MY OSAKA: I’m not in Osaka right now but I certainly wouldn’t mind if I were. I’ve experienced so much awesome in Osaka that had I not met the ol wife during what I thought were my final months in Seoul, I probably would have moved there.
Every long-term expat outside the Foreign Service has an Osaka. I know a few dudes who’d decided Fukuoka was the city they were going to go to for every visa run – the yearly trek outside the country you reside for the purpose of obtaining a visa to legally live and work there. Visa runs are becoming less and less necessary these technological days, which is sad, because visa runs were always fun, despite all the bitching about them by other expats.
Like the vast majority of expats in Korea, my first visa run was to Fukuoka, Japan. Fukuoka is, I think, the closest city outside Korea with a Korean consulate. The consulate is small and isn’t busy. In Fukuoka I’d stayed at a hotel shaped like the sail of a pirate ship and all the staff sported pirate cosplay. I had no idea the hotel had a theme when I’d booked it. It was close to the Korean consulate and had an ocean view, so that was good enough for me. Nothing eventful happened to me in Fukuoka. Apparently I’d stayed in the wrong neighborhood. Regardless, the place just didn’t click.
Osaka is larger than Fukuoka and the Korean embassy there occupies a larger space in Shinsaibashi, a vibrant area of the city full of shopping and booze. After rushing to submit my documents at the embassy and checking into my hotel, I headed out to explore the streets and alleys of Shinsaibashi. The backstreets of most of Asia haven’t been purged like they have in North America. There is plenty to drink, eat, and see when you wander up and down the small alleys shooting out from one-way streets and driveways. Shinsaibashi was, as far as I could tell; pretty upscale, so most of the places I came across were a bit too pretentious and/or loud for my liking. After dark all the manfrastructure springs into action and curiously enough, flower shops. I wasn’t looking for upscale, loud music, or manfrastructure. I was looking for a place to just chill and get drunk.
The N&G was the kind of place you wanted to keep secret. It was the kind of place you didn’t want to see blow up and become popular. The faint sound of Johnny Was a Good Man, my fave Bob Marley song, called me through the door. The convergence of so many microscopic things in that exact moment told me I had found the place I was looking for.
The façade of the N&G is easy to dismiss and walk by without a second thought. Had it not been for Johnny Was a Good Man, I would have walked by myself. Indeed, I would have walked by if Redemption Song or some other played-out Marley tune were emanating from inside. But it was Johnny Was and I didn’t walk by. I opened the door and found myself inside a temple dedicated to the god of tequila. The establishment was small, with only a few stools at the bar, and then a few tiny tables for four. Shelves everywhere were filled with tequila imported from anywhere and everywhere. Behind the bar was a man of moderate age wiping a glass with a dishtowel. After a slight bow and a hello I took a stool and asked for a bottle of Corona and a shot of tequila.
The proprietor, Haru-Sama, was a genuine fellow and I immediately felt really relaxed and interested in what he had to say. He took pride in his collection of over 400 different bottles of tequila and his taste in music was inviting.
Asked what I missed most about Canada, the topic of green naturally came up and that’s when Haru-Sama handed me a small pipe and directed me into a tiny bathroom hidden away in the corner, I had this really hard-to-describe feeling that I had been awarded some kind of badge of trustworthiness.
I’m generally pretty high-strung, so it’s odd that when a few of his regulars came into the bar and disrupted the situation I wasn’t in the least phased by it. There was no paranoia to hold back. The negative emotions and myriad micro-fears I usually grapple with in social situations just did not materialize and everything just flowed so naturally.
There were powerful personal forces at work that night in Osaka.
After a few more pints, tequila cocktails, trips to the bathroom, and good conversation with Haru-Sama and his regulars, Dr. K and his daughter came in and sat down at an empty table.
Dr. K struck a conversation up with me almost immediately. I can’t be certain but I think he was trying to hook me up with his daughter. Haru-Sama chatted with us, and his other regulars, and Dr. K invited me out for some sake and karaoke with his daughter. Ready for more adventure I accepted his invitation and went on my way after thanking Haru-Sama and the others for the splendid evening.
My night with Dr. K and his daughter was memorable, but in a different way. We went to an equally small establishment on the second or third floor of a building not far from the N&G. Dr. K was an enthusiastic happy drinker. He was somewhat boisterous but his daughter, while all smiles, was typically reserved and courteous. The Karaoke joint was rectangular in size, with the bar taking up three-quarters of the space, and focused more on a generic sake and beer motif. I sang Elvis and Metallica. My first night in Osaka was amazing, and I knew it’d be my visa-run destination from then on.
During my second visa run to Osaka, I couldn’t find the N&G. I just could not remember where it was and I’d misplaced the card I’d accepted from Haru-Sama during my first visit. I figured it might have closed down. Despite my disappointment, I stumbled upon a live roots reggae sound system in a basement bar and had a great time. While no green was involved, the crowd was great, the music was fantastic, and they had Red Stripe.
While sorting through some accumulated papers later that year in Seoul, I rediscovered the N&Gs card. I noticed there was an email address on it and reconnected with Haru. The N&G was still there and I was welcome any time.
I returned to Osaka a third time while I was going through some pretty dark shit in my life. I’d landed in Osaka with a terrible migraine. It was early October and I had returned to Korea in late September. I’d developed a liking for Valium and I doctor hopped the hell out of Seoul looking for more, more, and more. I took to mixing them with liberal amounts of Gin, and on the night before my flight to Osaka, some oxy.
A visa run to Osaka was just what I needed to clear my head and I knew that I needed to once again visit the N&G.
I arrived in Osaka early Sunday afternoon. I checked into my hotel, downed a few cans of Asahi courage and began pounding the pavement. Again, I was unable to find the fabled N&G and my spirits began dashing. But in a moment of clarity, it dawned on me to ask a traffic police officer for directions as I had had the wherewithal to bring the business card with me this time around. I found an older gentleman who was more than happy to use sign language and a pen to draw me a map showing me two streets and dots representing traffic lights. I followed his directions and then BOOM, I was standing in front of the N&G. I cried like an adolescent I was so happy.
As I stood there at the locked door, two punk rockers from the London School of Punk listening to anti-flag on a ghetto blaster came up to me. One of them spoke English well enough to tell me “When sun go down, door open”. I wiped sweat off my forehead, laughed, and said thanks. And with a sharpie and a receipt from 7-11 I made a map as I headed back to my hotel for a nap. Things were looking up.
On the way back to my hotel, hunger overcame me. I was famished and needed nourishment quick and easy. Nothing comes quicker or easier than McDonald’s so that’s where I went. The place was jam-packed full of kawaii schoolgirls. It was amazing. I walked up to the counter and listened to the five seconds of reflex jibber jabber every Japanese shop staff will jibber jabber when you enter or leave and ordered what I was hoping was an Egg McMuffin set. I made sure the order was for take away because whenever I encounter McDonald’s, it’s always good to be near a bathroom you can trust.
I remember paying 500 yen for the meal, though in hindsight maybe it was 5,000! Because when I returned to my hotel room and opened the bag the McDonald’s lady had handed me it had, not one, but seven burgers waiting for me. Christ! I had the Egg McMuffin and some sort of Teriyaki Burger with fries. That was all I could handle and due to extreme embarrassment, I dumped the rest of the order in the trashcan next to the ice machine in the vending room near the elevators; the same room you go to to purchase the 10,000-yen card allowing you to watch porn in your room.
With my belly full I crashed for a few hours and woke up around 10pm. Then I spent another 30 minutes sitting on the john scolding myself. Nevertheless, the toilet in my room was amazing. It was a TOTO washlet and let me tell you, it did good work. My unmentionables have never been bathed so nicely. After any kind of McDonald’s episode, I like to do a few jumping jacks just to make sure that the McMongol hordes have left my system. They had not so it was back to exploring the features of the TOTO washlet.
When confidence to leave my room returned, I packed up my things, put the map I had made into my pocket and headed out. After a much less daunting task I found the N&G easily and the door was open.
When I walked in, Haru-Sama immediately remembered me. We both smiled and he introduced me to two of his friends. He had a big smile on his face when he pulled a baggie of green out of his pocket and patted me on the back with it. “Welcome back, my friend. It has been a long time.” Hi, Haru-Sama, I said. How have you been? I hope you are well.
After downing a couple of Corona’s and some tequila, Haru-Sama moved to the front door and locked it. We sessioned while his friends played the guitar and melodica. Nevertheless, introducing beer, tequila, and green into my McDonald’s saturated system caused me to seriously rook-out. Social anxiety hit me like a freight train and I just HAD. TO. USE. THE. BATHROOM. Haru-Sama motioned me to the bathroom hidden in the corner and while it wasn’t a TOTO washlet, it let me just sit in relative quiet, relieve myself, and let my blood pressure return to normalcy. I sat there for about thirty minutes, letting the rook-out pass. When Haru-Sama’s friends played The Girl from Ipanema I knew it was time to re-enter reality and after hitting the pipe again, Haru-Sama pulled out a bottle of Stetson cologne and sprayed the place down.
He apologized to me and I said with a smile that I understood and took the bottle and sprayed some on my fingers. I hung out for a couple more hours, but because it was getting late and I didn’t want to over stay my visit I paid my bill and made plans to have dinner with Haru-Sama the next day.
I’d wind up having a few drinks at the N&G a few more times and each and every time was memorable. As I said above, the N&G was the sort of place you didn’t brag about or promote. It’s the sort of place you hope doesn’t lose whatever it is that made it amazing.
During one of my last visa runs to Osaka I found an empty space where the N&G made its home for so many years. There were no tears when I found it gone, but there was certainly a lot of disappointment. No matter how limited my time there had been I held it in high regard and will never forget my time spent there. After pausing in front of the empty space for a few minutes I moved on and did some knickknack shopping and began moving memories of the N&G into the things that were awesome folder.
Once married, visa runs became unnecessary and my yearly trips to Osaka from Seoul ceased and I only ever visited Osaka once more. I will be brief in my telling of what happened because it’s not as interesting and I have lunch to prepare and a dining room table that needs wiping.
Osaka was a lot of fun with the wife, but it wasn’t anything like my time alone in Osaka. This is not to say that I would have preferred going to Osaka without my wife. It’s just to say that my final trip to Osaka happened at the start of a new chapter in my life. It was just a really different kind of journey. Despite how different the trip was compared to previous years we did meet up with Haru-Sama for dinner and drinks. Some green was passed to me via handshake at the end of the night and when I left Osaka I was content with the fact that I might never see the city again.