Dreary weather served as the backdrop for most of my visit to Osaka . The mountainous highway drive from Kamiyama was blanketed by a sky pocked with rain clouds, following us to a city besieged by even more rain and clouds. This port city sits at sea level, yet seems to rise above the wind, raid, and ocean. From many vantage points I could see and feel a place that was stirring up something special.
It is hard to discover what makes Osaka special. She's a very difficult place to appreciate without a destination in mind, which is in sharp contrast to the places in Japan I've seen so far. In other places just stepping outside seems like an adventure in all directions, but in Osaka, where you are surrounded by commerce and an urban landscape, you have to make a plan. My visit to her world class aquarium encompassed an entire afternoon, which was well spent. A bit touristy I admit, but still gratifying to see creatures from around the world.
Stealing my affection away from the cultural and tourist sites are the interesting people that roam her streets. In my opinion, Osaka is a city where you can easily meet people from around the world. My conversations and adventures with just a few of them added a dimension to Osaka that has been rare to find in most cities I've visited in Japan thus far. One connection stood out for me there. For two nights I explored the city with an Australian who was visiting Osaka as well. Even though he was just passing through, Jarrod personified much of what I found to be the vibe in Osaka: engaging, funny, opinionated, stylish, and a foodie.
The first night we planned to explore the city I became lost finding the meeting spot. Once you enter the neighborhoods and districts that make-up the unique sections of the city, every street looks like the street before it, dotted with neon lights, people vying for your yen to dine at their restaurant, bars stacked on bars, gambling spots, and clothing stores -- all mashed together.
Jarrod had to come find me and his first words to me (with a smile) were, "People who don't have a good sense of direction annoy me. Let's get something to eat, I'm starving." His self-assured candor delivered with an Australian accent was charming enough for me to accept the unconventional invitation to eat.
Osaka and Jarrod both have an air of being self-assured. Jarrod doesn't walk places, it's more appropriate to say he strides toward them. Similarly, the people in Osaka all look like they have somewhere to be. They don't always wait for the crosswalk light to be green (as they do in other parts of Japan).
Jarrod and I had dinner the first night and we exchanged details about our respective work and life. This is the kind of conversation I could have had with many people in Osaka, especially the foreigners that call Osaka home. While having tapas and sangria, our Osakan hostess picked both our brains about medical school in Australia and America (she was studying to be a nurse), and asked for tips about where she should go for a vacation in Australian (alone if she can't convince her friends to visit with her). Confidence and a taste for adventure seem to ooze out of most of the city's nooks and crannies.
Over the course of the evening my new Australian friend let me know how he felt about tourists who look ridiculously touristy. He also proclaimed there's nothing wrong with meeting people on Grindr. And men in high heels dancing look incredibly sexy. He's a man who knows his own mind and comes right out with what he thinks, just like Osaka is a city whose residents follow the beat of their own drum -- the Japanese here don't seem to care how the rest of the country does things.
The next night Jarrod asked me to ditch my fake husband Frederick (a running joke from the night before) and join him for a drink. I agreed and we bar hopped for a few hours. I'm convinced bars in Osaka make their drinks three times as strong as what you get in America. For less than $8.00 I was given a Tervis tumbler sized drink of anything I wanted (top shelf included). Jarrod and I smuggled our drinks out of the first bar (because we simply couldn't finish them) and bumped around Osaka chit-chatting. At the end of the night we split a taxi back to our hotels. At his stop he paid for the cab and darted from the taxi without so much as a goodbye. He had an onsen to get to before he passed out.
So just like that, Jarrod was gone. I barely got to know him and I barely got to know Osaka. I ran in the park once, dined at great restaurants, discovered shrines, as well as coffee shops on every block that served the most decadent pancakes. While waiting for the train to my next destination, a Japanese lady cozied up to my friend and I. She chatted with us easily and explained that she is from Osaka and is not your "typical Japanese lady." Meeting her was a fantastic footnote in what Osaka came to represent for me on this trip -- it's not your typical Japanese city. We thanked her for the company while the three of us waited for our train and then my friend and I boarded the Hikari bullet train to Mt. Fuji, which we were told translates to "Train of Light."