Writing this on the bullet train bound for Tokyo. The Japanese public transport system is fast, clean, efficient and amazingly easy to use – although this is only because all the signs, maps and station names are printed in both Japanese and English. We’d be stuffed otherwise. Rather courteous of them.

First thing yesterday we left our hostel (in addition to not being allowed to enter or exit between 2300 and 0600, you’re not allowed to be present between 1000 and 1600 either!) and travelled down a variety of different railway lines to the Osaka Aquarium, which boasts two captive whale sharks and claims to have the world’s biggest tank (Okinawa and Atlanta also claim the same, however). It was two thousand admission but damn well worth the price. Seeing whale sharks in captivity was amazing – and these were just juveniles, only a few metres in length. I’m more keen than ever to go to Ningaloo Reef this autumn and snorkel with fully-grown whale sharks. In addition to that, there was also a crazily enormous japanese spider crab – like, a metre tall – a bunch of seals and dolphins, some freshwater fish from the Amazon that were more than a metre long and a sloth. The sloth was just hanging in the trees above the water in the Amazon exhibit; windowdressing. I thought it was fake, but then it moved. They actually went to the Amazon and captured a fucking sloth for their AQUARIUM.

You ain't going nowhere, buddy

You ain't going nowhere, buddy

After the aquarium we headed into Osaka’s main shopping district, arranged along a canal of some kind, which was a super-awesome exhibiton of everything you imagine about Japan. Enormous crowds, flashing lights, billboards everywhere, pachinko parlours blaring noise – it was awesome cool, and we all split up to explore it and agreed to meet back at a crossroads at 2.30. At 2.30 sharp myself, Chris, Jamie, Steve, Rob and Roy all returned to the crossroads. Who was missing? The damn woman, of course. We waited for Ellen for what seemed like an eternity before she strolled back at 3.30 with the excuse that she’d “gotten lost.” No doubt she was shopping for shoes or some such and decided it was more pressing than our appointment. I spit on her lies! (The entire frustrating incident, though, belies how heavily the modern man relies on mobile phones. What on earth did people do in the 80s?)

Waiting for Ellen at the ol' canal

Waiting for Ellen at the ol' canal

We’d been planning to visit Osaka Castle, but it closes at 5 pm and Ellen’s tardiness threw a spanner in the works. We figured we’d hit it up the next day instead, and return to the hostel to refresh ourselves and nap before heading out before curfew and returning at 6.00 am, to experience Osaka’s famed nightlife, reccomended by everyone from Lonely Planet to our Canadian lodge owner’s wife. As we were returning alon the train lines Chris spotted a nearby Osaka landmark, the Umeda Sky Building, and he and I decided to jump ship, visit it and catch up with the others later.

Nightfall

Nightfall

The sun was setting as we left the train and ventured through streets and tunnels to reach the building; by the time we arrived, night had fallen properly and the city was lighting up around us. It was only as we entered the lobby and took stock of the number of couples there that we realised the Umeda Building’s observation deck is the romantic hotspot of the city on any night of the year… let alone on Valentine’s Day. I took amusement in reassuring the non-English speaking couples sharing our elevator that we weren’t gay.

The view from the top was something Perth-born eyes found difficult to grasp. Osaka is massive, a vision of a science fiction future. I’m sure that to Westeners of New York or London or Sydney it would merely seem like another big grey metropolis with a slightly exotic twist, but to Chris and myself it was like a vision of the next century. There was a distant line where the lights simply stopped, and I couldn’t tell if it was smog, the city limits or – and I’m serious here – the curvature of the globe. It was worth every penny of the fourteen dollar admission and the others well and truly missed out.

Lovers in Japan

Lovers in Japan

Getting back to the hostel was simple enough, minus an issue where we realised very late that we were at our stop, and Chris bounded off the train while my reflexes were a fraction too slow, and left us staring at each other on opposite sides of the door. “Stay here, I’ll catch the next one back!” I shouted – little knowing that I was on an express train, which skipped six stops, and that the train I caught back stopped at every single one of them. Half an hour later I was back at the correct station with an understandably disgruntled Chris, and we headed back to the hostel.

In the three hours we had until eleven, I showered, cooked a frugal meal and then set about solving a problem I’m facing. Japanese ATMS don’t accept foreign-issued cards – for that, you need to visit an international ATM, found in any post office or 7-11. I withdrew 29,000 yen from the Kutchen post office on the 4th of February, but since then, every ATM I’ve tried has rejected my card. However, every ATM I’ve tried has been a 7-11 ATM. Two possibilities:

a) My card suffers some quirk or defect which renders it acceptable only to post office ATMS
b) My bank has seen the the first transaction and, continuing a fine tradition of fucking awful customer service, has hysterically assumed it has been hijacked and cancelled it.

I wanted to go to a post office to test that theory, and using an inaccurate map provided by the hostel which marked several major landmarks wrong, I eventually found the post office after giving up entirely and stumbling upon it accidentally while cutting through alleys on my way back home. Unfortunately it was, of course, closed, since it was 8.30 pm, and it would remain closed the next day, as it was a Sunday. Frustration reignited, I went back to the hostel and set about trying to figure out how to place a collect charges call to Australia. Eventually I connected to an operator, who spoke fluent English and was exceedingly helpful. Bankwest, of course, was not helpful at all, rejecting my collect call and having the gall to have the operator relay some message about cancelling my card if it had been lost or stolen. (Fluent, but heavily accented). I want the opposite, you eternally inept fuckheads. I thanked the operator for her help and sent an email to my sister asking her to ring the bank on my behalf, or at least get Dad to do it.

With that over, I spent about half an hour scoping out the hostel grounds to see if there was anywhere we could break in to get around the curfew. Life, alas, is not a video game, and no neat solution presented itself. With the hour of exile upon us we shuffled out of the hostel and into the awaiting streets of Osaka.

Cue main theme of "Ghost In The Shell"

Cue main theme of "Ghost In The Shell"

Well, it is a big city, and I’m sure there’s a crazy nightlife somewhere, but we sure as hell couldn’t find it. We returned to the central shopping district, which transformed by night into a near-deserted cityscape populated by municipal workers removing rubbish and, for some reason, businessmen on their way home. Yes, at 11.30 on a Saturday night. We had a traditional Japanese meal for dinner (McDonalds) and then wandered around in search of a bar. An African security guard who spoke English said he knew a good place, and led us there through the backalleys. Here’s something I’ve learned which was probably self-evident to begin with: when somebody says they “know a good place” and take you there, they have a personal stake in the matter. This particular bar was smaller than a bedroom, perched on the third floor of a building, run by an American and a Canadian with an inexplicable Caribbean accent. It wasn’t a bad place or anything, they were real friendly and the drinks were reasonably priced; but as with Hiro of Hokkaido, you feel a little bummed when you realise there was no altruism there to begin with.

Cue "Absolute," Samurai Champloo soundtrack

Cue "Absolute," Samurai Champloo soundtrack

I had a single beer there; I’m still abstaining after my experience in the early days of the trip, and it was my last of the night. At the other end of the spectrum was Roy, who had started drinking at the hostel and was getting hilariously hammered. We found another place serendipitously called the “Champ Bar,” (Chaaaaamp being Roy and Rob’s favoured nickname for basically any male), but were immediately evicted because it was “Japanese only.” “Racist cunts!” Roy shouted, and luckily for him they didn’t speak English. “That sign,” he declared back on the ground level, in front of the building directory, “that sign is broken. It’s not ‘Champ Bar,’ it’s ‘Racist Cunt Bar.’ Anyone got a screwdriver?”

The night wore on. We went to another bar with painfully loud music. It was very little fun; I’m beginning to realise why Chris, my perenially sober comrade, doesn’t enjoy going out at all. Well, I knew that was the reason to begin with, but to see it from his viewpoint… Jesus. Boring. Tedious. Tiring.

3:00 AM; note THE AUTHOR's bored face on the far left

3:00 AM; note THE AUTHOR's bored face on the far left

We eventually found one final bar which consisted of one narrow hall, a single long counter, and a little couch booth at the end. Top shelf spirits lined the wall, and the single bow-tie wearing bartender was – get this – actually standing there polishing a glass. I shit you not. It really exists.

Cue "Piano Bar I," Cowboy Bebop soundtrack

Cue "Piano Bar I," Cowboy Bebop soundtrack

Roy contented himself with sitting at the bar chatting up whoever came in while the rest of us drifted in and out of sweet, sweet sleep in the couch area. I woke up at about 5:00 am, and decided it would take me about an hour to get back to the hostel. Efforts to rouse the others failed, so I struck out alone, squeezing past Roy at the bar, who was enthusiastically trying to convince a Finnish gentleman that he would be a good husband for his daughter.

I emerged from the bar expecting to enter the grey world of dawn, but winter in Japan had other ideas; it may as well have been midnight. I walked exhausted through the streets of Osaka at 5:00 am, stared at train maps through bleary eyes, and eventually took the elevator up to our hostel at the stroke of six, with only a hint of grey in the eastern sky. Five minutes later I was asleep.

Two and a half hours later I was crawling out of bed to take a leak, and then go hunting for breakfast on the streets. Everyone else had returned while I was asleep and was still snoring away; I felt suspiciously refreshed and briefly thought that perhaps we’d slept for twenty-six hours. I bought an awful cheese-flavoured CalorieMate from a 7-11, tossed it in the bin and returned to the hostel to check my email, having sent one off the previous night asking my father to ring Bankwest for me. He had replied “mitch do you have a number where i can reach you,” despite the fact that he clearly could have included whatever he needed to ask or tell me in that same email, I mean come on, this is 2009. I pointed that out and then returned to the room, where the lads were already rousing.

Cue "Silver Morning," Samurai Champloo soundtrack

Cue "Silver Morning," Samurai Champloo soundtrack

We were checking out, you see – that was our one and only night in Osaka – so sleeping in wasn’t an option. We stripped our beds, gathered our things, tossed the key in at the desk and headed off for Osaka Castle, hoping to squeeze it in before our afternoon train ride to Tokyo.

Frankly we needn’t have bothered; it wasn’t all that great. The original castle was raised in the late 1600s, and razed in the early 1700s. What you see today is a reconstruction built in the 1930s, and not a particularly convincing one – I’m sure the original didn’t have air-conditioning grills, bars over the windows and an observation deck with an anti-suicide screen. Inside it’s even worse, just a vaguely interesting museum packed with tourists – and no photos allowed, please, or you won’t buy the books and postcards in the gift shop. It also wasn’t particularly fun hiking up and down eight flights of stairs on two and a half hours of sleep. On the whole it’s a nice thing to look at from a distance, but don’t bother going any closer.

ehhhhh

ehhhhh

Later

Battery died on the train, so I’m finishing this in the youth hostel in Tokyo. The Osaka-Shin Hostel, in all its modesty, had newspaper clippings up everywhere bragging about the fact that it was voted the best youth hostel in the world. I don’t fucking see how, with that curfew. Anyway, this one is already a thousand times better. The plumbing is terrible and the toilet is ridiculously tiny (I had to take a crap sitting sideways) but other than that it’s awesome. Me and Chris and Jamie have a room to ourselves on the third floor with a little balcony and our own private bathroom, and the atmosphere is cool, with an accessible rooftop and crap all over the walls and a pool table out the front open to the street. Also there’s no ridiculously unreasonable curfew; having paid for our rooms, we are free to come and go as we please.

Hey, Shin-Osaka? This is what a youth hostel should look like

Hey, Shin-Osaka? This is what a youth hostel should look like

Dead tired. Might go for a walk and get dinner – first thing tomorrow I need to check if the postal ATMS work and if not then buy a phone card and ring Bankwest, because Dad emailed and said they won’t give him any info about my card. Hopefully they can turn it on and off like a light switch, if it is indeed off.

Alright. Gonna go get fed. Then I will sleep the sleep of kings.