get off the subway but realize that I am not where I need to be, and get back on the following train. It’s uncannily like speed dating, or what I imagine speed dating to be like: the train is the same, & the seats are all where they were, & the colors are identical & the subway moans & nothing has changed but the people. Like everyone in the room took off and were replaced by the same kinds of people, slight variations on the Osakan template as seen through foreign eyes: old men with receded hairlines & hats and young ladies who wear fake eyelashes and guys with platinum blond hair shaved on one side like Skrillex and women in their forties with kids who look young & fashionable like graduate students at Handai (the mothers, that is, not the kids) – they've all come back in, just slightly different, hair parted on the other side or with a baby girl instead of boy; they all sit in different places, so the world is only different if you stare hard enough, and peripherally it’s all the same. It feels like the world is spinning around me, like I’m standing exactly at the global pole, like my body is an extension of the axis of rotation.

I pass my ticket through the turnstile but just for a moment have to orient myself, emerging in a place I didn't expect to emerge. I step to the side to peruse the signs, hugging a big pillar but I’m somehow still in the way. Osaka gives you this sense that it’s a big piece of clockwork, everyone’s feet falling into the proper well-oiled grooves, and when a foreigner lacking any semblance of a clue has to stop and reorient himself (no pun inten – okay well a little pun intended, haha orient), the machine senses his uncertainty, maybe his ostensible sincere malignant desire to throw the machine out of proverbial whack, and he (the foreigner (i.e. me)) ceases to be part of the moving world and becomes like this disease in the organism. The antibodies don’t descend to, what, tag him and dispense cytotoxins, but he gets the feeling, from the looks of the passers-by, that at any moment, they might.

I find the right exit and move back into the crowd and the looks disappear, I’m again part of the machinery, and on I move, out into the morning, the stale carbon-monoxide air, the cold humming city, onwards.

seriously though, look how many people there are
seriously though, look how many people there are

Everything You Have Heard Japan JET Programme