In Osaka, You Can Be Anyone You Want to Be

THERE’S SOMETHING so incredibly wonderful about what we are as people: the ways in which we interact and carry ourselves; how we laugh when with our friends and how we change when on our own; the wonder our eyes assume when looking at the sky, reflecting on ideas.

How we vary, age, and continue to carry that childlike awe which shines from our soul in nuanced ways.

Several times since I’ve been in Japan, older gentlemen have stopped to examine my bike, the Osaka Moonrider, a name I gave it after my first escapade under the white light of the moon.

The bike resembles that celestial body, with thin white tires and distinct silver casings over the outer rims.

On Sunday, before heading out for a day of exploration around Osaka, I stepped from out of my building into the sun-soaked street. My neighbor, a grey-haired and leisurely man, approached my bike before I mounted.

“Ohayou-gozaimasu,” good morning, I remarked with a smile and nod.

He responded the same, but was more interested in the bike than he was with me. He felt the tires and slowly pressed the metal bell. He considered the structure like a child assembling their new favorite toy. After a while he turned and walked away. I wondered what that meant to him.

I biked through Abeno and Tennoji Park, stopping for a vending machine iced coffee and a wipe from my forehead in the shade. The day was hot, the sun powerful, and I was in no rush.

I rode through the anime-laden Nipponbashi and the central Minami district, through which the luminous Dotombori Canal runs, neon-lit in the evening.

Dotombori Canal. Photo by the author.
Dotombori Canal. Photo by the author.

My favorite thing to do in a city, whether on my first day or second year, is to find a place with action and excitement, and observe people being people. There’s no better spot to do this in Osaka than Triangle Park (Mitsu Park), the epicenter of the kaleidoscopic Amerika-mura neighborhood.

To understand the essence of a city, it seldom takes more than staying in one place and allowing its vibe to flow through you.

Sometimes we think that the more we see and check off a list, the more we know of that place. However, I believe a city’s identity comes from its people, for we human beings imbue a place with character, personality, distinction, life.

In Amerika-mura, a name given to the neighborhood for its retro vibe and youth culture, Osakans and tourists alike flock to Triangle Park to meet with friends, shop, skate, eat, and lull away the afternoon.

By day, this area boasts an electricity unlike anywhere else in the world, a place where anyone — literally anyone — can rock their own eclectic style, color and flair. By night, the triangle shaped park becomes a skate haven while the surrounding bars bump rock and hip hop.

Color drips from the outfits, the cars, and the vibrant streetwear shops which line the narrow roads. Lights beam from the food stall signs and the massive flat screens which play music on the enveloping buildings.

Before posting up at Triangle Park, I ambled into a retro antique store brimming with collector’s items and vintage shirts, anime paraphernalia, odds and ends, metal artwork, you name it.

I’d been in search of a Dragon Ball Z figurine — a nostalgic anime show I watched as a kid to bring some fun to my small apartment. I am in Japan, after all.

There it was, exactly what I was looking for, only way better. A Goku character figurine stood with blonde, Super Saiyan hair firing towards the sky, clothes tattered from battle, ferocity on full display.

As I was examining the figure with childlike admiration, the shop owner approached me with dainty glasses and an easy going energy. “My friend makes these figures by hand,” he told me. “This was one of a kind.”

We discussed my coming to Japan from Los Angeles to teach English, a dream that’d been years in the making. I told him I’d been to Japan in 2019 with my best friends and we had traveled from Tokyo to Osaka, Kyoto and Shikoku.

I told him that for some intrinsic reason, I knew I wanted to be in Osaka from the onset.

“Good choice,” he replied. “In Tokyo it’s like this” — he snootily lifted his nose to represent the city’s formality. His opinion is, of course, a generalization. But if there’s one thing Osakans are known for, it’s their hometown pride. They delight in their rebellious nature and fun-loving, laid-back character. They aren’t afraid to tell you, either.

Tokyo was my first taste of Japan. I remember the tears of disbelief which formed in my eyes as the plane descended upon the city.

Sauntering with my buddies side by side through the cold, rainy, iridescent streets is a memory I’ll never forget.

The sprawling metropolis is a playground of remarkable cities within the city, arguably the best food in the world, and more to explore than possible in a lifetime. I chose Osaka not because of a dislike for the Japanese capital, but because I’m in search of a more intimate experience.

With over three times the population of Osaka, Tokyo seems to me a sprawling, global metropolis. That has its pros and cons. With its more manageable prices and smaller size, Osaka felt like the right fit. I hope I can start to understand Osaka during my time in Japan and see the city as my home. After only two weeks here, I already do.

Triangle Park
Triangle Park

I leaned up against a green lamp and stretched my legs on the concrete stairs of Triangle Park. With my journal out and pigeons scuttling around my feet, I watched wave after wave of friends, families, individuals cruise by on foot, bikes, motorcycles and tricked-out cars.

With my head down, jotting down a note, I heard the overpowering revving of an engine, clearly somebody trying to show off whatever ostentatious vehicle I’d lift my head to see. The character, I imagined, would step out, donning an artificial countenance of cool.

But when I looked up after a couple of moments, the man who stepped from the bright green motorcycle appeared unassuming in shorts, long socks, and a mop of black hair dangling in front of his cheerful smile.

He immediately went in for a hug with a buddy, slapped him on the back, and joined a group of two or three others. The guy wouldn’t stop laughing.

The smile never waned. It only flared brighter, like a full moon ascending into the night. I noticed that he wasn’t there to be the top dog or show off. He was there to enjoy the beautiful day with his friends; he was there to spread the love which I could feel.

The motorcyclists were one group of many making the park their Sunday respite. To my left, a youthful father rode with a baby bouncing on the back tire into the center of the arena-like circle. He popped the bike onto its kickstand with swiftness and grace, carefully picked up the child, and took a seat on the stone steps beside me.

His black hair wafted over one side of his buzzed head in a flowing mohawk, and tortoise shell sunnies dangled on his nose. A woman then rode up too, with oversized, colorful canvas pants and a calming demeanor. They all sat together, a happy little family eating lunch amongst the beautiful chaos, the characters and life.

This to me is what distinguishes Osaka — this is what struck a chord and makes me proud to call this city home: from what I’ve noticed, nobody’s acting a part with a cigarette dangling from their lip, throwing up a middle finger to the world as if they’re better than anybody else.

Yes, the retro shop owner playfully compared Osaka to Tokyo, but the Kantō (Eastern region of Japan’s main island, Honshu, which includes Tokyo) Kansai (Western region of Honshu including Osaka) comparison is one that dates back hundreds of years. It’s light-hearted and nothing new.

Those who spread joy, laughter and individuality embody the spirit of Osaka, not holding it in to look a certain way — not putting on a front to appear as something they’re not. But radiating, if that’s who they are.

They howl and slap a friend on the shoulder when they hear a funny joke. They throw peace signs and make goofy faces to strangers with a camera, as several shop owners did to me as I wandered through the streets, homeward bound.

Osakans just want to be themselves. They aren’t trying to be cool. They just are, and that shines through in their welcoming attitude and their unmatched acceptance of who they are, and who you are. In Osaka, that can be whoever you damn well want to be.

I rode home under the light of a full moon, which hung in the sky amidst lightning in the distance. I’d gaze into the sky as my legs peddled, and watch how it would illuminate with each crack.

What a place to discover who I am. What a place to call my home.

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