Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Osaka, Japan

I flew to Osaka (Japan) this past weekend for a show. Although I’ve travelled pretty extensively before, this is my first time in Asia, so it’s been a great adventure so far.

I started by trying to fly to San Francisco for a visit on Wednesday night. Unfortunately, I flew through Montreal and then Chicago. I got to Chicago with no problems, but when I arrived there, I found out that there had been a huge snowstorm there the previous day, which had cancelled over a thousand flights. It was really nice outside at the time, with very little snow on the ground, so I didn’t really think that there were going to be any problems. However, when I got onto the plane, the airline eventually said that they couldn’t fly us to San Francisco because there were no pilots left in the airport – the pilots for our flight had been diverted to fly another plane earlier, to help catch up on the backlog of stranded passengers.

This didn’t seem like it would be a problem – they said that they were going to fly in a different crew from New York to take our plane to San Francisco, so the delay would only be a few hours. However, by this time, the storm had moved so it was over New York, which meant that it took a couple hours longer than expected for that crew to get out of LaGuardia. By the time they arrived in Chicago, the airline decided that those pilots couldn’t take our plane to San Francisco, because it would put them over their daily flight time limit. Our entire flight ended up getting cancelled, which was a disaster because that put all of us into the huge pool of people waiting to fly stand-by. I then ended up getting bumped off or passed over for the next four flights to San Francisco, as the airline tried to slowly catch up on the backlog.

In the end, I did get to San Francisco, but not until after midnight (about twelve hours later than expected). I was a little disappointed by that, because that was the stop on the trip that I was looking forward to the most. However, on a positive note, it was the one night on the trip where I could mostly easily deal with not showing up. Hopefully I’ll be able to reschedule for a visit later this spring, or maybe right after the summer ends.

The rest of the trip went smoothly, and the flights to Vancouver and then Japan were uneventful. We crossed the International Date Line, so it suddenly became Friday afternoon instead of Thursday afternoon. I was a bit nervous getting into the airport because my passport was only valid for two more months and Japan requires a foreigner’s passport to be valid for six months from the time of arrival. However, I had the itinerary to prove that I had a flight already booked to leave the country a week later, so that didn’t turn out to be a problem. Dan Elliot from the Oasis Lounge picked me up at the airport, and took me directly to his club, where I started to orient myself to the Japanese culture. A few hours later, a friend of mine (Ian Warney) showed up. Ian is a DJ and is living in Osaka teaching English. We went out for a night on the town, and I met a bunch of people that evening.

On Saturday, I spent the day touring around Osaka, and taking photos. That evening, I played at Oasis, which turned out to be a very fun night. Ian found me again on Sunday night and we went out for more sightseeing, and then we ate at a nice restaurant in a skyscraper overlooking Osaka.

So far, Japan has been great. There are far fewer foreigners here than I had imagined, but that’s about the only real surprise. The only big challenge so far has been trying to figure out the subway system. I’ve been on subways all around the world (London, New York, Paris, Moscow, and a ton of other smaller cities) but the Osaka subway has been the most confusing that I’ve seen, by far. The fare varies depending on how far you are going, and you have to buy a ticket getting on, then electronic gates scan it as you leave your destination station and don’t let you out if you didn’t pay the right fare. If you didn’t pay enough, you have to go back to another machine and do a “fare adjust” on the ticket. The Osaka (and Toyko) subway systems are not one large system, but instead are a whole bunch of separate lines run by different companies, so transfers can get complicated with ticket changes. Finally, there are very few signs in English, to make things even more confusing. However, after a few days, it was starting to make sense to me. Some of the stations are incredibly busy though – there is one station which has an average of three MILLION people per day passing through it. That’s pretty impressive, considering that the subways shut down at 12:30am and don’t start again until 5:30am.

A few other interesting notes so far:
- The cities are very clean compared to North American cities.
- There is apparently very, very little crime in Japan, and people feel completely safe and comfortable walking around anywhere in the cities.
- I have only seen a few children in the entire time I’ve been here – the Japanese must hide them away somewhere.
- I thought that I might get away with not running into anyone I knew during my visit, but on Sunday night a friend who had gone to university (Kyohei) saw me downtown and luckily had the time to spend an hour or so touring with us. That was an interesting coincidence, considering that Osaka is pretty big (nine million people, I think).
- There are far fewer Western chains than I had expected (lots of Starbucks & MacDonald’s and KFC, but that’s about it).
- A small but noticeable percentage of the population wear face masks in public and while working, either to limit the spread of diseases, or to protect them from smog & allergies.
- The amount of seafood is astounding – it is available everywhere, even as snack food in convenience stores.

Needless to say, I’ve been able to take a ton of interesting photos so far. I’ve got two photo pages up on my website now from the Osaka portion of my trip, and I’ve tried to add many more observations about Japan in the captions to the photos. Here is a link to the Osaka photo pages:

After I left Osaka on Monday morning, I had three days scheduled in Tokyo, so I’ll write more about that part of the trip in a few days.