Ōsaka Blues

Ōsaka (大阪) was the 20th stop on our round-the-world adventure. By the time we reached it, I hit a wall. Was it Ōsaka that I disliked? Had I been on the road for too long? Perhaps I was suffering from a severe case of FOMA: the fear that there was a better, more exciting place to be if only I had the wit to find it.

In Ōsaka, I was restless, cranky, insomniac. What went wrong?

City of Smoke

Port of Osaka
Port of Ōsaka. Photo credit: Karen Kao

Ōsaka means big hillside. In the glory days, Ōsaka was the capital of the Tokugawa shōgunate and Japan’s economic powerhouse. Goods from Korea and China flowed to Japan through the port of Ōsaka.

During the Meiji Restoration (1886-1922), Ōsaka industrialized. The Japanese renamed it the City of Smoke. The prospect of jobs drew workers from all over Japan as well as Korea. Pachinko⏤the story of how one Korean family ends up in Japan⏤begins in Ōsaka. Until 1925, Ōsaka was Japan’s most populous city.

American bombers destroyed one-third of Ōsaka during World War II. Today, the city is gritty. Ōsaka doesn’t ooze first world wealth the way Tokyo does. It has none of the cultural refinement of Kyoto or the natural beauty of Akita prefecture.

At the Triangle Park in Amerika-Mura, I saw a schoolgirl get down on the ground to imitate a homeless man asleep behind her. This whole area is shocking in that respect. Conspicuous consumption, in truth the image I’ve had of Japan all along, but now in an arrogant sort of way. Osaka is our first sight of poverty in this wealthy country.

Karen Kao, Travel journey entry for 11 Dec 2019

Our AirBNB is located down the block from a pachinko parlor. We pass it twice a day on our way to and from the metro. The parking lot is packed with bicycles and scooters. When the door happens to swing open, we get a blast of cigarette smoke and clanging bells. Inside, dead-eyed gamblers throw away their hard-earned yen.


At the age of 12, Gustave Flaubert already knew he wanted to travel. You see, he was bored out of his mind.

[His] greatest wish was to leave Rouen, become a camel driver in Egypts and lose his virginity in a harem to an olive-skinned woman with a trace of down on her upper lip.

Alain de Botton, The New Art of Travel (Hamish Hamilton 2016)

Flaubert wanted exoticism and I suppose I did, too. The excitement of the unknown and the awe of the incomparable. Of all the sights we saw on our 7-month trek, only Angkor Wat met that standard.

View from our AirBNB. Photo credit: Karen Kao

Maybe I’m too old. I’ve traveled too much, seen too many things. Old folks like me like to compare and contrast. Ōsaka reminded me of the not so nice parts of Los Angeles. The food in Ōsaka wasn’t as good as in Kanazawa or on the Nakasendo.

Or maybe the problem lies in guidebooks. On the one hand, they’re practical, convenient, critical to my ability to plan a trip in advance. On the other hand, guidebooks will also dictate where I look and what I must appreciate.

De Botton hates his Michelin guide on Madrid. He’d rather know about “the under-representation of vegetables in the Spanish diet,” the grand surnames with their las and des and “the smallness of male feet.” What are my questions about Ōsaka?

Slow travel

When I was planning this trip back in 2018, I ran into the travel blog For 91 Days. While most of these blogs are about covering as much distance in as little time, Jürgen and Mike stay in one place for 91 days. That’s long enough to understand the lay of the land. Too long to treat any destination as yet another tourist stop. Jürgen and Mike have to go native: rent an apartment, earn money, buy groceries, make new friends. Some tiny shred of their blog post must have stuck in my reptilian brain.

I should pretend to be an Osakan. Today is my day off. The sun is out and so I say to my Japanese partner: let’s go do something. What do you want to do, he asks. Shopping? Too busy. Movie? Indoors. Shall we go for a walk? Where? I remember going to an open air museum when I was a schoolgirl. They have all these old farmhouses. It’s pretty out there. Let’s do that.

Karen Kao, Travel journal entry for 15 Dec 2019
Osaka park
Me in an Osaka park. Photo credit: Frans Verhagen

The Hattori Ryokuchi Arboretum is at the far northern end of Ōsaka. Next door is the Open-Air Museum of Old Japanese Farmhouses. To get there, we take the metro and then a train to its end station. The park is packed with kids playing ball, dogs running free, families firing up the hibachi. The autumn colors are magnificent. We sit on a bench and listen to the leaves fall.

Now I know it wasn’t Ōsaka that gave me the blues. We were entering a new phase in our travel. We had to go beyond holiday-making into some new state of mind. You know, the journey and all that.